Thursday, 29 March 2012

Dharma Toilet

This haiku is my solution to the koan, "Why do I write this blog?"

Zen emphasises no-self, that is, that the sense we have of existing apart from everything else, with distinct interests, is false. There is no you. There is no me. And our refusal to admit that is the source of all evil.

One of the pitfalls of recognising this truth is the tendency of institutional Zen to reject the validity of experience, in the name of subduing the delusion of ego. Since you have no self, you're not allowed to say, "I've done" or "I've seen." Unfortunately this is a misreading of the Buddhic concept of anatta. The only ambiguity in those declarations is the "I"; the experience is real.

Still, like most sangha rats, I feel uneasy raising my voice. First off, if there ain't no me, I feel silly blogging about it. And after that, there's the uncomfortable suspicion that somebody out there is saying, "What business has this guy talking about Zen? He's nobody."

You and me both, crow-meat.

So that's why I write this blog. Because it's what I do.

I reverently request all sentient beings reject it, pending corroboration.

Deep bow.

(PS: Aren't you glad I didn't think of "Dharma Toilet" when I was naming this blog?)

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

WW: Revolution

Thursday, 22 March 2012

The Snake from Hell

June was also the month of the garter snake. Operationally the only serpents on the Green Side (the rubber boa being shy, crepuscular, and highly local), they abound here in three species. All are normally courteous, unless pregnant, with a reserved elegance and a merchant's eye that inspire trust.

Indeed, if these remarkable reptiles weren't so common, and perhaps if they were poisonous, people would make movies about them. They subsist on an astonishing variety of prey, amounting to anything they can push past their unhinged jaws, and glide with bored aplomb into virtually any habitat. I have encountered garter snakes on the tidelands of Puget Sound; sunning on lily pads mid-lake; stalking crayfish beneath a river; and trolling for slugs along the dunes on the beach. Their young they bear live, tiny capable copies of their parents, and so they can "nest" anywhere.

In short, Thamnophis is the snake from Hell. I loved the first one I saw, and each one since a little more.

As the days warmed and the hills dried out, the Acres' polymorphous garter snake population awoke in their hundreds, a full spectrum of them, basking on rocks and paths and molehills, powering up after the long winter.

Through the summer I would come to know many of their themes by sight: matt-black all over, like limber fan belts; broad blue lines seemingly chalked down the back; stripes of cherry, tomato, olive, and persimmon; bronze and gold freckled. They shared chunks of concrete by the stable, intertwined by threes and fours on molehills in the long grass, and, after Jim mowed, lurked under the windrows in the open field, where they could soak up the heat unseen by ravens.

On 11 June I picked one up while crossing the low meadow. She'd just given birth; deep folds of skin down both flanks. The next day I encountered her again, in company with another one identical to her, but just three inches long.

In all, my ango log contains thirty-three snake entries, detailing colours and configurations, shapes, sizes, and temperaments. One August entry mentions eight scared up just on the walk from the barn to camp; another simply notes, "Saw 15 snakes today." I sometimes caught one to admire its coloration, but mostly walked well around to avoid disturbing them, if I knew they were there.

Once I was meditating in the barn when a three-stripe came under the wall. I remained still, and he continued across the floor at cruising speed, grazing my sandaled toe on his way to some appointment.

His tongue must have told him I was there. He just didn't care.

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

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

WW: Yugoslavia moment in Seattle

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Works in Progress

I'm currently writing three books, any one of which is likely to show up on this blog from time to time. For the benefit of readers who encounter them, these books are:

100 Days on the Mountain. There's an ancient Zen tradition, called A Hundred Days on the Mountain, of retreating to a mountain and meditating for a hundred days. Almost no-one does this anymore; the only teacher I know from the last many centuries who did was Seung Sahn, who sat his hundred days on a Korean mountain in 1948. Taking my inspiration from his story, I set out to do it myself on the other side of the North Pacific. 100 Days on the Mountain is my account of that experience.

Rough Around the Edges: A Journey Through Washington's Borderlands. In which I set out to trace the borders of Washington as nearly as possible in an old rear wheel drive pickup. The journey takes me into deep solitude 'way out in the middle of nowhere, where the land itself is the story, and the people I meet only characters in it. As was I. And my truck.

Growing Up Home. I've reached the age when men become grandfathers, but am not allowed to be one myself because I never had kids. (Apparently that's a prerequisite. Who knew?) Therefore, I am forced to publish in book form my stories of wisdom gained much against my will. The essays make short reading (Selling Point #1), are Certified Wise by an authentic old man (Selling Point #2), and you can put them down anytime you want and go back to your own youthful misadventures (Selling Point #3). Or your nostalgia for same.

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and the New York Zoological Society.)

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Lost in the Palouse

"Where to now?"

I leaned on the truck's hood and stared at the back of the ram's head, but my chromed companion remained cast in silence.

A magpie burst out of the waving grass half a hundred yards away, caught a blast of air, and banked screeching over the rise.

We'd been down this road before. Three times, in fact. I smoothed the road atlas open, holding it down against the gusts, and frowned. Everything irritated me; the filth on the fender, the reek of hot engine, the sun's glare on the page beyond the shadow of my hat, and the persistent smell of rain.

And the wind. Especially the wind.

We wanted south; all the roads ran east and west, switching back through vales of hilled prairie. Even those tracks the map promised would eventually plumb out, bowed to peer pressure and veered east.

The first time I'd come to the golf course, away out in the wheat, I'd trundled slowly Magpie (Pica pica) (11)past, rubbernecking like a kid at a carnival. Then the dorms. Three times I retraced my route, tried another, and three times ended up back on campus.

Where the hell was this? Either I'd gone all the way around the world, and come back to Pullman, or this was Moscow. But the map didn't go to Moscow, so either theory was plausible.

I knew from my college days that the University of Idaho was just a projectile puke from WSU. And as neither is often mistaken for a Mormon school, to say no more, the highway between was reputed to host more drunken tragedy than any other seven miles in either state. So solemnly and reverently was this fact repeated in the residence halls of Bellingham that I've never insulted it with research.

I sighed west, over the giant surf of the land. Now I was navigating by lore and legend, like the Polynesians of old, checking my work by the smell of the sky and the taste of the sea. And in this I was at a decided disadvantage, for unlike those ancient Pacific voyagers, who plied their watery heritage with sublime confidence, my own ancestors had left me blind and deaf.

Palouse hills in may 2010And so it is that to this day I judge I've been to Moscow, because that's where it was and that's where it had to be. But who knows? Maybe there's some anomalous college out there, some phase-shifting Hogwarts of the prairie, into which I thrice blundered, and lacking any real sense, called the University of Idaho. Like Columbus, perhaps I'd stumbled on something much grander than my mercantile imagination could grasp, out there off the charts, and will go to my grave as big a fool.

The wind whistled through the ram's helix, ruffled my shirt, batted my hat. I tugged the brim down and thumped the hood through the atlas.

"Anywhere you want," it replied.

I jumped, and the wind shuffled the pages back to one.

"That's where to," said the bighorn.

"Anywhere you want."

(Adapted from Rough Around the Edges: A Journey Through Washington's Borderlands, copyright RK Henderson. All photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: Dodge Ram hood ornament by Christopher Ziemnowicz; magpie in flight by Ken Billington of Focusing On Wildlife; Palouse hills by Bala Sivakumar.)

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

WW: Spring by the woodshed

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Hermitcraft: Oat Bannocks

I often see in my blog stats that people have landed on my hermit bread (Canadian bannock) recipe while searching for information on Scottish bannock (or "bannocks", as we say; plural). This chagrins me, because hermit bread is nothing like "real" bannock, though a blessing in its own right, and the actual article is as fit to feed an honest man as any sad soft white thing in this wheat-weakened world. In a word, it's a crisp oat flatbread, having no wheat in it whatever. And as Boswell famously pointed out to Johnson, oats build a fine horse.

Therefore, to correct an injustice and educate the uncultured, I provide here-in the key to proper eating.

Oat Bannocks

1 cup rolled oats
More oatmeal for rolling
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon melted butter
Hot water

Set a rack six inches from the top of the oven and dial up 350 degrees.*

Pulverise the cup of oatmeal, with a blender or by rubbing it between your hands, and dump it into a small mixing bowl. Mix in the baking powder and salt.

Add the melted butter and toss well with a fork until it's absorbed and evenly distributed.

Sprinkle a baking sheet liberally with oatmeal.

Slosh a tablespoon or two of hot water into the bowl and mix well. Continue adding hot water a teaspoon at a time until you can press the dough into a ball. It should be slightly sticky, but not goopy. (Bannock dough dries very quickly. If it's a little too wet, let it sit until it reaches the right consistency, normally a minute or two.)

Turn the dough onto the oatmeal-strewn baking sheet. Working fast (see above), roll it around until it's covered with oats. Then shake the baking sheet to redistribute the oats that are left and roll out the dough over them, into a round about the size of a dinner plate and no thicker than 1/8 inch. Start with the palm of your hand, then your fingertips, and finally a lidded jar or other small-enough round thing. If the dough is too sticky, sprinkle more oats on it.

Shake the free oats
That's home-made bramble jam.
from around the sides and dump them back into the oatmeal jar. Then mark the round into eight pieces. (Everything in Scotland is marked in eight pieces. I've no idea why. Scones are marked in eight pieces. Shortbread is marked in eight pieces. Teacakes are marked in eight pieces. I'll lay you odds that Sawney Bean's lot marked their victims in eight pieces.)

Bake the bannock until the edges have turned up from the baking sheet and browned, 15-25 minutes. (This varies from oven to oven, and possibly place to place.) When done, turn off the oven and open the door, leaving the bannocks inside to crisp for ten minutes.

Serve hot (best) or cold (still brilliant).

*Before ovens were commonplace, bannocks were typically fried on a griddle, as indeed some still are.

Bannocks can be topped with anything, sweet or savoury, including fruit, custard, marmalade, cheese, kippers, and potted meat. Or plain old butter. Bramble jam, traditional confection of the Scottish working class, makes a tea fit for God's own Elect. For a decadent treat, dollop whipped or clotted cream on chilled fruit and crush a bannock over the top.

Oat bannocks are a primordial, fundamental food, having in common with most poor-man's fare that they're cheap, easy, and infinitely more delicious and sustaining than any posh gob. They're one of my favourite comfort foods, easily prepared, and I've heard no complaints from guests, either.

So there you have it, Scottish bannock searchers: the real deal.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

WW: Aboriginal fishing weight (found in surf)

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Good Book: Zen at War (Second Edition)

Once upon a time a mighty nation considered itself the holiest, most righteous in history. The ruling class especially leaned heavily on religious rhetoric, invoking the name of a great prophet to defend its every worldly whim.

Then the nation began committing colossal atrocities against other peoples, and viciously repressing its own. And how did all of those pious believers react?

(Spoiler alert: not well.)

In Zen at War, Brian Daizen Victoria scrapes the stickers off many a smug Zen bumper. Taking Japanese Buddhism by the root he shakes it hard, and a lot of bitter fruit falls out. In the political history of our religion, once considered a seditious foreign cult in Japan, he finds pivotal concessions early teachers made to buy safety and comfort. Spooling forward, we watch these dubious innovations draw in all denominations, until the distinction between the Buddha Dharma and Japan's organic (and congenitally nationalistic) Shinto becomes academic at best.

Arriving at the fascist period and world war, we find virtually no Japanese Buddhists, Zen or otherwise, living the Buddha's teaching. Exceptions are either obscure or excommunicated. Meanwhile, Buddhist teachers kink like contortionists to make patriotism, emperor worship, and wholesale killing intrinsic to the Dharma.

Parallels with America scream in the reader's face. Reading Zen at War, I realised that the American mishmash of messianic nationalism and Christianity is nothing less than State Shinto. Where nation and culture are declared 'scripture made flesh', authentic religion is impossible. And just as a society that muddles God and Mammon castrates Christianity, so one that equates selflessness with service mutilates Buddhism.

The first edition of Zen at War concluded with an illuminating review of the ways that Zen is used to gain obedience in postwar corporate Japan, but the most powerful chapter is only available in the second. In "Was It Buddhism?", the author brings Buddhism forward from India, where it had already become a policy tool for the powerful, through China, where it acquired the relativism of Taoism and the paternal piety of Confucianism. (Deviations any honest Zenner must admit are now fundamental to Zen, pagan origin notwithstanding.) These he compares to the Buddha's actual teachings. For example, investigating sangha, a concept much cited in defence of priestly authority, Daizen notes:
The [Buddhic] Sangha was based on noncoercive, nonauthoritarian principles by which leadership was acquired through superior moral character and spiritual insight, and monastic affairs were managed by a general meeting of the monks (or nuns) […] All decisions required the unanimous consent of those assembled. When differences could not be settled, a committee of elders was charged with finding satisfactory solutions.
Daizen is a Sōtō priest trained at Eiheiji. He holds a master's degree in Buddhist Studies from Komazawa (Buddhist) University in Tokyo, and a doctorate in same from Temple. His andragogical résumé is extensive and tedious. In short, this is not the man to mess with.

But the work does suffer from a lack of editing (or maybe intrusive editing), and a tendency to beat certain points to death. Prominent Western Zenners, including Gary Snyder and Brad Warner, have challenged Daizen's indictment of some iconic figures, charging lazy scholarship and wilful misreading. I'm not qualified to have a side, but in the end, the fact remains that no ordained Zen teacher in Japan actively opposed the war until it was lost.

Aside from that, the book's greatest flaw is its title. Zen at War is actually about all Japanese Buddhist denominations; it takes Daizen half the book just to get around to Zen. All of it is relevant and readable, but I found the Zen monk in me saying, "C'mon, Brian, get to the Zen already!"

But such objections pale before the historical significance of this groundbreaking work. The Japanese edition has already inspired unheard-of public acts of contrition in several influential Zen lineages; this, in a culture even less inclined to apology than Western ones. Zen at War has changed the way Japanese Zenners see themselves. Whether it will change their behaviour as well, only time will tell.

Meanwhile, Western Zenners remain arrogant as ever. Perhaps if more of us read Victoria, we too will be inspired to confront some of the dubious assumptions we've imported whole-cloth from Asia, and so attain greater understanding of the Dharma.
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