Thursday, 28 November 2013

Zen Thanksgiving

I don't have much admiration for people who say they have no regrets. They must be afraid, or incapable, of considering the things left undone. You can't walk every path; you can't even walk two paths. You can only walk one. And that leaves ten thousand wells undrawn, ten thousand shafts unmined, an infinity of wealth and wisdom unattained, no matter how much you manage to know in this narrow life .

Deploring your human limits is a form of gratitude.

As for me, I got almost none of what I wanted in this life. But if someone were to offer it to me – the loving wife, the children, the career, the physical security – against what I've had, I'd have to say:
ちょっと... Take the mountains I stood on? The rain watched through barn doors and windshields, the snow shoed in silence, the lightning sweeping upriver? My midnight moons, rolling seas, sifting sand, and all the calm and joy and passion?

I'll need an appraisal before I sign that deal. Because I've gotten so much. Unexpected, unbidden, unwanted sometimes, it's true. But gifted, as no woman, no employer, ever gifted me. Blessings tumbling from the sky, in every shape and shade. What's the exchange rate, unrequited for unsought?

Not enough. I'll keep what's mine, thank you. The unpaid, unenvied, and unimpressive. But, henceforward: no longer unheeded.


(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Friend Milton.)

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

WW: The village


Thursday, 21 November 2013

Burden of Belief Kyôsaku

Yellow Lamas with Prayer Wheels "Believing something is not an accomplishment.

"I grew up thinking that beliefs are something to be proud of, but they’re really nothing but opinions one refuses to reconsider. Beliefs are easy. The stronger your beliefs are, the less open you are to growth and wisdom, because 'strength of belief' is only the intensity with which you resist questioning yourself.

"As soon as you are proud of a belief, as soon as you think it adds something to who you are, then you’ve made it a part of your ego. […] It is gratifying to speak forcefully, it is gratifying to be agreed with, and this high is what the die-hards are chasing…

"Take on the beliefs that stand up to your most honest, humble scrutiny, and never be afraid to lose them."

David Cain

(Photo of 1905 illustration of Buddhist monks with prayer wheels courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Arnold Henry Savage Landor.)

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

WW: Squadron of pelicans

(Click to see it bigger.)

Thursday, 14 November 2013

How to Meditate

(More experienced sitters may also find Meditation Tips useful.)

Meditation is easy to do but challenging to learn, mostly because it is so easy; practitioners either don't talk about technique at all, or tart it up with so much precious tripe it's hard to discern the fundamentals. When I became a hermit monk, with the Internet and common sense my only master, I had some difficulty getting the hang of this sitting thing. After a few weeks, with mixed results and the general feeling I must be "doing it wrong", I finally Googled my way to Zen Mountain Monastery's concise, complete, flake-free instructions. Without further koo-koo-ka-choo, here they are:

ZEN MOUNTAIN MONASTERY ZAZEN INSTRUCTIONS, aka Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Zen Meditation But Nobody Would Answer Your Goddam Questions. (If this link goes nowhere, you'll find a pdf file here.)

In respect and support of all enlightenment practices, I would also like to share some lessons learned during that founding period, to help others avoid common cul-de-sacs.

o When the Buddha said "sit", he meant "sit". The most important thing in your meditation practice is meditation. It's more important than equipment, posture, teachings, sutras, doctrine, or literally anything else. Just getting yourself to sit down and stay down is both the point and the hardest part of this practice.

o We don't meditate to accomplish things. We don't do it to become calmer, kinder people. We don't do it to sharpen our attention, or gain insight into our lives or the human condition. We sure as hell don't do it to have "visions" or become Awesome Zen Masters. Some sits are "good", full of wisdom, acceptance, and clarity. Others are "bad", full of rage and grief and unrest. But whatever happens is what's supposed to happen.

o Benefits are often realised only after you stop. Sometimes I sit for an hour without a second of peace. My mind snarls and chews, my body creaks and whines; nothing's good. But when I finally get up, a sort of quiet contentment washes over me. If I hadn't kept sitting, I wouldn't have received that compensation.

o Sometimes – particularly in the beginning – you may in fact have visions, or openings, or other types of mental recoil. Greet these like you greet everything that happens on the cushion: with a firm "Hmmmm." An experience may have meaning to you, but don't become attached to it – i.e., consider it a "revelation", or any other twee bunkum. These insights come from inside of you, from your own mind. Take delivery, and pass on to the next breath.

o When I first started, I read a lot of Zen teachings about being unmovable and disciplined and determined. As I was (and am) hard-core in my pursuit of enlightenment, if I dozed off on the cushion, I would slap myself, hard, to stay awake. One day I gave myself a bloody nose. "This can't be what the Buddha had in mind," I thought. I was right. Zen comes from Asia, where it's cool to inflict suffering on yourself. Monks there are beaten, made to sit in uncomfortable conditions or for tortuously long periods, denied sleep, food, leisure, and hygiene. (See Eat Sleep Sit: My Year at Japan's Most Rigorous Zen Temple, by Nonomura Kaoru.) The Buddha flat-out ordered us not to do this. Machismo is one of the stickiest attachments, right up there with greed, approval, and Facebook. You get zero credit for "powering through" avoidable suffering; in fact, it sets you back. If physical misery rises to the point you can no longer focus, modify your technique, or terminate the session.

o Beware the stories of others (including mine). Listening to other meditators' experiences is a sure path to discontent. "Everybody else talks about transcending/kensho/insight/oneness/visions/out-of-body experiences/indifference to pain/recovering lost memories/curing warts; something must be wrong with me." Your meditation practice is tailored to you. No-one else can command it, forbid it, certify it, or control it. You have one task: to sit. Are you doing it? Goooood.

o Finally, the effects of meditation are cumulative. You will feel much greater "effect" (for want of a better word) if you meditate twice a day, every day, than if you sit only once, or erratically. Life conspires to break up practice; sometimes you can't sit as well, or as often, as you'd like. Overcoming such obstacles (including the most debilitating: your internal excuse factory), and accepting them when they can't be overcome, is the nature of practice.

Somebody smart once said, "Each time you sit is the first time." This isn't poetry; no matter what's happened before, or what you've come to expect, every sit is its own event, ungovernable and unpredictable. And despite what some would have you believe, there are no meditation masters, any more than there are sleeping masters, dreaming masters, or boredom masters. Meditation is a natural state, arising when conditions are such. Following the Zen Mountain instructions (or pdf) establishes those conditions; whatever happens next is zazen.

Are you doing it? Goooood.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

WW: Surf scoter

(Melanitta perspicillata [hen] resting up after a storm.)

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Mindfulness Stick


'Way back in January 2011 I wrote an article about walking sticks. In it I posited that this oldest of purpose-made tools was quintessentially – and uniquely – human. "When," I asked, "was the last time you saw a lion, or a kangaroo, or even a chimpanzee, walk with a stick?"

Well, as it happens, the universe loves knocking over cocky eejits, and now I learn that 'way backer in 2005, scientists in the Republic of Congo documented the crap out of several lowland gorillas doing exactly that. Not only did they carry their walking sticks just like humans (see photo), they used them to steady themselves on erratic surfaces and to probe streambeds for footworthiness. And that’s not all: they also mindfully collected their stick blanks and specifically and systematically crafted them into useful tools. Hell, they did everything but rub them with trinity tar. (At least, they haven't been observed doing it. Yet.)

So there we have it, oh-so-brilliant humanity. That sound we hear behind us is dependent co-arising, dependently co-arising.

(Photo courtesy of PLOS Biology.)

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

WW: My axe

(OK, it's more of a hatchet: Jupiter pocket trumpet 416BL.)

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