Thursday, 25 June 2015

The Monk's Creed

This is my bowl. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

My bowl is my best friend. It is my life. I must accept what falls into it as I must accept what falls into my life.

My bowl, without me, is useless. Without my bowl, I am useless. I must fill my bowl according to the precepts. I must live more compassionately than the unenlightened. I must become enlightened. I will.

My bowl reminds me that what counts in practice is not the candles I light, the lines I chant, nor the smoke I make. I know that it is my acts that count. I will act.

My bowl is sangha, even as I, because it is my life. Thus, I will carry it like a brother. I will love it new and old, perfect and cracked, full and empty. I will keep my bowl clean and ready, even as I am clean and ready. We will become part of each other. We will.

By the Dharma, I swear this creed. My bowl and I are sojourners after truth. We are masters of the practice. We are the saviours of my life.

So be it, until all sentient beings are saved and there is no suffering, but peace.


Wednesday, 24 June 2015

WW: UH-60x Black Hawk

(I see a lot of these here at the beach. I've no idea why, since this is a US Army Black Hawk, rather than the expected Navy SH-60x Sea Hawk. [Aside from colour, the aft wheel -- shifted 13 feet forward in the naval series, to accommodate shipboard landings -- is a dead giveaway].)

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Good Movie: The Way

The Way is a movie you've seen a dozen times: angry/critical/ selfish/
disapproving/distant father comes to regret his bullheaded incompetence at the whole human thing. It's also a movie you've never seen before, and I recommend that anyone who has a dad, or is a dad – or is a man, or knows a man – remedy that.

The plot, as I said, is well-travelled, but what saves the film from that (and sometimes itself) is its lead actor's astounding fluency in silence. If nothing else, The Way proves that if you want to make a movie about a man struck speechless by suffering, you're gonna need Martin Sheen. Guy's like the Robin Williams of stillness.

For reasons I can't reveal without spoiling, Tom Avery decides, without a lick of reflection or experience, to hike the Camino de Santiago. This ancient Christian pilgrimage route, winding through the daunting Pyrenees from one side of the Iberian Peninsula to the other, has lately become très chic among aging Boomers. But very few of them actually do it; as a range cop at the trailhead advises our hero, that takes two to three months. If you're in shape. And you have the fire.

Which Avery may; I'll leave that for viewers to discover. But in his desperate search for solitude, our man ends up, Jeremiah Johnson-style, a reluctant surrogate father to a gaggle of young, equally wounded fellow pilgrims. The fact that he has the same prickly dynamic with them that he has with his actual son, is a bit heartbreaking. Yet, pointedly, it works. The filmmaker seems to be telling us, in hauntingly familiar tones, that eighty per cent of fatherhood is just showing up.

Which is particularly bittersweet, given that filmmaker Emilio Estevez, who also wrote and directed the screenplay and played Avery's son, is in fact Martin Sheen's real-life son. All told, the project involved three generations of Estevez men – father, son, and grandson – before and behind the camera.

I was bemused, while researching this review, to find most commentary about The Way on Christian sites. Thus do we chop complex realities into simplistic tropes. Yeah, hiking the Camino is a Roman Catholic thing. And yeah, Tom Avery is Catholic (as are the Estevez family). His faith is apparently one of the tools he takes into the mountains. I say "apparently" because he never utters a Christian word. Neither, come to that, does anyone else; even a priest they meet is refreshingly circumspect. Nobody totes a Bible; nobody prays, at least not formally; nobody mentions Jesus. If it weren't for Avery's briefly crossing himself during a specific repeated ritual, you'd have no idea he was a believer. In anything.

Yet mainstream outlets seem terrified of the sectarian implications of a pilgrimage, while the Christian market glommed hard onto a film with a big-name star. (The fact that many sources were Evangelical underscores the general confusion over "whose" movie this is. Estevez has verified that this was a conscious strategy on his part.) Basically, The Way is several films; sooner or later, it ends up being about everybody.

But one way or the other (get it?), this is a very Buddhist film. C'mon, brothers and sisters: this whole "way-path-journey" thing is our metaphor, eh? And the Estevez spin it particularly well. I defy any Zenner, having seen The Way, to tell me it's a "Christian" movie. (And I defy any Christian to tell me it's not.)

Of course, the viewer-pilgrim is bound to get a few pebbles in his or her sandal along the road. There's a digression involving the Rom that reads like an episode from an old American TV series. The actors' raw commitment carries that off, but harder to dismiss is a subplot that plays smoking as poetic, inconsequential, even cute. It is none of those things. Hollywood is largely responsible for the perpetuation of this devastating – and goddam rude – addiction, and I earnestly wish it would grow the hell up and get over its teeny-bopper fascination with tobacco.

But the film survives this lapse, even if the character will not. Its
decidedly fly- (or walk-) by-night production model delivers scene after magnetically attractive, entirely authentic scene, drenched in immediacy. Estevez has a rare gift for spotting eloquent shots, and here he's inadvertently made one of the best tourist board adverts ever. Watching it, I'm thinking, "What this trail needs is a Zen hermit monk."

Best of all is the ending, which – and here I don't think I'm giving anything away – is realistically open-ended. This reviewer gets a little weary of cinematic "happily ever after" (and its evil twin, "broken forever") outcomes. Life goes on. It's easier to relate to, and to care about, lives that continue after the credits roll.

Why we keep making this movie over and over would be an excellent topic for a doctoral thesis. Why we keep watching it is grist for meditation. I highly doubt The Way will be the last damaged-dad picture ever made. I am equally sure that while some of its successors may be as good, none will be better.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

WW: Council (bird)houses

(The municipality installed this bank of bird houses in a local nature park. Note the multi-ethnic character of the residents and their general air of defeat and resentment. Both indicate that this is indeed public housing.)

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Graduation Meditation

I made this fistful of fudos for a friend's daughter who just graduated from high school. Graduation is an odd rite; we tell young people their lives have changed overnight, utterly and irreversibly, and encourage them, by our silence if nothing else, to party like all their problems are over.

We really don't do this in any other context. We celebrate New Year's, we celebrate weddings, we even celebrate graduation from other institutions, but we never say "all is attained!" This already bothered me when I graduated. I get it that we want to emphasise the accomplishment and celebrate the opportunities. I'm for that. But "free at last!" is simply – maybe even tragically – a lie. (As I put it myself all those years ago, the truth is more like: "Responsible at last". But I guess that doesn't look as festive on a cake.)

And now that I'm old, I've noticed something even more sinister: the near-universal insistence of grups that a person knows nothing at 18. Yet people that age are in fact not children. (Neither are 16-year-olds, or even 14-year-olds for that matter, but that's another rant.) I don't know if we do this because it makes us feel inadequate to see these dynamic young adults gallivanting about, or because we still have a retinal image of them in diapers, or maybe we just like wielding power over others. But 18 is grown-up. Newly grown-up, sure. Still in need of counsel, of course. But grown-up. (And let's be honest, homies: that second one never changes.)

Therefore, by way of conceding to this young lady some of the power that's hers by right, I included the following note:

At your age there are a lot of older people telling you that you haven't had any life experience, and therefore you have no wisdom. Now that I'm old, I can tell you that 18 is in fact not as much as 50. (And I'm beginning to suspect there may be numbers even larger than that.) But 18 is still a lot – much more than old people think. (Or maybe just more than they remember; the years take things away, too.) Fact is, I had wisdom at 18 that I've since lost, somewhere along the way.
So here are 18 fudos, one for each year of wisdom you've accrued. Hang them in places that are special to you, or will become special to you later; mark your own trail, blaze it for others who follow; give some to friends and strangers. They're yours to do what you want with.
Remember that the more abused the ring, the more power it has. Just like people. Some of these have added meaning as well. The diamond one recalls the Diamond Sutra. The square one proclaims the Four Noble Truths. The Chinese coin with cord in the colours of the Three Bardos of Death is a cemetery fudo. And the one with the broken ring and four Franciscan knots is my own proprietary design. All fudos say, "The world is full of bastards, but an army of compassionate seekers has your back." Mine adds: "… and they'll have to get through me first."
All peace and good fortune to you, young sister. No time for small minds; eyes on the prize.
Eighteen is enough.
PS: And if anybody still tries to tell you it's not, tell them you won't hear until they've made 18 fudos. That crap takes forever.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

WW: Hence the name

(My nephew holding a leaf of Acer macrophyllum,
the Pacific bigleaf maple.)

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Hermitcraft: Bindle Oryoki Set

Though the word translates as "just enough", oryoki has grown to mind-numbing complexity in Zen monasteries, where every second of every meal is carefully choreographed. Beginners often view this mealtime ritual as an onerous pack of made-up fuss, but in fact it's the most efficient way to get lots of people through a full-course meal and back to work. (Once everyone's mastered it, anyway.)

Centrepiece of the ceremony is the monk's dining set, which consists of three or more graduated bowls (details vary from house to house) nested and knotted in a large napkin, along with a range of utensils. Diners start and end each meal in the same position: seated before a neat, perfectly-packed oryoki set. Watching a well-trained sangha perform this bewildering kata, from opening through serving, eating, cleaning, and closing, is a memorable experience. (Participating in it is even better. As neurotic as it sounds, oryoki is curiously satisfying. I've never met a monk who doesn't consider it one of the most powerful – maybe the most powerful – liturgies in the monastic day.)

Having said that, I didn't intend to observe oryoki when I began my 100 Days on the Mountain; too much falderal for a man alone. But I quickly realised that it's even more necessary in the woods than in the artificial forest of institutional Zen. When you're sitting lotus on the ground, with only your lap for a table, you're forever reversing tea on yourself, scuffing dirt into your rice, knocking over the water bottle… those first meals without oryoki were a chaotic, wasteful fiasco. Fortunately I had the basic elements of a bowl set with me, and after some intensive assembly and invention, managed to reduce accidents to virtually none. (Absolutely none, if you subtract mishaps due to neglect of the forms.)

Out in the Red Dust World, storebought oryoki sets are often lovely works of art… and the money needed to buy some of them could keep their lacquerware Buddha bowls full for many years. By contrast, the kit you see here serves admirably for "bindle oryoki": an eremitical version of "just enough" that's, like, just enough. It includes only two bowls: a Buddha bowl for rice and beans, and a smaller one for tea; only two cloths (wrapper/wiper and lap cloth/spoon case); and – most heretical of all – a single utensil (still folded in the lap cloth in the photo at left). Fact is, forest practice doesn't require anything but a spoon. It'll put rice in your bowl, take rice out of your bowl, and scrape the bowl clean afterward. Mission accomplished.

All of this, properly (make that, obsessively) cleaned, wrapped, and knotted, fits nicely in my little tea kettle, and then both of those in my larger rice kettle.

The elements, with approximate prices new, in US dollars, are:

2 melamine bowls, $7.50
2 bandana handkerchiefs, $5.00
1 wooden mixing spoon, suitably modified and finished in trinity tar, $5.00

Total cost: less than $20.00. If that's still too much, you can buy the bowls at a dollar store or garage sale; make the cloths from old sheets or shirts; and whittle the spoon out of scrap wood. In fact, with due diligence, you could probably reduce the total investment to $0.00.

The spoon is the only component that requires careful consideration. I actually used an old stainless steel spoon on the mountain. Metal is tough and holds an edge, and so it scrapes the bowl well at meal's end. Also, a heat-proof utensil is handy; you never know what you might need to do with it. On the other hand, Japanese tradition favours the natural beauty of wood, and appreciates the fact that a wooden spoon makes less noise in the mouth. (One of the many neuroses of monastery etiquette.) This is germane to the forest as well, where a monk must keep the lowest possible profile for tactical reasons. Wooden implements also are non-reflective, and don't ring or sink if dropped.

The kettles came from an ancient camping cookset my parents bought in the early 60s with S&H Green Stamps. You can't get quality like that today – at least not at the price – but sharp eyes at the Good Value Army, or careful crafting of tin cans (for further consideration see this post), could get you into a serviceable pair for very little.

One way or the other, this set-up fed me with radiant adequacy for 100 days. I'm sure it'll do as much for you.

May each of us carry our bowls through this world with mindful resolve.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

WW: Driftwood sundial