Thursday, 27 February 2014

Going Over the Wall

In the tales of the Desert Fathers, a young monk complains to his teacher that his brothers are going over the wall. They're diluting the sanctity of the cloister, he says, and obstructing the pursuit of saintliness.

The old abba listens, and after a silence, says: "You know, when I was your age, I went to town every day." The student is scandalised. His own teacher, so wise and holy!

"Every day," repeats the abba. "When I was tired, I went. Even when I was sick."

"But Abba! Why?"

"To relieve myself of the burden of never having been to town."

That a Christian – a scholar of forgiveness – authored this koan is significant.

I was a horrific prig as a young man. I blamed others – everybody, to be honest – for disappointments large and small. Eventually I fell afoul of other prigs, and saw my error. Now I'm happy to be more often hurt by these people than to hurt others along with them.

But pride is a hard habit to break. Zenners often belittle Christians, their practice, even Jesus himself. It's easy to do; few Christians even seem to try to walk their Tathagata's path. (Indeed, it's a heresy: Jesuism.)

Yet our Christian brothers and sisters have no monopoly on hypocrisy. If they run too often to the messianic well, and mock up Gothic intrigues, we too have made Pauls of our predecessors and saviours of our sages. Our "don't-know-mind" is arrestingly contingent. The day we look at our neighbours and see ourselves, we will set these delusions down.

It's not as if our own religion is illiterate to forgiveness. Or, hell: just honesty.

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

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

WW: February fudo

(Twelve-strand kongo Diamond Sutra model.)

Thursday, 20 February 2014

20 March is Bodhisattva Day

Fred Rogers, late 1960s On 20 March, I'm inviting all my brother and sister seekers to be mindful of the Bodhisattva. "Bodhisattva" is the Buddhist term for those who dedicate their lives to ending suffering, in ways large and small, and also – especially – for that bit inside all of us that urges us in that direction.

Why 20 March? Because that's Fred Rogers' birthday. "Mr. Rogers" was a North American children's entertainer ("mentor" is a better term) who embodied the Bodhisattva Way. His gentle, respectful demeanour and careful attention to those around him are legendary. It's also completely true; my brother and I met him at a public television business function when we were 4 and 6. He gave us his undivided attention, genuinely interacting with us and ignoring the politicians and PBS executives milling about. And I've had similar stories from others. Dude was real.

So there may be others as qualified as my brother Fred to be the poster child of bodhisattva nature, but I doubt there's anyone better.

Therefore I propose that 20 March be Bodhisattva Day. You don't gotta be Buddhist to get a piece; Mr. Rogers wasn't. (He was an ordained Presbyterian minister.) You just have to agree that people should strive to default to their compassionate impulses, as a matter of policy.

I further suggest that, as an unobtrusive and respectful statement of conviction, we honour this day of reflection by wearing a cardigan sweater.

But no pinching people who don't, eh?

Fred Rogers sweater
Mr. Rogers' own cardigan, now on display
at the Smithsonian.

(Photos courtesy of KUHT [Mr. Rogers on-set], Rudi Riet [Mr. Rogers' sweater], and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

WW: Para-surfer

Thursday, 13 February 2014


Cruel was the foe that raped Glencoe
And murdered the House of Donald

13 February, 1692

(And thank God for fleet ancestors.)

(Photo of the appropriately-named Devil's Staircase, one of only two escape routes from the glen, looking much as it did that winter night, courtesy of Colin Souza and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

WW: Mon pays, ce n'est pas un pays

(C'est l'hiver.)

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Hermitcraft: Bells

Regular readers of this blog know that I generally eschew material attachments in Zen practice. We humans have a tendency to pile up insignia and trophies to justify ourselves to others, and that erodes practice, often to the point of replacing it. Thus Zenners accumulate zafus and rakusus and statues and incense and any number of other gewgaws – often very expensive ones – for bling, or to create an ambiance.

The first is questionable, the second legitimate if mindful. (An ambiance of what?) Early in my practice I determined that – rama-lama-ding-dong aside – a bell is useful in meditation. I ring mine once when I start and once when I finish; sometimes in between, to help concentration. And sometimes I just strike it in passing, to reaffirm my commitment. Like incense it's a Pavlovian prompt (literally, in this case) that establishes or re-establishes a monastic mindset.

However, I have issues with spending large sums of cash on fancy gong-type paraphernalia. The stuff sounds great, I admit; a high-quality singing bowl can ring forever. If someone wanted to get rid of one, I'd take it. But you can buy a lot of rice with the price of that perennially empty bowl.

So instead, I upcycle free or nearly-free non-bells that ring well in spite of themselves. First was a length of brass pipe. It had good tone, but was hard to suspend. I then upgraded to a small brass bell cannibalised from an old telephone (see photo above). It rests on a salvaged scrap of ash, finished with trinity tar, and I beat it with a large nail. It's cheap, portable, and dings expertly, though not so loudly that it's obtrusive to others.

Other times I use a Revere Ware saucepan lid (see photo below), sounded with an old toy xylophone beater. (Wooden spoons work well too.) Revere Ware products are often quite musical. Others may ring as sweetly, but lack that broad flat Revere Ware knob that makes a perfect gong base. In any case, if you don't already own a serviceable piece, head down to the Good Value Army and pluck all the pot lids with your thumbnail. Chances are you'll find a good one.

Saw blades and metal mixing bowls can also do bell duty if properly suspended. Old doorbells – better yet, door chimes – are another good source of dingstock, as are wind chimes and some types of glassware. Old garden bells can be had cheap at garage sales, then mounted and dung. And few things peal as beautifully as those gas-bottle bells you see around. They fetch usurious prices in garden and Buddhist supply stores, but are nothing more than worn-out propane tanks cut in half. If you or someone you know can do that (cutting torch? angle grinder?) : Keisu City.

Because anything that bongs when you bump it is a bell.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

WW: Self portrait 2

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