Broken Wooden Ladle

An exploration of Dharma for Modernity

An ad hoc group of concerned individuals from around Wisconsin have come together to organize a walk along a proposed pipeline that will, if built, transport over a million barrels of Alberta tarsands through the state every day.  The line is being proposed by Enbridge and would run along a right-of-way through which the company already transports over a million barrels of oil a day.  The 33 day walk is sponsored by Sacred Water/Sacred Land and is taking place right now.  The group invites individuals to join for a day or more and/or attend any number of events planned along the route.

The proposed pipeline, Line 66, would 1] pose a risk to the the health, integrity and vibrancy of the watersheds and habitats through which it ran; 2] facilitate the extreme extraction of fossil fuels in Alberta, an incredibly destructive rape of the land; and, 3] contribute to further climate disruption.

I don’t know much about Sacred Water/Sacred Land, but intend to check out the walk while it is traversing the St. Croix River watershed.

Allan Toffler, the author of Future Shock, passed away on Monday.  I read it when it first came out.  It was a pretty influential book.  The NYT wrote:

In the book, in which he synthesized disparate facts from every corner of the globe, he concluded that the convergence of science, capital and communications was producing such swift change that it was creating an entirely new kind of society. His predictions about the consequences to culture, the family, government and the economy were remarkably accurate.

The obituary also noted some critics:

…systems theorist Richard W. Longman wrote in The New York Times that Mr. Toffler “sends flocks of facts and speculation whirling past like birds in a tornado.”  In Time magazine, the reviewer R. Z. Sheppard wrote, “Toffler’s redundant delivery and overheated prose turned kernels of truth into puffed generalities.”

However, reading both the praise and criticism, I thought of Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, published with Ann Ehrlich in 1968, two years before Toffler’s book and another “mover and shaker” of the times.  The Ehrlichs were not so much futurists as a biologists who wrote about the future.  They have been criticized, as well, but largely for the failure of their predictions.  To my mind, however, they can’t be criticized for using facts loosely nor inaccurate predictions.  It’s just that the impact of the explosion of human population is being largely ignored and its impact is mistaken as discrete problems, e.g., resource wars, species extinction, climate disruption and famine, not dynamically inter-related to population.

I believe human population growth is the primary driver of suffering in our time and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Both Paul and Ann are still living.  I wish them good health and life as long as they think reasonable.

Check this out: World Population Growth

A melodious, red-hearted song greeted me this morning on my saunter down the driveway to unlock the gate. It was a rose-breasted grosbeak at the tippity-top of a bare aspen. He was occupying a prized piece of real estate that grosbeaks often claim, especially this time of year, to announce his sexual prowess to prospective mates as well as his title to the acreage necessary to raise a family.

Below its black head, the grosbeak sports a large, red, inverted triangle on a white chest. The contrast of black, red and white geometry catches the eye immediately. Its song is a melodious warble similar to, but more musical than, a robin’s. It’s back and wings are also black with white and red highlights, perhaps making this bird the handsomest dandy of our neighborhood. The red-breasted grosbeak on a high perch is a visual and auditory harbinger of summer.

Unknown

Sitting in the sun this morning it was the warm, red heart of spring. Other birds were certainly whistling and chattering their own greetings to the warmth of morning after a frosty night, but the grosbeak’s perch, color and rolling melody was like a drum major appearing at the end of the block on the Fourth of July just before the band rounds the corner. You can hear and feel the excitement of the seasonal explosion about to come.

The Hut

I take this walk first thing every morning when I’m here. It’s a bit of a detour as I make my way between the hut and the shack, both one room cabins. The hut is a six-sided log cabin with a peaked roof. Years ago as we were batting around names to distinguish the two buildings a friend suggested we call it “the muffin” because of the resemblance. It is where we usually sleep.

The Shack

The shack is a more traditional 16′-by-20′ cabin that sits on a bend in a small river, a few hundred yards before it enters the St. Croix. With a screened porch across the front, it serves as the kitchen and dining and living rooms.The walk between the two usually takes about three minutes.

However, most mornings I don’t make a bee-line between the two and, instead, walk down the quarter mile down the driveway to open the gate. Usually I then indulge the urge to stroll down the town road a few hundred yards more – simply to greet and, as importantly, be greeted by the morning. At this time of the year, high spring, the morning holds warm greetings from many old friends calling from all quarters of the forest, sky and river.

Yesterday was the Ojibwa budding plants new moon. Indeed, buds are opening and spring ephemerals are at their peak on the Upper Tamarack River. Ephemeral is defined as transitory or existing for one or a few days only, and is an apt term for these tiny heralds of the profusion that is about to overtake the woods. Perhaps these tiny flowers open in response to the songs of birds that are making their seasonal migration to summer breeding grounds. Both the spring wildflowers and northern nesting birds will be gone by the time the forest canopy claims almost all the sunlight to fuel its energy-transforming magic by mid-summer.

The flowers of hepatica were the first to bloom several weeks ago. They are already gone, not to be seen again until after next winter’s blizzards are history. Others, like trillium, wild geranium and Jack-in-the-pulpit are yet to flower. Nevertheless, right now the forest floor is carpeted with tiny jewels that sparkle in the increasing length and warmth of the days’ light.

Violets are the most diverse species now in bloom, treating the eye with an array of yellow, purple, lavender and blue petals raised up on thin, curved stems. Bloodroot and anemone, the early companions of hepatica, are still in bloom, but the former is already losing its petals. The demure Dutchman’s breeches, trout lilies and dainty pink spring beauties seem to thrive in moist soils near the river’s edge. Every day one or two species put out their first flowers; today it was yellow large-flowered bellworts and tiny, cream colored bishop’s caps, also known as mitrewort.

But, perhaps the most striking of all the ephemerals is not a spring wildflower at all, but the blossoming American plum, Prunus americana. This plum blooms before it, or almost any other shrub, has leafed-out. The thousands of five-petaled white flowers put forth by a single tree hang like a cloud in the understory. One here, another there – floating in the mist-like space above the forest floor.

A cousin of P americana became a common image for awakening and enlightenment in zen poetry. Here’s a poem by a Stonehouse, an abbot who retired to become a mountain hermit in 13th century China:

Most of the time I smile
old men can relax
not a care on my mind
nothing but mountains before my eyes
the P’eng soars into the sky
a leopard fades into the mist
I’m more like a flowering plum
waiting for the year-end cold

In Daoist literature, the P’eng is an inconceivably large, phoenix-like bird symbolizing transcendence, while the leopard losing its spots is a metaphor for a person who eliminates vices by cultivating virtue. Old Stonehouse seemed satisfied with the everyday and needed nothing more than the happenings of the woods outside his door.

I am a member of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association which has, in conjunction with the Soto Zen Buddhism North American Office released a statement on climate change. Here it is.

Clear View Blog

Rome Slides 34

The statement below is a unique collaboration among Soto Zen Buddhists in the west. With roots in China and in the 13th century teachings of Eihei Dogen, Soto Zen is one of the largest of Japan’s Buddhist denominations. This practice tradition was brought to us by teachers like Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, Taizan Maezumi Roshi, Dainin Katagiri Roshi, Jiyu Kennett Roshi, and other spiritual pioneers who established Zen centers across the continent. With an emphasis on zazen, or seated meditation, and a down-to-earth awareness of one’s own mind manifest in all areas of daily life. Zen practitioners and teachers are deeply concerned about the fate of the earth, of our children, of their children, and all beings.

Coming on the heels of the December 2015 United Nations Climate Conference in Paris and Pope Francis’s landmark encyclical Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, this statement is meant to…

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Broken wooden ladle buddha is a metaphor used by a Japanese zen ancestor to describe the inseparability of the Buddha, you, me and all of creation.  Buddha refers to an enlightened individual, but it also denotes all of reality, the inconceivable, dynamic workings of the universe at this very moment.  Buddhists often use the term thusness to represent this ineffable quality of present moment reality.  Buddhists universally practice meditation to realize and manifest that dynamic unfolding.

The metaphor goes a step further and implies that there’s not a jot of difference between me, you and all of creation.  It’s all simply the unfolding present moment.  That goes against our usual perception of things.  Am I really the magma in the core of the earth as well as the gaseous explosions of the most distant stars to say nothing of all the creatures that have resulted from evolution?  The zen ancestor would say, “Most certainly.  And more.”

For me the metaphor captures the:

  • interconnectedness of all life and all that exists
  • need to squarely face and compassionately embrace our own and the world’s suffering
  • profound futility of demonizing any aspect of our present situation, whether it’s the Koch brothers or Asian carp, Barak Obama or CAFOS, our individual addictions and neuroses, or caucasians, African Americans, Muslims or indigenous nations

I think the point the zen master was making is that you, me and the greater-than-human world are inseparable and, simultaneously, broken and whole.  Buddha is both broken and perfect.

This is how the metaphor works for me:

First, a wooden ladle is a simple and elegant tool.  In the 13th century it was found in every home, shop and temple and on every farm, ship and caravan.  It was used to take a bath, quench a thirst, mix ingredients for a meal and wash clothes.  It was relied on for sacred tasks as well, for instance, to bathe a newborn baby or the body of a parent after death.

Quotidian, ancient and simple, elegant and practical, a wooden ladle provided a means to gracefully move the most precious of gifts, water.

A ladle in some form must have been one of the first human inventions.

Second, wooden ladles functioned even when broken.  Even when the bowl of the ladle was split due to years of expansion and contraction, once soaked it would swell-up and regain its capacity to carry water; with a broken handle it could still function. Sturdy, utilitarian and awesome.  Ask any Finn who has spent time in a sauna.

Third, by adding buddha to the metaphor this simple tool becomes the universal, equivalent to all of reality: the perfect and universal in the most workaday of implements. But here’s the point: the universal and perfect can only manifest in the broken particular of the present moment.

We are broken wooden ladle buddhas: imperfect and run-of-the-mill as well as miraculous and awesome.  The same goes for Homo sapiens as a species.

The earth, by which I mean the planet and the thin sphere of life that envelopes it, is likewise a broken wooden ladle: run-of-the-mill, concrete and everyday as well as inconceivable and miraculous.  It, too, is broken.

From a global perspective it’s very easy to see the brokenness: climate change, species extinction, unimaginable pollution of air, land and oceans, human population explosion beyond the carrying capacity of the planet, today’s slavery and unhealed, centuries-old wounds inflicted by earlier enslavement, seemingly endless wars, social dysfunction, hunger and poverty.  The list goes on and on. Endlessly.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed and depressed.

However, I find strength in broken wooden ladle buddha.

Buddhahood or thusness is inherent in, and inseparable from, the brokenness we all experience.  One and the same.  No duality.  Good guy and bad guy are not two – or, if they are, it is only when viewed in a broken mirror.  It’s delusion to think you can embrace one without embracing the other.   At least, I think that’s what the zen master was trying to convey.

We are called upon at this particular juncture to do something to heal brokenness from a position of brokenness.  We are called upon to cultivate wholeness and unearth holiness.

Scholar and activist Joanna Macy has called this moment The Great Turning, “the essential adventure of our time: the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization.”

To do that I believe we have to:

  • compassionately embrace our brokenness and humbly accept the world’s suffering – so much of which we, as the greatest of invasive species, have created
  • deeply – deeper than our intellect can penetrate – embrace the inconceivably complex causes that have led to our situation
  • with awareness manifest the astounding awesomeness of the present moment in our every thought and action

There is literally no other time.  There is no other place.  There is no other being.

That’s what’s behind the name Broken Wooden Ladle [Buddha].  That’s what the zen ancestor was saying.  That is, simply, what it means to be human.

Categories: Zen

Bodhidharma [483?-540?] is the reputed founder of ch’an buddhism in China, commonly known in the United States by its Japanese name: zen.  I use the image of Bodhidharma to represent zen teachings.

Aldo Leopold [1887-1948] is considered by many to be the father of the modern conservation and environmental movement and the United States’ wilderness system.  Among his best know ideas is the “land ethic,” which calls for an ethical, caring relationship between people and nature.  His writings have been influential to me and here he represents the present day effort to live in harmony with the earth.
For the longest time, I have been curious and passionate about the intersection of buddhism, zen, social activism, justice, the environment and politics.

With this website I hope to explore that intersection.  What does zen buddhism have to do with one’s engagement with the critical social issues that confront us: land, by which I mean soil and everything connected to it, i.e., the ecosphere; social justice; peace and harmony?  There will entries on zen, discussion of social issues, short essays on nature and links.  I hope some of what is here will be provocative.

Since first encountering buddhism and zen I have felt, at my core, that they offer something very, very important to our social discourse – a critically vital perspective as we collectively do our best to address the conflict, pain and suffering that is in-and-all-around-us in the form of poverty, racial domination, environmental destruction, war, hunger and violence.  I have personally tried to find balance and equanimity while effectively engaging in various social change efforts, even in the ego- and conflict-driven settings of a state legislature, a picket line, non-violent direct actions and the hurly-burly world of real estate development.  Sometimes I have been successful, sometimes not.

I’ve been a student of zen for over 25 years and a priest and teacher for the last 15.  I have been involved in peace, social justice and environmental movements for much longer, starting with the lead-up to the first Earth Day in 1972.  Since then I have been an anti-nuclear activist, training college students in nonviolent civil disobedience techniques; Teamster union steward; board member of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and other non-governmental organizations [NGO]; lobbyist for environmental organizations; social worker in the fields of aging and hospice; executive director of a NGO that provided affordable, supportive housing to people living with HIV/AIDS; and meditation teacher in state prisons.

This website is an experiment, a project in progress.

Take care.