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.)
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