Tuesday, July 31, 2012

God, The Buddha, and The Joker

Generally speaking, I’ve not used this blog as a forum for the discussion of current events. However, the recent massacre at an Aurora, Colorado screening of the new Batman movie – and the religious and spiritual questions that it raises regarding how and why such a tragedy could occur – so obviously falls within the purview of a blog that calls itself “an exploration of spirituality and the human condition” that not writing about it strikes me as a far more glaring omission than writing about it might appear ‘out of character.’ The emotions associated with these killings will be raw for quite some time. Be forewarned, then, that this post might be a more challenging read than many of my others.

God, The Buddha, and The Joker

I’m usually not into seeing violent films. However, I did make an exception in the case of The Dark Knight – the first in this modern Batman trilogy – for a couple of reasons. First of all, I’d heard that Heath Ledger had done such a phenomenal job playing that embodiment of pure evil, The Joker, that I simply “had” to go see his performance for myself. Second, I’d heard that the plot encompassed a very timely and important exploration of how we – in our self-righteous zeal to eradicate evil – risk sinking into the very depths of evil ourselves. No doubt, Ledger’s performance is a chilling one, bringing to life with incredible realism his character’s embrace of chaotic violence for the sheer love of chaotic violence itself. The most chilling moment for me, however, occurs the second time we hear The Joker “reveal” to a prospective victim how it was that he’d obtained his jagged scar of a smile. On the first occasion we might be inclined to feel at least a little bit of sympathy for an individual who’d been so deeply wounded as a child – thereby explaining, at least in part, how he’d become the wretched individual that he’d become. Ah, but when we hear him tell an entirely different story the second time around, we come to see with stark clarity the dark depths of The Joker’s coldly manipulative mind! It is then that we “know” that he is pure evil, unconditioned – without cause and without cure.

Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight


It is at times such as this, after the murder of 12 people and the wounding of 58 others by a copycat Joker at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises (the final film in the Batman trilogy) that we are reminded just how bizarre this world can be – filled with beauty and love in one moment, brutality and heartache the next. How do we even begin to make sense of a tragedy such as this? If only there were some rhyme or reason to it all…, if only we could point to something in particular that could have made each of those people “deserving” of such a fate (as if anyone can possibly deserve such a fate)…, if only we could learn what it was that led a reportedly quiet young man to meticulously plan out such an act of violence and mayhem, then maybe we could find some measure of solace. Quite to the contrary, it is the seemingly random nature of life and death that has us plumbing the depths of our being and gazing up into the heavens in search of meaning. To think that our world could really be so cold and chaotic is almost too unsettling to contemplate. And so it is that each of us comes to construct a worldview – one that incorporates our lived experiences and whatever presumed metaphysical reality makes sense to us – one that allows us to advance through this human existence with some sense that our life matters, that it has value in ‘the grand scheme of things,’ that it will not be snuffed out for absolutely no reason whatsoever.

But, how can such killings ever make sense? What worldview can possibly incorporate such a violent and cold-blooded and heinous act as this without us screaming at the top of our lungs that something is wrong? Indeed. Sadly, though, if you think that this happened because we’ve turned our back on God, then you’ve already begun to make sense out of senselessness. If you think it happened because some force of evil exists “out there” in the world that is forever in dynamic conflict with the force of good, then these killings will likely make some semblance of sense to you. If you think this all happened because the unknowable plan of some higher power is being acted out from moment to moment on this earthly plane, or because the victims had some karmic debt to atone for, then this massacre presumably makes just a little bit of sense. If you think that these killings occurred because there are just too damn many guns in the hands of undeserving people, or because there are simply not enough guns in the hands of deserving people, or because violent movies and video games are driving people to act out in real life the digital slaughter contained therein, or because our mental health treatment system is so underfunded and disconnected and inadequate that it can’t possibly provide the safety net that it should when mental illness manifests as florid psychosis, then you’ve already made some sense out of what is otherwise utterly incomprehensible.

Despite the efficacy of these various worldviews in helping their respective owners go out and face a brand new day, they’re either so clearly not held by any super-majority, or they’re so clearly incapable of being acted upon in any positive way, that they would seem to be of no real use whatsoever – save for the very personal utility that they provide. And so it is that we remain locked in this bizarre cycle in which senselessly violent acts seem to be perpetrated with ever-increasing frequency and severity, but nothing is ever done about it beyond our collective hand-wringing and our news-cycle spanning period of national mourning. Nothing is ever done about it because our various perceptions of reality are too firmly rooted in our irreconcilable worldviews for us to ever come to agreement regarding how we might best proceed. Has there ever been a time in all of history when it was so routinely the case that two people could look upon the same color with one calling it red and the other blue? Perhaps that fact alone is evidence of how very far we’ve strayed. Ah, but what have we strayed from? Well, that depends upon your worldview!

As I began to make “sense” of the news that I was hearing of the Aurora, Colorado massacre, a very different worldview than any that I’ve previously mentioned came into focus within my mind. As it happens, it was the worldview of someone coming into spiritual awareness in the years leading up to the start of World War II:

When we went back to New York, in the middle of August, the world that I had helped to make was finally preparing to break the shell and put forth its evil head and devour another generation of men…. All this was obscure to most people, and made itself felt only in a mixture of disgust and hopelessness and dread. They did not realize that the world had now become a picture of what the majority of its individuals had made of their own souls. We had given our minds and wills up to be raped and defiled by sin, by hell itself; and now, for our inexorable instruction and reward, the whole thing was to take place all over again before our eyes, physically and morally, in the social order, so that some of us at least might have some conception of what we had done.  (pp. 269-271)

Some of you, I’m sure, will recognize this passage as coming from Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. But will you be surprised to learn that, with only a modicum of interpretive flexibility, this Buddhist shares the worldview of that young man who would one day become a Trappist monk?

Do I believe in souls? No, but I do believe that we are a seamlessly integrated collection of ‘selves that are not other’ – each of us working in some way toward creating the entirety of the world in which we live. Have we “given our minds and wills up to be raped and defiled”? In myriad ways I believe that our living in this modern world has us doing just that. For instance, I recall feeling rather disoriented for some time after seeing The Dark Knight. It’s how I often feel after seeing very violent films. And yet, despite my knowing that to be so, I went and saw The Dark Knight, anyway. I brought that upon myself and now it has become me. Do we not allow ourselves to be so defiled on umpteen occasions on any given day? I think we do. We Buddhists are just not all that inclined to consider it sinful when we do. But let’s not get all hung up on that word, sin, simply because it reminds us of a religion that we might have left behind. Indeed, to a Christian, sin refers to a separation from God, but it might also be meaningful for a Buddhist to think of sin as separation from their True Self.

Allow me, please, to make this next point in no uncertain terms. Yes, I believe in karma. Yes, I believe we’ve each played some role in creating this violent world. Sure enough, our contribution might be a small one – a minor act of commission or perhaps one of omission – but it is a contribution, nonetheless. That notwithstanding, I still emphatically contend that those who were murdered or injured or traumatized in that Aurora, Colorado theatre were no more responsible for their fate than you or I. Karma simply refers to habit energy – patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior. Yes, we have our individual habit energy – the karma of the self that is not other. Far more applicable in this case, however, is our collective karma – the habit energy of our social order, our nation. No matter how much we might purify our own patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior, we are still living in community. We cannot escape our collective karma, and, unfortunately, it reeks of violence.

Think of the violence that we perpetrate against the farm animals in our care, for instance. We kill them indiscriminately – not out of necessity, not because we need to eat so much meat in order to survive. Rather, we do it because we want to, because we enjoy the taste of their flesh. We kill them not with any sense of gratitude, but with a sense of entitlement – a sense that they exist only to fulfill our needs. But the violence is not merely a matter of killing them in numbers far surpassing that which is necessary. There is violence as well in how we force them to live out their lives in torturous factory farming conditions until such time as we do see fit to kill them. And it’s not even a matter of us not being able to afford to treat them humanely; it’s just that we want what we want on the cheap.

Then with our bellies full of mindlessly eaten meat we retire to our living rooms where we immerse ourselves in reality television shows that glorify our most petty of self-interested desires and celebrate those who can manipulate others more skillfully than anyone else. We play video games in which we engage in virtual fights to the death in which living things are unceremoniously blown up, ripped to shreds, and incinerated. And, yes, we go to the movies where we revel in blockbusters chockfull of gunfights, explosions, mayhem, and annihilation.

Speaking of annihilation, how many generations have now grown up with the specter of nuclear annihilation hanging over their heads? We raise our children not with the idea that such massive violence is inconceivable, but with the idea that it is very thinkable indeed. In fact, it is so eminently thinkable that we can even incorporate it into a strategy – one of mutual assured destruction – the strategy under which most of us have now lived our entire lives. But even conventional war has become so much more thinkable. We don’t just engage in it because of any sense of life and death necessity. We go to war in order to protect our interests. War is no longer a last resort; it is something that we engage in so as not to be inconvenienced.

But I think that even the most ardent believer in the rightness of our government to wield such incredibly violent power secretly harbors the fear that that power might one day be used against him or her. And so we stockpile weaponry of our own while harboring dark fantasies of black helicopters dropping jackbooted government soldiers into our back gardens. We gleefully contemplate what actions we’ll take if anyone even tries to step foot in our household. Yes, the second amendment has become our most sacred creed, and the gun has become our talisman.

I could go on, but I think I’ve said enough to convey that if there was any merit at all in what Thomas Merton was thinking during the years prior to World War II, there is certainly merit in those thoughts today. Yes, Merton’s thoughts are but another worldview, and so are mine. But I think that they are both worldviews that transcend surface appearances and cut straight to the heart of the matter. Besides, if a Trappist monk and a Buddhist can somehow find common ground, perhaps all of us can find it as well!


Merton, T. (1948, 1976) The seven storey mountain: An autobiography of faith – Fiftieth anniversary edition. A Harvest Book. Harcourt, Inc..

Image Credits

Heath Ledger as The Joker by Danel torres via:

Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank

Thursday, July 19, 2012


Sweltering summer afternoons such as these inevitably remind me of my childhood – the still air, the unrelenting sun, and the silence only intermittently punctuated by the ratcheting sound of a grasshopper in mid hop, or the unanswered call of a field sparrow, or the sticking sound that automobile tires make as they accelerate down an almost melting asphalt road.

“How about we go fossil hunting?” I’d pose the question over the phone to my childhood friend, Charlie, or he to me.

“What time?” was the usual response, neither of us needing much in the way of convincing when it came to such suggestions.

“After lunch. One o’clock. Under the railroad trestle.”

And so we’d meet in the shade of the old wooden bridge and ride our bicycles along the dusty trail to where the new highway cut through the layers of a limestone undergirded hillside. Once there, we’d make our way slowly, almost wordlessly along the fractured strata, carefully overturning the loose rock, becoming more subtly in tune to the mysteries of their composition as we went. At first we tended toward seeing things that weren’t really there; so desirous, we were, of having first-hand knowledge of that “other” world; so easily fooled, we were, by the complexity of the Missouri limestone, embedded with concretions as it sometimes is, or riddled through with holes made by the percolating action of groundwater. After a time, though, we’d settle into our task of discerning that which had once been alive from that which had not. It was then that our discoveries became unmistakable: corals, worm tubes, brachiopods – the inhabitants of the ocean world on which our modern world was built. For some reason, though, perhaps because there were so many times that we only thought that we’d found one, my memory is rather fuzzy regarding whether or not we were ever actually successful in finding that most treasured of all specimens, at least for us, the trilobite.


When I think of my early fascination with fossils, I think of my wonder at being able to hold in my very hands something from a world so vastly different from the woodland habitat come sprawling suburb that I’d grown up in that it might well have come from an alien planet, a world so vastly distant in time as to be beyond human comprehension. And, yet, that world was still going on. I was holding it in my hands. It was my world!

Childhood was a time filled with such wonder – a time during which I felt more closely connected to nature more often than at any other time. In fact, the thought sometimes crosses my mind that all of my meditation practice since then, all of my efforts toward transcending the self, all of my attempts at seeing only that which is and nothing more, are doing nothing if not leading me back to that state that I was already intimate with as a child – a state of wonder, a state of awe, a state in which the feeling of being nestled in the palm of the universe was as real as that of holding that very same universe in the palm of my still young hand.

Zen practice is rife with such occurrences of wonder. When the mind becomes still – still enough to welcome everything while desiring nothing, still enough to see only that which is, without embellishment or detraction, still enough that the seer and the seen are no longer two – wonder invariably arises. It is at times such as these that the mind’s shell is cracked open by the simple sight of water dripping from the eaves after a rain shower – sending shadows darting sideways across the sundrenched wooden floor. It is at times such as these that the truest nature of light is to be realized in the brilliant and fleetingly perfect alignment of the sun, a piece of amber window glazing, the eye, and the mind. It is at times such as these that the taste of rich green tea from a coarsely fashioned cup amidst sparse surroundings could not possibly be improved upon. Such wonder can be known whenever we allow ourselves to be truly alive – whenever we allow ourselves to nestle in the palm of the universe, even as we hold it in the palm of our hand. It is at times such as these that the essence of “things” is most readily apparent – their luminosity, their suchness, their becoming, their interrelated and ever-changing nature. At this point the reader might enjoy begin sidetracked into reading the post entitled The Nature Of Things. Please also consider that the word ‘becoming’ is used here instead of ‘being’ in order to accentuate the non-static nature of reality.

Now, some people might wonder how it is that a spiritual practitioner such as me, without a sense of an overseeing God, without a sense of the existence of a soul that will either enjoy its karmic fruit in its next life or despair at its retribution, can possibly strive to live a moral, ethical, and other-focused existence. It is my contention that wonder is the key. If one can lead a life that never strays too far from wonder, then one will never be too far from guidance as to how one should behave.

Image Credits

Trilobite Fossil by DanielCD via:

Receptaculitid from the Kimmswick Limestone by Wilson44691 via:

Onniella, a brachiopod, by Dlloyd via:

Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Envisioning A Wabi-Sabi World

In my previous post, Can Wabi-Sabi Save The World?, I explored the Japanese aesthetic known as wabi-sabi in addition to briefly sketching out my rationale for pondering whether it might actually “save the world.” I’ll continue in that vein in this post, to the point where (I hope) you’ll be willing to agree that there’s at least some cause for someone to respond to that question with a great big emphatic “Yes!” First, though, let me review some of the pertinent aspects of wabi-sabi that relate to the point that I’m trying to convey. Toward that end I’ll try my hand at composing a concise and reasonably accurate definition of wabi-sabi:

Wabi-sabi is the traditionally Japanese aesthetic encompassing the appreciation of things that are simple, rustic, weathered, flawed, and natural in such a way that their very utilitarian ordinariness is elevated to the realm of artistic beauty. The truest appreciation of wabi-sabi requires the relinquishment (emptying out) of preconceived notions regarding the static nature of things and individuals. This emptying out on the part of the perceiver allows him or her to fully recognize the sufficiency and beauty of even that which is most humble or austere.

Urban Farming in Chicago

At the end of the last post I remarked on how awash in stuff we are – very little of which is actually necessary for our survival. It would be nice if the only downside of having all of this stuff was the cluttering up of our lives. Unfortunately, though, the consumption of all of the lakes full of fossil fuel required to manufacture this unnecessary stuff, ship it to us, maintain it once it’s in our possession, and then dispose of it once we’ve used it up has the earth’s atmosphere so laden with carbon dioxide that it jeopardizes our very survival and that of all living beings. Now, the future that you might be imagining will depend upon your worldview, your faith in the advancement of technology, and your willingness and ability to comprehend the magnitude of the problem. Some people are, of course, still in denial with respect to the reality of climate change. Others think that the solution merely requires that we use renewable energy to power our materialistic lifestyle. Still others contemplate our utilization of elaborate carbon sequestration and storage processes that will allow us to maintain our current levels of consumption even as the world’s population grows higher and higher. Others, like me, think that our response to the reality of climate change will require all of our technological savvy as well as our willingness to live lives that are much less materialistic – less dependent on stuff. And that is where wabi-sabi comes in.

At the core of the wabi-sabi aesthetic resides a spiritual relationship between us and our stuff. Consider the Japanese tea ceremony, for instance, in which the mental state of the participants – their spiritual development, if you will – is of utmost importance with respect to the ritualistic drinking of tea. The kettle, tea bowl, whisk, and cups are not merely objects to be utilized in order to complete the task of getting tea to our lips. Rather, these objects are to be appreciated in their own right as well as for the integral roles that they play in the totality of all that the tea ceremony encompasses, i.e. life itself. In other words, the appreciation of wabi-sabi requires that the subject/object relationship become more intimate. Of course, such intimacy is a function of the aforementioned emptying out of the perceiver.

Now, you might be wondering how this subject/object intimacy differs from, for instance, the subject/object intimacy enjoyed by someone who really loves their new luxury automobile – someone whose identity is closely intertwined with the experience of driving and being seen driving such a vehicle, possessing and being known as someone affluent enough to possess such a vehicle. The vehicle, the object, is not merely appreciated for the utility of the transportation that it provides. It is appreciated within the context of a complex subject/object relationship. So, how is this subject/object intimacy different from that inherent in the appreciation of wabi-sabi as discussed above? 

Well, for one, a new luxury automobile generally does not possess those very sabi qualities of being simple, rustic, weathered, flawed, and natural. That much is patently obvious. More to the point, however, is the fact that its appreciation is not generally related to the emptying out of the perceiver – the nature of their poverty, to use the very easily misunderstood word that Suzuki (1959) uses. Rather, the appreciation of a fine automobile is quite often the result of the subject overlaying the object with ideas and concepts related to the affluence, status, and power that the object might represent. Overlaying objects with meaning such as this, meaning that is ultimately rooted in the ego of the subject, is the antithesis of the emptying out that has been referred to – it is the antithesis of the authenticity that must be in existence for something to be considered wabi-sabi.

Suzuki (1959) conveys a fun story related to authenticity. He tells of Rikyu and his son-in-law attending the first tea party of the winter season. As they approach the gate entering into the court the son-in-law remarks how very sabi it is, ancient and weathered so. Rikyu replies:

This is far from savoring sabi, my son; it is on the contrary a most expensive piece of work. Look here closely. Such a door as this is not to be found in this vicinity. It must have come from a remote mountain temple far away from the human world. Think of the amount of labor to bring it here, for which the master must have paid dearly. If he had understood what genuine sabi is, he would have searched for a suitable door ready-made or made to order among the neighboring dealers, and would have had it pieced together with an old board found about his premises. Then the door fixed here would certainly savor of wabi. The taste shown here is not a genuine one. (p.321)

Thankfully, we see some movement in the direction of authenticity these days. In greater numbers people are eschewing highly processed foods in lieu of more basic and nutritious ones. Many have begun to grow their own food – perhaps the most authentic act that one can engage in. More frequently, as well, we hear people speak of shopping at second-hand stores or garage sales, of saying no to the latest fashion trends for the sake of purchasing more timeless articles of clothing instead. We see simplicity and authenticity becoming valued in the realm of product design as well. Newly manufactured cruiser-style bicycles, for instance, appeal to our yearning for the simplicity and authenticity of yesteryear. You might also recall that during the depths of our latest recession it was reported that even the wealthy were foregoing the ostentatious purchase of luxury items so as to not call attention to themselves as others went without. Stories like these are encouraging to me in that they point to the possibility of a more community-focused society. Oh, and do you remember the Hummer! Perhaps the demise of this behemoth of an automobile might be considered in light of an overall shift toward greater authenticity. After all, has any automobile in history been overlaid with meaning so firmly rooted in the ego as the Hummer?

Remember These? Remember Why We Bought Them?

Okay, am I still a bit too vague about how wabi-sabi can save the world? Thank you for the invitation to be more specific! Let me now conjure up a vision of a wabi-sabi world!

Envisioning A Wabi-Sabi World

I awaken as the sound of the rooster crowing down the lane gradually penetrates my peaceful slumber. My eyes blink open and focus on the well-worn chest of drawers that’s been handed down from family member to family member over the years. It’s solid cherry – a wood that’s difficult to find these days now that most furniture is crafted from managed-forest pine. Way back when, such a chest would likely hold little more than socks and underwear, but it now holds nearly all of the clothing I own. Thankfully, things aren’t like they were in the old days when everyone judged everyone else by the manner of their dress. Everything is less formal now – less structured around the keeping up of appearances. It’s even hard to tell the bankers from the farmers these days!

I turn over to face the rest of the room. The morning light filtering in through the front windows softly illuminates my sparsely furnished studio apartment. Bookshelves made from repurposed lumber line the wall beside the rustic dining table that also doubles as a desk. An old couch that I’ve recently reupholstered sits in front of the windows with a coffee table fashioned from a slab of salvaged granite countertop positioned in front of it. I suppose I don’t really have that much stuff compared to what I used to own. To tell you the truth, though, I don’t miss any of it. I’ve grown to enjoy these new feelings of spaciousness and simplicity. And what I do have I really use and enjoy – things that seem to have a character all of their own.

You might be surprised to learn that I live in a big city. With the exception of the rooster, though, and the occasional bleating of the goats down the lane, it’s rather quiet here. Motorized traffic has been routed one street over in order to foster pedestrian traffic and the development of green space. Sure, people have to walk a little bit further from their parking spots to their apartments, but the exercise does us all good. Besides, few people even own cars anymore. Usually people just rent one for a day or so if they want to go out into the country, for instance, where mass transit doesn’t reach. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the zoning ordinances have been revised in order to allow appropriate amounts of urban farming. It was kind of a no-brainer given the fact that the death of the old fossil-fuel industries left so much brownfield land to be reclaimed. In fact, such land reclamation has become a major part of our economy these days. People seem to like the results, too.  The mix of buildings and green spaces helps to decrease the heat-island effect even as it improves our overall mood; not to mention the fact that having food grown so close to home is healthier in terms of freshness and requires less energy to package and ship.

I get up and get some grain simmering in an old copper kettle. Yes, a hot breakfast will use up a fair share of my stored solar energy, but that’s okay. It looks like it’ll be a sunny day and there’ll be plenty of time for it to recharge while I’m away at work. And if it turns out that there’s not enough to take care of my evening needs, then I’ll just take a cold shower to make up for it. While I’m waiting for my breakfast to cook I check to see what’s new on the web. Oh, perhaps you were thinking that we’d stepped backwards in time! No, we’re probably more connected than ever before. The fact of the matter is that people are more productively employed now than in a long, long time due to the more realistic mix of low-tech and high-tech jobs, and that has made it so that more people can own computers and such than ever before.

In the old days our economy was beholden to the advance of technology. Now things are much more in line with our needs and the realities of the workforce. Not everybody can be a computer engineer, after all, nor does everybody want to be one! Sure, things are relatively more expensive now that we utilize more labor-intensive technology. But we need less stuff, we want less stuff than we did in the past, and the greater prevalence of meaningful, productive employment has greatly increased the overall health of society by decreasing crime and mental illness and addiction and so forth.

Yes, with the exception of our solar and information-related technology, most of what we own is decidedly low-tech. I used to be fascinated when I’d hear stories of ingenious Vietnamese people fashioning the aluminum remains of exploded ordnances into cooking pots, but now we have that sort of thing going on right down the street! Our stuff, for the most part, is crafted locally and capable of being repaired locally. People generally don’t buy something anymore unless they know it can be repaired. To buy something with the intention of throwing it away is now seen as the height of ignorant behavior. Sure, plastics are still used. Primarily, though, you only see them used in hospitals and for medical devices and such. Yes, and for the electronic stuff that we still have.

Well, I’m going to have to eat my breakfast and ride my bike down to the community garden. I’ll be meeting a bunch of my friends there to put in a couple of hours of work before it gets too hot, then I’ll be off to my job as a cabinetmaker. Hey, if you want to hear more, come join us for a beer this evening down at the Public House. I’ll introduce you to my girlfriend and some of my other friends. Bring an instrument if you’ve got one. The evening usually ends with quite a rousing jam session. Take care!

If you appreciated this post, you might also like Aspirational Contentment, Aspirational Contentment, Part 2, and Space, Stuff, Meaning. Thank you so much for reading!


Suzuki, D. T. (1959). Zen and Japanese culture. Published by MJF Books by arrangement with Princeton University Press.

Image Credits

Urban Farm in Chicago by Linda via:
Restored Dales Barn by Phil Catterall via:
Cruiser Bicycle by Yanks9596 via:
Hummer H2 by IFCAR via:
Old Bicycle and Tools by Mick via:
Apollo 10 view of the Earthrise by NASA via:
Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank