Thursday, 29 December 2011

Hermitcraft: Fudos, Part 1

A trio of large fudos await
assignment by the woodstove
Making and hanging fudos is part of my practice. Regulars will have noted photos of them in several posts, as well as the 3-strand, hundred-year model on the masthead. Ever wonder why this blog is called Rusty Ring? Now you know.

Who is Fudo?

Fudo Myō-ō is a bodhisattva, sort of a cross between an angel and a saint. Standard Zen has it that there are real bodhisattvas, human beings who have attained enlightenment and go around helping others, and metaphorical ones, figures who never existed, but embody or symbolise certain spiritual principles. Fudo the Immovable is one of these. His Sanskrit name is Acala Vidyârâja, but I prefer to think of him as the Scottish Bodhisattva. He's that fierce, razor-sharp part of us that Hell can't break.

Fudo Bodhisattva has chained himself to a rock in the deepest pit of Hell, where he vows to stay until all sentient beings have been saved. He holds a sword of steel to cut through delusion and a coil of rope to bind the demons of despair. Fudo will remain on-post, enduring infinite torment, until the last soul makes it out. Then he will turn out the lights, lock the door, and Hell will be out of business.

What is a fudo?

The small-f fudo is a sanctuary object. It reminds us that we are not alone, that others are also looking for the way out, and that together we will find it. Fudos create mindful space. When one is hung on a tree, fence, or other structure, it alerts seekers that one of their own has passed that way, and the spot becomes a sanctuary, a place of rest and encouragement. Think of it as Kilroy for hermits.

Various small fudos on my cot
The fudo’s cord binds the demons that whisper that life is pointless, that you're alone, that you'll never make
it out. We all make it out. Fudo says so, chained to his rock, sneering at the Devil.

The knots recall Fudo's resolve. They attest to the effectiveness of practice, and counter the despair inspired by the demons of doubt.

The ring (typically a washer or similar hardware) recalls Fudo's sword, and is a universal symbol of unity, loyalty, and redemption. The more abused the ring, the stronger it is. I collect mine from junkyards, roadsides, and beaches, to ensure that everyone I give one to gets a full arsenal of arse-kicking contempt for their particular hell.

The three strands in the classic hundred-year fudo stand for the Three Treasures: the Truth, the Teacher, and the Nation of Seekers. It also comes in four-strand, for the Four Noble Truths. Hundred-year fudos are made of nylon seine twine, available from any hardware store and virtually indestructible. I weld the knots with clear nail polish, which fuses them together. Fact is, apart intentional destruction, a well-built hundred-year fudo may last a good deal longer than that.

There are other designs with large or fancy rings, manifold strands, and kumihimo cords. But all serve the same purpose, and have exactly the same value as the plain old hundred-year "washer on a string".

To date I've made over two hundred fudos. Some were big, complex, and colourful. Most were 3- and 4-strand hundred-years. Some I gave away: to friends in need, strangers in need, fellow seekers. The rest I hung in forests, deserts, parks, cemeteries, rest stops; on beaches, paths, roadsides, and islands; by rivers, highways, lakes, railways, Buddhist and Christian monasteries; in parking lots and hobo jungles and ghettos and factories and schools. And I've sent fistfuls off with others, to tag their own paths and homelands.

So if you see one of these, that's what it is: a high-five from us, Fudo's crew.

My nephew T-Bone ponders an
8-strander we hung in a swamp

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Good Movie: Zen

"This is gonna be a short movie."

That's what I thought when I bought Zen (禅), a biodrama about Eihei Dogen, founder of the Soto Zen sect. Dogen is a seminal figure, but he's famous, even in Soto, for being completely unmovable. Two hours of watching a stone-faced Japanese guy sit perfectly still, broken only to yell at his students when they fail to do likewise. Fun for the whole family.

Fortunately, director Takahashi Banmei had the sense to scrap the legend and seek the soul. Which, one supposes, Dogen must have had. In fact, Takahashi's Dogen is not just sensitive, he's downright soft. He actually cries, for God's sake! Four times!!!

Takahashi sees Dogen as a crusader, first against the comfortable, corrupt Buddhism of medieval Japan, and by extension, the violent tendencies of Japanese culture. His motivation remains under-explained; as in oral tradition, the boy loses his mother, and vows to find a path out of misery for all humanity. Alright. But peoples' mothers die all the time, and they don’t hike across China to end suffering. Why did he?

Takahashi begs the question; he wants to get to The Story ("Dogen vs. The Volcano"), and his unorthodox grasp of storytelling makes what happens next one of the great cinematic epics.

It also makes it hard to review. See, this is a visual movie. Oh, there's plenty of dialogue. Important dialogue. Powerful dialogue. It's just, like, so not the story. That is in the images, scenes so saturated with meaning that every one, whether a sweeping vista or the monastery kitchen, is a sutta. I've seen it a few times now, and no longer even bother to turn on the subtitles. (And let me assure you, 僕の日本語 外人のめちゃくちゃですね 。)

So how do you describe a movie that seems to bypass your brain, like you're receiving it in the marrow of your bones? Well, for starters, my film reviews usually include three screen-caps. You'll note a few more here. You can't review Zen with three screen-caps. And these are just half the ones I collected for it. (Click on them. See them bigger.)

In short, Zen is a truly Zen experience, and a deeply moving one at that.

Another facet of Takahashi's "outsider" genius (he's most known for dirty, edgy grinders) is his gift for iconoclasm. In this case he gave the lead to a kabuki actor. Yeah, that's what you want to play the Stone Buddha: an opera singer. But as much as the cinematography, Nakamura Kantarou is this movie. He manages to be just human enough, without getting cuddly, and also remarkably supple. He's got that Dogen steel, sure, but he's never macho. This is not Dogen as samurai; this is Dogen as priest.

Irish priest, in fact; this is a very religious movie. And that's weird; Zen itself is highly suspicious of the thing Christians call "praise," and our movies generally reflect this preference for practice over preaching. But Takahashi's Dogen can't shut up about the Buddha. And while the film does heavily emphasise sitting (for once, thank God), we also see Dogen preach. That's right: preach. At the drop of a deep-dish monk hat, my dear. Is it because Takahashi isn't a Zen Buddhist? Or is he trying to tell us something? I don't know. But I like it. It's fresh. I dig this Dogen.

There are other gems here: Dogen's love of China (some of the film's nuance will be lost on those who can't detect his frequent shifts from native Japanese to his second language, and back); his obsession with the moon, now a Zen obsession; the view of medieval Kyoto, Japan's holy city, as one big brothel; Dogen's rejection, no less dramatic today than it was in 1220, of social distinctions and bourgeois values. 
"We don't care about your past here," he tells a prostitute who wants to take orders. 

I could snipe at a few things, but they'd be the same things reviewers always snipe at. ("Too derivative. Too Hollywood. Not enough cowbell.") But from my cushion, the only real problem is the title. This movie is not about Zen. I suspect that's why it remains obscure. (A big-budget studio title, and sold only on Japanese Amazon. At least at the moment.) So people who don't care about Zen won't see it, and those that do, don't either. And that's too bad, because it demands to be seen. So what should Takahashi have called it? Something about the moon, maybe. Nah, that would only net a lot of disappointed middle school girls.

Anyway, here's the bottom line: he's strong, he's sensitive, he's Dogen. See the movie. It's good.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Night Mares

I was in for another difficult night. "The planet is hard," I wrote in the log. It was also uneven, and hammering out a compromise with the roots under my Thermarest took the better part of the night. What's more, the Thermarest leaked. It always had, even before I developed bursitis. After, it wasn't less challenging.

Rain, though not the mad drub of the previous night, continued to slap leaves high and low. I like rain, as long as I'm not in it, and my new tent was doing a fine job of that. But it was cold, a musty cold that draughted freely through its mesh inner walls. I had not taken off my tuque since I got off the truck, was sleeping in it, and also in my meditation pants and three shirts. I had a cotton bag liner between these and my nylon mummy, and had pulled my robe over the whole. And still the dank penetrated my bones.

Past midnight I was roused from a dull unsleep by a throbbing pound that bypassed my ears and went straight into my skull. Something large and fearless, galloping full-out in the streaming black as if in broad safe daylight, transmitting its thudding cadence through the earth itself. I rose to an elbow and listened.

It was the horses. Running, snorting, panting on the meadow slope thirty feet from where I lay, they chased each other up the hillside, this far and higher. I couldn't see them, couldn't have even if I'd unzipped tent and fly and stuck my head into the night, but I saw them all the same. Even now, the memory is visual: the two thundering beasts, nostrils gushing smoke, spray and steam flung from their sodden backs as they tagged through brush and high grass, invincible and oblivious. I see them wheel and nip, eyes white, teeth bared, manes whipping with the thrust of their powerful necks. I see it as lived fact, like scenes from a radio drama.

The moment was decidedly sinister, large creatures, ostensibly domestic and diurnal, hurtling through the palpable black like banshees, when all good and decent things were asleep or trying. Since the dawn of prayer horses have conveyed magic and license, transport and power, believed like cats, on some back shelf of the brain, to be biding their time with us while they await, we know not what. Something in a horse tells us he knows he could crush us with a tap, that he's chosen for the time not to, but the choice, like the time, remains occult.

That night I was particularly primed for such reflexions, lying among that Grimm's landscape of twilight and greenery. The fact is, the Squirrel Grove was and would remain the kind of place you'd expect to find teenaged girls dancing naked in the night, where gremlins sit parliament and the holly root draws the blood of Styx into its winter fruit. The place would always smell like Platform 9 3/4, like a bus stop to Hell, not the Hell of church propaganda, but the real one, that place which is simply, and hideously, Not Here.

And so my initial alarm at the stomping, grunting gallopade beyond the curtain was only partly allayed when I realised these were my neighbours, mundane animals I'd met earlier, though in day. These were them, and so they were me, but a primordial dread, a wary recognition, rose from wells where steep the bones of my Druid ancestors.

"Not of us," it said. "But not hounding, tonight."

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Image courtesy of the Chauvet cave painters, WikiMedia, and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

WW: Crow in the jungle

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Street Level Zen: Politics

"'Kindness' covers all of my political beliefs. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find out."

Roger Ebert

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Two Monkeys With Wrenches

Sasquatch Provincial Park, 9 juin 2008, 3My guest swallowed and exhaled.

"I'd have to agree," he said.

He cradled my rice bowl in one gigantic palm, as if it were a flower, and gazed into his tea. A gentle July breeze fluttered the crown of the Bodhi Tree, but hardly whispered the Tyvek shelter.

"Guys like us just bust up the symmetry, you know? Drives 'em ape."

He peeled off another section with surprising delicacy, given his eight-inch fingers, and placed it in his mouth.

"What do call these things?" he asked.

"Oranges," I said.

He raised a heavy brow, as who should say, "Ask a stupid question", and continued.

"They've got it all figured out. Except you can't. So they have to whittle 'all' down to just what they know. Then they pass a law saying that their 'all' is the only all. If you set foot outside it, that's criminal trespass. So what happens to those who live there?"

"Every track we make is vandalism."

"Worse. It's a hoax."

I nodded.

"Back in the old days," I said, "people drew maps of the planet, but they didn't know most of it, so they just wrote 'Here be dragons' on those parts."

"They were right."

He took another sip of genmai and savoured another orange slice.

"Well, we exist all the same, cousin. You gotta not let them get inside your head. Whether they can prove it or not, we're here. And that's their problem."

I nodded again, vigorously.

"Their problem," I agreed. "They keep insisting I furnish proof that I exist, like they don't have to permit it until I do."

My visitor stretched a long, whorled leg, and relaxed into royal ease.

"Maybe all you need is a good photographer," he said.

"You know one?"


He contemplated the leaves on the Bodhi Tree.

"Doesn't matter anyway; they'd still deny it. But you gotta not care. That's the key to cargo. You gotta not waste time on them, or it."

He popped the rest of the orange into his mouth and crushed it against his palate with evident pleasure.

"I got bananas too," I said, pulling out of lotus.

"Never touch the stuff," he said. "Anyway, I gotta split. Thanks for the tea."

We staggered to our feet, wincing at the kinked joints, and I accompanied him to the edge of the clearing. At the trailhead he pressed his hairless hands into a giant lotus bud. Even bowing, he was a head taller than me.

I smiled and returned his gasshō. "How do you know about this?" I asked.

"We have a branch office in the Himalayas," he said.

"Ah, yeah."

He shook his head.

"Abominable snow, man."

He was already ten yards away, long arms swinging, loping smoothly toward the Eight Brothers on snowshoe feet that somehow made no sound whatsoever.

His head swivelled right, and without breaking speed or rhythm, he called:

"Stay curious, George."

Two strides more, and his glossy black form vanished into the spruces.

"And remember," came a last ethereal, disembodied note: "Get off your horse first."

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Photo courtesy of WikiMedia and Philippe Giabbanelli [photographer].)

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

WW: November night

Thursday, 17 November 2011

The Capital Punishment Koan

Cristo crucificado Rafael Pi BeldaBut the good news is I did change my heart. It just took a while to generate the will. And that's my right. I also get better at this stuff. And that's all God asks. Live this moment right; the past is his property. I am no different from everything else: I'm not what I was. And I'm not even what I've done. That was the koan Gautama gave to Angulimala, the serial killer who became his disciple. All you have to do to please God is strive. He accepts all progress, even that which is invisible to others, even that which is invisible to you, as full payment. That's why we live so many lives. In point of fact, we live as many lives as it takes. All of us. No Heart Left Behind. Fudo closes the door on an empty room. That's his vow.

And by this truth, capital punishment is not just technically murder, it's the random, joyful murder of serial killers. You never kill the man who killed; every criminal executed is innocent, and that would be the case even if you crucified him the very night. Admittedly, that point is academic. But when you kill a man who has lived twenty more years, suffering in the man-made Hell of prison, you are not only killing a complete stranger, you're often killing a soul seared generous and kind in a fire you set. So don't come snivelling around here with your "eye for an eye;" you've taken a soul for an eye.

Hence the koan of capital punishment: Whose soul have you taken?

Wu Ya's commentary: "Not mine. Anybody missing a soul?"

(Adapted from "100 Days on the Mountain," copyright RK Henderson. Photo courtesy of WikiMedia and Rafael Pi Belda [photographer].)

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Waterproof Monk

The summer of 2011 was wet in the Willapas. Very wet. And cold. But mostly wet. For a monk sitting his 100 Days on the Mountain, sleeping in a cave-like tent and living under a piece of Tyvek, it presented unique challenges. These included (but were not limited to):

  • Six-inch banana slugs that got snarled in my robe while I was meditating and then snotted out a plate-sized patch of slime all over it and my zabuton while panicking.
  • The same going "squish!", rather dramatically, underfoot when I crawled out at 0300 to pee.
  • Mildew covering even the nylon effects stored in my tent.
  • The inability to launder clothing or bedding, because I couldn't dry it.
  • Bare feet eternally muddy; rain-softened sandals sliding out from under them on any but perfectly level ground.
  • And perhaps the worst, being imprisoned in my little jungle clearing, because leaving it meant getting soaked in high grass or dense brush. (Remember: no drying things.)

A week or so of this, and the Oh-Look-How-Zen-I-Am shtick ceases to umbrella one's morale; one begins to swing from vociferous obscenities to deep depression. And so it was that I envisioned this movie, starring me as The Nameless Hermit, one midnight while sitting on my sleeping bag, under the driving rain. If the lines seem a little wobbly, it's because they were drawn by flashlight. Also, the pose was meant to be some kind of scary kung fu stance. Sadly, in the cold light of day, I just look like an angry folk dancer.

I derived creatively from the Chow Yun-Fat grinder Bulletproof Monk. Chicago Reader film critic Bill Stamets said of this movie: "The fight scenes are routine, the humor juvenile, and the Toronto locales rendered drab through muddy cinematography." So there you go. Change "Toronto" to "North Coast," and you've got my whole life.

So what do you think? Does the idea have legs? Frankly, I think I could kick Chow's butt. Commercially, that is.

This is exactly what my ango was like. Except
 I wasn't angry. Or Asian. Or armed. But aside
from that, this is exactly what it was like.

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Good Book: The Zen Path Through Depression

Depression is the elephant in the meditation hall. Virtually all Zenners suffer from it; nobody becomes a monk because he's happy. But Zen is a macho tradition, and since depression is an illness without visible sores, the old right-wing arithmetic applies:

machismo + (unauthorised suffering) = rejection.

Thus the establishment response to depressed Zenners is mixed, ranging from supportive assistance, to conditional acceptance, to outright insult. Students are as likely to be told that they're "attached," that they have the "wrong perspective," or that they're just plain lazy, as to receive useful, scientifically-valid teaching. In short, depression is our evolution, and our response often amounts to creationism: a crap alibi against having to confess that our founders didn't fully understand something.

Fudo-esque confrontation of such unskilful nonsense is just one of the brilliant strengths of Philip Martin's The Zen Path Through Depression. In sensible, measured tones, he accompanies the reader, in the Franciscan sense of the word, through the myriad symptoms of depression: the lack of energy that physically disables; the incomprehensible, paralysing panic; the ceaseless rumination; the pointless rage; the guilt and self-recrimination. Physical symptoms of a disease as physical as diabetes, albeit not yet as well-understood.

I should say that I approached this book with trepidation, and wouldn't have approached it at all if I hadn't been desperate. I had beaten depression with Zen seven years before, and been a monk ever since; it was the first thing I'd ever found that could bully the bully. But two years ago I got nailed again, and this time my Zen practice wasn't up to it. Just admitting that took months. When I finally ordered Martin's book I was afraid I'd either get a pop-psy puff piece with some trendy Zen, or a traditional Zen treatise that flipped a few koans at me and said, "Stop being depressed."

What I got was a scholarly catalogue of medical symptoms at a chapter each, along with what modern science knows about their origins. That was followed by square, monastic-grade Zen analysis. In essence, Martin says, "This is your mind. This is your mind on depression." Frankly, just that much was already as strong as medication. Depression is a lonely hell; shame and embarrassment convince you it's your fault. Martin proves to you that it's not. "In our depression," he writes,

…we can start to heal by accepting that a great part of our becoming depressed, as well as much of getting over it, may not be within our control. In doing so, we can let ourselves off the hook, and stop taking the blame.

Then he does a genius thing. Once his orthodox Zen prescription to accept what is has taken the pressure off, he scratches a few questions, like lecture notes, on the last page of each chapter. You don't have to read them; only if you want to.


Examine your beliefs about suffering. Do you believe it is inevitable? Or that it builds character? Is suffering connected with struggle for you? Would there be no life without suffering?

Seems pretty anodyne now, but at the time, with my brain freshly stabilised by a few pills and recharged by Martin's explanations, this stuff was Drano. Note again his classic Zen: no answers. There aren't any wrong thoughts, you just have to know what the thoughts are. Doesn't seem like it would work, but it does. The questions, as much as the teaching, flushed out my system.

It would be hard to imagine a writer better qualified for the job. Martin is a long-time student of Zen; a certified and experienced therapist; and most important, a sufferer of hardcore depression. This guy doesn’t have a condescending bone in his body. He's a brother.

In the end, The Zen Path Through Depression felt so good that I started rationing it, because I didn't want to run out. When I felt low, I would ask myself, "OK, I feel bad, but is it Path-worthy?" And that alone motivated me to endure, to find it within, to haul myself up by my sandal straps. And pop went the depression.

The good news is, that with a supportive family, cooperative doctors, my monastic practice, and Martin's book, I landed on my feet again. In fact, I'm better now than I've ever been, and I'm even off the meds. (But if it happens again, I'm back on. Like, now. Get meds, brothers and sisters. They're undramatic drugs, no scarier than aspirin, for a sickness no more imaginary than migraine headaches.)

And while you're up, get The Zen Path Through Depression. When I needed a lot of help, this book was a lot of help.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Koan: Hyung's Cow

Flickr - law keven - Do you think he's alive^.......

A visitor asked the hermit Hyung, "Does a cow have Buddha nature?"

Wu Ya's commentary: "I smell a set-up."

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

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

WW: October night

Monday, 24 October 2011

Straight From the Tahre Pits

Weird Navy CH54 flew low up the beach this afternoon, exactly window-height, right past the house. Thing reminds me of some giant prehistoric crane fly. Maybe that's why they call it a Sky Crane.

(Photo courtesy of Wiki and the US government. It's an Army helo, but you can't have everything. Where would you put it?)

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Hermitcraft: Busting Dysentery

While on ango last summer, I got a visit from the Dysentery Fairy. I still haven't determined precisely what sort it was; we have a lot of Giardia around here, but it would be a true hail-mary for that to get into a rain barrel. On the other hand, the symptoms were pretty giardesque, for a bacterial infection. I'm not even certain it came from the drinking water; hygiene is a constant battle in the outback, and you live surrounded by faeces and wild water.

Anyway, I suffered an anxious week or two, dodging into the dark forest at 0300 and fearing the thing would drive me off the mountain. In the end I kicked its butt, thanks to the support of friends and family and, I believe, this tea. So I'm passing it on.

It's truly terrifying to find yourself alone and sick; once it's happened (and this wasn't a first for me, by any means), you'll never trivialise someone else's misfortune again. In this case, I spent about a day fretting and trying to hide from it. Then I got mad. The fact is, I've got a lifetime of relevant experience. Hell, I wrote a freakin' book on wild herbs, for Christ sake! I decided if I was going to be forced off the mountain, I was really going to be forced. Surrender would only become an option if every last gun had been fired.

And I had several. To begin with, the Hundred Acre Wood, where I lived, was busting with herbs, and in their best season. And I had other possibles in my cache. So I got up and raked together a tea calculated to firm things up and rain displeasure on unwanted guests. I put myself on a regimen of 3 rice bowls of this per day, minimum; most days I had more. I drank down each bowl, then sucked, chewed, and spit out the leaves. (The tea itself was actually delicious, but the cud-chewing part was abominable.) And I got better. Very quickly, in fact.

Here's how I brewed it up:

Put a double measure of strong green tea leaves in the bottom of your rice bowl.


Oxalis and/or sheep sorrel
New Douglas fir tips (see note below)
Blackberry rhizome
Blackberry leaf

Chop all ingredients well; I used a pair of scissors.

Fill the bowl with boiling water, cover, and steep for fifteen minutes, minimum. Then drink and enjoy.

The tart components (oxalis and sorrel; lemon or cider vinegar if you've got it) provide acid, which gut-bugs hate, and coincidentally taste good, which gets you to drink more of it. Young Douglas fir needles taste pleasant too (though the old ones are disgusting), and are the most effective at halting diarrhœa. Other conifers are also good if you don't have it. I've used spruce and hemlock to good effect. Finally, I also just plain ate oxalis and Douglas fir, often, during these days.

Later, a friend and fellow hermit who came out to check on me said to add Prunella to my dose. Did it help? It didn't hurt. It's dreadful stuff, but the oxalis and Douglas fir got it past my tongue. Similarly, I held willow in reserve, should tougher measures be necessary. Willow bark is an excellent medicinal, the original source of aspirin, and highly acidic in its own right. It's also the most God-awful revolting bile on the planet, like chewing an aspirin tablet, so I didn't jump right into it. And fortunately, I never needed to, this time.

What's clear is that this concoction put an immediate end to pyrotechnic dumps and secured the all-important restful night. Of course, it wasn't the only measure I took; I also went in for draconian hygiene, fastidious handling of water, mindful hydration habits, and careful monitoring of the quality and quantity of everything that came back out of me. I also ordered up some dietary adjustments, chiefly, a well-curried bowl, boiled up with bullion (for the salt), and served with a sadistic squirt of sriracha. Intestinal microbes trend to fairly Caucasian tastes; I made sure things got nice and "ethnic" on Mr. Leave It To Beaver Fever.

Whatever the reason, and whatever it was, it eventually pulled up stakes and left. (You might say, it just didn't have the guts.) Whether I beat it, or it just wasn't that scary to begin with, I'll never know. But the tea worked. One day I had dramatic digestion, then I drank the tea and it went away. Then I stopped drinking it (thinking I was "cured") and it came right back. So I drank the tea again, and it went away again.

Therefore I offer the recipe here, in loving support for anyone who may fall into that place and need it. Brother, sister: drop this on your trouble. And smile while you sit.

For if you listen very closely, you can hear the little bastards scream.

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountaincopyright RK Henderson.)

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Koan: The Hermit Hyung Meets General Khan

One day, the hermit Hyung was seated in three-fifths lotus, eating lunch, when the great General Khan kicked in his door. The General was at that moment throwing a countryside ravishing on behalf of the Great Popular Rebellion, but as Hyung was a mountain monk, he knew nothing of him or it.

The crash startled Hyung, but spying only a large pirate with a bloody cutlass in his doorway, he returned to shovelling rice and beans into his mouth.

"Why!" exclaimed Khan. "Do you not realise that you are looking at a man who would run you through without a second thought?"

Hyung swallowed, and was about to answer, when the General cut him off.

"Dude!" he said, looking about. "You got, like, nuthin'
!" His mouth hung open in astonishment. "Down in the valley they said you were this big Zen guy. I thought you'd have, like, art, and old scrolls, and book royalties and stuff!"

Hyung glanced over the rim of his bowl and pointed his spoon at Khan's boots. The General looked at Hyung's brass door plate.

" 'Hyung,' " he read, slowly. " 'Hermit.' "

Khan sheathed his sword.

"I'm gonna kill the guy we tortured for that information." He turned for the doorway. "Sorry to bother you, man."

He and his gang saddled up. "I'll send some guys up to fix that door," he called back. "Good thing we came by; that thing was about to fall in by itself."

The hermit Hyung dropped a pickle into his empty bowl.

Wu Ya's commentary: "Plastics."

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. The classic koan upon which this one riffs can be savoured here.)

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Rain Barrel Haiku

Oh, how I lament
The cold, relentless downpour
When the pail is full

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson.)

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Death In The Afternoon

From my log.
Afternoon had ripened sunny and hot, and I had just dished up the evening bowl. Too nice to sit in the barn, on a day given to wash and chores. I decided to take it to-go.

I was walking toward the machine shed with my bowl and spoon when from the long grass exploded a hen grouse, just like in the hunting magazines: wings spread, purple and white bands on her fan, beak open in distress. But this one was accompanied by a dozen tiny fledglings, who took to the air around her like frightened houseflies. They were inexperienced fliers, though, and grouse aren't the slickest bearings in the wheel of life to begin with. At that exact moment, a strong gust piped in from the west, slewing all of the chicks well left of their mother's trajectory. Before I could even put my raised foot down, two of them slammed into the shed's metal side, bam-bam!, in a tasteless parody of shotgun fire. I saw one bounce off the dirt and dive into the weeds, its little wings spread for distance, but its clutchmate remained on its side, kicking convulsively in the sun grown suddenly cruel. I stood over it, providing shadow, and searched anxiously for signs of hope; the birds that crash into my windows at the beach usually come around after a few minutes. But they never lie on their sides and kick, and so I knew it would soon be over. "Quickly," was the only prayer I had left.

The mother had since pancaked her brood in deeper cover and swung around back, but when she cornered the shed and saw me still there, she folded her wings, a good eight feet off the ground, and dropped into the orchard grass like a soft stone.

"I think one of them's OK, " I told her, "but this one's dy..."

I glanced back at the tiny life in front of my sandals.


What a goddam pointless way for a beautiful creature to die. I bent down, stroked its barely-used feathers. It was still warm, a bundle of down in its duckling tabby of egg yolk and brown, the kind of thing you'd instinctively carry to your cheek, if the little heart were still beating.

I drew a long breath, and let it out again.

"I'm sorry," I told the waving grass. "If I'd known you were there, I'd never have come this way." It was true, and moot. A man walks. A bird flies. And both die. Often for no goddam reason whatsoever. And that's the pointless point, the hingeless hinge on the Gateless Gate.

I returned to the barn, bowl grown cold in my hand. Heartbroken again.

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountaincopyright RK Henderson.)

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Death Is My Neighbour

Cougar closeup

Experts say that when you're out in the rough, you're often within 20 feet of a cougar and don't know it. This means a guy like me, who's spent much of his life in the woods, has been in that position many times.

That's hundreds of moments I might already have been dead, but for the judgement of a ruthless, unstoppable panther.

If that ain't a Zen teaching, I don't know what is.

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

Thursday, 22 September 2011

100 Days on the Mountain: The Rain Owl Koan

I received my koan the first night on the mountain:

"Who cooks for you?" they asked. "Who cooks for you?"

First from Raven Ridge, then, powerfully, from the edge of the Squirrel Grove, then downslope to the Maple Ravine, then the fir plantation, and finally the river.

"Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?"

One following the next, first notes overlapping last with conducted precision, growing fainter but still clear, to the bottom.

Throughout the ango I'd hear it, again and again, in late evening, dark morning, at dawn, at dusk. And once, in broad daylight.

"Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?"

In the woods there's no future. You live in the present, and you live with the past. You think of the wrongs done, the rage raged, the scars sustained.

"Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?"

And the blessings, all the blessings. The good fortune ignored, God forbid despised, in the moment.

"Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?"

Sitting under the Tyvek, with a bowl of rice in my hand and another of tea at my knee.

"Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?"

Who indeed.

Half-conscious, bound in my bedroll, with the mounded marble ground and the seamless silent black.

"Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?"

You mean at the moment? Or just generally?

It's a deep question. It's a spiritual question.

It's a political question. It's a practical question.

It's a sarcastic question.

Sometimes I'd go weeks without hearing it, conclude their time had passed. Then it would drift in on the blue night, from Bear Ridge, from Moon Dog Hill. Distant, but not gone.

"Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?"

Summer rose higher, and I moved to the edge of the ravine. One of them took to roosting on a low branch during the night sit, lighting without the slightest sound, watching how long I don't know, before shouting "Who?" at the top of his lungs. A descending kiai: HOO-UH!

That was the Rinzai one. The path is difficult. You must be difficult, too.

For a hundred days I lived with it, with them.

"Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?"

Days longer than years, nights without end or beginning.

"Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?"

I sat, I listened, I doubted, I delved. They asked again. And again.

"Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?"

Who cooks for me? Who cooks for ME? I'll tell you who cooks for me!

Don't rush me.

(To hear the koan: .
To hear the kiai: )

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

Monday, 19 September 2011

Intelligent Life: The Proof

I found this in the surf last week. It's a porpoise skull.

And yes, it's all there. They really look like that, under the grin. I can't think of any other animals, apart fellow cetaceans, whose eye sockets are actually below their teeth. It's like a life form designed by Picasso.

As if that weren't alien enough, there's also that bulbous cranium bulging up aft, like the superstructure on a bowpicker.

The reason for both oddities is the same: this porpoise negotiated its complex environment not by sight or smell, but by sound. Hence any high-riding eyes would just have been show, and a waste of critical bone; this skull is built to amplify the echoes of tiny, high-pitched squeaks made by its owner, and secondarily those of podmates. Thus, much of that beetling brow roll is a resonator, like the bulb on a freighter's bow, meant to detect vibrations and measure their intensity and direction.

Dolphins and porpoises are also highly sophisticated animals whose behaviour is still largely unfathomable to humans. They have consistently demonstrated extremely advanced cognition, extending possibly even to altruism, morality, sexuality, language, and existential autonomy.

So here it is, at long last: reason to hope that there may be intelligent life on this planet.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Koan: Where's The Fire?

The master fell asleep in the meditation hall one day, and, being a monk of surpassing discipline and experience, was able to hold such perfect posture as he slept, that none of his students knew he was asleep.

As they were all facing the wall, they also didn't know that the altar flowers had fallen across the meditation candle and caught fire.

The flames spread to the altar cloth, then to the altar, and then to the Buddha, who was made of teak. Stillness reigned in the zendo as the fire advanced to the front wall, then the floorboards, then the ceiling.

By the time the fire brigade arrived, all of the monks were dead except for the most junior, who had been sitting nearest the door. Why, asked the fireman who revived him, hadn't he saved himself?

"Well," he answered, "I could see the black smoke and feel the fierce heat at my back, but I was not authorised to say why."

Japanese firefighter Wu Ya's commentary: "Any one of those monks could have saved them all."

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Photo of Japanese fireman courtesy of Wikimedia and 時野.)

Saturday, 10 September 2011

100 Days on the Mountain

Day 37.
So I'm back. It's taking some time to recalibrate to the (by turns insistent, by turns indifferent) rhythm of Humania, but I thought I'd climb back up on the blog horse by offering an overview of the project.

The deal: A week ago I completed 100 days of hermit ango in the Willapa Hills, being the rugged, densely forested, sparsely populated southern frontier of my coastal nation. I spent each of those days attending to the needs of survival and practising meditation, both sitting and other. I also brought out 445 pages (and counting) of journal. These will be rockered into a book, but for the time being, I can summarise the experience as "deep and broad and one of the most worthwhile things I've ever done."

In the meantime, here are some photos. I had no camera, since possessions were limited to survival requirements, so "some" photos is pretty much all of them. But I offer them all the same, in deep gratitude for the opportunity to practice, and for the friends and fellow monastics who made it possible. Supplying these photos was the least of their contributions.

Facts in Brief:

I established camp on 83 acres of undeveloped hillsides, surrounded by much the same for miles in every direction. I was dropped on 26 May 2011, and remained in-country for 100 days.

View of my mountain from another one.
The land was extremely diverse, consisting of bands of deep coastal jungle alternating with dense stands of Douglas fir; high, cleared ground going to brush; low, marginally maintained pastureland; and several riparian habitats. It was bounded to the north by one tidal creek, and to the south by another. Decadent luxuries included a 100-year old orchard that furnished my fill of heritage apples in the final weeks, and a barn I was permitted to use. With a freakin' wood stove! (Big deal? Read on.)

The weather was... how do you say? Ah, yes. CRAP. To put things in perspective, let me explain to those not from the North Coast that our famous perma-rain is supposed, by custom and contract, to diminish through June, and end definitively on 1 July. After that date, glorious summer is to ensue and persist until mid-September, at which time the rain may begin again.

Thus, I sat, as I expected, in the bitter wet sopping dark through the full 30 days of June. Then I did likewise through July, day by day, night by night, week by week. Finally, on 1 August, the rain stopped. The grey kept on, but I'm cool with that. You can have the grey, July, just stop goddam raining on me.

So my host's gracious offer of the barn, including the wood stove and even his firewood, as laundromat and spa, proved vital in a summer that included a sit in full winter kit (tuque, gloves, and every stitch of clothing I owned on under my robe) on 4 July. And that wasn't the last.

At long last, mid-August produced a near-facsimile of summer, following clouded mornings with sunny afternoons, and only 1 full day of rain. I was even able to take the fly off my tent for several days, so only somewhat arctic had the nights become.

Despite my sitting
Three things will not be silenced
Mind. Body. Tyvek.
The gear consisted of a small tent, a Tyvek tarp, a sleeping bag, a backpacking stove, and a backpack. I also had the minimum tools and clothing, and a cache of food (an all-purpose cereal I invented for the purpose, called zenola, and rice and beans for afternoon and evening meals) and other supplies, located in the rafters of the barn. My robe, which I designed and my mother, the Stradivarius of the sewing machine, drafted and made, was critical equipment, as was my stick. Both served 24 hours a day throughout the entire ango.

Sangha included, by partial account: Steller's jays; more configurations of garter snake than I've ever seen; kingfishers; salmon smolt; four species of owl; Douglas squirrels; bears; deer; alligator lizards; a young goshawk; otters; numerous colonies of paper wasp; beavers; bobcats; a special-ops unit of raccoons; a herd of elk; and an entire tribal confederation of coyotes. All of us closely monitored by a proprietary flock of ravens. (Full list to be included in the upcoming book.)

Finally, close friends made three scheduled proof-of-life visits during the ango. One dropped me off in May and made an emergency trip on Day 62 to verify my well-being, and another picked me up in September and bought me a cheeseburger and fries on the way back to the realm of people. And of course the couple who allowed me, with incredible generosity, to sit on their land all summer, and supported my practice in smaller but vital ways over the full 100 days.

And now the work begins. I'm hoping to have the book done soon. In the meantime, you'll be seeing excerpts and related material here.

And I'm glad the rest of you didn't blow yourselves up in my absence. Keep up the good work, eh?

The Bodhi Tree, a giant bigleaf
maple, under which I sat.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Just Sitting

I'll be offline for the next 100 days, as I'm going into the woods to meditate.

I'll resume posting here when I come back out in September.

This is a world of compassion.

-- Robin

Today's top headline:
"Free-Range Buddhist Eaten By
Health-Conscious Cougar."

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Product Review: The Mobile Meditator Zafu

The Mobile Meditator
provides monastic-
quality support.
One of the drawbacks of writing a hermit blog is you don't get to write many product reviews. As a rule, hermits don't "do" products; products mean materialism, which means consumerism, which means buying things, which means having money, which means valuing money. Which we also don't do. (Forget ice to Eskimos; the real test of salesmanship is selling anything to a hermit.)

But just as it's nice to eat out every so often, it's also fun to to review something you didn't make, find, or receive as a gift. And this is a good one, as it's something hermits need, and we can't really make.

The Mobile Meditator Inflatable Meditation Cushion is exactly what it says it is. But does it work? The only other product out there that seems to fill this description is widely held to be a piece of, well, karma. Although I've never used one, sangha brothers and sisters tell me it's underwhelming. And many Internet reviewers agree. So I was cautious about gambling my grubstake on an inflatable. Can you really buy a truly portable zafu, small and lightweight enough to carry into the woods, but serious enough to support your back and backside during prolonged sitting? And can you be sure it won't fall apart at a rate that would offend Pema Chödrön?

Yeah. It's called the Mobile Meditator.

Folded up and stuffed in its pouch.
I won't go into specs here, since the manufacturer's website is precise, but this zafu is small when deflated, full-sized when inflated, and almost frighteningly light in both states. Three-chamber design makes it fully adjustable. You know how one thigh is always higher than the other in half lotus, queering your balance? Well, on this zafu, you can tune half to feel almost like full.

Three chambers also mean it takes longer to blow up, especially since the valves have to be pinched just right while blowing into them; that's to prevent the air from coming back out. It also makes the zafu harder to deflate, which you have to do pretty thoroughly to get it back in the included protective pouch. But those hardcore valves also guarantee surprise-free sitting, and better yet, they make it possible to adjust posture on the fly: just reach down and pinch the one on the offending chamber, and your body descends, elevator-style, into proper position.

Mine looks like a giant burnt crescent roll.
Feels like one, too.
The Mobile Meditator is crescent-shaped, which lends itself to Western-style, on-cushion positions. Those who prefer the "Japanese wedge" might get it by inflating the Mobile Meditator hard and using it backward; I don't sit that way, so I can't say. I was initially afraid it would soap-bar out from under me, being vinyl and all, but the flocked surface clings to me militantly. In fact, it clings to everything militantly, making it a magnet for all manner of filth. But it's a small price to pay for a tight seal with the planet. (A light touch with an old-fashioned, bristled clothing brush does adequate clean-up.)

I have heard Brand X users complain of feeling like they were sitting inside a Moon Walk, unable to settle firmly on their inflatable base, but thanks to its shape and design, the Mobile Meditator provides positive purchase. It's not as solid as my beloved buckwheat, but I quickly became accustomed to the slight difference.

The zafu on its back.
To date, I've only come up with two criticisms of this otherwise excellent product. First, it's sweaty; after a long sit, my Enlightenment Base is wet and greasy. This is uncomfortable, but in all honesty, I can't imagine a way to make an inflatable zafu that doesn't do this. So I just place a folded towel on it before I sit, and that solves most of the problem. On the other hand, the company could easily do something about its limited colour choice. Right now the Mobile Meditator comes in two flashy Las Vegas versions (Very Red! and Very Orange!), as well as black. I'm happy; I like black. But they really ought to add a conservative blue, and maybe an earthy green and brown. Just sayin'.

I sure can't complain about the price. At $24.95, a person could be forgiven for assuming it's cheap junk. But it's not; it's cheap quality.

I don't really know exactly how tough this thing is yet, as I've only just got it. However, in a few days I'm going into the woods to meditate for a hundred days, which is why I bought the Mobile Meditator in the first place. Of course I won't do anything stupid, like jump on it or use it directly on the ground or shove it into a bear's mouth to save my life. But I think we can safely assume that this summer will be the Mobile Meditator equivalent of a Timex commercial.

I'll let you know how it goes.

UPDATE, September 2011:

Not well, as it happens. The zafu popped on the third day out, and I ended up rolling up my closed-cell sleeping pad each day to serve as a cushion. I wouldn't read too much into this, though; the conditions were extremely challenging for anything inflatable. By way of comparison, my Thermarest pad, which I used as a zabuton, also developed a leak, and the Mobile Meditator is nowhere near as sturdy as that is.

So the Mobile Meditator is not great for exterior hermitry, at least not as-is. I suspect you could make a cover for it of leather or some artificial material (the stuff they make industrial hoses out of comes to mind), and that would probably keep it alive in abrasive conditions.

Before I leave this topic, let me also say that I cut the side chambers out (only the big middle one popped) and used one for my pillow at night and the other as knee support with the rolled-mat zafu. Both served throughout the ango with no further complications, and are still perfectly airtight. The knee support was particularly welcome, since the little cushion could be adjusted with a pinch, and sitting on that hard foam roll increased joint stress rather a lot. 
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