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Monday, May 29, 2006

Doing Nothing vs Doing for Nothing

This afternoon I noticed that the yucca hammock was gone, only my canvas hammock was hanging, and then a bit later when Bro. Juniper was strolling near the vegetable garden, I asked about the whereabouts of Gordon Hu, and Bro. Juniper related this to me. First I should note that Bro. Juniper is a very accomplished musician, anything with strings, he can make music with, and as always on Sundays after the noon time meal, Bro. Juniper gathers many of the brothers together in the chapel for his sing along, his attempt to keep many of us in the present, when in fact some of the elder of the brothers seem to think the latest of vocals are Gregorian chants. So, usually with guitar, Bro. Juniper attempts to stir up things a bit with some modern hymns (circa 1800-1900), or sometimes even his own compositions. Now back to the garden, Bro. Juniper said that Gordon Hu attended yesterday's sing along, at first as an observer, then soon he joined in the singing, and as Bro. Juniper put it, showed some chops, particularly with "Pass it On" when all the other voices fell silent when Gordon sang the last stanza: "I wish for you, my friend, this happiness that I've found; you can depend on him, it matters not where you're bound. I'll shout it from the mountain top; I want my world to know; the Lord of love has come to me, I want to pass it on." Well, I was dumbstruck, for I had missed the sing along, normally I am there, but yesterday I went to the monastery library, and as always, got caught up in a new book that just arrived, Joshua Greene's "Here Comes The Sun" -- actually I just scanned through it, but hope to find the time to read it soon, a most interesting combinations, a Jew writing about George Harrison's spiritual quest. Anyway, Bro. Juniper was very excited about the transformation taking place with Gordon Hu in so short a time, and further, the reason for his disappearance is that he had to take care of some business in Barstow, and promised Bro. Juniper that he would return within a week. Well, part of the transformation, as Bro. Juniper see it, is that Gordon Hu has never experienced living one's faith with song, and he discussed this with Bro. Juniper, for belting out in song one's spirituality was foreign to Gordon Hu, for his path had always been to either ponder the unknown, or to meditate upon it. I now recall my short discussion with Gordon Hu where he shared with me some thoughts, one that still resonates with me is how he explained that the Taoists teach the theory of "doing nothing" whereas the Confucianists teach that of "doing for nothing." He pointed out that in Confucianism, one cannot do nothing, because for every person there is something which he ought to do, and further, he does it "for nothing" because the value of doing what one ought to do lies in the doing itself, and not in the external result. After that said, I asked Gordon Hu if perhaps my time in the hammock was Taoist in nature, of which he agreed, and confessed that at times Taoism does have great appeal.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

A yucca hammock

Yesterday Bro. Clarence was sporting his brand new self-made yucca woven sandals, and beside him, Gordon Hu was deeply focused in his work, he was putting the finishing knots on a just woven yucca hammock! I'll admit, I purchased my hammock a few years ago at a sporting goods store, and it is still in decent sharp, yet when placed side by side with Gordon's yucca woven hammock, oh my, his makes my mass-produced hammock appear somewhat inauthentic. When I mentioned that outloud, as Gordon was tying his hammock beside mine, he let go with a hardy laugh. Bro. Clarence asked why the laugh, and Gordon came over and began to inspect my hammock, and lo and behold, he tugged at a tiny tag that was previously hidden in a corner fold. "Made in China," he laughed, then added, "Now we have two Chinese made hammocks!"

A bit later, I was resting on my hammock and Gordon was testing his, then sort of musing out loud, he said, "I really miss Calvin & Hobbes." Now it was my turn to laugh, for I said, "Me too." Then after a moment of silence, Gordon said, "One of my favorites ... Hobbes is helping Calvin get the mail from the mail box and Calvin says 'Ah! I got the letter I wrote to myself!' Hobbes replies: 'What did you write?' Calvin (reading aloud) says 'Dear Calvin, Hi! I'm writing this on Monday. What day is it now? How are things going? Your Pal, Calvin.' Calvin then goes on to say: 'My past self is corresponding with my future self.' And Hobbes replies: 'Too bad you can't write back.'"

With that we both fell silent, only the occasional fluttering of the sparrow's wings as it flew to and fro kept us both in the present.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Staking tomatoes

Bro. Juniper mentioned to me that our visitor, Gordon Hu, had a rather long talk with the abbot, and after that, Bro. Sedwick passed the word, treat our guest as usual, yet please refrain from asking too many questions. I was back to my garden yesterday afternoon, tying some rather vigorous tomato plants to some stakes that I just pounded into the earth, when Gordon Hu appeared, seemingly deep in thought and watching my every move. I greeted him, yet held my tongue as Bro. Sedwick had suggested, and continued to finish tying with twine the last of the tomato plants. Gordon Hu suddenly spoke out, saying, "I hope those are 'real' tomatoes, and not those tiny marble things." I laughed at that, and assured him that I shared his feelings, for these were 'real' tomatoes, 'Brandywine' -- the biggest tomato seeds that I could find. He seemed to smile for a moment, then to my surprise, he began to sob. Not knowing why, I hurriedly ushered him over to a bench that I had constructed from manzanita limbs and branches. Not too comfortable, yet functional. He held his hand up, appearing to both halt any further words from me, and also to gain time for himself to regain his composure. "Tomatoes." The only word he uttered, again and again, until his voice gained strength and the tears dried on his cheeks. Then he told me the most remarkable tale, and I must confess, I spoke not one word for the next hour.

"Five years ago I returned to China to visit my grandfather for the last time, in fact, I spent five days with him before he died. I don't know what he died from, he still lived in rural China, it took a day-long bus ride from Beijing, the only doctor was not even in the village that week, so I never met him, but none of that actually matters. Grandfather's only real concern while I was there, wasn't his illness, but his tomato plants. He had me tending to them for that week, and I now remember what he said when I constructed out of bamboo, stakes to tie the tomato plants upon. He said, with a little help, one can stand tall, grow strong, and bear much fruit, without a little help, one is left on the ground for the insects to devour. I didn't think much about that, that is until the next to the last day, that was when he told me his story. I don't know if you know Chinese history, but when Mao came to power, the world of my grandfather was turned upside down. Then later it was further spun around, so much so that my grandfather was never again the same man. He said that whatever truth and hope that he had, he squeezed into a tiny ball, and then he hid that tiny ball inside himself. And then, forever more, he awoke each day and watched as all those around him lived in lies, in fact, they called lies, truth. And anyone who attempted to right the lies, were removed, 'reeducated' or simply killed. So my grandfather became a great actor, upon arising each morning he would don his mask, and for the entire daylight would live a lie. Then in the darkest moments of night, he would search for that tiny ball inside himself, and would for a moment let truth and hope shine upon his face. And the day my grandfather died, he thanked me, and said that this was the first week since his younger days that he didn't don his mask upon arising. He further told of his youth, when he attended for a short time the Christian missionary school, and it was there that the elderly man, a Mr. Gordon, who always wore a tweed suit, and a fedora hat, even in the heat of summer. Mr. Gordon taught him of Jesus for that short time. And as quick as those days passed by, my grandfather never again met a Christian. Then on his dying bed, he held back the pain for just long enough to say that he also discovered something inside that tiny ball that before he didn't know was there, inside was everything that Mr. Gordon taught him about Jesus, including how to tie a tomato plant to a stake for support."

With that Gordon Hu looked at me and smiled, then concluded with, "I changed my name last year, and I guess you can guess why. And isn't it funny, here I am telling this to you, a Christian ... and me? Before visiting my grandfather I called myself a Confucianist ... today? I don't know."

Sunday, May 21, 2006

One Gordon Hu

It was late this afternoon and Bro. Juniper found me out near the west wall, I was just finishing with a bit of stirring of the sand of my tiny ‘victory’ garden, and he seemed a bit breathless, but soon managed to inform me of a guest that had just arrived, he described Gordon Hu as a thirty-something rambler that seemed to have found himself in a clime not much to his liking, and to escape the noontime desert heat he spotted the monastery, and that is where Bro. Juniper found him, large empty plastic water bottle in hand, yet with an ample grin, at the front gate. Of course we have visitors from time to time, usually not sightseers, for we are a bit out of the way of any normally traveled tourist route, but then again, this is California and one cannot predict who one will find, even in the most inhospitable stretch of the vast Mojave. So, I asked, is this fellow merely seeking refuge for the night, or perhaps, is he in want of need? “I think need,” Bro. Juniper replied, “for he did seem quite excited when he viewed a robed brother with sandwich in hand, and after downing several glasses of water, he began peppering me with questions about the viability of a monastery in such a hostile clime, but before I had a chance to reply, Bro. Sedwick steered our guest to the dining table, and so, that is our current situation.”

Thus was my introduction to sight unseen Gordon Hu. And sight seen? After returning my gardening implements to the shed, I joined the others at the dining table, but to my surprise and dismay, Gordon Hu was out like a lamp, a half-eaten tuna sandwich before him, he, head slumped atop his sprawled arms atop the table, fast asleep.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Notes on an envelope

What is plagiarism when truth is but a slippery fish in hand (and out of hand) and into the frying pan and masticated and evacuated and never really taken seriously as an essence, that is, until one smells it.

Yucca brevifolia, aka Joshua tree.

Bro. Clarence is planning to weave some sandals from the long and narrow and fiberous yucca leaves. He was sketching many different sandal designs today, as well as fiddling with some yucca leaves, I think perfecting some sort of weave and knots for his future sandals. We shall see.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The One Who Came

"What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Zen masters have been puzzling one another with 'koans' for over a thousand years in their quest for enlightenment. On the surface a koan may appear to be just a nonsensical question used to either torment a Zen neophyte or perhaps to act as a sort of repetitive chant with no answer really sought, but merely a way to help cleanse the mind of activity in order to enter a meditative state. But I think not. I think a koan is really a device to suddenly jolt one out of ordinary thinking and into a state of awareness, awareness of things not of the ordinary, perhaps even a state of spiritual awareness. So, the koan is a device to jolt the logical mind into the spiritual mind, and not a question to be answered. For the Zen monk, forget about hands clapping, then perhaps your journey can begin, because now, the out of the ordinary can be viewed with uncluttered insight. So too when one reads the Gospel of Thomas where Jesus jolts us with one koan after another.

"When you see one who was not born of woman, fall on your faces and worship. That one is your Father."

"Have you found the beginning, then, that you are looking for the end? You see, the end will be where the beginning is. Congratulations to the one who stands at the beginning: that one will know the end and will not taste death."

"Congratulations to the one who came into being before coming into being."

"These nursing babies are like those who enter the kingdom."

"Congratulations to the poor, for to you belongs Heaven's kingdom."

"Congratulations to the person who has toiled and has found life."

Look

Look, a sparrow hopped
all along the porch
with wet feet.

--Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902)

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Mystery of the Blue Yarn

Bro. Juniper told me this morning that our nest builder is a Black-throated Sparrow, and I must admit, a very descriptive name. Then before noon meal as we were observing our flittering sparrow, Bro. Clarence joined us and with his ever present field manual in hand, was totally convinced that our nest builder is a Sage Sparrow, which he informed Bro Juniper is similar to the Black-throated, but, as he referred to his manual, the Sage "has a blackish malar stripe outlining a white stripe below the gray cheek." Being somewhat colorblind, I could only confirm the "blackish" and the "white" stripe, but then Bro. Clarence caught sight of our bird and quickly confirmed his belief with this observation, a singular dark breast spot isolated on a nearly white breast. Hearing this Bro. Juniper thumbed through the field manual and seconded this opinion, noting that the Black-throated is absent the central breast spot. But that left Bro. Clarence with a puzzled look, he said that this nest is most unusual, for desert sparrows normally build nests on the ground or low to the ground in the brush. And here was our sparrow, now with a completed nest (of twigs and grass and bits of feathers and what appears to be some blue yarn), high in the air with a rather commanding view of the monastery courtyard. "Perhaps a bit of reciprocity taking place? Some high-pitched rollicking tinkle in exchange for our morning chants?" With that Bro. Clarence turned and retreated for the chapel, but not before I distinctly heard him muttering, "But where did that blue yard come from?"

Monday, May 08, 2006

Twittering and Flittering

With the afternoon temperatures climbing and the sky blue and nary a cloud to be seen, I've rigged up my hammock in the far corner of the courtyard, tied to a gnarly pine that wants very much to grow to its prescribed stately beauty, yet must waken each sunrise to the heated truth, a much younger Abbot Eastley in his early days of zeal, planted an assortment of flora in a clime that tests even the most hardy of cacti, and this pine is but a few of those early sprouts that have managed to reach past maturity, a stellar feat indeed. The other end of the hammock is tied to a rather bristly Joshua tree, this particular Joshua not the ones with outstretched arms, welcoming forlorn desert trekker, but a Joshua with one arm somewhat pointing due west, as though silently urging all of us of our error -- "Go West!" -- to the cool and wet and rhythmic surf of the Pacific, that then would be our morning greeting. The other arm of Joshua is cocked at the elbow and pointing straight up, a puzzling sign, for is Joshua signaling a halt? or is that arm pointing skyward, perhaps to Polaris? And the hammock is now hung and I recline and with head to pine and foot to Joshua, watch as a rather twittering sparrow flittering from Joshua to pine to unseen activities beyond the east wall, then back, and then up under a roof overhang, and from my position I can see the old weathered wood beam poking out of the white stuccoed wall, and atop it, but beneath the roof overhang, the beginnings of a nest being constructed. Again and again the twittering sparrow makes its circuit and always returns with another bit of construction material, mostly twigs as the foundation of this circular habitat taking form; the tiny beak a clever tool indeed as it weaves one twig into another with both precision and care. But alas, over the years I have observed various skillful birds constructing homes, yet not once have I observed a mother or a father bird teaching these skills to a young fledgling. I can't image Abbot Eastley constructing this monastery without the instruction and guidance of Sherwood Covington (see Righting a Wrong, Feb. 11, 2006), but of course these unlearned nest builders were born with nest-building skills! Certainly Abbot Eastley wasn't born with monastery-building skills -- planing timber, sawing tenons, drilling and chistling mortises. But again, how does this flittering sparrow know how to construct this nest without ever being taught? Yes, these and other riddles of life are answered by scientists with the wave of a hand: innate skills! instinct! inborn behaviors! All hardwired into that tiny pea of a brain at birth. Really? Now, time for a nap.

Shalom,
Bro. Bartleby

Giants and Infants

Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount.

-- Gen. Omar N. Bradley (1893-1981)

Friday, May 05, 2006

Tuna and Rye and a Blade of Grass

At noon time meal today Bro. Juniper was rhapsodizing about the enormity of the cosmos and what difficulty it is in attempting to grasp it all, and he continued with fervor while tossing out grand matters of complexity mixed with enormous numbers that he had to explain the meaning of with ranks and files of zeros that seemed would fill hypothetical football fields. I am sorry to admit that my focus was not on light-years and ducentillion and photons, but on my tuna and rye. It was good, very good. After the meal, I decided to take a solitary stroll, I’m not sure if I was seeking a sort of quiet so that I could ‘grasp’ just a tiny bit of the enormity of what Bro. Juniper was so excited about. But then I stopped, stooped and plucked a blade of grass, and it was this blade of grass that I sought to ponder, but then it struck me, that this too was too much for me to grasp. A single blade of grass? I marveled at its greenness, then held it up to the sky and with the bright sunlight behind, could see the individual cells. Ah, I thought, perhaps I can grasp just one cell of this singular blade of grass. But no, this too seemed too much for my mind to apprehend, for even upon close inspection, this green island in a sea of islands was a vessel of enormous complexity. Botany 101 taught me this. This so tiny cell was in fact a dynamic powerhouse, a manufacturing plant, a converter of mystical rays of sun into food for growth. Ah, the enormity of it all, I thought, within this single cell were more and more realms of wonder, all the way to the carbon atoms and protons and the very very tiny quarks. And there it was, held between my thumb and forefinger, but now not dynamic life, but a plucked blade of grass dying a quick death. Bless even you blade of grass, an enormously complex creation -- a fingerprint from the hands of God -- yes, a beauty of which I will not soon forget.

Shalom,
Bro. Bartleby