Tuesday, April 13, 2010


In one of my favorite movies, "Jeremiah Johnson," the central character played by a too-pretty Robert Redford is a mountain man -- one of the people who were the first white people to know the wilderness of the American West. Since there are few reliable records of mountain men, the movie is largely speculation ... but it's a good tale for my taste.

Early on in the movie, Johnson runs into another mountain man, Del Gue -- a fellow who has shaved his head as a means of warding off any indians who might want to scalp him. "It's not the first time I have protected my scalp in such a way," Del Gue explains.

But towards the end of the movie, Johnson runs into Del Gue again, only this time Del has a full head of hair. "Ain't that hair I see on your head?" Johnson asks. And Del Gue explains that he decided that when he dies, he would like to be remembered for something, if only as a scalp "on some man's lodge pole."

All this came back to me this morning as I thought about the comments on this blog -- and elsewhere on the Internet -- that are written by "anonymous." I suppose there are all sorts of wriggles and squirms that can be used as an explanation for why anyone on the Internet might want to protect their scalp... all the perks of commenting without any of the responsibility.

I'm not criticizing. Everyone protects their scalp for a while, but there is something to be said for the question -- what are you protecting? What's wrong with owning up to the hair on your head?

It may be more dangerous to speak your truth as best you may, receive and implement whatever corrections are necessary, and remain carefully camouflaged as circumstances dictate. But camouflage has a way of blinding the one who is hidden from him- or herself. The camouflage becomes the reality when the fact is there is hair on your head. And whose hair is this?

I think Del Gue had it right: Even if it's only as a clump of hair on a lodge pole, at least it would be the truth as completely as you know or knew it. And things are a lot lighter where the hair simply grows. How can you expect to find out who you are if you can't even allow yourself to be who you are?


  1. I like your sentiments. Given the reference to Mountain Men, I thought you might be interested in my upcoming book, FUR, FORTUNE, AND EMPIRE: THE EPIC HISTORY OF THE FUR TRADE IN AMERICA (W. W. Norton, July 2010). A video that gives an overview of the book can be found on YouTube at,


    Eric Jay Dolin

  2. Hi Adam,

    I think people can have different reasons for selecting the anonymous option. In my case it is simply because I didn’t managed to get a Blog or other account since I live in a little hut in the middle of nowhere without a phone line and only occasional very bad Internet access. But if that bothers you, you could always disable the anonymous option in your Blog. That would be more honest than to offer this option and then criticizing people for selecting it.

    Dieter Brand

  3. Hi Dieter -- I do wish you would read the entry a little more closely:

    "I'm not criticizing. Everyone protects their scalp for a while, but there is something to be said for the question -- what are you protecting? What's wrong with owning up to the hair on your head?"

    Yes, I offered my opinion, but it's just my opinion. I'm not trying to fault anyone ... just want to notice the phenomenon and consider what the up- or down-side of it might be.

    Be as anonymous as you like.

  4. I live in a little glasshouse somewhere; I probably shouldn't throw stones -





  5. agreed with much of your post but how does naming yourself 'harry' or 'spongebob' or 'buddha' provide any more scalp than 'anonymous'. All labels, all pictures of rice cakes and the best we can do on the internet.

    Hope to make it to your zendo sometime. I'll be the one named anonymous :).

  6. Hi anonymous -- You're welcome any time. :)

    As to how it matters whether anyone is "anonymous" or the "Duke of York," I think it does make a difference ... not to me especially, but to the one called the "Duke of York."

    Day in and day out, we are all known by and perhaps answer to our names. It's a long-standing social habit. It's like wearing a shirt or something -- this is my shirt, like it or not ... now, what about this very ordinary, not-terribly-important shirt? By trying to duck what we do not need to duck, we miss out on the richness and honesty of that name, that shirt. It may be superficial, but somehow we need to own the superficial before we can honestly call it superficial.

    I am "adam" or "dimwit" or "genkaku" or whatever other name the moment presents. Is that who I really am? Perhaps not -- but in order to know that and to be able to say with ease, "I am adam," we cannot afford to run to something called "superficiality" for escape. We can't afford it because it doesn't work ... I don't care how many books on Buddhism anyone reads or believes.

    Oh well, I'm prattling as usual. I just think it does make a difference what anyone calls themselves because, well, that's what they call themselves. Gotta come to terms with the delusions we insist on before they can become delusions.

  7. Anon,

    (this from a book about Buddhism, BTW)

    Master Dogen does an interesting thing with the notion of 'rice cake'.

    As you know, the image of a painting of a rice cake is employed to mean something much like you just used it; to indicate something insubstantial and unsatisfactory such as a mere label or something imagined. But Dogen presented the idea that we cannot make a real rice cake (one that we can actually eat) without the image of a rice cake (the mental image of one, or the instructions for making one, say). He concluded that, in eating our rice cake (or apricot muffin) we cannot seperate the fact that we required some 'image' of it to create it and so, from this holistic point of view, we are literally eating an image of a rice cake when we eat a real rice cake.


    Harry (and "Harry").

  8. Harry, thanks. That's what I was trying to say only you said it better.

    I get concerned when there is some notion that just because something is a delusion means it's a delusion.

    Or, put another way, we gotta own our shit before we can effectively start shoveling.

  9. PS. The "gay" muffins are pretty good.

  10. My teacher has me watching when I label and I have a two year old learning to talk so this business of words and their meaning and impact has been my life koan of late. Don't know if I agree with dogen, my five month old doesn't have much of an idea about her mom's milk but she eats a lot of it. Enough of this abstract talk, I'm hungry, I'm thinking of having some rice for lunch.

    PS Am I allowed to disagree with dogen and still be in the club?

  11. Hi Anon,

    If there is indeed 'a club' where Buddhism is concerned personally I think the qualifier may be that you test things thoroughly for yourself in zazen and life.



  12. Hi Anon -- Just take care of your two-year-old and your family and you'll agree with Dogen from roof-top to basement.

    The story below comes from 101 Zen Tales, which you can Google if and when you have the time. Diapers and sleep deprivation are no joke, I realize:

    Stingy in Teaching

    A young physician in Tokyo named Kusuda met a college friend who had been studying Zen. The young doctor asked him what Zen was.

    "I cannot tell you what it is," the friend replied, "but one thing is certain. If you understand Zen, you will not be afraid to die."

    "That's fine," said Kusuda. "I will try it. Where can I find a teacher?"

    "Go to the master Nan-in," the friend told him.

    So Kusuda went to call on Nan-in. He carried a dagger nine and a half inches long to determine whether or not the teacher was afraid to die.

    When Nan-in saw Kusuda he exclaimed: "Hello, friend. How are you? We haven't seen each other for a long time!"

    This perplexed Kusuda, who replied: "We have never met before."

    "That's right," answered Nan-in. "I mistook you for another physician who is receiving instruction here."

    With such a beginning, Kusuda lost his chance to test the master, so reluctantly he asked if he might receive Zen instruction.

    Nan-in said: "Zen is not a difficult task. If you are a physician, treat you patients with kindness. That is Zen."

    Kusuda visited Nan-in three times. Each time Nan-in told him the same thing. "A physician should not waste time around here. Go home and take care of you patients."

    It was not yet clear to Kusuda how such teaching could remove the fear of death. So on his fourth visit he complained: "My friend told me when one learns Zen one loses the fear of death. Each time I come here all you tell me is to take care of my patients. I know that much. If that is your so-called Zen, I am not going to visit you any more."

    Nan-in smiled and patted the doctor. "I have been too strict with you. Let me give you a koan." He presented Kusuda with Joshu's Mu to work over, which is the first mind enlightening problem in the book called The Gateless Gate.

    Kusuda pondered this problem of Mu (No-Thing) for two years. At length he thought he had reached certainty of mind. But his teacher commented: "You are not in yet."

    Kusuda continued in concentration for another year and a half. His mind became placid. Problems dissolved. No-Thing became the truth. He served his patients well and, without even knowing it, he was free from concern over life and death.

    Then when he visited Nan-in, his old teacher just smiled.

  13. If I remember the movie correctly, Jeremiah Johnson had a bit of a reputation problem with the locals, and it cost many a local their life. Identity big medicine!

  14. When someone posts an anonymous comment,very malicious one criticizing a person we do not like as well, than we do not seem to have problem with this. When someone ask us a challenging question or posts something perceived as a critique of us, than suddenly there is a problem with anonymous posting.
    It is laughable that this post generated so many comments as none other in this blog... This is quite revealing.

  15. I just like it when people talk about me :)

  16. Adam,

    What I was trying to say is that different people, living in different conditions from your own, may have reasons for acting as they do that have nothing to do with *protecting one's scalp*.


  17. Hi Dieter -- I agree with you: Different circumstances for each; different reasons for each; different ... well, everything is different and distinct. But I think the question is worth asking, how different are things really?

    I don't mean the question as some sort of my-halo-is-brighter-than-your-halo, spiritually-kool question. I just mean that within each person's experience and circumstances, it might be worth examining.


  18. Hi Adam,

    It isn’t easy to formulate a general theory of where the common ground stops and where local differences start. E.g., when we moved from Paris to Tokyo in the early 80s, I was struck by the difference of approach of my French colleagues with their strong conceptual abilities, on the one hand, and my Japanese colleagues, on the other hand, who preferred to deal with concrete realities and would often feel uncomfortable with abstract ideas.

    I think in the study of Zen or Far Eastern thought we need to take these cultural differences into account. A specific Zen story or the like may have validity in specific situations, but turns into something altogether different when conceptualized by the Western mind as a generally valid truth. What I like about Zen is the concrete and dynamic aspect, which is in stark contrast to the static and abstract mode of Indian-inspired Buddhism. Historically, the difference is partly due to the influence of Taoism (you probably know that the “gen” in your name is originally a Taoist term). On another level, the difference is due to the way people think and the manner in which this is reflected in language.

    Since our return from Japan, I have been growing most of our food by Natural Farming in the South of Portugal. Natural Farming was developed in Japan. Attempts to export it to the West have mostly failed because people take the utterances of the Japanese pioneers as universally valid truth instead of the descriptions of specific local conditions. When it comes to soil, it is always different, almost as with people, and to try and understand Nature is not so different from trying to understand our own nature, which is always the same, or is it?

    Cheers, Dieter

  19. Thanks for a wonderful post, Dieter.

    If I hear you correctly, I agree: Skip over culture and you screw the Zen pooch; pay attention to nothing other than culture and screw the Zen pooch. I guess it's all circumstances. :)

    But there is something to be said for the part (?) of human beings that does not bow to culture. A sneeze, a kiss, a smile, a true nature ... these things cannot be subsumed in culture, no matter how graceful or graceless that culture may be.

    In the meantime, of course, I guess I'll have to learn Portuguese if I ever get to your neck of the woods. :)

    Thanks for the post.

  20. Thanks for your reply Adam.

    Even facial expressions, like a smile, or gestures can be different from culture to culture. When we moved to Japan, I first taught foreign languages to finance my Japanese studies. One technique used in foreign language teaching is to have one student perform some gestures to mimic a profession and let the other students ask questions to try and guess that profession. Once my Japanese students understood how it worked, they were extremely efficient at communicating among themselves by gestures. The only one who didn’t understand a thing was I, the foreign teacher. Gestures used among Orientals can be quite different from gestures used in the West.

    Well, Kasyapa smiled when the Buddha held up a flower and we still think we understand what was meant. Or do we?

    ;-) Dieter

    PS: I’m not saying that communication between cultures is impossible. At present, I do translations for a living. I couldn’t do that if communication were altogether impossible. There are of course mental functions and emotions (fear, love, hate, etc.) that are common to all peoples. It’s just how these are expressed that can be different. And when it comes to our “own nature”, is it always the same or is it different in each instance? Nature is in constant motion and you never see the same river twice. That remains always the same.