Thursday, 26 April 2012

Perfection of Wisdom

Homage to the Perfection of Wisdom, the lovely, the holy.

There is on Earth no place of ease, because ease itself wears. Human beings cannot abide comfort, and so a true place of ease, if it existed, would be a place of torment. And therefore not a place of ease.

In discomfort we imagine that well-being would banish angst, but the rate of depression and suicide among the wealthy is roughly equal to that of the poor.

The Perfection of Wisdom gives light.

Yet the Acres were as near a place of ease as my soul could suffer. There I was free to practice, and to order my practice, and, vitally, to do both without censure. Constant casual criticism is the homemade hell of our time.

There were irritations all the same. And the worst was the motocross.

Unstained, the entire world cannot stain her.

I had two neighbours to the west. One was Paul. From his farm came the sound of Life. Tractors, trucks, mowers, Skilsaws. Ducks and dogs and doors. All singing bowls to me, the country boy fifty acres above.

The other neighbour had a motocross track.

She is the source of light, and from everyone in the triple world she removes darkness.

His track was part of a national circuit, a fully-appointed racing facility slashed into a clay ravine, like the "before" photo in a county extension erosion control brochure. On meet days, the roar never broke. It carpet-bombed the very air, one long, continuous holocaust from which there was no escape. The inferno savaged everything it touched. And it touched everything.

I am not of those who demand the world stop turning because they are meditating. In theory, a proper monk can sit calmly, even happily, through anything. I have always found amusing those sitters who solemnly quote the teaching that a student of Zen must be able to sit on the molten surface of the sun without requesting so much as a glass of water, and then pitch a fit about a loud washing machine or riotous children. Perhaps I'm being unfair; there are likely neither on the sun.

Neither I hope is there motocross, because that shit banishes even the hope of meditation. Race days, I found it impossible even to picture myself meditating.

There are sounds that are hard to sit with: rock music, yapping lapdogs, people screaming in anger or distress, or crying. I've sat with them all, but not well. On the mountain I sat happily with church bells and crowing roosters and laughing teenagers; less happily with chainsaws and bulldozers and gunshots. But the motocross destroyed everything in its path, utterly and without exception.

Most excellent are her works.

Fortunately the track was open only every other Sunday, and this year my other preceptor, the incessant rain, shut it almost entirely down until early July. "They can't race if the track is too soft," Paul told me. "I've seen RVs arrive two Saturdays now, and leave next morning without racing. It's the rain; too much mud."

I was glad to hear it, but not completely. The track was a business, one its owners probably depended upon to pay bills. And they clearly loved their sport, however alien it was to me. I've never understood the joy of ripping through green places on a motor, especially one that makes as much noise as possible. Very few of those people seem to have any real love of the outdoors. It's unjust to convict all for the crimes of some, but the tendency is there.

She brings light so that all fear and distress may be forsaken, and disperses the gloom and darkness of delusion. 

But at least this lot confined themselves to a track. Better still, they observed strict protocols. On race days the pest began at 0800 (I knew this because I never heard the 0900 church bell on those Sundays), and ran solid, without pause, until just after 1600. Then the wall of noise vanished, as at the turn of a single key. Once I heard a lone bike restart fifteen minutes later, rev several times, as if the rider were sussing out a malfunction, and then die instantly. "Are you crazy?" I imagined a comrade hiss. "Shut that damn thing off!"

She herself is an organ of vision. 

Whether these rules came of common decency, legal threats, or prudence, their mindful application made me feel for the washed-out meets, if only in retrospect.

As the rains retreated, slowly and unsteadily, through July, I learned to listen late Saturday for strains of heavy metal filtering over Bear Ridge. That meant the campground next to Paul's farm was filling, a flash mob of motor homes towing bike trailers, arriving for an event. This noise too would stop abruptly at 2100. Perhaps the young competitors made early nights, the better to race in the morning. More likely it was another rule.

She has a clear knowledge of being of all dharmas, for she does not stray away from it. 

But there never was such peace as descended, like floating silk, the moment the motocross stopped. Pure and sweet, a deep caressing calm that ravished the soul like wine. Then it was clear that it had been there all along, that soft, sleepy Sunday, smothered under fathoms of hell.

Perhaps the fault was mine, for not listening properly in the first place.

The Perfection of Wisdom of the Buddhas sets in motion the Wheel(s) of Dharma.

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Photo courtesy of WikiMedia and Fir0002/Flagstaffotos.)

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

WW: Return of the Caspian terns

(Hydroprogne caspia)

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Good Movie: Jeremiah Johnson

I've seen this movie so many times I could play all the parts, in French, English, Crow, and Flathead. The first time, we both had recently been released. That was the early Seventies, during the golden age of the New Western, when the likes of Little Big Man and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid wrenched the franchise from the dime-store patriots. In its place we got a precarious, three-dimensional American West, where skin and hat colour meant nothing and no destiny was manifest. It's an evocative genre, and Jeremiah Johnson is one of its masterpieces. Today you can see it on barebones DVD, without any subtitles or supporting features, but the print isn't bad.

The title character, a traumatised war veteran, flees to a far corner of the Missouri Territory with the quaint notion that no white people means no people. A folk-style ballad, served up in bites, informs us that he was "bettin' on forgettin' all the troubles that he knew". As a Western kid, I've seen the type.

But the West was never free for the taking, and Johnson quickly learns its Three Noble Truths: outbacking is a lifetime apprenticeship; human problems exist wherever humans are; and the West is full of humans.

Specifically, it's full of its owners, the serious citizens of serious nations, complete with their own laws, languages, and lives. Such is director Sydney Pollack's grasp of this fact that not a single aboriginal is shown speaking English. (One Apsáalooke [Crow] chief apparently understands English, but refuses to speak it, according to Johnson's mentor Bear Claw, "just to aggravate me.") Instead, wonder of Hollywood wonders, you'll hear Apsáalooke, Séliš (Flathead), and Sao-kitapiiksi (Blackfoot) speaking their own tongues. The exception is one devoutly Christian Séliš chief, who speaks flawless French to a white man who can hardly mangle "bonjour".

None of this is subtitled, underscoring Johnson's status as a foreigner in a foreign land. Alienated from his own culture, he is immersed in several others he knows nothing about. And in this he is surprisingly successful, because despite his antisocial bent, he's truly not looking for trouble. But suffering is all around him, and as a decent man he quickly acquires all the attachments, and even the authority, he wants so desperately to escape.

True to his genre, Pollack tomahawks clichés right and left. A US cavalry officer, assigned a necessary, dangerous duty, seeks the path of least harm; one imagines Johnson was that kind of soldier. The aboriginals are sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and shrewd. And all the mountain men are crazy. Some criminally, some culturally, but all of them, down to our shell-shocked hero, have completely stripped their gears. Pollack really gets hermits. You don't choose this lifestyle. It's chosen for you.

The casting is a constant revelation. Robert Redford's circumspect, fight-or-flight silence is the spirit and image of Johnson. Will Geer's Depression-honed Bear Claw is utterly credible, while ebullient sociopath Del Gue ("with an E!") gives Stefan Gierasch a rare chance to flaunt his own under-appreciated gift. Most enigmatic is Delle Bolton. As the Séliš woman Swan, she incarnates her character's name, anchoring all her scenes despite the fact that she has no English lines. (And damn few Séliš).

The plot is only loosely based on actual events, but Pollack's obsession with historical accuracy gives it a ring of truth. The lore is authentic, as are the mishaps. Del tells Jeremiah the Séliš were converted by "the French", yet the chief's French is pointedly Canadian. Exact on both counts. And I don't want to spoil anything for first-time viewers, but there's an FAA navigational beacon on a Wyoming mountain called Crazy Woman. Details like these make Jeremiah Johnson one of the great movies.

In the end Johnson winds up in a place he never wanted to be, and I don't mean the Big Horn Mountains. He's no longer really white; he does what he does for aboriginal reasons, under aboriginal law. But he's not one of them, either. Perhaps he's a nation of one. Perhaps he's a deputy of Karma. Or maybe, as his enemies come to believe, he transcends humanity altogether.

Whatever the case, it's clear that the old saw is wrong. You can run from your problems. It's just that you'll be issued new ones when you get there.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

WW: April in the forest I grew up in

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Koan: Sailing to the Horizon

A man there was who looked up from the mudflat one morning and perceived, beneath the rising fog, the horizon.

"I am a sailor," he said. "I will sail to the horizon."

Immediately his comrades lay about him, saying, "There is no horizon! I'm looking, ain't I? I don't see no horizon! You're of weak intellect!" But there were others who said they had been there, and liked it.

"I will sail to the horizon," the man said, and took a step up the beach to begin building his boat.

"Ha!" screamed a woman. "You said you would sail to the horizon! But you just took a step away from the sea. You're no sailor, you lying sack!" And everyone laughed.

The man was pounding nails when an onlooker accosted him. "Now see here," he said. "I heard you were a mariner, but here you are, ankle deep in dry sand, sawing and planing and pounding. Mariners don't saw and plane and pound. They steer and tie knots. They wear different clothes. You are a liar and a hypocrite."

Came the day when the man hitched his new boat to his pickup and set off for the boat launch. But the trailer jack-knifed halfway down. As he stood on the ramp, scratching his head, the guy next in line shouted: "What the hell are you doing?"

"I'm a sailor!" he yelled back. "I'm sailing to the horizon!"

"Sailor, my ass!" said the guy next in line. "You can't even back up a trailer!"

But the guy behind the next guy got out and helped the man launch the boat. The man raised sail and steered west.

A storm blew up. The man reefed the main, but did not use the proper knot, and so it came unreefed. Fearful, he switched on the VHF.

"I'm a sailor!" he cried down channel 16. "I'm sailing to the horizon! I've come unreefed!"

"Sailors don't come unreefed," said the radio officer. "People like you shouldn't be allowed to go around saying they're sailors."

The man jury-rigged to an island, repaired his broken mast, and cast off again.

He sailed toward the horizon. Winds changed; he trimmed. Lines slacked; he tightened. Storms came; he reefed. Time and again, and each in its time.

At last the man grounded on a strange shore. He had been many months on the blue sea, pursuing the horizon. Now both were gone.

The man jumped down. He sat in the sand, and pondered.

While he was pondering, a girl came by.

"I knew it was a lie!" she said. "They said you were a sailor, but look! You're not sailing! You're just a sand-sitter! You've let me down."

"Yeah!" crowed a teenager on the high tide line. "Said he was going to the horizon! He never went to no horizon! Guy couldn't sail his way out of a wet paper sack!"

The man got up, dusted off his backside, and went shopping for groceries. After a good rest and a refit, he shoved his boat back into the deep.

"I am a sailor," he said. "I will sail to the horizon."

Wu Ya's commentary: "A negative times a negative equals a positive."

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Photo courtesy of WikiMedia and Łukasz Garczewski.)

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

WW: Windmills

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Hermitcraft: Rushlight (Candle Lantern)

Every hermit needs a rushlight. It's a meditation candle, a trail light, and general illumination where there is no electricity. I made this one before I went into the woods last summer, and it served daily and well.

As you can see, this is bindle technology: a tin can with holes punched in. (I used a power drill for cleaner, more uniform holes.) Ordinarily you'd shift every other hole column up half a space, so that its holes are midway between those in adjacent columns. This maximises light and conserves metal strength. For even more strength, make the staggered holes smaller.

That said, you'll note that this rushlight has slits instead of staggered columns. I cut them with an angle grinder, thinking I'd get more light. And I did, but I probably won't do it again; the slit sometimes focuses a beam straight into my pupil when I meditate, forcing me either to endure it or break posture and poke the lantern with my monk stick. And a few minutes later it rotates back and lasers me again. A hole can only do this until the flame burns past it, but a slit can pester you all night.

Worse still is the metal lost; with ten full-length cut-outs, this rushlight crushes easily in my pack. The situation is not helped by the fact that both holes and slits go all the way to the bottom. This is overkill; both should stop about two inches up. The extras don't give much more light for the removed metal, and they leak wax that might otherwise extend candle life.

It's a fine design for home, though. The bottom tray is a candy tin cover I added after I came out of the woods, to catch run-outs. These aren't a disaster outdoors, though messy and wasteful, but unconfined dripping is a deal-breaker inside.

The tray also makes the rushlight much more stable when standing, which is otherwise a concern. The rubber feet (see photo below) were cut with a half-inch gouge from a tire I found on the beach, and attached with Gorilla Glue. They grip surfaces and eliminate marring. The tray does prevent me from stuffing the lantern into a pack pocket, but the detachable upgrade won't be a hard brainstorm.

I used hoarded notebook wire for the bail, because it's cheap, heatproof, and easily worked. The bail must be long enough to carry the light without burning your hand, and to hang without setting the support on fire. You'll also need a mesh cover (not pictured) outdoors to keep insects out. This is not just good karma; the dead will otherwise catch fire, inciting the chain reaction described in the next paragraph.

Possible complications include drowning wicks, blow-out, and worst of all, the Volcano of Atonement: molten wax breaks through the rim of the pool, cuts a channel that prevents a new one from forming, and the whole thing melts down in a single gushing flare. At best you're left with a cinder cone of wax and utter darkness. Other times you set the forest on fire, producing more light than is ideal for meditation.

Therefore, always keep your rushlight in view when you sit outdoors. I like to hang it just above and to one side of my field of vision in lotus. That way I can check it just by shifting my eyes.

A final note: there's a small trick to carrying one of these. If you just, like, carry it, the unshielded flame blinds you till all you see is it, surrounded by a giant doughnut of pitch black. If walking around with a tractor inner tube around your waist isn't your idea of safe navigation in a dark forest, turn your palm upward, slip your index finger through the loop in the bail, and carry it that way, hara-high. (See photo below.) That way your hand blocks the direct light, saving your eyes for the rest. For improved effect, carry something else in that hand as well, like a book or folded handkerchief.

In another post I've illuminated (sorry, couldn't resist) a cheap and easy method for making the candles that go inside. There are also plenty of storebought ones that fit. Just slide one in, whatever the provenance, and banish the darkness.

Not bad for stuff you were gonna throw out, eh?

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

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

WW: Snow in the Spokane country

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