Sunday, August 30, 2015

Last week, I suggested we should be suspicious of any charitable act that makes us feel warm and fuzzy about ourselves.  There is a corollary to this:  do not withhold your charity even if it the act of giving makes you feel good about yourself.  

At the Zen Center, I used to hear some senior members state that sometimes it is more compassionate and kind to be honest than to delude a person with the reassuring words they wanted to hear, and that as a result kind speech often sounds like unkind speech.  They would have had us say, "Yes, that dress does make your ass look fat" rather than let the person walk around in unflattering clothes.  

As a result, they permitted themselves to say some of the bluntest and most hurtful things to people rather than take the time to think of a more tactful answer or even, better yet, to refrain from replying at all. They gave themselves licence to speak quite cruelly at times by their concept that brutal honesty is somehow "kinder" than soothing falsehoods.  

We can similarly fool ourselves into withholding charity on the basis of thinking that since we feel better for it, or look better in the eyes of others for it, that it's not really charity and just ego gratification that should be avoided.  That's just our mind's clever way of allowing us to practice selfishness and greed instead of charity and giving.  Remember, the mind is quite clever - in fact, it's exactly as clever as you are.  The egocentric mind will give you all of the rationale for withholding generosity that you could ever need.

Zen Master Dogen once said,
"Most people in the world want to show off their good deeds and hide their bad deeds. Since this frame of mind goes against the way, their good deeds go unrewarded and their bad deeds done in secret bring about punishment. Consequently, they conclude that there is no recompense for good deeds, and little merit in the buddha-dharma. This is a false view. We must certainly revise it. Do good things secretly while people are not watching, and if you make a mistake or do something bad, confess and repent of it. When you act in this manner, good deeds you have done in secret will have recompense, and wrongdoings will be revealed and repented so that punishment can be dispelled (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 1, Chapter 18).

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The First Koan

The first koan in my baking practice was a fairly straight-forward one - a simple cinnamon crumb cake.  Rather then diving impetuously into the project, I waited a full week after buying the mixing equipment and ingredients to allow me time to visualize all the steps in the recipe so that there would be no surprises in the middle of the enterprise.

The only real challenge was a layer of apple slices baked into the middle, which required no less than three different mixes for the separate layers (the cake itself, the apple filling, and a walnut crumb topping).  It's still cooling, but it looks and smells good enough to eat, and to my surprise and relief held together, even when I had to turn it upside down to get it out of the baking pan.  

If you're hungry, come on over - it was made to be given away.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Coming Home

The road back home from Jekyll Island is long and flat. After a quick stop at a tire shop in Brunswick, Georgia (above) to fix a piece of plastic dragging beneath the car, I drove the back roads, the "Golden Islands Parkway," to Perry, Georgia, and then highway I-75 the rest of the way home.

Here's what I saw (spoiler alert:  lots of straight, flat road).

I had to pull over briefly for a funeral near Lumber City.

Traffic was too heavy on I-75 to continue taking pictures over my dashboard, but you've got the idea by now what the drive was like.

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


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


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.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Most Beautiful Words In the English Language Are Said To Be "Cellar Door"

If a door doesn't open to anything, is it still a doorway?  Does the word "door" refer to the physical object, the frame and the lintel and so on, or does it refer to the function, the passage into another space?

If we cover cinder blocks with bricks, then which is the wall?  The layer of cinder blocks or the layer of bricks?  Or both (or neither)?  

What is keeping us out, and what is letting us in?  What walls separate us?  What doors are open to us?  

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

State Theater, Uniontown, Pennsylvania, March 1993

It's almost inconceivable to me that I took this photograph during the same incarnation that I'm convinced I'm still experiencing today.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Zen Is Good For Nothing

As a point of clarification, when Kodo Sawaki said, "Zazen is good for nothing," he was not implying that we shouldn't practice zazen.  His point was just the opposite.

In zazen, we quiet our minds and stop the conscious separation of ourselves from the rest of potential. Being intimate with potential in this way is the ultimate expression of our existence, and it shouldn't be looked at as a means or a route to some greater good.  It is in itself the greatest good.

It's not unlike saying that achieving immortality would be good for your health, or good for your complexion.  If you're immortal, your health problems have pretty much been taken care of and there's no need to worry about sickness.  If you're immortal, why worry about your complexion? You've already achieved the ultimate goal.

Same as with zazen.  Yes, calmness and mindfulness will probably manifest themselves to some degree of another in your life, but so what?  You only wanted calmness and mindfulness in order to become intimate with potential, not the other way around.

And saying the goal of zazen is to become intimate with potential is still limiting.  As long as you hold a concept that "I" am over "here" and the "goal" is to be over "there," you're already so lost in conceptualization and ideation that intimacy with potential will elude you.   

Just sit (shikantaza) with no goal in mind, and everything else will take care of itself. Zazen is good for nothing.      

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Zen Is Good For Nothing

One of the differences between Zen and so-called self-improvement practices (including mindfulness) is that Zen does not encourage its students to be more like the teacher or other members of the community, but to become more like one's true self.  In this aspect, Zen is very different from a cult, and this was nicely illustrated in an exchange between Kodo Sawaki and his student Kosho Uchiyama.

Sawaki once said "What is the use of doing zazen?  There is no use in doing zazen.  Until this penetrates your thick skull and you are really doing zazen that is of no use, it is really of no use."

Sawaki (1880- 1965) was an unconventional and dynamic person, the very embodiment of the ancient Zen masters of legend.  His parents died when he was very young, and he was raised by a professional gambler married to a former prostitute. At 20 years of age, he was drafted by the Japanese Army and did two tours of duty in the Russo-Japanese War (1900-1905), even though he was gravely wounded during his first tour.  

According to Uchiyama, Sawaki was from birth a "vital and stimulating person who dominated other people and attracted them like a magnet.  This was his karma, as natural for him as a cat catching mice or a musk deer emitting an attractive fragrance; it was not his greatness as a Buddhist." Uchiyama, on the other hand, describes himself as such a fainthearted person that he hesitated to tell people that he was Sawaki's student.

In 1941, when Uchiyama became a monk, he asked Sawaki, "If I study under you and practice zazen for as long as you are able to teach, can I become a stronger person?"  

Sawaki immediately replied, "No, you can't, no matter how hard you try.  I did not become the person I am because of zazen.  By nature I am this way.  I haven't changed since my youth."

But Uchiyama thought his teacher was just saying that so as to avoid future disappointment, but that if he practiced hard and long enough, he, too, could become a stronger person.  But Uchiyama, who eventually became a significant Zen teacher himself, later noted, "I now understand that there is no use in doing zazen.  I am still a coward and never became even a little like Sawaki Roshi.  A violet blossoms as a violet and a rose blooms as a rose.  For violets, there is no need to produce rose blossoms."

Friday, August 14, 2015


Writing in his book Nothing Holy About It, Tim Burkett notes that there are three stages to the development of schema, the mental models we use to understand the world around us: experience, perfume, and seed. We first have an experience, which creates an emotional memory (perfume).  That memory coagulates to form a seed that projects into the future. A narrative is thereby created and perpetuated by a waterfall of experience-perfume-seed, experience-perfume-seed, experience-perfume-seed. As long as we cling to this schema, our future is affected by the residue of the past.

Friends are those for whom we carry positive seeds. Our last experience with them left a wonderful perfume that coagulated into a positive seed, so we want to be with them. Enemies are the opposite. This tendency keeps our narrative going and as long as our narrative runs.  We experience the present through the past.

But with practice, we begin to notice when we are watering seeds from the past that will condition and limit our future.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Recent Purchases

I was in Athens, Georgia today and when I stopped by the Public Library to research a property in town, I saw they were having a used book sale.  I bought the ten books above for a sum total of $20.

Summer reading continues. . . 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

1.)  I finally finished Infinite Jest and have returned it to the former gap on the bookshelf.

2.)  Crichton was a hack and the books are merely reference material for me to refute his half-baked half-truths regarding climate change. 

3.)  Even though I still have yet to encounter a likable character in a Franzen novel, I'm nonetheless looking forward to Purity.

4.)  Elliott Erwitt, Spalding Gray, Philip K. Dick, and William S. Burroughs all deserve to be on the same shelf together with John McPhee and William Faulkner.  Chuck Palahniuk, Malcolm Gladwell, and Jared Diamond should be honored to share the shelf space with the others.    

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Just noticing now that I have both Karl Marx' Capital and the King James Bible on the Fiction shelves of my library.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

One Year

Just stating for the record that for a year now, this blog, which formerly featured an amalgam of "borrowed" imagery from all over the internets, has presented only original photography.

Still hasn't been a fresh idea since 2004 though.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Dogen concludes Genjo Koan with a story:
Zen Master Hōtetsu of Mayokuzan is using a fan. A monk comes by and asks, “The nature of air is to be ever present, and there is no place that air cannot reach. Why then do you use a fan?” 
The master says, “You have only understood that the nature of air is to be ever present, but you do not yet know the truth that there is no place air cannot reach.” 
The monk says, “What is the truth of there being no place air cannot reach?” 
At this, the master just carries on using the fan.  The monk bows in recognition of the master's wisdom.
Regarding this story, Dogen notes, "The real experience of potential and the vigorous road to the real experience is like this.  Someone who says that because the air is ever present we need not use a fan, or that even when we do not use a fan we can still feel the air, does not know ever-presence and does not know the nature of air.  Because the nature of air is to be ever present, the actions of those who know have made the earth manifest itself as gold and have ripened the Milky Way into curds and whey."