“Why, She Wouldn’t Even Harm A Fly”

This week I killed a cockroach and it made me cry.

First things first: I don’t know whether the fact there was a roach in my kitchen sink is a referendum on my housekeeping or just related to the fact that I live in an old apartment building on the first floor with windows facing out to the street, where I often see big-ass roaches on the sidewalk at night while walking my dog. Probably six of one, half a dozen of the other. 

Second, this wasn’t some regular little roach. This was like a three or four inch guy, a roach so big he was transcending insect and approaching being an animal. There’s a different relationship between killing a bug that is but a speck and killing a bug who looks like he could pick up one of my forks.

Third, a few years back I took Buddhist vows (the Five Precepts) that included the vow to refrain from harming living things. To be fair I regularly break this vow; while I have cut beef and pork from my diet, and while my growing lactose intolerance makes me opt for dairy substitutes more often, I still devour foul and fish. What’s more, my general lifestyle cannot be claimed cruelty-free because I do not pay attention to the origins of my clothes and stuff. 

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BLACK MIRROR: BANDERSNATCH And The Illusion Of Free Will

This contains minor spoilers for Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

I’m in the minority on Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch interactive episode – I find Charlie Brooker’s anti-humanism increasingly tiresome, and out of place in a world that desperately needs positivity*, and I also think that the meta-within-meta concept is student-level stuff and not half as clever as it thinks it is – but I was intrigued by the way the episode approaches the concept of free will. Free will is one of the underpinnings of our modern society – we all operate under the assumption that we have it, after all – but it’s less clear cut than that.

The usual free will debates are free will vs destiny, which fall into the theistic realm – destiny is a supernatural concept that requires some kind of a guiding force. But for the past few decades the real debate has shifted inward, to the self, rather than outward to God or the Fates or whatever. It’s possible that we don’t have free will because we are, essentially, robots whose programming allows us to justify the actions we are forced to take as choices we make.

You see this in Bandersnatch, as Stefan becomes slowly aware that he’s not the one making the choices in his life. In the context of the show this is a fourth wall break, but it read to me as being quite close to some of the stuff I’ve been learning about the human mind in the past couple of years, and that is quite close to research that has changed the way we look at the world and our place in it.

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Who Was Buddha?

(The image above is Keanu Reeves as the Buddha in Little Buddha, a movie that actually does a pretty good job of retelling the Buddha’s story, and also feature a weird Chris Isaak performance)

Yesterday was Vesak, a Buddhist holiday that, with extreme efficiency, celebrates the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment AND death all at once. It’s highly unlikely that all of those events took place on the same day, and as Buddhism is one of those ancient religions that is less interested in facts than modern religions are, nobody really got upset about it.

Vesak seems like a good opportunity to talk really briefly about just who the Buddha was, because it’s clear to me most people don’t know. I certainly didn’t know until a couple of years ago, and I had taken comparative religion courses and had a lifelong interest in religious mythology. I always thought Buddha was the fat guy whose statue you see in Chinese restaurants, but it turns out that ain’t him. In fact those fat Buddha statues couldn’t be farther from the real thing.

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Do No Evil

The problem of evil! It consumes Western Abrahamic philosophy – how can a God who is both all-powerful and all-good allow evil into His universe? People tie themselves up in knots trying to answer this one (without taking a step back and wondering if their base assumptions about God are, in fact, not correct). And it’s not just the West that struggles with the nature of evil; even supposedly non-dualistic Eastern philosophies spend time trying to figure out why evil exists.

But what if it doesn’t? I’m not a Zen Buddhist, but I’ve been reading a book about the philosophy of Zen Buddhist icon Dogen, and his thoughts on evil are really intriguing to me. The basic idea: there’s no such thing as evil. Evil isn’t a thing. It’s an action.

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BLACK PANTHER vs The Guy Who Is Ignoring Trump

Did you see the New York Times story about the guy who is staying ignorant of all Donald Trump related news? It’s so crazy that I half think it’s a hoax; the premise is that on November 8 this former Nike executive was so traumatized by Trump’s win that he decided he would ignore ALL news about Trump, going so far as to wear white noise headphones when at the coffee shop.

Let’s assume this is not a hoax. We can approach this guy from a few perspectives. The least helpful perspective is the one where we clown him and say bad things about him. Slightly more helpful is the perspective where we note that a wealthy white guy has the privilege to just ignore the horrors Trump is visiting upon our nation. But that’s only helpful if we turn it inwards – what are WE ignoring in the world thanks to our privilege of living in industrialized nations? Recognizing where this guy is wrong is useless unless we take that recognition and internalize it.

But maybe the most interesting (for me, a nerd) perspective is the Wakandan one.

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The Lost City of Me (sorry not sorry for the pun)

I don’t love the term “self-improvement.”

Between recovery, therapy and Buddhism I engage in a lot of activities that people might call self-improvement. I’m also on Weight Watchers, and making my first tentative steps towards some kind of exercise regime. But nothing that I am doing feels like self-improvement. I don’t feel like I’m adding a wing to this house of me or putting in a pool. I feel like I’m returning myself to a true original state.

This is restoration, not improvement.
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Some Pig: OKJA And Vegetarianism

This year I began an imperfect journey towards vegetarianism, and it all started with Okja.

In May I took refuge in Buddhism, and one of the five precepts I undertook was that I would abstain from taking life. On the surface that’s easy – we don’t run around killing people – but the way Buddhism talks about life makes the whole question more complicated. In Buddhism we talk about not causing harm to ‘sentient beings,’ and science has caught up with Buddhism – if it has a nervous system, it’s probably sentient. The idea is that if it can feel pain you should avoid giving it pain.

So I had been working with that concept on a very small level – I started avoiding killing insects – when I began reading a book called Sapiens. It’s a history of homo sapiens from an evolutionary standpoint, and at one point late in the book the author makes an extraordinary claim: current factory farming practices are the greatest atrocity in which humanity has ever participated.

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The Idiots In The Check-Out Line

Once a month I sit with a delightful Buddhist monk named Kusala Bikshu. Sometimes he plays blues harmonica for us after meditation.

This week he told stories about his interactions with people in the world, and they were all real Buddhist Seinfeld tales – a monk, out of step with society, bumbles his way through awkward LA encounters. One of his stories summed up, for me, the absolute secret to being happy.

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