Thursday, 30 April 2015

Autonomy Kyôsaku

By oneself is evil done
By oneself is one defiled
By oneself is evil left undone
By oneself is one made pure
Purity and impurity depend on oneself
No one can purify another

Siddhartha Gautama, Dhammapada XII, verse 165.

(Photo of a Buddha from the Yungang Grottoes courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

WW: Castaways

(I found this Tupperware tub washed up on the sand, literally miles from any fresh water. Spring squalls filled it with rainwater, and some desperate tree frog had come by and laid eggs in it. By the time I happened by, thirty tadpoles were living off algae generated on the sides and detritus. They must've been there, egg and larva, for weeks, somehow avoiding being knocked over or slopped into by lethal salt surf. But they wouldn't survived much longer, as periods of full sun become longer and more numerous. I brought the tub home and released its inhabitants in a promising pond.)

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Terror of Solitude

PikiWiki Israel 30397 Health in Israel
By the second month of ango I'd begun to feel like the protagonist in one of those "last man standing" science fiction novels, as if I'd survived some global cataclysm and was living alone on what I'd been able to save and scrounge. Except I wasn't a castaway; more like a runaway.

And there's the whole difference. Same physical state, opposite mental one. If I really were last, looking at dying alone, could I have kept up my practice? Or would desolation and futility have left me in despair?

I've been alone everywhere I've lived. The chances I will have made any difference in others' lives are vanishingly remote. Yet I have the balm of hope, which is a species of denial. As long as there are others, however theoretical, I may yet lead a natural life.

But if even that were to disappear? Could I live in true isolation? This is what terrifies a human soul.

Even mine.

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Photo courtesy of רחלי בליפנטה אפוטה and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

WW: Tornado forming

(Waterspout, actually: a tornado at sea. Just off the port bow. Click to see bigger, or open it in a new tab.)

Thursday, 16 April 2015

The Koan of Non-Hypocrisy

Bandage of Faith, 2009, oil on canvas by Danny Sillada

As a writer on Zen practice, and more generally on ending suffering, I often need to express the concept of not-being-a-hypocrite. And therein lies a quandary: we have no word for that in English. Try it: finish the following sentence with any of the fourteen suggested antonyms in my online thesaurus: "The behaviour of an enlightened person is..."

  • forthright
  • frank
  • genuine
  • honest
  • humble
  • open
  • real
  • truthful
  • actual
  • authentic
  • just
  • reliable
  • righteous
  • sincere

Not one of those attributes, laudable though they be, means "not hypocritical".

Let's try again. Given that "hypocrisy is opposite of faith", its essence must therefore be:
  • fairness
  • frankness
  • honesty
  • openness
  • trustworthiness
  • truth
  • truthfulness
  • uprightness
  • forthrightness
  • righteousness
  • sincerity

Again, none of those means "the character trait of not doing the opposite of what one insists others do."

And finally: "A true man of no rank is first and foremost not a hypocrite." He is therefore… a what? My online thesaurus refuses even to try on this one; it doesn't list a single antonym, weak or otherwise.

I smack into this wall every day. I can exhort the reader (and much more often, myself) not to be a hypocrite, but "Be a… uh… person who reflexively and instinctively monitors his or her behaviour and speech for consistency with the teachings he or she espouses!" does not fit on a rubber bracelet. In English, there is no positive exhortation; we can only condemn. And you know what that makes us. (Hint: "ironic" is only the beginning.)

This is a serious problem, not just for our language, but for our minds and souls. Even etymology abandons us here; hypocrite literally means "one who criticises (him- or herself) too little", but the opposite ("hypercrite") would mean "one who criticises others all the time," as in the adjective hypercritical.

And that isn't the opposite of hypocrite. It's another synonym.

Wu Ya's commentary: "Solve for X."

(Bandage of Faith [artwork] courtesy of Danny Sillada [artist], Wikimedia Commons, and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

WW: Orange-crowned warbler

(Vermivora celata. This female has just a haze of rust
in her crown.)

Thursday, 9 April 2015

The Dirty-Clothes Problem: White Trash Buddhist

A FISHERMAN AND HIS CHILD ON A HOMEMADE TRICYCLE, WITH GAS INSTALLATION IN BACKGROUND. THE COMMUNITY IS LOCATED IN... - NARA - 545965 The just-past issue of Tricycle magazine carried one of the most important articles to come out in the Buddhist press in a generation. Written by my brother Brent R. Oliver, the fact that the title alone (White Trash Buddhist) provokes laughter in many quarters is proof of concept.

For the betterment of the worldwide sangha I'm going to do what they tell writers never to do: send you off-site. The Tricycle website makes Brent's thoughts available only to subscription holders (an ironic if business-savvy twist), but one of those subscribers had the good Buddhist sense to repost it for the rest of us. Therefore, in respect for magazine and writer, I will avoid multiplicating the text all over the Enlightenment Superpath and simply link to that post. Please read it and return for my comments, below.

White Trash Buddhist, by Brent R. Oliver. Tricycle, Winter 2014.

Prague Astronomical Clock animated slow

Some thoughts:

  • I never felt obligated to pay at my Zen centre, and sometimes I didn't; my teacher was very generous that way. But I still felt like a schmuck, given the inevitable pay-to-pray emphasis in Western Buddhism. I fantasised I'd strike it rich someday, having made my fortune in Zen renunciation, and donate a million dollars in back payments and interest. The fact is, having an institution means planting your lotus in that dirty money-water. The Buddha said it's possible to keep your petals clean even so, if you practice hard enough; Christ flatly cautioned us not to try. Either way, in the great rock-paper-scissors of this life, dollar usually trumps Dharma.

  • Brent skirts but does not delve into the effect all this money-think has on the organised sangha. I vividly remember a woman who drove hours to Zen centre in order to join us in sesshin the next morning. She watched me (a resident) arrive from work, overalls and meshback cap covered in sawdust and glue, with clear alarm. As I tugged off my steel-toed safety boots I explained that I punched a clock at a local factory. Soon after, she ran – presumably screaming – out the door, and we never saw her again.

    There were undoubtedly other factors in her reaction, mostly relative to her own past and expectations, but the unpretty sight of my blue-collar arse visibly disturbed her. Which is ridiculous. And unBuddhist. And standard in Western Zen.

  • Brent also appears to need a teacher; his objections to the financial status quo rest on the expense of that relationship. Chances are he's not a hermit. (That is, not even one who doesn't realise it.) Eremitical monasticism is not for all, or even many. Hermits are weird; we'd already been weird for thousands of years the day the Buddha joined us. But I'd love to sit down with my brother over tea and discuss his options. It'd be a damned shame (no pun intended) if he left the path entirely, when there are alternatives that might resolve, in whole or in part, his suffering.

One way or the other, I wish him the best. He's right; Buddhism in the West has become a comfortable little bourgeois club, where we share organic snacks, indulge in exotic Asian choreography, and expect – nay, oblige – tidy little professional values. Ironic, given our hippy origins, but our religious institutions have turned out, all these years later, in many instances, to be so many little boxes.

(Photo of a working man riding his daughter on a homemade tricycle, courtesy of John Messina, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

WW: Effective memorial

(This sculpture memorialises the apartment house that used to stand on the site of a giant new office complex in Olympia, Washington. Building a "desk" out of bricks from the previous structure neatly sums up the situation, but the artist had the further genius to include a "laptop" with a photograph and short synopsis of the site's history on-screen. Genius, I say, because, like a ringing phone in my day, it's physically impossible to pass such a "device" without attending to it. Rare intersection of civil education, humour, and effectiveness.)

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Hermitcraft: Knotweed Shoots

Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum syn. Fallopia japonica) and giant knotweed (P. sachalinense syn. F. sachalinensis) are sending up their fat shoots now in the Northern Hemisphere, and thanks to their ubiquity, promiscuity, and flavour, they're well worth knowing about. The sprouts resemble fat asparagus, but have a tangy, earthy, rhubarb-like quality that's equally at home in sweet or savoury dishes.

Japanese knotweed reaches about six feet, with six- to eight-inch leaves; giant knotweed is noticeably bigger. They prefer moist, rich soil, where they form a dense monoculture; the bamboo-like dead canes persist through winter, making patches easy to locate and identify. Widely introduced outside their native Asia, both species are fiercely invasive and have become pests throughout the temperate world, prompting eradication campaigns.

In spring, brick red, fingertip-sized nubs appear at the base of the dead canes; they soon grow an inch or two and turn white, at which point they are mildly toxic. A day or two later they will spurt up to their six-inch asparagus-looking stage, doubling in diameter and turning green with red highlights, with sticky, papery collars at the joints. Then they can be simmered in water, stock, or wine with garlic and onion and run through a blender to make an outstanding vélouté (creamy soup).

When those left behind reach one to two feet, with a few small leaves, well-developed joints, and a stringy, fibrous sheath, they become too tough to be cooked as a vegetable. On the other hand they gain a lot of tartness, so the tough skin can be peeled away and the stem sliced into translucent bright green rings for use in rhubarb-like sauces, jams, and pies. Finally, when the remaining shoots turn bitter, generally at about two feet, they're toxic again; the season is closed for another year.

Knotweed is high in vitamin C and other nutrients that creatures coming out of hibernation crave. Given that its flavour is pleasantly intriguing, it would seem the only thing standing between knotweed and the mainstream is the name. I just tell fussy guests it’s “Japanese asparagus” ("Japanese rhubarb" in the case of pie or jam) and everyone’s happy.

Including the local ecosystem.

Fallopia japonica MdE 2

(Adapted from my book The Neighborhood Forager, Copyright 1999 Chelsea Green Publishers, White River VT.)

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

WW: The well-armed eight-year-old

(I built this toy gun when I was in Grade 2, nearly 50 years ago. Only a Scottish kid arms himself with a flintlock.)
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