Thursday 20 June 2024

Poem: The Frog Sutra

Could they be sutras?
In the temple well
frogs chant


(POV photo of well courtesy of Gary Meulemans and

Thursday 13 June 2024

One-Armed Pathfinder Huike

Huike thinking So I've been at it again – diving into the Ancestors and the movement that produced them. And once again I've come up with a gem: Second Chàn Patriarch Dazu Huike, known in Japan as Taiso Eka.

Huike appears to fit the global definition of hermit, as his Wikipedia article says he was "considered enlightened but criticised for not having a teacher." He eventually filled this gap in his c.v. by convincing none other than Bodhidharma to take him as a student, though folklore says he had to amputate an arm as collateral. (Still cheaper than an American university.)

But if we assume that at least the part about becoming Bodhidharma's student is accurate, that makes Huike typical of the anti-scholasticism of early Chàn. Bodhidharma, Huike, Huineng, Layman Pang – this renewalist rebellion is lousy with hermits. Huike's own teachings, heavy on meditation, light on sutra study, underscore this theme.

Tellingly, upon his assumption of Bodhidharma's teaching duties, our ancestral literature tells us that another Buddhist teacher – i.e., a "certified authority" – sent an assassin to kill him, on suspicion of disciple-poaching. Thus are preserved two useful historical points: that Buddhism has always been a religion like any other – worldly, fallible, hypocritical – and the koanic notion of a Buddhist assassin. (Or near-assassin; in the end, Huike defused this bomb Buddha-fashion: by converting the hit man.)

These and other stories (including "Bodhidharma's Skin and Bones", perhaps the most foundational parable in Chàn/Zen) can be found in the concise and readable Wikipedia entry. If you're interested in Zen's origins, it's worth the visit.

(Huike Thinking, attributed to Shi Ke [石恪], courtesy of the Tokyo National Museum and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday 12 June 2024

WW: Bullfrog

(Rana [Lithobates] catesbeiana. Invasive and destructive here on the North Coast, but extremely common.)

Appearing also on My Corner of the World.

Thursday 6 June 2024

Boom Town

Willapa River - South Bend, Washington (18169918781)

Where it swelled near the confluence with the Willapa River, Wilson Creek bore incongruous signs of heavy industry: breastworks of peeled cedar along the banks, crumbling now and wrenched apart by ramming drift, and a few pilings left standing midriver, where log booms once floated.

Here in the 1850s, Daniel Wilson built the area's first mill, to rip the logs that ox teams skidded off the surrounding hills. It would have had a sash saw – essentially, a giant handsaw, pumped back and forth by a cranky steam engine that chugged so slowly the sawyer could almost fish the river between passes. The planks it wore off this way were stacked on scows tied along the breastworks, to be taken first to Raymond and South Bend, and then the ports of the world. Soon steamers were stopping here as well, and the busy town of Willapa sprang into being, complete with shops and hotels.

It all happened in weeks, and a few years later, when all the trees were gone, it unhappened just as fast.

What remained – a sleepy village and a small primary school – is now called Old Willapa.

(From an earlier draught of my book, 100 Days on the Mountain. Photo of the Willapa country courtesy of Tony Webster and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday 5 June 2024

WW: More mysterious shoes

(Here we go again. This time it's a pair of virtually new hiking boots beneath a bench on a popular bike trail. There for days before someone picked them up.)

Appearing also on My Corner of the World.

Thursday 30 May 2024

Koan: Floors and Ceilings

'Way back in 1973, Paul Simon released a song called One Man's Ceiling Is Another Man's Floor. The lyrics are classic Paul: a Dylanesque flow of images that makes sense on an intuitive level.

But as a many-time flat dweller, it's the title refrain that means most to me. For like the best of Sufic teachings, its significance changes as you turn it in the light.

At base, it seems to mean "walk mindfully, because your tromping will be amplified in other rooms."

Or it could be a social justice message about the people you – wittingly or un- – exploit for your own comfort and well-being.

Conversely, it may be telling us that those limits we allow to confine us, a more visionary person could use to launch him- or herself to the stars.

Or maybe it just refers to the fact that we all live within a vast complex of shared boundaries, where freedom, if it exists, is more a matter of accord than licence.

Whatever the case (bit of a deep-dive Zen pun, there), I like to sit with Paul's one-sentence koan from time to time; see where it lands in that moment.

(Photo courtesy of and a generous photographer.)