Author Archives: Bobby Bare Root

So that happened. .


“Although I wallow in the slime and muck of the dark age,

Still I aspire to see his face.

Although I stumble in the thick black fog of materialism,

Still I aspire to see his face.”

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, The Sadhana of Mahamudra

How can I even begin?

In the past week, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, visited Karma Thegsum Choling in Cicero, IL. For the unfamiliar, that’s an awful lot of consonants jumbled up against one another. I will do my best to explain.

The Karmapa is the spiritual head of the Karma Kagyu lineage in Tibet. The Kagyu lineage dates back 900 years and is one of the four major lineages in Tibet. As best I can gather,  it’s also the lineage that I was sworn into, although my vows were administered in Tibetan, and, well, frankly it gets a little complicated. For the past decade and a half I’ve been doing my best to make sense of things, hashing out my own liturgy as best I can, based on hearsay and observation. I have met some truly wonderful and inspiring individuals along the way, and I have also met with my share of deceit and betrayal. It’s been a bumpy ride, but the best intel I’ve been able to gather suggests that the Karmapa is the real deal, and for some time now I have hoped I might be able to make my own assessment of that situation. On Monday, I was granted that opportunity.

Given the extraordinary nature of international politics, the Karmapa is rarely free to leave his monastery in Dharamsala, India. For most of his two-month tour here in the United States, His Holiness has been visiting universities, packing auditoriums to capacity. Tickets vanished within minutes whenever they were made available. Karma Thegsum Choling is a modest Buddhist center, hardly an auditorium.  As a carpenter, I even had to make some modifications to the building exits just so we’d safely be able to meet our expected capacity (of less than 100). The event was deliberately not publicized, and tickets were given out by invite only, just to ensure that things remained manageable. In short, it’s incredibly fortunate for those involved that His Holiness decided to visit us at all.

And it almost didn’t happen. The day before he was due to arrive, the Karmapa apparently became ill. His visit was quickly rescheduled for the following week. Not long after that announcement went out via email, an earthquake struck Nepal, on the very same date that His Holiness was originally due to visit Cicero. Certainly no one would have been offended if the Karmapa deemed it necessary to cancel his remaining itinerary and head back home. Several of us expected that he would do so. And yet he stuck with the revised schedule, despite the inconvenience it certainly posed.

The actual ceremony, the pomp and circumstance, the incredible tension and release, that I cannot attempt to explain. The majesty and grace that His Holiness presented will sound like horse hockey if I try and describe it here, but I had the experience of being near some sort of quantum distortion field, as if his presence were larger than anything else in the room, or in the entire universe. All of that was undercut by his incredible humility. Browse through the webcasts posted on kagyuoffice.org  or on the Karmapa’s YouTube channel and you can get a sense of this quality. In person, it was overwhelming.

At the request of Lama Sean, center director at KTC, His Holiness offered some instruction for us that day on the practice of Chenrezik, or visualization of the bodhisattva of compassion. This is one of the main practices, or sadhanas, undertaken at Karma Thegsum Choling. While commenting on the 1,000 armed form of Avoliketeshvara, His Holiness related that he could personally empathize with the desire to manifest 1,000 arms, as he would need that many arms to fulfill all of the requests for help he receives each day from countless beings. Was there a hint of sadness in his voice as he said this? Was it resignation? Was he simply still feeling ill?

“His Holiness wants to see you. .”

After the ceremony had concluded, I waited to see if there was anything else I might help with. The room was filled with electricity. Some folks had already headed downstairs, but many were hanging around the main shrine room, chatting excitedly. As I stood there not knowing my place, a head poked out of the crowd. “Rob! His Holiness wants to see you.”

I was not expecting that the moment would become any more surreal. I suddenly felt like I had swallowed a ball of molten iron. I wasn’t sure what to do next, but I made my way through the crowd as quickly as I could and headed downstairs to the apartment where His Holiness was waiting. What was this feeling I was experiencing? Panic? Bliss? Terror?

I entered the room and bowed, completely unsure of what to do next. Should I approach him? Keep a respectful distance? Time was an abstract. Seconds were frozen, and at the same time they raced by. It was as if the room were on fire. Here I stood face to face with the Karmapa, and still I could not gauge his presence. Was he seven feet tall? One hundred? Up close, it was apparent that whatever illness had plagued His Holiness was lingering with him. He appeared a bit fatigued, a little sweaty, and yet he stood larger than life. I’ve met Presidents who didn’t have as commanding a presence. The Karmapa extended his hand and I approached. We shook hands. “Thank you,” he said. Apparently Lama Sean had related that I was essential in preparing the center for the Karmapa’s vist . “Thank you!” I gushed in return. I did not know what else to say. “Rob is a carpenter,” Lama Sean repeated for His Holiness. “Let’s build a stupa!” I exclaimed, stupidly. A stupa is a traditional buddhist monument of sorts, and plans had been announced earlier that day for a stupa in Zion, IL, the site of the 16th Karmapa’s passing. His Holiness had explained that this was, in fact, the main reason for his visit to the region, that he might recall his previous experience here. Suddenly I was embarrassed. I had spoken half a dozen words and I felt I had overstayed my welcome. “Yes, stupa,” the Karmapa repeated in his halting English. The next visitor was already on his way in, carrying a small child.

I left hurriedly, unsure whether or not I was going to pass out, fall over, or wake up. In the days that have passed since, I have tried to make sense of all that happened, and I am at a loss. At first it was as if I was in some sort of post-karmic depression. Not so much a feeling of sadness, but a sense of the weight of the world, of everything that the Karmapa must bear on a daily basis. Despite his limitless burdens and obligations, he not only went out of his way to visit our little dharma center in Cicero, IL, but he took the time to thank me personally for installing some door hardware and laying some carpet. Who knows how many thousands are praying for him this very moment to relieve their very real suffering, and I installed some carpet. The dude rolls with Secret Service escort, and he took the time to thank me. I have worked harder for guys who drive cargo vans, and they have not so much as said “nice job!”

As I reflect upon it, I realize that even my exclamation about the stupa was in a sense, selfish. Certainly I would like to see a stupa in Zion, and certainly it would bring joy to many others, but currently, I am without a full-time job, and if there were some work to do to prepare the stupa, I might have something to do for a little while, and then I could feel useful. It isn’t for the sake of all beings that I want to see a stupa. It’s just so that I might gain some personal satisfaction, or perhaps deepen my own spiritual practice and connection in some way. After the Karmapa left, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche answered some questions from those who had stayed behind, and he spoke about the benefits that a stupa could bestow. Many who visit a stupa wish that they might gain material satisfaction, win the lottery, or some such thing, and that is the wrong approach. If one instead visits a stupa and makes a sincere aspiration to be of benefit to others, the stupa will speedily grant that wish.

If there is an overriding theme to the Karmapa’s many public comments and teachings on this tour, it is the importance of developing compassion. When he spoke to the crowd at KTC on the practice of Chenrezik, he told us that if we want to know if our practice is truly deepening, we need simply look at our own compassion, and see how it is developing. The proof is in the pudding, as they say. As I think back on the few seconds I had to share with His Holiness, I regret that I didn’t simply ask him, “how are you?” or wish him a speedy recovery from his illness. I am sure that he took no offense, and admittedly I was overwhelmed and more than a little off guard, but it remains a valuable lesson nonetheless. How many times have I walked into a room and been too distracted or hung-up on my own agenda to acknowledge that anyone else was present? This being human business takes constant practice, but it is an opportunity worth perfecting. Some years from now I may be able to judge what effect meeting the Karmapa had upon me. In the meantime, I will be paying more attention to how I pay attention to others. That may be the greatest teaching he could grant me. For now, it is what I will be working on. It’s a start, anyway.

UPDATE: A wonderful article was posted on karmapaamerica2015.org, complete with photos, which does a much better job of describing His Holiness’ actual visit and the content of his teaching than I have done here.

Some edits for clarity and factual correctness. 

You Gotta Have Heart!

I received an email today from someone I met all too briefly at a conference and only half remember meeting. This happens too often at these events and needs to be addressed in the structure of the conference — but, I digress.. Her email was complimentary and encouraged me to post more often to my blog, which was all the encouragement I needed, I guess. I have had a bunch of thoughts kicking around my head for a while and in a minute I’m gonna riff on those. First, though, I want to share a cool image of Yeshe Tsogyal I borrowed from the Tsogyaling Meditation Center in Evanston. In another few paragraphs I’ll explain why I’m posting it here and I’ll have some things to say about the iconography, but you should take a moment to click on the image and pay their site a visit. They are good peoples.

Yeshe Tsogyal image from Tsogyaling Meditation Center of Evanston. Pay them a visit sometime.

There has been some stuff going around teh interwebz lately about neuroscience and free will and what is up with that. I’m not going to post links because everything that I have read misses the point, as far as I’m concerned,  but I’ll try and rehash what I’ve gotten out of the coverage. Basically, the gist is that some smart folks have figured out that the unconscious mind is controlling decisions and behavior before the conscious mind is even aware that the decision is being made. Some chumps have concluded that we therefore don’t have free will, which feels an awful lot like coming up with an experiment to prove your hypothesis, and interpreting all your results within view of that hypothesis.. How about another take? Maybe the “conscious” part of the brain, the part that puts labels on everything and is all hung up on language, is simply the last one to figure out what is going on? What hubris, to think that thinking is the end all and be all of being. Say I’m driving on the expressway and I slam on the brakes to avoid a swerving semi or sudden catastrophe. I doubt there’s a lot of cognitive thought going into the decision to apply the brakes, and quickly. Have you ever been in a situation where you just reacted, and before you even figured out what was going on, you were out of harm’s way? Sometimes there isn’t time to think. I don’t see how this negates the idea of free will. Kind of silly to think so.

Now, I could have the whole experiment all wrong. I’m just giving my take on some articles that came across my twitter feed. It’s not going out on a limb though to suggest that the brain is a funny thing. I’m pretty sure we don’t completely get how the whole show works, or those neuroscientists wouldn’t still be coming up with experiments to run.  I do know that I have been hanging out in some pretty interesting places lately, and I’ve come across some interesting and divergent viewpoints. Those experiences have given my language addled always labeling brain plenty to ponder, and pondering the pondering is a fun rabbit hole to dip into. Get ready..

I want to get back to Yeshe Tsogyal. The double halo surrounding the wisdom guru is pretty typical Buddhist iconography. I started noticing this iconography more often after I had a few conversations with a couple of different buddhists who are into this so-called Heart Math technique , which is a little out there, but worth contemplating. Part of the supposed science behind the technique is that the heart is pushing out some serious electromagnetic vibrations, which overwhelm anything that the brain is producing. These can apparently be measured and observed, and the image pretty much looks like Yeshe Tsogyal’s double halo. Again I’m oversimplifying, but if you are interested there’s plenty of info to check out. Start with this trippy video. Apparently we’re communicating with each other all of the time without using our brains or language, and maybe without even being “aware” of the communicating. We’re also still using pheromones, even though some of us reject that notion as being uncivilized, or something. I’m here to tell ya it just ain’t so..

I particularly enjoyed this episode of the Biodyamics Now podcast, in which guest Stephen Harrod Buhner posits that there are many types of human consciousness: the mind, the heart, and the gut being the ones we use most often. It’s very common to use the heart and the gut as metaphors, but what if it isn’t all metaphor? There are billions of little critters squirming across your skin and swimming in your gut, most of them friendly, a few not so much. By the percentages, most of the DNA that you’re carrying around every day isn’t even human. Do you really think you’re calling all the shots? Just who are you calling you, anyway? It doesn’t sound outlandish to talk about parasites that influence human behavior — candida overgrowth or crazy cat lady syndrome are barely news. Is it so outlandish to suppose that some other of those critters may be helping us to make decisions that lead to our mutual benefit? If so, exactly how long does it take before the brain takes all the credit for the idea?

I have been experimenting and practicing with this notion of feeling from the heart, and that has led to some interesting observations. I am also open to the idea of breaking down concepts, and getting away from notions and labels. Those things are necessary, but they aren’t everything. What an interesting thought to ponder, that this thing we call thinking may be pretty far down the chain of cause and effect, and that it is really more of an observation than a command. Maybe this idea is so appealing and easy for me to accept because it echoes notions I first encountered in Zen Buddhism over a decade ago, but I don’t think you need to be a Buddhist to accept that maybe we’re more than just the sum of a few parts. What happens if we pay more attention to the observation, and put less emphasis on the commentary? It could just be a little experiment to play with. No hypothesis to prove or disprove, just something to carry on with and learn from. Give it a try. Give it some heart.

[edits for clarity and to fix some broken links]

Aw Yeah Chicken and Waffles!

I was driving along Dempster St. in Evanston this afternoon when I noticed Chicago’s Home of Chicken and Waffles. Of course I pulled over immediately and allowed myself in. It turns out I’ve been to this franchise before, on S. King Drive in Bronzeville, but I didn’t figure out that it was the same operation until I spoke with the manager during my meal. I recall my previous visit fondly, but I don’t particularly recall the chicken. Today’s experience was about the same.

The food was not at all bad, and the chicken was plenty tasty, but it was short of spectacular. I’ve had far better chicken at Harold’s – but I’ve had far worse at Harold’s, too. I’ll have to do a Harold’s round-up some other time. The chicken at Chicago’s was crispy if a little bland, and I felt I could do a better job at home without really trying too hard. I also started figuring that I could do a gluten free fried chicken that would knock the socks off the plate I had this evening, and that would be something worth staying home for.

I do have to make mention of the various sides that I ordered. The collards, corn bread, sweet potatoes, and mac and cheese were all delicious, and just short of perfection. No complaints there. Whatever Chicago’s lacks in flavor they more than made up for in service. My server and a few additional employees, one of them probably the manager, checked in with me several times during my meal, but never to the point where I felt hassled. The following tweet came across my phone’s screen while I was dining

and I tweeted back that I’d like to open a farm to table soul food restaurant on the south side. I asked Mr. Manager Man how many pounds of collards he supposed his restaurant went through in a year, and he did some quick math on a napkin and guesstimated they went through a ton. I did some more internet mojo and figured that I’d need at least an acre just to supply my soul food joint with collard greens. Time to start looking for real estate.

Whether or not I follow through on my south side dreams, I appreciated that the manager took even a moment to give my question some serious thought, rather than just making up some random number. My server was completely polite and helpful throughout my meal, and I even shared a few comments with some of the other patrons on my way out of the restaurant. It was hardly crowded when I arrived, but the dinner rush was starting to make its way in as I left.

Overall, my experience was greater than the sum of the chicken parts I gobbled down. I probably won’t go out of my way to go back to Chicago’s Home of Chicken and Waffles, but I’ll certainly keep it in mind. I’m pretty frequently heading down King Drive, so there’s a fair chance I’ll visit that location again.

Where to begin?

It’s been a heady few weeks, or more even. I attended the Restoration Ag “short course” with Mark Shepard in July, which is worthy of at least four blog posts. Immediately upon returning from that trip, I started a “micro farm” on a community garden plot, and last week I hooked up with a carpenter who’s supplying chicken coops to Chicago residents, among other projects. Sat in on a beginning farm course with Extension, applied for a 2015 plot, and met with a produce buyer. Had many inspiring conversations with a number of permies and gardeners, both in the flesh and online. This year’s American Community Garden Conference is taking place in Shikaakwa, Illinois right this very now, and we hosted the “pre-conference” at KAM Isaiah Israel on Thursday, which was beautiful. The panel discussion was incredible. I’m wondering if I should post a transcript. Today I led a garden tour through Humboldt Park, where I’ve tended to a number of community gardens over the past decade, and it was almost a tearjerker to hear so many gardeners from near and far express their appreciation for efforts that I’ve been a part of. Oh, and sometime in June I started in as the Farm Manager for KAMII, which is just an incredible project to be involved with. I feel so grateful, and fortunate, to be doing what I am doing, and I hope to find the time to put those feelings into words. Work is starting to come online, the tomatoes are ripening on the vine, and I’m a very busy beaver these days, but pretty soon I’ll manage to put some copy together explaining how I feel about it all. For now at least I managed to get another paragraph posted. Sometimes that’s all I’ll have time for.

Do we need a Lens or a Prism?

This question came up on twitter the other day, and I wondered what other metrics we might use to define success within the bounds of permaculture. Certainly reducing waste is a worthwhile effort, and keeping track of waste is a good way to measure how successful we are at living up to the goal of reducing waste. As a rule, though, I’m rarely comfortable with breaking any issue down into a strict true or false dichotomy. The world is more complicated than that, and there’s usually more than one side to every story. Permaculture especially is about understanding the complex relationships between various systems and disciplines, and I suggested that we might need to view our efforts through a number of different lenses in order to have some valuable metrics by which to evaluate those efforts.

As a point of illustration, I’d like to consider the common milkweed, or Monarch flower, as some would prefer it be known. Milkweed is becoming something of an internet sensation lately, and the attention is well deserved. The Monarch butterfly depends on milkweed for its survival. Monarch larvae feed exclusively on the plant in order to absorb its toxins and bitter taste. Monarch predators have learned to read the bold markings of both the caterpillar and butterfly as a warning sign, and they choose to steer clear of the insect. Thanks to our history with industrial agriculture, milkweed, once ubiquitous, is now scarcely present throughout much of North America. It’s no coincidence that the Monarch butterfly has experienced a precipitous decline in population. Permies, naturalists, and urban aggies are rallying around the Monarch flower and planting it everywhere, in hopes that we can stave off the extinction of the Monarch butterfly and perhaps even see a rebound in numbers.

That’s all very commendable, but what does it have to do with metrics? Allow me next to introduce a concept with which you may be unfamiliar. Floristic Quality Assessment was popularized by naturalists Floyd Swink and Gerould Wilhelm with their groundbreaking work Plants of the Chicago Region (3rd ed., 1979). They realized that a sound method was needed for assessing the natural quality of plant communities, so that efforts toward understanding and preserving these lands could be evaluated using a standardized and quantitative metric. Years of exhaustive surveys of the naturally occurring flora in the many counties surrounding Chicago had yielded a great volume of data, and this data was used to assign each vascular plant species a Coefficient of Conservatism (C) value. A taxonomic survey of a given parcel could then be undertaken, with each plant contributing its C value toward an average, in order to gauge the degree to which a natural area was likely to have been disturbed by humans.

Where do you suppose Asclepias syriaca, aka “common milkweed”, fits into this calculus? It has a C value of zero! Now, there are many species with the genus Asclepias, and some of them do rate a 10 on Swink and Wilhelm’s scale. How the different species within this genus were each given their rankings is just a bit much to explain right now, but as far as the Monarch butterfly is concerned, they’re all foodstuffs. A C value of zero doesn’t mean that Asclepias syriaca is worthless — nothing of the sort! When it comes to saving Monarch butterflies, A. syriaca could prove to be far more valuable than A. meadii, which scores a C value of 10. Mead’s milkweed (A. meadii) is one of the rarest plants in the Chicago Region. I might be interested in planting it for just that reason, but if my aim is to save the Monarch butterfly, I’m looking for a plant that can thrive anywhere. If I want to save Monarch butterflies, I’m going to plant lots of A. syriaca.

Permaculture flower

The Principles of Permaculture. Image via permaculturenews.org

So, where does this leave us in regards to permaculture? I’m still a big believer in FQA, and I’ll even contend that it ought to be part of every permie’s toolkit, but it isn’t the right lens to use in every situation. I’m a big fan of my Felcos, too, but sometimes I go for the chainsaw. If we’re going to evaluate whether or not we’ve been successful at anything, we first need to define what it is we’ve been trying to do. Permaculture itself is more of a toolkit than it is a particular effort. I suggested on twitter that we might want to consider how many mouths were fed, or look at quality of life, as indicators of “success”. Noah Patrick (@allthewebs) had some insightful comments regarding the nature of waste, and noted that “permacultures always give more than they take”. A look at the “permaculture flower”, often cited as a representation of the ideals of permaculture, reveals many avenues to understanding, each of which need to be considered in order to evaluate whether or not a given effort is truly “permaculture”.

This is all brand new to me. I hope to get my Permaculture Design Certification within the next year or two, but meanwhile I’m planting community gardens and mowing around milkweed. I’ve spent the last dozen years focusing on small scale urban efforts, but I’ve also spent a good chunk of time in the mountains or on the meadow. My approach is a little different in each context, but each is informed by the sum of my experience. Changing things up is one way I keep my values in check. I’m always eager to learn more, and I’d welcome the opportunity to continue this line of inquiry. What does permaculture mean to you? How do you define success within the boundaries of permaculture? What metrics can we apply to gauge whether our efforts have been successful? The lines are open! Leave your comments and let’s see what we might learn from one another.

Thanks to Cassi Saari, aka @BOUCUR, for some very helpful clarification regarding the history and application of Floristic Quality Assessment. When I someday figure out how to use footnotes within HTML I may go back and make the proper attributions.

Everything is everything..

All the karmic thought, speech, and action ever committed by me since time immemorial, and in the present and future..

Arising from beginingless ignorance, arising from craven greed, arising from misguided anger, arising from endless delusion..

Born of this impermanent body, born of this impetuous mouth, born of this clinging mind..

I now openly acknowledge, I now confess with humility, I now repent wholeheartedly and accept all consequence with equanimity..

I have been wondering what to do now that I have a blog. I’ve pondered my “brand” and “message” and doodled upon scratch pads trying to come up with a “mission statement”. I’ve also woken up every morning for how long I cannot recall and recited the above lines, and repeated them again most evenings. It seems to me my mission couldn’t be any clearer — deal with each day as it arises, without prejudice or preconception, relying upon my own experience and my best judgment to guide me forward. Surely there will be mistakes, and there will just as likely be situations which I cannot anticipate, or which are beyond my control. There will also be many things which I cannot change. When I encounter these setbacks or obstacles I have to include these in my experience, again without judgment or prejudice, but with the confidence that I will have learned something from the experience, and that in the future I will be that much wiser.

That may not have much to do with blogging — or maybe it does. It feels worth while to set it all down, to set a tone of honest inquiry and accountability for this blog. Karma isn’t as straightforward as a math equation. It’s more like David Tennant’s ball of timey-wimey stuff. The circumstances that I have to deal with every day are largely of my own creation, but countless other sentient beings played their part. Entire galaxies had to form and collide before I could sit down and write this very paragraph. Where does that leave me? Right here, with this laptop, trying to sort it all out with the best understanding that my human intelligence can apply to the situation. Occasionally I’m going to get my facts wrong, or misremember how that episode of Heroes played out. It’s likely that my favorite barbeque recipe will change over time, or that I may even start spelling it “barbecue”. It’s still up to me to put in the due diligence, to report both the truth and my own experience as clearly and accurately as I am able, and to correct my fuck-ups as they arise. Let this be my blogger’s creed.

Originally published the first time I tried to launch this blog, which was not that long ago.

Hello World!

Well, this is a little embarrassing, but I finally managed to get a blog posted to teh internetz! Embarrassing because it took me this long, but now that this baby is online, look out! I’m gonna have plenty to spew! Now if I can just figure out how to post cat photos..

Rocky Mountain High! 8,200 ft.

Rocky Mountain High! 8,200 ft.

Hey! That’s one cool cat!

Originally published like a month ago before I took my blog down and put it back up again for technical reasons which are still evading my grasp..