Thursday, 18 October 2018

The Mountain Wins Again

Fan Kuan-Sitting Alone by a Stream I recently happened upon an interesting moment in Season 6, Episode 4, of Gimlet Media's Startup podcast. (Transcript here; download podcast from iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.)

At issue is Jia Ruhan, a Chinese opera singer groomed to become her country's Céline Dion, with hopes she would put it on the international pop music map. Things didn't work out – such outcomes are hard to plan – and now she lives in self-imposed seclusion, having heeded a spiritual call.

At one point the interviewer asks:

"So as a kid, at first you wanted to be a dancer and then a musical star. Then the government has this goal to make you like a global star. What do you want to be now?"

To which Jia replies:

"I want to be a hermit. Truly, exactly, I really want to be a hermit."

A statement of which the young American reporter appears entirely to miss the import. Her voice takes a quizzical tone, as if Jia were joking. The interviewer then exposits:

"After Ruhan left the [pop music] project, she went through some big life changes. She made another album on her own, but after that, she realized she was burnt out and needed a break. She got really into Buddhism and silent meditation. Our two-hour phone call was the longest conversation she’d had in six months. So the state-backed pop star who was supposed to help China become cool… for now, she wants to be a hermit."

That last line is delivered with an ironic inflection, as if Jia had silently added "... or whatever."

I like this podcast. And nobody can know everything. But in this case, the production team dropped the ball. Jia Ruhan comes from a nation with a millennia-old continuing tradition of literal hermits: individuals who retreat to the Zhongnan Mountains to practice eremitical monasticism.

So she wasn't being cute when she referred to herself as a hermit. In point of fact, she aspires, or at least wishes, to be a hermit nun: a monastic practicing alone, under her own rule, almost certainly in the Zhongnans.

I had to smile at the reporter's reaction. It's a true cross-cultural miscue, turning on the fact that Anglophones currently use the word "hermit" pejoratively. ("Don't be such a hermit! Come out and talk to our guests!") In fact, we've used the term sardonically for so long that many of us can no longer define it; for most, it's become a synonym for recluse.

Which doesn't actually bother me. But I do get a little frosted when the Western Zen establishment calls hermits fraudulent and heretical – when not flat-out calling us extinct. Zenners should know better. Or hey, maybe just practice their religion.

Interested parties may wish to consult Assignment Asia: A modern-day hermit in China. It may be a bit precious, but that's to be expected from a government production.

It does seem that if a Communist dictatorship can accept, and even boast, the ur-monks in its midst, it's not too much to ask the rakusu set to back down a peg.

Anyway, I nodded while listening to Jia Ruhan talk about her ambitions. To say I totally get it would be an understatement.

Peaceful path, sister.

(Panel from Fan Kuan's Travellers Among Mountains and Streams courtesy of the National Palace Museum, Taibei, and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

WW: Six-legged seastar

(This is good old Henricia leviuscula, the blood star, but with an experimental enhancement. Happens sometimes. Reminds you how elementary the genetic situation is in this ancient phylum.)

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Good Poem: Deteriorata

Back in the 70s, a spoken-word performance of Desiderata became a sensation in North America. Soon everyone from Pierre Trudeau to Mr. Spock was quoting it.

By the 80s, Max Ehrmann's poem had become a mainstay of the New Age movement, which grew out of the less-profitable hippy movement, which also begat the contemporary Western Zen establishment.

Let's be clear: Desiderata contains strong statements of solid (if unintentional) Zen value. I like it. But when you start to see it framed in school administrators' offices, you've officially reached peak schlock.

Which is why when I heard National Lampoon's response I immediately knew I'd found a personal anthem. The fact that it follows the exact tone and metre of Les Crane's rather Uppish With People 1971 hit record only amplifies the exponential awesomeness.

The video above is a bit of a throwaway, but hey, it was either that or my 40-year-old Dr. Demento mix tape. I recommend you play the audio and ignore the visuals.

You don't have to get into a lotus position as well, but it couldn't hurt.

And remember, brothers and sisters: it could only be worse in Milwaukee.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

WW: Day's end

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Koan: The Mother and the Mustard Seed

Black mustard seeds (closeup) A mother's only child died, and the woman, insane with grief, ran about clutching the dead baby, begging doctors to cure it. Finally the townspeople got it away from her, and in anguish she entreated the last physician for a medicine to take away the pain that wholly possessed her.

"What you ask I cannot give," he said. "But there is a great magician in town. His name is Gautama. If anyone can help you, he can."

At the pavilion where the Buddha was teaching, his guards, believing the woman deranged, blocked her entry. But the Buddha, seeing, bade her pass.

The woman fell to her knees and cried, "Lord Buddha, I beg you to take away my suffering with your powerful magic!"

The Buddha looked on the woman with great compassion. "For this spell," he said, "I require a mustard seed from a household that has never known grief."

With renewed purpose the woman rushed out. She knocked on door after door, but everyone, in every house, grieved something.

At last, despairing, she returned to the great hall.

"Yo, Gautama!" she shouted. "I got your mustard seed, RIGHT HEAH!!!"

Wu Ya's commentary: "Skilful sister bags snipe."

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Mustard seed photo courtesy of Sanjay Acharya and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

WW: Everybody loves the zafu

(First the cat, now the dog.)

Thursday, 27 September 2018


I walked right past a baby robin on the barn floor; the little guy remained still and silent, terrified of me. When I noticed him there I walked wide around, to avoid alarming him further.

It's true that monkeys are unpredictable, and there are no rules all of us respect. One may feed you, the next watch you starve without a qualm, the next beat you to death from sheer mindless compulsion, and leave your uneaten carcass on the ground.

I guess the birds are right: monkeys are like that.

I'm just about the biggest predator in the woods. Some black bears are bigger, cougars about equal, coyotes rather smaller. All of which they can read in my poop, as well as my diet, which tells them what kind of defences I'm packing.

Only Bigfoot is notably larger, but he's even more reluctant to approach people than the coyotes, whom we outweigh but seldom outnumber. Cougars and bears are less intimidated, but even they tend to go the long way 'round us – we of the tiny, pathetic, recessed eye teeth – when our paths cross. They seemingly never set out to hunt us, even where we're as numerous and stupid as deer.

Everything in the forest, large and small, fears the dreaded Mediumfoot. Somewhere in there is a deep koan.

(Adapted from my ango log. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

WW: The Incredible Journey

("You guys get out of my hair! Go outside!"
And our story begins.)

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Street Level Zen: Things As They Are

"Do you realize it's three o'clock in the morning, and my daughter... Jesus Christ, you're naked! I thought you said you were decent!"

"I am decent. I also happen to be naked."

Neil Simon, The Goodbye Girl

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

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

WW: September afternoon

Thursday, 13 September 2018

The Jutting Jaw

The Angry Boy Some years ago I heard a story from the Bhagavad-Gita, in which a great warrior is called to battle, only to find himself facing his mother, his father, his best friend, his kindergarten teacher… in fact, everyone he ever knew.

It's one of the most fundamental koans in scripture, drilling into the heart of striving, dependent co-arising, enlightenment practice, and just plain existence.

But today I'm not contemplating the teaching itself. What's rendered me thoughtful for the moment is the reaction I often get when I share it with others:

"So what do you suggest we do, Mr. Sensitive Zen Hippie Guy?"

Such interlocutors are offended I've brought up the fact that everything we have was taken from someone else, and therefore living itself entails constant karmic consequences. Their reflexive response is to shut down discussion of this troubling, muddling scientific principle, before it jeopardises comfortable assumptions.

I often want to respond, "Well, Mr. Jutting Jaw, I've already got my hands full just dealing with my own karma. Suppose you get off your lazy arse and find your own answers."

And I sometimes do.

Because truth be told, jaws jut everywhere. In fact, the entire conservative impulse is nothing but jut. (I'm not just talking about political conservatism, although that is nothing but hammer-headed denial repackaged as ideology. But Conservatives aren't the only conservatives. We all angrily protect our sloth and cowardice.)

The Jutting Jaw has no truck with challenges. It has no time for uncontrolled variables or human complexity, which is why it hasn't either any relationship with logic, justice, or ethics.

The Jutting Jaw doesn't wait for facts or elaboration. Its motto is, "Bitch first, and if anybody asks questions, bitch louder."

It is a convicted advocate of Lynch's Law.

The Jutting Jaw is in you, and it's in me. It flounces out whenever I hear something I don't like, stomps in every time I'm accused of insufficiency or insensitivity or an ulterior motive I don't actually have. (And sometimes one I do.)

The Jutting Jaw generally signals itself with a distinct nervous tic: it begins most sentences with "Well" or "So". "Well, if that's the way you feel about it...", "Well, then, why don't you just...", "So, I guess you'd rather...". When you hear that, lay a quick wager. 'Cos jaws gonna jut.

It's the sarcasm that tells you your opponent isn't actually talking to you, or that you're not talking to her, or both. Because the argument – such as it is – addresses a point that hasn't been made.

So you're arguing with someone who's not there.

Which'll get you arrested on any street corner.

Insofar as this chip-on-the-shoulder brittleness opposes clear-seeing – and for that matter reason, morality, and sanity – I move we each weave dejutification into our practice. Let's engage to make reasoned, nonreactionary arguments, when we make any at all. Further, let us take a precept not to put words in others' mouths.

It's unsanitary.

(Photo of Gustav Vigeland's Sinnataggen courtesy of Lisabeth Wasp and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

WW: Kitty fudo

(This is a funerary fudo I made for a cat friend of mine. [The cord is white, red, and black, the three bardos of death.] She was buried here in the woods a few months ago.)

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Extraterrestrial Snail

The large round shells of moon snails (Polinices lewisii) are one of the more memorable features of a walk on North Coast tidelands. Their sheer size – some reach softball proportions – is remarkable, in a region otherwise bereft of large gastropods. But the casual tourist may miss the fact that the animal itself was even two or three times larger than that.

In echo of their spacey name, moon snails are great sci-fi doomsday machines, implacably bulldozing the mud in quest of anything that can't run. Just under the surface, the animal expands to dinner plate size, squishing and undulating through the substrate, leaving just a quarter-sized bit of shell visible from above.

All shellfish it encounters are engulfed in that big gluey mantle, after which the snail's abrasive tongue rasps… rasps… rasps… until it's drilled a neat hole in the victim's shell. The attacker then pumps it full of digestive juices, which dissolve the flesh. Finally, it sucks the slurry back out and moves on, leaving behind a half-digested husk.

Thus, the presence of Polinices can be readily divined, not just by the vacated shells of past generations, but also the many clam and cockle shells littering the beach, each with a distinctive round hole near the hinge, as if pierced by a Native pump drill. Rubbery grey sand collars – its equally extraterrestrial egg cases – are another clue.

When I was a kid, oystermen and clam diggers threw moon snails up the bank to stop them damaging their beds. The law is not so dumb as to allow that now, but I used to eat this mega-escargot regularly before a decade or so, when that too became illegal. I'm not sure why; they're certainly not endangered, and the only people I ever knew who gathered them as food were me and a handful of elderly tribal members.

Any road, the only creatures that benefit materially from these Dr. Who villains today are the similarly B-movie giant black-eyed hermit crabs (Pagurus armata) that inhabit their empty shells.

Those guys are, if anything, even more memorable.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

WW: European chestnuts

(Castanea sativa)

Thursday, 30 August 2018

The Ride

TulipStair QueensHouse Greenwich Down the banister
The wild schoolboy I was slides
To enlightenment

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

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

WW: Policeman's helmet

(Impatiens glandulifera. A shade-loving shoreline invasive from the Himalayas, imported to the North Coast as a garden flower, it remains nevertheless undeniably beautiful.)

Thursday, 23 August 2018

Into the Abyss

Abstract vortex 277213

"Lion’s Roar Has Killed Buddhism", screams a recent headline on Brad Warner's Hardcore Zen blog.

Um… そうですね。

Don't get me wrong; I've called down the Western Buddhist press many times here on my own public confessional. Most of what passes for our media is pat, predictable, and embarrassingly bourgeois. Still, such a declaration, as sensational and click-baity as it seems, must be at least a little over the top, eh?

As it happens, not so much.

My brother was reacting to The New Wave of Buddhist Psychedelics, a feature article on the Lion's Roar website that celebrates mind-disabling chemicals as enlightenment practice aids. Its very title asserts the existence of something called "Buddhist psychedelics", magical substances evidently developed by arhat pharmacologists to "get you over".

This is only the latest manifestation of a disturbing foible of Western Buddhism. Back in the 1960s, the hippies, justifiably disenchanted with their childhood religions, went trolling for alternatives. As they imported barely-understood Eastern philosophies from overseas, they were careful to "upgrade" them with their own values, incongruity be damned. Among these were environmental awareness, pacifism, New Age nutrition, gender equality, and sensuality, to name just five.

None of these are strictly-speaking Buddhic, though a strong sutric case could be made for the first two. The next two have to be lawyered up before they slide in, but perhaps the Buddha was suggesting them obliquely, while openly advocating the opposite.

Sly old Gautama. (Ahem.)

But that last one is out. Full stop.

The Baby Boomers were and are famously devoted to chasing sensations. "This I have seen; this I have felt." They wished themselves explorers, pioneers, eagerly barging in where angels fear to tread. (Ed. note: angels actually tread everywhere. They just don't loiter in pointless places.)

Their initial attraction to Zen was the far-out trips they hoped to experience while meditating. Those monks sitting all weird, not moving; they must see stuff, man. Go somewhere, baby.

The fact that zazen is emphatically the opposite of that is one of those contradictions many chose not to acknowledge.

But their favourite terra incognita – famously, infamously – was drugs. Thus the hippies augmented our culture's twin holocausts of tobacco and alcohol with a whole freezerful of new philtres, guaranteed to make you stupid or give us the rest of your money.

When I became a monk, pot was still viewed as a sacramental herb by a significant minority of the western sangha. If anything it's grown in esteem since, though without a crumb of justification; the Buddha was categorical, and common sense concurs, that anything that interferes with the free and natural function of a healthy mind obstructs enlightenment. (Not to be confused with substances taken to bring a malfunctioning brain back to parameter, otherwise known as medication.)

Anyone who's ever known a drug user knows they never make anyone a better person. We don't need to run this experiment an umpteenth time. We can simply validate the Buddha's foundational teaching on the matter, cross it off the list, and continue our authentic practice.

So that was annoying. But what's happening now – retro-chic promotion of acid trip as kensho – threatens to set the cause of ending suffering back fifty years.

Make that another fifty years.

Because it's not just self-imagined "psychonauts" at risk here; if it were, a hermit could just shrug and repeat what he always says to guru-worshipers, religious tourists, nihonophiles, and other posers he meets on the Buddha Way: "It's your karma, dude."

But Zen is important. Critical, in fact. It literally saved my life, and there are many, many others out there who are still desperately seeking it. To plough up their path, to mislead and reroute them into dead-end practices (or worse) is unconditionally the deadliest sin in Buddhism.

Tellingly, there is no precept against obscurantism. (Religion, yo.) But if you want another ten-thousand rides on this merry-go-round, just you keep it up, dharma pusher.

The only skilful response to "Buddhist psychedelics" is the same one we must give anyone suppressing the liberating truth that the Path is in-born, a universal birthright bundled free in every sentient mind, each of which comes into this life pre-programmed and fine-tuned for its single purpose: awakening.

Walking the Path requires no approval or assistance from anyone or anything. The power is inside, and nothing that isn't, is it.

Any other message – any other message – is delusory.

So on the off chance I've been vague about my thoughts on this issue, I'm going to plant my flag squarely and firmly in the open, where even stoned brothers and sisters can't fail to see it:

–––> The teaching that drugs are useful in Buddhist practice is evil.

It isn't a divergent model, a denominational difference, an alternate reading of the sutras, a newly-revealed insight, a simple disagreement among sangha of good faith, a questionable form grandfathered in by centuries of practice, or an inconsistency due to our human nature.

It's the deliberate generation of makyō, with attendant multiplication of suffering and delusion.

It makes the world a colder, more cynical, less compassionate place.

To put it succinctly: these people have joined the other side.

So there ya go, Lion. Looks like you have in fact found one thing psychedelics can accomplish. They can move a freakin' hermit to excommunicate you.

Have you any idea how far from reason you have to fall to achieve that?

Farther, I suspect, than an undrugged mind can take you.

See you on the road, brothers and sisters.

And don't eat the brown acid.

(Graphic courtesy of Hamed Khamees and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

WW: Jackknife clam

(I found this shell on the lower tidelands during a recent very low tide. It came from a jackknife clam [Solen sicarius], close relative of the more familiar razor clam [Silqua patula] of the outer beach.

Jackknives are a great deal smaller and rarer than their larger, edible cousins, and of course, they live in a very different habitat. While similar bivalves are used as fishbait and even food in other parts of the world, I'm not aware of any human use for this species.

It's just cool.)

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Starfish Update, August 2018

Last week I trolled a few beaches in Whatcom County with two droogies from college. We were taking advantage of passably low tides and the bright August weather to reconnect with some of our favourite haunts.

The first was predictably depressing: where the rocks had been encrusted with brightly-coloured sea stars last I saw it – 33 years ago – they now boasted not a one.

So when we arrived at the second, early next morning, expectations were low. But what was our delight to find, first one… then several… and finally hordes of Pisaster ochraceus, the purple shore star.

Signature starfish of the North Pacific, these are the first Pisaster I've seen in years. We all cheered loudly.

And they're adults, which suggests they're either bearing up against the plague or (more likely) haven't yet been exposed to it.

The disease was present, though. We didn't conduct a formal survey, of course, but we did find a single infected individual who was well on the way to dissolving into mush. Interestingly, that was also one of the few immature specimens we found on the beach that day. This is contrary to the usual pattern, but that's probably just a fluke.

Will Pisaster survive on this beach? Seems dubious. But we can hope.

In the meantime, it did my heart good just to see them again, after all these years.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

WW: You've been warned

Thursday, 9 August 2018

One-Mind Kyôsaku

Ginkaku-Ji Temple moss forest walkway (7151830689) (2) If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha.

If you meet the patriarchs, kill the patriarchs.

If you meet arhats, kill arhats.

If you meet your parents, kill your parents.

If you meet your relatives, kill your relatives.

Then, for the first time, you will see clearly.

(The I-hsüan of Lin-ch’i – known as Rinzai in Japanese.)

(Photo of forest trail at Ginkaku-Ji Rinzai monastery [Kyoto] courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

WW: Still life with sea cucumber

(Parastichopus californicus. At up to 60 centimetres, the largest sea cucumber in the world, though this one is only about 4 inches extended. Excellent eating, too. As are all but one of the seaweeds pictured.)

Thursday, 2 August 2018


Canada Customs at Osoyoos, 1922 The instant I start an outbacking trek, I'm looking for postcards.

I define as backward those towns that sell corny postcards, spineless those whose cards depict other places. But the cards I buy fly everywhere, under governance of an elaborate formula.

Lovers get the best ones, followed by Europeans, who suffer a debilitating lack of outback. From there, priority hinges on the closeness of the relationship.

The mailing list is as long as the journey, and I agonize, sometimes for days, over which to send whom. But in the end, I'm mostly just talking to myself.

Slipping cards through slots in post office doors and general store counters soothes the rower, the part of me that always faces aft, and reminds others that I exist, a fact I fear they are likely to forget.

(Adapted from Rough Around the Edges: A Journey Around Washington's Borderlands, copyright RK Henderson. 1922 postcard of the Osoyoos custom house courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous collector.)

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

WW: Geoduck

(This is just the end of a neck that can reach six feet in length. As the largest burrowing clam in the world, Panopea generosa is a Herculean labour to catch, made more exciting by the fact that it lives in the lowest tidal zone. Hence the bay is on its way back while you furiously dig.)

Thursday, 26 July 2018

The One Pure and Clear Thing

Сложенные руки человека образуют чашу для воды "Coming empty-handed, going empty-handed—that is human. When you are born, where do you come from? When you die, where do you go? Life is like a floating cloud which appears. Death is like a floating cloud which disappears. The floating cloud itself originally does not exist. Life and death, coming and going, are also like that. But there is one thing which always remains clear. It is pure and clear, not depending on life and death.

"Then what is the one pure and clear thing?"

— From a Ch'an poem; favorite teaching of Seung Sahn.

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

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

WW: School apples

(Swung into this back-county primary school a few days ago, looking for a place to get off my bike and rest in shade. As I coasted into the carpark I was delighted to find an entire row of summer apples! Two dwarf varieties – a red one and a green one – espaliered against the front fence. Both heavily in fruit.

There's nothing like a tart, juicy, sun-warmed apple of a late July afternoon, when the tarmac is melting under your tyres and you're hungry and thirsty. I don't know whose idea it was to instal this waist-high orchard, but he or she was a genius. Now I come up with excuses to pass this school – which is generally well off my track – so I can enjoy a few more.

May your scrumping be as rewarding.)

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Starfish Report 2018

Evasterias troscheli
We had a minus-4 tide the other day and I got in an epic mile-long wade along the tidelands. The biological diversity was outstanding; next best thing to diving.

Among the prolific sea life present were three starfish, all of which presented reasons for hope, if not celebration, that the starfish plague may be slowing down, now that it's wiped out most of our sea stars.

I was first delighted to find several blood stars (Henricia leviuscula). These striking neon echinoderms have been a favourite since childhood. Seldom found intertidally – testimony to the rare opportunity of this very low tide – they were before the die-off omnipresent on mud-bottomed diving grounds.

One adult specimen I found had small scrapes on its disc. These might have been signs of incipient viral infection, or abrasions caused by being dashing about in the "surf" created by passing boats. I also found a few tiny individuals; normal for this time of year. With the exception of that first adult, none showed visible signs of disease (yet?).

Sadly, not a single sunflower star (Pycnopodia helianthoides), of any size, in any condition, was present. It does seem this beautiful if rapacious species, a fixture in quiet northern water until very recently, has been driven to extinction.

Further proof are the leather stars (Dermasterias imbricata) that now stud the beach and shallows. Formerly thinly represented on lower Sound
Adult Henricia leviuscula
beaches, because a favourite Pycnopodia food, Dermasterias is now virtually the only star left.

That population, at any rate, enjoys a natural immunity to the horrific seastar wasting disease, and appears healthy.

Finally, good news and bad on the mottled starfish (Evasterias troscheli) front. Good, because I encountered several specimens of this similarly once characteristic species. Bad, because every one was tiny; a year old, at most.

The wasting virus tends to take a few years to locate and destroy its victims, thus the average size of this species indicates it hasn't yet been able to out-manœuver the plague.

But its presence at all on this ravaged beach suggests that a healthy breeding population exists in the deeper, colder water offshore. With luck and a bit of Darwinian cunning, it may yet return.

Thus the state of the starfish.

It's hard to express how painful all of this is. They may be "just starfish", but this attractive class has been such an integral part of my life, albeit unrecognised till they were gone. Along with most other people, it never occurred to me I might one day wake up to a North Pacific functionally bereft of seastars.

And the creeping suspicion we'll lose many more beloved habitats and life forms before we've seen the end of the Anthropocene.

Immature Henricia

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

WW: Golf pollution

(I have no idea why golfers are so avid to bat their little balls into the world's watercourses, but I wish they would stop. Here you see just four of about a dozen I encountered on the tideland a few days ago.

I once snorkelled around a small island that was within view of several waterfront houses, and collected a bucketful of balls off the bottom in the process. The presence of a few more on the littoral itself suggested someone in those houses was playing "hit the island".

Another time my nephew and I were anchored in a pretty little bay, fishing, and a householder came out and started driving at
us. His shots consistently fell short, and I suspect he knew we were out of range and meant no insult beyond a little joke, but... fishing, remember? I'd bet the bottom beneath us was already littered with those insufferable little plastic balls.

This snotty habit probably has little environmental impact beyond unsightliness, but it's still contemptuous and annoying.

Grow up, people.)

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Rock Groups 2018

Inuksuk Gardens Peggys Cove

Well, it's somehow July again, which means it's time to invert the year's box of rock groups.

As I explain each July, my unearned facility for naming rock groups has kept me hoarding same since I was a teenager. As I have no outlet for this superpower, I commend them to the world here.

The rules remain constant:

1. Anybody who wants one for their group is welcome to it. I claim no copyright, trademark, patent, or juju.

2. Be aware that sometimes my muse two-times me, so if you see something you like, vet it carefully to be sure someone hasn't already had the same idea.

3. The genre suggestions that follow some entries are my fancy alone. If a name implies a different sound to you, have at it.

4. All who assume these identities are entitled to tell interviewers they were named by a Zen hermit monk. Because that is the awesomest of rock 'n' roll backstories.

Harken therefore ye unto:

Rock Groups 2018

(A service mark of Rusty Ring® Zen hermit products. No rights reserved.)

Logjam (Northwest country rock)
Ice Train
Elvet Velvis (courtesy of my brother Fletcher)
ASA (Canadian rock)
Blue Highways
Briar Blade
The Wadcutters
Enumclaw (that's EE-numb-claw)
Davy Jones and the MTC
The Tank Tops
Betty Bell and the Dial-Tones
Große Straße
Danny Dillinger and the Usual Suspects
Gila Joe and the Rattlers (rockabilly)
The 9 Lords of Li Ping
Whitby Manor (emo)
Stream of Conscience
Ignore Amos
The Whangdoodles
The Dogs of War
Big Bill and the Fruits of Labour
The New Christy Wastrels
Boiled White
Blank Reg (as in the short form of Reginald)
Uppish With People
Endangered Eel
Drumnadrochit (Scottish folk rock)
Pygargue (French power rock)
African Genesis (soul)
Brother John and the Crimonious Clarks
The Cut-Outs (ask an old person for the reference)
Trump T. Trump and the Indelible Stains
Los Focos
Rubber Puppies
Led Sadr and The Brass Sponge
Ouch Mouse

(Photo of inuksuks at Peggy's Cove Lighthouse courtesy of Shawn M. Kent and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

WW: Giant agate

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Forest Practice

Buddhist monk meditation As I was nearing the end of the night sit, I heard something big go bump beyond the ravine.

I blanched. A bear?

There are few things more disheartening than sitting lotus in the woods, holding mudra, back straight, in full monk mode, and something frightening happens.

Before, you were Zen Guy. Now you're just a dork.

Fortunately, I'm good at dork.

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

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

WW: Anorak

(Doyenne of the offshore pirates, since gone straight but still just as cutting-edge. Hear her here.)

Thursday, 28 June 2018

The Flat Earth Koan

Paisley Abbey gargoyle 10

"Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the centre of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet.

"Imagine what you'll know tomorrow."

Agent K
Men in Black

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

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

WW: Neighbourhood deer

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Good Song: The Wind

This song holds a special place in my heart, because it held a special place in my practice when I first became a monk. As is often the case, my early experiences with meditation were thunderously transforming. I encountered personal peace for the first time in my life, and insights fell from the sky like rain in the spring. (Which was itself falling outside at the time.)

It's typical in this phase to re-experience familiar things as new. Old aversions become less objectionable; maybe downright acceptable. And old favourites shine with a renewed light, as if seen for the first time.

During that period I hungrily re-consumed many former pleasures, chasing that Christmas-like sense of discovery.

Prominent among these was the music that has enjoyed a prominent place in my life for as far back as I can remember. A few artists and albums struck particularly true, and today I consider them part of my foundational practice, though my relationship with some goes back to childhood.

Of the latter, none stand out more conspicuously than The Wind.

I've been a rabid Cat Stevens fan since he first hit back in the late 60s. My own songwriting style (I was a bit of a coffee-house artist in my youth) bore, and probably still bears, the unmistakable marks of Stevens' influence. I was even told I looked like him, though not by any (conscious) design.

So naturally, Stevens' work was among the first I revisited during that period of awakening.

It was all brilliant, but The Wind had something extra. The beauty of the words and music evoked the sensation of sitting, and I lifted the needle over and over to listen again.

There's no real mystery here; Stevens was interested in Buddhism during that era, and much of the compelling catalogue he compiled then is Zen-friendly.

But The Wind is unique. It's so simple, so short… and so bang-on. Stevens himself apparently understood this, because he made it the inaugural track of Teaser and the Firecat, setting the tone for the entire album.

In the intervening years Stevens has had a colourful spiritual journey of his own. In 1977 he converted to Islam, and as part of his religious commitment, changed his name to Yusuf Islam and renounced his musical career.

He may have had a particularly thorny relationship with what I once heard him describe as "my Buddhist stuff".

But Yusuf's spiritual practice has been straight and sincere, as evidenced by his willingness to change his mind. In the early Oughts he decided that music was a perfectly appropriate way to celebrate the 99 Names of God.

So I'm pleased to report that Yusuf (his current stage name) is writing, recording, and performing again, and that The Wind has actually become the centrepiece of those performances. Though I've never practiced Sufism, it certainly does echo the Sufi teaching I've studied, and I don't see why it can't be Muslim as well as – or even instead of – Buddhist.

Anyway, as this modest little treasure has been instrumental (no pun intended) in my own enlightenment practice, I hereby commend The Wind to others, in the brotherly wish that it bring the same peace and encouragement it brought me.

It really does capture a deep experience that evades words.

You be the judge.

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

WW: Juneberries

(Genus Amelanchier.)

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Meditation Meme

Meditate opElevate

I recently ran across this meme online. Though I'm generally sceptical of magical claims – meditation definitely helps with stress-related medical conditions, and also with mental and emotional issues, but whether it "increases creativity" or "increases immunity" invites further research – you can't argue with the rest.

I'm also a little leery of that imperative: MEDITATE (you unenlightened bastard). I might like it better with an exclamation point: MEDITATE! sounds more like "let's meditate!" and less like "didn't Ah tell yew to meditate, boot??? GIMME FIFTY!!"

But were it I, I'd just go nominal: MEDITATION. Because, like the advert says, there's no need for gurus.

But it's still an effective notice. Short and to the point. Undemanding. (Except for the implied call to obedience.) So I'm sharing it, so you can share it as well.

Because the fact is, meditation is simple. I'm astonished by those who tell me they'd like to meditate... eventually. Not now. Someday when conditions are right. When they have time to learn.

Well, if that's you, I got good news.

(Hang on, I have to pull on a colourful sweater... OK.)

You can meditate! Right here, right now!

"But Rob!" you say. "How can I meditate, right here, right now??"

Just follow our patented Three Easy Steps®:

1. Do not move. Do not change your clothes or put on New Age music or light incense or buy an expensive bell. Do not memorise a chant. Do not prepare a macrobiotic vegetarian meal. Do not shave your head.

2. Do not do anything but read the short instructions above, under "Simple Meditation". (For the record, that's redundant. At the risk of chapping practitioners of other religions, if you're doing anything other than that, you're not meditating. NTTAWWT.)

3. Now do those instructions, in order. I assume you're already sitting. If not, just skip that one.

When you get to the end of the list, you've meditated. Congratulations, you're Gautama Buddha.

You can stop there, or keep going until you feel like stopping. If you need a reminder of the rules as you continue, reread "Simple Mediation".

That's it. That's what you've been waiting for.

Bit anticlimactic, maybe.

But for some – me, for instance – a revelation.

(Meme courtesy of Bryan Helfrich and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

WW: Reflector shoelaces

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Street Level Zen: Attainment

« Croyez ceux qui cherchent la vérité, doutez de ceux qui la trouvent. »

André Gide

(English translation here.)

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

WW: California poppy

(Eschscholtzia californica.
Harbinger of school's end on the North Coast.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Cougar Update

Saguaro National Park1 Last week a cougar killed a mountain biker in North Bend, Washington, about an hour from where I live. The Spokane Spokesman-Review's Eli Francovich offers a well-researched overview of the incident and the conversation about it.

Many points I touched on in my review of Cat Attacks resurface in his story. Namely:

  • The cougar attacked not one, but two human beings, travelling together. Specifics are elusive, but in the end, the lion killed one of the thirty-something men and wounded the other.

  • Both riders were struck in the head, as is typical of big cats.

  • Not only was this one unimpressed with their number (they routinely hunt in the midst of large herds), he wasn't even deterred by the rattly, metallic, petroleum-smelling contraptions the creatures were riding.

  • This cat uncharacteristically revealed itself before the assault. In that first confrontation, the two cyclists did everything by the book, up to and including straight-up attacking their stalker with their bikes.

  • Afterward, the panther demonstrated the cold calculation for which his order is justly renowned, running off through the forest as if frightened, only to loop back, track and observe his targets unseen, and finally, strike decisively from cover.

Authorities agree there was likely nothing the men could have done differently; these guys were well-trained in mountain lion drill. Sadly, this time it was only partially effective against their intelligent, unpredictable alpha predator.

But Francovich's piece raises an interesting data point unconsidered in my book review: the reliance of cougar researchers on bear spray.

Bear spray is the meanest crap on the planet. The effect is physiological, and instantaneous; it literally burns and asphyxiates its object. And cats, even more than bears, are highly sensitive to olfactory insult.

Like a shotgun (and unlike other firearms, which are all but useless in this context), it barely needs to be aimed. This is vital when you're startled and terrified. Point it in the general direction and squeeze. Even if you don't score a direct hit, you'll put the animal on notice that you can hurt it badly if you want to.

Better still: the stuff hisses as it comes out. Language any feline understands.

Doesn't change the fact that you have to see one to use it. These men had an unusual opportunity to use bear spray in their first encounter, but probably did not in the second, fatal, one.

But I'm still gonna get a can. In this case, anyway, that initial hosing-down almost certainly would have made the difference.

For the rest, this latest tragedy re-illustrates, for the benefit of a species famous for its self-regard, the Dharma of the Outback:

"It's their forest. It always has been."

(Warning sign from Arizona's Saguaro National Park courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

WW: Elderberry

(Sambucus racemosa)

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Good Story: To See the Invisible Man

"And then they found me guilty."

I've been meaning to post on this found teisho since I launched Rusty Ring, away back in the Kamakura Period. Somehow I always found a reason not to; afraid to cock it up, I imagine. But conditions have conspired to kick me into gear.

It seems we've entered the Age of Vengeance, wherein no limitation on the godlike All-Seeing I will be endured. Both Right and Left are stomping about, meting out "justice" from a position of self-declared moral superiority, yet in style remarkably similar to a pogrom. (And also to each other. Here's a koan: if you must become your enemy to defeat him, can you?)

As for insight; empathy; forgiveness; compassion; the instinctive restraint that governs men and women of good faith…

Get a rope.

In such times, a hermit monk could do worse than invite his brothers and sisters To See the Invisible Man.

Robert Silverberg's seminal contemplation on the nature of true decency first appeared in the inaugural (April 1963) issue of sci-fi pulp Worlds of Tomorrow. I became aware of it in 1985, when it was faithfully adapted for the first revival of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone.

For those 20-odd minutes I was riveted to the television; though still in my early 20s, I'd lived enough to recognise the unflinching truth Silverberg was burning into my screen. It's nothing less than a Jataka Tale on the gulf that separates bourgeois morality from the real thing.

In this case, we have a man sent up the river for the crime of "being an arsehole". (No wonder Silverberg's utopian society has done away with prisons; with laws like that, there'd have to be one on every block.)

Will their ingenious, diabolic alternative sentence turn this egocentric bastard into a productive citizen? You'll have to see it to find out.

At this writing, two uploads of the Twilight Zone segment are available on YouTube:

The entire series is also available on DVD.

With track records like these, and any good luck, you'll be able to find at least one of them. The writing, performances, and direction are all excellent. Allowance allowed the changing norms of television production, it's aged very well.

If on the other hand you prefer to read the original, then by truly miraculous wrinkle of the Enlightenment Super-Path:

For the rest, I'll leave you with my war cry:

"That which does not kill me, makes me kinder."

It's a simple insight that I realised soon after I become a monk.

It also explains why my own society frequently hates me.

(Mad-scientist chortle.)

(Photo from a screen-cap of the Twilight Zone episode.)

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

WW: Before the plague

(I took this photo on the beach in front of my house in 2009. Pretty much every subtidal rock on the North Coast looked like this then; it's a scene deeply rooted in my childhood.

Pisaster ochraceus, the purple sea star (variation notwithstanding), is among the species most vulnerable to sea star wasting disease. Over the last five years that horrific plague, which literally causes infected individuals to melt into a tapioca-like substance and flush away with the tide, has wiped out virtually all intertidal starfish in the northeast Pacific.

The epidemic is associated with an invasive virus, which is itself believed to be symptomatic of rising ocean temperatures and related conditions.

Regional outbreaks of SSWD were recorded in 1972 and 1978. Continued monitoring of the latter suggests that permanent extinction, at least on this coast, is not off the table.)

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Used-To-Do Zen

I often meet people who "used to do" Zen.

Many were deeply engaged, once; some were students of famous teachers. It's an inherent weakness of institutionalised practice. Where Zen is a social act it becomes a lifestyle, and like all lifestyles it demands a weighty sacrifice of time, money, and freedom. Your whole existence becomes Zen Centre. And Zen Centre always wants more: more time, more money, more obedience.

That wears people down, uses them up. And when they reach the end, they don't just drop the kowtowing and the koo-koo-ka-choo. They drop Zen.

Hence the risk of the ordained path. It can displace real Zen, at the cost of old suffering unhealed and new suffering inflicted.

It doesn't always end that way, of course; many find a healthful home in the zendo.

But wherever my hermit path leads, it guarantees one thing: I will never used-to-do Zen.

There's nothing for me to stop doing.

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Bodhidharma painting courtesy of Sojiji Temple and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

WW: Righteous cluster of oyster mushrooms

(Pleurotus ostreatus.)
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