The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~


Friday, May 30, 2008

Nothing New Under the Sun




A friend sent me this artilce, from which I've excerpted a portion below. It's about modern science studying the benefits of meditation. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the full article.


Lotus Therapy
By BENEDICT CAREY


The patient sat with his eyes closed, submerged in the rhythm of his own breathing, and after a while noticed that he was thinking about his troubled relationship with his father.

“I was able to be there, present for the pain,” he said, when the meditation session ended. “To just let it be what it was, without thinking it through.”

The therapist nodded.

“Acceptance is what it was,” he continued. “Just letting it be. Not trying to change anything.”

“That’s it,” the therapist said. “That’s it, and that’s big.”

This exercise in focused awareness and mental catch-and-release of emotions has become perhaps the most popular new psychotherapy technique of the past decade. Mindfulness meditation, as it is called, is rooted in the teachings of a fifth-century B.C. Indian prince, Siddhartha Gautama, later known as the Buddha. It is catching the attention of talk therapists of all stripes, including academic researchers, Freudian analysts in private practice and skeptics who see all the hallmarks of another fad.

For years, psychotherapists have worked to relieve suffering by reframing the content of patients’ thoughts, directly altering behavior or helping people gain insight into the subconscious sources of their despair and anxiety. The promise of mindfulness meditation is that it can help patients endure flash floods of emotion during the therapeutic process — and ultimately alter reactions to daily experience at a level that words cannot reach. “The interest in this has just taken off,” said Zindel Segal, a psychologist at the Center of Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, where the above group therapy session was taped. “And I think a big part of it is that more and more therapists are practicing some form of contemplation themselves and want to bring that into therapy.”

At workshops and conferences across the country, students, counselors and psychologists in private practice throng lectures on mindfulness. The National Institutes of Health is financing more than 50 studies testing mindfulness techniques, up from 3 in 2000, to help relieve stress, soothe addictive cravings, improve attention, lift despair and reduce hot flashes.
Some proponents say Buddha’s arrival in psychotherapy signals a broader opening in the culture at large — a way to access deeper healing, a hidden path revealed.

Yet so far, the evidence that mindfulness meditation helps relieve psychiatric symptoms is thin, and in some cases, it may make people worse, some studies suggest. Many researchers now worry that the enthusiasm for Buddhist practice will run so far ahead of the science that this promising psychological tool could turn into another fad.

“I’m very open to the possibility that this approach could be effective, and it certainly should be studied,” said Scott Lilienfeld, a psychology professor at Emory. “What concerns me is the hype, the talk about changing the world, this allure of the guru that the field of psychotherapy has a tendency to cultivate.”

Buddhist meditation came to psychotherapy from mainstream academic medicine. In the 1970s, a graduate student in molecular biology, Jon Kabat-Zinn, intrigued by Buddhist ideas, adapted a version of its meditative practice that could be easily learned and studied. It was by design a secular version, extracted like a gemstone from the many-layered foundation of Buddhist teaching, which has sprouted a wide variety of sects and spiritual practices and attracted 350 million adherents worldwide.

In transcendental meditation and other types of meditation, practitioners seek to transcend or “lose” themselves. The goal of mindfulness meditation was different, to foster an awareness of every sensation as it unfolds in the moment.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Diet Food Sports Weight Loss Blog


No, not this one.


If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to a new acquaintance, who runs the Diet Food Sports Weight Loss Blog.


Don't be put off that it's in Japanese. The blog contains a large number of very interesting links that are worth following. Please pay a visit.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

What You Don't Know


Several years and a couple of jobs ago, I frequently worked with the general manager of the microcontroller division of the company I worked for. While I'm glad I didn't ever work directly for him, I didn't care for his management style, I learned an awful lot from him.

Among the things I learned was not to be in an unnatural hurry to make a decision or to reach a conclusion. Sure, if you have a deadline looming, you have to decide, but to do this prematurely wasn't usually a good idea.

Rather, he said, take the problem or situation and turn it over and over. Look at it from every side and try to slice it every way you can. You might now find the "answer" you were looking for, but you might find something else perhaps even more valuable: understanding.

Take every nugget of information you have with a grain of salt. Every fact should be held as tentative, as there is always another shoe that may drop.

When you have to make a decision, go ahead and use the best information you have available to you at the time, just be aware that what you think of as the truth might change and it may be helpful if your plans are flexible enough to change as well.

A friend sent me an article from which I've posted an exerpt below. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the full article. It's a pretty good read.

For the Chief, a Little Skepticism Can Go a Long Way

A NEIGHBOR of mine has eyes in the back of her head. Sometimes she can tell without looking that her children are doing something off limits — eating cookies just before dinner, shedding backpacks on the kitchen floor — and she tells them to stop without even turning around.

It’s a handy little skill for a parent. But for managers and corporate leaders, it is essential to be able to see problems lying just out of sight.

If leaders “don’t look at things a little skeptically, they can find themselves in trouble,” said Jay Lorsch, a professor of human relations at Harvard Business School.

Senior executives and directors “have got to be able to smell the smoke,” he added. “They have to have a certain level of cynicism and skepticism.”

Or as Andrew S. Grove, the former chief executive of Intel, put it in the title of one of his books, “Only the Paranoid Survive.”

Unfortunately, there are a host of reasons that leaders do not necessarily get all the information they need.

Simple human nature is part of the problem: No one likes to hear bad news, no matter how useful it may be. Managers who appear to blame the messengers bringing word of, say, poor sales or a competitor’s inroads, can easily discourage future reports.

Niko Canner, the managing partner of Katzenbach Partners, a consulting firm based in New York, said that when an employee comes to him with news of actual or potential problems, “I try to deal with bad news in a way that I get more of it rather than less.”

That entails thanking his informant, then discussing ways to resolve the problem and — as a final step — setting aside time in the future to discuss how the problem started. That way, the people delivering bad news realize that they will not be punished for their candor.

Even when top executives vow to be accessible, though, it can be a challenge for subordinates to reach them.

A top executive might say that “I’m very clear that I have an open-door policy,” said Craig Chappelew, a senior manager at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C. “But for me to even get in, I have to get past the front desk, get a badge, and get past two levels of administrative assistants. I think they confuse open-door policy with interpersonal approachability.”

In a leadership skills assessment that Mr. Chappelew has given to nearly 1,000 top executives and hundreds of their company directors and subordinates, most of the executives rated their interpersonal skills highly. But those who reported directly to them rated them as only average in that area.

The executives also rated themselves as adept at strategic planning, but their company directors saw that as an area where the executives were also not very strong.

“From two perspectives, these senior executives are missing the boat,” Mr. Chappelew said.

In some cases, very senior executives are just too far removed from day-to-day operations to see developing problems. Exhibit A: financial executives who have been blindsided by mortgage-related problems at their companies.

Some senior executives also believe too ardently in their company’s long-term projects — complex new technologies, for example, or drugs in development — to see their flaws.

And in certain situations, executives may not realize that their onetime confidants have either clammed up or have taken sides, and thus will convey little or none of the bad news the executives would benefit from hearing.

Clearly, leaders who wait for bad news to come their way are taking a major risk. That’s why some leaders regularly seek out news, both good and bad.

Lew Frankfort, chief executive of Coach, the leather and accessories company, is unrelenting when it comes to monitoring company operations.

The company spends close to $5 million on consumer research annually. When Mr. Frankfort arrives at work each morning, there is a sales report for each North American store waiting on his desk. He receives reports on worldwide sales every week, and he and his senior executives reassess each unit’s business outlook monthly.

He says he runs the business on what he calls an “exception” basis: “To the extent that there is a significant variation better or worse than expected, we drill in to understand that.”

MR. FRANKFORT says he is also “a big advocate of management by walking around.” He visits stores once or twice a week, introducing himself to customers only as Lew. And he has questions lobbed at him at regular lunch forums focused on broad topics like business development and growth opportunities.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Writer's Block


Wordless.

Struggling to find

Just one cohesive though.

At a blank piece of paper

I stare.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

300 Tang Dynasty Poems: #27, ENTERTAINING LITERARY MEN IN MY



The Tang Dynasty was a high point of culture in China. Especially esteemed was the poetry of that era. No occasion was too small or unsuitable for a poem. 300 of the best poems from that era have been collected in a famous anthology entitled "The 300 Tang Dynasty Poems." If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to an online version. Below is #27. Enjoy.
Five-character-ancient-verse
Wei Yingwu
ENTERTAINING LITERARY MEN IN MY
OFFICIAL RESIDENCE ON A RAINY DAY

Outside are insignia, shown in state;
But here are sweet incense-clouds, quietly ours.
Wind and rain, coming in from sea,
Have cooled this pavilion above the lake
And driven the feverish heat away
From where my eminent guests are gathered.
...Ashamed though I am of my high position
While people lead unhappy lives,
Let us reasonably banish care
And just be friends, enjoying nature.
Though we have to go without fish and meat,
There are fruits and vegetables aplenty.
...We bow, we take our cups of wine,
We give our attention to beautiful poems.
When the mind is exalted, the body is lightened
And feels as if it could float in the wind.
...Suzhou is famed as a centre of letters;
And all you writers, coming here,
Prove that the name of a great land
Is made by better things than wealth.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Aikido Ballet

If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the video at YouTube. Turn up the volume.
video

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Spring


The grass is cut, and the beer is gone. It's time to think about... Gardens! A friend sent me this article from which I'm posting an excerpt. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the full article in the NY Times. You'll want to see their slide show. Enjoy.

Dharma in the Dirt

MUIR BEACH, Calif.

AS a proudly Birkenstocked Zen gardener, Wendy Johnson can mindfully muster up affection for many of the earth’s species, with the possible exception of persimmon-devouring gophers.

But poison hemlock holds a special place in her heart.

Without the presence of this pernicious carrot look-alike, a potent vertigo-inducing poison that when ingested can cause death, she reasons, her garden would be all cloying lilac- and lily-scented perfection — boring, in short. The innocent-looking malevolent weed, which she allows to flourish for its capacity to draw rich minerals from the soil for compost, “gives the garden its punch,” she said, “snapping me back to my senses.”

Like her beloved hemlock, Ms. Johnson has deep taproots in California. Her own garden, bordered by a mountain creek with a view of the Pacific Ocean, lies down the road from the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, where she helped pioneer the concept of organic gardening in the United States. Now the farm’s unofficial gardener emeritus, she lived at Green Gulch for 25 years, marrying, raising her two children and growing produce for Greens Restaurant, which was founded by the Center in 1979.

Long before Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver wrote best-selling books about eating foods grown locally, Ms. Johnson, with a long-necked English watering can perpetually in hand, was cultivating an awareness of how lettuce grown au naturel can also feed the soul.

“You should taste this place,” she said, offering a visitor dried lemon verbena tea from the garden, her wide eyes bringing to mind a surprised lemur.

It is a cliché to say that gardening is meditative. But few have meditated as long and as earnestly as Ms. Johnson, who arrived at “the Gulch” with a sweaty Kelty backpack in 1975 after trekking much of the way from Tassajara, a rugged Zen outpost in the Ventana Wilderness. In her new book, “Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate: At Work in the Wild and Cultivated World” — part memoir, part Sunset Magazine sitting on the floor mindfully eating a raisin in the zendo — she ponders such questions as whether it’s O.K. for life-embracing Buddhists to crush snails (ask forgiveness first) or to trap gophers (breathe deep, then fence instead).

For Ms. Johnson, who occasionally waters the Buddha statue in her greenhouse to, as she says, “bring him to life a little bit,” gardening is about far more than Gravenstein apple trees or David Austin heirloom roses. It is to literally know “the heart and mind of your place,” and in so doing, to know your own heart and mind as well. “I am often most alert and settled in the garden when I am working hard, hip deep in a succulent snarl of spring weeds,” she writes. “My mind and body drop away then, far below wild radish and bull thistle, and I live in the rhythmic pulse of the long green throat of my work.”

Her looks betray her place: an unapologetic 60, Ms. Johnson has earthmother-y white hair, liver spots, knee socks and gnarly rose-scratched hands that horrify her two fashionable younger sisters in New York and Los Angeles. (“We’d look like you if we didn’t take care of ourselves!” they tell her — lovingly, she insists.)

Her primer on meditation and gardening is similarly steeped in northern California, a place where, since the 1960s, cultivation of the land and the self have been intertwined. Less widely known than Chez Panisse or the zen center’s own restaurant, Greens, the farm has influence that has nevertheless extended far beyond its terroir, a fertile dragon-shaped swath of what was once compressed ocean bottom at the foot of Mount Tamalpais.

From it germinated a movement toward “conscious eating and conscious growing, linked with the ethic of taking care of the land,” said Randolph Delehanty, a San Francisco historian. The organic Buddhists, led by Ms. Johnson; her husband, Peter Rudnick; and two influential teachers, Alan Chadwick and Harry Roberts, were “among the first people to take the idea of stewardship of the land and make a lifestyle out of it,” said Fred Bové, the former education director for the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society.

As a gardener, Ms. Johnson combines the conventional and the not-so. She grows roses and apple trees but also advocates compost and manure teas to boost the immune systems of plants (add 2-3 cups well decomposed compost or live manure per gallon of water; steep for 3 days). A columnist for Tricycle, the Buddhist magazine, she occasionally lapses into the woo-woo in the book, defining “inter-being” as “looking mindfully at broccoli and beet plants” and knowing that you are all one.

In her own garden, which she describes as “wild and bestial,” a hot tub deemed ugly on the deck is concealed by tangles of jasmine, narcissus and other plants, including several opium poppies. “The bees love them,” she observed of the poppies. “They’re medicating themselves right and left.”

The hot tub overlooks a pond filled with rainwater where otters occasionally do the backstroke and frogs make chirping sounds at night (she holds the phone over the pond to comfort her daughter, Alisa, a freshman at Bard, when she is homesick). Ms. Johnson meditates daily here, sitting on the cushion she stores beneath the living room sofa, where the cat sleeps (“stray cats target Buddhist households,” she said).

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Spring


Having cut the lawn,
A cold beer beckons to me.
Watching. Drinking. Rain.


松 The Grass Cutting Daoist

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Road to Mastery


A friend of mine sent me these three quotes, which I think are very good.

Being the Beginner's
"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's there are few." ---Shunryu Suzuki

The Student Emerges
"He is now forced to admit that he is at the mercy of everyone who is stronger, more nimble and more practiced than he."
---Eugen Herrigel

To Achieve the Expert Level
"He who has a hundred miles to walk should reckon ninety as half the journey" --- Japanese Proverb

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Quirk


I just put up another link over at the right. You can also click on the title of this post.

It's for a blog entitled "Quirk." The description from the site reads:

It’s about Emerson, fencing, painting, writing, absurdities, aikido, politics, spirit, rock ‘n’ roll, Thoreau, science fiction, beauty… and getting down with my bad side

It's terrific. Please pay a visit.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Why Learing an Asian Language is Hard


A friend sent me a link to an interesting article on how hard it is to learn Chinese. While I'm trying to learn Japanese, most of the points certainly applies. Reading this makes me feel a little better about my progress. if you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the full article.

Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard

by David Moser
University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies

The first question any thoughtful person might ask when reading the title of this essay is, "Hard for whom?" A reasonable question. After all, Chinese people seem to learn it just fine. When little Chinese kids go through the "terrible twos", it's Chinese they use to drive their parents crazy, and in a few years the same kids are actually using those impossibly complicated Chinese characters to scribble love notes and shopping lists. So what do I mean by "hard"? Since I know at the outset that the whole tone of this document is going to involve a lot of whining and complaining, I may as well come right out and say exactly what I mean. I mean hard for me, a native English speaker trying to learn Chinese as an adult, going through the whole process with the textbooks, the tapes, the conversation partners, etc., the whole torturous rigmarole. I mean hard for me -- and, of course, for the many other Westerners who have spent years of their lives bashing their heads against the Great Wall of Chinese.

If this were as far as I went, my statement would be a pretty empty one. Of course Chinese is hard for me. After all, any foreign language is hard for a non-native, right? Well, sort of. Not all foreign languages are equally difficult for any learner. It depends on which language you're coming from. A French person can usually learn Italian faster than an American, and an average American could probably master German a lot faster than an average Japanese, and so on. So part of what I'm contending is that Chinese is hard compared to ... well, compared to almost any other language you might care to tackle. What I mean is that Chinese is not only hard for us (English speakers), but it's also hard in absolute terms. Which means that Chinese is also hard for them, for Chinese people.1

If you don't believe this, just ask a Chinese person. Most Chinese people will cheerfully acknowledge that their language is hard, maybe the hardest on earth. (Many are even proud of this, in the same way some New Yorkers are actually proud of living in the most unlivable city in America.) Maybe all Chinese people deserve a medal just for being born Chinese. At any rate, they generally become aware at some point of the Everest-like status of their native language, as they, from their privileged vantage point on the summit, observe foolhardy foreigners huffing and puffing up the steep slopes.

Everyone's heard the supposed fact that if you take the English idiom "It's Greek to me" and search for equivalent idioms in all the world's languages to arrive at a consensus as to which language is the hardest, the results of such a linguistic survey is that Chinese easily wins as the canonical incomprehensible language. (For example, the French have the expression "C'est du chinois", "It's Chinese", i.e., "It's incomprehensible". Other languages have similar sayings.) So then the question arises: What do the Chinese themselves consider to be an impossibly hard language? You then look for the corresponding phrase in Chinese, and you find Gēn tiānshū yíyàng 跟天书一样 meaning "It's like heavenly script."

There is truth in this linguistic yarn; Chinese does deserve its reputation for heartbreaking difficulty. Those who undertake to study the language for any other reason than the sheer joy of it will always be frustrated by the abysmal ratio of effort to effect. Those who are actually attracted to the language precisely because of its daunting complexity and difficulty will never be disappointed. Whatever the reason they started, every single person who has undertaken to study Chinese sooner or later asks themselves "Why in the world am I doing this?" Those who can still remember their original goals will wisely abandon the attempt then and there, since nothing could be worth all that tedious struggle. Those who merely say "I've come this far -- I can't stop now" will have some chance of succeeding, since they have the kind of mindless doggedness and lack of sensible overall perspective that it takes.

Okay, having explained a bit of what I mean by the word, I return to my original question: Why is Chinese so damn hard?

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Tranquility on less than $200 a day


A friend of mine sent me this article from the NY Times. I am printing an excerpt below. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the full article.

Seeking Tranquillity, on Less Than $200 a Day

THE Saturday sun beamed down on central Kyoto, taking the edge off the November chill as I climbed onto my rented bicycle. I swerved through quiet alleys, past centuries-old wooden houses and Shinto shrines tended by generations of monks, and pedaled west to Arashiyama, a suburb of gardens, temples and bamboo forests at the foot of the mountains that ring this former imperial capital of Japan.

Light glinted off the wide Hozu River. Figures crossed a distant bridge. Jasmine, bean cakes, tea and roasting yams scented the autumn air. But there was a problem, a big one: tourists. Lots of tourists. In fact, there were so many high-season visitors that traffic — foot, bike, car — came to a halt. Furious at the crowds and exhausted, I turned around and rode back to Kyoto proper.

Frankly, I should have known better. With its grand Buddhist temples and tucked-away shrines, its oh-so-close mountains and trickling canals, its spring-blossoming cherry trees and autumn-flaming maples, Kyoto may be Japan’s prettiest city — and that’s a curse as much as a blessing. Like a Japanese version of Colonial Williamsburg, it is jam-packed with tourists, who come to see the religio-historical sites by day, and feast and party with geishas by night.

Indeed, more than 48 million tourists visited this city of 1.5 million in 2006, according to the Japanese National Tourism Office. So perhaps it’s no surprise that Kyoto’s citizens may be among the country’s most standoffish, a closed society that keeps strangers at a distance. Some candy stores, for example, won’t let you in without an introduction from a trusted customer. Not even wealth will buy you entree into this closed society.

A fortune does, however, come in handy in Kyoto, which can seem ridiculously expensive. A night in a ryokan, or traditional inn, can easily run 30,000 yen per person (about $291 at 103 yen to the dollar). And a multicourse kaiseki meal, a Kyoto specialty, can cost the same — again per person.

Of course, I didn’t have a fortune, just $500 for the weekend, and I was apprehensive. Could I make Kyoto my own, unearth its secrets and escape with at least a few yen to my name?

The Hotel Nishiyama, which I’d found on the comprehensive directory at www.japaneseguesthouses.com, offered a tentative yes. On a quiet street not far from the Kamo River, the Nishiyama had an immaculate courtyard garden, friendly English-speaking staff and tatami-mat rooms at a reasonable 10,500 yen a night, including breakfast. It was also the only hotel in my price range that actually had a room available — though only for one night. The next day, I’d have to move on.

I arrived too early to check in, so I wandered around, taking note of cute cafes, a Galician restaurant and a Comme des Garçons boutique — all of which suggested I’d wound up in a chic neighborhood.

When I got back to the hotel, an old friend from grad school, Tucker, was waiting outside. But before we had a chance to catch up, he was leading me down the road to the Nijo Castle, whose painted silk screens he needed to examine; he was, he claimed, writing a book on Japanese art.

Not that I minded — Nijo Castle is one of Kyoto’s prime attractions (admission 600 yen). Completed in 1623, it was home to the Tokugawas, the shoguns who ruled Japan for almost 300 years, establishing rigid caste hierarchies and essentially cutting the country off from the outside world.

It’s easy to see the castle as emblematic of its self-imposed isolation: You have to cross two sets of fortifications to reach the main residence, where arrows direct you through a precise route from room to room, allowing barely enough time to appreciate the painted screens (no photography or sketching allowed!) before the crowds jostle you onward.

After saying goodbye to Tucker — he vanished almost as mysteriously as he’d appeared — I set off for Pontocho, a long, skinny alley that is the center of Kyoto’s restaurant and bar scene. Pontocho feels like a Japanese movie-set come to life: red lanterns and looming billboards light the way past dozens of restaurants, bars and teahouses, some forbidding by design (unmarked Shoji screen doors), others by price (8,000 yen a person for sukiyaki!).

A welcome exception was Bistro Zuzu. Dim, crowded, energetic and dominated by a long bar and open kitchen, Zuzu is an izakaya, or Japanese pub, that serves homey snacks, most under 1,000 yen and many with a French twist. A mizuna salad came with a poached egg and crunchy bits of bacon, like a frisée aux lardons. And the aptly misspelled “verry tender” beef ribs were finished with butter and a sprinkle of pink peppercorns.

But not everything bore Gallic influence: horse meat “sashimi” was as Japanese as it gets, the purplish slices surprisingly clean tasting. With a couple of frosty draft beers, sea-bream sashimi and a rice ball with tart pickles, I spent 4,630 yen — a lot for one person, I suppose, but I’d eaten enough for two and, for Pontocho, it was definitely cheap.

Afterward, I wandered to Temas, a boutique that applies ancient traditions of pigment dying to modern fashions. The clothes were pricey, but I’d gone for the bar upstairs.