Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Thanks for your comments, amigos mios. I dunno about trading, Tonio, but I wish I'd been there to split the bottle with you.

You know what's kept me marginally sane? Drawing on napkins at Tosi's. With black ball-point pens. Surprising the range of shade you can get out of ball-points on paper designed to be absorbent.

Sometimes I come in the next day and they've put my napkin in the candy-case, by the cash-register. So I see it when I go to pay.

I can't really draw, not like I imagine CB can. But I can dash off a bold cartoon and then crosshatch it to death, till it looks like an old woodcut. Day before yesterday I drew a stylized sun and moon tangled in the branches of a tree, with huge drops of water coiling around them. Beside it I lettered "THE SUN. AND THE MOON. AND ALL THIRSTY THINGS. LOOK TO THE TREE. AND THE TREE LOOKS TO YOU. O MY FRIEND. I liked it so much that I was tempted to take it home rather than leave it on the table. I have no idea what I meant by the words.

Coming back from the bathroom I saw that j had come in with her mother and her daughter. She introduced her mother, and we chatted a little. I said "Just a second: I've got a napkin for you." Trotted over and got my tree and gave it to j. "I knew I was drawing this for someone: it must have been you."

J's daughter is an enchanting ten-year-old half-Nepali, with great intense dark eyes, and she was examining the drawing very seriously as I left. A twinge of conscience. I don't know what the message means that I delivered to them.

Tomorrow we go down to Eugene to do the last of our three Christmases. So I really must get some sleep. 3:15 in the morning. All's quiet but the whine of the computer fan and the occasional faint rasp of the disk drive.

Good night. Il buon tempo verra.

Monday, December 29, 2003

Waking from a nightmare. That's what it's like. I've always hated vacations, for many reasons. For one thing, I'm a reclusive creature of habit, and cafes close, traffic patterns alter, crowds surge in places I like to be alone in. I feel exposed, unsafe. And then I have to go to alien houses where I feel thoroughly unapproved of, or -- worse -- approved of for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with me. Approved of because of the university I went to, because of the company I work for.

Terrified by my own lovelessness. Why don't I love these people? All I desire, devoutly, is to escape them. Yet these are the people who nurtured me, fed me, cleaned me, taught me. Or who did the same to Martha. But I find no trace of gratitude in myself. Only the panicky desperation of one plunging for the lifeboats, or trampling people underfoot in my rush to the firedoors.

I lounge in chairs, smile amiably, eat cheese-squares and cashews. I'm silent. I wait. I open packages, presents to me and mine, a feast of unwanted objects that my house will slowly and uncomfortably digest over the coming weeks.

I think the worst thing about vacations, though, is that I'm supposed to enjoy them, and they're supposedly for me. They're not for me. They're the time when the parasites close in to eat my flesh.

And yet the vacations are for me, and that's part of what makes me so unhappy. I focus on myself. What can I do today that will make me happy? What can I do today to avoid unhappiness? That's all I think about. No wonder I'm miserable.

There are people for whom "living for others" is itself a trap, a snare of ego. But for me it's a wildly liberating notion. To think, "I don't have to pour my efforts into making myself feel good. I don't have to endlessly plan and orchestrate my next pleasure." For among the ironies of the season is that there is almost no relationship between the effort I put into procuring my happiness and what happiness I obtain; and such relationship as there is is largely inverse. What finally makes all this focus on my own well-being so absurd is that it doesn't even work.

So I painfully climb out of this hole. Moria gave me a lovely book by Richard Holmes, a sort of autobiography of a biographer -- Footsteps, I think it's called. He's the man who wrote that extraordinary biography of Shelley, The Pursuit. For better and worse, Shelley's life is the vivid illustration and exageration of my own. Except that I have lived too long. Shelley was fifteen years drowned by the time he was my age.

Monday, December 22, 2003

Paula, you asked, "what is right speech?"

Sigh. I don't know. What the hell is right speech? "Chatter like a parrot, cry like an ape"...

You come as close of any us. Closer. But maybe we should all just shut up. "The droning of a bee in an empty cell."

I've just been having a long difficult exchange with someone who doesn't seem able to hear me at all. I guess I don't fit any of her categories. I quote Paul and she takes me for a conservative Christian; I suggest that happily married life may not be significantly happier than unmarried life and she takes me for someone who doesn't believe that love, faith, or devotion exist ever, anywhere. (At more or less the same time -- that would be a pathological person indeed! Of course, there are psychopaths wandering about the web. Maybe I'm one of them.)

The frightening thing, of course, is that I wonder: is all conversation like this? Is the only difference here that the fit is wrong, so that we're not reassuring each other with responses that jive nicely with what we expect? Does anyone ever hear anyone? Does anyone ever say anything?

Perhaps I'm just finally entering the old Christmas-time depression. (It's late this year, after all.) Martha cut out a cartoon to put on the fridge: a scene of Christmas preparations -- wrapping paper, Christmas lights, and so on. A man opening a card that reads "Season's Greetings!" and has the face of "The Scream" on it. The man's remarking to his wife, "I think the Hendersons are starting to crack." I think maybe Dale's starting to crack.

Christmas and the 4th of July are the times of alienation, for me. Time to withdraw and brood, capitulate to everything compulsive, and wait, with what hope I can muster, for life to begin again. Tall whispering invisible figures stalk the streets, gloating and muttering; all the strength goes out of my hands; pools of insects are endlessly hatching at the periphery of my sight. I am feeble, swollen, and old.

And self-dramatizing. Enough. I'm tired, hungry, and lonely, that's all.

"Muddah faddah kindly disregard this leddah."

Love to you all, dear ones. I'm off to the Greek diner -- bright lights, loud waitresses, greasy food, the rattle and clink of dishes, the shouts of Tosi and his son Jimmy.

"Did you order those sausages? The sausages. Did you order them? We were almost out yesterday. You got to order them, sausages. We're almost out!" -- "the sausages?" -- "Yes, the sausages! We're almost out!" -- "No, I didn't order the sausages. We're almost out? You sure?" -- "Yeah, take a look, we're almost out, that's what I'm saying!"

That'll cure what ails me.

Friday, December 19, 2003

More Blogging about Blogging

Alex writes about the perils of blogging: "I started to keep track of how often I was thinking about blogging. It was a little worrisome. I would think about things before I did them, in the context of writing about them. I was scripting my life as the Alex Show."

And I feel a bit like old Rostov, when Natasha implored him to dump all his Moscow furniture and fill his wagons with wounded soldiers instead. Yes, these are in fact the values we've been trying to instill in the young, but... we don't want them coming back at us quite so directly as all that. As St Augustine said, "Lord, take away my sins... but not yet!"

But I think on this one I'll take the tantric route (make the tantric excuse? You pays your money and you takes your choice) -- instead of going around the swamp, wading right into it and kissing the leeches. I've been learning an awful lot by this round of exposure. For one thing I've identified what I'm now thinking of as my single basic obscuration, which seems to roll through my life in cycles: a building of loneliness, and then a lunge toward intimacy involving some exposure; following that a period of anxious observation to see how that exposure's received. There follows a short quiet period of withdrawal... and then I'm back at the begining of the cycle again.

But, as I wrote to Alex, what I can't afford to do, is let blogging -- or anything else -- consume the time and energy I need to devote to meditation. I need to hoard that jealously, and defend it like the wrathful Vajrapani, wrapped in fire, three eyes bulging, vajra in hand.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Blogging about blogging

Now, the coolest thing about the Site Meter report (if you're too cheap to get the premium version, anyway) is its time zone graph. It delights me that I have a (proportionally) sizeable Japanese and Dutch readership. (I'm perplexed tho about how it evaluates its data. It generally shows a little bar for the time zone that runs through Iceland, for example, but I've never seen an Icelandic time zone in any of the detail reports. Not that I've gone through them systematically. But do I really have an Icelandic reader? If so, welcome!) And every once in awhile the time zone graph registers someone in Western China or Tibet, which also delights me. Of course it might well be a Chinese censor-bot or something, drawn by my Tibetan references. But even so, the graphic representation of my words floating around the world gives me a little frisson of egotistic delight, every time, especially when I think of all those people writing stuff that further people all over the globe read, and so on.

Tonio's come up with what looks like a very clever way of making comments optional. Which brings me to comments. Are they a good idea? Yes and no. It's intriguing to see what will elicit comment (sex is the big front-runner. We're shocked, shocked). And it's wonderful to hear from people. But certainly I start angling for comments, which is either a curse or a very mixed blessing. And then the discovery that qB was reading paralyzed me for a day, since I discovered in myself an intense desire to win her approval. Someone who writes such lovely prose, and who also wears the apotheosis of pointy boots, and is English -- cf. Colin in Milwaukee -- I was utterly abashed. Likewise Paula, who writes extraordinary poetry and appears to be conducting several demanding lifetimes (doctor, poet, naturalist, linguist) simultaneously and effortlessly. Instant writer's block.

Why do some people intimidate me, and others not? I guess the academics don't intimidate me -- I've been one of those. And then there are people who are my daughter's age -- they don't intimidate me either. But then by rights Tonio, who's an extraordinary poet, should intimidate me, and he doesn't

So -- I tend to start paragraphs with "so" when I'm dimly aware that in fact there is NO connection with the preceding paragraph (you will also notice the parenthetical impulse increasing as Christmas nears)-- this leads me to the protocol of answering comments. I have had an absurd delicacy about this, which I've just recently thrown off. The comments, I thought, belonged to my reader, not to me, and I shouldn't be bustling around in them, like one of those officious hosts who won't let private conversations start up at a party. But then I realized that what I want of all things, when I comment on someone else's blog, is for them to comment back. "Do as you'd be done by," right?

So, to continue with my present discontinuity, let me note that Common Beauty, challenged on the bridge over a chasm, almost got through with an explication of the tyranny of metaphor. It links to me and I thought linking back might secure the other end of the bridge. Not much use if you forget your favorite color; but we're taking all the continuities we can get, today.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Here's the post about free will. It's not actually about free will at all, not in the Boethian sense -- that is, it's not about whether human volition is ultimately illusory. It's just about the practical relationship between resolutions and actions.

Free Will

For those, like me, who often find themselves doing things they have resolved not to do, the question of "free will" is not an abstract one, but a practical question of pressing importance. A commenter on Ailina's site wrote "I believe we have control over our actions." With all respect -- I think that's silly. Either tautological or false. To say that we do what we decided to do, at the moment we decide it, is simply to say that we do what we do -- perfectly true, and perfectly unhelpful. To say that we do tomorrow what we resolve to do today is manifestly false. I can resolve on Sunday, with all my heart, to forgo ice cream, and find myself curled up with a bowl of it on Monday. This is not a rare occurrence: it's a typical one. My inability to control my future actions by present resolutions is a well-established fact.

Four possible responses to this fact:

1. Deny it. Assume that the problem is that I didn't resolve fiercely enough, and try to clench my mind on the resolution, so as not to lose it. This is probably still my most common response, and my stupidest. The ferocity of my resolve has little to do with keeping it. The main effect it has is to tinge my subsequent failure with self-contempt, which generally exacts a further bowl of ice cream in tribute (penance?) A variation on the response of denial is to conclude that while it's true that normal people can control their future actions, I cannot, because my will is abnormally corrupt. This is a useless conclusion. For how would one repair an abnormally corrupt will? By an act of will? (Nor do I have any objective reason to believe that my will works any better or any worse than anyone else's.)

2. Control the circumstances. This is useful, in a limited way. I can't control my future decisions but I can, to some extent, change the circumstances in which they will be made. If there's no ice cream in the freezer, I'm less likely to eat some. If there is ice cream, and nothing else to eat ready to hand, I'm almost certain to decide to eat some.

3. Train my mind. This is useful, but slow. Through meditation I can train myself to widen the space between the arising of an impulse and my response to it. I can learn something about how to let thoughts go, rather than clutch them. But this solution -- though finally the most important and effective, I think -- is a long-term one. The changes wrought by the first couple weeks of meditation were (for me) astonishing, but the rate of change dropped, after that: another year now will probably yield less fundamental change than those first couple weeks did.

4. Watch what happens. This is the most useful in the short-term, I think. When there's a well-established pattern of failed resolution, there is always some failure of perception or understanding. Why do I make different ice cream decisions on Sunday and Monday? Because I'm aware of a different set of facts. There's a tendency to assume that Sunday's awareness is superior to Monday's, and it may be, but I have more often found that the reverse is true. On Sunday I may be aware of plaque accumulating in my arteries, and fat around my abdomen, and of my associated self-contempt. But on Monday I may be aware that death is coming inevitably to even the cleanest arterial wall, and that the relationship between a flat stomach and happiness is problematic in the extreme; further, I may be aware that if I don't kick my blood-sugar up rapidly I'm likely to lose my temper with my kids, and that my self-contempt would thrive in a lean body just as happily as in a fat one. So a more useful thing to resolve might be, not to forgo ice cream, but to observe, as closely as I can, what goes through my mind the next time I eat it. Only a Sunday resolution made with a full awareness of Monday's facts is likely to stand on Monday.
Building Vajradhara's Mausoleum

Joseph Campbell makes the point -- drawing it I think from Jung -- that religious symbol and ritual, which originate as a way of invoking the numinous, can solidify rapidly into a way of warding it off. (In much the same way, funeral rites generally function not only to celebrate the dead, but also to make quite sure that they stay dead.)

He's speaking in terms of cultural history, but the point is well-taken in personal history as well. In some ways I think when I began blogging about Ngondro part of my enterprise was to tame it, circumscribe it, disarm it.

Monday, December 15, 2003

I have a long solemn post in progress about free will & so forth, but I do not feel at all solemn today, so -- screw it. My first day in my new office. We've been moved from downtown Portland, which I dearly love, to the suburb "city" of Beaverton, which has no downtown -- which is one of those "cities," which, when dug up by alien archeologists, will prove conclusively that automobiles were the dominant species of the planet, since everything here was clearly built for their convenience, and human beings only scuttle through their spaces as timid parasites or grovelling domestic servants.

I went out (driving, of course) to find a restaurant for lunch and promptly got lost, driving down "boulevards" that all looked identical to me, which swerved around in obedience not to any topographical influence, but to some designer's feeble idea that a boring street could be made interesting by waving it gratuitously to and fro. So, since I tend to navigate by the sun or by the mountain (Hood, in this case), and to expect some kind of a grid, I experienced serious disorientations. The setting sun would loom up in the east: Mt Hood would appear, ghostly and white, evidently about where the seashore should have been. Going north on Murray Boulevard I eventually found it dead-ending -- we're talking five lanes here -- in the parking lot of a small carwash, well to the south of where I began.

Upon consulting a map, I discovered that, sure enough, I was actually going south on good old Murray Boulevard, which at least explained how I ended up on the southern side of Beaverton (though it did little to explain why a five lane thoroughfare would suddenly vanish into a carwash. ) I was seriously cowed by now, so I went meekly to a McDonalds, trying to blend in with the natives. There I read the newspaper about the capture of Saddam Hussein, whose end is apparently closely to resemble that of Murray Boulevard, and I tried to generate political feelings or opinions of some sort, but failed. A man in a hole.

And so back to work, where one of my computers threw in the towel, after having tried valiantly all day to make its ethernet connections. This is my good and deserving computer, the UNIX one, the one I named "Lyra" and think of as fondly as I've ever thought of a computer. I'm left with "Fritz," a malign and temperamental Windows machine. All in all this has not been a very inspiring day.

Good night, compadres! Dream sweet dreams.

Friday, December 12, 2003

I've been on vacation this week, and my home net connection has been down.

Amusing how just a few days disconnected from the net distresses me these days. I went into work at four in the morning to read blogs and post my last, on Tuesday -- Now it's Friday and I'm connected again, and I've been reading up, but I'm not even halfway caught up.

You all are amazing, you know.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Where to start? Bart points out the need to define "desire." Carelessness about this terminology leads to a lot of misunderstanding of the Dharma -- and here I am being careless with it. So here's a shot at being more careful.

The "desire" that the Buddha instructed us to abandon is attachment. It arises from the first, disastrous mistake of taking ourselves seriously -- taking ourselves at face-value. I mistake "Dale" for an essential, unique, permanent essence: there is some mystical "Daleness" that makes me Dale. When, having made this mistake, I desire something, I want to make it mine, incorporate it into the the territory of Daleness. The anxiety to annex this something is intense. If I'm successful in incorporating it, then my Daleness is reinforced and validated; if I'm unsuccessful it's threatened, and its domain is shrunk. Hence the apalling surges of emotion involved in "falling in love." What's at stake, as it seems to someone who has fallen in love, is nothing less than existence itself.

So if we take away the mistake -- if we take away the ego -- is desire still possible? And if so, what does it look like? (Back when I was a graduate student I remember this being a hot issue in Feminist theory: is there such a thing as a desire that is not founded in lack? I haven't kept up, so I have no idea where the theorists have gone with this one.)

I don't think all Buddhists would give the same answers to this. My answer is a hesitant, "yes, but..."

Yes, enlightened desire is possible, but it would look so different, it would scarcely be recognizeable. It would be a desire that didn't narrow down and fixate: a desire that didn't want to absorb or appropriate its object. I think I've had glimpses of this sort of desire -- I've had luminous moments of it, moments of intense love that wasn't exclusionary or proprietary, and which overflowed all ordinary borders and distinctions. And I conclude from those moments: yes. Enlightened desire is real. In fact it might not be going too far to say that enlightened desire is reality.

Okay. But dropping down to the sphere of daily life -- what's to do? What do I do with these daily impulses? Alan Wallace, in Boundless Heart gives the advice that's been most useful for me, about dealing with sensual pleasures: to wit, that if giving them up makes you feel seriously deprived, then you're probably pushing it too hard. If you're not in a cloistered setting, no attempt to simply drop pleasures altogether is likely to do anything but generate turbulence and resistance, and it's more likely to derail your spiritual practice than to support it.

Of course, Wallace is talking about pleasures such as eating ice cream, pleasures that don't harm anyone. Consuming porn and frequenting strip clubs does harm people, I think. That's a controversial issue, and there's been silly extravagance on both sides of it, and a tendency to ignore the input of the only people who really know -- to wit, the sex workers themselves, the models and dancers. I've talked with a lot of dancers about this, and I think the amount of harm varies wildly, depending on the circumstances and on the worker. Most of the dancers I know could find other work easily, and for them it's worth it to escape the nine-to-five work world (which is not exactly free of degradation and harm itself.) The common lurid picture of exploited women drowning in self-contempt and destroying themselves with drugs bears little relation to the reality as I've seen it. It's not clear to me that I'm exploiting these people more, or in a worse way, than I'm exploiting the people who harvested the romaine for my salad, or the people who made my tennis shoes.

But I'd rather be done with it. And I suspect that with this, as with the binge drinking that I used to do, as I get the better of the compulsiveness and leave the activities behind, I'll find that they were more destructive to me personally than I understood at the time. More expense of spirit than I had reckoned; more wear and tear on my relationships.

Once again, the mysterious relation between doing Ngondro and being able to refrain from compulsive activities of all sorts. Is it cause and effect? Or just that when I'm in a "good phase" all things are easier, both refraining from compulsive stuff and maintaining my practice? I wish I could think of an experiment that would give me a good answer to that.

Friday, December 05, 2003

Porn and Betrayal, continued

For many years I held what you might call the sex-positive view of this. The compulsiveness and the hurt were both side-effects of shame. Take away the shame and, voila! No more compulsiveness, no more hurt, lots of sex, everyone happy.

But I wondered. Porn proliferated, and it became much more acceptable, but it remained obdurately nasty. It didn't feel liberated or liberating, no matter what anybody said. It felt, as it still feels now to me, constricted and obsessive and unhappy. The compulsiveness didn't go away. My relation to it seemed much more like an alcoholic's relation to drink than a healthy person's relation to healthy pleasures. Something was clearly wrong. Maybe it was just me: my own addictive personality. I had, after all, the same response to some foods, some of them disgusting ones ("barbeque" potato chips, for example, which I clearly perceive to be grotesque-tasting, not to mention nutritionally toxic, and which I also binge on occasionally to this day, eating them till my mouth is raw.)

When I stumbled into the Dharma, I obtained a wholly new vocabulary thinking about desire. What if -- I could now wonder -- what was wrong was neither me, nor the porn, nor the potato chips? What if there was something wrong in the desire itself, something woven all through my consciousness, which just revealed itself clearly in these habits, because they happened to be the ones which weren't approved of by my culture?

Lots of things began to make sense. And suddenly I could dismiss the sex-positive solution, without denying the ecstasy and the deep perception of beauty which is also part of these obsessions. (Yes, even of potato chips.) And I could rewire the whole network of my thoughts about this. The problem wasn't that I was too open to beauty and desire. The problem was that I wasn't open enough. I know, I've said this before. Shall I say it again? I'll say it again. The problem was not that I was too open to beauty and desire. The problem was that I wasn't open enough.

I'm sure you can get to this same place by the path of renunciation. But renouncing pleasures, as I'm sure is clear by now, is not my strong suit, and since my culture is not exactly famous for supporting renunciation, it's a hard path for anyone in it to follow, even those who are less greedy and libidinous than I. (Which includes, I hope, most people.)

More anon.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

First Parenthesis (tired of earnestness at the moment)

I just saw an ad for a toy DNA sequencer in Wired magazine. (This maybe isn't news. I'm pretty seriously unplugged, and I'm always discovering cool "new" things that everyone else has been tired of for six months.)

Second Parenthesis (needing to boast, because I was so nervous about it)

I just got done chanting Beowulf in Old English, and talking about gold, dragons, and linguistic change to a class at my kids' highschool. There's always a couple of kids you can see getting the bug. ("wyrm is worm and it's the same word except it sounds really cool, and it's a thousand years old, and back then it meant serpent!" and "so that's why knight is spelled so weird!") About half of them were eager for me to come teach an Old English class next quarter. It was so damn much fun to read Old English again and they're such wonderful kids that maybe I'll do it, even if I don't have time for it.

Okay. Back soon to our regularly scheduled programming.
A comment from Michelle raised an apalling possibility: that it might be thought I'm trying to "tell Ailina what to do." Good God.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

porn, betrayal, continued --

Of course, what anything means in a relationship is largely what the parties have agreed that it will mean. Ailina and her husband have agreed that this is betrayal, so it is betrayal. Simple as that, in a way.

I've never kept my strip club or pornography habits secret (tho I've certainly downplayed their extent), and Martha and I are agreed that it's not a betrayal, so it's not a betrayal. This is, you might say, our official line.

But I really don't think either situation is a simple as that. For one thing, we don't have complete control over what things mean. I remember a philosopher friend of mine quoting some Frenchman saying that if he decided that spitting on someone was an act of love, then it was an act of love. I don't think that's true, and if someone spit on me and told me it was affection, I wouldn't believe him. I might believe that he believed it -- and that would mitigate my annoyance -- but I wouldn't believe that the spitting was pure affection. We get to bend our societies' rules, but we don't really get to rewrite them wholesale.

In this case, however, there isn't just one set of rules. There's the "official rules" -- probably stronger down toward the Mississippi delta than up here in Portland Oregon -- which say that being attracted to anyone but your spouse -- or indulging in it, anyway -- is betrayal. Then there's the "meat market" rules of porn and strip clubs, which say that men's desire is always (at least visually) promiscuous and the manipulation of it by sex workers is inevitable. Most men are bilingual, so to speak, shifting between these sets of rules fairly easily, following one set of rules at home and another at the club. It would be way over-simplistic to say that these men are just dishonest in their alliegance to the "official rules." For most, I think, the strain of hewing to the official line is just too much sometimes, and they suddenly plunge down into the meat market with a gasp of relief. But they certainly wouldn't want to live there.

Shame is crucial to the maintenance of this system. Shame makes the men and the sex workers keep it secret and segregated, so that the extent of this meat market world is incredibly underplayed, and it can come as a shock to a woman as intelligent and perceptive as Ailina that a man close to her lives part of his life there. Almost all men live there part-time. Do the numbers. Look at the clubs, which in this city anyway are nearly as plentiful as fast food restaurants; look at the extraordinary bandwidth of porn sites. This is not the domain of a few perverts. Lots of men live here, and most of them visit. But very few of them, I think, are entirely comfortable with it.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

A painful post from Ailina over on Paper Bent about discovering her husband using some form of (unspecified) sexual stimulation, presumably porn of some sort.

Is a woman expected to accept her husband spending a few saucy hours watching a naked girl he doesn't know wrap herself around a pole and screw his imagination, and then is the same woman expected to willingly participate in sex knowing full well why her husband is so randy?

No, in this particular situation, strip club entertainment is not the adversary, but the analogy is appropriate.

I hesitated about bringing my response over here -- it amounts to a sort of confession, though no surprise I imagine to my more careful readers. But the whole issue gets so clouded with ideology and shame and hurt that I thought it best to follow Ailina's example and hang the dirty linen out of the window, so to speak. I commented:

Oh, I'm sorry, Ailina. I know, it leaves a very nasty taste. But -- speaking as sometimes the strip-club-customer kind of husband myself, I can say pretty confidently that it doesn't mean to him what it would mean to you, and "choosing to be dishonest" is probably as ill-suited to the reality here as "choosing to be depressed" would be to yours.

It does have to do with stress, and losing a job, and (I think) some hardwiring in the male brain. What it has *nothing* to do with is you, your attractiveness, or your specialness to him.

This elicited a sharp counter comment from Rae (who has a very cool blog, by the way) to the effect that she didn't think there was anything hardwired about it, and that stress was a pretty lame excuse. I answered with this:

Rae, certainly no need to apologize: this is a controversial topic and the fact of the matter, I think, is that no one knows what's hardwired and what isn't. I certainly don't.

I do know that my compulsion toward "visual stimuli" is stronger than my compulsion to eat, and stronger than my compulsion to drink was back when I was a binge alcoholic. I've struggled to rid myself of it or even moderate it for years, without much success (until lately, anyway -- we'll see). It's stronger when my libido is low, actually, than when my libido is high, and stress exacerbates it. I'm not trying to justify it. I'm trying to explain it, since I think a more accurate understanding of it would render it less hurtful to Ailina.

The metaphor of addiction is somewhat inaccurate, but it comes closer to explaining the subjective experience of this compulsion than any other I can think of. Of course, since it's usually kept secret and thought of as degrading to all parties, man who's "caught" will ordinarily stammer out that it was the idle caprice of a moment, never to be repeated, which just makes him sound like more of an uncaring lout, mindlessly trampling delicate things just for the hell of it. The truth of the matter (since Ailina's man is clearly anything but an uncaring lout) is probably that it's more like an alcoholic giving in to the obsessive craving for a drink.

This is a topic I've thought a lot about, for obvious reasons, and I've veered between a number of wildly different understandings of it, none of which have been terribly satisfying to my intellect or very useful in modifying my conduct. But -- more anon.

Sunday, November 30, 2003

Falling Upwards

"Don't hold your breath" from Beth made me laugh aloud. Absolutely. Still, today, I decided that the tipping point had come, and this was it. I have still to sit down and set out the "monastic rules" of this my new life.

G.K. Chesterton wrote a marvellous essay "In Defense of Rash Vows." In some ways a vow that is not rash is not worth making. And some challenges are better to take up, even if you know you'll be beaten (as I do. Holding my breath anyway.)

The second post below, my hysteria rising. The desperation coagulating. And several destructive impulses: to convince my readers that I'm not really a nice person, to warn off my correspondent (as if *that* were necessary), and to trash my blog as a piece of personal territory. But also in the same emotional wave was the useful destruction, the wrathful deity. Vajrapani. "Revulsion is the root of meditation."

Good enough.

Multnomah Falls was thundering down so hard today that we couldn't see the splash pool. Only the whirl of the blown spume. Soaked us from a hundred yards. On the way we had seen one of the little waterfalls blown completely out of its trough, curling back upwards. May it be a sign: I'm asking no less. A waterfall petitioning to be allowed to fall upwards.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

My head hurts, my eyes ache, and I am long since ready for the day to be over. I am afraid of my houseguest. Afraid of this incipient illness. Afraid of my blog, for God's sake. A woman wrote me for advice, and I wanted to scream "you're fucking asking me? Well then, honey, you're just looney toons, and my advice is, pray! Anyone who'd take advice from me is in a bad, bad way." Actually, I did advise her to pray. I never can resist giving advice, which is pretty comical, since I can't remember that I've ever in my life taken any.

That makes it sound like I thought this woman a pest. Au contraire, I am completely, hopelessly in love with her, though I've never met her. This is not an uncommon condition for me. I'll take two aspirin. Remind me in the morning, and I'll say: who?

But she wrote me such an amazing question, about how to deal with beauty, and its spillage, as if she really thought I'd know something. I vapored on about ego and sexism and what not. Wholly inadequate to the question. Dear God, my head hurts.

Our real sins -- my real sins -- are so hard to reveal, so hard even to understand. There was something dreadfully wrong about answering as I did, and I don't even know what it was. I only know that it was wrong, somewhere, somehow. Maybe it was even good advice, who knows? But the motivation behind it was corrupt

Or maybe not. Maybe the sin is now, in this moment, this twisted looking backwards. Just as likely. More likely, in fact.

Enough of this. It's not the time of recrimination -- it's the time of thanks. Have a good Thanksgiving, all you Americans out there. And God bless all who are abroad and houseless, all who are laboring on the sea, all soldiers far from home.

Signs are taken for wonders. "We would see a sign!"
The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger

I've been waiting, recently. For what? Well, that's the question. For the tipping point to be reached, I guess. My center of gravity has been shifting. Nothing has moved, to look at -- I have no evidence to support my sense that I'm teetering -- but the feeling grows on me.

But in a way, I have been waiting all my life. Life was always going to start sometime later. When I finished school. When I wrote my book. When the kids were grown. When I had a steady meditation practice. This is all preliminaries, preparation, groundwork.

Maybe when I tip -- when the polyhedron rolls decisively to rest on another face -- that's what will be different. Maybe what I'm waiting for is the end of waiting.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Wow, that was easy. Added comments. So now you can talk back.

Monday, November 24, 2003

Woke this morning with Martha in my arms, slowly unweaving this morning from that morning when I first woke with her in my arms. Twenty-seven years ago. A bunk-bed in a trailer that was perched up on the steep forested slopes of the Delphi valley. I could lift the curtain without stirring from where I lay, and see the sun rising behind Mount Rainier. Fine honey-colored hair spilled over my forearm and my chest. Even braided, in those days, it fell to the middle of her back. She had unbraided it last night, and it had flowed over me like the sea. Her soft breathing. The glow of the sunrise filling the room.

The faint scent of mouse dung, dim memory of having heard the scrabble of mice in my sleep. In my dream memory I hear the trickle of the water in the creek. We had to fetch water from it, in white plastic five-gallon buckets, old paint buckets.

Her lover, a musician, was on the road. This was "okay," though. Sort of. And we were just friends, supposedly. Not really lovers, though everybody already thought we were, we spent so much time together. And now we really were. Maybe. Or maybe not. "If somebody's going to stop us," I had muttered conscientiously, the night before, "it's not going to be me." She hadn't stopped us either. But still we were just friends. No strings. That was our policy, and we stuck to it for an absurd length of time, months, while Martha and her lover slowly, painfully broke up, and she and I went to classes together every day, and read Dante and Tolstoy and Joyce together.

And now we've raised two kids together, and weathered depressions on her part and binge alcoholism on mine, and various infidelities, if very few dishonesties. A year when we probably made love only three or four times, netted by depression and terrorized by the violent deaths of friends and relatives, and a year like this last when we're sneaking past the kids at every opportunity, more like teenagers than the teenagers. Years running past like rippling water. And we're still just friends, in a way. There's nothing more real in my life than this friendship. Sometimes it seems to me it's the only real thing I've ever encountered in a shadowy, formless universe.

Losing her is the only face of death that frightens me, or even troubles me. I don't want to lose the only real thing I've ever found.

Friday, November 21, 2003

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Buddhist Prayer

I used to dismiss prayer as a superstition. Of course uneducated or silly Tibetans prayed to Chenrezig or Green Tara for help, as if they were worldly beings striding about the sky and distributing material aid packages, whose ear you might catch if you hollered. We all understand our faith as best we can, I thought, subject to our limitations -- if that's as close as one can come to understanding the reality of Chenrezig, well, it's better than nothing.

But it irritated me when people in my own sangha started asking for prayers, on the listserve. We're not peasants. We're typically over-educated Western Buddhists. We should know better. I did start offering up sort of half-hearted prayers, but I thought of it as being strictly for my own benefit -- a way of cultivating compassion. And then if someone was in distress I could tell them I was praying for them, and it was a way of expressing concern and affection.

"Learn by doing" is the genius of the Kagyu lineage. "The practice lineage," it's called. Requests for explanation and justification are often brushed aside by Kagyu teachers with a certain impatience. "Just do the practice," they'll say. "Then you'll understand." Maddening, but it does help you keep your eye on the ball. The point of all this is not to arrive at an intellectual understanding of Buddhism: the point is to change our minds.

So as I have begun, reluctantly, to practice prayer, I have been learning something about it. There are some perfectly rational reasons to do it. One, of course, which is obvious, is that when it's offered up on someone else's behalf, it's a cultivation of compassion. That much I understood from the outset. It's prayer on my own behalf that has puzzled me. How can that be dharma? I should be loosening my attachment to my own benefit, not tightening it, right? And I shouldn't be holding deities such as Chenrezig or Vajradhara to be manifestations of my own pure mind, rather than as benevolent uncles with gifts in their pockets?

But back up a bit. In what sort of circumstances do I pray? I pray when I'm in distress, and feel helpless to alter my situation. I don't pray to Vajradhara to clean up the cat vomit -- I just get a damp rag. I pray to Vajradhara to help me win battles I expect to lose. Battles with myself that I've fought without much success all my life -- battles, say, not to procrastinate, not to surrender to mindless compulsive activities, not to respond to anxiety by heading for the tavern.

What does prayer do, in these cases? Well, it does a couple necessary things right at the start. In the first place, it's a recognition of helplessness. The first step in coping with such problems is to realize that they're out of hand, to admit that my strategies for winning these battles just don't work. If I don't take that step, I'll just try to apply the same old solution, and get the same old result. I've tried "just exerting my will" to get the better of procrastination. I've tried it for thirty years. I already know that it's not going to garner a success rate above twenty or thirty percent. So the very first step of any real solution has to be admitting failure. Once I've done that, prayer takes the second step: it lifts my mind out into a state of hopeful expectation. I'm looking for a solution from someone wiser than I am. *This* is the sort of state in which new solutions are can be recognized as solutions. If I'm expecting supernatural aid, I'll naturally examine everything that comes to hand -- is this the help I need? I don't immediately recognize it as such, but -- hey, Chenrezig's a lot smarter than I am. If this is what he's brought, lets see if it works.

So those are the rational reasons. Something else happens though. Things move in my consciousness that I can't identify -- there are shifts, accesses, doors opening in my mind. I can't explain it better than that, and I had probably better not try, not yet, at any rate. "Just do the practice."

And now -- since writing this is itself procrastination -- I'm going to stop. And pray.

Monday, November 17, 2003

Master and Commander

Martha and I went to see Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World yesterday. A deeply disappointing movie. Oh, it was fun enough to watch -- extraordinary effects, fine acting, nice cinematography. And blessedly historical. These folk acted and spoke pretty plausibly as Englishmen of Napoleonic times, except for one painful moment when Aubrey advised an officer to "find his strength within himself." But that's the only time I remember my historical sensibilities wincing. (As compared with, say, The Knight's Tale, during the viewing of which video I groaned so much -- the Black Prince, proto-democrat? -- that wife and daughter eventually exiled me from the bedroom.) It really was disappointing only because they almost made it. They almost put O'Brian on the screen. But the heart of the Aubrey-Maturin books is the play of the two characters: and Aubrey has been changed, changed utterly. Maturin is recognizably Maturin, but Aubrey -- where did Aubrey go? Where is the childlike simplicity, the man who can lead the lower deck because he's really one of them? Russell Crowe's Aubrey is calculating, full of self-knowledge and emotional self-control, a deliberate manipulator of his men, with an eye always to the effect he's making -- in effect, he out-Maturin's Maturin. In the books, when Aubrey tells the story (more than once) of his dinner with Nelson, in which Nelson asked him to pass the salt, the joke is on Aubrey: he's sublimely unconscious of the fact that intense admiration of the way a man asks for the salt is silly. But in the movie it's turned into a joke which Aubrey tells on himself. He's well aware that it's silly, and he plays it for laughs. O'Brian's Aubrey could not possibly do such a thing.

If it weren't for that, I could forgive the other minor faults -- the odd collage of plots, the occasional sentimentality, the fact that Crowe seems to have watched too much Star Trek in his youth, and is haunted by the ghost of William Shatner throughout the movie -- but a sophisticated Aubrey? No. It just won't do.

Remember, only YOU can prevent sanctimoniousness (sanctimony?)

Let me beg my friends and fellow blogophiles: if I get too preachy, please let me know. On for_sv's blog today was a quotation from Churchill: "A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject." Made me very uneasy. It struck me as quite a good description of me on my Buddhist rants. What I hate most about them is the way I pretend to be way up on higher ground, utterly free of doubts and second thoughts, and -- to judge by the way I talk -- meditating twelve hours a day. So please, thump me when I get to be too much.

Thursday, November 13, 2003

Sidelight: one thing that fascinated me in The Varieties of Religious Experience is that while James translates all his French and Italian quotations into English as a matter of course, he quotes German verse a couple of times, with neither translation nor attribution. He apparently assumes that while some of his audience (British students and professors, I presume) might not understand simple French or Italian prose, everyone will recognize lines from Heine or Goethe. Lo, how the German language (and academic prestige) hath fallen!

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, James quotes many personal narratives. One is by Tolstoy, recounting how he emerged from a time of crisis, and what James calls "divided self," with a new spiritual unity and a new faith. James remarks on this, with astonishing naivete: "and Tolstoy thereupon embraced the life of the peasants, and has felt right and happy, or at least relatively so, ever since."

If you know anything of Tolstoy's biography (which James, to be fair, was in no position to do) this remark will make you hoot with laughter. Tolstoy never felt right and happy for more than an hour or two at a time, not in his whole life.

I don't want to poke fun at James, or at Tolstoy. But there's a lesson to be learned here. The urge to give narratives of spiritual struggle a satisfying ending is almost irresistible, and the urge to believe in these narrated endings is maybe even stronger. Few men were less given to self-deception and credulity than either James or Tolstoy, but between them here they're perpetrating a hoax comparable to the Piltdown man. This unified, spiritually content Tolstoy is a complete forgery. And knowing that this one case of spiritual unification, about which I happen to have further information, is largely spurious, I have to look at the others with a certain skepticism.

But -- turn again -- it's important to be measured about this skepticism. The insights Tolstoy reached in his struggle were real ones, important ones. The conviction that life was meaningful and worthwhile, or that at least it could be, was something that Tolstoy established for himself in this time, and so far as I know it never deserted him. The insight he came to -- to boil it down maybe to absurd simplicity -- was that the meaning of life can't be determined by thinking about it. It's created by the life that one lives. A life of brooding about the meaning of life may very well be a meaningless life, but that says nothing about the meaning of other lives we might live.

Not happily ever after, no. But once that corner was turned nothing would ever be quite the same for him. And even if the point of turning is obscure -- as most of them, really, are -- and long foreshadowed, and slow and halting in the execution -- the turns are nonetheless real.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

In the cowboy Dharma vein -- someone needs to write a mournful country song: "My baby Samsara, she doan treat me right." Along with "O Samara, why cain't you be true?"
Jamgon Kongtrul, whom i quote so often, was a 19th-Century Tibetan monk who was a central figure in the Rime (ree-may) movement, the ecumenical movement in Tibetan Buddhism that came just in time for the Tibetan diaspora. If I believed in providence, which I don't (I think), I'd think he came so that when the Chinese drove the Tibetans out into the world, they would bring a unified and harmonious spiritual tradition with them, rather than a lot of petty wrangling and sectarian rancor.

His accomplishments as a meditator, a scholar, and a monastic administrator are extraordinary -- as Dudjom Rinpoche put it, when you look at his achievements in any one of those areas, you would think he had devoted his whole life to just that one. He studied and practiced in all four of the major Tibetan lineages, rescued one lineage that was in danger of extinction (the Shangpa, to which I have personal reasons for being especially grateful), wrote ninety books, and renovated or expanded monasteries all over Tibet.

And yet he retains a sort of cowboy earthiness and wit, as in his lines about a gopher in a hole, below. I don't think any other Dharma explicator so often makes me laugh aloud.

Monday, November 10, 2003

If stubborn habits of attachment and aversion are not reversed,
Then meditation is as meaningless as a gopher hibernating in a hole.

--Jamgon Kongtrul

Friday, November 07, 2003

Okay. Tonio's taught me how to make links, so here goes. First of all, Tonio's back. So if you haven't been to Savoradin yet today, go. (Silly of you to be wasting your time here, if you haven't been there.) Anne of Underabell is back too, hooray! Beth of the Cassandra Pages has been writing a wonderful narrative of the consecration of Gene Robinson that you really shouldn't miss.

Now, I made a wrong choice when I first started this blog, and made the second post in a single day come below the first. Which means, of course, that everyone will miss my later posts, because they open the window, see the same ol' same ol' at the top, and move on. If they're like me, anyway. But I haven't figured out how to undo that mistake yet: I don't see anything about it in the settings.

So while I'm jabbering on -- this is precisely the sort of post that makes me give up on a blog, so it's a good thing it's tucked under here -- I'm thinking that I really ought to change my title, since it isn't really a practice journal now. & I'm thinking I might as well go whole-hog and put comments and stats and all that sort of thing in. "Within six months he was totally corrupted." (My favorite sentence from Faulkner, slightly misquoted.) (I think I'm a little punchy. Been a long week.)
When I look back at yesterday's post, complaining about Horgan, I'm struck by how much less intelligent I become as soon as I start arguing. I went back to look at the excerpts from his book on his site, but I wasn't reading anymore: I was scanning, looking for what's there that's stupid, what's there that I already know better than he. What a stultifying way to read. When I could be reading for what's there that I don't know yet, what's there that he knows better than I. Shall I cling to my own opinions at the cost of my own intelligence? They're not worth it, be they ever so correct.

I neglected to mention that the proximate cause of my reading William James was reading a wonderful post in the Coffee Sutras (http://sainteros.com/weblog) about Zen and Pragmatism.

(You know, I could at least learn how to do links properly. You'd never guess from this slipshod blog, that I actually work as a programmer).

I awoke this morning with this poem running through my head.

A Prayer for Old Age

God guard me from those thoughts men think
In the mind alone;
He that sings a lasting song
Thinks in a marrow-bone;

From all that makes a wise old man
That can be praised of all;
O what am I that I should not seem
For the song's sake a fool?

I pray -- for word is out
And prayer comes round again --
That I may seem, though I die old,
A foolish, passionate man.

-- W. B. Yeats

Thursday, November 06, 2003

One of the most delicate tasks required of guardian angels must be that of keeping their charges away from books until they're ready for them.

I've just read the first chapter of Varieties of Religious Experience. I know I've picked up the book and read a page or two before. Not just once -- several times. What could have motivated me to put it back down? Only supernatural intervention strikes me as a likely explanation. The book is enthralling, and the voice -- so humane and generous, and yet so cogent and unapologetic -- is simply wonderful.

At the other end of the spectrum of reading experiences -- I read some stuff at www.johnhorgan.com that some spirit of another variety drew me to. A simple-minded rejection of Buddhism, by someone whose brains and sensitivity would have led me to expect much better. I don't think I'm just being swayed by my own bias -- I admire many writers who think Buddhism is untenable or unacceptable. But at some points Horgan was just plain wrong about what traditional teachings about karma and enlightenment are: and taking the perception of his own monkey-mind as a refutation of the efficacy of meditation was really breathtakingly wrongheaded. Perhaps he was just very unlucky in the teachers he found?

A typical sequence is when he writes of walking in a winter landscape and thinking about it -- and then catching himself thinking and thinking that he shouldn't be thinking. And then he becomes resentful: why the hell shouldn't he be thinking? His failure of understanding here is in supposing that catching himself thinking, and thinking that he shouldn't be thinking, were things that any legitimate Buddhist teacher would encourage. Mindfulness is not engendering lots of conceptual thinking about thinking. Mindfulness is paying attention to what's present. Horgan has something of a knack for getting things exactly backwards. Of course the project of trying to loosen the grip of conceptualization can generate lots more conceptualization. But the solution at that point is simply to laugh. Make gooney faces. Scoop up the snow and dump it on your head. Didn't any of his teachers tell him that?

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

I'm getting a hearing aid on Saturday. Two of them, actually: one for each ear. The idea that I might really be able to hear much better than I do now is tremendously exciting. The technician who examined me was clearly braced to argue me into them, and the brochure he sent home with me dwelt mostly on overcoming one's resentment and resistance to them.

Resentment? Resistance? I feel like a kid on Christmas Eve.

I don't think most people know I have a hearing problem. It's a weird one -- the reverse of the usual curve: I don't hear low frequencies well, whereas most people lose the high frequencies. So most women I can hear distinctly, but there's only a few men whose voices I hear well. I work with a lot of Indian men, who tend to speak much more softly than American men; some of them I really can't hear at all. I see their mouths moving and guess.

I wonder whether my aversion to telephones might stem largely from my bad hearing. I never know, when I pick up a telephone, if I'm going to be able to understand the person on the other end.

We'll see. They say it takes a few weeks to learn to intepret the new range and amplitude of sound passed in by the hearing aids, so it won't be instant gratification. But I can't wait for Saturday.

This sleep has been so deep: I have been so darkened, blunted, shrunken with fear and craving. The little glimpses of light and open space -- do they come oftener now, than they used to? They came, after all, before the Dharma came to me.

It all lies in me -- the dark and the light. Michael said: what deeper clinging to self could there be, than to think that of all the sentient beings in the universe, in all the three times and the ten directions, I, only I, was born without Buddha-nature, and am incapable of enlightenment? Kalu Rinpoche hammers it home: luminous and unimpeded. The more I look at it, the more obvious it is. My mind has no limitations. Of course, that sounds at first blush like idle, stupid boasting -- what could be more hampered, beschränkt, confined and constrained, than my repetitive, obsessive thoughts? But then I push to -- well, then, what do the limits look like? Where are the edges, the walls, that I supposedly am hitting? Nowhere. There's no such thing. My mind sits in its dark shed like Lewis's dwarfs, prisoned by nothing but the walls of its own imagination, obscured by a darkness of its own creation. It's the hardest thing in the world, and the easiest thing in the world, to just step lightly through those walls, to look through that nonexistent roof and see the sun.

Monday, November 03, 2003

...all rolling up to an obscure crisis. I'm conducting a slow, meticulous, unexplained retreat. I am in a quiet, dignified panic, and I don't know why. Desperately looking for feedback that can do me no conceivable good. Surrounded by a cloud of dubious, anxious, hungry gnats.

What Andreas Angyell (does anyone read him anymore?) called an "unconfident gestalt." All options look alarming, all my deficiencies are writ in huge black smears across the sky, all my desires are furtive and unconscionable. "The weak in courage is strong in cunning": I feel very strong in cunning, just now. The only thing I feel strong in.

The only sensible thing to do is -- nothing.

Stop backing up, stop hiding, stop distracting and delaying and shunting. Stand perfectly still, and let the wave roll over me. In my end is my beginning.

Friday, October 31, 2003

Sunlight through the leaves of the plant on my bookcase, the office to myself, quiet enough to hear the whir of the fans and the buzz of the lights. It surprises me, whenever I meditate in my office, how noisy it is, even without people. The buzzes and clicks and throbs of unidentified machinery, weird surges of white noise, the dim roar of traffic from nine stories below. An ojective correlative to the anxieties and cravings washing continually back and forth, an everpresent unacknowledged noise in the background of my mind.

The office is tolerant of my meditation cushions -- zafu and zabuton -- and my occasional sits. The cushions perplex casual visitors sometimes. They speculate: is it a dog bed? Or do I nap there? But mostly it evokes the exagerated tact and forbearance of the non-religious. (Someone who prays and meditates in semi-public is probably dangerously unbalanced, and you wouldn't want to push them over the edge by referring to it in any way.) It's the other religious people, practicing Christians and Muslims, who will ask me about it; the athiests and agnostics appear to view the whole matter with superstitious dread. A man who's worked closely with me for years inadvertently revealed, not long ago, that he thought I was Muslim. "Not that there's anything wrong with that!" he added, in something of a panic.

When I'm bewildered by the political stories that my fellow-Americans will swallow, it helps some to remember how deep their ignorance of religion, and especially of non-Christian religion, is. And how much fear it inspires. People who are so nuts that they worship six-armed deities and won't eat perfectly good foods and won't swat biting mosquitos and chop people's heads off for sunbathing -- what's the point of even trying to understand them? All you can do is hope they won't go on the rampage.

Sunday, October 26, 2003

Let all the quiet days
Turn and go softly away
Let the sun come when she pleases
And let her leave unstayed.

Light on the window, rain on the sill
Each thing moving, each thing still.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

A recent email conversation -- reproduced by permission --


I came across your name from posts to the "rational
buddhism" group. I hope you don't mind the intrusion.

I was interested in your comments on one particular
post (message 144) in which you say that you don't
particularly believe in reincarnation nor in the kind
of karma that "looks you up." I have an interest in
buddhism (and even attended KCC for a little while)
but I find my reluctance to believe in certain things,
namely karma and reincarnation, a major stumbling
block. Vajrayana practice, as I understand it,
involves certain "mystical" elements like meditation
deities. I remember trying to visualize chenrezig at
an all-day saturday event (that frankly totally
overwhelmed me).

Anyway, I guess my question is, how do you,
personally, reconcile your nonbelief in things like
karma and reincarnation with the mystical parts of
vajrayana and really, buddhism in general?

Thank you,



Hi *******

No intrusion at all, I enjoy thinking and writing
about this sort of thing.

You wrote:
> Anyway, I guess my question is, how do you,
> personally, reconcile your nonbelief in things like
> karma and reincarnation with the mystical parts of
> vajrayana and really, buddhism in general?

Actually my nonbelief in karma and reincarnation
don't clash with the mystical parts at all:
they clash with the theoretical or cosmological
parts of Buddhism. There's no legitimate way, I
think, to move karma and reincarnation out of
the center of Buddhist thought. So by some
definitions I don't qualify as a Buddhist.

If I thought of Buddhism as fundamentally a set
of beliefs about the nature of the universe and
reality, I would have a big problem. I don't,
though: I think of it as fundamentally a set of
methods for ending suffering, cultivating
compassion, and developing a more serviceable

I guess a parallel would be my attitude to
acupuncture. I think the theory behind
acupuncture is probably a lot of hooey, all
that stuff about winds and chakras and
different colored energies and what-not.
But acupuncture works, demonstrably, for
many things. The evidence for that is quite
scientific and solid. So I have no qualms
about going to an acupuncturist, even though
I know he believes in a bunch of stuff that
I don't.

Buddhist practice works. So I do it. I don't
know why it works, and I don't think anyone
else completely knows why either. (But then,
I don't think anyone knows completely how
*anything* works.)

I could say plenty more -- there's some
support for holding this point of view within
Buddhism itself, if you take the teachings on
Emptiness seriously -- but it might be more
useful if I first knew more about your
discomforts with Buddhism. I'm not sure,
for instance, that I know what you mean by
"mystical," and I suspect that you have
some unnecessary difficulties there.

regards --




Thanks for your response. I appreciated your points
about doubt in karma & reincarnation mainly
conflicting with buddhist cosmology and that it's
possible to practice buddhism strictly for its

I think some of my problems with Buddhism have to do
with wanting to see myself as a rational person, one
not easily suckered into believing silly things about
how the world works. Visualizing Chenrezig just seemed
so bizarre to me, made me fear that I was joining some
kind of cult. That is another problem I have - does
the process that you go through as a buddhist actually
give you a clear mind or does it just convince you
that you have a clear mind when you are actually still
deluded? More fundamentally, I waver on the question
of whether I am unsatisfied with "ordinary" existence
and want a radical alternative or whether I just want
to get a little better at living than I am now.

In terms of the mystical things I am averse to, the
best example might be praying to Dorje Chang (I'm not
sure if you do that or if that's another lineage). If
I don't believe that there are any such things as
deities, how can I pray to them?

Thanks again,


> I think some of my problems with Buddhism have to do
> with wanting to see myself as a rational person, one
> not easily suckered into believing silly things
> about
> how the world works.

Ah, yes. One hates to look like a chump :-)

> Visualizing Chenrezig just
> seemed
> so bizarre to me, made me fear that I was joining
> some
> kind of cult.

An all-day Chenrezig sit is probably not
a very good entry-point for someone who wants
to see himself as a rational person! I just
practiced Shamatha for a long time, many
years, before I gingerly took up vajrayana
practice. But I'll pick this point up below.

> That is another problem I have - does
> the process that you go through as a buddhist
> actually
> give you a clear mind or does it just convince you
> that you have a clear mind when you are actually
> still
> deluded?

There probably is no way to tell really, beyond
observation and experience. I had the advantage
of watching my wife practice Buddhist meditation
for years, before I ever took a stab at it. It
was plain to me that her mind was growing clearer,
not foggier. And in general the Buddhists I know
seem a bit less deluded than the non-Buddhists,
but of course there could be lots of explanations
for that.

> More fundamentally, I waver on the question
> of whether I am unsatisfied with "ordinary"
> existence
> and want a radical alternative or whether I just
> want
> to get a little better at living than I am now.
> In terms of the mystical things I am averse to, the
> best example might be praying to Dorje Chang (I'm
> not
> sure if you do that or if that's another lineage).
> If
> I don't believe that there are any such things as
> deities, how can I pray to them?

Actually, we're traditionally instructed NOT
to believe in the deities. Quite emphatically.
We are supposed to bear in mind, as we visualize
them, that they are "not there." What you are
praying to when you pray to Dorje Chang is
your own unobscured mind -- nothing more,
nothing less.

There are a couple basic goals of deity
practices. One is to produce a vision of
something that you know damn well "isn't there"
with so much clarity and vividness that you
realize -- experientially, not just
intellectually -- that your perceptions
of ordinary things are also "visions,"
that is, that your perceptions of things are
not the things themselves. (This is something
that everyone knows, but few people really
believe it, in their heart of hearts.)

The other goal is to recognize the deity
in ourselves -- that is, to try on the
persona of a being that is perfect in
wisdom and compassion. At the heart of
Vajrayana practice is the idea that the
mind can't really be permanently or
essentially corrupted, and that it's
possible (tho extrememly difficult) to
recover its purity by jump-starting it
this way.

Whether this idea is correct or not,
I don't know. I personally have found
vajrayana practice very fruitful, but
rather mysteriously so. That is, I
notice a strong correlation between
how much I'm practicing and how much I
am able to break long-standing negative
habits. Correlation is not causation,
of course. And dealing with your own
mind, you never have a control group,
so it's hard to know. A difficulty that
just goes with the territory.

Anyway, I was a member of KCC for years
before I took up any vajrayana practices.
Plain old Shamatha, "calm abiding," (what
the Zen people call "sitting Zazen"), is
probably a better entry-point for us
rationalists, and in any case it's
considered a foundation practice, sort
of a prerequisite for the vajrayana


PS, please don't hesitate to ask more, if
you have more questions or objections. I'm
enjoying this.



> PS, please don't hesitate to ask more, if
> you have more questions or objections.

Okay, I'll take you up on that offer! One of the lines
I remember from the Dhammapada was something like,
when you have a lesser happiness and you see a greater
one, it only makes sense to put aside the lesser for
the greater. To me this is saying, ordinary life is
okay, but what you get from following the buddhist
path is so much greater that it's worth the
sacrifices. That's something I can't seem to decide
yet. I mean, why should I have to give up a beer now
and again, a glass of wine with a nice meal? When I am
attracted to a beautiful girl, why should I want to
try to focus on the disgusting or loathsome aspects of
her (advice I have come across more than once to
counteract the afflictive emotion of lust)? Why should
I not become angry when I see gross injustices causing
suffering to innocent beings?

The major competing alternative vision of happiness
for me is something along the lines of eat, drink, be
merry. I want to be as open and loving as I can. I
want to try be a positive influence on the world
around me. But I also want to have fun, to enjoy life.
Is the happiness that can be achieved through hard
work on the buddhist path truly greater than secular
happiness? Would buddhism be so effective in helping
me to become open and loving that it would be worth
the hard work and the things I would have to give up?

Lots of questions for you. I really appreciate your
willingness to field them.



Ah, well, this is why you go for the Tibetan
tradition :-) This is *not* a path of
renunciation. There are a lot of wild men
in this tradition -- yogis who left monasteries
or never went into them, who broke precepts
left and right. The original Buddhist tradition,
which the Theravadins still keep up, emphasized
extinguishing desire & anger & so forth
altogether. It's a perfectly good path, and
probably a safer path. But in the vajrayana
we *don't* want to extinguish desire: we want
to harness it & transform it.

You do have to get the upper hand of your
desires, even in this tradition, which does mean
working to undo compulsive craving. If you
*have* to have a fancy new car, even though you
can't afford it, or if you *have* to try to
seduce a woman even though she's married to your
friend, or if you *have* to have a fifth of
whiskey to face the afternoon-- that sort of
thing -- then your life is simply going to be
too turbulent to allow any kind of meaningful
practice. (And you'll be miserable to boot, in
the long run.)

Sure, one of the five precepts for lay people
is that they not drink intoxicants. I have a
drink now and then and feel fine about it: I
think I understand well enough what that precept
is aimed at to know what kind of drinking it
refers to, and having a glass of wine at dinner
isn't it. (Although if I *had* to have that
glass, it probably would be it -- it's not the
object of desire, but the quality of the desire,
that's crucial.)

I don't think of it as two competing kinds of
happiness at all. I haven't made any sacrifices,
and I don't plan to make any. Giving up
compulsive cravings is not a hardship -- it's
a relief. & it opens up the world to all kinds
of unexpected pleasures.

There are unworldly pleasures too -- glimpses
of the bliss that may be at the end of the path.
Sometimes that can happen in some kinds of
practices. Sometimes it just comes down out of
nowhere as a free gift, apparently -- all my
life I've been susceptible to moments of
inexplicable, apparently unmotivated joy, when
everything I experienced was almost unbearably
beautiful. I imagine enlightenment to be like
that, but sustained, and I guess that's what I
think I'm working toward. I don't know if
anyone ever actually gets there.

I don't mean to denigrate the Dhammapada or
the Theravadin tradition at all. The path of
renunciation is a valid one, and I think for
some people it's probably the only one. There
are some people for whom worldly pleasures are
just plain toxic, and they have to get away
from them, just as a alcoholic has to get away
from alcohol, altogether, all the time. But
Tibetan lay Buddhism, as practiced at KCC, is
a quite different path.




Thank you very much for sharing your perspective with
me. For some reason it makes me feel good to think
that a buddhist path is possible for me, which is what
your emails have convinced me of. I guess maybe I was
reading too much Theraveda stuff and maybe taking
everything a little too seriously. Your words have
also reaffirmed my sense of affinity for KCC (although
I've no plans to be in Portland anytime soon). Anyway,
thanks again and I wish you the best with your
practice and life. Or lives! ;)




Glad I could help. It's easy to take things
too seriously, or too literally anyway,
especially if you come out of the
monotheistic traditions, where scriptures
are often taken to be absolutely valid all the
time in all circumstances -- it takes a while
to get used to the comparatively free-and-easy
way Buddhists often relate to their scriptures.

There's a couple books I'd recommend: "Buddhism
Without Beliefs," by Stephen Batchelor -- he was
a monk in the Tibetan tradition for many years,
but eventually broke with that tradition, which
he sees as having accumulated too much
superstition. I don't agree with everything
he says, but it's a very thoughtful book, by
someone who's earned the right to talk about it.

The other book would be "Tantra," by Lama Yeshe.
A beautiful introduction to what tantric practice
(which roughly corresponds to what we've been
calling Vajrayana practice) is all about.

Would you mind if I posted our exchange on my
blog, if I took out names & email addresses?
I think a lot of people have the same questions,
though few ask them so clearly.

warm regards -- & look me up if you do come
through Portland --


Tuesday, October 21, 2003

We drove up to Multnomah Falls yesterday, Martha and I, and we had a talk that cleared my head considerably.

So many things in play here. It's become clear to me, though, that I should no longer keep a "practice journal" -- not that I mean to censor my thoughts when they tend toward practice, necessarily; but that there is a certain privacy and reserve I should keep about it. Without that reserve the practice tends to escape my ownership, to move into the space of things I ought to do. And we know what happens to those :-)

We talked about teaching Dharma. I've been watching the impulse to do that, and what I see ain't pretty. An impulse to "tag," to spray-paint my name on any available surface: except in this case the surfaces are human beings.

Then there's the impulse toward contact -- how to disentangle *that* from tagging? I don't know. Clearly I can't live without it -- though I understand finally, I think, what impels hermits and yogis to head for the woods -- plain simple straightforward desperation. How can anything change in my soul when all my attention is directed to greedily watching for reflections of my ego from other people?

But of course contact is also inextricably tangled up with compassion, loving-kindness, and empathetic joy.

What this works around to in practical terms is -- no more presenting myself, in my blog, primarily as a meditator (which has been rather deceptive anyway.) Only if I do that can I safely give some breathing room to the desire to make contact with it. And that has the incidental advantage of opening the scope of what I post about.

Friday, October 17, 2003

Woke at 4:30, slid silently out of bed, and sat for a few minutes -- just shamatha, no time for ngondro -- and then we drove Tori and Ashley to the airport. So they're off to Japan.

We went out to breakfast together, Martha and Alan and I. Alan full of grief at his sister's departure. He got a vast strawberry waffle, and speared great wedges of it, secured with huge strawberries, trailing plumes of whipped cream, on his fork; and then he took large bites out of this mass.

I was embarassed; I wanted him to stop; I wanted people to know that we had in fact taught him to eat like a civilized creature. But knowing his grief, his sense of abandonment, I held my tongue. There's a time to teach table manners and a time to let them go.

My own father had no sense of that. He lived, by inclination and training (he was a science teacher), in what he thought of as the objective world, and he felt it was his duty to make us all live there, too. The subjective world was unreal and illegitimate. The quintessence of a life worth living, of a human life, was rising above subjectivity, above the tyranny of emotion, and above (what he saw as) its concomittents -- irrationality and local prejudice.

It's the common world-view of science and I owe a lot to it. It makes me uneasy to depart from it with Alan. I worry that I'm short-changing him by not holding him to that discipline -- it is good to learn that grief doesn't make you exempt from table manners.

But it's even more important, more basic, to understand and recognize your emotional responses. And Alan's sophistication there is way past what mine was at twice his age. He doesn't have the inexplicable irrational eruptions of rage and losses of control that I had at thirteen. His emotions are altogether more workable. He knows, when he's pestering his sister and her friends, why he's doing it, and he is able to curb and moderate himself. He knows what upsets him and how he responds to it. And he cuts other people slack when he recognizes that they're upset. Simple understandings, simple skills: but I acquired them much later in life and at much greater cost.

But O, what agony, to sit and watch him eat that way! Took all I had. And I'm grieving at Tori's departure too.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

I am not, by the way, depressed. Far from it. Such a beautiful day. A drenching rain at noon, and then a clear blue sky moments later, and now a soft gray sky lit by the setting sun, and all the buildings warm shades of peach and apricot & all the wet trees glistening. On such a day I run up against the only thing I ever feel is missing in Buddhism -- that is, that there is nobody to thank for all this -- for the sun and the wind and the rain.

Thank you, anyway.
Depression. People who have never suffered it don't get it. You can be talking along with them, thinking you're talking about the same thing; it's all the same words -- then suddenly you realize they're just talking about being bummed out, a little sad, a little blue. They have no idea of that terrifying weight bearing down on you, of the state of mind in which suicide seems the only rational response to the world. And so when they think about anti-depressants, they imagine taking drugs so that you just don't have to feel bad, ever. A whimpy thing to do.

So: to those of you who haven't suffered depression -- no. That's not it. Oh, I have no doubt that the drug companies would love everyone to be taking anti-depressants to cure the passing griefs and sadnesses of everyday life. But everyone I know who takes anti-depressants does so simply to stay alive.

A person in a severe depression doesn't have bad feelings every once in a while. He doesn't return occasionally to despairing thoughts. He is in constant emotional pain, and every single positive thought, every single impulse to action, is met by a host of despairing thoughts. Every one. I'm not exagerating here. Every single one. The idea of brushing his teeth. The idea of eating breakfast. The idea of getting dressed. The idea of going to work. The idea of lifting the curtain to see what the weather is like. Every one of them is met by a swarm of bitter, ridiculing thoughts.

By the time a depressed person has gotten to work, he's already fought dozens of exhausting battles with his own mind. Won some, lost some. He's looking forward to the same all day.

What do anti-depressants do? Well, they don't stop you from feeling bad or having gloomy thoughts, at least none that I have taken do. What they do is stop the swarming. There's space between the despairing thoughts, there's time to lift your head and think, "maybe there are other ways to be."

There's still all the work to do. You have to undo the cognitive habits of depression. You have to change your life to avoid the things that trigger depressive episodes. You have to meditate, or pray, or whatever it is that your people do to learn to know their psychic world. You have to pay attention. You have to exercise and eat good food. If you don't do the work, anti-depressants won't do it for you. All they do is open the space for that work. You still have to do it.

Okay. Back up a bit. This is what anti-depressants do when they work. When you have the right kind, or mix of kinds, in the right dosages. The way medical care is given in America, at any rate, you will probably also have to do this work all by yourself -- establishing the right kind of drug and the right dosage. People talk about anti-depressants being overprescribed, and maybe they are; I don't know. I do know that they are under-monitored. Anyone who prescribes anti-depressants and then just sends their patient off with them should have their license to practice medicine revoked, but it's a common -- maybe the most common -- scenario. What ought to happen is several months of experimentation and close observation, till the right drugs and the right dosages are established: and unfortunately even when that's been established, it can change, probably will change. Unless you luck out (as I did) you won't get this kind of care. You'll get a randomly selected drug from the current pharmacopia, prescribed at a fairly arbitrarily chosen dosage, and be sent on your way.

So you need to do the research and experimentation. Don't, for God's sake , take unsafe doses -- if the largest usual dose doesn't work, then it's the wrong drug, that's all, or else it needs to be taken in tandem with something else. If possible, verify your results with someone who knows you well. "Have I seemed different in the last two weeks? In what ways?" And remember that many of these drugs have a long ramp-up time: it can be a month or two before they start having significant observable effects.

Last caveat. Read the damn labels and pamphlets, and pay attention to them. It's likely enough that your doctor has never read them, but you need to. If they tell you, for instance, not to suddenly stop taking the drug -- to tail off slowly, if you're going off it -- then don't stop taking it suddenly, and tail off slowly.

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Listening to the Dharma leads to contemplation, contemplation to meditation, meditation to the direct experience of mind -- that's what Jamgon Kongtrul says. Then he adds a few lines specially for me:

Thus the previous stages act as causes for the arising of the latter.
When this is not the case, it is like desiring results without any cause.
You may claim that your accumulation, purification, and practice are most excellent,
Bemoaning the hardships of a practice that is merely conjectural.
This kind of experience will not lead to conviction.
Without conviction, you are stranded in doubt,
And doubt is the only supreme obstacle.

I laughed aloud when I read these lines over my slice of pizza at lunch, and kept breaking into laughter as I walked down the street back to work. "Bemoaning the hardships of a practice that is merely conjectural." Surely that's 95% of what I do in this blog.

Monday, October 13, 2003

So tired of struggling against myself, this decades-long inconclusive trench warfare, this miserable war of attrition. Sooner or later one side will run out of energy, maybe, and there will be a victory. Or, much more probably, I will simply run out of life.

The more exasperating in that I don't believe in it. I don't believe there's a wicked Dale and a good Dale struggling for dominance here. Or a good-soldier Dale and an artist Dale facing off. the whole thing's absurd, a mistake, a misunderstanding.

Why am I so often tied up in knots, immobilized? I act like a prisoner, doggedly waiting out my sentence -- passive, sullen, and given to secretive plotting. I pour my energy into mild trangressions -- writing here, for instance, when I'm supposedly working, or going to the strip clubs when I'm supposedly at the gym, or studying German over long breakfasts when I ought to be meditating -- while my "official" activities, my actual work, my dharma practice, my relations with my family, my exercise -- get squeezed into the times when my guilt has gotten the better of me and insisted I do something, for god's sake.

So it goes on.

Is it better than it used to be? Has there been any improvement over the years? Well, yes. The transgressions are less destructive. I believe in them less, they're a little less compulsive. But the basic structure of my psyche hasn't changed much. Much of my life I spend thinking like a prisoner. I'm just an older prisoner, now, less apt to kick against the pricks, cagier in my subterfuges. And in some ways it's worse: my lunges against living this way, though they were by far the most destructive phases of my life, at least reflected a determination to change things.

Ngondro seemed to be threatening to really break this open, but now it's been incorporated into the structure. Now it's part of my "official" life, the life I live for show, the life I do as little in as I can get away with. Of course, I've only managed to absorb it that way by not really doing much of it. I think it still has the potential to break things wide open.

I'm reminded of William Stafford's poem about a prisoner having locks smuggled into his cell in pies, sneaking extra fetters in past the guards, working carefully by night to fit extra bars into his cell-window. That's the sort of prisoner I am.

For the present. In some versions of the story. There are others.
Reading How the Swans came to the Lake, a history of Buddhism in America. I was struck by one passage that described a woman who had lost her temper with her kids the night before. She asked a Zen Roshi if sitting zazen would change her so that she wouldn't lose her temper with them so often. According to the book the Roshi and his friends had a big laugh about that, at the idea that sitting zazen would change someone.

Maybe I understand why they were laughing. Maybe because you can't contain Buddhist transformations, you can't predict you'll come back from a sitting-raid with a the particular change you wanted, the particular dharma-booty you had in mind. Or maybe because in a very real sense, nothing changes. Bokar Rinpoche said simply "There is nothing to do. Nothing to do." And he meant it.

But I also understand that these were single men laughing at a woman raising children. If a man had asked them if sitting zazen would allow him to have a direct perception of emptiness, which would be precisely as silly a question, for precisely the same reasons, they wouldn't have laughed. And in fact they were wrong, demonstrably, measurably wrong: in fact sitting zazen (or practicing any other version of calm abiding) does correlate with losing your temper less often.

Roshis or not -- I have more respect for a woman trying to extend the limits of her compassion than for a bunch of men (who have removed themselves from the difficulties of child-rearing) congratulating each other on the sophistication of their understanding of the Dharma.

I wonder sometimes how women can stand to practice the Dharma. Sometimes the sexism's so strong you could cut it with a knife; other times it's just a whisper. But it's almost never absent.

Friday, October 10, 2003

Carefully now. Trying to put this battered practice back together.

Three evenings in a row, going to talks by B. Alan Wallace on science, mind, and buddhism. Good talks, but doing anything in the evening breaks the fragile routine that my practice rests upon. Baffled again by how strong and how weak my practice is.

This morning -- quiet gray light -- I dusted the offering bowls and the butter lamp and my photographs of Sarah and Michael and my little wooden Buddha. 6:30 -- too late to practice and still have my leisurely breakfast -- so of course practice goes by the board.

But as I padded into the kitchen -- thinking of the fact that today's Friday, Dionna and Cassidy's day -- the thought came into my mind that there's nothing all that strange about the difficulty I have maintaining practice. I'm only intermittently convinced that Samsara won't bring me lasting happiness, and I don't think I'm ever convinced that practice will. It's just a hope. In such circumstances only the routine of a monastery or a retreat would be likely to hold me in a consistent practice.

There's a reason why the Ngondro practice always begins with the Four Thoughts. I am such a beginner, such a rude, awkward beginner. Without the Four Thoughts firmly in mind, of course I'll wander.

1. How incredibly rare it is to have come into consciousness as a human being, with access to the Dharma and the resources to practice. Winning the lottery is, by comparison, an everyday experience.

2. How fragile this existence is. Today I probably walked past a dozen bacteria that could have killed me within hours. They just happened to miss, today. The drunken bozos in their pickups happened to run down some other pedestrian today, and not me. The aneurism happened to pop up in someone else's heart today.

3. How all these pleasures, even the ones that pan out, come to an end, or go sour: they carry the seeds of anguish and loathing in them.

4. How all my habits drive on, and on, maybe even past death, past this universe. Ten billion lifetimes in a million universes frittered away in anxiety and craving, each gulp of salt water making me thirstier, each surrender to habit making the next surrender more likely. As Alan Wallace said, it's not the materialist concept of death that's scary. Non-existence, a light going out? That's a piece of cake -- all my troubles over -- whatever mess is left, somebody else will have to clean it up! No, what's scary is the thought of these habits living on, life after life.

I don't think I have the thoughts in the right order, there. Not even sure I have them separated into the right slots. But contemplating those is what will bring me to practice, if anything will.

And this is my daughter's eighteenth birthday. That may also counts as "a thought that turns the mind," I hope. Her girlfriend made a beautiful scarf for her. I can practice for them, if not for me -- always easier for me to motivate myself for others' benefit than for my own. (Not because of bodhicitta, I'm afraid, but just because I believe in others, and I don't believe in myself, not really. I don't really believe I'm a real person.)

Enough, for now. May you all be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. May you all have happiness and the causes of happiness. May you all never be without the sacred joy that is without suffering. May you all dwell in the great equanimity, impartial, free of attachment and aversion. Amen.