Monday, September 29, 2003

In for a penny, in for a pound... here's Sarah's answer to me:

Hi Dale,
Well, it is an interesting issue. I read your entries, since there seemed to be an invitation to do so, and quite enjoyed them myself. One thing for sure: you have to go on writing, and if journaling is the way to do it, then that's that. You have a special talent for it, and I always feel that when there's a gift there's not much choice about using it. Of course there really is a choice, but I think you know what I mean. I understand your relationship with words, and I personally think the power and beauty of expressive language stands as its own value. And in this case in particular, using a journal to reflect your practice, it may serve as a kind of mindfulness practice and an enhancement of self awareness. The real question is the purpose of making it available to others at this point. That might be an interesting aspect to investigate. Maybe try to journal without posting it and see how it feels. What's different about that? I'm not saying necessarily that you should stop posting it, but just to check it out, find out why you do it. There is a general advise from Buddhist masters in the Tibetan tradition that talking about one's practice isn't good, especially talking about one's realization. This is primarily to avoid pride and competitiveness. It's also because any realization tends to disappear as soon as one grasps onto it. So its an interesting thing to think about, to practice with. I don't know if that guideline is even applicable in your case - it's up to you... You're fortunate to have such an available teacher as Lama Michael. Reading your description of his teaching was really inspiring.

All the best, Sarah

Saturday, September 27, 2003

Worth noting progress, since so often I focus on the progress not made --

I learned from my father to think of insects as goodly creatures, and not to kill them unnecessarily. And I would observe most of them with interest. But still they used to fluster me if they came upon me unawares, especially big ones. And I had almost a phobia about earwigs and carpenter ants -- I hated them, couldn't stay in a room with them, killed them in a desperate panic when I couldn't get away from them.

I've noticed the last few nights, when moths, big gray moths, have been getting into the house, and have been unexpectedly fluttering into my face, how much my responses have changed. I brush them gently out of my face, careful not to hurt them. There's no longer that rush of panic, no longer that absurd conviction that they're going to injure my eyes or crawl up my nose -- no more of those silly images that used to have so much power over me. They're just fellow sentient beings, confused by the light. They're company.

It's shamatha that has changed this. Having cultivated the ability to recognize compulsive thought sequences starting up, and to unmoor them, so that they just drift away. It's an automatic reflex now, apparently, at least sometimes. I didn't set out to change my relationship with insects. It just happened.

Thursday, September 25, 2003

Die holden Wünsche blühen
Und welken wieder ab,
Und blühen und welken wieder--
So geht es bis ans Grab.

Das weiß ich und das vertrübet
Mir alle Lieb und Lust;
Mein Herz ist so klug und witzig
Und verblutet in meiner Brust.

--Heinrich Heine

By the way, if you see this with weird characters in it, you can make it look civilized, in Windows, by going to View/Encoding and selecting "Unicode".
So I'll get to see if the new blogger "draft" function works.

I'm watching the difference between writing with and writing without posting. Or, more exactly, between thinking about writing with and thinking about writing without. Certainly an element -- more than I had thought -- of "showing away" or "boasting" as the Tong Len aphorism would have it. Though I don't think it's boasting about realization so much as boasting about cleverness and "remorseless honesty." (What a tell-tale phrase THAT is, eh? Why should honesty without remorse be such an admirable thing?)

How to distinguish, though, between the simple desire for communion with other sentient beings, closely allied (I hope) with compassion and empathetic joy, and the desire to toot my own horn? & given the difficulty of making the distinction, how important is it (at this stage, when so many much grosser confusions run so much of my life?) I'm inclined to be lenient with almost any confusions that conduce to practice.

I wonder about artists, Jef Gunn for example, who did a show of prints called "Taking and Sending" -- how does that fit with his practice? Since the Western culture of art is so Promethean -- Nietzschean -- Faustian -- how do artists who also practice the Dharma deal with that? There's a lot of them, after all. I wanted to "be a writer" (another tell-tale phrase!) in my youth, not because I had anything in particular to say, but because I wanted to be a Great Man, and have admiring prefaces written about me: and the Great Man carreer paths were pretty thin on the ground for shy softspoken athletically un-gifted boys.

Odd coincidence that at precisely this point Martha and I are planning to start classes in thangka painting, every other Saturday thru February or so. First class next Saturday. Extraordinary to be able to take classes directly from Sanje Elliot. I remember having twinges of jealousy about the Paris cafes in the thirties or San Francisco at the heyday of City Lights, when people were tripping over soon-to-be-considered great poets and artists and musicians on every streetcorner. But that's what Portland and the American Dharma scene in general feels like to me right now. I get to know Michael and Sarah and Jef and Sanje. On the right streetcorner at the right time.

And of course then I paint myself in as James Boswell or Dorothy Wordsworth or Anais Nin, great at one remove. It does still have power over me, the desire to be a Great Man. Remarkable how old stuff keeps coming back. It's like a Shakespearean stage: the old confusions dart off stage left, and reappear moments later, stage right -- different costumes, playing a different roles, but the same old confusions.
I wrote this in response to a post by Tonio (, a gifted poet who has looked at the possibility of surgery that could result in aphasia:


I wrote a pages-long comment that haloscan (irony of ironies) seems to have lost -- so I'll attempt to repeat myself here --

I often, often find myself toning down my gratitude so as to keep it within the supposedly "normal" range. I used to view this tendency to effusion with suspicion. Now I'm more prone to think of it as an unfashionable accuracy.

The prospect of being without words terrifies me. Funny that it should, since I'm so often dissatisfied with them, disappointed in them for not be able to break me out of my solitude. But facility with words is maybe my most deeply treasured personal territory. It's only today that I've recognised that my recent crisis over whether to keep a practice journal is not a detour or a side-issue, but the main road of the dharma -- this is the deepest attachment I have. "Can't I practice the dharma and lose all my other attachments, but keep just this little one?" -- a dead give away that I've come to the central issue.

I remember vividly learning to read, the sense of triumph, of coming into my heritage. I keep learning new languages partly, I think, chasing the echo of that triumph.

A second funny thing, for someone so wrapped up in words, is that I don't really believe them. "Words, words, words... why, it says here that old men have gray beards!" Words are evasions, spins, cover-ups, weapons, substitutes. "En arxe en o logos" -- "In the beginning was the word" -- has always struck me as preposterous. Words come after.

Revealing a tendency to hypergraphia myself, here, and I'm not at all sure where I'm coming from or where I'm headed with it. I think I'm working my way around to my own obscure version of "thank you."

Practicing in the evening, now, instead of the morning. More noise in the house, but it puts practice in competition with the dead chill-out evening time rather than with the fruitful morning work time. We'll see.

I suppose I could try to translate Heine's poem, though I find Heine's simplicity daunting. He always comes into English either chirpy or nasty -- so hard to modulate that irony properly, and to make the Stimmungsbruch, the "breaking of the mood," as sharp and unexpected as he does.

The sweet wishes blossom
And then they wither away,
And blossom and wither again--
So it goes on to the grave.

I know it, and it darkens
All pleasure and all love;
My heart is so very clever
And its bleeding will not stop.

Oh well. It's really breathtaking in German, I promise, and it doesn't have pitiful rhymes such as "love/stop," either.

Lunch with Roger. He told me how he came to the dharma: driving over Santiam Pass in the snow, 55 mph, and someone made a left turn in front of him. He walked away from the collision, albeit with a circular bruise faithfully outlining the steering wheel on his breast, and a bright red seatbelt-burn baldric. But it made him realize that death might not politely wait its turn, phone ahead, and come calling in his old age: it might drop in at any time, like a tactless in-law, whether he was ready or not.

So he started reading about death, everything he could get his hands on, and eventually came to Sogyal Rinpoche's "Tibetan Book of Living and Dying." Thence to Michael's community college class on "Buddhist Perspectives on Death and Dying." That was ten years ago. And now he's planning to do the three-year cloistered retreat just as soon as we can raise the money to get the retreat land put together for it.

I wonder about writing a fund-raising "article" (one needn't call it a fund-raiser, of course) just telling the stories of how the ten-some people who want to do the three-year retreat at Goldendale came to the dharma, and came to the willingness -- eagerness, in fact -- to go into retreat for three-plus years.
Of course, little mind jumps at once to imagining forgoing the written word altogether, cultivating revulsion for it, and begins generating angst about that. But -- apart from the fact that such angst is simply the same attachment turned inside out -- that's simply not the point, any more than forgoing sex and despising it is the point of undoing sexual compulsiveness.

As Sarah wrote in the intro to Creation and Completion: "The tantric approach is to use whatever we have, whatever we do already, as the method." So for instance in taking Sarah as my guru -- I'm well aware that, in a quite real sense, I'm just having a crush on another woman, doing what I've always done. The Theravadan approach would be to avert the mind, cultivate indifference or downright aversion for women -- in fact many Tibetans would do the same thing. But the tantric approach is instead of dismissing the compulsion, to hijack it. All that energy is there already, bound up in knots. It can be used, if you have the skill and strength to untie it and harness it.

But that doesn't mean that you get to keep the attachment. "Costing not less than everything" -- any real path comes to that in the end.

Saturday, September 13, 2003

-- taking a little leave of presence --

Maybe back in a while, but not before September 25th. Sarah suggested, very wisely, that I go on with the journal but refrain from posting for a while, and just observe what feels different about it. I'm not incommunicado or anything, though -- feel free to email me.

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

So there it is. So quick bright things come to confusion.

Original sin, some Christians call it. This knack for turning kindness into contempt, communion into loneliness. And it accounts for the facts, "saves the appearances" well enough, even if it doesn't explain them very satisfyingly. A perverse, inexplicable veer into evil.

So quick bright things come to confusion. A better line now, maybe, than when Shakespeare wrote it, when "confusion" had four syllables and made a fine satisfying iambic close. Now there are four beats where there should be five: the line falters. It ends lame, awkward, plaintive.

If you believe in God the creator, you have to believe something like that. That good things can come to evil spontaneously. If you're a Buddhist you can take it differently. You don't have to believe we have ever been innocent or unconfused. The confusion last night didn't start when Michael didn't see my hand, and my will veered to evil. The confusion was already concealed in how I clutched at the communion, how I wanted to own it, make it permanent, and make it mine.

The sadness lingers. So quick bright things come to confusion.

Monday, September 08, 2003

Evening at KCC. Martha and I have come for the evening sit. It's the first Sunday of the month, so it's been already an all-day sit for many of these people. Lama Michael has been teaching since 9:00 this morning, and there is not a trace of weariness or dullness in him. Some new people are here. He gives shamatha instructions geared to newcomers -- simple, pithy, unmistakable. And entirely new: I've never heard him introduce shamatha this way: it leads me into the hour's meditation with a new spin on it. Seven years I have been taught by Michael, and every time it's new. I'm sitting right up by the shrine, and some of the flowers smell distinctly, sweet, decaying a little, an odor strangely like pumpkins. I've never used scent for my meditational tether before. So I try it.

The hour glides past. The direction I breathe -- I don't know how else to put it -- changes the scent of the flowers. I breathe in backwards and it's flowers; downward and it's pumpkins. How have I lived forty-five years without ever knowing there are different ways to pass the air over my palate, different ways to smell?

Before I have been impatient once, before it's occurred to me to long for the end of the session, comes the bell, the sweet, pure tone, lingering in the air. We murmur the dedication prayer. The bell rings again. Silence. The bell. Silence. The bell.

People stir, ease their legs, shift, stretch. Bill and I scoot back to the side of the shrine room so we can lean against the wall and face Michael. It's question-and-answer time.

The first question is a highly technical one about the eight consciousnesses. Another technical question about offerings in an unusual Tantric practice. I become anxious about the newcomers. I suspect Bill does too, for in a pause he asks, without looking up, "why do we make offerings?" Bill, of course, could speak for two hours about why we make offerings. The newcomers sit up straight and focus. Michael begins to speak.

He is "on," tonight, as Martha and I put it. Someone asks why you'd make offerings to the buddhas -- who, after all could need offerings less? Out of this question Michael shapes a beautiful teaching on perfect generosity, letting go of gifts. He is spellbinding, Every thing he says is simple, obvious, grounded in years of practice. And it turns the world on its head. Often the best offerings, he says, are the slightest ones, the ones we can give with no regrets or strings attached. The water in the offering bowls. The insubstantial gift of a rose we see and silently offer to the buddhas, multiplied into a million roses in our mind. Wherever we are there is something beautiful we can find, and give away.

I say spellbinding, but that's not right. There's no spell on this crowd. We laugh and joke like old, old friends at a reunion. But the thread of discourse never falters.

The discussion is about to end, and suddenly I am anxious. I have questions, urgent questions I want to ask before it's over. But we've left the question and answer format: everyone's chiming in, and no one's raising their hand. I raise my hand. Michael doesn't see me. I raise my hand again. Michael misses me again.

What is my question? It changes. At first it's the question about this journal. Should I be keeping it at all? Should it be public? Then as the discussion washes past my dismay grows. I don't want to ask Michael. He doesn't understand words the way I do. He's always impatient if I start to "close-read" a text. When Martha suggested that we read aloud from a text during a study group, Michael plainly thought this a waste of time. We'd already read the words -- our job now, plainly, was to grapple with the meaning. The words were just symbols: it's the meaning that counts.

I am sinking into loneliness. The love of words themselves -- that each word has its own lilt, heft, and tang, that each casts a different-shaped shadow in the mind -- the desire to loose "my" words into the world (not mine, not mine at all) -- suddenly I'm sure that Michael will see none of this. He'll tell me bluntly, plainly, to keep my practice to myself. It's not for parading on the street.

The discussion has moved to blessings, asking blessings from the buddhas, from the guru. A sort of corollary to the topic of gifts. Now I know what my question really is. Again and again I have found myself formulating questions to put to Sarah, only to realize that they're not really questions. I just yearn for contact. But her time is precious, not to be wasted on false questions. So I leave the questions unsent. I know what the real issue is: I just want her blessing. I want to stand a moment in her mind's eye, in the full light of that radiant compassion. That's all. So now I know my question for Michael. Is there some formal way that people ask for blessings from their teacher? Just a momentary request, with a quite formal response, which wouldn't unfairly eat away her time?

But now my thoughts are stumbling over each other. Is that really what I want? How might Michael feel, if he learned that I chose Sarah over him? Do I want to reveal that fact to him -- to the Sangha -- to anyone? Is this, itself, a real question, or just a similar play for the limelight? Is there a Dharma component to this desire to ask questions at all, or is it just that most heinous of felonies, in my family's culture, the high crime of "wanting attention"?

The session is ending. It's moved organically, naturally to a close. I give up on asking my question, look down at my folded hands. Kathleen says something to Michael that I can't catch. Michael says "It's just come to my attention that Dale has had a question for a while." Everyone looks at me. I feel my face going red. I feel stupid. The conviction that Michael is indulging the weakest, flabbiest, most unpromising member of his Sangha washes over me. I respond by sitting up straight and lifting my bearded chin, and saying firmly, "It can wait. It should wait." Someone says, "Now everybody's curious." Michael looks inquiring, inviting. I hate them all. "I should wait." I say decisively, dismissively.

So people are getting up. Someone asks me whether my question needs an immediate response. "Oh no," I say grimly. "It'll keep."

It'll keep all my life, I think to myself. I make for the door. Martha looks at me. "Are you all right?" she asks. "I'm fine," I say, but I don't manage to smile. I take my shoes and escape to the porch to put them on.

The night is cool and wet. I put on my shoes and walk back and forth on the sidewalk, waiting for Martha to come out. Other people come out, and I wish them good night, warmly. I'm recovering a little. Martha comes out after a while. We walk to the car, arm in arm. "Do you want to talk?" she asks gently. "We can talk, or we can be quiet, if that's better."

"I think quiet is better," I say. After a few blocks, I add, "not quiet, necessarily. But I don't think I want to talk about it right now." So we talk about other things. But I'm under the shadow, for the rest of the evening. Read aloud to Martha and the kids. Then to bed.

Woke this morning at 5:00 and did my practice. Vajradhara is coming back a little. It's all still pretty faint and ghostly. Buddha Shakyamuni turned golden and bright, though, toward the end. And I feel all the benefits of the practice returning to me. One of them, after all, was my turn of alienation last night -- not the alienation, I mean, but my clear awareness of it. I feel stronger than ever the conviction that there's no way to back out of this practice. There is only forward.

Sunday, September 07, 2003

So. Back to it. Knees sore, drenched in sweat, but so much happier. A full week since I practiced last.

This last week -- well -- theme music from Star Wars -- sound of desperate space-battles -- and scrolling down on the screen:

-- Ngondro, Episode V: Samsara Strikes Back --

Temptations crowding in. Once upon a time, remembering Screwtape -- "what really delights [ the Devil ] is to gain a man's soul and give him *nothing* in return." I thought of taking as my motto, "Make the Devil pay!" As I recall I pictured it in black-letter, spelled quaintly: "Mak the Divel Paye!" I've lived under worse mottos.

But mostly, of course, the temptations are of the sort Lewis imagined: the temptation to piddle away my time in computer games, or rereading seafaring novels for the umpteenth time, curled around a bowl of ice cream, or listlessly stirring up a half-dead libido with stale pornography. Anything repetitive, hermetic, and sterile.

I focus on the livelier temptations, not because they're really more dangerous, but because they sound more like temptations, the sort of things St Anthony had to deal with. And of course they're part of the continuum: without the real delights lingering in memory the pale echoes of them wouldn't have such power. The devil does grudgingly pay, every once in a while.

But only when his back's against the wall. Which is why the cycle runs this way: when I've really been practicing, when my mind comes up out of its torpor -- that's when I become capable of real pleasure, and meet with real temptation. What I do with that temptation, actually, is not very important. So long as it doesn't draw me away from practice.

It's easy -- and absolutely fatal -- to mistake the location of the temptation. So I'm tempted to go off to the strip bar next Friday, when Cassidy and Dionna will be there. It's not actually Friday. I *can't* resist going to the bar Friday, when it's Sunday. That's not the battle: and the solution is not to resolve not to go on Friday. The battle is "who owns my mind right now?" And the solution is to turn my mind away *now*. That's all I can do. Resolutions simply fan the flames, increase my focus on Friday, and on the strip bar. Maybe the temptation will comandeer me Friday: I can't know that. But I can let Friday's temptation happen on Friday. The temptation now -- the temptation I can deal with -- is the temptation to focus on hypothetical future pleasures, rather than focusing on what's right here, right now.

Thursday, September 04, 2003

The scariest thing to me is the thought that maybe in all the vicissitudes of practice, there isn't really any progress -- that maybe it's a zero-sum game, just oscillations of fruitful-looking practice and apparent backsliding, swaying around a fixed point. Because my progress in one direction -- toward the grave -- is steady. No backsliding there.
I haven't posted in a long time, for two reasons. One is that my practice has gone to pieces, and it's too embarrassing, after having presented myself as the resolute practitioner, to confess how easily the prospect of lingering an extra 45 minutes over breakfast has been trumping the aspiration to free all sentient beings from suffering. The other is that Lama Michael has emphasized a couple times lately that you should keep your practice secret.

Now, it makes all the sense in the world to keep your practice secret. When you've got a huge snarl of thoughts, and you're trying to tease out the threads of ego-attachment, who in their right mind would tie extra threads to their fingers while they worked? Isn't this job hard enough already?

So I wonder if I should be making this public. But then also I don't know how public it is: no one I see daily, or even weekly, reads it, and mostly it lives in this weird half-private half-public cyberspace, where we all prance about in our underwear with paper bags over our heads, anonymous exhibitionists all. So far I don't feel any ill-effects from it. And people have said it's useful to them. I'm still baffled by the interest people have shown -- I would think that nothing, nothing could be more boring than a personal practice journal; that it would be like listening to someone's interminable recitation of last night's dreams. Though on the other hand really what I have missed most, in reading Dharma books, is the accounts of failure and jury-rigging -- of the dogged climbs back onto the bicycle, the tiptoeing around sleeping vicious dogs, the clever use of duct tape -- the struggles of ordinary people to practice in ordinary life. There are plenty of accounts of great saints, foretold for greatness, born under multiple rainbows, flowers springing up in their footprints. Those may be inspirational -- but how useful are they for those of us whose destined greatness is a few millions lives farther down the pike?

I should just ask Michael or Sarah. I originally pretended in fact that I was writing this for Sarah, but I've never had the guts to actually mention it to her, or give her the address. I have refrained from things I knew would be bad for me -- finding out how to track "hits," or adding in "comment" software, for example. But my resistance to the idea of asking Michael or Sarah should clue me in that there may be something iffy here.