Saturday, October 18, 2014

Musing over the Rainbow

As the loyal companion of two rescued springer spaniels (see The Rescue of Dallas and Austin), I joined the English Springer Spaniel Lovers Facebook group.

Springers are 99% heart.  Dallas is about as smart as a bag of hammers, but I've never known a dog with more heart.

As you might expect, members of the group tend to post from the heart too. Most of the stories are heartwarming accounts of devotion and loyalty and just plain cuteness.

But as you might also expect, there are heartbreaking stories of the brown and white faithful companions arriving at the end of their all too short lives. This, I learned, is called going to the Rainbow Bridge.

Lately, several Pride parades got me thinking about the rainbow symbol.

The oldest is probably as the symbol of hope for the future.

Noah said it was God's way of saying that He was done with His ethnic cleansing rampage.

Personally, I wouldn't take much comfort in that, coming from a being who had just massacred 99.99% of the women and men on earth and their children. Not to mention what must be the worst example of collateral damage ever - especially coming from an omniscient omnipotent being - killing all but two members of every innocent animal species on the planet.

Oops - ranting. Perhaps another time...

The rainbow symbol that gives me the most hope is as the celebration of diversity.

You know how some people just can't seem to tell you about someone else without being compelled to also mention the person's race, religion, sexual orientation and body morphology?  I remember getting particularly fed up with racial stereotyping one day and saying, "Won't it be nice when all the races have completely interbred and we all look the same?"

After a little reflection, however, I realized that what would be much nicer will be to live in a world where our hearts have opened and prejudice no longer abides, where, with innocent, affectionate curiosity, we can approach strangers and ask them about their racial origins and no offence will be intended and none will be taken.

Here's Eva Cassidy. Sadly, cancer took her to the Rainbow Bridge early, but the songs she left behind have gladdened many hearts.

Photo credit: Captain76 by CreativeCommons.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Down Judgment Road

I'm becoming a grumpy old man.

At least, the warning signs are there. A new addition to my watch list of troubling tendencies – joining old friends procrastination, avoidance, timidity, gluttony (a.k.a. Sweet Tooth) and sloth.

Because I propounded the old adage, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing,” I had my last cigarette and drink 26 and 16 years ago, respectively.

However, being judgmental is one of those awkward necessities – along with procrastination, avoidance, timidity, gluttony and sloth - that you can’t quite drop cold turkey if you tend to overindulge.

I mean, some things just have to be put off or avoided, caution is often called for, and without eating or sleeping, we wither and die. And judging is a necessary part of rational thought.

So it comes down to practice: our efforts to give energy and direction to our everyday lives to do the ‘right’ thing – as in the right speech, right livelihood, right concentration, etc. of the eightfold path, making our way through the currents of cause and effect in the ocean of form and emptiness, otherwise known as our ordinary lives.

Zen master Yunmen was once asked, “What is the teaching of the Buddha’s entire lifetime?” Yunmen answered, “An appropriate response.”

Eshin Godfrey likened our moment to moment efforts to stay on course to sailing a small boat. Responding to the movements of the wind and tides and waves and currents, adjusting our weight, the pressure on the tiller and the tension in the sails.

Of the possible responses to the specific annoyance of intrusive unhelpful judgmental thoughts, making sure my mouth remains shut is a big one. Refraining from scowling is also big, as is refraining from rolling my eyes (unless it's at my ridiculous penchant for judging...).

Then there is the standard repertoire for dealing with unbidden thoughts in general - acknowledging them, evaluating their immediate usefulness (yes, judging them!), and for the most part, letting them go their merry way without following them.

But many (of my) judgmental thoughts tend to be unkind, and these call for more extreme measures, namely a concentrated blast of kind thoughts at the judgee.

Here's Pema:

The next time you go out in the world, you might try this practice: directing your attention to people—in their cars, on the sidewalk, talking on their cell phones—just wish for them all to be happy and well. Without knowing anything about them, they can become very real, by regarding each of them personally and rejoicing in the comforts and pleasures that come their way. Each of us has this soft spot: a capacity for love and tenderness. But if we don’t encourage it, we can get pretty stubborn about remaining sour.

Here are some related posts:

And here's Sarah:

Friday, May 30, 2014

Profoundly Ordinary (and other Zen Oxymorons)

Insight into the great matter, sometimes reverently called the The Great Matter of Birth and Death, has likely been pursued for millennia, ever since humans became self-aware.

Enlightenment, satori, kensho, seeing into one's own nature, self-realization, illumination, awakening, seeing one's original face, epiphany, reaching God-consciousness, or, as Robert Aitken Roshi put it, noticing something important.

It can be a gradual shift in perception spanning decades or a sudden realization as quick as the opening of an eye. It can follow years of diligent meditation / zazen / mindfulness, or it can happen for no apparent reason at all.

Although much sought after, it is not infrequently, I suspect, the elephant in the room. After all, “Whoever knows does not speak; whoever speaks does not know.”

Which means whoever spoke those words (Lao Tsu) obviously didn’t know (?)

Which means the statement might be false. Which means … hmmm … entering a place where words fall apart.

On March 15, 1958 In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, Thomas Merton was suddenly overwhelmed with a realization “like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream.”

Over at Monkey Mind in his post A Bit of What Kensho is and A Bit More of What it Isn’t, James Ford Roshi wrote, “…what we get is a discovery of our ordinariness. And, like for Father Merton, finding our deepest connection.”

Bodhidharma’s answer in the first koan of the Blue Cliff Record  to the emperor’s question, “What is the first principle of the holy teaching?” was, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.”

The oxymoron ‘profound ordinariness’ might have been used by St. Augustine. (I’m flitting about here, fearful that this piece may descend into rational analysis in a place where rational analysis has no business being.)

His particular usage of oxymoron, found in the prayer to God, is as follows: "(You are) deeply hidden yet most intimately present, ... immutable and yet changing all things, ... always active, always in repose, ... you love without burning, ... you are wrathful and remain tranquil. You will change without any change in your design” (Conf., 1,4,4) …

Augustine uses the oxymoron for glorifying God. The phrase "(You) deeply hidden yet most intimately present" contains contradictory and incompatible words. Yet it is with these contradictory words that he was able to express God. God is absolutely ineffable. Nevertheless, "if that is ineffable which cannot be spoken, then that is not ineffable which can be called ineffable." (Doct.Christ., 1,6,6)

Speaking about shift in perception, here is an autostereogram (remember them?) The slightest change in view brings alive a vivid three-dimensional image from a bunch of coloured dots.


Hint: enlarge the image and experiment gazing at it slightly cross-eyed.

[Spoiler alert: It’s the image of a shark, cut into, not standing out from, the flat surface.]

Perhaps here might be a good place to mention, for those interested but who haven’t read it yet, The Book of Mu – Essential Writings on Zen’s Most Important Koan by James Ford Roshi and Melissa Myozen Blacker – a collection of over 40 wonderful essays, each pointing at the moon.

And finally, another grateful nod to James for introducing me to Peter Mayer’s Holy Now.

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Children Shall Lead

“It's not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world.
It's our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.”
A big part of my job is persuading people: judges to grant what I’m asking for, opposing lawyers to be reasonable, clients to get real. It spills over into daily life as I bend the ears of friends, family, colleagues and strangers, trying to sell my particular brand of The Right Way to eat, live and think.

All for a good cause, of course, to end the suffering of all beings, everywhere. Probably a smiley face should go here.

Human evolution. Leaving behind cannibalism, slavery, racism, sexism, homophobia, war, the death penalty, exploiting animals. We can give it a push, or at least, get out of the way. 

It dawned on me that I've spent quite a lot of energy trying to change opinions that were formed back when I used a slide rule. Pushing molasses uphill comes to mind.

I can relate to the inertia, as I suffer from the same opposition to change - clinging vainly to a version of the English language that's crumbling before my eyes, and I feel as helpless as my forebears who watched in dismay as “you” relentlessly replaced “thou” and “thee”.

It further dawned on me that evolution won’t come by changing the tightly held views of old people, but by encouraging the amazing hearts and minds of those who have never seen a slide rule, an eight track tape or a brick phone.

I went looking for statistics about the views of different age groups and found these:

Statistcbrain (2013): 

Age demographics of the the 8.3 million vegetarians/vegans in the USA
42.0% 18-29
40.7% 35-54
17.4% 55+

Americans opposing the death penalty
43% 18-29
38% 30-49
33% 50+

Gallup (2012):

Americans who believe same sex marriage should be valid
73% 18-29
49% 30-49
51% 50-64
39% 65+

Taking the cynical view, it could be argued the statistics mean our liberal ideas become more conservative with age, but I don't buy that.

If we encourage our children and if we seek out and nurture the child in us, I believe the human race will evolve beyond our wildest imaginings.

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?

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