Trial by fire

I am reading, with much admiration, the blog recounting the efforts of the members of the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a Soto Zen monastery in California, to cope with the wildfires currently ravaging the countryside. The blog is aptly called ‘Sitting with Fire’, and I am much struck by how calm and circumspect the reporting is by the team on the front line. We can all hope to be so serene in the face of our own, often far less life-threatening, crises.

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Mirror, mirror, on the wall…

I finally bought a mirror yesterday after three months of moving into my new flat. I remarked to a friend that living without a mirror has been a good exercise in ego reflection, and although I’d meant it as a joke, it made me think about mirrors, and ego reflections.

Mirrors are funny things, both as functional objects, and metaphors. Do they let us see ourselves as we are? Or do they let us see through to another reality through which a version of ourselves exist? In our age of precision engineering, we presume that mirrors reflect perfectly the object being reflected. However, the idea of perfect reflections is a fairly recent one. Ancient mirrors were made of polished metal. Their more modern incarnations of glass coated with a thin sheet of reflective metal originated in Venice in the 16th century, though other sources indicate that it may have originated in Roman times. And even so, image distortions were not unexpected.

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Spring bop

Cherry blossoms

Come out to view
the truth of flowers blooming
in poverty
Basho (1644—1694)

Finally it feels like spring has come to the UK. After a dismal April of wintry showers and freezing temperatures, we’ve had some sunshine for the past two days. What struck me is how the tree blossoms seem to have taken full advantage of the situation — overnight the city is suddenly awash in whites and lovely pinks! Gives one such a sense of hope.

Image: Cherry blossoms. Source: stock.xchng.

Living in the moment, or living for the moment?

Burning match‘Live in the moment!’ You impose this idea on me, again.

‘Live in the moment,’ I repeat. Why do I have to? ‘Live in the moment, or live for the moment? …’

‘Well, to live in or to live for the moment, that’s the same kind of concept.’

‘No. It is different,’ I say, strongly and angrily.

- Xiaolu Guo, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (Vintage 2008 )

This excerpt is taken from Guo’s novel, depicting the deteriorating relationship between a Chinese woman and an English man. The woman wants some certainty for the future, the man wants to ‘drift’ and see what happens. He attempts to stave off her increasing demands for commitment with the importance of living ‘in the moment’, and here, she deftly calls his bluff. What does it really mean to live in the moment? And how often to we substitute it with living for the moment instead?
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Remembrance of film(s) past

To continue with the Proustian reference from the last post, I’ve had a wonderful revisiting of a film by Shunji Iwai called Love Letter (1995). Can’t believe it’s been 12 years since I last saw it. But as they say in Zen, time is an illusion, n’est-ce pas?

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Meeting the Buddha

There is a saying, ‘If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!’, implying that the Buddha is already within us, and that we ought to eliminate any deification projected onto external gods/men/things. I don’t know if it is an old Buddhist saying or a more recent manifestation, but the phrase was also popularised as the title of a book by psychotherapist Sheldon Kopp, first published in 1972.

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Beware the Jabberwock

Writing about facing dragons made me suddenly think about Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky. The two Alices have to be my favourite books of all time — though this is the first time I’ve actually admitted it …

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Return to Sisyphus

Sisyphus seemed to keep coming up today: once, when I was pointing a friend to an earlier post of mine, and another time, when I was preparing a short preamble to my Zen group’s discussion of a chapter of Shunryu Suzuki roshi’s book, Not Always So. This post is about the latter, though it clearly resonates with the former.

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Anxiety as practice

I met up with a friend earlier this evening for coffee and was telling him about my recent struggle with the fear and anxiety over the outcome of my PhD. As I started to recount the story to him, about how I became aware I was blaming my supervisor, the examiners and external circumstances for my predicament, I found myself saying, ‘Instead of saying the examiners are wrong or that I disagree with their position, what would happen if I said, actually they are right and I agree with them?’ A curious thing started to happen: as I was speaking, I saw flashes of how the new thesis was going to take shape. It still amazes how powerful a shift in mindset can be.

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Threshold of summer

I was about to blog about something annoying that happened, but decided against it. No need to feed it. Instead, here is a picture of my tiny succulent collection.

I like the onset of summer; it makes me want to do things. I’ve got a few low maintenance houseplants and am trying to grow some salad vegetables in a small box. Will try to post some pictures if they actually germinate…

Meanwhile, a summery sort of poem:

Pied Beauty
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89)

Glory be to God for dappled things—
  For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
  Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
    And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                  Praise him.

Travellers and Magicians

I’m back from being three weeks away. Travel is a funny thing, primarily because it messes with your sense of space and time. No wonder the invention of the steam engine during the Industrial Revolution changed notions of ‘a here, a there and elsewhere’ (Trinh T. Minh-ha, Travelers’ Tales) so radically.

The notion of travel, that is, actually packing up your bags and going somewhere, as opposed to commuting to work, say, entails a mild sense of uprooting, even if it were for a few days. What fascinates me is the condition of being ‘on the road’, the sense of being ‘en route’ somewhere. Travel agencies sell destinations, rarely the journeys themselves. What could they say? ‘Your very own cramped seat on a mind-numbingly long flight. Only £399!’ Not likely. They sell you the destination so that you won’t mind the tedium of getting there. TV travellers like Michael Palin make journeys seem exciting, adventurous, even fun, with the benefit of planning crews, film budgets and editing machines.

I am often impatient to get where I want, and get frustrated when trains are delayed, or resentful when connections are missed, so on this trip, I tried being aware at various stages of the state of being en route, in flight, on the way. At different points (usually when I remembered), I decided to try and experience actually being on the way, rather than trying to speed through it to some point in the future. So I began to notice mundane details like the pattern on the upholstery, the whirr of the engine and the cramp in my buttock. Occasionally (again when I remembered), I tried being aware of my breath. It wasn’t long before I started noticing the pleasures of travelling in spring — the daffodils by the roadside, the brighter days, the general feeling of going somewhere.

Returning home, however, entails a different kind of adjustment. A winding down and up again. A winding down from the travel buzz and a winding up again to the old rhythms of deadlines, appointments, even household chores, that my body seems to have forgotten. Maybe this awkward gear-shifting is what made Elizabeth Bishop wonder if it might have been easier to have stayed put in the first place.

From Questions of Travel
Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

“Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one’s room?

Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there . . . No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?”

But no, that question could never even have been asked if one had never left at all.

Zen travel

I was reading Three Zen Masters while on the road — a fairly monotonous three hours on land, one by air, and another hour on land again — and came across this poem by Ryokan.

Picking persimmons
My testicles are frozen
By the autumn wind.
- Ryokan (1758-1831)

It’s (nearly?) spring here in the Northern Hemisphere, not autumn, and I certainly don’t have the required anatomy, but for some reason it seemed to speak to me.

Stevens, John. Three Zen Masters: Ikkyu, Hakuin, Ryokan. Kondansha International, 1993.


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