Book Bits

Playing With the Veil: Of Salmon and Zen Masters – Genine Lentine

In an extraordinary essay that features in Rebecca Solnit’s ‘Infinite City – A San Francisco Atlas’ – Genine Lentine brings together the lives of salmon in the Bay Area and the patterns of the burgeoning Zen community that co-exists, sometimes in very close proximity, to the fish. Of the many things the two species have in common, she writes, there is overall a pervading sense of ‘coming home’ with the ‘way-seeking mind’. 


A Way Home (excerpt)

The salmon’s migration patterns from fresh water to salt water and back place them in the category of anadromous fish. Hatching in small freshwater streams, in six to nine months they’re ready to begin the journey to the ocean, where they will live for an average of three years before returning to fresh water.

Coho return to their smaller local streams during the midwinter rainy season. But spring-run chinook salmon return when the rivers are raging with melted snow, and while they appear muscular and robust, at this point they’re done eating. The moment they transfer to the estuary and into fresh water, they’re entering into the death process.

Spring-run chinook arrive well before fall, when it’s time to lay the eggs, so they hover motionless in the deepest pools available for up to six months. Temperature and chemical cues awaken them to the spawning process, and they start to find gravel of the right size with the right degree of shallow flow to ensure ample oxygen for the eggs. The females turn onto their sides and beat the water and carve out their nest, or redd, for their cache of three thousand to ten thousand eggs, burnishing the rocks white in their effort.

Anyone who practiced with Suzuki-Roshi at Tassajara celebrates his affinity with stone, his sense of ballast, the precision of pivot that allowed him to move massive slabs with preternatural ease.

“Zen is making your best effort on each moment.” Blanche Hartman lives into this signature quote from Suzuki-Roshi, the way the coho I watched in a swirling pool at the base of the Inkwells, a series of small waterfalls on San Geronimo Creek, “practiced” with the onrush of water. About salmon, she points out, “their efforts are not for themselves but for the benefit of the species.”

After the female releases the eggs, sperm has less than a second to penetrate the cell walls of the eggs. After depositing their milt, the males almost immediately bolt. The females then rebury the eggs. Within twelve to thirty hours, the parents will die.

What is the self? Ask a chinook, and it might reply, “The river.” It might tell you the self extends for hundreds of miles, the distance it has traveled to spawn. It might identify the dam blocking its passage or refer you to the teeming aggregate. Or ask you, as the water washes away a cluster of eggs, “Where does the body begin?”

Asked to sum up Buddhism, Suzuki-Roshi answered, “Everything changes.”

As the salmon die, “they go through this mystical transformation,” offers Derek Hitchcock, an ecologist with the South Yuba River Citizens League. “It’s not like life/ death or death/ life. They’re floating in the middle for this dreamy period. They die and they awaken. They play with the veil.”


Genine Lentine
From: Infinite City – A San Francisco Atlas, compiled by Rebecca Solnit