Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Want of Wanting

No want of wanting -- not here.
I want, and I hold this want
With wanting, and I fend it off
Wantonly, with wanting.

Just wanted you to know.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Verges, Planted and Unplanted

So I walked along the curbs of the parking lots, looking intently at all the plants on the wild meadowland side. Grasses and ferns and millions of things I don't even have loose generic names for -- plants that look like St John's Wort but aren't (they don't have little holes in their leaves), and litte vividly green feathery humps, and things that might or might not be peas growing wild, and tiny flowers that grow up on a fractal lattice of thin bare stems.

And then I crossed to the planted verges and looked at pansies (were they pansies? will I ever know?) and all the orderly shrubs waiting their turn to blossom. I thought of what I said to Lekshe: that I have a very hard time imagining that plants could want to do something that I could help them with. That they could want to drink, and I could water them; that they could want to climb and I could give them something to climb on. Just not a way I'm used to thinking. & I thought of weeding, a hard concept for me -- (this living thing gets to grow here, but that living thing does not -- on my whim? Because of my esthetic prejudices? It's one thing for sustenance, but quite another for decoration.)

Most of all, of course, I'm unwilling to be stupid. To do things I'm no good at, to make the silly mistakes that go along with doing something new. Then comes the twist of desire again, that wringing pain.

"Lord, take away my sins -- but not yet." That's how St Augustine says he used to pray. Oh, I grow stupider by the minute. I'm like a little boy that takes complicated machinery to bits and then wanders away from it. Putting it back together would be way too hard. Some adult must know how to do it. That's what they're there for. Isn't it? "One fine morning, when my work is done / I'm going to fly / Away home."

But --

For forty-some years now I have always been the first awake. The first dressed. The first out the door. Dawn has always called to me urgently. The moment my eyes open, I want the sky, the new air. It's second nature for me to slide from bed like a bright quiet snake, open and close doors as silently as any thief, and make for the morning air.

I walk through the webs that never-discouraged spiders have thrown across the sidewalks. I consider the cloudscape or starscape, or greet the rain with my tousled head. Automatically I find the moon and the planets, if it's clear. Check for the stars that have borne me company in evil times. Capella. Sirius. Vega above all, my watch-star. These days I scan the northeast horizon eagerly hoping to see Vega's first rising of the year. But I always miss it. The first time I see Vega in the Spring it's always a surprise. She always has a sly grin, that first time. Way higher in the sky than she should be. "I got past you again, little mammal! You'll never catch me, you know." I know. If I ever did catch her, what would I do? Dig myself a grave, I guess, and lie down in it.

Smell of wet grass and earth, tree-seed and pavement oil.

Celestials and non-celestials, rejoice! The spirit of awakening is precious. May it arise in whom it has not arisen; once arisen may it not diminish, but ever increase and flourish.

Monday, March 29, 2004


several people milling in the foyer of the sangha

"We went walking in Forest Park and it was covered in tender new nettles..."

"...making nettle tea, and some splashed out onto my hand..."

"Yes, making nettle tea. like Milarepa"

Milarepa, 12th Century? Tibetan Yogin, lived for years on nothing but nettles while he meditated in a cave. He turned green from eating nettles.

"'Eat good food.'"


"The note?"

"Stung by the nettles you mean?"

"No, by boiling water on my hand."

"We got stung, too, a couple times. We picked them with grocery receipts"

"Yes, the note in his topknot. You know, Marpa sent him off with a note to read when things got so bad he couldn't take it anymore. So when his nettle-pot broke..."

"You went picking nettles with grocery receipts?"

"No, no, we didn't set out to pick nettles. They were just there, and we were walking."

"That's what we had in our pockets."

"That's right, his nettle-pot broke, and there was a whole, like, mold of the nettle-pot, where the nettles had built up on the inside."

"So then he had nothing to eat up there in his cave. And he was getting weaker and weaker, till he couldn't meditate. So he remembered the note in his topknot."

"Then what did he do?"

"He made up a song, of course"

Milarepa's famous for improvising songs. 'The Ten Thousand Songs of Milarepa,' is a classic of Tibetan poetry

(Martha croons) "I'm so bluuuuuuuueeee.... now that I'm not greeeeeeeen."


"And the note said, 'Eat good food'"

"I thought that was the Buddha? The girls in the village made him eat?"

"No, no. I mean yeah, that happened to the Buddha too."

"But so Milarepa was really hungry."

"And then" appealing to lama Michael "he ran into some hunters, right?"

Lama Michael nods solemnly "And killed them and ate them."


"But by that time he was really good at getting rid of bad karma. Didn't take him hardly any time at all to get rid of it."

(more laughter)

"He did not kill and eat the hunters. They gave him some meat"
Why "Koshtra?"

"Koshtra," by the way, was a nickname of mine in college. Ultimately it derives from E.R. Eddison, The Worm Ouroborus. Lord Juss has a dream about his missing brother, in which an owl carved on his bedpost tells him to "Inquire in Koshtra Belorn."

Koshtra Belorn, as it turns out, is remote mountain, which the heroes have to find, and climb, in order to rescue Lord Juss's brother. Eddison, who wrote in the 1930's and 40's, was a climber, as well as a scholar of Greek and Old Norse, and a writer of gorgeously purple, pseudo-Elizabethan prose, and something of a right-wing crank in the Yeats/Eliot/Pound line. I love his books, especially A Fish Dinner in Memison, but I've learned not to recommend them to people. An acquired taste which most people are not going to acquire.
Twelve Years Ago

I touched the cold white skin of her shoulder, made dry and papery by months of chemotherapy, and quietly said "goodbye, Zenetta."

Even the most ordinary bedroom, my mother-in-law's sewing room latterly turned into a sickroom, still piled up with uncut, unsewn patterns and fashion magazines, gains a small solemnity from death.

Such a fragile little object on the bed, quite still.

I got the phone call at home. My six-year old daughter didn't believe me at first when I told her Grandma was dead. Then she burst into hot tears and fiercely pounded on me with her fists, furious at me for saying such a thing.

We drove over to Grandma's under one of those infinitely nuanced gray skies. Western Oregon specializes in them: pleats of pearly white and slate gray, bubbling wells of silver and scudding drifts of tarnish, layers of gun-metal and blue steel, froths of yellow-gray in the lighter pools where you might guess the sun lay. A quiet, covering, seeling sky.

All the many deaths of my life ran together in that sky. I would like to say goodbye myself under a sky like that, a sky of infiinite permutations.

Friday, March 26, 2004

In Love

You ask, am I in love? And I might answer "when am I not in love?" Which some, I realize, might take facetiously.

But I understand the questions behind the question. Is my marriage threatened? No. Am I going to "do anything about it"? No. Is it then just a game? No to that, either.

Well, then, is it gratuitous suffering? Sure. All suffering is gratuitous, remember? That's my schtick.

You see, the thing is, I would be here anyway, if I tried not to be here. All I can do is set the bounds, and watch it run.

My intentions are almost never even muddy, though. In some ways this is no different from any of the times I've been in love in the past. The feelings are no different, the swoops from joy to despair, the ridiculous overloading of the slightest words, the constriction in the throat, the inability to speak, the preening, the self-contempt. It's all just the same. Business as usual. Except that the intention stays perfectly clear -- I won't cross the bounds. That is different, and it changes the cast of light completely. The light and shade fall in different places. Among many other differences, it means that everyone involved is on the same side. That matters.

This isn't virtue, not in the way I used to understand it anyway. It's clarity. Understanding exactly how it would run if the bounds were crossed. I've been old enough to know better for decades, but now, it seems, I actually do know better. And I know that people are pulling for me. I won't let them down by letting myself down. (Not that I really have the option, either. That, I have peevishly to admit, helps too.)

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Dark Again

The nighttime earth seems so wide and empty. Gusts of wind, slaps of rain. Houses all sealed up. Everything locked away.

I have wandered through so many dark streets, searching, plotting, hoping. In the end the dark becomes its own thing. A wind and a rattling leaf. Nothing else.

I learned the constellations. Draco coiling around the dippers. Perseus all dim-witted and flecked with double stars. The great faded square of Pegasus. But I stopped before I learned them all. I had a dread even then, as a teenager, of filling up the sky completely with names, of encouraging the delusion that my mind contained the night.

Not that I need have worried. Come cloud, come moon, and everything shifts. I wandered the hills outside of Springfield by starlight and moonlight and cloudlight, in dry weather and wet, summer and winter. Always a new sky, always an old despair. I counted up my fingers. "Ten," I whispered. "I have ten fingers." Aldebaran glowed near the horizon. "Ten!" I shrieked.

Into the woods, into the dark loom of oak trees. I knew all the paths. I knew where the dogs would bark and where they wouldn't. Where the abandoned barn was, above the quarry. Where the rocks cropped up in the path, and where the mud would spread in the rainy times. Driven by strangled wishes and incoherent fantasies, I would wander for hours. Waiting for the dawn. When the sky began to lighten I would go to the open spaces, so I could watch the sunrise, and weep.

Another night without sleep and without company, self-exiled, listening to the rain and heater-fan. The mistakes and the humiliations weigh heavily on me tonight. This morning. I've thrown away far more than most people have ever had, squandered fortune after fortune. The insides of my eyelids are raw, and there's a sourness on my tongue. Nothing has changed. Thirty-three years have wound past, but that means nothing to me. I'm in the dark again, waiting for the sunrise.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Anger: a naming of parts

"Anger is always poison." I say that a lot. The statement is generally met with polite dissent, and careful distinctions between good (useful, cathartic, motivating) anger and bad (vain, self-aggravating, debilitating) anger. It makes me uneasy to be the person rejecting nuance and distinction, so I come back to it frequently and mull it over.

I don't find myself changing my mind at all. Anger is always a poison. I still think that. But in my last mull-over it occurs to me that I actually I break the experience of anger into several different parts, only one of which I think is poisonous. So here is my naming of parts:

1. There's the event that (in that very telling English phrase) "makes us angry." Let's call it, (dropping a couple thousand years of philsophical debate for the moment), the "external event." Say the assassination of Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

2. There's our interpretation of that event, say "Sharon is gratuitously throwing gas on the fire."

3. There's our karmic response to this interpretation, or, as we would say, our emotional response to it. According to both standard Dharma and standard psychology, this response is involuntary. Nothing to be done about it: it arises before volition is in play.

4. There's our reaction to the response. This is where we, as you might say, ratify the anger. We make it our *policy* to be angry about this thing. We take our stand.

It's only the last part, the reaction, that I mean when I say that anger is a poison. That's what I mean when I say "anger."

We customarily lump the interpretation, the emotional response, and the reaction into one big clump, and that's what we ordinarily call "anger." Actually most people most of the time lump the event into the clump too; hence we talk about things "making us angry," as if the progression from step 1 to step 4 were inexorable.

So I often find myself at cross-purposes with people who think that I am saying they should drop it at step two, and interpret all events as beneficial and all actions as benevolent. I'm not saying that. For one thing I'm not sure it would be possible (though I think it's possible to deliberately expand the range of interpretations we give to events, and in particular to expand the range of motives we impute to people). Nor would it necessarily be desireable.

I also find myself at cross-purposes with people who think I am asking an impossibility, namely, that of stopping at point three, and simply having no response. That just doesn't happen (except maybe to old Buddhas, who are not only enlightened, but also have run out all their karma. I wouldn't know, and if you would, then you need no words from me.)

It's not until step 4 that I really want anyone to do anything differently. This is where I identify with my response of anger. I start building vast justifications of it. I freeze my interpretation and consider anyone who threatens to alter it an enemy, a co-conspirator with the object of my anger. I cultivate my anger at that point, whipping it up with further consideration of the other crimes, real or imagined, of both the original object, and of those I've now identified as co-conspirators. I filter my experience so that I notice anything disparaging to these enemies and fail to notice anything to their credit. At this point I've gone way past the involuntary response, and at this point I'm setting up a self-reinforcing cycle. Now I'm looking for things that will make me angry, searching for them.

I can stop at step four. Or more accurately, maybe, I can practice stopping. When the reaction sets in, I can watch it arising, watch myself begin to take ownership of it, to reify it, solidify it. It's possible to just turn the thoughts loose at that point. It's not easy, by any means. But it is possible. Not stomping on the thoughts -- not trying to eliminated them -- that doesn't work. Just letting them go. That's what thoughts do, if I don't cultivate them. They go away. And it leaves my mind far clearer, and my heart less damaged.

I used to think I sort of liked being angry. It felt sort of energizing, I thought. That was because I didn't know how to pay attention. Now it feels horrible, a poison seeping through my body. I want nothing to do with it anymore. I will not harbor this thing.

This has nothing to do with activism or quietism. I am still free to do anything I like in response to my interpretation of events. Since I've been examining my mind more closely, I've seen that my anger in fact has seldom, if ever, actually motivated constructive action. It mostly motivates more anger, which eventually pools up and manifests as depression.

Monday, March 22, 2004


Fundamentally the idea of karma is that any action of body, speech or mind has consequences for ourselves. We're accustomed to focusing our attention on the effect our actions have on others. To think about karma is to turn our attention inward, and think about what we're doing to ourselves.

At the most general level, you might say that being mindful of karma is simply heeding that everything we do creates a propensity to do more of the same. Cheating generates a habit of cheating. Gossip generates a habit of gossip. Jealousy generates a habit of jealousy. No action of body, speech, or mind is a single, isolated, finished thing. (Aside: actually they say that this not necessarily true. Actions that are completely untainted by attachment or aversion are said to generate no karma at all. They leave a person completely free. This is not something I'd know from experience -- I'm just repeating hearsay.)

So far we're comfortably in rationalist territory. Easy to see how this works, and verify it. Someone who's angry a lot lives in a world of conflict. Other people are angry back at them a lot. There are people who rarely go through a day without heated arguments and physical conflict, and if such a person tries not to be angry, they will have a much harder time than I would. The habits are ingrained, and the contexts of anger have been generated; angry relationships have been established. It's much harder to back out of anger once your actions have surrounded you with angry people; and it's much harder to bite back angry words if your ordinary habit is to spew them out. And most of all, if you have the habit of lovingly cultivating angry thoughts, feeding them, nurturing them, any passing irritation is likely to sweep you into a river of anger.

Now we come to the hurdle that most of us rationalists balk at. The Buddha taught plainly and emphatically that the karma we generate follows us from lifetime to lifetime. It's taught that most of the karma that ripens in this lifetime was planted in former lifetimes, and most of the karma we incur in this lifetime, likewise, won't ripen until future lives.

I don't believe this. Not exactly. But there's a certain plausibility about it. "Some are born to sweet delight / Some are born to sweet delight / Some are born to endless night," wrote Blake, and even at my most stubbornly anti-mystical I've always had to admit that he was just reporting the facts. We all know people whose financial luck, say, is uncanny -- or whose love-life is disastrous -- way beyond their apparent deserts. It's a theory that "saves the appearances" well. I guess when I feel called upon to make my rationalist self happy about this, I consider that I didn't cut my own cloth. What I am was largely created by historical circumstances, the wash of millions of actions before my time. And my actions, even the most trivial, will echo down the centuries. The time I answered my daughter snappishly six years ago may surface ten years from now when she scolds her son. The unfair racist suspicion I showed to a black man who was breaking into a car, twenty years ago -- because, as it turns out, he had locked his keys inside it -- has surely travelled on as a little ember of racial hostility, waiting to smite my children yet unborn and unbegot. If we take the emptiness of self seriously, the fact that "I" didn't commit the acts before my time, and that "I" won't suffer their consequences after my death, is actually meaningless. Some sentient being did them, and some sentient being will suffer the consequences, and "my" stream of consciousness is only arbitrarily and conventionally separate from theirs.

Friday, March 19, 2004


Rich wrote:

I've struggled with the idea of rebirth vs. annihilation (sp?), but just ignoring it doesn't help. Given that you have what I take to be a tantra practise, and considering that the usual preliminaries include an in-depth investigation of karma and rebirth, I wonder how you square the circle so that you put/get the most into/from your practise?

I'm not sure if what I wrote at lunch today, scribbling away in a little notebook dribbled with red curry, really addresses that. (I loved the way this question was put, by the way.) Maybe tomorrow. Anyway, this is what I wrote:

When I'm actually engaged in a practice, I just take it as true for the duration of the practice -- future lives don't really seem any more outlandish to me than annihilation, anymore, so that's not a difficult stretch. In general, like most conceptual problems, it's more troublesome outside of practice than inside it.

The fear of being swallowed up by eternity I take to be just a variation on fearing the emptiness of self, and I address it conceptually just by walking through the drill -- the thing I'm afraid will be annihilated, the blueeyed boy, my unique essence, was never there in the first place. For me to dread its annihilation is like a homeless person dreading a housebreaking. In fact I have nothing to lose. In the most profound and liberating sense. I have nothing to lose.

Well, like most conceptual remedies to emotional turbulence, this doesn't usually do a lot for me. It's a faint comfort to have an answer ready to trot out, and sometimes I sort of believe it, and that's about it.

Real changes of mental habit for me usually come from practice, and they usually come unexpectedly and without fanfare. I don't know, for example, when the question of my literary mortality stopped troubling me. There was a time when I coveted literary fame. I wanted to be one of those immortal figures I read about in the introductions to cheap Modern Library editions, the ones whose enduring vision did this and whose transmutation of experience did that -- profound and disturbing, shattering conventions, and galvanising... um... something -- I forget what. I ate it up, in my youth. Not that I had anything in particular to say, but by God I wanted to achieve eternal fame by saying it.

After writing a couple of uninteresting and (mercifully) unpublished novels I knew I would never be even a good writer of fiction, let alone an immortal one. I put aside the ambition, but doing so left an ache, a deep unhappiness. I fretted for years about whether I could have done it, if only I'd acted more writerly; by, say, drinking myself to death, or abandoning my family.

The last time I checked I could find no trace of that unhappiness. It's gone. Slipped quietly out the back door. I remember it, but it's very difficult to recover or reconstruct it -- it rested on foundations that have been unbuilt through practice -- unbuilt at least to the point that they'll no longer support that particular castle of unhappiness. The relationship between the blueeyed boy and anything he might have written strikes me as fanciful, literary immortality seems a ludicrous idea, and the notion that I would attain happiness by achieving it appears pathologically self-deceiving.

But not because I thought my way there. I sat my way there. I don't think those things, I know them.

Sort of veered off course there. I actually do have some things to say in answer to Rich's question, about how I conceptualize karma and rebirth. Later.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

how do you like your blueeyed boy

"For a word to be spoken, there must be silence. Before, and after." That's how Ursula Leguin's protagonist explains the necessity of death in A Wizard of Earthsea.

My father thinks that people are religious because they're scared of death, and religion tells them that it's not real. He taught me to think that, as a child, but even as a young teenager I became dubious. It seemed to me that only quite stupid people would find eternity less scary than death. True, there are a number of quite stupid people about, but I didn't think there were so many as that.

Death might end your consciousness -- as in my father's world-view -- but it doesn't annihilate you. It doesn't make it as if you had never been. It crosses your name out, but your name is still on the page. But eternity does something far worse. It turns the whole page black. No silence, in which a word can be spoken. Just an unending tumble of white noise. (Yes, I am mixing black and white annihilation metaphors. The image I've really got in my mind is of white-out, or snow-blindness, but then I would have had to have a name written in white ink on a black page....)

It does that whether it's hell or paradise, though of course we'd all really choose to go to heaven and play harps than to be roasted over slow fires or frozen for centuries: I find those people who blither about how they'd go to hell because all the interesting people are there quite annoying. (People who are being roasted alive are not interesting. They're all pretty much alike. Ask anyone who's seen it done.)

I am as afraid of death as the next guy, of course. You shoot at me, I duck. But I find eternity scarier.

It's odd that people should think of believing in life after death as a leap of faith. Seems to me that believing in death as a full stop is the real leap of faith. We've experienced continuity; we know the experience of dream and waking, of the change of modes of awareness, of realizing that what we perceived was not real in the way we thought it was. What none of us has ever experienced is a full stop. None of us has ever experienced a transition that set us completely free, made us no longer subject to the consequences of our actions. Why should we believe such a thing ever happens? That's what I call a leap of faith -- firmly believing that we're going to experience something, even though we've never experienced anything like it before.

What a lovely thing a full-stop death would be! An end of all troubles, a cancelling of all debts, a lifting of all burdens! The concept reeks of wish-fulfillment. It sounds a bit too good to be true, to me.

Now of course it's in the nature of things that no one can experience a full stop, and come back to talk about it. I know that. And I'm inclined to think that in fact death is a full stop; that our consciousness simply winks out and that's that. But I don't feel I have any very compelling reasons to think so. No one has ever told me a convincing story of how self-aware consciousness could be produced by the brain on its own, so I don't have a lot of confidence that when my brain stops functioning my consciousness will stop too. It's a perfectly plausible notion, but it is, in my opinion, an untested hypothesis -- nothing so dignified as a scientific theory, let alone a demonstrated fact. That the brain and consciousness are interdependent is obvious. That scarcely means they're coterminous.

I have no interest whatever in talking anyone into or out of a belief in an afterlife. I do think that anyone who strongly believes that there is one or that there isn't one should take a little vacation and try holding the opposite view. Just for the sake of the thought-experiment. & If you find that the idea of holding the opposite view for a while evokes violent resistance in you, then I think it would be even more interesting to take a look at that resistance. What is that made of?

I've got to get off blogger and onto something that doesn't mindlessly delete leading space, because right here I would insert e.e. cumming's poem, except that without the space the poem loses half its force. (This is intimately related to the theme of the relationship between emptiness and annihilation, except that it would lead off into a Taoist tangent, and the mixing Taoist and Buddhist metaphors should never be done without the aid of hard liquor.)

and what I want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
mr death

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

All I Want

I have many things to do -- test suites to fix, databases to extend, shell scripts to edit -- but all I want to do is: learn to want to garden.

For someone so good at wanting, it doesn't seem like that should be so hard.

Love --

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

The Hole in my Seventh Year

The theme of injuries in childhood, over at Common Beauty, seems to have stirred this up.

There's a hole in my childhood. Somewhere in my seventh year. I remember a few things (very few) from before it, and quite a few things after it. But surely I should remember it, of all things?

My mother told me (long after) that a neighbor lady told her that when I learned of the divorce I "went white as a sheet."

I don't remember.

I remember my Dad making a room for himself in the garage, and us all pretending that was something neat and new, but knowing it was actually very wrong. I remember my Mom's black eye, the one and only time my Dad (one of the gentlest, kindest, and most patient of men) hit her. Those memories lie on the edge of the hole. No memory has ever come out of that hole, though. "The divorce" is a memory-sink. And it seems to have drawn most of my early childhood memory into itself: I remember remarkably little from before that. My parents were always divorced. As long as I remember I have had the doom and the luxury of playing one authority off against another, of moving from one world to another, of carrying two sets of secrets, and always having to track which set I'm carrying at present. The habits linger on, and die hard. I am such stuff as spies are made of.

I do remember this, out of my seventh year. I was home alone, and wasn't quite sure where everyone was. (This was bizarre. It had never happened before, I think. But I wasn't particularly worried about it; just pensive.) A cool sunny blue-skied day. I went out and stood under the birch trees my father had planted, years before -- a line of young trees between the house and the garage, slender but tall and healthy and aspiring, lifting up into the sky. I looked up. And suddenly I thought, "If I decide to remember this moment, I can remember it. I can stamp it in my memory and carry it for the rest of my life." The sense of power -- the intoxication of having control of my memory -- sways me even now. And I was right. I've never forgotten that day under the birches, and I never will.

I have wondered, since then, if that was the day I found out, the day I went white. If my parents were gone because they were in court, or signing papers; if maybe I was supposed to stay with that neighbor lady across the street (whom I never liked) but had sneaked away home instead. It's the sort of thing I would have done.

It may be that my triumph of memory was not so complete, after all.

Monday, March 15, 2004

White Dots

There are usually three vases of flowers on the lowest tier of the shrine. I don't know who does the flowers, but he or she is imaginative and skilled: there are always new arrangements, often striking. Unusual flowers, surprising combinations. Odd to think of how long I have been practicing at KCC, and that I should have no idea who puts those flowers there.

Last night was astonishing though. Bare branches snaking everywhere, full of white blossoms. All leafless -- just nets of brown willow-ish wands sprinkled with vivid white dots, yards of them. As my eyes crossed and unfocused, the white petals turned into a pointillist dream against the red drapery of the shrine. Glass and ceramic vases gleamed, shifted; the candles glittered and slowly changed places as my eyes crossed more, crossed less. Twice during the hour a little petal, half the size of my little fingernail, fell, slipped and tumbled through the air, landed in the scattering of petals below.

Beautiful. And the burning in my left knee was beautiful. Someone's stomach -- was it mine? I don't think so, but I don't know -- gurgled in slow time with their breath, an extraordinary crisp unsound, like a frenchman pronouncing the letter 'p' -- barely there. A lovely sound. akin to the unsound of a hoop of bubble-soap popping. With every breath the scent of the blossoms touched the back of my throat, very softly.

Thoughts bubbled up and went away. Behind it all was my own breathing, never lost. The knot of muscle in my lower back, a long discomfort, growing as the hour went by, like a low-banked fire: my breath would go into it, come out. Go into it, come out. I could have wept with the beauty of it all. That of course was one ot the thoughts that bubbled up. Kiss it goodbye. The next thought comes; kiss it goodbye as well.

It isn't what meditation is for: it isn't even a sign of a particularly fruitful meditation session, but sometimes shamatha is a heart-shakingly beautiful experience. Almost a guilty pleasure.

Saturday, March 13, 2004

Greeny-brown, Viscous Stuff

Horribly wrong, but usefully wrong. Camus, when he wrote that the only important philosophical question was suicide.

Usefully because it gets to the point. Cut the bullshit. If life isn't worth living, then all other questions are irrelevant.

But wrong, because it fatally miscasts the question as an intellectual problem. And sends legions of depressed people off to the hopeless task of thinking their way out of despair. Nobody. Nobody. Nobody ever thought their way out despair.

It's not an intellectual problem. It's a problem of perception. Camus understood that under the skin -- his books are all about learning to perceive connections, intimacies, that have been hidden denied explained away elided buried in platitude.

But of course Camus lived in the blinding glare of the enlightenment, as we mostly still do, and the enlightenment insisted with deadly grim inexorable savage intolerance: the way we perceive things is inalterable, and it is utterly correct. Nothing could be stupider, hah! than those medieval monks, working to purify their hearts so they could see more clearly. No no. We already see with absolute perfect clarity, our perception allows us to directly grasp the reality of the world. Sometimes we need a microscope, or a telescope to make the images big enough for our perfect understanding to grasp them, but once the information gets to our eyes, we're home free.

Despair is a problem of perception. It's a problem, not of seeing too much, but of seeing too little. We sit on the ocean bottom, convulsively stirring up the mud, and solemnly observing that there's no way to see through water, because it's greeny-brown, viscous stuff. Well, just look at it! It is!

Friday, March 12, 2004

Leaves without Trees

This is precisely why it's so important not to get fooled, Tonio. When you take yourself for a solid opaque being and cast up accounts it can only come to zero (at best). Not because there's nothing there, but because you've asked the question in such a way that it can only have one answer. What do I have to show for it? What will I have to show for it?

Oh, they sound like open-ended questions, but they're not. The definition of "I" dictates the answer, and the only answer they can possibly evoke is: nothing. You define yourself as all that is separate and mortal and then ask, what's to show for it? Silly question. We all know what becomes of separate, mortal things. They die, they decompose, they disappear. What does a leaf have to show for its life? Well, exactly what we do. No more, no less. As a solid opaque leaf, its life is meaningless. But the point is -- the point is -- as a separate object that leaf was always meaningless. If that leaf had ever been really separate it would would never have been green or gloriously gold or red at all. It simply wouldn't have been there.

And that's why the question makes no sense. Because any place where any meaning could have crept into it has already been defined away. You've taken away the tree and the sun and the loving eyes that saw its beauty. It's not a leaf, so defined; it's a scrap of tissue. Sure. But only because you've reified it and separated it. Given it a solid opaque self.

There are no leaves without trees. No such thing.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

"So this guy, he tells me he's a skinhead. And I say bullshit. Look at you, tipping a black girl all night, getting a couch dance from her -- you ain't no skinhead, I tell him. He's just talking shit. I'm not a racist," she adds suddenly. "But you go saying you're a skinhead? You know?"

Race comes up often, with Dionna. Tells me how her daughter came home saying nigger and... "and all kinds of words that I don't even say and I asked her 'where'd you get that? Who taught you to talk like that?' and she said 'Daddy.' I told her, don't you talk like that. Look, I don't believe in mixing races, right? But I'm telling you, honey, I'd rather see you married to a black man who treats you right than to a white man who hits you and shit, understand?"

A man appears at her shoulder, very handsome, high-cheekboned, dressed in a wide-shouldered olive suit. Dionna lights up. She looks suddenly girlish, delighted. They chat a little. Dionna introduces me. When he goes, she leans forward to me, and says in a low voice. "We were together for a little while. But he's too pretty for me. I don't want a man who's prettier than me, that's no good. But he took me out, got me a manicure, a pedicure? I'd never got one of those. And then he took me out to this like four-star restaurant." She sighs.

Later, giving me a couch dance, she spies him still in the club, through the little window, and she pauses reflectively, "he's got a really big dick, but he doesn't know what to do with it."

She was thirty, she says, before she came, using a vibrator. "I was like, wow!"

"So *that's* what all the fuss's about." I offer.

"Yeah, exactly. And I never came with a man, before my husband. Girls, yeah. The first one was this little eighteen-year old girl. I had rug burns, man, she did me that good. But no men, not till my husband. He's not fully loaded, you know, but he knows what to do with it." She rattles off a complicated little rhyme. I miss most of it, but it's clearly along the lines of "it ain't the meat, it's the motion"

Quiet. Can't last long: Dionna doesn't do silence. I say "you're really beautiful, you know." A sudden vulnerable glance, evaluating me, wondering if I'm making fun of her. She decides I'm not. "I'm really, I've got no self-esteem. For a long time, when Cassidy was here? I wouldn't let him come in. Finally he comes in when she's here, and I say, 'isn't she hot?' and he says no. Can you believe that? I didn't believe him." Dionna laughs merrily. "Like, we go to the video store and look at videos, and I turn it over to see if there's any nudity. There is, we don't rent it. I don't want him seeing those other women. I didn't used to be like that, you know? But then I had this boyfriend and he used to tell me all the time all the stuff he'd like different about me. And it got so the only times we ever made it were looking at porn or right after he'd come back from the titty bars."

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

In I Capture the Castle there's a young man who keeps leaving love-poems for the narrator, which he's copied out of books (Herrick mostly, I think) but pretends are his own. It's endearing in the book, so I guess I can hope my new habit of thieving from French poets will be too. (By the way, did anyone see the movie of I Capture the Castle? Was it any good? It's hard for me to picture translating that wonderful narrative voice to film. Seems like it would go flat, like those disastrous attempts to make TV episodes out of Wodehouse stories.)

Words do not Lie

--pour la tigresse du soleil, volé á Paul Eluard

Wasps flowering green;
The dawn threads around its throat
A necklace of windows;
Wings cover the leaves.

You have all the sunlit joys --
All the sun upon the earth,
Upon the roads of your beauty.

The earth is blue as an orange.
The inroads of your beauty
Are exact; never an error;
If your friends have heard lies from the earth,
Then believe me, they have not listened closely.
Words do not lie.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

After (loosely) Marceline Desbordes-Valmore

I stumbled on the cape, and the flowers I had gathered
Spilled, and were swept away by the wind.

The waves went red with roses.

My hands are empty. But lift my fingers to your face;
They hold still the smell of roses and the sea.
There's an important piece of context missing here, I bet. Lamas in the Tibetan tradition are trained by doing a three-year cloistered retreat, during which they practice pretty much all the time. A "spiritual boot camp," Michael's called it. (He's also said that if he had to give up any three years of his life, his years in retreat would be the last three he'd choose.)

So maybe "building a retreat center" gives a misleading impression. A closer description of what we're trying to do might be "founding a seminary." I wrote to a friend yesterday about this:

The long retreat is so central to how we train the next generation of teachers -- it's critical to the survival of the Kagyu lineage in America. We're not talking luxury, here. We're really talking about whether our kids will even have the option to practice.... what we have in my sangha is a fragile imported plant trying to put down
roots. Its contemplative traditions seem to me very rare, and very precious. And they've been driven off their native ground -- they could very easily disappear, in a generation or two.

Here's a piece of an email lama Michael sent to me after I sent him a long bitchy letter detailing all the objections I laid out in my last post, and added that I felt that saying all that in public would be heresy --

Having said all the above, I also don't have any sense at all that what you're saying is heresy... It seems nearly axiomatic to me at this point that humans really do hate diversity of all kinds. Perhaps it's a reminder of impermanence and the possibility that things are not as they seem. Therefore, it shouldn't come as a surprise that there are individuals who can't help themselves even in the context of working in the Dharma; they will shun diversity of all kinds.

Here's a deal for you. Voice your position (and it doesn't have to be a fixed position) as stated above whenever the spirit moves you. When you're done, tell people that I encouraged you to say those things because I, as Resident Lama, was afraid to say them myself. I'd support you in that. The act of solidifying our opinions and shunning diverse views (without even the benefit of consideration sometimes), is a much deeper level of confusion than that which arises from embracing diversity. That's my solid opinion.

Knowing Michael, I'm sure he meant this quite literally. Whatever impulses toward conformity there may be at KCC, they certainly don't emanate from the top.

Monday, March 08, 2004

The trouble, you see, is that I don't know what's what. Or maybe it's that I don't want to know what's what.

There's a piece of just plain dumb anti-clericalism. I am Presbyterian by culture, Atheist by upbringing, Puritan by temperament. So when my Sangha gets serious about fundraising for a retreat center -- a place where we can raise our own lamas -- I get all twitchy. It's so -- so -- Catholic, you know? We'll be importing a church hierarchy (the Presbyterian shudders), formalizing a leap of faith (the Atheist recoils), and depending on external forms to work internal changes (the Puritan winces.)

Then there's the piece of pure jealousy. Goodbye to being in the inner circle. Already the people who go annually to India to do retreat with the lineage-in-exile have gradually superseded me and Martha as core members of the Sangha. Or so it seems to Martha. I can't tell. But when half my spiritual community disappears for November, and comes back wearing their new blessing cords and sharing a history I'm not part of, I feel a little woebegone. And now some of them will disappear for three years into a cloistered retreat. How wide a gulf of unshared experience will that open between us?

Then there's the Zen piece. Doing anything special is suspect, one more form of entertainment. All this business about raising money and buying land and building buildings is just one more way of not practicing. Of not facing up to the horrors of the ordinary. Of being unable to face the blank wall and be alone with our minds. (Calling this Zen, my Zen readers no doubt will recognize, has little or nothing to do with Zen, which has a very strong retreat tradition itself, and everything to do with the way Tibetan practitioners stereotype Zen practice as stern, no-nonsense, and iconoclastic.)

Then there's what I think of as the American pragmatic "good-works" tradition. What you do is what you are. Actions speak louder than words. Who cares about sitting in a box thinking generating perfect generosity? Compassion is only real if it manifests in the world. One person who shares his sandwich with a hungry dog is worth all the pious mala-twiddlers in the world.

Now, I have perfectly sufficient -- in most cases, slam-dunk -- intellectual answers to all these. They change my mind, but they don't succeed so well in turning my heart.

Ironic, maybe, that my volunteer work for the sangha has largely been for this project (I keep up a database for it), which I've never been able to raise enthusiasm for. We've bought the land -- beautiful land in Central Washington. We've already put work into it -- my daughter planted scores of trees; my wife took down old barb-wire fencing, I lugged slash to burn-piles -- and we were very minor workers, every once in a while. Other people have poured their lives into this work.

For one evening, early last week, I was on a fund-raising strategy committee. I bailed in panic. And I keep pushing to understand why. It's plain to me that I keep inventing reasons why I shouldn't support this project, or this committee, and that they are remarkably stupid reasons. What's the real resistance here? Is it just the dread of having my free time absorbed? Of having time commitments to the Dharma and to Martha finally come openly into conflict? Or am I simply afraid that at some point I'll have to ask for something, actually call somebody on the phone and ask them for money? (At the mere thought that, my heart shrivels.)

One thing is plain: there's a failure of courage in this, somewhere. I know this feeling intimately. It's the sensation of cowardice, the most horrible sensation I know.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

So shaken as we are, so wan with care,
Find we a time for frighted peace to pant,
And breathe short-winded accents of new broils
To be commenced in strands afar remote.

I had last week off, so I seized the opportunity to have one long emotional and spiritual crisis. (One terrific advantage of identifying oneself as a religious person is that you get to call what anyone else would call a tantrum a spiritual crisis.)

Coming into calmer waters, I hope, but dead tired.

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

Much love to you all.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

The emptiness of self, I said, was not a difficult concept to grasp. But there's a big difference between understanding it conceptually and understanding it experientially, and understanding it experientially is what's transformative.

Which is why disciplined meditation is fundamental. Clinging to self is such an ingrained habit that loosening it requires an equally habitual experience of its insubstantiality. Sure, you hear of those people who get one kick in the head and go straight to enlightenment -- but if you look at those stories you'll see that they're usually about people who have spent a lot of their lives in disciplined meditation.

Somebody -- was it Kalu Rinpoche? -- once remarked that expecting a little haphazard meditation practice to loosen our clinging to self was like expecting to be able to free ourselves of wanting tobacco by practicing not smoking for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time, a couple times a week.

all night I have closed my hands
over a blind eye where desire
no longer smiles to me

Monday, March 01, 2004

Ye Emptynesse of Selfe

Incidentally, I hope you all know that "Ye" is an old spelling of "The" -- the letter which looks like a capital 'Y' there being actually a capital thorn, the letter which the Old English and Old Norse, among others, used to represent the "th" sound. ("Th" is an abomination introduced by Norman scribes who couldn't pronounce the Old English sound, and tried to write down something that would approximate it in their own alphabet.) It has nothing whatever to do with the word "ye" which means "you all."

So. The emptiness of self. Not a difficult concept to grasp, once the bogus difficulties have been cleared away.

First difficulty: you'll hear Buddhists speak of "the delusion of self." You may even hear them say "there is no self." And the fact that "self" is a reflexive pronoun in English results in what seems to be a very mysterious (or maybe just very stupid) contention: that people don't exist, that you and I aren't here. We're not here, we just think we are. And the obvious rejoinder to that is "well, who is it then, who thinks we're here?"

Substitute the word "soul" for "self" and things begin to clear up. What we mean is that there is no permanent, immutable essence at the core of a person's being -- divinely made or otherwise. There is no unchangeable Daleness about me. Just as my body appears to be a separate static object, when it is actually a dynamic, constantly changing system that can't survive even for five minutes without drawing on other systems outside of itself, so also we take our minds, our personalities, to be independent, permanent things. And so seriously do we take these things that we spend the bulk of our time anxiously protecting them, worrying about them, criticizing them, looking for their validation, dreading their exposure as inadequate. We take them very seriously indeed.

But they're not there. Not as things. Whole contemplative traditions are devoted to systematically searching for this thing, this essence, this unique identity we supposedly have. Traditions in which you try to follow your thoughts backward to their source. What you find is that, look as you may, they have no source -- no source but other thoughts. One thought jostling after another is all there is in that mind. There may be plenty that's repetitive, but there is certainly nothing that's permanent.

Not only is there no permanent core "underneath" or "behind" these thoughts. They also are not independent. Other people's thoughts are floating in among them all the time. Bits of things we read, conversations with other people, glances from strangers are all mixed up in there. Our thoughts are porous, soluble. Thoughts and images that take their proximate origin from Tonio, from T.S. Eliot, from Buddha Shakyamuni are all floating around in my mind. Any sense in which they're mine is a very loose one. They happen to have shown up in the "same" (don't even start) stream of thoughts that sometimes appear to precipitate motor responses in this particular animal. It's all quite chaotic and quite open, quite permeable.

Second bogus difficulty: the word "emptiness." I suppose it may have been the least misleading of the possible translations for Shunyata, but in that case maybe the word should have been left untranslated, and imported wholesale into English. I don't know any Sanskrit, but the Tibetan, tong pa nyi, might also be translated as "openness" or "transparency." It's the same word that's used to describe the openness of a glade in a forest, or the transparency of a pool of water. It indicates spaciousness or clarity. English "emptiness" has completely negative emotional connotations -- an "empty feeling" is certainly nothing like an "open feeling."

Form is emptiness and emptiness is form. So the standard English translation of the Heart Sutra has it. But one might also say Matter is open and openness is matter. Or Stuff is clear and clarity is stuff. That fact that the self is empty is not a cause for lamentation. It's cause for the deepest, gladdest celebration. Because if it were not empty, we would be locked into our suffering forever.