Thursday, 22 June 2017

The Cul-de-Sac of Science

This week a Zen droogie slipped me The Philosophy Force Five vs the Scientismists, a terrific graphic essay by Existential Comics. In this gripping tale of superhero1 derring-do, five ferocious female filosophers confront three uniformly male [c.f. “unsupported hypotheses”] cavaliers of positivist complacency.

They’re annoying, those guys. Furthermore, their boorish self-congratulation gains no evidentiary weight by their peremptory tone. (Incidentally, one of them does not bear a striking resemblance to Neil DeGrasse Tyson. So stop saying he does.)

All of which fired my interest, because Scientism is the third wheel, alongside Taoism and Buddhism, of an up-and-coming Western school of Zen that is highly influential here. It’s called “Secular Buddhism” and/or “Atheist Zen”. In it, Scientism replaces the traditional Confucianism, an equally ad hoc, if older and Asian, retrofit I’ve already lambasted elsewhere.

I’ll leave a full workup for another time, but for now I’d like to suggest that evidence-based religion makes as much sense as revealed science. Which we tried for centuries, and some – such as creationists – are still trying to make happen.

To borrow an argument The Philosophy Force Five literally kick down their adversaries' throats: “Science can only tell us how to effectively [sic] pursue a goal, but no experiment has ever told us what we should value.”

What they do not point out is that the latter is also much harder to discover, and requires a great deal more intellect, to say nothing of perseverance, self-control, and courage. Science is in fact not the most difficult brainwork we do, and our compulsion for herding our best and brightest into it may yet prove maladaptive. (Which is Scientismist for "suicidal".)

By my reckoning, intellect, perseverance, self-control, and courage are also the foundation blocks of Zen. Aren't they prerequisite to our much-ballyhooed "don't know mind"? This is one reason I’m suspicious of the anti-religious zealotry of many Western Zenners. Atheist Zen seems about as doable to me as Atheist Christianity.

Please note that I wish my Secular Buddhist brothers and sisters health and success, have no intention of obstructing their teachings or practice, and learn a great deal from the insight they share. My argument is purely theoretical. And theory has no objective existence. See? I told you I was listening.

But as I grow older I’m learning that the market value of the scientific method is greatly diminished by the moral and intellectual laziness of many who claim it – particularly the sarcasm they’ve made a tribal language. In clinical terms, science seems to have died the same death as religion: strangled by the undisciplined ego of its adherents.

I believe we’re now suffering the consequences of this global catastrophe – the simultaneous extinction of insight and inquiry. In the end, it may well lead to our own.

But while you're waiting, be sure to read The Philosophy Force Five vs the Scientismists. It's either brilliantly hilarious, or hilariously brilliant.


1"Superhero" is a registered trademark of Marvel Comics and DC Comics. God I wish I were joking.

(Graphic from the linked web comic by Existential Comics.)

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

WW: North Coast homeport

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Koan: The Dead Man's Answer


When Mamiya, who later became a well-known preacher, went to a teacher for personal guidance, he was asked to explain the sound of one hand.

Mamiya concentrated upon what the sound of one hand might be. “You are not working hard enough,” his teacher told him. “You are too attached to food, wealth, things, and that sound. It would be better if you died. That would solve the problem.”

The next time Mamiya appeared before his teacher he was again asked what he had to show regarding the sound of one hand. Mamiya at once fell over as if he were dead.

“You are dead all right,” observed the teacher, “But how about that sound?”

“I haven’t solved that yet,” replied Mamiya, looking up.

“Dead men do not speak,” said the teacher. “Get out!”

(Case 42 from Collection of Stone and Sand. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

WW: The Blockhouse Wars

(On this site stood one of the first homesteads in the neck of Thurston County, Washington, where I grew up. During the Blockhouse Wars of the 1850s – a string of skirmishes touched off by settler abuse of First Nations treaties – the Eaton place hosted one of the tiny wooden stockades for which the era is named. I'm told the ruins of "Fort Eaton" endured well into the 20th century.

The marker was placed, not by any government organism, but by the Freedom Community, a Christian commune established nearby later in the l9th century. It too succumbed to entropy, but persisted as an ordinary village for decades thereafter.

When I was a kid this monument was all but lost under Scotch broom, baldhip rose, and Garry oak, beside a county highway that began life as the main wagon road between Oregon and Puget Sound. While reading history at university I found the plaque by the ancient oak beside it, which I was told was the local hangin' tree. [Oaks are rare on the North Coast; their presence on the Salish Prairie in great number was and remains much remarked.]

In the decades since someone has cleared a respectable little rest stop around the marker, rendering it much easier to find.)

Thursday, 8 June 2017


Mechanical egg timer internals
(The following is a passage from Rough Around the Edges, a manuscript I began 20 years ago. Though my Zen practice was still about six years in the future, it's interesting to me today to read an fundamentally exact description of what the Buddha called "world weariness" – the mainspring of enlightenment practice – written in my own pre-monastic hand. Like the man said, we come by it honestly.)

The problem, the problem. What is the problem?

You're born. Somewhere, someone sets an egg timer. For a quarter-hour you rave like a rich man in a burning mansion, snatching at a vase, a string of pearls, anything to show you lived there.

The timer dings; you're unborn. The necklace falls to the ground.

We get it about wealth. The prophets have all warned us. But there are other treasures just as fleeting.

I hunger for love, to share life, and not to be alone. Except it won't do. Even if you find love, the timer still goes ding. The necklace falls to the ground.

What's the problem? I'm afraid to die alone. But I live alone. I work alone, and most of the time, I love alone.

The seconds tick. The words echo in my mind. A thought occurs:

Perhaps the most valuable thing in that house is the fire.

(Adapted from Rough Around the Edges: A Journey Around Washington's Borderlands, copyright RK Henderson. Photo of the mechanics of egg-timing courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

WW: Limit of mussels

(My friend Ajai weighs his catch.)

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Hymn to the Red Moon

I see the morning star
Bow low above the plain
And from behind the ridge
The rising sun exclaims:
"I got a new day here!
Any takers?
Go and get your mule, boy.
Here's forty acres."

(Photo of sunrise at Joshua Tree National Park by Rennett Stowe. Red moon over Arkhangelsk by a generous photographer. Both courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

WW: Hawthorn blossoms

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Facing the Wall

Sitting area by office (Tassajara).jpg
My brother Fletcher – formerly an ordained Zen monk, now an ongoing seeker after insight on another path – recently described to me his initiation as a novice at Tassajara. (That would be the largest Soto monastery in the States – possibly largest in the whole West – and a dependent house of San Francisco Zen Center.)

His story was typical: the ranking monks shut him in a room with other boots and made them meditate for five days straight. Is that OK? Maybe. Maybe not. Feel free to undertake the koan.

But the part of Fletcher's tale that most seized me was his coping strategy: he began chanting "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" in his head, and continued doing so throughout the ordeal. In fact, he says, "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" remained a go-to mantra through the course of his considerable monastic career.

I like this on several levels. First, as juvenile as its lyrics may sound, "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" is basically what the Ancestors instructed us to do when we sit. My technique is theirs: I count my breaths from 1 to 10, then start again, until I'm done. All Fletcher changed was the number of reps.

His approach is also refreshingly free of twee chinoiserie. You know what else is free of twee chinoiserie? Zen. Or it was, until it acquired "Ancestors". Once upon a time we were famous – scorned, actually – for our coarse working-class pragmatism, and also our impatience with Confucian obsequium. "Get it done," Bodhidharma said (more or less).

And Fletcher did. By his account, the old summer camp ditty (was this ever a real drinking song? don't drinking songs end every so often so the singers can drink?) got the job done: it kept his discursive mind occupied so it couldn't stuff every silence with worry, regret, and drama, and it afforded the rest of his consciousness an opening to engage the Great Matter.

Sounds like enlightenment practice to me.

(Photograph of Tassajara Zen Mountain Center courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

WW: Homemade composter

(My mom needed a compact composter at her new house, where she doesn't have room for the sort of full-service compost bin system I built her 20 years ago. I looked into the storebought versions, and found they cost 75+ dollars. This offended my sensibilities, so I searched a bit online and found that people were making substantially the same article out of simple trash bins.

This one cost $25 and an hour's work. There are smaller holes in the bottom for drainage.)

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Hermit Practice Kyôsaku

Walking on rail tracks

"There is no escape from the nature of your suffering in this practice. When you walk, you are constantly confronted with your self, your attachments, your resistance. You are confronted with what you cling to for the illusion of security."

Claude AnShin Thomas

(Photo courtesy of Leah Love and Wikimedia Commons.)

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Don't Know Mind

A Couple Stars From the Hood (15181691902) As you get older, you call every change in your views and attitudes an improvement. But it only is if it is; change can be growth or decay. And "experience" is a lazy man's plea: "My experience has cultured and corrected me!"

Fact is, shallow logic is contagious. Chances are, if you're appealing to your past for justification, you caught some along the way.

So many of my friends from the day espouse facile extremism, now that we're old. Right wing, for the most part, though some went the other way.

What we all have in common is that none of us have lived long enough to pull that off.

(Photo of an Earthling pondering one tiny arm of our small, unremarkable galaxy courtesy of Zach Dischner and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

WW: Иконостас

Thursday, 4 May 2017

How To Be Perfectly Unhappy

This week I'm deferring to Matthew Inman, the Seattle bodhisattva who stands against evil and pointless suffering under the nom de guerre The Oatmeal. You may remember him from our 2014 nod, Happy Las Casas Day!

In How To Be Perfectly Unhappy, Inman takes on the Happiness Mafia, and he does so brilliantly and analytically, as is his MO. No Zen master (that is, no shingle-hanging Zen master) ever laid it out more cogently and succinctly.

At any rate, not more entertainingly.

Therefore, as part of my on-going outreach to fellow depression sufferers – and to our non-depressed brothers and sisters, who are equally responsible for it – this time around I'm directing you off-site to Matthew's nefarious lair.

Nefarious, I say, because once you step inside you'll never get out again. Clear your calendars, Zen droogies. I'm convinced it's called The Oatmeal because it's gluey and inescapable and "Quicksand" or "Spider Web" or "Satan's House of Infernal Temptation" would have been too on-the-nose.

You'll find the current example at How To Be Perfectly Unhappy.

And happy reading. (See what I did there?)

(Cartoon panel from The Oatmeal teaching linked above. Because the first hit's free.)

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

WW: Busy beavers

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Hermitcraft: Tea Hacks

Teepause Tea is an integral part of Zen practice, and, for those of us with old-school British or Japanese roots, life. It can also become an attachment in the negative sense when you can't get any, or the stuff you've got is uninspiring. Over the years I've learned a few tricks to smooth out these bumps, and this week I'm sharing them in the hopes they'll do good for others, however trifling.

Accidental treasure

I'll start with one I discovered by accident: if you seal a sachet of robust green tea, such as Dragonwell, in the same container with another of lapsang souchong, and leave them there for a while, the green acquires the other's smoky character, resulting in a brew that's good both hot and iced. Doesn't seem to damage the lapsang souchong, either.

Upgrading bad tea

Sometimes you have tea – black or green – but it's not very good. Though Not Very Good Tea can be depressing, you can amend it into Passable Tea (or even Enjoyable Tea) with other herbs.

The list of candidates is inexhaustible, but a few are so useful, and so common, that they deserve special mention.

Mint (Mentha) is common in most parts of the world, typically growing in drainage ditches and near any body of fresh water, to say nothing of residential areas where it's escaped cultivation. Throw in assertive, pleasant flavour, and mint may be the most useful tea-mixing herb there is. I especially prize the endless spectrum of flavours brought out by mint's promiscuous lifestyle. As varieties freely cross-pollinate, no two patches taste the same. Some are peppery, others icy, still others citrusy… the discoveries are endless. And of course, mint anchors a fine herbal mix all by itself if you have no real tea at all.

Several mint relatives are also handy. Catnip (Nepeta) is especially tasty, and frequently found feral. Lemon balm (Melissa), easily identified by its very mint-like appearance but strong Lemon Pledge odour, is too harsh to anchor a mix but welcome in restrained quantities in others. And bee balm (Monarda), a popular garden flower that was used as a tea substitute in colonial times, also mixes well with green or black tea.

Common non-mint tea stocks that
Bee balm (Monarda).
can enliven an uninspired cup include sweet white clover blossoms (Trifolium repens), lemony sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella) or wood sorrel (Oxalis; see photo below), and orange peel or zest. Both of these last tend to be fairly bitter, especially whole peel, so proceed mindfully.

No tea at all

When you're flat out of Camellia sinensis, a few substitutes can put you back in the game.

Blackberry or raspberry (Rubus ssp) leaves, dried and crumbled, are a defensible green tea surrogate. I've found that the red winter leaves of our local native trailing blackberry (Rubus ursinus) work best, having a rosy flavour and less tannic bite, but I've had good luck with other species as well. Add amendments, and you have a worthwhile mix

Many people don't think of conifers when preparing food and drink, but at the risk of ripping off Euell Gibbons, many parts are useful.

Black spruce (Picea mariana) is a famous beverage stock, for its comparatively sweet bouquet. (Bearing in mind that all conifers taste like turpentine. They're an acquired taste, but once acquired, nothing else will do.)

The soft new pale-green tips of many others can also be tasty and nutritious. (Loads of Vitamin C, for starters.) Among my favourites are Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga) and Sitka spruce (P. sitchenensis). Hemlock (Tsuga) is another standby, but because it's fairly tannic, I prefer to use mix it with weaker herbs to give them a real-tea edge, rather than use it as an anchor.

Roasted rice is another good stop-gap. Just spread a handful of brown rice in the bottom of a dry skillet and toss it over medium heat until the grains become dark brown and smoky. Some may even pop like popcorn.

The toasted grains can be infused as-is, but make a much better beverage if ground first. A mortar and pestle is adequate for this. Grind only as needed to preserve freshness and potency. Useful amendments include milk, baking spices (cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg…), toasted fucus, or orange peel. Some like a few grains of salt in it.

Civilisation in a cup

Tea-mixing is a huge topic, the possible ingredients literally endless. These are some the most easily- and universally-accessible, and all of them support my practice on a regular basis.

Here's hoping they enrich yours as well.

Wood sorrel (Oxalis).

(Top photo courtesy of Kristina Walter and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

WW: Drum log

(A hemlock recently fell across the trail and was cleared by someone with a chainsaw. Seeing the sections on the shoulder I felt a distinct uptick in heart rate; my dad taught me to call this a drum log, for the simple reason that you make a drum from it. This is a good one, too: two feet in diameter, well-rotted within and perfectly sound without. You thin this shell out with a chisel and even it up, then lace rawhide heads across both ends, and Bob's your uncle.

The remains of a large yellow jacket nest that occupied the cavity were also strewn about.)

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Street Level Zen: Awakening

Insomnia (4316137831)

"Until the sleeper is aroused from his slumber, everything that transpires inside the dream makes perfect sense."

Joe Queenan

(Photo courtesy of Faisal Akram and Wikimedia Commons.)

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Pale Green Pants With Anatta Inside

When my brother and I were four and five, we were obsessed with the Dr. Suess poem What Was I Scared Of?, better known to adherents as "Pale Green Pants With Nobody Inside".

This gothic thriller, in which a disembodied pair of cabbage-coloured dungarees relentlessly creeps out Our Protagonist, is ripped from the pages of The Sneetches and Other Stories. (Not literally, unless you want serious grup trouble.) These days you can also read it online, though the text is accompanied by only two of the original Lovecraftian illustrations. Suffice it to say the experience pal… I mean, underwhelms, by comparison.

For reasons I can no longer fathom, over a period of months this story completely possessed our young imaginations. At one point we actually stuffed a pair of green denim jeans with wadded newspaper and stood it in the corner of our shared bedroom, to serve as icon to our prostrations. Then we would cower on the far side of the bed, peek out at it, and scream "Pale green pants!" before diving to the floor.

Needless to say, the book itself became liturgy, to be read aloud (yet again) by any adult we could talk into it. The most memorable kokyo was my grandmother, who, having intoned the poem's macabre refrain ("Pale green pants…. WITH NOBODY INSIDE!"), remarked, "I think the pale green pants are scary enough." Commentary worthy of Mumon.

These days I judiciously abstain from looking deeply into this whole adventure, for fear of stumbling on uncomfortable truths about religion in general. But having recently recovered these memories – or recovered from them – I plunged down the Internet rabbit hole to find out if others were similarly enthralled to this scrap of Seussgeist.

tldr: Yes. Yes they were.

Far from falling into obscurity, it appears PGP is so popular today you can buy just that, stripped of epistolary padding. What's more, its illustrations – o feat of nefarious genius – now glow in the dark. Which has led one believing dad to read it to his kids under a black light. Or he did, until he was picked up by Child Welfare.

Nor are my brother and I alone in making idols unto the Chartreuse One. Another fellow stuffed a pair of pale green pants (!) and stood it in the corner of his preschooler's bedroom (!!) because the kid was afraid of the dark (!!!). OK, that guy may really be evil, but another – professional artist, this one – taxidermed some chromatically-correct britches in a relaxed yet empty posture and gave them to his (25-year-old) sister for Christmas.

Upshot: ours is not the only family to find Deep If Somewhat Disturbing Significance in this tale of tailored terror.

Surprisingly, I've yet to encounter a single Net-cruising helicopter pilot wailing, "Never let your tender darlings read this horrifying book!!!!!", or claiming that it's a thinly-veiled Wiccan conspiracy to make our children worship Satan and wear ugly pants. Closest was one mom who recommended only middle school kids be permitted to read it. Right, lady. Best get a few years under your belt before you meet The Doctor.

Or maybe that's insensitive. Perhaps the spectre of unfashionable clothing run amok has special resonance for women. I'll withdraw the statement.

In the end, it may be that the scariest thing about Pale Green Pants is its power to inspire such vague obedience in all of us who, once as children, fell under its mildly-alarming spell. It's the single thread running through every account I've collected, starting with my own: we all fear the Pants, we all cheer the Pants, we all stand ready, like an army of cereal-munching Renfields, to serve the Lime-Hued Lord. How much more exciting all of this might be if He actually wanted anything.

But now I'm back on religion. And in all candour, there may be a touch of Zen in there somewhere; a creak of the Gateless Gate in those selfless slacks. Witness this flash of Suessian insight:

I said, "I do not fear those pants
With nobody inside them."
I said, and said, and said those words.
I said them. But I lied them.

Been there, lied that.

(Adapted from Growing Up Home, copyright RK Henderson. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

WW: Retrogrouch

(So I'm getting ready for a ride and I happen to catch my reflection in the mirror.


A "retrogrouch" is a biker who bemoans the passing of older fashions and technologies that may not have flashed "I've got more money than I know how to spend", but also didn't look silly or fail to function.

I count myself a proud resident of that battered dustbin. If you're familiar with biking, you can't miss the symptoms: crocheted gloves; military surplus trousers; fad-proof helmet; German-made spectacle-mounted rearview mirror not made for decades; and the unforgivable Piece of Resistance:
toe clips.

Because I'm neither a racer nor Italian. Nor, for that matter, a fool.

Oh yeah, the attitude? Also regulation.

But I had no idea how deep it ran until I caught that glimpse. A few minutes on the Google, and it's diagnosis confirmed.

Either that, or transmigration is a thing after all.)

(Photo of my brother Vincenzo Milano – who was Italian, and a racer, and is probably swanning the bleeding edge – courtesy of GallerieFotografiche.)

Thursday, 6 April 2017

An Education

Asleep on my lap in bed.
Three days ago I had the sad duty of accompanying my mother's cat out of this life. A cherished family member, he's figured many times in these pages, most recently only weeks ago.

Since I was a child I've seen many pets die. It's been educational, in some ways more than human deaths. There's so little drama when an animal goes, so little desperation. Our pets seem to die as they live: with acceptance, if a little apprehension. When they become too sick to sleep well, you see this come into their eyes.

He was just ten years old, but probably had liver cancer for some time before it became debilitating, and therefore noticeable to us. Suddenly he became lethargic, lost his appetite, and started holing up in dark places. Most alarming, he refused to purr, no matter how much affection was lavished upon him. By the time we could get to the vet, I was fairly sure what I was going to hear.

That same day, before our appointment, he began crying, loudly and urgently. Mostly from fear of abandonment, it seemed. Therefore I stayed close to him, except when he was in the lab. At last the attendant brought him into the examination room, laid him on an old pink towel, and left us alone for a few minutes. He lay on his side, his breathing shallow, a dull, half-open expression in his eyes, as if in meditation. I stroked his soft, thick fur and struggled to tell him what a good kitty he was, how much I loved him, and to thank him for taking care of Mom these last years.

At last the doctor came. I fondled the kitty's ears as she searched for a vein. Her calm competence at the end of a long workday helped keep me from crying, as long as I breathed mindfully and remained silent. I did my best to remain present, and not confuse the observer (me) with the events.

It came fast when it came, with so little disturbance the vet had to tell me he was gone. I stopped petting and stepped back from the table, and she swept him up in the towel. The last I saw of him was his head and ears, disappearing through the swinging door.

You and I will be lucky to go so softly.

One of the great strengths of Buddhism is its recognition of the universality of life. I've known too many animals to believe there is some qualitative difference between sentient beings. Cats are born; they live, to the best of their ability; and they die. Scientists warn us not to be anthropomorphic about this, but I warn them back not to ignore the evidence. If it's true we can't know what's going on in an animal's head, it's also true we can't know what's going on in each other's heads, either. Yet decent people don't assume that we can't fathom the feelings of a crying stranger, just because when we do it, we're sad, scared, or in pain.

That would be stupid. And as I've often said, nothing stupid is Buddhist.

Animals may love differently from humans, but they love. And anything that loves is worthy of love.

Also: life – all life – is brief and unrenewable. So love now.

Because sooner than later, we all pass through that swinging door.

We called him Sherlock, by the way. We'll never know what his real name was.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

WW: Daffodils

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Shut Up and Drink Your Potential

Conformal Cats (8074241727) I was born on the crest of a tsunami of late-century self-help that's had a geological effect on our ability to think clearly.

The good news is that the worst is past. That was the period from the 70s to the Millennium, when such messianic gimmicks as Positive Mental Attitude (authentic 70s tip: the capital letters signal dippy fad ahead) laid waste to Western civilisation. But thirty years stoned on trademarked morality have taken their toll, and we're still dealing with the fallout from our protracted no-substance abuse.

I'm often given to reflect on this in Zen company. Western Zen draws heavily on what the 80s called "bobos" (bourgeois bohemians), a fetish of whom is rejection of consumerism, jingoism, xenophobia, homogeneity, and other questionable Western values.

All of which is fine by me. However, they may also indulge in baby-trashing, as when they spurn logic, empiricism, individualism, and circumspection. As a Wikipedia editor writes on the Positive Mental Attitude talk page:
More pernicious is the prescribed PMA [Positive Mental Attitude] in business and public governance, with consequences from a philosophy of over-confidence bordering on self-delusion along with lack of due diligence and just plain common sense.
Given that Zen circles are wont to tolerate such traps, and that they're negatively correlated with sanity (and therefore Zen), I rate it good sangha to lay down a few definitions. So-armed, the sincere meditator can navigate his or her way out of the maze.

Essentially, three terms are in play:

Strength is a synonym for resilience. Meeting a setback, strong people redouble effort; find a way around it; transform it into something useful; or decide, after sober reflection, to abandon that goal in favour of another.

Optimism is a character trait typified by strength. Faced with failure, an optimist says, "We can fix this, or do without it, or succeed at something else instead. One way or another, we'll press on." To correct a trite aphorism, an optimist sees the glass as half potential.

(By contrast, the pessimist sees the glass as all useless. "We can't fix this, and if we could it would only break again, so let's just wait for death.")

Denial is a negative character trait often confused with optimism. Denialists reject truth that annoys or frightens them, or simply doesn't serve their interests. A hallmark of denial is misdirection, i.e., defining things according to one's wishes rather than empirical data.

Presented inconvenient facts, deniers resort to censorship, intimidation, name-calling, and appeals to dogma to enforce or restore silence. These actions may be marketed as "strength", but they are logically its opposite.

Most of the PMA Moonies I worked with in the school system back in the 80s and 90s were more properly chronic denialists, unwilling or unable to address the daunting work at hand. Tellingly, they also couldn't sort a pessimist ("Don't attempt to solve this; we'll only make things worse") from an optimist ("Let's flush our problems into the sunlight and slay the crap out of them!").

In Zen we endeavour to look deeply. Any prejudice that obstructs our vision we engage to clear away. So let's first recognise that attitude isn't an objective phenomenon. The elephant tramples positive and negative monk alike, and any insistence that a cheery outlook can change that is magical thinking. (Which is a therapy term for delusion.)

What attitude does influence is our choices. An optimist might devise a response to the charging elephant ("I know! I'll use my feet to get out of its way! Because I'm awesome like that!"), whereas a pessimist might declare the trampling inevitable, thereby guaranteeing it. But in both cases, reality is influenced by a course of action (practice), not an attitude (perception).

In Zen practice, the two perspectives manifest like this:

P: "Do not criticise the teacher, the sangha, or the Zen community. It causes people to lose faith in the practice."

O: "The Buddha and the Ancestors have provided the tools we need to correct the errors of the teacher, the sangha, and the Zen community."

P: "I'll never practice properly because there is no teacher or Zen centre nearby, and the experts all say you have to have those." (Or: "… because my teacher or Zen centre isn't doing it right." Or: "… because institutional Zen doesn't do it for me, and everybody says you can't practice alone.")

O: "I can order my practice to conform to circumstances, among which are my situation and my nature. Or I can take a page from the Ancestors and continue as-is, seeking enlightenment in things as they are."

P: "Zen is grown lazy, sensual, namby-pamby, narcissistic, Confucian, political, hippy, poser, intellectual, bourgeois, institutional, Western, something. You can't truly do it in this time and/or place. The only genuine Zen is in the past and/or Asia."

O: "Zen is the best shot I've got. Ima do it."

That last one has saved my butt more times than I can count.

(Photo of cat realising her potential courtesy of Steve Jurvetson and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

WW: The ocean giveth

(Latest fudo ring, collected from the beach after a storm.)

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Meditation Meditation

"You start out feeling, 'Oh Lord, I hate this' and then later on you feel 'Oh boy this is wonderful', and you're wrong both times."

Robert Pirsig

(Photo of Zen monk striking call to zazen courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

WW: Evening Steller's jay

(Cyanocitta stelleri)

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Fortune Cookie Zen

Some things were harder, because I was older. As a young man I hiked for days and slept on hard ground, but on the Acres it immediately became clear I needed a bed. My glasses too were insufficient to see the stars, or identify birds and trees at a distance. I felt like Burgess Meredith in the bank vault.

When I was ten I heard tiny bells in the lake when it rained, and thought my father was being difficult when he claimed to hear no such thing. But I haven't heard the bells in years.

And then there was the energy. At 23, teaching in a rural school that demanded three concurrent fulltime jobs of me, I skipped breakfast, lunch, and sleep. If I tried that now, it would kill me.

And, perhaps most debilitating: the passion. Ardent enthusiasm, dogged opposition, throbbing heartbreak. All were inherent in me, then. I live more economically now.

Old people like to claim they're slower to spark because they've gained wisdom. The truth is we're just tired.

Some things were easier. I didn't bore as quickly. Just one of those yearlong days would have broken me at 17; then, an unfilled hour was torture. I lived in the moment at that age, but as if it were forever. No evil undefied, no windmill uncharged. And no time lost to pondering whether windmills were the problem.

Impatience wastes a lot of time.

I'm too worn out for it now. If maturity has a vice, it is this: that it is lazy. Be still, and a multitude of problems solve themselves. But mindfully done, inaction can defeat adversaries action can't. Thus the great insight of age: that any vow can be kept for a hundred days. And those days are meaningless without it. On the Acres I was free of the addictions that ruled me outside: variety, change, external diversion.

Therefore, hermitry is for the young. And for the old. Because you must have both strength and insight. But as you're only ever issued one at a time, you must either manufacture insight from strength, or strength from insight.

Which is the biggest load of fortune-cookie crap when you're out there for days on end, with nothing for company but your own shortcomings.

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

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

WW: Monday, 20 March 2017, is Bodhisattva Day!

Vintage 80s 8-Bit Scottie Dogs Tacky Ugly Christmas Sweater It's that time of year again, friends. Time to get out your cardigan and represent for cool-headed compassion.

This Bodhisattva Day is more important than ever. (Somehow that keeps happening.)

So this Monday, 20 March 2017, let's see some wool out there, brothers and sisters. Click the link above for details.

And don't let the bastards make you mean.

(Photo [cropped for composition] of cool dude in weapons-grade cardigan courtesy of and Flickr.)

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Shovelling Peas Into Your Pants

In 1975, British artists Brian Eno (a musician) and Peter Schmidt (a painter) developed a formal system for smashing "creative block" (i.e., writer's block, except for everyone). They called it Oblique Strategies (deck: "Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas"), and it caused quite a stir in that decade's famously vivacious art scene.

The mechanism is deceptively simple: Eno and Schmidt wrote sentences on index cards and stacked them up. Then each time they smacked into a brick wall, or found themselves churning out the same old same-old, they turned over the top card and did whatever it said.

Most bear commands, such as:
State the problem in words as clearly as possible
Cut a vital connection
Humanise something free of error

 A few ask questions (hello, Zen!):
What were you really thinking about just now?
When is it for? Who is it for?
What mistakes did you make last time?

And many rival the best koanic poetry:
Remember those quiet evenings
Lost in useless territory
If eating peas improves virility, shovel them into your pants

For decades the card decks were only released in limited editions, expensive at the time and stupid now. To his credit, Eno recently released a production edition (some 150 prompts), but even that costs £40.00. While it would be a cool thing to own (I much prefer real, tactile tools to digital ones) we're not all hip enough even for those prices.

Fortunately, admirers have compiled OS prompts into online "strategy generators": web pages that randomly produce a meditation each time you reload them.

The two I used to write this post are:

So why am I writing about such artsy-fartsy stuff on a Zen site? Because "practice" is a synonym for "rut".

Yeah, I know: we Zenners love us our forms. We're inordinately – illogically – proud to do everything exactly as the Ancestors did.

And that's fine. But it does co-arise two dependencies:

1. It's crap. Nobody here and now is doing what they did in the mountains of China in the 13th century.


2. That's a good thing, because "consistent" is a synonym for "dead".

Therefore, as a guy who supervises his own practice, I find it worthwhile to shake things up from time to time. Examine my actions. Analyse my intent. (I was going to add "Vet my results", but since that word has recently become an instrument of torture, I'll "appraise" them instead.)

And – possibly the only trait we hold in common – this system is almost as effective for hermits as it is for rock stars. Fact is, even monasteries and Zen centres could stand the periodic administration of one such kyôsaku:

1. Everybody meditates in the zendo.
2. Someone (OK, a specially-ordained monk with a task-specific Sino-Japanese title) turns over the top card and reads it to the sangha
3. Everybody meditates again
4. The sangha discusses the prompt, with a view to implementing one or two of the practice adjustments it inspires.

(If this procedure is too Buddhic for your sangha, you could empower your teacher or non-profit board to impose the adjustments instead.)

Such a practice, faithfully applied, might go a long way toward busting the staleness and inertia that institutions breed by their very nature. It might also clear out some of the hierarchical congestion that generates and sustains abuses large and small.

Be advised that since OS was developed specifically for artists, some prompts may not be germane to enlightenment practice. (Or even Tito or Michael.) But I would caution fellow seekers to look deeply before discarding one.

It may be that "The tape is now the music" has a monastic application after all.

(Photo of a man performing water calligraphy in front of Beijing's Temple of Heaven courtesy of Immanuel Giel and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

WW: Waiting for spring

(So we can kill it.)

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Good Book: I See By My Outfit

By dint of random good fortune I just read I See By My Outfit: Cross-Country by Scooter—an Adventure, by Peter S. Beagle. This inexplicably obscure American masterpiece is basically Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance meets On the Road by way of Three Men in a Boat, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who appreciated those classics. (I commend it even harder to those who couldn't get through the first two. Beagle utterly lacks the pretence of Kerouac or Pirsig.)

In 1963, Peter and his childhood best friend, artist Phil Sigunick, set out from New York City for the Bay Area on motor scooters. Yeah, that's not a typo: scooters. Weird-looking Heinkel Tourists, from the days when former Nazi aircraft manufacturers were still doghoused by punitive restrictions.

If a cute little city-boy scooter doesn't strike you as the tool for the task, welcome to the adventure. (Past tense form; in the present we call it "catastrophe".)

But Phil and Pete are 24 and invincible, and the tale that ensues is simultaneously hilarious, insightful, and nostalgic. Beagle's tart, economical prose foreshadows the power that will soon make him a cultural icon. A few years later he will write The Last Unicorn (an event subtly hindsighted by his obsession with Tolkien, whose work he has to define for 1964 readers) and become a lion of literary fantasy. But that's even farther ahead than California at this point.

In fact, lots of things are ahead of him, but he's trying not to think about that. For the moment his life is a sequence of picnic grounds and diners; fleabag hotels, pawnshops, and borrowed guitars; breakdowns and rainstorms; eerily prescient cow town parochials; and more than one Cold War cop with little clue where his authority ends – or interest.

Along the way we get pithy, almost poetic descriptions of little towns along old Route 40, some of which have hardly changed in half a century. (I checked on Google Street View.) Pop-culture call-outs recreate the ecosystem of the period. Together with bookish literary references they feed the capital Internet scavenger hunt that signals a great book.

And through it all, the simple joy of being a brash young twentysomething, smart-mouthed and game, and somehow, in Beagle's case, aware of it. His breezy, funny patter is the sort of thing you can only produce – or get away with – at that age. The fact that he and Sigunick constantly remind each other to act like smart-mouthed twentysomethings – because that's their calculated schtick – is at once endearing, and a little surrealistic.

Outfit does suffer from an excess of voice in places, particularly in the repartee between the boys, which can become tedious when it pokes too long in the inside-jokey territory of childhood friends. Fortunately, Beagle's tight pacing limits these interludes to a fleeting irritation.

Some readers have also fingered the riders' casual misogyny, amounting mostly to failure to take women seriously. Beagle himself reportedly winces at those moments now, which as a fellow old man I can well imagine. But their tone is par for young stallions in 1963, and so they are a lesson in their own right. (Full disclosure: my friends and I talked similarly – out of female earshot – twenty years later.)

For the rest, my main complaint is incompleteness. The book badly needs an epilogue, maybe two – one in-period, the other retrospective. And for a book about an artist, it's frustratingly unillustrated. Why don't we have those gouaches Phil's always executing, in parking lots and beside bridges? (Both oversights may have been corrected in subsequent editions; I read the original, with the cover above.)

One thing is certain: I See By My Outfit deserves to be much more widely read. It's a beloved classic waiting fifty years and counting to happen. If you like road stories, or Americana, or social history, or just effervescent, youthful prose, this one's for you.

I nearly cried when it was over, just because there was no more to read.

Update, 7 March 2017: I've just stumbled over this 2012 Chronogram profile of Phil and his wife Judy, in which occurs the following line: "He is also a primary character in Peter S. Beagle’s classic cross-country travelogue, I See By My Outfit, for which he is creating a soon-to-be-published series of illustrations." I hope this means that my above speculation is correct, and that a recent re-issue of Outfit now includes adequate, dare we hope generous, graphic contributions by the book's co-protoganist. I mean, c'mon. Dude shares top billing in this trip, and he's a recognised artist. Isn't this the definition of a "no-brainer"?.

Heinkel Tourist 175, Bj. 1956 1a

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

WW: Story problem for cats

Q. You got a whole bed. From pillow to foot, where do you sleep?

A. On the freshly-laundered shirt.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Sikh Koan

I see by my news feed where Sikh temples in West Sacramento, Rio Linda, and Stockton, California, recently opened their doors to refugees in the face of a dam failure and downstream evacuation.

In accordance with the dictates of their faith, they invited any of the 188,000 displaced people, of all races and faiths, to show up at their gurdwaras (temples) for food and shelter.

Fact is, feeding drop-ins is a core Sikh precept. I myself have accepted their hospitality, enjoying fabulous Indian food in a Montréal gurdwara absolutely free of charge. They didn't even hit me up for a donation.

Their example renders me thoughtful.

We Zenners go out with an empty bowl, and try to fill it.

They go out with a full bowl, and try to empty it.

Wu Ya's commentary: 「そうですね」

(Photo of The Golden Temple [Harmandir Sahib] of Amritsar courtesy of Ian Sewall and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

WW: Scary times

(This 1909 magazine cover documents the dangers that modern society poses to our youth. As you can see, a rebellious young woman is getting up to all kinds of risky behaviour behind her parents' back, using advanced technology they don't understand.

Strange days indeed.)

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Good Song: Always Look on the Bright Side Of Life

Christian imagery notwithstanding, I maintain that this is the Zennest song ever written. I mean, c'mon, brothers and sisters: isn't it just a detailed exposition of Yun Men's "Every day is a good day"? (His one-line summation, I remind you, of our entire religion.)

Interesting to consider, now my MP3 library runs a week straight without repetition, that this was the first song I ever downloaded, all those years ago. It was a moment I desperately needed it – and coincidentally the beginning of my monastic practice – and it did not disappoint. I'm hoping it will work again now, for me and for all my fellow seekers.

Because these times aren't just dark, they're literally psychopathic. Crucifixion is an excellent metaphor for the way many decent, rational folks feel today, when the most spiteful of our number are seizing control of erstwhile stable nations and threatening to solve our little hand grenade problem by pulling the pin out.

At such times, it's nice to have a concise catalogue of relevant koans to ponder, to concentrate the mind and stimulate insight.

So here it is. Use it in good health, o sangha of mine.

And just remember that the last laugh is on you.

(Incidentally, a .wav file of this song is available at the bottom of this web page. Some of us've got to live as well, you know.)

The lyrics approximate:

by Eric Idle

Some things in life are bad
They can really make you mad
Other things just make you swear and curse
When you're chewing on life's gristle
Don't grumble, give a whistle
And this'll help things turn out for the best

And always look on the bright side of life
Always look on the bright side of life
If life seems jolly rotten
There's something you've forgotten
And that's to laugh and smile and dance and sing
When you're feeling in the dumps
Don't be silly chumps
Just purse your lips and whistle, that's the thing

And always look on the bright side of life
Always look on the bright side of life
For life is quite absurd
And death's the final word
You must always face the curtain with a bow
Forget about your sin, give the audience a grin
Enjoy it; it's your last chance anyhow

So always look on the bright side of death
Just before you draw your terminal breath
Life's a piece of shit
When you look at it
Life's a laugh and death's a joke, it's true
You'll see it's all a show
Keep 'em laughing as you go
Just remember that the last laugh is on you

And always look on the bright side of life
Always look on the right side of life

Always look on the bright side of life
Always look on the bright side of life

(Worse things happen at sea, you know)

Always look on the bright side of life...

I mean, what've you got to lose?
You know, "you come from nothing, you're going back to nothing..."
What've you lost?

Wednesday, 15 February 2017


Thursday, 9 February 2017

Hermitcraft: Solitary Sesshin, Pt. 3: Food

(A sesshin schedule template is available in Part I. For general tips on sesshin planning, see Part II.)

For an activity that's all about putting sensual stimulus in context, sesshin is remarkably dependent on food. Right food equals good sesshin; the opposite can significantly compromise it.

I've had best luck when sesshin meals conform to three principles:

1. Simplicity.

When preparing dishes from scratch, this is holy writ; you just don't have time for feats of gastronomic splendour. But even with pre-cooked food, extravagance derails the mind of sesshin. Simple, straightforward meals work best.

On the other hand, spending a day looking deeply tends to lead you to taste deeply, too. You'll find that simple food becomes remarkably delicious during sesshin.

2. Diversity

But you do want a spectrum of flavours and textures. This supports the sesshin theme of discovery and gives freshly-honed senses something to chew on. (So to speak.) My favourite sesshin dishes (see "Lunch", below) fill this requirement nicely, as you can throw almost anything into them.

3. Mindful restraint

This means not eating more, or more often, than you need. In a culture that bombasts constantly about more! and choice! and luxury!, it can be easy to forget that true enjoyment comes from the opposite: mindful consumption of just-enough. So when you reach that point, stop. If it later turns out you didn't fuel up quite enough to stave off obstructive suffering, issue yourself a snack.

Better yet, if you consistently fall in a hole at a given point in the day, schedule tea meditation there next time. (This is were recordkeeping shows its stuff.) Sit comfortably in a chosen location and enjoy a good cup of tea while meditating for twenty minutes or so. This allows you to maintain the forms; gain a meditation period; and care for yourself and your practice – for a Zen grand slam.

Application of these principles looks like this:

First thing in the morning I make pot of good green – traditional, simpler than black, compatible with meals – for use all day, reheating as necessary. Since it's astringent (makes you thirsty), I serve water at meals as well.

Breakfast is a bowl of grain; fresh fruit; tea; and water.

I like a hot main course, typically brown rice with a blork of soy sauce and a little black pepper. That's it; no butter, vegetables, or other amendments. Porridge or other hot cereal are also good.

Lunch (see photo above) can be any leftover on hand; if none, then Bassho bowl or noodles. The first is a bowlful of brown rice with a protein source (beans, nuts, cheese, seaweed, cooked egg, leftover meat) and a vegetable. The second is the same again, but with ramen instead of rice. Because the soup is less consistent, I toss in more vegetables. I also use half or less of the very salty flavour packet.

For a side dish I prepare a flavour plate, an ancient Zen tradition designed to provide a sensory work-out. Traditionally it contains five flavours: sweet, tart, salty, bitter, and savoury. (Apparently the Ancestors didn't do spicy.) I don't obsess over these categories; just lay out a variety of colours, flavours, and textures. (This is one place where a good shelf of pickles pays off.)

And of course, tea and water.

Dinner is the same as lunch, except with ramen if I had rice before or vice-versa, and fruit on the side instead of the flavour plate.

Formal tea is my last meal of the day, taken with a snack during study period.

I don't observe oryoki at-table; when eating on the ground, I use my outdoor oryoki. If you find oryoki useful at-table, or you prefer to eat on the cushion, monastery-style, work up a solitary ceremony that fills your needs. Make sure to document it in detail. Not only does that allow you to share it with others, you'll forget many of the forms between sesshins and need a refresher course yourself.

Final hint: don't overthink things. Your food doesn't have to be Japanese or vegan or "Zen" or whatever. Just enjoy it. Experience it in depth, both preparing and eating. Be aware of every step and condition that brings food to your bowl, and the debt that implies.

Done properly, the ritual of eating will join meditation and work to become the third pillar of sesshin.

Congratulations; you're working the feed to feed the work.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

WW: Warbler

(Orange-crowned; female; Vermivora celata.)

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Hermitcraft: Solitary Sesshin, Pt. 2: Planning

(For an overview of solitary sesshin, see Part I. For meal planning tips, see Part III.)

Planning is the difference between a sustaining sesshin and wasted time. Plan well, and you'll "touch the mind". Don't plan, and you'll touch frustration.

It's a good idea to start a week in advance. Though slapping a sesshin together the night before becomes doable after you've got a few under your belt, in all cases a longer runway makes for better practice.

Take that lead week to:

• Plan your menu (specific tips here).
• Procure supplies.
• Prepare time-consuming dishes in advance.
• Print out Net-sourced study materials; multiple copies of your sesshin schedule; and your meal plan. This allows you to avoid computers and other soma-screens on show day, which is a major prop to concentration and mindfulness.

On Sesshin Eve:

• Prep your tea pot so all you have to do next morning is heat and pour water.
• Ready zafu and zabuton, and any other paraphernalia such as timer, bell, tuque, etc, in the zendo (meditation room or spot).
• Post your schedule around the house. (Zendo, bathroom, kitchen, garden, hall, work room…)
• Set up incense or scented candles*, if used.
• Straighten up and vacuum.
• Turn off your phone. (Completely. No vibrating. Lock it in a drawer.)

*Incense is useful to set up mindful, contemplative space, even if you rarely use it other times. Scented candles are a Roman Catholic approach some may prefer. As ever, spend money on the good stuff.

Preliminary thoughts:

• Prioritise sitting. There's a tendency to fudge on the meditation; to cut it down with too many work or study periods. But meditation is what sesshin is all about, and if you stiff yourself, you may not realise the benefits you seek. A half-hearted sesshin can even exacerbate unhappy states. When in doubt, err on the side of sitting.

• Morning meditation always sucks. You're sleepy, grumpy, lonely; the place is dark and cold; you have no clue why you thought this was a good idea. (This is just as true in the monastery. Aloneness is not the dependence of this co-arising.) But those morning blocks lay the foundation for the whole day. Sit them faithfully, regardless of mood.

• Work and study are also important. Have a minimum of one hour-long period for each. (Hygiene breaks and after-meal clean-ups don't count.)

• Recordkeeping is an ancient part of Zen practice, and it's important to log your own sesshins: what worked, what didn't work, any noteworthy divergences from the printed schedule, stuff to do or not to do next time. Don't forget to note significant moments, even if they're not relevant to future efforts. "Brilliant sunrise." "Fabulous sit after dinner." "Eggs have hatched in the nest by the garage."

• During sesshin, write notes on paper. If your sesshin log is on computer, transfer the comments to it next day.

• Keep old schedules and menus on file, whether hard or digital. (Ideally both.) This makes planning future sesshins a lot easier and serves as additional historical documentation.

• I find a formal nap productive. Always schedule the nap immediately after a sit. Sometime before lunch generally works best for me. You'll need a 10-minute passing period afterward to get dressed and wake up. Don't schedule a sit immediately after a nap; do something else between, even for 20 minutes.

• Work is generally best when it's simple and physical. (Cleaning up your actual desk: good. Cleaning up the desktop on your computer: bad.) Avoid work that requires communication, such as correspondence.

• Though it may appear physically undemanding, sesshin is hard on the body; by bedtime you'll be racked. You'll have better luck (and better meditation) if you schedule shorter sits than normal. My daily sits are forty to sixty minutes, but I limit them to thirty during sesshin.

• Back-to-back sits should be separated by ten minutes of mindful, low-effort movement, such as kinhin (walking meditation), yoga, tai chi, or stretching exercises. The point is to loosen up those joints without scattering your mind or stirring up your endocrine system.

• Be comfortable. Have a good cushion or chair, regulate light and temperature, deal effectively with hunger, fatigue, and thirst, so they don't disrupt the task at hand. Machismo and indiscipline are manifestations of the same delusion.

• The best study texts for sesshin are formal and classical. Commentary on the sutras or koans is perfect. Avoid stuff about Zen politics ("The Zen response to teacher misconduct") or worldly application ("Practice with pets"), unless they address challenges that prompted the sesshin. "Meditations" – lists of unanswered questions on a given theme, such as forgiveness or acceptance – are also good.

• A major difference between solitary and group sesshin is the need for sound. When you sit with others, there's a conversation going on, whether you hear it or not. Alone, the silence can become oppressive. To remedy this I listen to a podcasted teisho during work period (same rules as written study), and supportive music – chanting, singing bowls, shakuhachi, whatever works – while preparing a meal. Figure out what works best for you.

• End the sesshin on a sit, after evening hygiene and bedtime tasks. Go straight to bed afterward; if you futz around between, you may experience bad sleep or depression next day.

• Finally, don't give up. A difficult day often leads to a good evening. And a hard sesshin may lead to a good next day. You've lit a trash fire inside your skull; whatever happens next is not going to be uncomplicated.

But I've consistently found that a good sesshin, well-planned and carried off, is a rebirth. Even if you're a few days in labour.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

WW: Proactive solution

(So I'm having trouble with the cat. She keeps sitting – even sleeping – on my computer when I'm not there, and in the process ringing in all nature of arcane command codes that take me forever to identify and un-command.

I try many different techniques to keep her off: picket systems designed to dissuade her from climbing on the keyboard, without however smothering or turning off the computer. Nothing is very elegant. Nothing is user-friendly.

Finally a thought occurs: what if the cat had something to sleep on that she likes even more than my computer? Something just as warm, but softer. Maybe in a more attractive napping place.

And that's what you're looking at. An electric hot pad, such as for sore backs, with a towel on top, on an easy chair.

Problem solved.)

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Hermitcraft: Solitary Sesshin, Pt. 1: Schedule

(For general tips on sesshin planning, see Part II. For meal planning, see Part III.)

I sat sesshin last Friday, and as one of my work tasks I reviewed the records of all the solitary sesshins I've sat since the first one, fifteen years ago.

Because I usually open that file only to add information, I hadn't read most of those entries since they were made. It was a bittersweet experience, mostly uplifting memories of the sesshins I've sat in various places and conditions, along with reminders of the difficulties that prompted them.

The point of this was to work up a list of step-by-step instructions for sesshin planning. Sure enough, I encountered a few mistakes that I'd made (and recorded) over and over, then forgotten in the interim. And also the odd success, similarly overlooked and unreplicated .

Sesshin, or meditation retreat, is the central ritual of Zen practice. The word, from Sino-Japanese, translates variously as "uniting the mind", "receiving the mind", "touching the heart", and "seeking the essence". But at ground level it means meditating for one or more straight days.

A more thorough description is: juxtaposing seated meditation with other experiences in a controlled environment for a defined period of time.

Of course we strive for a meditative state every day, yea though we're embedded in the Red Dust World (i.e., the caterwaul of humanity). But even monastery monks don't normally spend whole days in meditation, or maintain a state of formal meditation during chores.

Thus sesshin, where we renew our vows and burn off the crap that accrues in the corners of our minds in the course of our worldly lives. It can also reset one's head after a disequilibriating experience, or perform course corrections in one's monastic practice.

When I became a hermit monk in 2002, I often read about sesshin in my studies. I had no Zen centre near, but with that "beginner mind" we Zenners go on about, I figured what the hell, I'd just do one myself.

Accordingly I Googled "sesshin" and "schedule", downloaded examples from Zen centres around the world, and used them to work up a schedule of my own. I still use this template, adapted as necessary.

A few years later, when I was able to join a Zen centre, I was gratified to see that my bespoke sesshins were substantially the same as theirs.

It occurs to me that others might benefit from my experience in this matter, and also that some readers may not even realise that you can sit sesshin alone. (A few cœnobites have actually told me straight-up that it's impossible, that sesshin is necessarily a herd activity. For the record, not only are they wrong – and entirely lacking in experience – solitary sesshins can be more effective than group ones on several levels.)

Therefore I'm posting a series of how-to's on the subject, starting with this one. When it's finished, beginners who want to start a sesshin practice of their own will be able to build on my decade and a half of trail and error.

To kick it off, I'm sharing my schedule template below. This one is for a work sesshin, wherein accomplishing a specified task is given equal importance to zazen. I also sit meditation-intensive sesshins; just re-allot some work time to sitting.

You'll also detect unaccounted minutes in some blocks. That's because most activities require a 5- (or 10-) minute passing period. Zazen-to-kinhin is a salient exception, because you don't usually have to move very far, change clothes, or wash up between.

Anyway, this week I'll just leave you here. Next time I'll elaborate on the ins and outs of scheduled activities, and offer some pointers on efficient and effective solitary practice.

My sesshin schedule template (to modify to your own ends):

Stillness Sesshin, 20 February 2017
0600–0620  dress, light rushlight, feed animals
0620–0650  zazen
0650–0710  make pot of tea; kinhin
0710–0740  zazen
0740–0820  breakfast and clean-up
0825–0925  brush teeth; first work period
0930–1000  zazen
1000–1010  kinhin
1010–1040  zazen
1050–1130  walk dog
1135–1200  prepare lunch
1200–1245  lunch and clean up
1250–1350  bathe; shave head
1355–1425  zazen
1430–1500  nap; set timer
1505–1535  zazen
1540–1640  work period
1645–1705  prep for dinner
1705–1750  dinner and clean-up
1750–1850  work
1855–1920  zazen
1920–1940  kinhin
1945–2015  zazen
2020–2115  tea and study
2120–2125  brush teeth
2130–2200  zazen

Then sleep.
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