Friday, August 26, 2005


Walla Walla was full of families of students, so we stayed in a motel ten miles south, across the Oregon border. Milton-Freewater is a haphazard town of some five thousand souls, strung along several miles of freeway.

It's near desert, here. Rich farmland and orchards, where it's irrigated, but otherwise a country of huge bare golden hills. Mountains, you'd call them, if you didn't have the Cascades and the Rockies to compare them with.

There's a little river that runs through the middle of the town. You would think, in this water-starved country, they would make much of it -- but it wanders unnoticed through backyards and behind parking lots. I thought at first it must be an irrigation canal, but after watching it a while, I'm convinced it's a natural river, running happily in its own bed. The townspeople simply have no interest in it.

I ate breakfast this morning in a fortress-like windowless building, which was surrounded by a wide moat of asphalt. A neon sign said "open" but nothing pointed to an entrance. There were two doors, identical blank steel doors, at intervals in the brick wall, but they both looked so much like a backdoor into the kitchen that I walked on around the corner of the building. Nothing. Back to the blue steel doors. I peeked in through the three-inch wide, murder-hole window. What I could see looked like a standard small-town restaurant. I went in.

A dismal breakfast. A slick gelatinous egg mass, pitted with pinhead craters, apparently more deep-fried in vegetable oil than than scrambled, and those frozen grated potatoes similarly fried. The sausage was okay. The coffee was watery even to my taste.

The waitress grudgingly replenished it a few times. "That must be a really interesting book!" she remarked. She repeated this remark at every refill, giving me the opportunity, I guessed, to explain my bizarre behavior and assert some normality. I smiled and nodded vaguely and went on reading.

Walking back to the motel, I paused again to marvel at that little river. Dark green and cool, running rapidly through the middle of town, full of merriment even in late August. It takes no more notice of the town than the town takes of it. I'm not quite sure what it's laughing about -- some long slow joke gathered from the bare hills, I guess, drawn from the little chattering snow-melt creeks of Idaho. It's shockingly real in the middle of this phantasmal, jerry-built town.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005


A cold coming we had of it
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.

When I called my mother, twenty years ago, to tell her that Martha was pregnant, there was a pause by the same name.

"Oh," said my mother. Another pause. Finally she said, "Even when you're expecting it, it comes kind of like a punch in the stomach, to find out you're going to be a grandmother."

I would have preferred congratulations. I intend to lie through my teeth, myself, and express delight and jubilation if I get that call one of these days. But I understood. Every milestone in your child's life is a tombstone in your own. Tori's leaving home for college. We're driving her stuff up there tomorrow. Whatever chapter my own life may be on, it can't any longer be the one that opened hopefully when a young man with long blond hair and wispy traces of a beard carried a backpack of clothes and a box of books into a dorm room in Olympia. That chapter's closed.

"It's funny, I want to ask -- never mind. It's ridiculous. You don't ask someone's parents a question like that. Never mind." Jonquil looked at me hopefully over the teacup.

"Go on, spit it out," I grumbled. But I knew what she was going to ask. Did she have a chance with Alan?

Parenthood entails a lot of turning the mind's sleeve inside out, but this was a little more than I could manage. I have read this boy to sleep, not so long ago, either, and watched the little thread of saliva reach from the corner of his mouth to the Pokemon sheets. An object of hopeless love? An object of this extraordinarily beautiful young woman's hopeless love?

Yet we're all somebody's child. The eye of God sees us all dribbling on our Pokemon sheets. Does it bemuse him, in the same way, to see us fall in love with each other? Seems like it must.

I honestly didn't know, don't know. Couldn't tell her.

I noticed, as I drove into work, that a few leaves of the trees on the parkway are beginning to turn red.

Monday, August 22, 2005


If wishes were fishes, we'd all cast nets, my grandmother used to say. She's been dead many years now, so I can't ask the question that has troubled me all my life. "Don't you mean" -- I would like to put it to her -- "that if fishes were wishes, we'd all cast nets?"

And supposing she rose from her neat Presbyterian grave, and said, "No, dear. I mean if wishes were fishes." Then what?

Well, it would be a little like Dave Bonta saying he doesn't believe in the pursuit of personal liberation. I have to stop dead and say to myself, which is it that I have badly misunderstood, over the years? My own understanding, or his?

Well. To unpack a little. There's the word "personal" in there, which smells a little odd. The whole Mahayana schtick, of course, is that you don't seek enlightenment only to help yourself. You seek it to help others. The motivation that I affirm in my prayers each time before I meditate is that I am doing this to relieve the suffering of all sentient beings and make them happy.

I might have sneered at this when I was younger and full of anarcho-socialist ambitions. After a few decades of watching, though, just how difficult it is to increase anybody's happiness significantly -- and how the primary reason for that is my own fear and craving and confusion, which continually distort my understanding of what help would really look like -- it doesn't seem either high-minded or far-fetched. It seems common sense to me. I want to carry water to people dying of thirst. That's good. But if my only water bottle is full of holes, it's not selfish to spend time mending it.

Progress, says Dave, is an illusion. There's only the present moment. But of course there isn't only the present moment. That's silly. If there were only the present moment, I'd be enlightened, and none of this would matter. My mind is a seething mass of moments, past, present, and future. I can say, "I'll just pay attention to the present moment." And I will. Here I am in the present. And the next moment, here I am in Walla Walla in 2007, and now I'm in England in 1978, and now I'm in bed with a girl I saw on the street yesterday, and now I'm clearing out the pocket of my pack, and did I lend my pocket-knife to somebody? and I can't believe that George Bush is saying whatever it is he's saying today.

I don't think progress is a delusion, although of course it is an abstraction and a generalization. It's really pretty easy to run my mind through last week and evaluate "roughly how much of my time was spent compassionately and uncompulsively last week, as opposed to a typical week five years ago?" There's nothing very complex or difficult about the exercise. The correlation between how much time I'm devoting to meditation and contemplation, and how much time I'm spending compassionately and uncompulsively, is obvious. (And verified by independent observers. And that's leaving the time actually in meditation and contemplation out of the reckoning, which I doubt is actually good accounting.)

So I "believe in" the pursuit of personal liberation and enlightenment, meaning by that, that I'm committed to it. It's theoretically problematic, of course. Just who is working on this liberation, and against whom is this putative person struggling? I don't "believe in" the pursuit of personal liberation and enlightenment as an accurate description of what's going on. That's a different matter.

Dave says that "If you make your own advancement a priority, your ability to empathize is fatally compromised." Nothing in my experience confirms that. I've spent a minute or two trying to picture that happening, and I'm drawing a blank. I need examples, I think. Of course, possibly I can't see it precisely because my ability to empathize is fatally compromised. In that case, I need someone to show me how it's operating in me. Because if it is, then I certainly need to abandon my commitment to Buddhist practice.

Sunday, August 21, 2005


This restlessness, this shying away from the obvious next task. It's the same thing, in all its forms. It's just fear.

I am afraid of so many things. Such a timid creature. And all of the solutions begin: "First, gather up your courage --"

-- And I say, wait a minute. You've begun with the conclusion. Back up. If I could gather up my courage, I wouldn't have any of these problems. The problem is not that my courage is scattered. The problem is that I have none.

Well, not exactly none. That's not true. I have a little trembling match, a tiny flame of courage. But I have to shield it carefully, and move it slowly, or it winks out. And then I have nothing to work with.

My most foolish response is my most frequent one. It shouldn't be this way. What can that mean? Even in a theist context, that's a mindless thing to say. There is either only one being who has the authority to make that statement, or none. In any case it's certainly not me.

God made me a coward, if anybody did, and gave me this little flickering liight to carry. I must start where I am. I'm not talking about moral obligations. I'm talking about geography.

So we're back, again, to refuge. There is only one thing that has never let me down. Time to turn back to that. I know how to shield this tiny flame. It's by sitting down on the cushion, putting my hands together, and murmuring, "Until enlightenment I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the supreme assembly of the Sangha..."

It's not much that I've got. That much more important to nurture it. Cup my hands around it. Blow gently on it. Feed it a little fuel at a time -- careful not to smother it -- and wait. People I have reason to trust say that it can't really go out. So maybe there is nothing to be afraid of. -- Nothing more, that is.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

What Happened Next

Restless hands, cupped briefly.
Light of the sun, fading.
Wind rises, and the stuttering crows
Are helpless black rags in the gust.

What happened next? Asked Elissa
Open my hands. The light drains.
What happened next! O dear Elissa,
Nothing happened next.

A cold thin fog spills over the roofs
Disconsolate discordant flocks
Make coastward. Elissa, dear Elissa,
Nothing happened next.

Friday, August 19, 2005


She sang to me a couple of times, in a soft, smoky, deep-textured voice. Bits of blues songs she had written. Hopeless love, and fierce anthems of survival. Songs of an uncertainly assumed adulthood.

"That's lovely," I said. She looked at me as though she had missed a step in the dark.

Sometime after midnight I said I had to get to bed. We hugged, a little awkwardly, and she vanished into the night street. A few moments later I discovered her glasses on the kitchen table, beside her empty teacup. I trotted out onto the porch with them, but she was already gone.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Sleep, and his Brother Death

The reference on the second napkin was obscure enough to begin with, but having remembered it backwards makes it so obscure that I better footnote it. It's from the opening of Shelley's Queen Mab, which I had in mind as I drew these two cartoons:

How wonderful is Death,
Death, and his brother Sleep!
One, pale as yonder waning moon
With lips of lurid blue;
The other, rosy as the morn
When throned on ocean's wave
It blushes o'er the world;
Yet both so passing wonderful!

Saturday, August 13, 2005

One Word

Most good bloggers are easy to quote. Good bloggers tend to be aphoristic -- they know they don't have their audience for long. They write pithy comments, short poems, 200 word essays in five paragraphs. That's what I do, or try to. I figured out just what it is that I love about Zhoen's writing when I tried to begin this post with a quotation from her blog. I couldn't do it.

There were plenty of memorable sentences and there was plenty of pith. But every great sentence depended on some other sentence. I couldn't find anything to pull out. It was all connected and interlaced.

Zhoen has all the time in the world. Her essays build up slowly, layer upon layer. I come back to them again and again, and every time discover more connections. The structure and progression of the essays isn't obvious. They can seem to be wandering, if you're not paying attention. Just variations on a theme. They're not always polished, and they're never slick. But the interweaving is intricate, and it's all made of real stuff. The concrete world. Memories of childhood. Footwear. Tattoos.

Zhoen has washed the bodies of the dead, and to me that illustrates her groundedness. Death is no abstraction for her. Death is a matter of of breathing that finally dies away, bodies that need to be cleaned up, relatives who need to be informed. She tells the whole story of a bad marriage, vividly, with a passing mention of wet sneakers in the Tetons.

Read what she has to say about
tattoos. Or being activated to serve in the first Gulf War. Or Death. But really, you can start anywhere. Everything connects to everything else.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Counting Coup

Long after your rough artist's tongue had illustrated my skin, the sky darkened; we slept, and grief gathered.

Long after our eyes met, you came, and cried tears for me that had been bought for another. This is not called embezzling.

Long after you wrote this poem, there was lightning, and I counted the seconds. But even now, no thunder.

Thursday, August 11, 2005


Rachel of Velveteen Rabbichallenged her readers to produce their own credos. Saying "I believe" is a bit problematic for a Buddhist, so I made mine just a list of seven assertions. Three of them, as you might expect (if you know me), come pretty much straight from the mouths of English poets.

1) There is no set of guidelines, no matter how kindly, profound, or elaborate, that will ever be a better guide to action than paying mindful attention in the present moment with an open heart.

2) Everything that can be imagined is an image of truth.

3) Conceptual thought is a good servant but a bad master.

4) Every ill deed is engendered in dishonesty.

5) Nothing important is fair.

6) There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Or mine.

7) Everything that lives is Holy.
In which I Fascinate Denver

Sitemeter has expanded the information they give about visits from the US. Now they give a city and a state. This is very entertaining, although I imagine that the location is just the place where the visitor's ISP lets go of their traffic -- not necessarily anyplace very close to where they were when they sent it. Still, it's a clue, and an intriguing one.

One visitor began to fascinate me. Referrer blocked, but the visits were coming from Denver. I knew someone who read my blog, I thought, in Denver. But no, he showed up, & I recognized his referring URL. This had to be someone new.

But this new visitor behaved oddly. He racked up a dozen page views in no time, but he almost never seemed to go to the archives. So what was he doing? Refreshing to see if his comments got responses?

And today, here he was again, my greatest fan, apparently. Somebody in Denver loved me. Upwards of twenty hits. And he'd stay there all day. Who was this person? Would he comment, eventually? Propose marriage, maybe? Offer me a book contract?

You've figured it out by now, right? Yeah. I just verified it by experiment. Apparently when I'm surfing from work, all my traffic goes out from -- Denver. That's who was so fascinated by me.

There must be a word of Germanic origin for this. Chagrin is far too mild.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

And By the Way

I love you as the cat loves the mouse,
As it hears the bones crack between its teeth,
And the blood spurt in its mouth.
I love you as the sun loves the early morning dew.
I love you as the sea loves the sandspit.
I love you as the Emperor loves his army, dreaming of glory.
I love you as baby loves its mother,
As the moon loves the shadowed hillside,
As the Son loves the Father.
I love you as the wine loved Omar,
And as the mouse loves the cat when it bites.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Kham and Oregon

I lay on my back, my head on a meditation cushion, a mug of tea resting on my chest. My feet were stretched out towards Michael. I thought briefly of how shocked a Asian Buddhist would be, to see me sprawled in the shrine room, with my feet pointing at a teacher. But my back was tired. I'm an American, and so is Michael. I lay there on the zabutons, squinting occasionally over my nose at Michael, resting peacefully.

Leah, beside me, was asking a question. Her eyes were fixed on Michael. Her short-clipped hair frizzed tight on her round skull. The proportions of her head have always fascinated me -- there are two spheres struggling to establish themselves, the sphere of her skull and the sphere of her face, creasing together at the line of the eyes. It's a strong but unsettling face.

We had been talking about persistent thoughts, things that returned again and again. As Leah spoke I became aware that this was a real question, and I focused. " said it was not like having a bullet in your arm. But some thoughts are like a bullet in the arm. Some things that were established when I was a child. Memories that won't go away, things that got set up a long time ago, and they're part of myself, they were there when my self was being formed --"

She broke off. The apparent vagueness of her question was only apparent. There's a memory of violation behind this. There was no one in the room, suddenly, but she and Michael: everything else was dark.

"So is there any hope for getting rid of it?"

The pieces of Michael's answer built up gradually. Karma, said Michael, never repeats. It's never the same thing over again, no matter how much it looks like it. No mental state remains fixed, by its own power. If it stays there, it's because we're holding it there somehow.

This is a place, he said, where Western psychological traditions and Dharma traditions diverge. We look for the whole establishment of our psychology to have occurred in this life, and so tracing things back to their origins in childhood is terribly important, and we see our childhoods and our relationships with our parents as formative. But the Buddhist psychological tradition sees the origins as stretching back over countless lives. Most of the karma that comes to fruition in this life was incurred in other lives. We will never be able to trace it back. Our early relationships and experiences are indeed paradigmatic, but not because they were formative, but rather, because we chose them, because we were drawn to the relationships and experiences we already knew.

We will never be able to trace it back, but we are ultimately responsible for it. Which means that we no longer have the luxury of blaming anyone else for it, but it also means that it's within our power to get free of it.

And there are two ways to do that. One is simply to purify each moment as it comes. Every time the supposedly persistent thought arises, and we don't react to it, we're done with one piece of karma, done forever. But of course to purify it all takes about as long as it took to incur it all, thousands upon thousands of lifetimes. So the other thing to do is to learn to see through it. It still will arise -- nothing, absolutely nothing, prevents karma from ripening once it's been planted; not even a buddha escapes karma. But once we have learned to see through it, it loses its power to inflict suffering. It arises like the events of a dream; we see it as dreamlike. It comes and it goes, the emotion rises and falls, but we are no longer rising and falling with it.

Leah's face was intent, but unreadable. A banked fire.

A murmur of voices. I'm accustomed to hearing emotional tones, rather than words: my hearing is not very good, so I often have no idea of what has been said, but I recognized the tone of wrapping up. I slowly sat upright. Set my empty cup on the floor. Put my hands together and softly intoned the dedication of the merit. Waited for the the three slow rings of the bell. Bowed.

I stopped on my way out and look back into the shrine room. Leah was -- unconsciously, I take it -- crouched in front of Michael in the posture of someone taking their refuge vows, one knee down and one knee up, forearm resting against the up-knee, hands together, talking earnestly. Jef was carefully emptying the offering-bowls into a pitcher. Above him was the trembling scrawl of Kalu Rinpoche's Tibetan calligraphy. Rinpoche was very old when he wrote it. The letters trail down the page -- awkward, child-like. Suddenly the distance opens in front of me. The distance between Kham, seventy years ago, and Oregon now -- the distance between old age and middle age -- the distance between Tibetan and English -- the distance between Feudalism and Capitalism. These shaky letters. One old man.

Saturday, August 06, 2005


Written Yesterday.

Two pelicans glide over the gleam of the water. Pelicans mean business, when they fly. No erratic swooping for them. They fly in column, laboring at their flight like oarsmen in a galley, straight from source to destination. I've never seen one fishing. Presumably they break order, dawdle, and dart, as they fish, but I've never seen them at it in all my years here. I only see them voyaging, silent, solemn lines of five or ten, toiling from Devil's Punchbowl to Gull Rock, or from the Dutchman to Cape Foulweather. Usually at dusk, against the setting sun. I only see their sillouettes.

It's high tide, and the area of the seals' haulout has narrowed, so that they cluster together, like a careless heap of gray, brown and mottled white sacks of grain. They barely stir, when they're lying on the rocks. You'd think they were ill, or exhausted. One will occasionally drag itself a few inches, with a huge effort, and then collapse. Another will raise its head and bark hoarsely. Otherwise they lie inert.

Then one will struggle to the water, and launch itself off the rocks, and suddenly it's a lithe, fluent sea-creature, flashing sinuously through waves and between rocks, brief flashes of head and tail, otter-quick. The transformation always catches me by surprise.

The rampart of Gull Rock appears, hovers a while, and fades again into the fog. No whales this year. We've come too early. Even the year-rounders don't seem to be here.

And up until today, the day before we're going home, the sea has been meaningless to me. I've felt no awe and no pleasure. Sun, sand, wind, water -- they've been no different to me from streetlights, pavement, buildings, and traffic. I'm old enough not to be alarmed by this. It will come back, I thought. And I was right. Today the fitful gleams through the fog are intimations, and the endless wavering snare-drum-roll of the waves is a whisper of words to me. Unknown words, but words. I've never expected, after all, to know what they mean.

Monday, August 01, 2005