POEM: Finding Your Zen through Travel [PoMo Day 30 – Epigram]

I
Pray for smooth travels...
but not too smooth;
bad experiences make good stories.


II
Mother nature is the kind of
mother who doesn't play favorites.


III
Fairness and simplicity are fine, but
the solution that works may be neither.


IV
Difficulties only ruin
trips attitudinally doomed.


V
Think of lost luggage as an exercise
in creative decision making.

BOOK REVIEW: The Te of Piglet by Benjamin Hoff

The Te of PigletThe Te of Piglet by Benjamin Hoff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Once in a while, one runs across a book that is much beloved by the general public, and one can’t figure out why. For me, this is one of those books, (as is its predecessor, “The Tao of Pooh.”) I certainly get the appeal of such a book, in principle. A book that clarifies and simplifies a subject as complex as philosophy using straightforward, down-to-earth, and well-known children’s stories like those from A.A. Milne’s “Pooh” book series is a brilliant idea, and is the kind of book I’d generally enjoy reading. [I’m a big believer in Einstein’s notion that, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”] Maybe that’s why I gave this book a rare second-chance. I’d listened to the audiobook from the library many years back, and didn’t much care for it at the time. However, the idea of the book was so appealing that I picked up a copy at a used bookstore recently, figuring that I’ve certainly changed my mind on many things over the years. Unfortunately, my opinion of this book has not improved. It’s a stellar book idea that, in my view, was poorly executed.

Before I get into what I found objectionable about this book, it’s worth noting that when the book is at its best it delivers some beautiful lessons on Taoist thought in a humorous and lighthearted way, illustrating these lessons through a mix of Pooh character interactions and quotes and tales from Lao Tzu, Zhuangzi, and other Taoist sources. When is the book at its best? When there is an interaction between two streams of voice: Taoist sage and Pooh-universe kid’s characters. Perhaps surprisingly, those two voices work well together – harmoniously and effectively.

So, what, you may ask, is my problem. It is the frequent interjection of a third voice, one that I will call “angry ideologue.” This angry ideologue is not at all in harmony with the other two voices, and –in fact — frequently detracts from the lessons by violating them outright. A prime example of this can be seen with respect to the fifth chapter’s (i.e. “The Eeyore Effect”) lesson against belittling others to make oneself feel bigger. A great lesson, except that Hoff is so quick to behave in conflict with it. A minor, but unfortunately not atypical, example can be seen in the previous chapter in which Hoff proves unable of extolling the virtues of Taiji and Pa Kua Chang (two Chinese martial arts) with the need denigrate a couple of Japanese martial arts (judo and aikido) in the process.

The most widespread example of his failure to do as he says, however, involves Hoff’s attacks against Confucianism. To be fair, there is a long history of Taoist and Confucianists badmouthing each other, but this need to tear down others to feel better about oneself is not consistent with the ideas that are explicitly expressed in the book. Hoff greatly oversimplifies Confucianist arguments, and while it’s certainly alright to simplify for the purposes of such a book, one can employ simplification as a weapon — cherry-picking ideas and statements out of context to make the other side look inept and illogical. Hoff violently swerves between the book that is advertised into political diatribes that often employ gratuitous attacks. To be fair, these digressions are probably not so dominant in the book as I make them sound, but the effect is multiplied by the distraction created – particularly when there is a sequence in which Hoff shares some Pooh wisdom to be kind, tolerant, or humble and he follows this by being none-of-the-above in his vilification of those with differing views.

While there are obviously many who would disagree with me, I’d recommend one look elsewhere to better understand the tenets of Taoism. There are certainly books that are more balanced and which will teach one more about Taoist thinking (as opposed to how to cherry-pick and twist Taoist ideas so that they seem to support a particular political stance.)

That said, one advantage of this book (and its predecessor) is that it is designed to speak to a wide age-range, and while books like Puett’s “The Path” and Slingerhand’s “Trying Not to Try” are better books for learning about Taoism but yet are very readable for a non-scholarly reader, they are not necessarily kid-friendly. I can’t say that I know any good kid-oriented books on Taoism (though some may well exist,) but I tend to believe that kids are more likely to pick up bad habits of thinking about people with different points of view and about interacting with others through this book then they are to learn good habits of mind. [Although, if one skips over the diatribes, it might serve quite well. And if one doesn’t skip them, one will still be preparing your child to participate in what passes for political discourse in the modern era.]

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BOOK REVIEW: Teachings of the Buddha ed. by Jack Kornfield

Teachings of the Buddha: Revised and Expanded EditionTeachings of the Buddha: Revised and Expanded Edition by Jack Kornfield
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of excerpts and short writings conveying Buddhist teachings. The pieces range in length from about a stanza of verse to a few pages in length. Each lesson tells what book it comes from and who the translator was, which can be a nice feature if one will be comparing different translations.

Unlike Walpola Rahula’s similarly named “What the Buddha Taught,” which focuses entirely on what Gautama Buddha taught while he was living, this book includes many teachings from long after the life of the Buddha. Which is to say, this is more a book of Buddhist teachings than an elucidation of what the Buddha, himself, taught. [Not to offend, but religious teachings seem to inevitably shift and evolve over time, and so what is taught by various sects of Buddhism today is by no means a perfect reflection of what the Buddha, himself, taught.] That said, the writings toward the beginning of the book tend to be closer to the Buddha, himself – i.e. from the “Dhammapada” and other early Pali works. While the teachings toward the end of the book tend to be more from much later (e.g. from the Zen tradition.)

I found the book to be quite readable and to feature some intriguing food for thought. If you are interested in an English translation of Buddhist sutras, scriptures, koan, etc., this is a good work to check out.

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POEM: Mustard Seeds

She’s chasing after mustard seeds
from a household that’s known no Death.
With eyes that droop and feet that bleed,

she’s out of the village and into the weeds.
Finding a family that’s known only life
is like finding one that’s known but good deeds.

Not finding a one, she finally concedes
knowing her suffering is not unique,
and with that realization she is freed.

BOOK REVIEW: A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic JoyA Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a great little guide for a person considering the Stoic life. Stoicism was one of more well-known philosophies to come out of the ancient world, though it suffered a setback with changing philosophical trends and the rise of the great monotheistic religions. For those who know the term “stoic” as a small-s adjective, it’s worth noting that its definition (emotionless / impassive) is not the distinguishing trait of this school of philosophy. (Something similar can be said for Cynic v. cynic and Epicurean v. epicurean.) Still, there is a thin connection in that Stoics believed in not being controlled by emotion to one’s detriment, and not becoming emotional over things about which one has no control.

This book offers some historical background, showing how Stoicism evolved as it moved from Greece to Rome (and later how it might continue to evolve to appeal to — and work for — a modern following.) It also gives one some idea of the subtle differences of perspective among the Stoics. Usually when one bones up on Stoicism, one does so through the writings of a particular philosopher, be it Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, or Seneca, and so it’s interesting to see how these men with varied backgrounds lived and taught Stoicism.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part discusses what a life philosophy is, it gives Stoicism a context within other ancient philosophies, and it compares and contrasts Greek and Roman Stoicism. The second part describes the techniques that Stoics used to achieve their worldview and approach to living. These techniques include negative visualization (mentally rehearsing worst-case scenarios in a way that one becomes desensitized to them), classifying events by whether one can do anything about them or not and adopting a fatalistic acceptance of what one cannot influence, self-denial (i.e. avoiding excessive pursuit of comfort or pleasure), and meditation (being aware of one’s behavior so one can learn to implement Stoic approaches to living.)

Part three describes the advice of Stoics on a range of issues that are confronted in life. These include: duty, social relationships, insults, grief, anger, desire for fame, desire for luxury, exile, old age, dying, and becoming a Stoic. You may note, most of these are as valid today as they were in the day of the great Stoics, if not more so, and even “exile” has modern day analogies.

Part four discusses Stoicism for modern living. Among the issues covered include how a secular humanist might justify the practice of Stoicism. (The historical justifications were couched in theistic assumptions about the world.) It also delves into nuts and bolts considerations for the would-be Stoic. (Specifically, Irvine suggests practicing something he calls “stealth Stoicism,” which involves living in accord with the tenets of the philosophy while avoiding drawing attention to it from friends and family who might think you’ve become a lunatic who will soon be showing up to the 4th of July BBQ in a toga.)

Besides annotations and a works cited section, the back matter also includes a Stoic reading program as an Appendix.

I found this book to be interesting and informative. I’ve read works by Stoics, but it was nice to learn about Stoicism through a broader, overhead lens. If you’re interested in a philosophy of life, in general, or Stoicism in particular, this is a good book to read.

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BOOK REVIEW: What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula

What the Buddha TaughtWhat the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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It might seem like any book on Buddhism would — by definition — be a book about “what the Buddha taught,” but, no. Buddhism, like all religions that I’m aware of, has experienced the drift that occurs as part of the religification process – though some sects and sub-sects remain truer to the Buddha’s original approach than others. I was happy to stumble onto this book because whenever I’ve read the ideas attributed directly to the Buddha, I’ve always found them to be brilliant in elegance and simplicity.

Walpola Rahula’s book is a summation of what the Buddha actually taught, presented in a way that makes sense for today’s English-language reader. The book is just eight chapters, plus appendices comprising ten texts (excerpted or in whole, depending upon the document’s length and contents.) The first chapter explains the Buddhist conception of the mind, and gives the reader a context for much of the rest of the book. Chapters two through five each link to one of the four noble truths: i.e. dukkha (suffering-ish — the controversy of that translation is addressed in detail), the arising of dukkha, the cessation of dukkha, and magga (the path to the cessation of dukkha – i.e. the eight-fold path.)

Chapter six addresses one of the most controversial and unique of Buddhist ideas, the doctrine of no-soul (anatta.) This is the idea that the idea of a permanent self or soul that is ever-present and that lives on past the body is an illusion. The Buddhist conception imagines the self as being more like a river. It only appears to be a permanent entity, but, in reality, it is different every moment and what appears permanent is more an emergent property than a thing or entity. I found this chapter to be the most interesting, because it is such a unique idea (though one a number of neuroscientists seem to be converging on this way of thinking), it appeals to my sense of simplification versus needless complication, and it was interesting to read Rahula’s challenge of those who have tried to deny Buddha argued thus (presumably seeking to make Buddhist doctrines converge with their belief systems.)

Chapter seven discusses meditation, mindfulness, and misconceptions about the two. When I took the Vipassana ten-day course, it was emphasized to us repeatedly that in the Buddha’s conception is that one needs to do two things in pursuit of enlightenment, live ethically (as per the eight-fold path) and practice (meditation and mindfulness.) While Rahula doesn’t put it exactly like that, that message comes across. (Rahula presents the eight-fold path categorized in three divisions of ethics, practice, and wisdom.) Whereas the doctrine of no-soul is controversial on metaphysical / philosophical grounds, the necessity of practice is passively objected to on the grounds that people really don’t want to practice because it’s challenging and it keeps them from getting the most out of all the apps on their phones.

The last chapter ties things up by bringing what the Buddha taught into present-day in order to ask questions like how it can be applied and what it means to be a Buddhist.

Besides the appendices of texts and text excerpts, there are photos throughout the book, mostly of Buddhist sculptures from around the [Buddhist] world.

I found this book to be very informative. It’s concise and readable, and seemed to me to be very consistent with those beautiful ideas I’ve come to associate with the Buddha. I would recommend this book for anyone who’s looking to learn what the Buddha actually told his students back in the day.

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5 Profound Pieces of Kung Fu Panda Wisdom (That May Seem Dumb)

5.) Po’s Wu Wei: In his fight against Tai Lung at the end of the first film, Po takes a hard hit from his Snow Leopard nemesis, and through ripples of undulating flab returns a devastating strike that sends Tai Lung flying. While I wouldn’t recommend one try it at home as demonstrated in animated form, the idea of not resisting, but rather redirecting forces is an old school approach. It also reflects the ancient Taoist wisdom of wu wei, effortless action.

 

4.) “But I realized having you in Po’s life doesn’t mean less for me. It means more for Po.”  In the third movie, there’s a scene in which Mr. Ping (Po’s avian dad by adoption) explains to Po’s panda dad, Li, how he came to grips with Li’s presence (which at first made Mr. Ping insecure and envious.) The lesson is to be careful in assigning a situation zero-sum status (one person’s gain requires another’s loss) without having reason to believe it reflects the reality of the situation.

 

3.) “There is just news. There is no good or bad.” This bit reflects an old Taoist story about a farmer and his neighbor. One day the neighbor sees the farmer has a beautiful new horse. The farmer tells the neighbor that it’s a wild horse that the farmer found at the back of his property. The neighbor says, “That’s good news.” The farmer says, “Good news? Bad news? Who’s to say?” The next day when the neighbor stops by the farmer tells him how his son got a broken arm trying to break in the wild horse. “That’s bad news,” says the neighbor. “Good news? Bad news? Who’s to say?” The next day the army comes by, conscripting young men, but the farmer’s son is not forced to go to war because the young man has a broken arm. The story goes on like that.

 

2.) “If you only do what you can do, you’ll never be more than you are.” In the third movie, after Master Shifu explains to Po how he knew that Po would fail on his first day as a teacher, the Master utters this bit of wisdom. It’s a warning to avoid loitering in one’s comfort zone.

 

1.) “The secret ingredient of my secret ingredient soup….  The secret ingredient is … nothing… To make something special you just have to believe it’s special.”: For some reason, people love to get attached to trappings and secret wisdom, even to the point of losing sight of what’s important.

It reminds me of a story about Dr. Herbert Benson. Benson famously wrote a book entitled, “The Relaxation Response about the effects of relaxation on health. Back in the sixties, students of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (famously, the Beatles’ guru) asked Benson to do a study of the health effects of their teacher’s system of meditation. The Maharishi taught transcendental meditation, an approach in which students focused on mentally repeating a mantra that is “given” to them personally by the teacher. (I put the word “given” in quotes because the Maharishi actually charged a significant amount of money for these mantras.) Anyhow, after much badgering, Benson agreed to do the study. One has to realize that, while today such a study would be considered quite respectable, in those days a study of the effect of meditation on health would have been akin to a study of voodoo.

So, Benson conducted the study and — lo and behold — he found that patients who practice meditation do have better recoveries and less ill effects. The Maharishi and his people now love Herbert Benson. They sing his praises. But Benson is interested in science and couldn’t care less whether any particular guru’s system of meditation is validated. So he repeats the study with all participants using the word “one” as their mantra, and he gets the same result. Subsequently, other forms of meditation are studied, and with similar outcomes. Needless to say, the transcendentalists love affair with Dr. Benson was short-lived.

BOOK REVIEW: Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali ed. by B.K.S. Iyengar

Light on the Yoga Sūtras of PatañjaliLight on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali by B.K.S. Iyengar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The “Yoga Sutras” are 196 aphorisms about yoga that were penned by a sage named Patanjali around 400 CE (i.e. AD.) Unless you’re a Sanskrit scholar with expertise in the history of yoga and the region that birthed it, it’s hard to gain anything from reading the Sutras directly. The Sutras are written in a terse style in a sparse language, and so most readers aren’t equipped to interpret them – which takes not only knowing the language but have some understanding of the context in which they were written. This means the Sutras are most commonly packaged into a book-length manuscript that includes not only the translation but also analysis and commentary.

There are many such books available, but the challenge is to find one that: a.) comes as close to the original meaning as possible without either misunderstanding or tainting the meaning with the translator’s and / or commentator’s worldview / ideas / ego; b.) is approachable to a modern reader. With respect to the latter, it’s easy to find free translations on the web, but often these were produced over a century ago, and can make for challenging reading for today’s readers. While it may seem like it would be closer to the source material, it can also be thought of as injecting another layer of culture in between the original and the present-day reader.

The Sutras are organized into four sections. The first section introduces the reader to yoga and explains the state of mind called Samadhi. The second section outlines the eight-fold practice of yoga called Ashtanga Yoga. The eight limbs include the two aspects of yogic ethics, yama and niyama, as well as postural yoga (asana,) breath exercises (pranayama,) sensory withdrawal (pratyahara,) concentration (dharana,) meditation (dhyana,) and the aforementioned Samadhi. The third section focuses on the super-normal abilities yogis are said to achieve, along with a warning that the pursuit of these abilities can become a fatal attraction with respect to one’s growth. The final section discusses the liberation, that is the ultimate objective of the practice of yoga.

The organization of this volume makes it suitable for readers of a wide range of levels of experience and scholarly understanding, and allows a reader to benefit from a shallow or deep approach to reading / research of the Sutras. It includes the original Sanskrit, then a Romanized alphabet phonetic write up of the original Sanskrit Sutra, and then a listing of the various meanings for each of the Sanskrit word. Then it has the English translation of the Sutra as literal as possible. Finally, there is B.K.S. Iyengar’s commentary and analysis. Sometimes these elaborations are just a few lines and sometimes they’re a few pages, but most commonly each is about one page. I like the approach of providing the original as well as information that facilitates the reader systematically piecing together his or her own understanding of each Sutra. I think it shows both humility and eagerness to support students on the part of the editor.

There are various appendices, indexes, and a glossary to make the book more useful.
This isn’t the first book of translation and commentary of the Sutras that I’ve read. However, it is the most readable, approachable, and useful that I’ve read. I would highly recommend this book for all practitioners of yoga.

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5 Readable Philosophical Novels

There are many philosophical novels in existence. However, many of them are difficult reads either because they are complex in language or concepts (e.g. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” or “Faust“) or because — while readily understandable — they were badly in need of an editor (e.g. “Atlas Shrugged.”) Here are a few novels with interesting philosophical lessons that aren’t killers to read.


5.) Ishmael by Daniel Quinn: A man answers an ad that begins: “Teacher seeks pupil.” The teacher he discovers and the lessons he is taught aren’t what he bargained for. The book considers the impact of modern man versus aboriginal people, and the two groups’ respective place in the world.

 

4.) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: In a futuristic world, people are controlled and manipulated by genetic engineering, classical conditioning, sleep-teaching, not to mention heaping helpings of drugs and promiscuity. The book considers the role of technology in humanity’s trajectory, and it contrasts Orwell’s bleak vision of dystopian governance with one that is every bit as manipulatory — if a great deal more pleasant in appearance.

 

3.) The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: A young prince from a far-away land comes to Earth, and shows how wise the young can be and how absurd adults often are.

 

2.) Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse: A man who feels out of step with humanity faces events that force him to reconsider what it means to be a man in the world of men.

 

1.) The Journeys of Socrates by Dan Millman: The prequel to Millman’s acclaimed book “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior.” It blends Eastern and Western philosophy in the training of a warrior.