Monday, May 31, 2004

Fling the Stars

Fling the stars into the scattered sky
Kindle the moon, and lay
The glittering mosaic of heaven;
Build a bed of clouds, and lay thee down.

And all night as I slept the wind and the starlight shifted, and the curtains crept into the room and fled back out. One turn of the wrist different, and I could have been running with the wind. I will not be a miser, fingering my carefully counted regrets in a locked cupboard; but this, this I do regret.

The shadow of your moon-silvered hair, the flicker of impudent eyes, the lift of a pale shoulder. I am mute, delivered wordless to your gathering disaster. All things drawing to a point.

My days have crackled and gone up in smoke,
Have puffed and burst as sun-starts on a stream.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

The Hollow Kingdom

Oh, but now that I'm done bitching: you should all go out and buy The Hollow Kingdom, by Clare Dunkle. Unless you're terribly allergic to "children's literature" or fantasy. (Even if you are, the dialogue and characterization are far better than that of any realist fiction for adults I've read recently.)* Think of Jane Austen making a novel out of one of the Grimms' more disturbing fairy tales, and you'll get an inkling of the book.

*Okay, I should admit here that I find modern realist fiction for adults completely unreadable, and in fact I haven't read any recently. But if I had, I bet I wouldn't have found anything as good as Dunkle.
Bitch, bitch, bitch

In a vile temper.

Last night was the first time I've gone out of control with my eating. Went out for mexican food with Martha and ate a grand meal, finishing up with their specialty dessert, designed by the NACECD (North American Committee for the Encouragement of Coronary Disease) -- a sort of deep-fried cookie crusted with cinnamon sugar. Then all evening I was scooting down to the basement to grab handfuls of Heshey's kisses and surreptitiously scarf them.

The night before that I lost my temper -- again, in the basement, which seems to house my id -- and I kicked viciously at a bench that I expected to send flying or shatter. Instead it held its ground nobly and injured my toes, so that I'm still gimping around: the next morning my entire big toe had turned a lovely raspberry color, with a fetching purple line across the last joint. I don't think I broke it, but I'm not entirely sure. I gave out that I had stubbed it accidentally.

This morning, Martha asked if I was okay as I was dressing, and I said "oh, I'm a little sad and unhappy." Why? she asked. I had to think a little. "Because I dripped salsa on my clean pants last night, so I have to wear a different pair today," I said, perfectly truthfully. "Which tells you how serious my troubles are."

We got the kids off to their end-of-the-year campout, yesterday morning (which is why I had been in the basement, the night before, finding twine, or rather not finding twine, to tie around rolled-up sleeping bags, and assaulting benches.) So supposedly the pressure is off. Actually, of course, the pressure is jacked up, because now I should be spending quality time with Martha while we have the chance. And all the while I'm hopelessly behind with housework and with the database maintenance for the sangha, and the young man whose grad school application I edited is pressing me to read Zarathustra and have meaningful conversations, and my practice is a shambles (I sat -- what -- twice, in the last week?), and the very earnest man who wants to redesign all of the sangha information systems with me has been calling, and what I really want to do is go out to a strip club, and get very drunk.

What it is, I guess, is that I hate letting people down.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Thank You!

I aspire to be one of those bloggers who are courtly hosts, who always respond thoughtfully to their commenters, but I find that I'm very haphazard about responding, and often I don't respond at all to the comments I find most moving or interesting. For instance, there was comment after comment to "That Wonder", and I thought all of them were much lovelier, more interesting, and more perceptive than the post itself, but I never managed to say a word back to them. Sometimes the better the comment the more abashed I am.

So anyway, let me thank you all here, and assure you that lack of response does not mean lack of appreciation. Maybe someday I'll achieve courtliness. (It don't come natural to kids from backwoods Oregon, though, so don't hold your breath.)

Tuesday, May 25, 2004


Oh, the traces are there. The traces are everywhere. Everyone I ask has seen you. You are not easily forgotten.

She went north, says the Prince of the Shining Lands, wrapped in glory, and the ground broke under her feet. Look! There are the springs of bright water, where she stepped!

She went south, says the Master of Winds, burning like a torch, and the volupts cringed and hid their eyes. Look at them now, crawling for comfort to their aged wives!

She went west, says the Gatekeeper, and thunder and lightning fled from her. See how the trees that were dry and withered bear blossom and fruit!

She went east, says the Stag, and I could not keep up with her. We all fell behind at the sunrise, because we were afraid of the sun. But not she. We watched till our eyes were dazzled. We don't think we will see her again.

So I sit at the empty table, and idly draw pictures in the puddles of wine. "I knew her once," I say.

The bartender, who doesn't believe me, smiles agreeably. "Yeah, I heard that," he says. "You want another?"

Monday, May 24, 2004

Murderous Enmity

I don't swat mosquitos any more. If I spot one landing on me, I try to wave her away. But once one is fairly at work drinking my blood, there's no way to brush her off without hurting her. And there's no point -- I'm already stung. I let her finish her meal and go.

Once I would have ridiculed this restraint. But that's because, in typical Western fashion, I would have regarded it "objectively." I would gravely have launched into considerations of the moral status of mosquitos, what sort of sensations they have, what rights they might be considered to have, what the proper relations between man and mosquito were, whether it was possible for all people to stop swatting mosquitos all the time, and what the consequences would be if they did -- all the silly, extravagant, far-fetched questions typical of "objective" thought, which, for reasons that elude me, considers itself hard-headed. What do I know about the feelings or moral status of mosquitos? How likely am I ever to be in the position of successfully forbidding the world's six billion people to swat them? These are silly questions.

The subjective questions are far more pertinent, practical, and fruitful. What changes in me, when I refrain from swatting mosquitos? What do I learn by it?

I have learned a number of things. First, I have been able to uncover, in one trivial instance, the subtle but extensive distortions of reality produced by murderous enmity. I had no idea of it, before I stopped swatting them -- in fact I would have strenuously denied it -- but I imputed malice to mosquitos. I regarded them as driven by the desire to torment me. I think it's almost impossible to maintain the intention of killing something without slipping into this. At some level I really believed that mosquitos chose the cool of the summer dawn and twilight to pursue me, because they knew I loved those times, and they wanted to ruin my peace.

I also believed that swatting mosquitos was an effective defense against them. If I didn't swat them, I thought, I would be devoured by them. I would be freckled with stings. A mass of itching wretchedness. By swatting them, I thought I was holding misery at bay.

Now again, I didn't know I thought this, until I stopped. It turns out that how often I get stung has little to do with whether I swat. In fact my impression is that I am stung less often these days. Maybe it just seems that way because I'm less distressed by being stung. Or maybe it's because, having learned that swatting doesn't really prevent many stings, I head indoors sooner when I find that the mosquitos are out. In any case, my unconscious, extravagant estimate of how effective I was at preventing stings has proven entirely wrong.

Third, I have understood just how much I had surrendered control to mosquitos, by considering myself at war with them. It's a little embarassing, in retrospect, to think of what an abject slave of circumstance I made myself. Here I was, the paragon of animals, the crown of creation, endowed with reason and free will, and made, as I'm told, in the image of God -- and a little whining insect could make me prance, skitter, and slap in panic, ducking and writhing as though fencing with a deadly enemy. Was this human dignity? Was this any kind of dignity? In fact, by harboring enmity with mosquitos, I was granting them control over me. I had to swat at them. I read somewhere that some considerable percentage of car accidents is probably due to drivers panicking about having insects in the car with them. If we habitually treat them as mortal enemies, we end up by believing in it. The consequences can be serious.

But the most important thing I have discovered by letting a mosquito sting me -- watching this little creature persistently risk death to get a full belly of blood, so she can produce her eggs -- watching her closely as she settles, pushes her proboscis in, and drinks deep, with little shudders -- is that we are, after all, kindred creatures, driven by the same desires, seeking the same satisfactions. We are not enemies. I can live in a world that holds no enemies at all.

People have injured me before, and they will injure me again. There's no way I can prevent that. But I can live a life that is completely free of enmity. It's as easy, and as hard, as sitting perfectly still at dusk, when the first faint whine and whisper of wings brushes past my ear.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Note to Typepad bloggers

Yesterday and today I've been blocked from commenting on your sites. My IP at work (not that I would ever blog at work) represents a large number of hosts, so if any one of them gets infected by a spammer, boom, I'm blacklisted.

My guess is that typepad just started consulting spamhaus to block people, because my IP at work has been on and off this list for months, but this is the first time I've had trouble. The people at CBL (that's one of the lists that spamhaus consults) tell me they don't support being used to defend blog comment services -- just email servers. (Although that doesn't really seen very different, to me.)

So anyway, for a while, unless typepad changes its mind, you typepadders may only be hearing from me by email.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Happy Boy

Hey, my BMI dipped below 30 today. No longer obese!

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Lions, Tame and Untame

Penny, who just arrived in my comments out of the serendipitous blue, had a very sensitive and intelligent post on negative thoughts and emotions a couple days ago. She said, in part:

We don’t know how to sit with these dark feelings, how to listen to them or how to understand their language. All we perceive is their threat, that they might consume and destroy us. Given our collective ignorance of the ways of the soul and lack of good guides that is well justified fear. These emotions can and, at times, do destroy us. But when we learn to listen, the shadow has a lot to tell us.

The whole thing is well worth reading. I winced a little, though, at "our collective ignorance of the ways of the soul and lack of good guides" -- true though it may be of wandering at random in the modern world -- because there is so much accumulated wisdom about the ways of the soul, in the meditative communities of the world. An incredibly rich literature, and living, unbroken traditions stretching back thousands of years. People have been rigorously investigating the ways of the soul for millennia.

I know I go against the current of modern spirituality, in some ways, by insisting on tradition. But I think it's terribly important. We have so little time, and it's so easy to waste it. I see people sometimes struggling with problems and I feel like a mathmetician watching someone struggling to cope with inifinite series without benefit of Newton or Leibniz. She may be making brilliant progress, and no doubt the struggle itself is healthy exercise, but... Calculus has already been invented. It doesn't need to be done all over again from scratch.

This is not to deny, of course, that in a way it all has to be done over again from scratch. Nobody, as we say in the Tibetan tradition, can walk the path for you. But since I've been under the wing of a contemplative tradition, I think my progress has been ten times faster than it was when I was wandering on my own. I made valuable discoveries on my own. But I also forgot them, or misapplied them. I got tangled in snares that Nagarjuna knew how to untie in the 8th Century, and sidetracked by difficulties the Buddha disposed of in his very first teaching. The going was slow, the progress very uncertain. And terribly unsafe. There are pits -- Nihilism and alcoholism, to name two -- that I could have dropped into, and never come out of, in this life.

I was talking to someone who was studying with a shaman, recently, and my main response was -- how do you know what this person's qualifications are? I have no doubt that some of these shamans are in fact highly realized -- but with no institutional apparatus around them, how do you know? A person doesn't have to be much past my own level of realization to be able to hoodwink me. There are frauds and black sorcerors out there who can be very foolish, or very nasty.

But then -- turn again -- from the outside, how do you know any tradition is authentic and dependable? Traditions themselves can become corrupt. (Though I think this happens rarely to contemplative traditions, it clearly has happened, from time to time.) You still have to check them out. Flirt. Read up on them. Visit them. Ask awkward questions. The trouble is that in the first flush of spiritual enthusiasm, many people will be eager to throw themselves under the spiritual authority of the first guru they meet. Caution will seem like faithlessness or sloth. The Dalai Lama's advice, that you shouldn't accept as a heart-teacher anyone you haven't known well for at least two years, strikes me as excellent advice. (Not that *I* took it, of course.)

One of the things I love about the Tibetan Kagyu tradition that I practice within is that it has not only a monastic tradition and institutional structure for authenticating teachers, but also strong shamanic and householder traditions. Many of its greatest teachers came from outside the monasteries, and studied outside of the institutions. I'm a little wary of traditions that seem a little too orderly and neatly sewn up. The life of the spirit just isn't that predictable, that domestic.

Monday, May 17, 2004

Dieting with Buster Keaton

I don't know if I could have experimented with my diet this way without my experience of meditation. Without being accustomed to watch what my mind was doing, but not be swept away by it. A valuable skill even in worldly terms.

My untrained mind knew only two things to do with a craving: 1) to focus on its object -- where might I find that perfect chocolate? How should I eat it? How much can I get away with eating? What will it taste like? Will I need a glass of milk to make the chocolate experience complete? -- or 2) to focus on what the craving meant about me. Am I gluttonous? Weak-willed? Self-indulgent? Whose fault is it if I am? How can I change?

What I didn't know how to do was just watch it, without either running with it or trying to fight it. Just see it, as accurately as possible. It doesn't have to be acted upon, or resisted. It's just a thought, one more mental phenomenon bubbling up the the surface of my mind. I was so superstitious about my mind, before I meditated much. Seems comical to me now, that people think of meditators as people who ascribe too much reality to the inner life. It was before I meditated that I did that. I took my thoughts terribly seriously. I couldn't really tell the difference between the thoughts and their objects; and I took my thoughts as solid evidence about the exact character of my immortal soul. (No, I didn't believe I had an immortal soul, but that didn't stop me from anxiously trying to determine its characteristics.)

I still do those things, of course. I'll treat a thought as if it was identical to the thing thought about -- a thought about West Sudan will arise, say, and I'll think "Oh, the situation in West Sudan needs to be taken seriously. That means this thought about West Sudan also needs to be taken seriously." And then I'll go on to "This means I'm a serious, responsible citizen of the world. Or maybe it means I'm a vain intellectual who thinks about problems but never does anything about them?"

But I've also acquired a pretty established habit of laughing at myself. When I was first learning to sit shamatha, I would sometimes just burst out laughing. The antics of my mind as it wriggled about, trying to escape observation and dash back into its comfortable warren of habitual thoughts, were endlessly entertaining. Still are. I suppose sitting shamatha is serene sometimes, a door into the peace that passeth understanding. But generally it's more like watching a Buster Keaton movie.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

That Wonder

Love settles. Like an old house, like a chronic pain. The points of greatest pressure give a little. It adjusts to the stresses. It grows quieter, maybe.

For some people, I'm told, love goes away. Vanishes. Mine never does. Loved once, loved always. I remember every love. I'm still in love with everyone I've ever fallen in love with, however foolishly; however I may have revised my opinion of them over the years, over the crossed wakes of a hundred departing lifetimes. But I've never lost track of that first catch of the breath, of that first wonder. Never hard to think my way back to that. Even angry, relieved, disillusioned -- I reach for that, and there it is.

What is it? That wonder?

I used sometimes to think it was an illusion, maybe, a trick of the species, hijacking the individual for its own purposes. But there's no need. Lust flourishes just fine in its absence. That's all the species needs. The wonder is something that I need. It's a glimpse of reality, maybe. A fleeting, premature understanding of just how deep, how necessary, how inevitable our connection is. The Buddha, maybe, looked at every single living thing with that wonder

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Boring Post

Warning: if you're not interested in losing weight, this will probably be quite boring.

About a year ago I started seriously experimenting with my diet. After reading around a while, I'd learned, to my surprise and dismay, that there was actually very little disinterested, empirical data about weight loss. Everybody and their uncle had opinions about it -- and asserted them vigorously -- but the only people who had actually collected data in any quantity were people such as Pritkin or Atkins or Weight Watchers -- people with a vested interest in one kind of diet or another being effective. If you go looking for large, long-term impartial studies comparing methods of weight loss -- you just won't find anything. Weirdly enough, nobody's done it.

So I decided I'd just have to experiment. I started trying different things, tracking what & how much I ate and what happened to me when I ate it. Did I lose weight? Did I become hungry? Did I get cravings?

Along the way I took up -- more from curiosity than because I found him particularly plausible -- the Atkins diet. The results were astonishing. I ate as much as I wanted, I was never hungry, and I dropped weight at a rate that was downright alarming. In a few months I'd lost thirty pounds.

By that time I was pretty sick of the diet -- not to mention worried about what it might be doing to me, consuming all that saturated fat -- and I went off it. I gained back twenty of those thirty pounds pretty rapidly. (This is a serious drawback of the Atkins diet. Once you go off it, and you're back with the sugar-driven appetite, you've got no portion-control discipline to help you, and you're habituated to rich foods. My guess is that most people gain weight back very rapidly if they go off Atkins.) I had thought I might just use Atkins to lose weight, and then take up a healthy diet when I had lost my extra weight, but when I tried going back onto Atkins, I found I was simply revolted by the diet. My body really didn't want it. So no more of the Atkins diet.

But I'd learned something critical from that diet, which was that I had been overeating, not because my will was defective, but because some foods I ate were making me preternaturally hungry. And whatever they were, they weren't meat, nuts, oils, or salad greens.

So I've been experimenting again, within the framework of Weight Watchers. I started off doing a sort of Atkins-y Weight Watchers, eating lots of fish and chicken and veggies, but not much else in the way of carbs. Once again my hunger and craving levels dropped off dramatically, to a quite manageable level. Gradually I've been adding in various foods and seeing what happens. I suspect that insulin levels are what I'm dealing with, but whatever it is, when I'm in this stable state it's quite easy to tell if a new food is going to be bad news or not. If I'm ravenously hungry a couple hours after eating a sizable meal, the new food goes on the bad list. If I'm not particularly hungry three hours later, it's fine.

I already knew that refined sugar and its evil cousin, high-fructose corn syrup, were on the bad list. Likewise potatos and pasta, which kick me straight into craving-land. But some of my other discoveries were surprising. I can eat rye toast, but not white toast. Grapefruit and oranges, but not apples. Cantaloupe but not bananas. Brown rice but not white rice. Most whole-grains are just fine -- steel-cut oats, rye crisp, barley, brown rice, quinoa, are all fine. But not the standard "whole wheat" bread that you get in a restaurant -- I suspect that they've taken to milling that flour so finely (to make a bread as like white bread as possible) that it metabolizes almost as fast as white bread, now.

So I've dropped twelve pounds, since I started this round, and I'm feeling very well and vigorous. The experimentation lends an interest to the process -- I'm not just enduring a diet that someone made up; I'm conducting a personal investigation. As a matter of fact, I'm having a lot of fun. When dieting doesn't mean white-knuckling your way through gnawing hunger and cravings, it's actually a pretty painless and intriguing undertaking.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

What is Ngondro?

Claire asked, what is Ngondro? & I realize it's been a year since I was talking about it in an intelligible way.

Ngondro (actually there's an umlaut on the first 'o') is a set of four Tibetan Buddhist meditation practices. Each requires reciting a liturgy, visualizing something, and then repeating a ritual while reciting a mantra or prayer. When you've accumulated a hundred thousand repetitions for one practice, you go on to the next. I've heard of someone completing Ngondro in six months, but it generally takes more like ten to twenty years.

I started a year ago, and I'm still on the first practice: I've done barely 10,000 so far, so at this rate I should be finishing up in forty years, when I'm in my mid-eighties :-)

So the first of the four practices is the practice of refuge, commonly called "the prostrations." It goes like this:

I change into sweatpants and a long-sleeve shirt, and tie a sweatband around my forehead. Then I dust my shrine, fill the little silver offering bowls with water, and light the "butter lamp" (just a wax candle in a little silver goblet; in Tibet they really use butter). I fold the throw rug over to make some padding for my knees. Lay some coins down on the floor for counters. Lay my meditation cushion down behind the rug. Take my liturgy down from the top of the bookshelf and lay it on the rug. Wander out to the living room to let Martha and the kids know I'm starting. Then I close the door and sit down on the cushion, facing the shrine. Ready to start.

First come some prayers and "contemplations." I read them aloud in English. (Many people do it in Tibetan; some feel it has more oomph that way. My own teacher rather encouraged me to do it in English.) These call to mind the briefness and fragility of life, the more-or-less constant dissatisfaction of an agitated mind, and the slavery of living compulsively.

Then I stand up, putting the cushion and the liturgy aside, and I picture in front of myself a vast tree growing out of a beautiful lake. In this tree are seated, or standing, all the buddhas, bodhisattvas (saints), yidams (meditation deities), et cetera, of Tibetan tradition. At the center is my own teacher, embodied as Vajradhara, a dark blue buddha sitting in a full lotus with his hands crossed at his breast, one hand holding a bell, the other holding a "vajra" or "dorje" -- a small, elaborate, gold-colored ritual object that once upon a time was a stylized thunderbolt. Above Vajradhara sits my teacher's teacher, his teacher above that, and so on, up through some twenty figures of this "lineage." At the very top, is another Vajradhara, he being both the source and the end of the lineage.

Then I begin reciting (in Tibetan this time) a refuge prayer -- "I take refuge in the glorious holy lama, I take refuge in the yidams, the deities of the mandala, I take refuge in the victorious buddhas..." I put my hands together, palm to palm, and raise them over my head, then at my throat, and then at my heart, as I recite the prayer. Then I drop to my knees (the rug nicely absorbing the impact) and thence onto my belly, my arms outstretched toward the shrine. All this while I hold the visualization as best I can, while finishing the refuge prayer. As I stand back up I scoot a coin down, as a counter. Then I do it all again, and again, and again.

When I've done as many as are prudent, for a portly middle-aged man with iffy knees, I do some more prayers, replacing the cushion and the liturgy and sitting down again, red-faced and dripping with sweat. Still holding the visualization. Then I let all the figures dissolve into light, one by one. Last of all Vajradhara, who dissolves into light that beams down onto me and is absorbed into my breast. The whole visualization is then dissolved.

For some time I sit quietly.

Then I recite the ending prayers, "dedicating the merit," as we say, to seal the practice -- basically, giving the practice away. Snuff out the candle, empty the offering bowls in the back garden, note down how many I did today, and put everything away.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Thanks for all the good wishes!

After five days of looking after Martha; doing a slipshod job of keeping up the house; marshalling the kids for school, senior dissertation night, and prom night; juggling the emotional needs of four intense but often not very communicative people, I've simply run dry. Sitting here in the office, and can't even imagine working, though I expect if someone comes to me with a direct request I'll lurch into action somehow or other. I don't have the faintest idea how single parents function. Seems a plain obvious impossibility. Nothing in the tank. Gumption and oomph gauges both reading zero.

Astonishingly enough, I've kept to my diet and my Ngondro regimen. They're refuges, in a queer and not-very-Buddhist way. Pieces of my life that don't belong to my family.

Martha's doing well, though she's still not up to driving -- gets dizzy still if she moves suddenly, which seems more likely to be an aftereffect of the narcotics than of the surgery. (She quit the narcotics altogether a couple days ago, and is just taking some Tylenol. She's far more afraid of pain than I am, in the abstract, which is very odd because I've never seen her fazed by concrete pain. Yet she worries, as I never do, about someday being in chronic pain. Maybe she just has a better imagination than I.)

My visualizations have taken a turn that is difficult to describe. Less in control. The refuges become huge, looming over me. More figures have come in. The medicine Buddha on the left, young Thomas Merton on the right. Merton in his shirt-sleeves doing his Loyolan contemplations in a half-lotus. He grins at me mockingly. Vajrayogini, below, bares her teeth and jangles her ankle-bracelets and challenges me, with her strange seductive contempt, to take on her ferocity. Machik Labdron, last to come and last to go, up in the sky above Kalu Rinpoche's right shoulder, spins and dances ecstatically. Vajradhara comes and goes vaguely, midnight blue, glinting with gold, seen only piecemeal: suddenly the hand on the bell-handle, a flash of red-soled feet, the briefly poised vajra, and then only darkness again. The wind blows the leaves and the tree tosses, and sometimes it's day and sometimes it's night. The lake comes suddenly vivid, and vanishes again.

Or again there's nothing there at all. Staring at the wall above the shrine. Ordinary wall. Ordinary wall-lamp distractingly off-center to the visualization. Does the lamp need dusting? What am I doing? Who am I kidding? But I keep going. Down on my knees. Down on my belly. "Dampai choe nam la kyab su chio," I grumble, as my forehead touches the floor, and I try, with no success whatever, to see the painted floorboards as lush grass. My parents are supposed to be on either side of me: are they? Quick surreptitious glance. Nope. Nothing. Back on my feet. Back to Mahakala, under the tree. I can always make a picture of him come, even though it's just the memory of the figure on the thangka upstairs, hardly a real visualization at all. He glares at me, and his glare is reflected from the lake, and then again for a moment the whole tree is there, with all its inhabitants. The wind roars in its branches. I keep going, with an unhappy conviction that the whole affair is supposed to be radiant and serene -- this is more like a scene from a bad movie of Wuthering Heights.

And so it goes on. Seldom far from wondering "what the hell do I think I'm doing?"

Thursday, May 06, 2004

A Quick Note

The surgery went very well, & Martha's probably coming home today. Remind me to tell you about the queen of spades, the square dance, and the chaplain. But not today. Love --

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

The Solution of all my Problems

Let x be the unknown quantity

Let x be the angle between a line drawn from the observer to the point on the horizon directly beneath the target star, and a line drawn due north from the observer

Let x be roughly seized hair and a whimper of pleasure

Let x be

Let x be

We have solved too many equations. When did any real thing equal any other real thing? How many of Dechen's tears equal Roger's shy smile? How many words of stammered fury equal a quiet cup of coffee? I have solved for x far too often. From now on x can solve for me.

Bearing in mind that some equations have an infinite number of solutions. And some have none.

Monday, May 03, 2004

Another Sunday Evening

A slender young woman, sitting with her back straight like a spring sapling, right in front of me. When Michael asked for questions, after a pause, she raised her hand halfway -- more like a tentative wave hello than like a student raising her hand. Michael was looking down, rummaging under his desk, or whatever you call the thing the lama sits behind; but he said "Yeah. Dechen."

The question came out in fragments. There were the people you knew who weren't in the sangha, you know, that you hung out with, and spent time with, but they didn't know what you were doing... and it seemed like the sangha could be... she had something to ask of us... she couldn't always, well, challenge herself, I mean, couldn't see her own stuff, sometimes... when she contemplated the four thoughts, and realized this time was so precious...

There was a catch in her throat, and I became aware, although sitting behind her, that she was near tears. She thought that we could do more than... you know, sometimes it was like, after puja it was all small talk, and, it seemed like... we could be so much more. So that, you know, if people could challenge her...

Michael sat a little while, looking down, perfectly still. There are times when you can almost see the empathy and tenderness welling up in him. The more moving in that he is not at all a touchy-feely kind of guy. He's the sort of man who generally ends up being a engineer, or a technician -- practical, skeptical, empirical.

He began his answer gently and obliquely, as he often does. With a few remarks about how in this tradition it's generally held that you should work with your own stuff. It's very hard to know what other people are working with.

I wish I could reproduce the whole flow of the give and take between him and Dechen. He moved on to talking about intimacy, the sense of connection and closeness between people, and how it never seems quite enough. "I know I've had that feeling all my life," he said quietly. "I don't think anything began to address it until I began taking the Bodhisattva vow seriously. Living for others rather than for myself. And it wasn't that the relationships changed, particularly. But that I realized that connection didn't really have to be reciprocal. The thing that was changing was in me. In a way, I think the whole path is about just that, about making connection possible."

I'm not quoting there -- those quotation marks are lies -- I'm paraphrasing, and not very well, maybe. It surprised me, because I think of Michael as an emissary of the Vajra Buddha family -- the cold blue steel intellect, incisive and analytical, the truth at any cost -- and this was from the Lotus Buddha family, the warm red heart, with a vengeance. But Michael always surprises me. (Very few people can keep surprising me, over the years. I married one of them.)

At the end of the evening he spent nearly an hour talking with Martha about how to practice with the general anaesthesia -- not one of the classical bardos (= "in-between-times," e.g. death or sleep), and how to deal with hospital people and routines. So we got out of there sometime after 9:30. Michael had been teaching since 9:00 A.M.