Thursday, February 29, 2024


It is idle, I suppose. "Civilizational collapse," I intone, as if I knew what that meant, or what it portended. What it means is -- precisely that I don't know, that I can't guess. Bad times, at least, for a while. Possibly end times. But also huge opportunities arising, as the glaciers of the world's civilizations calve. We just don't know.

There will be eddies: places almost untouched; surprising recoveries; it's not going to be unrelieved disasters all the way through. 

I see people who pride themselves on how dark their vision is; but really they're upset because they have been clinging to a rosier picture than was ever been credible, and now they're dealing with the possibility of it not turning out so well. Let me know when you're done with all that, and we can go on to building what we can, eh? In this mournful and battered world, rather than in the world of your fantasies.

I have no quarrel with fantasies per se, fantasies that are recognized as such. But your outrage at seeing your fantasies declined by the world shows that you were taking them as more: as the actual program of future events. It's time, it's long past time, to see that the future is totally unknown. That we can lose and be annihilated. Time and chance happeneth to us all. It's good that it should be so, actually, because we are a little, trivial people, pettifoggers, engaged in endless litigation, swollen full of indignation and self-righteousness, unable to endure a moment's quietness. Our disappearance is not going to be a bad thing. Suffering there is, and suffering there will be, but that was a given from the start. We are not capable of making a new world. We never were. Get over it: go home, change a diaper, wash the dishes, mend a window. Cold weather is coming.

Sunday, February 11, 2024


Picture my astonishment, when reading Keiji Nishitani, to find a Buddhist Heideggerian soberly discussing sin, for all the world as though it was allowed, as though it were something that could stand the steady, corrosive gaze of a modern philosopher; as though it was something that had to be reckoned with. I have not yet gotten over the surprise. I still have not really read very much, and most of the modern philosophers I have met, by chance, have been timid creatures who want to live in orderly houses, where they can be depressed in decent comfort and privacy: they would certainly not admit a concept that might blow the roof off their house, let alone blast a hole in the floor.


So. The point is, that I was taking myself to task: I should be thinking about the One, in all its multiplicity -- of God, if you want to use that word -- and how I should or could or might turn towards it: but whenever I began I veered into trivial thoughts of what I needed to do to stop overeating and make sure I got regular exercise. For God's sake, Dale. Grow up.

But then I backed up a little bit and asked myself: are you so sure that these two things have nothing to do with each other? That they're not, in some difficult-to-grasp way, the same question? And as soon as I thought that, that little fragment of Middle English verse came into my head: Adam lay ybounden, ybounden in a bonde... and kept flittering around my head. These little tendrils of habit, this commitment to excessive comfort and relentless stimulation -- what if that is, precisely, what is binding me? And the two wheels converged. The same spin, the same speed. This is in fact one wheel. I don't know exactly how, but I know that it is; and that it stands in some relation to that queer foreign concept of sin.

It's not that I imagine God gives a tinker's damn, let alone one of his own, whether my pants fit. It's the contortion, the throttling of one part of my mind by another part. The striving and writhing in a narrow, airless space. Ybounden in a bonde. The fact that it's an undignified struggle -- that's just one more reason to think it's the one to lean into. 

Not the only struggle, of course, nor one I can (or necessarily want to) win. It's a well-trampled ground and I no longer think that local victories and defeats are going to lead to sweeping breakthroughs: it's not that sort of fight . If I eventually manage to get some distance from it, it won't be because the battle's over, but because I'm no longer invested in it in the same way; which is not the same thing as pretending it's not going on. It's a flicker on wall, the pattern of lights a small boy glimpses moving on the wall as he falls asleep. Real enough, but due to be washed away by morning.

Thursday, February 08, 2024


A couple comments, here and on Facebook, gave rise to a discussion with myself, last night, as I walked under the night sky. Some people said, they have never had any interest in any religious topic, never had any religious experiences, and they were well content that it should be so.

In some moods, I think I could almost say the same; perhaps I have said the same. After all, have I had any religious experiences? Really?

One irrelevancy has to be cleared away at once. It is not at all surprising to me that people who equate religion with what happens in a typical North American church should be uninterested in religion, and devoid of religious experience. What mostly happens in those churches is lectures, by remarkably ignorant and stupid people, consisting of attempts to assert obviously false propositions, accompanied by crude petitionary prayers and maybe some mediocre 19th Century songs. At no time does silence supervene -- possibly for fear that God might get a word in edgewise. I would not blame anyone for a lack of interest in these proceedings. The boredom they inspire is intense, and is well-recognized even by the people who willingly attend them.

So leave that aside. No, the question that I paused on, was "do I actually have any religious experiences at all, or do I just imagine them? Do I just make them up because at one point I had an audience that liked to hear me speak about them?" I walked under the restless night clouds and thought about that.

The trouble is that these experiences are fleeting and fragile, while the memories and descriptions of them are durable and robust. What I call to mind, when I try to bring them back, is my own words, and a few vivid images: poplar leaves trembling in afternoon sunlight; the blaze of a sunrise through wet twigs, forming a fiery circle around an intolerable brightness; things I have written about repeatedly, I'm sure. I grope backwards and find the words, and the images. I don't find the experiences. They're not to be summoned at will. "Not a tame lion," you can say: but anybody, with any motive, might say that.

On the other hand, the analytical mind has its own weaknesses. It prefers to dismiss as illusory anything that is can't be frozen in time and broken into constituent parts. It's always questing after atoms, fundamental particles, elements. And these experiences are experiences of totality, of gist. No wonder the left hemisphere of the brain shrugs impatiently. They are not the sort of thing it can cope with.

I finally concluded: yes, I have had these experiences: though I had more of them when I was younger, and I have been very bad, lately, at putting myself in their way. You can't summon them, but you can invite them. "I don't go to church because God is there," somebody or other said, "I go to church so that if God does come, I'll be in the right place to receive him." Just as wise writers go regularly to their writing desks, not because inspiration lives there, but so that, if inspiration does happen by, they will be in the right place to make use of it.

So when I speak of "church" I mean partly just any place or circumstance that make it more likely that God will happen by. The wild places, the sea and the mountains and the waterfalls, are obvious instances: and I must spend much more time in them. But a "church" is also a community, a sangha, that is oriented towards -- whatever it is. Because in groups we are more than we are as individuals, loath though we Americans are to acknowledge that; loath as I am to acknowledge it. We build ugly convenience stores: but we could build cathedrals. It has happened before and it could happen again.

Wednesday, February 07, 2024

Pretending not to Believe

This business of pretending not to believe -- like a scientist who devotes his life to discovering what is true, and pretends not to believe in truth -- that's what's exhausting. And that's why I called it quits with Buddhism: the fact is that Buddhists believe in reincarnation, and I do not. Buddhists believe in a pure realm, and aspire to it, and I do not. There are all kinds of ways to practice as a Buddhist without believing those things, but you finally end up like the scientist who purports not to believe in truth: your whole life is a tottering, jury-rigged house built on nothing, and you could wake up tomorrow with the walls fallen down and the wind whistling through. I think it's better for the scientist to admit he believes in truth, and it's better for me to admit I'm no Buddhist.

There are (at least) two ways to go wrong here. One is to say, I know so little, why not accept my ignorance and practice with whatever group may be handy? And the other is to say, I must lay down the total schema of reality and not talk to anyone else until I'm done, and then bustle about with a checklist on my clipboard and see if any church meets my specifications. Both wrong. But what then is to be done? I don't know. 

I admire those people who, wherever they are, just walk into the nearest place of worship, of a Sunday, and take up whatever practice is to hand -- confident that if it's God's house God will take care of it, be it church or temple or mosque -- but I don't think I'll ever be one of them. 

But though I don't know where I am, or where I am going, I am not lost. Finding my location and my path is not something I have to do before I can take up my work: it is my work.

Monday, February 05, 2024

A Blue-Behinded Ape, Home from the Hill

I am unfamiliar with the trends of literary fashion, nowadays -- praise be to God! -- so I have no idea how Robert Louis Stevenson is faring. Probably worse than ever. But remember that he wrote the two best auto-epitaphs in English. Both appeared in Underwoods, published in 1887. One is almost unknown now, I think:

I am a kind of farthing dip,
    Unfriendly to the nose and eyes;
A blue-behinded ape, I skip
    Upon the trees of Paradise.

At mankind's feast, I take my place
    In solemn, sanctimonious state,
And have the air of saying grace
    While I defile the dinner plate.

I am "the smiler with the knife,"
    The battener upon garbage, I
—Dear Heaven, with such a rancid life,
    Were it not better far to die?

Yet still, about the human pale,
⁠    I love to scamper, love to race,
To swing by my irreverent tail
⁠    All over the most holy place;

And when at length, some golden day,
⁠    The unfailing sportsman, aiming at,
Shall bag, me—all the world shall say:
⁠    Thank God, and there's an end of that!

The other is the sort of poem that gets put on ornamental plates, and is taken for anodyne by careless readers, who miss how it plays with time and point of view, and take it for bluff hearty stuff in the line of Kipling or Henley. It's nothing of the sort, and it will live a lot longer than we will:

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
⁠    And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor; home from sea,
⁠    And the hunter home from the hill.

Just now I'm reading Kidnapped to Martha, and we are taking deep delight in it, and mean to go on to Catriona.; and I'm going to tackle the second volume of Underwoods. I stupidly skipped it a few thousand years ago when I was first reading Stevenson, because the poems in that volume were in Scots; which at the time was a discouragement rather than an inducement. I was in a hurry then. Now I'm so old that I don't need to hurry ever again, so I have time to read it.