Friday, 25 February 2011


Walking the beach after a fierce NNW, I found this small Japanese squash, washed up generally intact on the tide line. It's about the size of a large grapefruit.

It was also delicious. A little salty. But worth the walk.

Blessed be the sea, that gives as good as she gets.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Good Movie: Amongst White Clouds

UPDATE(27 September 2012): My review of Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits, the book that inspired this film, can be found here. Among other things, it points out that hermits have actually sat in the Zhongnans for seven thousand years; it's just the Buddhists who arrived two thousand years later.

This week I saw Amongst White Clouds, a terrific documentary on Chinese hermits. You can buy a copy at Amazon, or if you enjoy the luxury of high-speed Net access, watch the entire thing on Google Video; the quality is pretty good for livestream.

Made by American hermit Edward (Ted) A. Burger, this film is a rare jewel of multiple facets. To begin with, very few American scholars learn other languages, even those that are central to their specialities. Burger, for his part, has devoted his academic life to mastering Putongua (Mandarin Chinese), and is likely conversant in one or more regional dialects as well. (But I was unable to confirm this; Burger's Internet presence is remarkably spare, for having made such an important film.)

Burger is also the disciple of a Chinese hermit master, and though the linguistic path may seem obvious for such a person, it is actually very rare for an American to "bother" with language under those circumstances. Burger's personal investment in his tradition's cultural context invests his work with unique authority. (Unfortunately, his convictions didn't extend to the film's subtitles. Though their tone suggests an unusual grasp of the original Chinese, many flash by so fast they'd qualify as subliminal. I found this frustrating, and I read fast.)

Burger and his master.
The work itself is deceptively basic: Burger simply takes his viewers along, by virtue of video equipment, on a hike through China's daunting, breathtaking Zhongnan Mountains, seeking out whatever hermits word of mouth says are up there. It turns out to be a lot. In spite of a ban on their vocation after the Communist Revolution, a recent easing of policy has revealed that the region's 5,000-year-old eremitic tradition has not in fact died out; estimates place the number of hermits in those mountains today between three and five thousand.

The fact that Burger makes no effort to define his terms leaves some ambiguity in the work. He appears to consider a hermit someone living in a master-disciple relationship, as he himself did, though he doesn't verify that all of his interviewees walk that path. (In an excellent interview with the Kyoto Journal, Burger uses the verb "ordain" to mean "become a hermit," i.e., "She ordained at a young age." Again, he doesn't define this term.) He also considers "Buddhist" implicit in the term "hermit," though I can virtually guarantee that if there really are 5,000 of us in those hills, at least some reject such labels.

But that's my hang-up; Burger's point is simply that old-timey hermits still exist in China. On the way he films about a dozen, of both genders and all ages, half of whom he interviews in depth. Each reveals a unique personality, with a custom-designed practice. There are some wonderful moments of human warmth: a man my age laughs to think anybody would be interested in his unremarkable life; another is mystified that the hairy young barbarian introduced to him as "Edward" is called "Ted" by English-speaking friends; and my all-time favourite, the teenage monk who respectfully ignores the repeated orders of his deaf, 87-year-old master to "Speak up, boy! The man's making a movie!"

In the end, Amongst White Clouds avoids the pitfalls of pious tribute on one hand and insensitive judgement on the other, to become an authentic if maddeningly limited glimpse of an ancient Zen path. It's also an amazing feat of anthropology, and an impressive cinematic accomplishment in which the land itself, the remote, densely-forested, canyon-steep slopes of this massive open-air monastery, is a character in its own right.

See it. You won't lament the time.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Hermitcraft: Hermit Bread

(UPDATE: If you landed here looking for the recipe for Scottish Oat Bannocks, it's here. Gasshō.)

This is hermit bread. It's a sourdough recipe with ancient antecedents, among them the skillet bread dear to my Old Settler ancestors; Canadian bannock; Scottish scones; Australian damper; focaccia; and even pizza. (Pizza was originally soldier bread, baked by the campfire by Roman legionnaires. They took to topping it with whatever they could find, so as to add a bit of variety to their dinners. Eventually the toppings got more limelight than the bread, and the rest is pizza.)

All you need to bake hermit bread is a sufficient heat source. It's easiest in a proper oven, but can be made on a range, near a fire, or in a fire. It's the oldest part of my monastic routine, actually predating my vows by several years. This is the food I take on the road, and what I grab when I'm hungry and need something now. It has become as sustaining to my morale as to my body, a physical manifestation of my vows.

As ever with monastic practices, each stage and feature of the production of this stuff has taken on Deep Meaning over the years. The pre-cut pieces emphasise the fact that it's sojourner bread ("Incola ego sum apud te in terra / Et peregrinus sicut omnes patres mei" Psalm 38, verse 15). They also honour my Scottish forebears. I could also find great Buddhist significance in the number 8, but one has to keep a close eye on one's compulsive Zen tendencies. So for the time being, it just reminds me of the Union Jack. Rule Britannia.

Hermit bread is also hands-down the most popular part of my practice with my friends. I once baked it for an old high school classmate who was visiting with her children. When she asked what it was, I said, "It's just monk bread." Today, fresh-baked "monkey bread" has become one of her kids' favourite treats.

Nothing boosts a sagging spirit like hot hermit bread and tea. For all that, it's ridiculously basic, and easy to make. And it still rolls out a great pizza dough.


2 cups sourdough starter.
About 2 cups flour
1 tablespoon oil
Flour for kneading
1 tsp soda mixed with 1/4 cup flour

Liberally oil a 10-inch cast iron skillet. (Number 8, in traditional sizes. You can use a cake pan or cookie sheet, but cast iron gives the best results.)

In a large bowl, beat the flour into the starter with a wooden spoon. Switch to a butter knife when it gets too stiff to stir and continue cutting in flour until the dough balls easily and is almost dry enough to knead.

Cut the flour and soda mixture into the dough, then knead it thoroughly in the bowl, adding any flour necessary to prevent the dough from sticking to the bowl or your hands.

Pat the ball flat, place it in the skillet, and pat it down some more until the edges touch the sides. Turn the skillet upside down, catch the dough as it falls out, and put it back in upside down, greased side up.

Poke the handle of the wooden spoon into the dough systematically, all the way to the pan, until the loaf is well-dimpled. Then cut it into eight pieces.

Cover the skillet and leave the dough to work, 30 minutes minimum. (An hour is even better.)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. When the dough has worked, uncover and bake it in the middle of the oven for 15 - 20 minutes, or until lightly browned on top and dry in the middle.

When done, unpan the loaf or flip it upside down in the skillet to let it cool and harden up for a few minutes. Eat as-is or with any topping. (Butter, jam, herbed oil, sugared berries, etc.)

Traditional baking methods:

Place the skillet over slow coals until the bottom of the loaf is browned. Prop the pan up near a hotter part of the fire to brown the top, or flip the loaf, return the skillet to the coals, and brown the top that way. (Same procedure for range-top baking.)

Or flour the ball and smack it onto a clean rock at the fire's edge, turning to bake evenly.

Or place the ball in a Dutch oven and bury it in the coals.

Or drop the dough ball directly in the coals and bury it. (Works in wood stoves and fireplaces, too.)

Or roll the dough into a rope, wind it around a stick, and toast it over the coals.

You can 'wave a chunk of cold hermit bread for 30 seconds and it'll taste like it just came out of the oven. (Split the piece first and reassemble it before warming; it will be too soft to work afterward.) You can also reheat it on a plate in a covered skillet, with a little water added to make steam.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Street Level Zen: All Things Made of Parts

Iron lantern, or what's left
of it, placed in the leeward
garden in the 1970s.
...shall fall apart.

(Gautama Siddartha)

Friday, 11 February 2011

Bite Me, Batman!

Candid portrait of my practice:
written and recorded teachings;
 twine and rings for making fudos; 
 mat where my bowl rests; 
laptop, sole link with the outside.
I'm often questioned about my monastic practice, since I don't wear vestments or live in a monastery. It's a fair question. Here's a fair answer.

Christ and the Buddha defined monastics in astoundingly similar terms: They answer a unique call and walk a personal path. They reject personal ambition, and family and social obligation. Though encouraged to seek each other out for wisdom and solace, they are self-ordained. Neither Jesus nor Gautama recognised any other clerical model.

Such renunciates are called monks, from the morpheme mono-, meaning "single." Unfortunately, as individuals who follow a personal call and have no use for human authority or the credentials it sells, we quickly fell afoul of power. As a result, The Man redefined the word as "one who lives in a monastery," that is, a "place where people are alone together." (Hey, don't look at me.) Monasteries are owned and operated by The Establishment, which claims sole right to train and ordain residents. Let's be clear: there is no scriptural basis for this presumption, or this practice.

Today, ordained monastics have all but wiped alternatives from memory, so that an old-school monk like me risks being labelled a fraud for claiming the title. But I do anyway.

Later we stick-and-sandal types took the term hermit, by way of clearing up the confusion, but this too has become problematic. For starters, it calls up images of a crotchety old man who hates people and lives in the woods and never bathes. And I'm not that crotchety.

By whatever name, monastics who live by a rule of their own authorship have been around since the first human suspected there was more to life than the opposable thumb. To my certain knowledge, only the Roman Catholic church recognises us officially today. And the Vatican has been under pressure to ordain us ever since, but so far, successive popes have defended the eremitic vocation.

I confess I'm a bit envious of my Catholic brothers and sisters. Thanks to papal protection, there is now a sanctioned hermit movement within the Church that helps to dampen, if not eradicate, the sniping. Most Catholics I meet have still never heard of us, but the ordained monastics have, and that's huge.

Zen, sadly, is another matter. Although one of the most hermit-bound traditions on earth, the current Zen establishment is largely hostile to free-range monks. It's koanic, really: the Buddha was a hermit; Bodhidharma was a hermit; Huineng, father of all extant Zen lineages, was arguably a hermit; Ryōkan, one of our most beloved ancestors, was a hermit; Ikkyū, whose teachings are an essential antidote to Buddhist hypocrisy, was a hermit. But the Asian cultures in which Zen is rooted have a demonstrable contempt for individual initiative, and that has led us into a cul-de-sac of guru-worship. Today, Zen hermits are often accused of imposture and egotism for living the Buddha's own given precepts. The resentment is mutual and conspicuous, particularly in the West, where autocracy is dimly viewed and self-sufficiency a virtue.

For the record, I consider ordained monasticism legitimate, and even necessary. Alright, it's not scriptural; stuff doesn't have to come from the suttas to be valid. If it weren't for monasteries, what would I study? Most Zen teachings are generated, and all are curated, by ordained monks. The typical hermit has been inside before. I have done, and am likely to do again. The monastery is an important touchstone, and a weighty counterbalance to the hippy-dippy narcissism of hermitry. I shudder to think what we would become without it. Finally, it's an effective, irreplaceable practice for many who are drawn to that path, as synonymous to their lives as mine is to mine.

In sum, if I had a million dollars, I'd give it to a monastery. What the hell is a hermit gonna do with money, anyway?

But when the ordained sangha dismiss us homeless brothers as heretics or wannabes, or insist that our sacred birthright path leads nowhere but astray, then I just have to say it, loud and clear:

"Yo, Batman! You got a problem, you talk it over with the Buddha. I got more important lives to live."

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Street Level Zen: Moderates and Muslims and mosques, oh my!

"We learned a number of lessons, the most important of which is this: the real battlefront is not between the West and the Muslim world. It's between the moderates of all faith traditions and the extremists or radicals."

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, reflecting on his experience as planner of that oh-so-scary mosque in Manhattan. (By the way, Zenners, he's talking about you, too. Just say no.)

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Baby Skates

This is an egg case from Raja binoculata, the big skate. This one has dried down to about the size of a really large fried egg; when fresh, supple, and translucent green, they're much larger. (Those of the less common Bathyraja trachura are neater and smaller.)

Skates are chondrichthyoids, cartilaginous fish related to sharks and sawfish, and closely resemble rays. When I was a kid, skates' eggs were common on the beach. I once found one still alive, with a wriggling embryo I could see inside when I held it up to the sun. I wanted to bring it home and hatch it in a five-gallon bucket, but my long-suffering mother put her foot down. The house was already crawling with my animals; I guess a baby skate was more than she thought I really needed.

We used to see dead skates on the beach a lot, but these days it's become fairly rare. I'm not sure why. Given the great strides in reducing pollution and overfishing on this coast over the last three decades, I incline toward an oceanographic hypothesis. That our currents have changed is obvious; the beach was eroding when I was young, and now it's accreting. And of course there's climate disruption, bringing competing life forms north and driving incompatible ones elsewhere. Or killing them off entirely, when we're particularly unlucky.

Whatever the reason, I guess this is one fewer "doormat" we'll have swimming around one day.

Too bad. Skates rock.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Sea Monster

I'm reading Journey by Junk by Willard Price. It's an old discard from the San Diego Public Library, unearthed in a used book store in Olympia, Washington. (Library discards are a favourite of mine. You get the rarest, most interesting reads there.)

The book is interesting, an account of a summer Price and his wife spent gunkholing Japan's Inland Sea shortly after the Second World War. But what caught my attention last night was the following passage:
Leaving Nushima, we sailed straight across an arm of the incoming Pacific with nothing between us and America -- except some five thousand miles of salt water. Sleek black porpoises played around the ship. Far out we saw the spout of a whale. But the most astonishing spectacle was the sea serpent.
What it could actually have been I have no idea and I have a fair acquaintance with the denizens of the deep. It swam with its head well out of water (sic) and its tail licking the surface some ten feet behind. Its head was irregular and crested like that of a mythical dragon or giant iguana. It was not the streamlined head of a sea snake or moray eel or conger eel. It never went down during the twenty minutes we watched it. Evidently it was a land creature, quite without gills, yet it was many miles from shore and headed straight out to sea. It did not swim with speed of a fish, but slowly and with effort as if propelled by the wriggling of the body rather than by fins. It showed no fear of the ship, even when we sailed within a few yards of it, and when we turned aside to make port it calmly continued on its course towards San Francisco.
As Price notes, he was an experienced naturalist, and wrote among other things a long sheet of children's books on exotic fauna that were required reading for boys in the post-war period. What the hell was this thing? A Google search didn't even net a mention of the mystery, let alone a resolution. None of the usual suspects are in the dock; Price makes it clear this was no fish, so oarfish, squid, whale sharks, rays, and the like are out. It also was apparently not mammalian, or even aquatic. One wishes Price could have been more specific. Colour? Order? Body type? What's ten feet long, lives in Japan, and occasionally swims to San Francisco?

Ideas welcome.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

The Sputnik of Salamanders

This is an ensatina. I found her while clearing some rotten wood out from under the lower deck.

Ensatinas are found only on the Pacific Coast of North America, and very common here. The local race is this nondescript, nightcrawler-like colour, which is what I thought she was at first. They're about the most inoffensive of creatures, and certainly the gentlest of predators, in the rainforest. Ensatinas are capable of making a creaking noise, though they seldom do; they can also move very quickly if they feel they must, but they rarely do. You can reach out and pick one up without the least fear or haste; all you'll get is a reproachful look from those limpid eyes. Very occasionally, if you're out well after dark on a moist night, or you open the door of a clammy shed, you'll see one of these little fellows afoot on the moss, looking for something to kill. Which it will do, very cautiously, if the opportunity arises. Generally they prefer to hide under logs and leaves, even on the hunt.

Ensatinas especially like rotten wood, because it attracts termites and other prey they can eat without leaving home. It also retains moisture, and since they have no lungs, their skin must remain hydrated or they will suffocate.

Getting by without a respiratory system is just one of the astounding skills of my seemingly insignificant little sister. Unlike most other amphibians, she will lay her eggs on the ground, under rotten wood if at all possible, and generally just three of them. When the time comes, these will hatch into tiny perfect salamanders. No immersion, no egg mass, no tadpole stage. Indeed, generations of ensatinas may rise, thrive, and die before any of them happens, quite by chance, to take a swim. Therefore, though she may not look like much, this ensatina represents a decisive step forward in bio-engineering, away from the newts and toward the lizards. In evolutionary terms, she's the Sputnik of salamanders.

Nor is the Wankel bit the only point of interest this local-girl-made-good holds for evolutionary biology. Some of her nation in Central California have formed what's called a "ring species," a linear progression of geographically-related subspecies that proceed in observable, stair-step fashion through measurable variations, until the first and last are no longer capable of interbreeding. (Some of those Californians are real lookers, too. Big deal. Ours have more heart.) In other words, you can actually document ensatina evolution, not through the fossil record, but across a living, (non-)breathing population. And that's where it all started, brothers and sisters: it was Darwin's study of a similar ring of finches that lead to his famous kensho.

I've been a fan of life all my life. As a kid I especially liked amphibians, and particularly salamanders. Ensatinas were not my favourite; in those days I preferred bigger, flashier entries, like water dogs, redbacks, and mud puppies.

A guy gets older, and looks deeper.

Cereal box prize: 
Feed me, Seymour!

Venus fly traps. Easily the coolest plants in North America, possibly the world. Every little boy has had one. Every little boy has killed one. Most adults consider them unkeepable.

Not so! These folks keep hundreds of them! Outdoors! In Oregon!  Read all about it.