Thursday, 31 December 2015


Forgive. (2482304954)

Here we are at the end of another year, when Western cultures wisely indulge in circumspection, remembrance, and re-evaluation.

It's a time for taking stock, and committing to do better. Which brings me to the title of this post.

Forgiveness is necessary to human society. Hell, it's necessary to human life. Even if you were the last person on earth, you'd still need it: to forgive those you knew – their goneness would not diminish that need – and also yourself, for mistakes made and still being made.

Unfortunately, forgiveness is one of the most embattled values in this place and time. Just the proposition spurs screams of bloodlust in public discourse. I know this because I am frequently the one being screamed at.

I awoke to this during three or four years of activity on Ostensibly a humour site, Cracked has grown into a source for some of the most courageous op-ed journalism on the Net, publishing insider exposés and revealing position pieces on topics the mainstream media all but ignore. Like most fans I originally surfed in for the funny, but what kept me coming back was Cracked's stable of fearless, talented young writers, smacking down unbowdlerised insights on poverty, war, race and gender politics, the world of business, public hypocrisy, and other vital topics. (Salient example: an essay by the male victim of a female rapist. You literally will not find such a byline anywhere else.)

Such content attracts thoughtful, articulate readers, and the comment sections – marginally moderated against YouTube-rot – can be as provocative as the articles.

And that's where I finally came to see that the most universally despised ideology in humanity isn't capitalism or communism; atheism or religious fanaticism; totalitarianism or anarchy; racism, diversity, war, or appeasement. It isn't even gender equity in computer gaming.

It's forgiveness. Nothing – nothing – will get you buried farther, faster, than advocating forgiveness.

To cite one instance: a comment on 5 Things I Learned as a Neo-Nazi, in which Frank Meeink explains the mindset that led him into, and then out of, the cul-de-sac of racial theory. His article is bold and enlightening, and most of all, useful; writing with unassailable authority, Meeink – whose Cracked profile contains the tagline, "Empathy and Humility is the key" – throws light where few have gone before.

In the discussion afterward I found a rant that contained the following riposte:

"...does [owning his sins and reforming himself] somehow excuse the bad things [Meeink] has done in the past?"

To which, my explosive, inflammatory response:


Within minutes I was buried under downthumbs. Not one person upthumbed me.

I've experienced the same all over the Internet. And even though I understand it – I have myself been hurt by fundamentally malevolent people who delight in causing others pain and walked off scot-free afterward – it's difficult for me to grasp the mindlessness of such rage.

Posters often complain that a given confessor hasn't done enough to make amends, and make sneering references to "playing the victim". (For the record, Meeink pointedly does no such thing; the theme of his confessional, as of most of the genre, is "I struck out blindly against ill-defined enemies and got what I had coming.")

Thing is, it doesn't matter anyway. You can't make amends. What's done is gone. The only thing anybody can do is the same thing that we all must do: be a better person next time.

And no matter who you are, that's your homework. Maybe you've never been a Neo-Nazi, but if you're reading this, I guarantee you've done something. Something bad. Something evil. Something lazy and self-centered that caused suffering to undeserving others. Perhaps you murdered; perhaps you ruined lives. Or maybe you sinned less theatrically. But all of us are limited to the exact same recourse: stop doing that. Becoming someone else from now on is all we can do, and therefore, all we can be asked to do.

The Buddha himself demonstrated this graphically when he accepted Angulimala as his student. Unable to live with the anguish he'd caused, the confessed torturer and serial killer announced his intention to commit suicide. His teacher's response: "Why? That man is gone. Suicide at this point would be yet another random murder of an unoffending passerby."

And that's why forgiveness isn't just a good idea, it's a necessity. When you withhold forgiveness from others, you kill everybody; nobody is without transgression. And if you apply your spiteful convictions equally, you'll end up on the same scaffold yourself. (And if you don't, that's the sin of hypocrisy; you end up on it either way.)

The people who hurt me, shouldn't have. I'm still mad at some of them, in spite of myself. But if they were to repent (as they may have in intervening years), I'd stamp the balance "PAID". Because they can't unhurt me; they can only stop hurting others. Since doing so would in effect empty their account, everything they've got is enough for me.

And though it's much harder for me to accept, the same goes for me: I can't unhurt those that my own selfish, deluded flailing has hurt, and so I must be satisfied with not being that guy anymore. I atone for my misdeeds every time I sit zazen; every time I empathise with others in pain; and every time I forgive those who have caused pain.

I know screaming and ranting and vowing vengeance is "in" now. And I've learned the price of not riding along on that gang-bang. But may I suggest, for the coming year, that a good resolution might be to forgive someone. Your choice.

If you've got any resources left afterward, you might try forgiving a group of people: some race or organisation or class, real or imagined, that you resent.

Possibly, if we each practice diligently, this fundamental survival skill may no longer be considered dangerous and subversive.

My best for the coming year, and a deep bow to all who struggle to get off the treadmill of suffering and delusion.

(Photo courtesy of Tony Webster and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

WW: Quinces

(Chaenomeles speciosa, flowering quince. Winter harvest in this part of the world. Super fragrant; delicious jelly.)

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Unstirring Creatures

A peaceful Christmas Eve to all, and from all of us here at Rusty Ring, a Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

WW: Christmas screensaver

(The snow falls, the lights flash, and it plays Christmas carols. Added the music and background scene myself.)

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Hermitcraft: Trailer Park Samosas

Just in time for holiday entertaining, here's a killer recipe for an easy, addictive appetiser or side dish. Both the "Quick" and "Better" versions can be filled with hamburger or lentils, and the ingredients are readily available from most any North American supermarket. The "Quick" recipe is indeed quick: about half an hour from groceries to piping hot, fragrant samosas. The "Better" one takes a little longer, but is well worth the extra time if you've got it. (Note: both are also fairly spicy; for milder results, dial back or omit the jalapeños.)

Pastry for both versions:

2 tubes ready-bake crescent roll dough, for 16 rolls in all. Keep tubes chilled until ready to open.

"Quick" filling:

1 tablespoon ghee or cooking oil
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced onion
1 1/2 teaspoons jarred jalapeños, minced
a few good grinds of fresh black pepper
2 teaspoons prepared curry powder
pinch each ground cinnamon and cloves (just a pinch; you shouldn't taste either in the finished product)
1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 cup diced tomatoes
1/4 teaspoon thyme
1 tablespoon minced celery
1 pound very lean ground beef, or cooked lentils (about 1/2 cup raw)

"Better" filling:

1 tablespoon ghee or cooking oil
1 inch grated gingerroot
"Better" spice mix; beef or
lentils will be stirred into this
1 garlic clove (about 1/2 teaspoon), minced
1 tablespoon minced onion
1 1/2 teaspoons jarred jalapeños, minced
a few good grinds of fresh ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
good pinch garam masala, if available
1/2 teaspoon coriander powder
pinch each ground cinnamon and cloves (just a pinch; you shouldn't taste either in the finished samosas)
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 cup diced tomatoes
1/4 teaspoon thyme
1 tablespoon minced celery
1 pound very lean ground beef, or cooked lentils (about 1/2 cup raw)

Instructions for both (all four?) filling recipes:

Preheat oven to 375F.

Warm ghee or oil in a heavy skillet over medium-low heat. Add all ingredients up to tomatoes, in order, and simmer gently until onion is translucent and spices are fragrant. Add tomatoes, thyme, and celery, raise heat slightly, and cook until celery is soft and mixture is pasty, scraping it frequently about with a spatula.

Add beef or lentils, mix thoroughly with spice mixture, and simmer until beef is browned or lentils have thickened, about 10 minutes. Scrape frequently with the edge of a spatula; if the mixture gets too dry, add a little water .

To make samosas:

Unroll crescent roll dough and separate into triangles.

Put a heaping tablespoon of filling in the centre of the wide end of each triangle. Pull up the short corners and seal them together on top of the filling; pull the long last corner over the top of the sealed short ones and around the back to form a round, filled pastry; pinch and seal all seams closed so that no filling shows. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet.

Bake at 375°F for 10 minutes or until golden brown. (Take care they don't burn; these bake very quickly.) Serve warm, wrapped in a tea towel, as finger food.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

WW: Gift of my own blackberry wine

(I used to make blackberry wine every year, an activity I dearly loved. Sadly, life conspired to make the 2008 vintage my last. Last week I was rooting deep in a forgotten storage corner and came up with this: my last-ever bottle, which somehow escaped consumption.

But not for long. Brilliant Christmas gift.)

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Sound of the Season

1880 Christmas Osgood
Twelfth Month singers
seven feet away
a little one sings


(1880 American Christmas card courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

WW: Running

Thursday, 3 December 2015

The Three Infinitudes

Galaxies in Hiding (Unannotated)

The length of time.
The depth of space.
The ignorance of people.

(Photo of one tiny chunk of space, containing over 200 galaxies [that's galaxies, brothers and sisters: each an aggregation of billions of stars, most of those presumably anchoring entire solar systems] courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, NASA, and the Hubble Telescope.)

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

WW: Night meditation

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Good Book: Meditation in the Wild

In Meditation in the Wild: Buddhism's Origin in the Heart of Nature, Charles S. Fisher writes:
"Buddhism was born in the forests of India. [...] The Buddha found his original revelation while practicing as a forest monk. [...] He developed an understanding of nature which would become part of the remedy he proposed for the problem of human discontent. [...] He chose wild nature - the evolutionary context in which humans arose - as the place to do this. [...] He went to the place in the human mind where there is understanding without words."
The next 315 pages go on to prove his thesis.

Not that it's easy; as a quotation from Theravada scholar Richard Gombrich points out:
"So much of the material attributed to [the Buddha]… is so obviously inauthentic that we can suspect almost everything. In fact, it seems impossible to establish what the Buddha really taught. We can only know what early Buddhists believed he taught."
And this, as it happens, is very different from what we've been told. For example, some of their records maintain that Gautama encountered his famous Four Sights on the way to the forest, where he sat and pondered what he saw. Others suggest that the pivotal debate between Mara and Gautama on the eve of his Enlightenment was actually about the Devil's contention that he had no right to strive to end suffering. All those statues of him touching the earth, they contend, depict him saying, "Check it out, dipstick: I'm home. Go find someone who cares."

But outdoor practice was hard – even harder than it is now – with dangerous wildlife and tribal warriors still ruling the outback, and the impulse to organise was strong. Yet The Kindred Sayings of Kassapa show the Buddha "bemoan[ing] the passing of the forest way of life and criticis[ing] those who depart from it"; he may have gone so far as to advocate a straight-up return to hunter-gathering, according to texts that describe his sangha living off the land, hunting game, and never returning to the Red Dust World. The fact that Buddhism spread to new lands precisely as Indian forests were clearcut leads one to wonder what exactly the motivations of those first "missionaries" were. (It also throws intriguing light on the Bodhidharma story. Canon holds that when asked why he came all the way to China to sit under a tree, he replied: "Because this is the best tree in the world." Perhaps his actual words were something like, "Because you still have trees.")

Conjecture aside, the founding generation of Buddhists exhorted aspirants to imitate Gautama literally. Mahakasyapa, a member of the Buddha's inner circle, died a loud and proud hermit, as did no less than Sariputra, of Heart Sutra fame. Finally, reports of early Western observers – Greek travellers – confirm that the first Buddhists were itinerants, without clergy or temples.

But as the movement grew respectable and sedentary, hermits were increasingly viewed as "unsocial, possibly antisocial, and potentially dangerous to established Buddhism." This last repeated pious tales of the Buddha's forest practice, but openly discouraged others from emulating it. Old-school monks, known as "mahallas", were accused of backsliding and dissolution and reviled by the ordained. (Some verses quoted in Wild are stunningly similar to the rant St. Benedict unleashed on Sarabaites and Gyrovagues at an identical stage in Christian history.)

To be sure, over the past 2500 years Buddhist back-to-the-landers have continued to crop up; modern Zen and Theravada are remnants of two such rebellions. Possibly Wild's greatest gift is the two and half millennia of these forgotten reformers it lifts from obscurity. Along the way its author weighs the relative merit of individual cases. He reviews Issa's suburban eremiticism, which echoes most current hermit practices, with guarded approval, but – interestingly – takes Basho, Ryokan, and Kamo No Chomei firmly to the woodshed.

And that's where I get off the train. In these passages, Fisher reminds me of Thoreau's critics, calling down suspects for claims they never made. His indictment of Basho does ring, but he repeatedly spins individual innovation in self-directed practices as weak or duplicitous; in the case of Ikkyu, he indulges in crass bourgeois morality. Somehow, in all of his research on us, he missed our core vow: "I will neither take nor give orders." I may raise an eyebrow at others (OK: I do raise an eyebrow at others) but ultimately I have no right to deplore them. Licence to judge is a delusion of the ordained.

But this mild annoyance in no way diminishes the significance of Fisher's work. His journalism is both intrepid and thorough, penetrating the Thai forest lineage – a modern restoration movement – at length and documenting the gradual deterioration of Zen, from Bodhidharma's boldly-planted hermit flag, to the dismissal of 19th century hermit Ryokan (his own beefs with him aside) as a "lunatic". He finishes with an account of his own brushes with eremitical practice (Fisher is not a practising hermit per se, but is attracted to our forms) and a light survey of four contemporary American hermits. All in all, it's the most comprehensive treatment of the subject I've found anywhere.

And I found it impossible to put down. With any luck, Meditation in the Wild will stand for many years as Eremitical Buddhism 101 for sincere students of the Buddha's way.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

WW: 1812 veteran

(I recently had to correct the Wikipedia entry for George Bush, earliest American settler in the Olympia area, which identified him as "the only 1812 veteran buried in Thurston County". Meet William Rutledge, friend and [still] neighbour of Bush, who arrived soon after. He lies about 10 feet away in the same pioneer graveyard, beneath a memorial placed by the N.S.U.S.D. 1812. [Interestingly, they did not afix such a plaque on Bush's stone, which is still the barely-legible 1863 original.])

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Good Song: Nowhere Else But Here

Here's one for those days. You know the ones. The grim, sparks-fly-upward days. There's much to love about this quintessentially Australian song. You just can't listen to the Pigrim Brothers' vocals and instrumentals and not become equanimous. (Hey. Buddhist superhero: "Equani-Mouse!") And those lyrics... that's a fair-dinkum teisho, mate.

Where nothing ever really happens and probably just as well
I've seen things really happening where it's all downhill to hell...

Too right.

The rest:

The Pigrim Brothers

Medidebating at a fireside in this beautiful land of Oz
Could heaven be a better place than home, well supposin' that it was
If heaven is in some future with a tomorrow so unclear
Then home for me I guess couldn't better be nowhere else but here

Nowhere else but here- ooh yeah, nowhere else but here-ooh no
Home for me I guess might never be nowhere else but here

If daunted by the many, many times things don't turn out as planned
Or haunted by the feeling of that unfamiliar hand
Just listen to little honeysuckle singing sweet and clear
The sweetest honey is in the tree that's nowhere else but here

Nowhere else but here she sings, nowhere else but here
Here's where my honey is, in this tree that's nowhere else but here

Is there much that might not happen right wherever I may be
If all I gotta do is soften some of my precious certainties
Was all that toil and turmoil, just to help me understand
That heaven may be just a fancy name for some never-never-ever land

Where nothing ever really happens and probably just as well
I've seen things really happening where it's all downhill to hell
Through a devil's pass on a bolting horse, with Buckley's hope to steer
Where we could regret we never ever cared to be nowhere else but here

Nowhere else but here ahhhhh nowhere else but here...

Now I'm dreaming by this campfire gleaming in this dear old land of Oz,
Flippin' idly through the pages of the tales of the never-was
Losing interest in a future what with tomorrow so unclear
I guess maybe I'll never really need to be nowhere else but here

Nowhere else but here - oh no, nowhere else but here - for sure
Guess maybe I may never ever need to be nowhere else but here

Nowhere else but here - oh no, nowhere else but here - for sure
Guess maybe I may never ever need to be nowhere else but here

If there's one place we're all free to be, it's nowhere else but here

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

WW: Home

(Pot o' rice, fresh pat of hermit bread, a whistling tea kettle
-- why envy the immortal gods?)

Thursday, 12 November 2015


"Basho, am I you?"
"Ie," grumbles the old man.
"Tora-san desu yo."

(Photo of Tora-san statue in front of Shibamata Station courtesy of Flickr and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

WW: FLeetwood 6-8552

(They recently pulled a false front off this old garage and found the original façade still intact underneath it. Note the phone number, which still bears the old alphabetic exchange. And that, for those of you playing at home, is why the gold-record rock group -- all students at Olympia High -- was called that.)

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Good Podcast: Audio Dharma

This is the mouthpiece of the Insight Meditation lineage maintained by Gil Fronsdal. (I have no idea what titles are in play or how the hierarchy over there works, but Gil delivers most of the teishos, so I'm assigning him authority.)

Insight in general, and Gil in particular, offer a refreshing perspective on Buddhist practice. Gil's gentle, self-effacing delivery inspire trust, and his perspective that existence is more or less an elaborate practical joke suggests to me that he's as near enlightened as anyone in this life. (Also, as a Zenner who jumped ship for Theravada, he's an invaluable resource for Zenners; his subtle criticisms of our approach to the Great Matter are both respectful and incisive.)

About half of the teishos here are his; the other half are delivered by a host of other teachers speaking on a range of mostly life and practice topics. (You can always count on Insight to get to the point.) Treatises on sutric or koanic literature are occasionally uploaded as well.

Individual podcasts can be downloaded from the Audio Dharma website, or listeners can subscribe via iTunes or XML. Like the SFZC podcast it's an exhaustive library of teachers and topics, offered entirely free of charge, that could serve as your sole source of spoken-word teaching if you were so inclined.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

WW: The doorman

(No trick-or-treaters this Hallowe'en either. I've never had a single one, ever. But I buy candy every year, just in case.

I gotta start carving less-scary jack o' lanterns.)

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Matthew 6:6

Ejsmond The Anchorite For some time now I've wanted to write The Big Book of Un-Preached Sermons, a disquisition on the Shadow Gospel: that body of Christic teaching that remains largely unknown to lay Christians, owing to surgical inaction by church leaders.

It's a remarkably large canon.

My all-time favourite constituent, and one that continues to be a cornerstone of my Zen practice, is Matthew 6:6:
But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
I've never heard any clerical commentary on this directive. Reasons aren't hard to divine; Christian militants often use public prayer as a form of demonstration, even confrontation. Some will performance-pray at the drop of a hat, and given the chance, force it into public spaces and government proceedings. These people don't even seem to own a closet, let alone know how to use it.

Sadly, their detractors seldom include other Christians. At least not ones objecting on doctrinal grounds. Still, the Christ of Matthew is categorical: prayer is not prayer when others can see it.

It's not a minor point. What's at issue is nothing less that the total undoing – or at least the not-doing – of the central practice Jesus gave his disciples.

Speaking of central practices, you know what else is not itself in public?


I've held forth many times (here and here and here and here and here and here) on the strange fact that Buddhism – a solitary eremitical religion founded by the solitary eremitical Buddha – has become a pyramid scheme, to the point that actual Buddhic practitioners are now viewed as heretics. Strangest of all is the contention that the only "real" practice is collective. Authentic zazen, I'm assured, only happens when you sit with others – the more, the better. I've also been informed that the solitary sesshins I sit four times a year… aren't. Same rationale: it's only meditation if someone else is watching.

The greatest danger of this hokum is not that it reverses the Buddha's teaching and lifelong example. It's that it's crap.

I've meditated in public. I was a committed Zen centre member for several years, during which I sat formal zazen in the zendo with the assembled sangha at least twice a week. Even as a hermit, I sometimes sit in circumstances where passersby may, uh… pass by. And I'm here to tell you that the moment onlookers – or even the possibility of onlookers – enter the mix, meditation goes right out the window. Now you're playing "look-how-Zen-I-am": all posture and reputation and approval. That's not practicing. It's acting.

Jesus got this. The instant others see you praying, you stop talking to God and start talking to them. In fact, you start lying to them, about talking to God. You pile sin on top of apostasy on top of wasted effort.

It's true that diligent practice can overcome this: I once experienced kensho at the end of a zendo sesshin. I stopped caring about the opinions of peers and entered a state of unselfed clarity for a few hours. But it wasn't any deeper than the kensho I've experienced alone, and the presence of others was an impediment to it, not a catalyst.

I believe collective zazen, like collective prayer, can be a valid form. It rarely accomplishes the goals of Buddhic practice, but it may achieve others that, though less vital, are nonetheless worthwhile. (It can build community and shore up personal resolve.)

However, when public displays of communion are weaponised – when they're used to intimidate or indoctrinate – then the sangha must step up and restore right action.

(The Anchorite, by Franciszek Ejsmond, courtesy of the Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

WW: Zafu cat

(Putting my meditation cushion to productive use.)

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Stupid Wisdom

Sulovskie skaly 06 I always massage a broken heart with danger. Once, in college, I memorialised a girlfriend's abrupt adieu by riding my bike a hundred miles up the side of Mt. Rainier and back in a single day.

It helped. I don't know why.

Not long after I fell in love again, and not long after that, got bounced again. Days later found me high on a sheer rock face, alone, with little experience or equipment.

I almost didn't survive that one.

The memory of that September morning remains vivid, these many years gone. The scent of sun-baked basalt and cool alpine air, the grey stone driving into my gut like a terrestrial fist, and once again I'm crimped over a ledge, cheek pressed against the Olympics. Below, the toes of my hiking boots are wedged against a shallow nub in an otherwise featureless surface, while above I'm literally clinging by my fingerprint ridges to the shelf's base. Hanging between worlds, I am simultaneously of one piece with the mountain, and apart from it.

Backing down is not an option; toeholds are few, and I can't see to find them. I can't climb for the same reason. So I cling, and ponder. Indian summer makes my palms sweat, and that makes them slip, in tiny jerks that send electric jolts through my body. Yet I'm strangely detached, as if it's all happening to someone else.

I suck in a lungful of air, and my expanding chest deducts another quarter-inch from my account.

The fall, fifty feet to jagged rocks, will surely kill me. I could channel my strength into a desperate upward surge, but my boots might slip and their weight drag me to my death. On the other hand, if I deliberate much longer, the problem will solve itself.

Calmly, I choose to panic.

Knotting the muscles in my legs, I shove off hard, back arched, arms thrust forward like a competition swimmer. My face makes a sickening thud against the outcrop, but my fingertips find a crevice in the blind rock. I jam my knuckles in, head throbbing, lips numb and swelling, and hang. My boots kick briefly in the void, then find a ripple of their own. Chin clenched against the ledge, I cling again, and gasp, and wait for the nausea to pass. A rivulet of blood trickles from my nose, down the rock, and into my tee shirt. But I'm well-belayed, suspended by my own skeleton. A leaden heel flung over the rim, and I throw my arse into the job and flop onto the deck like a halibut.

For a long time I just lie in the hot grit, trembling, an arm tossed over my eyes, and wheeze. At length, choking on the blood now flowing backward, I rise to half lotus, clamp a bandana over my nose, and pant through my mouth. Golden morning whispers the dry bunchgrass that tufts the cracks. A Steller's jay screams in the treetops below, neon blue among the needles. And far below that a forested valley stretches, pristine and wild, to the edge of the world.

At last the bleeding stops, and sometime later, the singing in my spine. I fill my mouth with cold water and lie back down.

That day I decided I'd got what I came for. Since then, my heartache remedies trend to solitary journeys through remote places.

Dangerous, yes. But not stupid.

(Adapted from Rough Around the Edges: A Journey Around Washington's Borderlands, copyright RK Henderson. Photo of a guy doing it right courtesy of Jakub Botwicz and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

WW: Rare mushroom

(To the best of my ability to determine, this is the European honey mushroom Armillaria cepistipes. In the late 90s, specimens collected by mycologist Tom Volk led to the first positive ID of this species in North America, at a site in the Olympic Mountains. That's just across the bay from the site of this photo. These two were part of an effusive inflorescence growing in the litter of a well-rotted log. [A former trunk of Acer macrophyllum, unless I miss my guess.]

I ate them.)

Thursday, 15 October 2015


2013-07-27 20-19-03-diptera

Where there are humans
you'll find flies
and Buddhas


(Photograph of Musca domestica joining the picnic courtesy of Thomas Besson and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

WW: 'Nother earthstar

(Geastrum saccatum; a clearer explanation of the common name
than I uploaded last autumn.)

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Christian Meditation

In the late 40s, a British Colonial Service officer named John Main began to frequent a Hindu ashram in Malaysia. There, in meditation, the devout Catholic finally tasted his life's ambition: to sit in the presence of God. At length he approached the abbot about converting to Hinduism. The guru's reply astonished him:


Like most Westerners, Main assumed all religions were about signing people up. But Hinduism (and Zen) actually discourages conversion. One's path is an invaluable, hard-won treasure; throwing it away to start all over again is a bad strategy, if you can help it.

Instead, the guru told Main to find a Christian way of meditation. The idea intrigued the Anglo-Irishman. Was there such a thing? He returned to the UK, became a Benedictine monk, and spent the rest of his life researching and resurrecting a form that had indeed, he discovered, once been central to Christian practice.

As one might imagine, there was some blowback. Notwithstanding Main's watertight historical case – the Desert Fathers, a prominent early Christian lineage, made sitting a pillar of their monastic practice, as did such seminal Church figures as John Cassian and John of the Cross – many insisted that meditation was unChristian by definition, on the well-worn pretexts that "I've never heard of it before" and "non-Christians do it." (For the record, they/we also pray, though I've yet to hear any Christian call down the Lord on prayer.)

And then came 1962. In that year, Pope John XXIII convened his now-famous Concilium Oecumenicum Vaticanum Secundum, otherwise known as the Second Vatican Council. The goal of this historic in-house revolution was to modernise, democratise, and personalise the Church. Main's reconstituted meditation lineage, envisioned as a loose œcumenical affiliation of small, often lay-led groups, fit the bill perfectly. He was given the Pope's blessing and a building in Montréal, and told to make it happen. The result was the World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM), or Christian Meditation for short.

There being no Zen centre nearby when I began my own practice, I sat with the local Franciscans, who led a WCCM group, for almost two years. (Nor was I alone; one of my brothers there was a Vajrayana lay practitioner.)

There I discovered that WCCM-model sitting is virtually identical to zazen. A typical weekly meeting starts with a few minutes of teaching from the group leader – generally a brief elaboration on some point of mindfulness, with supporting Bible references – and then a few bars of soothing music, ceding to silence. (Some groups use a Buddhist-style singing bowl instead of music.) Group members repeat the mantra "Maranatha" inwardly, by way of stilling their thoughts and letting God get a word in edgewise. Afterward the music comes back up, or the keisu rings, and meditation ends. There may be shared commentary, or the session may simply disband, amid smiles and "see ya next week"s. The entire ritual takes an hour.

Some groups sit Asian-style, on zafus and zabutons, while others sit on chairs, as mine did. Lotus-sitting groups may follow the Tibetan aesthetic, or Japanese Zen; somewhere there may be a Hindu one. How these matters are decided I don't know, but it's just cosmetic; the practice remains the same.

I remain a major fan of Christian Meditation, and recommend it to the many Christians I meet who voice interest in Zen or meditation. The teaching is indeed œcumenical; there are no specifically Catholic elements in it, and no need for anyone to feel uncomfortable, regardless of denomination. (And you got that from two Buddhists.)

So Christians who hunger for a meditation practice should check out the WCCM. Sadly, there are not as many groups as the lineage deserves, but most large cities have at least one. A good place to start is the WCCM website.

Failing that, contact your local Catholic parish. You might have to insist a little; even among Catholics, Christian Meditation has yet to become a household word. If it turns out there is in fact no group nearby, talk to the priest about starting one. (You don't have to be Catholic to talk to a priest or to ask him for help, yea though Protestant eyes sometimes grow large when I suggest this.)

Any road, if you're looking to "be still and know that I am God", this-here'll get it done.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

WW: Screamin' Eagle

(Emphasis on "screaming".)

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Street Level Zen: Keepin' It On The Corner

Feral pigeon -Empire State Building, New York City, USA-31Aug2008

What does the universe expanding have to do with you?
This is Brooklyn.
Brooklyn is not expanding.

Woody Allen

(Bird's eye vista of the non-elastic side of the East River courtesy of Wikimedia and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

WW: Buddha's footprint

(In a downtown sidewalk. Dude gets around.)

Thursday, 24 September 2015

3 Things I Need To Stop Doing

Tibetan - Phurbu-cum-chopper - Walters 511448 - View A
Decrying the forms of others. (Inwardly, I mean; at least I don't do that market preacher thing, where you call down others aloud, as if that's going to advance anyone's programme.) Sadly, some don't share my life experience; they cling to forms I find fatuous and unproductive. If only they were as insightful as I, they'd stand a chance of being as enlightened as… (wait; where was I going with this?)

Exactly. I hold my practice to a high standard; I crop out stuff that sets me back, and embrace stuff that works. But there's this annoying corollary: others realise similar progress doing things I've thrown off, or never fell for in the first place. The fact that these forms make no sense to me is immaterial. Zen is a results-based religion.

But critiquing others provides that power rush we monkeys crave. It's heroin we distil from the opium of ego.

Confusing form with practice. When I sit for a long time, I feel like a good monk. If the session is unsettled, or short, or I don't maintain a schedule, I begin to feel like a sham. To some extent, this is useful; it keeps me on the path. But the fact is, enlightenment is non-attachment. And playing look-how-Zen-I-am is attachment to approval, if only your own. Throw in onlookers, and you multiply the delusion exponentially.

Zen is about acceptance. Sometimes you can't sit as well, or as often, as you'd like. Others you can, but you don't. But sitting is just a form. Practice is looking deeply, understanding cause and effect, adjusting what can be adjusted, and letting the rest go.

I can only do what's humanly possible, whether that's limited by outside obstacles or my own shortcomings.

Confusing religious conviction with political or social values. Like everyone, I selected my religious path largely because it complemented my existing beliefs. Zen practice has helped me grind off some sharp corners, but my principles are essentially the same ones I was born and raised with.

Fact is, morality is human and individual; religion can influence it, but is powerless to establish it, even in the ostensibly devout. It's too easy to mine scripture for self-justification, or sign your liability away to some charismatic leader who will, you implicitly believe, take the karma hit if her teaching turns out to be unskilful. (She won't. It's like your tax return: you can't sign away liability.)

Yet I tend to view those who cause suffering while espousing some other religion or theory as benighted; if only they possessed the Awesome Buddhist Truth, like me.

So what am I to do about Asia? Buddhism's been going on there for 2500 years. In many Asian countries it is, or was historically, the dominant faith; it packs at least swing-vote sway in virtually all of them to this day. So nirvana on earth must have been established somewhere in Asia by now.

Go on, Google it. I'll wait.

Right understanding means distinguishing between virtue and religion. Zen doesn't recognise any secret Masonic handshake that gets us out of dutch at the hour of our death. You either practice, or you don't. What you choose to call yourself while doing so is immaterial.

Thus the world is full of satanic Buddhists and angelic nonbelievers. When everything goes to hell, I'd rather answer to a Dietrich Bonhoeffer than a Saw Maung.

This is the irony all seekers must meditate upon and transform into insight.

(Photo of Tibetan delusion chopper courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Walters Art Museum.)

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

WW: Largest and oldest chestnut in the US

(The plaque below lays out the basics of the story. This American chestnut [Castanea dentata] is thought to be the largest, and possibly the oldest, left on the continent, after an introduced blight killed off virtually all of the once-ubiquitous trees. Because they're not native to the North Coast, this one had no peers to communicate the fungus. Today it's the centrepiece of a cemetery in Tumwater, Washington.)

Thursday, 17 September 2015

The Buddha's Practice

"In the morning, I take my bowl and robe and go into the village to beg for food.

"After my meal, I go into the woods, and gather some grass and leaves to sit on. I sit with legs crossed and a straight back and arouse mindfulness.

"Then, far from sense pleasures and bad states of mind, I do jhana."
The Buddha, according to the Anguttara Nikaya 3.63 (1).

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

WW: Sorb jelly

(Just the thing on bannocks, hermit bread, and scones.)

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Hermitcraft: Champagne Plums

Here's a quick hint from Rob's Hermit Kitchen:

The plums have ripened here in the Northern Hemisphere, and those with trees are being inundated by their annual surfeit of sweet, juicy fruit. Plums (also called prunes or damsons) are relatively labour-intensive to preserve, and other treatments are either specialty projects (wine) or not especially compelling compared to other options (jam).

But here's something you can do with them that's delicious and easy:

  1. Place a number of fresh, unwashed plums (any kind) in a non-reactive bowl.
  2. Mix up a slip of flour and water, about as thick as pancake batter, and pour it over them. 
  3. Cover the bowl and leave it to work for a day or two.
  4. When the batter is bubbling merrily, remove the plums with a slotted spoon and rinse them clean.
  5. Eat.
Why are they now so succulent, and slightly tingly(!)? And what's up with that batter?

Well, to begin with, the powdery white "bloom" you see on dark plums is yeast. (Yellow varieties have it too, it's just not as visible.) So when you immerse the fresh fruit in flour-based batter – a nutritional Prunes Viktualienmarkt Munichmedium – the yeast goes nuts and multiplies like crazy.

Meanwhile, water from the batter soaks into the plums, causing them to swell and opening tiny fissures in their skin. Dark streaks of plum juice in the cream-coloured batter attest to this process. (Some plums may actually split wide open, leaving little doubt about what's going on.)

Yeast from the working batter penetrates the broken plum skin, hits the sugary juice inside, and begins to ferment.

Then you eat it. I don't know how much alcohol this process creates, but it isn't much; I've eaten many of these in a sitting without feeling any effect at all.

When the plums are gone, you're left with a unique and tasty sourdough starter that makes great pancakes and coffee cake. In fact, with a little advanced planning you can pit the fermented plums, poach them in a light syrup, and use them as filling for some epic crêpes made from the batter they just came out of.

So have at it. Rarely do you get so much good for so little effort.

Prunus mume in the market

(Plum photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons users Sakurai Midori and Zebulon.)

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

WW: Hermit flag

(The Bandana Banner signals a practicing hermit.
Here flying on a boathook.)

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Career Opportunity

MD de la Roca

I recently speculated that hermits might be going mainstream, and now a friend apprises me that a Catalonian heritage-preservation association just posted a vacancy for a hermit at the ancient hermitage of Mare de Déu de la Roca (Our Lady of the Rock). The successful candidate stood to receive €1.000 for a year's service, described as "all the proper functions of a hermit". (According to the trust, these amount to showing visitors around, playing hôtelier, and not acting out of character; the announcement makes no mention of striving for transcendence, but to be fair, religious institutions rarely do that either when filling ordained positions.)

This sort of thing is actually not new; the same friend earlier directed me to the Wikipedia entry on Europe's one-time garden hermit market, wherein aristocrats supplied one of us (or someone pretending to be one of us) with rustic lodging in exchange for service as a living garden gnome. But few of those billets approached the cachet of the Catalonian opportunity.

Because the announcement is mute on spiritual matters, it's hard to know how they're defining "hermit", as opposed to "guy in a robe overseeing food service"; one gets the feeling they're really looking for a national park-style re-enactor, a college kid who wears a costume and does schtick for tourists. But I'm going to guess that Roman Catholic convictions are compulsory; it's hard to picture a waraji-wearing Zenner getting that handshake.

Nevertheless, this could be someone's entry to the lucrative and fast-growing field of eremitical monasticism. Too bad the deadline was Monday. But chin up: it looks like we're entering a seller's market.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

WW: Mystery of the cranes

(These are two of the cranes that the Port of Olympia bought a few years ago to unload ships. When I asked how they were delivered, I was told, "Why, by ship, of course." Leaving me with this troubling mystery:

How did they unload the cranes?)

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Good Podcast: San Francisco Zen Centre Dharma Talks

San Francisco is the capital of Western Zen. The sangha there – the Western one; Asian residents were already practicing for over a century – is one of the oldest in the world, founded by Shunryu Suzuki in 1961. Today, most Zen teachers in this hemisphere have some connection with it, whether formal or incidental. (That's Soto teachers; Western Rinzai is less centralised, Korean Zen is bipolar – it has two power centres – and Thich Nhat Hanh's Vietnamese lineage is anchored in France.)

Today's SFZC is a freakin' 900-pound gorilla among spider monkeys, with three houses, an expansive endowment, and a giant sangha consisting largely of priests and priests-in-training. We hermits like to sneer about "enlightenment factories", but this-here really is.

On the other hand, it's nice to have a secure, established hub you know will be there tomorrow: reassuringly conservative, largely unchanging, eschewing relevance and doctrinal debate, and grinding out priests like a latter-day Ireland, who in turn produce reams of teachings for world consumption. In sum, SFZC – its history, its current role, the nature and limits of its authority – is a big topic among Zenners. Few of us exercise don't-know-mind in its regard.

But I'm not going to weigh in. Instead I'm going to direct you to their Dharma Talks podcast; for my money, one of Rome on the Bay's most valuable products. (To begin with, I don't have any money, and all of the teishos in SZFC's bottomless digital databank are free.)

The talks cover every Zen topic under the sun, in every style, as SFZC's diverse clerical corps take turns at the mic. A few of these lectures have about saved my life, when it needed saving. Others leave me more or less unchanged, but they're all useful and productive.

Anyway, dig it, brothers and sisters: there are a lot of them.

SFZC's podcast homepage includes links to such automatic delivery options as iTunes and RSS, as well an archive of the podcasts themselves – one per week right back to 2007 – for individual download.

So if you're up for 300-odd ordained-types throwing down some serious Zen, swing on by San Francisco's perpetual Teisho Slam. Whatever you need, you'll find it there.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

WW: Old brewery

(Abandoned Olympia Beer plant, built in 1906 and dark since Prohibition.)

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Patience Meditation

Ice fishing on Lake Saimaa

I've been working on patience for 50 years now.
I may never get there.

(Photo of Finnish ice fisher courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Peritrap.)

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

WW: Downtown deer

(North Coast moment: back garden in Olympia, Washington, three blocks from the State Capitol.)

Thursday, 13 August 2015


I recently re-read a journal I kept in January 2003, during the period of my divorce. I was struck by the events and emotions it recorded, and particularly the role of meditation and Zen in helping me weather them. Although the period was one of the hardest I've traversed (and there are lots of candidates), in some ways I remember it as the best. The log, which I kept to gain insight into my mood swings (and, I confess, to have someone to talk to) ends up documenting a proven strategy for surviving adversity. So for the benefit of others in similar straits, I'd like to share a few reflections.

The first pages, written when my wife was still living with me but flaunting an affair – and getting in a lot of gratuitous cruelty on the side – are especially gruelling. (Borderline Personality Disorder. If you're married to it, run fast and run far.) I was living in the great Canadian G.A.N. ("God-Awful Nowhere"), 3000 miles from my family and friends, in a culture (Québec) that wasn't mine, with no car or income. In short, I was in an abusive relationship and there was no escape. No wonder those paragraphs are so full of angst and fear.

A litany of suffering is listed there: ghastly nightmares; medical issues; niggling terror; my wife's sneering, baiting jibes; and conversely, the odd oasis of peace and reflection. Most of the latter are associated with meditation; I had been sitting twice daily for nearly a year, and snowshoeing in the forest, during which I often meditated as well. Then, suddenly, after my wife announced the date of her departure, a marked drop in stress. Pointed insight, if only in retrospect.

The role of my growing monastic practice in enduring all of this is clear in entries such as:
Good AM meditation, followed by Zen study and tea. Sunny in my cell [a tiny room in which I barricaded myself, often for whole days]. Attitude rises. Productive day. Some sadness at night, before PM meditation. The sit was OK. Cut branches outside this afternoon. Felt very good during and after. Work helps.
Yet I took her actual leaving surprisingly hard. Surprising, I say, because I'd quite had enough of her by then; I was eager to live in a whole house, in peace, without a demon from some Buddhist parable whose personality had dwindled to just two channels: cold and screaming.

I've long since forgiven, in light of what I've learned, and no longer take the abuse personally. But I vividly recall what life was like with her. So it's interesting now to read the lines of grief and despair I wrote the day she left.

Still, the bedtime entry, last one in the log, sums it all up:
Things remained sad and shaky until I meditated at 10PM, for almost 50 minutes. Now I'm still sad, but less so.
Because the journal ends there, it doesn't detail the accruing strength and calm of the following months, due in part to the full-on monastic discipline I adopted. Nor does it record the inevitable relapses, when depression and desperation paralysed me for an hour, or a day – or in one instance, four straight days – before I took up the practice again and forged on to healing. But the seeds of that story germinate in the telegraphic chronicle of the last month of my marriage.
Things don't happen to me,
I wrote toward the end,
they just happen.
And then, in response to my wife's constant insistence that I was the source of all her unhappiness:
They don't happen to her, either.
Zen saved my butt, and not for the last time. I'm a monk today for the same reason my grandfather remained an FDR man till the day he died: not for theory or pretence or cachet, but from sheer fire-hardened memory. So if you're suffering, be assured that you're not alone. Others have been there – others still are – and there's an end to it.

In my case, the Four Noble Truths, and the practice they inspired – not just reading and reflecting, but the actual doing – were that solution. It may be for you as well. Any road, you might as well try; sitting is free.

The path is always there, regardless of trailhead. May we walk it with the Buddha's own diligence and humility.

  • Readers interested zazen [Zen meditation] will find good instructions here.
  • Zen students suffering through depression or despair will find support and companionship here.

(Detail from Winslow Homer's Gulf Stream courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art [Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1906] and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

WW: Forest fire sunset

(The fire is a few miles west of this ridge; prevailing winds brought the smoke this way, creating this bloody [and I mean that literally] sunset.)

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Enlightenment Kyôsaku

Toyokuni II - 8 Famous Views (Meisho Hakkei), Night Rain at Oyama (Maya Mountain)

Why chatter about enlightenment?
Listening to the night rain on my roof,
I sit comfortably, with both legs stretched out.


(Photo of woodblock print Night Rain at Oyama, by 二代目 歌川豊国 [Utagawa Toyokuni II], courtesy of William Pearl and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

WW: County fair triumph

(This sweet potato sprouted in a cupboard last Christmas. Instead of throwing it out, I stood it up in a flower pot. Spool forward seven months, and not only does it take the blue ribbon in its class at the county fair, but also the Growers' Choice award.)