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].)

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