Monday, December 26, 2011

this week's MGRE Math Beast Challenge problem

From here:

This Week's Problem: "Honeycomb"

The honeycomb figure above consists of six identical regular hexagons, each with side length 2√3.

Quantity A
The total area of the honeycomb

Quantity B

(A) Quantity A is greater.
(B) Quantity B is greater.
(C) The two quantities are equal.
(D) The relationship cannot be determined from the information given.

Good luck! My own answer will appear in the comments. (Please show your work if you decide to submit your own answer!)



I got last week's MGRE Math Beast Challenge problem right. MGRE's reasoning:

The chemical division’s legal expenses are between 1/3 and 1/2 of the $720,000 spent by the pharmaceutical division on legal expenses. Thus, the chemical division spends between $240,000 and $360,000 on legal expenses.

The chemical division’s legal expenses are also given to us as 15 percent of the division’s total expenses.
$240,000 < 0.15c < $360,000, where c represents the total expenses of the chemical division. Solve for c by dividing by 0.15 (remember to do so on ALL sides of the inequality): $240,000/0.15 < c < $360,000/0.15 $1,600,000 < c < $2,400,000 The only answer choice between $1.6 million and $2.4 million is $1,855,100. The correct answer is D.

Pretty close to what I said in the comments.


lazy blogging

I may be blogging very irregularly this week, given that we're between Christmas and New Year's. Just thought I'd let you know. Enjoy the holidays!


Friday, December 23, 2011

"The Christmas tree is a pagan symbol!"

[This is a repost of an entry that originally appeared here.]

Very often you'll hear some wiseacre deconstruct Christmas. He'll talk about its components-- the date of Jesus' birth, the elements involved in Christmas celebration, etc.-- then claim that Christmas is a sham in both form and content: no element of Christmas is originally Christian, after all. What usually follows, after this scholarly lecture, is the non sequitur that "the Christmas tree therefore isn't a Christian symbol."

Well, no: the tree is a Christian symbol, because Christians have made it so. Christians who use Christmas trees aren't focusing on the tree's pre-Christian origins when they set such trees up. Such people belong to a tradition that has appropriated the tree, i.e., made the tree its own.

Some people have a hard time wrapping their minds around the concept of appropriation, which isn't the same as the concept of theft (another idea associated, often rightly, with Christianity's frequently unhappy history). Here's a general example of how appropriation works: as Buddhism moved out of India and into other Asian countries, it took on the trappings of those countries. In Korean Buddhist temples, you might see imagery that's not originally Buddhist: mountain spirits, deities of magico-religious Taoism, etc., might all make their appearances somewhere on Buddhist ground. Buddhism appropriated the local colors and flavors, and was changed thereby. This is a natural sociological process, and it's not limited to religion: it happens in other human spheres as well-- culture, politics, art, and all the other human endeavors you can think of. Ideas are memes; they cross-pollinate.

A more specific example: the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara represents the sort of change that occurs as religions move from place to place. As the Indian name implies with the ending "-ishvara," this entity was a "lord," i.e., male. As the concept of Avalokiteshvara moved northward into China, however, it became associated with the Chinese deity Kwan Shih Yin (or just Kwan Yin)-- a deity that was arguably native to China, and usually portrayed as female. Whatever Avalokiteshvara was, the Bodhisattva of Compassion is now thought of as female in all of East Asia. More philosophically minded Buddhists, aware of the bodhisattva's Indian origins, will say the bodhisattva transcends gender, but folkloric Buddhists in East Asia will be comfortable with Kwan Yin's femininity. East Asians appropriated Avalokiteshvara.

People who claim "X is not really X because it was originally Y" are demonstrating a lack of understanding about how symbols work. Culturally speaking, symbols derive their power and significance from a widespread agreement as to their general meaning. This agreement is often induced and enforced diachronically, when the older generation teaches the symbol's meaning to the younger generation.

It may sound strange to give so much legitimacy to the "because we said so" crowd, but the saying-so is integral to what symbols are. The implication, then, is that the critic of Christianity can't afford to be too smug about the "original" significance of the Christmas tree. Those pagans came to an agreement about what their tree meant, after all, and they may have done it in consonance with-- or in defiance of-- some even earlier, pre-pagan tradition.

If religious symbols are too abstract for you, let's think about this problem in terms of language. The sound "ah" occurs in American English, but it's also an ancient sound-- one of three sounds common to all languages (the other two being "ee" and "ooh"). Does the ancient pedigree of "ah" make it somehow un-English? To put matters another way: "ah" might have come from our distant past, and might currently be found in other languages, but does that make it any less a part of English phonetics? Conclusion: "ah" is English-- not originally English, nor exclusively English, but legitimately English all the same. And why? Because users of English have, through a massive and self-perpetuating agreement, chosen to include the sound as part of their language.*

By the same token, then, the tree known by Christians as "the Christmas tree" is certainly not exclusively Christian, nor is it originally Christian, but it is nonethless legitimately Christian. Why? Because Christians have made it so.

There's another side to this issue, though: we should take a moment to consider the Christians who get upset upon hearing that their precious symbol doesn't originate with their tradition. My question to them would be: why are you upset? Did you really think Christianity wasn't composed of non-Christian elements? As Thich Nhat Hanh notes in his Living Buddha, Living Christ, all religious traditions are composed of elements not of that tradition. Viewed in terms of Buddhist metaphysics, religious traditions are dependently co-arisen: they form out of a matrix of intercausality. The late Father Cenkner, one of my mentors at Catholic University, used to say: "It's all syncretism!"**

I personally have no trouble with the claim that the Christmas tree isn't originally Christian, or that prayer pre-dates Christianity, or that Madonna-and-Child imagery is very likely derived from Isis-and-Horus iconography, or that sacred birth narratives and the concept of resurrection are pre-Christian. None of this changes the fact that almost all Christians pray, that many Christians set up Christmas trees for Christian purposes at Christmas, or that the Madonna and Child are wholly integral to the Christian tradition. A healthy Christian attitude would be to realize that one is part of a constantly evolving and interwoven global network of tradition-streams. In the meantime, the non-Christian who attempts to claim that "aspect X of Christianity isn't originally Christian" needs to realize that this in no way implies that "aspect X isn't Christian"-- a claim that is demonstrably false.

*Some scholars have proposed a "language model" of religious pluralism that makes religious traditions analogous to languages. The model is helpful in elucidating certain aspects of how religions may have evolved over time, but I question the model's effectiveness in resolving what many pluralists see as the basic problem of religious diversity-- namely, the fact that the various traditions, in their doctrines and metaphysics, often make conflicting or even contradictory truth claims. If the language model is meant to be used normatively, it implies that no one religion is any more legitimate than another-- an implication rejected not only by divergent pluralists but also by inclusivists and exclusivists. Even convergent pluralists exclude certain traditions from the sphere of legitimacy; Satanism immediately comes to mind.

**You're allowed to make sweeping generalizations about the universe when you're over 70, even if you're an academic. In his defense, I'll note that Father Cenkner said this outside of the class context. While the sentiment lacks the usual pile of scholarly hedges and qualifications, I still think it's basically correct when applied to religion. Can you name a causa sui religious tradition?


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Sting lyrics: "La belle dame sans regrets"

From Sting's album Mercury Falling, we have "La belle dame sans regrets." Lyrics:

Dansons tu dis
Et moi, je suis
Mes pas sont gauches
Mes pieds tu fauches
Je crains les sots
Je cherche en vain les mots
Pour m'expliquer ta vie, alors
Tu mens, ma soeur
Tu brises mon coeur
Je pense, tu sais
Erreurs, jamais
J'écoute, tu parles
Je ne comprends pas bien
La belle dame sans regrets

Je pleure, tu ris
Je chante, tu cries
Tu sèmes les graines
D'un mauvais chêne
Mon blé s'envole
Tu en a ras-le-bol
J'attends, toujours
Mes cris sont sourds
Tu mens, ma soeur
Tu brises mon coeur
Je pense, tu sais
Erreurs, jamais
J'ecoute, tu parles
Je ne comprends pas bien
La belle dame sans regrets...

The French strikes me as a bit awkward in this song, but it's not a bad song for beginning students to try and figure out. By my estimation, a French 2 student should be able to translate most, if not all, of the lyrics.

Be careful, though, O Student, because some of the words might not mean what you think they mean! For example: the phrase "je suis" doesn't mean "I am." The suis comes from a different verb! Can you guess which one? Also: the masculine plural adjective sourds doesn't mean "deaf." Can you guess what Sting means by "mes cris sont sourds"?

Have fun decoding! And if you want to hear the song itself, YouTube has several vids. Here's one. It's interesting to hear Sting's accent: he tends to roll his "r" sounds, as if he were singing in Spanish. This might simply be because he can't speak French all that well, or it might be that the French he's learned is more southern in character. When I lived in Nice, I heard plenty of trilled and rolled "r"s.


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

finding connections

One thing we like to do in American education is encourage students to think. Higher-level thinking involves synthesis, the act of finding previously-unseen connections and/or engaging in creative rearrangements.

Try this on for size: see what sorts of connections you can find between these apparently unconnected things:

1. diet/nutrition and gun violence

2. hairstyle and presidential elections

3. Governor Rick Perry and Mahatma Gandhi

And see what people have written about the connections between these things:

1. religion and life expectancy

2. heart attack and cancer

3. texting and car accidents

4. the speed of light and GPS systems

5. parking lots and national defense

6. solar activity and terrestrial climate

7. manufacturing and frogs

8. invasive foreign species and restaurant menus

9. Marriott and the moon

Have fun! Leave your insights in the comments thread.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Monday, December 19, 2011


Whether you're taking the SAT, the GRE, or the TOEFL, the harsh fact of the matter is that you'll be undergoing an endurance test. Such standardized exams aren't merely a measure of your verbal and mathematical ability; they're also a test of your stamina and willpower.

All of these tests are somewhere in the neighborhood of four hours long. If you're tired during the first hour, it's hard to imagine how well you'll do during the final three. If you're pumped up with nervous energy at the beginning, but feel yourself crashing by the halfway point, you're toast.

Takers of the computer-based GRE are allowed a ten-minute break after the first couple hours; it's the only official break (other breaks may be possible by special request, but I don't think they stop the clock for you). High schoolers taking the SAT I will normally get several short breaks (about five minutes) and one long break (about 30 minutes). For TOEFL takers, ETS gives one sanctioned break and allows testers to take additional breaks without stopping the clock.

Obviously, most testers will prefer to tough it out and stay at their desk except during the mandatory breaks. This means that, before the test, testers should get themselves mentally and physically ready for the ordeal ahead.

The most common and long-standing piece of advice is to sleep well the night before the test. Another bit of practical wisdom is to work on practice problems just before going to sleep so as to be in the proper frame of mind on test day. Manhattan Prep's GRE blog also recommends watching one's nutrition: a tester should eat well and go for complex carbs and natural sugars on the morning of the test: oatmeal, wheat bread, fruit, etc. will break down slowly, releasing energy in a steady stream, thus reducing the chance of a high-and-crash, such as when one eats processed sweets (think: candy, Pop Tarts, etc.).

What you do before the day of the test will affect your performance on the test. If you cram the day before, sleep fitfully the night before, wake up tired and anxious the morning of the test, and feel yourself drowsing (or becoming generally unfocused) during the test, you aren't doing yourself any favors, and you shouldn't be surprised at your low score when test results are sent out.

Keep in mind that knowledge isn't enough for these standardized tests: endurance matters.


Friday, December 16, 2011

my talk with a Zen master

NB: This is a repost from my blog Kevin's Walk. The original post can be found here.

The following is a transcript of a talk I had with Genjo Marinello, who heads up Choboji, a Rinzai Zen temple in Seattle, Washington. I was at Choboji in mid-June [2008], and felt very welcome at the temple, even though I was a mess during meditation the following morning (as I've written before, the Japanese way of handling zazen is markedly different from the Korean way of approaching ch'am-seon). The transcript has been edited for style and content. The original recording is not currently available online.

KEVIN: I think we're go.

GENJO: All right!

KEVIN: OK. Well, first off, I'm acquainted with the Korean pronunciation of a lot of Chinese characters, but "Genjo" means what?

GENJO: It could mean several things. The two characters in my name, given to me by my ordination teacher quite some time ago now, back in 1979, are the characters gen and jo. Gen, in this case, is the character sometimes translated as "heavenly silence"; it could be translated as "essential mystery"; the most literal translation is "the black before black before black."

KEVIN: Huh. Interesting.

GENJO: And gen-cha, in Japanese, is very black tea. And jo is the character for "realize." So: "realizing the black before black before black" is my name.

KEVIN: So then, having put those two characters together, "realizing the black before black before black," what does that mean?

GENJO: A dharma name is something you aspire to, and in this case, I aspire to the realization of what is the mystery of the universe, and he [i.e., the ordination teacher] saw some potential in me back then, that I would be able to experience in an intuitive way and relate with the mystery of the universe. So that was his dharma name for me-- that I would be someone who not only could intuit what the black before black before black was, but share it with others.

KEVIN: OK. How does one share something like that?

GENJO: We're doing it right now. You know, it doesn't have to be through words; just through the presence of one's ordinary activity would be best. But certainly, and also in dharma talks, trying to explain the ancient dialogues between masters and disciples, and making, say, ancient Chinese poetry accessible to modern American idiom.

KEVIN: Is that part of what happens here at your community?

GENJO: [nods]

KEVIN: I notice you're wearing an aikido shirt. [NB: I don't want to give the impression that Genjo was sitting on his front porch while wearing a full-dress aikido uniform, which might be a breach of aikidoka etiquette; he was, instead, wearing a shirt with some sort of aikido logo on it, and this had caught my eye.] When I was walking up here, I saw there was an aikido--

GENJO: Dojo.

KEVIN: Dojo. And when I was in Bellingham, there was an aikido dojo very close to the Red Cedar Zen Center. It's just a random connection, but it makes me wonder: do you have any connections with those communities?

GENJO: I do. Morihei Ueshiba O Sensei was the founder of aikido in Japan, of that particular martial art form, which [essentially] blends judo and kendo, which is sword. And he very much was taken with Zen, and didn't insist, but invited his senior students to also practice Zen. And most of the major art forms in Japan, anyway, turned to Zen as an augmentation of that art form, so whether it's martial arts or the high arts of calligraphy or painting or pottery-making or flower-arranging or whisking tea, they all turned to Zen as a way to augment or nurture their art form, and this was no exception when it came to O-Sensei [and] aikido; some of his senior students in the West have followed that, and I'm sort of the aikido-- I'm the Zen master that the aikidoists use, at least with a particular branch. There are many branches of aikido, in the same way that there are many branches of Zen. But there's something called the Birankai International branch of aikido, and I'm their Zen teacher.

KEVIN: Oh, OK. So does that mean that you visit the dojo and do your teaching there, or do they come here?

GENJO: Both. Our most intensive retreat is in the winter, and at our winter retreat, very often, senior students and instructors from Birinkai International will travel from all over the world to come to our retreat here in Seattle. It's also true that I go to Michigan, Pennsylvania, San Diego, Birmingham, England, and Strasbourg, France, and teach Zen to aikidoists in those locations.

KEVIN: Oh, wow! Fantastic! In France... you speak French?

GENJO: No, but I have good translators.

KEVIN: Oh, that's good. I was reading a book that came out in [French] first, and then it came out in English maybe a year or so later. It's called The Monk and the Philosopher. It was a dialogue between father and son: Jean-François Revel, the French humanist philosopher, and Mathieu Ricard, his son, who became a monk in the Tibetan tradition, and is the Dalai Lama's French interpreter whenever the Dalai Lama goes to France.

GENJO: Oh, how interesting!

KEVIN: I think the dialogue was mainly about how the father couldn't really understand why his son, who had been on a path toward science, suddenly switched gears and went into Buddhism. For you, what-- are you a cradle Buddhist, or--

GENJO: I'm a cradle nothing. My parents were both fallen-away Catholics, as they were married to other people when I was born, so that didn't sit too well with the Catholic Church on either side of that family, and my mother was afraid that if she let me too close to the Church, I would've been a priest, so the standard joke in my family, from my mother, is: "I shoulda' let you become a priest. At least then, you'd have hair!" And--

KEVIN: So in your strain of Zen here, you can't have hair.

GENJO: We shave our heads.

KEVIN: You do that, like, every two weeks or so, or--

GENJO: Oh, no; every few days.

KEVIN: Every few days. [At] many Korean temples, they do it every two weeks, like a big shaving event.

GENJO: Yeah, in Japan, it's on any day that has a 4 or a 7. I don't know why, but any day-- so the 4th, the 7th--

KEVIN: The 24th--

GENJO: Right. The 14th, the 17th...

KEVIN: Interesting. So, here, what-- would I call this building that we're sitting at now... would you consider this a temple, or what should I call this?

GENJO: We call it a temple. It's really more like a city center. It's not formally a temple, it doesn't look like a temple, it doesn't act formally like a temple would in Japan or Korea or Vietnam, but it's a little bit more on the temple side than it is on the center side. Basically, this is the Zen house, where my wife and I and the two dogs live, and there's one student who lives here, too, and then the group comes every day to sit, and four times a year, we do a week-long retreat.

KEVIN: This group is the one I'll be meeting tomorrow?

GENJO: Correct.

KEVIN: OK. How big is the group?

GENJO: Our mailing list is a hundred; our active paying membership is about forty; the number of people who will be here tomorrow morning, on any given morning-- about a dozen.

KEVIN: You told me about your aikido affiliation, but your strain, uh... how would you describe that affiliation?

GENJO: My sect of Buddhism?

KEVIN: Well, yeah, I guess that, and any specific organizations you belong to.

GENJO: Well, this temple, as I am, [is] in the Rinzai form, which would be Lin Chi in Chinese--

KEVIN: Im-jae in Korean.

GENJO: Right. So we're in that sect of Buddhism. And then within the Japanese stream, we're subsection Hakuin, so we're a Rinzai-Hakuin line. We're loosely affiliated-- we're definitely associated and loosely affiliated, though there isn't a direct financial link or directorial link, but we're associated with one of two Hakuin-Rinzai monasteries in the United States. There's an active one in Los Angeles and another active one in New York. And there is one on Whidbey Island that's also Rinzai Zen, but the teacher comes only twice a year. There are residential teachers in New York and Los Angeles: Joshu Sasaki-roshi in Los Angeles and Eido Shimano-roshi in New York. And of those two mother temples here in the United States of the Japanese Hakuin-Rinzai line, I'm most closely associated with the New York Zendo.

KEVIN: OK. So "Genjo" is how I should address you? You say it's your dharma name--

GENJO: The complete title would be "Genjo Osho"; "Genjo Osho-san" would be the most formal.

KEVIN: (repeating) Genjo Osho-san.


KEVIN: You speak Japanese? You trained in Japan?

GENJO: I was trained in Japan, briefly, and I speak a little Japanese. (speaks in Japanese)-- which means, "I humbly beseech you, I really don't speak much Japanese at all."

KEVIN: I caught the "ma-sen"-- "don't," "not," negation.

GENJO: That's right.

KEVIN: And "nihongo"-- I caught that part, too. I don't speak any Japanese at all. When I went to Japan [once], I had to stay for a day. I was in Fukuoka because I was changing my visa status. I don't know very many kanji, and I don't speak a lick of Japanese, so it was the first time I'd ever felt totally lost. I'd been in Korea, and so, going to Japan, I saw a lot of things that looked similar, but it was really a cool feeling to just kind of realize: "I can't say anything to anybody!"

GENJO: Of course, they looked at you and probably thought that you might be able to say something.

KEVIN: That's-- that's possible. Well, actually, in Korea, though, they don't look at me and see a Korean. They usually just see an American.* Whereas when I was in France, they saw: "Vous avez l'air asiatique," you know-- "You look Asian." That was the first thing they caught on [to].

GENJO: Clearly, you speak French.

KEVIN: Yeah, I was a French teacher.


KEVIN: So, all right, let's turn a little bit to interreligious issues, because I have a feeling tomorrow, in a half-hour, I'm not gonna be able to get much substance in that [time]. Your background is very interesting.

GENJO: Pretty unchurched.

KEVIN: "A cradle nothing," as you said. "Pretty unchurched"... oh, so you're familiar with that term! I thought that only Christians tossed that around.

GENJO: Well, I still grew up in the Judeo-Christian tradition, so I understand the things, and about the same time I found Zen, or a few years after, I found Quakers. So I'm also a Quaker.


GENJO: And I'm a member of the University Friends Meeting here in town.

KEVIN: You do self-identify as a Quaker--

GENJO: Correct--

KEVIN: As well as a Zen master?

GENJO: Correct. And there are a number of Quakers from the University Friends Meeting who sit here at the temple. So there's definitely a crosscurrent there. There's also a UCC minister, who'll probably be here tomorrow morning; an Episcopal priest, a woman, who comes here to sit; there's people who have a Jewish background who come here to sit...

KEVIN: What do you think these people are doing this for? These people coming from very specific traditions, they sit zazen here. Why are they doing that?

GENJO: You know, meditation, whether it's called "centering prayer," or it's called "contemplation," or it's called "meditation"... my attitude is that it all gets to the same place.

In many Christian traditions, prayer or contemplation or centering prayer is not terribly strong-- not nearly as strong as it's been handed off in the Buddhist tradition. And even Quakers, who are used to having an hour in silence, sort of once or twice a week... you know, we do an hour of silence every single day. So even for Quakers, who are a contemplative branch of Christianity, it's not as sharply honed.

So I think a number of people who want a contemplative part of their religious spiritual life can turn to Zen, and either identify as Buddhists or not, but use the tools that have been handed off from the Zen tradition as a way to deepen their spirituality, period. And whether that spirituality is Christian-based or Buddhist-based doesn't much matter to the people who come. It's deepening their sense of touching the divine, however they define it-- spirit, Ground of Being, however they define it.

And we're not so tightly wound up in words or definitions, especially in the Zen tradition; we're much more interested in the experience, and the commonality of the experience, at least from my reading and my cross-religious endeavors. The genuineness and universality of the experience seems to be anywhere and everywhere. Zen just happens to have the tools that appeal most to me, that help me, speaking for myself, go the deepest quickest, or more solidly, in a rooted way. I obviously am a Buddhist in the sense that I'm a Zen Buddhist priest, but I don't really cling to definitions of what "-ist" I am-- Christian or Buddhist or... that seems so, to me, superficial, and I think [that's true for] many others who come here.

I think the point, at least for the people who come to this temple, is that it [i.e., Zen practice] provides a kind of-- for them-- a direct route to their own sense of the divine and spirituality, and they take that and put it into their ordinary lives, hopefully, and it augments, hopefully, whatever religious tradition they're from, if they're from any. There are many who aren't from any.

KEVIN: I've been talking with other people about that. In Korean, the label for such people is mu-gyo, mu meaning, you know, "not" or "no"--


KEVIN: --and gyo meaning "-ism," tradition, or whatever. You don't belong in any particular... you don't fit into one of those squares.

GENJO: So even though we do very definitely fit into a certain square in terms of tradition, we understand that the tradition is handing off tools, and the tools bring us to a place of no-religion or non-religion. So I like that character mu a lot, of course. In Zen, we use that quite a lot--

KEVIN: The very first koan, right?

GENJO: Yes, indeed. One of your questions on your essay was "What metaphor do you use for the differences between religions?", and I want to give you mine.

KEVIN: Oh, good! Yes! Please! That's a religious pluralism question. I'd love to talk about that all day.

GENJO: To me, the great religious traditions are like trees. They may be entirely different species of trees, but they've all got great trunks, great roots, and beautiful canopies. They may be very different species of tree, but they're still trees. They reach towards the same source, in terms of the water table, and they reach towards the same light. So they stretch in both directions, and they're both trees; they've got a lot more in common than what separates them, and yet they're distinctly and uniquely different. You wouldn't want to say, "Well, because I've got this tree, I don't wanna have that tree." Why can't we have an olive tree and a pine tree and a eucalyptus tree, all right here in the yard? Yeah, that makes better variety! But they do still reach toward the same water table, exactly the same water table, and exactly the same light, and to me, that's how I see different religions.

In terms of Zen and Quakerism, for me again, just speaking for myself, if you thought of two trees of different species, great trees, reaching down to the same water table and the same light, and they're on different banks of the same river-- pretty different, and yet, where their branches intermingle and just gently blend-- for me, [that's] Quakerism and Zen.

Also, people have asked me, "Well, how can you do two traditions at once?" And I say, "Well, I have two legs! I get by just fine with two legs. In fact, I walk better with two legs. You don't have to have one leg; it's perfectly fine to have two legs."

KEVIN: Um... where did I wanna go with that... The question of the same source and the same light: would you apply that to just the major religious traditions that are out there, or would you apply [that] to even some of the wackier stuff that's around? I'm being a little bit difficult on purpose, here.

GENJO: I really can't say and I don't want to venture, because there's only two traditions that I've explored. I mean, I've done reading in Taoism and Islam and Judaism, and from what I can see-- very superficially, because I haven't delved into them greatly-- the great religious traditions do all do that [i.e., reach toward the same water and light], but I haven't explored sufficiently the others to say. I have no right to say. The only ones I have experience with to some degree are Zen and Quakerism. On those two fronts, I can say, because I'm practicing both traditions.

KEVIN: So there are at least two trees in this forest.

GENJO: There are at least two; I think I see many more. And whether it's a relatively new tree, or trunk of a tree, time will tell. But unless I investigated more directly, how could I say?

KEVIN: Right. I think one of my questions, probably not a very good question for you and for this community, was about marrying outside of the community and so on...

GENJO: (chuckling) Uh, yeah; probably moot. People want me to marry them, and they're from two different traditions, I'm happy-- I've done several ceremonies where we've had a priest from both traditions, or as the priest, I've mixed in elements from two traditions. I've had many people who would normally identify as agnostic, but have some sense that there's some unifying reality, turn to Zen and to Zen priests because they want something more than just a secular union, but they don't want something with too many trappings of the religions that they grew up in, and yet they do sense some kind of unifying reality that they want to speak to in the course of this ceremony. And I'm happy to do [it] that way, too. I say, "You can have anything on the altar you want." It can be a rock, it can be a tree... I ask that there be flowers, representing compassion, and a candle, representing wisdom. But anything else they want to put on there is fine.

KEVIN: Do you do some counseling for people, whether it's couples or one-on-one?

GENJO: Mm-hm. I do.

KEVIN: How does that work, usually, I mean, you don't have to go into specific cases, but just in general...

GENJO: Well, first of all, since I am a Zen Buddhist priest, I'm not gonna marry somebody that wants an entirely secular ceremony. I say, "Hey, look: here are some kinds of ceremonies that I've done, and can you pick and choose with what I've done to make something that works for you?" And if it doesn't [work out], then it's not a good fit, and, you know, you may need to go someplace else to find someone to help you celebrate a "spiritual" ceremony. I don't care if they call it "religious." There's a place on the marriage license that says, "Is it secular or religious?" and I always check "religious" if I'm doing the marriage. But in terms of counseling, mainly I'm looking at whether or not-- I don't care what traditions they're coming from, or whether they promise to bring up their kids in the Buddhist tradition or some other tradition. I'm trying to find out whether or not, as a couple, they have some common ground when it comes to their ideas of spirituality. And also, whether or not they have common ground as a couple: are they missing something that I might be able to help them see? And is this gonna be a couple that I feel [has a] sufficient bond to celebrate? If I don't feel like there's a sufficient bond, then I wanna work with them a bit to discover whether or not there is, then [if there's no such bond] I don't wanna get involved, either.

KEVIN: You're talking mainly about up to the marriage, right? I think my question was more along the lines of, uh, afterward-- you know: conflict arises or something... have you engaged in that--

GENJO: I've done that, too, from the Buddhist perspective, but I'm also certified as a spiritual director, and I'm also a licensed mental health counselor, so I've got quite a bit of background in that way. I have a private[?]** practice, but I also see people wearing either my Zen Buddhist hat or my therapist hat or my spiritual director hat. So yes, I do do that kind of counseling.

KEVIN: I'm curious as to how that works in Korea. I know it [i.e., counseling by Buddhist clergy] happens. I've seen ads for that sort of thing-- some smiling monk, a little phone number, but I don't know how that differs or how it's similar to psychotherapy as traditionally imagined in the West...

GENJO: I suspect it's very different, but I don't know, because I haven't been to Korea, or recently to Japan, even, to know. Here's another thing: I think Buddhism-- as it's moved from its original source, India, and has moved across the Asian continent to the US-- has picked up things, especially the branch of Zen Buddhism. When it moved to China, it picked up a lot of Taoism, and when it moved to Japan, it also picked up quite a bit of the Shinto sort of animistic ancestral component. I don't know whether it [i.e., Buddhism] did that in Korea, too. And as it moves here to the West, I think it's picking up a lot of psychology. And I think that's a wonderful blending, and it says a lot for the tradition that it's kind of, "Oh! That can be added to this! We can see how that can blend." It's a big jump to blend with whatever is indigenous to that location. I really like that about Buddhism.

KEVIN: I think a lot of religions, when they move from place to place, culture to culture, whatever, they do begin to pick up some trappings from the local--

GENJO: Sure.

KEVIN: I mean, if you go to Tibet, you see a lot of shamanism inside Tibetan Buddhism--

[Editor's note: I said the above so glibly that you might get the impression I've been to Tibet. Full disclosure: the only Asian country I've visited or lived in is South Korea. I've spent a day in Fukuoka, Japan, and several hours in Osaka and the Namba shopping district, but none of that really counts; in all cases, I was merely waiting for a new visa from the Korean Consulate or on layover as I waited for a connecting flight to Seoul/Incheon. So, no: I've never been to Tibet, or to any Asian country other than South Korea.]

GENJO: Exactly. And even Christianity, when it moved to South America or Central America, picked up a lot of indigenous components--

KEVIN: Right, right. Absolutely. The question of conflict spurred by religion: what's your diagnosis? I mean, if I take something like, say, Nigeria-- Christian-Muslim [conflict]-- how would you analyze that situation?

GENJO: As Buddhism in general would: that it's ego. Ego can corrupt anything. Whether it's individualistic ego or nationalistic ego or cultural ego, ego corrupts everything. Ego's all about having enough or having more, or being better, or being best. It can take the highest teaching and easily corrupt it to its cause of being better or best or more. And whether it appears in an individualistic way, or a more sophisticated or complex social, cultural, or nationalistic way, it's still ego. From the Buddhist perspective, it is the root of all so-called evil. It's where we get most corrupted. In Zen we would also say ego is nothing but no-ego; it's just one end of a continuum, but we so often get isolated in just that end of the continuum that we become quite corrupted and can do quite a lot of harm, nationalistically or even environmentally: raping the planet, our own mother. So whether it's conflict between natural resources, or conflict between nations, or conflict between cultures, or conflict between religions, from a Buddhist perspective, it all comes back to ego.

KEVIN: That sounds a little bit similar to a dharma talk I heard in Korea. There's an American monk there named Hyeon Gak [NB: romanized spellings vary: Hyun Gak, Hyon Gak, Hyungak, Hyeongak, etc.; credit to The Marmot's Hole, where I first saw this video]-- I don't know if you've heard of him. He's got some videos on-- some people put them up on YouTube and so on. He speaks fluent Korean; he's been living there for years and years now. He was talking about flipping channels-- watching the news on one channel, and he saw the people [on TV] were really angry and holding up their holy book and-- [mimics a demonstrator screaming in anger while holding up a holy book]-- like that, neck cords out and everything... and then he flipped the channel over to a conflict in America, and it was about the Ten Commandments being put into a courtroom, and the people were standing outside, demonstrating, and they had their holy book, and they were doing this [mimics angry demonstrator again] and he was like, "You know... it's the same thing." Pretty much the same thing. So I see where you're coming from.

OK, so, uh, I don't wanna hold you much longer, but one more question: What is God?

GENJO: The lovely thing about Zen is that we can say, "No-knowing." Beyond any kind of packaging. Even to use the word "God" or "Buddha-nature" or "Tao" or "dharma" or "sunyata" or "Ground of Being"-- anytime you put a name on something, you're already conceptualizing something that can't be conceptualized, that is inconceivable. And if it's not inconceivable, you've missed it, and if it's inconceivable, it cannot be grasped. So we're quite comfortable saying, "No-knowing," and there's actually a great relief in being able to say, "Can't be known. Cannot be said." But that doesn't mean it can't be experienced. It can definitely be experienced.

KEVIN: It should be, probably, the most ordinary thing, right?

GENJO: It is the most ordinary thing, if we have the eyes to see it or ears to hear it.*** It's the most ordinary thing, clanging at us in the wind chime or the motion of the leaves or the falling rain. It's shouting at us all the time, but usually we don't see it. However, the good news is there are ways to nurture our capacity to see what we think of as the divine in the ordinary, and that's exactly what Zen is all about. And when you have that experience, that realization of the divine in the ordinary, it's not only a relief, it's a blessing. It certainly generates a great deal of compassionate open-heartedness and peace of mind at the same time. If you're feeling that, you don't need to know.

KEVIN: Again, that's very similar to what I heard from Zen Master Seung Sahn, who was the teacher of the American monk I talked about before. He [Seung Sahn] wrote a book called Only Don't Know. "You have to keep that don't-know mind!" That's how he put it.

Well, I have a thousand more questions I could ask you, but I think I'll stop here and let you go.

GENJO: I'll let you get a good rest. I think your quest and your trek are really quite admirable. Happy to host you. See you tomorrow morning.

That marks the end of the recorded exchange between Genjo and me. I hope you've enjoyed reading it. I wish I had recorded the subsequent conversation with Genjo's meditation group; I didn't take notes and can no longer rely upon my shaky memory to relay who said what during that fascinating exchange (which, unlike my prediction, did turn out to be substantive).

I'll be writing some commentaries about this exchange as time goes on; in the meantime, I'll continue to prep the transcript of the hour-long dialogue between Brother Luke and me at St. Martin's University. Can't say when that will appear, but it'll appear. Sit tight.

Oh, by the way... this post is Number 500! We're at the half-millennium mark.

*This was one of those regrettable racial slips that comes from hanging around Koreans, especially older-generation Korean-Americans or Koreans in Korea (i.e., Koreans who haven't been fully assimilated into American culture). The word "American" is often a substitute for "Caucasian" or "white" in the Korean mind. All other races are swept under the rug. If you find yourself hanging around Koreans, you might find yourself sucked into this same linguistic vortex... unless, of course, you're a non-white American! If you hear a 50-year-old ajumma in Annandale, Virginia say, "Yeah, my daughter's dating an American guy," that probably means, "My daughter's dating a white guy."

**I wasn't clear, in listening to the audio, on whether the word was "private" or "prior." I think "private" makes more sense in this context. Genjo...?

***Compare what Genjo says here with Hyeon Gak's Jesus quotation (I'll need to dig up a scriptural reference, but quick online research reveals one possibility to be Mark 8:18, in which Jesus seems to phrase the eyes/ears matter as a question, not a declaration) from the above-linked video of the Hyeon Gak interview.


Thursday, December 15, 2011

French twins, triplets, etc.

Many French words that modify nouns will vary according to gender and number, and can often be written in clusters, like so:

le, la, les (the)

mon, ma, mes (my)
ton, ta, tes (your)
son, sa, ses (his/her/its)
notre, nos (our)
votre, vos (your)
leur, leurs (their)

du, de l', de la, des (some)

ce, cet, cette, ces (this/that)

A: C'est votre chien, monsieur?
B: Oui, c'est mon chien.

A: Je vous présente ma soeur.
B: Enchanté.

A: Ah! J'ai enfin trouvé ton livre!
B: Merci!

A: Où sont mes chaussures?
B: Tes chaussures sont sous ton lit.

A: Où est note voiture?
B: Aucune idée.

A: Leur fils a beaucoup grandi!
B: Et notre fils a beaucoup rétréci.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

being American and writing in UK English

Some Americans like writing certain words in UK English. I find this pretentious, and if I were British, I'd probably find it laughable, too, because unless you're willing to "go all the way" and write in consistently British English, it seems silly to write only certain words that way. About the only people who can get away with UK-style spellings, while writing in a distinctly North American voice, are Canadians. Remember that, awkward American Anglophiles: if you're not Canadian, and you're writing in inconsistently British English, you're just making yourself look ridiculous.


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

this week's MGRE Math Beast Challenge problem

From here:

"Walter's Exercise"

Every day, Walter burns 500 calories from cardio exercise. On some days, he also burns an additional 600 calories from weight training. If, over a 240-day period, Walter burns an average of 850 calories per day from cardio exercise and weight training combined, then on how many more days did Walter engage in both cardio exercise and weight training than in cardio exercise only?

(A) 40
(B) 60
(C) 80
(D) 100
(E) 140

My answer will appear in the comments.


MGRE problem: wrong!

Even a teacher can get things wrong, and this time around, I did.

My answer to last week's Math Beast Challenge problem turns out to be incorrect. You'll recall that my answer was (D); MGRE's answer is (C): the quantities are equal. And they're right. But why? Because of one little fact about right triangles that I had missed: the triangle's altitude, drawn from the vertex of the two legs to a point on the hypotenuse, creates two right triangles that are geometrically similar to the large triangle. I should have realized this. Anyway, without further ado, here's part of MGRE's explanation for why (C) is correct:

This could be solved with the Pythagorean Theorem, as there are three right triangles in the figure: the small one on the left, the bigger one on the right, and the largest right triangle comprised of the other two. It should also be noted that these three triangles are similar triangles; that is, the three triangles have the same three angle measures.

For the largest triangle, a2 + b2 = c2 so by substitution, Quantity B = hc2. Now that Quantity B is more similar in form to Quantity A, we will compare.

Quantity A: abc
Quantity B: hc2

Divide both quantities by c. Dividing both quantities by the same positive number will not change the relative values; the larger quantity will still be larger. This comparison becomes

Quantity A: ab
Quantity B: hc

For similar triangles, the ratios of side lengths will be equal. For example, the ratio of the short leg to the hypotenuse will be the same in each triangle.

(short leg)/(hypotenuse) = a/c (from the largest triangle) = h/b (from the triangle on the right)

a/c = h/b

By cross-multiplying, we conclude that ab = hc and thus the two quantities are equal.

MGRE's explanation continues, but it's basically a plug-in-the-numbers approach. What bugs me is that I was obviously on the right track, but I stopped in my ruminations before I'd figured out the "similar right triangles" part. Had I done that, I'd have seen that the equality I had discovered for one case (45-45-90 triangles) must also obtain for all cases.

Live and learn, eh?


Monday, December 12, 2011

"Will reading old books help my vocabulary on the SAT?"

So you're stuck reading Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Melville's Moby-Dick. You find yourself wondering whether the effort will be worth it: will any of this reading pay off when it's time to take those dreaded SATs? Can reading old books help me develop my SAT vocabulary?

The short answer to this question is: probably. Why? Because many of the words used in those old books are still very much in circulation.

You have two types of lexical libraries in your head. In linguistics, these libraries are called "passive vocabulary" and "active vocabulary." Passive vocabulary is associated with listening and reading; active vocabulary, which is usually smaller, is associated with speaking and writing. Passive vocabulary develops first: as a baby, you spend about a year producing no understandable words, and during that time, your rapidly self-wiring brain is greedily absorbing all the language it hears. Even when you finally start speaking, your passive vocabulary continues to grow. Trying to get your active and passive vocabularies to be about the same level is one of the Great Quests of your life. Many people are voracious readers; this by no means guarantees they'll be competent writers.

This biological reality obtains all throughout high school: your brain is still self-wiring, believe it or not, so everything you cram into it will have some sort of influence. The authors you're reading in English class are master word-slingers; they don't write a lot of "Duhhhh..." and "Uhhhh..." dialogue. Instead, they tend to lace their prose with phrases like "a vexatious situation" and "her surreptitious glance"-- almost as if they knew that, over 150 years later, someone would be needing such vocabulary to score well on the SAT.

The best thing you can do for yourself is to be curious about the words you encounter in your reading. Look up every single word you don't know; don't simply rely on context, because context can be misleading. Make flashcards, write sentences, look the words up on Google to see how they're used by others. Do everything you can to help yourself! Don't act as if your test results are a matter of fate. They aren't. You control your destiny, which means you're responsible for how well you perform on those crucial exams.


Friday, December 9, 2011

a mindful pilgrimage

I've been following the blog In the Footsteps of Wonhyo since I'd learned about it. The blog is about a group of fellows who are attempting to follow the route taken by Wonhyo, he of "water from a skull" fame. The pilgrimage serves several purposes, one of which is the promotion of spiritual tourism in Korea.

The blog has already taught me a great deal about both the route Wonhyo took and some of the stories associated with the monk. If you haven't done so already, please consider adding In the Footsteps of Wonhyo to your daily blogging reads.

(Wonhyo even has a martial arts routine named after him!)


Thursday, December 8, 2011

les verbes CONNAÎTRE et SAVOIR

The French have two principal verbs meaning "to know." The verb connaître means "to know" in the sense of "to be familiar with." An example might be the sentence Romeo connaît Juliet. The verb savoir, by contrast, is more about knowing facts. Jacques sait que deux et deux font quatre.

Here are these irregular verbs' respective present-tense conjugations.

Je connais
Tu connais
Il connaît

Nous connaissons
Vous connaissez
Ils connaissent

Je sais
Tu sais
Elle sait

Nous savons
Vous savez
Elles savent

See if you can fill in the blanks with the proper verb, correctly conjugated.

1. _____-tu Michèle?

2. Vous _____ bien que votre frère n'est toujours pas arrivé.

3. _____-vous le Président des Etats-Unis?

4. Qui va gagner? Dieu _____ .

5. Nous ne _____ pas ce qui va se passer.

6. Je _____ que la France se trouve en Europe.

7. Elles ne _____ pas le patron.

8. _____-tu qui je suis? (Be careful! Something of a trick question. This is also the first line of "The Bourne Identity.")

ANSWERS (highlight to see):

1. Connais
2. savez
3. Connaissez
4. sait
5. savons
6. sais
7. connaissent
8. Sais ("savoir" is used because this question is about knowing a fact)


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

the Latin word capita

The Latin word capita means "head." If you're a Spanish learner, you may know the word cabeza, "head," which comes from the Latin. Several English words and expressions come from this Latin root. Here are a few examples.

per capita: This is an expression that means "per person." How do we count people? We do a head count, right?

capital: A capital city is the head city of a country.

decapitate: Literally, to "de-head," though we might more naturally say "behead."

capitulate: This means "surrender"; I tend to think of the notion of bowing one's head in defeat, but the actual etymology refers to putting things in sections (i.e., under headings). See here.

recapitulate: We use this word when we're talking about re-covering, perhaps in summary form, the topics we've just covered in a discussion. When we recapitulate, we're "taking it again from the top," i.e., from the head.


Monday, December 5, 2011

GRE advice: Kaplan and Manhattan Prep

For those looking for GRE-related tips, I can point you to two blogs other than mine:

Kaplan Grad Prep: From the GRE to Your Degree

Manhattan Prep GRE Blog

You can also follow these test prep services on Twitter.


Friday, December 2, 2011

two of my favorite Taoist passages

If someone were to ask me who my favorite philosopher was, I'd say it was Chuang-tzu (known as Jang-ja in Korean). Lao-tzu's Tao Te Ching may be more well-known than the Chuang-tzu, but both works should be taken together as complementary: the dead-seriousness of Lao-tzu needs the lively playfulness of Chuang-tzu.

From each work I have a favorite quote. Let's start with the Tao Te Ching, which contains one of the most powerful summations of the religious outlook I've ever encountered. From Chapter 29:

Try to make this sacred world
into more than what it is,
and you ruin it.

Try to grasp it,
and you lose it.

It's a concise statement of reality's dynamism, and of how useless it is to hold on to things or people. Like trying to grasp water by tightening one's fist, such an attempt is doomed to fail. You can't grasp reality and force it to stop: you're part of reality, and you're moving, too!

The Chuang-tzu, though, it more humorous in its approach to the question of how we relate to ultimate reality. Through words and concepts, the classic demonstrates the uselessness of words and concepts when you're attempting to integrate yourself with the Absolute. In that spirit, then, my favorite passage from the Chuang-tzu:

Now I am going to tell you something...

There is a beginning. There is no beginning of that beginning. There is no beginning of that no beginning of beginning. There is something before the beginning of something and nothing, and something before that. Suddenly there is something and nothing. But between something and nothing, I still don't really know which is something and which is nothing. Now, I've just said something, but I don't really know whether I've said anything or not.

--Chuang Tsu: Inner Chapters, translated by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English, 1974, p. 35

Zen Buddhism, which often takes its cue from philosophical Taoism, speaks of the nondualistic, nondiscursive "don't-know mind," or "beginner's mind," that makes life worth living. In the Christian Bible, the Sermon on the Mount alludes to this non-discriminatory state when Jesus says, "Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God." (Mark 10:14, Matthew 19:14) Jesus isn't speaking of the childish mindset, but of the childlike mindset-- one that doesn't waste time and energy drawing boundaries and creating separation.

A recent Korean Seon (Zen) proverb that can be seen on the wall of Hwagye-sa, a temple in Seoul, says, "All 24 hours of the day, don't make anything." The making, in this case, means the manufacturing of dualistic boundaries: this and that, yes and no, you and me, etc. Such boundaries may have their uses on a practical level, but they obscure the fundamental nonduality of reality.

We're all part of Something Bigger. Whatever that Something is, it's moving. We can't hold on to it, and it's folly to try to explain it. Sure, we can try-- but that Something will elude our grasping minds every time. Better to go with the flow, no?


Thursday, December 1, 2011

les verbes réguliers

You might want to refresh your memory by visiting my old post on conjugation here.

Regular verbs in French come in three flavors: the "-er" verbs, the "-ir" verbs, and the "-re" verbs. If you've revisited the above-linked post, you'll be familiar with the terms infinitive and infinitive stem. Let's look at three typical regular verbs:

INFINITIVE: parler (to speak)
STEM: parl-

INFINITIVE: choisir (to choose)
STEM: chois-

INFINITIVE: vendre (to sell)
STEM: vend-

Conjugation for "-er" verbs involves tacking the following endings onto the stem:

1st person sing. = -e
2nd person sing. = -es
3rd person sing. = -e

1st person pl. = -ons
2nd person pl. = -ez
3rd person pl. = -ent

For parler (to speak/talk), this means a conjugation that looks like this:

je parle
tu parles
il parle

nous parlons
vous parlez
ils parlent

Conjugation for "-ir" verbs involves tacking the following endings onto the stem:

1st person sing. = -is
2nd person sing. = -is
3rd person sing. = -it

1st person pl. = -issons
2nd person pl. = -issez
3rd person pl. = -issent

For choisir (to choose), this means a conjugation that looks like this:

je choisis
tu choisis
elle choisit

nous choisissons
vous choisissez
elles choisissent

Conjugation for "-re" verbs involves tacking the following endings onto the stem:

1st person sing. = -s
2nd person sing. = -s
3rd person sing. = [no ending]

1st person pl. = -ons
2nd person pl. = -ez
3rd person pl. = -ent

For vendre (to sell), this means a conjugation that looks like this:

je vends
tu vends
on vend

nous vendons
vous vendez
ils vendent

Try your hand at conjugating some verbs. Fill in each blank with the appropriate for of the verb or, if the verb form is given, with the appropriate subject pronoun.

1. Max _____ la pelouse. (tondre = to mow)

2. _____ attendons le train. (attendre = to wait for, to await)

3. _____-tu russe? (parler)

4. Elle _____ sur mes chaussures. (vomir = to vomit)

5. _____ restes ici? (rester = to stay)

6. Nous _____ tout ce qu'il faut. (fournir = to furnish/supply)

7. Pierre et Madeline _____ dans la même banque. (travailler = to work)

8. Jacqueline _____ son chat. (nourrir = to feed)

9. Vous _____ souvent? (skier = to ski)

10. Les poules _____ des oeufs. (pondre = to lay [eggs])