I’m sorry we all know so little

Mississippi River Gorge
waxing crescent moon; overcast and 21

From the New York Times, obituaries, 12/28/16

Vera Rubin, who transformed modern physics and astronomy with her observations showing that galaxies and stars are immersed in the gravitational grip of vast clouds of dark matter, died on Sunday in Princeton, N.J. She was 88….

During one of those flurries of excitement [created by a potential new discovery], in 2009, Dr. Rubin, who liked to stick to the facts, kept her cool. “I don’t know if we have dark matter or have to nudge Newton’s laws or what,” she said at the time.

She added: “I’m sorry I know so little. I’m sorry we all know so little. But that’s kind of the fun, isn’t it?”

I just heard the ancient, laughing cackle of a pileated woodpecker. Though large, unmistakable, black and white birds with a vibrant red crown, they are more often heard than seen. Commonly referred to as shy, they also have loud and piercing voices that seem to carry long distances. Hearing and seeing one still startles me with sweet surprise and awe.

There is a pair whose territory includes this stretch of the Mississippi River. I have been told that the narrow, four or five mile long gorge, flanked by urban neighborhoods, can only support one nesting pair. Given the size of the territory they have to protect, a large voice is useful in keeping trespassers at bay.

And of course, large body size correlates with the need for a homestead spacious enough to provide the necessary food, in this case carpenter ants chief among its diet, for a family of three or, sometimes, four. It’s difficult to imagine how many carpenter ants it takes to feed a family of three large woodpeckers for a year, or how many insect nests get ripped up, torn apart, decimated, scattered and rebuilt in the process. And that “destruction,” having been intricately and intimately woven into the myriad other process of these woods for thousands of years, has an effect on every other process, being and thing in the forest, right down [or up!] to the layers of ancient sedimentary rock that forms the walls of the gorge: the owls that nest in the newly formed cavities, the mice and voles that feed on the scattered ant eggs, and the return of nutrients in each chip of wood thrown down to the river bottom soil, among countless others. In effect, the destruction of an ant nest, unsettling as it is for the ants, has inconceivably numerous benefits for this stretch of the river and all that is dynamically interconnected with it.

The bird’s large body also corresponds to a big set of lungs. So it all fits nicely together in an evolutionary narrative, linking body size to territory to adaptive physiology and social interactions.

The raucous cackle of a pileated woodpecker
a sound turned into a noun
a noun into a story

All we really know
is the ephemera
rising and disappearing
like brush strokes
in the mind
no beginning and no end
vast and inconceivable
in darkness or in light

I look down at the brown snake at the bottom of the gorge
relentlessly and imperceptibly devouring layers of ancient rock
laid down by imagined rivers and seas

I look down upon a narrow flood plane
with its gray-brown trunks and gnarled treetops
silhouetted against the white snow blanketing the ground

Caw, clink, cackle
a sound becomes a noun
a noun a story
but that’s kind of the fun, isn’t it

It is what it is

Yesterday I visited a prison where a small sangha gathers once a week. It’s been going on for over a decade, but I’ve only been attending for a year and a half.

I often bring little cards with a poem or saying printed on them that’s related to the topic of the day which, yesterday, was the second grave precept, not stealing. The poem was from Basho:

I’m wealthy-
going into the new year
with 20 pounds of old rice

The poem captures the idea that “non-stealing is contentment with what is” or “non-stealing is a resting mind.” There’s no need to steal when the mind is at peace.

It’s often an interesting conversation in the prison, and sometimes quite profound words are spoken. Some of the men have been able to use their time as if they were monastics which, of course, they are in a way. Others simply find the weekly meetings a calming reprieve from the noise and clamber of a thousand testosterone-filled men. Some use the practice of mindfulness and meditation as a tool in coping with the stressors of prison life. Others are simply curious.

I realize that going into a prison is a marginal activity.  Few people do it. Entering a prison is to step into the sphere of what John Kabat-Zinn calls a magnet of suffering. Guards and staff do it as their livelihood, much like nursing assistants go into nursing homes, doctors and nurses into hospitals and clinics, social workers and counselors into homeless shelters. Families and loved ones go into prisons for obvious – or not so obvious – reasons. Clergy and 12-step folks go in as well. I know of a troupe of actors and musicians who go in. They have, perhaps, the most unusual motivation. In general, however, people go into these magnets of suffering out of rational compassion for fellow human beings.

Yesterday a couple of the regulars were not in attendance because they were in the hole.  They had gotten into a fight that resulted in some serious injuries. Based on the fact that there was a lot of blood and one of the combatants had to be carried away in a wheel chair, speculation was that these buddhists were going to be in isolation for a long, long time. And buddhists they were: some of them had taken the 16 bodhisattva precepts a couple of years ago.

This is a level 4 facility, 5 being the highest security level. I am always escorted to and from the chapel and there is always a guard present during the gathering. On the walk into the bowels of the building yesterday, which is where the chapel is located, a couple of guards were discussing the new, more lax policy on putting offenders into segregation. “There are a lot more guys walking around with black-and-blue eyes,” one of them offered to start the conversation. The guards seemed to think the new policy was not good for security or for the safety of prisoners, but they were resigned to it.

That’s one thing about prisons: resignation. Everyone feels that they have little control over the rules and think decisions are often fickle. In that way, it reminds me of China. The bureaucracy rolls along, rules change without apparent logic and there is no any appeal. Some people fight the sense of powerlessness. Others accept it. It wonder if it’s the same way in monasteries.

Bill Porter wrote that the one thing that confounds Westerners the most about the Chinese is their acceptance of whatever happens. Here’s a poem by Wei Ying-wu that recommends “acceptance” to a fellow bureaucrat who is taking a leave from his career in order to go home to care for his aging parents:

Seeing Off Censor Chang of the Palace Library Leaving
for Chiangtso to Care for His Parents

Don’t sigh about the road beyond the city gate
or that you won’t be coming back in a carriage
your brocade robes are there in your trunk
along with your books from rue-scented halls
with red rice grown in a well-watered land
and whitefish fresh from the Yangtze
your breakfasts can also be offerings
what good is longing for fortune and fame

A phrase used a lot in yesterday’s discussion was, It is what it is. Somebody got trashed. It is what it is. Somebody is going to spend 60 days in seg. It is what it is. The prison’s budget for three meals a day is $3.69. It is what it is. The chaplain is here one day and gone the next with no explanation. It is what it is. Some higher-ups instituted a new policy that will result in more people being hurt.  It is what it is.

Of course, many of the guys have opinions, and It is what it is can be be said in many ways and convey a multitude of emotions and attitudes. Some men don’t understand why other prisoners continue the violence that landed them in prison in the first place. Some are confused. Humor is often used to diffuse the pain.

Anger is not an uncommon emotion, however. Some of the guys seethe with it. Some of the guys employ humor as a release valve for it. Anxiety is commonly expressed, especially as guys get close to release. It’s a strange world out there.

“It is what it is” can mean many different things
In the midst of suffering
in hospitals and prisons
homeless shelters and ghettos
AA meetings and lands ruled by despots
it is what it is has many guises
and can be uttered with many meanings
with a throat constricted in anger
with a cynical sneer of the lips
with a shrug of the shoulders
with teeth clenched in hatred
with a closed heart
a sad heart
a broken heart
uneasily with a nervous giggle
with a shake of the head in disgust dismay
or in fearful anticipation

In the midst of suffering
it is what it is
is seldom said with glee or celebration
joy or laughter

in these places
I have also heard it spoken
like a temple bell ringing

Winter Observations

First Snow
On the porch the laughing buddha is blanketed by snow
pocketed and out of sight
like a ruffed grouse
diving into downy covers for the night

Ice crystals hang in the air at dawn
sundogs shimmer around the rising sun
it is a good day
as the seasons rise and fall


Chickadees go about their business on a cold winter morning
There is a brightness to winter
even on an overcast morning like this
snow amplifies the sunlight
challenging the memory of summer’s plentitude

I step out to fill the bird feeder
the cold air fires into my face
sunflower seeds rattling and tapping
as they tumble into the plastic cylinder

It occurs to me then
after all these years of study and meditation
I am not a buddhist and never have been
the chickadees seem unfazed


A grandmother sits on a blanket in the autumn woods
in the middle of a circle of all her relations
she welcomes her ancestors back to this place
the bdote where many of them were born
and in a twisted turn of genocidal cruelty
the concentration camp where many of them died

The contents of the sacred bundle are spread next to her
the people are talking singing drumming and praying
she sits calmly and quietly
taking in the autumn sun


28.xi.16, 8:40a
Mississippi River Gorge
waning crescent moon, cloudy, 50 degrees

It is coming up to rohatsu, bodhi day, the annual celebration of Siddhartha Guatama’s enlightenment and his realization of the interconnectedness of all reality and the path to end suffering. In the zen tradition there is a week-long silent meditation retreat that leads up to the day, and often practioners will sit in meditation through the last night.

For many years I sat rohatsu at the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center on the shore of Lake Bde Maka Ska, meaning White Earth Lake in Dakota and formerly known as Lake Calhoun. The lake usually iced up at some point during the week. To be in silence daily for an entire week observing the continual shifts of color, texture, movement and emotion was a rare gift in my hyperactive urban life. There was a sense of gentle, non-grasping anticipation in watching a mundane, and yet miraculous, event.

It is clear that this year the lake will not freeze during rohatsu. It takes weeks of temperatures below freezing before the surface becomes solid, and this year we have had very few of those days. One year a trend does not make; nevertheless, it is an ominous sign. The earth and air are warming, driven by an ever exploding population of Homo sapiens and an ever higher standard of living for a growing number of individuals of our species. Added to that are ever advancing technologies that allow for greater population and resource exploitation, e.g., the “green revolution” and hydraulic fracturing.

I sometimes wonder, too, if there is a dark side to alternative energy technologies, like wind and solar, in that they relieve pressure on the growth of population and consumption. Perhaps our faith in them is just another delusion that with the right technology our resources are endless and we can “have it all.”

I am not anti-technology, certainly not against rapid adoption of alternative energy sources. However, we face an extremely complex situation and there are no simple fixes. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of time to make the fixes. We need to proceed calmly and thoughtfully and as if our hair was on fire.

Which is why I will be sitting rohatsu, though not on the shore of Lake Bde Mka Ska.

It may seem counter-intuitive to sit in silent meditation while the world is burning up and species are dropping like flies. But in buddhist texts this burning world is referred to as the saha world, the world of endurance, the world of suffering, and it is considered a great and rare opportunity to be born into it. It is only in this world that we are called upon to address suffering. From a buddhist perspective, that starts with a deep understanding, beyond mere human intellect and conceptualization, of the interconnectedness of all life. That is what the Buddha discovered during his night of meditation.

Like him, we must get up and carry that profound, unshakeable wisdom and understanding into the world with a sacred vow to honor and protect all beings and to end all suffering.

Celebration and Gratitude

Good news on the pipeline front. Marathon, partner in the Sandpiper Line that’s proposed to run from western MN to Superior, WI, has announced it is backing 0ut.  That leaves Enbridge left to build a pipe with nothing to carry. It probably means the end of Sandpiper.

Marathon cited the long permitting process in MN. Friends of the Headwaters, a small group of citizens in northwestern MN can be credited with establishing a “long permitting process” by insuring a “thorough permitting process” by demanding, via a law suit, that a full environmental impact statement [EIS] be conducted for the line.

It is time to celebrate and express gratitude to the folks at FOH, Honor the Earth, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and MN350 and anyone who has put their shoulder to the wheel on this. However, Marathon will continue to pursue getting oil from North Dakota to Chicagoland and the Gulf of Mexico – they’ve already announced an alternative strategy – and Enbridge is still intent on moving Alberta tarsands to market.

So, there is plenty of work before us: stop extreme extraction, stop the release of massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere; reuce the risks to water, land, habitat and wildlife in Alberta and the headwaters of the Mississippi.

But, today calls for celebration and gratitude.  Let’s do it.

Summer Evening, Sitting on the Front Porch

Learning About Welfare
A little boy walks with his father
carrying a small broom over his shoulder
mimicking his father carrying a large broom over his.
When they reach the public bike path
the little boy starts sweeping;
not in an effective manner,
a manner that would remove any gravel.
But the boy sweeps in his own way
making his own little contribution
to the safety of cyclists
the public good
and freeing all beings from suffering.


Rumbling thunder somewhere
Somewhere thunder is rumbling
I can hear it
thunder rumbling somewhere
but not here
here it is sunny
here thunder is not rumbling
or is it rumbling here
not there
where is the thunder
I hear rumbling

What’s in the Name: Take Two

In the Realm of Broken Wooden Ladle Buddha is the title given to a short talk by Eihei Dogen, founder of the soto school of zen buddhism. He gave the talk in 1247 at a monastery he founded in northern Japan. The image of broken wooden ladle buddhas has spoken to my heart and comforted me for many years.

We are all buddha. We are all thusness. From a buddhist perspective, our consciousness or sentience “thinks up” or posits a division or separation between me and other, subject and object. From another perspective, existence is all one dynamic, inseparable and universal unfolding – thusness. Whenever you read buddha you could read thus or thusness.

On one hand, you and I are mundane, unique and imperfect sentient beings. We have been battered and scarred by the travails we’ve encountered over our relatively short lives. We have also been polished and burnished by the nurturing, kindness and love we’ve received. We all need a little help now and then. Sometimes a lot of help.

On the other hand, we are buddha – undivided reality unfolding throughout space and time.

Buddha. Broken ladle. One and the same. That’s our position. It’s a paradox.

Here’s the talk. See what you think.

The millions of billions of transformation bodies [of buddhas] abide throughout a monk’s staff, carry water and gather firewood to make offerings to buddhas as numerous as there are sitting cushions, and, on the tip of a whisk, simultaneously all attain unsurpassed complete perfect enlightenment.[1]  They are all equally named Broen Wooden Ladle Tathagatha, Worthy of Offerings, Omniscient, Foot of Bright Practice, Well-Gone One, World Liberator, Supreme One, Tamer of Strong Persons, Teacher of Humans and Heavenly Beings, World-Honered Buddha.[2]  The Country [of this buddha] is named Clump of Soil; the kappa is named Fist.  The duration of the True Dharma Age and Semblance Dharma Age are both twelve hours, and the Buddh’s longevity is that of a dried turd from three thousand great thousands of worlds.[3]  Do you all understand?

If you state your understanding you are making mistake after mistake.  If you say you do not understand, even the five precepts are not maintained.

[1] Dogen plays with three conventional sutra phrases: a buddha remaining throughout kalpas, making offerings to buddhas as numerous as grains of sand in the Ganges River, and attaining enlightenment while sitting under the bodhi tree.  Dogen substitutes a monk’s staff for endless kalpas, sitting cushions for grains of sand, and the top of a whisk for underneath the bodhi tree.
[2] Starting with “Tathagata,” these are the standard ten epithets for a buddha, in this case describing the new buddha invented here by dozen, named Broken Wooden Ladle, who might be a reference to all of the humble monks at Eheiji.
[3] “True Dharma Age and Semblance Dharma Age” refers to the first phases of a buddha age before its degeneration.  “Dried turd” is a reference to a famous response by Yunmen as to what Buddha is.  See, for example, Dharma hall discourse 229, and case 21of the Mumonkan; Aitken, Gateless Barrier, pp. 137-141; and Clearly, Unlocking the Zen Koan, pp. 102-105.

From: Dan Leighton & Shohaku Okamura, Dogen’s Extensive Record: A Translation of the Eihei Koroku, pp. 232-233.

Summer Symphony

We were sitting on the sauna porch yesterday evening, cooling off between saunas, and the woods were alive with birds: redstarts, chickadees, ruby throated kinglets, black and white warblers, phoebes, golden-winged warblers, yellowthroats. Many were feeding low in the understory and on the ground, well within view even without binoculars. It was a very lively time of day in a quiet and calming sort of way.

Many of these birds were in the egg a month ago and have only been out in the world for a couple of weeks. They are hungry, growing, building muscle and putting on the necessary fat to take them on their first migration in a couple of months. They were extremely active, too, like human toddlers, and chatting constantly.

Now that they are out of the nest and able to manage to catch bugs on their own, it’s difficult to tell if families hang together. Perhaps the chattering is a way to keep in touch with parents and sibs. Or maybe at this stage of their life “family is history” and the chattering serves to keep a larger, mixed flock together – a survival strategy at a community, rather than family, level.

There are many more birds in the woods than just a month ago. I suspect the avian population has more than doubled, perhaps tripled. And though the evening chattering has increased, there has been a significant drop in the morning bird-song. Males no longer feel the impulse to seek mates or defend territory.

Between morning song and youthful evening chattering, there was an intermezzo of a couple of weeks duration in which the young of each species [with their own distinctive call] had fledged and were incessantly and insistently squawking as they followed parents around demanding to be fed. I found myself musing whether adult birds at this point experience stress and feel harried or are simply doing what comes naturally, responding to several aggressively demanding fledglings at once all day long.

Between the “morning song” and “fledgling demanding” periods there was another movement in the seasonal symphony, but you had to listen intently and be close enough to a nest. The nestlings usually sit quietly in their gradually shrinking piece of real estate made of twigs, grasses and potpourri; however, when a parent approaches the nest a chorus of soft squeaking and chittering erupts in anticipation of a bug or worm in their gullet. The parent deposits its harvest and departs within a couple of seconds, after which the chorus would sink into silence again.  During this movement the adults are too busy to contribute their voices to the choir.

Each species lends it’s voice to each movement of the symphony – morning song, nest chitter, fledgling squawk and mixed-flock chip – as the season progresses. Adult and young within each species has a different voice – and each changes as the year progresses.  All eastern phoebe fledglings sing their time-specific part together while adult phoebes sing theirs in corresponding time-specific counterpoint. So it goes with all the other species. It is a symphony that unfolds year after year, as intricate and glorious as those crafted by humans, if only we listen.

And there is a score of sorts.  It’s a score beyond humankind’s capacity to either plan or execute. Nevertheless our species has the capacity to alter and even destroy the symphony. We have already eliminated a couple of voices.  It’s called species extinction. We’ve certainly altered the mix of voices through habitat destruction.

The above puts me in mind of Borland’s cheerier entry for yesterday:

July is April’s hope, May’s promise and June’s growth pushing towards completion. July is mid-Summer, a season in itself. The bee and the ant now put man to shame as a sluggard. The quiet chlorophyll in the leaf makes man’s fissioned atom a puny force. The silent urgency of root and flower and leaf are manifest now, in mid-July, the power and the glory of the green earth itself.

Flooding and Pipeline Safety

This past week saw a flood in the St. Croix watershed.  The Upper Tamarack rose to the steps of the shack, and there is even evidence of it having run under the building which sits on cinder blocks.  There is standing water in the field below the hut and along one of the paths along the river.  It looks like our little cabin is sitting much further down the watershed in a Louisiana backwater swamp rather than along a north woods river.  All-in-all we escaped significant damage and loss.  We may have lost a gas can and a set of stairs.  It’s remarkable that the shack, sitting less than 60 feet from, and 4 feet above, the river for almost 50 years, has never been flooded.

However, the washouts of bridges and roads that occurred as a result of this week’s rains raises concern about the integrity of the Enbridge pipelines.  That’s especially so after having paddled the Totogatic and seen the pipeline crossing on that stream.  At that point the river is contained by steep banks and is narrowed into a funnel to flow under a railroad trestle.  When I visited there was already evidence of erosion at the bottom of the bank.  I imagine the currents there could be wicked during a flood.

It makes me wonder – I have to wonder because there are no regulations or required reporting – what steps Enbridge takes during events like this.  Have crossings been assessed and prioritized for responding in emergencies?  What types of responses does the company take during the flood – enhanced monitoring [e.g., on-site visual inspection] or preventative action [e.g., temporary shut-down]?  Those types of actions: assessment and prioritization of structures at risk and graduated monitoring and action are required for bridges.  It would seem prudent to do the same for structures that carry over a million barrels of toxic liquids under regionally important and nationally significant waterways.  Land, water, habitat, wildlife and scenic value are at stake.

But it’s an opaque system.  And opaque systems breed doubt and distrust, especially when profit and shareholder share price is a driving motivator.  So I wonder.

Beyond that, even: I wonder how it can it be determined if a pipe has been under-cut and is suspended above the bottom of the river during a flood and what is the increased risk of pipe failure if that occurs?  That leads to even more questions. Questions are also a consequence of opacity.