Thursday, 27 December 2012

New Years Performance Review

Last year, a foolish monk.
This year, no change.


Wednesday, 26 December 2012

WW: Into a new year

(Photo by Dannon Raith. Click to enlarge)

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Hermitcraft: Chai

It's Christmas, when thoughts naturally turn to chai. Well, they do if they're mine, anyway. Chai is not in fact a Christmas drink; it's the daily beverage of India, a nation that hardly has Christmas at all. (And the word itself simply means "tea". Like salsa [sauce] and baguette [loaf], it's a humdrum, general term that English turned into a fancy, specific one.)

But chai is warm like Christmas, sweet like Christmas, and spicy like Christmas. It's the ultimate comfort food, and as good as it is all year, it's especially good now.

The trick to good chai is to mind the honey and not be Nordic with the spices. Hence the downfall of commercial efforts here in North America: too sweet, too bland.

Many years ago I set out to develop the perfect chai recipe. I spent months at it, pushing this, pulling that, until I arrived at the recipe below. I have since received favourable reviews from a wide variety of guests, from tea and chai connoisseurs to rank beginners. And from more than one Indian, a fact of which I am inordinately proud.

So in honour of the season, I share with all interested my most valuable possession. Wield it wisely.

PERFECT CHAI (or: Kensho in a Cup)

For one oversized mug or two teacups:

1 1/2 cups cold water
1/2 cup milk
2 teaspoons strong black loose tea, or two teabags of same*
1/2 teaspoon minced gingerroot
Two inches of cinnamon stick, shredded
2 cloves
1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
2 cumin seeds (I mean it. Two seeds.)
2 peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon whole cardamom seeds
1 teaspoon anise seeds
a pinch of orange zest, if desired (adds bitterness if the tea leaves aren't strong enough, but go easy)
Enough honey to make drinking pleasant; typically about two teaspoons.

For a pot:

3 cups cold water
1 cup milk
4 teaspoons strong black loose tea, or four teabags of same*
1 teaspoon minced gingerroot
4 cloves
2 teaspoons whole coriander seeds
3 cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon plus 1/4 teaspoon whole cardamom seeds
3 inches cinnamon stick, shredded
3 peppercorns
2 teaspoons anise seeds
orange zest, as above
About four teaspoons of honey.

*Any strong black tea will do. If using teabags, cut them open and dump the leaves in loose. (Always the best policy, even when brewing ordinary tea.)

Place all ingredients in a saucepan and warm gently. Mind that the chai doesn't boil; it shouldn't even bubble. Heat for a minimum of 20 minutes; 45 or better is optimum. (If you plan to steep the chai more than two hours, omit one peppercorn.) Strain into cups, returning the spices to the pot between rounds.

Chai can be made ahead and refrigerated, as long as it's reheated gently. It's also good chilled.

Chai arhats know that success in this powerful alchemy, regardless of recipe, relies on the Four Noble Truths:

1. All ingredients must be infused together. Do not add milk or honey at the table.
2. Chai is all about the spices; if you can taste the honey, it's over-sweet.
3. Boiling is fatal. It flattens the water, exhausts the spices, and burns the milk.
4. A good masala is equal parts quantity and variety. Cumin and peel counter sweetness, and should be just barely detectable. Cloves, pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, and coriander provide mouth and aroma and should be pronounced, without however overpowering the cup. And, crucially: the digestives (anise, ginger, milk, honey) make the whole thing possible. Without them you've got a harsh, even nauseating, stew. If your chai comes out coarse on the tongue or hard on the stomach, pump these up.

Chai goes wherever cocoa does. Take it carolling, or to football games, or serve it at parties. It's also a famous after-meal digestive. I have chai with breakfast most Sundays, steeped during the morning sit.

So from all of us here at Rusty Ring, many happy returns of the season, and best wishes for the new year.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

WW: Pet bluegill

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Christmas Kyôsaku

"If you were going to die soon and had only one phone call you could make, who would you call and what would you say?

"And why are you waiting?"

Stephen Levine

(Photo of Christmas Eve, a 1910 American Christmas card, courtesy of the Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

WW: Flicker

(Colaptes auratus)

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Love of Chair

There was no place on the Acres to sit. Not for a white man. White men don't sit. Not because it's dirty or demeaning. Because we can't.

How often I've wished I could sit lotus, the real one commended by the Ancestors, soles bared to heaven, butt grounded on the earth itself, like the Buddha's own. Many Asians still practice this way. (Some use a cushion now, but it's a small concession.)

I determined once, early in my practice, to meditate this way as well. A week later I was so crippled I could no longer walk. That didn't feel like enlightenment, so I stopped.

Throughout the Third World, people lounge comfortably on the ground, or squat for hours, with their buttocks resting on their heels, or even the dirt. Meanwhile I couldn't even defecate outdoors without a walking stick to hang from.

And so sitting remained a problem for me. Not meditating; just sitting. A chair is small enough a thing, until you don't have one. I sometimes walked all the way down to the barn, just to sit on the derelict old coffee table there. Meditation was my alibi, but the truth centred lower.

That old table was literally the only place, on all the Acres, where a man could sit in comfort. There was no such ease in camp. There I either sat on the mat, or balanced my backside on a downed hemlock, no more than a bark-rough pole really, to write in the log or braid a fudo. But that was just to escape for twenty minutes my half-lotus hell. Mealtimes and formal sits I had to plan mindfully: plenty of activity beforehand to loosen the leg joints, and plenty of movement after to work them free again. To move straight from a meal to meditation, or vice versa, was out of the question.

For sitting on the mat was no rest; just the act of sitting down there and getting up again took great effort. Looking back, I don't know why I didn't simply construct a chair, or at least a bench, to relax on from time to time. It's true I had few tools, so that making anything was a tedious, time-consuming process. But I had wire, and I had wood; more to the point, I had nothing else to do. The thing would have taken days, certainly. But I had days.

The best excuse I can make is, it was a small problem. And so it was never solved.

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

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

WW: Not a black and white photo

(Note the small patch of blue on the right edge, just north of centre.)
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