Change Is the Only Constant

“What is truth?” – Pontius Pilate
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It is not uncommon for me to add a post to my blog and later wake up in the middle of the night thinking:

Oooooooh… I probably shouldn’t have said that!

OR

Mmmmmmmmm…. Maybe, I should have said this?

OR

Perhaps, I should have said  that,  this  way?

Examples of the aforementioned “if-onlys” are:

I recently wrote about a Lutheran minister who, some two decades ago, refused to shake my “little brown hand” after delivering his sermon on love, as we filed out of the sanctuary of his church. [Shouldn’t have?]

I recently published a post about chanting in which I neglected to share that I chant every day, and why (because of length-of-content limitations and not intending to write a ‘recruitment’ post). [Should have?]

As for the third example, there are simply too many examples from which to choose — and I’m sure there’s a better way to have said that…

I’m always struggling with how to say what can’t always be said, or rather, the inefficacy of words as a mode of expression. Part of this struggle is due to the element of impermanence, or change, or anicca, as it is referred to in Buddhism. As soon as I “capture,” write down, proclaim, or ascribe to a “truth,” something shifts or changes. Hence, my not at all original assertion, “Only change is constant.” So, what is “true” for me, now, might not be true for me tomorrow, or for you, ever. Even the search for “truth” appears to be little more than “grasping” and attachment…

Of course, it would help, greatly, if I had some kind of expertise in Buddha-hood, but then again, if I did have “expertise,” I probably wouldn’t be talking about this, much less blogging.

I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about the work known as the Tao Te Ching; particularly, the first line of the first chapter. Derek Lin, on Taoism.net, has translated it as follows:

The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.

Mind you, the word, “Tao,” translates as “way,” or “the way.” So, here, in another translation by T.W. Kingsmill (1899), we have:

The way that may be traversed is not the Eternal way.

Then there’s Ron Hogan’s “modern translation” (2002, 2004) which says:

If you can talk about it, it ain’t Tao.

So, however one says it, I can’t help but think, “What the hell am I doing trying to write about this ‘stuff?’” It can’t be captured. It can’t be “known.” And it’s substantive in the most in-substantial way possible…

Then, when I really want to get depressed, I think about the Buddha’s “Flower Sermon” also known as the Flower Sutra (not to be confused with the Flower Garland Sutra, which is considered to be the longest sutra in Mahayana Buddhism). The Flower Sermon’s roots, if you will, are in Zen or Ch’an Buddhism. In a nutshell, not long before the Buddha died, he met with his followers near a pond. Once they’d settled down, silently, he uprooted a lotus flower and presented it to them for inspection. One by one, they examined it, confused and trying to discern the Buddha’s meaning or intent. Apparently, the last disciple to whom the Buddha showed the flower, Mahakasyapa, alone understood the Buddha’s message. As he looked at the uprooted lotus flower in the Buddha’s hand, he began to laugh. The Buddha then handed the flower to Mahakasyapa, and it was he who became the Buddha’s successor. In accordance with the fact that this was not a “verbal” teaching, the sutra, itself, is very short. Apparently, as Lao Tzu said, “The way that can be spoken is not the eternal way.” So, currently, I can’t  hear  it, and can only imagine what Mahakasyapa, himself, heard…

Nonetheless, I just keep pluggin’ away… Perhaps, I should make this my “disclaimer” page?

 

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Chanting: What It Is, And Ain’t…

The practice of chanting often gets a bad rap. Many older people, who reached adulthood in the 60s and 70s, upon hearing the word ‘chanting,’ think of the followers of Charles Manson (yes, he’s still alive and incarcerated), or are reminded of the Hare Krishna sect whose members often appeared to be either drugged, in a trance, or both; and seemed to do nothing but beg for money and – chant. And of course, there was the little matter of whether or not they were a cult.

Contrary to popular opinion, chanting is simply (and most profoundly) a form of meditation. Buddhists refer to it as “active” meditation, as opposed to “sitting” meditation, which is conducted in silence, in the posture akin to that of many statues of “Buddhas.” This distinction, between sitting and active meditation exists precisely because there is a distinction. One may engage in meditation while sitting, walking (called ‘walking’ meditation), or even washing dishes, mowing the lawn, or, in some practices, having sex (and no, that is not the “tantric” Buddhism about which you’ve probably heard – at least not in the way that so many people mis-understand it). The point, here, is that almost anything can be [a] meditation, if it is practiced “mindfully,” a term referring not to just a periodic ‘practice,’ but also the way a Buddhist should always try to live his or her life.

Ideally, when chanting, one’s purpose will be higher than (or at least, not solely dedicated to) chanting for a new TV; attracting that seemingly unavailable guy or gal; or, winning the lottery. Believe it or not, many people, Buddhist, Catholic, Jewish, and Hindu, among others, chant for union with the Divine, peace, inner or outer transformation, and the like, as part of their meditation practices.

Now that Hare Krishna devotees are no longer a prominent strand in the cultural fabric of American alternative culture, other chanters have come to the forefront. Among them are those who claim that either this or that chant will ensure that you’ll soon be driving a Mercedes; fighting off desperate (but achingly beautiful) women; or be richer than Croesus in three months. If any, or all of this actually happens, it will not, in reality, be because of any particular chant, but rather because, perhaps for the first time, you’ve truly focused your creative energies in an unusually positive, directed, and productive manner, which is an element of any kind of success.

Many people chant to the Bodhisattva, Tara (actually a group of deities), representing compassion, liberation, and success, among other things, often with the desire to become more like her. This chant is:

Om Tare Tuttare Ture Svaha

Chants may or may not mean anything in particular, and often contain such elements as the syllable “om,” which has no definition, per se, but is considered to be a “primeval sound,” which in itself, is supposed to be beneficial. There is not space, here to consider the full meaning of this mantra.

Contrary to people who chant to deities, some people chant to no one at all. An example of this is the chant: Om Shanti Shanti Shanti. Again, it contains the syllable “om,” and the word, Shanti, (Śānti) in the Buddha’s language, Pali, means “peace.” Thus, Shanti is a type of invocation, referring to and calling upon ‘peace’ in body, speech, and mind, for oneself and the world.

These mantras are older than time; but there are also “new” mantras, consisting of terms and “sound syllables,’ constructed by meditation masters and teachers within certain ‘spiritual’ traditions. And of course, there are the mantras that we construct for ourselves, however unknowingly, and even the mantras that shysters construct for purposes of nothing more than financial gain.

Two of the funniest mantras I’ve come across are on the Website, Guru’s Feet. The first is more ‘spiritual’ than it first appears; and the second, either quite cynical, or perhaps, even naïve. Mind you, I’m not placing these mantras in any particular tradition. On a page titled “A mantra for employment,” Michaelji Ramaprasad posts:

“I will get off my ass and work Om”
“I will get off my ass and apply Om”
“I will realize I can only control that which I can control om”
“I will drop my pride and accept what I get Om”
“I will get off my ass Om.”

Another contributor shares his own mantra:

“Om Nama Bill Gates Nama Lee Iacocca Sri Sri Write-a-resume-and-send-it-in.”

If you’ve experienced long-term unemployment in this particularly brutal jobs market, you know that it takes more than “hard work” to land a job. Only the lowest-paying jobs in the service industry sector appear to be proliferating. So, my advice would be that unless your job causes you to be in non-compliance with the Buddha’s admonition for  Right Livelihood, which would also mean you’re out of compliance with the rest of the steps along the Noble Eightfold Path, don’t quit your job, believing there’s some magical incantation that will automatically provide you with another job. That said, there’s a lot to be said for hard work, right priorities, and being flexible, very flexible…

For me, “the answer” regarding chanting is somewhere between mysticism and cynicism. Again, chanting is a form of meditation. And if it takes hard, scientific fact for you to believe in anything, it has already been proven that chanting (meditation) is “good for you.” I know someone who is constantly playing a song, the content which I cannot repeat here, is all about “’F’ you; ‘F’ her; ‘F’ that;  and ‘F’ everybody.” If he’s not blasting this through his leaky headphones, he’s blasting it on the computer, or singing it. This causes me to remember the literary essay, “As A Man Thinketh” by James Allen (published in 1902). In it, Mr. Allen says: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” In a sense, we are all, always meditating. So, what kind of thought foundation are you laying down in your life?

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And here’s a link to an unforeseen “Part 2” of this post:

Why Many Americans (Buddhist or Otherwise) Should Reconsider Their Misconceptions About Chanting…

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Namaste.
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Related Readings:

Chanting Man Forces Flight to Kona From Seattle to Return from Huffington Post.com

Om — The beginning of all creation from Shamballa: A space for sharing and being

Chanting: A Basic of Buddhist Practice from About.com/Buddhism (Website)

Sacred Hebrew Chant from Sacred Hebrew Chant.com (Website)

Gospel Chanting from One Man’s Offering: Gospel Chanting (Website)

Monks Singing Gregorian Chant in a Catholic Benedictine Seminary from YouTube.com

Native American Sacred Chant and Recitation from Out of Body Travel.org (Note: It was difficult finding a link for Native American chant that would hopefully be appropriate because there are a great many links, dealing in some… incredible… ways, addressing “War chants,” as well as the racist ‘tomahawk war chants’ that are so popular at sporting events. Additionally, I found instances of Websites being challenged, or removed, due to inappropriate content. My goal here, is simply to show the diversity, and commonality, of the chanting tradition in various cultures. Hopefully, I’ve been successful.

Medieval Chanting in Stroud Green from London Strange (blog)

Understanding Islamic Chants from Complete Wellbeing (Website)

Meditative Sufi Chants — HU — Sufi Zikr Meditation from Daily Motion.com (Website)

Chanting: Why We Chant from Kwan Um School of Zen (Website)

 

 

Soka Gakkai: Nichiren Buddhism’s Purported Cult…

There are three main branches of Nichiren Buddhism: Nichiren Shu; Nichiren Shoshu; and Soka Gakkai International. I am intimately familiar with the Soka Gakkai International (in the U.S. known as SGI-USA), but only marginally familiar with the other two branches.

Soka Gakkai is the best known of the three schools, and has been heralded as everything from “The Answer,” to a cult. The “president” of Soka Gakkai (SGI), Daisaku Ikeda, is, perhaps, the primary reason for SGI’s reputation of being somewhat “cultish,” but that’s only because Nichiren Shonin, himself, was a do-it-yourself separatist who taught that enlightenment was more than a distinct possibility, within  this, one   lifetime, simply by chanting “Daimoku,” and of course, living a good life. And did I mention that SGI  believes that the clergy is superfluous? So, it is not surprising that of the three schools, only Soka Gakkai is, literally, without a clergy – so being ex-communicated by Nichiren Shoshu wasn’t such a big deal… OK. That was a gross understatement. And in place of a clergy, SGI practitioners, a lay organization, are all supposed to believe that Mr. Ikeda is their “personal mentor,” – whether or not they have ever met or talked to him.

The whole “mentor” idea probably seems more “cultish” to people who are not Buddhist and are unfamiliar with the fact that “mentoring,” by a teacher, guru, Rinpoche, etc., is a common feature on the Buddhist path, particularly for those seeking more than a casual affiliation or practice of this particular faith. So, it is not uncommon to hear SGI practitioners refer to Daisaku Ikeda as “my” mentor. Personally, though I progressed in other ways, I never got that far. I’d never met Mr. Ikeda; never expected to; and even wrote him once (several months ago), and have yet to hear from him (but in all fairness, I was only one of thousands, if not millions, who write him yearly).

Another unique aspect of Soka Gakkai Buddhism is that it is, quite obviously, the most racially diverse group of Buddhists just about anywhere. Rocker, Tina Turner, and jazz musician, Herbie Hancock, are two of the best-known Nichiren Buddhists. Never, either before exploring Soka Gakkai International, or after, have I ever seen so many Black Buddhists, i.e., “Black” people (not “Black Hat Buddhists”). Honestly, one certainly expects a few Asian folks to be there, but then everybody else is usually, always White/Caucasian. Mind you, there are exceptions, but outside of Soka Gakkai, I have never met a “person-of-color” Buddhist. Literally, all of the Buddhists I’ve met, in the Detroit, Vermont, and New York areas have been, apparently, Caucasian, if not Asian (mostly Tibetan Buddhist groups). Nonetheless, there was only one sangha (Buddhist community of believers) where I ever felt not-so-welcome. And that says a lot considering the (*)Missouri Synod Lutheran Church I attended in 1995 with a friend whose minister refused to shake my little brown hand at the end of the service. You see, I was, until the age of 12, raised in the Lutheran Church. But that’s another post…

Nichiren, known as Nichiren Shonin (1222-1282), was a radical Japanese priest who so agitated his neighbors, fellow practitioners, and local government that he was, literally, persecuted for most of his adult life. I mean, there were samurai running around trying to take the man out! And once, just a few minutes before he was to be beheaded, there was a meteor shower (or something) which literally scared the hell out of the executioner and guards, leaving only him, a few devotees, and some disappointed sight seers at the chopping… stone. And the story has it that he called after the executioner to return, finish the job, and quit wasting his time…

Nichiren (correctly) predicted that there would be all manner of natural, and unnatural, disasters (during an unusually disastrous period in Japanese history and weather) due to people not practicing  his  Buddhism. He also declared himself the “Votary of the Lotus Sutra,” (the Lotus Sutra, according to Soka Gakkai, being not only the Buddha’s last great transmission, but essentially the only one which truly matters). The Votary was someone long-ago revealed, through ‘scripture,’ to be the one who would champion the true Way.

That said, Soka Gakkai practitioners are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. There were several rather close-knit ‘communities’ of them in my area. Additionally, Soka Gakkai Buddhists are the most gung-ho Buddhists around in that they aggressively proselytize, something quite foreign to most Buddhist sects, because while they truly believe that only they practice the true faith, they can get along with almost anyone but the Nichiren Shoshu sect. But again, as I said, they’re nice folks; so, they still treat everyone with respect, and not even in private did I ever hear any one of them ridicule other faiths, or sects of Buddhism.

Nichiren Buddhists chant something called “Daimoku,” which translates as “the title.” And that title is the title of the aforementioned, all-important Lotus Sutra, or “Nam(u) Myoho Renge Kyo.” Soka Gakkai practitioners do not pronounce the ‘u’ in “Nam(u).” Again, the chanting, especially because it is their primary practice, is also something that many believe akin to “cults.” But I don’t know of any Buddhist traditions where chanting is not known. So, to call SGI a cult simply because they chant is, at the very least, uninformed. Nonetheless, chanting Daimoku is so fundamental, and such a primary practice to the Soka Gakkai that almost nothing else matters. Never once did I ever attend a meeting where anything like the Four Noble Truths or Noble Eightfold Path was discussed. But I could have been in the ladies room at the time… That said, chanting ‘Nam Myoho Renge Kyo,’ through some of the darkest days, and nights, I’ve ever known, literally saved my life. And I know this because for awhile, that was literally all I had. Though I’m no longer part of SGI, I still chant Daimoku, among other things, and always will.

Additionally, I did eventually choose to leave Soka Gakkai (though I was never officially a dues-paying member because I was unemployed). And when I did finally leave, I wasn’t hounded, or threatened, or, as far as I know, the subject of any fire-and-brimstone-she’s-gonna-burn Buddhist talks (we didn’t have ‘sermons’). In fact, except for a couple of folks, I never heard from any of them again. And it’s important that you understand I mention this only to emphasize that no one ever tried to “drag” me back, or force me to do anything – except maybe believe…

Finally, unlike other Buddhists sects, Soka Gakkai practitioners, chant, unabashedly, and at length during marathon chanting sessions for things like cars, better jobs, raises, and nice houses. They are, unlike some people, very much concerned with  this  life. And I’m not saying that that’s good or bad; I just realize that it’s a very different focus and way of defining “life.” That’s why they claim that the secret to becoming happy and wealthy is… Oh, wow, wouldja’ look at that? I’ve reached my promised “never-more-than-two-pages-unless-it’s-a-book-review limit!”

Namaste.
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(*) During the 1960s, Black people dared not enter Missouri Synod Lutheran Churches due to a longstanding ban on then-“Negro” membership. The other faction, the LCA (Lutheran Churches of America) prohibited racial discrimination. It was this part of the Lutheran Church to which my father belonged, and in which I was raised in the early part of my childhood. Even so, we were one of only two Black families in a church full of kind, loving, accepting blond, blue-eyed people named Svenson, Anderson, Olafson, and so on… And interestingly enough, that church was located in the poorest, Blackest part of town. When I visited my friend’s church in 1995 (in the same town), I had no idea if the ban had been lifted, or not, and I truly wasn’t that concerned. I only know that my reception was especially frosty, and I don’t know where the Missouri Synod stands to this day…
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Related Reading:

Is Buddhism a Religion? from mgmgfilms: The Writings of Marc Ginsburg (blog)

(1) Is Soka Gakkai International a Cult? from Sweep the dust, Push the dirt (blog)

(2) Is Soka Gakkai International a Cult? from Humanism of Nichiren Buddhism/Soka Humanism.com (Website)

A Lotus, A Scotsman, SGI, and an Open Path from Fly Like a Crow (blog)

Unshakably Happy from Making Baby Buckley (blog)

 

 

Mindfulness vs. Ritalin

I am currently reading Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s book, Ruling Your World: Ancient Strategies for Modern Life.  The Sakyong is the son of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, subject of the documentary, Crazy Wisdom. In 1959, it was Chögyam Trungpa who led 300 people out of Tibet and into the exile (the result of a conflict with the Chinese government) that stands to this day. Trungpa’s son, the Sakyong, whose title means “Earth Protector,” was born in India, in 1962; and he, himself, would not see Tibet until the year 2001. I am struck, and deeply touched, by the pains taken by Chögyam Trungpa in teaching his young son the ropes of mindfulness and discernment (not that this can be ‘taught,’ so much as sought, and certainly, I’m sure Trungpa did not find the instruction ‘painful’).

In  Ruling Your World, the Sakyong shares memories of his father teaching him the elements of mindfulness, through meditation, from an early age. It was serious, pointed, incremental training, with a particular goal in mind, but loving, as well. Interestingly enough, at one point, the Sakyong shares that his father handed him over to the Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön, for meditation instruction. Chödrön writes that not long after that, it was she who became the student of the young Sakyong, a relationship that stands to this day.

I’ve often wondered, while reading this book, if the young Sakyong played peek-a-boo, bounced off the walls, and ignored his teachers, preferring to talk and giggle with an imaginary friend instead of engaging in instruction. I’ve wondered if his mind ever raced with the energies of youth, or if somehow, because of the nature of his birth, because of his being the incarnation of a great meditation instructor, he was somehow, unusually sedate.

The reason I’ve wondered about the Sakyong as a little boy is because I know of another brilliant little boy whose father, rather than teaching him mindfulness, or working to constructively direct his youthful energies, decided to give him Ritalin. Now, don’t get me wrong, I realize that the conditions we’ve labeled ADD/ADHD are real. As a teacher, I’ve seen how children with this ‘disorder’ can disrupt classrooms and drive everyone around them practically insane. It’s quite obvious that these children are suffering, just as everyone else around them. But I’ve also seen the suffering that entails once they’re drugged. Imagine being six- or seven-years-of-age, and being “depressed’ (a side-effect of Ritalin), but not knowing what depression “is,” and having to take other medications to try to balance out the combination of a hyperactive nature and a drugged depression. And yes, Ritalin is the same drug that teenagers used to traffic in because it has the opposite effect on adults.

This other boy’s father, besides medicating his son, also engaged in self-medicating. And he didn’t teach his son mindfulness and discernment through meditation because he did not have that knowledge or experience. Additionally, in his own way, though a successful man, he, too, was “hyper.” And now, decades after the Ritalin Rush, we are seeing the purported (or probable) extended side-effects this drug has had on the young people we drugged, some almost into a malevolent, macabre “extinction.”

Is it possible that we could try something other than drugging our children into oblivion? What if these children were taught mindfulness meditation? Obviously, the parents, and even the doctors would have to be trained, too. And this is not to say that parents and medical professionals have not tried other methods, alternative and organic. I simply can’t help but think that treating ‘youth’ as a psychiatric emergency is a dangerous thing. And consider this: A fair number of mental health professionals claim that it is not possible to diagnose such mental illnesses as bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic depression) in youngsters due to their not having yet reached a certain age of maturity and level of cognitive functioning. So, why do we take children, as young as four or five, and do everything but bind them in a strait jacket and inject them with Thorazine?

In the interest of balance, please check out the links for the music video on ADHD meds, below (yes, music video), and a blog post by someone with ADD,  for whom Ritalin has made all the difference in the world (in a positive way).

Do ADHD meds work? We break it down for you in our latest music video from PandoDaily (Website)

I have ADD from Modern Day Artemis (blog)

Namaste.

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Related Readings:

Kids Getting On Your Nerves Again? from HADDOCKWALLOP! (blog)

ADHD could be a fictitious disease?/TDAH pourrait être une maladie fictive? from Another Day in the Marathon of Life (blog)

i don’t want comfort from Wake Up Tiger (blog)

Children — ADHD & bipolar (history etc) Robert Whitaker – Psychiatric Epidemic from Beyond Meds (blog)

Knowing Vs. Realization, Or, Am I Enlightened, Yet?

“Man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything.”
— Mr. Miyagi,  The Karate Kid
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Recently, after months of reading, meditating, and re-reading, I came to, as I would have articulated it, “realize” something.  Strangely, it didn’t feel all that great. I “realized” that I’d arrived at a point where I had grasped, in a shallow fashion, the  mechanics  of a concept, but somehow, not the  soul  of it. For months, I’d been wondering just why a Buddhist practitioner would seek “extinction,” on the one hand, or want to be a Bodhisattva, on the other.

For those not quite familiar with the terms ‘extinction’ and ‘Bodhisattva,’ here are two definitions, which shall suffice, but upon which no one should base their own learning. ‘Extinction,’ also known as “nirvana without residue,” refers to “dying,” once and for all, without returning to the chain of suffering experienced in sequential, potentially never-ending lifetimes (samsara). ‘Bodhisattva’ refers to an individual who has, through meditation, arrived at a state in which they can choose not only to be ‘reborn,’ but the exact circumstances of that rebirth, so that they may fulfill their vow to not enter ‘nirvana without extinction’ until every last human being has been freed from the sufferings of samsara. So, there I was, wondering at the same time, why anyone would want to die, once and for all, as well as why anyone would want to stick around, forever, when they actually could die, once and for all, and not have to deal with all this crap anymore. I mean, haven’t we all had days when we thought, “Get me outta’ here!” Well, if you haven’t, I have. But then I’d remember that death is just a beginning — the beginning to one’s next life. Here’s a link to the post where I discuss the “realization” that helped me to understand that I am far from “realized.”

As karma would have it, I happened upon a discussion in the book, Momentary Buddhahood, Mindfulness and the Vajrayana Path, by Anyen Rinpoche. An acquaintance of mine, who is a yogi, told me that he doesn’t like Tibetan Buddhism, doesn’t like “the guy,” and would never read one of his books. I add this simply to emphasize that there are always, at least, two million sides to every story, as well as to point out that others’ recommendations, including my own, can mean everything or nothing. Unlike the yogi, I, for one, like “the guy.” This is one of the first books on mindfulness that I’ve read and not felt like a total idiot. Anyen Rinpoche’s words resonated with me, deeply. And here’s an excerpt, from Anyen Rinpoche’s book, in a section titled  Abide in the Experience of “No Self.” Please note how I use ellipses in this excerpt: three dots indicates the omission of words  within a sentence; four dots indicates the omission of one or more sentences in between one sentence and another. I mention this for both purposes of clarity and respect for copyright:

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“…a cursory analysis shows that the self is simply a concept….While this is somewhat helpful for developing a Buddhist foundation, ultimately, it will not take our practice to the next level….Merely knowing is not the same as experiencing and realizing.”

Rinpoche, A. (2009) Momentary buddhahood: Mindfulness and the Vajrayana path. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.
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This quotation from Anyen Rinpoche’s book stayed with me. I’ve read and reread it because short of ‘realization,’ I can, at least, try for internalization. But something happened, this morning, that made it even more “real” for me. Last night, I went to bed rather unhappily because of being repeatedly dive-bombed by a huge fly. Citing “reverence for life,” I did not try to swat it, and hoped that by morning, it would either go somewhere else, or die. No such luck. As I sat to begin my morning meditation, it repeatedly bounced off my head, literally got in my face, and even had the nerve to ‘buzz’ in an extremely loud, particularly distracting manner (I wonder if the Buddha had those sticky fly strips?). Finally, I grabbed a copy of a magazine I didn’t particularly like and “went” for it. Yep! You got it! I might not have been  mindful, but I sho’ nuff  minded! That was two hours ago, and I still didn’t manage to catch it. And that’s when I remembered a scene from  The Karate Kid  (1984). In this particular scene, Mr. Miyagi is sitting at his dinner table, trying to catch a fly with a pair of chopsticks. Daniel (Karate Kid) walks in, views this with some amusement, and asks if it wouldn’t be easier to use a fly swatter. Then, he asks if he can try. Mr. Miyagi smirks, and assents. After a couple tries, Daniel catches the pesky fly with his own pair of chopsticks, and the nonplussed Mr. Miyagi throws down his own chopsticks, leaves the table, and says, “You, beginner luck!” They then go outside and Daniel receives his first lesson in fence painting…

So, catching the fly is just the beginning. And I’m Daniel (if all goes well).

Here’s a link to that scene from The Karate Kid.

Namaste.

 

 

 

 

Everything Must Change…

One of my favorite songs is “Everything Must Change,” written by Bernard Ighner. While I am grateful for the link I’ve provided about him, I must apologize. There is an amazing dearth of information on this talented singer, songwriter, and collaborator. I was both grateful and amused to discover that I’m not the only person having problems finding information about Mr. Ighner. I learned, here, that as of 2006, he was still alive, and that his given name is not Bernard, but Benard! Additionally, Ighner wrote, “Everything Must Change,” but credit for the lyrics has been attributed to everyone but Josie and the Pussycats.

“Everything Must Change” has been performed by a wide and notable variety of artists, including Barbara Streisand, Oleta Adams, Lou Rawls, Peggy Lee, Arthur Prysock, and Quincy Jones, whose performance is, perhaps, the most widely recognized. I am providing, for your enjoyment, one of my favorite renditions, by the late, great Nina Simone, complete with a photo montage.

I meditate, quite regularly, on this song. The melody is haunting, and the lyrics are a velvet hammer. I found comfort in it when my father passed; I hum it when I look in the mirror; and I treasure it as a reminder of one of the main foci of my Buddhist practice: Impermanence.

“Everything Must Change,” by Benard Ighner, as performed, live, by the late, great Nina Simone.

Namaste.

No Greater [definition of] Love… Father Thomas Merton

On the home page of The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University, they state that Thomas Merton “…is arguably the most influential American Catholic author of the twentieth century.” He was a Trappist monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky. Known as a poet, mystic, and social activist, with a passion for jazz music, his life was a brief and spectacular meteoric shower in the Western sky. Nonetheless, he died in the East, in 1968, at the age of 53. The exact cause of death, which has never been determined, was reportedly the result of electrocution-by-fan as he stepped out of the bath tub in his hotel room. At the time of his death, Father Merton was visiting Thailand for the purpose of exploring one of his most passionate interests: Zen Buddhism. And this interest did not necessarily endear him to some members of the Catholic Church. I’ve included a link in the Related Readings section of this post, titled “Can You Trust Thomas Merton?” that you might want to examine.

Interestingly enough, it was the recommendation of the Hindu monk, Mahanambrata Brahmachari, that Merton read The Confessions of St. Augustine and The Imitation of Christ, that helped to assuage his former agnosticism and very real antipathy for the Catholic Church. In short, no one could have been more surprised that Thomas Merton became a member of the Catholic Church than Thomas Merton, himself. Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948, is now a classic — and for very good reasons.

One day, while perusing my public library’s discarded books collection, I discovered a book titled The Wisdom of the Desert: Some Sayings of the Desert Fathers  by Thomas Merton. All I can say is that it has become one of my favorite books. Merton compiled a number of brief sayings and parables reminiscent of the Desert Fathers (of Egypt), lone monks and small communities of God’s servants, living in the far-flung reaches of the desert. The words and teachings are not his, but he felt called to make sure, through editing and translating them himself, that they were preserved and shared. And it’s pithy wisdom to say the least.

Interestingly enough, my favorite part of  Desert Fathers  is Father Merton’s Introduction. Therein I found the best definition of ‘love’ I’d seen to date. This was about two years ago. And this concludes my own introduction to Father Thomas Merton (also known as Father Louis), as well as my commentary on his definition of love, in the paragraph below. I think it speaks for itself. And even if you don’t agree that it’s a most extraordinary statement, I’m sure you will be edified.

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“Love, of course, means something much more than more sentiment, much more than token favours and perfunctory identification with one’s brother, so that he is not regarded as an “object” to “which” one “does good.” The fact is that good done to another as to an object is of little or no spiritual value. Love takes one’s neighbor as one’s self, and loves him with all the immense humility and discretion and reserve and reverence without which no one can presume to enter into the sanctuary of another’s subjectivity. From such love all authoritarian brutality, all exploitation, domineering and condescension must necessarily be absent. The saints of the desert were enemies of every subtle or gross expedient by which “the spiritual man” contrives to bully those he thinks inferior to himself, thus gratifying his own ego. They had renounced everything that savoured of punishment and revenge, however hidden it might be.”

Source:
Merton, T. (Editor & Translator). (n.d.). Introduction to The wisdom of the desert: Some sayings of the desert fathers, pp. 17-18. Norfolk, CT: New Directions Books.

Namaste. And Oh, Hallelujah!

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Related Readings:

Our Capacity For Sincere Love from What Comes From Silence: Collected Quotes (blog)

Thomas Merton and Dialogue With Buddhism from America: The National Catholic Review

Thomas Merton’s Life and Work from Merton.org

Merton on Monday from Obsculta O Fili: Listen My Son, A Benedictine Blog

Can You Trust Thomas Merton? from Catholic Answers Magazine

 

 

 

 

“Bitch” Doesn’t Even Begin To Describe Karma…

“Karma’s a bitch.” –?
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Karma. You can’t pray to her. You can’t beseech her. You can’t make deals with her. You can’t seek her forgiveness. You can’t have a “personal relationship” with her. And you can’t expect her to suspend the laws of nature so that you don’t have to pay for the  evil you’ve wrought. Oh, wait a minute! I already mentioned prayer, didn’t I?

The term ‘karma,’ literally means ‘action,’ but it is widely and generally interpreted to mean “the result of an action, or actions,” which is incorrect. When our actions, i.e., karma, result in some type of payday, pleasant or unpleasant, there’s another term for that. It’s ‘vipaka.’ Vipaka means “fruit,” i.e., “the fruit of,” as in when our ‘actions’ (karma[s]) bear fruit (come to fruition), or when the seed(s) we’ve planted sprout, take root, grow, and multiply. So, when someone finally “gets what’s coming to them,” it’s not their ‘karma’ that finally caught up with them; it’s their ‘vipaka.’ The existence of the little-discussed (in the general public, anyway) term (vipaka) does not necessarily discredit other discussions, questions, or theories about karma. [And to emphasize this point, I have included, in my Related Reading section below, other discussions of karma that truly moved me].

Every action we express, whether physical, verbal, or even mental, is [a] ‘karma.’ An action as mundane as flossing one’s teeth is karma. The vipaka, or fruit, of flossing (particularly if that flossing is done regularly and well) is that of avoiding gingivitis. Better yet, commit the karma of regularly visiting your dentist. This type of karma is far-reaching and the results (vipaka), i.e., not losing all one’s teeth, are not necessarily immediate. This touches on the matter of different  types  of vipaka.

Sometimes, the results (vipaka) are immediate, and sometimes we don’t see those results (vipaka) for a very long time. Other types of karma bear almost instantaneous vipaka, whether good or bad. For example, when NYPD Officer Larry DePrimo bought a pair of leather boots for a man, and literally helped the man put them on his feet, he became, for a short while, the soul of the NYPD and the American public. He had no idea that his actions (karma) would be photographed and published all over the world. And then there are those individuals who commit murder (karma!) and never get caught (in  this  life, that is).

Consequently,the concept of karma begs the question of rebirth, even though one’s karma can manifest within just one lifetime, or even within five minutes of the karma committed. This seriously complicates the concept of rebirth, which is often viewed as mumbo-jumbo of the most primitive, pantheistic, and puerile kind. So, it’s worth taking a few minutes to consider that the law of karma is more akin to a law of nature, like gravity, or even more specifically, the law of conservation of energy. This law states:

“…energy cannot be created or destroyed, but only changed from one form into another or transferred from one object to another. This law is taught in physical science and physics classes in middle schools and high schools, and is used in those classes as well as in chemistry classes” (Your Dictionary.com).

And speaking of physics, interestingly enough, the differences between ‘energy transformation’ and ‘energy transfer’ have been used to describe the subtle differences some people make between rebirth and reincarnation, respectively. Additionally, the indestructible nature of energy, accepted as hard, scientific, even obvious fact, is also applicable to that energy known as “life.” For example, when a body breathes its last breath, where does that animating ‘energy’ “go?” If ‘life,’ itself, is a type of energy, and energy cannot be destroyed, is it so far-fetched to imagine that same energy being either transformed, transferred, redistributed, or redeployed? And even if you don’t believe in ‘rebirth’ or ‘reincarnation,’ does not some type of ‘transfer’ or ‘transformation’ take place when even a squirrel’s remains decay, merge with the soil, thus contributing to both the fertilization process and the growth and nourishment of other organisms? But that’s another post, isn’t it?

Namaste.

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Related Reading:

Well, we all know ‘Karma’ isn’t the bitch from The brooding architect (blog)

Our Mind Dictates Who We Are from Becoming Buddhist (blog)

Limitations and Expectations of Karma from Ayslyn’s Corner (blog)

“Stoner” by John Edward Williams (A Review)

Williams, J. (1965). Stoner. New York, NY: New York Review of Books.
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Back in the Good Ol’ Days, we had values. Songs had ‘meaning!’ We didn’t listen to crap like Fergie’s “My Humps,” Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” or Kelis’s “My Milkshake Brings All the Boys to the Yard.” Our songs had lyrics with substance and gravitas  like The Eagles’ “Hotel California” and Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” baby. There’s not a day that passes when I don’t thank the Buddha that I wasn’t born in some obscene year like 1990! So, it’s only because I was a child of the 60s that I happened upon the novel, Stoner.

Let’s begin by saying that it isn’t, at all, what you might think it’s about. I mean, we all know what a ‘stoner’ is; so, when I discovered this work featured at my local independent bookseller’s establishment, I wasn’t even sure I was going to read it! But I did wonder, as I picked up the book to examine it, why the man depicted on the cover was wearing a suit from the late 1800s. Actually, “Stoner” is the surname of the main character in the book of the same name. And amazingly, the book was originally published in 1965, the decade of my birth, and then simply lost in the shuffle, forgotten, until just recently  this  century! Just as interesting are the rumors regarding Professor John Edward Williams,’ death. I’d been told, more than once, that he’d committed suicide. Truth be told, he died in bed, quite happily enough, leaving behind a wife, family, and not a few friends.

A small placard affixed to the front of the bookstore copy said, simply, “The best book I’ve ever read!” One of the bookstore staff warned me that it wasn’t a flashy, exciting read, but more of a deep, introspective, examination of a rather unremarkable man’s life. In many ways, she was correct; but I beg to differ regarding ‘excitement.’ This could be the undergraduate English major in me, but I was shaken, and moved, to my core. I could easily have read the book in one sitting, but instead, decisively closed the cover and laid it down, unwillingly, someplace out-of-the-way, for brief intervals over a period of three days.  I felt compelled to savor what I’d read, and delay what I knew would be the final, painful end of a rare reading experience. Not since Hermann Hesse’s “Siddartha” (1922) have I felt this way about a work. And like Hesse, it’s quite obvious that John Edward Williams was, in his own fashion, a ‘spiritual’ man.

From the first page of  Stoner, author John Williams lets you know that William Stoner, the subject of this work, is no one special.  By the middle of that first page, we know that William Stoner was a university instructor who “never rose above the rank of assistant,” and was barely remembered by any student who’d ever taken one of his courses. In fact, after his death, it was noted that his colleagues didn’t think much of him, either. Williams’ lack of concern in developing some type of hook to pull the reader in from the start could be the reason why this work simply disappeared into the dustbin for the next 50 years or so. I won’t lie: it did occur to me to lay claim to my “within ten days and good condition” right to refund after reading that first paragraph. Nonetheless, I turned the page, and by page 9, I just knew I was in for one of the rare experiences of my life. I had to find out more about this poor boy who’d escaped the impoverished, illiterate, threadbare existence of a Missouri farm, where his parents eked out a subsistence, only because of an almost freakish opportunity to receive a university education.

Prior to leaving the farm to attend classes, young Stoner had known nothing of next-door neighbors, socializing, fine clothes, reading for pleasure, or the carelessness of youth. His parents were the stereotypical hard-bitten, illiterate, inarticulate poor dirt farmers who had given up the vernacular of light conversation, endearments, or even complaining. Life was simply hard, and one did what one had to do to get through it. So, the clueless young Stoner builds his adult life on a foundation of nothing and what little romance he is able to extract from Medieval English literature and the rarely-sought perspective of a few, not-so-close friends. But Stoner is far from ignorant. And somewhere within his hardscrabble life, he learns to love and to appreciate what beauty he can find along the way.

During Stoner’s first year as a student in the College of Agriculture at this fictitious University of Missouri (Williams, himself, taught at the University of Missouri), Stoner is awed by university life, but his passion to continue is exceeded only by his fear of returning to the farm where very little, if anything, ever grew. Then, near the end of page 9, we learn: “It was not until he returned for his second year that William Stoner learned why he had come to college.” Soon after, Stoner would leave the College of Agriculture to become, of all things, an English major, thus leaving his parents to think he’d soon be returning to run the family “business.” Williams, in his spare narration of Stoner, simply states: “In the summer he returned again to his parents’ farm and helped his father with the crops and did not mention his work at the University.” And the wonder and pathos of it all is that Stoner did not have to say anything because it never would have occurred to his parents to ask him how ‘things’ were going. Nonetheless, he changed and grew. He learns Greek and Latin, within the space of a year, well enough to read simple texts. And we learn that “Sometimes he thought of himself as he had been a few years before and was astonished by the memory of that strange figure, brown and passive as the earth from which it had emerged.”

Stoner’s career would encompass America’s two World Wars, and Williams provides some rare insights, through his characters, into how academics viewed conscription, volunteering, and the crushing effect these wars had on the very people and things for which American warriors fought, such as art, literature, and the value of a general education. In fact, one character is driven to madness. But one of the most confounding aspects of the book is Stoner’s marriage. If the expression, “thinking with his little head instead of his big one” had not yet been coined in the 1960s, it should have been. Stoner’s choice for a life mate, fairly early in his marriage, sets in motion a number of events, so inexpressibly tragic, but so easily avoidable with just a little thought, that one finds it impossible to keep one’s mouth from hanging open for much of the book. Nonetheless, and much to my amazement, Williams still manages to keep the tone of Stoner, mundane, dispassionate, and even.

Throughout Stoner’s tragic and remarkably unremarkable life, it is his career, as a university instructor, not professor, that keeps him sane and solid. Even after he realizes that despite his great love of literature, and respect and passion for education, that he is most definitely not a good instructor, he continues to plod on with a mindfulness most students of meditation would envy. And that mindfulness and dedication would carry him through several departmental scandals, controversies, and the ugliness of faculty politics. Certainly, it is in Stoner’s struggles to come to terms with the mess of his life, and the tragic nature of the little beauty he manages to experience, that reveals the aforementioned spirituality I found in Williams’ writing. All along the way, Stoner remains alert to the gifts ‘life’ gives him, however bare and paltry they might seem to anyone living life more “large.”

Once, Stoner experiences “…an epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words…” Later, Stoner discovers the emptiness of “learning,” but still appreciates the learning that leads him to this chilling discovery. And at a fairly late stage in his life, despite being married, he finally learns of true love, searing sex, and the staggering price he must pay for that knowledge. Near the end of his life, which ended long before his career, Williams says of Stoner, “He seldom thought of the past or the future, or of the disappointments and joys of either; he concentrated all the energies of which he was capable upon the moment of his work and hoped that he was at last defined by what he did.” Oh, reader! Does that not sound like some type of meditation to you?

Somehow, through a work thoroughly unremarkable in the areas of drama, humor, or much in the way of any character’s internal life (though Williams’ narration could fool one into thinking that Stoner had much more in the way of an internal life than was actually depicted), the author manages to create a character of such warmth, depth, dignity, magnitude and quiet, passionate desperation that there can be no question, by the end of this novel, that greatness can be found, and fostered, in the most unremarkable of remarkable places.

This is a work that will, one day, be read by every “educated” person. It deserves to be read, and murdered by, every first-year college student. And I, for one, will never be the same for reading it. Neither will you.

Namaste.

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Related Reading:

John Williams’ Stoner: The Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of by Tim Kreider from The New Yorker

Stoner by John Williams from bookemstevo

 

 

Who Are You?

Who are you?
Who, who, who, who?
[I really wanna kno-ow!]

Who are you?
Who, who, who, who?

—The Who (Who else?)

I regularly visit a Community Center in which there are two rooms: one with two PCs, a printer, and a television; the other with a lone television. The use of these items is restricted to members, but their guests, particularly if they are young children, are allowed to use them within reason. Despite signs limiting users to 30 minutes, and requesting the use of headphones when listening to music on the PCs, this doesn’t happen. In fact, the signs usually disappear or, at least, get torn down. So, lately, the World Cup has been blasting on one TV while country and rap are blasting on the two PCs adjacent to that TV. Two YouTube videos and one large television, all blasting, so that no one can really hear anything struck me not only as impolite, but imbecilic. I’ve often wondered why this seems to bother no one but me…

Yesterday, I entered the community room to find only one other person there. He was listening to a music video, without headphones, and the television was on, loud. I sat down at the other computer and began typing. The young man immediately cranked up the volume of the music video. Nope! Nothing personal. We’ve never met. I got up and turned off the television; took out some ear buds; went to YouTube, and found one of my favorite recordings of Mozart’s Requiem. Which one, you ask? Well, it’s the only one he ever wrote — and he never finished it because he died. Nonetheless, it makes me feel… happy.

The man listening to the video got up and left as soon as it finished. Immediately after, another man entered the room. And he doesn’t like me very much because I’m not “friendly.” With him. He was with his son — one of the most adorable post-toddlers I’ve ever seen. About six-years-old. Once Rocky had set up his son on the PC next to mine, with a very loud video game, he went over to the television, turned it back on, and cranked up the volume to capacity. This was personal. And he does it all the time. I didn’t’ even bother to turn around. In fact, I started swaying to the beat of Mozart’s “Offertorium.” It  really  rocks. OK. Not really. But I’m sure you get the drift.

Rocky and I have had our disagreements in the past. That no longer happens because I do my best to avoid him and keep my mouth shut no matter what he says. He’s a blatant heterosexual — who hates women (yes, I meant ‘hetero’). And all women are stupid: from the mother who gave him away, to the wife who left him for someone else. If you don’t stop doing what you’re doing to give him your 100% attention because he feels like shooting the breeze, right now, even if you’re filling out a job application on a computer that could crash at any minute (and he  knows  this), you’re a female canine. And if you won’t turn around and talk to him while he “walks” his cute son, he’ll get your attention another way — like by turning up the volume of the television — to capacity. It’s all about “him.” And believe it or not, I don’t mean this in a critical or disparaging way.

If Rocky can’t get your attention in a positive fashion, he’ll settle for it in a negative one. If you and he are not able to politely chit-chat about the shape of your behind, he’ll settle for being yelled at for having had the gall to even imagine that topic was up for discussion. Without my attention or venom, or anyone else’s, Rocky does not “exist.” He has no “identity.” He needs our praise, or our derision, because either way, we are engaging with each other. Without that engagement, he is alone. Doesn’t matter. Isn’t “somebody.” Honestly, I’ve gone from hating this man, to feeling sorry for him, to realizing that in my pity, I was actually being arrogant. Because I am still miles away from figuring out how to have a civil, decent, respectful, or sacred discussion with him about the shape of my behind, I have elected not to speak to him, at all.  I’ve come to realize that Rocky thinks that his noticing my behind is what makes me  somebody, in fact, a woman. And this is not  meanness, or evil on his part. It’s ignorance. He believes that it is other people who make us “somebody,” and that there is “somebody” (contrary to Buddhist philosophy). Truly, if we can cease to exist because someone, anyone, looks the other way, depending on how one interprets it, that says a lot, or very little…

We all suffer from some type of ignorance – even if it’s just ignorance about the existence of our ignorance. The Buddha taught, in the Four Noble Truths, that there is suffering; a cause for that suffering, a way out of that suffering, and that that way is the Noble Eightfold Path. Conquering ignorance is the only way to end suffering. And when we suffer, others suffer, by default. This is why we ‘hurt the ones we love,’ as well as everyone else.

I can’t yank Rocky out of his suffering any more than the Buddha could have yanked me out of mine. Though someone can show me the ‘Path,’ it is I who must walk it. It is I who must do the work.  And I have work to do. I suffer every day. But one thing is different. I no longer think that yelling at Rocky to turn down the volume will make me “happy.” Yes, it would make Rocky “happy” for a minute or two; and it would make the room quieter, but that’s nowhere near being a permanent solution — for either of us. So, I offer Rocky my silence because it’s as close to acting lovingly as I can get right now, and much more compassionate than blasting him for his ignorance – a malady from which we both suffer. How can I hate someone for suffering from a disease, a disease from which I, too, suffer? This is why I suspect that ‘compassion’ is very personal, and in no way related to ‘pity.’

Mahatma Gandhi said:

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

[An interesting note about the preceding quotation: The bumper stickers that say, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” are, apparently, a bastardization of this].

In closing, I’d like to share a brief excerpt, here, from the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh. It has helped me grapple with the sometimes confusing concept of personal meditation as public activism, i.e., working on oneself as a way of changing the world for the better (or as I secretly like to think of it: “being an effective ‘meditation cushion quarterback'”):

“MEDITATION IS NOT TO GET OUT OF SOCIETY, TO ESCAPE FROM society, but to prepare for a reentry into society. We call this “engaged Buddhism.” ….How do you expect to leave everything behind when you enter a meditation center? The kind of suffering that you carry in your heart, that is society itself. You bring that with you, you bring society with you. You bring all of us with you. When you meditate, it is not just for yourself, you do it for the whole society. You seek solutions to your problems not only for yourself, but for all of us.”

Hanh, Thich Nhat. (1993). Engaged Buddhism In S. Bercholz & S. Chödzin (Eds.), Entering the stream: An introduction to the Buddha and his teachings  (pp. 247-249). Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Namaste.

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Related References:

The Four Noble Truths: A Study Guide by Thanissaro Bhikkhu from Access To Insight.org

What is the Eightfold Path by Dana Nourie from Secular Buddhist Association

The Noble Eightfold Path by Walpola Rahula from Tricycle.com

Falser Words Were Never Spoken from The New York Times Opinion Pages

Mozart Requiem in D minor (K. 626) from YouTube