Thursday, 16 October 2014


Everyone has a room to air.
Everyone has a soul to bare.
Everyone has a horn to blare.
Everyone has a cause to care.
Everyone has a task to chair.
Everyone has a doubt to dare.
Everyone has a bent to err.
Everyone has a hull to fare.
Everyone has a flame to flare.
Everyone has a growl to glare.
Everyone has a hound to hare.
Everyone has a glove to pair.
Everyone has a call to prayer.
Everyone has a chance too rare.
Everyone has a crow to scare.
Everyone has a song to share.
Everyone has a snipe to snare.
Everyone has a coin to spare.
Everyone has a debt to square.
Everyone has a scowl to stare.
Everyone has an oath to swear.
Everyone has a page to tear.
Everyone has a road to there.
Everyone has a robe to wear.

Komuso Buddhist monk beggar Kita-kamakura

(Photo of Fuke Zen monk courtesy of Urashima Taro and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

WW: Mysterious sand castle

(Every October this team of wheelbarrow-pushing men appears on the beach in front of my house and proceeds to spend the entire day building an immense, elaborate sand castle. They mould the bastions with buckets, garbage cans, and pre-made plywood forms, and surround them with a deep, precisely-engineered moat. Then they abandon their work to the waves, which are usually at the gate by this time. Six hours later, the whole project is nothing but a shapeless puddle with a few islands in the middle.

I have no idea who these men are, where they come from, or why they observe their annual rite at this cold and blustery time of year, but I choose to see their art as a comment on defence spending.)

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Happy Las Casas Day!

This week I'm seconding a motion by The Oatmeal's Matthew Inman to see Columbus Day repurposed as Bartolomé de las Casas Day. Las Casas, originally a conquistador, repented of his horrific sins, became a Dominican friar, and evangelised Mesoamerican First Nations during the period of contact. Unfortunately for Power, he turned out to be a Christian Claude Anshin Thomas, decrying the mind-numbing brutality and utter lack of respect for human life that characterised the European invasion of the Americas. Worse yet he documented them, first in Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (also available in English) and then the more comprehensive Historia de Las Indias.

In the sordid history of colonialism, Las Casas stands out as one of the few Christians who practiced what he preached. (Literally.) He's a favourite of mine because he experienced (and again, documented) personal spiritual growth over his lifetime; convictions he adopted early on – such as supporting the African slave trade by way of avoiding the enslavement of his own flock – he soundly and publicly rejected after further meditation. I've found that this capacity to delve and change, even if it means admitting transgression, is the highest morality, and those who practice it are the most trustworthy of people.

Rather than repeat Matthew's case here, I'll just link to his own excellent and highly readable proposition. As a history nerd I can tell you that his characterisations of Christopher Columbus, the other conquistadores, and the good friar himself are historically accurate, as is his description of how Columbus Day became a thing in the United States and many Latin American countries. (Thanksgiving immunised us against it in Canada; one of the things I give thanks for on this day.)

Therefore, in emulation of Seattle and Minneapolis (though I don't much care for "Indigenous Peoples Day"; Las Casas Day is short, inclusive, and to the point), I encourage all jurisdictions to convert this holiday into a tribute to the courage and conviction of a man who stood against the tide and practiced his true religion in the face of overwhelming opposition.

May we follow in his footsteps.

(Photo of Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, by Felix Parra, courtesy of  Alejandro Linares Garcia and the Museo Nacional de Arte, Mexico City.)

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

WW: Rowan berries

(Sorbus americana; technically called "sorbs".)

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Autumn Haiku

the troops of autumn
touch down in a blitzkrieg of
small helicopters

(No maple seeds where you live? Make your own.)

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

WW: Swainson's thrush

(Catharus ustulatus)

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Good Book: At Hell's Gate: A Soldier's Journey from War to Peace

I'm not sure he'd appreciate the label, but Claude AnShin Thomas is the most prominent hermit of our generation. Though an ordained priest in Bernie Glassman's Zen Peacemaker lineage, his practice is in the tradition of Basho. In his own words:
"I made the decision to take the vows of a mendicant monk primarily because I wanted to live more directly as the Buddha had. […] Also, in witnessing the evolution of Zen Buddhist orders in the United States, I wanted to evoke the more ancient traditions of those who embarked on this spiritual path and to live my commitment more visibly."
AnShin specializes in walking ango – long voyages on foot, without money, living off the Dharma and the compassion of others. He calls them peace pilgrimages, and to date he's walked from Auschwitz to Vietnam; across the US and Europe; in Latin America; and even the Middle East. He also leads street retreats, a unique Peacemaker practice wherein Zen students take the Buddha at his word and become Homeless Brothers in the urban core of a large city for a specified period of time.

Where, you wonder, does a guy get gravel like that? Well…

In At Hell's Gate: A Soldier's Journey from War to Peace, AnShin describes his military service in Vietnam, where he clocked 625 combat hours in US Army helicopters, many behind an M60 machine gun. By his own recollection, he was in combat virtually every day from September 1966 to November 1967. He was, in short, the classic "badass American fighting man" so beloved of Hollywood.

Except it wasn't as fun.

He came home, like all war veterans, to a society desperate never to hear about those not-fun parts, or to pay for the care he now required for life. The tale that ensues has been told a hundred times, and each time is the first.

Re-reading At Hell's Gate (one of my all-time favourite Zen books) I was struck again by the sense that the author would rather not be writing it at all. There's a reticence in AnShin's prose, a tone of compelled confession, that suggests modesty, circumspection, and discomfort with the writer's art, at which he clearly doesn't feel proficient. Which is exactly why he is. You're not reading a writer; you're reading a veteran, in much more than just the military sense.

Interspersed among terse, almost telegraphic accounts of his past is some of the best how-to on practical meditation I've found. His themes are universally relevant: depression and despair; atonement and redemption; suffering and transcendence. All from a guy who speaks with thunderous authority.

His eremitical bona fides are equally evident. He writes:
"Anyone can come with me on a pilgrimage. It's not necessary for a person to become a student of mine or to spend time with me to learn this practice. It is open."
In these angos – which he defines as "just walking" – he's revived a practice largely abandoned in the era of institutional Zen:
"There is no escape from the nature of your suffering in this practice. When you walk, you are constantly confronted with your self, your attachments, your resistance. You are confronted with what you cling to for the illusion of security."
Should anyone require more evidence of AnShin's hermitude, his Further Reading section includes Zen at War, The Cloud of Unknowing (a classic of Christian contemplation), and the Gnostic Gospels, though none of them are cited in the text.

My lone criticism of At Hell's Gate is its light treatment of those incredible pilgrimages. In fact, I wish AnShin would write a whole 'nother book just about them. I appreciate his desire to avoid the odour of self-glorification; first-person journalism is a hard beat for a non-narcissist. And as a mendicant, he likely doesn't have time or space to sit down and write. But it's badly needed. I hope AnShin's sangha convince him someday to transmit and preserve these vital experiences, for the benefit of future generations. After all, where would we be if Basho had remained silent?

Nevertheless, the book we already have is all by itself a repository of rare and hard-earned wisdom, a chronicle of unusual violence and damage, leading to unusual insight. The man himself puts it best:
"Everyone has their Vietnam. Everyone has their war. May we embark together on a pilgrimage of ending these wars and truly live in peace."
If you're suffering – whether firearms were involved or just plain-old heartbreak – read this book.
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