Posts Tagged ‘God’

Jewish Like Bernie

Tuesday, February 16th, 2016

* * So. CA trip clouds on I-5 12x18 email 

Clouds on I-5 photograph by Bill Fletcher

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2016)

“The truth is not ashamed of appearing contrived.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

Reveling in the fantastic news that Bernie Sanders won the New Hampshire primary by a landslide, my eyes were drawn to an article in the New York Times with the headline As Bernie Sanders Makes History, Jews Wonder What It Means. Stop wondering already. It means he won the New Hampshire Primary. It means he kicked Hillary’s tuckus. It means he espouses what most Americans want: truly affordable healthcare, raising taxes on the rich, rebuilding America’s infrastructure, ending massive fraudulent banking Ponzi schemes masquerading as our economy, and getting corporate money out of politics.

The Huffington Post trumpeted Bernie Sanders Just Made History As The First Jew To Win A Presidential Primary. The article reports that Sanders parents were Jewish and Bernie says he believes in God but does not participate in organized religion. Bernie further elucidated that when he says he believes in God, he means, “All of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.” Now there’s a motto I can get behind.

CNN asks: Bernie Sanders could be the first Jewish president. Does he care?

Bernie answers, “I believe that, as a human being, the pain that one person feels, if we have children who are hungry in America, if we have elderly people who can’t afford their prescription drugs, you know what, that impacts you, that impacts me. So my spirituality is that we are all in this together and that when children go hungry, when veterans sleep out on the street, it impacts me. That’s my very strong spiritual feeling.”

The guy sounds like a Buddhist. I can see it now. Bernie Sanders appoints Pema Chödrön to be our next Supreme Court justice. Why not? Imagine someone humane and thoughtful and extremely intelligent and free of prejudice on the Supreme Court. Now imagine five of them. Every day would be Yom Kippur.

So there’s this priest sitting in the booth, a slow day in the confession business, when in comes an old guy who kneels at the little window and says, “Bless me father for I have sinned. I’m seventy-four years old. Yesterday I won the New Hampshire primary and I’m feeling terrific.”

The priest cautions the man about the dangers of arrogance and pride, and then asks, “How long has it been since your last confession?”

The old guy replies, “Oh, I’ve never confessed.”

“You’re a Catholic and you’ve never confessed?”

“I’m not Catholic. I’m Jewish.”

“You’re Jewish? So why are you telling me?”

“Telling you?” says the old guy, “I’m telling everybody!”

“He was part of a whole, a people scattered over the earth and yet eternally one and indivisible. Wherever a Jew lived, in whatever safety and isolation, he still belonged to his people.” Pearl S. Buck

I don’t know, Pearl. Had you lived another fifty years, you might have changed your tune. My mother was Jewish, so according to Jewish law, I am Jewish. She was non-religious as were her parents, but I can still become a citizen of Israel because of my bloodline. Ironically, I’d love to become a citizen of England or France or Canada, but they won’t consider me unless I promise to move there with several million dollars to spend or if I have some super-valuable skill that will greatly benefit their economies, a skill I don’t have.

When I was in my forties, I had some helpful therapy and decided I would let my friends know I was Jewish, ancestrally speaking, because hiding that fact was not good for my psyche. I had some fun telling people I was Jewish, and one of the people I told, a man born to Jewish parents, asked me if I wanted to study some Jewish texts with him to connect with the fundamental ideas of my ancestral religion.

About a half-hour into my one and only study session with my friend, I said, “This is primitive misogynist racist ignorant stuff. Want to go for Chinese?”

“I’ve got a hankering for pastrami and cheese on rye,” said my friend, tossing the prayer book away. “Let’s go to Max’s.”

“Deli it is,” I said, leaping up. “I’m too old to imbibe the dogma, but I love the food.”

Several other articles about Bernie Sanders being Jewish hint that at some point in the campaign his Jewishness will become an issue. Why should Hillary care if Bernie is Jewish? He’s not beating her because his parents were Jewish. He’s beating her because she’s a corporate stooge, a bad liar, and changes her opinion about everything every five minutes to try to sound good in front of whichever audience she’s talking to.

Do you know what Hillary said after Bernie crushed her in New Hampshire? “I need to do more to reach young people.” Puh-leez. Suddenly she wants to reach young people? What about five minutes ago? Oh. Young people love Bernie because he honestly wants to do things as President of the Unites States that will help young people. So now Hillary says she wants to do things to help young people, too, in order to steal voters away from Bernie. Listen to me, Hillary. Any young person who believes anything you say for even a small portion of a fraction of a second is nobody I want to have lunch with.

Will Donald Trump care that Bernie’s parents were Jewish? I don’t think so. In fact, Bernie’s Jewishness, such as it is, protects him from his saber-rattling opponents who might otherwise try to cast him as not being pro-Israel enough.

Come on, people. We all came from somebody who came from somebody. Go back far enough and we find every human being on earth is descended from a woman who lived in southern Africa 172,000 years ago. This genetic fact has been proven multiple times now by multiple teams of scientists. Our primal mother was brown-skinned, loved to sing and dance, and is, as Bernie likes to say, connected to all of us.

Not Stupid

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

Todd and Squash

Todd and Hubbard photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2016)

“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” Harper Lee

What most frightens me about the millions of people who want Donald Trump or someone equally fascistic and misogynist and woefully ignorant of international affairs to be President of the United States, and also what frightens me about those who feel Hillary Clinton would be a better choice for President than Bernie Sanders, is that many of these people are not stupid.

When I was in my twenties and roaming around the Midwest working as a farm laborer, I spent several days working for a farmer in eastern Kansas who was unquestionably a genius. He had quit high school at fifteen to take over the family farm when his father died, and had managed through hard work and intelligent planning to become a very successful wheat, corn, and alfalfa grower.

He was in his early fifties when I met him, his three children grown, graduated from college, and disinterested in being farmers. Thus he, as most of the Midwestern farmers I worked for in the early 1970s before it became common practice there to hire immigrants from Mexico and Central America, was glad to hire me at three dollars an hour plus meals and a barn to sleep in, to do the heavy lifting and drudge work his sons and grandsons might have done prior to the corporatization of agriculture and the demise of family farms.

Over our long dinners—dinner the name of the mid-day meal on the farms in the Midwest—and suppers and breakfasts, this farmer shared with me his many ideas about society, capitalism, psychology, and many other subjects, and when I would say, “Well, you’re reiterating what Marx said about…” or “Freud said a similar thing regarding…” he would invariably and honestly say, “Who?”

He read the local newspaper but did not read magazines or books, and he was chagrined to admit he found The Bible largely incomprehensible. Yet his ideas about culture and society and economics, born of his phenomenal intelligence and curiosity, were as sophisticated and plausible as anything I had read before, during, and after college.

He was also a devout Christian, a staunch Republican, and a racist, though he had abandoned his belief that men were inherently superior to women—his two exceedingly bright daughters and highly intelligent wife having cured him of that. On my last day with him, I told him I was baffled that someone of his vast intelligence and possessed of what I considered formidable wisdom, could be a racist Republican, and he said humbly, “Intelligence has a hard fight against deeply ingrained beliefs.”

“Learning learns but one lesson: doubt!” George Bernard Shaw

My father was a vitriolic atheist and a psychoanalyst. In his old age, he was certain he had stumbled on the reason why so many people, even seemingly intelligent people, believed in God. He posited that the tendency to believe in God, what he called magical thinking, was genetic: that most people were genetically hardwired to be magical thinkers.

Any argument to the contrary infuriated him, so I would remain silent when he began his lecture about Type A People and Type B People, and how all of human history could be explained by understanding that Type A People, those who were not predisposed to believe in God, cleverly manipulated and controlled the much greater number of Type B People who had no choice but to believe in God. In other words, all the religious leaders in the world since the dawn of civilization were atheists who pretended to believe in God in order to control the genetically inferior masses.

My father believed it was the genetic mutation for atheism that began civilization, which was a direct consequence of one sector of humanity gaining power over another through this genetic intellectual superiority.

Science and history have shown my father’s theory to be nonsense, and modern history, current history, is replete with examples of masses of fanatically religious people being quite uncontrollable by people not predisposed to believe in God. And that, as I said at the outset, is what scares me most about the governors and legislatures of the majority of American states, and the current majority of representatives in the United States Congress, and the millions of people who favor Trump and Bush and Clinton over Bernie Sanders: these people are not stupid, they are insane.

Of course, they would say I am insane for thinking egalitarian socialism is a good way to go. They would say I am insane for thinking we ought to take half the military budget every year and spend it on solarizing every viable house in America and building fast electric trains to give hundreds of millions of people exciting and comfortable alternatives to automobiles, and making education free from kindergarten through graduate school. And they would say I am insane for thinking we should have Single Payer Healthcare.

“From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step.” Denis Diderot

Walking to town today, I crossed the coast highway at the only stoplight in Mendocino, and exchanged smiles with a large man hitchhiking south, his backpack lying on its back on the ground. I continued into town, did my errands, and on my way home found the big man still there, waiting for someone to give him a ride.

As I waited for the light to change in my favor, I said to him, “In my hitchhiking days, albeit a long time ago, I found having a sign naming my destination was helpful.”

He nodded affably and said, “I find that’s still true.”

“Where are you headed?” I asked, curious why he didn’t have a sign.

He shrugged. “Don’t really have a destination. Just looking for a place to camp for a few days and stay dry.”

The light changed, and as I started across the highway I said, “Good luck to you.”

“Not luck,” he replied, shaking his head. “Everything is predestined.”

Satire

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

14zoom

Homage to Kokopelli photograph by David Jouris

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2015)

Satire has to be done en clair. You can’t blunt the edge of wit or the point of satire with obscurity. Try to imagine a famous witty saying that is not immediately clear.” James Thurber

Reading about the murder of twelve people and the wounding of eight others at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and the continuing violence as the murderers have taken hostages in two locations in Paris, I recall Satan in Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger saying, “No sane man can be happy, for to him life is real, and he sees what a fearful thing it is.”

“Satire works best when it hews close to the line between the outlandish and the possible—and as that line continues to grow thinner, the satirist’s task becomes even more difficult.” Graydon Carter

When I was in the Eighth Grade, I was momentarily seized with the satirical urge to claim I was God. You may remember how it was before the onset of high school. Having finally gotten the hang of childhood, and for a few glorious months before being knocked senseless by puberty and being placed at the bottom of the teenage heap, we experienced a brief epoch of self-confidence, which for me took the form of satirizing everything and everyone.

“Yes,” I proclaimed to one of my fellow junior high satirists, “I’ve used the name Todd up to now, rather than God, so the world wouldn’t know who I really was until the time was right to reveal the truth. Now that time has come. Let us sally forth and spread the good news. Want to be my first disciple?”

Yes, I was conflating God and Jesus, but so have lots of people.

In any case, after making a silly show of publicly blessing a dozen or so giddy disciples, I tired of claiming to be God and resumed my obsessions with baseball and girls. But satire once loosed upon the world is not so easily withdrawn. One day after school, I was cornered by three large boys intent on punishing me for daring to claim I was God and/or Jesus.

“Think you’re God, huh?” said the largest of the three, punching my shoulder. “Hurt, didn’t it? If you were God, wouldn’t hurt, would it?”

“I’m not God,” I said, gladdened to see a posse of disciples coming to my rescue. “I was joking.”

“Not funny,” said another of the boys, taking a swing at me.

I ducked, his fist hit the cinder block wall, and off I ran.

For the first two years of high school, several of my chums persisted in calling me God. Among these chums was a delicious young woman who greeted me every day with, “Hey, God. What’s going on?” in a sleepy sexy voice that always made me glad I’d been a satirist in junior high. On the other hand, I continued to be confronted by outraged Christians who felt I should be punished for mocking their beliefs. To defuse their righteous indignation, I would sincerely apologize for having been an idiot in my long ago youth, beg their forgiveness, and exit before I started to giggle.

“Satire is focused bitterness.” Leo Rosten

Speaking of bitterness, I recently read most of the stories in The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh, a thick collection of bitingly satirical short stories, and found I most appreciated his few stories in which satire played a part but was not the point. No matter how brilliant the writing, and Waugh was a brilliant writer, when every person in a story is a caricature and every plot twist the result of cruelty or stupidity, I could care less.

“Music is my religion.” Jimi Hendrix

When I got to college in 1967—UC Santa Cruz in its infancy—I made the erroneous assumption that my college comrades and I would be free to say whatever we thought and felt without fear of reprisal. We would, I imagined, delve deep into myriad questions and mysteries arising from our studies and shared experiences, and as the result of such delving our wisdom would grow by leaps and bounds.

A few weeks into my college life, I attended a dance in the Stevenson College dining hall and found myself boogying with a gang of exuberant gals and guys from Los Angeles. We had a wonderful hilarious time, and after the dance retired to the groovacious dorm room of one of the gals, the décor a triumph of paisley, a grandiloquent lava lamp center stage, and heaps of glistening bud to be smoked.

Someone took the Beatles (Rubber Soul) off the turntable just as the boys were getting warmed up, and put on a record by a discordant Los Angeles band I’d never heard of, the drummer rhythm deaf, the guitarists out of synch, the bass player hopeless, the singing god awful. After the first cut, I commented that they sounded like The Grateful Dead meets Sonny & Cher in a dark alley on a bad night. I might as well have declared to a sect of violent Christian fundamentalists that Jesus was a homosexual snake oil salesman.

The knowledge I gained from the anguish and vitriol my insensitive remark aroused has served me well, for I never again made the mistake of saying anything critical of the music beloved by those playing or listening to that music. I learned then, and have confirmed a thousand times since, that a person’s favorite music is sacred to them. To defame the sacred is dangerous, especially nowadays when so many people are willing to use violence in the service of whatever they deem sacred and therefore inviolable.

Into the Mystic

Thursday, June 13th, 2013

into mystic

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2013)

“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” Chief Seattle

On several occasions during the summer when I was twelve-years-old, I felt certain I was on the verge of understanding how everything fit together, and I do mean everything. I would find myself sitting or standing very still and feeling all the countless separate parts of reality coalescing and clicking together; and with every passing moment I would become more and more excited as the myriad fragments fell into place in relation to each other and in relation to the entirety of everything else. And I felt sure that if I could only hold still a few moments longer without being interrupted, the mystery of life, of the universe, would be solved for me, and ever after I would live in a state of blissful knowing. Yet every time I felt I was only a few seconds away from such a complete understanding, something would interrupt my reverie, and the exquisite construct of the totality of everything would collapse.

I could not, as far as I knew, intentionally precipitate such reveries, though I tried to do so many times that summer. I would go off into the woods far from other people and sit absolutely still for hours on end, hoping my stillness would incite the myriad separate parts to begin their coalescing, but that never happened. I did have marvelous experiences sitting so still in the woods, but those glorious occasions when I nearly grasped my own grand unified field theory only came unbidden and when there was a high probability of being interrupted.

One evening that summer, standing under an olive tree not far from our house, I was so certain the last piece of the vast puzzle was about to fall into place, I held my breath so as not to disturb the grand finale. But then my mother shouted, “Dinner’s ready!” and the miraculous vision shattered.

I was in a foul mood when I came inside to eat, which prompted my father to ask, “What’s wrong with you?”

Before I could think better of speaking about such things to my father, I tried to explain how close I had been to a moment of comprehensive understanding, to which my father replied, “That’s just infantile magical thinking. You might as well say you believe in God, and you know how ridiculous that is.”

I knew it was folly to say anything in response to my father when he got on his atheist soapbox, so I held my peace as he lectured me on the idiocy of my thinking and feeling. Little did I know that my father was a preview of the many people I would encounter in my life, and whom I continue to encounter, who consider my experiences of the mystical nature of life either hackneyed spiritual crap or delusional nonsense.

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.” E.M. Forster

When I was fifteen, I made the B basketball team at Woodside High School, though I was not a starter. Indeed, on our twelve-man team, I was the twelfth ranked player and rarely got into a game. Every day, following an hour of exercises and drills and practicing plays, our starters would scrimmage against the second five, with I and the other third-string fellow subbing onto the second-string team.

One day our coach sent me into the scrimmage, and for reasons I have no plausible explanation for I was overtaken by a power transcendent of the usual power that animated me. Suddenly the other players, many of them taller and bigger than I, seemed small and weak and slow moving, and I moved among them like a speeding giant. Prior to that scrimmage I had never been able to leap high enough to touch the ten-foot-high rim, but on that day I could reach above the rim. I snatched rebounds away from our tallest players and scored with an ease that was, in today’s vernacular, sick. I shot from near and far, made dozens of shots without a miss, and so thoroughly dominated the game that even those starters who had previously looked down on me were full of praise for my playing.

After practice, our coach called me into his office, and when he was convinced I had not ingested some illegal substance, said he was going to put me into tomorrow’s game against Sequoia as a reward for my extraordinary play that day. I thanked him and spent a restless night anticipating my first chance to shine in a real basketball game.

True to his word, our coach put me into the game midway through the first half, and I immediately grabbed a rebound and took a shot. But when my shot missed the mark, our coach took me out and never played me again. I was disappointed, of course, by the brevity of my playing time, but I was also aware that whatever extraordinary power had possessed me the day before was entirely absent on the day of my debut. Nor did that power return to me again until the very last day of basketball practice that year.

To end the season on a dramatic and competitive note, the coach created six two-man teams and we had a tournament to determine which duo would be crowned champions. I was paired with the other lowest ranked player, and we were expected to lose to all the other teams. But that transcendent power came into me again and we demolished our opponents, including the team composed of our two star players. We won so easily, much to the chagrin of our coach, that the biggest star of our team gave me the ultimate compliment by saying, “What are you on, man? I want some.”

What was I on? Fools Crow, the revered Lakota holy man said (in the inspiring book Wisdom & Power) that there is an inexhaustible source of spiritual power ever present in universe, and that those who consciously or unconsciously empty themselves of ego may invite this spiritual power to work through them. Fools Crow said he used prayer and ritual to make of himself a hollow bone to be filled by this spiritual power with which he accomplished his healing work. And that’s what I think was going on those times when I played basketball so much better than I had ever played before; I was filled with spiritual power and became an instrument of the unfathomable universe.

 “There is nothing in the world that is not mysterious, but the mystery is more evident in certain things than in others: in the sea, in the eyes of the elders, in the color yellow and in music.” Jorge Luis Borges

One of my favorite stories about the Mbuti people of the Ituri rainforest in the Congo is that Christian missionaries found it almost impossible to convince the Mbuti to believe in, let alone worship, a punitive God because the Ituri forest, which the Mbuti believed to be the most important of all gods, provided them with such abundance and so obviously loved them. I think of this story whenever I encounter people who consider my belief in the mystical nature of existence to be hackneyed spiritual crap or self-delusion.

Yesterday, for instance, I began to write an email to a friend I hadn’t heard from in several months, and two sentences into my missive I received an email from that very friend. What made this seeming coincidence even more remarkable to me was that my two sentences were specific questions, and my friend’s email began with detailed answers to those specific questions. Is this proof of the mystical nature of existence or is it merely, as Buckminster Fuller suggested, that most of what goes on in Universe is inexplicable because we lack the technology to see or hear or measure most of what is going on in this and contiguous dimensions? Imagine what a surprise it must have been to discover radio waves? Who knew?

“Love is metaphysical gravity.” Buckminster Fuller

When I first moved to Mendocino, I would go to Big River Beach almost every day to marvel at my good fortune and celebrate having had the courage to make the move. One day I was sitting with my back against a big log and gazing out at the breakers, when into my mind came the face of a woman I hadn’t seen in twelve years, a woman I had been smitten with during my last year of living in Sacramento. Her name was Ida and she worked in a bakery and I had spoken to her a grand total of five times, three of those conversations consisting of Ida asking me, “What can I get you?” and my replying, “Two blackberry muffins, please.” The other conversations were a bit longer because I ordered coffee, too.

Which is to say, I didn’t really know Ida at all. But every time I saw her, I felt a powerful jolt of recognition and love, and I liked to think, whether it was true or not, that she felt a similar jolt.

In any case, I hadn’t had a conscious thought about her in over a decade, yet here I was on Big River Beach seeing her vividly in my mind’s eye and wondering what might have happened if only I’d had the courage to speak to her at greater length and perhaps ask her…

After a delightful little snooze, I packed up my knapsack and headed back to the parking lot, and just as I was about to walk under the Big River bridge, a little girl came running toward me, shrieking with delight as her mother pursued her, her mother being Ida.

Jehovah’s Witness

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

Mixed media, Shall We Dance, by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2012)

A friend recently wrote to me about his philosophical discussions with a Jehovah’s Witness, and his letter brought back boatloads of memories of my friend Woody, an African American Jehovah’s Witness, an elder in his church, who visited me every month for the eleven years I lived in Berkeley.

The first time Woody came up my stairs and knocked on the front door, I intended to say to him what I had been saying to Jehovah’s Witnesses since I was a boy. “No thank you. Please don’t come again.” That was the little speech my mother taught me to say to Jehovah’s Witnesses when they came to our house, and those were the words I dutifully repeated to every Jehovah’s Witness who called on me until I was forty-five and opened the door to Woody and the young man accompanying him.

Woody was about fifteen years my senior, handsome, honey brown, bald, slender, wearing a beautifully tailored suit and a royal purple tie. Before I could recite my oft-repeated rejection, I found myself totally disarmed by Woody’s mischievous smile and charming southern accent. “Good afternoon,” he said pleasantly. “We saw the moving truck here last week and wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood. Where did you all come from?”

“Sacramento,” I said, struck hard by the realization that this stranger was the first person to welcome me to my new home.

“Awful hot up there in the summer,” he said, nodding knowingly. “You’ll be glad you live here and not there come August.”

To which I replied, “Amen,” and then immediately regretted my choice of words.

“This is Aaron,” said Woody, introducing me to his companion. “He’s helping me spread the word today and we were wondering if we might share a short passage from the Bible with you, something I think you will find quite interesting and relevant to the situation in the world today.”

“Sure,” I said, enjoying the company. “Read to me.”

So Woody opened his well-worn leather bound Bible and read something about the terrible state of the world and how God was going to clear things up any day now. And though I was not moved by the words themselves, I was deeply touched by the halting way Woody read, as if he had only recently learned to read, and each word was a challenge to him.

When he finished reading the brief passage, he smiled like a boy who has accomplished a difficult feat, his eyes shining with pleasure at having conquered the troublesome words. And then, for reasons I have no explanation for, our eyes met and we both burst out laughing, and we laughed until tears ran down our faces.

Thereafter, every month, Woody would stop by to deliver the latest editions of The Watchtower and Awake! and to share a passage from the Bible apropos of the terrible state of our society. If Woody found my door ajar, which it often was, he would call to me as he climbed the stairs, “Tawd! It’s Woody. You home?”

I admit there were times I did not answer the door when Woody came to visit, times when I was in no mood for a Bible reading or for hearing brief synopses of articles in the latest Awake!, but I usually opened to him, and I was always glad when I did. Woody was a beacon of friendliness in a largely unfriendly world, and I greatly enjoyed our few moments together—moments filled with appreciation for each other.

For two of those eleven years, Woody came to my house with Clarence, a very serious man who was learning to grow vegetables. If the weather was good, Clarence and Woody and I would go out into my little garden and I would answer Clarence’s questions about my methods for growing vegetables and garlic, my tricks for catching earwigs, and what I thought about various methods of composting.

Now and then, after Woody read to me from the Bible in his halting, innocent, enthusiastic way, I would read to him from Buckminster Fuller’s Critical Path, which I told him was my Bible. I vividly remember the time I read him Fuller’s passage, “I assumed that nature would “evaluate” my work as I went along. If I was doing what nature wanted done, and if I was doing it in promising ways, permitted by nature’s principles, I would find my work being economically sustained,” and Woody frowned and pondered and finally said, “Well…that’s what God does, isn’t it?” And then we burst out laughing.

Only a few times did Woody urge me to come to a Bible interpretation meeting at his church, and each time he invited me, I said something along the lines of, “I appreciate the offer, but I’m not really interested in studying the Bible. I’ve read the good book, and I’m glad I did, and now and then I dip into Psalms, but I’m more interested in Buddhism these days.”

“Oh, Buddhism,” he would say, nodding thoughtfully. “We have a number of former Buddhists in our congregation. Wonderful people.” Then he would smile his mischievous smile and say, “Well, you let me know if you change your mind.”

One day, Woody came to my door accompanied by a beautiful and vivacious Eurasian woman with long black hair and black-framed glasses. “This is Carmen,” said Woody, gesturing to her in his gallant way. “Carmen, this is my good friend Tawd. I’ve been coming to see him for seven years now and it’s always a pleasure.”

Woody then asked Carmen to read a passage from the Bible, and she did so beautifully, her voice melodious and full of passion, her enunciation perfect. What’s more, Carmen proved to be the only one of Woody’s many companions who laughed with us when he and I laughed, which was almost every visit, and I flatter myself to think Carmen really liked me, and I know I really liked her. Yes, it was like at first sight, and being single as I was and seeing she wore no wedding ring, I often regretted I hadn’t met her at a café instead of over religious magazines featuring silly drawings of grinning people picnicking with tigers and lambs.

Carmen came with Woody four times, and the thought of seeing her always propelled me to the door with a greater than usual momentum. Alas, the last time she came with Woody, as I was enjoying her graceful descent of the stairs, Woody tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “I know Carmen would sure like it if you came to Bible study. She told me so, Tawd. Yes, she did.” And when I didn’t go to Bible study, Carmen ceased to accompany Woody on his visits to me.

During my last two years in Berkeley, Woody’s congregation fulfilled their dream of building a new temple near the North Berkeley BART station, and Woody invited me to attend the grand opening, but I did not go. Looking back over the years, I wish I had gone to the temple opening because I know Woody was immensely proud of that accomplishment.

When I told Woody I was moving away, he put on a sad face and said, “Where are you going, Tawd? I’m gonna miss you.”

“I’m moving to Mendocino,” I told him. “On the coast a hundred miles north of here.”

“I have heard of Mendocino,” he said solemnly. “And though I have never been there, I hear there are some very good people there, and I hope you meet them, I do.”

Then much to my surprise, we did not burst out laughing, but shook hands as tenderly as hands may be shaken. I cannot explain what it was about Woody that so appealed to me, or why we recognized each other as kindred spirits right off the bat, or why our good feelings for each other never waned. I just liked him and he liked me. He never once asked me about my personal life, nor did I ever ask him about his.

I especially remember one cold wet winter day as I was kneeling on my hearth and failing repeatedly to get my fire going due to lack of newspaper, when I heard Woody and a companion coming up the stairs, and I thought, Oh, good. He’ll leave an Awake! and I’ll be able to start my fire.

With that shameful thought in mind, I opened the door to behold Woody and Clarence, their raincoats soaking wet, Woody saying, “We can’t stay long today, Tawd, but we wanted to make sure you got the latest Awake! and Watchtower. Some very interesting articles.”

“You growing anything in your garden this time of year?” asked Clarence, ever serious. “Besides your garlic?”

“Lettuce and kale and chard,” I intoned. “They grow year round in Berkeley.”

“See,” said Woody, handing me my fire starter, “I knew he’d have something illuminating to say on the subject.”

Then, as we were wont to do, Woody and I burst out laughing, with Clarence perplexed as ever by our inexplicable gaiety.

Good People

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

Mr. and Mrs. Magician and their son Mischief by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2011)

“When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.” Abraham Lincoln

Our maternal grandfather Casey died when he was eighty. He was institutionalized for a year prior to his death because his worsening dementia made him too unpredictable and uncontrollable for our diminutive and frail grandmother to handle. I visited Casey several times in that sad institution where he spent his last days, and though my parents always prefaced my visits to him by saying, “Casey just spouts gibberish now,” I invariably found him cogent and funny in a rambling sort of way.

At the tail end of my last visit to Casey, about a week before he contracted a virulent flu and died, he said two things that have stuck with me for thirty years. We were sitting side-by-side on a concrete patio in a little pool of sunlight when Casey arched his eyebrow (he reminded me of Groucho Marx in appearance and voice) and said, “You know, this is a very exclusive university. It’s extremely difficult to get in here. But eventually, everyone does.”

We laughed about that and then Casey said, “Listen. When you find yourself with the bad people, get away from them and go to the good people.”

“Nothing can be more readily disproved than the old saw, ‘You can’t keep a good man down.’ Most human societies have been beautifully organized to keep good men down.”  John W. Gardner

So what makes someone good or bad? Or are good and bad essentially useless terms, since one nation’s mass murderer is another nation’s hero, and the town harlot turns out to be a tireless advocate for women’s rights, and that usurious money lender is the beloved grandfather of a girl to whom he gave a pony? I took Casey’s advice to mean: if I find myself entangled in unhealthy relationships, I should, as swiftly as possible, get out of those relationships and seek healthier ones. But maybe that’s not what Casey meant. Maybe he meant there really are bad people, and they should be escaped from and avoided; and there really are good people, and they should be found and hung out with. Or maybe he was just speaking gibberish.

“I’ve never met a racist yet who thought he was a racist. Or an anti-Semite who thought they were anti-Semitic.” Norman Jewison

We recently saw the wonderful movie Temple Grandin, a fictional rendering of the life of a real person. I knew nothing about the real Temple Grandin before we watched the movie and that made the story all the more fascinating to me, so I won’t tell you what the movie is about. But I will say that Temple Grandin confirmed in me that being an insensitive conformist is bad, and thinking you know everything is also bad, but insensitive conformists and know-it-alls are not necessarily bad people.

“If we’re bad people we use technology for bad purposes and if we’re good people we use it for good purposes.” Herbert Simon

As is my habit, I examine the little slips of paper that come with my PG&E bill because these little slips often presage rate increases for what I consider bad reasons. These slips foretold the coming of Smart Meters and explicated how we, not the private corporation PG&E, must pay for those stupid things with greatly increased rates. These tiny missives announced rate increases to repair and re-license disaster-prone nuclear power plants that never should have been built (with massive government subsidies) in the first place. Now this month’s bill brings news of yet another rate increase to pay for PG&E, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas and Electric forming a so-called partnership with…drum roll, please…Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, on a project entitled California Energy Systems for the 21st Century.

Dig this verbiage. “The partnership seeks to leverage the joint resources of the Utilities, California agencies and California research laboratories and institutions to develop the necessary technologies and computing power necessary to expand and enhance the use of renewable energy and energy efficiency resources for the benefit of California consumers, businesses and governments. The consortium will employ a joint team of technical experts who will combine data integration with the nation’s most advanced modeling, simulation and analytical tools to provide problem solving and planning to achieve California’s energy and environmental goals.”

In other words, three massive private corporations, each with more wealth than most nations, are going to jack up our rates yet again to pay for their use of public institutions, which you and I also fund with our taxes, to figure out new and more efficient ways to bilk us out of even more cash in the name of doing for the state what the state is now too bankrupt to do for itself. Leverage the joint resources? Puh-leez. How about plunder the dying carcass? I may barf, but then I’ll pay those higher rates because I prefer life with electricity.

For my money, literally, the people behind this latest PG&E extortion (the same people who brought us the exploding gas lines in San Bruno) are bad. Why are they bad? Because they know what evil they perpetrate, and they carry out their perpetrations self-righteously and with utter contempt for those they pretend to serve. So maybe that can be one of my definitions of a bad person: someone who knowingly does harm to others when he or she knows they are doing that harm for unnecessary self-advantage. I apply the adjective unnecessary because I can imagine someone who is starving to death doing harm to others to get food, and I might judge that person desperate rather than bad. The bad people of PG&E, however, are already so rich they should be ashamed of themselves for scheming to steal more.

“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

I wonder how Martin Luther King, Jr. would have defined a bad person. I’m guessing he believed in the essential goodness, or the potential for being good, in all people, but felt that racists were infected with racism and therefore had gone bad, as food goes bad when tainted with poisonous bacteria.

If all good people were clever,

And all clever people were good,

The world would be nicer than ever

We thought that it possibly could.

But somehow, ‘tis seldom or never

That the two hit it off as they should;

For the good are so harsh to the clever,

The clever so rude to the good.

This verse by Elizabeth Wordsworth is to be found in the Foreword to Buckminster Fuller’s Critical Path and is preceded by Bucky writing: “This book is written with the conviction that there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people, no matter how offensive or eccentric to society they may seem. I am confident that if I were born and reared under the same circumstances as any other known humans, I would have behaved much as they have.”

“But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.” Luke 14:13

When I was a young vagabond, I decided to read The Bible. I felt something was missing in my understanding of our society, and I thought I might find that something in The Bible. I thought this because I kept meeting people who would quote from The Bible and paraphrase the words of Jesus as His words were reported therein, and many of these people were kind and generous to me; so I spent several months plowing through the book, reading every word, though many of those words struck me as redundant and ill-conceived.

The Bible, as you probably know, is composed of two distinct halves, the Old Testament and the New Testament, each an anthology of booklets. Many authors contributed to both halves, and some of the booklets are far more interesting and better written than others. The editors of each of the two anthologies shared a well-defined agenda, and so excluded any gospels espousing beliefs contrary to that agenda, which was to increase the power of the Church and her operatives by making the case in booklet after booklet that the only way to access God was through the Church and her operatives, otherwise known as priests and ministers.

In the Old Testament, the pronoun He with a capital H refers to God, and in the New Testament He with a capital H refers to either God or Jesus, and depending on which booklet you’re reading Jesus is God or Jesus is the son of God. In any case, when I finished reading that enormous tome, I was most impressed by the command that is repeated dozens of times in the legends of Jesus in the New Testament; and that command is to be generous and kind to those weaker and less fortunate than we. Indeed, I think I could make an impregnable case that sharing our wealth with those less fortunate than we is the primary message of the New Testament, which is supposedly the guiding light of American Christianity, though sharing our wealth with those less fortunate than we is definitely not the guiding principle of the majority of representatives in Congress who claim to be Christians. Isn’t that odd?

“The young man said to Him, ‘All these commands I have kept; what am I still lacking?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’” Matthew.19:20

I love the word complete in that quotation. Complete. Whole. Connected to others in loving ways. For when compassion and generosity propel our actions, don’t we feel good? And when fear and greed propel our actions, don’t we feel just awful?

Creeping Up On God

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

(This essay first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2011)

So this guy goes to see a psychiatrist and after fifty minutes the psychiatrist says, “I think you’re crazy.”

And the guy says, “Hey, wait a minute. I want to get a second opinion.”

And the psychiatrist says, “Okay, you’re ugly, too.”

My father was a child psychiatrist. Until I was eight or nine, I had only vague notions of what my father’s practice consisted of. I knew he had a playroom adjacent to his office, and in that playroom there were board games and a sandbox and dolls and trucks and other cool things for kids to play with, and I knew my father wore a suit and tie when he interacted with these kids, and that he was sort of a doctor.

So this guy with a chicken on his head goes to see a psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist says, “What’s this all about?”

And the chicken says, “I don’t know. I woke up this morning and there he was.”

When I was in my forties, a childhood friend invited me to lunch with him at his mother’s house. After lunch, I called my father to let him know I’d be dropping by a little later. While I was on the phone with my father, my friend’s mother said, “Tell your dad he did a wonderful job with Marvin, and thank you.”

So I say into the phone, “Dad, Iris says you did a wonderful job with Marvin, and thank you.”

It turns out that Marvin, my friend’s younger brother, had gone to see my father a dozen or so times when he, Marvin, was seven and suffering from insomnia and sudden outbursts of rage. This was before the widespread use of drugs in psychotherapy, so my father treated Marvin with talk therapy and play therapy, and Marvin began sleeping well and his rage outbursts mostly went away.

Until my father was in his seventies and near the end of his time as a practicing psychotherapist, he rarely spoke about his clients to me, and he certainly never spoke about anyone we might know. I later found out that my father treated a number of my classmates, but I did not know this at the time of their interactions with him.

Thus I was mightily curious to know what my father had done to help Marvin, a person I knew pretty well. My friend said, “Marvin never told me.” My friend’s mother said, “I think they played cards and talked. Your father is a miracle worker.”

So when I got over to my father’s house, I said, “Dad, what did you do to help Marvin?”

My father sipped his coffee and frowned as he tried to remember back thirty-some years to his time with Marvin, and then he smiled and said, “Oh, yes. He had two much older brothers. They played Monopoly and cards and all sorts of games with him, but his brothers were merciless and never let Marvin win. No matter how hard he tried, Marvin couldn’t win, and he was so terribly frustrated that he began to act out, and he had nightmares as I recall.”

“So what did you do?”

“Well, as his mother told you, we played cards and Monopoly, and he talked about how he hated his brothers, and…I let him win.”

So this guy goes to see a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, my wife thinks she’s a refrigerator.”

The shrink says, “How long has this been going on?”

And the guy says, “Oh, about a week now, and I can’t sleep.”

“That’s only natural. You’re worried about her.”

“Well, it’s not so much that,” says the guy. “But she sleeps with her mouth open, and you know that light that goes on when you leave the door open? Shines right in my face.”

My junior high school brought together kids from two elementary schools, so there were lots of new kids to get to know, and the inevitable question of what my father did came up. And I will never forget my shock when I told a guy that my father was a psychiatrist and the guy replied, “Oh, a head shrinker, huh?”

“A what?” I said, dismayed.

“A head shrinker,” he repeated. “A shrink. Ugga bugga. Witch doctor.”

When I asked my father about the term shrink and the witch doctor reference, my father explained that there were many people (in 1960) who still thought psychiatry was hocus pocus nonsense. He said that many people thought that when a person went to a psychiatrist it meant the person was crazy; and many of my father’s patients were so ashamed about coming to see him that they did so clandestinely.

So these two psychiatrists are having lunch together, and one of them says, “Man oh man, I was having breakfast with my mother yesterday and I made the most incredible Freudian slip.”

“Oh, really,” says the other shrink. “What happened?”

“Well,” says the first shrink, “I meant to say, ‘Mom, will you pass the butter?’ But instead I said, ‘You bitch! You ruined my life!’”

We often wonder, my siblings and I, what our lives would have been like if our father had treated us and our mother as he treated his clients, with kindness and patience and compassion and acceptance. But we will never know, and that’s life.

So this priest is sitting in the confessional and a guy comes into the booth and sits down on the other side of the grill and says, “Bless me father for I have sinned.”

“I’m listening,” says the priest.

“I’m eighty years old,” says the guy, “and I’ve been married for sixty years and never once cheated on my wife. But yesterday I’m sitting in the park and this beautiful young woman approaches me and says she’s got a thing for older men and would I like to come to her apartment. So I go with her and we have fantastic sex for hours and hours and hours.”

“Heavens,” says the priest, taken aback. “How long has it been since your last confession?”

“Oh, I’ve never confessed,” says the old man.

“You’re Catholic and you’ve never confessed?”

“I’m not Catholic,” says the man. “I’m Jewish.”

“You’re Jewish?” says the priest, flabbergasted. “So why are you telling me?”

“Telling you? I’m telling everyone.”

I am Jewish, though I didn’t know I was Jewish until I was twelve. When my mother was growing up in Los Angeles in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s she was twice stoned by gangs of kids when they found out she was Jewish. Her parents changed their name from Weinstein to Winton in the 1930’s so they could get housing and my grandfather could get work more easily. Thus my mother learned to erase any overt traces of her Jewishness, married a non-Jew, and vociferously denied that she was Jewish for the rest of her life.

So these two cops are driving along and they see a nun walking to town. They know that the only nuns in the area live in a cloistered nunnery and never ever come out except in the direst emergencies. So they pull up beside the nun and one of the cop asks her, “Sister, anything wrong?”

“Indeed,” says the sister, nodding gravely. “The mother superior is terribly constipated and sent me to town to get her a laxative.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” says the cop. “Can we give you a lift?”

“No, thank you,” says the sister, averting her eyes and continuing on her way.

A few hours later, the cops are driving that same part of their beat when they see the same nun walking back to the nunnery, and she does not appear to be steady on her feet. As they get closer, they see she is obviously drunk. They pull up beside her and the cop says, “Sister, you’re drunk. I thought you were going to town to get the mother superior a laxative.”

“I did,” says the nun, slurring her speech. “And when mother schuperior sees me, she’s gonna shit.”

My parents were alcoholics, but they did not appreciate jokes about drunks. Call it a coincidence, but my brother and I became avid collectors of jokes about drunks, and we took extreme pleasure in performing these jokes when we knew our parents were listening.

So there’s a rabbi living in New York City and one day he wakes from a dream and distinctly hears God say, “Rabbi Feinberg, go to the small Arkansas town of Redfern and carry on your work there.”

So the rabbi gives up his life in New York and moves to Redfern where there are no Jews. Having no money and no way to build a synagogue, the rabbi arranges with the Baptist minister to use their church on Saturday mornings. And every Saturday he carries out the duties of his office in an otherwise empty church.

One Saturday as the rabbi is preaching in the Baptist church, there comes a great storm and it rains so hard the town begins to flood. The Baptist minister comes rushing in and says, “Rabbi, sorry to interrupt, but they say the river could overflow her banks and seriously flood the town. Come with me to safer ground.”

“No,” says the rabbi. “God sent me here, if he wants to save me, he’ll save me.”

So the Baptist minister leaves and the river, indeed, overflows its banks and the town is soon four-feet deep in water. The Baptist minister returns in a rowboat and says, “Rabbi, get in. The upstream dam is about to break and the church will be entirely underwater.”

“No,” says the rabbi. “God sent me here, if he wants to save me, he’ll save me.”

So the Baptist minister rows away and the water continues to rise until it is up to the rabbi’s chin, at which point the Baptist minister returns in his boat and says, “Rabbi, please. Get in the boat or you’ll drown.”

“Nay,” gurgles the rabbi. “God sent me here. If he wants to save me, he will save me.”

Well, the Baptist minister reluctantly leaves, the water rises over the rabbi’s head, and he drowns.

Shortly thereafter, the rabbi arrives at the pearly gates, pushes past St. Peter and storms into God’s office.

“Why did you let me drown?” he cries. “You sent me to that town, so I went. I did everything you asked of me. I, your devoted servant, Rabbi Feinberg. So why did you let me drown?”

“For goodness sake, Feinberg,” says God, with a mighty shrug. “I sent the boat twice.”

My father was a fierce atheist. I tried to follow in his footsteps, but in my early thirties I had the first of several experiences that made it impossible for me to deny the entirely mystical nature of my life. Eventually, I got over my aversion to the word God, and now I use it synonymously with Nature, Universe, and Tim Lincecum.

Todd Walton’s web site is underthetablebooks.com

Competitive Meditation

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

What a silly idea, competitive meditation. Yet in America all things become competitive and hierarchical as reflections of the dominant operating system. Twenty years ago the notion of competitive yoga would have been just as absurd as competitive meditation, yet today yoga competitions are all the rage with big cash prizes for top asana performers ranked nationally. An asana is a particular yoga pose. Could league play be just around the corner?

The history of Buddhism, with meditation as its foundation, is a fascinating study in what happens to a non-hierarchical, non-competitive, crystal clear philosophy when it comes into contact with different societies, each with entrenched systems of social organization and religious dogma. Because Buddhism in its purest form is not a religion, it is easy to discern how in coming to China, Tibet, Japan, and now the United States, the original tenets of Buddhism have been deformed to fit the pre-existing religious or pseudo-religious structures.

Organized religions universally feature a head priest or priests, priest lieutenants, their favored adherents, the less favored, and so on down the steep slope of the pyramid. Trying to fit the fundamental Buddhist notion of the essential emptiness of reality into such a pyramidical structure is akin to building a complicated factory in order to produce nothing. Delusion, greed, arrogance, jealousy, all of which Buddha called enemies of enlightenment, are, ironically, the building blocks of organized Buddhism in America.

One of my favorite stories about Freud, not to change the subject, is that he said to his American cohorts on several occasions before his death, and I paraphrase, “Whatever you do, please don’t make being a medical doctor a prerequisite to being a psychiatrist.” He made this plea because many promising psychotherapists in Europe, among them Erik Erikson, were not medical doctors, and Freud didn’t want to preclude this valuable source of input to the field.

Sadly, the Americans did just what Freud feared they would do, and we suffer the consequences to this day. Why didn’t the Americans heed Freud’s advice? Because greed, arrogance, and most importantly the desire to control who gets into the exclusive club, won the day. People at the top of pyramids will do almost anything to stay there, and since there isn’t much room at the top, the maintenance of the ruling elite requires the ruthless exclusion of anyone or any idea that threatens the status quo.

Indeed, our government and our entire economic system reflect this basic tenet of organizations structured as steep-sided pyramids. Ironically, the collapse of such pyramids is inevitable because without new ideas and original personalities, these systems decay from the top down. This is why Jefferson suggested revolutions at regular intervals were essential to the continuing health of any large organization such as a nation.

The worship of celebrity, not to change the subject, is a hugely important aspect of the American psyche. Americans aspire to be celebrities, to associate with celebrities, and to know all about celebrities. I attribute this particular mania to our collective genetic memory of being subjects of kings and queens for the thousands of years when members of the royalty were the primary celebrities until the Industrial Revolution spawned a middle class. Regardless of how it came about, celebrities rule our psyches, individual and collective, and American Buddhism has become a celebrity-based system, too; a happenstance every bit as absurd as the notion of competitive meditation. Absurdity, however, is another hallmark of American culture along with ignorance, racism, and senseless violence.

The historical Buddha, Gautama, so say the texts, witnessed these hallmarks of American culture as they manifested in India circa 600 B.C. and was so disturbed by the terrible suffering such ignorance and violence caused victims and perpetrators alike that he left behind his princely life and embarked on a journey, both inward and outward, to discover the root causes of pervasive human misery. And the vehicle he rode, as it were, on his quest to discover the source of suffering, was meditation.

Now here is something crucial to remember about Gautama Buddha: no one anointed him, no one taught him, and he did not belong to a lineage of teachers. Through meditation he attained enlightenment and discovered what he believed to be the source of suffering, and he did this…drum roll…all by himself.

Today in America or Japan or Tibet or China or Indochina, one would be extremely hard-pressed to find any “officially recognized” Buddhist master who would dare say that a practitioner can find his or her way without the guidance of an “accredited master”. I am currently reading for the third time Sogyal Rinpoche’s wonderful text The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying in which he repeats ad nauseum that no one can ever hope to understand the true nature of mind or really make much spiritual progress without devotion to, and instruction from, an accredited, official, bona fide Buddhist master, and to think otherwise is dangerous and foolish and wrong. In subtle ways, he contradicts this message throughout the text, yet he seems terrified to overtly suggest otherwise.

Which brings me to The New Testament, not to change the subject. There is now both academic and popular support for the theory that the gospels of The New Testament were selected from a much larger body of Gnostic gospels in order to espouse the view that it is impossible for a regular person to connect with God except through an accredited, official, bona fide priest who somehow or other is linked by direct transmission to Jesus Christ. Any gospel that suggested you and I might connect directly with God through our own efforts without the intervention of officially accredited priests were simply not allowed into the anthology, i.e. The New Testament.

I may be stating the Gnostic case in an extreme nutshell, but I think it an accurate description of how a hierarchical system was imposed on the teachings of a Buddha-like being (Jesus Christ) who got His download, so to speak, directly from God, with no accredited anybody officiating. Which brings me back to Buddhism and competitive meditation.

I first became interested in Buddhism when I fell in love with the poetry of Philip Whalen in the late 1960’s. Searching for texts to explain Whalen’s passing references to Buddhism in his poems, I came across a little book, and I mean a tiny paperback of less than a hundred pages, written by Alan Watts entitled The Wisdom of Insecurity. Reading this book was more than a revelation to me; the experience rearranged my synapses. The basic premise of The Wisdom of Insecurity is that if I am thinking about the past and/or thinking about the future, I’m not actually here because our awareness determines our place in time and space; from which followed the popular expression Be Here Now.

The Wisdom of Insecurity was new stuff in America when it was published in 1949 (the year I was born) and it was one of Watts’s many attempts to elucidate the primary purpose of Buddhist practice, which is to bring the mind into communion with the present moment and thereby reveal the past and future to be illusory. Watts, it should be noted, has of late been marginalized by contemporary American Buddhist orthodoxy because he adamantly rejected the idea of official anointment and wasn’t particularly keen on formal modes of meditation. In this way, he was another of those folks who apparently “got it” without being knighted by an official of the hierarchy he helped found.

Inspired by Watts and Whalen, I continued to read Buddhist texts, contemporary and classical, for some years, and I was inspired to write a batch of contemporary short stories springing from various aspects of Buddhist philosophy. For instance, I would read about generosity, meditate with generosity as my starting point, and then write a story that welled up from that meditation. Then I’d send copies of the story to several friends, some versed in Buddhist philosophy, some not, wait for feedback, and then rewrite the story. Over the course of three years, I wrote forty-two such stories that eventually became a manuscript entitled Buddha In A Teacup, the title homage to Yasunari Kawabata’s Palm of the Hand Stories.

I made a photocopy edition of a hundred and fifty copies of Buddha In A Teacup, informed my friends I had done so, and within a few months sold all the copies for twenty-five dollars each, which covered my copying and mailing costs. Many of my readers urged me to try to get the book published, so I sent the manuscript to a half-dozen publishers of Buddhist texts in America and Canada. Reaction was swift and universal; the book was fascinating and fresh, but I, Todd Walton, was no one of even minor note in the galaxy of Buddhist celebrities, so No Thank You. To which I replied, “Is not the goal of our practice to transcend the illusion of ego and embrace the essential truth of our no oneness?”

Only one editor replied to my reply. He reiterated how much he liked the stories, and regretted that his company only published well-known Buddhist teachers armed with rave blurbs from really famous Buddhist teachers.

I eventually self-published a lovely edition of Buddha In A Teacup through Lost Coast Press in Fort Bragg, and though not a single Buddhist publication large or small would deign to review the book, Buddha In A Teacup has now sold over fifteen hundred copies and continues to gain a wider audience. People, those not constrained by the worship of celebrity or constricted by devotion to orthodoxy, love the book, and I think they do because the stories illuminate essential messages of the Buddha; that we are all on the same path, each of us seeking to become less fearful and less judgmental of ourselves and others, each of us aspiring to become more loving and generous.

In the vast Buddhist library there are many versions of what happened at the moment Buddha’s body died and his essence returned to the essential ground of being, an extremely subtle and eternal energy field from which you and I and all things arise and dissolve. My favorite version of this last corporeal moment is a poem by Mary Oliver entitled The Buddha’s Last Instruction in which his only spoken words are, “Make of yourself a light.”

And that is what I suggest you say to anyone who challenges you to a meditation contest. “Make of yourself a light,” and leave the competition to the organized and fully accredited yoga teams.

Copies of Buddha In A Teacup signed by the author are available from Underthetablebooks.com.

(This article first appeared in The Anderson Valley Advertiser in October 2009)