Thursday, 31 January 2013

Miracle of Rising Turtle

Turtle's Head
The song A Hundred Million Miracles, from Flower Drum Song, was a big hit on the radio when I was little. It's poorly named; the actual Chinese expression is only "ten thousand". But miracle inflation aside, the lyrics are exact. Miracles are indeed popping off all around us, events so unlikely that science would scoff at the mere idea, if we didn't live with them every day. The fact is, life itself is statistically impossible; if it hadn't busted out everywhere for the past billion years, it'd be the stuff of tabloid headlines.

So the Evangelicals have it right: a tornado in a junkyard stands a better chance of assembling a jetliner than the random mingling of primordial pH does of creating life. It's just a shame that they miss the crux of the koan: God is just that big. Life did evolve, by simple cause and effect, from the haphazard admixture of inorganic compounds, against all comprehensible odds. Just because humans can't grok a Universe where all things are changing, in all places, at all times, don't mean it ain't there. That's why the whole science vs. religion spat is nonsense: evolution is creation. And whatever you got trapped in that box, Billy Bob, it ain't God.

(By the way, am I the only one who thinks it's weird that creationists so love that old 747-in-a-junkyard line? Do they know that it was coined by two secular scientists? And that one of them is Buddhist?)

The fact is, the Universe deals in quantities so astronomical (sorry, couldn't resist) that we lack numbers for them. To God, the odds against life evolving on Earth, or anywhere else, are nil. He's got the time, he's got the money, and he's in no hurry. Life is in fact inevitable. One might think this were clear by now, given its tendency to permeate every goddam thing, but some folks are slower on the uptake than others. In the face of all human limits, life is a lock.

And it's going around: the seasons, to name one, are the result of a horrific asteroid collision that left our wet little rock wobbling back and forth like a top ever since. Imagine home without them. Or the tides; what are the odds that a planet would produce a single moon (not a raft of them, or none), in sufficient orbit and with sufficient pull to create a regular, chartable movement of the entire marosphere, fully two-thirds of the planet's surface, and so become the driving engine, along with those accidental seasons, of its entire ecosystem? Have you any idea how Earth we wouldn't be, without these giant, interlocking coincidences? What are the odds? And figure this: in other places, other accidents. Other convergences. Other miracles.

And I haven't even gotten to the comparatively pedestrian, low-variable, dime store miracles that created infusoria like, well, you. Two hundred thousand years ago (still not Hammerstein numbers), two newly-promoted Homo sapiens sapiens (the "Really Modest Man") hooked up. Maybe for life, maybe for lunch. Whatever. The point is, you happened, so fast by God's watch that it doesn't even count micro-nano-fetal seconds that small. Life was hard back then, and short. Odds that your Adam or your Eve would even make it far enough to, er, make it, no bookie would give. To say nothing of the chances of their meeting, when hominid demographics hovered around ten per square continent, and not being from enemy tribes, or whatever other implausibility you care to spin.

And the result of all that actuarial achievement? Just one coupling. Twenty thousand more will have to happen before you squirt into the world. Every single one just as unlikely. Right up to your own two parents. If just one warrior along that long, thin line bobs left when he should have weaved right; one schoolgirl skips that dweeby old dance anyway; one husband doesn't forgive his cheating wife; you never happen. Twenty thousand times.

Now how much would you pay?

Don't answer yet, because you also get millions of pre-Omo miracles, hundreds of thousands of primates and tree shrews and dinosaurs (still in the past hour, Allah Standard Time); cockroaches and trilobites, jellyfish and sponges (just this morning), plankton, diatoms, bacteria. Viruses. Prions. Freakin' amino acids.

Every single birth, every single survival, every single coupling: pure happenstance, entirely deserving of a sceptic's disdain. And if any one of those tributary miracles doesn't happen? Poof! No more you.

And you know who else walks that razor's edge? Every single living being in the Universe. Past, present, and future. At home and abroad. This galaxy and the next.

So the problem is not that miracles don't happen. The problem is they're so relentless we've become numb to them. We don't see them. And so we fall into the mire of pseudo-reason, where we believe it's necessary (hell, even possible) to control the variables. People in other countries sin differently; let's bomb Sumweristan. We don't like Dick and Jane falling in love; we'll punish them. We object to Larry's profession, Curly's religion, Moe's hairstyle. (Ok, maybe that last one.)

The Buddha said that a turtle, rising to the surface in the middle of the ocean, has a better chance of randomly poking his head through a knot on a log that just happens to be there, than you and I have of being born. He wasn't being poetic; the analogy is actually a bit conservative. He also said that humans are virtually the only beings, in all the realms, who can reach Enlightenment.

The point is, you got no time to play Master of the Universe. For God's sake, sit down and shut up, while you still have the backside and mouth to do it. This-here is some serious business. This life, this human life, is already statistically unhavable. And you have one. Don't fritter it away on the existential equivalent of heroin.

Of course, what the Buddha didn't say is that right now, as you read this, across All That Is And Can Be, Here And Elsewhere, an infinite number of turtles is nailing ringers in an infinite number of knotholes.

But stay focused, brothers and sisters. Stay focused.

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

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

WW: Morning TriMet

(Photo by Zen droogie Dannon Raith. With his cell phone. Yeah, he's unfair that way.)

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Guarding the Bodhi Tree

    "Palladius said, 'One day when I was suffering from boredom I
    went to Abba Macarius and said, "What shall I do? My thoughts
    afflict me, saying, 'You are not making any progress, go away
    from here'." He said to me, 'Tell them, For Christ's sake, I am
    guarding the walls'."
                                                       The Paradise of the Desert Fathers

Meditation on the Acres was usually "bad". I don't know why; sitting a lot, and sitting alone, should have produced calmer, deeper zazen. It has in other places. But on the mountain I swam in past wrath and wrongs, in fantasies and what-ifs, and in worries present and future. My mind brachiated from ridge to river and back again, with utter indiscipline.

Our teachers tell us that sitting is what it is. Each time is the first, and each time is the best. And despite our expectations, those of us who do it a lot will tell you that benefits often only accrue when you stop.

And so it was on the Acres. Sometimes I sat for more than an hour, determined to find some kind of peace, or at least parity. At last, hips and knees creaking audibly, I gave up. And only then, struggling to stand on crotchety legs, did I feel the laughter bubble up.

And so I sat picket, hour after hour, day after day, back straight, shoulders square, chin racked. Guarding the Bodhi Tree.

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

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

WW: Sesshin meal

(See this post for an exposition of the art of feeding a sesshin.)

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Koan: Café au Lait


When I lived in Québec I met a man who told me that in his student days he'd waited tables at a Montréal café. There, American tourists often asked him for "café au lait, hold the milk".

"What'd you do?" I asked.

"I brought it," he said.

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Montréal street scene by Jean-Marc Plumauzille. Photo courtesy of the artist and WikiMedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

WW: Joyriding on the beach

(Seen it at least half a dozen times; twice at this very spot.)

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Hermitcraft: Sourdough Starter

(I just uploaded a hermitcraft article last week, but a reader recently asked about sourdough starter, so I'll go ahead and answer this week.)

"Sourdough starter" was synonymous with yeast here in western North America before the concentrated item appeared in stores. Elsewhere it was called leavings, scrapings, or spook yeast, or just "yeast", for it was all we had for that in those days. Witness Henry David Thoreau, hermit and Walden author, who had to hike to the village bakery to procure "yeast". There he was sold a living batter, susceptible to being scalded to death in overhot water, that raised bread primarily by chemical reaction with sal (baking) soda. You tell me what that was.

The paste those Concord bakers doled out is properly called sourdough starter, as "sourdough" by itself usually describes the kneeded dough and its products. But in practice, the starter is also often called "sourdough", and this can confuse beginners. For that reason, I will henceforward identify the yeast culture by the word "starter".


You will need:

White flour (not whole wheat; see below)
A serviceable pot

Such a pot must be nonreactive (that is, not metal) and watertight. Beyond that, anything will do. The best ones are lidded, wide-mouthed for easy scooping in and out, and clear, so you can monitor the health of the occupants. Mine is a one-quart plastic jar that once held mixed nuts.

Pot secured, proceed as follows:

1. Peel, quarter, and boil the potatoes.
2. Strain, reserving the
3. Eat the potatoes.
4. Stir up a batter with the flour and potato water. It should resemble slightly-too-thick pancake batter.
5. Dump this medium into your pot and put the lid on.

Within 24 to 48 hours the starter will begin, slowly at first and then with gusto, to bubble and work. At full élan it will have a yeasty, fermented smell.

Sourdough starter is a living thing, with wants and needs and specific rights under federal and provincial law. To be precise, it's a community of microbes -- hence the term "culture" -- that eat various sugars and fart out carbonic gas. (Sorry; you asked.) The sugars come from the ground grains you put back in the pot each time you use some. Keep this up indefinitely and your little sea monkey civilisation will thrive indefinitely, humming happily along on the kitchen counter, where you will bond with it as with houseplants, pets, and children. The longer it survives, the better it will get; new yeasts will happen by and set up shop, resulting in more active, versatile starter.

In any case, the starter must be fed at least once a week, even if that means throwing some starter out to make room. (This fact helps get me up and baking when I otherwise might slough off, because I hate wasting food.) The more you use it then the more you feed it, and the healthier it will become.

If however your starter goes too long without recycling, the yeast will suffer moral decay and the pot will be invaded by either a red bacterium or a grey mildew. They're both harmless, but they taste bad. To get rid of them, set aside a teaspoon of the cleanest starter you can rescue and throw the rest out. Then sterilise the pot (a thorough washing, followed by an overnight soak in a strong bleach solution), mix up a fresh batter, and inoculate it with the reserved starter. The yeast will then handily out-compete any intruders that come back aboard with it.

It's also good to feed other grains from time to time, to encourage a diversity of yeasts. You can stir in whole wheat flour now and then, but not too often, because it's full of oils that go rancid over time. Other effective treatments include corn flour (fine-ground cornmeal), masa or powdered oatmeal (not too much of either), and mashed rice or rice flour.

So this oughta get you started. (Get it?) I've got a sourdough cookbook in the works, which will include my recipes for crêpes, coffee cakes, breads, and fried razor clams, among others, but for the time being I recommend hermit bread as a first project. It's an easy enough recipe to build confidence, and a hard enough one to teach you a few things. And it's where I started, too.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

WW: Self portrait

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Hermitcraft: Incense Burner

I'm not a big incense guy. Some Buddhists are. They like to set up an exotic Asian vibe, and amass a lot of foreign accoutrements on their borders. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, these practitioners "make a lot of smoke".

Meanwhile, I'm a hermit. Rama-lama-ding-dong irks me. But I have to admit, it can be useful. At the start of my vocation I lived upstairs from two incessant smokers. This was disgusting enough, but their ceiling/my floor proved dismayingly porous, so I couldn't escape the stench even in my own home. Since I had recently embarked on a Zen path, my counter-schemes naturally turned to fine Japanese temple incense. It's expensive, but it doesn't stink up the place like cheap stuff, and, as I happily learned, its pleasant unobtrusiveness doesn't stop it getting all bushido on smokers' arses.

As a side benefit, the fact that I was saturating my living quarters with temple incense during the founding months of my practice imprinted it, Pavlov-style, on my neural net. So now the smell of good incense calms me and puts me in practice mind. Which is exactly how cœnobites justify their incense fetish.

Goddam cœnobites.

Anyway, I needed an incense burner. Did I mention I don't like the thing Chögyam Trungpa called "spiritual materialism"? And on a Scottish note, commercial burners tend to be wasteful, because the end of the stick that's stuck in their hole or sand doesn't burn. Hey, if I'm gonna blow seventy dollars on smell, I'm wringing every last penny back out of it.

And so I invented this. It works. It burns the stick down to one or two millimetres. And it's bindle technology, which is the electrical opposite of pretence.

You will need:

1. Two clothespins, the kind whose wooden legs are held together by a metal spring.

2. Glue.

3. An empty sardine tin. (I like the long skinny tins that kippers come in, because they catch all the ash when
burning a full stick.)

4. A small saw, such as a coping saw or hacksaw

Optional: paint or stain; sandpaper; a small triangular file.

1. Saw the "lips" off one of the clothespins, angling the cuts about 45 degrees toward the tail, making a pointed business end. (See illustrations; you can also accomplish this by rubbing the clothespin on coarse sandpaper or holding it against a disc sander.) Without this, the incense stick will snuff out prematurely.

2. Saw about half an inch off the end of one leg of the second clothespin. Turn that bit narrow end forward, and glue it to the inside of the end of a leg on the clip. (See illustrations.) This forms a cleat that will hook over the rim of the tin and hold the clip in place. Clamp the glued bit down with the donor clothespin until it dries.

3. Inscribe a shallow groove in the middle of the biting surface of the jaws, to keep the round incense sticks from falling sideways and rolling out. A small triangular file is handy for this. In any case don't cut the notch too deep or the clip won't hold the stick. A large scratch is all that's needed.

Optional: clean up the sawn surfaces with fine sandpaper, and paint or stain the clip so it doesn't look so much like a clothespin. If that's a problem. (The clip in the photos was stained with outdoor trinity tar.)

To use, clamp an incense stick between the clip's jaws. Fix it to the tin by hooking the cleated leg over the rim and stepping the uncleated leg in the angle formed where the tin's side meets the bottom. (Photos again.) Ideally the installed stick should lean about 45 degrees over the tin. If the fit is good and secure, you may have to flex the clip's spring a bit to get it mounted. If it's too loose, consider modifying the cleat, or try a different size clothespin.

This incense burner is easily made, lightweight, and expendable. You could conceivably parlay your artistic skills into a pretty fancy model, if you painted up the tin. But it would be hard to make it very expensive, even at that. Either way, I'll confess to becoming very attached to mine. When somebody tossed out the one I put together back in the day, and used for years, I was truly raked off.

So now I hide the one you see here.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

WW: O brave new world

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