Monday, December 6, 2010

My Kind of Buddhism

It's just another number, 21 for argument's sake (for heaven's 
sake) & child
of the hatey eighties & Rega-fuckin-omics
is sick of it.  Enough of it already -- all this
pseudo-emo dark as night dark knight kill em all burn it down break some stuff
nihil:  I’m sick of it.  Sing it & riddle me this my brother, can you handle it?
My kind of Buddhism has eight
soulful arms that carry cat-o-nine tails
whipping the sound & the fury out of everything
in sight, kissing
it all goodbye with love.  My kind
of Buddhism is filled with
defiant reliant compassionate indignation that comes with
always taking perfect steps, imperfectly.  This man himself
for certain stubbed toes, crunched
those suckers hard & had harsh words learned
at private school to say
about that.  You see, my kind
of Buddhism forgives & is hellious mad, lets it all go & pushes against
streams of convention, authority, anti-authority, sense of self, misplaced guilt
in between known & un.  My kind of Buddhism
is kind, delicate, orchid
of belief, sultry
in this way & that, sassy & that & sings jazz
with light
through frosted windows & this because
my kind of Buddhism is without smoke
or mirrors, sees itself
& you & you & you &
clarifies ghosts who haunt the films of our lives & embraces every 
tragic ending.
Hear me now cuz here it comes!  My kind of Buddhism
makes beats, ties knots in loops, shoots hoops
with kids down the block, blocks shots that come from the top
hats & smacks
down all the wack players with their favours
& their flavours our cracked up money has to offer.  Coffers
in the banks are coffins that sank
the poor while my kind of Buddhism
rages against machines, leans
hard into winds of change in the name of fame, feigns
recognition, explains indecision, & names
this simple Buddhism, numbers a 
side, sickness a perfect
click into this perfect

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Sitting zazen, Movember, & Punk rock

"& yet, the more popular Buddhism seems to be in the West, while Zen is the most talked about, it is also the one practiced the least." Brad Warner

"Are you hardcore, really?/  Who's hardcore, really?"   K'naan

This month, Movember as it has come to be known in these parts, was hard.  That just sounds weird doesn't it?  I mean, seriously, all I did was grow a moustache.  It's not like I underwent chemotherapy or surgery, nor did I lose anyone close to me or receive terrible news of a life threatening disease.  Nope, all I did was grow a moustache.  And yet, how incredibly difficult it was.

See, we sit zazen on the cushion daily, for some us twice daily, and because the practice strips away the usual psychic armour used to 'protect' us from ourselves, we come face to face with all of the insane ideas of self that we have built up.  And so, instead of just feeling weird because of having this 'stache, I felt the double difficulty of feeling weird AND experiencing the deep sensation that this was nothing more than my (false sense) of ego judging me FROM THE INSIDE, and while I can accept that others have their opinions (and that their opinions are none of my damn business) this judgement is definitely troublesome.

So I sit with it.  Time passes, and I sit some more.  As the 40 minute morning sit comes close to its end, I am filled with the thought that I have to get going, that the sit must be over, that there are things to do, that it'd be ok if I got up a couple of minutes early... that everything will be much better just as soon as I'm done.  But I sit 'til the end anyway.

And as much as I think things will be better off the cushion, no such luck.  There's the world and  I go about things.

But things are different... a little better somehow.  The thoughts that I might cling to, I can let go more easily; the emotions that threaten to take me over, I can allow to pass without taking them out on anyone else; the things I may have tried to push away or avoid, I accept.

And there's that moustache.  And although I understand that it may have become 'the new tattoo', or that it stands as an emblem of solidarity with my brothers, and particularly those brothers with prostate cancer, it stills feels and looks yucky.  See, moustaches, for me mean two predominant things (my brother-in-law's 'stache aside):  cops and child molesters.  Don't ask me how they got there, but there they are, starring back at me every time I look in the mirror.

And moustaches, by the way, while Motorhead and Metallica acceptable for the metalheads, trucker savvy for the country folk, and badass cool for the bikers, don't hold any cred for the puck rockers.  None.  Zero.  It's just something the banker or some other cog in the machine had.  And yes, I can accept this juvie talk, but I'm just being honest.  Moustache's are fuckin ugly and really serve to remind me of everything that I dislike on principle alone.

And yet, I made it based on acceptance alone.  May the gods and goddesses and fairy folk and sprites alike bless my punk rock soul, I wore that thing all month and even though I almost wished away these past few days (is it over yet?  Movember must be over by now. No one will mind if I skip out a couple of days early.  Things will be so much better when this is over with...) I made it nonetheless.

And while I though things would be so much better without the damn 'stache, no such luck.  I'm still stuck with the same old me, with the same weirdnesses and issues.

And not.  See, sitting, like holding on to the 'stache, is a hardcore activity.  They both require strength, perspective, compassion, and a letting go of self and societal judgement.  And while over the past two decades I've often told myself that things would be better if I didn't sit, I always go back, because I was wrong, here on November 30th I'm telling myself that I'll not be participating in Movember next year, I know that I will.  Because it's the right thing to do, and because, despite looking and feeling stupid, challenging yourself to look deeply and carefully at who you are and how you are interrelated with everyone else is the most hardcore, punk thing that a person can possibly do.

Friday, November 26, 2010

If you meet the Buddha be merciful, kill him

I am a bicycle, I am
a pair of black
low top
canvas converse.  I am two scoops
of raisins I am a long line of poetry with no punctuation or
stops.  I am a thousand
years old, I am
newly born wrapped in red wine jazz.  I am
a quarter note held
over, I am a hang
I am a tobacco yellowed & underlined
copy of Twilight of the Idols barely
hanging together at the spine & well loved.  I am a chain
gang, I am a boulder cracked & 
crumbling into pebbles, I am the first rimshot on
I Wanna
Be Sedated.  I am the left overs
of an oil slick stuck in a sickly duck’s feathers, I am
a fat CEO sucking back a Cuban
cigar, I am the ashes of the past
waiting for the strong winds of history.  I am a blind man
cursing cinders & poverty, I am money rolled
in a wad that only looks like
a man.  I am The Man, I am
a Dr. Suess line, a
Dr. Dre rhyme, I am a yam
cooked on a bed of plantain, I am a plantation that remembers
all their names.  I am a V8 engine, I am the starting
gun at the ’37 Olympics, I am a rock show & Arc
of the Covenant.  I am Mt. Fucking Vesuvius just
about ready to reek of old books, I am risen from the dead.
I am the Bidhi tree that no one will let die.
I am a tooth, mistaken.
I am a shroud longing to be bits of thread.
I am water, escaping your clutch.  I am
steam from the tea cup.  I am
everything, formless.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Who died and made you teacher? Punk pedagogy

Ian Mackaye sits on the stage in what was once a classroom at the Charlotte Street Arts Centre.  Former member of punk powerhouses Minor Threat and Fugazi, founder of DisChord Records, namer of harDCore, and instigator of the Straight Edge movement Mackaye is more than a musician – as much as can be the case, given prevailing definitions, he is a punk icon.  Antiauthoritarian, mover, ideologue, he is the embodiment of everything positive, creative, and productive about punk rock.
“So, we’re gonna have a punk show here tonight” he says:  “not just us on the stage”, he is there playing with his partner Amy in a unit called The Evens, “but you too.  We’re gonna work together to make this happen.  Punk’s not a sound – it’s something that we build together.”  Something that we build together…
To say that ‘punk’ is a thing – say, a fashion, a kind of music, a political stance – is like saying that Buddhism or capitalism are singular things.  Varieties of experience, as well as the practices of individuals and the media make simple categorization nearly impossible in terms of human being.  Rejecting the Platonic belief that all things have a Form from which the everyday things incarnate themselves, and instead accepting that any thing’s existence is dependent upon how we make it a reality in all of our diverse ways, punk is a system of thought, an action, and something that we do – neither a noun nor an adjective, but a verb.  We punk out our language, pushing it beyond its dictionary imperatives and definitions; we punk our politics and make them answerable to diversity; we enter a classroom and punk rock the cannon by eliciting responses from students and affirming their perspectives.
Ian Mackaye is also known as someone who announces rules to the crowd.  “If you slam dance, we stop.  We leave the stage and the show’s over.  If anyone’s drunk and gets disorderly, hurting others, the show’s over.  If we smell weed in the crowd, we ALL go home.”  But aren’t rules decidedly anti-punk rock?  Isn’t the whole ideology, the system of belief, stringently individualistic though?  Don’t we get to be whoever we want, how ever we want?

I will remind you again that punk is not a set of rules, and so Mackaye, like everyone, gets to say what he wants – “we’re all in this together” – and if you don’t like it, well, there’s the door.  Complications arise in any form of politics that attempts to assert control; however, this is not an ideological forum, this is action and Mackaye attempts in his shows to embody his own politics.  Punk, for him, is the openness to express ourselves in a non-threatening environment – and alcohol, drugs, and the machismo act of slam dancing do not fall into that ethos.  In fact, they are emphatically part of the establishment, part of a system of belief that does hurt others, does encourage us to hurt ourselves, and enculturates, through language, aggressive behaviour as not onlt only acceptable, but necessary – even in academia, a supposed bastion of pacifism and intellectual freedom, we found much of what we do on attack, interrogation, negative criticism.
The message in his music, his poetry is, in fact, the same; that is, if we are cruising to hurt someone else, we will only succeed in harming ourselves.  Much better then to say what needs to be said with the hopes of helping both; regardless of who you are, where you come from, or what you’re wearing, we’re in this game of societal transformation together.
These themes – openness to alterity, non-violence, and striving to positively reinterpret our place in the world together – are the cornerstones of much deep thinking and applied theories surrounding the educational experience.  In ways both semiotically robust (Mackaye sitting on the stage at the front of what was a classroom) and linguistically telling (the laying out of specific ground rules), he established himself from the outset as teacher, participant, facilitator, and sage.  None of these, I guarantee, were lost on the crowd.  More important than this, perhaps, was the subtle manner in which we were all being schooled in the ways of a progressive pedagogy that sought, on the one hand, to introduce us to the basic themes of punk rock as ideology – again, openness, non-violence, and community – and, on the other, to exactly how this ideology could be put into practice, how a noun becomes a verb.
In direct reaction to the civil disobedience of the 1960’s, with the youth actions of protest and sit-ins, the movement (verb) of punk rock positioned itself as a forceful revolution of practice.  Seeing their older brothers and sisters wait outside the emblems of the establishment, shouting their slogans and demanding that the powers that be do something about society’s woes, the punk rockers of the late 1970’s made conscious and concerted efforts to bypass the powers of authority and change society themselves.  Employing the basic tactics of what we might call semiotic guerrilla warfare, they took the physical manifestations of the establishment (short hair, suits, military garb, 12 bar blues) and claimed them for their own while simultaneously transforming their very public messages.  They dawned brush cuts and combat boots, not because they wanted to join the army, but because they were waging war on the inequalities of society; they dyed their hair, not because they wished to maintain the status quo of being young forever, but because they sought to transform themselves into visible minorities and so bring the discourse of discrimination into the mainstream (which was, and is, more often than not their own middle class livingrooms); and they harnessed the structure of standard rock and roll and accelerated it, not because they wanted a hit on top 40 radio, but because they wanted to tear down the accepted semiotics of music which had begun a revolution but had been usurped and corrupted by the corporate interests of Western capitalism.  Punk rock moved meaning, it reinterpreted accepted modes of belief and attempted to force the status quo of society to reevaluate where it was going, what it really believed in, and, most importantly, what it was doing to make the world a more egalitarian and compassionate place.  Punk was far more mass pedagogy than ideology, and to see it otherwise is to give in, yet again, to the drive of a mercantile morality to make what is radical marketable.

In the late 1700’s, William Blake created The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  In it, he strove to dismantle the systems of belief that he saw stifling the human spirit.  In support of both the French and American Revolutions – two acts of social and political defiance based on upsetting oppressive monolithic regimes – and in direct objection to the Industrial Revolution – an ideological push to ensure the increased privilege of factory owners at the expense (or, on the backs of) the greater populace – William Blake harshly criticized the philosophical and moral tenants of what had allowed the power, beauty, and importance of the individual to be systematically destroyed:  the double pronged purveyors of the status quo – the organized aspects of Christianity and science of the day.
For Blake, the suppositions that the body is inferior to the soul and passion destructive to reason, supplied the powers that be (in this case priests, governments, scientists, and the emerging industrial capitalists) to persecute not just individuals, but the very thoughts, beliefs, and actions that make us individuals.  To sip le say this though – that people were being made into machines, that language itself was being transformed to support an emergent dominant ideology, and that Christianity, government and capitalism were in cahoots – didn’t make senses to Blake.  Knowledgeable in the ways that power is made manifest primarily through art and only secondarily through policy (you have to convince people that something is right before it can be made law by invading their sensibilities), he chose painting and poetry, story and anecdote and proverb to drive his point home in a most radical manner.  
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, perhaps the most multi-genred text in the English language, seeks to undo conventions, shock and intimidate its readers, and challenge authority (even the very idea of authority) on both the level of form and of content.  In its inclusiveness of forms, which is as much to say in its drive to include as many diverse voices and perspectives as possible, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is a work that teaches its readers the value of questioning the moral, philosophical, and political narratives that all forms of establishment seek to impose on all people.  “In opposition is true friendship” writes Blake, and then “Without contraries is no progression.  Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.”
Perhaps in hearing this we might recall the famous sculpture of Apollo and Dionysus in combat.  In this physical rendering of the enduring struggle between these brothers – also understood as passion and reason – we see how one has lifted the other off their feet by grappling him about the waste.  The other is pushing down on his brother’s head with his right hand while the left remains free to strike.  Clearly neither has the upper hand, but then again neither did one eventually kill the other.  And so here, as on Keats’ urn, the two are frozen in eternal battle, just as they would have wanted it.
Remember as well Nietzsche’s work The Birth of Tragedy in which the young philosopher extols the virtues of ancient Greece; how in their term conflict was seen as necessary to a culture’s survival, how unquestioned suppositions breed a kind of sickness (malaise) of the human spirit, and how true wisdom and strength of character and society come from a lack of settling, a desire to become, an urge to always change and grow.  Nietzsche says:  “The two creative tendencies develop alongside each other, usually in fierce opposition, each by its taunts forcing the other to more energetic production, both perpetuating in a discordant concord that agon which the term art but feeble denominates…”  How punk rock is that?
Mackaye sits on the stage of this old classroom with his drummer partner Amy and, quite literally, rocks through the evening, telling stories, singing quiet aggressive songs of dissent and engaging the crowd to talk.  Completely unlike Zack de la Roche of Rage Against the Machine who would ironically leads the masses in fuelled and fiery choruses of ‘Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!”, Mackaye asks us to “cluck or twitter or whistle or whatever” during one of his pieces about taunting the police in riot gear.  At the end of the show, he thanks us for helping him punk out, puts down his baritone guitar, sits on the edge of the stage and invites us to come up and talk to him.
Sheepishly, I walk up.  Mackaye is a legend, and I am intimidated by his presence and his stature – at nearly 6 ½ feet he towers over us all and his intense gaze meets every set of eyes as you speak to him.  He chuckles and smiles, but does not laugh.  I approach him and say ‘I went to my first punk show when I was 14 in 1984.  I’ve seen a thousand bands, but I’ve never experienced anything like this.’  I sputter out something else about Blake and cut myself short, unsure.  His eyes penetrate into mine as he takes my hand and says ‘I saw you punk rockin over there.  Don’t you ever stop.’  Perhaps he has said this hundreds of times, perhaps not – I don’t really care, in that moment he said it to me, sincerely and while looking me straight on.  In an act of friendship, Mackaye challenged me to never stop, to never give up hope for change, to never stop taunting to force “the other to more energetic production”, to always punk rock.  
Words of a true teacher stick with us – they resonate, make a difference, ask hard questions, uncomfortable questions, strip down unquestioned assumptions, speak to you like a language that only you understand.  This is the heart of Romanticism, the body of punk rock, and the spirit of all that is excellent in higher education.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Blake, Rollins, and being queer

Blake’s magic:  A reader-response class on Blake
These days of late October and early November, when autumn reaches its pinnacle and the weather turns cold, when one mid-term just gives way to another and that to a term paper and then another can be both the hardest and the best for teachers and students.  We know each other now and the ideas we have regarding what we might expect from each other are starting to settle.  We’re on a friendly level -- the teaching and the learning happen in both directions and are mixed with conversation and engaged debate.  I have laid the foundations for the rest of the year and together we are ready.
For three weeks we have been discussing and wrestling with William Blake’s amazing work The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  We have seen his art, marvelled over his effort, questioned his visions, and tried to come to grips with his contradictory, profoundly paradoxical poetry, fancies, dialogies, stories and arguments.  Last clas I had them ban together in groups and pick one of the ‘Proverbs of Hell’ to analyze, interpret and present visually.  For the shy ones this is a great opportunioty for them to be heard, while for the more boistrous this is often a chance to sit back and listen.  During this class I just sit back and listen, helping here and there, but mostly just hanging back:  for Blake to do his magic, you have to make some room for it to happen.
Today they present -- and they each, in their own ways, having struggled with what their short line says, do not fail to impress.  They are pleased with themselves, as am I -- they have listened closely to the words as they pried out possible literal, metaphorical, and cultural readings and have learned a great deal about themselves, genre, critical thinking, and working in a group.
Now for the cap.
For years I have thought about how to explain this point -- how to sew it all together, how to link these Proverbs to Blake’s larger project and now, listening to these students do their presentations, I think I’ve got it.  We’ll see right now.
“What is Blake trying to do with these Proverbs?  What, in his larger project, is he up to?  What does he want to do to you?  It took him a looooong time to create every word, so he must’ve had something in mind.”
“He wants us to think?”  Everything is still a question.
“Yes!  He wants us to think!  And he wants us to think because...?”  Sometimes it seems that everything I say is also a question.  I am, however, about to surprise myself.
“Because we’re not paying enough attention to things?  Like Don McKay said?”
Right!  Because he wants us to pay attention -- and this because, fuelled by what he saw as the power of the individual to overcome tyranny, embodied in both the French and American Revolutions, he is out to wage war ginst the systems of belief that seek to weaken and destroy the human sprit.  And in order to do this he has chosen poetry as his weapon.  Poetry -- not the verses that we write to express emotion, but language sharpened and used to cut through the politics and metaphysics of those who would seek to keep us down for their own ends... But wait, there’s more!”
I’ve said all of this several times over the past couple of weeks and now, inspired by their various attempts to understand the poet’s words by drawing them into their own worlds, I have realized that there is more.
“Blake is speaking to us, right now, because while it’s easy for us to criticize the authorities of religion and government, what authority do we need to fight against?  What system of belief is trying to kill our spirits in this age?  We, the religiously agnostic and politically bitter -- what authority is ruling our lives?  What convention do we need to challenge?  What do we fear?  In Blake’s time, the people feared Hell; in times and cultures of governmental control people feared exile, incarceration and execution:  what do we fear now?  Who holds judgement over our heads?
“Popular culture, my friends -- we fear the judgement of the masses, we fear that we will not be accepted.  Imagine!  In a world of seemingly endless individual freedoms, we have chosen to be stifled by social acceptance.  I challenge you today, just as a small example, to find me a man on this campus, this bastion of liberal arts and open-minded thinking, who has hair halfway down his back.  You can’t.  Or how about a woman with a shaved head; no, you won’t find one of those either and the reason is that we are all afraid of being ostracized for being who we are.
“I promise you that each and every one of us in this classroom has something inside of us that we are hoping and praying nobody finds out about, because if they do we’re convinced that we’d be doomed.  We were born Jewish, we have a child, we had an abortion, we lost our virginity at 12, we drink too much, we have suffered with anorexia, we are queer.  There’s a good one actually:  we’re queer.  You know, Henry Rollins, ex-lead singer of punk band Black Flag and now professional spoken word performance artist, was talking one time about being on tour and an interviewer asked him how he felt abouyt being ‘being outed’ in San Fansisco.  ‘I’ve got not problem with gays,’ says Rollins, ‘but I’m not gay.  If I was, however, there’d be no ‘outing’ me because I would busted out of that fucking closet at 12 years old, yelled ‘hey, I’m fucking gay!’ and made a fire out of the wood to warm my hands over.’
“Blake says that ‘Prisons are built with the Stones of Law, Brothels with the Bricks of Religion’.  Now let’s add to that -- ‘Closets from the Wood of Pop Culture’.  Blake is speaking to us, right here, today, and he is telling us that the system of belief that seeks to weaken and harm the human spirit is the one that is the hardest to see because it is right here before us, pervading everything.  And it is that system which we must wage war against with the artist weapon that is our lives.
“So, the next time someone says to you ‘hey, did you hear that so-and-so came out of the closet?’ you say ‘yeah?  Let’s make a bonfire from it and roast some marshmellows over it.’
“We, the liberal arts students, the thinkers of the world, inherit the legacy of extreme tolerance from the likes of William Blake.  What are you going to do with it?”
I have been reading, studying and teaching William Blake for so long that most of the pages are loose, it is duck taped together at the spine and the margins are crammed full of my notes.  It took that long, that much effort to get here -- and there is no doubt in my mind that my opinion will change again and that, more importantly, this will come about as a result of long conversations with my students, filled with fresh insights, seemingly simple questions, and the power that comes with working together:  a marriage of heaven and hell.

Monday, September 13, 2010

This year, I'm voting for the CBC... seriously.

Word on the street is that politicians are liars, and although that may or may not be true, to a greater or lesser extent depending on which one we're talking about, there's something far more underhanded and destructive at work here. In saying that they 'stand for the people' or that they've 'listened to the constituents', politicians of all colours are creating the image that they know what we want, when in fact all that they've done is ask our opinion on ISSUES THAT THEY'VE DECIDED ARE IMPORTANT. Truly, I'm tired of anyone assuming that they'e got their finger on the pulse of the people when, at best, they were voted for by 45% of the 45% of people who voted. That, it seems to me, gives them a solid 0% chance of actually knowing what is important.

On the other hand, the CBC (radios 1, 2 &3, and all of their numerous podcasts), with the call-ins, blogs, forums, tweets and Facebook conversations seem genuinely interested in what we, as people, not as 'A People', are up to. In addition, they're down with Canada as a place... a place with a history and a diverse and interesting culture... and not just with Canada being an economic entity.

This year I'm voting for the CBC in both the provincial and federal elections because I AM A PART OF THIS PLACE AND NOT JUST AN INCOME EARNER. 

When the time comes, are you just going to check off some person's name who has no interest in what YOU think, or will you take that pencil and write in your own vote, thereby staging the greatest act of a democratic society -- the right to be heard...?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

This week's best of Radio3

This here is The Slew ( -- Kid Koala, Dynomite D and two (count 'em, TWO) members of psychedelic Queens of the Stone Age Led Zeppelin classic metal band Wolfmother... and not just any two members, but the bass player and the drummer!  So picture it:  the pocket of a super heavy band and two (count 'em, TWO) great Canadian DJ's... I can't get enough of it.  Seriously, listen to it... you'll be busy all afternoon...

Ever have this happen to you?  A couple of months ago I was like, "man, I'd love to hear some metal or punk all wrapped up in some heavy DJ music" and as much as I searched Youtube for any iteration thereof, and as much as I bugged the peeps to tell me about something, the closest I got was "well, there's Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit and The Transplants"... oh man, I hate to be so yesterday, but BEEN THERE AND DONE THAT, BOUGHT THE T-SHIRT AND MLLLLLLEHHHHNAAAAH!!!!"

And then, yet again, Radio 3 pulls through for me with this little gem.  So heavy!  So Hip!  So Hop!  Yessir -- not since the Anthrax/ Public Enemy combo have I been so pleased.  Raprock may have had it's moment, but holy holy!  Jump up and say YES for The Slew!  Hell, I dare you not to!