A Little Color on a Gray Day

Somedays you just have to make your own sunshine, so I decided to drive up to the Pacific Science Center with Lael to see their Butterfly Garden. 80 degrees felt just about perfect. After all these gray, drab days I was delighted to finally point my lens as at something colorful.

And it’s hard to imagine anything much more colorful than exotic butterflies flitting among equally exotic flowers, which is not to say that it’s easy to get a good picture. Unfortunately, when I start choosing photos I inevitably find that shooting this close with a 70-200mm lens under less-than-perfect light conditions leads to parts of most photos being blurry. You’re left looking for the shots where the blurry areas complement rather than distract from the picture as a whole, but you very seldom find that “perfect” shot you’re always seeking.

In order to find a razor sharp image, you have to settle for a pose like this that really has about as much appeal to me as those butterflies pinned to a board.


I much prefer candid shots where the wings are at different depths and are apt to be in motion during the shot,


perched on beautiful flowers,

Black butterfly on lotus blossom

or ones where the color of the flowers complements the colors of the butterfly.

Red and Black Butterfly on Red Flowers

Hayden Carruth’s Toward the Distant Islands

I’ve finally finished my extended look at Taoism, and since the extended forecast calls for rain and more rain, which means very little birding, I’m looking forward to catching up on the stack of poetry books that I have gathered in anticipation of winter reading.

I’m going to begin with Hayden Carruth’s Toward the Distant Islands, a book I ordered after Dave Bonta suggested it on his site and Mike had suggested earlier. One of the greatest advantages of blogging turns out to be the suggestions that regular readers make on books or poets I might like.

It seems slightly ironic, though, that the first poem in the book is entitled “The Buddhist Painter Prepares to Paint” and I liked the poem, written in 1959, quite a lot, even though I don’t think I knew a single thing about Buddhism when it was written. There were so many poems that I liked that I had hard time deciding which to discuss, though in the end it came down to a poem about one of my favorite birds, one that I hardly ever see but one that’s linked to fond memories:


Summer wilderness, a blue light
twinkling in trees and water, but even
wilderness is deprived now. “What’s that?
What is that sound?” Then it came to me,
this insane song, wavering music
like the cry of the genie inside the lamp,
it came from inside the long wilderness
of my life, a loon’s song, and there he was
swimming on the pond, guarding
his mate’s nest by the shore,
diving and staying under
unbelievable minutes and coming up
where no one was looking. My friend
told how once in his boyhood
he had seen a loon swimming beneath his boat,
a shape dark and powerful
down in that silent mysterious world, and how
it had ejected a plume of white excrement
curving behind. “It was beautiful,”
he said.

The loon
broke the stillness over the water
again and again,
broke the wilderness
with his song, truly
a vestige, the laugh that transcends
first all mirth
and then all sorrow
and finally all knowledge, dying
into the gentlest quavering timeless
woe. It seemed
the real and only sanity to me.

The first time I ever heard a loon’s cry was on the first backpacking trip my children went on after my divorce. We woke to the loon’s haunting cry early in the morning, and truthfully I had no idea what it was for many years. When I finally heard it again for the first time in On Golden Pond, I knew immediately that was the same sound I had heard many years before. I didn’t hear it again until my son and I drove to Alaska to see my brother many years later.

Small wonder, then, that I, too, identify that delightful, frightening, haunting sound with Wilderness. It is such a strange, distinctive sound that one could well imagine that is “truly a vestige” of a past that is quickly receding as civilization heads into the future, with only a few of us who believe it was the “the real and only sanity.”

The Stone Sutra

Palmer ends his book with a translation of the Stone Sutra that inspired his search for Da Qin and a brief history of the Christian Church in China, both of which proved quite interesting.

I was especially impressed by the opening lines of the Stone Sutra where the author restates Genesis and accounts for Man’s fall from Grace:

He beat up the primordial winds and the two vapors were created. He differentiated the gray emptiness and opened up the sky and the earth. He set the sun and moon on their course and day and night came into being. He crafted the myriad things and created the first people. He gave to them the original nature of goodness and appointed them as the guardians of all creation. Their minds were empty; they were content; and their hearts were simple and innocent. Originally they had no desire, but under the influence of Satan, they abandoned their pure and simple goodness for the glitter and the gold. Falling into the trap of death and lies, they became embroiled in the three hundred and sixty-five forms of sin. In doing so, they have woven the web of retribution and have hound themselves inside it. Some believe in the material origin of things; some have sunk into chaotic ways; some think that they can receive blessings simply by reciting prayers; and some have abandoned kindness for treachery. Despite their intelligence and their passionate pleas, they have got nowhere. Forced into the ever-turning wheel of fire, they are burned and obliterated. Having lost their way for eons, they can no longer return.

Without looking at other translations of the Stone Sutra it’s impossible to know exactly what it says, but I love the phrase “appointed them as the guardians of all creation” rather than the more common translation of granting man dominion over the earth. Of course, I love it because that’s what I’ve always felt was man’s role.

I tend to agree that man’s fall from grace probably came as a result of abandoning “their pure and simple goodness for the glitter and the gold” rather than from eating of the tree of knowledge, but, again, that might be just my prejudice since I’ve spent most of my life eating from that tree, hoping it would provide answers to some of life’s most intriguing questions. I’d have been rather foolish to spend most of my life as a teacher if I hadn’t held these values.

Although the last chapter of the book seems anticlimactic, it did provide historical details that were surprising, if not actually shocking. Am I the only person that didn’t have a clue that “when Genghis Khan unified the Mongol tribes and burst out of Mongolia to conquer much of the world, a goodly proportion of his army was Christian?”

Perhaps even more shocking is that I actually found myself agreeing with a jacket blurb, where Thich Nhat Hanh is quoted, “The Jesus Sutras tells a valuable history of the beautiful teachings of a faith built on living practices of brotherhood and peace. The Sutras show us the interbeing nature of Jesus, Buddha, Tao, peoples, cultures, transformation, salvation, and unity through deep and mindful living.”

The Sutra of Returning to Your Original Nature

I am certainly no religious expert, and I’m not sure whether Palmer is right when he argues that:

Jingjing should be recognized as a Dharma King: a saint. One of the most outstanding Christians ever produced by China, he is also, to the best of our limited knowledge, the greatest product of the Tang Dynasty Church in China. He wrote works that are masterpieces of world spirituality in his ability to interpret to a Chinese world the significance of Jesus’ human incarnation. He deserves to be recovered from obscurity and recognized by contemporary spiritual seekers with the same admiration and affection that his own Church clearly had for him.

Nor do I know nearly enough about Christian writing in China to know whether Palmer is using hyperbole when he argues that in The Sutra of Returning to Your Original Nature:

… we have the fullest expression of the Dharma Law of God, the Tao of Jesus, a magnificent fusion of the best of all the worlds in which the Chinese Christians of the age found themselves.

But I do know that there are some extremely powerful and eloquent lines in this sermon, certainly the best sermon I’ve ever heard, as evidenced by lines like:

This is why I say: no wanting, no doing, no piousness, no truth.
These are the Four Essential Laws.
They cannot teach you in themselves
But follow them and you will be free
From trying to sort out what to believe.
Feel compassion, and be compassionate over and again
Without trying to show it off to anyone.
Everyone will be freed this way-
And this is called the Way to Peace and Happiness.

I would, however, agree with Palmer that:

These Sutras deserve to be better known. They are classics of the most radical fusion of Western and Eastern spirituality as well as classics of Tang Dynasty poetry. I hope that by bringing them to life again through translation they can join the corpus of great works of spirituality. After a thousand years of silence, they sing out again.

I wish the Sutras were longer so that I could feel comfortable quoting longer passages and giving you a better feel for their power, but Palmer has done a masterful job of introducing them and putting them into a historical context.