Friday, April 30, 2004

Falling Forward

Prolapse. Falling forward. It's been that way for years, but now it's bleeding, and fibroid tumors are growing, and even her naturopath says it's time for it to go. "Jerk the works," is how Martha likes to put it.

I didn't know how small an unoccupied uterus was. Smaller than my fist. The first home of Alan and Tori. And now a stranger -- a highly competent stranger, a nice young woman, about twelve years old, she looks to our eyes -- is going to carefully cut it out, and throw it away.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Grieved. A little lost. I've lost contact with some people who are important to me, this last week. One is certainly offended, and one is just plain gone. All day long I can watch my mind make up stories to explain why. Entertaining, in a grimly way.

It takes effort to lift my thoughts out of the path they usually take to, like a duck to water: what does this mean about me? What have I done, said, omitted to do, omitted to say? What is it that has finally been revealed to be despicable about my character, that has driven people away? Or, on the other hand, what pathetic weakness does my need for constant contact reveal? I can simmer those questions over a slow fire of resentment for hours at a time. Profitless and misguided. Not that I may not be despicable somehow. But my chances of guessing how are near zero. And cooking invented dishes of despication can only make things worse.

How hard is it, I ask bitterly, to write a two-sentence email?

Well, it can be very hard. If I were wondering what this meant about them, rather than what it means about me, I might get farther and make fewer mistakes. It's entirely possible my messages have just gone astray. Or it may be that writing me is difficult for hundreds of different possible reasons, including practical ones, or just because of that kind of inchoate balking which makes me almost completely incapable of using the telephone. Or at the other end of the scale, they may be dealing with disasters or joys that simply preclude the possibility of directing attention my way.

So I work with it. Work to hold the door open: the truth is that I just don't know. Not terribly skillfully, but at least with a sense that it needs working. That's something, I guess. I can bundle it up and say, may this confusion, somehow, benefit all sentient beings. Some practice is pretty easy to give away.
Two Prodigals Return

Michelle (formerly of Phlebas) and Iron Monkey are back, hooray! Actually the Monkey's been back for some time, but I'd missed him.

MIchelle wrote:

I had hoped when I began this new blog to write only seriously about things that were worth writing about and I thought anyone would care about. However, it appears that I'll be writing the same daily drivel and minutia of my life. Oh, well.

...she apparently has a difficult time understanding that the daily drivel and minutiae of her life are precisely what we care about, but so long as that doesn't stop her, that's fine.

Iron Monkey I go to above all for his apothegms:

Hanlon's Razor: "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity."

Iron Monkey's After-Shave: Never attribute to malice or stupidity that which can be adequately explained by the complexity or ambiguity of the underlying situation.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Contra de Musset

De Musset wrote a haunting plea to be remembered, which begins --

Rappelle-toi, quand l'Aurore craintive
Ouvre au Soleil son palais enchanté ;
Rappelle-toi, lorsque la nuit pensive
Passe en rêvant sous son voile argenté ;
A l'appel du plaisir lorsque ton sein palpite,
Aux doux songes du soir lorsque l'ombre t'invite,
Ecoute au fond des bois
Murmurer une voix :

I would ask you, when you hear a murmuring voice deep in the woods -- do not listen. Do not remember. Do not recall my face, or my touch. All my life I have begged you to remember me, and I will beg you again -- you know. But please, forget me. This little heap of charred sticks has never been a fire. Let the wind scatter it.

If a little whimper rises from the weedy ground where they've pitched my bones, do me one last kindness, and hear the moans for what they are -- a shiver of cruelty, an echo of confusion.

I want to be forgotten as cleanly, as completely, as a swallow forgets the last gnat it scooped out of the air. Forget me, as a good pool player, frowning at the table, forgets his last shot. As good painter facing a new canvas forgets his last painting. Consume my memory. Lick up the crumbs, and suck your fingers until the faintest taste is gone.

Saturday, April 24, 2004


It's curious how much attention people who don't practice in the Buddhist tradition give to the concept of "enlightenment," and how little people who do practice give it. You would think it would be the other way around: that those people who are most interested in enlightenment would be those who would most want to practice. But in fact a dead giveaway of a person who's new to Buddhist practice is that they have lots of questions about enlightenment. Does it include this? Does it look like that? And of course what the questions give you is a precise map of their obsessive cravings and fears. Does it include romantic love? Oral sex? Garlic cheese bread? Does it look like loneliness? Boredom? Indifference?

I don't, personally, give a damn about enlightenment, or freedom from all suffering. I couldn't care less. My motivation, like Thomas Merton's, is simply this: I am sick of myself. I can't stand it any more. The ceaseless fret of the ego, the craven dishonesty, the lurching awkwardness of always wearing a three-hundred pound mask with bad ventilation and tiny, poorly-placed eyeholes.

You think I want to take that mask off forever? Well, sure. But what I really want is to push it aside for just one second, get one glimpse of light, get one gasp of free air. That's plenty of motivation for me. And this path has already delivered that, more than once. That's all I ask for. More than I'd hoped.

Friday, April 23, 2004


Stop right there. Go wish Susurra de Luz a happy birthday. I won't blog until you do, so it's no good hanging around here.

She's a whisper of light in a dark noisy world.

Thursday, April 22, 2004

The Beach at Otter Rock

We go to a narrow, protected beach in the summer, between two promontories. A little waterfall drops down to a pile of giant pick-up-sticks dirftwood, and then meanders as a stream down to the sea. Its course is always different, shifting from day to day as the tide remakes the beach. Sometimes it swoops sixty yards south, sometimes sixty yards north, on its way down to an outcropping of rock where the gulls gather and the surf pounds.

The kids and I love to try to change the course of the stream. Often we see evidence of others having tried, usually by damming it up with the head-sized rocks that are plentiful in its bed. They haven't often succeeded.

We do it more cleverly. We pick our place carefully, and begin digging an alternate course. The water washes into it, stirring the sand and making digging the next bit easier. We dig the next bit, which makes the bit beyond it easier. Soon we have a little trickle taking an alternate course down the beach. Now it's digging its own way. And now it makes sense to start dropping rocks into the main channel -- the water has a different way to go, now. Every obstruction in the main channel diverts more water into our channel, and digs our channel deeper. We never even try to block off the main channel. But we come back in the evening and the main channel is dry. The stream's in its new course.

That, really, is what practice is like. There's no way to just change the course of our mindstreams by brute force, by trying to shut our old habits down. And there's no way to just pick it up and put it someplace else. When we start digging the new course it looks like an impossible task -- who could dig that streambed out all the way to the ocean? But that's to forget two things. One is that the stream wants to get to the ocean. Its tendency is always oceanward. The second is that once the smallest channel is begun, the water begins fretting it and enlarging it. It's just the nature of water, and it's the nature of mind, too.

I said earlier that what turned my mind one way or another was the accumulated weight of prayer, meditation, and contemplation. But that's not true, really. It's the force of the mindstream that's been skillfully nudged toward a new bed by those practices. It's not the practices themselves. They're just little scratches in the sand.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Coming About

This is ground we've gone over before, but it always changes. Beth wrote, at Cassandra Pages:

Our attitude toward each day is really a choice that is ours to make; people who live with adversity every day show us that way.

Upon which Tonio commented, in part:

Our ability to choose our daily attitude seems to me to be more like a gift, and not one which every one has been given.

I'll leave aside the theological question of free will, because I don't know squat about it -- I've always had a feeling that the question on that level somehow contradicted itself, and wasn't quite real -- but on a practical level it's important, and it arises everyday. I had a depressive episode flickering in my peripheral vision all day yesterday, but I managed to escape it eventually. I don't think I did anything different, though, from times when it's really settled in, in deadly earnest. I feel like I just got lucky. I could say I chose not to become depressed, and if I were not being very careful I think I would say this: the sequence of mental events was exactly that which we usually describe that way. It feels like a decision. And once I characterize it as a decision, I would also characterize it as an easy one. I just shrugged my shoulders and -- hey presto! -- walked right out from under that impending depression, as easy as you please.

But actually, when I don't walk out from under it, what exactly is different? I'm not sure, but my best guess is that it has to do with karma and the accumulation of merit -- or in non-Buddhist terms, you might say prior action and habit. It seems to me, that when I'm flickering on the brink of depression like that, I'm actually making dozens of decisions very rapidly -- far more rapidly than I can track or control -- and what settles the matter is how many of those decisions turn this way or that.

In the moment I really am relatively helpless. Whether I can even try, or how much I can try, depends not on what I'm doing now -- or not very much -- but on what I've done in the past, when things were moving slowly enough for me to steer them. Its the accumulated weight of prayer, contemplation, meditation, -- and a certain amount of something else -- that determine whether this ship comes about, or misses stays. From a bounded perspective, you'd say that something else was blind luck; from an unbounded perspective maybe you'd call it karma from previous lives -- for practical purposes it really doesn't matter.

Lekshe at the Groundbreaking

Well, I've learned recently that I'm soft, so maybe the fact that Lekshe's speech for the groundbreaking for our long retreat center made me weep doesn't mean that much -- but it's the best short description I've ever read of what Buddhist practice is for. What we're doing, why we're doing it.

I don't know if you've ever had the experience of looking at a series of photographs which are all perfectly recognizable, except for one bizarre image that everyone else seems to agree is you...? There's a series of prose portraits over there at Lekshe's, and one of them is supposed to be me. The rest of them are brilliantly accurate, so I suppose the presumption has to be that the portrait of me is too. The difference is that the photographs usually make me look like a doofus, whereas this portrait is absurdly flattering, so I want everyone to read it. By all means keep the "tall thin tea-drinking" image in mind as you read, too.

Monday, April 19, 2004

Speaking of Food

If you want a dismal experience, log into any general Buddhist discussion group and bring up the topic of vegetarian diet. Shortly you will find people who had moments before been deep in cordial, searching discussions of Nagarjuna's verse, people with years of real practice behind them, calling each other murderers and liars. People leave in huffs, never to return. People who ordinarily would never dream of disparaging another group's practice declare that whole swathes of Buddhists are not in fact Buddhists at all. The only other hot-button topic at all like it, among Buddhists, is abortion, but abortion at least is not a denominational issue: there are people who fall into either side of that debate in every Western Buddhist group that I know of.

But the vegetarian/carnivore split, in the West (presumably the East, too, but I don't know much about that), falls largely between the Zen and Theravadin practitioners, on the one hand, and the Tibetan practitioners, on the other. This is not to say that there are no vegetarian Tibetan Buddhists: there are plenty of them. But they don't feel that vegetarianism is critical to Buddhist practice -- if they did, the fact that the Dalai Lama eats meat would be terribly disturbing. Likewise I sure there are plenty of people who eat meat among the Zen and Theravadin folk, but I assume they mostly take it as read that they're incurring bad karma by doing so, that they're doing something that violates the precepts of their path.

The difference is generally explained by the fact that so many Tibetans were nomads and herdsmen: there's not much else to eat, in some of the high places of Tibet. In his exile in India, H.H. the Dalai Lama decided, so the story goes anyway, that now that he was in a place where vegetable food was abundant, he really should become vegetarian. He gave up meat. Very soon he became quite ill, and his doctors implored him to eat meat again. So now he eats meat every other day. "I'm virtuous half the time," he says.

My experience giving up meat has been pretty much like that, except that I cave in a lot sooner. I would like to give it up. I feel I should. All the old texts are perfectly clear on this. Buddhists aren't supposed to take life. That other people do my killing for me doesn't seem to me to let me off the hook -- in fact, if anything it makes it worse: not only am I causing these animals' deaths (leaving aside for the moment the conditions of their lives, which are in many cases much more distressing than their deaths), I'm also encouraging other people to incur bad karma. (In Tibet, I'm told, the butchers are Muslims: I've never quite understood the reasoning by which that makes it all okay.) But the two times I've tried giving up meat I've lasted about 36 hours before I surrendered. The last time I found that I was a menace on the road: I simply couldn't drive -- couldn't track where the car was, in the lane -- couldn't remember where I was going or how to get there. It was a harrowing experience, and not one I'm eager to repeat.

But I cherish a small, secret hope that if the present change in my diet works out -- I've cut out red meat -- that I'll be a step closer to stopping eating meat altogether. That I'm at least edging in that direction. We'll see.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Unexpected Fun

I read the numbers, which were very bad. Total cholesterol 295. LDL way high, HDL way low. The exact numbers I didn't want to see: Numbers that said "Yup, and your grandpa keeled over of a heart attack at 62, too!"

The nurse smiled brightly and anxiously at me. "I'm sure that we've found this in plenty of time, and you're going to lick it!" she said. I believed in her compassion. I frequently do believe in the compassion of nurses. She was concerned about me, and concerned that the news might knock the fight out of me.

She needn't have worried. These were in fact the numbers I'd expected. Well, maybe not quite such a spectacular total. I didn't even know cholesterol totals could go that high. But I have subsisted most of my life on a diet of sugar and saturated fat -- it's totally unjust that I'm barely over the line into "obese"; if life were fair I would weigh three hundred pounds -- and some days I can actually feel the melted butter flowing in my veins, the plaque forming in my arteries.

So when I got back to work, Wednesday, I got online and signed up for the online Weight Watchers program. The program's changed a lot, and for the better, since the last time I was on it, in the 1980's sometime, which was the last time I saw 160 lbs. And if you derive great pleasure from tracking and calculating online, the web application is a blast. I've been enjoying pulling up their "point values" for various foods, which is entertaining and instructive. They've taken fiber to heart, and lost their big dietary cholesterol superstition (there never has been any reason to believe, so far as I can see, that ingesting less cholesterol reduces your blood cholesterol, except that you can't avoid cholesterol without avoiding saturated fat.) They treat all fats as equal (at least for point purposes), which is kind of silly -- two tablespoons of butter the dietary equivalent of three tablespoons of peanut butter? But otherwise their system works well, and it's extremely simple. I can already guess values for foods I haven't looked up pretty accurately.

So far I feel wonderful, and I slept like the dead last night. The icky oily feeling of having eaten too much fat is gone; I feel lighter and clearer already. It will get difficult, I sure -- the fun of tracking my food will turn into tedium soon enough, and soon I'll be hankering for large quantities of anything I can't have, just because I can't have it. But for now I'm just feeling happy, and having unexpected fun.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Asking For It

Yesterday I memorized Hopkins's poem "Heaven-Haven," and as it came and went in my mind --

I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
And a few lilies blow.

-- parodies of it rose in my mind: it so much does not describe what I have desired, nor --

And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.

-- where I have asked to be. My version runs

I have desired to go
Where the turmoil of disaster races,
Where remorse and jealousy gnaw each other's faces.
And no lilies blow.

And I have asked to be
The object of hatred and envy,
Where pity is eaten by sidelong greed,
And anchors are dragged by the sea.

I am surprised that I have never seen, as an argument for the existence of God, that He so often, in His infinite mercy, does not give us what we ask for.

Filled with love this morning, rueful love, for all of you. May this be a day of soft light and slow beauty and a soothing of all that is burned and raw. I have desired all good things for you all: as Lear's fool would say, before skipping offstage -- "And that's true too."

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

A Place for Everything

I know your kind. When you're ready to die you'll want to hole up somewhere, in a high cave over a desolate valley. A place for everything and everything in its place. Time to tidy yourself up and put yourself away.

Don't you dare. I won't scream at you to stay. I won't pummel you. I'll let you make your turnings, follow that light. Knowing that you'll go so fast, and I'll never, never be able to follow. I won't make a scene.

Unless you try to hide away. Then you'll see, my friend, just how indecorous I can be.

You'll leave a mess. It's a messy business, dying. One mess you don't get to clean up yourself, no matter how tidy you are.

I know that others have a claim on that mess. Lots of others. I can share. But I won't be left out.
Slow Reeds

Check out Peter's new site, slowreeds. Where you'll find such stuff as:

A friend says he read the book, but that's not the book's story.

I read it myself after he had returned it. The syntax was clear and all the furniture was in place. The verbs were still cocked. One simile confessed to only a faint recollection of my friend.

When I go into a book, I throw myself around. First, I go after the verbs and make an example of them. I drag the pronouns to headquarters and book them. There are only a few of them and they usually talk. I chase the metaphors out of their villages. They look back and see the smoke rising, and they discover what's important in life.

Never try to understand a book. Make it understand you, and you'll get along fine.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Advice to the Lovelorn

"Still trying to make it real, are we, deathborn?" asked the god softly, looking at me sideways. His gold and silver headdress rattled and gleamed. He leaned over me, and his half-smile vanished. His eyes were cold blue lights.

"You need not worry -- yet," he said. "You couldn't do it if you held the intention steadily for all of your paltry seventy years." He giggled suddenly. "You, who can't hold an intention for five minutes!"

He laid his bright hand lightly on my arm, and smoke rose from under his fingers as they seared my skin. "My dear little fool. You think you know what desire is? You think you know what suffering is? Try it when you can't die, little one."

His breath hung around me, the faint scent of daphne blossom. He leaned back again, and his jewelled necklaces glittered as a scarf coiled slowly around his shoulder. He looked past me a moment, and the ghostly half-smile reappeared. "If I were you," he remarked, "I think I would start learning how to leave off trying to make it real. You got lucky this time." His eyes widened slightly, and a tremor ran through the room. "Next time, maybe you will be able to make it real. And then you will have to live with it."

Saturday, April 10, 2004

Easter Eve

I wrote this last night, but (in keeping with the tenor of the day) it wouldn't publish. Happy Easter, friends!

A day of muddy thinking and half-hearted desires. Wanting to want, but not quite being able to pull it off. Left my third pint, barely tasted, on the bar, and wandered home. Walked around the reservoir with Martha. A beautiful day, but I barely saw it.

And now evening. Tomorrow is Easter. Is there a name for this day? Maundy Thursday, Good Friday -- but I don't have a name for today. Easter Eve scarcely sounds right. Maybe it signifies, that this day should not have a name. The only anniversary of God's death-day. I mean, the only day when he was dead all day. Friday is the day of horror and tragedy. But on Saturday it sinks in. Saturday his heart-students must have started thinking "Now how do I live, without him? Why do I live without him?" And then the panic: "I can't do this on my own. It seemed so easy, so obvious, so real when he was here. And now it's all impossible, tortuous, unbelievable."

I've written before about Jesus's rebuke to Thomas -- his praise of faith, faith without or even against evidence. I had forgotten, really, the circumstances. Thomas wasn't being asked to have faith in a story or an abstract credo. He was just being asked to keep faith with his heart-teacher. He had seen this man work miracles -- could he not hold his faith, keep (as we Vajrayanists would say) his samaya, his devotion to his teacher, unbroken for even three days?

No. Nor can I. I can picture myself stubbornly insisting, to my living teacher, that he must be dead. In fact I do it all the time.

Friday, April 09, 2004


Today, for some reason, is a day for lists. Here's a nice sappy sentimental one that I'm sure will make Tonio cringe, and possibly unlink me.

Nine Reasons why I love Tonio

Because he pays attention.

Because he loves Lekshe (and numerous other people whom I also love.)

Because his generosity is always overflowing in odd directions. He is the sort of person who is always anonymously taking care of something for someone.

Because he writes extraordinary poetry, while not really even wanting to.

Because he disagrees when every else is busy congratulating each other, and agrees when there's dead silence.

Because he has lived through disaster without cultivating hatred or indifference.

Because he has more than once managed to cause me to both laugh and cry with a single blog post.

Because he's both Texan and Italian.

Because he has gathered blue sea glass on the beach.


I just counted, and before I can begin work each morning, I must use:

1 identification badge
(used to get through the main door and the stairwell door)

2 keys
(one to open the cabinet in which I store my laptop; the other to lock the laptop to my desk.)

4 passwords
(1. laptop power-on password
2. laptop hard-drive password
3. Windows 2000 password
4. Lotus Notes password
-- Also I frequently need a fifth, my corporate intranet password. These passwords are all different, and none may be written down.)

Somehow all this does not succeed in making me feel secure.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

A Grimace at the Empty Wall

I am tired of not kissing you
I am tired of not reaching for your hand
I am tired of recollecting and bearing in mind

I am tired of the blot of darkness
I am tired of marking time
I am tired of watching my thoughts twist

Elizabethan courtiers, I'm sure
Held their graceful smiles and ready wit
Just as far as the turning of the corridor

And then stuck out their tongues and raged
And silently mocked the Queen
And grimaced at the empty wall.

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Riding my Horse, Again

My mare picks her way carefully across the slope. She's irritated at me for bringing her into this pathless country, and also irritated at me for making her cross here, rather than following the ridgetop; but my job is to see without being seen, and I have no intention of riding along the skyline. She has too much professional pride, I know, to let her irritation cloud her judgement. She keeps a sensible pace, stepping daintily through the scrub and among the rocks.

Not wearing armor today. Just a sword I trust, in its old leather scabbard. I'm a scout today, not a fighter. I can look down the long slopes to bright water. Open rough country. Is it Iceland? Norway? Further east, in the Baltic?

Questions such as these make the transition to waking. In my waking life I don't know how to ride a horse -- I've ridden only once or twice. I don't wear a sword. I don't scout or fight. And I've never been to any of those places.

But I wake up this way several times a month. Is it always the same dream? Or do I wake out of other dreams, groping for the memory of this one? I don't know. But the sway in the saddle, the dust on my lips, the skill of horse and rider, are palpable to me. I don't know what to make of it.

Except this: I'm responsible for the safety of other people. And it feels absolutely right that I should be so. A job for which I'm suited by birth, temperament, training and skill.

And so to the waking world, leaves tumbling against the skylight. A world in which very little of any of my work seems to suit me. And in which such responsibility as I feel for others is mostly misplaced. A friend was in emotional & spiritual difficulty recently and I could do nothing to help. Didn't even learn about it till the next day. And that day was wretched then, because I wanted so much to help and there was so much nothing for me to do.

I wanted to render the comfort a lover sometimes renders. To hold her, soothe her, read silly comforting books to her. And that was as impossible as the sky is wide, for reasons ranging from practical (so who has that kind of time?) to relational ("bye, Martha, I'm off to spend the night reading to someone else") to personal (would this even look like help to her? Could she, would she, should she take it as such?)

So I suffered. And suffering like that only shows up driving in a car of attachment or aversion, I know that. What is this one? What's it made of?

Oh, it's made of lots of things. Believing, in the first place, that her unhappiness was there and my happiness was here and I might somehow give her a piece of my happiness. & I didn't just want her to be happy, I wanted her to be happy because of me. I thought about that, as my thoughts wound about looking for some way to make her happy. I was looking for ways to make her happy that, just incidentally, would have my name written all over them in big letters. It was an interesting exercise to try to think: what could I do that didn't have my name on it? What possibilities might be there? The unfamiliarity of the exercise was humiliating.

I have cherished the idea that knowing me would be somehow transformative. I carry that piece of attachment clutched very tight in my hot little hand. Anyone who panders to that fantasy has instant access to me. I can be remarkably slow to notice that if knowing me is tranformative, then surely... the person knowing me ought to transform at some point? To release that clutch... well, I'm working on it. But don't hold your breath.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Vajradhara goes Dark

Visualization is a strange business. I've written, I think, about how Vajradhara (a.k.a. Dorje Chang) vanished at one point from his place at the center of the refuge tree. When he came back, he was sometimes sky blue, whereas he's supposed to be dark blue. Then I had a sort of minor epiphany, and realized that the reason he was sky blue was that I was unwilling to have him so dark that his features weren't clear to me -- even though in many representations that's exactly how dark he is: it's very difficult to distinguish the contours of his nose or of his ears. Now, this shouldn't really be a problem. Tibetan Buddha faces are (to Western-trained eyes, anyway) monotonous: there are rigid rules for the proportions, and you don't get to mess with them. I already know what Mr V's features look like like. They look just like Buddha Shakyamuni's, or any other Buddha's. Nevertheless, I wanted badly to be able to see them. And it suddenly came to me that if I was supposed to be able to see them, then -- Vajradhara wouldn't be midnight blue. I was second-guessing the thangka painters as if I knew better than they (and the tradition) what Vajradhara should look like.

So I let him go dark. I let his features be only red lips and the whites of his eyes, and the little swirly forehead thing. Of course, he is supposed to be brilliant, too, so I gave him a sort of irridescence, like the blue gleam of jet black hair, or the shine of a crow's feathers. And now, suddenly, he was no longer my sky-blue harmless pal, but a dark and almost ominous figure, twice as big as he had been before, gold jewelry gleaming on his chest and arms and headdress, his face unreadable. Still Sarah, maybe, but not necessarily pleased with me or interested in me. I had a feeling that maybe I had just turned a corner, and this visualization might never again br the sort of cozy, intimate thing it started out to be. More spacious, maybe, but less safe.

Monday, April 05, 2004

Fabulous Beasts

I have wandered through my life as stupid as a camera.

You sent me a photograph of a lady in an office, with the note: "See! Proof, I work."

The lady was kindly, middle-aged, comfortably unkempt. I looked at the picture with disbelief. How could a camera have looked at you, and seen that?

I look at you and see la tigresse du soleil, hunting at dusk quicker than the eye, or asleep in the sun slower than the turning earth. I see a careful five-year-old girl, her tongue at the corner of her mouth, arranging shells. I see a dragon with poison-green scales, wily and wicked and old as the hills. I see a still mother on the zafu at dawn, whose daughter quietly creeps under her meditation shawl and sits in the eye of shamatha, tenderly held in the small space of infinity. I see the ice climber, half five-year-old and half dragon, patiently working out the route of an ascent into the blue silence. But in all "the shadows of your changing face" I have never seen what that camera saw. That kindly middle-aged lady at her desk.

But this is more stupidity. Of course I have seen that lady. I will see a dozen such tomorrow at work, with my stupid camera eyes, and be completely fooled. There is no kindly middle-aged lady working in an office. That's a chimaera, a fabulous beast, a story palmed off on generations of credulous camera-eyed fools. The world is, actually, full of tigresses and dragons. I have learned to see just one.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

White Elephants, and a Bed of Lies

Here is a poem for Tonio...

In Dispraise of Poetry

When the King of Siam disliked a courtier,
he gave him a beautiful white elephant.
The miracle beast deserved such ritual
that to care for him properly meant ruin.
Yet to care for him improperly was worse.
It appears the gift could not be refused.

-- Jack Gilbert


Not my cross to bear. I struggle through an intricate labyrinth of second guesses, exhausted by joy and harassed by hope. Forty-six years old and not yet out of adolescence. There's no point in even beginning to apologize for my existence. My uncanny run of luck goes on.

Terence, this is stupid stuff:
You eat your victuals fast enough;
There can’t be much amiss, ’tis clear,
To see the rate you drink your beer.

Sometimes it seems to me that I walk in a dense cloud of lies, that I breathe lies, drink lies, and crawl at night into a bed of lies. That I must mutter lies all night long in my sleep. Koshtra, the Minor Functionary of Lies. I can't put my finger on a single one, but I know that I'm surrounded by them.

So -- good night --

Friday, April 02, 2004


If the blogrolling site is struggling, when you attempt to load this page you will see just a blank green page, and the little lying status indicator at the bottom of the page will say "done." If you wait till the attempt to load the blogroll fails (20 to 30 seconds) the rest of the page will load, and you will be rewarded with my golden prose.

Announcement #2: I owe you email. I know. I owe everyone email. Just as some people respond to being in debt by going out and spending money, I respond to being behind in my email by posting on my blog. When I fall silent here, I might be answering your mail. (then again, I might be catching up on the dishes.)

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Generic Mind

So Duckling asked about "the horror of the ordinary," and what Eastern religions had to say about it. (First of all, a correction to what I said earlier: C.S. Lewis's phrase was "the horror of the obvious." Closely related, but not identical.)

We all want to be special, I'm sure. All human beings. Not something the modern West invented. But I think it's something we've become peculiarly addicted to -- that it's the version of "self-cherishing" that is in the ascendant over us. We have an ideology that supports it -- self-actualization -- and we promote it quite shamelessly. Elementary-school teachers tell kids relentlessly that they are special and they ought to prize being special. Parents are urged to tell their kids they're special, and they do. We're all just terribly special and unique, we're told, and that's what makes us valuable.

The dark converse is lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce. There are six billion of us now, going on seven, and it doesn't take long for the doubt to percolate up to consciousness. Am I really special? In what way? When you try to pin one of these elementary-school teachers or parents down -- just what is unique about me? The sure signs of gobblydegook appear: there is no evidence. There is no content. The uniqueness is just insisted upon again, with increasing shrillness. And behind it is the dread that it is not true.

And it is dreadful, because we've been told one big fat lie: that it's our uniqueness -- and only our uniqueness -- that makes us valuable. If we are not unique, then, we are worthless.

Well, what Buddhism has to say about it, is that this is precisely backwards. Mind is precious and enduring because it is "luminous, empty, and unimpeded" -- which is to say, really, that it's generic. Obscurations may be unique, but the luminous mind beneath them is just -- mind. Common or garden-variety mind. Yours is no different from mine. It may not even be distinct from mine. We are only valuable, and only free, insofar as we are utterly ordinary.

Edge up, till the hair on my knuckles burns and my eyes water. Look through the shimmer. I can see them playing in the flames, white and utterly pure: the salamanders.

Burning. Tell Dido to put her matches away and make the beds; Tell Orestes and Elektra it was all a regretable misfortune, and dinner is at six; Danish princes may as well shake hands all round with their Wittenberg friends, and call off their late-night meetings. We all have something better to think about.

Salamanders playing, white hot, in the fire.