23 August 2010

Teachable Moment

From "Please, No More Teachable Moments" by Victor Davis Hanson in the National Review:

The president of the United States has it hard enough without needlessly wading into, and fanning, local controversies. The economy is battered by sluggish growth, high unemployment, record annual deficits and near unsustainable national debt. Over 50 percent of the people now disapprove of Barack Obama's handling of these problems.

So why weigh in on hot-button issues that can only polarize people without solving anything?
To lead, you goddamn idiot. It's not always about agreeing with a majority of the country according to polls, or else we could just rule by Nielsen ratings. Sometimes the President needs to lead.

12 August 2010

Two graphs and a note

So here are two graphs (lifted from Ezra Klein's blog) that illustrate two trends flat-out.  There's not much wiggle-room on either.

One: Almost all jobs lost were lost before Obama's policies took effect via the stimulus and subsequent jobs bill. You can make the claim that these job losses were still partly the fault of Democrats, and you can claim that Obama hasn't helped recovery enough. But to claim - as Republicans have been doing - that Obama has lost more jobs is simply untrue, to a tune of 8 million.

Two: The Democrats want to cut everyone's taxes. The Republicans want to cut everyone's taxes by a similar amount, except for the super-rich who would received a seventeenfold larger cut under the GOP. That's "seventeenfold," a number so big that the word isn't in my spellchecker.



On an unrelated note, I will be in China for the week and incommunicado.

11 August 2010

"The Coming of War: Actaeon" by Ezra Pound

An image of Lethe,
and the fields
Full of faint light
but golden,
Gray cliffs,
and beneath them
A sea
Harsher than granite,
unstill, never ceasing;
High forms
with the movement of gods,
Perilous aspect;
And one said:
"This is Actaeon."
Actaeon of golden greaves!
Over fair meadows,
Over the cool face of that field,
Unstill, even moving,
Hosts of an ancient people,
The silent cortège.

Cut Spending?

In follow-up to my recent post about Republican financial amnesia, let's look at their promises, as well. Incidentally, I first addressed this theme in a lengthy post about House Minority Whip Eric Cantor's YouCut stunt.

The playbook is very old: the GOP promises specific taxcuts (Let's cut income taxes by 5%, and stop chaining the people who provide jobs in this country) and nonspecific spending cuts (Let's end this pork barrel spending and out-of-control Washington madness). It's a great tactic, and it usually works (unless a reporter presses you for a specific program cut).

This dissonance relies on a frequently-indicated problem in politics: most people dislike the general state of politicians/laws/entitlements, while still actually liking those politicians/laws/entitlements in which they feel personally invested. People hate the faceless general and love the personified specific. It's why the people disapprove of Congress' performance to a tune of 72% while still having a 95% retention rate. People might moan about pork-barrel spending waste in the bar at night with their buddies, but when it comes to the actual vote in the ballot booth, people tend to remember that their Senator was the one who got that factory built (it's not pork if it helps you).

Unfortunately for the GOP, the refrain is starting to get a little old. Serious proposals like Congressman Paul Ryan's (R-WI) are purposefully ignored and instead a lot of time is wasted on theatrics - Republican Senators like to rant about poorly-chosen stimulus funds. (Yes, why would we ever want to do animal testing to study self-administration of drugs? Who could that possibly help?)

The Economist today makes this criticism sharply in the face of Republican proposals for a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution - an absurd change that would make any deficit unconstitutional.

Today, a serious Republican would lay out specific long-term plans for cutting the deficit. He would explain where he would make cuts and how he planned to rein in entitlement spending. If he refused to raise taxes, he'd agree to slash more. He wouldn't propose a balanced-budget amendment; he'd propose a balanced budget. ... It's as if we are supposed to take it on faith that Republicans are the party of fiscal discipline, details to come later. But Republicans have not earned that faith. As we all know, spending soared under George Bush, even when Republicans controlled Congress.

Maybe there's only so many times they can chant their mantra before people stop listening and start looking for actual solutions?

10 August 2010

Underwater

When you have a camera that can take underwater pictures, you are obligated to use it underwater. Then you delete 95% of the pictures of blurry rocks, sand floating in a cloud, and yellowish streaks that might be fish.




Why are Republicans trying to portray themselves as fiscally responsible?

I don't know why the GOP is trying to portray themselves as models of wisdom, financially speaking. The record certainly doesn't bear them out.  I'm going to simplify everything a hell of a lot, but it's my belief that it reflects the whole picture very well.  The point is this: Republicans have borrowed a huge amount of money to pay for their programs, far more than the Democrats.  We can see this from the graph here, but I'm going to make a table to show specific examples.

Below in my table are a number of major policy initiatives from the past ten years or so.  Some notes about the table:
  • The financing is the important part: how it was paid for.  Deficit spending is spending money we don't have - i.e. it's money we're borrowing from other countries to spend on programs.  I believe it is sometimes necessary, but apparently the GOP thinks it's the worst thing to do.
  • In almost all cases, each program got some votes on the other side of the aisle, but it's not hard to figure out who owned the bill.
  • The timeframe of each bill can be squishy - who knows when the war will end or how many years to count in the cost of an extension of Medicare?  So I took the traditional route of using the ten-year projections.

ProgramYearPartyFinancials
Bush Tax Cuts2001, 2003Republican$1.8 trillion deficit spending over their ten year span.
Medicare Part D2003Republican$723 billion deficit spending (ten year projection).
Iraq War2003Republican1$845 billion deficit spending (so far; projections to 2017 run to $2.5 trillion or more).
AIDS Relief2003Republican$15 billion deficit spending.
TARP and Auto Bailout2008Bipartisan2$700 billion deficit spending.
Stimulus Bill2009Democrat$787 billion deficit spending.
Healthcare Reform2010DemocratReduces deficit by $143 billion (ten year projection).
HIRE (jobs bill)2010Democrat$17.5 billion deficit spending
1. The invasion of Iraq got the support of more than half of Democrats, but I counted it as a Republican program because it was driven hugely by the Bush administration and their easygoing treatment of the truth about WMDs.
2. I'm being generous and calling it Bipartisan instead of Republican, even though you could make a good case for that.

Now, am I saying I don't like any deficit spending? Not at all. From what I understand, it's often a good thing. I love "AIDS Relief" and I am okay with the "Stimulus." But the sudden amnesia of Republicans about their drunken shopping sprees just cannot stand.

My father often says, "Son, I used to vote Republican.  But eventually I realized that they keep saying one thing and doing another."  Damn straight.

EDIT: From Ezra Klein, here's Newt Gingrich back in 1993, showing us what Republican economic advice is worth as we see Gingrich forecasting a recession.  That period that turned out to be the longest sustained growth of the American economy:

Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-GA), February 2, 1993: We have all too many people in the Democratic administration who are talking about bigger Government, bigger bureaucracy, more programs, and higher taxes. I believe that that will in fact kill the current recovery and put us back in a recession. It might take 1 1/2 or 2 years, but it will happen. (Congressional Record, 1993, Thomas)

08 August 2010

"Flushing Remonstrance"

In his excellent speech on Cordoba House, the "Ground Zero mosque," Mayor Bloomberg of NYC mentioned a historical tidbit with which I was not familiar: the Flushing Remonstrance. As it turns out, this is a stirring appeal for tolerance by the people of the town of Flushing to their Governor, who had lately commanded them not to allow Quakers into their homes. It is well-worth reading in full.

Remonstrance of the Inhabitants of the Town of Flushing to Governor Stuyvesant, December 27, 1657:

Right Honorable

You have been pleased to send unto us a certain prohibition or command that we should not receive or entertain any of those people called Quakers because they are supposed to be, by some, seducers of the people. For our part we cannot condemn them in this case, neither can we stretch out our hands against them, for out of Christ God is a consuming fire, and it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Wee desire therefore in this case not to judge least we be judged, neither to condemn least we be condemned, but rather let every man stand or fall to his own Master. Wee are bounde by the law to do good unto all men, especially to those of the household of faith. And though for the present we seem to be unsensible for the law and the Law giver, yet when death and the Law assault us, if wee have our advocate to seeke, who shall plead for us in this case of conscience betwixt God and our own souls; the powers of this world can neither attach us, neither excuse us, for if God justifye who can condemn and if God condemn there is none can justifye.

And for those jealousies and suspicions which some have of them, that they are destructive unto Magistracy and Ministerye, that cannot bee, for the Magistrate hath his sword in his hand and the Minister hath the sword in his hand, as witnesse those two great examples, which all Magistrates and Ministers are to follow, Moses and Christ, whom God raised up maintained and defended against all enemies both of flesh and spirit; and therefore that of God will stand, and that which is of man will come to nothing. And as the Lord hath taught Moses or the civil power to give an outward liberty in the state, by the law written in his heart designed for the good of all, and can truly judge who is good, who is evil, who is true and who is false, and can pass definitive sentence of life or death against that man which arises up against the fundamental law of the States General; soe he hath made his ministers a savor of life unto life and a savor of death unto death.

The law of love, peace and liberty in the states extending to Jews, Turks and Egyptians, as they are considered sons of Adam, which is the glory of the outward state of Holland, soe love, peace and liberty, extending to all in Christ Jesus, condemns hatred, war and bondage. And because our Saviour sayeth it is impossible but that offences will come, but woe unto him by whom they cometh, our desire is not to offend one of his little ones, in whatsoever form, name or title hee appears in, whether Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist or Quaker, but shall be glad to see anything of God in any of them, desiring to doe unto all men as we desire all men should doe unto us, which is the true law both of Church and State; for our Saviour sayeth this is the law and the prophets.

Therefore if any of these said persons come in love unto us, we cannot in conscience lay violent hands upon them, but give them free egresse and regresse unto our Town, and houses, as God shall persuade our consciences, for we are bounde by the law of God and man to doe good unto all men and evil to noe man. And this is according to the patent and charter of our Towne, given unto us in the name of the States General, which we are not willing to infringe, and violate, but shall houlde to our patent and shall remaine, your humble subjects, the inhabitants of Vlishing.

Written this 27th of December in the year 1657, by mee.

Edward Hart, Clericus

Tobias Feake
Nathaniell Tue
The marke of William Noble
Nicholas Blackford
William Thorne, Seignior
The marke of Micah Tue
The marke of William Thorne, Jr.
The marke of Philip Ud
Edward Tarne
Robert Field, senior
John Store
Robert Field, junior
Nathaniel Hefferd
Nich Colas Parsell
Benjamin Hubbard
Michael Milner
The marke of William Pidgion
Henry Townsend
The marke of George Clere
George Wright
Elias Doughtie
John Foard
Antonie Feild
Henry Semtell
Richard Stocton
Edward Hart
Edward Griffine
John Mastine
John Townesend
Edward Farrington

04 August 2010

"Oread", by H.D.

WHIRL up, sea—
Whirl your pointed pines.
Splash your great pines
On our rocks.
Hurl your green over us—
Cover us with your pools of fir.

Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.

Gertrude Stein wrote this line not once, but many times in her poetry, starting with Geography and Plays. It became symbolic of her approach to poetry and writing, and was merchandised by her partner, Alice B. Toklas. It was intended to shed a fresh light on the hackneyed aspects of the word, yet ironically it has now itself become hackneyed and divorced from its meaning. But let's take a look.

The word "rose" has been heavily used for centuries. Indeed, it's one of the most symbolic words out there. Shakespeare used it many a time ("a rose by any other name") and it had a deep set of meanings in the Language of Flowers. There was a War of the Roses, a mystic order called the Rosicrucians, and endless references and uses in religion and poetry and literature: it stands for peace and love and the Rose of Sharon and the Virgin Mary and so on.

It's a heavily-used word. Any time someone writes about it, then, they're evoking all of those aspects. Often this is intentional. When they named the characters on Golden Girls, the naive character was called "Rose" because it evokes innocence and sweetness. What does a red flower have to do with innocence? Nothing at all, but there was heavy symbolism behind the word. In fact, you couldn't escape it. Even if "Rose" had been cruel, there would have been irony in her name and jokes about it. "Rose" is a burdened word, which makes it rich in meaning.

Gertrude Stein was a modernist - perhaps the most brilliant of them. She saw the rules of writing and literature, and the structures that limited them, and in the modernist tradition tried to leap out of those bonds. When she wrote "Tender Buttons," it was a poem whose meaning was conveyed more by sounds instead of the actual meaning of the words used (although of course those provided an additional level of meaning). When she wrote an autobiography, she only did it because she'd thought of a clever way to escape the limitations of the genre: she wrote it through another person's eyes. And so the burdening of words, like "rose," frustrated her. She asked herself how she could get back to the real meaning of the word.

And so her immortal line, that struck away the detritus. Simultaneously it was beautiful of itself, curious in its repetition (an important modernist stylistic choice), and precise in its meaning. A rose was only a rose and fully a rose.  She defended herself:

I think that in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.
Despite its brilliance, of course, it's easily mocked. It's become an icon of sorts for what is seen as literary critic sophistry. It's repeated by people who don't understand it, but know that it sounds strange and doesn't seem to mean anything. Most famously Ernest Hemingway, bitter at his former mentor, would parody her, declaring:

A rose is a rose is an onion.
But we shouldn't forget that a rose really is just a rose sometimes. And knowing that it can be, is a gift of Stein's.

02 August 2010

Senate Solutions

George Packer's new article in The New Yorker, "The Empty Chamber," doesn't tell us much about the Senate we didn't already know. But it's a greater starter read on the state of Congress' upper house, and it gives details about the problems and prospects for change.

The lack of a real exchange of ideas:

The Senate is often referred to as “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” Jeff Merkley, a freshman Democrat from Oregon, said, “That is a phrase that I wince each time I hear it, because the amount of real deliberation, in terms of exchange of ideas, is so limited.” Merkley could remember witnessing only one moment of floor debate between a Republican and a Democrat. “The memory I took with me was: ‘Wow, that’s unusual—there’s a conversation occurring in which they’re making point and counterpoint and challenging each other.’ And yet nobody else was in the chamber.
Tom Udall, a freshman Democrat from New Mexico, could not recall seeing a senator change another senator’s mind. “You would really need a good hour or two of extensive exchange among folks that really know the issue,” he said. Instead, a senator typically gives “a prepared speech that’s already been vetted through the staff. Then another guy gets up and gives a speech on a completely different subject.” From time to time, senators of the same party carry on a colloquy—“I would be interested in the distinguished senator from Iowa’s view of the other side’s Medicare Advantage plan”—that has been scripted in advance by aides.

The money race:

Nothing dominates the life of a senator more than raising money. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat, said, “Of any free time you have, I would say fifty per cent, maybe even more,” is spent on fund-raising. In addition to financing their own campaigns, senators participate at least once a week in the Power Hour, during which they make obligatory calls on behalf of the Party (in the Democrats’ case, from a three-story town house across Constitution Avenue from the Senate office buildings, since they’re barred from using their own offices to raise money). Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican, insisted that the donations are never sufficient to actually buy a vote, but he added, “It sucks up time that a senator ought to be spending getting to know other senators, working on issues.”

The hyperpartisanship and posturing:

After C-SPAN went on the air, in 1979, the cozy atmosphere that encouraged both deliberation and back-room deals began to yield to transparency and, with it, posturing. “So Damn Much Money,” a recent book by the Washington Post reporter Robert G. Kaiser, traces the spectacular rise of Washington lobbying to the same period. Liberal Republicans began to disappear, and as Southern Democrats died out they were replaced by conservative Republicans. Bipartisan coalitions on both wings of the Senate vanished. The institutionalist gave way to the free agent, who controlled his own fund-raising apparatus and media presence, and whose electoral base was a patchwork of single-issue groups. Members of both parties—Howard Metzenbaum, the Ohio Democrat; Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican—took to regularly using the Senate’s rules to tie up business for narrowly ideological reasons. The number of filibusters shot up in the eighties and continued to rise in the following decades, as the parties kept alternating control of the Senate and escalating a procedural arms race, routinely blocking the confirmation of executive and judicial appointees. Democrats filibustered Republican nominees to the bench; then Republicans threatened to ban the filibuster in such cases—the so-called “nuclear option.” Older members were perturbed when, in 2004, the Republican Majority Leader, Bill Frist, went to South Dakota to campaign against the Democratic Minority Leader, Tom Daschle (who went on to lose). A few years earlier, such an action would have been unthinkable.

And the roadblock in the way of change: the legislators themselves:

Even if the freshmen Democrats can somehow reform the filibuster next January, the Senate will remain a sclerotic, wasteful, unhappy body. The deepest source of its problems is not rules and precedents but, rather, its human beings, who have created a culture where Tocqueville’s “lofty thoughts” and “generous impulses” have no place.

It's a big article (11,000 words), but well worth the time of anyone interested in politics and wanting to get the feel of things. It's pitch-perfect when it comes to the atmosphere of the Senate and the way it has turned from a deliberative body into a collection of figureheads.

The Senate isn't where decisions are made by people anymore. Corporate and union lobbyists, powerful interest groups, and public posturing have all contributed to a world where the results are nearly pre-ordained. It was perhaps inevitable when political power more and more comes purely in the form of bank accounts.

This Congress has done a lot, but its achievements are all the more remarkable when you consider the extraordinary set of circumstances it took to bring them about. As Packer points out, "The two lasting achievements of this Senate, financial regulation and health care, required a year and a half of legislative warfare that nearly destroyed the body. They depended on a set of circumstances—a large majority of Democrats, a charismatic President with an electoral mandate, and a national crisis—that will not last long or be repeated anytime soon."

So what's the solution?

Many people advocate the elimination of the filibuster entirely, declaring that it's an archaic artifact that allows a determined minority to hold up anything they choose. But I have given it long thought, and I actually think that's a good thing. If a sizable minority of Senators have the support of their constituents and their controlling forces, then maybe they should be able to hold up a piece of legislation indefinitely. It requires a lot of effort and commitment, and that can testify to the strength of the opposition. And if they're wrong and not supported, they pay the electoral penalty and the law gets passed anyway. I know that if the Republicans had tried to privatize Social Security, I would have wanted the Democrats using every filibustery trick in the book to stop it. No one likes the rules when they're in the way, but everyone likes them when they help.

But other rules, like anonymous holds, are clearly idiotic and need to go. There's simply no justification for them, and they're an invitation to blackmail a la Shelby. The same goes for unanimous consent on late hearings. The same goes for customary absences leading to a three-day workweek.

The filibuster is an awkward thing, but it has a reasonable purpose and perhaps a just one. But there are a half-dozen other rules that are just as archaic that have no purpose at all but corruption. Eliminate them!

01 August 2010

Templestay

All photos are the work of and property of Mary Natalizia and Kat Smith.

There are a lot of things you "must" do if you come to Korea - cultural experiences that you it would be a shame to pass up. Some of these are simple, like eating kimchi or going to a noraebong. Then there are some that are a bigger commitment. This past weekend I went to a templestay, and it was very much a commitment: it was tough physically, mentally, and spiritually. And with commensurate rewards.

I'd always meant to go, but never got around to it. But with Lizzie's mother in town visiting, it seemed like I couldn't let the opportunity go by. We rounded up a few friends - Kat, Rachael, and Laura - and booked a weekend stay at Yakcheonsa (약천사), a Korean Zen Buddhist (선도) temple.

From BBC Religions' summary:

Zen Buddhism is a mixture of Indian Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism. It began in China, spread to Korea and Japan, and became very popular in the West from the mid 20th century.

The essence of Zen is attempting to understand the meaning of life directly, without being misled by logical thought or language. [...] Zen practices are aimed at taking the rational and intellectual mind out of the mental loop, so that the student can become more aware and realise their own Buddha-nature.

Students of Zen aim to achieve enlightenment by the way they live, and by mental actions that approach the truth without philosophical thought or intellectual endeavour.

In Korea, Buddhism has been suffering lately. Christianity has become more and more dominant over the years, and many temples were burned by Christian zealots in the 80s and 90s. There is certainly little doubt that most governments have been strongly pro-Christian, with the first President actively working to divide the Buddhist community here. Things seem to have greatly quieted, but Lizzie remarked wryly that Buddhism would always eventually lose, since they don't evangelize.

We arrived at the temple very early on Saturday morning, at 7:20. Even though it was so early, the heat of the approaching summer day hung in the air already as we stepped out of the car. Yakcheonsa was one of the largest temples I'd ever seen in Korea, and it loomed up before us from a hillside surrounded by scrub woods, a new hotel, and a few small businesses.

The temple is built in three levels: a scree-scattered main quarters built into the side of the hill and topped with two bell-towers, a large courtyard cleared above it with auxiliary buildings and small shrines, and the central temple building. This latter is three big stories tall, and the most brightly-painted and well-kept.

While we thought we'd gotten there early, it turns out that the monks rise every morning at 4:00. It was practically the afternoon for them, and they were getting ready to go on a hike. We had just time to drop off our bags and greet one of our hosts, and then we went walking down the hill.

We hiked one of the olle trails (올레), the coastal paths maintained by the government that are one of the most popular Jeju attractions. Trail 8 starts quite close to the temple, so they hike it frequently. I suppose the hike was intended to help get us in the spirit of the templestay and observing nature and ourselves. I imagine it's also a good cheap way to keep people visiting the temple occupied.

The hike started out tolerably enough. The sun was low and we strolled down a dirt path through woods of pine and maple, heading for the coast and then roughly following it. Jeju is a very pleasant place to walk: you can watch the black volcanic rock of the coastline, blue waters and rolling surf, and reclining hills scattered with trees. But the heat! At first it just hung over our heads like a threat of what was to come, thickening the air with moisture and warmth as we hiked. But soon the threat was gone and the reality was upon us. I sweated buckets, soaking through my shirt and crowning me with fat beads of perspiration.

We hiked for five hours, from the temple past Jungmun Beach to the resorts area - where we collapsed. I can only imagine what hell it would have been if the day hadn't been hazy. We slumped against a fence slackly until the temple van picked us up. But the idea that it was lunchtime cheered us - not to mention the van's air conditioning.

Once we were back in the temple, we ate a lunch of rice and curry. The only unusual thing was that it was completely vegetarian (no worries there!) and we were admonished that we should waste no food and clean our own bowls, as is traditional. After that hike, there was little grumbling about eating everything. If they had told us we had to eat the entire basin of rice, we probably could have managed.

Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling.
Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.
"Come on, girl" said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.
Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. "We monks don't go near females," he told Tanzan, "especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?"
"I left the girl there," said Tanzan. "Are you still carrying her?"

After lunch, we showered and changed into the temple clothes. The provided garments are a pair of baggy pants tied with a string and a loose vest, closed at the front with three "buttons" of knotted fabric. Men and women wear the same salmon color. They were comfortable.

They split up our group into men and women during the night - or rather man and women, since it was five women and myself. But I noticed an astonishing lack of decorum over the weekend. Normally Korean people tend to dress very conservatively and be exceedingly shy about showing skin anywhere except their legs, exposed in nonexistent miniskirts. But at the temple I saw teenaged girls just turn their backs and strip off their shirts and bras to change, something that sent me scurrying from the room cursing. For girls who probably would refuse to wear anything less than jeans and two shirts to the beach, it was bizarre.

We were offered a special brief class on Zen meditation (usually called zazen but in Korean "선명상") by one of the monks, a leathery man with a quick smile who was always gesturing with his woven fan. He was a calm and patient instructor. The method wasn't different from what I knew of Shoto Zen - in its whole, you concentrate on sitting with mindfulness (마음챙김) in the proper posture. The posture was a little difficult, especially for people unused to it: the lotus position or half-lotus can really hurt your ankles and hips. But we persevered, meditating while mentally proceeding through a simple mantra of sequential numbers. I lost myself; when we finished, my legs were as numb as wood.
Almost immediately, we were ushered in to a different room to learn to perform the traditional tea ceremony (다도). Like so many traditions of Zen monks and laypeople, it is a deeply ritualized and symbolic practice. Everything has a name and a proper place at every stage in the ceremony, and there's usually a reason. First the cups and bowls are cleaned in a series of precise steps. Then hot water is added to the cooling bowl for a minute; the teapot lid is removed and placed on a special stand; water is poured into the teapot and tea is added with a hollowed bamboo scoop; lid is replaced; after a minute, tea is poured out in halves, first to last and then last to first, so that the tea is even in taste and temperature. The tea is smelt, and then drunk in three sips. After three repetitions of steeping, the tea leaves are removed with a special spoon. Then the tea set is cleaned in a similarly ritualistic fashion.

Shoichi was a one-eyed teacher of Zen, sparkling with enlightenment. He taught his disciples in Tofuku temple.
Day and night the whole temple stood in silence. There was no sound at all.
Even the reciting of sutras was abolished by the teacher. His pupils had nothing to do but meditate.
When the master passed away, an old neighbor heard the ringing of bells and the recitation of sutras. Then she knew Shoichi had gone.

After the tea ceremony, we were told it was time for crafts. Lizzie had been anticipating this since the beginning, and I soon learned why. When we were set to making sachets, which apparently are small bags that hold potpourri, mine was clumsy and executed exactly according to directions. But Lizzie's had her initials stitched on the side and was constructed with a series of fancy sewing tricks - it was easily the best. We were also given a second project, stringing a bracelet of wooden beads.  In this case, my results were just as impressive as Lizzie's.

At dinnertime, we ate in a special way. It was the way Zen monks traditionally ate, called 발우공양 ("Mindful Bowl") but often known by the Japanese 応量器 ("Just-Enough"). We sat in long rows, and each received a set of bowls tied with a cloth. Our cushions and bowls were placed precisely. We unwrapped our bowls, laid out mats, unwrapped utensils, and set out our four bowls in front of us.  Everything was done with care and holding our hands a certain way; for example, each bowl was picked up by placing our thumbs inside and pressing outward while we lifted. The bowls were ritually cleaned, and then we got our food. We were admonished that it was absolutely vital not to take more than we could eat, as there could not be a scrap of food remaining when we were finished. The monks chanted prayers before we ate, joined by those who could read Korean.

Rice went in the big bowl (the "Buddha bowl"), a handful of vegetables and kimchi in a smaller, a ladle of seaweed soup in the third, and the smallest had a small amount of water. Nothing could be mixed between bowls. There was to be no talking from the beginning to the end (everyone broke this rule, asking, "Which bowl? Where?") and even eating was to be as quiet as possible. The idea was to eat with care and appreciation for the process of eating and the food. When finished, water was poured into the Buddha bowl and it was scraped with a radish, then the water was poured into the smaller bowl which was scraped, and so on. At the last bowl, you eat the radish and drink the water, leaving clean bowls and without even a fragment of pepper wasted (ideally).


Evening prayer and a DVD about the life of the Buddha concluded the day. Prayer was beautiful and simple. While the monks chanted the sutras, they tapped a gourd gently, signaling prostration. This prostrate bow was difficult for me: standing in front of the cushion, you sink to your knees with hands in prayer position, then prostrate yourself with your face to the floor, folding yourself over your legs. You rest your elbows on the ground while you raise your hands to just above your head. Then you rise to your knees, sitting back on your feet for a moment, before coming back to a standing position.


I very much disliked this practice. Not only was it physically very hard, I also didn't agree with it ideologically. We were told that we were not worshiping the Buddha, but rather our own Buddha-nature. Still, we were prostrating ourselves in front of a giant golden statue while chanting, and it was hard not to feel that I was betraying my ideals a little.

After a period of meditation, we went to bed at 9:00.

Hyakujo, the Chinese Zen master, used to labor with his pupils even at the age of eighty, trimming the gardens, cleaning the grounds, and pruning the trees.
The pupils felt sorry to see the old teacher working so hard, but they knew he would not listen to their advice to stop, so they hid away his tools.
That day the master did not eat. The next day he did not eat, nor the next. "He may be angry because we have hidden his tools," the pupils surmised. "We had better put them back."
The day they did, the teacher worked and ate the same as before. In the evening he instructed them: "No work, no food."

We rose in the morning at 4:00. I'd slept like the dead, stretched out on the floor on a blanket amidst a dozen other men and boys. I was ready for a day (well, it was still night really) of mindfulness.

First was morning prayer, which was almost exactly like evening prayer. We had time a little later to take a look around the temple, though. Yakcheonsa is particularly renowned for their collection of 18,000 statues of the Buddha. They are in cases on the second floor of the temple, row after row of illuminated shining little statues. If it hadn't been so hot, I'm sure I would have been impressed.


But I was hot. I was very, very hot. After morning prayer we'd had to do the 108배 대참회 ("108 Bows"). It was a very simple but arduous ritual. One monk chanted. The other tapped the gourd every three seconds. At every tap, we either prostrated ourselves or rose up. This was repeated 108 times. There was a puddle of sweat in front of me, but I didn't give up until I was physically incapable of doing it any more. It was essentially calisthenics as prayer. Difficult calisthenics.


Thankfully, we were afforded breakfast and a rest after our exertions. We were able to relax in the air-conditioned room, and walk around for a bit to take a look at some of the smaller shrines. Of particular interest was the cave shrine, a small shrine with a single stone statue. This was the first shrine at the site. The first Master of the temple build Yakcheonsa there in honor of the cave-shrine, and dedicated the new building with one million bows - executed five thousand a day for years.  It put my own attempts at bows in perspective.

As the morning wore on, we went on a hike in Seogwipo Natural Forest. We hiked for an hour in the misty forest, relieved at the cool wetness. The hike was in part also to loosen our muscles again, so we would not tighten up after the labors of 108 bows

Let me take a moment to advise against oversleeping the morning of a templestay and forgetting to bring sneakers.  After six hours of hiking this past weekend, my feet have bloody holes rubbed into them by the straps of my flip-flops.  It was very annoying, and I was scared of slipping - it would be hard to explain how you hurt yourself on a Zen retreat, since it's not customarily a full-contact hobby.

We returned to the temple after the hike and wrote brief evaluations of each other, a requirement that our group fulfilled by writing funny and fond notes. And then after a brief closing ceremony, we changed back into our normal clothes, and that was the end. It was almost jarring in its quickness.

Sozan, a Chinese Zen master, was asked by a student: "What is the most valuable thing in the world?"
The master replied: "The head of a dead cat."
"Why is the head of a dead cat the most valuable thing in the world?" inquired the student.
Sozan replied: "Because no one can name its price."

Leaving Yakcheonsa, we drove a short distance to Gecko's, probably the most popular restaurant in the south of the island since it has decent Western food. We celebrated a weekend of spiritual enlightenment by eating enormous veggie burgers, drinking icy mugs of beer, and smoking Cuban cigars.

I've always been fascinated by Zen thought, reading the works of Seung Sahn and Shunryu Suzuki and ancient books of koans. It's hard to articulate exactly how happy I am to have been able to learn proper Zen posture, proper meditation, proper eating, proper mindfulness. Some aspects may have been rough, but it's not an experience I'd ever give up.

I discard the religious aspects of Zen Buddhism.  I don't believe that we reincarnate, I don't believe in my soul ascending.  But the philosophy is valuable, and only a fool would discard the wheat with the chaff. There are many lessons that can help anyone to a better life, no matter their religion:
  • Mindfulness is one of the best traits a person can cultivate. Thinking about what you're doing, saying, feeling. You have to remember to ask yourself the questions of why and how.
  • Experiencing each thing in its wholeness is a way to make your life better in almost every way. Food tastes better. The air is richer.
  • Everyone needs time for reflection, be it in the lotus position or not.

When Bankei held his seclusion-weeks of meditation, pupils from many parts of Japan came to attend. During one of these gatherings a pupil was caught stealing. The matter was reported to Bankei with the request that the culprit be expelled. Bankei ignored the case.
Later the pupil was caught in a similar act, and again bankei disregarded the matter. this angered the other pupils, who drew up a petition asking for the dismissal of the thief, stating that otherwise they would leave in a body.
When bankei had read the petition he called everyone before him. "You are wise brothers," he told them. "You know what is right and what is not right. You may somewhere else to study if ou wish, but this poor brother does not even know right from wrong. Who will teach him if I do not? I am going to keep him here even if all the rest of you leave."
A torrent of tears cleansed the face of the brother who had stolen. All desire to steal had vanished.