Monday, October 31, 2005

Saturday, October 29, 2005

the buddhist nuns; quest for happiness

Last night, my task was to pick up two Buddhist nuns at the San Francisco airport. When A. and I arrived to find them, we joked about running around frantically: "Help! We've lost two Buddhist nuns!"

They were easy enough to spot, descending the staircase, with huge smiles and easy laughs. Seeing them against a backdrop of commuters with weary eyes and tense jaws was a ridiculous conjunction. I had taken my camera along but never discovered the moment in which a photograph would not have been rude (Is photography essentially unBuddhist in that it is less about experiencing the present moment than about trapping it in a cage?)

One Sister was only 23 years old. She was French and told us that she had been certain she would be a nun since the age of 16. That is the age at which she started approaching the monastics at Plum Village in the Bordeaux region of France.

The destination for the nun delivery was a small party in Berkeley where there were other monks and laypeople preparing for a weekend retreat in Ukiah. (I am not among them. I am simply reporting this as a privileged observer)

The focus of the retreat is to engage in Zen meditation as well as to ponder life's questions. My friend A. herself was one of the organizers. Here is an excerpt from an email exchange from the young organizers to the Buddhist monks who will be in attendance:

I'm emailing in regards to the questions. I wrote the questions as a way of trying to capture the key issues that young adult practitioners face in the secular world. When we come to visit you in the monastery, we are surrounded by the wonderful monastics and the peaceful atmosphere of the monastery; and we try to see clearly and quiet the noise inside of us. But when we leave the monastery, we come out into the securlar world, and all the hopes and dreams and fears and aspirations that we put aside when we were with you come back to us. ...
The questions are a way of trying to open the gateway between the world of the secular practitioner and the world of zen. If I could ask one thing of you, it would be to think through what parts of the dharma, espcially the mindfulness trainings, the heart sutra, the dharmapada, and hakuins song of zazen, and to speak to the questions below. However, please understand that these are all only words and concepts and perceptions, and what I am asking is really beyond words (you are thinking. stop thinking.
when we secular folks are looking at each other, comtemplating sex, we are caught up in an emotional and hormonal whirlwind. And it is very difficult to maintain our footing. And we have been very lonely for a long time, for most of us, our families are not close to us, and maybe we don't have anyone to cuddle with or to hug us. So this whirlwind of emotion and hugging and being loved and cared for and feeling safe is very powerful. We feel we see truth after a long time of lack of clarity. We feel we are able to drink a glass of water after a long time in the desert.
Despite all this griping about how our social fabric is broken, we love our freedoms as individuals. And more and more, young adults opt for an extended adolescence that celebrates this freedom. The adolescence means unlimited travel, exploring new places, lack of obligation, many opportunities, and a certain kind of freedom that is deeply pleasurable. But lonely. One of the things that we find confusing, is "the pursuit of happiness"... The thing about a consumption culture is that you think you choose what you want to buy. Well, we're not consuming obligation and commitment very much anymore. If we were to become monastics, our obligations and commitments would be very clear. ..
Questions I have for you: What is true freedom? What does the dharma tell us about freedom and how to realize it? What is happiness? What obligations should we take on and should free oursevles from? What does the dharma say about obligation and resonsibility? What does the dharma say about doing what you want? What does it say about family commitments? About community commitments?
These are all only words. My objective is not to ask you to respond in words. But to help us realize the real nature of zen on a fundamental and inituitive level that we can use as we struggle in the secular world. I hope this email makes our suffering and delights more clear

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Birthday in Portugal


madrid: hotel urbanmadrid: parque del retiro

evora: initiationevora: bones

lisboa: bairro alto hotellisboa

lisboa: otterlisboa: restaurant

From the top of the Templar wellQuinta da Regaleria

happy birthday mevideo: me in lisboa

Notes on the photos above:

**Tapas place in Madrid's Plaza Santa Ana. Not too far from the Hotel Urban where I stayed.
**The FNAC bookstore in Madrid has a section where you can sit down and read as many books as you like.

**The Hotel Urban in Madrid. A beautiful but dark hotel which I think was built for vampires.
**A colorful art exhibition in the Crystal palace at the center of Madrid's Parque del Retiro

**Uperclassmen initiating freshmen in Evora, Portugal
**Evora's Ossuary: composed of the remains of over 5,000 people.

**The BiarroAlto Hotel: where I stayed in Lisboa.
**Street in Lisboa

**The otter that was enraptured by Claudia. (Claudia can also speak otter-language, a squeaky high-pitched tongue)
**At a restaurant with Claudia

**Quinta da Regaleira in Sintra, Portugal. This is from the top of the Templar well.
**Quinta da Regaleira

**Happy Birthday to me: At Olivier's. Possibly the best chocolate dessert I've ever had.
**One frame of a video of me

Saturday, October 08, 2005


"One of the many ways of contesting level-zero, and one of the best, is to take photographs, an activity in which one should start becoming adept very early in life, teach it to children since it requires discipline, aesthetic education, a good eye and steady fingers. I'm not talking about waylaying the lie like any old reporter, snapping the stupid silhouette of the VIP leaving number 10 Downing street, but in all ways when one is walking about with a camera, one has almost a duty to be attentive, to not lose that abrupt and happy rebound of sun's rays off an old stone, or the pigtails-flying run of a small girl going home with a loaf of bread or a bottle of milk. Michel knew that the photographer always worked as a permutation of his personal way of seeing the world as other than the camera insidiously imposed upon it (now a large cloud is going by, almost black) but he lacked no confidence in himself, knowing that he had only to go out without the Contax to recover the keynote of distraction, the sight without a frame around it, light without the diaphragm aperture of 1/250 sec. Right now (what a word now, what a dumb lie) I was able to sit quietly on the railing overlooking the river watching the red and black motorboats passing below without it occuring to me to think photographically of the scenes, nothing more than letting myself go in the letting go of objects, running immobile in the stream of time. And then the wind was blowing."

-Julio Cortazar, Blow-Up

This is from the short story upon which Antonioni's famous movie was based. I've been meaning to post this excerpt here for some time, as it is a kind of tribute to my photographer friends. This is specifically for Paul who recently announced his engagement. He is getting married next year in Hong Kong and I can't wait.

Friday, October 07, 2005


Perhaps the best balance between the moments of anticipation and the moments of revelation is that moment of initiation, when the curtain draws back. The moment of unfolding. As when the organist at the Castro theatre dissappears down below the stage as the lights dim and the machine sound of rolling curtains begins.

Re-reading the opening passages of my favorite books: Bowles Sheltering Sky, Di Lampedusa's The Leopard, Durrell's Justine is a re-enactment of that moment of transition between ignorance and amazement.

"The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes.."


Saturday, October 01, 2005

Stillman Maps 1. In Paul Auster's novel City of...

Stillman Maps

1. In Paul Auster's novel City of Glass (published in 1985), the detective Quinn is trailing a man named Stillman. As he follows Stillman, he notices that the man is not up to much, seemingly spending his time idling around an area of New York and engaging in a variety of pointless tasks. But Quinn faithfully records all of this in his journal:

"Pick up pencil in middle of block. Examines, hesitates, puts in a bag ... Buys sandwich in deli ... Sits on bench in park and reads through red notebook" These sentences seemed utterly worthless to him.

Frustrated, Quinn decides to map out the path that Stillman has traced in his walks.

It seemed to him that he was looking for a sign. He was ransacking the chaos of Stillman's movements for some glimmer of cogency. This implied only one thing: that he continued to disbelieve the arbitrariness of Stillman's actions. He wanted there to be a sense to them, no matter how obscure. This, in itself, was unacceptable. For it meant that Quinn was allowing himself to deny the facts, and this, as he well knew, was the worst thing a detective could do.

Nevertheless, Quinn traces out Stillman's path and discovers that on a particular day Stillman, in his walks, has traced out a letter of the alphabet. Each day, a different letter. And the letters traced out across the city form a word - a message.

2. In his metaphysical detective novel titled The Investigation, the writer Stanislaw Lem introduces us to a bizarre series of crimes commited across the city. The detectives in the novel, struggling to find an explanation that fits all the facts, arrive at one of two possible conclusions:

The first is that a bizarre and completely unlikely series of coincidences have happened, so as to make it seem that all the murders have the same underlying cause. This explanation also presumes a series of inter-related events: cancer rates, truck schedules, well-positioned cemeteries and insomniac drivers colliding together in such an absurd way so as to create the equivalent of a wide-scale Rube Goldberg device.

The second explanation is much much simpler and fits all the facts neatly. There is only one problem with it: The explanation involves the supernatural - specifically corpses who become zombies and rise out of their graves.

The novel ends with a question: Which explanation should a detective or scientist accept? Which explanation is more likely? How should our mind make sense of the bare facts?

3. On his Radical Cartography site, Bill Rankin introduces us to "A series of maps of the cities I've lived in or know well, showing only those routes and destinations that I actually use" Here, for example, is New York.

He calls them "Personal Use Maps". I call them Stillman maps.

4. The Waag society attaches GPS devices to several people in Amsterdam and then maps their travels around the city. The participants include a cyclist and a marathon runner.

Here is one map of Amsterdam produced by these wanderings. The process is referred to as "real-time GPS" The maps are just called maps.

5. It was Einstein who first introduced the concept of World Lines. A world line marks the travels of an object or person in both time and space. In fact, the Theory of Relativity can be restated in terms of World Lines: Its not that nothing can travel faster than light - its that no person or object can walk across the Light Cone.

A Stillman map is a World Line where the Time axis has been collapsed. It is the projection of the World line on a flat map. It is a cartographic diary.