Friday, July 30, 2004

A Spontaneous Trot

I've lost enough weight now that I sometimes break into a trot, or even a run, without thinking about it. Just twenty or thirty yards, to catch a bus, say, or to "run back to the house" to get a notebook.

If you've never been heavy enough to have gradually subsided into never going faster than a walking pace, without due consideration and examination of consequences ("Are my knees up to this today?" or "Just how stupid will I look, flopping along?") you probably have no idea how wonderful, how liberating, how exhilirating it is. Picture looking up at the blue sky and finding yourself just flying up into it -- that gives you some idea.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Kiltartan Cross

Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan's poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.


Those lines from Yeats's "Irish Airman" have been coiling through my mind all day.


What I really wanted to do for a living -- what I really want to do for a living -- is massage. I get so sick of words and images, keyboards and monitors.

The moment I yearn for is that moment when I lay both my hands lightly on a person's back and just listen, listen to their body. Listen for the distress. It's so clear, usually. And the love then doesn't have to be translated or justified or excused or isolated or extenuated. Follow the path of the distress, and hear it with my fingers, and work with it, till it opens in my hands. That's a love that I've never mistrusted. That's all I ever wanted to do.

I bought a massage table, a few years ago. It sits in my closet. Never been used.

First Gentleman. And just how would you put two children through college, then?

Second Gentleman. "All you ever wanted to do?" Oh, really! It seems to me I've heard you voice some other desires, from time to time. I must have been mistaken.

Yeah, yeah. I know.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Second Draft
Well, there's this piece. I look at a beautiful woman, and I want her. Sure. That's pretty simple. It's desire. It's very like looking at a hamburger and wanting it. Neither complicated nor problematic.

Then there's admiring a woman and falling in love with her. Lots more things in play here. My own worth is on the table. She is such an admirable person -- if she loved me, then I would be an admirable person. The whole catalogue of virtues is a catalogue of things I want to own, have a stake in, be associated with. Do I admire her apart from that? I don't know. I know I admire physical beauty, apart from desire. Maybe it's the same sort of thing. Don't know. Not sure I've ever experienced pure moral admiration, in the way that I know I've experienced pure appreciation of physical beauty. This kind of infatuation, it seems to me, has more to do with ownership and territory, than with compassion. I don't want her to be happy, if she's going to be happy without me. If she's going to be without me, I want her to suffer and pine about it. I want her to want me desperately.  And I want the other people who want her to be disappointed.  How is that compassion, by any stretch?

(Not that this is confined to erotic love. I see many people respond to lama Michael in precisely the same way. We want to be special to him. We want to be his best student. The vajrayana exploits this ego-investment in our teachers shamelessly.)

Where is compassion, in all this? Where it always is -- mixed up with every goddamn thing in every possible way. I do sincerely desire the happiness of someone I'm in love with. Simple friendship and kindliness leaks through. And the more it does leak through, the more the infatuation dwindles. Isn't that in itself something to make me a little suspicious of "being in love?"

Yet the ferocity of infatuation resonates with something deeper, as Dante knew very well. It resonates with any rapturous reponse to something beautiful. It's a hunger for God, as Dante would put it, or for the transcendance of the self, as I would. It's not even exactly misplaced -- just misunderstood and misapplied.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Casting Grief before Monkeys

The occasion of the grief is nothing; you'd laugh at me if I told you. Laugh even more, if I told you how short a time I've had to bear it. Remember when the people all tell Curious George that he's been a brave little monkey? They would not say as much to me. I am not a brave little monkey. Especially not today.

I have poured water into offering bowls, wine into glasses, rice into measuring cups. The slow filling. Like that. The grief filling me up. There is not much room for anything but grief. I've been filled carefully, so that I won't spill. There's space for the grieving to tremble, and run from rim to rim. I can do my work, minimally. Chat with Martha.  Read to the kids at night. But I'm walking around carrying, really, nothing but grief.

How long? What for?

Well, those are two good ways of turning grief into suffering. I wave them away. Like persistent mosquitos, they sidestep, and make for the dark places. Not gone for long.

I'm balanced between two void spaces, and feeling the loss of my youth, sure. (How long? What for?) Losses left and right. And this is a good life, remember? A life devoutly to be desired.

Blue-sky morning. Cool air. Crows scolding. (How long? What for?)

Flickers of joy, of ferocity. Moments of openhandedness. Is it all a pretense? Sure. For seconds at a time, it can be a pretense. Next question.

Long power wires, slowly climbing over my head. The sun is tangled in their braids, and their shadows are swaying. (How long? What for?)

6:27, and the omze's cushion is empty, and the candles are unlit. Quick, light the candles, offer the liturgy. Ring the bell. Oh, I love to ring the bell. Like a little boy loves to sit at the steering wheel. I've stepped into someone's shoes. Meditating, the persistent thought arises: how do I make sure everyone knows I stepped into the breach, even though it wasn't my turn, without appearing to want everybody to know that? Back to the breath. Back comes the thought. Back to the breath. (How long? What for?)

I reach with my mind, but I know I can't do it. I don't know how. Not strong enough even if I knew, I bet. A raw recruit. ("...and they pronounce him fit to fight. / There are blackheads on his shoulders, / and he pees himself in the night.")

Grieving songs and poems come to me. "O Margaret are you grieving, For golden groves unleaving?..." and "If you had seen my Charlie at the head of an army, / He was a gallant sight to behold..." and "ghastly through the drizzling rain / On the bald street breaks the blank day."

(How long? What for?) Wearily, I wave them away again. Just the grief. Just keep the grief. Celebrate the grief. It's the gift that today's wind has blown to me. Treasure it. Kings and emperors have gone to their graves with no such gift of grief.   Else speak "Of one whose hand, /Like the base Indian, threw a jewel away,  / Richer than all his tribe. "


(In response to Andi's response to Kurt.   I am, by the way, exagerating my personal history here, which has been quite a bit more nuanced, not to say boring, than I find I am representing it to be.)

Know the sex, and the sex will make you free.

Nobody ever actually said that to me, but it was scripture in my early life, implicit in all kinds of Rousseau-ish manifestos I swallowed whole back in the sixties and seventies. I did my best.

Came a time when I had to look back over my life and ask, all right, so when has sex ever made me free? When does it make good on this promise? Easy to see how it binds me. So when does the freedom part come in?

I don't see how I can honestly answer anything but, probably never. At my age you start unloading the future a bit. Bets that you've made all your life, that have never come off -- you start to think of cashing out and calling it a day on them. I kept betting that if I just found the right circumstances -- the right constellation of partners, and the right supportive culture -- sex would take me somewhere other than obsessive-compulsive land. It's time to step back from the green felt tables and say -- what if maybe it's time to stop playing this game? Now that I've lost steadily for thirty-five years, might it be time for me to see if there's any information to be gleaned from that?

Panic. Because my sexual openness has been a foundational piece of my self-image. Ego-panic. Remember the story of the monk who constituted his Self on the basis of his collar? I have always constituted my Self on the basis of my free sexuality.

I started off to write some nonsense about human society being biologically programmed to be hierarchical -- that we are pack animals, like dogs or baboons, who always arrange ourselves in power relations, and that sex is one of our primary methods for sorting. Who knows, it may be true; I don't see what asserting it could lead to but endless wrangling. The fact is that I am a pack animal, obsessed with hierarchy, and that my strategy has always been one of subverting the ostensible pack order by surreptitious sex. Doesn't much matter how much the alpha male swaggers it, if you make off with his mate. There's the formal hierarchy, but then there's also a shadow hierarchy of illicit sex. Clearly I was never going to make it in the first, but I had a shot at the second.

One of the stories I told myself was that I was not participating in any hierarchical structures at all. I was tearing them all down. I would liberate people from all hierarchy. I don't think I ever very clearly asked myself why I so particularly wanted to liberate the pretty young partners of dominant males, and why I rapidly lost interest in anyone I could actually have. The fact was I was an abjectly hierarchical creature myself; that sex and domination were completely tangled up in my own mind. But I was only vaguely and intermittently aware of it.

There was a fierce joy in being a rogue animal, admitting no laws higher than my own desire, and owning no master. It draws me even now. That predatory intensity, that single-mindedness, that exultation of power. The political story, the anarchism, my very own brand of liberation theology, was just a cover for it; I had no intention of giving it up.

Do I mean to give it up now?

No, not really. I want to turn it. Decisively turn it away from friends and lovers. I don't want to prey on anyone, anymore, not in reality, and not in my mind. But one of the many eerie unexplained results of practicing Ngondro has been a strong resurgence of that ferocity, at odd times, in odd ways. It can float free of human relationships. I'm not quite sure what it is, when it does that. This is one arena where my Nihilism had never taken hold. I had always believed devoutly in the reality of beautiful women. But growing older, and having children, is gradually eroding that belief. Not that they don't exist (do we need to run through that old business again?) but that they don't exist as I perceive them.

What is this thing that burns, then -- this ferocity? I know whose it is. It belongs to Vajrayogini. But how exactly it's supposed to play in my life, I don't know. And really I think I don't need to know. " Just do the practice, and the meaning will reveal itself." The ferocity itself was never a mistake. Attaching it to particular fantasies, and believing in them -- that was the mistake.

Monday, July 26, 2004

Tourism, Narcissism, and  Buddhist "Nihilism"
This post seems too long and rambling and a little disjointed to me, but the longer I wait to post it the less chance there is that anyone will believe me when I say I wrote it before reading N.'s posts, and the comment thread on this topic, at the Glinting Web.  Maybe I'll edit it later.

I have been irked a couple times lately by Buddhists taking the spiritual affliction that we Buddhists call "Nihilism" to map nicely to the psychological affliction we Westerners call "Depression." It does not. The things can overlap easily enough, but they are not the same thing. If Buddhist Nihilism maps to any Western psychological category, it is to "Narcissism."

Buddhist "Nihilism" (which, by the way, has very little in common with Western philosophical "Nihilism") is an affliction of the spirit, which is held to be caused by a precocious realization of emptiness. The Nihilist understands (conceptually, anyway) just how much of his perceived world is projection. He understands that the ordinary distinction between subject and object is a false one. So he no longer takes the world at face value; he no longer views it as "real" in quite the same way as people ordinarily do. He tends to think of it as a hall of mirrors, or a theater, and to treat the people in it as characters. He takes no responsibility for his actions. Why should he? He's not real, either. He is indifferent to the suffering of others, except as it may impinge upon him; after all, it is illusory.

Buddhist teachers generally refer to Nihilism as a pit -- something that is easily blundered into, but not easily climbed out of. They tend -- it seems to me -- to avoid the subject, as if even talking about it were dangerous. As far as I understand -- which I readily confess may not be very far -- Nihilism is not actually wrong. That is, it's not a doctrinal mistake, not a mistake about the nature of reality. But it is a terrible practice mistake, and one that's difficult to recover from, because it prematurely cuts away many of the (in some senses illusory) motivations for practice.

We are already enlightened. There is nothing to be done. Samsara doesn't need fixing, and it can't be fixed. All of Mahayana practice takes place in the context of this paradox: we are working very hard to do something that needn't be done, in order to cure ourselves of afflictions that aren't there.

-- supply your own transition here --

There are two antidotes, they say, to Nihilism. One is the compassion practices, and the other is the contemplation of karma. "The contemplation of karma?" I thought, in disbelief, when I first heard it. "How does that help?" I have never gotten a satisfactory answer, and I wonder if the contemplation of karma is only a valuable antidote to Nihilism if one comes from a culture that already believes in it. Maybe it's as simple -- if you already believe implicitly in karma -- as recalling that actually everybody's suffering impinges upon you, and that all the suffering you cause is going to come home to roost.

Or maybe it is just something I have yet to learn. But the compassion practices are another matter. Nihilism is a precocious realization of emptiness, I said. Precocious, because it has outstripped the realization of compassion. Without an ingrained habit of compassion -- of taking on other people's suffering and delighting in other people's joy -- the conceptual understanding of emptiness can be toxic.

I'm not sure why this is so. I'm also not entirely sure that there may not be some kind of difficult back-alley route out of Nihilism; it's hard for me to see how a really complete realization of emptiness wouldn't eventually undo it (and all other afflictions). But of course, it's possible to sail from New Zealand to Australia by going east, too; It just takes a bit longer.

In any case, much of my own escape from Nihilism was accomplished before I met the Dharma. It was dumb luck, by any rational reckoning. I met Martha.

I have never known anyone whose compassion is as deep and wide and concrete as Martha's. I have never forgotten, 25 years ago, arriving in London with Martha at dawn, American tourists who had almost never been abroad before and knew nothing of London, or indeed of big cities. We walked along gaping at this and that, greatly amused by the pictures of pushme-pullyus on the streets which warned us to look both ways (since Englanders drive on the wrong side of the road, they helpfully warn strangers this way.) We saw an old bag-lady sitting exhausted on the sidewalk. "Oh, look," I was thinking. "They do have street people in London."

But Martha was having an entirely different response. She walked over, sat down next to the woman, and put her hand on her shoulder. "Are you all right?" she asked.

Now, Martha is not a convenient person to live with. To live with Martha is to find oneself building a handicapped-crow access to one's apple tree, so that the broken-winged crow can hop up to a safe perch. It means spending serious money repairing a stray cat who's lost a quarrel with a racoon. It means intervening in a "domestic" three houses down the street at 3:00 a.m. It means taking a bag of groceries to the family living in their car down the street. It means that visiting my mother at the convalescent home also involves visiting with a number of other ill and aged people who happen to be in the same wing, who have no one else to visit them (because, in some cases, they are extremely unpleasant.) It means that spotting a dog trotting uncertainly down a city street almost always means trying to capture the dog and look for its owner.

But if you are someone who needs to learn compassion, you've found the right person to live with. Because it also means you get to see an old London woman light up, with an incredibly beautiful and unexpected smile, and say "I'm just a little tired, dearie, thank you so much!" It means that you live in a world in which no living creature is just scenery. It's a smelly, awkward, inconvenient world, but it's not a theater, not a hall of mirrors.

Before I met Martha I was not just a tourist in London. I was a tourist everywhere, a tourist even in my hometown, in my own family. But Martha has never been a tourist anywhere. She is incapable of watching people as quaint picturesque figures on a screen. They're all always people to her. She's never just visiting. When a narcissist's attention is on you, it's fixed with intensity, but when that attention shifts, it's as if you were never there; you simply disappear. My whole family of origin operated that way. It took me a long time to understand, when we first got together, why Martha generally wanted to know where I was, and when I'd be back. Eventually I learned it was the way normal couples and families operated. They didn't simply wink out of existence for each other when they went away. They were still connected.

When I came to the practice of tong len, "taking and sending" -- maybe the foremost of the compassion practices -- I could almost have laughed. I recognized it at once: I'd been training in it for years, under a master.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

There is in it some symmetry and justice --
That, having spent my childhood
In grief, learning resignation,
I should spend my later years in joy,
Trying to learn decorum.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

In the Service of my Lord

Take pity on one who has worn himself out in your service, lord.

Except, as you know well, desire takes pity on no one.

Battening upon the throat of this one, and sucking, sucking till my teeth ache. And even as I suck, my eyes wander to that one's throat.

No. I'm afraid you don't know the half of it. I was born among such creatures. Believe me, I know them better than you. You can see them in great sobbing clusters, frantically drinking as the fluid is drained from their bodies. These are not nice creatures. Don't take one home.

A quiet spacious well-scrubbed kitchen, with nothing new in it. That's a good starting place. They will find it hard to enter such a place. Well-tended gardens make them nervous and uncomfortable. So do mended clothes and careful workmanship They gather in the waste spaces, the untended lots. They like places where new, untried goods are jumbled up with discarded things. They come eagerly to where promises are broken. Persistent they may be, but they are not intelligent. Lure them somewhere once, and depend upon it, they'll come back again and again.

But don't mistake their places for hell. There's affection there, too, in all its forms. Recognized, though it is, as a luxury that no one can really afford. Still they indulge in it. They indulge in most things.

A haze of cigarette smoke, a pale watery morning, and a distant coughing that won't stop. Morning is a hard time for these creatures. They blink painfully, and dig their way unsteadily under piles of loose rubbish. Astonished, abashed, indignant and frightened by the coming of the sun.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004


I didn't know Michael very well, back then. I didn't know how hard he works -- few people do. How he'll get called out of the blue, in the night, by someone who is on the brink of suicide, some stranger just checking in to see if the Dharma has anything in it to keep them from pulling the trigger. He'll talk to them for two hours, sleep a few hours, and then get up to lead an all-day sit. Most everyone else goes home from that, after sitting and receiving teachings all day, exhausted; Michael goes on to the evening meditation, and ends his day by teaching for two more hours. And at the end of that two hours his mind is as sharp as it was in the morning.

He may or may not learn whether the person he talked to pulled the trigger. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. He gets to live with that.

A person in a position to know -- not Michael -- once told me, "People think of being a teacher, and think how groovy it would be to have everyone admire them. In fact, people usual come to a teacher pissed off, fed up with him, or fed up with the teachings." Having watched for a while, I see that it's true. What really inspires me to schedule interview time or blast off a two-page email is exasperation, anger, or despair. Michael gets a steady diet of that. But you'd never guess from how readily he laughs, from how delighted he seems at the questions he gets.

One evening I was to be omze, so we arrived a half hour early to open up the center. Sitting on the porch was a young man with wide eyes. I grinned at him. "Were you waiting for us to open up?" I asked. He looked at me blankly for a few moments. You get these people, sometimes. Sometimes they're people just off of retreat, rusty at the brisk patter, the rapid back-and-forth, of communication in the ordinary world. Sometimes they're mentally ill. Sometimes they're stoned. Slowly he focused on me, and made a gesture that might have been a nod, or might have been shaking his head. I went on past him to unlock the door, cravenly and wisely leaving him for Martha to deal with. Martha is gifted at dealing with such people.

As omze, I sit sideways to the shrine, so I could keep a bit of an eye on him. He sat restlessly, distractedly, twitching every now and then; not like someone with a nervous or muscular disorder (you become something of a specialist in twitches, if you observe much meditation), but like someone who just can't keep his mind on his work. Definitely not someone just out of retreat. Ill or stoned, then. But he seemed harmless enough. Martha had taken him under her wing, and gotten him seated.

After an hour's meditation, Michael fielded questions for an hour or so. It was by now nine o'clock, and he had been teaching for twelve hours, and he knew he would have still to talk to people after we officially stopped, too. He cast an eye across us, and spoke to the young man. "Did you have something you wanted to say?" A lot of us had made our evaluation of the young man by now -- there was a sizeable contingent of people in the room who had been hippies in the 60's, and they knew their stoners -- and I could see a few apprehensive looks, looks that said "for heaven's sake, leave well enough alone!"

The young man made some vague noises, clearly undecided. Michael encouraged him. More apprehensive looks from the gallery. The young man finally launched into a speech which I'm afraid I can no longer remember, nor simulate, except to say that if your youth was mispent like mine, you'd immediately recognize the wandering, disjointed, repetitive mystical observations of someone far gone on (at my best guess) mescaline. He went on and on. Most people were staring at the floor, in various phases of mortification.  Michael's time was precious; we wanted Dharma, not chemically-induced maundering.  But I just watched Michael. He was listening with deep, deep attention. When there was a pause, he asked the young man a question, which set him off again. When the young man finally ground to a halt, another twenty minutes later, dimly aware maybe that most of his audience was not altogether with him, a heavy silence fell. I could tell that half a dozen people were trying to think of a way to wrap this up and get our visitor out the door. But usually Michael is the one to end the question period, and he usually does it after responding to the last question.

Michael was holding this young man's gaze very steadily, and smiling. There was clearly a connection being made, a sort of luminosity between them. When Michael spoke, he surprised me again, as he so often does. "What's your name?" he asked.

"What?" said the young man.

"What's your name?" repeated Michael.

"Daniel," he said warily.

"Are you from here, or just visiting?" The questions were so gently put and genuine, that Daniel realized as quick as the rest of us that this was no rhetorical trick, no teaching-moment. Michael chatted gently with him for a few moments, established that he was staying with friends and did know how to get back to them. I had the clearest possible vision of Michael carefully bringing a kite safely to ground, patiently and happily, as though he had no other interest in the world just then. We were an hour over-time by then.

"Thank you," Michael said to him, feelingly, as if he, Michael, had just received a wonderful gift; and then he ended the session.  We had, in fact, gotten Dharma.  It just took us a while to recognize it. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

I wrote this in answer to a very shrewd and compassionate response to my "old religions" post.  Reproduced here by permission.  My correspondent remarked that her discomfort with my post could be boiled down to my having said "that's what you go to a religious tradition for" rather than "that's what I go to a religious tradition for."
Heh.  "that's what you go to a religious tradition for."  The comical thing about my universalizing statement there was that I did no such thing.  A religious tradition came and found me.  I didn't consider myself a Buddhist or any other kind of -ist, seven-odd years ago, when I walked into the evening community college class where lama Michael was to teach basic Buddhism.  And if I had been going to pick any religious tradition in all the world, Vajrayana Buddhism, with its florid, baroque art, outlandish practices, veneration of living teachers as if they were gods, and naive delight in miracle-working saints, would have been possibly the last I would have picked.  I was the son of a scientist, for God's sake, raised strictly athiest and rationalist.  But the things Michael said worked.  Hearing his teachings, and doing the things he urged us to do, woke up something in me that had been sleeping fitfully for twenty-some years.  After a long torpor, I felt as alive again as I did when I was twenty (not to mention as foolish and unstable.) 
The things he asked us to do were never things such as to believe something, or to give anyone money.  He asked us to meditate.  He asked us to just "try on a view, and see what happens."  He insisted that our own experience was the only valid authority.  He was maybe the very opposite of what I expected from a "religious" man.  It was obvious to me within a couple weeks that I had never before met a real scientist, someone who really treated his assumptions as working hypotheses and really gave them up when the evidence was against them.  Compared to him every scientist I had ever known was a bigot. 
So anyway -- I urge you to to say "it hasn't worked for me," rather than "it doesn't work for me."  If that door's closed, leave it that way -- but don't lock it.  I understand very well the pain of yearning for a community.  Probably nothing in my life has grieved me more than not having one,  and the half-ressurection of the desire, and its half-fulfilment, has been intensely painful at times.  So I don't urge staying open to its possibility lightly.  I realize though that this sort of waking up again wouldn't necessarily happen in the context of a teacher and a community.  I stay with this because I'm pretty sure that without it I'd fall asleep again.   If I'm more than a week or two away from the center, my practice and intention start to waver.  I start taking distractions more and more seriously.  It all starts to unravel.  I can't afford that.  I'm 46 years old; another twenty-year sleep would probably about wrap things up for me.  But that's just my story, and it's just today's story.  Michael could die tonight, and the sangha could go to pieces within the month.  Would I really show up at the local Catholic church next month, if it did?  I doubt it.  I'm not at all sure whether this letter makes any sense or is any appropriate kind of answer.  What I set out to say was "whatever you're doing that works, just keep on doing it."

Friday, July 16, 2004

Ways in which I am Wrong 

The trouble with Westerners, said Chogyam Trungpa, is that they want to witness  their own enlightenment.

William Blake wrote:  Sooner murder an infant in its cradle, than nurse unacted desires.
A rabbi, a minister, and a priest walk into a bar.  The bartender looks up and says, "what is this, some kind of a joke?"
You know, if you'd all just agree to post a comment every day saying, "I like you, Dale!  You're really cool."  Then I could stop doing all this tedious religious blogging.  Think how much time we'd all save.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Interlude: Why I Favor Old Religions

I wanted to pull this up out of the comment thread and elaborate on it. Susurra wrote:

I'm sort of surprised to find you saying that you believe a religion has to be old to be validly transformative. Is that what you are saying? To me, that's sort of like saying seniority in a job matters more than talent. Or that it matters more how long the religion has existed than how well it works for me individually?

I was glad to get the question. (For one thing, it helped me see that my protest against Wicca's claims to being an old tradition could easily appear to be just idle witch-baiting.) I answered:

Well, two things, Susurra. All paths were new once, of course. But an old path 1) has encountered and coped with a number of cultures -- so it's less subject to the culture-blindness of assuming that one's cultural presuppositions are simply universal. And 2) it has acquired an enormous amount of experience and lore and accomplished practitioners. It's likely to know what to do with a broad range of personality types. Most modern paths, I think, appeal mostly to just one or two personality types in one or two cultural contexts, and are fairly helpless to deal with others.

But more than that, and maybe most importantly -- we always tend (appropriately enough) to focus on the next necessary transformation. It's our dearest hope that it will actually succeed, that we will grow into a significantly different person. Any one such transformation is incredibly precious. I'm sorry that I dissed Wicca even as much as I did, because the only spiritual path I would really want to diss is no path at all. Contempt for transformation and indifference to its possibility -- that's a path that leads, I think, straight to hell, and you don't have to wait for death to get there, either.

But we tend -- anyway, I know I tend -- to think of the next transformation as the last one we'll need. It's almost certain not to be. There are doors after doors, thresholds after thresholds to be crossed. (This is only a discouraging thought, by the way, if you're not really paying attention to what it means.) I think that most new paths are likely to be one-trick ponies. There may be one transformation they know how to work, and maybe even to stabilize, but I think if you take to a new-ish path, or a self-devised one, even if it really takes you through a metamorphosis you're pretty likely to need to go find another path after that or devise another one, without having much useful guidance about where to go next.

Now maybe the only sensible response to that argument is, "Jesus, I should have such problems!" But that, anyway, is my pitch for old established religious traditions.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004


One day I was called out of my third-grade class and sent to the office. No one saw fit to tell me why. I walked past the speculative gaze of my peers, out into the dusty hall -- the halls of my elementary school were always dusty, despite (or maybe because of) the janitors with their yard-wide mops, who seemed always to be listlessly sweeping them. So far as I could tell, what they did all day was to push the dust from one place to another.

Down the halls, my stomach feeling empty and queer. I stepped carefully over one of the lines of dust left by the mops, and went into the office.

The secretary directed me to the counselor's office. I didn't know the counselor -- a shy earnest youngish man -- but I could tell immediately that I wasn't in trouble. He explained to me that they were thinking of moving me up to fourth grade. First they had to give me some tests, to see if that was really the right thing to do.

That was a relief. I liked tests. He got out the colored blocks that you could make patterns with. "Oh, I like that one!" I said. He raised his eyebrows. I could have explained that my mother was a graduate student in psychology, and she, being the only one of her circle with kids, donated me whenever someone needed to give a kid an IQ test for an assignment. (This, you must remember, was the mid 1960's, and giving intelligence tests was something any grad student in psychology would be expected to know how to do.) But the idea that adults might need information from me was one I had not yet absorbed; whereas the negotiating leverage conferred by silence is apparently something that every ethnic Norwegian knows from infancy. I sat and waited. The young man, nonplussed, pulled out more intelligence tests, looking more and more desperately for one I wasn't familiar with. Finally he hit upon a vocabulary test. "I've never taken that," I said.

I exulted in my heart, because if there was one thing in this world I knew, it was words. I read constantly. There was a supposed two years' worth of readers in the back of my first-grade classroom; I had cruised through them in a month. The only naughtiness I commited in school -- I was very obedient and docile, as a rule -- was to slip science fiction books inside of my textbook, so that I could keep reading during class.

There was only one word I didn't know, on the test -- "ascend" -- and it was easy enough to guess, since I knew "descend." The counselor said that meant I had a college-level vocabulary. Apparently I was going into fourth grade next week.

Back through the halls. I stopped at the door of the classroom. Was I supposed to knock? I had no idea. I opened it as quietly as possible. Everyone gazed at me even more curiously, examining me for the signs that would tell what sort of being-called-to-the-office it was. My friend Gary whispered to me, as I slid red-faced into my seat, "What was it?"

"They're skipping me maybe," I muttered.

"I thought that might be it," he said quietly, out of the corner of his mouth.

So in the middle of the year I stopped being a third-grader and became a fourth-grader. I'm sure this made sense to somebody at the time, and I imagine it delighted my parents, but it was not a wise thing to do. The fourth-grade classes were every bit as boring as the third-grade classes, and my extravagant sense of being special, a uniquely gifted genius, was just reinforced. And now I was also uniquely slow and small. An acknowledged freak. Why they didn't put me in a class with other bright kids, and give us really hard work to do, I'll never understand. It would have fed my mind, instead of starving it, and it would have cured me of my sense of being a vastly different being. It wasn't until I got to graduate school that I was surrounded by people who were as smart as I was, and that I realized, very belatedly, that there were some sixty million people in the world who shared that top percentile of intelligence with me, and that most of them were a great deal smarter than I was.

But there's the story that I swallowed, hook, line, and sinker. That I was a lonely genius, subject to no laws but my own. No sooner had I swallowed the story, than it turned around -- as stories will -- and began to swallow me.

Speaking of being swallowed by stories, I've been carried away by this one, fashioning it into a social critique that I no longer much believe in. True, I don't think much of some parts of my public schooling. But if I hadn't swallowed the story of the lonely genius, I would have swallowed some other one -- psychologically less damaging, maybe, but no less of a spiritual poison.

Of all the realms inhabited by sentient beings, the Tibetans hold that this one, the human realm, is the best jumping-off place for enlightenment. The reason being that, unlike beings in the hell realms, the hungry ghost realm, or the animal realm, we human beings actually sometimes are free enough of suffering to stop and look around. But, unlike beings in the various heaven realms, we suffer enough that we never lose sight of our urgent need for transcendance. So I'm not sure I ought to call the suffering of this story -- minor enough by any common human scale -- unfortunate. It was at least a story that kept me restless.

In any case -- fast forward to sixteen. I've graduated from my hippie free school (which required only the few things the state of Washington then required for a highschool education, quite easily done in a couple years.) Back home in Eugene. Going to Lane Community College part-time. I took a World Lit class, and one of the things we read was Lao Tzu.

I read the Tao de Ching over and over. This man knew something. He knew something I didn't know. He teased me, confused me, and frustrated me, but I understood from the very start that in fact he was playing fair. He wasn't getting off on baffling me. He was saying what he had to say as straightforwardly as he could.

I had met a contemplative for the first time, though I didn't know it. I was very young, so I can be forgiven, maybe, for thinking that just listening to him would change me. A door seemed to stand open, when I read him. But I had no idea what to do about it. I stood there waiting for the doorway to get up and walk over me, so that I would be outside.

Other doors opened. I went off to Evergreen State the next year, and I met Dante and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Doors were opening all over the place. I just couldn't get through them.

And all the while the story was chewing on me. I was going to be a great novelist. I would be an apostle of free love. I was going to set a flame of anarchist revolution throughout the land. Or maybe socialist revolution? Sexual revolution, at the very least. My genius surely was going to manifest somehow.

But the world was oddly indifferent to my genius. It tiresomely demanded proof that I was a great novelist, in the form of great novels. My fellow revolutionaries obstinately preferred other manifestos to mine. Women, inexplicably, did not stand in line to be converted. The horrible suspicion that I might be an ordinary person began to occur to me. But only when I was drunk or fatigued. Everyone still told me I was bound for greatness. If I had known then what I learned later, as a teacher -- to wit, how very seductive the fantasy of being the teacher who recognizes genius can be -- I might have received this encouragement with a little more skepticism.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Lightning. Enter Witches.

I awake slowly, nestled against Martha spoon-fashion, my hand on her breast. Our usual sleeping posture. Flickers of blue lightning through the skylight, but no thunder that I can hear. A spatter of rain. I turn a few times, ending up on my back.

My thoughts climb their way through their spiderweb lattice of schemes and anxieties and desires, Restless little movements of pride and humiliation. I watch them, idly. Eventually I sleep a little more.

Morning. I pad silently downstairs. Past Alan, asleep on the couch, his hair tousled and his mouth open. I wonder when he got to sleep. Last night I came down at 3:30 and he was still up, playing gameboy. He's taken suddenly to sleeping out of his room. I did the same thing at his age. A restlessness that comes on with puberty, maybe. I wonder, not very hopefully, if there's anything I can do to ease this time of his life. It was a nightmare time for me. I hope it's somewhat better for him.

Into my room downstairs, the exercise-cum-shrine-room, to do my stretches and back exercises. I like to do them, which is fortunate, because I have to do them. If I skip one morning, I may pull my back that day. If I skip two mornings, I almost certainly will, and then I'm looking at weeks of pain and disability. So I don't skip any at all, not any more.

Clean the shrine. Empty the dishwasher. Brush my teeth. Upstairs to say goodbye to Martha, who is still mostly asleep, and then out to the car, my backpack over my shoulder and my laptop under my arm. I drive through the bright morning. The streets are still wet from last night's brief rain. My windshield is clotted with moistened pollen, so I spritz it and run the windshield wipers, wondering, for the umpteenth time, what they make that windshield-cleaner with and whether I should use it. I make a mental note to check on that. I recognize, as I do it, that I have made that note well over a hundred times, and that I am almost certain never to follow up on it. That's okay.

At Tosi's I run through my routine, lovingly practicing my Chinese characters, and then doing the exercises in my book. Reading simple, made-up Chinese sentences. Real Chinese is beyond me, even a first-grade primer with a running pinyin crib defeats me -- even when I know all the characters, just about every sentence I try to read comes apart into a meaningless jumble of semantic atoms. But this carefully predigested pap I can work my way through, if I'm patient. I am patient.

I could bring my laptop in from the car and blog. But maybe not today. I start drawing a napkin, a portrait of a weak-chinned man with bulging eyes and a pointy nose, his jaw dropped, his expression one of consternation. I never know what I'm going to draw before I draw it. Is that me? Is he waking up to lightning and silent thunder?

Too much space below, so I fill in the bottom right corner with a cryptic flourish. A meaningless symbol. Is it meant to assert my wizardry? Maybe. It has the specious appeal of such frauds as the "Theban language," which I learned over the weekend.

"It's not a spoken language," she said. "It's very old. Witches use it. I write in it a lot, that way I can write in my notebook at work, and nobody knows what I'm writing."

"Not a spoken language? I've never heard of such I thing," I said, in considerable delight. She shows me her notebook, written out in an unfamiliar, awkward script, interspersed with schoolgirl pictures of women brandishing swords, and being pierced by them. "See? This is an m," she says. My delight dwindles. Not a language. This is English, written in a simple substitution cipher. But she thinks it so very cool that I'm still charmed by her enthusiasm.

I find it easily on the web. Earliest known use by Cornelius Agrippa -- so it really is old -- and ascribed by him (falsely, I'm quite sure) to some Theban magician. An ugly and unwieldy script -- a tyro's alphabet. I've invented far more graceful and useful scripts. But I learn it. Write a few pages in it, experimenting. I like the challenge of trying to make an obstinately ugly script beautiful. The back-leaning 'u's and 'w's definitely have to go. The letters have to be collapsed a little, so the awkward middle space is less apparent. The crosses across some of the letter-stems can be made into flourishes that use some of that space too. But it's still ugly. So much of witchcraft strikes me this way: made-up, parading a mystery and power that's quite beyond it, solemnly asserting that commonplace modern platitudes are really ancient traditions. My ecumenical tolerance is strained by Wicca, I admit.

Oh, I'm sure that "drawing down the moon" brings real visions and authentic spiritual experiences. I don't doubt that part at all. But those are the easy parts. Anyone can lead a person to a vivid experience of the numinous. Any Victorian table-turner, any TV evangelist, any psychotherapist or crystal-gazer can do that. The hard part is transformation, and stabilizing transformation. That's what you go to a religious tradition for. That repository of hard-won experience, the breadth of an understanding that has survived a dozen different cultures. What's the use of being possessed by Artemis if, when she leaves, I'm the same person I was before? That's not a spiritual practice. It's just spiritual intoxication.

Why am I so afraid of fraud, I wonder? Why am I so convinced I am fraudulent? My mind turns that direction stubbornly, persistently. I wonder how much of every day I devote to hunting down the inauthentic in myself, and (publicly, of course) nailing its antlers up on the wall? What's the use of this hunt? What does it serve? It might be of some profit to think that over.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Poking my Nose up again

Here goes with "mole." This stopped being a practice journal long since, so the old name of "vajrayana practice" was misleading, vaguely hectoring, and a lot more than I feel like trying to live up to. The accurate title would run something like "whatever Dale feels like writing today," but I thought "mole" was catchier.

I've twiddled a few things, mostly invisible, I suppose. But mostly I liked the look and kept it. (Words, words, words; that's what I do.)

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Cascade Locks

I lie on my back on the wooden platform, and watch the cloudy sky, dotted with flying insects. Looking down to the horizon I can see the flowing silver of the Columbia, and the huge hills of the Washington bank. But mostly it's the sky that I watch, the Western Oregon clouds that I have always loved. The hills try to fool you with a show of permanence. You could learn their names, climb them, map them, draw them. It's smoke. They're not permanent. You can see, if you know the story, where the great slide came down from Hamilton Mountain and blocked the Columbia for five years, back in the 13th Century. Dante in Italy was wandering from city to city in exile, transmuting his bitterness into sweet terza rima, and Waclellah Indians were walking across the course of America's second-greatest river in dry mocassins. The hills are shifting like the clouds. Just a little slower.

But you don't need to know any stories, to watch the clouds shift. Magnificent shapes, but you don't think "I'll come back next week with a good lunch packed and climb that cloud." Or "I should pick up a survey map of that bank of cumulus." You can watch a great slide in a matter of minutes, a mass of cold air tumbling down a shoulder of bright warm air.

They sway and struggle and drift, silver and gray and white. The Waclellahs watched them too. They imagined no doubt that the mountain and the river and the salmon platforms and the flattened heads of their people were permanent. But probably they watched the clouds pretty much as I do. Just shapes going by.

Martha rests her chin on my knee. She grew up on the river. When first we walked along the waterside park at Cascade Locks, she gazed in puzzlement at the works just upriver. "There are locks up there," she said. I didn't even know what they were, much less why their presence would be mysterious. but Martha looked, baffled, at the barges going up the middle of the river, and immediately saw the oddity. What need for locks along the side of the river, when the middle of the river was perfectly navigable, a fine deep uncomplicated channel? "Oh," she said a moment later. "They must have built them before Bonneville dam." Sure enough. We learned later that when Lewis and Clark came this way, they had to shoot a falls of twenty feet and some "most horriable" rapids. Then in the 1920's the restless, industrious Europeans who followed them built locks to open the traffic past the falls. A great work, at the time; a generation later, still restless and industrious, they built the even greater work of the enormous Bonneville dam, which flooded the falls and the rapids, and turned the locks into a quaint artifact to puzzle the river-wise of the next generation.

Twilight. The lights of the sternwheeler moored at the marina come on; lights begin to twinkle in the village across the river, on the Washington side. Stevenson, I think it's called?

We walk back slowly, favoring Martha's bad knee. In all the time we've been here, we've seen no one but a woman our own age, in a dark green embroidered jacket, who prowls the shore looking at leaves in a fashion I recognize immediately, from a thousand walks with my father -- she's a botanist, or I'll eat my hat. A shy one, though. She keeps her distance from us.

Am I happy? Yes. No. I may remember this day in my old age as the summit of my happiness. And it may be. But I'm restless, too. Longing for bright lights and familiar restaurants and studying Chinese; longing for the drive to work channel-hopping the radio hoping to run across Tom Petty or Sheryl Crow. Longing. Always longing. I hope the botanist was not as lonely as she looked.

Monday, July 05, 2004

Dear friends, thanks very much for your sympathy and support. Just a note to say that I'm fine (and more than fine), and I'll probably be pretty quiet this week because I'm on vacation & I have to duke it out with the kids to get online. I'm also contemplating a long-overdue redesign of my blog, so if I ever can get Alan off of Baldur's Gate and Tori off of the Harry Potter fan-fic site, that'll probably be what I do first.

So if you come here and there's nothing to read, use the time to do a few minute's shamatha or zazen instead. -- Actually that's probably what you ought to do even if there is something here to read, but that's your problem, not mine :-)

Love --

Friday, July 02, 2004

Losing the Words

"Better out than in," says Hagrid cheerfully, when Ron is vomiting up slugs. It's on more or less that principle that I post things like my last. That, and I suppose that I harbor a fantasy of being some kind of "apostle to the skeptics," a Buddhist version of C.S. Lewis, and I know how reassuring blasphemy is to those of us who grew up viewing faith with superstitious dread.

I hadn't reckoned, maybe, on how deep the tear would go. I spent a lot of last evening crying. Reciting the bodhisattva prayer embedded in the Ngondro practice -- which I have had by heart since I began a year ago, and have recited pretty much daily since then -- I lost the words twice, and had to go to the text to find them. My voice cracked and stopped, and I had no idea what came next. As though I had called a curse of wordlessness and confusion down on myself. Which I think I had.

How many other things I may have torn, I don't know. I expect I'll be finding out in the next few days.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

In a Quite Different Key

This about sums it up too.

And this about sums it up.
Ridin' with the Queen

If you are having a day even remotely like mine, go see the Queen and remind yourself of what really bad days are like.
Next, Walking

A shrub a little like gorse, but unstickery, with stiff outthrust fingers covered with yellow blossom. Bee-flies wavering drunkenly among the fingers.

Two green dragonflies under the oak trees.

At least twelve different varieties of grass-plume, each clotted with seeds.

On a ragged row of purple batchelor buttons, five bumblebees and one mason bee.

Above the cool brown creek, more dragonflies, one of them huge and brilliant blue, cruising above the water looking very like a B-52. If B-52's could stop abruptly in the air and hover.
Bleeding Rabbit

Screw it. The Buddha's long dead, taking his secrets -- if they were ever anything more than a gift for wowing the crowd -- with him. I've got no Buddha nature, and neither have you, and neither have these precious Rinpoches. What I've got is a cesspool of anger and baffled ambition. There's nothing else in here. No compassion. And it's thoroughly "in here." I am completely circumscribed by the walls of this filthy self, completely cut off from everyone else. If anyone else is even out there.

All the beauty is gone, all the delight, all the joy. And in this moment I don't believe any of them were ever here. Fantasies. And even those fantasies, drenched in dreams of empire, or in nightmares of loathing. Like an old dog feebly kicking in his dreams, chasing non-existent rabbits. Catching them too, no doubt, and tearing them to shreds with his dream teeth. I'll wake up soon enough, to find my real teeth as rotten as ever, though the bleeding rabbit may be real enough. A botch of a life.