Category Archives: Rants and More

Buddha on the Chindwin

One of a series of posts from the Chindwin River in Burma (Myanmar).

Those statues of a fat, laughing Chinese Buddha are no part of Theravada Buddhism in Burma.

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This tattooed monk lived at a hilltop monastery by the River in the Burmese (tribe) village of Ye Khar Tun.

 

Summarizing Buddhist beliefs and practices is like trying to summarize Christianity – recognizing that Christianity includes Mormons, Catholics, Amish, Presbyterians and Pentecostals.  You can’t assume that any specific beliefs and practices are widely or universally shared.   So the stories I got from our Yangon-based guide often differed from what we saw in the rural towns, and from what I learned as I tried to bone up on it.

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My favorite monk of the trip. He used pink smartphone to take pictures of us Americans.

Burmese people generally follow Theravada Buddhistm – as distinct from the various branches of Mahayana Buddhism that dominate in China, Korea, Tibet and Japan.  Theravada Buddhists emphasize the older, original teachings of the original Buddha, Siddhartha Gotama, an actual human person who lived in India and died 2500 years ago. At least in theory, true Theravada Buddhists don’t think Buddha is (or was) a god; they don’t think he’s alive or that he (or anyone else) is immortal; they don’t think he (or anybody else) is up there answering prayers. They don’t believe in the Dalai Lama (that’s peculiar to Tibet, mostly); they don’t believe in that fat, laughing Buddha (that’s a more-recent Chinese invention). They believe in being good, doing good, and thinking good thoughts.  Nirvana isn’t a heaven; it’s a state of mind without suffering.*  In theory, they meditate over the philosophical teachings of the human they call Buddha, but in practice it sure looks like they’re praying to something that’s at least partly supernatural.

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This lady is a yogi. It’s a little bit like a nun or monk, but as she explained it to us, yogis are more focused on helping people (especially the sick) and less involved in philosphical meditations.

Though the Theravadas reject deities and supernatural aspects of Buddhism, most Burmese people believe — to some extent — in an elaborate mix of “spirits” or “nats.”  These nats can be like demons or trolls, like guardian angels, or like patron saints. The nat concept seems to be partly a separate animist religion, partly an element of Burmese Buddhism, and partly a very powerful set of superstitions. Most towns had some sort of shrines to a various nats – often right next to (or even on the grounds of) a Buddhist temple or pagoda.

 

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This shrine — on the site of a Buddhist stupa — is actually devoted to one of the spirits (“nats”) the Burmese people believe in: that statue is NOT Buddha.  The nats are sometimes akin to patron saints (of a town, for example); others are like little ‘gods’ of the seas or mountains.

Some of the nats are river spirits. Our boat (like most of the similar boats we saw on the river) had a couple of big bowls on top of the captain’s wheelhouse, each containing offerings (bananas, coconuts, flowers and water) to the river spirits, and a handful of flowers right on the bow. Despite the prevalence of domesticated pigs in the region, we never ate pork on the boat – because apparently the river spirits don’t allow it. The river spirits kept us from sinking, I guess. But they failed to keep us from getting stuck three times on sandbars.

 

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Stupas like this are all over the place, and in virtually every village — large or small.

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Whatever the specifics of the beliefs, Buddhist buildings, statues, monks, and customs are an enormous part of life in most Burmese towns. It seems there are stupas everywhere. When we arrived in a town, we would almost always be quickly shown (with pride) the local monks or monastery. Multiple villages we visited encouraged us to stay for ceremonies at their temples. We ran across events going on at the monasteries. Even though the monks were always quiet and understated, they were clearly respected leaders in the communities.

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In the grid above:  The huge group of kids that seem to be dancing is in a pagoda building on a weekend (non-school day).  We were told they were learning citizenship and patriotism and manners.  I swear they stood there chanting and gesturing to the same song for at least 30 minutes, and we were told they were there for four hours every week.  That group of five women had just left some sort of meditation class (led by a monk); they were apparently supposed to maintain their meditative state of mind (and keep their hands like that), so they were surprisingly tolerant of the group of photographers that swarmed them as they dispersed. That blue/yellow/red/white/pink thing is the flag of Theravada Buddhism.  Finally, as I took that last image in the grid, our guide was explaining that local Buddhists had — despite their modest means — generously donated those standing fans to cool the place off.  My joke, “Wow, they must be big ‘fans’ of Buddha!” got zero laughs and just one pair of eyes rolling. 

 

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I wanted my picture with this guy.

 

* For God’s sake (pun-ish literality intended), don’t listen to me on matters of religion.  These are just my impressions from a few weeks in a Buddhist culture and from a  tiny bit of brushing up I did so I could better understand what I saw.

Scotland 2014: Lighthouses, Sheep, and Dead Economists


Yes, I’ve been home from Scotland for a while, but I’ve got a few more batches of pictures to share.

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For 190 years, the Eilan Glas lighthouse has sat on the small peninsula off the Isle of Scalpay (a prior lighthouse was on the same spot in the 18th century).  Scalpay is a tiny island recently connected by bridge to the Scottish Isle(s) of Lewis & Harris.  The peninsula it sits on sticks well out into the Minch – the branch of the Atlantic Ocean that goes between the Inner and Outer Hebrides – which is presumably the reason someone thought a lighthouse was needed there in the first place.  In better light, you can see back to the Isle of Skye.

Honestly, it’s probably hard to be more photographically trite than a bunch of cliched pictures of a lighthouse with a sunrise in the background.  But my pre-dawn hike through the sheepfields of Scalpay was a pretty special experience, and – if I may say so myself – these pictures turned out pretty well.  I only got lost (and wet) a little on my two-hour hike — taking the long way — through coastal sheep fields back to my car.

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Much of the land in Scotland’s outer islands is part of a Common Grazing system. Local committees generally supervise the land and decide how much livestock each farmer is allowed to graze.

This area of Scotland has lots of sheep, and lots of land dedicated to “common grazing.” In a common grazing system, grazing lands are controlled by the town or by some sort of semi-governmental cooperative, and the individual citizens have some ability to put their livestock on the land for grazing. But nobody owns the grazing land (or maybe everybody sort of does). This is especially interesting (to me) because there is a famous principle of Economics called the “Tragedy of the Commons,” which analyzes the ups and downs of common ownership of resources like this (mostly the downs – thus the term “tragedy”).   The grazing tragedy occurs because every farmer with access to the common grazing land has the incentive to graze as many animals as possible on the seemingly free public land, so the land becomes overgrazed and barren and thus no good for anyone. This rarely happens on privately owned grazing land, because a property owner tends not to spoil his own land. The moral of the story is that when nobody owns the land (or other resource), nobody has a great incentive to care for it.

Solving the “tragedy” can take two seemingly opposite courses: heavy governmental regulation (like the Grazing Committee); or private ownership of the lands. Environmentalists analogize to the concept to argue that something must be done (i.e. regulation) to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring in the “common” air we breathe and water supplies from which we drink.  Because nobody owns the skies or rivers, people are unfortunately inclined to abuse them absent some government control.  On the other hand, conservatives (more precisely: capitalists) point to the “tragedy” concept to teach that private ownership of resources (where possible) is the best way to ensure that they will be well cared for and preserved. Both these arguments are mostly correct, and that’s why the Tragedy of the Common idea is such an important, interesting concept.

Somehow it’s also interesting that Scotland was also the home of Adam Smith, the 18th Century economist and author of Wealth of Nations. Smith is the one who taught the modern world that a capitalist system – where people act in their own financial interest – generally creates better outcomes for a society because private ownership and profit interests usually lead people to direct resources to their most productive and valuable uses. It’s a little ironic that the odd pocket of common grazing systems persists in the country that is Smith’s homeland. He may be rolling over in his Edinburgh grave.

So if you ever wonder what I think about on a two-hour solo hike through quiet Scottish sheep fields on the way to and from an isolated lighthouse, now you know.

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Sheep graze near Uig Sands on the Isle of Lewis

Child Advocates’ Superheroes Run 2014

Last weekend was the second annual Child Advocates Superheroes Run — “powered” again this year by my buddies at MRE Consulting.  The money raised helps some of the 5,000 or so children in the city of Houston who are in the custody of the state as a result of suspected abuse or neglect.*

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This year’s Superheroes Run was just a little bit better than last year’s.  We had more runners, things went even smoother,  the weather was nicer, people seemed to have even more fun, and most importantly, we raised even more money.  Last year’s Run — our first ever — was a huge success; this year’s was even bigger.  We’re still doing the math, but it looks like we netted over $80k for Child Advocates.

I got to “chair” the Run again this year.  As I said in my post about the 2013 run, this means that all my friends wind up doing lots of work and donate lots of money.  I might feel a little guilty about the arm twisting, except that they’re helping one of the most worthy charities you can imagine.  As I explained last year, abused kids need help and there isn’t a lot of financial support for helping them.  Unlike charities for diseases, culture, churches or colleges, relatively few would-be philanthropists feel a personal connection to child neglect or consider themselves or their families to be at risk, so the big donations can be much harder to come by.

Another reason I support Child Advocates:  It’s what I think of as a “teach ’em to fish” charity.   Recall the saying:  “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach the man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.”  Child Advocates’ impact on those kids alters their whole life.  It doesn’t just provide food or comfort for the moment or the day and leave the beneficiary in need for continuing, further aid.  It has a big impact at a critical time and improves kids’ lives forever.  It’s money well spent.

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Huge thanks to all the sponsors, and a special personal thanks to the presenting sponsor, MRE Consulting, and to my three friends who run the place:  Mike Short (shown in a superman T-shirt with his son, Christopher), Shane Merz (shown in an MRE T-shirt with his WonderWomanWife, Michele), and Dru Niekirk (no good picture this year, but I got him heroically finishing in 2013).  Also a personal thanks to my former law firm, Gibbs & Bruns (and its partners), to my friends and former law partners at Reynolds, Frizzell, Doyle, Allen and Oldham, to Ned Barnett, to Scott & Stacy Humphries, and to Kim David Dr. Paul Klottman at Baylor College of Medicine.

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Child Advocates recruits, trains and supports a small army of about 750 volunteer Advocates, each one generally assigned to one or two kids in CPS custody.  The Advocates’ primary role is to roll up their sleeves, talk to and work with the kids, parents, relatives, neighbors, and counselors, and to help CPS and the Courts to figure out how to resolve each child’s unique situation and get them — somehow — safely out of CPS custody.  The mission is to break the “cycle” of child abuse — whereby abused kids too often grow up to be abusive parents.  Child Advocates is almost thirty years old, so there are now many thousands of heartwarming stories of how Advocates have changed (and even saved) lives.

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Here are some full-time Superheroes — Sonya Galvan (in the sombrero) and several of the staff of Child Advocates. That’s my niece, Caitlin under that Batman mask.

*To protect the privacy of the abused or neglected kids in CPS custody, we (Child Advocates) do not use or reveal images of them in any public promotions or advertisements for Child Advocates.  The kids you see in photos on this page are not kids being served by Child Advocates.  They’re just some of the hundreds who registered for the run and showed up with their families to take part in the event and support Child Advocates.

Scotland 2014 Independence Referendum: God Save the King(dom)?

One thing at stake in the Scottish Independence referendum is the iconic flag of Great Britain – the Union Jack.  They call it the Union Jack because it was the combination — “union” – of the old English and Irish red crosses, and the old Scottish blue flag with a white diagonal cross.  No more union could mean no more Union Jack!

I ran across these three Scottish Independence supporters on the hike up to Ben A'an in Scotland's Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, just days before the Indpendence Referendum

I ran across these three Scottish Independence supporters on a weekend hike up to the tiny peak of Ben A’an in Scotland’s Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, just days before the Independence Referendum.   That’s Loch Katrine in the background.

Since at least the 13th Century times of the real Braveheart, William Wallace, the Scots have variously, vigorously, and repeatedly fought for, gained, and relinquished their independence from England.  In 1707, the Scottish parliament ended (mostly) the centuries of bloody battles, and voluntarily entered an economic union with England, making Scotland officially part of Great Britain, and giving up its separate currency, parliament, and military.

In recent decades, a new movement for Scottish independence has taken root.  The Scots re-formed their own parliament in 1999.  This week, the Scots take to the polls for a referendum on independence from England.

The “Yes” Independence movement has lots of momentum and its rallying cries sound sympathetic – perhaps especially to Americans (and Australians and Canadians and half the planet) who now love the Brits as dear allies, but appreciate having gained our own independence from them all the same.  Beyond the need for new flags, a “Yes” vote (for independence) would surely raise lots of complications.  Would Scotland join NATO (and how would its army be formed)?  The E.U.?  Would it have to start its own currency?  Who can tax the oil revenues from the North Sea?  Who’ll get custody of Queen Elizabeth?  There are lots of predictions of economic and political chaos.

The independence movement makes lots of semi-socialist-sounding promises of government care-taking.  The Economist magazine mocks it gently as offering a “dreamier” vision of Scotland’s future, “promising Scandinavian-style public services supported by taxation closer to American levels,” and concludes that the plan being pitched by the “Yes” men is “fantasy.”   Still, I guess the Economist would have scoffed at Washington and Jefferson if that magazine had been invented 250 years back.

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Either way, it’s an interesting time to be visiting Scotland.  While hiking up Ben A’an (Gaelic for “small pointed peak”) just four days before the independence referendum election, I ran across the three ladies you see in the picture above.  They carried their blue “Yes” For Independence balloon all the way to the top, and were intent on somehow planting that yellow Scottish flag (actually a bath towel, but whatever) at the top.  They were glad to pose and share a few thoughts about their plans for the future in an old, old country that might be born anew in the days or years to come.

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A “Yes” vote is a vote for independence; “No” is a vote to keep the Union together.  At least in Edinburgh and the Highlands, there are a lot more “Yes” signs visible on the streets.  It may be telling that the biggest anti-independence sign I saw was the one one strapped to the iron fence of a very nice, aristocratic-looking home.  The word “bairns” (on the “Yes” sticker) means baby in Scottish and Northern English. 

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FOTOFEST 2014

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This “Boxer” shot from Cuba in 2012 seemed to be a favorite from among the images I showed at Fotofest 2014.

Every other year, my adopted hometown  — Houston, Texas — hosts “Fotofest,” one of the biggest photography gatherings in the world.  This was my first time to participate.  I was part of the Meeting Place portfolio reviews – eight days of meeting photographers, photography gallery owners and museum curators, magazine and blog editors, collectors, and more — carrying a stack of my prints to show and discuss.

This is a crowd where the folks who operate cameras are called “artists” — not merely “photographers.”  A crowd where I was asked (repeated) what the “message” was of my work.  Uh…. pretty pictures?   A typical review of my work:  “Jeff, you’ve got some really stunning visual images here; you’ve got a great eye.  But so what?”   Hmmmm.

It’s hard to know what you’ve learned at an event like this.  There’s surely a lot of eye-of-the-beholdering:  it was not uncommon for one reviewer to pick a particular image as a prime favorite, then have the very next person identify the exact same image as one I should edit out of my portfolio entirely.  Or vice versa.

The experience certainly got me out of my comfort zone, out of my element, and in some sense maybe out of my league.  The goals of the contemporary art crowd are very different from mine.  I’ve been knee-deep in camera equipment for nearly three years now.  So far, my goals have been mostly to make interesting photographs of the very interesting things I’ve been able to go see and take part in so that I can share at least a part of that experience.  Fotofest 2014 can now go on my list of interesting experiences.

The images I showed at Fotofest were taken from those at THIS LINK (Click here).

Fotofest rolls back into Houston in 2016.  Maybe by then I’ll have a some message.  Until then, I hope I can mostly have some fun with all this.  Thanks for looking.

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This image got some attention because it seems to make a bit of a political statement — though I’m not sure what statement people thought it was making.

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“Postcard”-like landscapes are of almost no interest at Fotofest!

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This was a love-it-or-hate-it image. The backlighting and the light reflected from the deep red dirt makes the color balance unusual, and the image looks a little painting-like. Some folks picked it as their favorite; others hated it and encouraged me to remove it from my portfolio entirely.