Thursday, 27 October 2016

Issa Nails The Thing

Kobayashi Issa is my all-time favourite poet. Regular readers will find this tediously typical, for though he's one of Japan's Four Great Haiku Masters, Issa is not "the Zen one". (That would be Bashō. I like Bashō too, but he doesn't "hit" nearly as often as Issa.)

Issa annoys modern Zen on many levels. He was ordained in the Jōdo-shū sect, a Pure Land Buddhist denomination that Zenners (including myself) find a bit futile. Worse yet, he was a hermit, and on the contemporary model: he had a family, and socketed his stick dead-centre of the Red Dust World.

Yet his descriptions of hermit practice, and his distillations of eremitical insight, are the most concise, most incisive, and most accurate I've found.

Witness his most famous lines, written hours after his baby daughter died:
This world of dew
Is a world of dew
And yet.
And yet.
That simply can't be improved. If you take anything out, it falls short. If you put anything in, it collapses.

Non-Buddhists may miss the sad satire here. Our teachers often compare human existence (mistakenly but universally called "the world") to dew: it comes from nowhere, sparkles for minutes, and goes back to nowhere. Attachment to same – craving permanence in the eternally temporary – is the origin of suffering.

Accepting this sets us up for cushion error: proudly declaring that we're liberated, because we know the truth.

And yet.
And yet.

Starting to get why this middle-aged suburban church-boy so troubles Zenners?

He's also easy-going, an affront to Zen's samurai puritanism, and accepting of his own nature. His perspective is, in short, eremitical.

Exhibit B:
Napped half the day
no one
punished me.
On the eremitical path, you do what practice suggests. This is different from monastery life, where you do what order demands, what tradition demands, sometimes what the current master demands, whether it makes sense or not.

Life inside requires that kind of discipline; life outside, another kind. Issa's poem suggests that on this day, this was the right call.

And as always, his trademark self-mockery. "If only I were half the monk I claim to be."


Note the same theme, with a different conclusion, here:
Napping at midday
I hear the song of rice planters
and feel ashamed of myself.
And then there's me on ango:
All the time I pray to Buddha
I keep on
killing mosquitoes.
And what of those elegant Zen dilettantes, as hip in the West today as they were in 18th century Japan?
Writing shit about new snow
for the rich
is not art.
I gotta stop there or I'll copy and paste every poem my brother ever wrote. (I've literally never found one – not one – that isn't my favourite.) If these crumbs have whetted your appetite, you may binge at will here.

OK, one more. Until next week, here's Issa's take on being a haikunist. (Essentially, the blogger of his time and place.)
Pissing in the snow
outside my door
it makes a very straight hole.

(Photo of Kobayashi Issa's monument courtesy of 震天動地 and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

WW: View from the Hill

(Command-click to see full-sized.)

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Seasonal Practice

Raked with great effort
I lost my piles. I found them
Beneath fallen leaves

(Feuilles d'automne [1909], by Jean Philippe Edouard Robert, courtesy of Herr Auktionen and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

WW: The way of all things

(On the beach in front of an old log dump, closed since the early 80s. Remains of an ancient automobile.)

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Generosity Meditation

Prince Vessantara Gives Away His White Elephant, Scene from Vessantara Jataka on Generosity LACMA M.76.112.20
Try this:
  • Name the virtue that's the basis of all human morality.
And now this:
  • Which fundamental virtue is seldom discussed, never identified as a moral or social imperative, never urged on children, never used to shame leaders?

PSYCH! They're one and the same.

We endure a lot of banging on these days about "truth". It's one of the most popular Twitter hashtags, and the worst thing a candidate can be accused of not having. A whole tribe of conspiracy freaks are called "truthers"; another of protesters relentlessly "speaks truth to power".

And how about this gem from my Internet games collection: Google the string "truth about" (with quotation marks). Then binge on thousands upon thousands of pages wherein CRAP! is repeatedly DEBUNKED! by thousands of EXPOZAYS! of everything from GUNS! to EGGS!!!

Truth is a weapon-word. It can be wangled and pounded into any shape, and then used to bludgeon your enemies ad infinitum. By contrast, generosity makes a punky cudgel at best. Observe:
  • "I say before all of you today, that my opponent is demonstrably UNGENEROUS!" (Such a broadside will probably send her more votes than it subtracts.)
  • "The proposed legislation is of unprecedented generosity." (Can you hear the chorus of consternation?)
  • "You should take anything my ex says with a grain of salt. Generosity is not his strong suit." (Admit it; you immediately took this as a confession of guilt on the part of the speaker.)

We don't just ignore generosity; we actively discourage it. Torture became a proud part of Western democracy on the insistence that we can no longer afford to be generous. Critics of the Black Lives Matter movement deplore the generosity that slogan implies. At base, the American obsession with firearms is about an alleged right to be ungenerous. "Vex me and I'll shoot you."

Health care, refugees, economic policy, welfare, education, criminal justice, immigration… every bone of contention before us today rests on the assertion that generosity is a character flaw.

It is not. Generosity is in fact the highest expression of evolution, the mother of all virtues. It's the origin of forgiveness, and the rationale for acceptance. Generosity makes us human – or not. None of its army of antonyms – stinginess, greed, vengeance, legalism, self-centredness, judgment, cowardice, indifference, narrowness, materialism, shallowness, hostility, bigotry, triumphalism, stubbornness – are counted strengths. At least not when called by name.

Therefore, as is my habit, I've worked up a meditation to discipline my monkey mind (which truthfully amounts to a Sasquatch mind) to remain alert to the state of generosity in my life and actions. Thus:

  • How generous are the propositions of this speaker, this scholar, this candidate?
  • How generous is this religious teaching?
  • How often do I suggest generosity to those younger? (If you're a parent: how often do you advise your kids to be generous, and demonstrate it?)
  • How often do I pronounce or write the words "generosity" and "generous"?
  • How often do I use the word "ungenerous" in argument, and defend it when sneered down?
  • How often did I reconsider my actions today, in light of generosity?
  • To whom was I more generous: strangers, or friends and family? (You'll find it's usually the former. Is this moral, or even logical?)
  • What did I give today? (If, like me, your day often includes little human contact, then what did I give to plants and animals, or humanity, or myself?)
  • Did I give anything I didn't initially want to give? Did I only give things I was prepared to part with?

And so on.

Lakota scholar Luther Standing Bear, assessing the moral worth of the nation-state, concluded: "Civilisation has been thrust upon me… and it has not added one whit to my love for truth, honesty, and generosity."

My experience (minus the thrusting) has been identical. Henceforward I'm making generosity a conscious, deliberate part of my monastic practice, both in what I expect of myself, and how I measure others.

(Prince Vessantara Gives Away His White Elephant, from the Vessantara Jataka, courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

WW: Scrumping season

(Feral apples. Almost always the best-tasting, and absolutely free.
Yet another blessing of life in the outback.)

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Practice Models

Flauta paleolítica What I most ached for on the mountain was a musical instrument. They're like languages, each complete and distinct and irreplaceable. Sadly, of the several I play, only the harmonica is easily carried. Which is why I learned it, but as I never acquired the true harpist's seatbelt-sense of "nowhere without it", I'd managed to forget mine before leaving. And I missed it every day.

Flautists have it figured out: a simple tube, and a jackknife with a reamer, and you've got music. Archaeologists believe that, percussion excepted, the transverse flute was the first instrument we invented.

Of course, simplicity on that order demands complexity on another. I tried to learn, once.

And so, the harmonica. Because anything your instrument won't do for you, you have to find in yourself.

(Photo of 43,000-year-old Aurignacian bone flute, which clearly demanded more talent than I have, courtesy of José-Manuel Benito, Parque de la Prehistoria de Teverga, and Wikimedia Commons. Photo of my old Hohner Chromonica model also courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

WW: Junco

(Junco hyemalis)

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