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Zen Xmas Blues

Took the Christmas tree to the recycling depot today and had a hard time parting with it.

It was just your typical Fraser fir from the supermarket, where danger lurks for Christmas tree seekers. You never know what you've got until it thaws. But we were lucky. This tree was verdant and fragrant, one of those lavishly fulsome conifers from the balsam family in contrast to the scrawny 'Charlie Brown' style of tree we've routinely watched unfold in the living room in Christmas's past. They are stunning too, in their own way of course. But someone remarked that this one was the best Christmas tree we'd ever had. Who could argue? Almost everyone commented on how spectacular and luminous it was.

So it was hard to strip it of its seasonal decor and then unceremoniously plop it on the snow-filled bed of the pick-up truck for a sordid ride to the recycle dump. I felt that it deserved a better fate and so the whole thing made me feel a bit sad.

But on the journey I kept telling myself that the tree had admirably fulfilled its temporary purpose among us. I was reminded that nothing lasts forever. Nothing is permanent. This is the very heart of Mahayana - that all suffering flows from habitual attachment to things that are impermanent. And if we must cleave to something, then let us cleave to nothing. And having embraced nothing, even this, one day soon, we must eventually release.

All this likely came to mind because I have two books on Zen on the go, along with some essays on Zen. And it seems that almost every year at Christmas, for no real reason, some of my attention turns to Zen.
Indeed, though I am far from being a Zen-man, sometimes I'm compelled to recycle this stuff.
And rather than be sad about my culpability in the fate of this tree, I decided to say good-bye with admiration and happiness - acknowledging its' impermanence while reflecting on my own. This is today's little lesson and brings to mind the following aphorism by the Zen master Hyakujo. Hyakujo would offer lectures to the novice monks in his monastery. For several days he noticed there had been an old man standing in the back of the lecture hall. One day after the lecture the old man asked if he might speak with Hyakujo and the master had him brought up for a private meeting. The old man said: "I am not really an old man. I am a fox. In a prior world structure I was the abbot of this monastery and someone asked me, 'Is an enlightened person bound by cause and effect?' And I said 'No'. And for that answer I was condemned to live in this body of a fox for the past 500 lifetimes. Can you give me a turning word to release me from this fox-body?'" Hyakujo said: "Ask your question again." The fox-man said: "Is an enlightened person bound by cause and effect?" Hyakujo said: "An enlightened person does not ignore cause and effect." On hearing this, the old man was released from his fox-body.
So far in this New Year I have tried to peer a bit more clearly into things. By admiring the noble purpose of a really great Christmas tree, for example. Similarly, if I am perturbed by our consumerist, throw-away society, or by the question of whether one should have a 'real' living Xmas tree at all, I am consoled to know that this living thing is subject to the condition of impermanence by virtue of its arising from a cone and by the cone arising from a tree and going back generations of cones and trees seeing that it was conditioned by having come from a single undivided prokaryotic cell. And regardless of whether I am, for the moment, perturbed or consoled, there is an old Zen story that illustrates how we might avoid getting too caught up in our thoughts: A monk asked a Zen master: 'What shall we do when the 100, the 1000 and the 10,000 things come towards us all at once?' The teacher replies: 'Just don't try to control them.'
For just a fleeting moment then, for just 21 days, our little living tree gave as much pleasure as it possibly could squeeze from itself, standing so radiantly among us. In a twinkling you could say this humble tree served up its' own Buddha-nature, sharing its' most intimate self so perfectly and brilliantly. All we can do is stand in awe and toss it on the pile of soon-to-be wood chips and sawdust. Thank-you. Well played. Nothing more to be said or done.
(Top: watercolour & India Ink illustration Zen Christmas Blues, by David Roberts.)









the New Year I predict
will unfold in the shape of far away thunderclaps
and in the daylight four leaf clovers
will dislodge their roots from the ground.
who will be the first to lick the creamsicle thighs
of the calendar girl
and be dragooned to the days of Saigon self-immolation
where the coolest breeze reverberates across an empty mountain
arousing the sleepy watchman
who washes his hands and trots out the dogs of peace
to howl their lonely chorus.






The MP from Watcherville

Driving home in my old pickup and there, in the rear view mirror, following me in his little red coupe, was the newly-minted Member of Parliament for my federal Electoral District.

Immediately, instinctively, I took evasive action. I tried everything to give him the slip: first by turning left, and then right. Still, he followed.

Then came the realization that this new MP was a Liberal. So there's really nothing you can do about that, they are always there. You can try going left - but still they persist. You veer right and they do the same damn thing. Sure enough, no matter which way I turned he was still on me, no question. Unbelievable.

I thought we had punted the haughty Conservatives for their general malfeasance, including, inter alia, their zealous pursuit of the surveillance state - which had been ratcheted up to a dangerously undemocratic level. And now, as if the Cons weren't knee-jerk enough, here was the New baby Lib, not even yet sworn in, eyes glued to my bumper, raising the stakes and taking the watcher state to a whole new level. At least under the Cons the Canadian Security Apparatus was subtle, sneaky and secretive as it trampled my privacy rights. But here I could practically feel the heat of the Lib laser beams on my tail.

During the recent election campaign the Liberal had come to my door, the only candidate to do so. And I grilled him over his party's support for the Cons offensive and draconian Bill C-51. Now that he had emerged victorious in the election, I could see that this was personal payback. I pulled over in the pickup, making sure he wasn't hooked to my trailer hitch and hoping, like an old dog with indigestion, that this confrontation might soon pass.

And pass he did. So that now the tables were turned. And I swung into action, following him pretty much straight into his driveway before realizing that the fresh Parliamentarian for my federal Electoral district is one of my quite close neighbours.

Slowly, very slowly, I negotiated the old pickup and waved at him and smiled nonchalantly: "Good luck in Ottawa," I called out. And he waved back, meekly but not unpleasantly, no doubt wondering why the putz in the old pickup couldn't have just just stayed in the centre lane from where, of course, given that Naturally Governing vantagepoint, everything always looks to be just rosy and in its proper place.


*Illustration: Parliament Hill from Gatineau, by David Roberts 11"x15" Sharpie on wove paper




A Boxing Day Proposal



It's Boxing Day.

In some circles apparently it is Boxing Week.

But why stop? Why not live large and make it Boxing Month?

Or could we go all in, and make 2015 The Boxing Year?

Of course there will be war over whether it should be a Gregorian Boxing Year or Javanese, Kurdish, Discordian, Runian, Julian, Assyrian or Halocene Boxing Year. But why quibble? Why not celebrate each and all? Because after that, all things equal, every fourth annum, for kicks, we could enjoy a Leap Boxing Year. And to recognize the years falling between we could have a Biennium Boxing Year and Triennium Boxing year (to roughly accommodate the Hebrew, Buddhist, Coptic, Igbo, Mayan and Berber calendars) only to be crowned by The Olympian Boxing Year.

At this point someone, undoubtedly, will feel strongly that our political leaders must be pressed to declare the next 10 years the Boxing Decade. And having accomplished this we could in all humility declare ourselves truly to be the Boxing Generation. Those of us still around in 50 years could celebrate with a bowl of spotted dick and bottle of single malt the Boxing Jubilee.

Then there'd be every reason in 100 years for the offspring of offspring to triumphantly announce the end of the Boxing Century. Surely then though someone very smart would come up with the splendid idea that nothing could surpass a special celebration of the Boxing Millennium. Think of it: In a million years we'd have completed an earth-shattering Boxing Age. We trust that in 10 million years there would be someone to witness humanity's near-ultimate achievement - the Boxing Epoch - to be surpassed, at 100 million years, by The Boxing Era.

Sometime after this, indeed in exactly the precise amount of time it takes the Solar System to orbit the centre of the Milky Way Galaxy (once) our human descendants then could celebrate the almost unsurpassable Galactic Boxing Year! This period would only be surpassed by the Boxing Eon (500 million years) and by Boxing Infinity.

Now can I be honest with you? May I say that I don't feel well prepared for Boxing Infinity? In fact I don't really feel up for Boxing Day. Might we go in another direction entirely? Might we have just one Boxing Hour? To be completely candid I'd settle for a Boxing Minute. Or a Boxing Second. Even a Boxing Millisecond. I could even live comfortably with a Boxing Nanosecond or a Boxing Picosecond. The term Boxing Svedberg has a nice ring. And Boxing Jiffy is palatably pleasing and could even, in time, be further shortened to, simply, a BJ. Boxing Yoctosecond? Boxing Planck Time Unit. Ah! There we are. I'll settle for that. In fact that went by so fast I hardly noticed. Until next time.

(Illustration: Another Day at the Office 12x9 w/c & ink)




Cocking a Snook at Perfection


We have been pondering names that repeat and names that almost repeat.

Sirhan Sirhan is a perfectly repetitive name. José José and Fei Fei are repeating names too, as are Justo Justo, Miou-Miou, Rye Rye, Morris Morris, Morgan Morgan etc.

Then there are the almost-but-no-cigar repeating names such as Neil McNeil, Magnus Magnusson, Callum McCallum, Marky Mark, Jean Valjean and Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

Jean Valjean of course is a name given by Victor Hugo to the fortisimo character in one of the half dozen greatest novels in the world: Les Misérables.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar is the name given to baby Belmokhtar in 1972 by Mr. and Mrs. Belmokhtar. This one has since been handed various sobriquets: The One Eyed, The Uncatchable and Mr. Marlboro, which also has a nice bit of repetitive swang to it. We kept an eye out for him when we were in Tuareg country in the Western Sahara in 2013 just as, we suppose, he kept an eye out for us.

We prefer these almost repeating names to the perfectly repeating ones since the imperfect repeating names embody an aesthetic of Japanese wabi-sabi. It is precisely because the names are not symmetrical that they are beautiful.

In some languages the repeating of a name, or near re-duplication, cloning, and doubling of a name-sound, serves a grammatical purpose such as plurality or intensification. There is some creative play here, where the duplication and re-duplication interruptus is used to make a wild contrapuntal audible universe. Repeat this aloud and hear your voice land upon melody: Llewellyn Crikey Llewellyn Boutros Haidar Boutros Haidar Bushy Bush Dogg Doggy Snoop Mgoeing Mgoeing Lipp Lippi Renzo Renzi Sven Sven boyo boyo bach. Can you feel some wabi-sabi rhythm in that?

Underplayed and modest

But wabi-sabi is essentially simple, slow and uncluttered. And we learn from the architect Tadao Ando that it reveres authenticity above all. "Wabi-sabi is underplayed and modest, the kind of quiet, undeclared beauty that waits patiently to be discovered. It's a fragmentary glimpse: the branch representing the entire tree, shoji screens filtering the sun, the moon 90 percent obscured behind a ribbon of cloud. It's a richly mellow beauty that's striking but not obvious."

Which brings us in a roundabout manner to thoughts on the role of the paid art critic, theorist and ontologist. This sounds like the kind of gig where life is just one big brain party after another, all the time repeating mongo mongo. For example, consider the words of the late art theorist Leone Vivante: "In a cosmos in which number and quantity seem overwhelmingly predominant, art reveals quality as ultimately real in the very actuality of consciousness." And so, he says, in his Essays on Art and Ontology: "A work of art does not turn or depend on anything else for its reality, because, I repeat, it is an immediate actualization and revelation of an inextricable nucleus of values absolutely inherent in a present origin or in an intimate activity or in form ..."

Is it possible that some things do not hold up well on repetition? Let me say in reply that I have never, I repeat, never, made a perfect painting. They are all wabi-sabi and all perfectly mondo, chibi chibi and jar jar jinks.


Also, I have a birthday coming up and there is wabi-sabi in that fact too, because the crevices on my visage are longer and more deeply beautiful than before. Though I think I am starting to catch a whiff of the pudding palace that awaits at the top of the hill.


UPDATE: June 2017 - There were reports that Mokhtar Belmokhtar met his end in 2013. Then again in 2015 this was repeated. Repeated again in late 2016. So if you repeat something often enough it starts to mimic truth.


(Top Image: Visite du Vigile/Visit of the Watchman 11x14 watercolours by David Roberts)