Zen Talk: Do A Person’s Friends Tell You About His Character

“When the character of a man is not clear to you, look at his friends.”

I found this to be a particularly fascinating quote to stumble upon because I am also a part time SAT teacher. As such, I teach students how to write a persuasive essay in 25 minutes by using good examples and by taking a side. Funny enough, one of the questions that I use regularly when I assign them weekly essays to practice this skill is, “Do a person’s friends tell you about his character?”

It was curious, then, to find this Buddhist quote that states quite definitely that, yes, a person’s friends do tell you about his character. Generally, my students argue the same, however poorly, but it’s interesting to see this here – yet with no support.

I have no interest in weighing in on the issue, but just thought that I’d share this quote for the week and ask what you think and why.

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Zen Talk: What’s the Point of Seeking to Understand?

“If you understand, things are just as they are; if you do not understand, things are just as they are.”

Ha! That sucks. Sort of. It’s also nice to know. Our understanding of something and something being so are independent of one another. Whether or not you know or don’t know, nothing different is happening outside of your head about what you do or don’t know. A bizarre separation of seemingly related things.

Does that make you want to know more or make you realize the futility of learning more? Presumably there’s a separate issue at hand here, which is, what do you do with that knowledge once you have it? Sure, if you don’t do anything with what you understand then that understanding can’t affect anything. However, use your knowledge for the benefit of others and things will no longer be as they are.

What do you think about this quote or my thoughts on it?

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Zen Talk: For How Long Will I Be a Fool?

He who asks a question is a fool for a minute; he who does not remains a fool forever.

– famous Chinese proverb

I consider myself to be a very curious fellow. I have lots of questions, and I’m always reading a dozen books and learning whatever I can. Does that make me a life-long fool or a life-long learner? Maybe both.

I accept that there is tons that I don’t know and tons I will never know. Compared to what there is to know, I know nothing. I feel very much like Socrates in that fashion – no, not like a brilliant philosopher, but like Socrates claimed he felt: as if he knew nothing and that was all he knew for sure.

Don’t get me wrong, I think I know plenty, but that plenty is plenty of facts about certain subjects that I fancy myself savvy in. Bigger picture, though, and bigger issue, I think that I know so little that it’s disturbing. That doesn’t stop me from consuming whatever knowledge I can with a voracious appetite, but it is somewhat humbling to realize that I will never know as much as I would like.

Then again, I know certain things that I wish I didn’t – that I truly wish I had no knowledge of. And that’s, perhaps, more disturbing still: to know that I would rather remain in absolute ignorance until the day I died than to know, when I value knowing and knowledge so highly.

Life-long fool it is, I suppose.

What do you think about this quote?

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Zen Talk: Our Words Don’t Do Reality Justice

“The instant you speak about a thing, you miss the mark.”

There’s little I find as frustrating as writing the same post twice, and though apparently I can’t possibly capture that frustration in words, I’m going to ask your forgiveness on the skimpiness of this post as it pains me to write it again.

I love this quote. It reminds me of the notion of Platonic forms. That is, we try repeatedly to capture the essence of an idea in its earthly manifestations and as close to our designs as we may come, we never truly capture its essence (not that I subscribe to the notion of Platonic forms, but this does make me think of them).

This quote also speaks to the value of experience. When we experience something we truly live it, but when we attempt to tell of that experience to others, we no doubt miss the mark. Though a shame, it reminds us of the importance of living life for ourselves.

What are your thoughts on this quote?

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Zen Talk: Watts’ Words are Twisted For Us to Unravel – Or Leave as They Are

“Nothing is exactly as it seems, nor is it otherwise.”
Alan Watts

A lot of people like to knock Alan Watts as being a westernized form of eastern Zen Buddhism and of fetishizing the hell out Zen. I can’t really disagree with that sentiment, but I can say that, despite this, I still enjoy a lot of what Watts has to say. It’s interesting and it makes you think, less often in a western way but by helping our western thinking minds move in a more Zen-like fashion.

This quote contributes to that kind of thinking. “Nothing is exactly as it seems,” seems, at face value, to be a very normal thing to say, and perhaps something that we’ve heard before. It’s like the warning Conan the Barbarian should get before entering the Palace of Mirrors.

However, the addition of “nor is it otherwise” gives pause. Does that mean that things are exactly as they seem or that we are actually discussing the notion of “nothing.”

Nothing, as a thing, is exactly as it seems. Nothing is nothing. Nor is nothing not as it seems because it is nothing. This could become a tautological mind f-ing, and rather than do that, I’m going to leave it open to the floor. What is going on in this quote, and what does it mean?

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Quran Read-A-Long: The Cow 267-273 Continues the Discussion of Charity

It’s interesting that in verse 268, when the Quran warns of Satan threatening us with poverty, it’s not that Satan will bring that poverty upon us himself. It’s that Satan is the one who makes us concerned that poverty might afflict us if we do not guard our money more carefully and if we don’t stop giving it to the needy. We cannot be swayed by his nagging.

I like the praise of wisdom in verse 269. Surely it’s not a praise of wisdom in a vacuum or praise of wisdom instead of faith, but that wisdom itself is valuable is important. These promises of other things (i.e. wisdom) all fall amidst this conversation of doing the right thing with the gifts that God has given us. By equating wisdom to wealth, it seems to me that intelligence and wisdom (which aren’t necessarily the same thing, and forgive me if I’m using them that way) should only be used for good – and charitably. If you are wise and capable, help other people with your wisdom and abilities – don’t keep them all to yourself, reading all day and trying to amass knowledge just for the sake of knowledge.

Verse 271 returns to the concept I addressed last week of doing charity secretly, because, as Maimonides tells us, the best form of tzedakah (charity) is that in which the recipient does not know his benefactor nor the benefactor his recipient. I’m curious about the atonement element here, though. It seems to me that perhaps giving charity to atone for your sins is not the right reason to give – that seems like a selfish reason rather than doing it for a godly reason (i.e. because it’s right). This could just be informational – ‘by the way, when you give charity like this it atones for your sins’ – but it seems hard to conclude that people would be able to set that informational fact aside and give charity in this fashion for the right reasons while knowing that to be true. Truly, I don’t look at this and think it’s a big deal – I just wonder about the order of priorities in the donor’s mind considering the emphasis placed on giving willingly and because it’s the right thing to do (next verse included!).

And in the next verse is that mention of whatever you give coming back to you – Islamic Karma 🙂

Asad, in the notes of his translation, mentions some very interesting ideas here that I’d like to bring up: that Mohammed had, because of Muslims’ penury, advised that charity only be given to Muslims in need. This verse reverses that and means that all people in need should be given charity – regardless of faith. A. That’s wonderful. B. It’s interesting because as Asad points out, giving charity to only Muslims could encourage converts for the wrong reasons and ultimately be construed as coercing conversion, something expressly forbidden (2:256). Very interesting.

Please feel free to share your thoughts about my comments and these verses.

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The Cow 267-273

267. O you who have attained to faith! Spend on others out of the good things which you may have acquired, and out of that which We bring forth for you from the earth; and choose not for your spending the bad things which you yourselves would not accept without averting your eyes in disdain. And know that God is self-sufficient, ever to be praised. 268. Satan threatens you with the prospect of poverty and bids you to be niggardly, whereas God promises you His forgiveness and bounty; and God is infinite, all-knowing, 269. granting wisdom unto whom He wills: and whoever is granted wisdom has indeed been granted wealth abundant. But none bears this in mind save those who are endowed with insight. 270. For, whatever you may spend on others, or whatever you may vow [to spend], verily, God knows it; and those who do wrong [by withholding charity] shall have none to succor them. 271. If you do deeds of charity openly, it is well; but if you bestow it upon the needy in secret, it will be even better for you, and it will atone for some of your bad deeds. And God is aware of all that you do. 272. It is not for thee [O Prophet] to make people follow the right path, since it is God [alone] who guides whom He wills. And whatever good you may spend on others is for your own good, provided that you spend only out of a longing for God’s countenance: for, whatever good you may spend will be repaid unto you in full, and you shall not be wronged. 273. [And give] unto [such of] the needy who, being wholly wrapped up in God’s cause, are unable to go about the earth [in search of livelihood]. He who is unaware [of their condition] might think that they are wealthy, because they abstain [from begging]; [but] thou canst recognize them by their special mark: they do not beg of men with importunity. And whatever good you may spend [on them], verily, God knows it all.

Zen Talk: The Illusion of Purity

“Water which is too pure has no fish.”
– Ts’ai Ken T’an

How right you are Ts’ai Ken T’an. I recently started a very small aquarium in my home, and the first thing I learned from my very smart local aquarium store owner (Ocean Aquarium) is that the success of the aquarium and the happiness of the fish is all about the water. You can’t just put fish into the water that comes out of your faucet. It’s too pure!

You have to spend weeks treating your water to adjust the levels of nitrates, ammonia and acidity. And just as importantly, you have to consistently add bacteria to the water so that an eco system can begin to thrive and settle in.

So what does that mean for Zen Talk. Well, on the one hand I would say that purity is an extreme and a ‘final’ destination and that striving for purity is a false pursuit. What is purity anyway but an ever changing, relative and subjective falsity? Some people say that drugs can never enter our bodies for our bodies to be pure. Others contend that a spiritual cleansing and purity ritual involves psychotropic substances.

That’s not to say that one should shun a cleanliness of mind and body – quite the contrary. Just that an extreme, even in the case of purity, should not be sought after like some be-all end-all.

What are your thoughts on this quote and matter?

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