Friday, April 11, 2014

A Field of Swans and Ducks and Geese

A field of swans and ducks and geese,
A twilight picnic meeting,
Together wade and feed in peace,
No thought of time as fleeting

How precious, life, how hard to know,
Yet time I’m prone to squander,
My home is here and now, although
My mind is prone to wander

Let’s open up our guarded heart,
No matter if it’s breaking
And all we cherish falls apart,
We’re from a dream awaking

The lonely wave, it laughed aloud
Then wept with such emotion,
Cried, "Oh my God, I see it now -
I've always been the ocean!"

Compassion is a burning flame
That sears away our blindness,
Though we may never be the same,
What matters else but kindness?

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Sinclair Effect

I think how we treat our animals reflects how we treat each other.
- Barack Obama

In fact, how we treat our animals affects how we treat each other.

At the turn of the 20th century, Upton Sinclair exposed the devastating work conditions and living environments of those who toiled in Chicago’s stockyard slaughterhouses. In The Jungle he made a connection between the numerous after-work fights instigated by slaughterhouse workers and the killing and dismembering of animals all day at work.

This is from the introduction to Slaughterhouses and Increased Crime Rates – An Empirical Analysis of the Spillover From “The Jungle” Into the Surrounding Community by Amy J. Fitzgerald from the University of Windsor and Linda Kalof and Thomas Dietz from Michigan State University (Organization & Environment, 2009 v. 20).

Their study concludes,

The findings indicate that slaughterhouse employment increases total arrest rates, arrests for violent crimes, arrests for rape, and arrests for other sex offenses in comparison with other industries. This suggests the existence of a Sinclair effect unique to the violent workplace of the slaughterhouse, a factor that has not previously been examined in the sociology of violence.

Albert Einstein had a suggestion:

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us 'Universe,' a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.


If a man aspires towards a righteous life, his first act of abstinence is from injury to animals.

Others have written in a similar vein.

We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.
- Immanuel Kant

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.
- Gandhi

Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.
- Albert Schweitzer

As long as people will shed the blood of innocent creatures there can be no peace, no liberty, no harmony between people. Slaughter and justice cannot dwell together.
- Isaac Bashevis Singer

But slaughter and beauty do dwell together, among us.

I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness or abilities that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.
- William Penn

Friday, February 7, 2014

Contagion - or, When You're Smiling

I have to admit that when I worked for a couple of years as a microbiologist not too long ago (Car 16 - a Reminiscence), I thought it was really cool to be in a place that had creepy biohazard symbols posted on the doors and refrigerators. We worked with some fairly nasty critters living in test tubes and petri dishes that, if they made it from the lab into the coffee room, could turn the latter into Ground Zero of our very own epidemic.

On the subject of spreading, I was pleasantly surprised to read these words and then learn who wrote them:

Goodness always tends to spread. Every authentic experience of truth and goodness seeks by its very nature to grow within us, and any person who has experienced a profound liberation becomes more sensitive to the needs of others. As it expands, goodness takes root and develops. If we wish to lead a dignified and fulfilling life, we have to reach out to others and seek their good.
This is always a slow process and we can be overly fearful. But if we allow doubts and fears to dampen our courage, instead of being creative we will remain comfortable and make no progress whatsoever. In this case we will not take an active part in historical processes, but become mere onlookers as the Church [or the world, or society, or the individual] gradually stagnates.
                 - Pope Francis (Evangelii Gaudium Nov. 24, 2013)

I think this applies to each of our own efforts to influence the spread of compassion, whether in general, or in specific undertakings like promoting gender equality and animal liberation, or working to eliminate the death penalty and war.

We sometimes wonder, in acts of kindness, does size matter? Just sharing a smile, or, like Mother Teresa, living a tireless life deeply dedicated to relieving suffering. I think if we act with our whole heart when an opportunity to be kind presents itself, perhaps the question doesn't matter. (By the way, Mother Teresa said, “I know God won't give me anything I can't handle. I just wish he didn't trust me so much.”)

Little things can add up to a lot. Tipping points are reached when small things reach a critical mass. Videos of random acts of kindness can go viral.

A life full of kindness of any kind is a full life.

A little tubbier then, with elbow in the Listeria monocytogenes

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Doorstep Cross-Examination

I've been told by a certain household member that having a discussion with me is like being cross-examined on the witness stand. While I don't entirely agree, I have been known to take a rather direct approach to piercing bafflegab.

One of the most baffling varieties is literal adherence to the words of a religious text, whether it's the Bible or the Buddhist canon.

Although I usually just bite my tongue, nod and smile pleasantly (assuming I've been trapped and didn't have a chance to escape first), occasionally a demon possesses me to jump in with both feet.

This was one of those times.

Two or three members of a religious group showed up at my door and wondered if they could invite themselves inside to tell me something important. I had a bit of time to spare, but not that much, so I engaged them on the doorstep. I'm afraid what followed was essentially a cross-examination.

Q:    You folks believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible, don't you?
A:    Yes.
Q:    Every word in the Bible is true, right?
A:    Yes.
Q:    So in the beginning, Adam and Eve were the only people on the earth, weren't they?
A:    Yes.
Q:    Then they had two sons, Cain and Abel, right?
A:    That's right.
Q:    Then Cain slew Abel?
A:    Yes.
Q:    Then, the Bible says, Cain took a wife, correct?
A:    Yes.
Q:    Sooo... Where did his wife come from?
A:    Adam and Eve had more children.
Q:    Oh. You mean Cain married his sister?
A:    Yes.
Q:    But I thought the Bible says incest is a sin?
A:    Well, God made an exception in Adam and Eve's time.  It became a sin later.
Q:    I see.

Soundly defeated, I nodded, smiled sweetly and wished them a nice day.

[Note to self: Remember law school? Courtroom 101? Never ask a question you don't know the answer to?]

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Gratefully, a Third Time Around the Blog

It's a bit dizzying to realize that the earth has gone around the sun three times and I've gone from being 61 to 64 since I first timidly clicked the 'publish' button on this blog.

It's also rather humbling to discover that folks from 129 countries have paid a visit - 53,672 visits to be exact - with over half of them this past year. Particularly since, out of the 75 published  posts, only 14 went up this year. While it would be nice to believe that quality has replaced quantity, I think a simple shortage of effort and focus on my part is the reason.

I've noticed this before (Lifeless or Just Leafless?), particularly at the end of this summer (Missing in Action). Despite a little flurry of activity in September, I seem to have made a fairly easy transition from aestivation to hibernation.

Do I suffer pangs of guilt thinking about the posts I haven't published? Definitely. Do I plan on going gentle into that good night? Definitely not.

Once again, I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to everyone who has stopped by for a read, and to the cybersangha for the generosity that has come my way in the form of kind social media comments, shares, +1's, mentions, RT's and likes, and of course, the thoughtful and encouraging comments left on the blog. Thank you so much.

Oh, and speaking of humbling, it's hard to describe the feeling I get when I check out a favourite blog and discover a link to lowly Snow Branches on the blogroll alongside my all time blog heroes. Perhaps a combination of surprise, grateful affection and apprehensive butterflies hoping I won't blow it and get deleted.

I just had a thought: It's not very Zen to express my feelings like this.

Then I had another thought: What a dumb thought.

Wishing you the very best for the New Year!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Zen and the Art of Debauchery

Every summer on Salt Spring Island, the Saturday market brings droves of tourists in their cars and campers to the village of Ganges. Much time is spent circling the blocks hoping someone else will leave the market and vacate their spot. Inevitably, someone came up with an apt bumper sticker: Zen and the Art of Motor Vehicle Parking in Ganges.

Ever since Eugene Herrigel's book, Zen in the Art of Archery, and later, Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a plethora of  "Zen and the Art of ..." books have sprung up, ranging from Zen and the Art of Knitting to ... Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating.

Much has been said about the "Zen" of activity beyond effort. Two of my favourite bloggers wrote about it this month:

In letting go of “trying”, in letting go of any intellectual idea of how archery should be done, these archers are simply totally, wholeheartedly merged with their activity. The years of practice in a very easy way, in a relaxed way, comes through.  The archer, the arrow ... are all one movement and one whole. Subject and object merged. This is what one might call effortless effort.

... Dogen Zenji propounds the concept of ... gujin ... which means “the full exertion of a single thing.” That may sound like yet another form of striving, but it is actually quite the opposite. Far from adding another burden, the practice offers a path toward total rest.

Gujin has been variously translated as “total realization,” “total penetration,” “total manifestation”—and, most often, “total exertion.” The scholar and translator Francis Dojun Cook, an authority on Dogen, explains the concept in this way:

From the angle of the person who experiences the situation, [gujin] means that one identifies with it utterly. Looked at from the standpoint of the situation itself, the situation is totally manifested or exerted without obstruction.

I suspect we all experience this from time to time. Splitting wood with an axe, no matter how hard I try to hit the centre of a log, I always seem to miss, but often as soon as I stop trying, the axe splits the log exactly in the middle, even cutting the little dot in the centre of the growth rings in half.

Debauchery.  One definition is "seduction from virtue or duty". Also, debauch: "to make disloyal", "to lead away from virtue or excellence" and "to corrupt by intemperance or sensuality".

I realize they are only human, but fresh (to me) news of Zen masters behaving badly always triggers a little letdown.

In the ‘60’s, Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen was the first Zen book that really touched me. Kapleau’s teacher Hakuun Yasutani Roshi, who founded the Sanbo Kyodan school, became one of my Zen heroes. I even wrote him a letter asking for advice (he didn’t reply).

One of the little letdowns was learning that, as most notably published in Brian Daizen Victoria's book Zen at War, both Yasutani Roshi and his teacher, Harada Daiun Sogaku Roshi, held extreme right wing, militaristic, and in the case of Yasutani, anti-Semitic beliefs.

Kubota Ji'un, the 3rd Abbot of the Sanbo Kyodan wrote:

I personally became Haku'un Yasutani Roshi's disciple at the age of 17 and kept receiving his instructions until his death. So I know very well that Yasutani Roshi did foster strongly right-winged and anti-Semitic ideology during as well as after World War II, just as Mr. Victoria points out in his book.

I find the following quote from Harada Roshi particularly disquieting, perhaps because it takes the form of “Zen and the Art of …”:

Forgetting [the difference between] self and others in every situation, you should always become completely one with your work. [When ordered to] march -- tramp, tramp; [when ordered to] fire -- bang, bang; this is the clearest expression of the highest Bodhi-wisdom, the unity of Zen and war.

Victoria’s book has not been without criticism:

It is right to uncover actual corruption, and Victoria has done a great service in shedding light on a dark time in our history, but nearly destroys his argument by his questionable methods and exaggerated conclusions. … Let’s keep up the good fight to uncover wrongs, reflect and atone, make things right. But let us do so in a forthright and honest way. One must not manipulate and straighten twisted vines.

We practice Zen for the benefit of beings. Selflessly seducing a student or skilfully slaughtering another being - on the battlefield, the electric chair or the barnyard is using Zen as a means to an end that doesn’t justify the means. To me, this is Zen and the art of debauchery.

Bodhin Kholhede, dharma heir of Philip Kapleau, has this to say:

Now that we’ve had the book on Yasutani Roshi opened for us, we are presented with a new koan. Like so many koans, it is painfully baffling: How could an enlightened Zen master have spouted such hatred and prejudice? The nub of this koan, I would suggest, is the word enlightened. If we see enlightenment as an all-or-nothing place of arrival that confers a permanent saintliness on us, then we’ll remain stymied by this koan. But in fact there are myriad levels of enlightenment, and all evidence suggests that, short of full enlightenment (and perhaps even with it—who knows?), deeper defilements and habit tendencies remain rooted in the mind.

- Yasutani Roshi: The Hardest Koan Tricycle Magazine, Fall 1999

And finally, thanks to Koun Franz for this kindly reminder:

There is another conversation in all of this, one that I find more troubling: “He wasn’t a real Buddhist, because a Buddhist could never do something like this.” The math behind this is very simple: If a Buddhist could never do this, and if I am a Buddhist, then I am incapable of doing [this]. And if he and I do not share the same capacity for doing good or bad, then he and I are fundamentally separate.

It doesn’t work that way. We may want it to, but it doesn’t. The fact is, there’s nothing that a human being (any human being) cannot do. The difference, if there is one, is that Buddhists might know that. …

I wanted to say there’s a limit and I’ve found it, that here, finally, I can say, “I am not that.” But that’s not the truth. I know. Whether through practice or the constant asking or just advancing age, I know better. ...

The question for us is how—not just, “How could he do it?” but “How could I do it?

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Animals Wearing Our Clothes

It's natural to focus our compassion on other beings - animals, children in need, the sick, the downtrodden, even our enemies. Being selfless. Putting our own needs and comfort on the back burner. Tireless rescue workers forgoing sleep. Mother Teresa. Bodhisattvas in the trenches. So much to do. So little time.

In all of this, it's easy to forget a much neglected group of animals. I wrote about them in my first blog post (Who Are These Faithful Friends?):

They are generally obedient animals, with teeth, nails and hair like most others.  They love attention but are often ignored.  They would love to romp, but are usually allowed only a little bit of walking, and for the rest of the time, are made to sit.

Most often, they are made to eat food with minimal nutritional value, so that for much of their lives, they are obese and unhealthy.  In some cases, they are forced to breathe smoke and even to take harmful drugs to the point of addiction.

They have naturally curious intellects, but these are usually stifled by the countless hours of mindless television they are made to watch.

They are aware of endless opportunities to make others happy, to reach out and comfort suffering.  But because they are forbidden to do so, they are mostly sad.

Despite all of this, they continue to serve us until they eventually die.

They deserve our kindness.

They are our bodies.

Compassion for others and our sense of identity with them go hand in hand.

Compassion is not an idealized state. It is a profound realization that we are not separate from one another. It involves the ability to feel another’s suffering. Like lovingkindness, it is fundamentally interactive and ultimately has no subject and no object. Lovingkindness and compassion are the perfume of the realization of nonduality.

           Compassion: The Second Abode by Joan Halifax Roshi

Respect and kindness towards our animal bodies is really no different.

Besides, there is work to do, and our bodies are our tools. Letting them deteriorate is like letting our chisels get blunt and our wrenches get rusty. Unnecessary illness is unnecessary distraction.

In our enthusiasm for self-sacrificing compassionate action (or possibly, I hasten to add, because of laziness or gluttony), we may overlook or minimize our bodies' needs.


The cost of poor sleep is much greater than many people think: it may have profound consequences for our long-term health. Research has revealed that people who consistently fail to get enough sleep are at an increased risk of chronic disease, and scientists are now beginning to understand why. Treating sleep as a priority, rather than a luxury, may be an important step in preventing a number of chronic medical conditions.

Sleep and Disease Risk (Division of Sleep Medicine, Harvard Medical School)


The health benefits of regular exercise and physical activity are hard to ignore. ... Find a physical activity you enjoy, and just do it. If you get bored, try something new. ... As a general goal, aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day.

A healthy diet

Metabolic Syndrome is a cluster of conditions — increased blood pressure, high blood sugar level, excess body fat around the waist or abnormal cholesterol levels — that occur together, increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes ... If you have metabolic syndrome or any of the components of metabolic syndrome, aggressive lifestyle changes can delay or even prevent the development of serious health problems.

Metabolic Syndrome (Mayo Clinic)

I can’t slip away without putting in a plug for what I believe is one of the best gifts you can give your body – a whole foods plant based diet, as recommended in the documentary film Forks Over Knives.

Through an examination of the careers of American physician Caldwell Esselstyn and professor of nutritional biochemistry T. Colin Campbell, Forks Over Knives suggests that "most, if not all, of the degenerative diseases that afflict us can be controlled, or even reversed, by rejecting our present menu of animal-based and processed foods." It also provides an overview of the 20-year China-Cornell-Oxford Project that led to Professor Campbell's findings, outlined in his book, The China Study (2005) in which he suggests that coronary disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer can be linked to the Western diet of processed and animal-based foods (including all dairy products).

Forks Over Knives (Wikipedia)

This public service announcement was brought to the animals wearing your clothes by the animal wearing mine.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

I Will Love You All My Life

The first time I saw this picture, I got choked up - and the second time, and the third, and the fourth. Innocence, unwavering loyalty, sadness at the shortness of life, all from one image. It was love at first sight.

I will love you all my life.

Lovers say it to each other. Christians, Muslims and Jews say it to God. Narcissists say it to themselves. Materialists say it to their possessions. Vegans say it to the animals. Environmentalists say it to the earth. Bodhisattvas say it to all sentient beings.

It's possible to get bogged down in nonduality (Gazing at the Ox - Solipsism: Trapped in Tozan's First Rank), but wherever "I" and "you" appear, so can love. What an absolutely marvellous fact!

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians: 12-13)

It's also possible to get bogged down trying to define love. A many-splendored thing? That which makes the world go round? The only thing that there's just too little of? All you need? Perhaps love is like a window. Perhaps an open door. I fear we're straying into koan land.

Never mind. Our hearts know exactly what love is, even if our brains don't.

Returning to the pathetic story about how I let a bunch of pixels shaped like a dog's face get to me, I was reminded of the true story of Hachikō, an Akita dog. The video tribute is a moving blend of clips from the 1987 movie and the 2009 movie with Richard Gere and Joan Allen.

Thanks to Lynette Monteiro at 108zenbooks for the introduction to Hachikō in All in the Waiting. (And best wishes to Lynette and the Ottawa Hospital Emergency Spiritual Care Assistance Team responding to the train-bus tragedy yesterday.)

What the world needs now is love, sweet love,
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.
… no, not just for some, but for everyone.
(Burt Bacharach)

Monday, September 9, 2013

Flee(t)ing Thoughts

As I never seem to tire of mentioning, my attraction to Zen practice is its simplicity, or more precisely, its lack of distracting frills and ornaments, and its directness.

Whether we're off the cushion chopping wood or interviewing a client, or on the cushion following the breath, sitting with a koan, or just sitting, our brains naturally churn out unbidden thoughts. A constant part of practice is dealing with them in order to be fully present.

In Opening the Hand of Thought, Kosho Uchiyama Roshi (successor to Homeless Kodo Sawaki) describes the process like this:

Briefly, our attitude in zazen is aiming at maintaining the posture of zazen with our flesh and bones, and with our mind letting go of thoughts.

What is letting go of thoughts? Well, when we think, we think of something. Thinking of something means grasping that something with thought. However, during zazen we open the hand of thought that is trying to grasp something, and simply refrain from grasping. This is letting go of thoughts.

When a thought of something does actually arise, as long as the thought does not grasp that something, nothing will be formed. For example, even if thought A (“a flower ") occurs, as long as it is not followed by thought B (“is beautiful"), no meaning such as AB (“a flower is beautiful") is formed. … So, even if thought A does occur, as long as the thought does not continue, A occurs prior to the formation of a meaningful sequence. It is not measurable in terms of meaning, and it will disappear as consciousness flows on.

Our encounter with thoughts during practice seems to fall into two categories: after daydreaming and before daydreaming.

The first happens when we have grasped a thought, chased it with others, and find ourselves in a daydream. Here we simply notice that our attention has wandered, let go of the thought, and return to being present. If it’s gentle, effortless and non-judgmental, the process of letting go doesn't itself become a distraction, as it can otherwise trigger its own train of thoughts.

The second happens when we become aware of a thought as it begins to take form, but before it takes hold.

Dealing with these nascent thoughts requires even less effort - just returning the attention to the matter at hand without, literally, giving them a second thought, allowing them to 'disappear as consciousness flows on.'

Of course there are times when we need to pay attention to thoughts as they arise. Making thoughts disappear while trying to write a list of things to buy at the store would be a little, er, off the mark.

The title of this post comes from the realization that opening the hand of thought is a skill that, perhaps because it's so easy, can be used wrongly. I've been catching myself allowing thoughts to disappear not because they distract me from being present, but because they're uncomfortable: generally thoughts that remind me I'm avoiding something. (Hopefully I'm just noticing this more, rather than doing it more.)

Either way, more practice required.

Related Post: Stage Fright

Photo © 2013 Marjon Hollander, with kind permission.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Missing In Action

Stepping from August into September, the question nipping at my heels is, "When is not doing enough, enough?" The lazy summer months floated by, my formal practice went on holiday, this blog crawled under a rock and went to sleep and to some extent, honestly, I feel like I did too.

The summer hasn't been a complete write-off by any stretch. Lots of family time, office time and exercise, and what I think of as my informal practice - i.e. for pretty much everything outside the zendo that doesn't involve sitting on a zafu, aiming to be fully present - continued to unfold at its own pace.

The bodhisattva express, it seems, has infinite stations where one can get on board, but none for getting off and going on a seaside holiday.

The feeling of having been missing in action (I pause to acknowledge having borrowed, nay, stolen the term from blogging friend Lynette Monteiro's Trudging the Wrong Path Diligently) arises when my half-hearted best intentions miss the mark and I drift back into reading a mindless novel. Another twinge of remorse comes from the downside of spending less time on the internet: falling behind in my blog reading, leaving a veritable cornucopia of wonderful works to catch up on.

I could lapse into platitudes here, but since what is really called for is action, I'll just click the 'publish' button and get back to work at failing better.

See you out there.
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