Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Immaterial Witness

I now live in Santa Fe. This means I live amidst a hodge-podge of religions as great as at any other place or time in history. After the indigenous earth religions of the natives came the Spanish Catholicism that attempted to eradicate it. The Third Wave brought the Anglo seekers of the original draft, those artists and writers of the early decades of the last century, who created the myth of the noble Indian, which motivated further waves of Anglos to follow. More recently came the hippies and the neo-hippies, who too came looking for that simple native spirituality, yet this round of pilgrims had one eye ever on the East, diluting the local brand with elements of Buddhism and the New Age. Most recently came Indians of a different genetic strand. There are currently a handful of vedic ashrams or ayurvedic schools in the area, with yoga schools thick on the ground. Living here I am exposed daily to a wide variety of people, all grounded (or in far too many cases, ungrounded) by some belief system or other.

Spirituality in 21st Century America is far different than what I've experienced in Asia. During my own training and travels, I have noticed no real separation at all between spirituality and daily life. The evidence is everywhere, no matter the country or culture or class. Spirituality is at once sacred and personal, and is at the same time secular and universal. They walk their talk. Or more appropriately, there is little talk at all, and why would there be, since it is like talking about how to breathe or how to eat? By contrast, expressions of personal emotion here in the US feel dramatized, but that's not really our fault considering all the way we're constantly spoon fed overblown emotions by the media.

But why then, do we Americans talk so much shit about our feelings but rarely focus on what's valid, on what's real? Self-expression sounds scripted, like in a bad TV show. I naturally find myself making comparisons with the Japanese, who are as impenetrable as the concrete that they're so busy girding their nation with: a cultural and historic hardening and protecting from the inside out. By contrast, American emotions run as wild and unpredictable as a river. The approach to spirituality is interesting, frequently talked-up and emphasized as a sort of adventure. Which strikes me as odd considering that spirituality's purpose is to dam that unpredictable river of the emotions. Long ago, Trungpa Rinpoche downplayed this as spiritual materialism. In Japan, I found most people just turned up at a retreat and silently did their thing, uncomplaining about the omnipresent pain, physical or psychic. In the US, it's like it didn't happen unless we promote it. We wear our spirituality like a coat, putting it on and taking it off with every slight change in the weather. The worst are those who talk up others' spirituality, spouting aphorisms or stories of long-dead sages, as if we haven't already heard them. I often want to say to them, firmly but politely, "Just do your practice and cut the Zen talk already!"

On the turntable: Krishna Das, "Heart as Big as the World"
On the nighttable: Jack Kutz, "Mysteries and Miracles of New Mexico"

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Spurning Japanese

The grass is always greener, right?. With the coming of autumn comes the usual introspection. I'm missing Japan pretty badly at the moment. My life here, while rewarding, is far busier than I'm used to. And though difficult at times, I recognize that this return to the US is important, big-picture wise.

A few months before the move, Miki and I climbed up Daimonji. As we looked out over Kyoto, she suddenly asked, what if we didn't go? And I went cold, physically uncomfortable with the idea of staying in that city any longer.

A large part of that reaction had to do with how the local government (and I use the term loosely) presents the ancient capital. This summer, they surprised me with their capacity for shortsighted stupidity, going through with the construction of an aquarium for the 'benefit of Chinese tourists.' As I write this, the Chinese are in a rage and are canceling their travel plans by the thousands. The Heians may or may not be turning in their graves, but we can now see that the graves themselves are.

A fellow devotee to Ninkasi, Micheal has taken a sober approach in helping spearhead a movement in stopping this senseless project, one that went ahead despite overwhelming public protest. Check his Deep Kyoto for more information.

The petition site is here.

On the turntable: Neil Young, "Fork in the Road"

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Children of Water

Fall in Kyoto has much to offer. Multi-colored maple leaves strewn across stone like little lost gloves. Dango eaten beneath the full autumnal moon. Festive student carnivals played out in game and song.

This fall, there is even more. On October 1st, a band I used to play with, Morphic Jukebox, will play a short set prior to the screening of a film in which I had a hand in, "Children of Water."
It's as if I never left...

Details here at Deep Kyoto

On the turntable: Neil Young, "Dreamin' Man 92" (I'm here too, in the audience...)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Los Alamos

(This piece completes the triptych. Posts on Hiroshima and Nagasaki appeared earlier.)

Forgive me but the entire world was conspiring to make me think of mushrooms. On the drive in, huge clouds stacked up with weather above the mountains, including a tall mushroom shaped-cloud rising from the Jemez. After tracing a line rising diagonally long the edge of the Pajarito plateau, we arrived in Los Alamos, and immediately sought out lunch. The Hill Diner is an old favorite, though not quite as old as the décor would have you believe. It speaks of woodsy roadside diner, the paneling hung with photos from a half-century gone, with old neon beer signs, and garage sale items like skis and snowshoes hanging from the walls. Mushrooms showed up again here, batter-fried and flanking my chicken fried steak. This place is popular with both the locals and those working at the labs. The ‘good ole’ lost America’ theme attempts to whitewash some of the threat that hung in perpetuity over those ‘gentler times,’ a threat birthed less than a mile away. In a conspiracy of irony that only the universe can craft, I noted Asians at about a third of the tables here this Saturday morning.

After lunch, Miki and I wandered around town, a pleasant place like a small New England college town, trees shading dormitory-style housing for the lab families constantly revolving in and out of their temporary assignments at the Labs. It would be a pleasant place to live but for the work going on across the canyon. We stopped off in the tourist info center to see what this town had to offer. I desperately wanted to find something attesting to the local character, to draw my attention away from the obvious. As a fan of history, I find that I visit places with a fair amount of projection, scanning the landscape and residents in an effort to find connections with those events that brought them onto the world stage. I’ve done it in Vietnam and Cambodia, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, using tragedy as an information sieve, until time and the locals present me with a different face that allows me to let go my stereotyping. Then I can finally accept the place on its own terms. I’d done it earlier in the day with the cloud formation, and in coming upon the ruins of an elementary school in mid-demolition. This latter caused me to exaggerate the presence of tragedy here, but what else could I think, being presented with such an obvious example of the decline in education spending in the town which, again, started the arms race and the current blank check approach to military spending?

Scanning the walls of the tourist center, I so badly wanted to find mention of an ancient Native American festival, or a photo of a ruined Spanish church, or read a about some Anglo bigwig who’d established a modest ranch which eventually grew into this town. But all I could find were T-shirts and coffee mugs tastelessly emblazoned with pictures of an exploding bomb, hung above bags of “Atomic chili pepper.’ A sign on the glass door listed events held during the summer in this, “The Atomic City,” including a concert being held, without any apparent irony, next Friday, August 6. The view beyond the poster and through the glass door revealed a town whose history began with the atomic age, and seems stuck there, both in architecture and in mindset.

A short walk took us to a series of lovely buildings that look as if they belong in an Alpine town. Had I visited them prior to November 1942, I’d have found that history I’d been searching for, in the form of the Los Alamos Ranch School, whose alumni include the CEOs of a few major corporations, as well as William S. Burroughs and Gore Vidal, though these two latter names inevitably escape mention. On an autumn day less than a year after the US entered the Second World War, the grounds were bought by the military for a top secret project. Some of the buildings are now being used as the Los Alamos Museum. The actual place where the bomb had been designed is now a large open space with a pond in the center. It was here that we’d meet up with Pax Christi for the peace march. Along the way, I stepped over a patch of mushrooms, barely noticeable amidst the neatly clipped grass.

The peace march was to begin at Ashley Pond, site of where the first atomic bombs were built. There was a picnic going on, children running after balloons, and the adult members of the local YMCA queuing up to buy BBQ from a red trailer with a flaming pig emblazoned on one side. The Pax Christi people weren’t far away, their banners with anti-nuke slogans spread across the grass. In a pile was a collection of burlap sacks and dozens of small bags of ash that we were expected to drape and decorate ourselves with for the march. This was inspired by the biblical story of Ninevah. When threatened with Divine destruction, the inhabitants of the city repented, putting on sacks and smearing themselves with ash. Sacks were traditionally seen as a sign of deep repentance and humility. Ashes were often included as a further symbol of personal abhorrence and chagrin.

The organizer of this march, Jesuit priest John Dear, was being interview by a TV station from Albuquerque. We’d met John months ago when he gave a rousing talk on Gandhian non-violence at Upaya Zen Center. He’d really motivated us there in Santa Fe that day, so it was very disappointing that the only attendees who’d actually turned up for this event were Miki and myself. Prior to setting out John led us in prayer, where, he neither accused those involved in the making of nuclear arms of being evil, nor asked God to forgive them. (In keeping with the Ninevah biblical story, where God states He is showing pity for the population who are ignorant of the difference between right and wrong ("who cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand"). Instead John simply asked us to repent our own complicity in violence, and to beg the god of peace for a world free of nuclear weapons.

Then we marched, moving down Trinity Drive, crossing with the light at Oppenheimer. Through breaks in the buildings lining the road, we could get glimpses of the Labs standing with a certain majesty through the trees. They’d been built in the 50s, when the one-off Manhattan Project had spawned a child that had grown with the arms race. Along the way, a couple of people stopped to collect apricots that had fallen from a tree. One woman nearby nodded her head toward the labs and said bluntly, “You sure you want to eat those?” The apricot collectors quickly dropped the uneaten fruit back onto the grass.

We stopped our march at the hospital that sits beside the bridge leading over the canyon to the Lab’s front gate. About fifty young people showed up about then, all carrying sunflowers. This was “Think Outside the Bomb,” a national youth-led nuclear abolition network. They were here to protest Obama’s policies regarding nuclear strategy. While professing in public a reduction in nukes, the administration was instead going forward with policies set up by their predecessors, yet their proposed increase in the amount of plutonium pits to be constructed at Los Alamos would go far beyond what the Bushies had envisioned. The group was camped out in the hills near the Sanctuario de Chimayo for a week of workshops on permaculture and on non-violent protest. They’d be back on the actual anniversary of the bombing on the 6th, for a protest up at the Labs themselves. (And at which eight of them would end up arrested.) For today they’d settle for a less confrontational demonstration, for we’d go no further than Omega Bridge, and would do little more than sit and meditate.

John gave the word and we all sat down on the sidewalk. While some had smeared their faces with ash, other had simply outlined their bodies. A couple of people had emptied their bags in a clump, tracing with their fingers small pictures or simply the number 140,000, the believed number of nuclear bombing victims. We stayed like this for half an hour, quietly reflecting. A light rain began to fall, and I was reminded of the black rain that had poisoned so many in Hiroshima. Then, after the final signal, we all got up and began walking back to the park. As on the march down, we were exposed to a variety of reactions by the locals. Some flashed peace signs as they drove by, or honked their horns in apparent solidarity. Others yelled out in opposition, words mostly lost in the wind but for the swearing. It was predictable how the reaction of the driver consistently matched the type of vehicle driven. Most memorable was the extended, black-gloved middle finger of a Harley rider.

Back in the park, John gave a closing prayer then introduced a few speakers. One of them was Col. Ann Wright, famous for her resignation from the military when Bush okayed the invasion of Iraq. Most recently, she’d been on the Gaza flotilla that had been attacked by Israel last June. At one point, Ann asked us where we’d all travelled from, and when Miki yelled out “Hiroshima!” my wife suddenly found herself before the mike, giving a brief speech. A couple of folk singers then began to gather the crowd together in a sing-along, but Miki and I quietly slipped away. We did a symbolic circumabulation of Ashley Pond. Two black cranes extended out of the water, their iron material an ironic contrast to the delicate paper cranes of the peace park of Hiroshima.

A few hours later we met again down in Santa Fe, in the wrap-around bar of El Canon, with its million-dollar view down San Francisco street, toward St. Francis Cathedral lit gold by the setting sun. We found ourselves with John Dear and other organizers of the event, in a sort of debriefing. They seemed disappointed at the numbers, a mere hundred when last year they’d had three times as many. They also mentioned that this year’s march had seen the most vehement reactions they’d yet seen. As Miki and I headed toward home in the heavy storm, the group was questioning the event’s significance. According to the local news team that had been there, very little, as they gave us less than 10 seconds coverage, giving no mention of who we were or what our message was. To the average viewer, we’d appear to be just another bunch of loony hippies.

But really, what did they think? I know quite a few couples that live up there, most of whom work at the labs. When I mentioned that I’d been at the march, one woman seemed supportive, mentioning that her husband had been quite active in disarmament work. To which he gave the hilarious quip, “Yeah, disarming the Russians.”

Waning a bit more perspective, Miki and I returned to Los Alamos a few weeks later on a quiet Friday afternoon. We wanted to visit the museums and see how they presented ‘their side.’ The Historical Museum is, as mentioned earlier, in one of the old cabins that once made up the Ranch School. I’d entered with a certain amount of cynicism, but as I made my way through the quaint narrow rooms, I was quite taken with it. Represented was the scientists’ story, composed of the somewhat comedic tales of the civilians who found themselves sudden residents of a town that literally appeared overnight, one that remained in complete secrecy for over two years. I spoke with the curator for a while, telling her how pleased I was to find this place so free of propaganda. Through the words of Oppenheimer and others, I could really see that the scientists were the only ones who saw the real scale of what was going on. They thought that their work in presenting mankind with its complete elimination would introduce a period of enlightenment that would end war altogether. She told me that the scientists themselves had felt so betrayed by the subsequent Cold War behavior of the military and the government.

Their tale is better told across town at the Bradbury Museum. The POV here is pure propaganda, attempting to whitewash history in order to make nukes palatable. In the film, “The Town that Never Was,” there was a line about the local natives who were “happy to give away visiting right to their ancient ancestral grounds, for the good of the nation, “ that was particularly disgusting. The cold, scientific approach to information here was predictable. As was the sight of the US Government plates on the vehicles out front.

It was a beautiful day on the cusp of autumn, so Miki and I chose to drive home through some of those same ancestral lands, through the canyons that flank Bandelier. I asked her about her reaction to the day and the town. She said that she didn’t harbor any bad feelings toward the US. In the war, both the US and Japan were equally victims and aggressors. The past is done, and it is more important to focus on the future. No one wants nuclear war, so we should all work together to prevent something like this from ever happening again.

I looked out at the soil that was so sacred to the natives and wondered if they too have such a magnanimous attitude.

On the turntable: Ry Cooder, "River Rescue"

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

'Round Shikoku Day 3

I awoke sometime before six and went outside to sit and look east to where the sun was pulling itself over the pull-up bar that is the horizon. It had been a long night, a siege against cockroaches and mosquitoes. I sat in the peace of morning, the sky a clash of blue and gray that foretold rain. 50CC Henro came out and as the first act of the day, lit one up. A severe bout of coughing followed, guaranteed to awaken anyone still sleeping in the huts behind him. Yep, that first one always tastes best. Judging on last night's performance, he'll go through a dozen more before setting off on his little scooter. He was a good guy, good-natured but for the perpetual butt in his mouth and his little transistor radio, constantly switched on. This latter habit, in conjunction with the high back rest he'd welded on his bike, reminded me of 'Quadrophenia.' A Real Who-nro.

His roommate was a soft-spoken young guy who was doing the 88 Temple in reverse order by bicycle. We all separated at 7am, by our various modes of transportation. It was a half hour on foot to Temple 11. This beautiful little zen temple was tucked away in the corner of the valley, just below where the trail leads up toward Temple Twelve. It had the quiet, forlorn feel that Miki and I love so much, until a group of car pilgrims came and chose to destroy the quiet with a noisy argument about nokyo, as usual. The priest on the other side of the counter wasn't much better, processing us all with a curt, "Next! Next!" Despite this, his calligraphy was the most beautiful so far.

The trail started steep and got worse. The first section was lined with Jizo, whose form repeated nearly ceaselessly for the next five and a half hours. Apparently many people didn't survive this stretch. Approaching the top of the the first crest, I spotted a young Henro sitting and admiring the scenery. I held up my hand in greeting but didn't speak to him since he was wearing what I thought were earbuds. It dawned on me an hour later that he was deaf. The view from this height was of the valley we'd spent the last two days traversing, now covered by a layer of mist due to the coolness of the air and from the smoke of burning rice husks rising from a dozen farms. The smoke hid the view of the highway, and some of the bigger buildings, creating a view that was almost softly Himalayan.

We spent most of the day on this trail, making our way toward Twelve, along a path that wound up and down as if testing our resolve. Besides the ever-present Jizo, there were also plenty of small signs tied to the branches of trees that offered pithy expressions as a means of urging us on. Like Burma Shave ads for the Buddhistic set. A few small temple halls showed up here and there, eroding slowly into forest. We broke for lunch at one of these, and were soon joined by Shibui Henro, dressed in the full kit. He was an interesting guy, doing the full 88, joined by his father for this first Awa section. I hope we run into him again.

The day took us over three passes, each of them a challenge. After the second tough ascent, the pilgrim turns a corner to see the large figure of Taishi atop a flight of stairs. Very encouraging. From here we dropped and dropped and dropped into the valley, past farms with their stone walls and steps, also looking very Himalayan. The valleys in Shikoku have long held secrets of people looking not to be found. Their villages cling to the hillsides, rarely containing more than a dozen homes.

The trail bottomed out at the base of this valley, where a stream was rushing between boulders. Above it was a sign saying that the next climb was the steepest on the entire pilgrimage, and would take 50 minutes. A woman of around 70 hobbled up then, supported by a pair of walking staffs. When she saw the sign, she literally plopped down in frustration, announcing loudly that she'd eat lunch. She began to talk with us, but after a couple of minutes, began to get strangely aggressive, then abruptly walked off, saying she'd eat lunch elsewhere. We found her awhile later, squatting and eating onigiri in the middle of the trail.

The final ascent was as tough as advertised. My heavy bag and I rested three times along the way. Once, I heard the jingle of a bell and clack of a staff and assumed a henro was on the trail just above me. Reaching the next clearing, I saw merely a lone Jizo on an altar, with a bell above him and a staff at his feet. There was no one else around. It was strange, but then again, I'd already hallucinated three times already today. This happens to me sometimes when I'm fatigued, and the straps of my pack are pressing into the optic nerves in my shoulders. One thing I didn't imagine were all the vipers I saw on the climb, including one that darted across the trail right in front of me, in pursuit of lunch.

We finally reached the temple. Even with our bags, we were two hours quicker than average. I was really feeling this weight for the past two days, but seemed to have found my groove. Walking the final set of stairs, a guy began chatting up Miki, and I heard him complaining to her about how curvy the road had been, the drive taking over an hour. Jesus.

Sitting beside the gate was a woman from Flagstaff. Now living in Himeji, she was doing the Henro after having previously done pilgrimages in Italy and Spain. We also saw the two henro who'd been our comrades in yesterday's parade. We did our rounds, then went up the last 30 minutes to Okuno-in. Not many walk this trail and it showed. It was dark and wildly overgrown, with narrow sections leading over high drops, and large swaths taken out by landslides. Mountain sacred to the Yamabushi always have the same look as this one. A place where dimensions overlap. Halfway up is a large rock face where Taishi beat the giant snake. On the peak itself is a large altar. We sat behind it and drank in the view of the peaks before us. We were at 938m, but these were much higher, including Tsurugi which dwarfed them all. In nearly every valley was a small cluster of homes hanging to the steep mountain faces. They were humbled by the large slabs of rock on their slopes. I had never realized that Shikoku was this wild.

Back again at the temple, we grabbed our gear and moved slowly off the mountain. Miki was using a staff now for the first time, a thick cherry branch that she'd found up at Okuno-in. Despite our quick speed of the morning, we'd lingered through most of the afternoon, and hoped to get down to a rumored campsite before dark. If it was full, we'd have a long, dark walk before meeting road again. Entering a village, a man offered us four mikan. At the far end of his village was Joshin-an, where Emon finally caught up to Taishi. His staff had grown into a tree of unbelievable height. Beyond it, we dropped into an orchard, then down into a small village beside a small river. It was a peaceful place, maybe eight houses, three of them empty. There was also an elementary school. We asked at the lone village store if we could camp there, and the young woman working there told us that we were welcome to sleep across the road at a small covered space that they sometime use for their market. This woman had herself been a henro, but had liked this valley so much that she'd stayed on to help out at the store. Twenty-two, she'd given up on life in the city and is looking for a life of farming. When we first saw her, she was cutting the stems off fresh mikan while listening to sumo on the radio. She offered us sweet potatoes and barley tea as settai, which we enjoyed as much as the conversation.

We eventually set up camp, then went to eat at a pilgrim's rest hut that we'd noticed on our way into the village. It had electricity, allowing us to read and write in our journals. Yet after about an hour, an old man came up out of the dark and grumpily told us that the hut was only for daytime us. Go to bed! At 7:30. It definitely diminished the warmth here. If you make a hospitality area beside your house, and show no hospitality, what was your motivation in the first place?

On the turntable: Supertramp, "Retrospectacle"