Sunday, December 30, 2012

Twice Around the Blog - Thanks Again!

As Snow Branches celebrates its second blogiversary today, I'm reminded how fast time flies.

Once again, I'm grateful for all the support, expressed in many ways, by you kind readers: Twitter reetweets and mentions, G+ +1's, Facebook likes, shares and comments, and of course, the generous blog comments and follows, and links to Snow Branches in your posts and blogrolls. Thank you.

As I said in one of my earliest posts, The Oak Tree in the Garden,

I started blogging because I wanted to make a difference, and felt sure there was more I could do on the internet than click the Hunger Site every day.

I want to make a dent in all the suffering out there, but my problem is believing the fallacy that I need to make a dent that is significant to me.

But how is it possible to know the effects of even the smallest action? In a very real sense, I have no idea what I'm doing or what the universe is doing.

The first of the Bodhisattva Vows is a daunting proposition:  "All beings without number I vow to liberate". To keep our vow, we can only speak and do the things that seem right at the moment - hopefully things that are kind, helpful and sincere - and leave the consequences to themselves.

That said, It has been a humbling, uplifting and sobering experience to be told by readers that they have changed their lives after reading these posts. It's impossible to ignore such encouragement to keep writing.

Looking back over the year, I can't help noticing that I've been posting less frequently - 21 posts in 2012, down from 40 in 2011 - a trend I hope to turn around next year. Despite fewer posts, traffic is heavier - 17,200 visits this year up from 9,300 last year, now from 115 countries all told.

I'm excited to continue this aimless journey and would be greatly honoured by your company. Thanks again.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Bodhisattva Express

The Bodhisattva's way is called "the single-minded way," or "one railway track thousands of miles long." The railway track is always the same. If it were to become wider or narrower, it would be disastrous. Wherever you go, the railway track is always the same. That is the Bodhisattva's way. So even if the sun were to rise from the west, the Bodhisattva has only one way. His way is in each moment to express his nature and his sincerity.

We say railway track, but actually there is no such thing. Sincerity itself is the railway track. The sights we see from the train will change, but we are always running on the same track. And there is no beginning or end to the track: beginningless and endless track. There is no starting point nor goal, nothing to attain. Just to run on the track is our way. This is the nature of our Zen practice.

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi from Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

To my simple-minded way of thinking, there is a lofty view and a lowly view of what a Bodhisattva is. One is a highly evolved being so far up the awareness food chain as to barely have physical existence, who, out of great compassion, foregoes buddhahood to come to the aid of all beings.

The other is anyone with a sincere desire to end the suffering of others.

I can relate to the lowly one, of course, but the other, multiple arms and all, is so beyond my event horizon that my third eye glazes over. True, given our amazing interconnected universe of infinite dimensions, we can probably say the two versions are one and the same, but really, I don't think I need to know that just now.

Pema Chödrön's book had been tirelessly beckoning to me from the bookshelf. Despite its title (or probably, because of it) I studiously ignored No Time to Lose for as long as I could. After struggling with it for over a year, I finally gave in. The masterpiece is her companion to The Way of the Bodhisattva (Bodhicharyāvatāra), by the 8th century Buddhist monk Shantideva. She calls it the essential guidebook for fledgling bodhisattvas longing to alleviate suffering.

Although I quote from it quite a bit, this post is not a review of her wonderful book. These are just some thoughts about the subject closest to my heart: the spread of kindness by ordinary people. The awakening of the bodhi heart of compassion. The flowering of bodhichitta.

These are Pema's words:

The Sanskrit term bodhichitta is often translated as "awakened heart" and refers to an intense desire to alleviate suffering.  On the relative level, bodhichitta expresses itself as longing.  Specifically, it is the heartfelt yearning to free oneself from the pain of ignorance and habitual patterns in order to help others do the same.  This longing to alleviate suffering of others is the main point.  We start close to home with the wish to help those we know and love, but the underlying inspiration is global and all encompassing.  Bodhichitta is a sort of "mission impossible":  the desire to end the suffering of all beings, including those we'll never meet, as well as those we loathe.

On the absolute level, bodhichitta is nondual wisdom, the vast, unbiased essence of mind. Most importantly, this is your mind - yours and mine. It may seem distant but it isn't. In fact, Shantideva composed this text to remind himself that he could contact his wisdom mind and help it to flourish.

When I first read Suzuki Roshi's comparison of the bodhisattva path to a railway track, it struck a chord. Although compassionate action takes myriad forms, adapting and reaching out to suffering wherever it calls from, the resolve to do it is straight as an arrow.

As we grow in our practice, its fruits - wisdom and compassion - come to our aid: wisdom guiding our actions to be more skilful, and compassion giving us the courage to act more for others and less for ourselves.

But "sincerity itself is the railway track." From the very first moment we decide to take this path, there is really only one answer to our question, "what should I do next?" The answer is, "follow your heart!"

Here is some guidance from a champion of compassion:

So we can ask: What is compassion comprised of? And there are various facets. ... But first, compassion is comprised of that capacity to see clearly into the nature of suffering. It is that ability to really stand strong and to recognize also that I’m not separate from this suffering. But that is not enough, because compassion, which activates the motor cortex, means that we aspire, we actually aspire to transform suffering. And if we’re so blessed, we engage in activities that transform suffering. But compassion has another component, and that component is really essential. That component is that we cannot be attached to outcome.

Joan Halifax Roshi TED Talk

To start each day on the right track, Pema Chödrön recites these verses from the Bodhicharyāvatāra every morning before getting out of bed:

Just as all the buddhas of the past
Embraced the awakened attitude of mind,
And in the precepts of the bodhisattvas
Step by step abode and trained,

Just so, and for the benefit of beings,
I will also have this attitude of mind,
And in those precepts, step by step,
I will abide and train myself.

Let's give Pema the last word:

Personally, I am indebted to Shantideva for his determination to get this message across: people like you and me can transform our lives by awakening the longing of bodhichitta. And I am deeply grateful to him for expressing, unrelentingly, that it is urgent, very urgent, that we do so.  We have no time to lose. When I look at the state of the world today, I know his message could not possibly be more timely.

And now as long as space endures,
As long as there are beings to be found,
May I continue likewise to remain
To drive away the sorrows of the world.

The Way of the Bodhisattva, v. 10.55

Related posts:

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The British Properties and the Heron

At the ferry berth
A chain link fence
Separated me
From the rocks
And a heron
Painted, like the waves and clouds,
Shades of October grey.
A sunlit patch
On the North Shore hills:
The British Properties.
Hundreds of homes
Stacked up the slope,
Striving to be the most aloof
And those inside,
Striving for the good life.
The heron stretched its neck to preen
And my heart went out to it,
Then carried on to the hills,
To their dwellers.
May they succeed.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Too Bad for You, Buddy!

Or words to similar effect, form in my head from time to time, and occasionally, I'm not happy to report, escape my lips. Each time, it's a variation on a theme: my less than compassionate response to someone else's misfortune.

Unless we're arhats or saints with permanent halos, as night follows day, when we learn about (or imagine) unpleasant things befalling someone who 'had it coming', uncharitable thoughts follow. Such persons include, but are not limited to - I seem to be lapsing into legalese here - individuals whom we deem arrogant, unkind, unfair, critical, proud, pompous, selfish, cruel, and generally anyone who has, or is imagined to have, slighted us, or has stupidly disregarded our advice. And of course, those who have the effrontery to think it's OK to judge us.

An extreme example is the outbreak of jubilation and festivities that erupted after the killing of Osama Bin Laden.

When the misfortunes that befall these folks are only embarrassing, it's just funny. A lot of slapstick comedy relies on this - the haughty character's flamboyant exit, followed by his sheepish reappearance when he realizes that he has just stormed into a closet.

When something they value, besides their pride, gets damaged, as when we hear of a bullfighter getting gored in an important place, we get a jolt of guilty pleasure - jolt because it comes out of the blue and is usually short-lived, and guilty because deep down, it really doesn't feel good.

Lately, I've noticed this happening quite a bit. Since I'm pretty sure I'm not becoming a nastier person, I think I'm probably just catching myself in the act more often. I let the little ones come and go without much mental comment, but when I catch myself in a doozy, I get a good chuckle out of it.

Perhaps the little squirt of endorphin our brain gives us when someone else stumbles used to have some value in the distant past when our survival depended on besting others. Perhaps it's similar to the pleasure we get from eating sweet fatty foods or the adrenalin 'fight or flight' rush - the one useful if we are going to spend a cold winter without much food, and the other useful if our house catches fire, but in general, both doing more harm than good.

Regardless of whether it's an instinct or just a deeply ingrained mental habit that we learned as little children, it continues to be strongly and widely reinforced by society - for example, in business, when the wealthy are ruined, in sports, when the bullies are beaten, and in theatre, when the villains suffer painful retribution.

But there is a world of difference between having unkind thoughts and harbouring them.

In zazen and mindfulness practice, we can treat our thoughts as part of our ever-changing mental scenery - whether they be mean thoughts or thoughts of elephants eating popcorn - and we neither try to push them out of our minds nor pursue them. When we realize we have taken off on a train of thought, we just get off and return to being present. If we deliberately pursue a thought, then we are no longer doing zazen or mindfulness. We’re just thinking.

If one moment in practice can be said to have more value than another, then I would say it's that moment when we become aware that we are no longer present, let go of the thought that was distracting us, and return to the present. Kosho Uchiyama Roshi has referred to this process as 'vow and repentence'. And a quote from Samuel Beckett comes to mind: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." It is coming home.

So we need have no remorse or shame about uninvited unkind thoughts, no matter how out of character they may seem. They simply remind us that we're human. If we find we are not letting these thoughts go, but brooding on them and nurturing them, or even trying to cultivate them in others, then we may need to take a long, honest but compassionate look at ourselves and try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Image: detail from Christ Carrying the Cross (Heironymus Bosch) - Wikimedia Commons

Monday, August 27, 2012

Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream

In this dawning age of mindfulness, how often we hear 'be present in the moment'. In my own practice, on the cushion and off (when I remember), that's my aim too. But do I pine over happy days gone by? Yes, sometimes. Do I yearn for better days ahead? Yes, often.

Looking back over the mayhem of our civilization's troubled adolescence and how far we've come, it's hard not to dream about the future our grandchildren might have if we would only embrace our evolution rather than run away from it.

Global Warming Stopped and Reversed

Albedo Yacht pumping sea
water into the atmosphere
With the future of the biosphere looking bleak and the chances of our puny efforts actually creating a stable climate for those grandchildren seeming pretty slim, here's an encouraging development.

Over the past few years research into cloud reflectivity modification has received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It involves seeding clouds with the most benign substance around - seawater - to make them more reflective to infra-red while allowing visible light through.

Around 1,900 floating machines would be enough to stop the rise in temperature. The cost? $7.5 billion, barely one percent of the USA's annual military budget.

The War Machine Re-Tooled for Disaster Relief

The spending of mind-boggling amounts of hard-earned tax dollars on a killing machine will eventually come to an end.  However, the downside of dismantling the armed forces would be roughly two million military and civilian personnel losing their jobs. Assuming bulldozers are cheaper than stealth bombers and hospital ships cheaper than aircraft carriers, re-tooling the military for disaster relief and humanitarian aid looks like a viable workaround.

As Isaiah prophesied an awfully long time ago:

They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.

Here's a little glimmer of light from Al Gore's website:

The U.S. Department of Defense plans to open up 16 million acres of its land for renewable energy development, which it hopes will create a boom of solar, wind and geothermal projects and provide clean power to military bases, the department announced Monday.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed a memorandum of understanding to work together on promoting renewable energy generation projects on public land that has historically been restricted for military uses. About 13 million of those 16 million acres are located in western U.S., where a lot of solar, wind and geothermal power development already has been taking place on private and other types of public land.

People Won't Come Out Any More

Because there is nowhere to come out from. Faded into the mists of history is the almost irresistible compulsion, when describing someone, to include facts that are almost always irrelevant: gender, racial origin, sexual orientation, first language, apparent wealth, height, weight, apparent age, taste in clothing, religion, and on and on.

Much more heart to heart exchange. Much less hiding from each other.


Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream has gone viral. Mahalia Jackson shouted out, "Tell them about your dream, Martin!" And he did. The powerful don't take advantage of the weak. The remnants of male chauvinism are found only in museums. And yes, the animals are finally free.

The sky's the limit to the hurts that can be healed.  Perhaps, once in a while, we need to let go of the present moment, follow John Lennon, and just imagine.

No More Country & Western Music

Unless it's played backwards - then you reconcile with your estranged spouse, get your job back, and your dog comes back to life. KIDDING! I'm sorry. That was a terrible, cruel joke. I actually love country. A lot. Honest!

Here's Pete Seeger's rendition of the song I used for the post title.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Zen Cure, an Alternative to the Death Penalty and a Case for Dharma Lineage

Getting strapped into "Old Sparky"

It seemed like a bright idea at the time, but I'm having doubts that this argument can withstand scrutiny. If it turns out to be exploring a dead end, perhaps others can see a way through. Anyway, here it is.

The death penalty is wrong for so many reasons and should be abolished. Zen practice can (suddenly and/or gradually) result in a fresh view of the world, the unfolding of wisdom and compassion, and a commitment to the Bodhisattva path. Inmates on death row should have the option of intensive Zen training with a qualified teacher. Their progress could be verified by masters with recognized dharma transmission and by experienced psychiatrists. The ultimate goal is their return to society.

The penal system deters crime, rehabilitates offenders and protects the public. At least that's the theory.

The death penalty doesn't deter crime. States in the USA without the death penalty have consistently lower murder rates. In the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, A recent study concluded:

The findings demonstrate an overwhelming consensus among these criminologists that the empirical research conducted on the deterrence question strongly supports the conclusion that the death penalty does not add deterrent effects to those already achieved by long imprisonment.

And of course the death penalty doesn't rehabilitate offenders - at least, not in this lifetime.

The death penalty may protect the public, but at great cost. The Innocence Project reports that, despite apparently compelling evidence of guilt at trial, 300 inmates on death row have been exonerated based on DNA [as at September 29, 2012]. One wonders how many of the 78 people executed in the USA in 2011 and the thousands awaiting execution (3,189 as at January 1, 2012) may be innocent.

Another purpose of the penal system is retribution. Killing a murderer is supposed to make society in general, and the family of the victim in particular, feel better. Personally, the killing of Troy Davis, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden all just made me feel sick.

Religious beliefs don't seem to make taking a stand on capital punishment any easier. If you believe every word of the Bible, then you will also support the death penalty for Adultery - Men and Women (Leviticus 20:10), Blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16), Breaking the Sabbath (Exodus 31:14-15), Being a Disobedient Child (Exodus 21:15 and Leviticus 20:9), Homosexuality - Men Only (Leviticus 20:13), and Not Being a Virgin on Your Wedding Night - Women Only (Deuteronomy 22:20-21), whereas Jesus is said to have said "turn the other cheek" and "if you did it to the least of these, you did it to me." Some Christian denominations that do not oppose capital punishment, like the Roman Catholic Church and Southern Baptists, still decry its use for vengeance. Many others outright oppose it.

You would think that Buddhists would be on side, but there is even disagreement about whether Buddhism forbids the death penalty. In general, Buddhist groups in secular countries such as Japan, Korea, and Taiwan tend to take an anti-death penalty stance, while in Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan, where Buddhism has strong political influence, the opposite is true. Just as the First Precept against killing other beings seems to be circumventable to permit eating animals because they taste good, it has been gotten around, it seems, to sanctify killing people for the greater good, whatever that means.

So the choice has to be a personal one. I hope you will forgive my biased phrasing of the question: "Is the priceless gift of a human nervous system and consciousness, through which we can awaken to our interdependent, compassionate nondual nature, and in a sense, through which the universe can realize its own existence, something we have a right to take away from another human being just because she or he has done it to someone else?"

Can a murderer be cured? I think the answer is 'yes', at least sometimes.

In his Message Supporting a Moratorium on the Death Penalty, His Holiness the Dalai Lama said:

Before advocating execution we should consider whether criminals are intrinsically negative and harmful people or whether they will remain perpetually in the same state of mind in which they committed their crime or not. The answer, I believe, is definitely not. However horrible the act they have committed, I believe that everyone has the potential to improve and correct themselves.

Is Zen training a way to do it? Again, I think the answer is a qualified 'yes'. Even though the justice system is supposed to weed out those who are not guilty by reason of insanity, there will be those on death row who are deeply disturbed - either originally or as a result of "death row syndrome." Can they be reached by a skilled psychotherapist or a wily Zen master? There is only one way to find out.

Ultimately, how can apparently cured murderers be let loose on the streets? Many, I suspect, are, or have learned how to be, skillful con artists, capable of faking spiritual transformation and psychological healing. That's where even more skill is required to detect the fakers. For psychological issues, it probably means highly qualified psychiatrists. For Zen issues, the obvious choices are masters who have received full dharma transmission, i.e. those who have been through the process of "it takes one to know one".

This is only a brief and I’m sure extremely naive sketch of a concept, not the blueprint for a solution. Many, many practical challenges await. In fact, it sounds more like the description of how an advanced civilization might treat its criminals in a science fiction novel, set in the distant future or a distant galaxy, rather than West Livingston, Texas.

But then who ever thought we would walk on the moon?

On the subject of how we relate to 'evil' people, Meredith Garmon has written some great posts over at Lake Chalice, including Primary Sociopaths and Secondary Sociopaths, Answer Evil with Justice and Community and The Wound that Cuts Through Every Human Heart.

May I also suggest exploring the Prison Dharma Network website if you haven’t already?

Photo: An African-American prisoner is prepared for execution in "Old Sparky," Sing-Sing Prison's infamous electric chair. Photograph taken circa 1900 by William M. Van der Weyde. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Look! A Mayfly!

Look! A mayfly!
Tears began, but then my heart
Sang a little song

The mayfly is a member of the Ephemeroptera, from the Greek meaning 'lasting only a day'. After a year as a nymph, it crawls out of the water, moults, spreads its wings, takes to the sky, finds a mate, lays its eggs, and dies, all in a day.

A cascade of emotions took me by surprise.

Melancholy and a sense of futility surfaced first. Compared to the rest of its life, the tiny creature's last day is like a flash of lightning. So much heroic activity in such a short time, and for what? So that more mayflies can grub around in a stream for a year to spend a frantic day in the sun, provided they don't get eaten by the fish or the birds first? Perhaps even so that people can contemplate them, get all teary-eyed and write poetry that other people who may not have seen a mayfly can read and get all teary-eyed too.

Melancholy becomes wonder. The critter's last day really isn't so much frantic as it is perfect. After a slow climb out of the water, it waits in the sun until it's ready to moult. It climbs out of its old skin and waits again until its wings dry in shape. Then at just the right time with just the right effort, flapping them, the former bottom dweller does the unimaginable. (I don't imagine that mayflies imagine, but who knows what goes on in their little heads.) Its flight is an invitation to jump for joy.

Then the adult stuff - courtship, wild mayfly sex, laying eggs. Since baby nymphs don't need looking after, the parents do the right thing and give themselves completely for the benefit of all beings in the vicinity that could use some nourishment.

I recognize I'm projecting here, or maybe squinting at my reflection. The sadness, wonder and joy I feel contemplating that brief life, are the sadness, wonder and joy of my life.

And the cascading emotions aren't quite over.

I feel an uneasy chill that I really don't want to deal with, knowing exactly what it is. The mayfly's life is brief, but not a moment is wasted. My life is not so brief, and about those wasted moments, let's just say I seem to be studiously ignoring what Zen Master Daito Kokushi said in 1337:

Time flies like an arrow, so do not waste energy on trivial matters.
Be attentive. Be attentive!

Guilty as charged.

So many lessons packed into a tiny mayfly.

So many lessons in everything, if we just pay attention.


Here is one of my favourite pieces of music that breaks my heart – the theme from Schindler’s List, composed by John Williams and played by Itzhak Perlman. Although the movie is about the Holocaust, the music makes me think of the suffering of the animals for whom the Holocaust has never ended.

Mayfly photo credit: Richard Bartz via Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Snuggle, a Swim and a Hug - Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels

The early Buddhists seemed to love making lists - the Four Noble Truths, the Ten Perfections, the 108 Cravings (comprised of six groups including the 18 Cravings Through the Sense of the Nose for Sensual Pleasures Associated with a View of Eternalism or Nihilism, Internally or Externally, of the Past, Present, or Future). Out of curiosity, I had a look at the 38 Blessings. It turns out the first one is Not Associating with Fools. Who knew?

I think because I’m a bit of a minimalist (read: simpleton), lists enumerating the Virtues, the Hindrances, the Dwellings of the Noble Ones and the Unwholesome Actions just don’t ring my bell. I guess that’s why I’m attracted to the simplicity of Zen - even the name only has three letters.

There is one little list, however, that I have grown very fond of: the Three Jewels - the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, a.k.a. the Three Treasures.

Many folks with great scholarship and great insight have already written about the Three Jewels. This little offering is just a freehand sketch of what they mean to me. I know that as soon as I open my mouth, I fall into error, creating artificial separations, but here goes.

First off, the Three Jewels are not separate 'things' - more like one thing seen from three different directions. For the same reason, our take on them will be different, each from our own vantage point.

Buddha - not just the chap who sat under a tree and noticed something important. Buddha nature may be a better term. Vast emptiness. All-inclusive. Capable of becoming anything. Capable of awakening.

Dharma - the teachings of the Buddha and more. The laws of cause and effect. Change. Unfolding. Awakening. Relieving suffering.

Sangha - for sure everyone who follows the teachings of the Buddha - but also every other being of every kind, everywhere.

Taking refuge in the Three Treasures is a formal Buddhist ceremony. It is also a personal act we perform with our whole being - not just our thoughts and words - but our whole lives: a lifelong, intimate love affair.

We take refuge in the Buddha whenever we sit down, let go of our thoughts (including the thought of taking refuge) and simply pay attention. A little habit has crept up on me: last thing at night, if I snuggle up with the universe, for want of a better term, my iron grip on my little sense of self seems to loosen and I'm asleep in a few seconds.

My mental picture of taking refuge in the Dharma is going for a joyful swim in a river, doing a playful dance with the currents of cause and effect. It's also expressed in our sincere efforts to do the right thing, to be a manifestation of wisdom and compassion.

Taking refuge in the Sangha. Group hug. How wide can we spread our arms? We support and nourish and heal and cherish. And we are supported and nourished and healed and cherished. How cool is that?

Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic


I apologize to anyone who got a malware warning from visiting this site, especially if your own blog started setting off alarm bells for linking to it. I hope I didn’t cause you too much grief. The problem seems to have been a link on my blogroll and a spam comment that I hadn’t deleted. Both are fixed now and thankfully, Google was very prompt to reassess the site and give it a clean bill of health. Please feel free to contact me at ashton at shaw dot ca. A useful resource for checking site safety is

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Blowing in the Mind

I feel a little thrill whenever I see flags flapping in the wind. I usually gaze and listen for a while and then come back to earth, noticing that my feet are plodding along the pavement as usual and that some litter has blown up against a fence.

This is the 29th koan of the Mumonkan:

Two monks were arguing about a flag. One said, "The flag is moving."
The other said, "The wind is moving."
The Sixth Patriarch happened to be passing by. He told them, "Not the wind, not the flag; mind is moving."

Their habitual way of thinking about flags in the wind was stripped away, leaving – something else.

About two hundred years later, some monks were debating the koan. Zen master Miaoxin overheard them and said,

It's not the wind moving, it's not the flag moving, it's not the mind moving.

Something else was stripped away, leaving – what?

This progression reminds me of the first few times I attended our Zen centre. The first time I went, the abbot gave a dharma talk during the second sit, which I thought was pretty profound. The same thing happened the second time I was there. The third time I went, he just sat in silence. I remember thinking to myself, what could be more profound than that? Well, the next time I went, he wasn’t there at all…

I suspect “mind” is one of the most difficult words to define. There is mind meaning thought; there is the subconscious mind; there is no-mind and there is mindfulness; there is little mind and there is big Mind; there is original mind and everyday mind and there is beginner’s mind and there is don’t know mind.

Then there are the Three Minds (sanshin):

Magnanimous Mind (daishin) is like an ocean or a mountain: calm and steady, yet accepting and nourishing countless beings and situations without differentiation. The ocean is serene because it accepts the many rivers without resisting.

Nurturing Mind (roshin), literally "old mind", is akin to the attitude of a kindly grandmother or parent who delights in caring for others. It is the spirit of the bodhisattva, the fully mature person.

Joyful Mind (kishin) is the joy that comes from deep in our hearts even in the midst of difficulty. It arises from the insight of zazen, that we live together with all beings and are not separate.

(These originated with Dogen Zenji and were propounded by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi (Opening the Hand of Thought) and subsequently by his successor, Shohaku Okumura Roshi (Realizing Genjokoan), founder of the Sanshin Zen Community, from where the above quote was taken.)

Rational thought insists on trying to compartmentalize and categorize mind in order to comprehend it, as it does with the rest of the world. Except it can't. The best it can do is ask interminable questions.

If it would only shut up and pay attention, it might notice something important.

I don't know much, but I know enough not to vex my brain or anyone else's by trying to think up - or worse, suggest - answers to these questions.

What is it that flaps in the wind? What is it that watches the flag through my eyes? What thinks about the flag with my brain? What is asking this question? What wants to know the answer? What opens and unfolds, withers and dies all at the same time? What suffers and at the same time seeks out and relieves suffering? What is both nowhere and everywhere? What is neither one nor more than one? Neither nothing nor something? What is writing these words? What is reading them? Wouldn't a cup of tea be nice?

It occurs to me that I may have overstepped my bounds. I don't want my aimless musings / infantile burblings to be mistaken for teachings. As an unordained layman with no qualifications, verification, rank, transmission or lineage, I'm not really anything. If I must be something, perhaps the litter blown against the fence.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

All The Missing Names Of Love - A Review

Discovering All The Missing Names Of Love motivated me to do two things I have never done before: buy something online, and write a review. The first was easy; the second, definitely not so much.

Reading blogging friend Roselle Angwin's beautiful posts over at Qualia and Other Wildlife, I knew her new book of poetry would be worth reading, and now having read it, definitely worth sharing.

Like the tapestry by Anne Jackson on the book cover, Roselle’s poems interweave her thoughts and feelings with a sympathetic vision of the natural world to which she is clearly attuned.

In his haiku Nazuna (The Shepherd’s Purse), Basho was captured in an instant by the beauty of a lowly weed, then captured the moment in a poem:

When I look carefully –
Nazuna is blooming
Beneath the hedge.

Roselle does this too. By capturing moments that captured her, she captures us. This is from Tracks:

Now, dawn; the stillness
broken only by a clattering tractor
and its retinue of gulls.

As in On Staffa:

… It’s in these moments

that we remember the truths behind words;
and recover an ancient longing; and our
kinship, our covenant, with wild.

True to the title of the book, Roselle invites us to share her view of love from many different vantage points.

This is Rosa Canina:

Rain, milky with mist, has gently
erased the moorland distances.

Lanes are at their heartbreaking
fullest: buttercup, bluebell, campion,
Queene Anne’s lace, buds of dog rose.

And this is also an act of love:
to see another over a threshold.

Love of nature, animals, friends, lovers, parents; joy in their life, and sadness in their passing and decline.

I’m going to turn off my commentary here. These excerpts easily speak for themselves.

From Wild Garlic:

Everyone we love will leave us eventually,
or we’ll leave them. That’s what the wise vicar
said at that wedding blessing all those years ago.
Knowing that, how can I not love you fully?

From All The Missing Names Of Love:

Today I’m obsessed by things transient
or lost: the dog dead for fifteen years
who today lapped water in the kitchen
at noon, even though I couldn’t see her;

my father’s mislaid past; or the names
that slip through my mother’s grasp
like the minnows we’d try to catch
up to our childish knees in the Vellator streams …

From Rain Dharma:

Rain settling in like conversation between
lifelong friends; rain, plants, stone, birds
at ease with themselves and each other, at ease
with how the world needs to be.

From After Midsummer:

My mum is so light now I can
carry her in one chamber of my heart.

From Going into the meadow after the retreat:

the horse’s light breath on my cheek
the way he delicately politely

only just
meeting my eyes reads my face
hands hair with his gentle muzzle

as if he smells
questions, as if I were an event
blown in on the whirling wind

as if
from within the zero
of Zen in which he dwells

he barely
recognizes me, each thing wholly
new, every encounter the first.

From South Cerney Sonnets     ii Cotswold Water Park: Plate Movement:

The layers beneath our feet are provisional
as anything else; time swallows its tail
and I’m afraid. Hold me. …

From On not going over the lip of a waterfall in an oil-drum:

                               Tell me again
what you said about love;
speak it again – the one
about two bodies’ heat,
the one about crossing the water.
Tell me again.

From This rain, the window open:

Still I lie on the roomward side
of the bed
after all these years

wash the pillowslips
on which I never lie
when I wash my own
put them out to dry
billowing in the salt wind
and reinstall them

neither foam nor feathers
ever as good a pillow
as his chest

for my parents:

i Alzheimer’s
Once she found a goldcrest’s nest,
tucked it carefully in a crook, made sure
the entrance was clear and open.
Recently the winds have blown it far
from the tree, are gently taking it apart.

ii Stroke
The last dominoes perch unsteadily.
The rest have fallen so that their black
sides are uppermost, the numbers
and the narrative mostly obscured.

From Whiteout:

… On that high crest
the snowdrifts fell and fell and were chest-height
and head-height and then filled the lane till

even hedges were eclipsed, the white drift a foretaste
of what later would take my mother’s brain and gently erase it.

From Let there be peace:

Let me go in a breath of applewood smoke from the mountains
Release a white mare into the hills for me
Whisper my name into her ear
Let her go.

Thank you, Roselle.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Buried Treasure on Lyle Hill

He was the kindest, most gentle man I have ever known, and I loved him for it.

My dad was born at home in Greenock, Scotland in 1910. Thirty-nine years later, I followed suit. Unfortunately, I never met his dad, a crane operator in the Greenock torpedo factory, as he died shortly before I was born.

I don't know a lot about Dad's life before me - just snippets of stories about his childhood and youth, like the time he acquired a permanently deformed fingernail after one of his friends, startled by a frog, dropped a heavy storm drain grate; and later, when he sang tenor songs out the window of the YMCA to impress the girls in the street below.

Then came war. I've already written about how Mum and Dad met as pen pals.

Most of my earliest memories are of Dad taking me places - to the beach, to the Italian ice cream shop, and to my favourite place - the top of Lyle Hill.

Greenock and Gourock on the Clyde from Lyle Hill
There was a circle of indentations in the ground near the summit. Dad said if I tried digging in them I might be lucky and find buried treasure. I dug in one but didn't find anything. Dad suggested I try a different one. I did, and found a penny! He suggested some others, and I dug up more coins, even a sixpence! On our way home, I suspect he did a lot of internal grinning, and I was bursting with excitement to tell Mum all about our adventure. It was easily ten years later when I was marveling to him about the coins on Lyle Hill that he finally confessed to planting them.

In 1957, we emigrated to Victoria, British Columbia in Canada. Dad said he would have been more homesick, but was comforted by the similarity of the landscape and the mountains across the water.

Victoria on the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Gonzales Hill
Again, my memories of Dad's life in Victoria seem to be just snippets: my mum often playing his favourite melody, "Moonlight Sonata" on the piano for him; our suspicion that he was colour blind because of the blue trees in his paintings; and later, signs of his advancing Alzheimer's when the last batch of the blackberry wine he made every year turned to vinegar and he 'solved' the problem by adding large amounts of sugar...

Except for The Upper Room, a daily devotional he read every morning while eating his porridge alone (he was up and off to work before the rest of the house stirred), the only books he seemed to read were westerns. One summer we drove to California, and as we passed through Oregon, we came upon the Rogue River. Suddenly, Dad was like a little kid, so excited to see for himself the river he had read about in Zane Grey's stories.

Dad was a gifted carpenter. He loved to build furniture and fix things, and would never accept payment for the work he did for our friends. I still cherish his old hand tools with his name stamped into their wooden handles. We used to walk along the cliff top and he would identify different kinds of wood washed up on the beach below and then go down, saw them into chunks, and lug them back to his workshop in the basement.

After almost forty years, it was finally time for Mum and Dad to leave their house and move into a condo. I don't recall Dad ever getting angry or saying an unkind word, but on their last day there, Dad went down to the basement, fired up his table saw and cut some wood for the last time. As the noise of the saw echoed through the house, we knew how he felt.

Although he gave up driving, much to everyone's relief, he continued to go on long bicycle rides with Mum every day well into his 80's. It was a sad day when we realized it was time for him to stop, because his dementia had progressed to the point that he would cycle off and get lost if not closely watched, and because he would pedal so slowly that he fell over turning corners.

Mum used to do jigsaw puzzles. One night, she woke up to find Dad standing over the puzzle eating the pieces. After that, we moved him into a nursing home. He didn't complain, but expressed his disapproval by catching pneumonia and dying peacefully about a week after he arrived.

All my life, I never told Dad how I felt about him until, in his last hours, I thanked him for being my dad and told him that I loved him. I don't know if he heard me, but I hope so.

If I could have only half of his kindness, I would be a very lucky man.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Buddhist Blasphemy?

As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. (1 Corinthians 14:34-35)

This, in my opinion, and not to put too fine a point on it, is crap.

And so is:

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. (1 Timothy 2:11-12)

I've had my share of dharma combat with Christians over using the Bible to support rather un-Christian positions, such as the death penalty ... for homosexuals.

If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them. (Leviticus 20:13)

In fact, a pastor once warned one of his flock, a friend of mine, to stay away from me lest I corrupt him with my arguments. Apparently, one must guard the faithful against people who criticize a god who says (or inspires the saying of) things like:

Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock. (Psalm 137:9)

I confess that I did fire a parting quote at the pastor:

So I turned my mind to understand, to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things and to understand the stupidity of wickedness and the madness of folly. (Ecclesiastes 7:25)

Although I've heard the rationalizations for not expunging offensive passages from the Bible, I've lost interest in trying to remember what they are. Without doubt, there are glorious passages overflowing with beauty, wisdom and kindness, but because they are intertwined with the other stuff, I can never think of it as more than just a book.

I suppose my use of the C word earlier qualifies as blasphemy, being an expression of irreverence towards religious things. Sure, we can twist words until they morph into reverence for all things, but I'm not going there. A spade is a spade.

Which brings me around to Buddhism. There are times when I wonder if I'm a "real" Buddhist at all, because, as I've posted before, I'm not really interested in reincarnation, the afterlife, Karma, or who's who in Buddhist cosmology. While this might be considered a tad heretical in some circles, it doesn't feel blasphemous because there is no disrespect.

Still, I was relieved to discover recently that Buddha said:

Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it. (Kamala Sutra)

Good questions posed by two blogging friends brought some things into focus for me. Lynette Genju Monteiro over at 108 Zen Books asked, "Which do you follow: the teacher or the teachings?", and Thane Lawrie way over in Scotland at My Journey asked, "Does Buddhism Need a Voice?"

Lynette's question stumped me for a while until it dawned on me that I don't really follow teachers or teachings, I just listen to them and then follow my gut. Their words are sometimes a patient finger pointing at the moon, and sometimes a good jab in the ribs. To use one last biblical quote,

The words of the wise are like goads (Ecclesiastes 12:11)

Thane's question explored the Buddhist identity and got me pondering. I call myself a Zen Buddhist because that label seems to be the best description of what I seem to be. And then, because I'm a Zen Buddhist, I do Zen things, like put on a black robe and do zazen on a zafu on a zabuton in a zendo, chant the four Bodhisattva Vows and pay attention to the abbot.

And when I remember to be mindful of it, bow deeply in gratitude.
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