Thursday, 25 September 2014

Good Book: At Hell's Gate: A Soldier's Journey from War to Peace

I'm not sure he'd appreciate the label, but Claude AnShin Thomas is the most prominent hermit of our generation. Though an ordained priest in Bernie Glassman's Zen Peacemaker lineage, his practice is in the tradition of Basho. In his own words:
"I made the decision to take the vows of a mendicant monk primarily because I wanted to live more directly as the Buddha had. […] Also, in witnessing the evolution of Zen Buddhist orders in the United States, I wanted to evoke the more ancient traditions of those who embarked on this spiritual path and to live my commitment more visibly."
AnShin specialises in walking ango – long voyages on foot, without money, living off the Dharma and the compassion of others. He calls them peace pilgrimages, and to date he's walked from Auschwitz to Vietnam; across the US and Europe; in Latin America; and even the Middle East. He also leads street retreats, a unique Peacemaker practice wherein Zen students take the Buddha at his word and become Homeless Brothers in the urban core of a large city for a specified period of time.

Where, you wonder, does a guy get gravel like that? Well…

In At Hell's Gate: A Soldier's Journey from War to Peace, AnShin describes his military service in Vietnam, where he clocked 625 combat hours in US Army helicopters, many behind an M60 machine gun. By his own recollection, he was in combat virtually every day from September 1966 to November 1967. He was, in short, the classic "badass American fighting man" so beloved of Hollywood.

Except it wasn't as fun.

He came home, like all war veterans, to a society desperate never to hear about those not-fun parts, or to pay for the care he now required for life. The tale that ensues has been told a hundred times, and each time is the first.

Re-reading At Hell's Gate (one of my all-time favourite Zen books) I was struck again by the sense that the author would rather not be writing it at all. There's a reticence in AnShin's prose, a tone of compelled confession, that suggests modesty, circumspection, and discomfort with the writer's art, at which he clearly doesn't feel proficient. Which is exactly why he is. You're not reading a writer; you're reading a veteran, in much more than just the military sense.

Interspersed among terse, almost telegraphic accounts of his past is some of the best how-to on practical meditation I've found. His themes are universally relevant: depression and despair; atonement and redemption; suffering and transcendence. All from a guy who speaks with thunderous authority.

His eremitical bona fides are equally evident. He writes:
"Anyone can come with me on a pilgrimage. It's not necessary for a person to become a student of mine or to spend time with me to learn this practice. It is open."
In these angos – which he defines as "just walking" – he's revived a practice largely abandoned in the era of institutional Zen:
"There is no escape from the nature of your suffering in this practice. When you walk, you are constantly confronted with your self, your attachments, your resistance. You are confronted with what you cling to for the illusion of security."
Should anyone require more evidence of AnShin's hermitude, his Further Reading section includes Zen at War, The Cloud of Unknowing (a classic of Christian contemplation), and the Gnostic Gospels, though none of them are cited in the text.

My lone criticism of At Hell's Gate is its light treatment of those incredible pilgrimages. In fact, I wish AnShin would write a whole 'nother book just about them. I appreciate his desire to avoid the odour of self-glorification; first-person journalism is a hard beat for a non-narcissist. And as a mendicant, he likely doesn't have time or space to sit down and write. But it's badly needed. I hope AnShin's sangha convince him someday to transmit and preserve these vital experiences, for the benefit of future generations. After all, where would we be if Basho had remained silent?

Nevertheless, the book we already have is all by itself a repository of rare and hard-earned wisdom, a chronicle of unusual violence and damage, leading to unusual insight. The man himself puts it best:
"Everyone has their Vietnam. Everyone has their war. May we embark together on a pilgrimage of ending these wars and truly live in peace."
If you're suffering – whether firearms were involved or just plain-old heartbreak – read this book.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

WW: Quick time-out


Friday, 19 September 2014

There's a River Crossed

Inverness Ness Footbridge 15760.JPG

Well, it's happened.

The outcome was exactly as I guessed, though it doesn't bring me any satisfaction. As a Canadian, I'm too familiar with separation referenda. It's difficult to get folk to secede from what they've known, unless they're being rousted out of bed by soldiers, imprisoned, and tortured. (Hello, Ireland!) But it's like the Scots to be game for a go on pure conviction; the fact that the nation was up to it speaks volumes. Too bad I couldn't be there; as I understand it, Canadian residents were invited to vote.

I'm impressed by the lack of newsreader second-guessing, constant updates on "who's winning", exit interviews, and the whole democracy-negating circus we North Americans put up with. Scottish voters were left in peace to make their choice. "Envy" doesn't begin to cover it.

Nor has the Scottish initiative been as cruel and hateful as Québec's was in 1995, an experience that left both sides so traumatised, still twenty years later, that the PQ have never been able to muster the political will to try it again. The SNP have promised they won't hold the nation and Union hostage to endless rematches in the coming years, and I heartily recommend that Yes cleave to this pledge. Trust me, it's brought nothing but damage and stagnation to Québec. (And I say this as a Québec nationalist.)

I was particularly struck, while avidly following the news from home via livestreamed radio, by the Yes movement's welter of voices: Irish; Australian; Canadian; English of many stripes; and a Babel of accents from non-English-speaking countries. One Yes organiser I heard on Radio Scotland was a Pakistani Muslim; another on the Scottish Independence Podcast was American. So proud am I of my father's people, that I've been irritating my Facebook friends with it even more than usual. (By the way, the most in-depth coverage I found consistently came from BBC 4; better than any Scottish station, in fact. Somewhere in there is reason to be thankful this happened in the UK, and not somewhere else.)

Any road. As we launch into the next phase of our history, let's get something straight: the Yes loss is a giant win for the Union, which stood to lose not merely a large part of its people, but the best one. The Scots are a people of the future, who can't be trammelled by broken-down notions of nationhood and justice. This train is steaming forward. It's get on or get left.

Indeed, any who may gloat at the SNP defeat may have cause to wish we'd gone after all by the time we're done. As my father said forty years ago: "The world isn't ready for an independent Scotland." Nor, I suspect, are many within the Union ready for the renewed, activist nation that Scotland has become. Show me another nationalist movement, anywhere, that speaks in so many accents, and I'll recant.

Aye, UKIP. I'm talking to you.

So, best to Scotland for the future, near and far. And all those promises we heard before the referendum, all the things Westminster was going to do, if only Scots voted No? Well, it's happened now, hasn't it?

So it's time for a reckoning. Or raise hell if they don't.


(Photo of Ness Footbridge, in my old hometown of Inverness, courtesy of Hartmut Josi Bennöhr and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

WW: Scotland rocks!

(No politics here; just my blanket wish for the entire
country, win who may.)

Thursday, 11 September 2014

For Fudo and Dr. Suess(-roshi)

Samanera_(sculpture).jpg Today I will sit
In this place, unmoving,
Until I have transcended all suffering
Or until my legs begin to hurt
In which case, I will stand
But I will sit while I stand
Then I'll walk about a bit
And sit while I walk
And then sit again
Really, this time
Until I have transcended all suffering

Should suffering hold out until lunchtime
I will sit while I eat
Then I will sit while I vacuum
Later I'll sit while I cook dinner, and then again while I eat
And then while I read
Finally, I will sit while I sleep

If by tomorrow I still have not transcended suffering
I will sit again
I'll sit in the bath, and I'll sit on the path
I'll sit on the grass and I'll sit on my, uh... cushion
I'll sit in the house, the garage, and the yard
I'll sit with the carrots, nasturtiums, and chard
I'll sit in a chair if I'm feeling conservative
I'll sit with a bagel, if it has no preservatives

I'm determined to sit for the rest of my life
In the midst of all happiness, boredom, and strife
I'll sit before dawn and I'll sit 'way past noon
I'll sit in September, December, and June
I'll sit while I sing and I'll sit while I cry
I'll sit in Vancouver, Algiers, and Shanghai
I'll sit while I play and I'll sit while I pray
Don't know if I'll sit while I poop, but I may

See, I'm no longer young, but I'm not just yet old
So I sit to remember and keep off the mould
When at last my bones fail, then I'll sit while I lie
And when my heart follows, I will sit while I die

After that I don't know what will happen
But it'll involve sitting.


(Photo of Thai child monk sculpture courtesy of Tevaprapas Makklay and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

WW: To picnics long past


Thursday, 4 September 2014

Street Level Zen: Needs

Tamme-Lauri tamm suvepäeval

"What does a man need - really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in - and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That's all - in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention from the sheer idiocy of the charade."

Sterling Hayden


(Photo of the Tamme-Lauri Oak, Estonia's oldest tree, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

WW: Official flower of summer


(Monarda [bee balm]; aside from being beautiful,
it also makes good tea.)

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