Thursday, December 10, 2009

Śāntideva: A Look at Two Translations of the Bodhicharyāvatāra

Mason Brown
Professor Jobson
REL150 Research Paper

Śāntideva was an Indian monk who likely lived in the Early 8th century in the university/monastery of Nālānda. The great work attributed to him is the Bodhicharyāvatāra, or “Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life,” which has been a central, inspirational scripture in Tibetan Buddhism for over twelve hundred years, and has been translated, copied, and commented upon constantly over that period, resulting in a great body of literary, pedagogical, and practical knowledge, which leads to the rich pool of modern work on the subject. This paper will examine two English translations of Śāntideva’s masterpiece, both of which are recent and readily available, and it will also attempt to give a general introduction to Śāntideva and his most important work.

The first of the two translations, which is by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton, with a general introduction by Paul Williams, and published by Oxford University Press in 1995, is based on a somewhat fragmentary Sanskrit text known as “Prajñākaramati’s commentary on the Bodhicharyāvatāra, the Bodhicharyāvatāra-pañjikā,” and, as the translators are both British—from Oxford University and the University of Bristol—the style is “standard British English.” (Crosby xxxv) The second, by the Padmakara Translation Group, Published by Shambala in a revised edition in 2006, is based on the Tibetan, with special attention paid to the commentary of Nyingma master Khenpo Kunzang Pelden. It was translated by Wulstan Fletcher and seems to favor American English.

The Padmakara group, after acknowledging the importance and utility of Crosby and Skilton’s translation to themselves and to scholarship in general, claim that their Tibetan-based translation, with its reliance on living tradition, might be more useful to the practitioner of Mahayana Buddhism:

we would argue that for those who are interested in practicing the Bodhisattva path, the Tibetan translation of the Bodhicharyāvatāra occupies a position of greater significance than a modern rendering, be it never so scholarly and accurate, of a Sanskrit manuscript that by chance escaped the destruction of the Buddhist libraries in India. The accidents of history have determined that the textual and commentarial transmission of the Bodhicharyāvatāra stretching back to Śāntideva—the human connection, so to speak—lies in the Tibetan and not in the Sanskrit. (Padmakara Translation Group, xv)

Crosby and Skilton are very concerned with textual questions, such as the arrangement of the chapters, since they are confronted with the fact that verses from Śāntideva’s other work, the Śikṣā Samuccaya, appear in the canonical Sanskrit text of the Bodhicharyāvatāra, and that the number of chapters varies in the received versions. Their Translator’s introduction, as well as the general introduction by Buddhist practitioner and scholar Paul Williams invaluable reading for understanding some of the problems involved with reaching a perfect translation, as well as providing a connection to present-day practice, belying the Padmakara Group's implication that their translation might be too scholarly to be of use to actual practitioners.

Nālandā University and the context of the Madhyamaka
When Śāntideva was at Nālandā around the turn of the 8th century, The monastery, university, and world-renowned center of learning had been there, in northern India, in the modern-day state of Bihar, for over 300 years (Crosby xxviii). It was a major educational center, with a Buddhist orientation, but was by no means exclusively Buddhist. Hindu studies, as well as “logic, grammar, medicine, magic, Sāṃkhya philosophy, and a number of other subsidiary subjects, such as art” were taught there. In this intellectual environment, with its open and cosmopolitan style, the Buddhist dialectical school known as Madhyamaka came to predominate. The founder of this school, the name of which means “Middle way,” was Nāgārjuna, “who lived sometime during the first few hundred years after Christ,” (Huntington, 32) and coined the term, “Madhyamika.” The philosophy of the Madhyamaka, which was conceived as a refutation of the “Yogacara,” or “mind-only” school, is that attachment to either the extreme of innate existence or the extreme of complete and literal non-existence are both in error, and that any rational postulation contains the seeds of its own refutation. In other words, though something may be true in terms of “relative truth,” rational constructs are insufficient for describing the “absolute truth” of phenomena. Another important exponent of Madhyamaka, Chandrakīrti, was associated with the Prāsaṅgika-Madhyamaka, which held that “ one must either be led toward a gradual realization of emptiness solely by means of a critique against one’s own prejudices and presuppositions about so-called empirical experience and the arguments consciously or unconsciously posited to support these preconceived ideas,” (Huntington 34) or “one need only to observe patiently, with extreme care and devotion, the appearance of reality on which our commonsense assumptions are based, and in so doing the emptiness of all ontological and epistemological categories will reveal itself in these everyday appearances.” (35) Madhyamaka is, in short, a dialectical system in which, through reductio ad absurdum, all conventional views, indeed, all positions are refuted.

Śāntideva is solidly within Nāgārjuna’s and Chandrakīrti’s tradition, and the chapter entitled “The Perfection of Understanding,” (Crosby) or simply, “Wisdom,” (Padmakara) is famous for summarizing the many arguments that went on among different schools of thought at Nālandā, and for refuting all those opposed to Madhyamaka. That chapter is notoriously difficult, and is often problematic for scholars and writers, and describing its meaning is beyond the scope of this paper, and the abilities of this author. My main concern will be with a comparison of the prose of the two translations, with reference to commentaries including one by the Dalai Lama. According to him, the Bodhicharyāvatāra “condenses the three turnings of the wheel of the Buddha’s teaching.” (Tenzin Gyatso 8) According to the Padmakara Group:
It is a frequent practice to divide The Way of the Bodhisattva into three main sections, along the lines of a famous prayer, perhaps traceable to Nāgārjuna:

May bodhicitta, precious and sublime,
Arise where it has not yet come to be;
And where it has arisen may it never fail
But grow and flourish ever more and more.” (2)
Turning the Mind Toward Bodhichitta
The word Bodhichitta means, “awakening mind” according to Crosby and Skilton. Padmakara leaves the term untranslated, as it is widely used and understood by English-speaking Buddhists to mean “mind of enlightenment.” (2) Kobun Chino Otogawa translated it as “wayseeking mind,” and it is at the heart of Śāntideva’s method. The first three chapters of Bodhicharyāvatāra are called “Praise of the Awakening Mind,” “Confession of Faults,” and
“Adopting the Awakening Mind” by Crosby and Skilton, and their thrust is to rouse us from complacency; to inspire us to follow the still-small voice of our own innate enlightenment to live for the benefit of beings:
To those who go in bliss, the dharmakaya they posses, and all their heirs,
To all those worthy of respect, I reverently bow.
According to the scriptures, I shall now in brief describe
The practice of the Bodhisattva discipline. (Padmakara 31)


In adoration I make obeisance to the Sugatas and their sons, and to their bodies of Dharma, and to all those worthy of praise. In brief, and in accordance with scripture, I shall describe the undertaking of the sons of the Sugatas. (Crosby 5)
After this opening verse, with strikingly different wording in our two translations, the first three chapters take us through many verses of humility; of reflections on the pointlessness of samsara; of pointing out the preciousness of bodhichitta, and the rarity of human birth; of full confession of Śāntideva’s past misdeeds, supplication for aid from powerful Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and promises of extravagant offerings. We witness Śāntideva’s vows of Refuge in the Three Jewels, and hear his inspired homage to enlightenment: an acknowledgment of the beginning of theBodhisattva path.

Reading either of these translations, we might be inspired to join Śāntideva in his renunciation and aspiration to service. The Padmakara version, however, seems to roll a little easier off the tongue, while the Crosby version is a little more cerebral and makes one wonder about the literal meaning. Consider the following verse:
All that I posses and use
Is like the fleeting vision of a dream.
It fades into the realms of memory,
And fading, will be seen no more. (Padmakara 42)


Everything experienced fades into memory. Everything is like an image in a dream. It is gone and not seen again. (Crosby 37)
While the Crosby/Skilton version is relatively terse, though still with a certain beauty, the Padmakara version is simply more poetic and euphonious. Through these three chapters, Śāntideva is working to arouse and inflame; to inspire bodhichitta. Bodhichitta, according to the Dalai Lama, is “a double wish: to attain enlightenment in itself, and to do so for the sake of all beings.” (Gyatso 12)

Maintaining the Aspiration to Help Others
The fourth, fifth, and sixth chapters, called “Carefulness,” Vigilant Introspection,” and “Patience” by the Padmakara Group, are concerned with nurturing our newfound bodhichitta, and sustaining the necessary level of effort required to see the Mahayana path through. The Dalai Lama says “the thought of bodhichitta has now been generated in our minds. Next we come to three chapters devoted to protecting it from deterioration.” (Gyatso 35) Śāntideva is telling us that if we want to follow the Bodhisattva path, we must guard against backsliding with unwavering zealotry, and that, having come so far, we shouldn’t waste the one chance of thisprecious human life:
The appearance of the Buddhas in the world,
True faith and the attainment of human form,
An aptitude for good: all these are rare.
When will they come to me again?

Today, indeed, I’m hale and well,
I have enough to eat and I am not in danger.
But this life is fleeting, unreliable,
My body is like something briefly lent.

And yet the way I act is such
that I shall not regain a human life!
And losing this, my precious human form,
My evils will be many, virtues none. (Padmakara 55)


When shall I find such rare circumstances again: the arising of a Tathāgata, faith,the human state itself, the capacity to practise skilful deeds,

Health, on this day,with food and freedom from disaster? In a moment life breaks its word. The body is like an object on loan.

The human state is never achieved again by such acts as mine. When the human state is lost there is only evil. How could there be good? (Crosby 26)
Both translations are quite beautiful here, I especially like “life breaks its word,” from Crosby and Skilton. Over the course of many verses in these three chapters, Śāntideva slowly builds an ironclad case for continuing on our course of Bodhisattvahood. If he fails even one being, he tells us, he will “work the ruin” (Padmakara 54) of himself, being born in the lower realms of hungry ghosts and demons. He tells us that a human birth is “as likely as a turtle poking its neck through the hole of a yoke floating on a mighty ocean.” (Crosby 26)
Śāntideva’s case is not only ironclad and irrefutable, it is emotionally rousing and inspiring. Reading the middle three chapters is like hearing the most charismatic southern preacher. His small examples and statements slowly build into a torrent, and we are swept into the mainstream, ready to give our lives. How can we sit idly by
When fishers, butchers, farmers, and the like,
Intending just to gain their livelihood,
Will suffer all the miseries of heat and cold,
Why, for being’s happiness, should those like me not bear the same? (Padmakara


Their minds set only on their own livelihood, fisherman, caṇḍālas, ploughmen, and the like, withstand such distress as extreme heat and cold. Why have I no endurance though it is for the advantage and well-being of the universe? (Crosby

Śāntideva warns us to protect our newly aspirational mind like we would protect our own broken arm in an “unruly crowd.” (Padmakara 64) After all the difficulty of arriving at our current situation, with all its potential to do good and help beings, we can lose it all instantly:
All the good works gathered in a thousand ages,
Such as deeds of generosity,
And offerings to the Blissful Ones—
A single flash of anger shatters them. (Padmakara 77)


The worship of the Sugatas, generosity, and good conduct performed throughout thousands of aeons—hatred destroys it all. (Crosby 50)
After I read these chapters, I am thoroughly convinced and converted: I am ready to take the next step.
Deepening Bodhichitta and Realization
The next three chapters are about learning to develop bodhichitta continuously (Gyatso 75). Crosby and Skilton translate them as the perfections of “Vigour,” “Meditative absorption,” and “Understanding,” which are the last three paramitas, or “perfections,” of the bodhisattva path. Diligence is recommended, and is defined as taking “joy in virtuous ways,” (Padmakara 97) and we are asked again what we did not understand:
Don’t you see how, one by one,
Death has come for all your kind?
And yet you slumber on so soundly,
Like a buffalo beside its butcher. (Padmakara 98)


You do not see those of your own herd as they are killed one by one? You even go to sleep like a buffalo at the butcher. (Crosby 67)
Śāntideva gives us yet another chance to understand the gravity of the situation. He enjoins us to make sure everything we do is in furtherance of our bodhisattva path, culminating in the practice of meditation. He encourages us to contemplate the transitory nature of our lover’s body, and to seek the “lovely, gleaming woods,” where “mental wandering will cease.” Always Śāntideva brings us back to mindfulness of the inevitable consequences of evil deeds, backsliding, and forsaking our vows. He gives us instructions for shamata and vipashyana, and for exchanging self with others. (Gyatso 88)

In the ninth chapter, “Wisdom,” Śāntideva turns to an explication of the Buddhist
doctrine of emptiness: the idea that “things have no true, objective existence.” (Gyatso 117) Śāntideva talks about the “two truths,” which is an essential idea in the Madhyamaka:
Relative and ultimate,These the two truths are declared to be.
The ultimate is not within reach of intellect,
For intellect is said to be relative. (Padmakara 137)


It is agreed that there are these two truths: the conventional and the ultimate. Reality is beyond the scope of intellection. Intellection is said to be conventional (Crosby 115)

According to Crosby and Skilton, the idea of emptiness began to be asserted in the
Prajñā-pāramitā sutra as a reaction to the reification of prototypical ideas of emptiness contained in the Abhidharma: The truths described therein were being treated as absolutes, and that understanding had to be refuted:
The chapter on the perfection of understanding in the Bodhicharyāvatāra is a deluge of such refutation. A number of opponents are lined up, each to be rebutted in turn as their views become relevant to Śāntideva’s line of argument. It is in the nature of such works as this that one knows the winner from the outset. For the audience it is just a matter of watching how skilfully each opponent is rebutted, how smooth the turn to the next. No opponent is taken all the way through the argument. Each is dismissed once he has served Śāntideva’s purpose. Opponents are refuted on their own grounds, their theories shown to be flawed and often made laughable; or they are taken under the wing of the author and shown that, did they but understand their own theories properly,they would realize they were in agreement with the Madhyamaka in what is really relevant. (Crosby 106)

Śāntideva gives us a large dose of absolute truth in the ninth chapter:
The mind that has not realized voidness,
May be halted, but will once again arise,
Just as from non-perceptual absorption.
Therefore one must train in emptiness. (Padmakara 144)

Without emptiness a mind is fettered and arises again, as in the meditative attainment of non-perception. Therefore one should meditate on emptiness. (Crosby 120)

In typical Mahayana fashion, Śāntideva concludes his song with a dedication. With sober
and humble awareness that his poem will benefit many countless beings for unknown time, he casts away the merit accrued; the karmic energy for good, to all beings, rather than keep it for himself. He then articulates the bodhisattva’s vow:
And now as long as space endures,
As long as there are beings to be found,
May I continue likewise to remain
To drive away the sorrows of the world. (Padmakara 171)


As long as space abides and as long as the world abides, so long may I abide, destroying the sufferings of the world. (Crosby 143)

He ends the dedication with a bow to Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, who is a kind of “patron” bodhisattva for the Madhyamaka and for the sects of Buddhism in Tibet and Japan that derive from it.

As a serious student of Śāntideva; one who would aspire to follow his path, I would keep both of these translations near. Crosby and Skilton have obviously chosen to represent Śāntideva”s Sanskrit verse in prosaic English, delivering a very precise and sharp language, with economy of words, and occasionally jarring, stark phrases that stick in the mind. The Padmakara Group has attempted a more poetic rendering in four-line free verse which they hoped would be similar in feeling to the Tibetan source. To my ear, this is a little easier to take in. In spite of it being longer, in number of words, than Crosby and Skilton, its rhythm is entrancing; its melody engaging, and its content is revolutionary. Though it is not quite for the reason the Padmakara Group claims, I think their translation just might be superior—for the practitioner—to Crosby and Skilton’s: because it is easier to sing.

Work Cited

Crosby, Kate, and Andrew Skilton. The Bodhicharyāvatāra. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Gyatso, Tenzin. A flash of Lightning in the Dark of Night: A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. Boston: Shambala, 1994.

Padmakara Translation Group. The Way of the Bodhisattva: A Translation of the Bodhicharyāvatāra. Boston: Shambala, 2006.

Huntington, C. W., Jr., and Geshé Namgyal Wangchen. The Emptiness of Emptiness: An Introduction to Early Indian Madhyamaka. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1994.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Readings on Pluralism: a Response

Mason Brown
Professor Miller
Contemplative Learning Seminar, Sec. F
Preparation Paper 6

I found all the readings from “Speaking in Silence,” very interesting and instructive. I didn’t have a strong response to Chogyam Trungpa’s chapter, having read it repeatedly and being in complete agreement with it. This is my tradition: internalized from my youth—but, as always—Trungpa’s words remain fresh and inspiring. He delivers another concise, elegant description of the practice and process of meditation in absolutely ordinary language: mindfulness and awareness join together (200), aggression subsides (201), and we are able to help others (201). Of course, it’s not always so simple in the real world, or “on the ground” as the current phrase goes. This process seems to have a lot of ebb and flow to it; it has the inevitable backsliding. The kind of insights Trungpa describes have happened for me as flashes of perception which, if anything, have slowly grown closer together in frequency over the years, but still sustain me through long intervals of ignorance. I don’t see any real discussion in the text itself of “exclusivism, inclusivism, pluralism, diversity, relativism and/or syncretism,” But I can relate my own feeling that I do have a twinge of exclusivism in myself when I read these teachings: so much more correct than any others I have encountered. I don’t necessarily buy into the twinge, and it soon fades. I do think that the process Trungpa describes, if followed completely, will unavoidably lead to inclusivism and pluralism, and honest acceptance of the diversity which surrounds us, without reliance on the dubious compromises of relativism and syncretism.

I have always loved and respected the Quaker tradition. With its uncannily Buddhistic silent meditation, justice-based social activism, and community values of respect for the individual as a part of the whole, it strikes me as one of the most beneficial forms of Christianity. I have even visited the oldest continually used Quaker church in the United States, said to be America’s oldest frame building, in Easton, Maryland, and seen its rough wooden benches; its spare interior, devoid of an alter of any kind. Quakers I have known have been very inclusive and embracing of diversity—often to the point of putting their bodies in harm’s way to stand in solidarity with people of other faiths and cultures—but I suspect that, like many Buddhists, they harbor unspoken feelings of exclusivism. The relative superiority of their spiritual tradition almost demands it. However, They probably also go through those feelings and do not rest on them. They have too much to do, and that doing includes not-doing. I think that the problem with Quaker contemplative practice is its lack of any real methodology or pedagogy of consciousness. There is no concrete description in this text of how to do it [Quaker scholars were even persecuted for trying to syncretize such methodologies (Yungblut 203)]. Practitioners are simply told to “wait upon the Lord in silence (202).” It would take a true spiritual genius to reach the highest levels of understanding through this system—which is strikingly like Zen—and I imagine that it was founded by such geniuses.

I have long been acquainted with the contemplative traditions within the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and I have great respect for Tessa Bielecki, David Stendl-Rast, and George Timko. It is not surprising that the meditative techniques developed by the Church are the some of the most thorough, subtle, and refined in the European culture. In spite of this, I feel my exclusivism: Their contemplative practices are somewhat advanced, but their explanation of reality is utterly fanciful. This fact makes pluralism problematic, especially when one considers that the contemplative Christians featured in these readings, although representing a spiritual elite within Christianity, and holding some of the religion’s oldest and deepest forms, are a tiny minority of Christians in the world. Most adherents of Christianity take inflexible-belief-in-the-Bible-as-literal-Truth, and “faith in Jesus” as comprising the “practice” of Christianity, with nothing but a telephone call with God for their prayer (215), and disdain for true internal investigation. Bielecki describes a process of syncretization of her own (209), and I think it’s a good thing. She is taking knowledge which was discovered and transmitted by Buddhists to enrich her Christian practice, which is obviously deep and penetrating, but she is not giving up her Christianity; on the contrary, it seems to be strengthened.

How do I, who have acknowledged strong opinions about the shortcomings of other religions, and expressed visceral exclusivist tendencies also claim to be a pluralist? Because while I do hold those opinions and, on occasion, defend them, I do not really believe them. I know that my understanding is imperfect, and that inasmuch as my belief system does not perfectly depict reality, it is just as flawed as any other, no matter how primitive or outrageous that other might seem to me. Judith Simmer-Brown says that “in learning lessons of openness, the great yogis failed again and again (Simmer-Brown, n.p.).” This gets to the heart of the issue: “They were willing to risk, willing to fail, and willing to learn (Simmer-Brown, n.p.).” If we open to others as no different from ourselves, we will eventually realize the truth of that condition experientially, and, in the words of the Baptist hymn, there will “be no distinction there.”

Work Cited:
Simmer-Brown, Judith. “Chapter 6/Commitment and Openness: A Contemplative Approach to Pluralism,” in Glazer, The Heart of Learning, pp. 97-112.

“Natural Dharma,” “Corporate Mysticism,” Long, Loving Look at the Real,” and “Letting Go if Thoughts,” in Speaking of Silence:Christians and Buddhists in Dialogue, First Edition. 200-203;206-221.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Spiritual Materialism

Mason Brown
Professor Miller
Preparation Paper 5

Reading the introduction to “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism,” I can almost mouth the words. I have read this material at least a dozen times, starting when I was about ten years old. The contours of the prose are familiar; utterly known to me. I feel I could find my way through this text in the dark. It’s like returning to my own home at night and walking through the unlit halls with complete confidence—no matter how long I have been away. At the same time, the words are absolutely fresh and current. They are amazingly relevant to my life right now. I am reminded what a genius Trungpa Rinpoche was. He was able to put the Buddhist teachings into words—in a foreign language—with total efficiency, moving beauty, and crystalline clarity.

Spiritual Materialism is a very useful term coined by Trungpa to describe the phenomenon of the use of spiritual practices, forms, or traditions to enrich one’s own ego; to do the exact opposite of what these forms were intended to be used for. Trungpa generously allows that all spiritual traditions are aimed at the same target: ego. He says that the “differences between the ways are a matter of emphasis and method”(4), and that the “basic problems of spiritual materialism are common to all spiritual disciplines”(4). I would argue here that many of our dominant traditions (Christianity and the other theistic religions) are simply wrong—their descriptions of reality are patently untrue—but that would be nitpicking and is beside the point. The point is that these traditions are supposed to teach us to think and act for some purpose greater than ourselves, and that the very processes they initiate can be hijacked by ego for its own selfish ends. Trungpa has put his finger on the main problem of spirituality throughout history. Despite the good intentions that lead us to seek out and cultivate spiritual practices, ego’s Trojan horse is inevitably brought in with us, sabotaging our efforts to escape its hold. Trungpa reminds us to be ever on our guard against the pernicious vampire of ego, which will feed on anything, wholesome or profane, to satisfy its insatiable hunger to be.

Jack Kornfield’s chapter, “No Boundaries to the Sacred,” is insightful and well-written. He approaches the topic of Spiritual Materialism from another angle. He talks about our tendency to create different spaces and separate aspects of our lives for sacred and profane activities, cutting our prayer or meditation off from our indulgences like sex or drugs. He calls this process “compartmentalization” (184). Kornfield cites Trungpa, correlating the concept of Spiritual Materialism with the “Golden Chain,” an Indian concept that defines “the notion of attaining a pure and divine abode” which

fits unfortunately well with whatever neurotic, fearful, or idealistic tendencies we may have. To the extent that we see ourselves to be impure, shameful, or unworthy, we may use spiritual practices and notions of purity to escape from ourselves. By rigidly following spiritual precepts and forms, we may hope to create a pure spiritual identity. (186)

Kornfield gives several moving anecdotes of people in various stages of spiritual paths—some of them quite advanced—who nevertheless run in to trouble in their lives which he traces back to this compartmentalization. I can’t disagree with anything Kornfield says—he seems to be a powerful and inspired teacher—but I find myself a little suspicious of him. It seems a little too easy in his world. He talks of “an opposite shadow, an area that is dark or hidden from us because we focus so strongly somewhere else” (193), but I wonder what Kornfield’s “dark shadows” are? He says “periods of holiness and spiritual fervor can later alternate with opposite extremes—binging on food, sex, and other things—becoming a kind of spiritual bulimia.” Something in Kornfield rings puritanical—the Thai monk he speaks of who was a dedicated activist and teacher; who fell in love with a student and tortured himself to the point of contemplating suicide, is redeemed by breaking off the relationship and rededicating himself to his vows—and one wonders where Kornfield is coming from. Who am I to say what this monk should have done? Apparently, it all worked out out alright, but somehow I suspect Kornfield of a little Spiritual Materialism of his own. It seems to me that Kornfield is on dangerous ground when he worries about “drinking, promiscuity and other unconscious conduct” (193), since I know from my teachers that those kinds of superficial value judgments of behavior are some of the most insidious traps of Spiritual Materialism waiting to snare us. I do agree with Kornfield, however, that

we must bring a deep attention to the stories we tell about these shadows, to see what is the underlying truth. Then, as we willingly enter each place of fear, each place of deficiency and insecurity in ourselves, we will discover that its walls are made of untruths. Of old images of ourselves, of ancient fears, of false ideas of what is pure and what is not. We will see that each is made from a lack of trust in ourselves, our hearts, and the world. As we see through them, our world expands. As the light of awareness illuminates these stories and ideas and the pain, fear, or emptiness that underlies them, a deeper truth can show itself. By accepting and feeling each of these areas, a genuine wholeness, sense of well-being, and strength can be discovered. (194)

For my own part, I have struggled with Spiritual Materialism for many years, and continue to pay attention to it; to look for those blind spots where it hides. My relationship to my robes and vows as a priest are a sensitive area. The accouterments of a Zen priest are costly, fine, and beautiful, and easy to either get attached to or develop feelings of aversion to. I have sometimes embraced them wholeheartedly, sometimes shied away from them and sometimes felt conflicted, embarrassed or ashamed of them. It's easy to see these vestments as a separating wall between me and other people who either practice Buddhism or don’t. It's tempting to project their perceptions for myself: what do they think of me, a white American, in this funny-looking Indo-Sino-Japanese costume?
After all this time, I no longer care. The attitude I have arrived at in recent years is one of gratitude to my teachers. They went to a lot of trouble to give me these robes; to hand this lineage to me, and it is my duty and obligation to carry that forward, However, I can’t be attached to the external properties of that obligation, and I am fully willing, at any moment, should it become necessary, to throw these robes into the fire and completely give them up, never looking back. In the same way, I am prepared to say goodbye to my very life, friends, family, and most of all, to music, to which I am most deeply attached. I am reminded, however, By Kornfield and especially by Trungpa, to examine those stories I so easily tell myself and to make sure I am not deluding myself: building up my ego with the mortar of Spiritual Materialism.

Work Cited
Kornfield, Jack. “No Boundaries to the Sacred”, Chapter 13 from Path With Heart. n.d, n.p.
Trungpa, Chogyam. Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Boston: Shambala, 1987.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Brown Enters Sinister “Phase II of Operation”

I think I am done gathering sources. I have way more than I can read already, and some of it extremely interesting. Through ILL I was able to get a copy of the “Black Music Research Journal” with an article by Paul F. Wells called “Fiddling as an Avenue of Black-White Musical Interchange.” This article is very important for me to read because it is, in effect, the article I wish I could write. It was published in 2003, so it is not too old, and cites a great many sources, so it should completely fill me in on what is already in the scholarship on this subject. There is a great quote in the article from a 1973 interview with Charles Wolfe of Kentucky fiddler Richard Burnett, who was born in1883. Wolfe asked Burnett about whether many blacks played old-time music when he was young:
Oh yeah. Yeah. Bled Coffey here in town [Monticello, Kentucky], he was a fiddler during the Civil War, and the Bertram boys here, Cooge Bertram was a good fiddler. He was raised in Corbin [Kentucky]. Yes sir, there were a lot of black men playin’ old time music. Bled Coffey was the best fiddler in the county. Been dead for years. I played many a tune with him—used to play with me, oh, sixty year ago. He’d play any o’ the old songs that I did. The old-fashioned tunes, like “Cripple Creek,” “Sourwood Mountain,” “Soldier’s Joy,” “Fire on the Mountain―them old-fashioned tunes is about what he played. (Quoted in Wolfe 1973, 7)1

This is exactly the kind of information I was looking for, and Wells and Wolfe got to it way before me. But that’s okay. I am thankful to have their work to learn from, and I hope, to build on or at least to synthesize with what I am getting from some of the other fantastic sources I’ve gotten through ILL, such as “the Birth of the Banjo: Joel Walker Sweeney and Early Minstrelsy” by Bob Carlin, the fascinating story of one of the first well-known white banjo players, who learned the instrument from slaves.

I also still have three or four interviews to do, which I will start over the weekend. I’m very excited and less intimidated every week. This seems doable! I will now turn to my document, edit the bibliography to reflect these new sources, and begin to add some headings; some kind of break-down of the different sections I want to go on about. I will print out the first draft of my paper, such as it is, for the perusal and criticism of my illustrious professor. I am thankful for the opportunity to get everything right as I’m doing it, rather than waiting to hand in a draft when the whole thing is already done. Tally Ho!


Wells, Paul F. “Fiddling as an Avenue of Black-White Interchange,” Black Music Research
Journal Spring/Fall (2003) 135-147.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Analysis of the Chariot

The use of a chariot as a simile for the self first appears in Buddhist scripture in the Saṃyutta-nikaya, the third of the five collections of sūtras in the Pali canon. A Buddhist nun, one Vajira, tells Māra the tempter:

There is no “being” found...[within oneself], only a heap of karmic constituents. Just as the word “chariot” is used when we come across a combination of parts, so we speak conventionally of a [human] being when the five aggregates are present. (Mitchell 39)

Later, the monk Nāgasena, in a dialogue known as the “Questions of Milinda”(Stryk 89), uses this same simile in greater detail, asking King Milinda a series of rhetorical questions:

Is the axle the chariot?... Are the wheels the chariot?...Is the chariot-body the chariot?...Is the flagstaff...the yoke...the reins...Is the Goad-stick the chariot? (Stryk 92)

He goes on to ask whether the chariot is simply “a sound”(92), and then explains to the King that, like the chariot, human beings are simply the sum of their parts: namely, the five aggregates (skandhas). Any one part of a human being, though it might be integral, is not the being. The parts of the chariot, though while they are assembled do conventionally constitute a chariot, are destined eventually to separate, leaving no sign that a chariot ever existed.

This simile, like many used in early Buddhism, seems designed to be grasped fully by even the simplest hearer of the teachings. There can be no doubt. Any object or thing can be described with the simile of the chariot. For instance, a toaster is not the heating elements, nor is it the controls. It is is not the plastic feet, nor is it the metal body. Neither is it the springs or the logo imprint of the manufacturer. It is is definitely not the toast, though bread may transmigrate through the toaster, becoming toast. When viewed in this way, the toaster can be seen more
accurately. It is an assemblage of parts, briefly put together for the function of heating bread, or perhaps frozen pizza, but it has no permanent or independent self. In that way, in an absolute sense, it can be considered illusory. In the same way, all beings are made up of impermanently gathered parts, all interdependent on each other and on countless other causes and conditions. It is a very powerful and immediate way to illustrate two subtle and sublime aspects of the Buddha's teaching: the five skandhas and no-self, which would otherwise be very challenging to explain.

Works Cited:
Mitchell, Donald W. Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience. New York:
Oxford University Press, 2008.

Stryk, Lucien. World of the Buddha: A Reader. Garden City: Anchor Books, 1969.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Response/Process Paper 6

Reading the Sources on “the Interracial Origin of Appalachian Fiddle Music”

Though I still haven't got all the materials I think I should read, I'm feeling a little bogged down in reading the books and articles I do have. That is not to say I don't find them interesting. On the contrary, They are fascinating in the extreme. All of them are things I would like to read and absorb on their own. For instance, “Singing the Master”1, Roger D. Abraham's study of early African-American culture has a large section of slave's accounts of “corn-shuckings”, where plantation owners would invite their friends (other slave owners) to bring their slaves to participate in shucking the corn harvest. The labor involved in processing the entire harvest was so great that the slaves belonging to any one plantation were insufficient to the task. So during that season, the owners would take turns going with all available slaves to their neighbor's places and having large parties, where the slaves would be encouraged, with liquor and food, to make a game of the work, competing, one plantation against the other, to see who could shuck the fastest. The labor of the slaves was then enjoyed as a spectator sport by the masters and their families. The slaves employed techniques of group organization which were straight out of Africa: the best singers would stand on top of the pile of corn and lead their teams through song, which often had a strong call-and-response component. There was also a good deal of horseplay tolerated by the masters, including members of one side trying to surreptitiously throw unshucked cobs back on to the pile of the opposing team, or the stricture that the girl who could shuck the fastest “had to be kissed”. The accounts collected by Abrahams are really fun to read: a little jarring in their caricatureish plantation dialect, but very colorful, funny, and filled with detail. I don't know exactly how to incorporate this source into my argument, but I suspect it's giving me some important background.

Another source I've enjoyed reading is a scholarly article by ethnomusicologist Chris Goertzen, called “American Fiddle Tunes and the Historic-Geographic Method”1. I had never heard of the Historic-Geographic method before, but apparently it was developed in Finland in the 19th century to analyze folkloric items as to their relative positions of origin in space and time. By identifying and cataloging various aspects of the items, and then charting the differences and similarities within a sample of similar items, the scholar can make inferences as to when and where a given item came from without any other record but the item itself. Goertzen has applied this technique to fiddle tunes, and specifically one tune, or family of tunes with the name “Billy in the Low Ground”. Goertzen's style is dense and his data are extensive, to the extent that even I, a smart-ass amateur musicologist, find my eyes glazing over while trying to figure out what his findings mean. I think that therein lies the key to my question. I'm not going to find out anything that musicologists haven't known for a long time concerning the interracial origin of Appalachian fiddle music, but if I'm smart, focused, and even lucky, I might be able to present the subject in a fresh way that will be easily graspable by the general, educated reader. This must be my goal: I must read a lot, but not too much; not more than I have time and space to digest, synthesize, and put into a coherent form in 15 pages. This is not going to be easy. I feel pulled in many different directions by all this material. If a source doesn't seem irrelevant to, or at least distant from my problem, then it seems to be already saying what I wanted to say, and with much greater authority than I could ever say it. I know these concerns are typical for beginning scholars like myself, and I have faith that my path will become clearer as I read more, and as I interview my primary sources. I simply trust, with alarming naiveté, that I will find away to write a worthwhile paper.

1Roger D. Abrahams. Singing the Master: The Emergence of African American Culture in the

Plantation South (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992) 203—328.

1Goertzen, Chris. “American Fiddle Tunes and the Historic-Geographic Method,” Ethnomusicology, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Autumn, 1985), pp. 448-473.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Library

Brown 1

Mason Brown

Professor Spohn

Response/Process Paper 5

Writing Seminar II sec. D


The Library

I have never been in a university library before. Or rather, I have never been in such a library and had access to its sacred shelves; its mysterious vaults of knowledge. I found the experience to be simultaneously thrilling and overwhelming: giddily roaming the stacks, clutching my bibliography like a drunk with his car keys, I was lost in a world of wonder.

I managed to find several items on my list: “Music of the Common Tongue”, by Christopher Small, a study of the African contribution to American music; “Singing the Master”, by Roger D, Abrahams, about early African-American culture; and a very interesting study of the “Iconography of Music in African-American Culture”, called “Images”, by Eileen Southern and Josephine Wright. I also tried my hand at searching the article databases and turned up three musicological papers that I think will help me: “American Fiddle Tunes and the Historic-Geographic Method”, by Chris Goertzen; “George P. Knauff's Virginia Reels and Fiddling in the Antebellum South”, by Goertzen with Alan Jabbour; and “Black Musicians in Appalachia: An Introduction to Affrilachian Music”, by Fred J. Hay.

Now I feel that I am adrift on a great sea of information: the tiny raft of my thesis being beaten apart by factual whitecaps, born on a heavy swell of data. I hear the surf breaking on a lee-shore of irrelevance. Should I abandon my fragile craft and swim for it? I try to make peace with my God and prepare for death.

Right Action

Mason Brown

Professor Jobson

Rel 150: Buddhist Journey of Transformation, Sec. A

“Right Action”


Right Action

Right Action is not best considered on its own. It is a facet of the Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddha. The Eightfold Path is a unitary whole. It is not complete without all of its elements. Any one aspect of this Path is insufficient, in and of itself, to lead to enlightenment, but it is instructive to consider these facets one at a time to better understand them.

The Four Noble Truths, the primary teachings of the Buddha, are thus: Suffering (duḥkha), which is existence ; the Cause (samudaya) of suffering, which is thirst (tṛṣṇa); the Cessation (nirohda) of suffering, which is possible, and the Way (mārga) to end suffering, which is the Eightfold Path . The Eightfold Path consists of Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort. Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. Of all these aspects of the Eightfold Path, Right Action is possibly the most all-encompassing. It can cover many, if not all, of the others.

The way I have been taught to view aspects of the path, such as Right Action, is not as rules or strictures to be adhered to, but as descriptions of reality, and at the same time, tools for thinking more deeply about the implications and consequences of my actions. My teacher, Hojo-sama Keibun Otokawa, had a story that illustrates this: his new-born son was asleep when Hojo-sama saw a mosquito feeding on the baby. Hojo-sama was recently out of the monastery, and had just taken over as abbot of his family temple, and was very earnest and pious as a Buddhist. He was therefore very conflicted over whether to swat the mosquito, sparing his son the pain of a bite, or to spare the mosquito and allow it to make it's living in the way nature intended. There was no perfect solution. He ended up killing the mosquito, but only after deep consideration of the nature of reality, within the framework of Right Action.

Brown 2


Mitchell, Donald W. Buddhism—Introducing the Buddhist Experience. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught. New York: Grove Press, 1974

Breaking Out of the Cocoon

Brown 1

Mason Brown

Professor Miller

Contemplative Learning Seminar Sec. F

Preparation Paper 4--Breaking Out of the Cocoon


When confronted with the environmental degradation of the natural world, we aresometimes tempted to enclose ourselves in a cocoon of selfishness and denial. Referring to chapters 7 & 8 in The Sacred Path of the Warrior, and to either the article by Joanna Macy or the one by David Abram, how will you break out of the cocoon and become more “green?” What will you do to heal our relationship with the sacredness of the natural world?

The cocoon is a very powerful image that Trungpa uses to describe the cowardly tendency of human beings to protect themselves. He says:

The way of cowardice is to embed ourselves in this cocoon, in which we perpetuate our habitual patterns. When we are constantly recreating our basic patterns of behavior and thought, we never have to leap into fresh air or onto fresh ground. Instead, we wrap ourselves in our own dark environment, where our only companion is the smell of our own sweat.(52)

In terms of the environment, many of us are in cocoons of consumption and flamboyant selfishness. The Hummer, and other giant SUV's, are good examples of people wrapping themselves in a vehicle, inside of which it is warm, comfortable, and safe, while outside is the dangerous world of others: the enemy. Only when they look out side the windows of their SUV's will they have the possibility to see the suffering of others, and to consider how their actions affect the world. Trungpa says:

We realize that there is an alternative to to our cocoon: we discover that we could be free from that trap. With that longing for fresh air,for a breeze of delight, we open our eyes, and we begin to look for an alternative environment to our cocoon. And to our surprise,we begin to see light, even though it may be hazy at first.(53)

At this point, the Hummer will begin to seem disgusting, and will naturally be abandoned.

Joanna Macy describes a similar situation:

What Alan Watts called ʻthe skin-encapsulated egoʼand Gregory Bateson referred to as ʻthe epistemological error of Occidental civilizationʼ is being unhinged, peeled off. It is being replaced by wider constructs of identity and self-interest—by what you might call the ecological self or the eco-self, co-extensive with other beings and the life of our planet. It is what I will call ʻthe greening of the self.ʼ(183)

For my own part, simply moving from rural Missouri to Boulder, CO, in order to attend Naropa University has done a lot to improve my impact on the environment, and my awareness of it. In Missouri for instance, it is not made easy to recycle. I made a strong effort to do so, but the materials which are allowed are limited, and it is necessary to haul them many miles to the recycling center. Here in Boulder, recycling is made convenient by having a single stream, and by having bins conveniently located everywhere. Also, the miles per week I travel in my vehicle have been reduced by a factor of ten. In Missouri, I commonly had to drive 40 miles one way to get to where the work was. There was also no public transportation available where I was. In Boulder I live within the city, within 5 miles of school, and I often take advantage of the fine public transit system.

In addition to these somewhat automatic changes, which occurred largely as a result of moving here, I aspire to increase my awareness of my impact on the environment and other beings. I hope to reduce my consumption even further by taking only what I need. I also want to renew my intention to refrain from eating other beings. With the support of my fellow students, teachers, and benefactors, I will continue to progress along the Path.

Brown 2

Work cited:

Trungpa, Chögyam. Shambala: the Sacred Path of the Warrior. Boston: Shambala, 2007.

Macy, Joanna. World as Lover, World as Self. Chapter 17, “The Greening of the Self”. PGW,2007(Publishing information not available)

Saturday, September 5, 2009

How could the Buddha Abandon his Son?

Mason Brown
Professor Jobson
Buddhist Journey of Transformation, Sec. A
“Life of the Buddha”
How Could the Buddha Abandon his Son?

I have heard the story of the Buddha's life from childhood. I have always been inspired by the uplifting sense of hope it contained; by the possibility of actually ending human suffering. I was also fascinated by the details: the miraculous events at his birth and the predictions of the court seer; the almost immediate death of his mother; the attempts of his father to shelter him and prevent his singular karma coming to fruition; his escape from a life of pleasure and leisure to intentionally practice the most extreme asceticism; his abandonment of austerities and discovery of the “middle way”and, of course, his enlightenment and subsequent teaching career. This story always made perfect sense to me. I suppose stories we learn in religious contexts as children often go unquestioned. So I was taken aback years later, after I was an ordained priest and had been a serious practitioner of Buddhism for decades, by a question put to me by my brother-in-law, John: “how could the Buddha have abandoned his son?”

I have to admit, I never considered this question before. It seemed obvious to me that the Buddha had “bigger fish to fry”, but I could hear the pain in John's voice and sense that he had felt abandoned himself, and that what I had taken for granted was not obvious to him. John had been raised in some form of traditional Christianity. I can't remember which one, but When he asked me this question he had just finished his first intensive meditation retreat and, in the context of that, had been told the Buddha's story. This one detail had become a sticking point for him and, though he appreciated the value of the sitting, he had trouble getting past it. “Why should I follow the teachings of someone who would do that to his own son?” he asked me.

Though I tried to articulate some kind of response, I was at a loss and I don't think my answer helped him. I know it didn't satisfy me and I still think about it some ten years later.

When the Future Buddha was informed of the birth of his son, he said: “An impediment [rāhula] has been born; a fetter has been born”(28). The Buddha knew that the attachment of a parent for his child is one of the strongest attachments we develop as human beings. He seems immediately to have instinctively distanced himself from his son in order to avoid such attachment. When he heard that “...the heart of a mother attains Nirvana, the heart of a father attains Nirvana”(28), the Buddha asked himself “...wherein does Nirvana consist?”(28).
The answer came to him that:

“When the fire of lust is extinct, that is Nirvana; when the fires of hatred and infatuation are extinct, that is Nirvana; when pride, false belief, and all other passions and torments are extinct, that is Nirvana...Certainly, Nirvana is what I am looking for. It behooves me this very day to quit the household life, and to retire from the world in quest of Nirvana.”(28)

The Buddha understood that the problem of human suffering was greater than any one person; any one relationship; any one lifetime. He knew that, even if he raised his son with loving and constant attention, as he himself had been raised, that in the end, his son would be subject to suffering, sickness, old age and death. He realized that a way had to be found to end suffering once and for all, and not just for himself, his son and his family, but for all beings.

Still, he seems to have hesitated. He went to take “just one look”(30) at his son. When he saw the beautiful sight of his son and wife asleep together he gazed at them for a moment and said:

“If I were to raise my wife's hand from off the child's head, and take him up, she would awake, and thus prevent my departure. I will first become a Buddha, and then come back and see my son.” So saying, he descended from the palace.(30)

So it seems clear to me that the Buddha did not “abandon” his son, but that the problem he was trying to solve was so big, and the solution to it was so important, that he felt he had to leave his wife and son, who he knew would be well and extravagantly cared for, in order to accomplish his purpose. He did, in fact, return to see his family after his enlightenment, and many of them, including his son, became the Buddha's disciples.

Though I think I have answered John's question to my own satisfaction, I know that it is an imperfect answer in terms of relieving the deep suffering caused by abandonment. But as the Buddha observed, Life is suffering. The only further help I can give, other than my willingness to be in that suffering with him, is to quote the Buddha's final teaching:

“And now, O priests, I take my leave of you; all the constituents of being are transitory; work out your salvation with diligence.”(45)

Work Cited
Stryk, Lucien. World of the Buddha. New York: Doubleday, 1968.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Argument vs. Rant

Mason Brown
Professor Spohn
Response/Process Paper 2
Writing Seminar II sec. D

Arguments vs. Rants

There's nothing like a good rant to make one feel better. That is if you are the one doing the ranting. Someone else's rant can be the most irritating thing in the world, especially if you disagree with his or her point. A rant is not trying to convince, it's trying to vent; to let off steam; to rail against some injustice or instance of stupidity. It can be very effective at ridiculing; at insulting; at calling out inconsistencies, lies or double-standards. It makes me feel good to rant, but if I'm ranting it usually means I'm preaching to the choir. If I'm talking to or writing for someone who I expect will disagree with me, I'm much more comfortable with argument.

Argument respects the other side. The humanity and reasonableness of the opponent. It assumes that, in the face of superior reasoning backed up by iron-clad facts, the other person can be brought around to agree with us. Or, conversely, that we may end up, after weighing the counter-arguments, changing our position. Argument is actually very open-minded. It is willing to honestly confront it's own shortcomings; it's own blind spots. Ultimately it is much more fulfilling than ranting because it is deeper. It must “wallow in uncertainty”, at least for a time.

A rant starts out convinced of it's righteousness, and though it may well be righteous, it is inflexible, shrill and brittle. It can leave one feeling a little ashamed; the way one would feel after blowing up at a family reunion. Better to stick with the feeling of superiority we can get from a solid, articulate, well-thought-out argument. Lovingly crafted and offered to our opponents to deconstruct if they can, with our blessing and approval. I'll bet you can't argue with that!

Monday, August 31, 2009

Contemplative learning Seminar 1

Preparation Paper 1

Contemplative Learning Seminar, sec. F


Mason Brown

Question: according to Trungpa, one cannot experience fearlessness without first experiencing fear. Why is this? What is “fearlessness” and how do we achieve it?

Since Trungpa's definition of fearlessness is “beyond fear”(35), it follows that to go beyond something, one must go through it. To get to the other side of a street we have to cross the street, being in it for a time. To get to tomorrow there is no way to avoid today. The reasoning seems sound enough. With fear, though, it's a little more complicated. Say we fear death. If we can't stop fearing death without going through death, Is it possible to ever get beyond that fear before actually dying? I would say the answer is yes. We can go through/be in the fear itself. If we practice meditation, we can experience, over and over again, the death of every single moment. We can slowly become more comfortable. We can see that our state of fear is not so terrible; just a mental state. Slowly we can become used to the fear, like someone we've known for a long time. We begin to relax. In that way, by going through the fear of death, it's possible to get beyond it.

I have experienced this kind of process many times in my own life. Applying to Naropa University is only the latest example. First there was a dissatisfaction with where I was and what I was doing. It seemed arbitrary and pointless. Though I had wonderful friends, a loving and supportive partner, and enough employment to survive, it still didn't seem workable. I had already decided to seek higher education, and was enrolled in junior college when I came to the realization that, at my age, I should waste no time in getting to where I wanted to be. In terms of education, that place had always been Naropa.

I was late in applying for this semester, so the process was rushed and intense. It took a month to finish the application in the midst of work and school. During that time, I had the fear that I would not be accepted; that I would not meet Naropa's standards. That fear, as I lived with and, as Trungpa suggests, “...acknowledged”(34) it on a daily basis, it slowly receded. By the time I was accepted, I was resigned to whatever happened. I had a “plan B” and I was perfectly willing to go with that. I had put myself into the hands of the universe.

After being accepted, however, I had something new to fear. What if I couldn't get enough financial aid to pay for it? I have always lived on the edge of poverty, and my family is of very modest means. So during the period of waiting for my aid to be packaged, I had another fear to get beyond. In the same way, As I sat with that fear, it gradually lost its power.

Now that I am at Naropa, I am afraid of failing; afraid of not being able to make it financially(I have never had a fear of academic failure), but I have confidence, inspired by past experience, that this fear too will pass. So getting beyond the fear; achieving fearlessness is an ongoing process. Like peeling the layers of an onion, there is always one more level. Trungpa says:

Fear evolves into fearlessness naturally, very simply, and quite straightforwardly. The ideal of warriorship is that the warrior should be sad and tender, and because of that can be very brave as well. Without heartfelt sadness, bravery is brittle, like a china cup. If you drop it, it will break or chip. But the Bravery of the warrior is like a lacquer cup, which has a wooden base covered with layers of lacquer. If the cup drops, it will bounce rather than break. It is hard and soft at the same time. (37)

I identify strongly with this. I feel both hard and soft; brave and tender. I am ready to face anything. As my teacher, Kobun Chino Otogawa told me, “all we are doing is trying to accept everything as it is”. To me this is the same thing. If we are okay with reality, what is there to fear?

Works Cited

  • Trungpa, Chögyam. Shambala,the Sacred Path of the Warrior. Boston: Shambala, 2007. print.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

a New Naropa Student

Well, I am now officially a Naropa student. I just finished my first two classes: Buddhist Journey of transformation, a kind of "Buddhism 101", and Contemplative Learning Seminar, which is an introduction to the particular pedagogic style pioneered by Naropa University. We have heard the story of the school's namesake, the siddhi Naropa, and how, when he was a famous scholar at Nalanda University, circa 11-12 centuries, he was visited in his study by an alarmingly ugly old hag. The hag is said to have asked him:" Do you understand the words you are studying?" to which he replied in the affirmative. At this the hag broke out laughing and expressed great joy. She then asked:"Do you also understand the inner meaning of the words?"

When Naropa answered again, that of course he understood the deeper meaning, the hag's attitude changed abruptly. She began weeping and wailing uncontrollably, falling on the ground and clutching herself; expressing great sadness and despair.

Naropa asked "why were you so happy at my first answer and so sad at my second?"

The hag replied: "when you answered my first question, you told the truth, but when you answered the second question, you lied!" At this the hag dissolved into rainbow light and was gone. Naropa realized his understanding was insufficient, and gave up his place at the university and embarked on a years-long journey to find a teacher who could help him understand "the inner meaning".

I too, like Naropa, have studied and practiced for many years, and many people consider me a source of knowledge and experience. But, like Naropa, I don't know nuthin'! I am starting at the beginning and I hope I can accept everyone as my teacher. Even the ugly, poor old woman, or a child with bare feet.

With humility, I ask for the presence to pay attention every moment to the teachings that constantly surround me. My footsteps have led me back here after decades of seemingly aimless wandering, and I aspire to take what comes with equanimity.

My friend and Dharma brother, Hakubai Martin Mosko, Zenji has invited me to act as caretaker at his temple in Boulder, which is also a memorial garden for our teacher, Kobun Chino Otogawa, Dai-osho and his daughter, Maya, who tragically died in 2002. I am honored and humbled to serve in that position, and grateful for the trust that Martin has shown in me.

I am also thankful for all the support that has come from my friends and family, without which this would be impossible. I am keeping you all in my heart.

So this is my first post as a Naropa student. I will endeavor to write regularly on my experience here. The writing requirements will be pretty heavy for classes: it's looking like I'll have to write 3-4 papers a week this semester, so I may cheat and recycle some of that for this blog. I'll keep you posted. Gassho!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

"When Humans Walked the Earth"-- notes on the songs

    Big Liza Jane was one of the first tunes I learned on the banjo. It was on Kicking Mule Records' "Southern Clawhammer Banjo" played by Susan Cahill. The album fascinated me, and I literally wore out the cassette. I wrote "Frosty Noon" one snowy January day in Taos in 1995. I was attempting to write a tune that was similar to "Frosty Morning". I play these tunes in a style I learned from Martin Simpson called "guitar frailing". It is exactly analogous to banjo frailing. Roger Landes joins me on bouzouki for what we called our "we-don't-need-no-stinking-banjos" set.
    This song was famously recorded by Dock Boggs, one of my all-time favorite musicians. I have loved it for many years. I play Chipper Thompson's Farland banjo (circa 1900) and my Gibson L-1 (1913) parlour guitar, a gift from Chipper. I play this round-hole, arch-top guitar throughout the album.
    I can't remember the name of the singer-guitarist I learned this from, but he was fantastic and I believe he was a Brit. It was on an unlabeled cassette that Chipper Thompson gave me. I love these Napoleonic war songs, and this one is delicious in its sarcasm. Connie Dover adds lovely harmony over my DGDGAD guitar and Mark Dudrow's 'cello.
    I learned this North Carolina tune from Doug Goodhart, whose smoldering fiddle graces the track. Doug and I started playing together in 2005, and have done so regularly ever since. I enjoy playing the banjo part on guitar a la Martin Simpson.
    This song was written by Sara Ogan Gunning. Gunning was a union woman from east Kentucky whose husband and child were lost to Capitalist coal-mining. Between the verses I quote the tune to "Dark as a Dungeon" by Merle Travis. Ed Caner plays a perfect fiddle on this in B-flat!
    I learned these tunes from the playing of the great Minstrel banjo player Joe Ayers. I've run into the second one a lot at Irish sessions, but I've never heard anyone else play the first. I changed them to the same key, and I play them in G-major tuning.
  7. DAYS OF '49
    I learned this song as a kid and I don't remember the source. No doubt it was from one of those "revivalists". The guitar is in DADGAD and I play the "old-time" pardessus on the track.
    My father's uncle, Ralph Otis Brown, died in the 1990's. He was quite a character, and I always loved "Uncle Ralph". His friends all called him "Brownie". He was something of a beatnik, writing poetry, hanging out in black bars, carrying a gun and a knife. He had a catch phrase: "well, that's the road of life... but you know!" This song is loosely based on an evening I spent sitting on a bar stool next to him in the Saints and Sinners Lounge in Battle Creek, Michigan. The tuning is CGCGCD, and my sister, Katari Brown sings harmony. The Rev. Dr. Chipper Thompson contributes the "sacred steel".
    In 1998, when Chipper Thompson and I were recording Am I Born to Die?, we would often spend the drive home from Howlin' Dog Studios in Alamosa talking about nerdy things like the name of our next album. This was a title I contributed to that list, and we would periodically say to each other: "we need to write that song!" In 2000, Chipper's lovely wife, Lanford Monroe, passed away suddenly. The song came to me in response to that event. I added the traditional tune, "Billy in the Low Land" for Lanford. Ben Wright and Peter Halter do a wonderful job of backing this track.
    This is a war-horse of a song that's been done by just about every great banjo player you can name. I think I heard it first by Hobart Smith or Clarence Ashley, but I used every verse I could think of. Gari Hegedus and Tobias Roberson were in New Mexico for a gig and I took them into the studio. The oud and banjo seemed to really like each other, and the dumbek agreed. We did this very quickly. It was Tobias' idea to introduce the polyrhythms at the end. I play a minstrel banjo by Brooks Masten, an absolute genius.
    Stanley Greenthal introduced this tune to us. Stanley is an amazing musician, scholar and all- around great guy who should have a lot more recognition. The tune is from Bulgaria, near the Black Sea, and Doug Goodhart and I do an "appalachified" version of it.
    I first heard this song done by the great John Renbourn, and I've been in love with it ever since. It was originally published as a broadside shortly after Franklin's disappearance. Randal Bays gave me luscious multi-track fiddles, and Connie Dover crafted beautiful line-by-line harmony. The guitar is DADGAD.
    I learned this from the playing of Roscoe Holcomb. I played Chipper Thompson's Farland banjo tuned to eCgad.
    The first is a slip-jig with words that you usually hear sung, but which is an awesome tune. The second I first learned from Ken Perlman, but later heard others play, and the third is a one of those reels that's beautiful when played slow, which was famously done by the Bothy Band. Mark Dudrow and I have been playing this set for years, and I think it shows in our performance.
    Uncle Ralph Otis "Brownie" Brown wrote this poem, and I grew up hearing him recite it in his gravelly Tennessee drawl. In spite of his cultural racism, he was deeply inspired by the life and death of Martin Luther King, and I believe he was moved to write this poem after the shooting of King's mother, Alberta, in 1974. After Brownie's death, I reworked his words slightly and made this melody. The guitar is tuned DGDGAD and is capoed at the 6th fret.
  16. SHE
    This beautiful tune was composed by Roger Landes, who joins on bouzouki. Mark Dudrow is on 'cello, and I play pardessus viol and guitar tuned to DGDGAD. Roger gave this tune to Lisa Wright as a Christmas present. Andy Salamone, who mastered the album, deserves special mention for bringing all the disparate tracks on this one together.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

English 101

I have started this blog with all six essays I wrote for English 101 this last semester(spring 2009). I hope this blog will be a clearing house for my writing, whether it be for school requirements or just random thoughts, poetry or comments on current events. Wish me luck!


I think I was a pretty decent writer when I came to English 101. I have always been a daily reader. My mother was a voracious consumer of books. I remember her reading many of the classics as I was growing up. She read all of Charles Dickens, Les Miserables, and anything she could find about the Russian Revolution. My father was constantly reading books about Buddhism and art, and poetry books were always lying around.

My parents would summarize and discuss what they were reading, and I shared many of those books with them. That history is why I have an intuitive “feel” for writing; for how to put words together. At the same time, I have never written extensively. I have dabbled in poetry, written a couple of dozen songs, some letters and emails, and a few blog entries. Though some of this writing was fairly eloquent, I never did much editing or rewriting. I would just dash it out and be done with it.

This class has given me the form I needed to practice the art of examining my writing and relentlessly trying to improve it. All of the papers I have written in this class were first free-written rather quickly, and from the beginning, they were coherent pieces, naturally well-organized and logical, with elevated vocabulary and erudite turns of phrase. But when I spent time reviewing these first drafts, I was amazed by how many small things were cumbersome, unclear or simply incorrect. I now have a much better grasp of comma and semi-colon usage, for example (although absolute certainty remains elusive). I ended up spending about six hours slowly polishing my writing for every hour I had spent drafting it. As a result, I have come to realize that it’s absolutely necessary to do this if I want my writing to be at the highest possible level, and to communicate what I want to say, to whom I want to say it.

The essays I have provided for my portfolio: “Uncle John’s Furniture Truck” and “Iran Is Not a Threat to the United States,” were chosen not because they were the best-written - I believe that all five of my essays were of a similar high quality - but because they represent the range of my writing. “Uncle John’s Furniture Truck” is based on stories I have been telling verbally in casual settings for years. The situations are humorous and the tone is light, and the style is a little more relaxed than the more serious argument form of “Iran Is Not a Threat to the United States,” in which government policies and media statements are examined and, I think, deflated by truth-seeking analysis.

In both of these essays I was compelled, after reflection, to modify my language in order to make the writing more accurate and persuasive. As I reread the story about Uncle John, I noticed that I used shorthand phrases to refer to events rather than simply describing what happened. For example, in the first draft of this story, I said that I “took out” a fire hydrant, but in the final draft I replaced that phrase with a more vivid moment-by-moment account of the destruction of the hydrant. I am learning that narrating a chain of events can be more impactful than just encapsulating them.

After reading my early drafts of “Iran Is Not a Threat to the United States”, I shaped my language in order to make the wording less confrontational, more nuanced, and less absolute. “Always” would become “typically”, in an effort not to paint myself into a corner, rhetorically. I think that the work I put into polishing the pieces was worth it, and that the essays were substantially improved.

I have fulfilled the requirements of all of the assignments, and I put in the maximum amount of work I could, considering that I am a part-time student and have the distraction of trying to make a living at the same time as I seek an education. In short, I think I deserve an A for this class.

Ross Daly, the World's Greatest Musician

The premise that there is a “world's greatest musician” is absurd. There are so many different kinds of music in the world, and so many brilliant and accomplished practitioners of music, most of whom are unknown to us, that it would be impossible to make a convincing case for the primacy of just one player. However, it is an interesting mental exercise. When I think about my favorite musicians, a lot of names come to mind, many of them my good friends, but a few stand out in terms of importance to me. One is Jordi Savall, the Spanish-Catalan viola da gamba player who introduced to modern ears the music of Marin Marais and others who played the abandoned instrument. Another is Randal Bays, Seattle-area Irish fiddler who, after discovering Irish traditional music rather late in life, was soon lending guitar accompaniment to great fiddlers like James Kelly and Martin Hayes, and who went on to become one of the best players of Irish fiddle in the world. Yet another is Martin Simpson, the English guitar wizard who introduced me to open tunings and his signature “guitar frailing” technique, with which any clawhammer banjo tune may be perfectly imitated on guitar. These musicians and many others are truly great, but finally, my mind comes to rest on Ross Daly.

Ross is an Irishman whose parents were diplomats. He grew up all over the world, and studied music from an early age. As a young man, he traveled to Greece. He found the traditional music he encountered there captivating, and not unlike the Indian music he had already studied, with its modal basis and uneven time signatures. Greek music gives us the seven “modes”, or scales, of Western music, but it actually contains more than seven modes. It contains notes between notes that Western musicians might consider “out of tune”, but which are actually very precisely played micro tones. Greek music also often involves odd meters, in which the beats are grouped into twos and threes, using time signatures such as seven-eight, which sounds like “ONE-two, ONE-two, ONE-two-three”.

Ross studied very diligently, and mastered many instruments, including the Cretan lyra, a pear-shaped lap-fiddle with three main strings and many sympathetic strings, which is extremely difficult to play. Instead of pushing the strings down against the fingerboard with the pads of the fingers, as on the violin, the fingers rest beside the strings so that the strings are stopped by the large, smooth surfaces of the fingernails. The result is an eerie, haunting sound with rich sustain and expressive vibrato, reminiscent of the human voice. Ross also plays many plucked-string instruments, including rubab, an Afghani banjo; lauto, a Greek lute; setar, a Persian lute; and various Turkish lutes, called saz. He has mastered many forms of music from Greece, Turkey, and Iran, and has transcended these forms, developing a fusion that mixes traditional instruments and themes.

Ross has also become a prolific composer. His tunes evoke a mythic past, shrouded in Aegean mist, while remaining fresh and urgent, embodying the longing, love, and tear-wet sorrow of human existence. His compositions, like their traditional models, are melodically and rhythmically dense and complicated. Once Ross and his collaborators have established the musical territory of these compositions, they launch headlong into the open space of improvisation, soaring to ever-new heights of imagination and freedom, gliding among iridescent, melodious birds before plunging down through unknown stratospheres to dive with shimmering rhythmic fishes, and deeper, to the very darkest sub-marine trenches of music.

Daly has trained and mentored an entire generation of younger musicians from the around the world. When he started playing traditional music it was not popular among the youth of its native countries, many of whom were seduced by the “cool”, modern pop music of the West. The music of their grandfathers was seen as staid, boring and conservative. Ross Daly, an outsider, nurtured a new appreciation for some of the greatest musical traditions in the world, and brought his interpretation of those traditions to enthusiastic audiences who had never heard music like this before.

Ross Daly is now considered to be a national treasure in Greece. The government of Crete has provided him with a historic villa, which serves as a museum, housing his collection of hundreds of instruments. It is also the home of the “Labyrinth Music Workshop,” where musicians flock from every continent to attend master classes with top players and singers in pan-Near-eastern styles. Some of his famous protégées are Stelios Petrakis, the great lyra and lauto player from Crete; Bijhan Chemarani, Paris-born Iranian zarb master; and Sokratis Sinopoulis, player of the politici-lyra, from Athens. Ross Daly's accomplishments as a player, a composer and an ambassador of music are unparalleled by any other living person I can think of, and that's why, for my money, he is the greatest musician in the world.