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 ( 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 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.