Thursday, 19 December 2019

In Which Marley Carries the Day

'Scrooge and the Ghost of Marley' by Arthur Rackham I've been a huge Dickens fanboy since a Christmas in high school when I decided to read his most famous story. You know, from an actual book. The kind with no cord.

That was the initial infection. By the end of my undergraduate years I'd read every novel, travelogue, and short story Dickens ever wrote. Followed, in the throes of detox, by several biographies and critical essays, including Orwell's succinct and brilliant analysis of Dickens' place in British culture.

But since those student days I've wanted to write a sequel – more properly, a conclusion – to his most famous work. Because the man left A Christmas Carol unfinished.

In it, as you will recall, bitter old miser Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by four ghosts – or one ghost and three bodhisattvas – who convince him to lay off being a bitter old miser. (Note that in so doing, Dickens invents psychoanalysis fifty years before the fact. Further proof of his visionary genius.)

The story closes on that catharsis, as Scrooge becomes slightly foolish and a lot nicer to those in his circle, and, we're assured, faithfully keeps Christmas to the end of his days.

And there Charles Dickens abandons his greatest novel, leaving us with nothing more than this uplifting but ultimately anæmic introduction.

And they call Edwin Drood a tragedy!

Because what Dickens takes to his own grave is the story of how Scrooge's overdue rejection of the scarcity model went on to raise a swelling wave of economic and social development, the force of which was still carrying, not just Tim Cratchit, but indeed Tim's great-grandchildren, generations thence.

The belief that greed and stinginess are good business was coin of the realm in Dickens' day, as it remains in ours. But there's no evidence that this pat excuse for egotism is exact.

Fact is, having this reality abruptly kicked up his backside by his business partner and three unrelenting enforcers, my man Ben (who was, lest we forget, uncommon sharp) re-entered the world on the day after New Year's and started ploughing wealth into the neighbourhood: creating infrastructure, developing resources, improving standards, and generating something vastly more valuable than simple jobs: opportunity.

And that's not all. He also straight-up turned Queen's Evidence, plying his legendary flint and synoptic command of commercial law to defend the exploited from the predators he used to ride with. Soon those former homies just stood down when they learned Scrooge and Marley Ltd had the account; you don't win against those odds. Because S&M (you thought that name was a coincidence?) will bulldog you on every point until you never even recoup your losses, let alone profit.

And the ironic part is that Scrooge actually got richer for all of this. Probably a lot richer. Because a lot of competent people who'd only served to keep him in gruel prior to that haunted Christmas Eve were paying their rent and thinking bigger.

If the Ghosts of Christmas had thought it through, they would have added some economics to that field trip through his life. Asked him how his amiable and generous old employer Feziwig got so prosperous; shown him what a waste of earning potential were all those ruined present lives; and especially, how rich he totally wasn't by the hour of his death. Scrooge dies in the same crappy flat, surrounded by the same paltry rubbish. If he'd made more money, it hadn't accomplished anything. Not even for him.

In the end, it's just a total waste to have a guy like Scrooge simply stand down.

Because if it's true that the first thing you do when you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging, it is as well that in that moment you find yourself standing beside (or beneath) a pile of soil, holding a shovel.

My thoughts this holiday season; may they be worth the penny.

Wishing us every one the happiest of Yules, and a fruitful new year.

(1915 Arthur Rankham illustration of Jacob Marley auditing Scrooge ["Business? Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"] courtesy of William Pearl and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

WW: Workbench

(Last month I knocked this together, my opening salvo in a bid to carve out a modest workshop in my mom's tiny, cluttered garage.

Bench-building is one of those outwardly simple pursuits that amounts to a lot more than meets the eye. To begin with, the job always turns out to be more complex than one assumes, even with lines and lumber this primitive.

But even on a deeper level, there's just something revitalising about providing oneself the basis to build things. Any maker will tell you that a good bench is really a ship of war. From this platform I will execute brilliant feats of resourcefulness.

Or at least I will when I've refurbished my dad's old vise. [Stay tuned.])

Thursday, 12 December 2019

Hermitcraft: Sourdough Coffee Cake

During the holidays we frequently entertain, including in the morning. The season is also particularly associated with the scent and flavour of cinnamon and cloves, and here in the Northern Hemisphere, with hot beverages.

That's why I'm sharing this favourite treat, which I developed several years ago, though like chai and sourdough devil's food cake I enjoy it year-round. In the interest of full disclosure I also dislike coffee, but as tea cake is a whole 'nother thing, Sourdough Coffee Cake it is.

For best results, follow the instructions in order.

Sourdough Coffee Cake


1 cup sourdough starter
1/2 cup flour
1/4 cup white sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup cooking oil
1 teaspoon soda mixed into 1/4 cup flour

1 tablespoon melted butter
1/4 cup rolled oats
1/2 teaspoon minced orange peel
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon white sugar
1 tablespoon flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1.) In a medium mixing bowl, beat together all the cake ingredients except the soda and flour mixture.

Set the batter aside to work while completing the next steps.

2.) Grease an 8-inch cake pan.

3.) In a small mixing bowl, stir together the topping ingredients.

4.) Stir the soda and flour mixture thoroughly into the batter.

5.) Heat the oven to 400°.

6.) When the oven is ready, turn the batter into the greased cake pan and sprinkle the topping mixture evenly across the top.

7.) Bake for 25 minutes, or until brown and a pick inserted into the middle comes out clean.

8.) Serve hot with your favourite hot beverage.


o  Since I don't care for things that are over-sweet I tend to short or omit spurious white sugar, but in the topping mixture it matters. I haven't tried to bake the cake itself with brown instead of white, but it might work.

o  Thick-cut rolled oats work best if you can get them. In any case, the "instant" type are least desirable. (For anything.)

o  This is one of those recipes in which finely-minced orange peel works better than orange zest. Especially if you've got those thin-peeled clementines (Christmas oranges).

o  Like other soda-raised sourdough goods, this one is best eaten hot. It's still edible after it cools, but the difference is telling. However, if you give a cold day-old piece 30 seconds in the microwave, you've got a warm fresh piece.

Best of holidays regardless of where you live, which one you celebrate, or how.

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

WW: Wooden trivet

(Carved from a single piece of wood.)

Friday, 6 December 2019


Where "everything" is not possible, practice "just enough".

Wu Ya

(Photo courtesy of Massimo Catarinella and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

WW: Spindle tree

(Euonymus europaea.)

Thursday, 28 November 2019

Thanksgiving 2019

Gratitude is power.

(Photo courtesy of Shivam Kumar and

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

WW: Raccoon on the beach

Thursday, 21 November 2019

Monastic Kyôsaku

Buddhist monk in Khao Luang-Sukhothai

"Monks are intentionally irrelevant."

Thomas Merton

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

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

WW: Aboriginal hole

(Found this giant old cedar stump on the beach some time ago. The hole has been a matter of conjecture ever since. It's clearly not the work of an animal; too clean and too conical.

But the clincher is that remnant of charcoal.

Only one culture I know around here did that, and they gave it up when they got steel. Until then, to determine whether a trunk was sound enough for construction, they gnawed a shallow pit in it with their knapped adzes, kindled a tiny fire inside, then deepened the test hole by pecking out the charred wood.

But the arrival of crosscut saws made it economical to fell first and ask questions later.

Is this stump old enough? Well, it's a stump, saturated with preservative resin, and has been pickling in a saline environment since it washed into the bay a long time ago.

And I haven’t come up with a better theory.)

Thursday, 14 November 2019

The Toolbox Fallacy

"I can't do X until I have Y."

That's the fundamental delusion, according to Ian Martin. Essentially, he suggests, we tend to get wrapped up in the notion that we have to have certain tools before we can do certain stuff. Some of them are literal, others figurative, but eventually the lack of them – perceived or factual – becomes an excuse to allow our aspirations to remain unpursued.

I stumbled over Ian's kyôsaku in the course of an unrelated surf, and clicked on it because it was only 7 minutes long. The message hit me hard, both as a writer and a monk. In both cases I've been grappling with lost momentum, and Ian's whack on the shoulder had just the right snap.

Not that I was entirely ignorant of this truth. In Zen we toolbox the crap out of each other. Gotta have a sangha, a centre, a master. Gotta have a quiet setting, or a sit-friendly schedule, or the proper zafu, or…

I sussed that trap early on, and took the hermit path around it. But I haven't completely set such fears aside. Especially in times when I can't maintain regular sitting. Then I tend to drop it entirely until conditions coöperate.

But the fact is, I can meditate wherever, whenever.

Will it always equal ideal zazen? Perhaps not. Is that failure?


And actually, it's just this kind of thing that's often yielded the greatest results. Harder than controlled-environment sitting, sure. But you know what else is out of control?

The entire universe beyond my few square controlled feet.

If you can't practice out there, you're a prisoner. That's why they call 'em "cells".

But one thing Ian doesn't mention is that failure isn't the sole fear. There's also the scorn of others. And that scorn is inevitable.

I watch a lot of indie films. Really indie films. You know, the kind that are financed by friends and family and made in the director's parents' garage. Many are terrific. But you wouldn't know it from some of the IMDb "reviews".

It's astonishing how much people who've never canned a damn minute in their lives know about making movies.

In a similar vein, some folks get all Old Testament on my backside when they hear I practice alone. I even catch accusations of fraud. (Dude. I said I practice alone. I didn't order you to.)

My point is, if you pursue your ambitions without the toolbox, you'll be scorned down to your waraji. Behind your back and in front of your back and all around your back.

Because holy crap it offends some people when their expectations aren't validated.

And those same people tend to be cocksure and outspoken. Somewhere in there is insight, I feel sure of it...


What I want to append to Ian's excellent wake-up call is simply this: Whiners gonna whine. I need to remember that.

Because others will definitely sneer. At my writing career; my monastic practice; the fallibility of my nature and judgement; the new workbench I just built.

And except for that last one, they lack authority. (Shop-types smirk. I'll have to give them this one.)

So I'm with Ian. If you don't have a chainsaw, use a hatchet. But chop that wood.

(Photo courtesy of and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

WW: Autumn barnyard

(Results of two or three hours' work.)

Thursday, 7 November 2019

The Lemon Koan

Citrus fruits
"When life gives you lemons, you are mistaken."

Ummon (probably)

(See the Blue Cliff Record, Case 6, and the provocative commentary that follows it. Courtesy of William Nyogen Yeo and Hazy Moon Zen Center/Koun-Ji Temple, Los Angeles.)

Photo courtesy of Scott Bauer, the Agricultural Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture, and Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

WW: Canadian bodhisattva

(Jizo Bodhisattva, patron of children and teachers, is traditionally venerated a variety of ways. Most involve specific gifts left at his statue's feet, or dressing it in certain garments, usually red. Of these, the most common I've encountered is a knitted tuque.

Thus, when I encountered one bareheaded on a friend's deck, I knew what the practice demand I do.

I classed it up a little while I was at it.)

Thursday, 31 October 2019

Hungry Ghost

Gaki-Zoushi (These are the lyrics to one of my Buddhist country and western songs, offered here in honour of Hallowe'en.)

If you come 'round late
By my back stairs
When the moon is full
And there's no-one there
You might hear a sound, like footsteps on the floor
But when you turn around
It won't be there no more

No, it ain't everyone
That can see him there
Mostly kids and dogs
And folks in despair
But I give him board, and that makes me the host
To a gentle friend
And a hungry ghost


'Cos he's a man of hope
And a man of peace
He's a man of faith
And not the least
He's a man of heart, and that's what matters most
'Cos he's a man apart
So he's a hungry ghost

Folks down in town
Say it's all a hoax
Just a trick of light
In the prairie oaks
Say it's just the wind, blowed down from off the ridge
And if you'll buy that
I got a bridge


So if you got a roof
Against the storm
If your belly's full
And your heart is warm
Then say a word of grace, and keep your loved ones close
And spare a thought
For the hungry ghosts

Refrain to end

(Copyright RK Henderson. Detail of the hungry ghosts that walk amongst us from the 12th century scroll 餓鬼草紙、平安時代 ; photo courtesy of the Kyoto National Museum and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

WW: Venus flytrap

(In honour of Hallowe'en, here's a shot of my latest pet. I adopted this flytrap [Dionaea muscipula] two years ago, when it was in dire straits. In its first summer with me, it reached a high of five healthy traps before lapsing back into the mandated winter coma. Today, on the cusp of the next hibernation period, it has twelve.

Caring for a Venus flytrap is great fun, and not terribly difficult if you uphold a few basic rules. I'm hoping this one comes through its incipient cryostasis in good form and ready to build even greater health on the other side, in the spring and summer sun.)

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Koan: Attaining Enlightenment

ALMA and a Starry Night

The hermit Hyung asked, "How do you find something that isn't lost?"

Wu Ya's commentary: "Go to the last place you didn't see it."

(Photo of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array [ALMA] courtesy of Babak A. Tafreshi and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

WW: Mountain beaver den

(When I was a kid, the forest floor in my neck of the woods was full of big ragged holes like this one. When I asked the grups what made them, they said "mountain beaver".

I never saw the actual animal, and couldn't find mountain beaver in any book. My teachers – few of whom were of Old Settler stock – were no better help.

I concluded that "mountain beaver" was a cryptid, if not an outright jackalope, and wrote it off. But I still wondered what made those holes.

It would take the advent of Google to solve the mystery at last.

Aplodontia rufa – the mountain beaver – is an ancient proto-rodent, with multiple features missing from modern mammals. Last of its genus, the remaining Aplodontia have for the last 10,000 years been confined to the small stretch of the North Coast where I grew up. Hence the silence of the guidebooks, which never covered our stuff back in the day, and the ignorance of my teachers, who had been educated in the same imperialistic Eastern curriculum.

I've since laid eyes on a few of the little guys, which is ironic given that their habitat is vanishing fast and taking them with it. When I was surrounded by them, on ground long since scraped flat for housing estates, they never showed their faces.

I took the above shot last summer, on a cruise through another forest not far from my childhood home. It turned out to be rife with irregular holes scratched out under low vegetation, surrounded by heaps of glacial spoil. Just as I remember.

So I guess there are a few holdouts. Remains to be seen for how much longer. )

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Product Review: Harry's Razors.

Five years ago I got tired of paying the ridiculous prices razor blades command these days. As trivial as that sounds, like many Buddhist monastics I shave my head on a regular basis, and the cost adds up. I'd also heard that Internet-based businesses were popping up to service the growing general demand for relief.

It was just about that time that promos for Harry's Razors began running on the Cracked podcast.

Their product was said to be competitively priced. It was also said to be good; better than the storebought twin-blades I'd been using. The podcast host assured us he'd been using the starter kit the company had sent him, and it had changed his life. Or at least his grooming.

So I ordered one.

To say it also changed my life, in a small but significant way, is no exaggeration. That's why, in the interest of supporting others' practice, I'm sharing my experience here.

Harry's Razors, which mount on a high-quality handle that probably won't need replacing before my descendants are my age, feature four ganged blades in a flexible head that conforms remarkably well to face and scalp. You just lather up as usual (I use a particular kind of hand lotion, because it doesn't dry, works in cold water, and is made to nourish skin) and have at it. My head-and-face routine, which used to take 45 minutes, now takes 20(!).

What's more, I rarely get nicked – anywhere – with Harry's. (See elaboration below.) That's down to the bendy head, which nails the sweet spot between too stiff and too floppy. The result is full control, with just enough forgiveness to keep you intact, as long as you proceed with ordinary due mindfulness.

Finally, the blades are in fact competitively priced, especially if you shell out for the big 16-blade box. It'll set you back $30 Yank, but that works out to $1.88 per blade, or between 24 and 31 cents a shave, if you preserve the blade by drying it thoroughly each time you finish.

That's cheaper than name-brand twin-blades, for a much better shave.

Which brings me to my other reason for writing. My last shipment came emblazoned in several places with a strident "NOT FOR HEAD-SHAVING!". This alarmed me, since the whole reason I use Harry's is that it's perfect for head shaving. I'd even sent fan mail to the company soon after I discovered their product, thanking them for marketing the tool that we Buddhist monks have been waiting for, and was told in the reply that head-shavers were a demographic the company was particularly keen to reach.

Has something changed?

I checked out the thing online, and found to my dramatic lack of surprise that Harry's has indeed become a fetish among head-shavers. Some of these were similarly worried by the new turnabout, while others assured them it was all a pack of nonsense, cooked up to deflect some unspecified liability threat.

Well, the new blades looked and flexed like the old. I chucked one up and fell to.

Same fantastic Harry's shave. Face, neck, and head.

In the interest of full disclosure I must say that over my five Harry's years I've drawn blood twice, both times on the head. One was so trivial it scarcely bears mention; the other less so. But the telling bit is that in both cases I was hacking away like a Japanese chef, just 'way too impatient and irresponsible to expect Harry's to pay me a living pension for this. And that second incident involved not only the afore-mentioned Ginsu schtick, but also a worn-out blade that a less Scottish monk would long have discarded.

And hey, if it's campfire stories you're into, I can rummage back over the 35 years I was a twin-blade man. The fact that I can recall and enumerate the times I've got into trouble with Harry's tells you everything you need to know about their relative safety. Head or no head.

So I don't know why Harry's has suddenly turned head-shavers loose. Fact is, Hairless Brothers the 'Net 'round have been lauding this product since it came out, and I don't recall a single sour note.

Anyway, here's the deal: boy, does this thing work. And it would be disastrous if head-shavers didn't know that, because shaving your head is a pain in the butt. (Acupuncture thing, I guess.)

Just don't sue Harry's if you manage to slice an ear off.

Or me. Because that would be a very dodgy business decision.

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

WW: Radio receiver

(This is a 40 meter Morse code receiver I recently put together from a kit. [Sorry for the low resolution; it's a phone shot.] Not a big deal for some operators, but for me, with little talent for this stuff, a major achievement. And it works!)

Thursday, 10 October 2019


Life is an incurable disease, from which we all eventually heal.

(Photo courtesy of Frank Gualtieri and Wikimedia Commmons.)

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

WW: Boletes by the trail

(I believe these are Suillus tomentosus. One way or the other they're edible and choice. We got a great harvest this year thanks to heavy rains at just the right moment, followed by several sunny warm days.)

Thursday, 3 October 2019

Military Meditation

Higashiyama, Kyoto (6289632807)

Some time ago I surfed into What You Need to Know about Mindfulness Meditation, an article made available to military personnel (and everybody else) by the US Department of Defense. It leaves me a little conflicted.

As far as the information it contains is concerned, there's little enough to carp about. Yeah, dhyana probably didn't start with the Buddha, but that's minor and arguable. And the whole thing has a pronounced "meditate to get stuff" bias, but let's be honest: much in the Buddhist press does as well. Fact is, we all come to Zen to get stuff, though the delusion softens if we practice properly.

And that's what disturbs me about this piece. Because the fact is, if you're truly practicing Zen, it's going to get progressively harder to be a soldier. Right wing politics, nationalism, certainty, fear of authority – to say nothing of killing strangers in their own homes – are things it's difficult to convince Zenners to embrace.

Which leads me to wonder what exactly the DoD is selling.

The argument cœnobites perennially throw at eremitics such as myself is that Zen needs patrolling – that without ordained, presumably accountable leadership, anybody can sell anything as Zen. And that, we're told, leads to charlatans who mislead others, individuals who mislead themselves, and the general obfuscation of the Zen path through the Red Dust World.

None of which I dispute. Rather, I question the contention that ordination eliminates these pitfalls, that the Buddha ordained any authority but his own, or that anyone has a patent on enlightenment practice. (A conviction well-buttressed by my experience of those who claim one.)

But I gotta say it, this DoD article gives off a definite whiff of caveat emptor.

It's not that anything it says is wrong. It's just that I misdoubt its motives.

Which is also how I feel about Zen teachers.

I'm certainly not opposed to Zen practice in the military. To begin with, that profession destroys just about everyone it touches – at least when fully exercised – and that creates a howling need for clear-seeing and moral autonomy. And carried forward, a Zen-practicing army would soon cease to be one, which is the next step in our evolution.

But that's what bothers me. Because this writer never openly suggests just what the war industry's aims might be in promoting mindfulness. Probably not reasoned insubordination, I'll wager. Where secular authorities advocate meditation, it's virtually always about making individuals docile, so they'll continue to commit or tolerate acts Bodhidharma (a war veteran) would condemn.

One would like to believe that any attempt to harness Zen to such ends would backfire – that the practice itself would free practitioners from quack intent. Sadly, religion has never worked that way. Zen has been weaponised before, with karmic results that outstripped its epically-appalling historical ones, and it's currently being turned to similar ends in business, education, and corrections as well.

As a one-time convicted Christian, the fear that my current path will become as debased as the former is very real. This practice is vital; too vital to allow careerists to usurp its brand. That road leads to the utter annihilation of Zen, as it has other religions.

And the last thing we need around here is yet another cargo cult.

I hope military personnel, active and discharged, around the world learn about Zen; that those who are suffering know that it might keep them breathing; and that those who are in pain will give it an honest shot and see if it helps. Some of our best teachers came from that world, channelling the laser insight they scored waging war – and the iron discipline their instructors gave them – into kick-ass monasticism. (The two callings are remarkably similar.)

Because it's not that there's nothing soldierly about the mindfulness path. It's just that it leads to a diametrically opposite destination.

(Photo of the Ryozen Kannon, Japan's WWII memorial, courtesy of Bryan Ledgard and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

WW: Outback radio

(The transceiver is those two tiny stacked boxes beside the headphones. [The key is unseen behind it.]

Technology has changed somewhat since I was young, when a radio of this type was the size of a hatbox.

And we had hatboxes.)

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Street Level Zen: Gates

"Gates can shut you out or shut you in. And in some ways there is no difference."

Bob Dylan

(Photo courtesy of Kouji Tsuru and

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Zen Bliss

The first weeks were hard.

Not always. I was alright sitting, during and after meals, or walking. But I was also acutely susceptible to hunger, cold, and rain. Nights especially were unkind; the nocturnal chill imposed a ten-minute bedtime oryoki that left me mummified in a fusty bedroll, fully dressed and still cold. And, thanks to my poor pads, in pain. Then cold and broken sleep made me pee, exacting a twenty-minute resurrection. All made for sad grey mornings, after sad dreams that echoed behind my eyes for days.

It's true that sesshin always starts hard. Even in the monastery, the first night is torment, the second only a lateral improvement. But out there the inability to escape discomfort, mental and physical, kept the pressure on. My clothes, which I couldn't wash because I couldn't dry, were perpetually on me. My cotton sleeping bag liner was a godsend, upping the R-value and keeping the bag clean, but it too would soon need laundering. And both sucked up so much humidity that when at last they warmed up, I steamed like a Christmas pudding.

The advantage of all this was that it made zazen a recreation. The mindfulness that produced – full mindfulness, of burdens and blessings – buoyed me. In that relentless rain, trapped under the Tyvek, it was all I had.

And when the misery overcame even that, I reminded myself that this Zen summer camp – fun-filled festival of every-second mindfulness, for eight million six hundred sixty four thousand seconds – was my idea. Little risk of getting cheated out of even one of them, either, for I'd carefully brought nothing to read, nothing to distract, nothing to amuse. In the press of deployment I'd even forgotten the single luxury I'd allowed myself: my harmonica.

Zen prison camp, was more like it.

And the warden was a bastard.

(Adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Photo courtesy of Ed Leszczynskl and

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

WW: Afternoon on the Palouse Slope

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Makers Make Makers

Shadow Hand Bulb large So I'm reading Adam Savage's Every Tool's a Hammer, an elaborated meditation on "making", that thing that makers do. (I only recently found out I'm one of these. Before that I was just, you know, making things.)

It's an engaging read; Adam's a philosopher of creativity, and his thoughts on the process of bringing inspiration from concept to object are sangha at its best. Scattered amongst the useful bits of shop protocol, such as the necessity of clamping your work securely so it doesn't kill you, are mindful contemplations on more fundamental topics. Of these, the one that struck deepest is his misdoubt of the "scarcity model".

I've touched on this subject before, but Adam's understanding of it is more concrete. Essentially, he says, some makers work in the assumption that resources are inherently scarce. Therefore, a prudent person hoards them, restricts their distribution, declines to admit surplus or divulge where it is. Adam suggests such people do this from fear that they will run out of whatever they need unless they stop others from getting some.

Nor does he limit his definition to the material. In fact, he scarcely – see what I did there? – mentions physical wealth at all. What mostly aggravates him is spiritual avarice: refusing to help, teach, respect, credit.

I too have often smacked up against this. A classic example is the person who won't share a recipe, on the belief that equipping others to prepare the same dish will steal his thunder. (Note that this excuse rests on two fallacies: that such people won't change the recipe, thereby protecting the author's "patent", and that a cook incapable of outdoing himself is master of anything.) You run into these blocked heads rather often in the work world, were they refuse to teach you their profession, or share trade secrets, or defend your beginnerhood from critics, on the alibi that they're nipping competition that would complicate their lives.

Not that competition doesn't result from a more generous view. But I've yet to see a situation where you can really quash it by cynical means. Childishness on that level, though our culture implicitly endorses it, fences you off from the very resources you yourself must have to compete successfully.

At base, this scarcity model is the origin of the transmission hang-up in institutional Zen. That's the policy whereby only certified "dharma transmitted" gurus are allowed to teach Zen. By extension, all talking about Zen then becomes "teaching", so the rest of us just have to shut up.

To be honest, if it weren't for that second assertion, I'd have no problem with it. "Teaching Zen" puts others at risk, while endangering the teacher's own karma, which is why I'd advise anyone considering it to stop considering it. (And while we're up, if anybody out there takes this blog for "teaching", knock it the hell off before we both get hurt. )

Basically, the fear is that free agents would muddy the water, obscuring access to enlightenment. Trouble is, this scarcity dogma bulldozes 99% of our wealth into a big pile and sets it on fire. So Adam's right: such "scarcity" is manufactured.

It also undervalues sangha, as it posits that without certified instruction, students will fall willy-nilly for false and/or abusive authority. I'll see that and raise you this: when the Sangha replaces blind faith with caveat emptor, fools and scoundrels will find us barren ground indeed. Because dharma-transmitted fools and scoundrels abound, shielded by the Confucianism that's crept into our religion over the centuries.

Adam further suggests that far from establishing security, such attitudes actually impoverish. He's right. There is no scarcity of wisdom, insight, or compassion in Zen. We enjoy boundless wealth, in the millions who have trod and are treading the Path in earnest determination. What mind could reject such a windfall?

The essential quandary is not simply that no-one has a patent on the Dharma; it's that all of us are still not enough. We must have what everybody brings to the zendo. Bare minimum.

In biographical passages, Adam recounts many mentors, of various walks and origins, who put up with his beginner pestering, or calmly watched him make mistakes and then told him why his stuff didn't work, and one senior technician whose elliptical teaching method, by Adam's telling, was as koanic as any Ancestor's. All of which has inspired him to give in kind, now that he's a lion of the maker world.

The fact is, the most important thing makers make is makers.

(Photo courtesy of Richard Greenhill, Hugo Eliasand, and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

WW: Repurposed bird feeder

Thursday, 5 September 2019

Autumn Anatta

Leaves fall gently down
Like rain into autumn pools
Who writes this bullshit?

(Photo courtesy of Robert Wnuk and

Thursday, 29 August 2019

Ego Kyôsaku

"The biggest ego-trip going is getting rid of your ego."

Alan Watts

(Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

WW: Starfish report, 2019

(Well, here we are again, on the same beach as last year. This summer I had difficulty finding any Evasterias – the photo above is full half of those I counted – while Dermasterias, which is resistant to the starfish plague, continues much in evidence. I didn't find many Henricia either, but they're not technically intertidal, and the tide wasn't as low as last year. And as in the past, not a single Pycnopodia, profuse in these quiet North Coast waters when I was a kid.

The lack of Evasterias compared to recent post-plague years, and the small size of those found, continue to sound a knell for this species. However, there remain two slim hopes.

First, the very low census still adds up to more than
Pycnopodia or Pisaster, now apparently extinct here.

And second, though it appears that all our young
Evasterias still succumb within a year or two to the plague, so far a handful are still turning up on the tidelands each summer.

So a healthy breeding population must survive in deeper, colder water. With any luck they'll outlive the virus, and eventually repopulate the bay.)

Thursday, 22 August 2019


Cloak of Conscience Side View

"People who don’t have a sense of shame have no future."

Thích Nhất Hạnh

(The Cloak of Conscience courtesy of Anna Chromy and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

WW: Baby barn swallow

(I was climbing down to the beach the other day and happened on this little guy [Hirundo rustica] in the tall grass, newly kicked/fallen out of a nest in the eaves of an old boathouse. His hovering parents became hysterical at my approach, but as you can see, the kid himself was game [or naïve] enough to meet me head-on.)

Thursday, 15 August 2019

There We Go Again

Guitarist girl In 1962, the number of playable guitars per million inhabitants on this planet was 200. By 2014, that figure was 11,000.

In case you thought guns were the only thing that was proliferating here.

(Statistic from Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World, by Hans Rosling. Photo courtesy of Istvan Takacs and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

WW: Blue elderberries

(Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea.)

Thursday, 8 August 2019

Good Video: Suic!de and Ment@l He@lth by Oliver Thorn

As I've mentioned in past years, August has by a series of dependent co-arising become Suicide Month here on Rusty Ring. Along with depression, isolation, and alienation, it's a topic I often contemplate, as being an epidemic our culture both militantly ignores and wilfully misattributes. (That is, refuses to take full responsibility for.)

So, this being August, and a sangha sister having some time ago alerted me to his worthwhile and relevant talent, I rate it time to introduce readers not yet privy to my man Oliver Thorn.

Olly, as his legion of fans call him, has earned a legion of fans through his Philosophy Tube channel on YouTube. I suspect I'm not alone in appreciating his steady, well-informed leftist responses to the rightwing conventional wisdom of our era. Olly's commentary is better than balanced; it's rational, amiably sardonic, and self-mocking.

And I never trust a person who trusts himself.

Also – big surprise – it turns out Olly has a history of suicidal tendencies. Because the dumb and brutal don't suffer from that. Which tells you most of what you need to know about that responsibility I mentioned above.

Olly's admirers learned about his relationship with despair something less than a year ago, when he uploaded the above video. The man's raw courage is breath-taking, and while this particular post bears little witness to the research and humour that's earned him his rabid (and apparently largely male) following, I suspect I'm not alone in considering it one of his best.

If you've had suicidal tendencies, or someone you care about does, by all means treat yourself to Oliver Thorn's globally public self-interrogation.

Which is all of you. So hop to it.

For the rest, bear in mind Robin's Rule of Reason: "Killing yourself because everyone else is crazy is unskilful."

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

WW: Radio road trip

(My QRP rig set up in a friend's back garden.)

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Koan of the Heroic Fish

Mauritania boy1

A Western Zenner was visiting sacred sites in the mountains of Korea, when he happened upon the hermit Hyung meditating beside a stream.

"Why, you must be the great Hyung-roshi!" said the hiker. "Is it true that you live in perfect harmony with nature, never wanting for anything?"

"Yes," said Hyung, equanimously ignoring the Japanese honorific. "The living things of this mountain are my sangha, and they support my practice without fail."

"Give me a story to take home!" the tourist begged.

"Well," said Hyung, "a fish once saved my life."

"Wonderful!" cried the visitor. "How did this miracle happen?"

"I ate him," said Hyung.

Wu Ya's commentary: "Heroic fish gives his life for the flowers."

(A similar tale can be found in the teachings of Nasrudin.)

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

WW: Homesick

(Sagebrush [Artemisia tridentata] collected on my last trip to the Gold Side hangs on the foot of my cot.)

Thursday, 25 July 2019

Best Thing In Years

Zen monasteries traditionally close in midsummer, when the zendo gets too hot for comfortable (or safe) sitting and the travelling is good. Then the sangha put the altar Buddha in cryostasis – wrapping him in black cloth till autumn – take stick, and leave, posting a skeleton crew to mind the store.

The Internet does that too. Around July readership drops sharply as more attractive options open up on the northern half of our planet, where most users live. Thus, I learned long ago that I can do pretty much anything I want around now; ain't nobody home no how.

Hence the yearly ritual of the rock groups, with sporadic even weirder vacations from Zen, strictly spoke. So let this post be one of the latter.

Over the past year I've become attached to a Youtube trend so awesome I have to share it. By measured steps, short-subject filmmaking has advanced on that platform, quietly improving and proliferating, in the absence of all profit motive or likelihood of fame. Today, as fans often remark in the comments, these labours of love and passion can rival anything coming out of major studios or corporate television.

Probably the most prominent example is Dust (above). Though devoted to science fiction, in the best tradition of that genre this channel's definition of same is decidedly liberal. So much so that choosing an embed is agonising. The one I finally went with is both typical (quality of concept, writing, performance, production) and unusual (subject). But I'm unable to discern a "normal" Dust subject; any redundancy in their catalogue is well-camouflaged.

Note also that the suggested video is only 12 minutes. That's on the long side. If Dust uploaded a 20-minute film, they'd probably have to put an intermission in it.

The Omeleto vault, for its part, might be summed up as "O. Henry meets Rod Serling". Again, my search for an archetype was fruitless, but the video below is representative of the humour, insight, and fearless young writing.

Some of the actors you'll see are familiar, particularly in the Dust entrées. But if you recognise one, you won't recognise two; the rest will be brilliant aspirants. This means those few name artists are doing it for joy more than career, and I for one tend to love that sort of thing out of all proportion to objective merit.

Which is also awesome here. Just to be clear.

Likewise, some scripts are complete, taking the audience two hours' distance in ten minutes, while others play like opening scenes from non-existent features. But in both cases the raw power of the writers behind them makes me want to get out of the business.

All in, this movement is a perpetual mitzvah: the best movies you'll see all summer, free, bottomless, on demand, fully portable, and each one shorter than a sitcom. (Even without adverts.) "Hang on, I gotta watch this BAFTA-calibre movie. No worries; it's eight minutes long."

And the manna pelts on unabated, for in addition to further Dust and Omeleto suggestions, you'll find other nuggets of comparable genius from still more independent short channels in the margins. If you're not careful, this could become a problem.

But don't come running to me; my own Watch Later list is so long it'll be months before I get back to you.

So much of the hope we had for the Internet never materialised, or rotted into horrors we scarce suspected. In such times, this-here is a fair-dinkum boon; a manifestation of wish fulfillment.

So load 'em up. We've earned it.

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

WW: Long-toed salamander

(Ambystoma macrodactylum. Politely displaying the reason for both the common name and binomial.)

Thursday, 18 July 2019

The Hermit Path

Bontebok in fynbos

"There was an anchorite who was grazing with the antelopes and who prayed to God, saying, 'Lord, teach me something more.' And a voice came to him, saying, 'Go into this monastery and do whatever they tell you.'

"He went there and remained in the monastery, but he did not know the work of the brothers. The young monks began to teach him how to work and they would say to him, 'Do this, you idiot' and 'Do that, you fool.'

"When he had borne it, he prayed to God, saying, 'Lord, I do not know the work of men; send me back to the antelopes.'

"And having been freed by God, he went back into the country to graze with the antelopes."

The Paradise of the Desert Fathers

(Photo courtesy of Hein Waschefort and Wikimedia Commons.)

Thursday, 11 July 2019

Rock Groups 2019

It's July, aka the Rock Moon here at the Ring, in which I share with the world my preternatural gift for naming rock groups.

Even rock groups that don't exist.

Even rock groups that should exist. So get on that, OK?

The rules remain constant:

1. All names inscribed here are available to anybody who wants one, free of any charge or obligation. You like it, you take it.

2. I can't guarantee somebody hasn't committed psychic plagiary by already naming their group one of these, so Google thoroughly before adopting one.

3. Any genre suggestions are gratuitous. If you think Les Sœurs Hospitalières would be a great name for your gritty alt-country band… have at it, pardner.

4. All I ask is that if in future someone asks you where you got that awesome name, tell them it was conferred upon you by a Zen hermit monk. Because that's a fantastic story.

And so, to those of you who are about to rock, I give you:

Rock Groups 2019

Les Ignares
The Wogs of Door (like last year's Dogs of War, but… not)
The Pie is Gone
Les Sœurs Hospitalières (all-female medieval folk rock group)
Jessica's Bad Idea (grrrl punk)
Stream of Conscience
Dino Arduino
Standup Tragedy
Bikini Chain
Drop D
Spew (gotta be metal)
Lolo Pass (country, as above)
Humphrey Dumfries and The Egg
Toxic Mail
The Latchkey Kids
The Knights of Stairwell
The Recipe
The Massage
Hot Mess
Cherry Red
The Synoptic Gospels and John
Pepper's Ghost
Punk Muppet
Pious Ponce
Pilot Error
Gooseberry Jam (upbeat country rock)
Greek Fire
Devil's Club

(Photo courtesy of and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

WW: Real eggs

(They have to be steamed, not boiled, but it's totally worth the hassle.)

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Entire Zen Teaching

Sit down.
Shut up.
Pay attention.

(Photo courtesy of Benjamin Balazs and

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

WW: Coulee country

(Open in a new window to better appreciate the beauty of this unique habitat.)

Thursday, 27 June 2019

The Third Treasure

After a recent very pleasant afternoon spent in the companionship of a beloved sangha-mate, I've fallen to contemplating the blessings of the Third Treasure.

This is the hardest one for us hermits to acquire. The Buddha is in the can. He's been and done, and left his priceless teaching and even more priceless (less priceable?) example.

The Dharma too is freely available. In fact, good ol' Donum Secundum is the great strength of my path. House-monks must cobble up an artificial, human-dependent Dharma to simulate the flow of the River we wild boys see in the sky each night. If in their rituals our domesticated brothers and sisters sometimes take direction from Les Nessman-roshi, it's that mocking up a universe is not for the faint of heart.

But we hermits, having sniggered at their choreographed pantomimes, must quickly return to the endless task of pulling Sangha out of plants, animals, mountains, tools, stars, meteorological events, water features…

Which isn't crazy at all.

For their part, cœnobites enjoy free and convenient access to, like, companionship. So much so that it becomes burdensome. Leonard Cohen, asked if he missed the days of his own Zen centre residency, diplomatically replied that monastery monks are "like pebbles in a bag, polishing each other smooth". He then pointedly dropped the subject.

But Sangha is critical, if for no other reason than to triangulate one's own attitudes and actions. A human being alone first becomes weird (guilty) and then insane (charges dropped for lack of witnesses), wandering off on ego-deflected tangents until simple reason, to say nothing of enlightenment, becomes impossible. Any sincere solitary will tell you that mindfulness of this dilemma, and self-monitoring of our course over the ground, claim much of our cushion time.

But as vital as all that is, it's not Sangha's greatest gift. There's also endless wisdom and insight; the times a fellow traveller solves a koan you've been working on for years in two or three words, and a tone that implies "…you dumbass". Then you return to your own practice liberated, in the Buddhic sense, and game to seize the next quandary.

But even that is not Sangha's highest power.

That would be simple companionship.

Here in the industrialised world, where humanity itself is roundly considered weakness, if not sin, we generally insist that social interaction is a luxury, and a superficial one at that. We absolutely do not recognise that refusing same is equivalent to denying food and shelter.

If we kept food from prisoners, there would be scandals, hearings, forced resignations, ruined careers; more advanced nations would levy the satisfying irony of prison sentences.

But when we lock people in dungeons, nothing happens. No gavel strikes, no activist shouts "hey-hey ho-ho", no candidate makes promises – even ones she has no intention of honouring – to eliminate this particularly caustic torture.

To cite a single case, a large percentage of incarcerated Americans are daily buried alive in solitary confinement. Not for days (24 hours being the maximum the average person can endure without permanent damage), nor even weeks, but years. Even sentences of ten years without the equivalent of food and shelter are considered trivial in American courts.

All of which is on my mind in the wake of four hours spent catching up with a close friend and comrade in Zen. I cleared the tea things much lightened, instructed, and renewed, and very aware that when the Buddha called Sangha one-third of Enlightenment, he wasn't being twee.

The equivalence is mathematical: in Buddhist practice, Sangha is of equal necessity to the Buddha and the Dharma.

Or to put it another way, you'd be entirely justified in locking your Buddha statue in a closet and replacing it on your altar with photos of your peers.

The Rinzai side of me is already smirking seditiously.

(Photo of "A Few Good Men" courtesy of Vibhav Satam and Unsplash.)
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