Thursday, 29 December 2016


„Die Zeit hat in Wirklichkeit keine Einschnitte, es gibt kein Gewitter oder Drommetengetön beim Beginn eines neuen Monats oder Jahres, und selbst bei dem eines neuen Säkulums sind es nur wir Menschen, die schießen und läuten.“

Thomas Mann

(English interpretation here.)

(Title courtesy of sangha sister Eva Neske. Photo of a traditional Seattle New Year celebration courtesy of James Chen.)

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

WW: Sunbreak tractor

(No need to turn the lights on. Like American cars in the 70s, it works great, as long as you don't actually go anywhere.)

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Christmas Koan

Pictured: not the Buddha.
Ask a random Westerner to describe the Buddha, and you're likely to hear something about a "big fat laughing guy." I once heard a radio preacher sneer down my entire religion as "people who think you kin git ta heaven bah prayin' to a big, fat Byoo-dah."

(By the way, if he happens to read this, may I suggest you refrain from commenting on others' beliefs until you know, at minimum, whether they pray, and if so, to whom.)

We Zenners find this nonsense especially grating since we barely even acknowledge the figure they're referring to.

For the record, the dude in the above photo is Hotei (Budai, Pu-Tai, 布袋, Bố Đại...). Not the Buddha. Not a buddha. Not even a significant legendary figure, like Fudo or Kanzeon. Just a rankless Ch'an monk of the Liang Dynasty.

Not that my brother Hotei didn't have his noteworthy points. First off, unlike most Buddhist monks, he was fat. (Note that the actual Buddha once starved himself nearly to death, and then adjusted his practice to embrace, shall we say, non-stupid asceticism. That's why he's usually depicted as sensibly slim, and occasionally as terrifyingly emaciated, in admiration of his earlier, if misguided, conviction.)

Hotei's girth was all the more miraculous because he was a begging hermit. (High five to the Homeless Brothers!) How you maintain such a waistline on handouts is one of the mysteries of his practice.

Especially since he gave away everything he got. Hotei carried this dimly-sourced loot in a bag over his shoulder, which, upon deposition, turned out to be mostly filled with sugary treats that he handed out to children like… (Sorry. Even I can't go there.)

You see this coming, right?

Not yet?

OK, dig this: the central practice of Hotei's monastic rule was laughter. He was always cutting loose with a big, jolly laugh that announced joy and peace to the world, as he humped a bottomless bag through town on his fat back, doling out presents to every child...


Oh, come on! Now you're just trying to piss me off.

The reason you see more statues of Hotei than Gautama in Asia is the same reason you see more Santas than Jesuses at Christmastime: he's more fun, less threatening, and doesn't remind people of suffering.

And it's that last bit I like to meditate on.

Hotei is unpopular among modern Zenners because he's embarrassingly emotional, dangerously untamed – wandering around teacherless, eschewing all acts of devotion save his self-authored laughter practice – and worst of all, he does that annoying Bodhidharma thing of preaching no-key enlightenment.

Don't waste time bowing and chanting and folding things just so and being obedient to this and that, says Hotei. Especially, don't confuse misery with discipline.

Bodhidharma said "just sit." Hotei says "just laugh."

And that's what offends us. Because if Bodhidharma crapped on social ambition and Confucianism and gracious deference to hierarchies, at least he wasn't ho-ho-ho-ing it up in the town square, rubbing our pious faces in it.

"You're in pain?" says the fat old hobo. "I hate it when that happens. But don't sweat it, because sooner or later, one way or another, your problems are doomed. Hey, they can't survive without you, can they?"

And then he laughs. Because that's freakin' hysterical.

Therefore, in honour of Christmas, and to bow in ironic deference to my unpretentious brother, I offer fellow seekers the Koan of Hotei. To my certain knowledge, it's the only nod to the Buddhist Santa Claus in our entire canon. It's also my favourite koan. (A distinction it shares with all of them.)


A monk asked Hotei, "What is the meaning of Ch'an?"

Hotei put down his bag.

"How does one realise Ch'an?" the monk asked.

Hotei threw his bag on his back and walked on.

Happy holidays, brothers and sisters. See you on the road.

Emaciated Siddhartha Fasting Gautama Buddha
Jolly old Gautama.

(Photos courtesy of Helanhuaren [Hotei figurine], Akuppa John Wigham [emaciated Siddhartha statue], and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

WW: Why we can't have nice things

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Street Level Zen: Origin of Suffering

Carceleros guatanamo

"I don't permit the suffering - you do."


(Photo of Guantanamo, by sculptor José Antonio Elvira, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

WW: Snow in the Spokane country

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Good Song: Christmas Song

I've pointed out before that Christmas is a Buddhist holiday. Now comes a brother (not Buddhist, so far as I know) who's found the same wisdom in this ancient pagan celebration.

The lyrics (below) to Eliot Bronson's Christmas Song mirror orthodox Zen teaching on the self. They also gibe perfectly with the timeless Yule theme of the past ceding to the future.

This year I'm sharing Eliot's brilliant meditation because Christmas is a tough emotional time for many of us. Especially those who find themselves alone, cast out, lost, or remorseful amidst all the love and conviviality. Some even come to hate this season.

But my brother is telling it like it is here. And his Zen-friendly, John Lennon cadences are all the more powerful for their simplicity.

The millstones of time are a gift, brothers and sisters. And you are a great deal more than anything you've ever been or done. It's a central tenet of the Buddha's teaching: you can change your bio anytime.

Merry Christmas.
You can start over.

Again and again and again.

If you've got nothing else to celebrate, celebrate that.

(By the way, this recording is available for sale here. Note that Eliot has donated it to a charitable project that funds pediatric cancer research. At a big 79¢ US for the file, it's a karmic bump we all can use.)

by Eliot Bronson

You're not the place you're from
You're not the things you've done
In a world turning 'round the sun
Isn't that strange?

You're not the name you're called
You're not who you recall
Because after all
We can change

Merry Christmas
You can start over
You can start over
Merry Christmas
You can start over
Whenever you want to

You're not what you can do
You're not what you've been through
And the lines between me and you
Are lies

You're not what you can see
Not even what you believe
And there's a part of us that's always free
Like the sky

And Merry Christmas
You can start over
You can start over
Merry Christmas
You can start over
Whenever you want to

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

WW: Christmas in Oxfordshire

(Photo by friend and fellow Blogger blogger Bill Nicholls. One of several brilliant morning captures of his home county that he posted last Wednesday.

England shares the same Christmas vibe as my own North Pacific homeland: more grey than white, more frost than snow, but timeless and deeply compelling if you were raised on it.

This scene is also my Yuletide desktop this year. With the holiday lights app blinking around the edges, it looks like home to me.)

Thursday, 1 December 2016

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Being Wrong

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got came from my dad. I was in high school, and on the horns of some dilemma.

For some reason, my dad – whose counsel trended to the brief and prescriptive – heard me out this time, as I explained my choices and why I feared I might be censured either way.

My dad nodded a few times, and after a brief silence, said:

"Well, in the end, it doesn't matter."

I hadn't expected this.

"What? Why not?" I asked.

"Because you're always going to get criticised. No matter how carefully you choose your course of action, someone's going to call you an idiot, or a jerk, or a traitor. There is literally no decision a man can take, about anything, that isn't morally reprehensible to somebody."

"Great," I said. "So what do I do?"

"You choose your critic," he said.

I raised an eyebrow, and he continued.

"Suppose you're walking down the street and a panhandler asks you for spare change.

"If you give it to him, I guarantee you somebody will say, 'Nice going, you jerk! You know he's just going to spend that on booze. You're keeping him addicted, undermining the economy, making it possible for freeloaders to live off society. People like you make me sick!'

"On the other hand, if you don't give it to him, someone else will say, 'You selfish bastard! You wouldn't go hungry tonight without that 75¢, but he might! You can't spare a handful of coins for a brother who's down on his luck? Even drunks have to eat. You're the reason life is so lousy!'

"So that's the choice: which gripe can you live with?"

In my life I've consistently found that this formula busts up ethical logjams like nobody's business. It doesn't always lead to the safest decision – to put it mildly – but it does generally reveal the one I'm least likely to be ashamed of later, even in the face of inevitable criticism.

My dad's gone now; he died in September. And since I don't have any kids of my own, I figured this was as good a time and place as any to pass on his thunderously effective mindfulness tool.

In these morally challenging times, when even the citizens of heretofore principled societies face dubious and potentially dangerous demands on their allegiance, this is the sort of advice we can all use.

(Adapted from Growing Up Home, copyright RK Henderson.)
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