Real Tweets

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Recent fascinating scientific investigations reported in the renowned magazine Science reveal that songbirds are adapting to the reduced noise of the lockdown period by modifying their sounds. Due to a reduction in traffic-noise and machine noise and other ambient sound pollution in the months since the lockdown ground our unsustainable economies to a halt, birds are literally changing the way they sing. They are even modulating their bird-song to be expressed at lower frequencies, which can travel over greater distances. There is seen to be new variation in “trills,” which is an expressive device in birdsong. This enhances communication among bird populations, and can even lessen conflict between or inside bird communities because territorial boundaries can be communicated more clearly, and reproductive and feeding opportunities can also be better exploited — the dull grey static and throb of human activity having dropped away, birds are actually producing song such as has not been recorded since the 1950s!

I don’t usually read scientific studies. But this was so fascinating, simply for what it pointed to in our lived experience. Buddhist teaching emphasises the interdependence of all life — of all matter, really; all substance, at the sub-atomic level — and so I could not resist reading through this study. It was so painful to feel how the everyday background noise that we take for granted is, in fact, a mega suppressor of the voices and the communication patterns and frequencies of other beings.

For this reason, rather than just offer a link that some might not open easily on a smartphone, it seemed more helpful to pass on as many chunks of the study itself. I have included the sections most salient for us non-scientific types to grasp some of the material implications of our behavior — of our very lifestyle itself — for the way other beings can carry on their lives, their “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.”

Actions taken to mitigate the threats of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) to human life and welfare have inadvertently resulted in a natural experiment offering unanticipated insight into how human behavior affects animal behavior (1). Worldwide, elective quarantine and stay-at-home orders have reduced use of public spaces and transportation networks, especially in cities. Anecdotal media accounts suggest that restricted movement has elicited rarely observed behaviors in commensal and peri-urban animals (2). Though not all of the reports have proven to be accurate (3), widely publicized observations like coyotes crossing the normally heavily trafficked Golden Gate Bridge in the San Francisco (SF) Bay Area (California, USA) have provoked widespread fascination with the prospect that animals rapidly move back into landscapes recently vacated by humans.

Reports also indicate that animals have been exploiting newly emptied soundscapes. A number of media outlets have noted people becoming newly aware of more conspicuous animal sounds, such as bird songs, particularly in normally noisy areas (4). While people staying home may simply be paying closer attention to the animals around them, it is possible that restricted human movement reduced use of motorized vehicles, effectively unmasking bird songs otherwise obscured by associated noise pollution. Theory also suggests animals should respond to reduced background noise by altering their acoustic signals to optimize the transmission of information (56). Resolving this uncertainty presents an unprecedented opportunity to address enduring questions about how human behavior alters soundscapes and animal acoustic behaviors (7), while offering vital insight into biotic resilience to long-standing anthropogenic pressures.

…The inference that the observed shifts are due to a reduction in the high energy, low frequency sound generated by motor vehicles is supported by traffic flow data from the Golden Gate Bridge; whereas vehicle crossings have progressively increased since the bridge opened in 1937, vehicle crossings in April—May 2020 returned to levels not seen since 1954 (Fig. 2C). Although noise recordings are not available from the 1950s, this benchmark indicates that a relatively brief but dramatic change in human behavior effectively erased more than a half-century of urban noise pollution and concomitant soundscape divergence between urban and nearby rural areas. In other words, the COVID-19 shutdown created a proverbial silent spring across the SF Bay Area.

We found clear evidence that birds responded to the reduction in noise pollution during the COVID-19 shutdown. Consistent with prior studies (1122), we found that birds sang more softly when noise levels were lower (β = 0.27 dB ± 0.04; t281 = 7.0, p < 0.0001, e.g., the Lombard effect) and at shorter recording distances (β = 0.43 dB/m ± 0.08; t281 = 5.3, p < 0.0001) before and during the shutdown. Notably, birds produced songs at even lower amplitudes during the shutdown (β = -4.08 dB ± 1.4; t87 = -3, p < 0.004; Fig. 3, fig. S3, and table S3), well beyond what would be expected from the Lombard effect alone. This departure reveals that prevailing theories of animal communication do not capture the potential magnitude of vocal responses to noise abatement beyond the Lombard effect. Despite a reduction in song amplitude, communication distance more than doubled during the shutdown (β = 8.4 dB ± 1.9; t87 = 4.4, p < 0.0001; fig. S4 and table S4), further indicating the impact of noise pollution on communication during normal conditions. This doubling in communication distance could elevate fitness by reducing territorial conflicts (23) and increasing mating potential. In addition, the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) doubled in relative energy (β = 6.5 dB ± 2; t95 = 3.3, p < 0.002; table S5), which helps explain media reports suggesting that bird songs sounded louder during the shutdown (4). A doubling would allow people to hear birds at twice the previous distance, or effectively four times more birds than usual (21).

Because the same individuals were not sampled at each time point (mean longevity of white-crowned sparrows is 13 months (24)), we cannot determine if the observed shift in vocal performance was due to immediate flexibility (25) or because males with higher performance (but typically more masked) songs outcompeted males with lower performance (but less masked) songs for breeding territories during the COVID-19 shutdown. It is nonetheless possible to infer that, on average, birds in urban areas exhibited significantly greater capacity to compete for breeding territories. This highlights the intriguing possibility that more juveniles preferentially copied higher performance songs during the shutdown. If so, then the shutdown may have altered the trajectory of cultural evolution within and among populations in the study region. Re-evaluating the same birds following the resumption of human activity would clarify what behavior(s) gave rise to the observed population-level shift in vocal performance and potential evolutionary outcomes of the COVID-19 shutdown.

Like the half-century soundscape reversion that occurred in more urban areas of the study region, some bird songs exhibited traits, such as trill minimum frequency, during the shutdown that have not been heard in decades (fig. S5). Comparisons of historical recordings illustrate that minimum frequencies have tracked a progressive half-century rise in background noise levels in urban songs. Notably, at the Richmond site in Contra Costa County (Fig. 1), the minimum frequency of the Berkeley dialect recorded during the COVID-19 shutdown approached lows not recorded since the spring of 1971 (Fig. 2D) (26).

“Singing in a silent spring: Birds respond to a half-century soundscape reversion during the COVID-19 shutdown” (Science Magazine, 24 Sep. 2020)

Thief

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Pha Dampa Sangye // Padampa Sangye. His Tibetan name translates into Sanskrit as Buddha Paramapitā “Buddha Excellent Father”. He often was identified by the descriptive name Nakpopa, “Black One”. Sounds like a great “Hyon.”

Regensburg Cathedral Yesterday/Today

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Exactly one year ago today…

…and just this morning, right after sunrise…

Photos are by a local Regensburg resident, Rudolf Rinner, who posts photos of our beautiful UNESCO-listed home city almost daily. I like his eye very much. More of his photos can be seen at https://500px.com/p/rudolfrinner. On Facebook, he can be found at Verliebt in Regensburg (“In Love with Regensburg”).

[[email protected] ]

You Should Go Ask a Cat

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You think you did “more” sitting when you sit for longer periods of meditation. That is actually not correct.

In the same way that you think you are from a country called Greece or Norway or Germany. You think that you are your name, or your thoughts, or your memories or beliefs. But these are only partial, illusory truths.

If you still don’t understand, go ask a tree.
If you don’t get a good answer there, then go ask a cat.

[An Insta-bite excerpt for Instagram from the talk “Moment = Infinite Time”.]

Support further efforts like this to spread the Dharma by connecting with a regular contribution on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/mirrorofzen

Support Zen Center Regensburg: https://zen-center-regensburg.com/donate/

Film Editing/Design: Γιάννης Παπάκης Παπαδοπουλάκης /// Vajra Vlito Studios
Graphic: Matt Semke /// www.catswilleatyou.com

Reply to a Reader: Buddhism and the Arts of Harm

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Question: If I enter the military, does it violate the Right Livelihood of the Eight Noble Path?  How do you reconcile military service members with non-violence [ahimsa] emphasized in Buddhism?

Reply: This is a very good question.

First, you must understand: guns do not kill people.  Bombs can never intentionally kill anyone.  Knives and chemical weapons, even missiles have never, ever killed people.  In all of human history, not a single weapon ever killed another human being.  Not one single time.  And they never will, because it is literally impossible for a gun or knife or bomb or missile to just jump up and kill someone.

Only human beings murder other human beings. (Yes, and diseases do, and sharks do, and lions do, but that is another matter of agency and will: we are concerned here, in this question, with the question of human agency and the matter of ahimsa.)

If you put a knife in front of someone, it is only according to their thinking that they either pick up the knife and butter some bread for you, or plunge the knife right into your chest.  The knife does not decide to make karma and suffering with itself; the deluded human mind does.

Several years ago, a Korean man who I never met before just cut me with a knife.  It was a very, very sharp knife.  He sliced open my left shoulder. So painful!!  There was much blood, and I could not use my arm for about one month.  I still have a prominent scar in the area where this Korean man cut me.  I had never met this man before that day, and I have not seen him since.  Can a man with a knife who cuts another man — who he does not know — be someone who practices Right Livelihood?  On the surface — if you just look at these actions quickly — it seems like this is not a good example of Right Livelihood.

The Korean man who cut me was a doctor, a surgeon who operated on my shoulder after I broke it badly during a fall in the dark in an unlit temple in the mountains, during the Summer Ango retreat.  Through the man’s skilful and meticulous actions, my arm was saved, and it now has full functionality.

Before I added this important qualification to the story, the mind might automatically think “bad man.” After this crucial qualification is added, everyone thinks “good man.” Everything comes down to your intention: Why do you do something? Only for you, for your ego or feelings or ideas, or for all beings?

We can all agree that shooting a gun at someone to kill them is not really a good thing to do.  If you intentionally shoot someone to kill for personal motives and reasons, that is not Right Livelihood.  But if a bad man is hurting other people, holding them hostage or threatening them, then of course we expect the police to come when we call, and, if the bad man resists, to kill him!  In this case, the police officer does not hurt or kill the bad man for himself, for his own ego or deluded sense of glory: the policeman risks his life, and maybe takes the bad man’s life, in order to save other beings.  Claus von Stauffenberg and the other good German military men (including Dietrich Bonhoeffer) who tried to assassinate Hitler in 1944 are considered heroes.  And don’t we believe that if someone could stop President Hafez el-Assad from killing more helpless Syrians, that person would be thanked and praised, even if it meant that it was necessary to kill Assad in order to accomplish this?

So, the question is not whether some job or action is Right Livelihood, as an absolute category.  Only you should ask yourself, With what kind of mind do I pursue this action?  Is it only for me, or for the benefit of other beings?

My Teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, used to talk about a butcher who lived in the time of the Buddha.  Because of his low-caste status, the man could not have any other way to provide for his family.  So, every day he slaughtered many animals so that higher-caste people could eat well.  This was his station in life.

Yet the Eightfold Path speaks clearly about the issue of gaining a living from the taking of other lives.  According to the Buddha, to live off butchery is perhaps one of the clearest examples of a non-compassionate, non-helpful livelihood.

But this man was a devoted student of the Buddha, and tried, in his daily life, to live closely to the teachings.  He could not escape his station in life, in the absolutely restrictive caste system of ancient India: the only job open to him, to members of his caste, was to do the unclean work of butcher. So, every day, he only kept this question: “Who is killing this animal? Who?”  His question became a Great Doubt; he used the situation to fire up this question and give it real spiritual basis.

One day, as he struck a blow to the head of a lamb, the lamb bleated out loudly its shock and surprise as death was delivered on its head.  “Mm-baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!”  In that moment, the lamb’s sound and the man’s questioning mind completely became one.  BOOM!– in an instant, the man got enlightenment.

My Teacher used to tell this story often, and he would comment how if you use anything with a great question, and great effort, while having natural sadness for the suffering of beings, you can maybe get enlightenment.

The first Buddhist precept is “Do not take any life.” But this is not some mealy-mouthed escape from the very real challenges of this world. In Buddhist compassion, we keep a very clear yet wide view of the conditions and difficulties of life. In some cases, breaking this sacred precept is necessary.

The great Zen Master Seo-Sahn Dae Sa (1520-1604) raised an army of monks to defend Korea against the Japanese invasions which began in 1592.  Seo-Sahn Dae Sa was a great monk, one of the most influential meditators in Korea’s Buddhist history: how could he organise and train other monks to fight and kill the sons or other people? My Teacher would often say, “This monk-army of Korea was not conquering, only protecting Korea from invasion.  The central government of Korea at that time was Confucianist, and they had even suppressed Buddhist activity. But they had also not maintained any army or military capabilities. So, when the Japanese invaded Korea and ran up and down the countryside killing and burning and raping and destroying, when the king asked Seo-Sahn Dae Sa to organise his communities of strong monks to help the nation in its desperate hour of need, the master agreed.

Korea had correct Buddhist teachings, and it had an intellectual and spiritual tradition which was unique and had never encouraged previous kings to conquer or invade other countries during the time when Buddhism was the state religion. So, protecting the country was protecting other people — it was purely defensive. They never tortured Japanese who were captured. Therefore, Seo-Sahn Dae Sa was truly protecting these unique and special teachings of Dharma.”  Seo-Sahn Dae Sa did not join this action for his own selfish needs, or his wish for glory or booty: he joined the fight reluctantly, to help other people.

And Zen Master Seung Sahn himself was drafted into the Army during the Korean War, when Communists allied with China and the Soviet Union invaded the democratic southern regions of the peninsula.  His Army service spanned 5 years, and he rose to the level of captain; he even hinted that he had been involved in actual conflict zones.  And this military service occurred AFTER his big enlightenment experience, and getting inga from Ko Bong Sunim, so he was fully aware of the implications of this involvement in such a fratricidal conflict.

More info: misterblick.free.fr

The core of the issue must be decided by the “why.” That makes everything clear. About 20 years ago in Granby, Colorado, named Marvin Heemeyer who had had several personal conflicts with neighbors one day went on a rampage in a bulldozer which he had modified for the purpose. He destroyed several buildings, and terrorised a populace for several hours. The incident became known as “the killdeer rampage.” In the end, he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.

Leter, investigators found tapes and manifestos that he had written to explain his motivations. “God built me for this job,” Heemeyer said in the first recording. He also said it was God’s plan that he not be married or have a family so that he could be in a position to carry out such an attack. “I think God will bless me to get the machine done, to drive it, to do the stuff that I have to do,” he said. “God blessed me in advance for the task that I am about to undertake. It is my duty. God has asked me to do this. It’s a cross that I am going to carry and I’m carrying it in God’s name.” [Wikipedia] This man has become an icon and a hero for American right-wing extremists, who wish to intimidate or kill others for their twisted social and political ideas. This is pure murder, based on ego.

Nowadays, many people have an ideology or strong belief mixed in with their own unexamined karmic impulses, like Heemeyer. People on the right and on the left, and concentrated strongly in organised religions’ outer spectrums.

Once someone questioned Dae Soen Sa Nim, “You always teach ‘just do it!’ But what if someone takes that teaching and uses it to hurt or kill other people — is that still good Dharma?” And his answer was very helpful for shedding light on “where” the motivation should come from, and this informs your question about “killing” (or even being tangentially involved in communities that might harm). Dae Soen Sa Nim answered, “If you only have desire/anger/ignorance, and you operate from there, then ‘just do it’ only makes suffering for others and suffering for yourself. This makes bad karma, and one day you must pay back this bad karma. But if you keep a clear mind, from moment to moment, and you operate from this wish only to help all beings, then ‘just do it” makes Great Bodhisattva Action.”

So the difference here is how much you understand your mind. How much does this action come from thinking and karma, and how much does it arise from clearly seeing my own motives and the well-being of other sentient beings. In other contexts, he would also say, “If you any kind of action only ‘for me,’ then this is bad action. If you only help all beings, then your action is already correct.”

The point of this is that we must always be making effort to having a clear view of the nature of our own mind. The user-interface for that awareness is called “awareness,” sometimes referred to as “meditation.” The point is that there are no categorical answers: there is only the bright fact of the nature of our before-thinking mind, the mind that is already pure and unconditional love and compassion. This is why we must practice.

So, why do you join the military?  Why do you learn the arts of killing and war?  If you do it with a mind to save all beings from suffering, then this killing is a necessary kind of action.  Of course, all action which harms other beings is not helpful to us in wishing to get free from karmic hindrance.  And we should never wish for killing, or glorify it in any way.

But unless or until this world magically turns into a spotless and blissful Pure Land, there will be situations where having police and military (and good surgeons!) will continue to be necessary, for the good prospering of life.  Our job is, then, to wake up — from moment to moment — to bring this world closer to that mind where killing and intentional suffering are no longer a part of everyday life. In order to get there, it is important for us — for you — to make a daily effort to wake up to the nature of your mind. Then all of your ‘just-do-it’ actions only help other beings, and also help you.

Shorter? Longer? Sittings / 3 [video]

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When the usual daily sitting meditation period is suddenly extended, without any warning, there is the tendency to think that something is “longer” than usual. From the standpoint of before-thinking mind, “don’t know,” nothing could be further from the truth…

Moment has no border, no edge or boundary. So, it has no length.

(Insta-bite excerpt from the longer teaching-video, “Moment = Infinite Time”.)