In praise of silent transformations

The Myriad Things:

What I love about this idea of “silent” transformation is its gentleness, its freedom from drama. It does not hysterically shriek that time is passing and that we need to do something before it is too late: instead it quietly solicits our attentiveness, asking us to look to the subtle and labile nature of the multiple changes that are already in process. [François] Jullien spends a good deal of time talking about what he calls—against Badiou—the ‘mythology’ of the event. There is a certain strain within continental philosophy that is obsessed with the idea of the ‘event’ as a break with the existing order of things, a kind of rupture that is necessary for something new to happen: because without some kind of break in the order of things, so the story goes, there could be nothing of newness in the world. Events of this kind—events that seem to be a break with the existing order of things—could be called noisy transformations: like the events of the nightly news, they monopolise our attention, so that we don’t notice those quieter transformations that are happening all the time. And I can’t help wondering if the very drama of these noisy transformations blinds us to the fact that even these events are not really such a break in the order of things at all (hence Jullien’s ‘mythology’ of the event): instead—but only if we ignore the noisiness and the drama and look a bit more patiently and calmly—we can see, in retrospect, that the seeds of these transformations had been growing for a long time.

(Be sure to read the comments thread as well as the post.)

The Viking Buddha

This entry is part 18 of 22 in the series Alternate Histories


Ornament from a bucket found in the Oseberg mound grave in the county of Vestfold, Norway.
brass ornament found with the Oseberg ship burial

Four hammers of Thor,
nested just so, form
a Buddhist swastika with feet.
Steering by the sun,
we run in circles.

A gaze trained to focus
on a pitching horizon
turns to an inward shore.
Breathe like a rower,
in time with the waves.

Legs fold into a knot:
braided serpents.
The fierce brow unknits.
Only the scowl still hints
at the strength of his vow.
The truest viking leaves
everything behind.

Image from Saamiblog, via the Wikipedia Commons. Cf. the Helgö Buddha.

Medusa, Bodhisattva

This entry is part 6 of 22 in the series Alternate Histories


The Medusa of legend
actually started out as
a bodhisattva-in-training.
Like Avalokiteśvara
with eleven faces,
she aspired to sprout
a forest of little headlets
atop her head, so as never
to fail to meet a believer’s
imploring gaze.
But she felt compassion
for the stone-workers,
& worried how men
would render her
in relief carvings on cave walls
or chisel her in the round
from soft marble.
She was stirred by the hiss
of insense sticks, the censer
a-bristle: it sounded
like bliss, that extinction.
If the goal was to end
the cycle of rebirth,
she reasoned, why not
reincarnate as something
utterly immune to desire?
Let the others say
they’d forestall nirvana
until every blade of grass
attained liberation.
Medusa vowed not
to leave a stone

Seon Joon on training to be a Buddhist nun in Korea

Vimeo link.

Regular readers of this blog are probably familiar with Seon Joon as a photoblogger and poet to whom both Luisa and I regularly link. Actually, I’ve been reading her since about 2004, I think, though she wasn’t online for several years while she studied at seminary. She graduated in January and received full ordination in April. Now she’s in Virginia taking a summer intensive language class in Tibetan, but she stopped at the Korea Society in New York on June 6 to give this talk about — as the society’s webpage puts it — “the essential elements of Korean Buddhism and the daily life of women training to become monastics in modern Korea through her personal experience and photos.”

Seon Joon is an entertaining speaker, and the video does an excellent job of showing both the speaker and the photos she shared, with only the minor annoyance of some microphone crackle in the beginning portion. I highly recommend this to anyone with an interest in Buddhism, Korea or communal living. But if you can’t spare the full two hours, I’ve transcribed a few favorite quotes along with their start times.

7:00 The monastic life is first and foremost not an ideal, but something that regular people are trying to live. […] People think we don’t nap. We nap! Believe me. When I was planning this talk, one of the foreign monastics said, “You should show nuns using money, because nobody believes that we do!”

25:23 If I had to say that there’s one thing about the monastic community in Korea that defines it, it is its emphasis on harmony. That learning to get on with others and work with them in a way that is conflict-free is probably more important than any other single ideal. A good monastic is someone who creates no friction in the community.

46:37 We typically pickled about 7,000 heads of cabbage [at Un Mon Monastic College]. And that was considered a small amount! […] Even when I was a postulant in my home temple, I asked, “Why is everyone so stressed about this [kimchee making]?” It was really tense. And they looked at me in astonishment and said, “If this doesn’t go right, we have nothing to eat.”

1:20:48 For us, spoken words are an action. They have the ability to affect reality. So blessing is not just a good feeling because I like you or I hope you feel better, we actually believe and have the aspiration that if done with a pure enough heart and a strong enough intent, you can affect change in this world.

1:43:18 Most of us ordained because we had some desire to live a more clear life. “Enlightenment” is a really big word. Personally, I avoid it because it carries too many ideas with it, and it’s really hard to connect with enlightenment on a daily level, whereas if you say I’m trying to live more clearly, most of us can understand that. “I’m trying to have a little more clarity in my life.”

For me, living in an environment, working in an environment this intensely, taught me a lot about what mental and emotional habits I have — especially surrounding conflict. […] If you aren’t living in a community like this and you have a fight with somebody at work, you fight, 5:00 o’clock happens and you go home. You let it sit for a day. You may not even try and solve it. The next day you might even be able to avoid this person. And so your conflict and whatever you think about it can actually last a lot longer. But in a community like this, you fight. Then you gotta sleep next to this person, shower next to this person, work next to this person, study next to this person, day in, day out, for months on end. You have a choice, and it gets clear real fast: are you gonna hold on to whatever you think is right, or are you going to do what it takes to create harmony?

1:49:12 Something that I never fail to point out to any monk who will give me five minutes is that when men ordain they do not lose their masculinity. Socially. They are still recognized as men societally. When women ordain, we lose our femininity. And we become a kind of neuter. And this brings some other powers, because you’re no longer in the feminine paradigm, or the female paradigm, but then you also lose what power women do have. And in Korea, you know that women have their own power. It’s not obvious and it operates in sort of back channels, but it’s there.

Woodrat Podcast 46: A philosophical lunch with Will Buckingham (Part 2)

Will Buckingham with Sea Legs, Moomins, and the sea

The second half of my epic bull session wide-ranging conversation with British novelist, philosopher and blogger Will Buckingham (listen to Part 1). Will talks about how he got into Buddhism and why he eventually drifted away from it; how he turned his doctoral thesis about the literary qualities of Emmanuel Levinas’ writings into a work of philosophy for a popular audience (Finding Our Sea Legs: Ethics, Experience and the Ocean of Stories); and why he’s so fascinated with the I Ching.

“What I love more than anything in life,” Will says at one point, “is to have interesting conversations.” I couldn’t agree more. This conversation was definitely a high point of my two weeks in the U.K.

Podcast feed | Subscribe in iTunes

Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence).

Woodrat Podcast 42: Tea with Fiona and Kaspalita

Fiona Robyn and Kaspalita on the waterfront at Aberystwyth, Wales
Fiona Robyn and Kaspalita on the waterfront at Aberystwyth, Wales

Brew yourself a nice cuppa and join Fiona Robyn, Kaspalita and me for a conversation about writing, religion, spirituality, science, small stones and more. We met on May 7 in Aberystwyth, Wales; Fiona and Kaspa subsequetly tied the knot on June 18th, and starting on July 1 they will again curate a month-long river of stones, with contributions from around the world.

Fiona Robyn is a novelist, a blogger, a therapist, and a creativity coach. She is very fond of Earl Grey tea and homemade cake. Kaspalita is a Pure Land Buddhist priest, a sometime blogger and is still learning to play the ukulele. Together they are on a mission, they say, to help people connect with the world through writing. In addition to the river of stones (see the aggregator blog) they also host the Writing Our Way Home forum and run e-courses on writing, spirituality and connecting to the world. Fiona has even written an e-book, available as a free download, called How to Write Your Way Home.

Podcast feed | Subscribe in iTunes

Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence).

Link roundup: Blog carnivals, revolutions, and remnants from the Ice Age

tasting rhubarb: >Language >Place Blog Carnival – Edition 4
I don’t know why it took me so long to participate in this blog carnival, founded by the indefatigable web publisher Dorothee Lang, but better late than never, I guess. How could I refuse when I knew one of my favorite bloggers was hosting this edition? And a very graceful collection of links and quotes it is. (See the coordinating site for more about the carnival.)

Rebecca in the Woods: Festival of the Trees #57
Thirty-six links this time! And just a year ago we were wondering if it might not be time to fold up the tents for good. Clearly, the FOTT is alive and well. Highlights for me this time included a post on the 500-year-old Sully trees of France, with a portrait of one of the survivors; an illustrated tutorial from a Dutch artist on how to weave living sculptures out of willows; and a fascinating and learned essay on “A Linguistic Permaculture of the Oak.” (See also the call for submissions to #58.)

DiscoveryNews: “The Iceman Mummy: Finally Face to Face”
It turns out that Ötzi was a hippie burn-out.

Al Jazeera: “In search of an African revolution
Azad Essa wonders why the international news media are turning a blind eye to protests in Ivory Coast, Gabon, Khartoum and Djibouti, and acting as if the current wave of unrest stops at the Sahara.

Office Buddha: “My first trip to a buddhist temple”
One of the best “first time meditating” essays I’ve read, in part because of this line: “Meditation wasn’t like praying, it was more like defragging a hard drive.”

Marcia Bonta: “Talus Slope Life
This month in her Naturalist’s Eye column for the Pennsylvania Game News, Mom writes about one of the most unique and characteristic habitats of the central Appalachians — one largely unchanged since the last Ice Age. “Bradley Manning could face death: for what?
Glenn Greenwald writes,

Thus do we have the strange spectacle of Americans cheering on the democratic uprisings in the Middle East and empathizing with the protesters, all while revering American political leaders who for years helped sustain the dictatorships which oppressed them and disdaining those (Manning) who may have played a role in sparking the protests.

New York Times: “Libya’s Patient Revolutionaries
By Libyan novelist Mohammad al-Asfar, translated by Ghenwa Hayek. Best thing I’ve read on the Libyan revolution so far.

PBS NewsHour: “Benghazi-Born Poet Mattawa Reflects on Growing up Under Gadhafi
Good follow-up to the previous story.

The New Yorker: “On the Square: Were the Egyptian protesters right to trust the military?
The kind of in-depth reporting for which the New Yorker is famous. Wendell Steavenson booked a hotel room overlooking Tahrir Square and spent a good deal of time with the revolutionaries and soldiers. I loved the descriptions of ordinary people transformed by extraordinary events, and of course I’m a sucker for the whole, idealistic utopian thing that Liberation Square embodied. But the role of the military in all this, and the way the protesters were able to co-opt it, is one of the most unique and fascinating aspects of Egypt’s Gandhian revolution.

Al Jazeera: “The Middle East feminist revolution
Naomi Wolf points out that, among other factors, the role of social media such as Facebook in organizing protests has allowed women to side-step the hierarchical leadership structures of more traditional revolutionary movements. I can’t help wondering whether, in decades to come, Egytians will have a Marianne to symbolize their post-revolutionary society. (Probably not. Seems un-Islamic.)


DANA: The First Perfection

A Japanese-style zendo on a Pennsylvania hillside. I suddenly remember I too used to dream this dream, years ago. How strange to encounter it in someone else’s woods, though. It’s as if I never woke up.


After half an hour of zazen, I find the continued presence of the wooden floor with its wavy grain somehow comic: everytime I open my eyes, there it is again! Solid yet wandering.


Kettle drum.

Wooden clappers.





The growl of a stomach.

A caught breath.

A sigh.


Walking meditation: the world’s most difficult dance. So many possible steps, and none of them wrong. We go single file through the woods. If the trees aren’t laughing at us, they should be.


At the Dharma talk about honoring the body, I watch a black lab running in his sleep.


We are enjoined not to speak throughout the service. The next morning, I feel a cold in my throat.