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 Yunmen'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 a 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.)