Wednesday, July 31, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: A Review of Tenzin Norbu's "Ocean of Compassion"

A Review of Tenzin Norbu's "Ocean of Compassion"
Tim Gannon
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Empirical

The ocean is complex and so is the Ocean of Compassion. It is complex because the simple parts go together in a surprising way. Ocean of Compassion breaks into three interrelated parts. The Introduction is extensive, and it itself falls into three parts. The second is the poetic expression of progression in the virtues to reach the Bodhisattva state. The final part continues in poetic style to present how the foolishness of philosophy since Kant is overcome by love.

The whole book, but especially the chapters on progression in virtue, is intended to appeal to individuals of every religious and spiritual persuasion. It mostly succeeds at this. The traditional Eastern references to rebirth and reincarnation are not essential to spiritual progress and can be ignored by those who do not believe in reincarnation. The progress in virtues is the key to a good and happy life and serves all who aspire to it. This progression also leads to the Bodhisattva state–the state that desires to end the suffering of all sentient beings.

The introduction previews the whole project. Tenzin Norbu lays out the origin and goal of the book. The poetry rose from his need for images that will inspire him on the spiritual path and the book is to help all others who wish to attain enlightenment and end the separation between the perceived small self and the ground of all being. He points out the similarity of the path of virtue between all religious traditions.

Three items in the introduction are noteworthy. Tenzin mentions analytic meditation and placement meditation as the two main types of meditation to utilize with the passages. His treatment of these two meditations is sketchy in the introduction but in his blog talk radio presentations (http://www.blogtalkradio. com/the-life-of universal-loving), he clarifies each type of meditation and does guided meditations on each. A passage from Ocean of Compassion is used for each guided meditation. Also, Tenzin frequently has guest musicians on each show that are on various spiritual paths. The congruence of their spiritual experience of the virtues and the ground of being reinforces Tenzin’s insight into the unity of spiritual truths.

These are interesting and entertaining interviews.

The third item in the introduction is more of interest to philosophers, but the presentation is useful to anyone who has puzzled over reconciliation between relative and absolute truth. Many people float in a frustrating morass of relativism. There is a yearning for absolute truth. Tenzin’s approach is a useful reconciliation of the concern that everything is changing and the desire for an absolute.

The poetic chapters on the virtues and progression in the virtues are very practical. They bring the truths of Shanti Deva’s (8th century CE) Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life into the 21st-century Western mind. As humans become what they think, these verses are worthy of memorization and meditation. They progress from the desire to become a Bodhisattva to arrival at the state of Bodhisattva equanimity.

These passages are also well adapted to passage meditation, a form of meditation made popular in the United States by Eknath Easwaran, a meditation teacher who moved from India to the United States in 1959 and taught the first accredited course on meditation at UC Berkeley.

Passage meditation exists in many religious traditions and Sri Easwaran’s followers keep it alive on line at Passage meditation is a practice of sitting quietly with the eyes closed while reciting a passage of spiritual import as slowly as possible while keeping the flow of the passage intelligible. It develops great concentration.

The entire poetic text of the Ocean of Compassion is well suited to this type of meditation.

Also the progression in virtue in the chapters is natural. Moving through the chapters, one first raises Bodhichitta. Pema Chodron is very delightful as she begins each dharma talk asking the student to first raise Bodhichitta in preparation to receive teaching. Then one raises effort, the desire to walk the path. Here again Pema has a pithy injunction that the desire to walk the path is an important step on the path. As desire and joyful effort are raised, one is prepared to the openness of heart, generosity toward oneself and others. With heart opening comes patience. In this context patience is the critical virtue that overcomes anger and anxiety. As this time in the world is extremely anxious and angry, this virtue is the key first to our own peace and the peace of all around us. It is a virtue that continues the growth of Love in us. Love is the desire for the good of the other as the other. It is also the desire to end the suffering of all sentient beings.

Moral discipline is a frightening virtue and a frightening idea. Patience moves the spiritual aspirant to undertake it. One usually thinks of discipline as something imposed from without. This is a virtue imposed from within. Discipline implies pain. One is prepared for the internal pain of moral discipline by the pain endured by the practice of patience. It is not easy to turn the other cheek. Remaining patient while enduring anger and anxiety prepares the self to embrace moral discipline. It prepares us to grow in Love. As patience is a response to acts, moral discipline is a response to, and guarding of, thoughts.

Buddhism has the best understanding of how the mind works. It has identified all the tricks of the mind. This section on moral discipline goes through the trick set in three manifestations. Each phase of mental treachery manifests as pain or suffering. Each suffering is a hell. Reflections on the hells created in the mind are motivation to heal the mind. The hells of the mind are Jungian. The subconscious creates and contains every horror. Each horror manifest in life. The poetic images of hell are motivation to seek remedy. The images are the stuff of “Fire and Brimstone” sermons. The poetry suggests a skillful response to each suffering to experience peace. Perfection of moral discipline leads to the virtue of concentration.

Concentration is the ability to hold the mind on one thing. This is very difficult. (Except if you are watching British TV drama.) Practice of both analytic and placement meditation improve concentration. Also memorization and recitation of the passages improves concentration. These skillful means prepare the mind to see wisdom, the ultimate virtue. One who dwells in wisdom is a bodhisattva. The ultimate wisdom is love, a dwelling in the ocean of compassion.

Many statements in each chapter inspire the careful reader or daily reciter to seek more information. For example, when practicing concentration, one seeks to develop nine altitudes of mental repose. Careful study is needed to determine what these altitudes are, and how to place the mind to arrive at “Placement in equipoise.” Progress on the path brings up a subject to study within in both placement and analytic meditation and without by scholarly investigation.

There are many opportunities for study and reflection in these chapters. Perfection in wisdom is clarity of seeing. The reflection and meditation stated in the previous paragraph is required in every line to see and experience truth in the mind and in life. Wisdom and the chapter on wisdom are very challenging. The transition from statements about the mind and the outside world to the Ella-Guardian story is abrupt.

It is an amusing story that continues mental events and words and the world in another genre. The statements and dialogue in the story ask for the same serious consideration as the earlier poetry. The story raises the question, “What is going on here?” The Ella-Guardian story is an example of philosophical silly talk about truth, persons, and life. It’s amusing to imagine Immanuel Kant reincarnated as a disoriented young woman. Unfortunately, despite the disorientation and other humorous events, Ella is committed to the Kantian view.

There just are noumenal and phenomenal persons. The world views of Annette Baier and Richard Rorty are introduced. They both maintain that only relative or conventional/contextual truth exists. Universal absolute truth is a wishful figment. Persons are only relative contexts. The Guardian argues poetically that there are two truths, one relative the other absolute. The argument is interesting. It gives a useful context for recognizing that absolute truth is possible and what it looks like. Ella experiences absolute truth in the compassionate love of the mother.

Life is complicated and lived one simple moment at a time. This is Tenzin Norbu putting life together. He served as a United States Air Force Officer (Navigator) and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the USAF Academy at Colorado Springs. After his retirement from the Air Force he continued to teach philosophy in Colorado Springs. Frustrated by the lack of certitude in philosophy, he studied and taught the religions of the world. He was attracted to Buddhism and is currently a dedicated practitioner who seeks to end the suffering of all. Oddly enough as his meditation practice deepened, his philosophical views became clearer and compassionate. Ocean of Compassion is his first published effort to make the Bodhisattva path easily available to all.

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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: The Loss of Many, The Loss of One by By Peggy Aylsworth

The Loss of Many, The Loss of One
Peggy Aylsworth
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Empirical

It’s August. The sea lies still.
The air grows thick and heavy.
What’s new
is old.
Young soldiers reverse artillery.
“Tough” is the word that drowns
in sorry
pushed to a pressure without a human
name. The spirit flogged to this:
for the kill, to face another face,
shatter its grace, less worthy, as
the story
Is this his brother, created equal,
condemned for the crime of other?
A bullet
to the head,
his own, crosses the divide to choice.
The land grows empty as lightning strikes.

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Monday, July 29, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: The Photograph: A Wish for Stillness by Peggy Aylsworth

The Photograph: A Wish for Stillness
Peggy Aylsworth
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Empirical

The wing of the plane cut the sunrise
in half,
but couldn’t diminish the aurora
its orange, its yellow. Everything is on its way
to somewhere.
But look, the stanchions
on the bridge,
like children waiting to throw stones,
watch ripples
in the lake foretelling the clamor of their lives.
The stillness
of bare winter, its illusion could convince
the eye
nothing would change, but reflections
in the water
shimmy, wriggle, promising, promising.

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Friday, July 26, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Paradigm Lost by Emmanuel Williams

Paradigm Lost
Emmanuel Williams
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Empirical

Most of our ways of doing things–our priorities, processes, and systems–are increasingly dysfunctional. We face huge problems environmentally and economically, and we don’t seem to be able to collaborate to solve them, or even agree that they exist. We urgently need to break our habits, to disrupt our patterns. We need a new paradigm.

I’ve spent nearly 50 years working as a teacher with all age groups in countries all over the world. For most of my life I have, like all teachers, been working to create the future. I now believe that if we are to have any future at all then two things must happen: There is a worldwide, spiritual revival. We revolutionize our schools.

A worldwide spiritual revival is God’s business. A revolution in our schools is way beyond my aegis, but I do want to talk about it. I don’t have major answers to propose; I intend rather to raise some issues, consider some possibilities, and include ideas I’ve come across in my reading.

Currently I work as a poetry-teacher member of California Poets In The Schools. Most of the schools I teach or have taught in are organized and run in ways that no longer work. The factory-style school is obsolete. As Diamantis and Kotler suggest in Abundance: “The industrialized model of education, with its emphasis on the on the rote memorization of facts, is no longer necessary. Facts are what Google does best.”

Children learn best when they have at least some freedom to decide what they are doing, when they’re interested in what they are doing, and when they feel safe and valued. Most schools, however, give students little or no freedom to choose what they do, and most students most of the time aren’t interested in what they’re doing in the classroom. (According to the research, boredom is the primary factor behind the rising drop-out rate among American high school students). Most teachers like their students (if they don’t they shouldn’t be teaching!) but at the middle and high school levels particularly, because of the increasing size of their classes, they are unable to give individual students the time and attention they need. Also, most teachers I talk to are less motivated than they used to be. Their freedom to choose what they teach according to the abilities and interests of their students has been drastically curtailed, and their effectiveness as teachers is measured largely by test results, a totally inadequate criterion. Additionally, children are spending more time in the media-rich, addictive world of cell phones and video games and TV than in the much less stimulating environment of the classroom with its tests, grades, and homework assignments.

So our schools aren’t working. I believe that even if they were working within the parameters imposed upon them by schemes like No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top, they’d be failing, because the parameters themselves are no longer relevant. Our systems of education are based on what Sir Ken Robinson, in Out of Our Minds, calls: “… one dominant way of thinking–the verbal, mathematical, deductive and propositional…. intelligence as a linear process of rational thought.”

When I stand in front of a room full of teenagers for the first time I ask them what they think the purpose of writing poetry might be. “You have the right to know why you’re expected to work at something in a classroom,” I tell them. Often someone says that poetry is a way of expressing feelings. I agree, and ask them if their feelings are important–“Yes!”–and if their feelings are often acknowledged in classrooms–“No!”–Then I ask if anyone knows the differences between the left and right brains. Usually someone does, and we put together a description of the two hemispheres and what they do. “Which hemisphere do you think is dominant in school?”–“Left!”–“What happens to any part of your body you don’t use?”–“It doesn’t develop.”–“So now you have two reasons why writing poetry can be of value.”

I talk about answers to left and right brain questions. “A left brain question usually has only one right answer. How do you spell because? Who is the president of the United States? Right brain questions don’t have single correct answers. Here’s a right brain question: What happens on page 27?”

I ask the question, and wait. And wait. Silence. Students gaze at me blankly. “There’s no right answer. You create the answer. You decide for yourself what happens on page 27. It’s no good looking at me and telling me you don’t know. Of course you don’t know . . . ”

Finally someone says something like: “Joe dies.” Laughter ripples around the room, but I take this answer seriously and explore it. “Joe dies” is the opening of a door. Our purpose is to step through the door and find out what’s on the other side. “How old is Joe? Where is he when he dies? Why does he die?” Almost invariably the moment arrives when the student takes charge of the story. Joe becomes real. The tale becomes real in its unfolding, and everyone in the room is absorbed.

The spirit of creativity is indestructible.

But, like curiosity, it’s buried more and more deeply the more time children and young people spend in school. Tony Wagner, in Creating Innovators, writes: “Anyone who has spent time in an elementary school classroom knows that every student starts school with unbounded imagination, great curiosity, and creativity–until he or she learns that knowing the right answer is far more important than asking a thoughtful question.” It’s alive, yes, but its potential is far from being realized. Creating a character, for example, working out how the needs and circumstances of that character generate tension and therefore a story…thinking deeply and writing a poem about a tree or a hand, discovering metaphor or symbol… these are unfamiliar acts for most students, and I find that my students’ early efforts are mostly thin. I remember teaching in an elementary school in North London in the mid-sixties. It was the era of the Open Classroom. I had a big room up at the top of the school; there was an art center, a music center, a science center and a writing center all in the classroom. There was no boundary between play and work.

The level of the children’s creativity was extraordinary, because they did creative stuff every day. They exercised and developed their creative muscles. They got good at it because they worked at it. Such work, I’m convinced, should be an integral part of the school life of all children and young people.

Why? Daniel Pink gives us part of the answer in his book, A Whole New Mind. Work that involves left brain linear thinking, he says, is increasingly being taken over by automation or by relatively low paid, technically adept workers in developing countries like China and India. What the economies of developed countries like America, Japan, and most of Europe need are people who can innovate, who can think outside the box. The success of the big Silicon Valley companies attests to the truth of this. We need young people who ask good questions, who are willing to risk failure, who collaborate rather than compete, who have higher aims than acquisition. Pink adds that “creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and problem solving” are the skills that “have been repeatedly stressed by everyone from corporate executives to education experts as the fundamentals required by today’s jobs.

They have become the new version of the Three Rs–the basics of what’s been recently dubbed “21st-century learning.” I often tell students the story of Rene Descartes–one of the pioneers of modern left-brain thinking–waking up from a dream in which he saw (or experienced) himself bent over to the left, as though his left brain with its self-referential–“I think, therefore I am”–was so monstrously developed it pulled him physically off-kilter.

Creative work should be an integral part of our education system, because without it children and young people develop lop-sidedly. I’m always grateful to be invited into classrooms and to be given time to do what I do, but I also feel uneasy, because administrators and teachers are thereby allowed to believe that they’ve ‘done’ creativity. Creativity isn’t a subject, it’s an approach, a way of thinking. It seeks connections, relationships, wholes. “We need a new Renaissance that moves beyond . . . old categories,” says Ken Robinson in Out of Our Minds, “and develops the relationships between different processes rather than emphasizing their differences.”

So, for the sake of their balanced development, AND for the sake of the healthy growth of our economies, we need to give children ample opportunity to exercise their creativity. Just one of these would be reason enough to revolutionize our educational system. But there’s a bigger reason…If the new paradigm is to emerge, I believe it must be shaped by young people. The world has changed too much for middle-aged and older folk like me to see clearly what needs to be done… or, if we do see it, we’re not visionary enough, not idealistic enough, not fierce enough to bring about real change. We’re too deeply ensconced in the box to be able to think outside it. We can see, many of us, what’s not working; we see what needs to be changed, but I really don’t think we can do it. We can pass along some practical, worldly advice. We can, at best, help young people avoid making some of the mistakes they need to make to learn from… but I believe that the most valuable thing we can do at this point is get out of the way.

If it’s true that young people will need the qualities we’ve considered above–creativity, curiosity, collaboration, etc.–to play an important role in shaping the new paradigm, what else will they need? In his book Future Shock, written in 1970, Alvin Toffler looked at how our educational system would have to be modified to meet the challenges and needs of the future. Young people, says Toffler, must learn to trust their inner “steering,” or power of guidance, which will make possible the right choices out of a wide range of new concepts and values. With this firm footing, in a world full of constant change and unforeseen situations, they are able to put information back in order, or in new order; verify information; move from the concrete to the abstract and back again; consider problems from many different sides.

I’ve known many students who had this quality of “inner steering.” They like and respect themselves. They know who they are and where they’re going, partly because they know their talent or their talents. I consider this characteristic of inner guidance to be crucial.

Can schools help young people discover or develop this inner guidance? Is this a matter of respecting what A.S. Neill, founder of the famous Summerhill School in England, calls “the god in each child”? I remember talking to a young Scottish teacher who visited a school in Ecuador years ago because she was impressed by what she’d read about it and wanted to witness it for herself. She said, “Being with children who were so strongly themselves brought me closer to being who I really am.”

I think the inner evolution of children is beyond the scope of what a school can properly influence. This domain is too subtle and, in a sense, too vulnerable for ‘outsiders’ to enter. What’s important is that we be aware of and respect the inner space of the child. As children grow in strength and purpose, as they become familiar with their environment and trusting of the adults around them, then they will be free to follow their will, their impulses. This, I believe, is how they develop the inner guidance Toffler spoke of. “For the activity that makes its way from inside to outside, we as educators must provide a corresponding outer room and learn not to stand in the way in it.”

Rebecca Wild, who, with her husband Mauricio, founded and ran the aforementioned school in Ecuador, wrote a brilliant book, Raising Curious Confident Creative Children. I quote this passage from her book because it crystallizes much of what I’ve been exploring: When children are truly occupied, involved in an activity, each shows his or her individual character; in the manner of movement, in way of talking, laughing, expressing pain, or making contact with others. If we try to suppress the strong sides of a child, to convert it to our adult perspectives as quickly as possible, to get it to become an analytic and reflective thinker, the child comes to lose its natural curiosity. The child’s senses become dull, apathetic, “insensible”; its inborn practical intelligence goes undercover, only to reappear later in undesirable ways.

To sum up: we need to bring about a drastic change in our public education system. We need to nurture creativity and curiosity, the ability to think critically, ask searching questions. We need young people who have developed the ability to think both logically AND creatively, and who have an inner strength, a capacity for self-guidance. We need to awaken (or rather not put to sleep!) what Rebecca Wild calls “the active search for comprehension.” I think this is doable. Reforming the public school system will probably take too long, but establishing schools (or, as I’d rather call them ‘learning centers’) within the Charter School movement is quite possible. They’d be schools based on what I once heard described as the “theory of diminishing crutches”–to the extent that students show that they are able to direct themselves and take responsibility for their own learning, to that extent the supervision and control (but not the authority) of the teacher is withdrawn. We need to be around. They need us there, for support and encouragement. But we need to get out of the way.

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Thursday, July 25, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: A Moment with Francisco Diez

A Moment with Francisco Diez
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Empirical

We start the new year with January photographer Francisco Diez, a mechanical engineer by training, who also excels at capturing familiar places in unique ways.

Empirical: Hi Francisco. I first discovered your photography when I was looking for a shot of Wall Street for an article we were doing in August. And then I ran across your work again when we were publishing an article on the Mexican elections. You have a phenomenal talent, and you seem to get around. I see that you’re in Canada now. Is that where you were born?

Francisco: I was born in Mexico. My father was from Spain (from the Catalonia region, which many consider to be an independent nation within Spain). My mother is from Mexico (Guanajuato, a lovely state). I moved to Canada in my teens where I finished my undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering. After finishing university, I moved to Liechtenstein (a small country nestled between Switzerland and Austria) where I lived and worked for a few years. I then decided to return to Toronto in pursuit of a master’s degree. The program included a study term in Barcelona as well as a study/work term in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Following my graduate studies, I worked for a number of years in Toronto. More recently, I spent three years living in New Jersey while based out of New York City. My wonderful wife is Canadian, of German background, with whom I have four beautiful daughters. So, I am originally from Mexico (which gives me immense pride), but I have also been greatly influenced by places where I have lived and people that I have met in my travels.

Empirical: So, you went to Canada to go to school? What made you want to return? Are you enjoying it there?

Francisco: I have been based out of Toronto for about a year now, and I think for the next while, it will be home for myself and my family. I was drawn to Canada primarily for the quality of life. Canada is truly a fantastic place to live and raise a family. I have traveled the world, and I believe one would be hard pressed to find a place with a better work/life balance. Toronto is a world-class city that is characterized by its unique diversity and tolerance. Canadians are also extraordinarily polite and friendly.

Empirical: It’s a very nice city. You remind me of how much I enjoyed my visit to Toronto. How did you get started in photography?

Francisco: I took a course back in high school, an optional photography course. It was on both how to take pictures and how to develop them in black and white in a dark room. I found the process fascinating and I was immediately hooked. Photography became more than a hobby, it was a passion that I felt compelled to follow. As it turned out, it was an expensive hobby, and considering that I grew up in crisis-ridden Mexico, the cost factor proved to be limiting. Although I had considered it, from an economic standpoint, photography was not practical as a career. I decided to go for a degree in mechanical engineering.

Empirical: Did you take any further courses, or are you mostly self-taught?

Francisco: I was never enrolled in a proper post-secondary program. In this age of technology, there is such a wealth of knowledge both in the print media and via the internet that can be easily accessed and that can provide the information and the fundamentals needed to become proficient in basic photography skills. I find old-fashioned print magazines very helpful, especially those from the UK.

Empirical: Do you find that you learn from other photographers?

Francisco: I find it incredibly helpful to look at the work of other photographers. Some of my favorites are (in no particular order): Jay Maisel, Bill Fortney, Ian Plant, David DuChemin, Joe McNally, Vincent Versace, and Scott Kelby. Most of these photographers have blogs and on-line galleries. Photographers as a group are also very generous in sharing their experiences. Scott’s website is particularly good if you are interested in entry-level courses. Social networking can also be a good information source. I particularly like Google+. It seems to be designed for photographers. One can learn a lot about composition, exposure, framing, etc., by just looking at the work other photographers do.

Empirical: When did you realize this was more than a hobby, and that you had, in fact, become a photographer?

Francisco: That is a difficult question to answer. I don’t think there is a particular point in time when I realized I had become a photographer. It’s been an gradual process–incremental steps taken over a long period of time. However, photography has really developed into a primary passion over the past five years when I began to post my work online. Feedback was just phenomenal, which really encouraged me to explore and experiment with photography in ways that were new and exciting for me. Getty Images contacted me about two years ago asking to copyright some of my images. Being commercially successful is not of primary importance to me at this point in my life; however, the fact that one of the largest stock vendors was interested in my work made me realize that my work had the potential to appeal to a large audience.

Empirical: Are you a full-time photographer at this time?

Francisco: I have a day job in the financial services industry. My current position is challenging and fulfilling and I enjoy what I do. However, change is always a good thing and it is my dream to eventually transition to full-time photography. I do look forward to the time when photography will be a full-time pursuit.

Empirical: What equipment are you using?

Francisco: I am a big believer that it is not the tool that makes a good photographer, but how it is used. Granted, most professional photographers use high-end cameras and you do need one to produce high quality pictures that end up in exhibits or magazines, but I think there needs to be less emphasis on the type of gear you use. I try to travel light, I shoot with a Nikon D300s and I use basically four main lenses (a prime lens, zoom, wide angle, and a fisheye). Because I tend to shoot at dawn and at dusk (at the day’s edges, when light generates wonderful colors), a tripod is essential. Filters are also needed in some circumstances. Recently, I have been shooting with neutral density (ND) filters to be able to capture long-exposure shots. I have more equipment, that I use depending on the situation at hand, but most of my work can be done with the D300s, these four lenses, and a tripod. I will, however, upgrade my equipment soon–professional full- frame cameras are more accessible now. I will probably get either the Nikon D600 or the D800E.

Empirical: What types of projects do you like working on?

Francisco: I love urban and landscape photography. To capture images that relay what men and God can create is truly inspirational. I find as much beauty in a pristine autumn landscape in Canada as in a busy street in Barcelona. I have traveled around the globe, and no matter where I go, there is always that scene, if captured properly, that will portray the essence of the place and its people. One can think of photographers as history’s stewards, documenting people and places for posterity. As for near-term projects, I will be travelling to Scotland next month.

Empirical: Do you like any particular kinds of shots over others?

Francisco: Perhaps not surprisingly, my work, and by default my taste, has evolved over time. I do not prefer a particular kind of shot, and in fact, my interests are constantly changing For a period of time, I was drawn primarily to black and white photography. Black and white images have this artistry, a timeless feel. Then I moved to highly saturated, high-contrast color shots, which work well in landscape photography. Then I became curious about HDR (high dynamic range) for a while, but I found the final product not to be natural looking. Recently, I have been experimenting with long-exposure shots which make water look silky when shooting seascapes. Long-exposure pictures in black and white look phenomenal. My next area of interest is likely to be portraits, not in a studio, but urban portraits. One’s challenge as a photographer is to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. It is a moving target, but most definitely one worth pursuing.

Empirical: Well, you have done that with remarkable success so far. Thanks for sharing with us, Francisco, and we look forward to following your photography career.

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Small Change by Richard Hartwell

Small Change
Richard Hartwell
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Empirical

Like so very many kids raised and suckled at the beach, particularly those reared in the Newport Beach of the early fifties–descendants of divorcees and married boredom–my cousin and I learned to build sand castles repeatedly. It’s too bad that relationships can’t be rebuilt as easily as sand castles. The lap and lapse of waves did not trouble or defeat us, as day upon day our moods changed in the early summer from the somber gray of dawn in May or June to the brilliantine of cobalt blue and then to gold by mid-afternoon in August and September. By then our rosette bodies were speckled with the whiter dots and dashes of the Morse code created by un-rinsed salt and sand.

Salt-matted blonde hair was usually strewn to the left of my cousin’s face, revealing her right-handed cowlick, balanced by a small mole on her left cheek that she tried to hide. My own hair then was always cut way too short to hang anywhere but straight up, like a severed shock of hay, each stalk raised in supplication to the sun and sky. Like my back and shoulders and nose, my scalp too was pitted with the itchy white shadows of sand and salt and the inner red glow of sunburn almost matched the outer beacon of what they called carrot-red hair, much too short to hide any of my outside blemishes.

I have no memory of our clothes; perhaps swimming trunks or bathing suits sometimes, but most likely cut off jeans for both of us and an old white tee shirt for my cousin’s blooming modesty. I only remember the bodies; both growing lithe and strong, chubby fat giving way to stretched muscles, elastic and elongated, pulled by years and adolescence, like taffy lying bulbous in the pan and then stretched out and thinned and fine and resilient.

We shared much together, my cousin and I: our interwoven dysfunctional families; our money-making scams; a love of the beach and sun and air and sea; and, of course, the company of each other, separated only by eight months in age. We had even been enrolled in kindergarten together until the educational power brokers realized that the dissimilarity in last names didn’t cancel out the similarities in build, features, temperament, or sanguinity. I was quickly hustled away and into another classroom. I remember we both cried. Still, other than at school, my cousin Jocelyn–Josh as she was called then–and I were most often inseparable boon companions; at least inseparable by others until the time when I created a chasm in our youthful camaraderie into which we both slipped and from which we never escaped.

That day of our distancing started much the same way as any other early summer day did for us at the beach. That dawn was inseparable from any other gray dawn. Our interests for that day were as like-minded as those of the day before, and, as far into the future as we could see; they were as alike as those expected of the days to follow into infinity. The only anomaly that seemed to mark that day different from all surrounding others was the fact that we had money.

Now, by money I don’t mean to imply we were flush and fulsome with loose spending change donated happily or begrudgingly by others, be they parents or guardians or other relatives or unsuspecting bystanders. No, what I am noting is that we had between us that day money acquired by ill means and, therefore, needful of immediate use. It was burning holes in our pockets!

Usually the two of us spent just enough time after surfing to scavenge the beach and collect the few overlooked bottles left by the tourists and daytime pleasure seekers, those too solvent or too hurried or too lazy to collect them and return them for the deposit. At two cents per bottle, we only needed five bottles each to cover the ferry both ways, the Island to Balboa ride and then back again. Anything else was donut and soda money. This was the era of only glass containers when both bottles and relationships could be easily broken.

But yesterday, the day before that last day, after we’d returned to the Island, we had cut down the alley behind the market intending to hit Turquoise Avenue. We’d spotted an open garage in the alley with stacks of empty Coke bottles in wooden trays on the side near the door. No one was around. The lure of found money was just too much for us. On impulse we grabbed a flat each and ran. We ran down the alley and then dodged down an unblocked walkway between two houses. We knew the Island well together.

We took the bottles to the Island Market, down on Marine, and cashed them in, acting furtive and guilty the whole time, so that the clerk had kept a wary eye on us but could detect nothing. He probably thought we were shoplifting. The total refund had come to a buck-ninety-two, plus twenty-five cents each for the bottle flats. That was two-forty-two, or a dollar-twenty- one each. We realized we would be flush for once and didn’t have to worry about change for the ferry the next day.

The next day, that last day, we followed routine. Josh tapped lightly on my bedroom window about five a.m. to wake up only me and get a start on the day. I didn’t need to dress. I was still in cutoffs from the previous day. I gently closed the back door then ran down the back alley to meet her on the corner. We walked down to the ferry, using Park and then cut over to the South Bay sidewalk, careful to avoid broken glass and dog poop, and careful to avoid the alley near the market across from the ferry landing. We caught the second ferry of the day, paid and passed across to the Peninsula without incident. The bay was a deceptive, oily calm.

We hit Mabel’s Balboa Donuts behind the Pavilion, as we always did, agonizing over our choices until I settled on the usual, not really fooling anyone but myself by my constancy. Only Josh made different choices from time to time. I settled on the cherry-filled and took it without the tissue paper or a napkin.

Rather than sucking the donut from the side with the filling hole, I bit the donut from the wrong side. The cherry filling oozed and dropped to my chest just above the left side of my chest near my heart. For a moment it appeared like an augury of things to come. I deftly wiped it off with the tops of the fingers of my right hand that still held the unfinished donut. With my tongue I lapped up the red jelly from my fingers and swallowed the remains of the premonition. Josh paid the tired woman behind the counter, not Mabel today, ignoring the straggles of hair that fell from under the paper cap and matted to the sweat coursing down her cheeks. She was pleasant, but not pretty.

“See ya tomorrow, guys. Have a good day,” and she turned her back to serve the next customer, a fisherman tourist, probably just returned from the midnight sailing of the Frontier.

“Yeah, thanks,” we chorused and Josh shoved her remaining change deep in the front pocket of her faded jean cutoffs.

I was thinking out loud, “Five cents for the ferry back. Ten cents for a soda later. And an extra nickel just for the heck of it.” I might have said “hell” in other circumstances, just to impress someone, but Josh wouldn’t have been much impressed, so I said “heck” instead. I didn’t know how much money Josh had left. She’d paid extra for a cinnamon twist today, as well as a jelly donut. Even at that, she must still have had thirty or forty cents left from yesterday’s bottles. I remember casually thinking she’d puke after eating all that and then going surfing. We headed across the two blocks to the beach.

We spent the rest of the lazy, overcast morning near the Balboa Pier. We surfed and sunned and talked and didn’t talk until we had our fill of our immediate environment. We were now filled with a need for a sense of movement, or passage, or relocation along the beach; a need for change. We took our bikes, and with the towels wrapped around the handlebars, we started pedaling north along the wide beach sidewalk. We pedaled slowly, soaking up the day and dodging joggers and skateboarders. We were past the Newport Pier, somewhere up around 17th, when I spotted Gail walking up the beach toward the boardwalk. It was early afternoon, perhaps about one, and the sun had burned off the overcast.

She was tossing her hair to one side, toweling it dry, and the beads of water glistened on her brown body and emerald-green two-piece. Her hair sprang back up in ringlets of black curls. I was captivated by the vision. I stood on my rear pedal, nailing the brakes, and skidded sideways to a stop. I heard a distant commotion behind me. I dropped my bike to the edge of the sidewalk and started walking towards Gail. 

Somehow I managed to stammer out, “Hi.”

I was totally unaware of my cousin’s plight behind me. She had swerved to avoid hitting me, struck a trashcan, and fallen against a concrete bench, cutting open her right leg with a long gash below the knee. To all of this I was oblivious. I only had eyes and thoughts for the girl in the sea-green suit, the new vision in front of me.

Gail was the first to notice the blood coursing down my cousin’s leg. Josh was stoic. Gail was politely concerned. I was, well, I was just stupid. I told Josh to go in the water and rinse off the wound. I never said, “Sorry,” or even showed concern or regret. I guess I was saving all that up for later, when it would be too late. I probably mentioned something about how the salt water was good for it and such. Such were the myths before polluted beaches and the contagion of televised news. Gail wasn’t so sure and suggested that Josh go to the lifeguard stand for some basic first aid. I continued my stupidity and just said, “Nah. She’s okay. Right?” never taking my eyes from Gail.

Josh didn’t answer and she didn’t go to the lifeguard. She went off, into the water, and left me alone on the beach with Gail. I don’t know how long we talked, perhaps an hour, perhaps a bit less. Eventually Gail stood up and said she had to go. She’d spotted someone in the crowd, a tall sophomore who was, so I was to learn much later, her boyfriend of many days. He was one link in a long chain in which I was to become entangled. Gail left me standing there and I could only stare after her longingly.

Eventually I closed my mouth, turned and scanned the surf line for my cousin. I couldn’t see her anywhere and, eventually, I walked back up to where we’d left our bikes, at least where I had left mine, as hers was nowhere around. She had gone. Like I had abandoned her, she had now abandoned me and left me to myself.

Somehow I had lost my money for the ferry. Somewhere it had dropped from my pocket. Perhaps I lost it when I was surfing. Perhaps I lost it sitting on the sand talking to Gail with my knees tucked under my chin. But the fact was that I had lost it. Because I had my bike, I couldn’t just swim across the South Bay back to the Island. I could have done it, had done it in fact on a dare from Josh, but I had my bike.

Slowly, over the course of that afternoon, I rode my bike down the rest of the Peninsula, past Lido Island and over the bridge to Mariner’s Mile. I turned south on the highway and eventually cut off past the bluffs and the Mummy and back over the bridge to the Island. The inside of my thighs were rubbed raw from the sand in my cutoffs.

I didn’t think to check on Josh when I got back. Perhaps that was a mistake too. It was late afternoon and my back was scorched with sunburn from the bike ride and I just sort of collapsed from exertion and disappointment. It was after six when I woke up the next morning. There had been no tapping on the window at five, to wake me up, to continue our routine.

I went over later to check on Josh. My aunt answered the door and said that Jocelyn didn’t feel like going surfing today. Instead, she said that they were going to go shopping for a new swimsuit. I didn’t see Josh, Jocelyn, for about a week after that and then only in passing. She was on her way to a pool party with some new friends.

She looked sort of strange, in a bright orange swimsuit covered by a white blouse with matching orange trim. Her hair was combed back in a ponytail. The scar on her leg was almost healed. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her, but something was different besides her calling herself Jocelyn.

Slowly over the next few months, perhaps even over the course of a year, I began to figure things out. My disappointment with Gail and then with another, sort of broke up my routine. I began to realize I had to change and Josh, Jocelyn, had just changed sooner. Sometimes I can catch my ideas before they get away. 


Sometimes I can’t or I’m too slow. I guess that’s as good as it gets. Most of the time I have trouble working in absolutes anyway. So, I guess I’ll just settle for–sometimes. I enjoy the suspense anyway.

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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Kung Fu and Spiritual Ground of the Martial Arts

Kung Fu and Spiritual Ground of the Martial Arts
Olav Bryant Smith
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Empirical

When I was little, one of my many heroes was Bruce Lee. Not the version of Bruce Lee who the world primarily thinks of now, having become popular with films like Fists of Fury, and The Way of the Dragon in the ‘70s, but the earlier version–the Bruce Lee who played Kato, the sidekick of The Green Hornet in the ‘60s television series. The series, like its sister-series Batman, was a little comicbookish in retrospect, to be sure. But for a 7 to 8-year-old boy, this just made it better. The thing is that Bruce Lee, the actor and martial arts expert, brought something of the spiritual foundations of the martial arts even to that role. The Green Hornet may have been meant to be the primary hero of the series, but it was Kato who captured my imagination. The mysteries of eastern spirituality informed my growth from then on.

Another of my heroes was Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., who changed his named to Muhammad Ali in the midst of “float(ing) like a butterfly,” and “sting(ing) like a bee.” Ali not only was a great athlete, certainly in the conversation on the finest boxers who ever lived, but he was centered in a spirituality and a political awareness that elevated him from the sports pages to the front pages of the major newspapers. I meditated on the movements of Ali–without realizing it was a meditation. I immersed myself in the feeling of what it was like to be centered in devotion to God while sharpening my body, mind, and spirit to defend my faith against all comers. He influenced me to investigate and to think kindly of Islam, long before the American relationship with Islam became so tainted by wars in the Middle East and terrorist attacks. There does not need to be endless antagonism between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–“the people of the Book” as they are collectively called in Islam. But that is the stuff of another essay.

So, with these influences running deep in my life, I was primed for an open-armed reception of the series Kung Fu when it came to television in 1972, one year after Lee’s Fists of Fury had made such an impact. The series was directed by Jerry Thorpe, and written by Ed Spielman and Howard Friedlander. The main character, a half-American, half-Chinese man named Kwai Chang Caine was played by David Carradine, the son of the legendary actor John Carradine. 

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve met spiritually oriented people around my age who were greatly influenced by Kung Fu. Like another highly influential television series, Star Trek, it only survived for a few years. But in those few years, it managed to do something so special that its positive karmic affect continues to work its magic in the lives and creative imaginations of many who were fortunate enough to watch it. So let’s take a peek back at what was so magical about this humble film.


The key to its effectiveness, and the depth of the series, is its use of flashbacks from the late nineteenth-century Old West (California) setting that the adult Caine finds himself thrown into, to his earlier life in the Shaolin (Buddhist) Temple in Hunan Province in the southwest of China. From start to finish, we are gently introduced to the way a Zen Buddhist monk would incorporate his meditation and training into his daily life in the Western world. As we quickly learn to identify with this lonely figure thrust into a strange and often unfriendly land–and many of us, of course, often feel this way–we begin to meditate with Caine on these ways of integrating a spiritual understanding and awareness of reality with our daily activities.

The first frames of the film show the adult Caine walking across a desert in California, barefoot. The flashbacks show him as a boy standing outside of the Shaolin Temple, hoping to gain admission for training as a monk. The boy stands in the profane world of everyday life with a yearning for instruction in the sacred realm of the temple. He thirsts for a deeper understanding of life’s mysteries–not to escape this world, but to find ways of applying this deeper understanding to life.

As Caine stands outside the temple, it is sometimes raining, but the boy endures. This is then contrasted with walking across the vast expanse of the hot, dry desert as the images switches back and forth between his childhood in China and adulthood in California. Even before his official training, there is something in the boy that the monks are looking for. The Buddha calls it Right Intention. It is having one’s heart in the right place. 

Caine demonstrates sincerity and single-mindedness of purpose. He shows that he will genuinely appreciate the gift of training if he is accepted. We see some other young boys, however, who had been standing at the front door with Caine, giving up. They step off to the side and begin to play games. The monks inside, who are secretly keeping an eye out to see who really wants to get in, notice the distracted boys. The monk at the door comes outside and tells the boys, “Please go home.” They had not exhibited the character to gain admittance. Once inside, this character of Right Intention will be needed to advance further in spiritual training. This early determination, which we see by observing the adult Caine walking barefoot through the great expanse of the desert, has deepened into an almost superhuman ability to endure hardship in pursuit of an enlightened goal.

Several of the boys are admitted for an audience with the temple’s headmaster, or sifu. We see that early character-training, often through religious guidance, does matter in children’s lives. All of the boys are polite. They sit before the monk. They are served tea. The monk indicates through gesture that they may drink. And most of them do so. They’re hungry. They’re thirsty. They’ve waited a long time to get inside from the elements at this point. Of all the boys, Caine alone does not drink the tea, because the master had not begun to drink his. Because of this, Caine is allowed to stay for training, and the other boys are sent home. The master inquires where the boy has learned such good manners, prized perhaps more in Confucian cultures than others. Caine says that he learned from his grandfather.

In traditional cultures, the relationship between grandparents and young children is crucial to the development of children’s understanding of the world and their characters. Parents are often busy with maintaining their households. In fact, in India, where these relationships are clearly defined, the parents are said to be “householders.” The youngest children spend much of their time with their grandparents, who by then, are in the retirement phase of their lives. In the West, where children often never really get to know their grandparents well, much that is vital to the continuation of a civilization has been lost.

Generational bonding and unity is part of the glue that holds cultures together. And as Herman Daly wrote in his article “The Renewal of Ignorance,” in the December issue of Empirical, every generation of elders must decide what is most important to pass on to young people. Equally, every generation of young people decide what is most important to make the effort to learn. This transmission of wisdom and knowledge from one generation to the next goes through this double filter. We are always one step away, Daly warns us, from losing the basis of our culture and civilization. 

It is a precarious business, and there is no guarantee of continual progress.


When Caine arrives at a town in California, if you are able to watch these frames in slow-motion, you will see that the director arranges for Caine’s image to immediately merge together with an elder Chinese man named Han Fei. Not only will their paths intersect in the way we usually think of this, but this also illustrates the interconnectedness of all beings. They have not met yet, but they live in a world of continual mutual influence. As the English poet John Donne understood, “No man is an island/Entire of itself.” We are all parts of a greater whole, interconnected.

Thirsty, Caine approaches a saloon. Again, if you are paying close attention, you will see him peek into the saloon through a side window first. He does not walk blindly into this new situation. He practices Right Awareness, and looks to see what he’s getting himself into as best he can. Inside, he asks for a drink of water and adds some minerals to it that he has carried with him in a small pouch. The bartender inquires where he has come from, but scoffs when told that he has just walked across the desert. “Liar!” he retorts and laughs. He doesn’t understand the disciplined and simple life that the monk has been trained to sustain. He doesn’t realize the inner resources that Caine has developed over time before arriving there.

Han Fei, having seen Caine enter the bar, is alarmed. He does not know Caine, but he empathizes with him (a trait emphasized by Confucius) and has compassion for him (a trait emphasized by the Buddha). Han Fei knows that someone who is Chinese will not be welcome in this saloon, so he sticks his head just inside the door to warn Caine, but is rudely told to leave at once by the barroom bully. Having gotten rid of Han Fei, this stout, bigoted ruffian takes notice of Caine, and though he is only half-Chinese, decides Caine must leave as well.

He attempts to remove Caine by force, and fails. But we do not witness the typical barroom brawl here. Caine uses his highly developed martial arts skills to side-step and neutralize every attempt to remove him. It is clear that he could inflict severe damage on the bully, but he does not. He applies the great guiding principle of every spiritually grounded martial art–to restore order with the least amount of force necessary. For the aim in spiritually grounded martial arts is purely defensive. The ethically superior martial artist does not seek to show off his abilities, but rather uses them modestly and only when needed. The great founder of the martial art Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, insisted that his training was really “the art of peace.”

Having gotten his drink of water, and countered the effort to remove him forcibly, Caine then goes on his way peacefully. Han Fei greets him outside, and is thrilled, saying that he’s heard of advanced skills like this before, but has never seen them in practice. Caine is not full of himself. He is humble and honors the older man, who had risked his safety to warn him. Each has his own role to play. They enjoy mutual respect immediately. And each has something to give to the other. Saying that he is in need of work, Han Fei arranges for Caine to go to work, as so many Chinese and Sikh workers did at that time, on a railroad line laying ties.


Caine climbs onto the back of a horse-drawn wagon, about to embark on a new chapter of his life. Immediately, we see a flashback to the Shaolin Temple, where Caine had experienced new beginnings before as a boy. There, his head was shaved.

This is somewhat like baptism in Christianity.

It symbolizes a previous life that is shed and left behind. It symbolizes cleanliness and simplicity in the new life. And it symbolizes a commitment to the new beginning being embarked upon.

We observe Caine doing chores around the temple–tasks like sweeping the steps of sand and snow in different seasons. We also see him scrubbing the floors. These are more than necessary jobs to help the temple community to continue to function. These become for the monks an active meditation.

There are various kinds of meditation.

One can meditate with the chanting of a mantra. There are recitations of sacred writings in passage meditations. Many kinds of meditation begin with the most basic of all–a sitting meditation. In a sitting meditation, one learns through various techniques to still the mind and find the sacred center within.

For some, such as Zen Buddhists, the emphasis is placed on this sitting meditation.

In an active meditation, one attempts to take what one finds in the sitting meditation, and apply it to our work in the world. Perhaps the most well-known of the active meditations in the Western world is hatha yoga, which comes from India. Another, which I have practiced for many years, is the latihan kejiwaan of Subud. But an active meditation, if it comes from the right place within us, can take place in any activity that we do, such as these basic chores of a monk at the monastery.

Ideally, according to the teaching of Right Livelihood, one should be able to operate from one’s compassionate, creative center in our work in the world. We should endeavor to spread our peace and love to the world around us through our activities. At the railroad camp where Caine begins to work as an adult, we are shown a conflict arising in a simple morality play between a good-hearted geologist and the camp’s supervisor. 

The geologist predicted that the railroad workers were likely to hit pockets of an explosive gas if they continued on the path they were going. The supervisor understood what was being said, but did not allow the facts to get in the way of his goal. He pointed out that it would take too much time and cost too much money to change the route of the railroad, and it was his job to see the rail through. The lives of the workers were not a major concern for the supervisor.

Today, in the United States, we have reached a crossroad in our attitude toward labor. After a nearly century of progress, those gains have been scaled back. Instead of aiming for an ideal relationship between employers and employees, we sometimes seem to be racing toward the lowest common denominator by pitting our workers in competition against the most poorly treated workers around the world.

As we watch the immigrant laborers in Kung Fu laying ties for the railroad, we should remember the value of labor, which we cannot do without. There are class systems around the world that are quite oppressive with regard to labor. In India, for instance, those in the lowest class have been called “outcastes” because they’re seen as so low that they exist outside of the caste system. Where others saw only worthless “untouchables,” the Mahatma (great soul) Mohandas K. Gandhi saw “Harijan” (children of God). In the United States, generations of Africans were forcibly put on ships and imported like objects into this country to serve tyrannical masters. A war between North and South had to be fought largely to assure the liberty of our African-American brothers and sisters. We should look to this history and remember the often thin lines that run between marginally subsistence wages and slavery. And we should ask ourselves if we really want to support a system that depends on such slavery or quasi-slavery.


This was the situation that Caine was thrown into when he joined the crew of railroad workers. The camp was at a crisis point. They were cold. They were not fed well. And their lives were in danger. The workers were looking for leadership. One of Caine’s fellow laborers, Fong, ridiculed him for keeping silent. He was looking for Caine to step forward with his observations, if not a plan for action. And he didn’t know if he could trust someone so quiet.

But Caine responded to this criticism by saying that “If one’s words are not better than silence, one should keep silent.” This is in keeping with the Buddha’s teaching on Right Speech. The foundation of Buddhist ethics is the restraint from harming others. With regard to one’s work, one should do work that is helpful to others, and certainly not work that is harmful. The same principle should be applied to speech–to do some good with our words, or to remain silent.

Caine was also practicing the principle of Right Awareness here. He had to observe the situation at the camp carefully before taking action. This point will come up again, soon, when Fong presses him again for action.

Soon after this, Caine is recognized and honored as the Shaolin monk that he is when a wagon load of supplies comes into the camp. As one crate begins to fall from the wagon, Caine reached up to catch it, thus exposing the tiger and the dragon branded into his forearms. The tiger, symbol of the powers of the earth, and the dragon, symbol of the powers of the sky, were the signs of completed training at the Shaolin monastery. His fellow workers bowed with reverence at the discovery of this identity. A man of special gifts was in their midst.

As we see Caine pondering his position in this difficult and frightening situation at the railroad camp, it is not coincidental, I think, that we are then taken through another flashback to the heart of his training at the Shaolin Temple. More than anyone else at the Shaolin Temple, Caine was influenced by the blind Master Po. At first, Caine is inclined to dismiss Master Po as a simple, blind old man. But on their first encounter, Po hands Caine a broom and tells the young boy to attack him with it. Caine is reluctant, but the old man insists. 

Time and again, Caine rushes Master Po with the broom, only to be thwarted with deft movements. With a new-found admiration and feeling for Master Po, Caine comments that “Of all things, to live in darkness must be the worst.” Master Po smiles and brushes this sympathy aside, saying “Fear is the greatest darkness.” Several years later, we would see for the first time Yoda, in a similar role, telling the apprentice Luke Skywalker that “Fear is the path to the dark side.”

Master Po had smiled because he knew that he had not only overcome the lesser darkness of blindness, but the greater darkness of fear. And he invited Caine to follow him on a journey that starts with a quiet and humble awareness of everything that was going on in and around him. This, to me, is the spirit of radical empiricism.

“Never assume,” said Master Po, “that because a man has no eyes he cannot see.” Such an idea is shocking to the ordinary empiricist, for whom visual affirmation means so much. Master Po then directed Caine’s awareness. “Close your eyes,” he commanded. “What do you hear?”

Caine obeys. “I hear the water. I hear the birds.”

“Do you hear your own heartbeat?” Po asks.

“No,” admits the boy.

“Do you hear the grasshopper at your feet?” asks Po.

Caine opens his eyes and sees the grasshopper there. Amazed, he asks, “Old man, how is it that you hear these things?”

Po responds: “Young man, how is it that you do not?”

It is clearly implied here, though, that there is something more going on that extraordinarily acute hearing. The suggestion is that Master Po’s awareness has grown to such heights that he has developed a kind of “sixth sense.” We see this clearly in another scene where Caine as a boy is introduced to the practice of walking on rice paper. He is told that if he can learn to walk across it without tearing it, then his approach cannot be heard. So, when Caine as a young man finally accomplishes this feat, he goes to Master Po to test his skill. 

Master Po is aware of Caine’s approach anyway.

To many in the West, such phenomena are mere fairy tales. But as skeptical an observer as Jean Paul Sartre pointed to the truth of such awareness in human beings. He pointed to the phenomenon of what he referred to as “The Look.” We’ve all had experiences of sitting somewhere and having the “feeling” that someone is looking at us. We turn to see if it is true, and sure enough, someone had been looking at us–“burning,” as some say, “a hole in the back of my head.”

This awareness of connectedness to the world around us comes through careful phenomenological observation made acute through meditative practice. Again, such phenomenological observation allows us greater awareness of the paradoxes of time. 

A monk asks Caine at one point how long he’d been at the temple. The quick reply was “a long time,” for surely it seemed such to the young monk. But asked again how long, the boy thought about it. “Not long,” was the second response. The elder monk was pleased, and said, “Soon you will learn.” How is that he could have been there both a short time and a long time?

What does this mean?

Saint Augustine, in his Confessions, says that he knows what time is until someone asks him. Then he wonders if time really exists at all. For the past is no more, the future is not yet, and the present would be eternal if it did not slip into the past where it is also no more. Augustine concludes that if the present and future really exist, they exist in the tri-fold present where we experience a past-present and a future-present.

Again, this is a gift of careful observation.

We begin to glimpse in these observations a steady march of temporal transitioning from one present duration to another–or, as Alfred North Whitehead put it, a transition from one actual occasion of experience to another.


After observation, comes action. And with action comes decisions of import that we do not always get right. In many cases, we’re not even sure ourselves whether we have done the right thing. Life is teaching us many lessons at once.

In one of the more straightforwardly philosophical moments in the film, Han Fei and Caine discuss the seeming paradox between destiny and free will. Are our actions determined by our destiny, or are we free to act as we please? Han Fei’s conclusion, though he admits that he doesn’t know how it works, is that both are at play and that they somehow go together.

In Alfred North Whitehead’s process system of metaphysics, we are guided by an ideal at each moment of our lives, and our decisions are influenced by the weight of all the decisions we and others have made in the past. But in the end, we still have a choice to make between a range of options, including our felt perception of the given ideal for that circumstance. After our decisions are made, we inevitably find ourselves comparing what we have done with our awareness of that ideal.

It turns out that Caine had not simply come to America out of curiosity. He was fleeing the wrath of the Emperor of China for having killed his nephew. Joining Master Po on the road to the Forbidden City, the old master was fatally shot by the Emperor’s nephew. Caine, seeking to stop the violence, killed the imperial nephew with the throw of a spear. Dying, Master Po, told Caine that he was like a son to him, handed over his pouch with his few possessions, and instructed Caine to leave the country.

Fong heard through the grapevine of an imperial search in America for a Shaolin monk for murder. There is a price on Caine’s head. One of the other Chinese laborers in the camp, who has sold out as a spy, or informant, to management, overhears this and takes this new information to the supervisor of the camp. In exchange for this information, he is given a little warm, nutritious food. Abraham Maslow wrote about a hierarchy of needs. When human beings do not have their basic survival needs met, it is much more unlikely that they will seek to develop their higher human capacities, including their spiritual life. So, the Chinese government is informed from afar, and we realize that it’s only a matter of time before Caine is confronted by their representatives.

In this way, the web of life is spun. Many people acting for different reasons with different goals. The effects of their actions overlap, and people are hurt along the way. It is not always immediately clear as people do what they think is best for themselves, their families, their friends, and their countries, what is right and what is wrong.

Having seen too many of his fellow workers die, Fong understandably becomes frustrated and wants to take action quickly before any others die. He is ready to use violent means to take the camp away from the camp management. Caine, partly because he knows that management has the means to put down such a rebellion, urges Fong to remain calm, but he fails. Fong is now hot-headed, and the supervisor’s men shoot Fong after he takes but one step in their direction. The other men are obviously angered by this killing. But Caine urges restraint. They must wait for another time, and not rush to their deaths unwisely and needlessly.

Caine’s willingness to wait for action also reveals a trust in the way of nature. There is an old saying that “good things come to one who waits.” Such a belief implies implicit faith that the universe is good, and that with time, even the most evil things must fall before the forces of good. This type of crisis is what Caine had been trained to deal with. He was taught to avoid conflicts like these when possible. But when unavoidable, they have to be dealt with in the right way.

Three great spiritual philosophers taught of the importance of the middle way in governing our actions. Both Confucius and the Buddha taught of middle way ethical theories. Aristotle, who referred to his own middle way theory as the golden mean, used the virtue of courage as his primary example. In most situations, it is possible to either do too much of something or too little. The real key is to learn to get it just right–in the middle. Most of us, he taught, shy away from something that is frightening. To the extreme, this is called cowardice. In overcoming this tendency toward cowardice, it’s possible to overcompensate and rush into confrontation with something that is frightening. This is often called rashness. Fong, in this scene, acted rashly. He got himself killed needlessly.

True courage involves the wisdom of holding one’s center in the midst of something frightening. This is why Hemingway identified courage as “grace under pressure.” Caine also had been taught to recognize the difference between a subtle strength, energy, or life force called chi, and the more obvious, gross strength of the physical body. The latter depends on youth and muscle mass, and fades in old age. The former can be carefully refined and developed throughout one’s life. The acute awareness that comes through meditation increases one’s ability to develop the use of this subtle energy. In turn, one’s awareness is increased through attunement to this subtle energy. Caine’s actions would have to be guided by careful attunement with this chi, or what in Star Wars became popularly identified (just a few years later) as the force. This often involves an appropriate channeling of energies. You learn not to confront an aggressive force head-on, but to redirect those energies and thereby neutralize their destructiveness. Nature is full of such lessons, and the careful observation of nature can be the best classroom.


I wish I could say that after watching this series, one could clearly see when self-defense is appropriate and when it is not. Alas, it is as muddled for us as it is for the characters. Caine defends himself in the end against the Shaolin monk turned bounty-hunter who is sent after Caine by the Emperor. Caine emerges victorious, but says “there is no honor in the taking of a human life.” We do find ourselves in conflict in the world. 

Sometimes it is unavoidable.

And sometimes we are right, but at other times, we are wrong. It is a murky business filled with pain and danger. At least we can see in “Kung Fu” that Caine is saddened by the web of conflict that he finds himself in. He does not revel in it. And perhaps that is the best lesson to be taken away about the violence. Yes, people step on each other’s toes in this world. Yes, people get into conflicts. But the proper and wisest attitude to have toward these conflicts is to avoid them when possible, to redirect aggressive energies in ways that neutralize their damaging effects, and only use as much force as is necessary to restore harmony to the situation. Our judgments may not always be accurate, and we may not achieve the ideal we were aiming for, but we will minimize the damage when acting on these principles.

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