Thursday, 24 July 2014

Koan as Vaudeville: Nasrudin

Nasreddin khodja statue in Bukhara detail Zen is famous for its koans, those quirky, inscrutable Chinese stories that make no sense but are somehow profoundly true. My own devotion to it is rooted in this classic literature: the thunderous wisdom encoded in The Blue Cliff Record, The Book of Equanimity, The Gateless Gate, and The True Dharma Eye.

But the Sufis (Zen Muslims, more or less) may have us beat; not only do they have a prolific koanic tradition of their own, theirs are funny. All while sacrificing none of the point.

These teaching stories, collectively known as The Tales of Nasrudin (نصر الدين خواج , خواجه نصرالدین‎ , نصرالدین جحا‎ ; Nasrudeen, Nasreddin, Nasruddin, Nasr ud-Din, Nasredin…), chronicle the continuing misadventures of an Islamic scholar of that name. Like all academics (to say nothing of religious leaders), Mullah Nasrudin can be long on theory and short on practice, but his gift for brilliant, backhanded insight always makes for a worthwhile visit.

Back in November 2012 I ran one of my favourite examples in Rusty Ring's Kyôsaku series of observations by noted teachers. Others include:

  • The host of an elegant feast required all guests to wear fine clothes. When Nasrudin arrived, he began stuffing food into his shirt and trousers. The host confronted him angrily:

    "What do you mean by this?"

  • "Since clothes are more important than people," Nasrudin answered, "they should eat first."

  • Two children arguing over a bag of marbles came to the mullah to settle the matter. "Would you like Man's justice or Allah's?" asked Nasrudin.

    "Why, Allah's, of course," replied the children.

    "Very well," said Nasrudin, and gave three marbles to one and nine to the other.

  • "Mullah," asked a townsman, "is your theology orthodox?"

    "That depends," said Nasrudin. "Which heretics are in charge today?"

  • "Nasrudin," said another, "four years ago you told me you were forty. Today you still say you're forty. How do you explain this?"

    "I am an honest man!" said Nasrudin. "Whenever you ask me a question, you shall always get the same answer."

  • One day Nasrudin was walking along a river when a man cried out to him from the far bank:

    "How can I get across?"

    "You are across!" shouted the mullah.

(Note that there's a classic koan virtually identical to this, but not the least bit funny. The Sufis took the same wisdom, employed exactly the same imagery, and added a rimshot.)

In Sufi tradition, contemplators are frequently invited to offer commentary of their own, in the form of a suggested moral. In some fora, the list of these responses can be longer than the actual story, each one subtly spinning the punch-line into new – even conflicting – teachings. (Indeed, scholars as august as Idries Shah have even mined the humour of other cultures for that kernel of sanity that all comedy contains.) What a refreshing challenge to our own tradition, where only recognised scholars are permitted to comment.

My man Nasrudin has left his tracks all over the Internet – a medium made for him if ever there was one – and that's good news for his fans. Fertile starting points include The Inimitable Mulla Nasrudin, NewBuddhist.com, WrongPlanet.net, Godlike Productions, and WikiQuote. Load 'em up and laugh.

All the wisdom, half the pomposity.

(Photo of the Nasrudin statue in the Lab-i Hauz Complex, Bukhara, Uzbekistan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

WW: Beach fires


(Command-click to open at full size in a new window.)

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Peeling the Banana

No sense condemning ourselves; we're monkeys. We'll always reach for the banana. Heart beats, lungs breathe, mind thinks, bowels poop, bladder pees, soul yearns. And arm reaches. For bananas. All bananas. Even pictures of bananas. Even unseen, unproven bananas we're assured are there. (But now I'm back on gurus again.)

Walking the meadow I saw where something had taken a grouse, leaving only feathers. It felt like a metaphor for that summer, for this life.

And yet. And yet.

Nothing is promised, but everything is given. And that, like ango, and this life, is a bottomless blessing.


(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

WW: Old growth stump

 

(Western red cedar. About 7 feet in diameter and 15 feet tall. The notches are for the springboards they stuck in to reach the narrow part with their crosscut saws. This stump is about 100 years old; the tree was about 700 years old when cut.)

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Rock Groups 2014

It's July, the month when blog readership drops to single digits and (by sheer coïncidence) I upload another year's worth of rock group names. As I pointed out last year, I have a certain unearned talent for this, which I share with the world once a year. Any group that wants one can have it at no cost or obligation.

Be advised that people sometimes steal one without telling me (often even before I come up with it, which is really uncool) so run a search on any you like to make sure someone else isn't already using them.

Where a name suggests a possible genre I've including that information as a serving suggestion.

Enjoy.


Rock Group Names 2014

The Glyptodonts

Sawhorse

Lowest Common Dominator

Hammerstar

The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis

Bail of Hey

Wheelhaus

Hellhouse

Grout

Krankenwagen

Bad Banana

The Forbs

horizontal hold

Queequeg

Assault Ladder

The Jomon Pacific Cluster

Zenocide

Bring the Pig

Ciupaga

Prosthetic Soul

Death Crüller (nerdcore)

The Boom Seals

Lizard Love

Odd Mitzvah

Diaspora

Zebra Disease

Cartoonishly White

Dumb Banana

Bufflehead

Steel Bonnet (Scottish metal)

Long Pig (British folk punk)

Quee the Bean

Virtual Friends

Squid Rectum (punk)

Cubic Z (white trash rapper)

Chicken Tractor

Buy the Monkey

The Belligerent Blork

One Potato

The Jetty Cats

Title IX (punk-metal grrl group)

Bad Brazilian (see above)

Gary Goodenough and the Personal Best

The Hellsnakes

Dysleksik Ele

Bloodgroove (war metal)

Farquahar (Gaelic rock)

Squish

Jesus Johnson

Topinambour (Québécois folk rock)

Frinton Flash and the Offshore Pirates

Psychotic Elf


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

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

WW: Sea mine on the beach


(Early 20th century. Boom.)

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Good Book: Eat Sleep Sit

Most books available in the West on life in Japanese monasteries are written by Westerners. Perhaps that's why they tend to take a star-struck, romantically uncritical view of the exotic practices they encounter. Eat Sleep Sit: My Year At Japan’s Most Rigorous Zen Temple doesn't suffer from this quirk. Its author is Japanese, and that makes all the difference.

In the mid-Nineties, thirty-year-old Nonomura Kaoru entered Eihei-ji, the Vatican of Soto Zen. His motives were credibly vague; discussing them with his girlfriend, he gets out little more than "I'm uneasy". (Which is what drives most of us to monasticism – the Buddha called it "world-weariness".)

His friends react with anything but joy. In Japan, taking orders is considered rash and self-destructive, as radical and potentially suicidal as any forest ango. (Surprise!) One of them points out that cœnobites have a lower life expectancy than those outside the walls. But Nonomura persists, and his record of what ensues is both a powerful account of monastic awakening and an important corrective to misconceptions about Asian practice models.

The only honest term for the training Nonomura endures at Eihei-ji is "military":
Then the door […] abruptly opened. Before our eyes there appeared a monk, on his face a scowl so bitter that he might have been shouldering all the discontent in the world. Following the orders he barked at us, we each shouted out our name in turn, summoning all our strength to yell as loud as possible.
"Can't hear you!" he'd snap in reply. "If that's the best you can do, you'll never make it here! Turn around and go home!" [...] Again and again we raised our voices, yelling with such might that it seemed blood would spurt from our throats. [...] Finally I was left standing alone. With every shout my voice grew hoarser, making it harder and harder to yell. How much longer could this go on, I wondered.
It's all here: the hammer-headed machismo, the abuse masquerading as instruction, the barking-mad superiors. For months on end recruits are humiliated and beaten, forbidden to defend themselves or even cringe, and denied sleep, food, leisure, and hygiene. Some have to be hospitalised; some never return.

But Eat Sleep isn't just, or even primarily, an indictment. Nonomura – an excellent writer, speaking through a talented translator – also relates the moving beauty, the timeless wisdom (especially of Dogen), and the penetration of his own nature and that of the world, that he finds "inside". It's another gift of Nonomura's nationality, inured to gratuitous authoritarianism, and so able to see past it to great treasures. Even the abuse has a certain purifying effect:
Every time I was pummelled, kicked, or otherwise done over, I felt a sense of relief, like an artificial pearl whose false exterior was being scraped away… Now that it was gone […] I knew that whatever remained, exposed for all to see, was nothing less than my true self. The discovery of my own insignificance brought instant, indescribable relief.
Perhaps Nonomura's greatest strength as a writer is his unflagging respect for his readers, eschewing condescending exposition, certain we'll get it on our own. Unlike Western observers, he never endorses or justifies the terrorism. Nor does he credit it with the insights he eventually gains. He simply relates events and leaves readers to draw their own conclusions. I found this especially useful, as the contrast between ends and means in this system is dramatic. Eihei-ji is ambiguous and contradictory moral ground, and Nonomura is content (and Zen enough) to leave it so.

I have a fantasy that some day, somewhere, a Zen monastery will be founded on the interlocking principles of anatta and humility. Aspirants in this renewed lineage will be required to study with equal zeal ancestral wisdom and the errors that have been committed in its name. Because if you don't have both, you don't have Zen.

As regular readers will have guessed, I'd like the books I review here to be included on that shelf. And teachers in that future Zen Centre could do worse than assign Eat Sleep Sit to each novice on entry, right alongside mu.
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