Albrecht Durer's rhinoceros

Images illuminate ideas, and pictures of people are usually clearer than statements of principle. When I think about the liberal tradition I wanted to show my daughter, my inner vision kept returning to a simple scene, one that had delighted me for a long time. It's of the nineteenth-century philosoper John Stuart Mill and his lover, collaborator, and (as he always insisted) his most important teacher, the writer Harriet Taylor. Desperately in love, they were courting clandestinely and they would meet secretly at the rhino's cage at the London Zoo. "Our old friend Rhino," Taylor called him in a note. It was a place where they could safely meet and talk without fear of being seen by too many people, everyone's attention being engaged by the enormous exotic animal . . . .

It dawned on me while I brooded on the long-dead rhino in his long-gone cage that the rhinoceros was the perfect symbol of liberalism. All living things, Darwin taught us, are compromises of a kind, the best that can be done for that moment between the demands of the environment and the genetic inheritance it has to work with. No living thing is ideal. A rhinoceros is just a big pig with a horn on it.

The ideal of the unicorn is derived from the fact of the rhinoceros -- the dream image of the rhinoceros, the single horned animal reported on and then idealized by the medieval imagination. People idealize unicorns and imagine unicorns and make icons out of unicorns and write fables about unicorns. We hunt them. They're perfect. The only trouble with them is that they do not exist. They never have. The rhino is ungainly and ugly and short-legged and imperfect and squat. But the rhinoceros is real. It exists. And it is formidable.

Most political visions are unicorns, perfect imaginary creatures we chase and will never find. Liberalism is a rhinoceros. It's hard to love. It's funny to look at. It isn't pretty but it's a completely successful animal.

-- Adam Gopnik, A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism (Basic Books, 2019)

Smokey the Bear Sutra

Smokey the Bear

Once in the Jurassic about 150 million years ago,
the Great Sun Buddha in this corner of the Infinite
Void gave a Discourse to all the assembled elements
and energies: to the standing beings, the walking beings,
the flying beings, and the sitting beings -- even grasses,
to the number of thirteen billion, each one born from a
seed, assembled there: a Discourse concerning
Enlightenment on the planet Earth.

"In some future time, there will be a continent called
America. It will have great centers of power called
such as Pyramid Lake, Walden Pond, Mt. Rainier, Big Sur,
Everglades, and so forth; and powerful nerves and channels
such as Columbia River, Mississippi River, and Grand Canyon
The human race in that era will get into troubles all over
its head, and practically wreck everything in spite of
its own strong intelligent Buddha-nature."

"The twisting strata of the great mountains and the pulsings
of volcanoes are my love burning deep in the earth.
My obstinate compassion is schist and basalt and
granite, to be mountains, to bring down the rain. In that
future American Era I shall enter a new form; to cure
the world of loveless knowledge that seeks with blind hunger:
and mindless rage eating food that will not fill it."

And he showed himself in his true form of


A handsome smokey-colored brown bear standing on his hind legs,
showing that he is aroused and watchful.

Bearing in his right paw the Shovel that digs to the truth beneath
appearances; cuts the roots of useless attachments, and flings damp sand
on the fires of greed and war;

His left paw in the Mudra of Comradely Display -- indicating that all
creatures have the full right to live to their limits and that deer, rabbits,
chipmunks, snakes, dandelions, and lizards all grow in the realm of the

Wearing the blue work overalls symbolic of slaves and laborers, the
countless men oppressed by a civilization that claims to save but often

Wearing the broad-brimmed hat of the West, symbolic of the forces that
guard the Wilderness, which is the Natural State of the Dharma and the
True Path of man on earth: all true paths lead through mountains --

With a halo of smoke and flame behind, the forest fires of the kali-yuga,
fires caused by the stupidity of those who think things can be gained and
lost whereas in truth all is contained vast and free in the Blue Sky and
Green Earth of One Mind;

Round-bellied to show his kind nature and that the great earth has food
enough for everyone who loves her and trusts her;

Trampling underfoot wasteful freeways and needless suburbs; smashing
the worms of capitalism and totalitarianism;

Indicating the Task: his followers, becoming free of cars, houses, canned
foods, universities, and shoes; master the Three Mysteries of their own
Body, Speech, and Mind; and fearlessly chop down the rotten trees and
prune out the sick limbs of this country America and then burn the leftover

Wrathful but Calm. Austere but Comic. Smokey the Bear will
Illuminate those who would help him; but for those who would hinder or
slander him,


Thus his great Mantra:
Namah samanta vajranam chanda maharoshana
Sphataya hum traka ham nam


And he will protect those who love woods and rivers,
Gods and animals, hobos and madmen, prisoners and sick
people, musicians, playful women, and hopeful children:

And if anyone is threatened by advertising, air pollution, television,
or the police, they should chant SMOKEY THE BEAR'S WAR SPELL:


And SMOKEY THE BEAR will surely appear to put the enemy out
with his vajra-shovel.

Now those who recite this Sutra and then try to put it in practice will
accumulate merit as countless as the sands of Arizona and Nevada.

Will help save the planet Earth from total oil slick.

Will enter the age of harmony of man and nature.

Will win the tender love and caresses of men, women, and beasts.

Will always have ripe blackberries to eat and a sunny spot under a pine
tree to sit at.


thus have we heard.

(may be reproduced free forever)

-- Gary Snyder (1969)