Monday, February 19, 2007

Commence countdown.

We've got New York City in five...four...three...

The countdown to a long weekend of fun in NYC has begun.

This Friday, I get to hop a plane to the Big Apple to see my friend Josh. His is the story of a nice midwestern boy jumping into the whiz-bang excitement of Gotham. Armed with nothing but optimism and a middle-of-America sense of goodness, Josh has taken on the urban monster and subdued it.

Eileen will be there too. She's flying in from the 'Nati. She's already been lording the fact that she'll be getting there first over me. Just remember the tortoise and the hare, Eileen. It's not who starts out first from the starting blocks that matters - it's who gets the most hookers by the end of the weekend. I'm just sayin'...

Who knows what will unfold. It may be a whir of museums, shopping and fabulous shows. Or maybe we'll just smoke some pot, play video games, and hang out in seedy bars. Not that any of us would ever inhale...much. But, if ever there was a place to explore our Bukowskiness, New York would be that place.

(Brief disclamer...the use of illicit drugs or the overuse of alcohol is not recommended by Cheeseismoldymilk or the dude who scrawls things to post on it. Drugs are bad and alcohol consumption is only safe in moderation. Remember, when in doubt...'just say no'. We now return you to this blog's regularly scheduled blah, blah, blahage.)

On the oh-my-god-I-had-no-idea-that-was-this-weekend front...the New York Comicon is this weekend too. It may be hard to not try and skip out to see that for a few hours. The best the world of sequential art has to offer right there at my fingertips. Why not just dangle a Krispy Kreme doughnut in front of face all weekend?

I would love to hit up a Buddhist temple of some sort too. Or, better yet, spend an hour with Robert Thurman. He's the head of the Tibet House, teaches Buddhism at Columbia, is friends with the Dalai Lama, and - this one tripped me out - the father of Uma Thurman. I suppose I could hang with Richard Gere for an hour instead, but it probably wouldn't be as fun.

I'm also sort of hoping to run into Natalie Portman, Marisa Tomei, or Sophia Coppola on the streets while I'm the city. Anyway, I've got some laundry to do between now and then. It wouldn't do to be wearing dirty underwear...just in case. What? It could happen.

Anyway, that's all I've got for you.


Monday, February 12, 2007

That breeze might just be someone's compassion

Walking through the rugged countryside of Tibet, you would likely see long strings of tattered pieces of cloth hanging here, there and seemingly everywhere. The wind blowing down through a valley would gently rustle or fiercely flap them. And with every movement, the prayers they represent would rise up and flow to all edges of the world.

These prayer flags are strung from trees, buildings and bridges. They adorn stupas and protect travellers in dangerous areas. Everyone, from the most humble peasant to the wealthiest merchant, places prayer flags and understands their meaning.

They raise prayers to the Buddhas and the deities - not to be confused with our western concepts of gods and divine beings - like the ever popular Tara. Within Buddhism - and Tibetan Buddhism in particular - there are many deities.

Tara, the protector, is one of them. She has many forms, the two most common and popular being the White Tara and the Green Tara. She is called upon for aid and protection and also to grant wisdom. She is known for her swift response and compassionate strength.

It would be easy to assume that Tibetan Buddhists consider her a goddess - a part of a vast pantheon of many gods and goddesses much like the Greeks and Romans were known to worship - but that would be a wrong view of Buddhist belief. On the one hand, Tara is revered as a deity who has great powers for good. The tricky part is that she is also considered to be simply a female manifestation of the Buddha of Compassion, who is in turn considered a deity and also simply a manifestation of the Buddha nature inherent in everyone and everything.

In deity practice, the practitioner may visualize the deity before them to begin with, and later visualize becoming like the deity, and finally becoming the deity. That is to say, they become Tara - or whatever deity they are contemplating.

For a Tibetan Buddhist, this makes perfect sense. For a westerner - not so much.

What the westerner is likely to not grasp is that the manifestation of the deity is really a manifestation of one's self - a part of one's nature - and by visualizing or becoming the deity, the practitioner is cultivating the qualities of the deity within themselves. They are not becoming a god, or godlike, in the western sense, but are manifesting complete compassion, or understanding, or wisdom by first imagining possessing those qualities, then cultivating them and finally realizing that they were always there, but obscured by wrong views and misconceptions.

Despite the vast array of deities to be found in Tibetan Buddhism, it is not a multi-theistic religion at all. In fact, it is a non-theistic belief system.

The Greeks, for example, followed multi-theism. They had multiple gods and goddesses with supernatural powers. Some gods had more powers than others, but they all were separate from mortals and lived above them, wielding their powers over them.

Judaism brought out the idea of monotheism - although it wasn't the first religion to do so. A single god that was responsible for all the universe - it's creation, it's functioning and all within it. This god was all knowing and all powerful.

Buddhism has no such god. The historical Buddha was a mortal - a person - who was an historical prince. He gave up his riches to seek spiritual fulfillment. Along the way, he tried all the spiritual and religious avenues available to him and was never fully happy with any of them. Finally, he sat down, faced his own demons and came to the some realizations about the reality of the world. In short, he became fully enlightened. He didn't become a god, he became fully enlightened and in doing so took on - or manifested - qualities that could be considered godlike. Neither he nor his followers ever made claims of divinity - just awakening.

Anyway, that's all neither here nor there but rather a background for the whole prayer flag thing.

See, although the prayers upon the flags may be addressed to a particular deity like Tara, they are really more intentions and goodwill being sent out to all the universe. The intention of creating and spreading compassion is woven into the fibers of each flag and written on it's face in the form of a prayer or mantra. These flags are hung with the intention of benefiting all mankind and when the wind blows across them it carries that compassion across the land.

So, the same wind that is blowing down the valley in Tibet may carry those prayers across the land, to the ocean and over it and the next land. And those prayers might be on the breeze that gently tossles your hair as you walk from your car to the grocery store. Maybe the breeze you feel is carrying my prayers for you, or the prayers and compassion of a complete stranger.

Anyway, it's something to think about. And it's worth stopping to think about what thoughts, prayers and intentions you are sending out and who's hair they might be tossling in a parking lot, or in a high mountain valley.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Thanks for the lessons Dad

There are a lot of lessons to learn in life. How to tie your shoes, zip up your coat, and look both ways before crossing the street – the things your parents teach you.

My father and mother were there by my side, holding my hand as I learned these things. They patiently waited while I dawdled behind, stopping to inspect every rock, or pebble, or leaf along the way. They ran alongside as I wobbled my bike forward for the first time without training wheels, more proud than I as I rode forward, swaying back and forth.

They taught me to share my toys, eat my vegetables and say ‘excuse me’ if I burped. From them I learned to try hard at school, be nice to other kids and behave in the classroom.

Great lessons all.

There are also things you learn from books. My mom and dad were both there to show me places on the globe, help me with my math, and scold me when I didn’t study hard enough. My parents worked hard to make sure that a good education was available and that I learned as much as possible from books and school.

These too were great, and I learned a lot from the books my parents made available.

But there are some things that can’t be taught at all. You can only learn them by seeing someone else doing them. And when it comes to these lessons, I had the greatest example of all in my father.

We never really sat down and talked about how to be good man – a good person – but his example taught me everything I’ll ever need to know.

I learned that if you marry, you work hard to provide a good life for your wife. And when you have children, you work hard to provide for them. My father did these things. He did them and never once complained.

When my brother and I were in school, he not only worked hard at his job, but also became involved in our lives. He was there for track meets, choir and band concerts, and everything we ever did. He ran for and joined the local school board because he knew his talents could be put to use there to ensure that the education that all the kids in our town received would be the best it could be. Meanwhile, my mother joined the PTA and helped at school too.

Uninvolved parents? I didn’t even know there was such a thing. My father was always so quietly involved that I assumed that’s how all parents were. It wasn’t until much later in life that I realized how lucky I was to have a father like mine.

When we moved to California, I watched my father leave for work early in the morning and arrive back in the evening. I never gave much thought to the hours he spent on the Los Angeles freeways each morning and night – commuting so far because he wanted us to live in a nice neighborhood with safe schools and good neighbors. Never once did I hear him complain – although I now know how tired he must have been. So, although he never told me this was something a man did because he loved his family, I know now that it is.

His example taught me.

I also learned that a man doesn’t need to make noise to be a man. I can’t remember a time that I heard my father’s voice raised in anger and I know I never heard him utter a coarse word in his long life. He was a quiet man, content to sit back in and let others be the center of attention. He wasn’t shy, just a man who quietly did what he knew was right.

I learned that a man is kind and generous. My dad did everything for his family. He had his pleasures – his computer was one of them – but, he would have gladly given it up if any of us ever needed anything. Both he and my mother would always do without so that even the smallest of desires my brother and I had were fulfilled. And later, I saw the simple joy of seeing his grandchildren running through the house light up his eyes like no pile of gold ever would.

I learned that loving kindness doesn’t make someone less a man, but more a man, as I watched my father stroke the head of the dog or pet a purring cat. We always had animals in the house – I don’t think my father would have had it any other way. It was just part of his caring nature.

I learned that you cherish your wife by watching my father’s constant love for my mother – a love that rose above any petty squabbles and day-to-day hardships. Through 42 years of marriage and two children, I never saw it waver. Their love rode out every storm and was something worthy of emulating and striving for.

Through countless days at County Stadium watching the Brewers play ball, handfuls of parent teacher conferences, and the roller coaster of growing up, my father was always there. He was there to see me graduate and he was there for my first license. He was there when I lost a job and he was there when I got a new one. Bounced about by life? – my father was a solid point, a supportive place. Happy or sad times, he was always there - even if far away.

And by just being there, he taught me more than I could have ever learned alone.

But mostly, I learned that if I ever grow to become half the man my father was, I would be a great man indeed. And, even though he’s gone from my day to day life, he’s still with me – a constant teacher, a great father.