Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Maitreya Heart Shrine Relic Tour

One of the many curious details of my life in Eugene is that I happen to live up the street from a Buddhist temple.  Most days I ignore it, because I am not a Buddhist and am not presently in search of a religion of any sort.  But the Saraha Nyingma Buddhist Institute is there, and frankly I like that it is there.  It's a beautiful part of my community and appropriately placed amidst trees and hills.  It is quite serene, because as far as I can tell not much is usually happening there.

I visited Saraha today for the first time, because I became aware that something was happening this weekend, and my curiosity was piqued.  Presently, the temple is hosting a collection of Buddhist relics on tour.  I decided to have a look at the Maitreya Heart Shrine Relic Tour, for the purpose of educating myself, and experiencing closer a part of the community I had essentially neglected.

When I approached the building, I already found it in a much different state than usual, with cars crowding the curbs and a huge line of people (and shoes) pouring from the entrance.  In fact, I spent nearly an hour standing in that line, barefoot, trying not to feel conspicuous amongst a crowd of very serious people.  Most of the people were older than me, but there were a few parents with small children, as well as a few dogs who were allowed in to be blessed.  An older woman behind me was speaking German, and though I don't know much German it sounded like she was describing a Buddhist legend.  I don't know how many of the people were Buddhists and how many were interested outsiders like myself, but everyone was very respectful and patient.  I tried to be equally patient as the line slowly advanced into the main chamber.

The staff and volunteers were kind and welcoming, and they took the time to explain what was going on to me.  The Maitreya relics inside once belonged, they told me, to various Buddhist leaders and teachers throughout history, including Shakyamuni Buddha, Gautama himself.  If this is true, and I have no particular reason to doubt that it is, then the oldest stones and fragments of bones on the display table are about two thousand and five hundred years old.  The relics are displayed in small, beautiful glass containers, and certainly looked the part for their antiquity.  I entered with the expectation, of course, of dispassionately viewing some artifacts in a museum-like context.  This experience was much more religious than that.  People were actively meditating and worshiping to the side of the viewers, and the artifacts were plainly presented for veneration, not just idle display.

Though I am not a Buddhist, I was invited and encouraged by the volunteers to participate in a few basic rituals.  While standing in line, I copied a line from a sutra (though I did not quite understand what it meant).  I poured water three times over the head of the Buddha's statue, and lightly rang a couple of bells.  I spun a small prayer wheel (incorrectly, as the little girl in front of me pointed out).  Finally, I was invited to receive a blessing.  As the woman who blessed me asked me to pray silently, I contemplated my upcoming journey to Korea with my girlfriend, Tara.  Though I doubt its practical efficacy, the good will I felt from the temple during the blessing was heart warming in the best sense.

As I made my exit, I passed a container of holy water, blessed with the "energy" of the relics on display.  A sign instructed me to take some of it home with me, to add to some water at home and use as part of my daily routine.  Being from a Catholic background it had never really occurred to me to use holy water in this way, but I duly filled a small paper cup, walked back to my house, and made myself some tea.  I don't know what effect I was supposed to perceive from the energies of the relics, but I have to admit it tasted good.

Today was the final day of the Maitreya exhibition at Saraha, and I'm glad that I took the time to do something a little out of the way.  No matter how ordinary a neighborhood may seem, at times it may be touched by something larger.  Rarity appears in surprising places.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Poetry Jam #12

Today's round of poetry, containing works both light and not-so-light, was written between August and December of 2012; quite a time to be alive, as I recall!  Our President was re-elected, and I was frantically trying to move out of a house I'd only been living in a few months.  That's...pretty much it, as far as noteworthy events.  I probably don't really need to sit on my poems this long before releasing them to the eyes of the world, but you know me.  Lazy.

As always, a few notes and commentary at the bottom for those who like that sort of thing.  Lord knows I must.

My Face

I was surprised to see my face;
I thought that I looked different,
but I guess I just forgot myself
from looking in a mirror,
and now I can't believe my face
is who I'll be tomorrow.


The right of self-destruction may be ours,
it may be plain for all to see
but isn't it odd that we claim it?

The right to misadventure for the young
wherever youth runs stray and free,
but isn't it odd that we claim it?

The right to burn our organs to the ground,
to douse our minds and light the smoking oil,
as evident as things could be,
but isn't it odd that we claim it?


How fine to see an hourglass alive
and dwindling, not diminishing, but turning
sand from top to bottom, bulb to bulb;
descending, frozen in a fluid moment,
stopped in space and passing time by time.

How fine to be reminded of the glass
that has been turned, and hasn't been, but will
again if someone finds it standing steady.
Every space an endless era, filled,
and emptied, spent, and wasted, filled again.

Mary Jane Around the World

Mary Jane is not at home;
tonight she sleeps in the arms of the sun,
blinded by the light of stars,
eyelids shut across the eyes
of Mary Jane and her beautiful one.

Mary Jane is far away;
today she lightly embraces the moon,
glides along the beams of grey,
silver on the glittering dress
of Mary Jane in the embassy room.

Mary Jane is gone for good;
a lonely thought in a wandering mind,
corresponding to a girl
gone to England, France, Japan:
the Mary Jane who has left him behind.

Music Machine

Noise and silence break the filter,
and that's the way the first song ends
like lightning crackling through a tube:
broken sounds like blues.

Thirteen songs to go before
the fade out
crackles out again.
Noise and silence break the filter,
split the speaker end to end.

Nightmares of Mine

I read your book before I went to sleep,
and yes, I liked it.  But it gave me nightmares:
trees came tumbling from the sky, and saws
flew loops between them; women's faces sprung
from mirrors on the bathroom walls at night.

But I still liked it; yes, I mean the book.
I found it gripping, and I couldn't stop
myself from reading, even when my dreams
began.  I'd turn the page, and owls would peer
from windows hid between the words and call:

We know that you'll be sleeping soon; good night,
and don't mind us, we'll just be sleeping too.

The Notable Gift

You've got the gift, and every one will love you for it,
everyone will love your gift,
They'll come from miles in all directions
Just to watch the way you kick.

So now you've earned a cheer, a kiss,
a headline in the student paper
for your single notable gift.

Una Vez en Español, Por Favor

El alma de mi fuego, levántate,
vuela tú sobre el sonido
de mi corazón ahora.
Esta noche, tú me levantas
y me duermo;
sueña tú juntos conmigo.

A Larger Fire

Our evening hasn't lacked for candlelight,
we burn beside a fire
many stages larger than the flames
of little wicks and wax.

Those candles melt away
but ours will burn until it ashes
several forests worth of wood
and brings this little restaurant down.

Train Tracks

Angry trains at midnight
break the silence of the station
with their unrelenting whistles
and their endless clicker-clacks;

This town could stretch for miles, 
but we'd always be in earshot,
and we'll never get to sleep 
until the trains are off the tracks.

Tara's Eyes

If I were writing of your eyes
I couldn't keep my hands from shaking;
discipline and self-control
are stupid notions when I think
that I could see you and be seen
by you, reflected in your lovely,
loving, incandescent eyes.


Painted on the sidewalks
and the uninspected walls,
sprayed across the concrete,
over bricks and private roads:

Omar the Relentless
keeps his head below the tall grass
so the public doesn't see him.

Tower Defense Queue

Four or five to go, I think,
perhaps as few as three; I hope 
that I won't have to settle...
Only two?  While we could play
with two, this only seems to
raise the question, if I 
really need to play with you.

Wax Shell

There is life inside this shell,
but its lifespan is determined:
there is no escaping that.

Every second that it lives
and consumes its precious matter
is an ash along the path;

When it slowly flickers out
there might still be a reminder 
of the life it hasn't lived,

But the shell will be alone.
It will only be remembered
for the light it didn't give.

Shatter-Colored Window

Now you are broken glass on the floor,
strained like sand and water and a chore
to gather up, a hazard for our feet,

A color-crusted window to the door
beyond perception,
the subjective,
the release.

Something Important to Say

Natalia warned the speaker to
beware of falling icicles
when speaking in the frozen room:

"A single block could crush you dead,
the smallest point could split your head,
and then your speech would never carry
promise like it did before."

Natalia smiled, then she sat down
without betraying her dread.
The speaker bravely said her peace
because it had to be said.



I don't think Rights is very elegant as far as meter goes, but I like everything else about it.  The middle stanza is weak, but I think the third one more than makes up for it in terms of content.  I'm not a teetotaler, but I do think that our bodies are worth taking care of, and I have never been comfortable with the notion that being young is not only a license, but an invitation to hurt yourself.

Hourglass has some nifty metaphysics and philosophy going on, but mostly it's about word sounds.  "Turning sand from top to bottom, bulb to bulb?"  Sometimes I impress myself.  I am easily impressed by plosive consonants.

Mary Jane Around the World, on the other hand, is more about images and feelings.  Loss and liberty, you might call it, if you were allowed to title it.  I have half a mind to re-title it right now.  But I won't.

My notes indicate I was drunk when I wrote Music Machine.  I don't want to give the impression that I always drink when I write poems, but I do often feel the urge to scribble when I've had something to drink.  Sometimes, it's halfway decent.

Nightmares of Mine is almost a story, written as it is in blank verse.  The title is literal: those are images that used to recur in my dreams when I was a small child.  Some of them even feel like actual memories, even though the laws of physics preclude them from being possible.  I wanted to give them a little touch of immortality through verse.

The Notable Gift touches on anxiety, about being hailed as brilliantly talented for being able to do one thing sort of well.  I have this problem sometimes.

I am almost a little embarrassed to be presenting Una Vez en Español, Por Favor.  Yes, I wrote it in Spanish.  I didn't write it in English and then translate it, I went word by word in Spanish.  If I've fucked it up in the grammar, please let me know and I'll fix it.  I just really wanted to try something different.  I don't know much about typical meters in Spanish poetry, so I treated the stress more or less as I would in English and did my own thing.

A Larger Fire and Wax Shell were both originally untitled and are both, more or less, about candles.  I was surprised at how sexy the first one turned out to be!  But the second is not sexy.  Not sexy at all.  Anyway, I like candles.  I like the way they smell and I just like the way they burn. 

Tara's Eyes is for Tara, but you guys can read it too.  She really does have beautiful eyes.  It's the biggest cliche ever for a poet to compliment a woman's eyes, but at least I successfully avoided the word "limpid."

"Rumo?" is based on some actual graffiti I saw in the park one day while I was walking home.  The same person seems to have made multiple tags in different places.  It looked like they were spelling "Rumo," but it was so stylized I couldn't be one hundred percent sure.  So I reversed it (sort of) to Omar in the body of the poem, and I liked the mental images it gave me.

Tower Defense Queue is about StarCraft 2.  In case you were wondering.  I'm not often moved to wax poetical about online games, but it was a silly day.

I wrote Shatter-Colored Window to give myself something to do between classes when I was substituting for a ceramics teacher at Springfield High.  You take some of the things you see around you, and sometimes you can make something really pretty out of it.

Something Important to Say appears, at first glance, to be heavily laden with allegory.  It totally is.  Trust your instincts.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

WFJ Book Club #12: The Harry Potter Series

I didn't really have strong feelings about J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series for most of its existence.  I'd seen the first two movies and made a half-hearted start at reading the first book, almost a decade ago.  Through the inexorable process of geek osmosis, I had a basic idea of who the major characters and what the critical plot points were.  But in a media universe that contained plenty of other things to interest me, it never occurred to me that this was a franchise that was really special, and not just popular.

It's a recurring theme for me, and typing it out makes me feel a bit snobby, but I've never been comfortable with becoming obsessed with things that everybody else obsesses over in a particular moment of time.  It's not that I suspect that all popular things are bad and that my taste is better.  It's just that I don't know whether a currently popular media franchise is really better than any comparable item I might pick at random.  If I want to get wrapped up in something, I want it to be something I know I'll respect and maybe even love. even when I've moved on to something else.

So my instinct is to take my time.  And in many cases, my instincts manifest as pure stubbornness.  But I like being proved wrong when my stubbornness is put to the test.  Harry Potter really is special, and I should have realized that a long time ago.

There's a qualitative realness to the stories of Harry Potter, where hourglasses can turn back time and paintings of dead people can discourse with the living.  For all the fantasy and the high drama of war that drives the later books, they remain stories about going to school, growing into adulthood, and learning about the subtle shades of morality that complicate the struggle between good and evil.  By the time of the final confrontation nearly everyone has chosen a side, and we get the climactic drama the genre seemingly demands.  But the ambivalence about some of those choices from both alignments reveals Rowling's care in presenting to her audience a cast of characters who actually make choices, rather than merely filling stock roles.

Although the books are written for younger readers and present no real difficulty, their greatest strength is put in its best light when they are read together, regarded not as seven self-contained installments but chapters in a larger tale.  Committing to seven progressively longer books is a lot to ask, but it's the only way to appreciate the thought and planning that went into developing the considerable cast of characters.  Good people, even the kindly Professor Dumbledore, occasionally do bad things for which they don't really have good excuses, even as they struggle to do what's right.  On the other side, the motivations of noted "evil" wizards and witches range from the joy of hurting and bullying others to the fear of being likewise hurt; but all of them are ultimately controlled by a devastating villain, whose aim is not violence in itself but who will casually use the cruelest violence to achieve his ends.

So you have Voldemort, whose fascist agenda brings together various strands of evil in an extended saga of tragedy and death.  Likewise, young Harry is often driven to despair by the sheer weight of loss in his life.  But there is sunlight to be found at Hogwarts, too.  Though marred by war and class strife, the world of witches and wizards is one where people are generally benign to one another.  Women are equally respected as men in both athletics and academics, and for every Percy Weasley who seems determined to suck the fun out of magic through dry bureaucracy, there's a Fred and a George committed to exploring the infinite possibilities of joy and wonder that wizarding brings.  Apart from the main plot, the Harry Potter books are enjoyable for the portraits they offer of the lives of interesting, eccentric, and emotionally realistic people.

Harry's world has most of the best virtues of good fantasy literature: great characters, imaginative problem solving, compelling moral stakes, and a novel world/setting that seems (for all its danger) like an appealing place to dwell.  In fact, most of the best fantasy literature leaves the reader with the distinct impression that the setting is really "out there," either just hidden from view or far removed in time.  That's the reason why ardent Tolkien fans study Quenya and Sindarin.  And it's also why there exists an International Quidditch Association.

Of course, Hogwarts and the rest of the Wizarding World aren't really "out there."  Cars rarely fly and owls only seldom carry mail.  When real Quidditch players lose hold of their broomsticks, it's more awkwardly hilarious than terrifying.  But the people still want to live in that world because they feel so welcome there, and feeling welcome is in large part what Harry Potter is all about.  What starts as a tale about children going to school becomes a story of making a home in the world, and if we've already got more than enough of those, most of them don't seem to feature half-giants on flying motorcycles.

Being fans of Harry Potter has inspired some people to do amazing things.  For many others, it simply brings great pleasure.  But in all cases, it's a kind of lasting feeling that gets inside of you and changes your world in subtle, hard-to-define ways.  It's definitely the kind of change that's worth letting in.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The American Reality

This Independence Day seems especially important to me, because if all goes as plans I won't be spending the next one in this country.  I'll be in South Korea, where I imagine the Fourth of July goes relatively unobserved (and if I'm wrong, that has some really disturbing implications).  It may be only a year off, but in the context of my thoughts about what it will mean to be absent from the United States for so long, it's taken on some significance for me.

The immediate question is, "what exactly am I celebrating today?"  A couple of years ago, I offered some "objective praise" for this country, in the spirit of fun and concern for the complete lack of perspective that people tend to bring toward this holiday. 

This year, I don't really feel like praising America.  In fact, as much as going abroad is nerve-wracking to one who hasn't done it much, I'm pretty eager to be gone for a while.  It's not that I no longer feel this country to be deserving of (objective) praise.  I just feel like our problems, on balance, might be larger than our assets.

You see, there's the American Dream.  Nobody really knows what it is, but most of us are pretty sure we like it and want it and that it makes our country special.  As near as I can define it (and I could easily be wrong), it's economic success matched with personal freedom and a healthy respect and adherence to the rule of law.  And then there's the American Reality.  As far as can be seen, this consists of a blotted economic record, with outcomes varying by a sinfully wide margin depending on race, class, and gender.  The same can be said for personal freedom.  As for the rule of law?  Well, maybe if you're white.  Maybe.

What separates the American Dream from the American Reality?  Principally, it's narcissism.  It's a reflexive aversion to equality.  It's a preference for happy symbolism over hard truth.  Call it what you will, it's hurting this country in ways that are both universal and peculiar.  The American Reality is that most people just can't live in the country we were all promised.

I count myself easily among the privileged, and I like to think that America really is improving over time, in fits and starts.  But there are too many people here who think that improving this country means restricting people's rights, or that protecting us means putting our trust in authority that does not recognize the rule of law.  I can't accept that a free and equal society is impossible in a country that claims to want it as much as this one.  But what people claim to want, and the implications of their actions, are often completely different things.

On the other hand, I'm very much looking forward to going to the park tonight, to drink and feast and watch the fireworks display.  That's what holidays are for, after all.  But tomorrow, things will be as they've always been, very probably for worse.  Think about it, and do what you can.  In the meantime, enjoy some freedom.