Thursday, 28 December 2017


Dr Who (2427586757)

"Everything ends, and it's always sad.
But everything begins again too, and
that's always happy.

"Be happy. I'll look after everything

--The Doctor

(Photo courtesy of Mark Freeman and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

WW: Netful of razor clams

Thursday, 21 December 2017

St. Francis Meditation

Francis of Assisi Meditator 02

“Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take with you nothing you have received - only what you have given.”

Saint Francis of Assisi

(Photo of meditating St. Francis courtesy of Eugenio Hansen, OFS, and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

WW: Christmas self portrait

Wishing everyone a happy Christmas and peaceful New Year.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

The Berkeley Koan

Hotei, god of happiness at Jōchi-ji temple

One morning in the late 60s, a passing policeman asked the sangha of the newly-founded Berkeley Zen Center why they were all sitting on the front lawn.

"We're meditating," said teacher Sojun Mel Weitsman.

"Won't drugs get you there faster?" the cop asked.

Sojun replied: "We're not going anywhere."

--Story shared by Zenshin Greg Fain on the SFZC Podcast.

(Photo of Hotei courtesy of Andrea Schaffer and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

WW: Sun in the forest

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Product Review: Dharmacraft Classic Buckwheat Hull Zafu

One of the hallmarks of eremitical monasticism is its visceral anti-materialism. It's not that hermits never buy things, we're just deeply suspicious of the impulse.

Thus, our practice-related purchases must pass rigorous muster:

  • They have to be truly necessary.

  • They have to be unencumbering: no dragging things across the surface of the planet just to establish credibility with others.

  • They have to be non-habit-forming: no adding things you will soon find yourself unable to practice without. 

  • Buying has to be demonstrably more economical than making.

That's why in almost 7 years I've posted exactly one product review. And it's no coïncidence that it's for a different sort of the same item I'm reviewing today.

I received my Dharmacraft Classic Buckwheat Hull Zafu almost 15 years ago, as a birthday gift from my mom. (Yes, hermits have moms.) And it's still going strong.

Prior to that I sat on a zafu of rolled-up bath towels, bound together with twine and forced into a tight-fitting cover sewed from scrap material. It got the job done, and I still use it as a spare today.

However, the rolled towels pack down and get hard with use, making long sits, or multiple short ones, painful to my hip joints and back. So after a year of consistent meditation I decided to add a classic Japanese meditation cushion, or zafu, to my practice.

Research determined that I didn't have the sewing skills to make a reliable one, and that, combined with the cost of materials, justified buying a well-made commercial alternative.

Hence, my Dharmacraft Classic Buckwheat Hull Zafu.

This cushion – Dharmacraft's basic model – enables me to sit for long periods with minimal discomfort. (Its buckwheat-hull stuffing is kinder to long sits and my aging frame than the slightly less-expensive kapok model.) I've used it intensely for a decade and a half without drama. (Just dharma. Zen dad joke, there.) My single criticism has since been resolved: the old model I've got has to be unstitched to add more buckwheat and then sewn back up. But a zipper on the current design eliminates even that annoyance.

In fact, the basic item is now a natural cotton insert zipped in a washable cover. (Mine is sewed into its cover, meaning that you have to cover the cover to protect it from dirt and wear. I eventually tied it up in a cloth bag, which works perfectly, but all of the other monks laugh and call me names.)

The current iteration comes in a large array of colours – and even combinations of colours – and goes for $69.00 US from their website at this writing. Cheap at the price for serious practitioners of Zen, at least for those of us who sit lotus.

You might say, it's the basis of practice.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

WW: Advent on the North Coast

(Japanese maple [Acer palmatum] in December colours.)

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Benedictine Kyôsaku

Monastic silliness (3668460678) "If someone would ask me, 'Who is the more important one, Jesus or Buddha?', I would say, 'You are the most important one.'"

Brother David Steindl-Rast, Zen-trained Benedictine monk.

(Photo of the Benedictine brothers of St. Benedict's Abbey, Atchison, Kansas, demonstrating proper monastic attitude courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

WW: Banana slug

(Ariolimax columbianus)

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Hermitcraft: Mexican Hominy Stew

Here we are at the holidays again, for some reason, which means that many of us will soon confront daunting quantities of leftover turkey. (Not so fast, vegans. Keep reading.)

You know who the all-time leftover turkey champions are? The Aztecs. Which is no great surprise when you figure they invented turkeys.

So this year I thought I'd share one of my favourite recipes. Its lineage goes straight back to the First Nations of Mexico, and uncoincidentally it's one of the best leftover turkey dishes ever devised. This stew is in fact so good you may find yourself unenthusiastically masticating that first-run serving, unfavourably comparing its drab, insipid presentation to the feast you will soon make from its scraps.

And the awesomeness of Mexican Hominy Stew doesn't stop there. Because this is mom's-kitchen fare, you can make it with just about any meat, or even (here it comes, vegans) no meat at all. (See after-recipe comments for Quick and Deadly Vegan Hack.) In fact, most ingredients can be swapped and subbed as necessary, resulting in full-spectrum dining dominance for this delicious comfort food.


For 6:

2 rashers of bacon

1 good nopal, sliced (substitutes: chopped green bell pepper or cabbage; whole green beans; sliced celery; cubed pumpkin)

1 medium-sized yellow onion, sliced in wedges

1 fresh or jarred jalapeño, chopped well

2 cloves of garlic, crushed

two 16-ounce cans of diced tomatoes, or equivalent fresh, chopped

1 16-ounce can of hominy, drained (substitute: sweet corn)

1 quart of chicken or vegetable stock

2 teaspoons of ground cumin

1 drop of liquid smoke, optional

1/2 teaspoon of thyme

1 large bay leaf

1 dried pepper, roasted (substitutes: 1 tablespoon smoked paprika, or ordinary paprika, toasted)

tomato juice or water

2 cups of roasted turkey, shredded (substitutes: cooked chicken, pork, beef, lamb, mutton, goat, sausage, hamburger; raw meaty white fish or shellfish; cooked beans)

lime juice

1/3 cup culantro, chopped (substitutes: cilantro, Italian parsley, celery leaves)

optional: queso Cotija, crumbled

1. Toast the dried pepper over medium heat in a dry skillet, turning frequently, till dark and crisp. Remove it from the pan and set it aside to cool. (Pepper will crisp even more as it cools.)

2. Medium-fry the bacon in a Dutch oven or similar. Remove, chop coarsely, and set aside. Pour the fat out of the pan.

3. In the residual fat left in the bottom of the pan, toss the onion wedges, crushed garlic, jalapeño, nopal, and cumin until the onion begins to turn translucent, about 5 minutes.

4. Add the thyme, bay leaf, tomatoes, hominy, liquid smoke, and stock. If adding soaked but uncooked beans, add them here as well.

5. Crush the roasted pepper as thoroughly as possible and add. (Shake out seeds first if desired.)

6. Add enough tomato juice or water to achieve stew-friendly liquidity.

7. Cover, bring to a boil, and reduce to simmer. Cook until the vegetables (and any soaked beans) become tender, about 30-40 minutes.

8. Add the turkey, bacon, and cilantro and cook till just heated through.

9. Sprinkle with lime juice, ladle into bowls, and crumble queso Cotija on top if desired.

Serve with hermit bread or sourdough corn bread (recipe pending).

  • Quick and Deadly Vegan Hack: 1) sauté onion and nopalitos in a film of olive oil; 2) use vegetable stock instead of chicken; 3) replace meat with beans (black are especially good). So conventionally delicious you can serve it to meat-eaters and they'll never know it's vegan.

  • If you let this stew sit for a day or two in the refrigerator before reheating and serving, it tastes even better. (Gives the flavours more time to mingle.)

  • Don't overcook the meat after adding it; bacon in particular quickly turns to tofu if simmered too long.

  • The recipe above is to my taste, which means it's pretty lively. I back off on the peppers when serving guests. In any case, know your dried peppers; some are hotter than others. Back off a bit when adding fish or shellfish, too; too much vegetable fire overwhelms seafood.

  • Toast paprika by tossing it in a hot, dry skillet till dark.

  • Cilantro is a chemically complex herb that tastes like soap to some DNA profiles. Unless you know that guests are in a non-soap population, it's best to avoid serving cilantro.

  • Omit the cumin, thyme, liquid smoke, lime, and cheese – the peripherals, what – and you got the exact same recipe the Aztecs ate. Tell me that ain't awesome.

Roasting the pepper

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

WW: Touchable rainbow

(View from my desk a few weeks ago.)

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Going Outside


It's the old-man grump of my generation. Our fathers grumped that they had to walk to school, or work for our grandfathers, or fight wars.

We went outside.

When we were young, our parents didn't suggest we go outside, or try to sell us on the benefits of fresh air and sunlight. They barked, "Go outside!"

One did not simply take a turn around the house and back in the front door; several roofless hours were implied. Unless one were bucking for a corporal response.

Thus, we 70s kids spent whole days under Heaven. And if that's not scary enough, we were usually unsupervised. The nearest adult might be fifty yards away. Might be, but probably not; often there were none within shouting distance.

If by chance something went dangerously wrong – and it did – one of us had to run, on our actual feet, through forest and over stream and down lane, to find a grup.

It's easy to get misty about this today, and talk about how it made us fearless and independent and at home in the world. Not that it didn't; I'm truly alarmed at how terrified today's kids are of basically everything. That crap's no good for anybody.

But I also remember that bullies ran our world, and now that I'm old, I know how many of them would ultimately finish badly as well. Because the grown-ups weren't looking out for them, either.

Thus, anyone my age has near-miss stories. Unschooled adventures that diverted the lives of some, and disabled others. And a few of us – if very few – didn't survive.

But let's be honest: the conversion of childhood into a feast of adult-imposed fear isn't down to any of those risks. The real sickness is cellular.

Because looking back, the world beyond the rural districts of my vinyl-upholstered youth was pandemonium. Warring tribes, crumbling institutions, bone-deep animosity. The raging post-war economy had burned out to cold ashes, taking most of the opportunity with it. Repressed minorities rose against old-school bigots. Cities stewed in stinking decay, and their refugees stomped by the thousands into in my neck of the woods, mowing it down like hay.

Yet neither fear nor anger owned our parents. Oh, they were mad, alright. Old people grinched and spit about lifestyles they mostly encountered on TV and in the papers. They fulminated and pontificated… and then got back to life.

Sometimes, as an experiment, I try to imagine an All in the Family reboot, just to see what that might look like now. If it were as unflinching as the original, could Archie Bunker be anything but a rabid dog? Because he wasn't then. Dude actually became kind of a folk hero, even to those who opposed his politics. Sure, he could launch a barely-articulate right-wing rant on cue. But when the chance arose, Archie never actually harmed anyone.

I think we saw our fathers and grandfathers in him.

But it's impossible to imagine Archie as a contemporary conservative, advocating torture. He'd say that was for the Rooskies. And I recall an episode where he followed his convictions into a brotherly chat with a neo-Nazi. When his new chum's identity was revealed, WWII-vet Archie gagged visibly.

By contrast, we've grown up to fear the bigness of the world, and to crave physical and mental control over others – two things Archie Bunker did not. And I think that's really why we imprison our kids. That, and they can't fight back. It's related to the flowering of narrow private schools on our watch, and the fine-combing of public school curricula for dog-whistle pretexts that began in the 80s. We want to prevent our children from experiencing anything but us, and by God we mean to accomplish it.

And now we're living in the kind of world that makes. I have no idea how you come to want such a thing, growing up on the vacant lots of our childhood. They taught me exactly the opposite.

But I'm just one man, and these days I'm feeling like that guy in Planet of the Apes.

Or The Omega Man.

Or Soylent Green.

Wait a minute… those were all TOTALLY THE SAME GUY. Spacey, man. What a trip. That's, like, Weirdsville USA, dude.

Anyway. What was I saying? Oh yeah:

So what's a Zenner to do?

I have no idea. I'm practicing steadily, and waiting for insight. But I know what I'm not going to do.

I'm from the 70s. I'm not going to be uncool.

That's basically what I've got so far.

And maybe we should send the kids outside.

Away from us. Till the streetlights come on.

And hey: for God's sake. If you feel a war dance coming on, will ya stifle yaself heah?

(Photo of a bunch of kids my age cheating death again courtesy of the US Environmental Protection Agency, the National Archives and Records Administration, and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

WW: Freighter in the mist

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Forest Ango: Why

Me, Day 100
The risk is there, clearly. Isolation, mishap, loneliness. And all the dangers of living in the rough. Of which the worst by far is humanity: property pricks, law enforcement, psychopaths. As a child, growing up in the Washington woods, I was taught that "the most dangerous animal in the forest is Man."

But I would have to run these risks, and more, if I wanted to see the elephant. And this I was determined to do, as the masters taught. Or die trying.

The Buddha called my state "world-weariness". It's that moment when you're simply done. You can no longer lie to yourself about human striving. It's futile, and any moron can see that. The endless yimmer-yammer about intangible rewards and ultimate good no longer drugs you; you've seen reality, and you can't unsee it.

There's a touch of anger, and another of spite, in this moment, but neither is the disorder. Depression is similarly in play, and so is despair, but world-weariness cannot be anaesthetised; rather, it's caused by anaesthesia.

You're just… done.

And I was done.

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson.)

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

WW: Autumn in the woods

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Good Song: Every Day is a Good Day

Sometime around the 9th century CE, Ch'an Ancestor Yunmen said the whole of this practice could be resumed in a single sentence:

"Every day is a good day."

It's one of those deceptively simple statements, like my Rule, that seem trite and supercilious on first consideration. But try actually meditating on it: analyse each day – each breath – and draw up an airtight case for why it's a good one.

Hell, a good day for what? And are you making good on it... whatever it is? How do you do that? How will you know when you've done it? Can you ever have done it? Or have you already done it?

And what about Naomi?

Not so vapid anymore, eh?

That's what Yunmen (ancestor of the Linji, or Rinzai, school) intended. You're supposed to dismiss his quintessential koan on meeting. That's how you prove you're an idiot.

Then, if you're worth a damn, the second thoughts start dropping.

Which puts a whole 'nother spin on "Bobby Bones and the Raging Idiots", don't it?

Anyway, I stumbled into this song some time ago and thought it provided another excuse to post such reflections. The lyrics may be dippy and hackneyed.

Or not.

Sometimes you just wanna hear something upbeat.

Lyrics by Bobby Bones, Kristian Bush, and Lindsay Ell.

Every day is a good day
It's how you see it, that's what I say
When you wake up in that mind frame
Singing with the Blue Jays, sipping on a latte
Every day is a good day

Forgot to charge my phone before I went to bed
Now I gotta get to work but my iPhone's dead
I just missed my mouth, and now it's on my shirt
Ain't got nowhere to park but it could be worse
I know what to do, drop a little Ice Cube
You need to check yourself before your wreck yourself


Some dudes texting in the movie and he's lighting up the room
There's a line at the stall and I gotta go soon
The car is on 'E' and I'm almost out of gas
Traffic's backing up, I'm going nowhere fast
When it's raining and I'm soaked
Got no money and I'm broke
Has anyone seen my remote?


There's a new episode of my favorite show and you ruin it
That one hurt, how 'bout a spoiler alert?


It's how you see it, that's what I say
Tell me are you going my way
I'm singing with the Blue Jays
Riding on a Segway
Every day is a good day

Here we go

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Jazz Koan

Suonatore jazz-perwiki

A jazzman walks into a diner.

"Gimme a piece of your famous pie!" he says.

"The pie is gone," says the waitress.

"Crazy!" replies the jazzman. "Gimme TWO pieces!"

(Graphic courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous artist.)

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

WW: Pumpkin zafus

(Saw these in town the other day. Turn 'em upside down, you got a monastery's-worth of cheap zafus.)

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Legend of Irritating Master

This week The Onion published fascinating insight into the history of Buddhism, recently revealed by scholars studying obscure Asian texts. The post, Historians Discover Meditation Spread From Ancient China By Annoying Monk Who Wouldn’t Shut Up About How It Changed His Life, constitutes yet another brick in my thesis that Buddhism ca. Long Ago was approximately identical to Buddhism today, give or take the odd posh yoga retreat.

It now appears that a single individual may have opened our path in regions as far-flung as Afghanistan, Korea, and Cambodia. According to historian Sheila Ryan, writing in The Journal Of East Asian Studies, "Our research shows that from Mongolia all the way down to Java, everyone hated this smug prick."

While the notion that nearly all extant Buddhist denominations may be descended from just one indefatigable Ancestor remains conjecture, and will probably never be proved given the centuries elapsed, you gotta admit it has a certain ring of truth.

So check out the Onion article. Because the more we learn of our past, the better-equipped we are to avoid it.

Also, if I'd thought of it, Annoying Monk would have been yet another awesome name for this blog.

(Period tableau of Irritating Master doing what he did best from the Onion post.)

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

WW: Hallowe'en spider

(This is the giant house spider [Eratigena atrica]. It's called that because it's four inches across and we find it in our homes during this season up here on the North Coast. The house-eating spider is not native, however; like Hallowe'en itself, it came from Europe. Trick or treat, indeed.)

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Street Level Zen: Self-Responsibility

Sojiji Meditation Hall 衆寮

"I was thrown out of NYU for cheating on my Metaphysics final. I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me."

Woody Allen

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

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

WW: Nightfall

(When you live on the West Coast, you see a lot of sunsets.
Open this one in a new tab to see it full-sized.)

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Jizo Meditation

Jizo statue at the Bodaiji temple

The discursive mind is like a child.

It will always get up to stuff. That's its nature.

It's the role of the adult – the bodhisattva mind – to baby-sit: keep the discursive mind entertained, feed it, care for its injuries, protect and correct it, love it.

Child mind runs everywhere, touches everything, puts everything in its mouth. Often bodhisattva mind is too busy with lofty important-affairs to give it full attention; sometimes it gets none at all.

Then all sorts of mischief ensues. Like a child, the discursive mind lacks judgement, gets into trouble, goes places it shouldn't, takes things apart it can't put back together.

It's easily impressed, easily amused, and easily led.

And so nefarious impulses, yours and others', trick it into all manner of suffering, because the bodhisattva is elsewhere, or its voice simply gets lost in the cacophony of social living.

When this happens, the skilful response is empathy, humour, and loving correction.

Short of this you will have no family at all.

(Photo of Jizo Bodhisattva, protector of children and possible Canadian, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

WW: Oak prairie

(When settlers first came here, most of the Puget Sound Basin was prairie, in two configurations: grassland, with few trees, and parkland, covered with Garry oak [Quercus garryana]. As I've mentioned elsewhere, oak trees are perishing rare on the West Coast of North America, and that, plus the fact that these oak-covered savannahs support greater biodiversity than any other ecosystem in the region, has garnered a lot of commentary over the years.

Prairie is not, however, a natural phenomenon in these parts; for millennia the entire 1000-mile habitat was maintained by the First Nations via strategic firing. When the newcomers prevented them from continuing, it largely vanished under an invasive forest dominated by Douglas fir [
Pseudotsuga menziesii]. Post-war over-development has all but erased what remained.

So today very little of the oak prairie that once stretched unbroken from Central California into British Columbia is left; none, to my knowledge, is protected. Including this 40-to-80 acre example, on the plat of a massive new retirement estate.)

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Social Justice Meditation

Rahmi Koc Museum 1040704 Nevit Is it privilege in general that you oppose, or just privilege that isn't yours?

(Photo courtesy of Nevit Dilmen, Rahmi M. Koç Müzesi, and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

WW: Cloud dust

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Good Book: Two Shores of Zen - An American Monk's Japan

I hold the word on my tongue, bullshit, so he'll know that I'm serious about this. I'm not just complaining. He needs to meet me, to understand that I'm tired of this American Buddhist 'Upper Middle Way'. I'm tired of the sexual dramas, the talk of 'income streams' and 'personnel costs'. […] It is not that I'm averse to problems; I understand that they are the stones that lay the path. I am tired, though, of these corporate problems, 'Are we making enough?' and these hippie commune problems, 'Who's fucking who?'
Jiryu Mark Rutschman-Byler is nose to nose with his teacher. He's done with the nonsense. He's determined to pursue the Way. The true Way. The authentic Way, goddamit!

The fact that he stalks off in precisely the opposite direction from mine only intensifies my sense of kinship with him.

Two Shores of Zen: An American Monk's Japan chronicles one seeker's attempt to resolve the central contradiction of our religion: a philosophy of transcendence, patrolled in two disparate cultures by a careerist administration.

In young Jiryu's case, he's fed up with the mealy-mouthed doubletalk of Western Zen. His California sangha is flabby, bohemian, materialistic. "When are we going to get around to seeking enlightenment?" he wonders. "Are we going to get around to seeking enlightenment?"

The twentysomething monastic longs to live those legends, breathlessly recounted in the West, of merciless sitting schedules, brain-bending mental training, and utter obedience to a deific master. In his view the Ancestors' instructions have been inverted in transmission, to the point that following them is heresy. "How," he protests, "did we make the original Middle Way into an extreme to be avoided?"

Certain the hallowed Japanese couldn't be so glib, he jumps on a plane and jets off to get him some of that pure Asian practice.

We know what has to happen next. But Jiryu's account of it is fresh and honest, and his courage in telling a tale that doesn't always show his younger self to be the Stone Buddha he takes himself for inspires trust.

Certainly, the antics of a living oxymoron – a rebel cœnobite – make engaging reading. At one point the eager young pilgrim even considers cutting off a finger as a gesture of gratitude to his teacher; fortunately, common sense reins in this particular manifestation of his crush on Japan. (For their part, the Japanese would recoil in horror from such an act; most today regard monasticism itself as abusive and atavistic.)

Jiryu gamely owns a few other delusions as well – including, o shame of counter-California revolution, sexual ones – and documents the uncorrected worldliness of his peers as all swim in the obsessive patriarchy of Japanese practice. (Eremitical Perspective Break: from where I'm sitting – so to speak – both the Eastern and Western schools are culture-over-dharma models.) But the writer's Augustinian confessions are compelling and endearing, precisely because he's so gung-ho. Absent that, his openings couldn't be as revelatory, his witness as eloquent, or his trajectory as utterly human.

In short, Two Shores is the Empty Mirror of our time, enhanced and upgraded by a later generation's relative suspicion of exoticism. Which makes the fact that it was rejected by traditional publishing all the more frustrating. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the Buddhist press has largely become irrelevant. Yes, its stable of conservative celebrity teacher-authors reaches a well-monied market. But we practicing Buddhists outside that market are quickly becoming the demographic majority. Jiryu himself calls out the self-help and "lifestyle" mill that passes for our media. The fact that he was ultimately obliged to self-publish Two Shores – a foundational text Zenners should read – is a bitter irony.

Not that the book doesn't suffer a few foibles of its own. A sea of typos – typical failing of self-published titles – distracts the reader and weakens the prestige of the work. Also, were I the editor Jiryu tried so hard to secure, I'd've ordered a short epilogue, closing storylines left open, catching us up on his life and practice (he's on the pastoral staff at Green Gulch, a fact that brings his lessons full-circle) and offering considered insight into his Asian interlude, now that several years have passed. (It's worth mentioning that publisher-released books often share this deficiency, professional oversight be damned.)

But these are minor details. I'm heartily grateful that Jiryu has made his work available at personal expense, as few POD authors recoup costs, let alone profit.

I recommend that anyone who's troubled by our all-too-mortal Zen establishment; suffers from Real Zen Disorder; is interested in Japanese practice models; or just likes a good Zen yarn, do all sentient beings a favour and buy Two Shores of Zen.

Then maybe convince someone else to do as well.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

WW: Morning glories

(Convolvulus arvensis.)

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Gold Side Gothic

These Okanogan Forest Service roads were punctuated by the weathered husks of farmhouses, glass and paint long departed, their Norman Rockwell profiles inclining in iron sickness.

But not rot; that wants rain, and the only moisture that ever flowed freely in this country was the blood, sweat, piss, and tears of homesteaders.

When even that ran out, families surrendered.

Standing by those vacant windows, you can feel the handshake, smell the wash, taste the bacon, and in the keening of a wind-blown hinge, touch a sorrow full as deep as it was four generations ago.

(Adapted from Rough Around the Edges: A Journey Around Washington's Borderlands, copyright RK Henderson. Photo of Douglas County derelict courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

WW: Summer shore

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Automobile Maintenance

As summer reached its apogee, and the 100 Days their last weeks, my mind settled into a comfortable hum. More than acceptance, not quite joy; just, home.

But oh, the poor rolling stock! From its battered chassis, to engine problems, to electrical glitches, this truck was trailing. Sitting on my zafu, I watched systems check in like idiot lights: joints, muscles, organs; blood and bile and brains.

Yet my body has been such sangha. My eccentric lifestyle has only been possible because the crow meat was on board. Others may disparage it – too short, too skinny, too crooked; hell, just too. But, like my Toyota truck and my MSR hiking stove, my body is top of the line. And like them, it has served well-above and far-beyond, for far too long. If my tools can't run forever on damp air and bad fuel, that's hardly their fault.

Because hermitry is a job for a younger man. But as there were none around, I simply had to become one.

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson.)

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

WW: Silver-spotted tiger moth caterpillar

(Lophocampa argentata.)

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Founding Theory of Zen

Coprolites with Inclusions If you chew anything long enough, you can swallow it and poop it back out again.

(Photo of Oligocene coprolites courtesy of the Poozeum and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

WW: Headbone

(Cow skull found in pasture and hung on barn wall. A visceral human response I've commented on before.)

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Self-Knowledge Kyôsaku

Stone Buddha covered in tree roots

"If you want to know what you are, go ask a tree."

Seung Sahn

(Photo courtesy of Mufaddal Abdul Hussain and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

WW: A hundred eclipsed suns

(We experienced a 94% solar eclipse here two days ago. I couldn't look at it because I didn't have any protective glasses, but I needn't have worried; in the event, the light turned the Japanese maple in the dooryard into a mass of pinhole cameras, projecting a hundred eclipsed suns on the entry tiles.)

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Just Because You Don't Exist Doesn't Mean You Can't Have Integrity

Last week a reader posted a provocative question under Everything Doesn't Happen For a Reason:

"If one is not seeking to avoid pain [under Zen]," he asked, "should one look both ways before crossing the street?"

I confess to a weakness for this kind of Jesuitical repartee, though Zen teachers are famous for screaming "Katz!" at, slapping, or throwing hot tea on those who attempt it. The impulse is honest; since such queries arise in the discursive mind – whose self-centred, dualistic viewpoint is suited only to housekeeping – indulging them can block insight. Anglophones call the result "can't see the forest for the trees".

However, this case addresses a pitfall common to spiritual pursuits – the tendency to confuse theoretical truth with operational – and I think it's well worth exploring.

First, a point of order: Zen students are not taught not to avoid pain; we're taught to accept pain as inevitable. But notwithstanding Zen monasteries manufacture it on an industrial scale, the Buddha did say that enduring avoidable suffering is worthless to enlightenment practice.

However, the underlying issue here goes much deeper than practice forms; it's nothing less than the nature of existence. And I'm pleased to report that science has finally caught up with Buddhism in one essential detail:

Nothing exists.

The Buddha of course knew nothing about particle physics. He drew his conclusions from simple observation of his surroundings, albeit with delusion-corrected eyes. Now, two and a half millennia later, physicists can explain why stuff appears to exist, while in fact not existing.

Since I'm not one of them, I'll just cleave to their hypothesis here: most, possibly all, of what we consider "matter" is actually a cloud of electrical charges in transitory association. This is basically the same insight the Buddha handed down (though again, he had no notion of electricity), but science has extended it infinitely: molecules are tiny solar systems of atoms, which are tiny solar systems of subatomic particles, which are tiny solar systems of smaller particles, and so on.

To bring this all home, here's a scientific assertion I recently encountered online:

If you removed all of the empty space from every person on earth, the amassed matter of our entire species would amount to the volume of a sugar cube. (And if your discursive mind is well-oiled, it's now asking: "How do you know even that matter exists?" Exactly.)

Right. So that's all spacey n'all, but what does it mean? Well, to perhaps no-one's surprise at this point…


Seriously. OK, so you're a cloud and so is your piano. Go run through it.

Go ahead. I'll wait.

With any good luck, no-one will have tried. Because even though neither you nor your piano exist, there are other rules in play. Such as the one that says your particles can't trespass in the electrical fields of piano particles, even though all the particles are mostly the same, and you and your furniture are mostly empty space anyway.

In other words, just because you don't exist doesn't mean you can't have integrity. (And if I had any business sense I'd be selling t-shirts with that on.)

The koanic literature contains a few parables on the dilemma of simultaneously existing and not existing. My favourite involves a monk who goes out on his begging rounds after learning that nothing he sees is really there. When a rampaging elephant comes stomping down the road (and really, who among us hasn't been there?) the loyal young student, fresh from dokusan, focuses his mind on the elephant's non-existence.

And is immediately trampled. He limps back to his teacher and complains loudly that the teaching is false.

The teacher sighs, and says:
Alright. Here is the whole truth:

Nothing you see is really there.

And when a stampeding elephant is bearing down on you, get out of its way.
The monk confused theoretical truth (everything you see is a squirming splotch of promiscuously recombining particles, so whatever you think is there, isn't there) with operational truth (regardless of how temporary you and the elephant are, it hurts when one steps on you.)

And so, to accept my honoured reader's dharma challenge, I am bold to say:

Yes. One should look both ways before stepping into the street, unless one does not mind being creamed by a briefly-manifesting moving van.

At this point, some will ask: "What good is theoretical truth if it won't save you from being creamed by a slowly-dispersing moving van?"

Now that's a question.

(Photo of Namibian road sign courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer. You gotta respect the nation that posts "Mind the Paradox of Non-Existence" warnings along its highways.)

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

WW: Meditating Christians

(Was walking by the church I grew up in when I saw this sandwich board on the sidewalk outside. Centering Prayer is one of several Christian contemplation movements that are quietly but consistently gaining adherents. For my experiences in another, see this.)

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Right Religion

The lonely walk (4278047231)

Faith is quiet.
Doubt is loud.

Faith is supple.
Doubt is stern.

Faith is calm.
Doubt is angry.

Faith faults self.
Doubt faults other.

You must have faith to understand this.

Everyone says they have faith, but few do.

Skilful discipleship means distinguishing the faithful from the fearful.

(Photo courtesy of Vinoth Chandar and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

WW: Self portrait 3

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Everything Doesn't Happen For A Reason

화각장 A few weeks ago a friend directed me to Everything Doesn't Happen For A Reason, by Tim Lawrence. It's attracted an enthusiastic following online, and since August has become the traditional time for Rusty Ring to address such topics, I figure this is my opening.

Tim's central hypothesis – you gotta love writers who state their thesis right in the title – is also a primary Zen principal, but his objective trends rather more to the negative than affirmative.

Specifically, he's that tired of grieving people being told they're "suffering for a reason", that it's all part of some great compassionate plan, that "God never gives you more than you can handle."

"That's the kind of bullshit that destroys lives," he says. "And it is categorically untrue."

Preach, brother. The problem with the "everything happens for a reason" crowd, aside from their faulty analysis, is that they lay a giant trip on the injured, just when their resistance is low. Now they're dumb, weak – hell, even ungrateful – as well.

Tim goes on to finger the origin of this nonsense:
...our culture has treated grief as a problem to be solved, an illness to be healed, or both. In the process, we've done everything we can to avoid, ignore, or transform grief. As a result, when you're faced with tragedy you usually find that […] you're surrounded by platitudes.
…In so doing, we deny [sufferers] the right to be human. [My emphasis.]
It's a hallmark of some worldviews to meet dukkha with weapons-grade denial. If you insist the Universe is ruled by a benevolent force, or that a given socio-political system is self-correcting, you'll immediately bang your skull on the titanium grille of the ever-oncoming First Noble Truth. Then you'll have to abandon all positive ends and exhaust your remaining intellectual capital on explaining why bad things keep happening in your Dictatorship of Infinite Good.

Therefore, for the benefit of all sentient beings, Ima say it right out loud:

Life is pain.

This is a direct result of the inescapable nature of existence. (Seriously. Don't try to escape it. That's a major source of pain. Second Noble Truth, for those of you playing at home.)

All of that is orthodox Buddhism – though Tim is an Anglican monastic. There is, however, one aspect of his programme that flirts with unskilfulness.

He's big into "letting people go".

Not that this isn't often an excellent idea. Good people tend to allow themselves to be abused, on the belief, inbred or inculcated, that they somehow deserve it, or that they owe it to others. Like other decent folks, I've suffered at the hands of those who took advantage of my patience and good will. I should have let those people go right off. Ideally before I picked them up.

However, like all weapons, this one is apt to wound its wielder, especially if overused. Thus Tim:
If anyone tells you that all is not lost, that it happened for a reason, that you’ll become better as a result of your grief, you can let them go.
Seems a tad trigger-happy to me. I've often said useless things, maybe even hurtful ones, to people I authentically wanted to support. Problem was I didn't know what to say.

(Free tip from our Hard-Earned Insight Department: Sometimes you can't help. Sadly, the world is still awaiting the self-improvement book How to Help When You Can't Help.)

So let's not lose our humanity, here. When I've been in the worst possible shape, my capacity to remain human in the face of inhumanity has been tremendously gratifying.

Tim also loses me when he suggests that grief won't make you a better person. It damn well will, if you're determined that it will. As self-centred as I am now, I'm a buddha compared to what I was before. If recent politics prove anything, it's our moral obligation to suffer intelligently.

But of course it's not skilful to say that to someone in the throes of heartache. Instead, I try to offer tested survival tips from my own laboratory. And, since guilt and regret are key components of grief, I also bear witness to their decency. Psychopaths don't suffer.

Still, advising others is fraught. Often the best tack is just to accompany the sufferer in shared silence, accepting the person and the pain. Especially, to remember him or her actively. Call and text (that strange word again: "and"), visit, invite him or her out, break the isolation that's the warhead of both shame and grief.

Tim makes all these points, and others as well, in his timely essay. There's a reason it's been so well-received. Whether you're in pain yourself, or accompanying someone who is, give it a read.

(Photo of artist drawing Kanzeon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, courtesy of Republic of Korea Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

WW: Northern kelp crab

(Pugettia producta, in situ. This one is about two inches across. See a specimen in clearer context here.)

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Street Level Zen: Don't Know Mind

Nelumbo nucifera 001
"There ain't no answer. There ain't gonna be an answer. There never has been an answer. That's the answer."

Gertrude Stein

(Photo courtesy of H. Zell and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

WW: Mottled starfish

(Evasterias troscheli. These were among the worst-hit in the recent virus strike that decimated starfish here on the North Coast. Thus I was pleasantly surprised to find this beach littered with them on a recent minus tide. All were small – hand-size, like this one – and many were deformed or missing rays. Whether any survive remains to be seen. The virus, which is believed to have been triggered and intensified by the rising water temperatures, has wiped out the once-ubiquitous sunflower star [Pycnopodia helianthoides], which preyed on this and the leather star. Some researchers are now using the word "extinct" to describe formerly robust Pycnopodia populations here.)

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Gunfire Meditation

I've lived in the middle of many nowheres: France, Scotland, Latin America, Canada. Guns are common to all of them. Mostly shotguns in Europe; rifles in Canada, automatic weapons in Central America. You hear them occasionally. But the American bush crackles like No Man's Land.

On the Acres I often heard target practice, to put it charitably, across the river. Mid-range shoulder arms for the most part, .308 and .30-30 cowboy rifles. Practical weapons, deliberate and steady; I could almost hear the measured kachik-kachak of their lever actions. Los pistoleros, on the other hand, son muy locos; they spat out their little slugs in spastic swarms, like matinee idols.

Americans harbour a great superstition about handguns, a medieval fetish linking them, somehow, to national survival. I've been around guns and their owners all my life. Pistol people make me nervous.

But it wasn't a pistolero that shot my neighbour in the head. Some years before, Jim told me, the fellow on the east parcel had been shot clean off his tractor while mowing. He'd survived, but no arrest was ever made. The gunfire in the hills took a different echo when I knew that.

One sunny evening, while I meditated beneath the Tyvek, an AR15 (another crowd my gun-collector father taught me to misdoubt) opened up on Stripped Hill. A precise, military .223, tapped out as fast as the shooter could trigger. Thirty tight, symmetrical reports; a full clip.

"Dweeb," I grumbled. "Real revolutionaries carry AKs."

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

WW: White foxgloves

(Digitalis purpurea. Digitalis is a weed here, and comes in
many colours, but the white is both recessive and striking.)

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Rock Groups 2017

Well, it's July again, and you know what that means: another random blast of speculative rock groups. As I first explained five years ago, I have a gift for naming musical ensembles – one that goes entirely uncapitalised-upon, given the utter lack of a venue for such genius.

Therefore I routinely dump the cream of the harvest on the world right here in the Seventh Month. The usual caveats apply:

1.)  These names are entirely free for the taking, public domain, unregistered, homeless, motherless, and legally usurpable by anyone who wants them. Should you adopt one, you owe me no money, credit, thanks, or apologies. (But see Caveat #4, below.)

2.)  That said, be aware that I can't guarantee others haven't already named themselves something similar, or even exactly the same thing. So do a thorough Google search before taking the plunge.

3.)  Any suggestions I make about possible genres is just me talkin'. You can use these names for anything you want.

4.)  Any group that takes one of these names is entitled to tell fans they were named by a Zen hermit monk. Because nobody else has such a cool origin story. (Not even Nirvana.)

So don't be a clown; bump that frown and scroll on down. Because The Wolfman comes just once year.

Rock Groups 2017

Don't Tell Dad
DDT (thrash metal)
Scythe (funeral doom)
The Akkadians
Miri and the Grups
Northern Soul (Yukon, NWT, or Nunavut group)
The Denisovans
Rock Bass (that's bass as in fish; country rock, maybe)
Kapz-Loc (political rap)
The Red Paint People
Real Meat
Narrow Sparrow
Tin Foil Cat
Willie Wiki and the Socks
Les Chats Libres de Marseille
The Banned Italians
Whooping for Christ (non-Christian group)
The Organic Cavalry
Architect of the Capital
Wankel (industrial punk)
Bullhead (Southern rock)
The Divorced Presidents
Gang of Four
Catfish Walker and the Invasive Species (warning: apparently there is, or was, a blues singer named Catfish Walker)
Love Spoon
Harrow (British folk rock)
Igneous Music (record company)
Iceberg Let Us
The Walking Onions
Buddha Bowl
Auntie Christ
2-Ply (quirky rap)
Plywood (alt country)
Ten Foot Pole
Home To Roost (political country rock)
The Mangerdogs
Critical Mass (in High Gothic script, with Catholic imagery on the album cover)
Los Hongos Serios
Early X

(Photo courtesy of and a generous photographer.)
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