Thursday, 26 March 2020

Good Song: Don't Judge a Life

If you don't know John Gorka, you should know John Gorka.

Few artists sing the human heart like John. A number of his songs sum up affecting moments of my life in ways that not only people my isolation, they help me understand what happened.

But in this case he's addressing a wider problem. The immediate topic is fellow poet and good friend Bill Morrissey, who possessed much the same gift as John's, had much the same sort of career – ignored by the machine, adored by initiates – and died in 2011 from complications of a dissolute life.

An Amazon reviewer who knew Bill quoted him from a conversation they'd had:
"Most everybody knows that I've had some rough sledding for the last few years, including my well-known battle with the booze. A couple of years ago I was diagnosed as bipolar and I am on medication for depression, but sometimes the depression is stronger than the medication.

"When the depression hits that badly, I can't eat and I can barely get out of bed. Everything is moving in the right direction now, and throughout all of this I have continued to write and write and write."
And then he was gone.

Don't Judge a Life – bookend to Peter Mayer's Japanese Bowl, spinning the issue from first to second person – is a reminder we all need on a daily basis. I particularly like this part:
Reserve your wrath for those who judge
Those quick to point and hold a grudge
Take them to task who only lead
While others pay, while others bleed
Readers with a solid base in Christian ethics will instantly recognise the source of this counsel. The same precept in the Buddhist canon is a little less explicit, but our teachings on bodhisattva nature clearly endorse and require it.

And both faiths stand firmly on the last verse.

by John Gorka

Don't judge a life by the way it ends
Losing the light as night descends
For we are here and then we're gone
Remnants to reel and carry on

Endings are rare when all is well
Yes and the tale easy to tell
Stories of lives drawn simplified
As if the facts were cut and dried

Don't judge a life as if you knew
Like you were there and saw it through
Measure a life by what was best
When they were better than the rest

Reserve your wrath for those who judge
Those quick to point and hold a grudge
Take them to task who only lead
While others pay, while others bleed

Tapping the keys in a life of rhyme
Ending the tune and standard time
Silence fills the afternoon
A long long way to gone too soon

Don't judge a life by the way it ends
Losing the light as night descends
A chance to love is what we've got
For we are here and then
We're not

John Gorka in red car (photo Jos van Vliet)

(Photo courtesy of Jos van Vliet and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

WW: Improvised crocodile clip

(Works in a pinch. [See what I did there?])

Thursday, 19 March 2020

No State of Emergency

Events this week have me thinking about my favourite Zen teaching story. (I say that about all of them, though my very favourites are the ones I take the piss out of in this journal.)

The gist goes like this:
A bandit army descended on a town, causing all the monks in the local monastery to abandon it except the master.

Bursting into the zendo, the pirate general was enraged to find the old monk calmly cleaning the altar, not even deigning to bow.

“Do you not realise,” he shouted, “that I would run you through without a second thought?”

“And do you not realise,” said the master, “that I would be run through without a second thought?”

At this the general bowed and left.

This is one of those tales we Zenners like to exchange with pious smiles, certain of its allegory, and that we'll never be held to the conviction it implies.

And now here we are.

The plague our species is currently facing puts me in a surrealistic place. Whenever I've imagined myself in an apocalyptic scenario – which is frequently, given my culture's obsession with it – I've seen myself meeting the aftermath of war, natural disaster, or economic crisis beside my neighbours, pooling our skills, standing firm against the selfish and the predatory, guiding our community to peace, promise, and security.

But in an epidemic, you have to board yourself up in your house, see to your own needs, and avoid catching or communicating the sickness to others.

And so stillness and acceptance must be the discipline, in full knowledge that very bad things might happen. And you must not go out and do combat with them, or call for help from others, or even, God forbid, open the door to curse at them.

Instead you must remain heroically immobile. To borrow an image from Thich Nhat Hanh, you must be "lake-still, mountain-solid".

In other words, I am now living the worst nightmare of all religiosos: actually having to practice what I preach.

The death and mortal-threat fables that abound in our religion distinguish it from other faiths. (Some may quibble that traditional Christianity, with its endless recitations of gruesome martyrdom, takes this laurel, but I would counter that those are journalism, placing the listener outside of events. Our tales make him or her inhabit the dying character.)

Such stories as The Tiger and the Strawberry, or The Mother and the Mustard Seed, exist for a pedagogical purpose. They remind us of the knife-edge we walk, that we must walk, and the impermanence of all things, including ourselves. The intent is to jangle us out of the chains of our dread, and into the freedom that acknowledgement confers.

We are not the universe. We are not the most important thing in the universe. It was just fine before we got here, and it will be just fine after we leave.

And so will we.

Because this life is not the goal of this life.

Understanding that, and practicing it, is the origin of strength.

There is no "state of emergency" in Buddhism, aside from the one we were born into and can't resolve without practice. There's no Buddhist constitution that can be suspended when it becomes inconvenient. The law is immutable.

And that's a gift.

So now is the time to do all that stuff we've been saying we do.

Now is the time to practice Zen.

In taking the cushion, let us cleave to our humanity, care for our fellow Earthlings, and maintain our grasp of reality.

Because we have no alternative.

(Photo courtesy of and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

WW: Coast mole

(Scapanus orarius)

Thursday, 12 March 2020

The Two Religious Dharmas

Rawpixel original lithographs by rawpixel-com 00038 1. All religions are different.

Even a cursory survey shows they're the same.

2. All religions are the same.

What, are you blind? Or just stupid?

(From the Watsamatta Tripiṭaka, Sutra 3, Book 1. Graphic from L’Histoire Générale des Voyages (1747-1780) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous contributor.)

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Extraterrestrial squid monster

(A whole patch of these boiled to the surface this week. I forgot to put something in the photo to give scale, but they're huge; this one is the size of a grapefruit. They're Astraeus pteridis, the bracken, or giant hygroscopic, earthstar. First I've encountered them.)

Thursday, 5 March 2020

Grow Up

The more practice I get under my hara, the more I notice that most Zen really isn't very revolutionary, or even revelatory. It's just common sense.

Anatta – no-self – is just what happens to successful adults. We get less selfish, less self-centred, less self-interested, less self-satisfied, less self-righteous. Just… less "self".

If you don't do this, you're not a grown-up. And as I've come to understand, lots of otherwise tall people never attain that.

So Zen is nothing more or less than maturity. Alright, it's a bit accelerated, and especially, deeper.

But that's what we're doing on the cushion.

We're getting old.

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)
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