Daily Archives: December 15, 2015

Zen

On the right side of my bookshelf, around where I keep a lot of my camera stuff, I have a section of books on Buddhism and related topics.

That photo is quite yellow. The shelf is lit by halogen lights and Christmas tree bulbs. It looks normal enough in person (well, a bit dark) because my mind adjusts to the colour. But the camera takes it and then we see the picture in a different context and we see the colour imbalance. So I reset the balance on the camera using a blank white sheet of paper – actually the back of an airline boarding pass that I have sitting around.

It’s not that that is perfectly neutral white balance. It’s just that it more closely matches our default bias. There is no such thing as unbiased, perfectly balanced colour, any more than there is such a thing as accent-free speech or an unbiased opinion. There is no neutral act of seeing. You just have to know what balance you want, acknowledge it, balance yourself according to it, just as you have to focus on what you focus on and choose what to have in the frame and outside the frame.

There’s one word that shows up a few times on the spines of those books. I could pull out any of them and feature it. I’ll pull this book out because I want to. I found it quite by chance in some used book occasion. It’s a book from 1960, although the first blank page has “January 1965” handwritten in fountain pen diagonally across the lower right corner. The pages are yellowing and smell of the gradual decay of tree-pulp paper and a bit of the basement it must have sat in for many years.

Here is the back cover.

That is the author. Does he look familiar? Here is his dedication.

The author was a motion picture actor. If you recognize him, it’s probably from The Bridge on the River Kwai. He played the Japanese Colonel. His name is Sessue Hayakawa. Actually, Sessue is a name he took when he started acting in movies; his given name – given at his birth in 1889 – was Kintaro.

Here is the front cover.

It’s his autobiography. The title kind of gives away the ending, doesn’t it? But it’s how he gets there that is of interest. He came from a noble Japanese family. He was all set for a career in the navy when, in a reckless diving misadventure, he burst his eardrum and was rendered unfit. He decided that he had dishonoured his family, and he resolved to do the honourable thing.

He in fact did commit seppuku, also known as hara-kiri (not hari-kari!). But he did not die. He didn’t have anyone to cut his head off at the end. So he was hospitalized with very substantial injury to his lower abdomen.

How do you follow up an act like that? With a visit to a Zen Buddhist priest. Followed by a lot of meditation. And then a career as an actor and more meditation and, well, this book.

I have several books on Zen. I have read much about it. Which is like shouting much about silence.

Whatever you think Zen is, it’s not. I can’t tell you just what it is. There are two reasons for this.

The first is that I am not a Zen master. I have meditated various ways at various times, including with Zen Buddhists, although in recent years my only meditation has been running, which doesn’t quite count. But I have no experience of enlightenment in the Zen Buddhist sense. I think I can see the shadow of a corner of it, maybe. I’m probably wrong.

The second is that you can’t explain silence with shouting.

I can tell you what Zen is. It’s a school of Buddhism, best known in its Japanese version although it also exists in China. Zen is the Japanese rendition of the word禅, which in Mandarin Chinese is chan. The full forms are zenna and chánnà. They come from Sanskrit ध्यान (dhyāna). Which means ‘meditation’.

Zen is meditation. In the plainest sense, that is what Zen is. To quote Sylvia Boorstein, “Don’t just do something, sit there.”

In some schools of Zen, that is it. You focus your mind, you watch the thoughts arise and pass by like clouds in the sky, you taste existence. In others, you strive to break your mind free from the ruts it travels in by meditating on paradoxical ideas.

In the end, you learn that you and the things around you are not many, not two. You come to recognize your position, your bias, your perspective, your focus, your frame. You learn that nothing has permanent existence, everything is changing, and what exactly is this “everything” and what exactly is this “changing” and what exactly is this “is” and what exactly is “what exactly” and

As in all Buddhism, the aim is non-attachment. I have some ideas about what is and is not non-attachment, but I’m not, you know, attached to them. Some people interpret non-attachment as meaning eschewing things of the world, but it seems to me that rejection is no more equanimitous than craving. Enjoying while it’s there and letting go when it’s not seem the best options. Fine words, of course, and badly self-incriminating, as witness the two thousand books I can’t bear to get rid of. Fortunately, like all fine words, they will eventually be forgotten.

The simplicity of Zen spills over into an aesthetic associated with it. But Zen gardens are not Zen any more than bedrooms are sleep.

I would like to eschew all marketing and branding that uses the word Zen. Putting Zen on commercial products is like putting vegan on roast prime rib.

I do remember fondly, though, one business in Toronto, no longer there I think – I used to see their sign in an upper window on Spadina: Zen Travel. I liked that. I imagined a place where you go in and they tell you that you are already where you want to be; you just have to realize it. But it’s how you get there that is of interest. In exchange, you pay them all you have, which is nothing.

But perhaps you will get a boarding pass. Which you can use in place of a blank sheet of paper to set your white balance.

chevrotain

“Google image search for ‘chevrotain’ was exactly what I needed,” tweeted (twot? twet?) Iva Cheung today.

Why would that be? What is a chevrotain? Is it some way of entertaining with a Chevrolet? Or is it a kind of goat cheese? A herb, crossed from chervil and milk vetch? Could there be some other kind of overt chain between the name and the thing? What sort of inert havoc is this?

Ah, Google it yourself and you’ll see. A chevrotain is what is commonly called a mouse deer. It should not be mistaken for a mouse, a deer, a mouseketeer, or a deer mouse. The difference between mouse deer and deer mouse tells you how such English compounds are headed: they’re headed to the right. The first word modifies the second. A mouse deer is, nominally, a deer of the mouse type, while a deer mouse is a mouse of the deer type.

In reality, though, a deer mouse is just a mouse that is rather agile. (It is not axiomatically dead. Nor is a dormouse or door mouse. Actually, it’s doornails that are dead.) A mouse deer, on the other hand, is a creature that looks like a deer but is much smaller. And is not a deer, though it is an ungulate, which means it walks on its nails (formed into hooves). But these are not fingernails and not doornails; they are deernails. No, wait, they’re deer-mouse-nails. Um. They’re chevrotain nails. Maybe we should, for the sake of the French that is in chevrotain, call them ongles, which is French for ‘nail’ and comes from the same root as ungulate. (Ungulate has nothing to do with undulate; I’ll just wave that one away.)

The name chevrotain is, as I said, from French, and means (roughly) ‘little goat’ or ‘goatlet’. I must say that chevrotains look more like deer than like goats, but whatever. They don’t have horns or antlers, in spite of chevrotain being an anagram of active horn. You’ll be lucky enough to see a chevrotain anyway. They’re quite shy, because what they really look like to many other animals is lunch. They can be as small as 700 grams (a pound and a half), though some kinds get up to 16 kilograms (35 pounds). So they hide, and they mostly keep to themselves (with a bit of twisting and swapping the ch and a for an rt you can get introvert from chevrotain), which has helped keep them going as a species for about 34 million years. They get together to mate, which seems to be their main social activity; female chevrotains can be almost incessantly pregnant, mating as little as a few hours after giving birth (which has also helped keep them going) – but what the heck, the kids are standing on their own feet after one hour. But they have one at a time.

The other thing they have is fangs. Two at a time.

Yup, all chevrotains have sharp little fangs that stick out of the sides of their mouths. They may seem like micro-vampire-deer. But really they don’t suck your blood, nor do they crave hot sin (hmm, or maybe they do; see above about mating). Or anyway no one’s seen them doing so. We will overlook the fact that their taxonomic family name, Tragulidæ, is a bit reminiscent of Dracula, and that the suborder name, Ruminantia, reminds us of Romania, where Dracula is from. Or that they prefer the dark. There are no chevrotains in Romania; they live mainly in Asia and Africa. And they’re ruminants, which means cud-chewers, which means plant-eaters. But should you happen to be sleeping in a forest in Kerala, say, and you feel four tiny hooves treading on or near you…

Naw, never mind, they’d still be less to worry about than larger things like tigers or, worse, people. Chew that one over.