Literary Influence No. 3: The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma

        I suppose it all began with Phil Jackson.  Not once, but twice, his teams  thwarted the Portland Trail Blazers’ championship dreams.  Since the Blazers are my favorite NBA team, my hopes were crushed as well.  It also doesn’t help that I am a fan of the Seattle Seahawks and the Oregon Ducks.  At a certain point, you just accept the fact that your teams will never win championships (in the case of the Ducks, I stipulate during my lifetime or in a sport that I follow).  During my formative years, though, I could almost taste the Blazers’ championship champagne.  As fate would have it, however, there was always one man standing in the way.  That man, of course, was Jackson, otherwise known as the “Zen Master.”

        For Jackson, it wasn’t enough to win six championships with Number 23 and the Chicago Bulls (in the process dashing the Blazers’ title hopes in 1992).  No, Jackson wasn’t finished.  He had five more titles to win with the Los Angeles Lakers.  Along the way, Jackson’s team recovered from a 15 point deficit in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals against who else but the Portland Trail Blazers.  In many ways, neither the team nor I have ever recovered from that epic letdown.

        In the end, I was left to ponder the common denominator: Jackson.  How does a man amass so many championship rings that he can’t even wear them all at one time?  To find the answer to that question, I turned to Jackson’s books.  I found what I was looking for in his book, Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior.  That book helped me to understand Jackson’s application of Eastern philosophy in coordination with Native American spiritual practices resulting in a holistic approach to coaching.  Indeed, there is much to be learned from Jackson’s coaching style.  My journey, of course, didn’t begin and end with the “Zen Master.”  No, it continued and in many ways still continues…

        Eventually that journey led me to Bodhidharma, the father of Zen Buddhism.  I found the book, The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma at the library.  Given my fascination with Jackson and his successful coaching techniques, I was intrigued.  I read the book and afterward was inspired to write the poems “Awareness” and “My Apologies.”  One of my favorite lines from the book was this one: “to attain enlightenment without seeing your nature is impossible.”  I also liked the idea that Buddha wasn’t a person, instead the Buddha is your mind.  According to Bodhidharma: “beyond your mind, there’s no other Buddha.”

        As for me, I’m no Zen Master.  I suppose I’m not a Buddhist, or part of any other ancient or new age religion for that matter.  Neither am I an atheist, or non-religious.  Personally, I’ve never held the belief that you can understand the world through the lenses of a narrow view point.  I’ve always believed that there has to be some common ground where we can all meet.  For me that common ground is sacred (and should be the foundation upon which all religions are laid).   A place where the common thread that links all of humanity resides.  In the end, I guess you might say I’m just me.  A man who is seeking understanding, and writing a book about an existential journey through time.  On such a journey, one cannot afford to choose favorites.  You never know where the truth may lie.

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Literary Influence No. 4: The Prince

        One of the most notorious books of all time, The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli introduced the concept of the end justifying the means for the first time in writing.  As Machiavelli points out repeatedly in the text, though, the concept had been employed many times in the past (and in various ways is still employed to this day).  Most notably, perhaps, in the case of Cesare Borgia whose court Machiavelli spent time at during the fall of 1502 and winter of 1503.  In many ways, the methods and historic fall of Borgia are the central theme of The Prince.  Personally, I found The Prince to be one of the most intriguing historical texts that I have read.  Not because I secretly harbor a desire to employ cunning and duplicity to achieve my ultimate goals, but because I seek to understand those who do.

        Having read The Prince, though, I actually interpret it much differently than traditional historians.  To me, Machiavelli lays out and identifies the way in which princes (royalty) must behave to keep their empires.  Does he condone this behavior, though?  Well, that all depends on how you read and interpret the text.  I believe Machiavelli gives away his beliefs by dedicating the text to Lorenzo de’ Medici (clearly sarcastic), and the fact that in the beginning he explains that he will not discuss republics, but in fact does discuss republics in many places (slight of hand).

        When it comes to the dedication, why does Machiavelli dedicate it to Lorenzo de’ Medici?  The simple answer is that The Prince was a gift to Lorenzo.  The more complex answer is that Machiavelli desired nothing more than the reinstatement of the Florentine Republic with himself resuming a role in it.  That being his motivation, I believe that Machiavelli subtly argues for the republican form of government by pointing out the flaws of princely states, perhaps, hoping de’ Medici would see and understand this argument (of course, he didn’t and neither have many others).  It seems to me that Machiavelli gives this away in the end when he praises the characteristics of the people, in spite of historical references to the contrary.  Machiavelli does warn the people, though, with this line: “The mob is always impressed by appearances and results, and the mob is the world.”  Definitely a means for princes to gain power, and something we need to remain wary of today.  There are numerous other ways that Machiavelli subtly chastises princes, but for today the previous reasons are sufficient.  In a future work, I’ll explain more thoroughly.  For now, take my word that Machiavelli identified the characteristics of psychopathic princes so that the people being aware of their tricks might live in free republics in the future (Unfortunately, he also gave would be tyrants a game plan to build power; darn unintended consequences).

        Like Machiavelli, I don’t want to be ruled over by a pious prince who derives his power from appearances and results that are not in the best interest of the people.  My response to Machiavellianism, an unfair term that I believe should be called princeism instead, comes in the form of my poem: “The Lost Garden.”  Indeed so much has been lost over the years; the future, however, is still unknown.  For now, we make take solace in the fact that we will never be royals, and there is now a great song to go along with that line.

Literary Influence No. 5: The Old Ways

        I like books that teach me something, which is why I loved The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot by Robert Macfarlane.  This book taught me that walking can be so much more than just moving from one place to another.  The Old Ways helped me to understand the concept of walking as a means of thinking.  As it turns out, the idea isn’t new.  As Mcfarlane explains throughout the book, it’s an idea that has been with us for a very long time: we’ve only forgotten it.  Still, though, paths from the “Forgotten Realm” crisscross our landscapes, and our minds.

        While reading the book, it was hard not to picture myself hiking along old paths, or sailing along old water routes with Mcfarlane.  Exploring these places in my imagination via Macfarlane’s words, granted me a reprieve from the life of a modern commuter.  There’s definitely something freeing about traveling on foot that is hard to experience in planes, trains, and automobiles.

        When it comes to my writing, I always like to include an element of the past.  As I alluded to in my poem “The Journey Begins…”, without the past we have no map to guide us on our journey.  Indeed the past is an interesting place to explore.  That is, if you can reach it (without pesky perception getting in the way).  My current project doesn’t delve as deeply into the past as my next will.  For now, though, the recent past is all that matters.  There’s still plenty of time to explore the worlds of long, long ago….

Film Influence No. 1: Donnie Darko

        What’s real, and what’s imagined?  And does the answer to that question even really matter if, in the end, we all die alone.  Welcome to the world of Donnie Darko.  It’s a “Mad World” indeed.  In the film, Donnie Darko, who is the title character, is either a paranoid schizophrenic who sees the future and changes it for the better, or he’s just a boy who dies alone in a freak accident.  Personally, I’m a firm believer that the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle.  Of course when it comes to fictional stories, the truth may lie anywhere.  I suppose that is why I like films like Donnie Darko so much.  Unlike our boundary-filled world, in a fictional universe one can explore the depths of the Universe without limits.

        Lately, I’ve found myself thinking about String Theory, Quantum Mechanics, and the Big Bang, itself, quite often.  The more I learn, the more I understand that there is so much that humanity just doesn’t know.  As I mentioned in a previous post, currently scientists know and understand about 4% of how the Universe works.  Put another way, we do not understand how 96% of the Universe around us works.  As a teacher, that means the Universe gets an A and we have a F and need to boost our understanding by 56% just to get a D.  Of course, for us just getting to 5% would be an improvement.

        In the film, Darko says: “I can do anything I want, and so can you.”  While discussing the short story “The Destructors” in his English class, Darko also says: “They just want to see what happens when they tear the world apart.  They want to change things.”  With these lines, it becomes clear that Darko doesn’t believe in limitations.  Specifically, he doesn’t believe that we are all trapped in the present.  Instead, he sees time as an illusion that can be manipulated by the mind.  Given the major theme of my poetry collection, it should come as no surprise that I find Darko’s beliefs to be fascinating.  Perhaps, fascinating enough to explore in another project….

        Before writing about my film influences, I hadn’t realized that two films on my list were produced by Newmarket Films.  Of course, I also didn’t realize that The Rum Diary was produced by Johnny Depp’s production company Infinitum Nihil (getting ahead of myself I suppose, literary influences don’t begin until next week).  It’s amazing what you’ll find when you pay attention to the details.  You might be surprised where you’ll find interesting clues about the future.  For now, though, go ahead and watch the trailer for Donnie Darko.

Film Influence No. 2: The Men Who Stare at Goats

        You’ve got to love a film that starts with the line: “More of this is true than you would believe.”  Of course, when it comes to a military that this year alone out spent its nearest rival (China) by more than half a trillion dollars, well nothing’s really that unbelievable.  With that kind of money, I’m sure there isn’t much that the U.S. military hasn’t explored at one point or another.  Plus, I just love the idea of the Army trying to create Jedi warriors.  It doesn’t hurt either that the film has an all star cast including: George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, and Ewan McGregor.

        One of my favorite exchanges in the film comes between General Brown and Brigadier General Dean Hopgood.  During the exchange, Hopgood explains that the Russians started doing psychic research based on the belief that America was already doing psychic research, which at the time was false but based on the Russians belief that is was true, subsequently the U.S. couldn’t afford to let the Russians lead the field in the paranormal.  The logic behind that exchange seems so absurd that I probably wouldn’t believe it, except that it has to do with military intelligence.  When it comes to a military that spends nearly 700 billion dollars annually, what’s not to believe.  By contrast, the U.S. Department of Education is due to receive about 72 billion dollars this year.  That’s about 90% less than the Department of Defense.

        When it comes down to it, though, what I like most about this film is the path that it lead me down.  After watching the film, I wanted to know more.  That thirst lead me to read the book by Jon Ronson of the same name (I’ve always been a fan of gonzo journalists).  Afterward, I read another Ronson book Them: Adventures with Extremists.  Eventually, I even put Boston’s song “More Than a Feeling” on my iPod.  For some reason I just couldn’t get it out of my head, but I suppose you already knew that.

        In the end, the path, or unbroken chain as I like to refer to it, that I’m on began long before I watched The Men Who Stare at Goats.  That being said, the film provided for an entertaining and interesting detour along the way.  Just another link in the chain.  Like Kanishka, and others, I am not afraid to veer from time to time.  I suppose it’s time to close things down for today.  In the meantime, I leave you with the trailer for The Men Who Stare at Goats, and a portion of the final monologue:

“And that was it.  That was the only bit of my story that ran anywhere.  And it was a joke.  And if I ever needed proof of how the Dark Side have taken the beautiful dream of what a nation could be and had twisted it, destroyed it.  Well, that was it.  But I won’t stop.  I won’t give up.  Because when I look at what is happening in the world, I know that now, more than ever, we need to be all that we can be.  Now, more than ever, we need the Jedi.”