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Shadowed Senses

Posted in Uncategorized on February 24, 2009 by lushangxinku

“Pity the man who has lost his heart and does not know how to recover it.  When people’s dogs and fowls are lost, they go to look for them, and yet, when they have lost their hearts, they do not go to look for them.  The way of learning is none other than finding the lost heart.”

The Book of Mencius, 6A:11; 371-289 BCE

The author at an extremely young age.

The author at an extremely young age.

The acrid piercing scent of roasting espresso beans wafted across the wet air.  I strolled wordlessly through the dark alleys and stairways, looking askance at buildings now torn down, tattered fences and barren plots.  A branch tangled in powerlines balanced and trembling in the early morning wind seemed like it floated there, but was a remnant of a tree now torn down.  Change is easy to see through the campus of the public university, yet I still stroll at dawn, covered in flourdust, satchel held in one hand, watching the sky and its movements.

I sit down for a second on my journey, the pavement cool against my thigh.  For a moment I reflect on the idea that blogging or journaling is a narcissistic endeavor.  I try to step back further enough from the concept to see some of its roots and causes, and feel that this wide brush with which I was painted also held other colors- accusations that I was too self-denying, masochistic, devoting myself so fully, giving myself away so completely, that it was sad and unhealthy.  I must be able to look clearly at such criticisms, but at the same time I must see their contradictions and absurdities.  The only two things that they have in common is that they constantly come from the same people, and they are thoroughly destructive.  Everything else is absurdly contradictory.  If I am resented for being hot, so be it, but if I am simultaneously resented for being cold, I must remember that the resentment itself is really the problem, not me.

Across the parking lot was a small cemetery.  I looked at its old trees and stone and drifted into the memory of my first experiences of the mountains.  The cool air, the achingly sweet smell of verdant green forest, the brutal gnarl of ancient white oak and lichen in a biting churn of cliffside windgush.  The low clouds,  the fog.  Was there a valley down there or not?

This memory took me back even further, when as a child I watched dust motes drift through afternoon sunbeams in my parents’ den, imagining each one a planet, each one dancing across the light, alone but alongside others.  This was a shadowed sense; a perception only there if I put my self to the side, out of the way.  Like the swirls of a tree bough spiraling through a streetlight at night.  Like staring at something openly until it is seen clearly, in all its manifestations and possibilities.  Like hearing a secret language whispered by insects in the woods, their pauses significant, as if waiting to make sure the hearer got the message.  Like sitting by a creekbank until faint voices can be heard through the bubbles and splashes of current.

And who is the hearer of such things?  What sort of mysterious transformation propelled me from the child in the photo to a grown man in black boots, hands now worn and calloused from their labor?  The prominent commonality is a sense of play, a shadowed, subtle thing, shining as I pull bread from the oven and thump it down, hearing the crackle of the crust; shining as I sit and daydream alone at dawn, manifold awe in sky, pavement, stone and wood; shining as a lovely old tune is rediscovered, cradled in my body as I listen intently with headphones.   The secret to all of this is a sense of play, coursing through my body, imagination seeing magic everywhere.  Even the silent meditation leads back through these shadowed senses, sights and sounds, smells and textures almost missed, as delicate as a forest cobweb sprinkled with dew.

When the insects pause, when the stones become clouds, when water becomes a voice, no justice or logic, no validation or reciprocation is necessary.  This is the awe of the mystery of existence itself.  The shadowed senses beckon, and I indulge in their playfulness with a quiet smile, and a heart reclaimed once more.


Along The River

Posted in Uncategorized on February 16, 2009 by lushangxinku

“Zhuangzi and Huizi were taking a leisurely walk along the dam of the Hao River.  Zhuangzi said, ‘The white fish are swimming at ease.  This is the happiness of the fish.’

‘You are not fish,’ said Huizi.  ‘How do you know its happiness?’

‘You are not I,’ said Zhuangzi.  ‘How do you know that I do not know the happiness of the fish?’

Huizi said, ‘Of course I do not know, since I am not you.  But you are not the fish, and it is perfectly clear that you do not know the happiness of the fish.’

‘Let us get to the bottom of the matter,’ said Zhuangzi.  ‘When you asked how I knew the happiness of the fish, you already knew that I knew the happiness of the fish but asked how.  I knew it along the river.’ “

Zhuangzi, Cht. 17, between 395-295 BCE

3.6 million year old hominid footprints, southern Serengeti
3.6 million year old hominid footprints, southern Serengeti

“The eruption of a volcano spewed a layer of ash over the plains.  Soon after, there was a brief, light shower and then, while the ash layer was still damp, some 20 different kinds of animals scurried, ran, and slithered over it, leaving their prints on the soft and slippery surface.  These included hares, baboons, a rhinoceros, two types of giraffe, hyenas, many birds, a three-toed horse, a saber-toothed cat- and three hominids.  At one point, one of the hominids stopped, paused, turned to the left and then, perhaps reassured, continued on.  Under the heat of the equatorial sun, the ash dried, setting like concrete, and soon the footprints were covered by more ash and windblown silt.  The trail on the left was made by the smallest of the hominids, perhaps holding the hand of the one to the right.  This one, the largest, was followed by another smaller hominid who walked in his or her footprints, partially obliterating them.  The prints on the right are those of a three-toed horse.”

I remember many years ago having a conversation in my bedroom with a girl.  There was a cat, eyes squinted, purring loudly as I scratched its neck.  I mentioned something about how happy the cat was, and I remember the girl asking me how I knew…how anyone could really be sure of anything.  I have no convincing answer for those who are firmly convinced that there can be no firm convictions, or those who declare absolutely and universally that there are no absolutes or universals, not allowing any relativity in the belief that everything is always relative.  I knew that cat- I knew it was tickled to death, loving the moment.  I knew it because I felt it, like a musical chord from one instrument harmonizing with another.  Understanding isn’t just an exercise of the intellect- it is an emotion, resonating with the furthest depths of being, singing from marrow.  I can only safely know what I have felt, because I felt the knowledge itself.

A recurring dream I used to have:  A wide plain stretching ahead, unkempt, tall golden grasses swaying gently.  I’m unsure of who or what I am, or what type of eyes I am seeing out of.  I am still.  The slow shadow of some gliding creature about drifts across me onto the rolling meadows ahead.  I felt watched, hunted.  Then the dream ends.  I used to wonder if seeing from ancient eyes would be much like this dream.  The evolutionary roots of our consciousness are still based in the way that we have lived for millions of years before, up until several thousand years ago.  It is not keeping up with the rapid pace of technology and the social intricacies of modern life.  So the serotonin and cortisol, the dopamine and testosterone, which served for our survival once in time, now drive us to extremes of chronic anxiety, hatred, fear, depression, and all the horrible things done between people that are rooted in such primal triggers.  A lot of us just don’t know anymore.  Jerked around like marionettes by emotions we cannot fathom.  Causing incalculable damage to those around us, those who care about us most.  Others militarize and hunker down what they feel- inside there are curfews, rations, and various propaganda, all trying to make sense of a war that will never, never make sense.

The little family that made those tracks long ago were surely faced with predatory threats, hideous diseases, lives we now may see as short.  But seeing it from another perspective, it was a family together, headed in a similar direction.  There were no tracks of divorce lawyers, psycho-pharmacologists, sugar daddies or princesses.  There was no evidence of a coke deal gone wrong, or a home foreclosing, a layoff slip or a credit bill, no mark of a flagpole in nationalist fervor or drag mark of chains of sexual slavery, no vomit trails from binging and purging bulimia, no reason for the little group to lie to others about the fact that they were together, no feverish, paranoid attack on the idea of pair bonding, primacy, or long term partnership.

As humans we carry millions of years of survival in our genes, our DNA.  We carry a little piece of all of our ancestors within us.  I remember a Cherokee friend who went with me once many years ago to an ancient village site in Swannanoa.  He had tears in his eyes for the buried dead there, like they were sweet grandmothers and strong grandfathers who cradled, watched over and guided him in his distant youth.  In a way I feel the same for these hominid tracks.  There is a colossal set of unknowns here- I glance across the millions of years as a man would gaze into deep waters.  But, walking along the river, sensitive to its churn, its spirals, its push downstream, I feel as a kindred to those ancient walkers.  And somehow I know that they felt moments of ease, moments of co-creation and play, and that for at least a while, they walked together.  A bittersweet lesson in these troubled, confusing times.  For with all our technological advances, with all our medical breakthroughs and magic pills, I still see all around me direct evidence of people out of touch with what they feel and what they know, deep down- people incapable of anything but the lust to be entertained or anesthetized, anything to prolong the avoidance of the resonant knowledge that the purring cat, the lazily swimming fish, the strolling hominid, knew a sense of ease.  Once the gate of recognition is open, love flows through it.  Love is risky and makes no sense.  It is much safer to remain oblivious, safe, and distrustful, cutting off all loves and friendships periodically because they bore us or no longer serve a particular purpose.  Knowledge resonating in marrow has no due date, deadline, deal-break or grounds for dismissal.  It perpetuates through all dangers and confusions.  I only know this because I feel a calling to walk along the river, and carefully look down.

A Rising Cloud

Posted in Uncategorized on February 11, 2009 by lushangxinku

“The fire god comes looking for fire;

how much light do the pillars and lamps begrudge?

Buried in the ashes, though you search you don’t see;

lighting it up and blowing it out,

it goes into action again.”

Eihei Koroku, Dogen Zenji; 1243 CE

"TV Buddha" by Nam June Paik, 1974

"TV Buddha" by Nam June Paik, 1974

 “Video Installation with statue, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.”

Paleoanthropological research has shown that the brains of our ancestors grew in size not as much to deal with sudden climate change but more involved with their dealings with each other.  This holds true for other primates as well; an increased brain size is found to directly correlate with the size of the groups in which the primates dealt.  The larger brained primates were found to travel in larger packs.  A certain degree of social cohesion became necessary as cooperation and clear communication help ensure the survival of the pack as a whole.  And so our evolution slowly guided us toward not only a larger sense of self-awareness, but a deeper recognition of the feelings and thoughts of others.  Larger brain size meant that we could truly consider consciousnesses outside our own, and with each added layer of complexity, the mind grew.

Now, though many seem to be incapable of such nuances, we can not only tune in to what we think of ourselves, but what another may think of us.  We even have the capacity to think of what someone thinks about someone else, and what someone thinks about the person who thinks about our acquaintance, who is thinking about us while we think about them.  We can even consider what someone is thinking about someone who is thinking about someone who is thinking about someone who thinks about those two in addition to thinking about someone who thinks about the person who thinks about us, while we think about them and everyone else.  Carefully considering the humanity and dignity and commonality of all these hearts and minds, one can hold interaction in a compassionate way.  And at the root of it all is the ability to reflect on the self.

But to wonder about the self, Dogen admonishes, can lead to a strange and convoluted search for something that we already embody- fire looking for fire.  If we get this fundamental part wrong, our interactions with others can become cumbersome and problematic.  If we only focus on ourselves there is no room left for empathy or compassion towards others, and if we only regard them in reference to ourselves, narcissism and selfishness become the order of the day.  We become someone looking at a reflection of themselves, one that looks back at us, swallowing up all our thoughts and feelings.  This is especialy dangerous when social isolation has become the situation.  Cut off from others, fire obsessed with its search for fire, a dark cave shielded from the vast open sky.

The key, it seems to me, is empathy, kindness, understanding, communication.  Stepping off the platform of self-reference into the shoes of others.  But how is this accomplished in isolation, or in the midst of blind and tragic misunderstanding?  The light goes out, and must be lit again.  Going out again, it must be lit again.  And so on.  Maybe this is how true companionship, balanced friendship, and a priceless sense of community can be nurtured.  I must not only watch the fire but follow the smoke trails, watching as they merge with the open sky.


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.