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, is fascinated by everything, 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 a several years past. (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 on 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.)

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

WW: Marine railway

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Good Song, Good Movie: Sabhyata and Sita Sings the Blues

Here's a neat convergence of genius, for a little customary Rusty Ring summer fun.

First off you've got Sabhyata, by Indian/Algerian group Karmix. That all by itself is awesome, but a YouTube artist had the good sense to double down on its awesomeness by creating this compelling video for it, by sampling animation from Sita Sings the Blues.

Which is undangerously legal, because that excellent film is public domain, by unambiguous declaration of Nina Paley, its author. (If you missed the whole ridiculous attempt at corporate piracy against Paley, read about it here.)

And that move begat an opening for the luminous work embedded here. So screw you, rights-scalpers.

And if you haven’t seen it yet, check out Sita as well. It's a really entertaining riff on a tale from Hindu scripture; the hip, wisecracking shadow puppets alone are worth the price of admission.

Roger Ebert loved it. So do I. Free o' charge and at full resolution, right here.

Watch both at full screen on your computer, bare minimum. Television is even better. Good speakers will also greatly enhance the experience.

Happy July to all, from all of us here at Rusty Ring.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

WW: Red rock crab

(Cancer productus)

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Critical Mass


The difference between one and zero is the whole world.

(Photo courtesy of Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders, NASA, and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

WW: Leather starfish

(Dermasterias imbricata)

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 a 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.)
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