Thursday, August 27, 2015

Today on Jekyll Island


Trees grow weird around here.



Trees grow weird around here, and weird things grow on trees around here.






And then night settles on Jekyll Island.




Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Jekyll Island


I basically grew up on the beach, and today it was nice to be back.  The view, above, from Jekyll Island, Georgia, about 3:00 in the afternoon.


I know school's back in session and it's a weekday and all, but it still seems odd to me to see a beach so deserted in August.


Trees grow weird around here.  Still the same ocean I knew growing up, though.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015


“stare deep into the world before you as if it were the void: innumerable holy ghosts, bhuddies and savior gods there hide smiling. all the atoms emitting light inside wavehood, there is no personal separation of any of it. a hummingbird can come into a house and hawk will not: so rest and be assured, while looking for light, you may suddenly be devoured by the darkness and find the true light.” - Jack Kerouac

Monday, August 24, 2015

Charity


If charity makes you feel better about yourself, it's not really charity, right?

I mean, let's face it, it you help someone across the street to prove to yourself that you're really a decent human being after all, the person receiving the assistance is better off for your effort, I'll grant you that, but you didn't really do it to help the person - you did it to feel better about yourself.  That's fine, but that's not charity, and would you have helped that person out if your own self-esteem hadn't already been in doubt?

If you give money to a cause to feel better about yourself, that's not really charity, either - you're donating to your own ego, not the cause, even if the cause does benefit from your donation.

Real charity is when you donate money you can't really afford to something you don't believe is worthwhile.  You don't feel better about yourself (you might even feel worse) but you do it anyway - that's real charity in my humble opinion.

Real charity is giving that dollar that feels the hardest, just like real courage is not not being afraid, but doing something in spite of being afraid.  It's like giving money to the drunk on the street, who says he's just trying to get bus fare back home to go help his family, and even though you just know he's going to use it to buy booze and that you're being had, you reach in your pocket anyway and give what you have.

Be suspicious of any charitable act that makes you feel warm and fuzzy.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Dry Goods


This new bread-baking enterprise of mine is nicely illustrating the difference between a materialistic mindset and a spiritual mindset.

In the materialistic mindset, it's the final product, the commodity, that matters.  In the materialistic mindset, the less expense, be it in capital or be it in effort, it takes to achieve the end result, the more profitable the outcome.  Why bake a cake from scratch when you can buy cake mix, just add eggs and water, and, voila, a cake?  Why spend hours mixing and measuring and weighing when you can get a cake in half the time for half the effort?  Sure, there might be some trade-offs in the quality of a homemade cake versus that from a retail mix, but the point of materialism is that there's a balance between the expense and the product, and if you want a better product, you better be ready to spend a little more money or effort.

In the spiritual mindset, the final product is beside the point and its the quality of the effort that matters.   On doesn't kneel down to pray to get to the final "Amen" as quickly as possible, or in a non-theistic example, one doesn't sit down to meditate in order to reach the closing bell (or whatever signal is used to indicate the end of the period).  The point of hiking the Appalachian Trail is not to get to the end of the trail, but to experience the hike itself.  In the spiritual mindset, the baked good isn't the point of the baking, it's the actual quality of the experience.  It might even sound a little perverse, but the more difficult and challenging the effort, the more obstacles overcome and questions resolved, the more rewarding the spiritual effort, regardless of the end product.

So if all I was interested in was having a homemade loaf of bread, I'd be well advised to buy the latest bread-making gadgets, get some recipes, and follow the instructions as efficiently as possible.  But I don't care about the bread, other than it's something to share with others and a means to practice generosity.  I'm interested in using a challenging (at least to me) endeavor to focus my full attention upon, and the more hands-on participation I can manage, the better.  It's similar to my decision not to replace my dishwasher when it broke down, but to instead engage in the more tedious, and somewhat outdated, practice of washing my dishes by hand.

So, today, after buying the necessary mixer, the hardware if you will, I went out and bought the software.  Yes, I suppose I could mix the batter by hand if I wanted to be so damned primitive about it all, but if I go too far with that train of thought I'm going to be growing my own wheat first.  The initial recipes I'm looking at (not for actual breads yet, but little bakery warm-ups to get me started) call for both baking soda and baking powder (I didn't know they were two separate things); both granulated and brown sugar; flour, lots of flour; and sugar, eggs, butter, and so on, none of which I had in my kitchen.  So, after spending some quality time on the baking aisle of the supermarket, I have what I think are the necessary ingredients to start my first project.

But the spiritual approach isn't about instant gratification or easy entertainment.  While I'm tempted to jump right in and start making a big mess in the kitchen right now, I'm instead going to step back and wait a little, try to visualize the whole process first and how I would go about it, and then maybe, just maybe, actually start in on it tomorrow.  First prepare the mind, as Dogen would advise.

I once attended a calligraphy demonstration by modern master Keido Fukishima Roshi, who said that his secret was to first rehearse the lettering without a paintbrush in his hand to see where the characters would fit on the page and the motions his hand would have to make, and then repeating the process, but with brush and ink.  "That way," he said, "I never make a mistake."  That's a bold statement, "I never make a mistake," but his reputation as a calligraphy master supports his claim. I'm not going to go so far as to rehearse all of the motions of my first baking experiment before firing up the oven, but I am going to visualize it a little more, first.

It's the path, I remind myself, not the destination.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Bread


Lately, I've got to wondering how can I really call myself a man if I can't even bake bread.  I think there's something inherently manly about baking bread - not only the kneading and rolling of dough and the sweaty heat of the kitchen, but it also involves yeast and is therefore not terribly distant from brewing beer.  Maybe I should be brewing beer, too, but first things first. Bread.

The aptly named Michael Batterberry, founding editor of Food Arts and Food & Wine magazines, has written, "If civilization, as is generally accepted, was born of the first settled riverbank farms, bread made from harvested grains may well have been its first, and most profound, culinary expression.  Millennia ago, bread became synonymous with the absolutely essential.  In ancient Egypt, the word for bread meant 'life.'" 

Think about it:  the sacramental bread of the Christian communion service, the Passover matzoh, the Puritans' "white bread of God."  There has long been a spiritual connection between bread and the divine. 

As I continue to craft my own spiritual path, it seems apparent to me that the preparing, baking, and sharing of bread could be a mindfulness practice, similar to the Japanese tea ceremony or the furniture craftsmanship of the Shakers, who considered making something well  to be an act of prayer in itself.   To make bread mindfully can similarly become a spiritual practice, a communion with both the absolute and with the very history of civilization, and at the end, you have something to share with the world - food - so everybody wins, both the baker and the recipient of the baking.

Mind you, I have absolutely no experience or skill at this - it's hard to imagine a more rank amateur to start this project than myself.  Typically, if I can't microwave it or boil it, I don't eat it, so this endeavor has a very steep learning curve for yours truly.      

The first thing I'll need, I realized, is a good mixer, so today I went out and bought a heavy-duty KitchenAid stand mixer with five-quart glass bowl ($399).  Expensive, but by all appearances the right tool for the job at hand, and something I won't have to upgrade when and if I reach the next level of competence.  All new enterprises require some sort of new material goods.  

I'll probably bake some muffins, biscuits, and scones initially, and then work my way from there up to flatbreads, hearth breads, and sourdoughs, and so on to who knows where (brioche?). But to start, for the very first task, I'll follow Zen Master Dogen's advice (Instructions for the Cook) and begin by preparing the chef, calming the mind and approaching the task with equanimity, judging not the ingredients or the final product but instead putting my full and total attention to the task at hand.  To avoid errors and waste, Dogen would have us first sit and meditate before jumping into the chaos of the kitchen.   

This won't turn into a blog about baking bread, but I'll keep the reader informed of my spiritual and culinary progress as this adventure progresses. 

Thursday, August 20, 2015


Just as fish don't run out of ocean and birds don't run out of sky, our nature never runs out of potential.  It's always there and it's always within and around us - it always is us - whether we take the time to stop and see it or not.  

There's nothing we need to bring to it, because it's already complete and whole.  We don't need to accept it - it will still be there whether we do or not.  And we can't attain it, because it is already us.