three or four walls

April 1st, 2012

Kali Temple Vaishali

Kali temple in the ruins of Vaishali, India. August 2011


Donations hutch, Trumbull Avenue, Detroit. March 2012

prelude to a photowalk (part two): the poemtographer

March 28th, 2012

When I think about contemplative photography, I think of breaking things down into their elements. We’re not looking for ideas, or for stories, or for evidence, or for arguments. We’re looking for the basic nature of seeing. Of noticing.

And what is there to notice? Looking at my photos and other meditative photos, I can break it down:

  • colors
  • shapes
  • textures
  • light and shadow

And for most photos, this covers it.

But then I notice one more element that pops up in some of my shots: words. And it’s interesting to me how words can feel different in the context of a photograph. You separate them from the uses and meanings, from the practicalities that they were written for, and somehow then they float in space. In the best photos, the words are like colors, just there to contrast with the other visions. A good photo, then, is like a found poem, a thing that exists for itself, made poetic by the artist’s eye.  (As Heather McHugh said, “We don’t care how a poet looks; we care how a poet looks.”) When the words are removed from their wordness but are still words–well, it’s beyond description. But I like it.

Do Not Allow Anyone to Damage Trees, Connaught Place, Delhi

Turkey Duck Chicken Rabbit, Detroit

Does that penguin say
USE ME, Rajgir, Bihar, India

Cheap Charlie’s, Detroit

Make a Fool
Make A Fool, Rishikesh, India

Starlight Express, Detroit
Starlight, Detroit

Bandar Se Sawadan: Beware of Monkeys
Beware of Monkeys, Haridwar, India

prelude to a photowalk

March 25th, 2012

I’ve been planning a photowalk through the temple, which will be this Saturday. There’s a Zen simplicity to the concept of photowalking, and when people have asked questions about it, I tend to keep that simplicity: we will walk, and while we walk, we will take photos.

Its connection to Buddhism is inspired by some current movement of contemplative photography, called “miksang” by Tibetan Buddhists, based on the teachings of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and carried on by contemporary photographers like Michael Wood and Andy Carr. With less than a week to go, I’m still deciding how much talking to do–how many words to use before we take our cameras to the streets, how explicitly to unpack the connection between photography and meditation, how much that discussion will help people approach the walk with the meditative mind rather than the picky everyday monkey mind.

As the Buddha taught, our experience with the world comes through what he called the five skandhas–form, feeling, thought, impulse and consciousness. Our minds create these connections, but then our monkey minds insist that they didn’t create anything.

Traditional photography often has to retrofit the skandhas–to make the form fit the consciousness. The photographer decides on a statement of consciousness: “People want to buy this outfit” or “Everyone was happy at this wedding,” then arranges the form (people and things) to support that claim, regardless of whether there are elements that might point to a different awareness.

And that might be a temptation in a photowalk as well, perhaps especially one in Detroit. If we started with the consciousness that “Detroit is a wasteland,” we could choose to walk a route that specifically took in forms to support that. On the other hand, if we took the consciousness “Detroit is an exciting center of art and culture,” we could choose to support that too.

But I don’t think either one of those is the way to go. Many of us meditate on the question, “What is this?” With each moment, we observe–thinking, feeling, agitation, relaxation, breathing in, breathing out. The contemplative photographer uses a lens to ask the question, “What do I see?” rather than to choose and spell out an answer. You have to trust that whatever you see–darkness or light, hard or soft, rough or smooth, rich or poor–will be beautiful in its own way.

Brick Alley, Eastern Market, Detroit
Eastern Market alley, Detroit Michigan, May 2011

Sacred Alley, Pushkar, Rajasthan
Dargah Bazaar alley, Ajmer Rajasthan, September 2009

What I (may or may not have) Read and Watched

February 5th, 2012

In today’s New York Times, Evgeny Morozov laments the “cyberflâneur” in today’s Facebook world. The term–which I’d never heard before in cyber or non-cyber form–comes from Charles Baudelaire’s ideal of the flâneur, the urban nomad who explores the city as an observer, who takes in the city without necessarily participating or influencing. The cyberflâneur, then, is one who explores the eclectic offerings online, whose tastes are wide-ranging and who is willing to explore the unfamiliar.

Morozov quotes an interview with Mark Zuckerberg that, to him, represents the antithesis of the cyberflâneur. Zuckerberg asked a rhetorical question and did not hesitate to answer. “Do you want to go to a movie by yourself, or do you want to go with friends? You want to go with your friends.”

I’ve realized for a long time that my response to this is atypical. Usually, with friends is more fun, sure. But sometimes it’s not about fun, and, as Morozov points out, usually we compromise as to what movie we’ll see so that groups of friends will agree.

When I was in college, I’d read some of the plays of John Guare and was excited that they were making Six Degrees of Separation into a movie. When it was released, I went by myself. When I told one of my friends that I had gone alone, she said, “I would have gone with you! You should have called me.” I told her that I had considered it, but then thought if I invited her, she’d suggest that we bring along a few other friends, then they’d invite other friends, then they’d ask if we could do a later showing, then one of the other friends would suggest that maybe we should see Wayne’s World instead. She agreed that it’s likely. We’d get caught up in negotiating.

And I know negotiating is important, and we have to compromise to get along with other people. But for the social flâneur, it’s more important to accept this wandering. Here is where I am wandering, I say. If you can keep up with me you’re welcome to walk alongside, but if everybody else wants a different path, I generally just let them go.

The trick for me as a cyberflâneur, though, is that I like being social and I’m sometimes very aware when it’s missing. I’ve used Netflix to explore a lot of obscure movies, and I appreciate the ability to choose something without asking whether anyone else would like it. And yet a few weeks ago I saw Incendies, and I’ve been dying to discuss it with someone. I haven’t found anyone else in my circles who’s even seen it–and discussing it out loud is tricky because my pronunciation of the French title tends to get indistinct. So I appreciate the social web, and that my wandering then can become social–that I’ve heard an interesting song, tried an interesting recipe, read an interesting article, and I think you might like it too.

Morozov’s critique of “seamless sharing” is, perhaps, the most thought-provoking part of the essay. My life takes me to interesting places, and I generally like to share, but the seamless sharing often has implications. To those who know me socially, what I share might define me as a person, or it might be taken as a recommendation. The seamless share fills my profile and attempts to influence others. And that takes away from the wandering spirit of the flâneur. I might, because I’m curious, want to listen to a Nicki Minaj song or read a Stieg Larsson novel, but I’m not certain I want my friends to see me as the type of person who does these things. I might be curious to try a Yemeni restaurant or a new SyFy TV series, but I wouldn’t tell my friends that they should do the same–the seamless sharing puts it out as a recommendation before I’ve had the chance to decide whether or not I recommend it.

So there’s another reason this is on my mind, but that’s another post for another day. For now, here’s a picture of an arcade on a mall. Of sorts.

Game Point, Mussoorie

Chalo Dilli/Alive in the World

September 5th, 2011

The plot of Chalo Dilli, a Hindi film from this year, is very close to the 1987 American film Planes Trains and Automobiles, except that Steve Martin’s character of a high-strung Chicago businessman is replaced by Lara Dutta as a high-strung Mumbai businesswoman named Mihika Banerjee. Chalo Dilli means “Let’s go to Delhi,” and the movie follows a series of misfortunes for two travelers, Mihika and Manu, who thought they’d get a quick flight between India’s two biggest airports.

Train from Chalo Dilli

Early in the movie, when it still appears to the characters that a short taxi ride will get them to Delhi in a few hours, Manu (the John Candy-surrogate) asks Mihika if she likes Bollywood songs. She says that she only listens to English music. She takes a pair of headphones out of her purse as the taxi takes them through the countryside of Rajasthan, and we hear the music, a woman singing over a lite adult-contemporary production, the style you’d hear on VH-1 around 1994. “These moments in life,” she sings, “will just pass you by.” Lara closes her eyes and smiles at the music.

The irony’s a little heavy-handed, but like many Bollywood road movies, it makes me think of my time in India. Sometimes when people ask me advice for travel, I tell them not to be afraid to bring their own music and books. You’ll spend most of every day seeing things you’ve never seen before, meeting people unlike anyone you’ve met before, stretching your comfort zone to the max. If you want to spend an hour or so every day, listening to pleasant, familiar sounds, there’s nothing wrong with that. Train rides get long, and you’ll appreciate having something to pass the time. And yet, perhaps sometimes I used my own music to let the world pass me by, to waste an opportunity to see the special scenes of Indian life.

Bus Ride in India

But then I think of one train ride where I’d put in my headphones, but kept my eyes open. I listened to this song and contemplated its lyrics while I paid attention to the sights all around me.

“…I’ll hear if another voice should call
to the prisoner inside me,
to the captive of my doubts,
who among his fantasies
harbors the dream of breaking out
and taking his chances
alive in the world….”

I thought of the doubts that hold me prisoner, the part of me that’s still afraid to take chances. Then I looked around the sleeper car, saw every other traveler on the benches with me, making our way from Benares to Bihar, each of us doing our best to be alive in the world. As Jackson Browne sang into my ears, I knew this moment would never come again, and I was alive for it.

And now that I’m home I need to bring this awareness again to Michigan, to White Lake, to Dearborn, to Detroit. If I closed my eyes in India and wished I could be home, I know that from time to time I’ll close my eyes at home and wish I could be in India. These moments in life–at the supermarket, at the gym, on the freeway, in the classroom–they’ll just pass me by if I keep my eyes closed.

At the end of “Alive in the World,” I took off my headphones. The train came to a halt at Buxar Station, and a flurry of new arrivals poured in. Children selling newspapers and bottled Pepsi came running through. A transgendered beggar came to our bench, clapped her hands and pointed to the college student next to me, who fished out a coin to give. A pilgrim came in carrying a staff decorated with red tinsel, with bottles tied onto it to collect holy water from the Ganges. He climbed to the upper berth and tried to rest the staff against the small fan on the ceiling. Its blades chopped at the tinsel with an angry sound, making a momentary rain of glitter confetti.

I thanked the gods for Sleeper Class trains. And for keeping my eyes open.

My problem with this year’s Beloit Mindset List.

August 25th, 2011

I’ve seen a lot of the Beloit Mindset List over the last few days, shared by various Facebook contacts. If you’re not friends with as many college instructors as I am, you may not know about it; it’s an annual list of facts about the incoming college freshman class, designed to help understand what the new generation is thinking.

It’s a good idea, and it could serve a useful purpose, but in recent years I’ve been more and more disappointed in the list. It’s gotten to be less a useful treatment of generational differences, and more a roll-call of pop-culture trivia from 18 years ago.

Part of my problem with the list is that the writing style is convoluted and awkward, word choices that seem designed to be hip and funny but miss the mark. The writers seem to like “always” and “never” statements, and I kind of get why. An incisive statement on culture could be like those from Beloit’s Class of 2003 list–to say that in their lifetime, there has always been at least one female justice in the Supreme Court, or there has never been a Yugoslavia.

But when they try to press that sentence form onto a factoid, it leads to rough sentences like All their lives, Whitney Houston has always been declaring “I Will Always Love You.” or Women have always been Venusians; men, Martians. Of course, those statements were written to say that a certain song and a certain book were released before they were born, but it’s not like Whitney was hooked up to a 24-hour singing machine, constantly looped to the one song, and it’s not like the psychology-lite insights in John Gray’s book have been uniformly accurate and influential. Sometimes the sentence format just makes it illogical: Amazon has never been just a river in South America. I presume it’s saying they were born after the online bookstore, but really, “Amazon” has always had more than one meaning–a mythical warrior woman, or any woman seen as physically imposing. Why do the writers say it this way, and not, “They were born after the opening of”?

The real problem with the list, though, is that its pop-culture focus seems to be mostly through Baby Boomer eyes, not Millennial eyes. Sure, these young people are too young to remember Cheers, the Sears Big Book, or President Carter. What insight do we get from that? What does it tell us about their values? Pretty much nothing. The list seems to me like a group of over-thirties reminiscing, like, “Remember when you had to go to a midnight movie to see Rocky Horror? These kids don’t!” “Remember the McDonalds hot-coffee trial? They don’t!” Even the ones that are specific to their generation seem infantilizing–pogs, Mouseketeers, Tickle-Me Elmo. How does it help us relate to them, to understand who they are now, to be reminded that the catchphrases “Been there, done that” and “yadda yadda yadda” were popular when they were babies? If it simply reminds you not to use 1990s catchphrases in class, that’s really a small step. If you need a reminder that Lorena Bobbitt jokes will fly over the heads of 18-year-olds, I think it’s better as a reminder that Bobbitt jokes were never funny in the first place.

Every year, I get insights and surprises from my students. I find out how they see the world, what is significant to them and how it differs. That’s something the Beloit Mindset List could do, could help with, could start conversations. But it seems in this form to be less a conversation-starter than a conversation-closer. “Don’t bother talking to them about Andy Warhol,” it seems to say. “They don’t know him and don’t care.”

There’s one note on this list that could have been developed into an insight: The only significant labor disputes in their lifetimes have been in major league sports. But, well, I’m not certain that’s true, or true as such. Considering that this list comes from a university in Wisconsin I think the claim calls for a little more scrutiny.

Impossible Hindi

August 9th, 2011

After four weeks in India–on my third trip here–I realize that I don’t have time in this lifetime to master Hindi. Which saddens me, but it’s a fact of life.

I’ll keep working on it, keep learning and improving. I’m not too bad at figuring out what’s being said through listening, but this may be because of the shared vocabulary, English words that have made their way to Hindi, or personal or place names that are the same in both languages. But it’s such a rich, dense language, and so tied with culture, that often I hear a conversation and I think, “I can tell they’re talking about whether the window should be open or not. I just can’t figure out how there’s that much to talk about.”

Consider the difference in bargaining. Not the difference in scope of bargaining–in America, we generally only haggle over the prices of major items like cars and houses. But the practice is so different. I generally think of it happening with a note pad or calculator. The seller proposes a price by writing the number on the paper, or entering it on the calculator, and passes it to the buyer. The buyer then writes down a counter-offer and passes it back. Aside from any practical terms that may influence the negotiation, the motivations are left as unsaid and self-evident. Obviously, the seller wants as high a price as possible, and the buyer wants a low price. There’s no need to explain why.

So when I hear haggling in Hindi, I hear a lot of words on top of this. And I have to presume the meaning is something like this.

SELLER: I will sell you this for 400 rupees.
BUYER: Allow me to explain the complicated and mostly irrelevant reasons that I will only pay 100 for it.
S: Look at the quality of this item, and know that my wholesale cost is much greater, and that I would be quite foolish to part with it for 100. You should pay 400.
B: Now let me tell you the name of six other markets where I am certain I could get it for 50. And explain to me why you charge more than those markets.
S: Certainly, I’d be happy to explain to you the complicated and mostly irrelevant reasons I want to sell it for 400. My family needs money so badly.
B: And my family needs to hold on to our money more badly. But we also need to buy this from you, which is why I will give you 100.

Then after they run out of steam,

S: So, 250 it is?
B: 250 it is.

I can’t compete with that. I’ll never speak Hindi well enough to haggle the hell out of it. But I guess I’ll keep trying.

Real Monks in Bodhgaya

July 29th, 2011

Yesterday I was sitting under the Bodhi tree–I know, right?–watching the various people walk by. I’d noticed a guy with blond dreadlocks around the corner from before, and when he passed I said hello. He greeted me back, with an American accent, the two of us in the wide world of India.

Then he said, “Hey, a warning for you. Watch out for those monks over there. They aren’t monks, just trying to scam you out of money.” I agreed, mentioned that in the Theravada tradition monks aren’t supposed to accept money, and I wouldn’t be fooled by them.

I’d heard about this before, but somehow my last two times in India I hadn’t seen fake monks. But then a while after Dreadlocks and I parted ways, I walked past a handful of teenage boys in monks’ robes who said, “Hello sir” in the way Indian touts do when they want your business. And it only took one moment to tell: these are not monks.

I can’t point to a facet of their looks or behavior that specifically was non-monkish. Monks come in all shapes and sizes. But here’s the thing I learned: the deep practice of the Buddha’s teaching turns you inside out. You become fully, honestly, inescapably, who you are.

I’ve seen monks and nuns who’ve polished their core like this, and every one finds a different jewel inside. There are grumpy monks and cheerful monks. There are timid nuns and bold nuns. I mentioned to another friend that a few Korean monks and nuns I know have a very earthy vocabulary–in other words, they cuss like sailors. Whatever their personality, it’s a solid commitment to tautology. You are what you are. And when other people practice, they’ll see it too.

Of course it’s not only Buddhists who emanate this sense of being good at being who they are. I’ve known people from all walks of life who give forth this energy, this dropped resistance. But for me, I know but one way to do it, which is to practice the Eightfold Path and let go of those practices that aren’t being me.

The impostors are struggling, trying to be something they’re not to gain something they aren’t sure they deserve. It’s sad and it’s unnecessary, but it is the predicament the Buddha wants us to overcome. We can be who we are.

These two monks in the picture are real monks, not impostors. See if you can tell.

Two Monks

Born This Way

July 8th, 2011

I’ve been thinking about this video, in which comedian Paul F. Tompkins’ talks about his elderly mother’s rethinking her views on gay people:

Paul F. Tompkins: My Mom’s Final Decree
Watch more comedy videos from the twisted minds of the UCB Theatre at

And of course, that makes me think of this song by Lady Gaga, presented here in a remix by the famous Bollywood producers Salim and Sulaiman:

When I first heard Lady Gaga’s song, I thought the sentiment was surprisingly retro. Among the people I know and see on a daily basis, the sentiment that LGBT people are predisposed to be so–born this way–seems like nothing new and surprising. Of course, the song is about more than that; the sentiment of “accepting who you are” is not limited to one kind of outcast. But when I heard the song, the Eurodisco beat wasn’t the only thing that made me think the song would be more in place in the 70s or 80s. Isn’t “Born This Way” common knowledge, old news?

But then, to Paul F. Tompkins’ elderly mother, this attitude wasn’t cliched, wasn’t something she’d even considered until her old age. Then she treated it as her own private revelation, the product of intense contemplation, “Why are gay people that way? Maybe it’s because they were born that way.”

I was especially moved by Tompkins’ story because I kind of identify with him. In most of his work, he’s taken a detached, ironic view. He was the host of VH1’s “Best Week Ever,” a show that has irony built in to the title. Not every week can be the best week ever, but we can sarcastically act like it is. So when he tells the story about his mother, he’s on the verge of cracking wise about it, but there’s also a very sincere appreciation.

It’s odd that a sentiment that seems hackneyed and cliched from one perspective can be profound from another. Statements like “Money can’t buy happiness” or “Every cloud has a silver lining” seem hollow, unless you’ve had a transformative experience that leads you to treasure them. Philosophers expand, question, seek further treasure from these little sentiments, but to people who have something else to do with their day, there’s only the space and energy to make it into a song, to express it as a simple topic of bedside conversation, to hum along with it on the radio.

The Coffeehouse, the Zendo, the Gym

June 17th, 2011

Yesterday, I was at a coffeehouse with my netbook computer, working on some writing, when two women sat at the table behind me and started a very loud conversation. My writing was kind of slow going, and their voices were distracting. I thought about turning around and asking them to modulate a little; indoor voices. I know it’s not a library, and I can’t expect silence.

Then I had to reason with myself and wonder why I was at the coffeehouse anyway. If I wanted to drink coffee and write without hearing other people’s conversations, I could do that at home. But something about being around other people–something about the potential for annoyance, the invasion of privacy–makes me a little more productive in my writing. I hunker down; I tune out annoyances and keep writing. When trying to write at home, I get up and pace around the room. I waste time on clicky games like Jorinapeka. (Seriously, don’t click if you don’t want to waste hours.) Around other people, I’m at my best. If anyone happens to look over my shoulder, they’ll see me writing, not wasting time.

It’s also why I go to the temple to meditate. A few weeks ago, there was an especially fidgety Sunday service. A few people in the zendo were restlessly shifting during the meditation. It made it difficult to concentrate. I could have done my practice at home with fewer distractions.

my home altar

But I also know when I sit at home, I’m like that. I squirm a little. I clear my throat. These things aren’t cardinal sins, but I know that my meditation is much more effective if I sit still. Being around others, sitting with the sangha on Sundays, gives me more incentive to go deep in meditation. I focus myself because I don’t want to be that person, the one who distracts people. I think about using that pressure for good–not to be neurotic and chastise myself for sighing or scratching or fidgeting, just doing my very best not to. When I focus myself out of consideration for other people, it turns out I get most of the benefits–I get a deep, restful meditation, or I get a productive morning of caffeinated writing, because I clear away my own junk. And if once in a while it takes a twitchy sitting or a loud neighbor-table at Biggby Coffee to remind me of that, I’m grateful for it.

However, it’s also important to watch out for contagious behavior. I’m thinking of a phenomenon I call the locker-room sigh. I’ve noticed often after exercising in the gym, people changing clothes will make a little extra noise, as if to say, “Whoa, what a workout. Ugh, I really stretched myself today. Ohh, that was tough.” They aren’t saying the sentences out loud, just the vocalization, to no one in particular. I wonder if they think they’re starting a conversation, if they are doing it to commiserate with other people in the same situation or to show off how hard they’re working.

It seems to be the same principle, but I wonder if locker-room sighs only lead to more locker-room sighs, that they don’t have the same reminder to focus. I’m also not sure if there’s an equivalent, that I’ll get more out of my own workout if I consciously refrain from going “Ugh” afterwards. But one way or another, I react the same way. I’m going to keep trying not to be that guy.