Buddhism and life

Punching Down

As times change society changes with it. As standards evolve we as a group must learn to evolve with it. But society has a memory. We, as a people, have a collective standard still preserved in our minds, and while we can change with the changes, there still lingers the ghost of our old ways. And these ghosts are powerfully hard to exorcise. When they do finally let go it is slowly, almost resentfully, and even so these traces seem to leave traces themselves. It takes a long time to become truly free of old ways of thinking and behaving in a culture.

Recently the social media world has been in a tizzy because a plus sized model was signed to a major modeling contract. She was not the first “plus sized” model to do so, but she might be the biggest physically in current memory. “News” like this normally slides onto and off my notice instantly, it makes no difference to me who or what is a model, but the responses to this did catch my attention because it illustrated something ive been thinking about for some time.

Some folks were naturally jubilant that this person was being accorded the respect that other, slimmer, models enjoy. These people saw this as a milestone in ending our societies undeniable fear and/or loathing of overweight people. It was a sign, they said, that being proud of yourself is a right regardless of where you fall in the body size scale that fashion institutions attempt to impose on us. Others, predictably enough were not happy, lets call them the “antis” for short, and it was these folks and their response that I found particularly telling.

The Antis didnt post things as blatant as, “shes so gross” or ” that is disgusting”. Instead there was a surprising amount of “concern”. The posts against this model usually looked something like “Good for her, but Im afraid of what message this obese person being a model sends to kids” or “is this the type of health image we should be rewarding?” More versions of the same thing popped up, with the gist being, “im not judging, but wont rewarding this person with visibility teach people that being obese is a good thing?” Now, of course, if you have lived in the western world for any length of time it is patently obvious that these arguments are bullshit. For one thing we live in a culture that punishes the overweight at every turn, so there is no way that one single model signing a contract will suddenly make millions of girls go on a cheese fry binge. Second, this model is one person not a trend, to have so strong a reaction to one single exception to the “norm” while the health of hundreds of clearly undernourished models is unspoken belies the idea that this issue was of concern for the health of this (or any) model.

The truth is, as far as I can tell, is that lots of people read a sensational news story about a plus size woman and really, really wanted to point and yell “ewwwwwwww she’s sooooo FAT!” Its the same instinct that makes the “mainstream” voice concern over how my tattoos will look when im 60, or the same urge that makes “normal” people worry where vegetarians will “get your protein from!?” Disturbingly, It is also the same reason that “urban” has become a cover word for black person.

Did these people suddenly become nutritionists? Sociologists? anthropologists? Sadly, not. They are racists, bigots, and whatever you call people who hate tattoos (squares?) and they have been denied their ability to voice their true opinions. What is frustrating for them is that the denial came not from a government edict, it came from the same society they live in! These days we live in a world where it is no longer socially acceptible to gawk at or make fun of fat people, where being anti-tattoo marks you as “uncool”, where using racial slurs to routinely refer to black people marks you as an ignorant racist instead of a middle-of-the-road American. But, and this is important to remember , these are relatively recent changes! Less than 50 years ago things like Freakshows, blackface, and anti miscegenation statutes (laws forbidding black/white dating and marriage) existed, even less than 10 years ago gays were routinely portrayed in all media as silly perverts. The wave of sentiment against judging and calling out “minorities” for special abuse is still new and is only slowly becoming the norm.

Until this new morality has thoroughly soaked into the social conscience, the ghost of a time when fat people were “funny” and a fair target for public condemnation will linger. Those who still want to feel superior have had to find sneakier ways to mock and compare themselves to those who were formerly a fair target. Some of these folks rail against “political correctness” even when all they are really looking for is a way to avoid changing with the rest of a society that is growing up around them. For others the new way of mocking fat people is this bullshit concern for the plus sized models health. These folks don’t care about the health of this person, they simply want to point out that they themselves are not as fat! That they are somehow morally superior to someone they still characterize as lazy, gluttonous, and stupid regardless of the real facts about their chosen targets character.

As long as someone feels so compelled to elevate themselves by shitting on another, especially shitting on another who belongs to an already denigrated group I have to wonder how small this “anti” feels inside! Heaping blame and/or abuse on someone considered to be ’lesser than’ (whether socially or economically) has come to be known as “punching down”. It is result of someone so insecure that the only group/person they feel comfortable trying to belittle is a victim they perceive as being unable to “hit back” (due to their inferior position in society). As our culture grows and matures, this kind of thing becomes frowned upon and the only way these insecure cowards can punch downward is with false concern and pity.

So the next time you detect that whiff of faux concern or the not-so-well camouflaged code word for a minority, might I suggest that instead of trying to argue against the “antis” specious “points” that you instead just point out the underlying real reason for all this sudden “concern”. If there’s one thing the insecure abuser hates its for their real motives to be revealed as the sad ghost of a shittier time that they miss so much! When these folks racism/bias/bullshit is clearly (but compassionately) revealed we can all help to exorcise those rotten old ghosts a little quicker.

Categories: Buddhism and life, random dumbness | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Picking and Choosing

I like this quote a lot.

“Nonviolence does not mean non-action. 
Nonviolence means we act with love and compassion.
The moment we stop acting, we undermine the principle of nonviolence.”
-Thich Nhat Hanh

To act in the real world often means holding (and acting out of) seemingly contradictory views. To be non-violent and still take up effective action sounds at first glance like a clear contradiction, but as we have seen over and over, it is actually the MOST effective in the majority of cases. We are taught from the earliest ages to see the world as an either/or environment, and yet it only takes the most cursory look around to see how false this premise really is!

The world around you is not either in winter OR spring, the reality is that it goes slowly from one into the other. In fact, the change of seasons is so gradual that we spend as much time in the “transitional” seasons as we do in the “official” seasons. To use another example, how do we know when “childhood” ends and “adulthood” begins? Or how about why a sad movie can make us cry and yet still feel good at the same time? How can we both be embarrassed by and still enjoy the funny biting comment a friend makes about us at our expense?

The reason is that there really is no hard division between most things in the world and that our existence means literally balancing seemingly opposing thoughts, observations, and feelings all the time. We use our minds to separate the world into discrete unite to make it easier to understand, but unfortunately we are not taught that this splitting into boxes of reality is just a technique for simplicity, not true reality. Even so, and despite the fact that we are taught dichotomy from our earliest age, we handle these contradictions easily and intuitively. The problem comes when we are asked, or ask ourselves to consciously pick a side. There is an old zen saying that goes “Comparison is the lowest form of thought”. We are told and believe that one has to pick a side, or to prefer a team, to make a mental heirarchy of value. In short, we believe we have to make an either/or decision. We cant simply enjoy our cookie, we must compare it to the other cookies we have eaten, even if such a “decision” makes no difference at all! To the extent that we believe that these choices are based in “reality” or can somehow apply at all times and in all situations we suffer and cause suffering.

Of course we have to live in this world, we cant pretend that we dont have preferences or that or choices dont matter at all. They do. No sane person would tell you that you shuld feel as enthusiatic about eating mud as you would be about eating chocolate, we prefer comfort over pain, we rank kindness as better than cruelty, and rightly so, but the trick is to do this without becoming blind to the provisional nature of this conditioned reality we all live in! We may prefer comfort over pain, but if we always opted for the former over the ladder no one would get tattoos, or work out, or eat a healthy salad instead of a fast food burger! Even in this example we realize that the contradiction disappears when you simply act out of seeing reality. Sure being comfy is great but not at the cost of harming ourselves or others!

To return to the Quote which began this article, if the Ghandis, Mandelas, and Dr. Kings of the world had resorted to violence then those oppressing them would have had the (false) moral excuse of “protecting” the society to use violence against them. If the Ghandis, Mandelas, and Dr.Kings had sat passively by and waitied for change to happen then perhaps India would still be an oppressed British colony, South Africa still segregated, and Blacks denied the “white only” sections in the American South. These wise leaders took action, they confronted injustice head on, but they did so in the spirit of the old saying “when fighting devils, beware not to become a devil yourself”. The nonviolent protests changed the game, it made the inequality so manifest and so clear that not even the most ardent defender of the status quo could say a word against them. Once the truth was presented, once the violence of their respective systems was revealed it was only a matter of time until those oppressive organizations fell. To sick dogs and peaceful protesters, to bludgeon a peaceful march did more to destroy corrupt regimes than a molotov-cocktail hurling riot could have.

The state of balance won out over the profoundly imbalanced. It always does, eventually. The trick within our personal lives is to live with that balance. This first requires a rigorous honesty, and I have found no better method of attaining this compassionate self-analysis than meditation. It really is a bullshit stripper! If you want to live like all your thoughts are true and to feel like your opinions and ideals are correct and impervious to being false then dont start meditating! I dont care what your upbringing or beliefs are or how strongly you hold them, after a few months of daily sitting you will be questioning some or all of them. The interesting thing is that rather than make you feel insecure or without moral anchor you actually feel free to have real compassion, real morality! It turns out that be internalizing all these rules and codes, and patterns we actually allow ourselves to behave like assholes! “Its not my fault” we say to ourselves, “this is just how the world works”. But once you begin taking responsibility and stop taking a kneejerk side in every situation your real, and I believe, inherent compassion allows you to act out of accord with what is most effective. This feels amazing! It was equally amazing to watch things I had fervently “believed” and patterns I had repeated until I truly believed they were “me” drop away one by one to be replaced by the ability to truly react appropriately to each thing as it cames up instead of trying to use my old programming and comparing mind. I am far from perfect at it, (after all we all have decades of bullshit conditioning), but even the small amount of it that has fallen away has made an amazing change possible!

The fact is that you are not a statue or a corpse, you are an ever changing whirlwind of contradiction and so is the world, by allowing yourself the natural ability to be what you really are you will be in accord with the world! As the Walt Whitman once brilliantly pointed out in a poem:

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes”

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A daily dose of emptiness

A lot of the older teachings compare the teachings of Buddhism to medicine. Its an apt analogy for many reasons, if suffering is the sickness then the medicine would, logically, alleviate suffereing. The comparison works on another level as well, something that I only recently became aware of. Like medicine, Zazen and buddhism in general, seem to only be measurable in their results and not in the actual actions themselves. What I mean is that when you have a headache and take an aspirin the action of taking the pill does not bring instant relief (despite what the ads would have you believe), popping that pill does nothing for your headache at the instant you swallow it. Rather the medicine must be dissolved in your body and then travel throughout your bloodstream until it reaches the specific part you are trying to affect. After enough time has passed for all this to occur then you begin to feel the effects of the aspirin, you feel relief from your headache once the medicine has had time to be processed through you, not the second that you swallowed it.

I feel like it is safe to say that anyone doing Zazen (meditation) for more than a few months will develop doubts about it. After all, we are told over and over again that there is no goal to our sitting! Without a goal our normal, conditioned minds think “why the fuck am I bothering to sit here with my knees aching and my brain doing somersaults if there is no goal!?” Ive done it many, many times myself. At first I outwardly agreed with the “no goals” message while secretly hoping for some kind of pay-off like peace, or enlightenment, perhaps an end to my struggles or even just wishing for cessation of my desire for a goal! After awhile even those goals will go away and this then is when the “dark night” of the Buddhist soul begins, because once you stop secretly having goals the mind says “why bother?” and without that secret goal I think a lot of folks quit sitting all together, I quit a few times myself and thats when a funny thing happens…

See, the whole time you have been sitting “wrong” it has still been working on you. Like medicine you dont “feel” the effect at the moment of ingestion, the effects are only noticeable in how they affect the “symptoms”. If you have been sitting regularly and then skip a few days you will notice that a lot of old conditioning comes back, for myself that manifests as feeling very edgy and irritable, I begin thinking of scenarios and old grudges where I felt humiliated or attacked. The first time I quit meditation I was shocked at how quickly I turned into the same dissatisfied, frightened, angry person I had spent my whole life being. I was argumentative, unable to compromise or move passed a perceived slight, I just felt at odds with the world instead of in accord with it. Once I got my dumb ass back on the cushion all those negative habits and thought traps quickly disappeared. It still happens, I suppose I am “cursed” to meditate for the rest of my days but if all it takes to get my shit together is 10 or 20 minutes of meditation a day then I’m glad to do it.

The funny thing is that when I’m actually meditating, as in when I’m sitting on a cushion (called a zafu), I don’t feel any of this change occurring. It’s usually boring, often distracting as my monkey mind send one thought after another that I dutifully let go of and return to my breath. These days the knees don’t hurt anymore and I don’t find myself lost in a daydream for 8 of the 15 minutes I’m sitting for, but I also am not feeling more “peaceful, enlightened, or calm”, I just feel like I’m sitting and not much is going on. Now, however, I know that something is happening though I can’t feel it, the medicine of meditation is working on some level I can’t (or even care to) fathom. Amazingly, the years of doing “nothing” have produced something wonderful, a life I could never have imagined. I have learned to trust that when I take the pill by actually sitting daily that the suffering is alleviated, it’s not quick or “exciting” but it does work astoundingly well.

Even if I can’t feel it.

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Thanksgiving is cancelled, were having hotdogs*

When Cara was pregnant somebody said “having a baby will make you think about your parents”. I dont recall who that was, but it was so spot on and surprising to me (since Im a know it all I cant allow anyone to think that they could tell me something I dont already know), but I didnt know that. I know it now and Ill be sure to tell someone else as if I made it up myself at some point. Cara being pregnant did make me think a lot about my parents.

When you are preparing to raise another human being, your thoughts naturally go to that place where you have the list. I dont know if you have the list, but I and every person i have ever mentioned it to does, and it is a catalog of your upbringing, a collection of good and bad things you believe your parents did in raising you. Let me start right off by saying that the list is mostly bullshit, I mean if your dad hit you with a tire iron or your mom gave you away to a psycho psychologist to raise then you probably have a legitimate beef, but for the most part its a selfish retelling of history to explain why its not my fault that I’m not happy all the time. It makes sense that the list is full of little things our folks didn’t do right because the list was created by us starting in our teenage years and teenagers are selfish assholes. We tell the story long enough to forget that we created it when we were young, dumb, and full of. . .er. . . hormones, we were also, as teenagers must be as they discover their place in the world, self-centered sociopaths who saw our parents as nothing more than vehicles to make US happy.

So as Cara grew bigger and bigger with the baby I began to think about my folks and I realized that not only was my own list mostly bullshit, but that even the few things I did still have energy about were things that had passed decades ago and that no matter how hard I tried I was never going to be able to go back and change. Whatever hole I still felt in my psyche was never going to be filled in a way that would satisfy me because I am only alive and active right now and no amount of self-pity, anger, or resentment could change that. I also realized that memory is a pretty treacherous thing and our egos like to tell stories that excuse us from any responsibility for our life. We don’t just do it with our parents either, I was unhappily married for 14 years and spent most of that time believing that if only my Ex would change into the person I expected her to be then I could be happy. In hindsight it was ridiculous and unfair to both her and me, but in a strange way it was easier to be miserable for years than to take responsibility for my life.

I suppose you could say that I “forgave” my parents by the time Luna was born, but really they hadn’t done anything to require forgiveness. They did the best they could with no family around and 6(!) kids to raise, I think they did a pretty good job too, but I might be biased. . . . I was able to take all the things I liked about my childhood and determined to bring those to Luna.

My mom was very excited to have granddaughter number 3 the way that only someone who had raised 5 boys (holy shit) can be. She doted on Luna like she did all her grandkids.

She passed away this January in her sleep, she had just begun to deal with pancreatic cancer, diabetes, and some blood clot issues, so while it was a tremendous surprise I had already been coming to terms with her possible mortality for months already. In fact I have been amazed at how much more upset I was when we first found out about her tumor and the long road she would have been starting of chemo/radiation thann I was when she passed away. In a way I think I was more sad and upset for the thought of her dealing with all that fighting cancer entails than about the news that she quietly died in her own bed surrounded by her ridiculous bichon doggies. Frankly if the choice is to go the way my mom did, as early as it was, or to be slowly dehumanized and disassembled in a hospital then Im choosing the way my mom went.

If anything, the hardest thing for me has been not having the grieving I expected to. I really thought I would be a mess, in fact I had some guilt over the lack of devastation I felt. I was and am sad and have been extra spikey and short fused lately, but I honestly expected to be more destroyed by what is one of the most feared things we ca go through. I suppose meditating, a loving partner, and having a toddler who requires non-stop love and attention make that less possible.

One thing that my moms death has brought home is that the List needs to go. It always did, but even that irrational childish part of me which created it in the first place knows that with her passing that there is no one out there to “fix it for me”, if I want to be happy and responsible for my own feelings then its up to me to live that life right now. It always was, but now I realize it.

I miss my mom a lot, I grieve for the fact that Luna wont remember much of her, wont get to experience my moms amazing ability to act like the crabbiest person i the world in a such a way that no one ever believed it. She was hilarious, she was sweet, she was fierce and If Im very lucky and
skilled maybe I can pass a little of her magic onto my daughter, Barb would have liked that.

*mom was famous for getting grumpy at holiday time and threatened to cancel the turkey every year. Even years after my sister took over the cooking, mom would still “cancel” thanksgiving, we would laugh and she would (unsuccesfully) suppress a smile.

Categories: Buddhism and life | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Gift Horses and their mouths

An old zen story goes like this:

“There was once a man who loved his horse more than anything on earth (not that kind of love you sickos), it was some kind of thoroughbred and he loved this thing to the exclusion of everything else. Every day he would comb its mane with a golden comb, he hand-picked only the tenderest grass and vegetables for the horse to eat, he layed silk blankets over the floor of the stall so the horse wouldn’t hurt its hooves. He was so obsessive that he would catch its urine and poop in a giant ceramic seashell and take it away before the horse would have to smell it. Get it? He really, really loved his horse.

One day he was cleaning the horses stall for the 10th time that day when a big ol horsefly landed on the horses butt. The man went to slap the fly off of his beloved steed which startled the horse. The surprised horse did what surprised horses do, it kicked out with its hind leg hitting the man in the forehead killing him instantly. “

the point of the story is that just because you love something (or do something nice for it) doesn’t mean that the object of your gifts can understand that love. The man doted on the horse, but the horse was just an animal and when startled, it did what animals do.

So, I got an email today about an article I wrote years ago. To understand why the email was so misguided you have to understand a little about the world of tattooing. It is an extremely hermetic world, almost everyone in it is secretive and protective of tattooing. Sometimes (as the letter writer asserts) this is because some folks are afraid of too much competition, but far more often it’s because we have all seen terrible work put out by untalented hacks and we try to protect tattooing as much as possible by freezing out scratchers.

I appreciate the protectiveness, I do the same thing, but I also think that we can protect tattooing by showing folks the smart and effective way to go about things. I try , in this blog and my life, to show people the correct way of going about being an aspiring tattooer without deluding people into thinking that they could a)learn from this or any other internet source how to tattoo and b) helping them to see that just buying tattoo equipment and fucking people up will never result in them being a competent tattooer. In other words: I’m not trying to train all the people who want to be tattooers, but I am trying to help them to find the correct, effective, and ultimately safest way for them to do the work themselves of becoming a professional tattooer.

This isn’t the first grumpy email I have gotten about that article, but it neatly contains almost all the complaints that people have about my article (that they get for free on the internet. . .. ) so i see it as an opportunity to address them all at once. Here it is in its entirety except I have omitted this persons name and facebook page info.

“First off. I have NO aspirations of tattooing I do not the artistic talent to do it. that is probably why i love visual art soo much
Second. I must point out the Hypocritical aspects of this
I could go point by point but I will just hit on a few

“DO get into tattooing through an apprenticeship.” but if you ask me the answer is NO
This is the answer you hear 98% of the time when you talk to or read posts form tattoo artists.
I partly Blame good tattoo artists for there being so many Bad Tattoo artists. They will totally talk shit about anyone and shoot them doing for not being an apprentice then refuse to apprentice anyone. The Hypocrisy is Thick. Dont goto tattoo schools they are shit. Dont figure it out yourself it doesnt work that way. NO I will not apprentice you.
Is It because they dont want to create more competition? maybe. but Saying you dont have enough time in an industry thats already over saturated it bullshit! If you dont have alot of time getting an apprentice would be great for you. I dont have enough time for SOMEONE ELSE to make my needles. Clean my station and set it up and Clean all of my instruments. Go Bullshit someone else and tell the truth………I dont wanna teach you so you can take away my work.”

So lets address this point by point starting with the fact that this person is angry with my article on how to properly get an apprenticeship but has no aspirations of being a tattooer. There’s a lot of anger in this email considering he doesn’t actually want to be a tattooer. I get that, I also like to speak up for the underdog. Unfortunately, like a lot of folks, the author is using all their sympathy and compassion for the poor aspiring tattooer, but when I wrote that article I was looking out for the wannabe tattooer AND their potential clients. I’m not being mean to potential apprentices, rather I am looking out for both them and the poor souls who might end up getting bad work and hepatitis from them if the fail to learn properly. Also keep in mind that as far as I know I am the only person with 16 years of experience telling people who want to be tattooers anything at all, the letters author doesn’t seem to see this as the gift i intended the article to be because he has the idea that not taking any and all comers as apprentices is somehow unfair.

Second, I’m not sure if this person understands that the article I wrote is an instruction manual for how to get an apprenticeship, I promise you that if I was greedy i could have packaged the article as an “instructional”  CD, and I would make a MINT, especially if i lied and said that it would make getting an apprenticeship easy. I didn’t want to profit from people’s aspirations, i wanted to help them to go into whatever shop they choose and at least have the basic tools to not get a door slammed in their faces. Also, the letters author doesn’t seem to understand what an apprenticeship is, again, I dont blame him. We live in a world where everything is convenient and everything can be had for the right price. He doesn’t seem to understand that an apprenticeship is a hold over from an earlier world. A world where one craftsperson takes you under their wing and teaches you their whole life, guards you from bad habits, shows you a little at a time as you master each part guiding you onto the next level while keeping you from fucking up your clients (I realize that’s pretty idealistic, but for the most parts that’s what it is). It’s the tattooer saying “OK im going to do my already stressful job AND take on you at the same time”. The letter writer also can’t seem to come to terms with the reality that sometimes wanting something really bad isn’t enough. Its sad and it sucks but some deserving folks will never get a shot and some craptastic ones will, all we can do as tattooers is try to keep our little corner of the world fair, but it never ends up being very fair. As Dogen said “Flowers, though beloved die while weeds, though despised, flourish”, sometimes the world isn’t nice or fair, but compared to many folks in this world who can’t get any education, safe food, or a nights sleep without hearing gunfire, some kid not getting an apprenticeship is a pretty mild shit end of the stick for life to hand you.

Lastly, the competition thing. Man, he really things he’s got the secret right there of why I’m being so “mean”. Obviously, in his mind, if I wasn’t afraid of competition I would apprentice every kid with a dream and a made in china tat-gun, right? Well,  it might surprise people to learn that I have a clientele already, and a waiting list of very nice, patient people, and 6 months of a wait to get tattooed by me. My hands and back are wrecked at the end of a week and when someone cancels at the last moment I’m secretly happy sometimes for the break. I’m good on business. I’m lucky, blessed, and try like a motherfucker to make my customers happy, but I am perfectly happy with the level of business I have. Besides, not to be a dick, but some tattooer with a year under their belt isn’t really going to take my business away. In fact when a new tattooer (a professional one) talks to me I’m more than happy to share whatever I can with them, we trade critiques (yes trade, I need critiques as often as I can get them) talk tech, and wherever I can I try to help. So im afraid that , for me at least, the whole competition thing isn’t a motivation at all.  Ironically, anyone who would be worth getting apprenticed by would be good and busy enough that the competition thing wouldn’t bother them either. Id also like to point out that almost no one makes (or has an apprentice) make their needles anymore, I did it for 9 years and since the advent of cheap (Chinese) premade needles I wouldn’t ask anyone to do that shit, and  by the way,I pay “someone to clean up my shit” and he got his job by promising to never want to learn to tattoo.

I guess the point of this post is to assure you folks who are angry with me for offering the “How to get an apprenticeship” post that I appreciate that you want this whole tattoo career thing to be easy and accessible for folks. I get it, but the fact is that there is a limited supply to feed the massive demand, my article was an attempt to give the promising folks (who have the talent and drive) the tools to approach an apprenticeship safely and with some chance of getting in. If you misunderstood it as a way to keep people out I humbly suggest you go ask some tough guy tattooer how to get an apprenticeship and see if their answer is nicer or more helpful than mine.

Categories: Buddhism and life, Tattoo stuff | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

the New Multi-post 3000! many subjects handled half-assedly in a hurry. . . ,.

1) The book reading/signing with Brad Warner was awesome! Not only did we fill the place to capacity (30 or so by my reckoning) but Kevin Sousa treated Brad, Cara, and I to dinner at his  Salt of The Earth restaurant! It was really fun and I was happy to host one of the more important authors in my life. Sometimes we get to meet our “heroes” and even more rarely they are sometimes as cool as wed like to think they are.

jsn n bradSpeaking of Zen. . . .


2) It’s a given in the Zen world that every person who gets “involved” in zen comes into the room with the “wrong” motivation. We want to be peaceful, to have less stress, to love more, better, or with more honesty. We want to improve ourselves, we want “enlightenment” or wisdom, at the very least we want to be something other than what we walked into the room as. One of the wonderful things about zen is that even if you start with the completely wrongheaded idea, doing it long enough and regularly enough tends to “work” anyway! One of the funny things is that we come to Zen looking to fix a particular problem or set of problems and eventually we learn that not only will we not get the solutions we are looking for, but that we aren’t even asking the right questions!

In my younger, poorer years I neglected going to see a dentist for a long time. I had good reasons for this, I was broke,  dentists are scary, and my teeth seemed fine to me. One day I noticed a spot on a tooth that I couldn’t seem to brush away, “oh great, ” I thought ” A cavity so bad that it’s on the front of my tooth!” So I went to the local college school of dentistry which offered extremely reasonable rates since you get worked on by recent graduates doing a sort of residency. After taking x-rays and examining I asked what the bad news about the spot was and the hygienist said “oh that’s just plaque” and popped it right off with a pick, on the other hand the x-rays had revealed severe bone loss and a need for immediate surgery and aggressive cleaning if any of my teeth were to be saved from falling out! In other words what i went in with seemed like a huge problem for me until the dentist showed me that it was nothing and that much more sever, undetected issue was at hand.

Same with Zen.

I came into zen looking for peace of mind, a way to make the whole world not scary and to somehow take away all the bad parts of my life while leaving the rest of it basically untouched. Well, just like my dissolving jaw line, it turned out that all the stuff which was out of sight, undetected, was causing far more harm than all the surface stuff i thought was the real problem. I don’t care how smart, wise, or perceptive you are, until you sit down and stay very quiet with your own thoughts for a little while you really can’t see what is causing the suffering in your life. It goes way way back and our minds have gotten so used to shouting it down and covering it up with superficial problems that we not only don’t know whats really going on down there, we don’t want to know!

Why am I talking about this now? Well for one thing, even with 10 years of meditating under my belt new things continue to be revealed as I sit zazen. The other day I was sitting, my monkey mind just beginning to settle down after about 10 minutes when something, a thought or realization i guess, popped in and I realized “I do a lot of things to be validated by other people!” It’s almost as if I’m always performing for an audience in the hope that someone (apparently anyone) will recognize it and pat me on the head saying “you are very good!” I recognize that lots (maybe all) people do this to some degree I realized how strongly it affected my sense of self! As soon as I had this sort of light-bulb moment I also realized that it was harming me, getting in the way of being a genuine person and easing suffering, I can now begin the work of undoing the habit.

Once again, I didn’t come to Zazen with the knowledge that what was causing my suffering was the set of habits and conditioning that had begun even before i was old enough to talk, but sit long enough and they come up. Sit even longer and slowly, inevitably, they go away.


3) Trayvon Martin.

I try to keep this blog as inoffensive as possible, however occasionally something happens (like the Sandy Hook School shooting) and I feel like maybe I have something to say. I wont address the murder and trial of Trayvon, and I think anyone who doesn’t have their head up their ass will agree that it is a fucking shame when a young person loses their life for whatever reason. Rather Id like to address the ridiculous  notion that somehow this case was not about race, and the even bigger fable that race is no longer a factor in this country. The right-wing pundit corral has even claimed that to mention race in this event is the real racism.

It is, of course, a load of shit. I have my own opinions on the Trayvon Martin case, but I think aside from this specific case the notion that we in the US are somehow “Post-racial” or that racism is a thing of the past is ridiculous. Anytime you have a society with a past like Americas you are going to have long-term fallout, repercussions, and ripples by which events of the past still affect the present. When a race has been systematically suppressed and given second best (or third or worse) opportunity for education and advancement then that group is going to be saddled with that legacy for a long, long time. The idea that just because black people are now granted equality (or at least lip-service is paid to their equality) can’t erase the result of generations of second class citizenship anymore than we can expect the oceans to repopulate overnight just because we stop overfishing today. Time, whether we like it or not, is required to right our historical wrongs as a nation. No amount of self-righteous “I never owned a slave, don’t blame me” can change the fact that generation after generation of black American has been raised with one boot on their shoulder holding them down. Both in historically overt ways (Jim Crow laws) and psychologically subtle ways (equating black people with “inherent” criminality) have created a chasm between black people and the rest of American society and no amount of right-wing self-denial can bridge it.

The problem is, most of the racist people in this country don’t even know that they are racist. By accepting the “common wisdom” that “we” are not racist, we deny the reality that is all around us.

We are born into a society with its own history, behavioral cues, and a class/caste system in place that we are indoctrinated with birth, like it or not, we are fed a series of non factual cues and stereotypes (about everything, not just people) that we generally swallow so early and is reinforced by our parents, teachers, media, and peers so constantly that we seldom question them. Sometimes when forced to deal with the reality of this unrealistic conditioning we stop, look around and get a tiny glimpse of reality and modify our worldview. Far more often, unfortunately, we circle the wagons and declare our dedication to the “party line”. As reality seeps further and further into our world, as I believe it always does, that facade of bullshit gets more and more brittle. its defenders more strident, and eventually, finally, the truth bursts forth like flood-waters and the new “reality” asserts itself. What a shame that it has to take so long and be fought against by so many who would rather cling to a clearly mistaken idea than to be uncomfortable for the short time it takes to become acquainted with reality.

Whether you or I  like the idea or not, the Trayvon Martin case was also about race. I see  it is an opportunity to examine my own biases and behaviors, it has caused me to think deeper than I normally do day-to-day about my own acceptance of the conditioning that this society has trained into me since I was a child. When something terrible happens, sometimes the best thing we can do is to take that shock, sadness/anger, and outrage and use it to look at our own world rather than turning the blame outward, its much harder to do, but in the end it changes the world for the better.

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Black Cat hosts Brad Warner!

We are pleased to announce that Zen teacher and author Brad Warner will be at Black Cat tattoos on June 21st. The author of Hardcore Zen, Sit Down and Shut Up!, Zen Wrapped in Karma, dipped in chocolate, and Sex, sin, and Zen will be on hand to sign books and to promote his latest work “There is no God and he is always with you“. There will be a brief Q&A session and Brad will have books on hand as well. The event begins at 7pm and is free to the public. Donations are accepted but not expected and will go to help Brad offset the cost of his (self-financed0 book tour of the Northeast/Midwest.

BradWarner talk


On a personal level this is a great honor for me. Brad has mentioned in the past that when people tell him “your book changed my life” that he feels it’s too much credit to the book and not enough to the person whose life it is. I understand this and agree, but i have a hard time seeing how my life would have been what it is now (namely, awesome) if i hadn’t stumbled across Hardcore Zen at a particularly low point in my life. I was searching for something, something that wouldn’t be sated by numbing my brain with drugs or booze, something I wouldn’t have stuck with is it tried to force some superstition down my throat, and something that I wouldn’t have trusted if it came from some supposedly beatific guru in book promising rippling ponds, pretty lotus and the spiritual equivalent of elevator music. Basically i needed someone (or something) to hit me upside the head with the truth, presented straightforwardly and without  a hint of the kind of bullshit that my well honed cynics radar can pick out 100 miles away. When I read Hardcore Zen I immediately resonated with Brads approach, he told it the way he saw it and invited the reader to try it for themselves and either confirm it via their own experience or reject it. He didn’t care either way, and i appreciated that! In my own life I have found that folks who really, REALLY want you to believe what they do always come off like they don’t really believe what they are selling, as if the only way they can have any confidence in whatever snake-oil they are peddling is if everyone else repeats back the party line. Zen, and soto-zen in particular is the complete opposite of that, in it one is constantly admonished to think for oneself, to ask hard questions, to explore doubt thoroughly and to, in the end, reject that which doesn’t resonate with the truth, even if it means rejecting Buddhism itself!

In Hardcore zen, for the first time, I found a method to look at my own life thoroughly, more thoroughly than i even expected to! I was looking for something to give me peace of mind without being “too hard”, but of course I eventually found Zen changing everything, even the things I thought I didn’t want changed! I came into zen with some very firm ideas about the world and myself only to find 10 years later that everything has changed! They say “everyone gets into zen for the wrong reasons” and boy are they right! The funny thing is that even with that, if you do it long enough it tends to straighten out the things that are crooked, even the ones you didn’t know were a problem! Its like going into a Chinese restaurant and being served French cuisine. . . .and then finding out that French food was exactly what you needed to eat!

Anyway, the honor is all mine to be able to help Brad, even a little bit, to promote his new book. Whether he wants the credit or not, reading hardcore Zen those many years ago was exactly what needed to happen in my life, perhaps I would have gotten here anyway, but I truly appreciate the path that book helped me to use in getting to where I am today.

If you live anywhere near Pittsburgh you should definitely come!

Categories: Buddhism and life, pittsburgh | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

(Dis) illusion

It is a sad cliche that our heroes often, in time, are revealed to be all to human. Sometimes this is because they espouse something that they can’t live up to, or because they commit some action that seems to be counter to everything they stand for. Very often it is because our own expectation and ideal of them is unrealistic and after a time it dawns on is that this person we held up in our minds as a hero is simply, disappointingly, human.

Sometimes though, our heroes stop being so heroic in our eyes not because they failed, or because we weren’t looking at them realistically, sometimes they stop being our heroes because we become better than they are. It’s difficult to articulate something like this and not sound like you are giving yourself a compliment, but being honest with oneself includes not only finding our own faults, but also in seeing our own progress. If you only ever think “I suck” then you are as deluded and full of horse poop as someone who only thinks “I’m the best”.

Many years ago when I first became a tattooer I devoured any kind of information on tattooing that I could. There wasn’t so much media as these days and the few books out there (aside from Ed Hardys excellent “tattootime” books) were dated and generally full of mediocrity. So most of the best stuff came from tattoo magazines, and the best of those came from Europe since almost all the u.s. magazines were full of biker shit and shitty supplier ads.

I picked up an Italian mag called “tattoo planet” regularly. The art was awesome, featuring guys like Filip Leu, Theo Jak, Permenant Mark, and others who I idolized. One guy in particular whose interview and pictures inspired me to the point that I set my plan for my entire tattooing career on his example. This artist was an American like me but had eschewed the street shop and “low com denom” flash ( as in; mediocre art which appealed to the greatest number of uninformed tattoo public) that was my world at the time in favor of having a private studio off the street, doing large scale Asian inspired work, and generally avoiding all the trappings of cheesy tattoodom. Despite the fact that I was a pretty bad to average tattooer at the time something in the this guys approach resonated with me and right then, a mere 2 years into tattooing I decided that someday I would be doing that kind of work in that kind of environment.

Pretty lofty for a guy who couldn’t pull a straight line or draw better than a high schooler, but I knew that the goal was something for the future.

After a long time I got better at tattooing, and eventually did open my own shop off the street, doing mostly larger Asian stuff, with few of the trappings of cheesy tattoodom. In short, I actually did reach the goal I set in 1997, I never forgot that interview, and I still don’t know to this day if my life would look the way it does if I had read that piece. I was, and am, grateful to that tattooer for their inspiration, I would occasionally look for their work in books or online, but nothing really new seemed to show up.

Enter Instagram. I saw this persons comment on another tattooers thread a month or so ago and was really happy, at last I would get to see their newer work! Maybe I would write this person telling them how inspirational they had been to me. So I clicked on their name and was shocked. There was a few nice pieces but in general it was pretty average, and surprisingly, it was worse than the artists stuff I had seen in the 90’s! I kept following their work for a few weeks but eventually “un-followed” them, I use Instagram to be inspired by people who are killing it, people who I may never be as good as, but who inspire me to try anyway, and this persons work wasn’t anymore.

I want to make it clear that I am not saying that this artist is “bad” or that I am better than they, I also still owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude for showing me what was possible outside of the tiny fishbowl of tattooing I had lived in, but it was still a disappointment.

For little while anyway.

A strange thing happens when we have our illusions dissolved, even apparently beneficial ones like the inspirational illusion I had all those years ago. Assuming that we dont run right out and fill the void with another delusion (which is what we usually do) a space is opened up for the truth to sit where the illusion had been. I found myself suddenly inspired to draw a particular set of 1/2 sleeves that had been poking around in the back of my mind, I had a weird rush of new ideas fora big project we will be announcing soon, I suddenly felt at peace with my (slow but steady) progress in my own tattooing. In short, I like to think that letting that image go opened me up to new inspiration.

Illusions (and delusion) are a part of human nature, you can’t stop them for happening but we can learn to let them go. Sometimes we can do it quickly, like when we look at a menu at Arby’s and think ” that’s gonna taste good” and 10 minutes later feel like throwing up. Other times we have been indoctrinated with them from so early on that we don’t even realize its a delusion til something happens to shock us out of it (like realizing that getting a bunch of money and power still doesn’t stop us being miserable). But the end of an illusion is a wonderful opportunity, the humanizing of our heroes is a wonderful opportunity to be inspired by something greater and one person or ideal, it’s a chance to be inspired by the truth, by yourself, by all of us (which, coincidentally, are all the same thing anyway.)

Categories: Buddhism and life, Tattoo stuff | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment


In Buddhism there are three big reasons why we are suffering, and every other smaller reason can be chalked up to one of these three big ones. I’ve talked before about greed and ignorance, but right now the one I see most prevalent around us is fear. If these three poisons, as we call them, are the cause of all of life’s suffering, then perhaps none has caused quite so much actual death, destruction, and mayhem as fear. We’re living in a time when we as a society, at least in the Western world, live, work, create, and exist in an atmosphere of fear. It pervades everything around us, and we are so engulfed by it, so conditioned to accept it as a natural way of things, that we are like a fish who swims in the ocean and never knows that he is in water, we breathe the fear and exhale anger. even those of us on the supposed peaceful path have a lot of anger. And it doesn’t require taking a very hard look to realize how extremely poisonous and harmful of a world this has created for us.

Lets take a look to the news for an example; right now in the United States is a huge debate about gun control, this is mostly the result of a series of tragic mass killings and a growing realization on the part of the average citizen of the extraordinary number of deaths related to firearms in this country. Frankly, my point in this labor is not to take a side, but to simply to show what an environment of fear can do to an otherwise rational debate. If you asked somebody who is against gun control why they don’t want any form of restriction on firearms you can get all kinds of answers that relate to home security or personal safety or hunting, but just getting a little deeper and asking why they are against even seemingly benign and reasonable restrictions you find that 90% of them, the people who are hard-core gun enthusiasts let’s say, will tell you that the real reason they don’t want any restriction at all on firearms is because they feel it is their only defense against our own government. In other words these folks really believe that at any moment an American Nazi-type regime Gestapo could come in and try to ” take over”, and for these folks it  is a perfectly reasonable line of argument to say we should have absolutely no restrictions on guns that we should allow the amazing number of killings that we have every single year, and that we should allow tragedies like dozens of schoolkids being shot in mass killings to occur because of a Fear of some fantasy attempt at a ” takeover “occurring. It’s kind of like deciding that we should all live underground concrete bunkers because one day the moon men might come down and try to take our women. The likelihood is almost exactly the same of these two events occurring, and yet otherwise rational people act and believe like this ridiculous notion could occur and furthermore they surround themselves, their families, their neighbors, with frightening firepower and ignore all the studies which are shown that they are far more likely to harm their own children or spouse or themselves than to ever defend themselves from any outside force.

You want talk about one another example that it’s a bit less politically hot? Did you know that up until the turn of the 20th century there was no such thing as mouthwash for bad breath? oh i am sure it existed and that people didn’t like it, but it wasn’t considered a big enough deal to have a whole separate product for it. All it took was one genius to write that first ads tagline along the lines of “I would marry her, but that breath!” And now we have a multimillion dollar industry dedicated to making our breath not smell. The company wanted to sell a product, and so created a fear that has now lasted for 100 years and probably never go away. Need more examples?  All it takes is a cursory glance at magazines from the late 1800s to realize that what was once considered a healthy body would today be considered obese. Once again a company(s) wanted to sell a product (or several million products in the case of weight loss and body image) and so they created a fear. Millions of us torture ourselves worrying about whether our bodies are too fat, smelly, dark, or light. Fear is a natural state but these days it is being used for profoundly unnatural reasons by people for both political and financial gain.

It’s incredibly liberating reach a certain age or meditate long enough to get up with the fear and to decide to stop feeling it. And it really does happen that way by the way, one day for whatever reason, you just get tired of accepting it. At least if you’re lucky, there’s a lot of people out there watching news pundits, reading inflammatory website,s believing in obscure ridiculous conspiracies who never get tired of the fear, but man,  it’s got a be like drinking poison every day though. No matter how much you think you like the taste, and a how immune you think you are, there comes a time when  this will finally beat you down and destroy your health so thoroughly that you ceased to be functional.

FDR is famous for having created a quote” the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” that quote might be more accurate now than even when he when he came up with it during the Great Depression. Fortunately, there is a way out of the fear trap. And like most solutions to the complicated problems of our lives the solution seems goes against the conditioning that we have been indoctrinated with her whole lives. In the same illogical way that the only way to cure hate is with love and the only way to cure intolerance is by understanding the intolerant, it turns out the only way to cure fear is to let ourselves be vulnerable. To accept that these things that happen in our lives are not the end of the world and to see that the real drama and trouble doesn’t come from outside of us but from our own minds. It is true that our nation in particular is subject to pernicious dosing of fear from those who use it to control us ( the  gun manufacturers and weight-loss companies and fashion magazines and news pundits make their living because we are fearful) and they do a very good job of convincing us that we need fear, but we don’t. At the end of the day they are afraid, they are afraid of us no longer being afraid. All those groups who make a profit of our paranoia live in mortal fear that one day we will not air each other that we will realize how alike we really are, that we will get to know our neighbors not as foes or potential competition but as people who are very much like us trying to live lives very much like the ones we wish to live. And to start to live this way is the ultimate middle finger in the face of fear, to say “I refuse to drink your poison.”

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What do you say about the mass murder of a bunch of grade school kids, their teachers, and the devastation that is left on a day like today? There is nothing but outrage and sadness and I, like most people, have my own favorite people who I want to blame for this horrible event. There seems to be no justice or righteousness in this world, there can be nothing to justify such an act nor can any of our petty political views touch the enormous sadness and futility of such an event. I am a Buddhist and I meditate and yet all I want to do is yell and scream in the faces of those who I blame for enabling a damaged fucking asshole to murder 20 children. I want to punch every person blabbing about the second amendment in their mouth til they are spitting teeth and shove their heads into the piles of gore left over in a Connecticut school and say “see, motherfucker!?”

But the fact is that I know that’s not the problem, lots of people have guns and don’t murder random strangers and children. A maniac with nothing more exotic than a pick up truck could kill just as many folks by running them over. The tool that murder was committed with is an inanimate object, it has no power to act without the person behind it deciding. I personally don’t like guns or people owning guns, but I’m also not so naive that I think that if this psychotic person didn’t have a gun that he wouldn’t have found some other way to murder innocent people. He would have killed someone, several someones, one way or another, the firearms just made it easier.

In the coming days we will hear blame being laid all about, on the mental health system (or lack of it) in our country, on warning signs which were  ignored, blame will be placed on pro and anti gun positions, on schools for not being fortified bunkers and on police for not being psychic. There will be investigation after investigation, the shooters life will be examined under a microscope and at the end of it 27 people will still be dead, and no amount of blame or understanding motivation or political solution will change the fact that one psycho can, for a limited time, run amok and forever destroy the lives of families and the community he or she chooses to terrorize.

Frankly i don’t give a fuck why this person shot those kids. Why wont help me erase the image of their school being evacuated or the mental picture of an adult aiming a weapon at a 10-year-old. Knowing why will only reinforce the idea that “that guy” was the only one capable of doing this horrible thing and reinforcing the lie that none of us could ever, ever do something so evil. The plain fact is that all of us could be that killer, it would only require a traumatic brain injury, a string of bad luck, some bad drugs, a disconnect in the electro-chemical pathways in our brains and any of us could be that person, in military fatigues, shooting at children on a cold December morning. The great danger lies in us not recognizing that potentiality, I’m sure no one thought they could be the one to help round-up victims for the holocaust but in the end it took hundreds of thousands of otherwise innocent German citizens to make the tragedy happen and I bet each and every one of them never dreamed they could be a part of it. We let our government invade Iraq, jail asinine levels of our own citizens, and let our fellow citizens die of easily treatable illness because any time we talk about the shared burden we all have as a society some fucking moron screams “socialism!” I look at the Connecticut school shooter and wonder “how the fuck did they let this happen!?” and yet I am pretty sure that our children will look back on the way we live and treat each other in 2012 and say “how the fuck did they let that happen!?”

In a way we are all part of this asshole murdering those kids today. Not literally, of course, but we partake in a society that agrees to ignore the mentally ill, that chooses to look the other way when one of us is really hurting and clearly in need of some kind of intervention. If the shooter today was my neighbor I wouldn’t know his name the way i don’t know any of my current neighbors names. I wouldn’t know if he threatened to shoot up a grade school before he did it, and I wouldn’t think it was any of my business if he wanted to buy 14 guns. I (we) live in a world now where our outrage at an event can be soothed by writing an angry post on Facebook, where “tackling the problem” means hitting the “like” button on some witty political post. I look at my new baby daughter sleeping and wonder if I can ever send her off to school in a world where someone like this guy can go so far down the fucking rabbit hole that killing children seems like the only thing he can do and never have it recognized by anybody!?

We need to wake up. We, and im including myself in this, need to really take a look at our world,( the real one not the fucking fantasy that television and the internet sells us) and realize that we can not do this alone. Any of it. We can’t live this close to each other, we can’t depend on each other so much and still pretend that we are all fucking individual cowboys who don’t owe anyone else a fucking thing but that we ourselves are owed everything. A society that looks out for all of its citizens gets the warning signs when one of us goes kookoo and starts planning to shoot a school up! If we stopped looking at everyone else as competition and realized how much we need each other just to keep this crazy civilization functioning then maybe we could see when one of us is becoming unbalanced and say “hey, maybe we should talk to that guy” instead of blaming the “authorities” for not doing our jobs for us!

I don’t know. there is no easy solution, I know. But I have to believe that if we, as a country, a culture, and a society decide to start taking responsibility for each other then maybe we could be spared a few days like today. Obviously what we are doing now isn’t good enough to keep 20 little kids alive.

Categories: Buddhism and life, random dumbness | 2 Comments

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