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.)

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

WW: Cactus flower

(Opuntia sp.)

Thursday, 13 June 2019

The Dharma of Doctrine

Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita Mara Demons Recently heard on Bhante Sujato's Dhammanet podcast (available from the website and the usual aggregators):

"A man found a piece of truth on the ground and picked it up. Seeing this, Mara smiled.

"'Why are you smiling?' asked the Buddha.

"'Just give him five minutes,' Mara answered. 'He'll make a doctrine out of it."

(Nepali painting of Mara's retinue courtesy of the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

WW: Capitol deer

(Behind the Washington state capitol in Olympia.)

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Bad Dreams

One of the advantages of eremitical monasticism is the freedom to adapt practice to needs and conditions. Among the disadvantages is having life make its own changes without consulting you first.

Recently my meditation practice was largely eliminated by unsupportive circumstances. Then I got it back, as new conditions imposed themselves. And that's precipitated some valuable insight.

Meditation causes bad dreams.

This isn't my first experience with this. Most dramatic was ango, the salient features of which were a monastery-grade meditation schedule and unhappy REM sleep. Not nightmares per se; just reviews of personal regrets and fears that left me sad and circumspect.

But this is the first time I've noticed the causal relationship. When I'm prevented from meditating deeply or regularly, the bad dreams go away. Then I start getting more reliable cushion time, and they come back. Why?

I might spin a few hypotheses. One is just the free exercise of my whole brain. When you don't meditate much, you're actively firing only a small chunk of your neural net. Most of your mind runs in the background, cataloguing details and mapping associations while you drive ignorantly on. But meditation uses all the plumbing, and that stirs up rust and mould and silt that's settled quietly for years.

None of which is news to beginning meditators. The sensational tilling of ancient strata is one of the top ten results of new practices, and the main drive of the famous "burning off" of accrued delusion that Zenners often report at that stage. My own was a veritable inferno.

But apparently something more is going on. I generally get more courageous, in all facets of my life, when I practice consistently. "Composed" may be a better word; the mind-set Thich Nhat Hanh calls "mountain-solid". It's an un-macho, un-histrionic sort of gravel; I don't become a soldier or a warrior (thank God). I'm just more willing to "go there", where I otherwise might dither.

I think this is related to the bad dreams; whoever it is that edits that content when I'm not meditating regularly becomes less squeamish when I am. And the fact is, with further sustained practice the monk starts inserting himself into those scenarios.

"Well," he says, "we can always leave."

Or he confronts a critic: "Remind me again what business it is of yours?"

Or he apologises. "I should have thought more carefully before I made that decision. I shouldn't have assumed I knew what to do about this."

I'm still wistful during and after these dreaky movies, but I wake up informed at worst, and sometimes gratified.

Any road, as sincere sitters know, meditation isn't about feeling better or fixing things; it's about confronting and accepting them. I'm no greater fan of bad dreams than anyone else, and if I had the choice I'd skip that part, but I deeply value the insights they offer, and particularly the sense that I'm in greater control and that something useful and productive is happening between my ears.

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

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

WW: Red-flowering currant

(Ribes sanguineum)

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Concentration Camp


Zen monastery.

Wait for it.

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

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

WW: Vanilla leaf

(Achlys triphylla.)

Thursday, 23 May 2019

I Want, I Fear, I Surrender

I learned this meditation from AJ Smith of Restoration Church, an urban Evangelical congregation in Philadelphia featured on Gimlet's Startup podcast. In a moment of self-doubt and uncertainty, AJ engages this mantra, which I gather is fairly common to seekers on his path.

"I want, I fear, I surrender" has a definite Insight ring, don't you think?

If "surrender" seems a little New Age-y, we can always substitute "accept". That formula you could easily sell as straight from the Ancestors, and none would be the wiser. (Hey, wouldn't be the first time.)

Anyway, I think this is a powerful meditation for those moments when you're paralysed by anxiety. Or just as a technique for confronting the koan of anatta.

(Photo courtesy of Nagesh Jayaraman and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

WW: Wanton destruction

(Excepting humans, vandalism is rare on this planet. Which is why I find beavers fascinating. The animal that felled this tree wasn't after food. [They only eat the bark.] Nor had he earmarked this trunk for construction. [Too big, too far from the water.] He was just obeying some maladaptive inner compulsion.

Because it burns massive amounts of time, exposure, and calories, while scoring not a single survival point, evolution normally frowns on such aimless violence. A glaring exception are the rodents, of which the beaver is the most imposing example, in every sense.)

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Street Level Zen: Authority

"Most good poetry is written by people whose fathers told them to shut up."

Nelson Bentley

(Photo of Matsuo Basho's The Rough Sea graffitied on a wall courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

WW: Camas

(Camas [Camassia quamash] is the clarion of spring where I grew up. Back in the day it covered hundreds of miles of open prairie, and its marble-sized, onion-shaped starchy bulbs were a pillar, along with salmon and salal, of the North Coast aboriginal diet. I used to gather it myself, until they put a shopping centre on top of my camas ground.

Thus I've been accustomed to view camas in a mostly utilitarian light, but lately I'm noting how beautiful a flower it is. Must've been something to see those vast prairies, rippling purple in the new-made sun, to the horizon.)

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Invisible Monk

I normally turn to one of several online public-domain graphics services to illustrate these posts. But figure this: on most or all of them, if you search for "monk", virtually every image will be Buddhist.

Some are Hindu, a decided few are Jain or Taoist, but almost none are Christian.

Take Unsplash. Its very generously free photographs are of such Condé-Nast quality that I rarely use them myself, this being a dirt-floored hermit blog, but click on that hyperlink. See how many of its monks are Christian.

And Unsplash is not an egregious case. Though the most widely-used service – Wikimedia Commons – does somewhat better, if you subtract historical depictions you'll find that its Christian orders still score well behind those of Asian origin.

Which renders me thoughtful. What's at work here? Is it the natural ambivalence of people in Christian-dominated societies to the Church? Or do we view Christian monastics as anachronistic – as indeed many Asians view their Buddhist counterparts? Or is it the common delusion that Asian religions are less hypocritical than Abrahamic ones?

It might simply be that Asian travel is hipper among trendy young Westerners, so the photos they take tend to depict Asian subjects.

Or maybe it's those flaming orange, red, and yellow vestments most Buddhist monks wear. Perhaps they're just more photogenic than the typical earth-toned Christian habit. 'Course that wouldn't explain why snapshots of Zenners, in their black, brown, or grey okesa, outnumber those of Catholics.

One way or the other, I think this is related to the Buddhist statuary often encountered in Western gardens and sitting rooms. But it's not just exoticism; Christian monks have become almost as novel to us in these times, particularly since they rarely go abroad in uniform these days.

Yet somehow they don't command the same mystique. When you consider all the old-school Christian cœnobites still afoot in the Mediterranean countries and Eastern Europe and Latin America, it's astonishing how few make it into our stock photos.

I'm convinced that somewhere in there is a fundamental misconception about the nature and reality of Buddhist monasticism.

Because the fact is, life and practice in Christian and Buddhist monasteries is astonishingly similar.

(Photo of Zen master Seung Sahn uncharacteristically outnumbered by the brothers of Our Lady of Gethsemani courtesy of ZM Dae Gak [Robert Genther] and Wikimedia Commons.)

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Drowning Doesn't Look Like Drowning

This article has saved countless lives.

In Drowning Doesn't Look Like Drowning, Mario Vittone makes some timely points about how people drown. And how many die each year because everyone thinks a drowning person says, "If you please, good sir, I believe I am drowning," like they do on Gilligan's Island.

I'm acutely aware of this quandary, because when I was in high school I saved a child's life. Several families had convened on the waterfront for a late-summer get-together, and the kids were all splashing around in the water. I – the oldest – went snorkeling some distance away.

I'd circled back to the swimming area and had just stood up in the shallows, when I saw a that three-year-old boy had edged himself out too deep. In the space of that glance, he tilted his head backward in an effort to breathe, and as he opened his mouth, it immediately filled with water. I'm not talking about a slosh; I mean a wave sucked him, open-mouthed, completely underwater.

I screamed and ripped off my mask and snorkel, stomping across the rocky bottom in my annoying big diving fins, throwing younger bathers right and left as I floundered toward him.

I made quite a scene.

I also reached the sinking child in seconds, whereupon I jerked him clean out by the armpits and hauled him, at the same thrashing, half-stumbling pace, back to land.

Afterward I sat down on the bank, trembling, my flippered feet still in the water. Everybody stared. The kid was crying. "He was drowning," I panted.

Awkward silence.

"Oh, uh... thanks," said his mother. She was about ten feet from where her son would likely have died, or at least required full-on resuscitation, if I hadn't happened by the dumbest of luck to see him go under. No-one had noticed him out there, or what was happening to him. As Vittone points out, the kid hadn't made so much as a peep at any point.

I wasn't perturbed by the lack of fanfare. Like most rescuers I was as traumatised by the event as the victim. I was exasperated by the attitude of the grups, and that some seemed irked that I'd upset the little guy, as they believed, by randomly snatching him out of the water.

Which is why I'm sharing Vittone's article. His precise description of what drowning looks like took me right back to that place, over 40 years ago, where a child nearly died just feet from half a dozen cavorting others, and a few feet more from another half-dozen adults drinking and kibitzing.

The victim didn't gesticulate or shout. He didn't splash or flog around.

He just… sank.

Water season is upon us up here in the Northern Hemisphere. Let us read up in readiness.

Oh, and a secondary point: if a bay boy says somebody's drowning, somebody's drowning.

(Photo from the article linked above.)

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

WW: On the road

(I don't know why I like this one so much;
somehow it just looks like me.)

Thursday, 25 April 2019


Aaron Burden 2017-01-02 (Unsplash YILmPSsn3T4) Travelling so far so long in isolated country produces a kind of elation. The muttering millions bugger off, leaving you in boundless creation, under a sympathetic God.

(Adapted from Rough Around the Edges: A Journey Around Washington's Borderlands, copyright RK Henderson. Photo courtesy of Anthony Burden and Wikimedia Commons.)

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

WW: Spring stirfry

(The giving season. Morels [Morchela conica] and fresh asparagus.)

Thursday, 18 April 2019


Radio experimenters guide 1923
Me at my station. Note how state-of-the-art it
looks now that I've replaced all the knobs
with rotary encoders.
Last year, after a prodigal decade, I got back into ham radio. Digging out my old gear and catching up with the new had a Rip Van Winkle quality; like all things tech, radio evolves at astounding speed.

There were also the inevitable jargon shifts. It's a universal human phenomenon – constantly adjusting our codes to confirm insiders and bar outsiders. Tech fields, with their giddy rate of material change, are especially given to it.

So it was that I spent weeks working out what a "rotary encoder" was. Something to do with Arduinos? (This after looking up "Arduino", which clarified but little. Now, having read some more and watched a few YouTube videos, I own one. And someday I hope to get it to do something.)

But "rotary encoders" appear on Arduino-less equipment, too. I soldiered on through the blizzard of rotary encoder references, till at last I cornered this majestic creature for close and thorough inspection. And lo I was enlightened.

It's a knob. You know: the round plastic thing you twist to turn up the volume, or change the frequency.

Apparently, in my absence, the rest of you figured out what a knob is, so we had to upgrade that terminology before you began to suspect we aren't as great as our game.

And that's why, starting tomorrow, I'm refitting all my doors with rotary encoders. Because I insist on cutting edge. I won't actually have to do anything; just call all my doorknobs "rotary encoders" from here on in. And I'll be miles ahead of you other dweebs.

Which meditation puts me in mind of a broader trend in my life these days. To wit, all of my religious and political opinions have dwindled and melded into one single iron principle:

Show me results or sod right the hell off.

As I age, I've quite lost patience with shell games. I'm not the least bit interested in thrice-busted cons (capitalism, Marxism, any scheme to sum up all human aspiration in a single sentence) and pseudo-science (economics foremost, along with a great steaming chunk of the other social sciences, yea though that's my academic preparation).

Nor do I retain any faith in religious eschatology. Try to sell me some Nigerian scam whereby I tolerate or cause suffering in this world in exchange for a pay-off in the next, and you'll see my veil of courtesy slip. Same with attempts to shame me into collusion. "You think too much of yourself. You can't possibly grasp the genius of God/guru/gospel."

Listen, O Knowing One: show me results or piss off. Validate your success. I want unspun stats, discrepant data, objective evaluation, adult-level honesty, sensitivity, and complexity. I don't care whether or not your approach is consistent with my religion, culture, or assumptions. If you've fixed something, I'll muck in.

If not, I won't let you finish your sentence.

This is the sword of Zen, as I've lived it. In my experience, "don't know mind" is both the essence and the action of this practice. When I fail at that, I fail at other things as well. When I succeed, I tend to reap results.

It's difficult not to get bogged in the quagmire of "knowing 'don't-know mind'". Humans are wired to "find" things, and then to conclude that others' troubles come from not having found them. (Or even from wickedly obscuring them.)

So not-knowing is a constant chore. Putting down the stuff I know, which I pick up every day, is a goal I'll ultimately never attain. But reaching gets results, so I keep doing it.

In the end, I guess the best advice I can give to myself or others is, respectfully:

Don't be a rotary encoder.

(Graphic courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and the Newark Sunday Call.)

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

WW: Korean ritual

(My mother's neighbour is Korean, and every spring I see her in her front yard, drying great quantities of bracken fiddleheads. I once tried to strike up a conversation with her while she worked, but lack of common language limited us to smiles and nods. Still, I believe my gestures and tone of voice communicated my approval of her good sense. If nothing else, her yearly ritual brings some badly-needed earthiness to my mom's tightly-ordered retirement community.)

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Good Video: Nathaniel Drew Meditates

Lots of videos on the old blog lately. Down no doubt to the fact that much of my audio-visual consumption comes from YouTube these days.

This week I watched Nathaniel Drew's 19-minute account of a week spent meditating twice a day. And it's not bad.

First off, Nathaniel never set out to sit zazen, so I'm not going to do that annoying religious thing and pick at another's practice from imaginary higher ground. Meditation is common to many religions, and also to nonreligious individuals and movements. For me to complain about Nathaniel's Zen would trigger Karma's infamous So-What response, and that's trouble I don't need.

However, he does say he's looking for mindfulness and clarity, so as a sangha mate that entitles me to an opinion. (And no more.)

From the outset, Nathaniel seems to have mixed intent. On the one hand, he wants a settled, nonreactive mind; on the other, worldly rewards. That's true of all of us, if we're honest; doubly so of beginners. But I do believe he got off on the wrong foot by buying (literally) into something called the Headspace app. Those folks are selling meditation, and I have no faith in commercial gurus.

(By contrast, the "meditation" apps I recently reviewed are just timers, and importantly, non-profit.)

But Nathaniel survives this fairly serious initial stumble. From the outset he's commendably firm, requiring of himself two sits a day, whether it's fun or not. That tempers some of his initial getitude and yields true results. He also adapts his practice to his life and environment, making changes where indicated. In this he bests some Zenners I know.

But the single great weakness in his technique is that he's meditating 'way too long. An hour sit is gruelling, even for experienced meditators. (By comparison, cloistered Zen monks normally sit 40 minutes, give or take.)

Fact is, the most effective way to time meditation is to sit till you're done. Evaluating your practice by minutes earned is slave-think.

When I started, I was typically done by around 15-odd minutes. That slowly stretched (on average; not every time) to about an hour. But I still sit less than half an hour sometimes, and others – rarely – as much as two.

So if a session can be open-ended, sit till you're done.

Some of Nathaniel's stated goals awaken the hectoring religioso in me, so I'll spare everybody that ugly prospect. Instead I'll encourage him to keep meditating, while continuing to avoid, actively and attentively, spiritual and physical materialism. As a Buddhist, I know that's all the task requires.

I'm also intrigued by his interest in Stoic philosophy, aka "Roman Zen". I wasn't aware that was a thing among young people these days. They could do worse. A Zen – Stoic dialogue would be most productive; we could use that kind of kyôsaku.

For the rest, I smiled when Nathaniel apologised for not having life-changing visions, and lamented he'd only attained "surface level".

That's all there is, young brother. If visions happen, put them down before they mess you up.

Anyway, have a look. The guy's asking the right questions, and taking the right measures.

(Readers interested in Zen approaches to meditation will find one here.)

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

WW: Spring feast

(Lady fern [Athyrium filix-femina] shoots. Blessing of the season.)

Thursday, 4 April 2019

The Easter Effect

Rurikoji temple pagoda in Spring

spring breeze...
packed with people
the mountain temple


(Photo courtesy of Maria Yamaguchi and Wikimedia Commons.)

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Good Song: Make America Great Again

As far as I can tell David's a Christian, so I was surprised to hear a call-out to us in this song. But he's a powerful writer and performer, with a Dylanesque melancholy that bypasses the discursive mind, so on behalf of all of us I'll acknowledge his high-five, in the hope that we live up to it.

What with all the talk in the States these days about the need to "make America great again" (every word of which is a mu-calibre koan) it's refreshing to hear someone contemplate what that might actually look like. I.e., the difference between great and shabby, between America and not-America.

Supposing those things exist.

Any road, here's a good song and a timely. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

WW: Burrowing sea cucumber

(Leptosynapta clarki)

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Three Meditation Timer Apps

Time on the Beach I've used a lot of meditation timers since I started doing this. First was a CD of surf sounds. Two half-hour tracks, Atlantic first, then Pacific. "K-tel's Saltwater Super Hits."

As my zazen turned toward the orthodox I started using my refrigerator, sitting through the end of the cycle, or the beginning, then deciding if I wanted to sit through the next.

During my first sesshin I used a VCR: fast forward to the end of a cassette, rewind back 30 minutes, and reset counter. Then push "play" and the machine runs to the end of the spool, then auto-rewinds back to zero with a whirr and a "ka-klunk". Replay as necessary.

Eventually I got a pager-like timer I wear on the belt of my robe. I still use it sometimes. Also my watch, the timer on my iPod, an old-fashioned beaded mala, and, when I can, nothing at all; I just sit till I'm done.

But all of these solutions, while effective, lack a certain charm. And sometimes you just want a little atmosphere. Which is why it finally occurred to me to check out meditation timers for iOS.

Naturally I mean free ones.

Here are three that a not-very-long survey of the iTunes App library turned up. I don't know if they're available for other platforms, but if not, something else must be. Also, I've resolutely not updated the system on my iPod for five years, so I couldn't run some of the fancier apps I encountered. YMMV.

But each is effective and competitively priced.

WCCM App 2 is a gift from the World Community for Christian Meditation. It doesn't seem to have been updated in some time, but works well on my iPod. The welcome menu is a list of hotlinks to WCCM news boards, teachings, and devotionals – no doubt valuable for WCCM meditators. If you check the lower righthand corner of your screen you'll also see a stopwatch labelled "Meditation Tools". That takes you to a beautifully simple meditation timer that seekers of all traditions can use. You get your choice of one tone (a very nice singing bowl), customisable preparation interval, and session, which starts with one chime and ends with three. All in all, an elegant, effective resource.

Zenso is somewhat more complex, but intuitive and easy to use, offering in addition to a preparation interval the possibly of programming mindfulness bells during the session proper. You also get 7 traditional Zen tones, from chimes of various sizes to moktak to One Hand Clapping (aka Jack). You can select the number of reps too, from 1 to 3, though you'll have to take their word on that last one. There's also a vibrate option if your tech can do that.

And finally, Enso is a purchase-in-app alternative whose free default mode is well worthwhile. It offers the same timing options as Zenso, with a graphic interface that allows you literally to dial up the number of minutes you want. You only get one tone – a vaguely sci-fi-sounding synthesised chime that's oddly satisfying, given the Star Trek technology you're using – but you can buy any or all of 11 other bells for not much if you'd like. The app also includes some attainment-oriented functions that teach the wrong path, as far as I'm concerned, but, you know… off-switch, 'n'all.

To find these meditation aids search their titles at the iTunes app store, using your mobile device. While you're at it you might simply browse "meditation timer" as well; chances are your device is more current than mine, and your choices correspondingly broader.

And remember not to get attached to your new app. If the time or circumstance comes when you can't use it, temporarily or at all, that's got nothing to do with the quality of your sitting.

That's all on you.

(Photo courtesy of Liam Ferguson and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

WW: Schooner

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Mindfulness Kyôsaku


"A watched mind never boils."

Gil Fronsdal

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

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

WW: Old brewery, again

(Here it is again: the old Olympia Brewery, aka the most photogenic structure in Thurston County. I believe this sole fact has protected it from being torn down for a century. It has nevertheless begun to crumble on its own, having been unmaintained for nearly a hundred years now, and one wonders how much longer it can survive.

No filtres or Photoshop were used on this shot, by the way. Just a straightforward black and white exposure on a late winter day.)

Thursday, 7 March 2019


I was difficult when I was younger.

Part of me would like to go back and face some of those challenges and circumstances again, except... not be a jerk this time. Think it might help?

"Not making a bad situation worse." Right up there with "being grateful for your blessings", and "cherishing other people just because they're in the boat with you."

Lessons it took me longer than most to learn.

(Photo courtesy of Jonny Keicher and

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

WW: Spring counter-punches

(Genus Crocus.)

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Street Level Zen: Intention

Under the same sun

"Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time."

Steven Wright

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

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

WW: Skull tree

(This is a tree on the edge of my camp during ango. As I've mentioned twice before, humans like to hang skulls in conspicuous places. I'm no different.)

Thursday, 21 February 2019

The First Trial

Pagan meditation2 "Yoshimura explained that Louise couldn't [study Zen at a Japanese temple] because she wasn't Japanese and would be a burden on the priest's wife. She should remain in America for a year or two while her husband studied in Japan.

"Louise became angry. 'All of you think it's better to be a man than a woman, you think it's better to be a priest than a layperson, and you think it's better to be Japanese than American. But I will always be a woman, and I will always be a layperson, and I will always be an American, and here I am.'

"Everyone was silent. [Shunryu] Suzuki turned to her and said, 'What you have just expressed is the spirit of the bodhisattva's way.'"

David Chadwick, Crooked Cucumber.

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

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

WW: Winter Olympics

(The originals. Open photo in a new window to see it bigger.)

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Good Song and Video: Иероглиф

When I first heard this on Радио Русский Рок I was astonished how similar Пикник ("Picnic") sounds to Malicorne. As I listened further, a second echo surfaced: Persone. (That's not the track I'd've chosen to demonstrate, but it's not bad and the best I could find on YouTube.)

So basically you've got the fusion of three awesome groups. A harmonic convergence – no pun intended – so remarkable I could not ethically keep it to myself.

And let's not forget that all by itself, without any call-backs, the song and performance are brilliant. (Иероглиф means "Kanji" in this context.) And you can't beat those Buddhist themes.

So give it a listen, with by all means that high-def video on full screen. This is one of the rare times the visuals enhance the literature.

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

WW: Freshly-made bed

Thursday, 7 February 2019

The World's Most Unsettling Question's Jason Pargin (aka David Wong) uploaded a particularly cogent article this week. His general topic is why the level of trust in the US has dropped to all-time lows, particularly among the young. Along the way he delves into such issues as who has the right to judge others, by what right, and what responsibilities that right implies.

The entire article is very good – no surprise to Jason/David's regular readers – but I found the following passage particularly compelling, given that it expresses an ancient Zen teaching on where things come from and what they are once they've come. (Otherwise known as dependent co-arising.)

Jason calls this "The World's Most Unsettling Question". And it just might be.
Think of the worst person you know of, past or present. Hopefully someone who you know quite a bit about. Now ask yourself:

If you were in their situation, would you have done the same things they did?

You're going to say no, because obviously you're not a serial killer or Nazi torturer or Alex Jones or whoever you picked. But when I say "in their situation," I mean the whole thing. You'd have their physical impulses, including any illnesses or personality disorders. You'd have their upbringing, their genes, any childhood trauma. You'd have all of the information that they absorbed over the course of their life – and only that information – and you would only be capable of processing it in the same way they do.

"Well, that's different," you'll say. "You asked what I'd do in their situation, you didn't say I'd actually become them."

But... what's the difference?

See the entire article here. It's well worth the click.

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

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

WW: Sand lance

(Ammodytes personatus. For some reason they often turn up dead or dying on the tidelands.)
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