Thursday, 31 March 2016

Street Level Zen: Monastery

Asleep in New Orleans

"I woke up this morning and my girlfriend asked if I'd slept well. I said no, I made a few mistakes." ‪

Steven Wright‬

(Photo courtesy of Marilyn Cole and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

WW: Giant Pacific signal crayfish

(This is the giant Pacific signal crayfish [Pacifastacus leniusculus]. Individuals can reach 7 inches – at which point they're real lobsters – but this one's only four.

Oddly, few eat these here, though they're the both the biggest and best-tasting crawdads in the Western Hemisphere. Commercial licenses are available, and some folks are already making a tidy living in a developing market. [My grandfather, born in 1900, made pocket money in his first decade by catching these in Portland creeks and selling them to Jake's Grill.]

The signal crayfish is now threatened – mostly theoretically, to date – by invasive species from elsewhere. Ironically, it's also wiping out native stocks in Europe, having been introduced there last century to replace the fishery in some of those very species, which had been greatly reduced by an epidemic.)

Thursday, 24 March 2016

The 1 Habit of Truly Decent People

Propaganda North Korea 02
We're hearing a lot these days about patriotism and national greatness and ideological purity and economic theory and cold dead fingers. The speakers seem to take it for granted that their convictions are honourable, simply because they are convictions.

I've encountered this misconception again and again in my half-century walkabout, first as a historian and then as a religious man. Faith is sexy. It's dramatic and macho and you get to make stirring speeches with lots of sanctimonious platitudes, like a movie hero.

But take it from me: given enough indulgence and half a chance, believers will destroy the world.

Just being embattled doesn't confer honour. Bad causes are a giant waste of time and life, to say nothing of the mountain of karmic debt. Shall we free-associate a few examples?
  • the Southern cause in the American Civil War
  • the Third Reich
  • Soviet Communism
All three demanded utter allegiance, promised endless glory, and made sacrifice a virtue. They were also pointless, stupid, and evil, and if there's a judgement at the end of this life, those who devoted their lives to them are unhappy now. Their unshakeable faith is worth exactly nothing.

Yet people continue to insist they can skip the humility, self-examination, and moral courage required of competent adults, and make a thing right by sheer force of conviction.

I know what that's like. I was a revolutionary myself. I clung tightly to a list of high-minded principles. That made me angry, which I took for a mark of righteousness. And that anger made me hypocritical, untrustworthy, and ultimately counter-revolutionary. I could – and did – turn on others for the slightest imagined shortcoming. (Worst of these: not being as angry as I was.)

Let's be clear: belief itself is the problem here. We're taught that it's the soul of decency, but it's not. Belief is meant constantly to be raked: kicked around, wrung out, scraped clean, tuned up, and thrown out entirely when broken. If you're rushing around this rock "knowing" stuff, you're morally out of control, and that makes you the problem here.

The following, in no particular order, are some of the questions I pitched myself during the gruelling Dharma combat I undertook when I became a monk. As the assiduous practice of zazen shifted me out of lawyer mode, things that had previously remained invisible – by slyly standing right on my chest – became clear.


(Tying yourself to a chair and shining a bright light in your face optional. But it worked for me.)

  • Do my convictions make me a builder, or a predator?
  • Do I applaud others who call for insight and solution, or judgement and reaction?
  • Am I embattled because I'm right, or because I'm wrong?
  • Is my strategy "bold advance", or "dogged defence"?
  • Am I fighting ideas, or people?
  • When I'm conservative, what am I conserving? Is my position rational, or emotional?
  • When I'm progressive, what would I impose on others? Would these measures eliminate suffering, or just redistribute it?
  • Do I count a victory when my actions result in more resentment, or less? When the right people suffer, or no-one does?
  • Do I abandon comrades accused of wrongdoing, or take a public stand for fairness and forgiveness?
  • What about opponents?
  • Do I practice realpolitik, or morality?
  • Do I speak louder while attacking, or defending?

Thanks to such questions (which in Zen practice are not directly answered), I sloughed off a lot of convictions that had accrued over the years by static cling. Now I have a core of well-vetted convictions that pass muster. (Mind: I don't say that I pass muster. I still have to hurl these challenges daily, and I'm daily shamed by the results. But that shame is productive.)

So give it a shot. See what you come up with.

It's the 1 Habit of Truly Decent People: they demand more of themselves than they do of others.

(Photo courtesy of John Pavelka, Wikimedia Commons, and the Democratic People's We Totally Are Guys Just Look At The Strength Of Our Conviction Republic of Korea.)

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

WW: Bodhisattva Day observance, 2016

(Here we are in our cardigans.)

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Bodhisattva Day is Sunday, 20 March 2016

Betsey Johnson dress other cardigan Get out your cardigans, brother's and sisters! Bodhisattva Day 2016 promises to be a thunderous display of quiet wooly determination.

This Sunday, let's all button up and double down for compassion. Seems Kuan Yin's army can use all the swelling it can get these days.

Please recall that you don't have to be Buddhist, or practice any religion at all, to join. Compassion and humanity are universal values, and as Sigmund Freud might have said, were he a Zen student, "a cardigan is just a cardigan".

So let's wear 'em, troops! We gonna LIGHT this mofo UP!

See you Sunday in your Aran armour.

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

WW: Spruce Warrior

(During World War I so many hale young men were removed from our forests by the US military that the Army Air Corps had to raise "Spruce Squadrons" to cut down the trees our boys were no longer felling because they were in France and the military needed wood for aircraft.

I know, I know. Don't say it.

Most of these kids came from the East and Midwest and other places where they don't know what a real tree is. So they died like flies -- logging, especially in the day, was as deadly as warfare. Interesting aside: many of the Spruce Warriors were conscientious objectors, assigned this as alternative service. So a kind of patriotic censure hung over these units, despite the fact that they served steadfastly in a vital, extremely dangerous [if faintly ridiculous] duty.

My great grandmother used to photograph their military funeral parades down Main Street -- about one a week -- and send prints to the families. Fortunately the Littlejohns never received one of her envelopes; their son Calvin, of 60 Spruce Squadron, died in 1951.)

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Forth Bridge Koan

Forth Bridge Misty Mono (15137389978)

An English, Irish, and Scottish steelworker are sitting on the Forth Bridge, lunchboxes in their laps.

"Stike 'n' kidney pie, stike 'n' kidney pie," grumbles the Geordie. "If there's anoatha stike 'n' kidney pie in this lunchbox, I'll jump!"

He opens the box. "STIKE AND KIDNEY PIE!" he screams, and throws himself off the bridge.

The Irishman doesn't notice; he's too fixated on his own misery. "Bacon 'n' cabbage fer breakfast," he growls. "Bacon 'n' cabbage fer supper! Sure, if dere be bacon 'n' cabbage in dis lunchbox, Oi jump!"

He opens the box. "BACON AND CABBAGE!" he screams, and throws himself off the bridge.

The Scot, none the worse for finding himself alone, mutters, "Haggis 'n' neeps, och how Ah hate haggis 'n' neeps! If Ah see haggis 'n' neeps in this lunchbox, right then: Ah jump!"

He opens the box. "HAGGIS AND NEEPS!" he screams, and throws himself off the bridge.

Two days later the widows meet at the funeral.

"If only," sobs the Geordess, "if only I'd packed soomthin oatha than stike 'n' kidney pie, me Nigel'ud still be alive!"

"Sure!" agrees her Irish sister. "N'if only Oi'd not made bacon 'n' cabbage, just fer the day, me Seán'd still be with us!"

They turn to the Scotswoman, expectant.

"Well dinna luik at me!" she snaps. "Ma husband packed his ane lunch!"

(True story.)

Wu Ya's commentary: "A good tenzo is worth his weight in gold."

(Photo of the Forth Rail Bridge courtesy of Chris Combe and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

WW: $5000 boat

(Had a long chat with the fellow who drew and built this motorsailer. Whole vessel cost him $5000, including a woodstove he also drew and built. Can't comment on the seakindly of his design, since I've never sailed it, but you can't argue with the price. Looks great belowdecks, too.)

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Incola Ego Sum

Dorothea Lange 1936

I once had a car that was more like a home
I lived in it, loved in it, polished its chrome
If some of my homes had been more like my car
I probably wouldn't have travelled this far

Paul Simon, Cars Are Cars

(Photo of Dorothea Lange, Resettlement Administration photographer, courtesy of Rondale Partridge, the Library of Congress, and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

WW: Indian War veteran

(H.J. Cameron here served in Company C of the 2nd Washington Territory Volunteers, a settlers' militia of the 1850s Blockhouse Wars. The stone doesn't say whether he was a casualty, but the lack of birth and death stats suggests he was. If so, he was one of a select few; the Blockhouse Wars were famously more smoke than fire, at least on the Green Side. [And for white folks.])

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