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: http://www.owlpages.com/sounds/Strix-varia-1.mp3 .
To hear the kiai: http://www.owlpages.com/sounds/Strix-varia-1b.mp3 )

(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.
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