Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Buddha in the Corner: a piece of non-fiction

I.          “When I chant, I don’t know what the Japanese words mean,” he told me, as if this had a special significance had evolved within him slowly.  He uttered it like a badge of pride; it was not some signal of ignorance, but something he thought more profound.
This man offered me his time, his thoughts, for no other reason that so share with me the fruits of his hard won spiritual practice.  He had a legacy to transmit and part of it was passive, the other, active.  When he sat in front of me, his large passive body was in repose;  but his eyes were keen, darting, active, as if ready to squash a fly
He was the Jewish chaplain of a local college, but his predominate passion was Buddhist meditation.  We had exchanged emails, and spoke on the phone.  He had the calm, measured tone of one who sits zazen.  Words came out of him evenly, muffled, like the simple flow of water down a slight incline.  After I explained my predicament on the phone, my near spiritual and emotional breakdown, he warmly invited me to his house.

When I arrived, I could sense reserve.  I have a long, black beard, and a sober, black and tan kippah, zizith flapping in the breeze .  I could detect, in his initial view of me, a tense exchange on the pitfalls of Buddhism as idol worship, as a gross series of infractions to the strictures of monotheism. 
We sat in his garden, his cat rubbing against my bare calf.  He looked again at my beard, kippah and my tired, squinting eyes.  Although his face was placid, he needed to get preliminaries quickly out of the way.
“So, what is your background?” he asked, this a shorthand among Jews.  Did you grow up in an observant home?  What denomination?  How observant are you now?  These questions would define how far he would admit to straying from the strict orthodoxy he suspected I followed.  No doubt he saw in me the new generation of frum, or observant Jews, who had sown the seeds of the mitzvoth which in the care of the previous two generations had become a withered stalk. 
I set him at ease.  I went through my paces, chronically my uneven past, created the failed creature that I am in an avatar that was all but real before him, limping along, lonely, confused, trying to form one solid notion of what it means to connect to God.  This was enough, and his tone, already soft, grew positively lax.   He nodded, an understanding man.  He picked out his words as carefully as a man searching the banks of a creek for precious stones. He said:
“The noise of the synagogue distracted me.  I was always yearning for silent worship.  Of course, this is not the Jewish style,” he laughed.  He had done the 60s circuit of spiritual eclecticism, to finally land in the lap of the Buddha, where he found the quiet focus he so yearned.
“Sitting zazen silenced my mind,” he continued.  “My mind was like a PA system that was always on with no control.  Thoughts came into my mind, repeating themselves, controlling me.  I could not still my mind as Jew.  Then I started sitting, thoughts would come, but I didn’t own them anymore.  They rose like bubbles only to pop.  Now it’s gotten to the point in my practice that I can see myself practicing, the way you would watch someone else doing it.
“Everything is connected,” he continued.  “I don’t believe there is a division between you and me.  When we sit and meditate, we remove the obstacles that form divisions.  Whatever this is,”
he gestured down at this body, “suddenly becomes as invisible as air.  It is important as air, because in a real sense I need it.  But it is not the paramount sense of things.  Am I making sense?”
I asked him to take me to the zendo and teach me to sit. 

II.         At the zenzo, he was kind but solemn.  He spoke about procedures and protocol.  He was adamant that I have the right attitude toward the statue of the Buddha on the far side of the zendo
            “We bow to it,” he told me gravely. “But not because we worship it, but out of respect.  Sometimes, when someone is upset about having it here, we put it in the closet”  He paused, as if to gauge my reaction, to see if I was the kind of person who needed the Buddha in the closet.  I just vaguely smiled.  With that out of the way, he instructed me how to drink the tea, where to sit, and when the time came, how to stand.  We sat on mats alongside a long row of windows and slowly, like shades from the underworld, other people began to file in; they sat on the floor or chairs.  Eventually, the master entered.  There was the banging of gongs, the clapping of wooden instruments.  We were expected to sit quietly and meditate.  All this was undertaken from a stance that was quiet, serious, unspoken. 
            What struck me most was how detached it was from the everyday world of perception and feeling.  We were supposed to sit still, silence the mind, quiet the body, perform all the exercises that would negate what it is to be a human being.  We, these rushed, loud, kinetic creatures, must sit, be passive, allow thoughts that come to simply go.  We must not allow thoughts to find a perch in the mind.  And we must not draw conclusions from even this limited experience.  These things simply happen.  We must not allow them to take hold.
            But what were we, these creatures sitting in silence?  If there was no “I” to experience this experience, no “ego” to feed meditation, only an illusion, what exactly were we doing?  When I say “I am mediating,” I am already telling a fable, as I was told, there is no “I” at all.  What was the meditative experience, then?  The breaking of an illusion?   But that illusion itself was an illusion.   To say “I meditate to get rid of my ego, to join the grand flow of being” is already a false premise.  There is no “I”, there is no “ego,” and you are already in the grand flow of things.

III.       After two hours I was limping toward my car with a splitting headache, knowing that something, somewhere was left undone.  My spiritual shirttails were hanging out for all to see. The world appeared to be a perfectly solid object; my “self “was firmly intact, stubborn, intractable in its claims to all of me.   It was very unhappy with the time at the zendo.  It sent out a beacon of one word: fail, fail, fail.  So who had I failed?  Had I failed him, my potential mentor?  The kind man who had left Judaism for the silence of annihilation?  Or that little statue in the corner, the rounded seated figure of the Buddha, seated, gelid, not so much as a move of even one of its most minor, flacid muscles.   
No, it was God.  My God who was everywhere and nowhere.  A thing, a being, yet no being. Limitless yet somehow contained.  Often angry, jealous, patient, merciful, but also above the churning filth of human passions; not a God written by one writer with a single goal, but from an anthology of divine attributes penned by many hands.
            I had failed my God.  

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Andrew's Brain

E.L. Doctorow is one of American’s greatest living writers.  Over a long career, he has proven himself to be a keen observer of what it means to be American, and what it salient in the American experience.  His experiments with the historical novel placed him front and center in post-modern experiments of novel-crafting the 70s.  He wrote novels which wove historical and fictional characters into a  whole.  At the same time, he experimented with the novel's form, pace and characters, to give readers a fresh experience of the possibilities of the novel.

This brings us to Andrew’s Brain, a more recent Doctorow novel.  It is not a period novel, but contemporary.  It does not deal with the sweep of American history, but with a single character, and his all too unfortunate life.  So, this novel is not a typical Doctorow production.  Andrew has some of the odd and off kilter elements of Daniel in The Book of Daniel, but in a far more distant, sinister way.  He is a strange and believable character, on the outer edge of compassionate likability.

All in all, Andrew as a neuroscientist adds little weight to the novel.  It is an obvious device that allows Andrew to deliver soliloquies on the nature of the brain, the mind, consciousness, emotions and motivations.  This is fine material for a novelist, but Doctorow does not have the requisite knowledge to really render Andrew as a believable scientist.  So on this part Doctorow shows his hand.  Also, the end arrives rather abruptly and with little satisfaction.  It lacks the engagement of the rest of the novel, and seems just like a drop off point.

Despite these two large flaws, which would sink a novel written by a writer with less skill, Andrew’s Brain is still an engaging novel brimming with Doctorow’s insights about what it means to be human.  While not his strongest work by a long shot, I can forgive the failings.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Second Suicide

 Once for CBY, but not anymore

I divined it from oracles that 
You buried with a spoon
You bore your prophecy
On a hazy Thursday afternoon
And it was all in the telling
A simple hint of further
Transgression its all about
The word the harmony the
Simple design of you now
That the frost has melted
On your windshield. 

No more apocalyptic plans
Where your every word is
A cinder and every gesture
A spot on the line 
We just amble along
With wet feet clinging 
Like dew on the Jack-in-the-Pulpits

Go ahead feel over your
Collar bone it is heavy 
It is like yesterday’s stones
You were assembled without an
Eye for detail with bones and sinews
Out of all semblance of space
I expected to find your shins,
Your ribs your legs all sprawled
On this path

Monday, March 23, 2015

God’s Voice from the Void: Old and New Studies in Bratslav Hasidim

God’s Voice from the Void: Old and New Studies in Bratslav Hasidim, suffers from a lack of uniformity that mars the book’s presentation and overall aim.

This book is overwhelming for the scholar of Judaism exposed to recent trends in interpreting texts.  So, we get an essay on androgyny in Rebbe Nachman’s work, and an essay on Rebbe Nachman’s peppered with the words praxis, trope and reconstruction.

So, this is a highly specialized and stylized treatment of Rebbe Nachman and Bratslav.  It is not for everyone, and even the essays not written in an abundance of academic jargon, such as the one that details the purported differences between Chabad and Bratslav, is very much wrong on most of its details.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Tel Aviv Noir

Tel Aviv Noir is an exciting and eclectic round of short stories.  There are many surprises in this collection, and for those who do not read Hebrew, many new names whose work has never been translated into English.  

Despite the title, this collection very seldom falls into genre traps.  Whatever formulaic demands the writers make to creating a “noir” story are offset by vibrant characterization and plot twists. 

But like any collection of diverse stories, some will hit the reader while others will miss the mark.  But the overall tenor of this collection is excellent, and there is enough punch to offset the occasional misses.

Yardenne Greenspan’s provides a smooth translation, reminding us that we are reading a Hebrew text, and therefore compartmentalized to a certain city at the certain time, while also rendering the English stylishly and precisely. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Led by G-d’s Hand

Led by G-d’s Hand is a patchwork of talks, discussions, letters and other writings by the late Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, t'z, on the role the Divine plays in human affairs.

The book begins with a lengthy discussion of the type of control G-d exercises over the world.  Maimonides claimed that animals as a species were under G-d care and control, but not individuals animals.  This book takes a great deal of time explaining that this is a wrong interpretation of the Rambam’s words.  In keeping with Chassidus classically informed, G-d is everywhere and in control of everything.  There are no limits. G-d watches over and has control of every blade of grass.

The book then wrestles with the problem of human free will versus Divine determination, and topics one would expect in an investigation of this sort.  I wish I could bandy more words of support for this work.  Oddly mismatched and ad-hoc, the title becomes ironic.  There should have been an editor or guiding hand to explain the sometimes (seemingly) abstruse concerns of the writings here presented.  As it is, the book is needless confusing.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Likutey Moharan (vol 5)

The Likutey Moharan (vol 5) is Rebbe Nacham’s magnum opus.  With the exception of his stories, which he told in the final years of his life, Likutey Moharan is his best known work, and where the serious student goes to get at the heart of Rebbe Nachman’s ideas.

Rebbe Nachman did not have a successor (for years, his sect was known in Yiddish di tot Chasidim, the dead Chasidim) so this work became extremely important to Bratslav through the years.  A kind of “torah” for Brastlav, it is the lens through which to see the master’s teachings and place them into practice. Despite the excellent notes in this bi-lingual English and Hebrew edition, one really needs a teacher to fully explore the depths of this work.  So get a teacher!

Yet the work is written in a forceful and simple Hebrew.  The text simply flows from one idea to the next, repeating words and concepts, reframing quotes from the Torah, Talmud, the Zohar and Targum within the grand scope of the Rebbe's vision.  So, if you want to get grasp of Chasidic Hebrew, this is an excellent text.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Rebbe Nachman's Torah

Rebbe Nachman's Torah – Genesis, is a production of the Breslov Institute, translated and selected by their English language guru Chaim Kramer.  The book provides passages from bereshit (Genesis).  Rabbi Kramer pairs Torah passages with Rebbe Nacham’s interpretive work on the same passages.

What you get is a Bratslav reading of some of the most well-known Torah stories.   Expect an eclectic mix.  One of Rebbe Nacham’s strong points as a teacher is his ability to tease “new” meanings from old passages.  He does this through imaginative word play, associations with other passages in the Tanach, as well as simple examples from everyday life.

What you get is a explication of Genesis that is both strangely otherworldly while being, oddly, down to earth.  That could be an excellent definition of the whole Bratslav project.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code

The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code by Margalit Fox, provides a three pronged look at the long, fifty year battle to decipher Linear B.  Fox provides us with the contexts of its discovery, and final decipherment by Michael Ventris. 

But it is obvious that Fox has a special affinity for the second part of the story, the work of classics scholar Alice Kober.  Working in a man’s field during the Second World War and the years that followed, she laid the ground work for the Linear B’s translation through dogged methods.  In a field open to wild conjecture and crank theories, she constricted her search to  hard evidence, and published a few seminal papers that were widely respected in the academic circles relating to Linear B.

Despite this, she worked in obscurity.  She was a professor at Brooklyn College, loaded with class work, and with the exception of a year on a Guggenheim grant, she worked at Linear B in her spare time. 

Fox presents a fascinating picture of Kober, who never married, lived with her mother, and died in her early 40s before her work was completed.  The message is clear, like Rosalind Franklin’s ground work in discovering DNA, Kober's work on Linear B was never widely acknowledged because she was a woman.

With this specific message in hand, Fox goes on to provide an excellent survey of how Linear B was discovered, translated, and what it means for the very early history of Europe.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Philosophy of Chabad

The Philosophy of Chabad, by Nissim Mendel, is part two of an introduction to Chabad.  This book was written in 1973, before the incredible rise of Chabad’s outreach programs.  So, the book has a getting-to know-you feel, which people who are very knowledgeable about Chabad Chassidus will already understand.   

Part one was a biography of the Alter Rebbe, who laid the groundwork for Chabad.  This work provides a detailed explanation of his particular brand of Chassidus, drawing mainly from his well-known work the Tanya.

Chabad, classically conceived, is a very intellectual brand of Chassidus.   This volume reflects this orientation.  Different souls, different levels, intellectual conceptions of worship, God, and reality; but this is not a rational religious philosophy as we know it.  Rather, the Alter Rebbe was a mystic of the rational variety. 

Despite knowing a great deal about the dynamics of the human soul, still, at the heart of everything, is an evolving mystery. 

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Montaukett Indians of Eastern Long Island

John A. Strong’s The Montaukett Indians of Eastern Long Island does not have nearly the “heart” or detailed connection of his latest volume on Long Island Indians, the Unketchuags.  However, this book provides keen insights into one of the only four Long Island Indian groups to survive into modern times as a tribal and social entity.

Like all native groups, the Montaukett were subject to all manner of challenges with the arrival of Europeans in the seventeenth century.   Yet they seemed poised to be the most powerful group on Long Island due to their alliance with Lion Gardiner, an early and influential English settler.  Yet by the early twentieth century, a court had declared they were no longer a tribe, and they lost all title to tribal lands on Montauk Point.  How did this happen?

Strong believes it was the relative isolation of the Montuakett from English and American settlements. Unlike the Shinnecock and Unkechaug, who had lands near white villages, the Montauketts lived largely isolated from whites in an area primary used for cattle grazing.  As such, they were never used as a source of cheap labor by white land owners, and “protected” by powerful local families as were the Shinnecock and Unkechaug.  They failed to secure a reservation, unlike the two groups just mentioned, and did not have a base to promote social cohesion.  Despite that, the Montuaketts continued to act as  a group, and are now applying for tribal status.

Strong is the go-to scholar for the history of Long Island Indians.  His books are a testimony to the strength of these native groups who survived for so long in a largely hostile atmosphere. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Unkechaug Indians of Eastern Long Island

John Strong’s The Unkechaug Indians of Eastern Long Island is a detailed, fascinating account of this tribe, which currently resides on a state recognized reservation, known as Poospatuck, near Mastic.

Strong takes a very positive approach to chronicling the history of these people.  Of course, he goes into detail about their decimation due to European disease, the disruption of their old folk ways as they began to participate in the English economy and the illegal and quasi-legal land deals which robbed them of their land.

But rather than strictly catalog the loss and victimization, Strong illustrates how  Unkechaug people integrated into the English and American economy, using their connections with prominent local families to protect their interests, and seeking redress in the English and later American legal system when wronged.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Salon Romp-rag

Salon Romp-rag
By Roni Cayeme


White hair pudenda
Slick, filling, falling in
My trunk a filthy slop
From her fat, cracked vulva
i’mai nafka minnah?
“What is the practical difference?”

Now that I am in HaShem’s loving hands I should
not hate her but even G-d demands the blood of 
those who go a whoring after other gods and places
under herem their men woman children livestock goods
which means they must die


Stout SOB
Phallus folded into
Abdominal fat
Slicked, oiled
The witches’ extract
Compels him to say
Yes yes yes yes yes
I’mai nafka minnah?
“What is the practical difference?”

I should not hate him now that I am in HaShem’s 
loving hands but even G-d has to dig a hole in the
back woods for the body that He has in the trunk 
of his car from time to time and have the shovel
at the ready and dim the headlights so no one sees
what happens out back behind the screen of bare trees