Friday, November 28, 2008

Learning What the Buddha Never Taught

Many of my favorite books are the ones I've bought at used bookstores and just tossed on the shelf without reading them for months or even years after purchase. I'll buy cheep books based upon nothing more than the coolness of the author's name; like Ngugi, author of Devil on the Cross; or because the book has a stellar cover; like all of the Vintage editions of Haruki Murakami's books; or because the book has a thought provoking title, like the one this post is about: Tim Ward's What the Buddha Never Taught.

I picked up What the Buddha Never Taught at Boulder's Red Letter Books (the best used bookstore in Colorado) almost 3 years ago. Here was a book about Buddhism I didn't own and it had the added bonus of being signed by the author for a fickle woman named "Anne." I slotted it on my shelf where it aged like a fine wine, for when I read it a few weeks ago I was astonished.

What the Buddha Never Taught is an entertaining travelogue about the author's stay in a Buddhist temple in Thailand. Like all good travel writing, the author is witty and deeply reflective as he records his temple stay. Ward writes as a questioning outsider living in a foreigner run Thai temple. His philosophical questions guide his own spiritual development as a practitioner while spurring the other monks to think about their own commitment.

While at the temple, Ward never receives any formal training in meditation or any words of spiritual development. He is simply told to "follow the rules" by the temple abbot: an ex-jazz guitar playing, Australian. Though Ward resents the abbot's lack of teaching, he slowly begins to find his own methods and motivations for meditation.

As you might guess, the monk hood of the temple is a motley assortment of international folk of all ages, each seeking something different from the Buddha and their own take on Buddhist practice. One thing Ward does extremely well is sum up the various personalities and idiosyncrasies of each of the monks he lives with. Of all the folk Ward lives with, he spends most of his time with Jim- a depressed American college student looking for release.

One of the most insightful chapters I ever read about Buddhism shows Ward and Jim sitting on a moonlit porch debating and dreading the consequences of enlightenment, namely, the death of the ego. That is a very scary idea to both men and me as well. When I finished reading that passage I realized that Buddhism isn't just about being compassionate and not killing things. No. The quest for enlightenment is an inward gauntlet that requires mountains of faith and relentless introspection than most people, including myself, are comfortable with. For the first time Ward helped me realize that Buddhism is a deeply serious philosophy, forcing its followers to explore their own souls before those very souls are snuffed-out with nirvana. This is lesson the Buddha never taught.

I highly recommend Tim Ward's What the Buddha Never Taught to anyone interested in Buddhism or Thailand. The book is a fine depiction of what Buddhist practice looks like in the real world. It is a finely crafted and fun book that effortlessly mixes profound spiritual insight with embarrasing cultural mishap. I wished the book kept on going, so I was thrilled when I learned that the book is first of three in Ward's "Nirvana Trilogy," where in each book he experiences life in each of the three schools of Buddhism. What the Buddha Never Taught is about Theravada Buddhism, the second and third books deal with Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhisms. I have those last two book slated for reading, though I haven't tossed them on the self yet.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Texas Tater BBQ: Treat for Your Mouth

Tonight's dinner was a rare feast of imaginative Texan cuisine. With Thanksgiving rapidly approaching, I present a sampling of my father's culinary genius to the Inside Outsider audience:

If you'd like to wrangle up this delicacy for yourself and loved ones this Thanksgiving, all you need is 3 simple ingredients:

1. Betty Crocker four cheese instant potatoes
2. Chopped beef BBQ from your local smokehouse (Lubbock's J&M BBQ is a fine choice)
3. BBQ sauce- the spicier the better;)

If I had to choose one meal to eat before my demise, I'd choose Tater-BBQ, and die with spicy four-cheese smile on my face and beef 'tween my teeth.
Should anyone out there actually try this dish I'd love to hear your comments!

Sunday, November 16, 2008


I'm walking through mist. Opaque clouds all around that absorb the colors of my clothing and captures the exhalations of thought. The brush lining the thin dirt path rise up meeting the fog that blankets the sparse forest with its thinning late autumn trees. Leaves fall slowly and without spin into the vapor that arrests their decent, claiming them as it does my concerns that feel so heavy, yet, float for a time then evaporate into the grey. There is little recognizable around me; little to recognize walking into uncertainty.

Feet move on their own, treading upon moist earth sprinkled with dew and spent leaves. Hands tucked into the pockets of a black field coat. Chin tucked slightly keeping the drizzle out of my eyes. I hear nothing except textured foot-stepping and the mist's soft static which disappears when listened for.

I walk onward; not forward. Memories caught up in the mist which surrounds every being in this place. How do I reclaim my memories from the mist? Can I reach out a grasping hand and take an invisible key from the ghost? I know I can't. So I continue to walk...and breathe.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Horses Under the Hood

The Lubbock Mustang and Corvette car club held a car show recently. It was a rare treat seeing so many well cared for high powered vehicles in one parking lot. My favorite cars at the show were the muscle cars. These long and low fat tired machines just made me want to jack the keys and smoke out of the lot.

The club organizers held the show to raise money for widow whose husband had been a member in the car club. Anyone could enter their car and money was raised by placing a can or bucket near each car. At the end of the show the car with the most money in its bucket wins the day. Now that's a full throttled way to help a widow in need.

Some family friends entered their cars in the show. At right is Rex's Corvette proudly wearing custom paint and wheels.
Rex's wife Jeanie also entered the show with her award winning "Small Wonder," a Volkswagon Bug with a forward trunk full trophies. The couple's cars balance their garage excellently: on the right rests a missle on wheels; on the left, a red toot-pooter.
The cars, most classic, some modern, and a few oddball, brought together a wide range of people of all age groups. The most refreshing sight at the show was watching a father explain to his young son the differences in each kind of car. He'd pull the wide eyed boy over to a car and say something like "You see how this car has the shiny metal here but this car doesn't. That's because this one's older than that one." The son studied his fathers words with scientific vigour. Then he'd peak into the cab and imagine himself driving a classic car that his grandfather probably raced down the street. Nothing brings generations of men together like classic cars and big engines.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Cattle Undone: Tour of a Panhandle Slaughterhouse

My father works at a feedlot in Olton, Texas where cattle are pinned and fed until they reach cut weight. Freegrazers made barred gluttons.

My uncle works at a slaughterhouse, or "meat packing plant," in Cactus, Texas where the same cattle are sliced apart then boxed.

Sad seeing the creatures confined to dirt pins. Stomach-churning seeing them disassembled.

The entire beef production industry is a cold efficient machine wherein the living animal becomes a stock of raw material efficiently and economically manufactured from beginning to end. I've described feedlot life in my post, Sell by the Pound; below I describe slaughterhouse death as I witnessed it.

Cattle are offloaded 18-wheelers into pins outside the plant. As the cattle are led into the plant a worker sprays the cattle with a hose to remove any feces that may contaminate the meat lying under their tough hides. The herd follows the herd.

The knocker is a pneumatic gun that fires a rod into the cow's skull. The knocker is also the position title of the man who wields the device. He is a highly paid worker and wears a helmet with a grated face mask attached to it, similar to a baseball catcher's mask. Should the cow go berserk the knocker is protected. He must lay the cow down on the first fire.

A quick thrust of air and a stone like knock issues. Soon the hole left by the rod spurts a bright red blood that winds down the features of the cow's face. Sometimes the blood pumps steadily from the hole; other times the blood erupts like a rosy geyser. However the blood releases, the cow slumps down a lifeless mass.

With the cow dispatched, a worker underneath the knocking cage wraps a chain around a rear ankle and connects the chain to a ceiling mounted track that hoists the mass into the air and moves it to the next station. A section of the track pulses with electricity that zaps away whatever life may still reside in the animal.

At the next station one worker makes a horizontal slice into the neck large enough for the next worker to insert his knife and severe the jugular. The second man's cut is the bloodiest of the whole operation. There is no way to adequately describe how blood surges and drains out of the animal; it looks like a sheet of water poured from a 10 gallon bucket, only it's not water but, hot blood that splashes to the concrete floor. The second man wears a rubber apron and elbow length rubber gloves, yet blood still stains his attire.

The rest of the operation is worse but I won't write of it. I won't write about the peeling of the hide, the severing of the head, or the slicing out of the tongue. Nor will I write about the sharp-toothed tools that cut easily through both flesh and bone. I've seen these things, and they are for others to see as well.

The front of the slaughterhouse is called the "hot side" because all the work done there takes place while the meat is still warm. When the mass is cleaned and sliced in half it is stored in a massive freezer for at least a day, killing any bacteria that may damage the product. At the feedlot I saw acres of cattle standing and eating; in the freezer I saw acres of flesh hanging in halves from the ceiling.

After freezing the pieces for a day or so they are all moved into the "cold side" of the slaughterhouse. It is called the "cold side" because all the processing is done in a cold environment to cold pieces of meat. On the cold side the chunk is chopped down to marketable pieces of meat, like T-bones, ribs, and chuck. Every piece of cold flesh is used with extremely little being wasted. Droves of workers in chain male make one slice all day long as endless slabs of meat move down the conveyor belt. The workers come from all around the world making the slaughterhouse an international workplace. Muslim women in head coverings work beside Latino men as they vacuum seal product for shipment. My uncle has learned standard greetings in many languages.

The slaughterhouse produces its own boxes and packages its own product in these boxes. It is a meat packing plant. The product is stored and dispensed when needed to grocery stores throughout the panhandle. An interesting operation from start to finish.

I feel privileged to have seen the death, separation, and packaging of cattle. Few people witness how beef is made. As I watched the knocker kill the cattle and the second man spill their blood, I wondered how these men could do such a violent job countless times an hour, day in and day out. But the more I thought about how repetitive the job was and how small a role each cut played in the entire drama, it dawned on me that it the workers too realized this fact. I suppose when you have a razor sharp knife or a pneumatic knocker in hand and are responsible for one precise cut every 15 seconds, you don't have much time or room for disposable, reflective thought. A worker can't step back and ponder the meaning of it all on the killing floor.

And it's not as if the workers are dismantling cattle one at a time. They're slicing and packaging thousands of cattle each day, like a professor reading a class full of 15 page essays at the end of a semester: each paper is special the student who wrote it, but after the tenth paper the professor's mind is numbed and she just wants to get through the stack.

Besides, the knocker is the only one in the whole works who sees the cow go from a living being to a dead one. Perhaps he's the only one who works with a "cow;" maybe all the rest of the workers, especially on the cold side, are just carving prime ribs or T-bones. Give me a knife and I'll cut a steak, but I'd never slay a cow.

It is more than gallons of blood spilling out of the cow, or perhaps I should say, the blood pouring from the cow's veins is more than liquid. Within the blood is the spirit of the animal. There is something extremely visceral and unsettling about watching the life-force of a great creature spill onto indifferent concrete. The initial movement from life to death, from breath and wandering eyes to de-animation and dead weight: the killing is disturbing to watch. But as I walked farther down the line I grew as indifferent the concrete. I didn't much enjoy witnessing the taking of life, but what disturbed me more was the mechanized dis-assembly line method with which the cutting was preformed. The cattle business is cold and efficient.

I think of the word "dehumanization," which means to remove essentially human qualities from a person. There should be a word like that to describe the shift in perception that occurs when a great beast of the field is viewed as raw material for packaging and consumption.

My uncle asked me a deep question as we stood watching the knocker struggle to make a clean shot on a fear stricken, bewildered cow; he asked me if I would file into stocks and sit still while someone positioned a device over my head waiting for the right moment to kill me? "Would you accept the fact that your time was up calmly, or would you struggle and fight to the end?" I told him I would fight to my very last; for out of all the thousands of cattle the knocker has laid down, I'd make damn sure he'd remember me.