Archive for January, 2009

A Ghost of Pure Action

Posted in Psychache on January 27, 2009 by lushangxinku

“Night after night, along the procession of years, it had hovered here above the valley, darting down to become a bat, a leopard, a moth for a few minutes or hours, returning to rest immobile in the center of the space enclosed by the cliffs.  When the monastery had been built, it had taken to frquenting the rooms, where it had observed for the first time the meaningless gestures of human life.”

The Circular Valley, Paul Bowles

"Peasant accusing a landlord at a people's court during the land reforms" -Marc Riboud

“Peasant accusing a landlord at a people’s court during the land reforms” -Marc Riboud

“Estimates suggest that 1 million or more landlords may have been killed during this phase of the revolution.”

This morning as I sat, the night’s work done, I wondered what perception would mean beyond this human form.  Beyond the senses I have, the body I inhabit.  What true disembodiment would approach, and where it would take me.  The quote, from a favorite short story of mine about such a spirit, I always found especially compelling because it was only complex, baffling and often contradictory humanity which struck the spirit as meaningless.

I taste a sense of this meaninglessness when I think of competition, and all that it entails; comparisions, rivalry, class struggle, interpersonal conflict based on assumptions of superiority or undue power.  Although I have heard many arguments about how competition brings out the best in us, it seems from my perspective that many employ its devices to the extreme.  And this is very sad.  The mass murder of the elite after the Chinese Revolution serves as a sober reminder of this tendency to enforce one’s will over another; to attempt a parody of karma, fueled by a sense of competition turned on its head- the supposed winners of the contest of materialism forcibily brought down by its former, supposedly lower support.  Yet I see in the extended finger of the peasant not a new statement of equanimity but a very very old statement of competition.  I would even venture to say that competition is the most pervasive, yet most meaningless of human endeavor.  For in the end although the old landlords were smashed, Red Cadres soon moved in to take their places.  The revolution was not free from the plagues of egotistic rivalry, merely the contruction of new labels, new hierarchies.

Sometimes, staring into the early morning darkness, I wonder if the senses themselves lead us to conflict with others, or if it is something deeper.  But something, if I practice care, that may not be uprooted by a mere clash of pride or identity.

Once more I find myself wanting to be free from this very identity, free as Bowles’ ghostly protagonist, able to see experience from all sides.  but I know of a way already to do this, without becoming a spirit without a home.  Funny as it sounds, a sense of duty itself frees me from my material identity.  A sense of what ought to be done.  But only when I actualize this sense without realizing its presence.  Light years beyond mere competiton and grasping, I hope to remain in tune with this special way to get past my own status- to blur the crosshairs of my own targets.  What is left can only be known when the initial conditions are forced to heed simple duty, and to shed these old armors of competition and self-importance.  As long as I feel pitted against a certain person, or class, there will be no way to get past myself; which, from what I understand, is the only way out of labyrinthine competition, and the division between me and others that no spirit could understand.




The First Other

Posted in Intention on January 26, 2009 by lushangxinku

“Kingdoms rise,

The people suffer;

Kingdoms fall,

The people suffer.”

T’ung Pass, Chang Yang-hao, ca. 1300 CE

Celtic Janus-heads, found near Roquepertuse, Provence

Celtic Janus-heads, found near Roquepertuse, Provence

 “…historical evidence that the Celts were fond of depicting their gods as either dual beings or triads.”

These two venerable cultural traditions cross an intersection together.  A pendulum swinging from side to side seems only to deal in opposites- but neither left or right swing could exist without a center.  The Chinese constant is suffering among the people, while kings and lords climb and descend the mountain of their common labor.  The Celtic constant seems more subtle, more hidden.  On the left, a frown, on the right, a smile- the presumption is that these are depictions of one god.

Reading the ancient Chinese verse, I am reminded that imposing a false dichotomy on given situations is so very easy to do.  A dichotomy hinged on certain circumstances, certain kingdoms, where all suffering will end- as long as that certain state is maintained.  It’s an easy enough trap.  “I would be truly happy if only x happened, if only y happened.”  A contingent paradise.  From the hunger of an addiction to a certain toxin to the toxic illusion that we choose and control all that happens to us; from the declaration that there is no constant, that everything is totally relative and therefore devoid of consequences or accountability, to the similar creed that everything is impermanent, so it is useless to try to commit to anything except shameless self-promotion and gratification; all of these conclusions are contingent on a certain kingdom that is presumed to last.  It is constantly presumed that a certain substance, a certain arrogance, a certain declaration about the nature of things, will all not only free us from our own suffering, but free us from being responsible for the suffering that we cause others.  Those of us who have seen many kingdoms rise and fall, know otherwise.

The Celtic dialectic of mood also raises an interesting point.  Two opposing kingdoms, that of distress and serenity, form one balanced god.  There is no final victory for sorrow, nor for happiness.  Those who think so may chase one half of the mask for decades, convinced that it is a whole destiny, only to see that it’s only half of what they thought it was.  These are two expressions of one face- an important point in dealing with the preconceived notion of an “Other.”  In this case, the Other would be dismay or sadness itself.  What an empty war to be fought- to attempt to place sorrow outside our own hearts, or to turn the statue sideways and merely pretend that the face of the Other isn’t there.

So as kingdoms scramble up and down the backs of the people, where exactly is the True Other?  My conclusion with these spinning opposites, these enduring truths, is that there is no True Other, only delusions.  The most obvious example that strikes me is the First Other of the Nazis.  The First Other was not Jews, Slavs, Roma, nor homosexuals.  It was the mentally ill of the fatherland itself.  The first experiments in mass civilian slaughter by gas were vans designed to pump their exhaust into the cargo hold, killing the asylum inmates locked into the vehicle.  An extreme example of insisting that the god has one true face.  Today examples still abound, even on the personal level.  And as I prepare for sleep today, I think carefully upon this.  Who is my Other today?  Who is it I deny, look down on, marginalize, declare by a twist of the statue’s head to be invalid?  What are the sweeping presumptions that I myself make?  And how mindful am I that all the people suffer- loss, old age, sickness, death?  No one is magically exempt from one side of the god’s face, or another.  Despite all scrambling kingdoms proclaiming otherwise, this is our inheritance, our legacy.

The Handling of Snakes

Posted in Uncategorized on January 23, 2009 by lushangxinku

“The arising and elimination of illusion are both illusory.”

-Huang Po; d. 840 CE

"Silver Plaque From the Gundestrup Bowl"- Belzeaux Zodiaque

"Silver Plaque From the Gundestrup Bowl"- Belzeaux Zodiaque

“The god Cernunnos.  He holds in one hand a torc (collar) and in the other a ram-headed serpent; he is surrounded by various animals.” 

A friend brought it to my attention yesterday that I had been behaving like a snake handler.  I had approached a venemous energy in good will and faith, that if I was kind enough, loving enough, true enough, I would earn vaulted status as one who was beyond the reach of the venom itself; and that feeling the sting of the poison proved to me deep within that I deserved such retribution.  My faith, my love had failed me because I failed to magically prevent being bitten.  The hissing, the forked tongue, were never reasons to face the danger as it was; rather, I saw them as tests of devotion, reasons to try to hold onto the serpent, to draw it close to me.

And so surely it was my fault that I was bitten; the snake knew no better, and no amount of any emotion could morph what is into what it would be if things were different.  In this crisis of faith, I had brought ruin upon myself. And through engaging with my more human companions, I can no longer ignore the lack of venom, the lack of a forked tongue, that they conspicuously possessed.

But this personal tragedy has a surpirse ending- the bite did not turn out to be lethal or untreatable.  The illusion that my faith had nurtured for so long was dispelled in the open sunlight and the perspective that it has given me; no longer seeing the outcome as a personal failure exhibits a new understanding, and greater freedom from the doubts that have plagued my heart for so long.

But despite the venom, I find I would still hold the snake.  Despite the forked tongue, I would still hear its song and listen to its disclosures.  Because not only was the faith & hope I’d had of being immune eventually relinquished, so was the way I saw this sentient being.  I saw it before as something bound by its identity, its tendencies and habits, its potential for lethal harm.  But these fetters themselves are also illusory, along with the reptilian identity.  And so, laying these two illusions to rest, I continue on with my life, what I enjoy and what is important to me.  And I also love this sentient being for what it is, not what it is labeled.  For both snakes and their handlers bear subtle rights to rise above their conventional identities, and reach a place safe from venom that poisons both parties- one with venom, the other with the inner conviction that they are safe.  With appreciation and respect, a new discourse can emerge where we are no longer identified by our traditional roles…and these roles no longer have to be actualized in their traditional way.  Like Cernunnos, I can befriend all beings that surround me, and drop the illusion that there is anything essentially wrong with beings existing as they are, in their forms and contexts.  I see a place of no venom on the horizon, a place where the new interaction can take place- giving room to the beings  capable of such power, still with the faith that love reaches past how beings treat one another, past the wounds, to some uncharted but unmistakably beautiful territory.

May everyone eventually get past their own identities, and take steps to clearly acknowledge that there is suffering; that there is a quiet place where what to do about the suffering may well be deeply understood; and that this place is bigger than two mere beings, past its own light into a true reflection from a place of reverence and appreciation without fear, the ball long since rolling away on its own.  Identity and acute loss no longer have the power to design such maps.


Distant Peace

Posted in Psychache on January 20, 2009 by lushangxinku

“Peace is not luck.”

-Ikkyu, Japanese monk 1394- 1482 CE

"Cage of Death In a Lonely Pass" by Crawford, 1929

"Cage of Death In a Lonely Pass" by Crawford, 1929

“If one could peer through the bars of this cage there would be seen a little rubbish on the floor which once was a man caught thieving in the Lataband Pass from Afghanistan into Bokhara.  He was placed in this iron cage to starve.”

Being placed into this dangling cage long, long ago, I imagine that the man may have been feeling one of three main conclusions: remorse for what he had done, remorse for being caught, or angst at his own innocence.  It may have taken several weeks for him to have finally acheived his total rest.  And I wonder, looking at the vastness surrounding him, if he saw through this new panopticon of final vision some larger pattern in which he found himself.  Perhaps solace or peace finally came to him as the body and mind truly adjusted to the shock of what was happening, and looking out over the vast, barren, frozen mountains maybe he saw his life as merely a small part in this greater, quiet wilderness.

I wonder if I, through my actions, attitudes or hopes, have designed a spiritual cage of a similar place or function.  A cage of self-reference- a cage safe, selfish, distant, and doomed.  A private spinning earth of sorts, only catching glimpses of what may be seen from his perspective, millions and millions of cages.  These virtual cages may crystallize through long periods of doubt, hurt or anger towards whatever lay outside the cage, awash in a sea of them- individual people failing to connect with themselves, with one another, through their own familiar iron bars.  And though such an inner fortress may seem beneficial, its bars often sing of the free, spontaneous and open echoing winds from the tundra.

If we are so conditioned, our view must be turned outward and among, to eventually reclaim the notion that no bars can hold us, especially the psychological ones.  Maybe my cage will eventually lose its sense of grounded power if I can maintain the courage and the skill to see through and work through emotions and tendencies that divide and distance myself from others, or leave them coming away from the experience with a voyeuristic rush of sweeping judgments as far as how the cage came to be.  The ability to spot these strange purgatories coming alive in the here and now would help me keep my individual cage from clanging chaotically with others’.  Millions of shelters, dangerous and isolating, hiding things from a sky that knows no better and could not care less.  Turning to dust as what is hidden deep inside the cage slowly evaporates, and no one realizes that the bars are not really there.  For once peace is finally found, and no torture or sense of profound loss can be found, the day comes that we know we are free from blame and such things can be dismantled by sheer will.  How can we truly connect or co-create when prisons of our own are constructed so well?

Groves of Symbols

Posted in Intention on January 19, 2009 by lushangxinku

“Nature is a temple, where the living

Columns sometimes breathe confusing speech;

Man walks within these groves of symbols, each

Of which regards him as a kindred thing.”

The Flowers of Evil, Charles Baudelaire, trans. by James McGowan

"Fragment of the Last Judgment," detail; by Hieronymus Bosch 1450-1516 BCE

"Fragment of the Last Judgment," detail; by Hieronymus Bosch 1450-1516 CE

Once, walking up the steep steps home, a small pack of ravens seemed to be following me.  They shifted trees, light-poles and rooftops, one of them alighting next to me by a stone wall.  I looked straight at him and wondered at his appearance.  Quick, clever glances darted across me and took me in.  I felt a certain affinity with the fellow, breathing the same air and inhabiting the same mountainside.  And the slight upturn of his beak where it met the jaw, combined with the shining dark eyes that gazed directly at me, gave me a distinct impression of direct communication.

I’ve heard two arguments for this tendency.  The first as many years ago as I worked on a carpentry crew.  One of the journeymen was a Cherokee named Charlie, and one day on the roof of a job site tinkering with a dormer, he looked up suddenly and made a strange high wheezing sound with his lips.  A hawk swooped past us to investigate.  I asked him how he did it, and he showed me- so I proceeded to try and call the hawk again.  It was still nearby circling dinner and when I made the call he came again, swooping down to check out these strange beasts making hawk calls.  I remember Charlie saying to me that I could always get messages from the wild if I knew how to listen.  Everything around us, communicated with us, always has.

Many years later as I mentioned this clever raven smile and the portents it may have held for me, I was called crazy, even egocentric and narcissistic to presume that the wilderness would deign to communicate with the likes of me…that the random behavior of wild birds should not be considered as a lesson taught, or a message transmitted.  It was just chance, circumstance.

There is often a hasty assumption that the wild things around us are monstrous, demonic, or useless to us.  Their behavior is irrelevant to us unless they crap on our cars, fly into our planes or windows, or smear the road with their carcasses.  They are the untouchables of our world, dirty dangerous things that may bite or scratch.  How they speak to us is irrelevant because it is assumed that they have nothing to say.

I for one feel that the messages are there, but not like placards or teleprompters.  It is a much, much more subtle language, where the unbridled freedom and danger of their existence itself can show us a certain perspective, and their peace in being what they are fully and uncompromisingly is a peace that we as people rarely know, even when pretending to.  Sometimes the mystery of the gulf that separates us leaves so much empty space for us to interject our thoughts or conclusions, that it may actually act as a catalyst of sorts for nameless epiphanies or realizations.

And so, thinking that these ravens had a secret, I continued the walk home that morning and recieved a phone call that left me with some personally devastating news.  I almost think that the ravens knew somehow, looking up and seeing one last bird squalking out into the morning air on top of a church steeple.  It reminded me later that morning of a time when a possum skull sat in the middle of my path through the woods many years ago, the time an empty wasp nest appeared on my front porch and I cut it open to find a large female black widow inside, and the time an owl buzzed my head at the top of my driveway.  All of these strangely coincided with significant emotional events in my life.  Maybe in the flat obscured fields of extended memory, they serve as signposts or triggers, symbols of a much larger situation. 

But are they demons, monsters, irrelevant nuisances?  I don’t feel so.  Am I crazy, egotistical, narcissistic?  I don’t feel so.  But I do feel that the idea that we are separate or independent from all other sentient beings is simply an illusion.  And the fact that all existence finds itself in this spot, in this time, brings us all closer together.  We are all in the same boat, seeking food, water, sleep, safety, and we all watch the weather with wary eyes.  And if they ever have something to tell anyone about emotional events, tight situations or powerful changes, the person must be quiet enough, careful enough, open enough, to learn from this life-reflecting mirror.

The Campsite Principle

Posted in Psychache on January 16, 2009 by lushangxinku

“Be not a friend of the world.  Look upon the world as a bubble, look upon it as a mirage.”

The Dhammapada, 8:170

"Pacific Horned Owl" by Karl E. Karalus

"Pacific Horned Owl" by Karl E. Karalus

There is a variation on the Hippocratic Oath (First of all, do no harm) that I have been thinking about lately.  I’ve heard it called the campsite rule, or the campsite principle.  The idea is that responsible, compassionate, aware campers always leave a site better than they found it.  This concept is extended to friendships and relationships.  If you must part ways with a friend or lover, leave them in better shape than you found them.  For invariably they will touch others’ lives.

I was talking with someone about this and he told me about one campsite experience he had that gave me pause.  He was out west, with friends who shared his principles about leaving the site they had found in better shape when they left the next morning.  But over the course of the night, there was a scorpion infestation.  They got everywhere, and in everything- the pockets of backpacks, the shadowed corners of tents, nooks and crannies in hats and jackets.  It took hours to prepare to leave, and although no one was stung, the whole experience was nervewracking and traumatic.  They still took care to leave the campsite better than they had found it.  But there is a lesson here.

Sometimes there is no way to follow the campsite principle.  Sometimes the campsites will be toxic regardless of what one does or doesn’t do.  It would’ve been silly for these campers to blame themselves for the local scorpion population.  So why do we, as friends and lovers, do this to ourselves when the campsite rule just isn’t happening?  When we do our best, try our hardest to truly be beneficial, and things still warp and shift into an unhealthy place?

Partially this is due to the love felt for the place, or person- a sense of devotion and care, even when having to pull scorpions from our socks.  But much suffering can be caused when we assume responsibility for things totally beyond our control.

There are some days I honestly admit, I don’t want to rest anywhere, with anyone.  Too many times having the site vanish before my eyes- too many times brushing scorpions off while trying to get some good things done.  Too many times being convinced that I must’ve done or said something to call the scorpions there.

And in my present state, the psychache I feel is a complex tangle of wanting to improve the site no matter what, feeling responsible for the scorpions present, and convincing myself that I was the toxic element, that I am actually worse than the scorpions themselves.  This is not constant, but hits me suddenly in a form almost like a panic attack, psychological pain triggered by goodness knows what, and a delusional, nightmarish feeling like I have not done enough, I am not doing enough.

Then the feeling fades, and I return to walking my path.  Not knowing when I will be weary enough, or ready enough, to try to set up camp again.  In the meantime, my thoughts still sometimes return to that place I could not benefit, the place that would’ve been so lovely without all the scorpions.  But I should not rest at a place just because there are no scorpions, nor should I run from a place with just one or two.  Love, care, benevolence- these are the most gutteral motives, the ones further down within me, down in my belly. 

They lead me to this still morning of silent meditation and hot tea, and a nap grabbed by this nocturnal creature.  No attacks of psychache rattling my bones, no clout given to scorpions.  Given over to a tired body from hours of manual labor, it’s time to drift away from tormented illusions, and dream among these phantom scorpions.

Celestial Perspective

Posted in Psychache on January 15, 2009 by lushangxinku

“If you could seek the unseen you would find

Love’s home, which is not reason or the mind,

And love’s intoxication tumbles down

The world’s designs for glory and renown-

If you could penetrate their passing show

And see the world’s wild atoms, you would know

That reason’s eyes will never glimpse one spark

Of shining love to mitigate the dark.

Love leads whoever starts along our Way;

The noblest bow to love and must obey-

But you, unwilling both to love and tread

The pilgrim’s path, you might as well be dead!

The lover chafes, impatient to depart,

And longs to sacrifice his life and his heart.”

The Conference of the Birds, Farid ud-Din Attar

"Monk by the Sea" by Caspar David Friedrich, 1808-1810

"Monk by the Sea" by Caspar David Friedrich, 1808-1810

There is a curious fusion to be found within Sufic poetry, one of mysticism and intense, romantic love.  I recognize love as an elemental, vast force, as the sky depicted in this painting.  It dwarfs individual cravings and desires, much like the monk is dwarfed, rendered as a tiny figure at the bottom.  The massive pain and longing grants unreasonable, irrational hope, and overawed by limerence, the luminescence of existing near this ominous power can burn like staring into the sun.  I could throw a lot of “why” questions at this…but Farid is right, reason need not apply at the gates of such a realm.  So what makes such love divine or mystical in nature?  Mainly it seems this way because of the scorched-earth treatment the small, petty, petulant self receives.  Once overtaken by this fire, the ego can never truly recover.  And although the trembling is fierce and the bandages may injure sharply when torn off, I can’t say that this is a bad thing.  The sky and ocean that this painter saw were things beyond the monk, things that dwarfed the monk- leading to a place of celestial perspective, a humility and fragility rarely seen in the pomposity and domineering competitive arrogance that humans tend to embrace.

Maybe this level of love is crazy, dangerous, ill-advised.  Maybe the monk’s very identity can be lost in his wide appreciation of the sky and sea.  Maybe recovery from such agony can never truly be found.  But for the people I have truly loved in this way, and the people incapable of allowing themselves to journey down this garden path, taking in every detail along the way, I must respond that these crazy lovers are the lucky ones.  And, smiling, recognizing when such madness comes around again, may an open sky always illuminate their Way.