Friday, December 30, 2011

And Now We Are One: Thanks From a New Kid on the Blog

The title could suggest a celebration of the emptiness of our form, but it just means that Snow Branches is one year old today.

A year and a day or so ago, I wasn't totally sure what a blog was or whether I'd even read one. A couple of friends in the 'other' world had encouraged me to share my thoughts, and blogging seemed logical. After a bit of exploring with Google and clicking around user-friendly Blogger, the site was up and running.

Snow Branches was the title of a tiny collection of poems I wrote five years earlier and circulated by e-mail to all of half a dozen friends and relatives. I kept the title because I couldn't think of a better one. The photo is a bush outside the front door.

A few writing rules took shape: Listen to your heart - you head's too sneaky; If you wouldn't read it, chuck it; No BS; Yes, acknowledging your humanity is uncomfortable - get over it; Try not to cause too much damage; For god's sake attenuate your proclivity for polysyllabery.

A year later, I've been honoured by 9,300 visits from about 75 countries. I know these aren't huge numbers for the first year of a blog, but my socks are officially knocked off. Thank you so much.

Although I don't usually subject my clients to the blog, Google is merciless. I was on the phone to a new client who was looking me up while we spoke. She asked, "Oh, are you the Buddhist poet?" I muttered, ", well..." She said, "I just love those little poems - what do they call them?" ", haiku, but I don't count the syllables..." Thankfully the conversation meandered back to her case.

The blog is mostly about kindness, and it has been nurtured by the kindness of so many, for which I'm deeply grateful: the generous encouragement of other bloggers who have welcomed me into the family, and the kind retweets, mentions and likes by the beloved Twitter people and Facebook friends.

Special thanks to everyone who left comments. You know who you are.

In case you don't, here are your names linked to your blogs: Andressa, Anonymous, Barry, Bea, Caine, Carole, Charity, Darragh, Dawid, Debra, Elizabeth, Elliott, Herb, James, Jeff, Jess, Jomon, Julie, Kara, Karina, Kate, Kathy, Kel, Kellie, Kyle, Lola, Lynette, Maia, Marguerite, MTK, Nishant, Nancy, Nicola, Rizal, Scott, Stream_enterer, Sue, Susan, Tara, Thane, TMC and Wendy.

And to the person who drove onto my blog on a Google search looking for "luckybeard bonali mediafire", I hope you find what you're looking for. Please feel free to come back any time and stay for a cup of tea!

Friday, December 23, 2011

What? What?

I just figured out why, despite his outrageously politically incorrect opinions, I'm so fond of Archie Bunker. He had a kind heart, and he was absolutely genuine.

Other than his own, no nationality, ethnic group (including hippies), race, religion, sexual orientation or social class was spared. Sometimes he would lambaste several at once, as when he called England a "fag country" because of the upper class accents. Coming from anyone else, the bigoted things he said would be offensive in the extreme. Coming from him, somehow they weren't.

You don't scold an infant for grabbing and breaking your necklace. It's what they do, with no thought of causing harm. Tell Archie Bunker he's a bigot and he won't have a clue what you're talking about.

Some years ago, I went to a restaurant with a charming elderly gentleman and his grown up daughters. I knew that the lady serving us was in fact the new owner-manager and told him so. He looked up at her with a big smile and said, after thinking How could a mere woman own a restaurant?, "Good for you!" When we hung our heads in embarrassment, some with our hands to our foreheads, like Archie, he said, "What? What?"

Over the Christmas season, I found myself quick to criticize (in my head) kindly people at dinner parties, talking about peace and goodwill while gnawing on body parts of murdered animals. Sorry - I'm starting to rant...

I think another reason I like Archie's well-meaning cluelessness is that I know I'm looking in the mirror. It feels like I'm, for the most part, genuine and kind-hearted. But an oblivious person by definition doesn't realize s/he is oblivious. Since I'm not aware of everything, I must be oblivious too.

Something to work on.

Oh dear - I feel a joke coming on.

A blind man walks into a bar, and says loudly, "Hey do you guys wanna hear a blonde joke?" The bartender says, "Sir, I realize you are blind, so I am making an allowance here, but I am female, and a blonde.  Also, the two ladies beside you are professional wrestlers, and they are blondes.  And the two ladies behind you are Hell's Angels, and they are blondes. Are you sure you still want to tell that blonde joke?" The blind man said, "Nah, I don't want to have to explain it five times."

Sunday, December 11, 2011

You Must Forgive Them All

You must forgive them all; for though their hearts are faithful,
to face fear ... is not what they were made for.
Tom Bombadil

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
Recently, I saw The Way, a beautiful movie about a father who, after the death of his son, finished his son's journey walking the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route of Saint James that ends at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

When he arrived, the camera began to take the movie audience inside, and I had the strange sensation of really not wanting to go any further. I recognized that I was having strong feelings of judgmental anger towards the Roman Catholic Church.

The enormous cathedral, with all its ornaments and statues, was a monument to the horrific abuse of power that it had wielded over the centuries. Its wretched victims came to mind: the heretics burned for their beliefs, the tens of thousands of innocents executed for witchcraft in Europe and the American Colonies, the men and women tortured during the Inquisition, the victims of the Crusades, and the countless trusting children sexually abused by monks and priests all over the world.

The movie rolled on, but I was frozen in that moment, hating, and not comprehending, the monsters who were capable of such cruelty.

It dawned on me how completely the road ahead was blocked. Until I forgave them all, I would never advance another step. It was clear to me that I not only had to forgive them - I also had to love and unreservedly embrace each one of them as if my own child, in fact, as myself, because as uncomfortable as it was to acknowledge, each one was myself.

Sitting there in the theatre, I did forgive them. It felt like a weight had been lifted, and I watched the rest of the movie a bit stunned, but at peace.

Of course, that isn't the end of the story.

A few days later, I went to a choir concert where I knew some of the singers. I noticed that I felt resentment towards a couple of them for one reason or another. Turning the love light on them, as I watched them sing, they transformed from people I avoided, into people I cherish.

There are many that I have not forgiven, hidden away in my forgetfulness. I need to seek them out in the dark corners of the hall and invite them onto the dance floor for a hug and a lively polka, and in the joy of the dance, forgive myself as well, for harbouring resentments for so long.

Shall we dance?

Friday, December 2, 2011

Seven Links - Browsing through the Branches

I was encouraged to write this post by Lynette over at 108 Zen Books, who was encouraged to write 7 links - how to appreciate yourself by Carole over at ZenDotStudio, who was similarly encouraged to write Wandering Down Memory Lane (My 7 Links) by what must be a long lineage of introspecting bloggers that may have started here.

Here are the rules. Bloggers named in a "7 Link" blog are encouraged to list seven of their posts that fit these categories:

1. Most beautiful
2. Most popular
3. Most controversial
4. Most helpful
5. Most surprisingly successful
6. Most neglected
7. The post that makes you most proud

Then they nominate five other bloggers to do the same.

This is not easy. Brain immediately offers divers reasons why not to do it: (a) It's an ego trip. (b) Who cares what I think about my posts? (c) It's like picking which of your children you love most. (d) Choosing 5 bloggers will offend everyone else or hurt their feelings. (e) I should be writing something meaningful (f) Blah blah blah. Hmm - these are sounding pretty persuasive...

OK, if Lynette and Carole survived, I guess I'll give it a go.

Most beautiful
As in beautiful phenomenon (not beautiful writing!). I picked An Ancient Tree Blooms: The Awakening of Compassion because I can't think of anything more beautiful than that.

Most popular
That's easy. Mindful Blindness: A Rant Against Speciesism got about four times more hits than any other. That's really heartwarming.

Most controversial
My posts haven't generated much debate, except for Do Bodhisattvas Go To Heaven? (See the last four comments - an altercation I seem to have incited with a comment over at The Zennist)

Most helpful
(to me) The Oak Tree in the Garden is a short piece about realizing that my need to feel like I'm making a difference is misplaced. What I really need is just to fearlessly plow ahead with all I've got. Where? I have absolutely no idea.

Most surprisingly successful
I didn't expect Car 16: A Reminiscence to climb so fast. It must have been the funny conversation at the end.

Most neglected
Who Are These Faithful Friends? Not the least visited, but my first. I still marvel at how the animals that we know the most intimately are the victims of such mindless abuse. Who are they? Here's a hint: they are wearing our clothes.

The post that makes you most proud
This is cheating, but I'm not going to play favourites. Some Poems, Some More Poems, Another Batch of Poems and Poems Batch 4. I don't think proud is the right word, but I kind of like some of them.

Enough about me. I've been trying to think of criteria that will fairly yield about five bloggers without stooping to favouritism (or sadism, depending on how you view it....). Most frequent commenters seems to work.  Without further ado, here they are: (now ducking for cover, maybe never to come back...) Tara at Out of the Lotus, Bea at PROVOKED, Kellie at off-peak, Susan at Sincerity, Cleanliness & Good Presentation and Karina at Senshin. I'll pass on the note that was passed to me: please don't feel obligated in any way to play - you didn't put your name in the hat, so I hope you just do whatever feels right. Just reading your blogs is good enough for me.

Well, Dave, that wasn't so hard, was it? Yes, Dave, it was.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Car 16 - A Reminiscence

Looking back, most of my 62 years have been a gradually changing landscape, except for the times when I just dropped what I was doing and took up something completely different.

The first time was in the late '70's part way through a PhD in biochemistry. I still don't really know why I quit, but I spent the next three years working in a plywood mill figuring out what to do next.

To alleviate the boredom, I took up singing lessons and practiced at work, where my melodic warbling was drowned out by the loud machines. Not entirely, it seems, as I remember some wiseass up on a catwalk hollering down asking if I was calling out for first aid. In the end, I left the mill and went into law school.

Most recently, I tried to retire from law and took a job in a microbiology lab. Compared to law practice, I had a pretty idyllic life looking after the typhoid, cholera and pneumonia collections. Sherlock Holmes in retirement on the Sussex downs tending his beehives. But after a couple of years, my two favourite lawyers from the old firm started their own shop and asked me to join them, so my valiant attempt to be a recovering lawyer happily ended in a relapse.

Both of those detours were deliberate. But there was one that took me by surprise: a burnout. I wrote about it in When I Fell. That was like stumbling into a pothole.

Casting around for something to do, I ended up driving the night shift for a taxi company. At first, I was dealing with self-created shame because I had 'failed' to keep my act together as a lawyer, but when I look back now, those two years as a cabbie were golden.

Driving alone to pick up a fare, I could practice being mindful, waiting for a trip was a chance to meditate, but best of all, transporting customers was a never-ending lesson in kindness.

One of my regular fares was a 'working girl' who also happened to be a heroin addict. I was touched that she would take long cab rides to the hospital to visit her husband, whose foot had been amputated because of diabetes. She wore her best clothes to look pretty for him and insisted on introducing me. They obviously cared for each other and somehow, her occupation didn't seem to be an issue for him.

I didn't see her for a few weeks, but when I finally did, she seemed subdued. Her husband had died. She told me she had gone to a native ceremony held for him and found much comfort in it. She asked me if I could possibly take her on a $5 trip but only charge her $4. All I could say was "No, but I'll take you there for nothing."

One evening I drove a lady to church. She suffered from a mental disorder of some kind and spent the whole trip talking to herself, rummaging frantically through her purse looking for $2 for the offering. When we arrived at the church, she paid the fare with a coupon and rather bleakly started to get out. As she did, I asked her if she would mind doing me a favour. She gave me a puzzled look as I gave her a $2 coin and asked if she would please put it in the collection plate for me. Her face lit up like the sun and she said yes, she would! I thanked her very much.

In due course, things changed. A door opened and I walked into a law office and sat down behind the desk. I have many fond memories of those years. Some conversations I will never forget.

DA:              Car 16.
Dispatch:     Go ahead, Car 16.
DA:              My rear end is making a weird noise.
Dispatch:     Say again?
DA:              ... er, the car's that is...
Dispatch:     Glad you cleared that up, 16.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Straight From the Heart (Sutra)

One of the most beloved figures in Buddhist cosmology is the bodhisattva of compassion Avalokiteśvara, who hears and responds to the cries of all sentient beings. In some countries and cultures s/he is considered to be male, and in others, female.  In China she is the goddess Kuan Yin (Guanyin; in Japanese, Kannon).  In Tibetan Buddhism, each Dalai Lama is his reincarnation.

The Heart Sutra may be the best-known and most popular of the Buddhist sutras. It describes the bodhisattva of compassion's liberating insight gained while engaged in deep meditation.

Statue of Kannon at Daien-in Temple, Japan

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva … clearly saw that … form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form; form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form; sensation, perception, mental reaction, consciousness are also like this. … all things are essentially empty - not born, not destroyed ... Therefore in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, perception, mental reaction, consciousness; no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind, no color, sound, smell, taste, touch, object of thought; ... no ignorance and also no ending of ignorance, ... no old age and death, and also no ending of old age and death; no anguish, cause of anguish, cessation, path; no wisdom and no attainment. Since there is nothing to attain, the Bodhisattva lives by [the perfection of wisdom], with no hindrance in the mind; no hindrance and therefore no fear; far beyond delusive thinking, right here is Nirvana.

When you refer to yourself, where do you instinctively point - to your heart or to your head?

Straight from the heart: we know what this means without thinking.

Kind words spoken - direct, sincere, unrehearsed.

A compassionate act - complete before the brain has a chance to modify or muddle.

Straight from the heart: without fear, far beyond delusive thinking.

Right here is Nirvana.

The excerpt is from Robert Aitken's translation of the Heart Sutra.
The top photo is the rather sad looking stump of a sidewalk tree in North Vancouver.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Poems Batch 4

Here are a few new poems and some old ones gathered from other posts.

Gazing at the child
That inhabits
Your sleeping face


Through the window, winter
A falling snowflake
Shakes the house


The Waterfall

Chaos and bedlam
No droplet misplaced
Every splash harmony
Even the moment
Of thunderous impact
Silent water
Gives silent birth
To silent spray
The waterfall
Is the water
Is the rocks
Is the trees
The waterfall
Writes this
Reads this
Is this
Is just
A waterfall


Take heart!
Every moment
A second chance


My cowardice is in vain
There is nowhere
To hide


Paddling down the rapids
No time to reflect
On skilful strokes


In a dreamless sleep
The Rocky Mountains
Stride across the prairies


Countless cries
One voice
Can’t ignore


Who is asking this question?
What wants to know?
An ancient tree blooms


Thinking about thinking about thinking
Ripples on the pond
Where the frog jumped in


When I fell
You stopped
To help me up


Morning stretch
Reach out
And touch the moon

You can find other poems at Some PoemsSome More Poems and Another Batch of Poems

Saturday, October 22, 2011


Photo courtesy of Marjon Hollander
No matter how far you have gone down the wrong road, turn back!
~ Turkish proverb

Twice in the past week, dharma friends have told me they are making changes in their lives partly because of reading this blog. The first time it happened, I was humbled; the second time was like being hit by a sandbag. Perhaps I was overreacting, but I got choked up and mildly terrified at the same time.

The idea of returning home as an aspect of practice had been percolating on the back burner for a while.  Last week just pushed it to the front.

I think of it as coming back to a path or a state from which we have strayed. Not that straying is necessarily bad - we are the sum total of our strayings, and a little wiser for each one.

Returning home can range between a minor course correction, as in mindfulness practice or zazen when we return to the the present from a daydream, and a 180 degree life-changing about face.

The variations are endless. Here are a few that occurred to me, in no particular order:
  • walking past someone in distress, then going back to help
  • saying "I'm sorry"
  • letting go of a grudge
  • forgiving a debt
  • doing or saying something kind that you have been putting off, no matter how belated it is
  • returning something you stole
  • forgiving yourself, no matter what you did
  • quitting smoking
  • allowing yourself to cry
  • deciding to eat a healthy or ethical diet
  • cuddling after a fight
  • coming out
  • deciding to watch TV, then changing your mind and going for a walk
  • picking up litter you dropped
  • going into rehab or an AA meeting
  • sitting down to meditate after deciding to go to bed
  • asking for help when you don't want to
Each time, our two old friends, the fruits of practice: wisdom and compassion, seem to play a part. Wisdom to realize we have strayed, and compassion to motivate us with the courage to make the change.

The distance we go down wrong roads varies. There is a saying in recovery circles that some people realize they are riding on a garbage truck, figure out where it's going, and jump off, while others ride it all the way to the end. I suspect that as our practices progress, the distances we tend to stray before returning will become shorter, and more and more, we will see a road leading the wrong way, and just pass it up.

I'm avoiding Zen questions like "are we not home already?" or venturing into places where words don't belong, but I do have a question:

So long as one sentient being is suffering, can we ever truly be home?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Smart People on Dumb Animals

I've already told you what I think about how we treat our mute cousins.

Here is what some really great minds had to say:

Abraham Lincoln:
I am in favor of animal rights as well as human rights. That is the way of a whole human being.

Thomas Edison:
Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages.

Mohandas Gandhi:
To my mind, the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being. I should be unwilling to take the life of a lamb for the sake of the human body.

Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy:
A human can be healthy without killing animals for food.  Therefore if he eats meat he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite.

Albert Schweitzer:
There slowly grew up in me an unshakable conviction that we have no right to inflict suffering and death on another living creature, unless there is some unavoidable necessity for it.

Leonardo da Vinci:
The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men.

Henry David Thoreau:
I have no doubt that it is part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with each other.

Albert Einstein:
Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.

Ralph Waldo Emerson:
You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.

But for the sake of some little mouthful of meat, we deprive a soul of the sun and light, and of that proportion of life and time it had been born into the world to enjoy.

The gods created certain kinds of beings to replenish our bodies they are the trees and the plants and the seeds.

Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple:
The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than blacks were made for whites, or women for men.

Cardinal John Henry Newman:
Cruelty to animals is as if humans did not love God.

Sir Paul McCartney:
If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian.

Sir Ian McKellen:
Although he's a vegetarian, I couldn't find any quotes by him on the subject. This one will have to do instead: "I'm Gandalf and Magneto - get over it!"

Franz Kafka:
Now I can look at you in peace; I don’t eat you anymore.

George Bernard Shaw:
Animals are my friends... and I don't eat my friends.

Fred Rogers:
I don't want to eat anything that has a mother.

And on the subject of kindness to animals, let's not forget to be kind to the often mistreated animal wearing our clothes!

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