Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Roots of Being

There are times when it occurs to me that the analogies we can draw between creatures in the biological world and the nature of the universe at large are extraordinarily strong.

In "Beelzebub's tales to his grandson," Gurdjieff speaks about how every three brained being -- that is, in our own case, man, -- is an exact reflection of the cosmos. I think that this idea extends to other creatures as well.

Plants in particular have several specific features that can help us to understand the nature of existence. Our own existence is built on the existence of plants; that is, without photosynthesis, the majority of large scale biological life on this planet would not be able to exist. (We will except life around sulfur vents, which is a subject all its own.) There could well be life, but it would probably consist largely of microorganisms -- and even those would probably, in some cases, be engaged in photosynthesis.

So this act of transmuting photons into stored energy, which is a kind of extraordinary alchemical magic, lays down the basis we all live off of.

Put in other terms: everything alive on this level feeds on light.

And since all complex matter in general is created by the actions of suns, with many of the heavier elements being created only in supernovas, we can say with some confidence that everything is actually made of light.

There is one lesson we learn from the nature of plants. But it is another feature which I'd like to examine today, and that is the nature of roots.

Plants draw nourishment from roots which extend downwards into a substrate below them. This is the flip side of their relationship to light. Without the roots, which hold them in place and collect the minerals and water they need for their work, the ability to come into relationship with this "higher substance"-- or rate of greater vibration-- we call "light" and engage in photosynthesis would not exist. So we see at once that in the universe, higher functions absolutely depend on lower ones. Put another way, in the creation and maintenance of reality, higher orders arise from and depend on lower orders. And all of it depends ultimately on light.

It's the roots that reach down into the lowest level that collect the information and provide the connection that allows the relationships with the higher functions to exist.

OK, you may be saying. Interesting, perhaps, but what does that mean to us in the context of a spiritual work?

In my experience, it is this question of growing roots into our being that is essential to our work. By this I mean physical roots that connect us to our body. I mean this in an absolutely concrete manner; I am not referring to an abstract analogy of some kind. In man, there should literally be roots that connect the consciousness to the body itself. These roots, of a very fine nature, extend throughout the body and enter into the cells. Generally speaking, however, human beings have completely lost the ability to sense them and kind of connection that they form. If a man wants to learn to draw a new and more solid kind of nourishment from his life, he must discover his roots. Not the roots of generations and countries and circumstances, but the biological roots, the subtle channels that connect him to his organic being.

I have pointed out before that the image of the Lotus as a symbol of enlightenment is not about the beautiful flower. It is about what is hidden, what is unseen; and what is unseen is the long stem that reaches down into the mud, and the firm roots that anchor the flower to the bottom of the pond, so that the disturbances of the wind and water do not disrupt the nature of the plant.

When Dogen speaks in "practice period" of reality being "to go into the mud and enter the weeds," he is pointing us in this direction. Reality begins at its roots, and an experience of reality cannot begin with angelic visions. It has to begin at the roots.

Mr. Gurdjieff once said that if consciousness develops it must not only develop in a direction that reaches upward--it must, at the same time and in equal measure, reach downwards, so that there is a wholeness.

So in seeking ourselves, if we seek first the relationship with this physical root of being, this organic sense of ourselves, this vibration and sensation from which consciousness itself actually arises, we acquire a new relationship to gravity. I do not speak of a relationship that lightens us and allows us to float around. I speak of a relationship that helps us become more aware of the fact that we live under these conditions, in this mortal flesh, standing on this planet, and that for us, this is all there is, and it is now.

Time and time again, if we turn to the lessons of biology, we discover that science and spiritual quest are joined at the hip. Even today, I was reading an article about dark matter and dark energy in which prominent physicists admitted that we don't know what these things are. Apparently they are absolutely necessary in order to explain things that we don't understand about the nature of the universe, but the words actually mean nothing. We do not know if there is "dark matter" or "dark energy" at all. The words are conveniences to indicate that there is something out there which we just don't know doodley-squat about.

The Zen of not knowing weds itself to the mysteries of physics. Dark matter? Dark energy? We might as well speak of God. We may even know a little bit more about God than we do about these two subjects.

Every word I write in this blog, no matter what it is, is also, in a certain sense, a convenience to indicate that we just don't know. We make efforts to know, but the nature of the universe itself is so mysterious that we cannot know, no matter how hard we try. We are all on a search to know, and that may be all that we do know.

Some few things I do understand. One of them: just as we have inner flowers, so also these roots dwell in us. I do not know what they are, where they come from, or what would make it easy to find them. All I know is that they are there, and they feed this thing called Being if we find them and come into a deeper relationship with them. The roots feed the flowers.

My wish for all of us is that we can awaken to a greater rootedness of being, based in the organism, that will lead us one step further down the path in the development of compassion both for ourselves and our fellow men.

blessings to all of you today.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Some thoughts on emotion

One of the things that strikes me about human nature is how volatile we all are emotionally. I run into this all day long, not only in myself, but in everyone else as well.

We literally live in a sea of both inner and outer emotion. It is easy to see the physical objects around us--but we quickly forget, because we are identified with it, that the emotional content of the world we inhabit is equally material. Emotions are as supple, changeable, and exotic as pigments in the skin of a cuttlefish: constantly changing, shimmering, adapting to the conditions around them, expressing things in a language all their own.

They are beautiful, alluring, and dangerous. It’s hard not to get caught up in the drama.

The emotional part in ourselves, which reacts very quickly indeed, is constantly taking the temperature of every event around us. We are so invested in us that we do not even know it’s happening. In order to have any awareness at all of it, we need to maintain some kind of a connection with the body. Otherwise the situation is hopeless.

The difficulty with the emotional part is that it is relatively imbalanced. As I put it to my wife when I first met her many years ago, we should not believe in our emotions. They lie to us constantly. Although they are powerful and quick, they lack rationality and frequently respond to situations in an inappropriate manner. This is true of almost every single human being; it is rare to meet people who are emotionally balanced in any meaningful sense.

I have a lot of strong reactions in the course of the day. It frequently surprises me, how absolutely physical, intense, and visceral they are. It is a real work to be present enough to have any degree of relationship with them. And it is only if I have a relationship with them that there is a chance of them not dictating the course of events.

This takes place, in my experience, in both an inner and an outer sense, because the emotional reactions dictate the way I exchange with other people, and they also determine the inner tone of my attitude towards my life. This means I need to take a careful measure of exactly what the value of various emotions is as they arise. Especially with negative emotions, when they come up, I need to examine them critically right away instead of signing on to them.

There are times when I just go ahead and sign onto them anyway after a brief period of examination. The reality is that I am negative; I have these parts and they have baaaaad attitudes. I am not some Christ-like guru filled with groovy love. In fact, people who behave in that way always leave me a little suspicious. It doesn’t seem real. If we want to experience who we are and know who we are, we have to experience and know the negative parts as well as the ones that are warm and loving.

Another way of looking at this is to say that we need to experience the full range of our emotional being in order to understand any of it. In self-knowing, we can’t just parse our emotional being out into the bits we like. It’s all or nothing.

It’s a good thing to perform an inner “stop” when we see ourselves having a strong emotional reaction. Before we take any rash steps, it’s a good thing to review the reaction and see if it is based on anything real. More often than not, in my own case, I discover that emotional reactions I am having don’t make any sense at all. They are suggesting that I do things that are fundamentally stupid.

Jails and graveyards are filled with people who listened to emotional ideas of that nature without exercising sufficient discrimination.

God willing, we will not end up among that number. But just the thought that we might avoid hurting another person by examining our emotional state a bit more closely makes the action worthwhile.

I believe that the phrase “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” from the Lord’s prayer relates to this kind of work. It encapsulates the idea that we are both unwitting victims and unwitting perpetrators in this exchange of emotional energy. The tendency is to see ourselves primarily as the victim; as we work on ourselves, we need to see our role as perpetrators as well, and become sensitive to the fact that all of us are in this mess together.

Forgiveness can go a long way towards straightening things out.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Edges, food, mud, and weeds



Take a look around you.

Here we are again in this condition that is constantly different, yet perpetually manages to appear the same to us. We are in front of a computer. Odds are, 90% or more of us is invested in the head. We have little, if any, sense of our bodies.

Try to change that just for a moment. Sense yourself right now in your body.

Then keep reading.

This thing called life is a perpetual state of feeding. The three kinds of food are the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the impressions we take in. Taken together, these three things feed what we call our being. Their rates of vibration are different; food is coarse, air is finer, and impressions are the finest food. Attending to these foods as they enter us, and attending to the differences between them, is part of the work of discrimination which leads to inner development.

I've spoken before about the fact that we live in what I call an edge condition: an intersection, the place where different forces meet. In biology, these are the places where the richest foods are found. So in finding ourselves where we are in life, that is, in an intersection between two worlds, an inner one and an outer one, we are in the ideal place to feed ourselves. But in order to do so we have to to become aware of both worlds simultaneously. Having a connection between more than one center helps in this effort.

Forming that connection takes time. I liken it to the process of growing roots. A plant occupies the intersection between sunlight and the darkness of the soil; it draws nourishment from both above itself and below itself in order to form itself. As organisms, we are not that different, except that it is the soul itself that engages in this enterprise.

The enterprise itself requires structure. It requires diligence. It requires years of effort. In an era where everyone wants to obtain everything as quickly as possible, it seems difficult to me to instill in any one a comprehension of how serious one has to be about spiritual work in order to achieve anything real. For the most part, all of us are disorganized and somewhat inept. We are stumblers and dabblers and babblers; we don't stick to things and we are easily distracted. The idea of spending 30 or 40 minutes every morning without fail in meditation is too daunting. Even then, the idea of a structured meditation with a specific aim does not perhaps appeal to people. "Too goal oriented," they say. "Speaks of attachments."

Nonetheless, without this structure, nothing is possible. One must have a specific inner aim, or one has nothing at all. This is another thing it seems difficult to get across to people. I have spent a great deal of my life in a work where everyone professes to be entirely serious, yet when I listen to the seekers around me I see that many of them have failed to understand this principle of aim, even as they hear about it and discuss it. They are middle-aged folk of great accomplishment in life who still cannot seem to find something satisfying and permanent. Everything about life, up to and including their spiritual path, is confusing. They are having difficulty finding an aim.

They are still grasping for some kind of an idea of what this life means with their minds.

I do not say this intending judgment; these are people I love. They are wonderful people who have supported my effort and who deserve every consideration and all the support I can muster. Nonetheless, it distresses me to see them still struggling to find the right approach. And I dare not open my mouth; God forbid I should tell them what to do. Each must find his own way.

Perhaps the greatest irony I encounter in my own work community is all the talk about silence. People who want to work in silence should shut up and go work there. For the rest of us, everything is needed.

On that note, here is an excerpt from Dogen.

"Those who haven't entered the inner chamber regard the World-honored One's retreat in the country of Magadha as proof of expounding the Dharma without words. These confused people think "the Buddha's closing off his chamber and spending the summer in solitary sitting shows that words and speech are merely skillful means and cannot indicate the truth. Cutting off words and eliminating mental activity is therefore the ultimate truth. Worthlessness and mindlessness is real; words and thoughts are unreal. The Buddha sat in a closed chamber for 90 days in order to cut off all human traces."

Those who say such things are greatly mistaken about the World-honored One's true intention. If you really understand the meaning of cutting off words, speech, and mental activity, you will see that all social and economic endeavors are essentially already beyond words, speech, and mental activity. Going beyond words and speech is itself all words and speech; going beyond mental activity is nothing but all mental activity. So, it is a misunderstanding of this story to see it as advocating the overthrow of words, speech, and mental activity. Reality is to go into the mud and enter the weeds and expound the Dharma for the benefit of others; turning the Dharma and saving all beings is not something something optional. If people who call themselves descendents of the Buddha insist on thinking that the Buddha's 90 days in solitary summer sitting mean that words, speech, and mental activity are transcended, they should demand a refund of those 90 days of summer sitting."

--"practice period," as translated by Norman Fischer and Kazuaki Tanahashi ("Beyond Thinking," p 120-121,Shambala 2004.)

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Amaryllis, and chili peppers

My wife elected to grow a large mass of Amarillys this winter. This picture, taken today, celebrates the results.

I had a hard time getting to this post today. Blogger was not working well as of an hour ago, and I had software issues in other areas which prevented me from posting the post that I planned to. In one of those hideous glitches all too familiar to regular computer users, the entire post was lost, and now exists only as a set of fading vibrations in some other part of the universe.

Long years of computer use have taught me that it is pointless to get upset about things of this nature. It is a case of dog bites man.

Today we took the famous dog Isabel out into the woods. There was a fierce snowstorm that ended with a coating of ice yesterday; we trudged out into virgin territory in Tallman State Park, shuffling gingerly along the top of snow-encrusted embankments, stumbling delightedly as the crust broke, falling and laughing, try to become more weightless than these bodies will allow.

At lunch, over a bowl of tomato soup spiked (by my own habitual hand) with chili peppers from New Mexico, I spoke with Neal about how I am beginning to lose my taste for hot foods.

This seems inconceivable: anyone who knows me will tell you that I have a craving for hot foods, and an excessive tolerance for them. Lately, though, I have been feeling more sensitive towards the taste of foods, having different experiences of them, and hot foods do not seem so interesting to me anymore.

This bothers me a bit; it reminds me of how I lost my taste for doing visual arts some five plus years ago. I have written about that before; the wish to do that still hasn't come back all these years later.

Those of you who read Mr. Gurdjieff's work, or who are at least familiar with some of his ideas, will know that he spoke often of the difference between essence and personality. Today I had an insight: I see that the differences that arise in me today are differences that are probably ascribable to the growth of essence.

We spend most of our lives enslaved by our personalities; as they grow, they decide what we will do and how we will do it. They decide what we will like and dislike; all along, we are willing participants, and unwitting victims. Our personality makes decisions for us that may have nothing to do with what we are actually like in essence.

After years of work, as we finally reach a moment when our essence begins to grow, things in us are bound to change. Of course this is bewildering; in actual fact, although we all profess a wish for change in our lives, we prefer the change to be superficial, that is, one of circumstances, not of what we perceive to be our overall character. Sacrificing anything from our exitsting state, that is, our personality, is a scary thing. It represents the death of something we are.

Everyone talks a good game, but no one wants this.

So here I am, finding out that essentially I don't like hot food. Not that much, anyway. This is quite a shock for someone who has crammed himself full of chili peppers for years. I am not quite sure who I am anymore. Or, as I put it to Neal, it is not a case of "I am this person," or, "I am not that person," but rather, "who is this person?"

So here I am, once again searching for who I am and where I am in this life. Once again I discover I don't know much about that. What I assumed was true is not; things that appeared to be certain and permanent turn out to be questionable and temporary; the earth, which looks solid, turns out to have fault lines in it. It may start shaking at any time and the buildings that I have erected over the last 51 years could come tumbling down like my art career.

I suppose it is fair enough discover that in our search for who we are, we find we are not who we thought we were.

What is even more sobering is to discover that we are not what we think we are. In these fleshy bodies, bags of skin and bones, as Master Dogen would put it, we fall victim to the cravings of the senses and they convince us that they are all there is. The fact that there is another world touching us at all moments, one we cannot see, and rarely, if ever, sense, escapes us.

If we open the vessel, and let the world flow in, everything changes. No matter what our reactions, what our prejudices, our irritations, if we practice, in this ordinary life, in this ordinary sense,we come to these three principles:

Accept, accept, accept.

When I come back to this over and over, it is possible to begin again to try to experience my life in more than just a superficial manner.

The sun has been streaming through my studio window as I write this; filtered through blue white reflections of snow, it blooms into the fiery red of the geraniums we have nurtured here all winter. I was going to post a picture of that for you, but the Amaryllis trumps them so handily- in digital format, anyway- that there was no contest.

Go with God, my friends. May we all remember to step lightly as we tread on the moments of this life, lest they break under our clumsy feet like a thin crust of snow.

And may we breathe in enough of that which feeds the soul to lighten us as we make our way through this thing called life.

Love to you all,


Saturday, March 17, 2007

Jurassic Pondering

Today's picture is a coda from the china trip.

During my trip to China, I spent some time in Zhejiang province in a small town called Pujiang, about 3 ½ hours south of Shanghai. This town is located in the mountains and in most ways is somewhat remote from the tidal wave of development that has consumed much of China’s eastern seaboard. Quiet, rural, idyllic.

Across the street from the factory that I visited, there is an embankment about 15 feet high consisting of reddish layers of soil. This embankment immediately looked familiar. The color of the layers of soil told me that this particular group of sediments almost certainly dated from the Jurassic era. All over the world, when you see soils of this color, they are either Permian (older than Jurassic) or they date from the age of the dinosaurs. What is more, it was clear from looking at the soils that they were riverine deposits; that is, they were laid down by riverbeds carrying sediments of various sizes, including lots of sand and rounded pebbles.

The landscape had more to say. It was evident from some of the formations in the immediate vicinity (within five to 10 miles) that the area had been subjected to bouts of volcanism. And indeed, when I picked pebbles out of the river deposits, their varying nature betrayed the fact that they were volcanic debris of one kind or another.

Now, you might ask yourself, why would this interest me?

Well, you see, I live in Sparkill, New York, which is on the edge of the Newark Basin sandstones, a huge deposit of river sediments that date from the same era. It was remarkable to me to travel halfway across the planet and finds deposits so similar that date from the very same age. (I have seen them in New Mexico as well.) Not only that, the area where I live is on the Palisades of the Hudson River, a huge dike of basalt magma that, like the volcanoes in the Pujiang area, points towards an eruption event of great magnitude –again, just as in New Mexico.

I’m sure that by now you are asking yourself what kind of spiritual lesson, if any, we can draw from this.

My perception is as follows: it underscores how much the same everything is, everywhere. We make a great deal of the difference between people and societies; the differences between one landscape and another, one culture and another, one person and another. Yet everything all around us is subject to the same laws. Not only that, this has been going on for hundreds of millions of years. The differences we celebrate are mostly imaginary-they are constructions derived from imagination. It’s true that our imaginations are spectacular, colorful, creative, and inventive. But a great deal of what they produce is- well- imaginary, that is, in the real world its validity is rather limited.

This certainly strikes me when I go to China. Their culture appears to be quite different than ours; their customs and habits and attitudes and language are different. Nonetheless, they are all engaged in the same fundamental activities the rest of us are. The main engines that drive them are sex, money, food, and fear.

In many senses we are all enslaved by these forces. We weave an elaborate dream around ourselves that takes our attention away from these basic facts. Yet if we look at the landscape that all of us inhabit, we see that it consists of the same elements everywhere.

That landscape consists of things much like the deposits from the Jurassic which I speak of. That is to say, slow gradual processes that build up sediments by virtue of accretion, and explosive ones that blow holes in everything, only to subside and succumb once again to the forces of gradualism.

Put otherwise, Sex: the interaction of substances to create new circumstances. Money: The cost of that interaction. Food: What that interaction uses to carry itself forward. Fear: the intermittent yet enormous forces that drive major changes.

Life is much like this in both an inner and outer sense for everyone. It’s worth attending to these two sets of processes: observing how we build up layers of being through the process of acquiring impressions, and how disruptive events – usually emotional – blow holes in our carefully constructed layers, rearranging the landscape and scattering debris in various directions.

Much of life consists of efforts to avoid the volcanic events. These efforts turn out, for the most part, to be futile. No matter what we do, explosions take place. The best possible course of action we can take in regard to this question is to continually prepare ourselves for life. We need to learn to work with both kinds of processes to help form the landscape we inhabit within.

…Much more could be said about fear, but not today. I once made the remark that we are all little fear factories. Let’s examine that together at a future date.

I have two little volcanic pebbles from that town in Zhejiang sitting in my collection of stones. Like so many of the other rocks I have lying around the house, most of them will never mean anything to anyone else, including my wife and children. When I die, people will pick these things up and scratch their heads and say, “what the hell was he keeping this for?”

In this sense, the external sediments of my life will seem to others to carry no more rhyme or reason to those who come after me than the sediments in the town of Pujiang do: a random, distant set of events. I was not there when they were laid down; yet every single grain of sand, every pebble and stone in the riverbed, has its own true story to tell .

Those stories belong to them; I cannot know them, or take them away from them. I can, however, respect them for what they, in their mute and timeworn state, have to teach me about myself and about life.

In a brief update from here on the banks of the Hudson River, we had a big snow and ice storm last night.

Winter has not left us yet. Feeling cheated by her late arrival, she has decided to remind us that her strength is not yet spent. And she has, in turn, spent mine: I have shoveled snow and ice today until my arms ache with the good pain of hard work.

Regards, and love to all of you on this Saturday morning.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

From airport lounges

In what is certainly a first for this blog, I am posting you from a business class airline lounge in Seoul, South Korea. This is a routine part of my existence, this traveling in a kind of sustained limbo for many hours where not much goes on except sitting, frequently accompanied by the loud whine of jet engines. It certainly gives one plenty of time to think.

So here we are, you and I-- or, at least, my words and you. We are participating in a kind of time travel here, where what I say reaches you long after I say it. But for all of us, it exists in the now, as we experience it. No matter what it is that we experience, it is always this way -- immediate. Even the constructions of past and future that exist in the parts of us that can contain such ideas actually exist only in the now. And now for me is a dictation headset, a laptop, and a business class lounge.

In front of me is a huge expanse of glass, supported by steel superstructures. Behind it, just above the top of the windows, a pale gray halo of sun behind clouds descends towards the horizon.

In just a few moments it will be directly, gloriously, in my eyes.

As is so often the case these days, this morning I was actively studying the connections between inner centers, or rather, the lack of connection. It is a mystery to me why the centers, which clearly have the facility to form strong and magnificent connections, are unable to do so under most ordinary circumstances.

To know one's self -- to self-remember -- is to study these parts carefully, for a long time.

Take the time today, if you can, to look very carefully and delicately within. Seek, see, feel. Try to touch those delicate places within yourself which carry the seeds of your own flowers. See if there is a response. Somewhere within each of us lies this new germ of the sacred.

I know this is true for everyone. If you are diligent, blossoms will bloom within you that will feed you in a way that no other part of life is able to. And--if more than one blossom should choose to reveal itself--the ecstasy and the sorrow of the heavens may come to you. Even if only for a moment.

Perhaps that is for the best. We cannot drink too deeply of ambrosia; these earthly vessels we call bodies are too frail to hold much fire.

Mr. Gurdjieff said that the purpose of man's existence is, among other things, to become conscious and responsible enough to take on and share a portion of the endless sorrow of His Endlessness: to share the sorrow of God.

Opening our inner flowers can lead us on the path towards this, which is the most beautiful duty we can ever take upon ourselves. It can carry us forward in relationship with our families, with our friends, with our business associates, our children, and ourselves. It can clear away the cobwebs of uncertainty and the dung of negativity that clutter our inner state. In this way we can actually acquire a bit of that highly prized, mysterious, and near-mythical substance called humility, oft referred to but rarely ever seen.

Perhaps this is not enough to satisfy a man in life. I do not know. We all seem at all times to crave something greater than what is actually possible. But for me, today, it is enough. At least when I touch something real in myself, and that sacred substance flows which allows me to participate, I know that I have at least in some sense performed the duty which I was actually sent here for. As opposed to the byzantine, constructed nonsense we call “daily life.”

I cannot save the world; I cannot save those around me; the likelihood is that I cannot even save myself, because I am too small and lack the power. If this is true, perhaps the best that I can achieve is to accept the few such services I am given the grace to perform. Graciously and humbly, without expectation of reward.

If all of this sounds a bit more emotional than what you are used to from me, I apologize. Perhaps the emotional part is a bit more active in me today.

However it may be, I attempt to come to you honestly, offering you what my experience is and what I know. I would be the first to confess to you that I do not know very much. People think I am a smart man, but the older I get, the more glaring my own deficiencies seem to be to me. Measured against the vast depths of the universe, what I know is absolutely nothing.

I do know this, however. Within all of us live these flowers. Seek them, water them, tend to them daily, and your life will change. This will not be easy, because every flower is a rose, and you'll have to tolerate the thorns in order to grow buds and open blossoms.

In the end, if you are a diligent gardener, something new will come to live in you-- and perhaps you will even find favor in the eyes of the Lord.

With love to all of you today,


Wednesday, March 14, 2007


Today I was thinking about Dogen once again. I don’t have any Dogen source material with me on this trip, so I am left to ponder what I can remember from my readings.

I do have Gurdjieff’s “Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson” with me and I have been reading the chapter on religion. In it, he mentions that the teachings of Saint Buddha and Saint Lama were so changed and corrupted by subsequent followers that they no longer resemble the original teachings in any significant way.

Presuming that is true, we are left in the position of attempting to understand the teachings either from the point of view of the reportedly garbled original doctrine which has been recorded and passed on by followers, or from the words of men who practiced and seem to have attained something real in the context of the teaching.

Of all these men, in the Zen tradition of Buddhism, Dogen seems to be the one that most exemplifies a real level of attainment, so when we read Dogen’s words, I think we are a bit closer to the heart of Buddhism than when we go to other sources. Perhaps this is just wishful thinking on my part, but if it is, I have company.

Dogen speaks about not becoming attached to non-attachment. Non-attachment is such an important practice in Buddhism – one hears about it all the time – that it is surprising, perhaps, to hear a master speak of not becoming attached to it. He also speaks of not becoming attached to silence, which is perhaps even more surprising, since a deep inner silence- and what lies beyond it- is an aim in meditation efforts.

Attachment, non-attachment, silence—what to make of Dogen’s words on these matters?

Attachment and non-attachment are still dualities. Silence and noise are dualities. Dualities meet within Being: and Being, if it develops, inhabits this edge condition- a place of food- within which duality can be resolved.

I like to use the work inhabitation to describe the organic effort to be within the conditions of duality, but not of the conditions of duality.

In the Shobogenzo, Dogen has an extensive sutra about how to value the Kasaya- the Buddha’s robe. In reading this sutra it repeatedly struck me how clear it is that the sutra is, above all, about practice: about the practice of how we wear our lives. So it’s evident to me he was interested in this question of inhabitation of life, investment in life. The analogy of the Buddha’s robe is nothing more than a vehicle for a set of understandings, of principals, about Being within life.

In the face of the conditional nature of duality, we make an inner effort to become unconditional: to accept the conditions, regardless of what the conditions are.

In this way we become objective in relationship to duality: instead of being attached to duality, a part of it, we are inhabitants within a landscape that contains duality. So we are not attached, or un-attached: we just are. We become observers of duality rather than masters, victims, or slaves of it.

This idea relates to Gurdjieff’s idea of the creation of a new “I” within man. As we are, the possibilities for this kind of relationship are limited. We must become something quite different, inside, in order to begin to understand this better.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The final nature of things

Stop for a moment. Take a look around you.

The only thing that we know for sure is that we are in these bodies, having these experiences. Amazingly, even though it is quite clear that there is a logical end to this process, our conscious parts somehow insist that the condition we are in now will persist for ever.

Do we really see the impermanence of life? I don't think so. Very little, if any, time is spent in younger years pondering the fact that our existence is finite. Yet this very fact is probably the only thing that might call us to examine our lives more closely.

I ponder this question frequently in the context of my organic sensation of myself. This organic sensation provides a connection to mortality than I did not used to have when I was younger. It raises a great many questions about just exactly what we are and what we are doing here.

There is a butcher shop right around the corner from our office in downtown Shanghai. Incongruously- certainly for a modern city- there is this tiny shopfront right on the street with chopped up carcasses of slaughtered pigs and beef hung in its narrow corridor. Bloody piles of spinal columns and ribs are casually slung across Styrofoam packing cases.

It is not the presentation of things that we are accustomed to in the West. It is raw death staring the businessmen and the beautiful people in their designer clothing in the face as they pass by.

I saw this.

It got me to thinking.

Those spinal columns are a representation of a process that began billions of years ago when the very first animals developed nervous systems. They represent evolution; they also represent what every single mammal, and almost all other higher animals (aside, for example, from octopi and squid) are made up from on this planet. A nervous system made of meat and flesh and bone. Something which is all too easy to forget as we meet each other face-to-face dressed up in clothing. They are a reminder of how frail life is, and how final the end is. The sun rises on our life, the day of this life goes by, and then the sun sets. This day will not come again.

It is sobering to see this. When one evaluates life from this perspective, one begins to think, just what is it that one wishes to do in life? Are we doing what we want to? Are we squandering this precious substance, which we only have just so much of, on foolishness of one kind or another?

More than likely, most of us are. I have certainly done my fair share of it.

If I really begin to sense what I am-- flesh and bones -- and where I am-- between birth and death --, then perhaps I can begin to value this life more directly and more specifically. To seek a value within each inward breath that confers more than just the automatic food of air. To seek a value in personal exchanges that is more than just a cardboard cutout reaction to my concept of other people.

In the end, this question of mortality becomes a question of seeking value. A greater understanding of death could shape our lives if we had a bit more respect for it.

I continue to ask myself questions about mortality; questions about the nature of my existence here; questions about time. Questions about finality. All of these questions are asked in the context of those infinite rivers of love and bliss that flow downward into us from a level above us which we cannot even pretend to understand.

I don't expect answers. I seek them, but they only come on their own terms.

When they do come, they arrive without words.

When they leave, I cannot remember them, except for the faint footprints of joy that seem, paradoxically, to precede my passage through the moments of life.

The faint scent of a plum blossom lingering in a winter without trees.

love to you all


Monday, March 12, 2007


On the surface, today appears to have been a day when not much of note took place. From the point of view of my own experience, I got up, meditated, took care of some business matters, and then went out into the market to meet with vendors. There were several long car drives, some office meetings, everything rather mundane.

There were a few special moments when I was aware enough of myself to realize that I was sitting there with these other human beings, in a relationship with them, and really not paying enough attention to them to honor their presence or their own effort. The fact that they, like me, were completely asleep and in equal measure not honoring my presence and effort was immaterial. The point was that I was not there. That was enough to call something more from me.

There is always something of note taking place. For example, today many trillions of lives ended on this planet: ranging all the way from lives the size of bacteria to the lives of elephants and whales. An uncountable number of human beings died today. For all of them, this was a very big day indeed. The events were enormous and calamitous.

On the other levels and in other scales, we can be sure, stars exploded and whole systems of planets were destroyed. Across the universe, the amount of things that are going on is infinite. The fact that I, in my tiny experience of today, didn't find a whole lot of interest to be taking place is almost meaningless.

If I expand myself to include more than this tiny point of consciousness I inhabit, I immediately see that everything that takes place is of note. It is my relationship to what is taking place that is not notable, because there isn't one.

Once again I turn to the question of an inner relationship to try and see where the lack originates. Immediately, more value is discovered.

Why is it so?

When grand and exciting things are not taking place, perhaps just then is exactly the time to turn to the fine details and see how grand and exciting these small things might be. I don't really know, after all; I haven't taken the time to investigate the relationship between two lines of red glaze on a Ching dynasty bowl, for example, or the exact feeling of my hand on the mouse attached to this computer.

It's interesting. When I turn my attention to these finer details, trying to discover a corresponding sensation in the body, along with an intelligence that receives these impressions, something inside the body responds emotionally. A glimmering of joy emerges from between the cracks in my unconsciousness.

What is it that is joyful in the presence of this thing we call life?

If I knew more about that, I would probably know everything.

All I can surmise for now is that it relates to connections between the inner parts, and something Jesus Christ once said:

"For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20)

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Sunday in Shanghai

This morning I spent some time walking through the older parts of Shanghai again. I was in neighborhoods that tourists do not go to, surrounded by hundreds, in fact thousands, of ordinary Chinese people.

These are not the beautiful Chinese people who stroll along the Bund in Shanghai wearing designer clothes and sporting designer sunglasses. (I saw them today, too.) These are the people who wear the same clothes several days in a row and eat a bowl of fried rice with a little bit of pork and some vegetables at lunchtime. The neighborhoods are tear-down neighborhoods (see the picture); all around them, the brave new world of expensive apartment buildings is encroaching, and in a few years they will be ousted so that rich beautiful people can live where they are.

Where will they go? The rich, beautiful people do not care about such things.

These people strike me as a rich and beautiful too, but in a way that has nothing to do with designer clothing and expensive real estate. They are living their lives, and have an earthy honesty to them; no pretensions to designer grandeur would find a comfortable home here. The faint smell of urine from chamber pots wafts through the streets in the morning; fingers are red and chapped from peeling vegetables, and coarse cottons in shades of blue and black make the garments of choice. I walked past women chopping scallions, holding babies, selling flowers. A moment of eye contact and a smile over bundles of daisies transcended every language barrier. The flower seller and I knew what we were feeling, we were feeling it together, and that was all that mattered.

That was wealth. The small joys of life are the same in every language.

It amazed me to see that I was completely comfortable and relaxed in this essentially alien environment. I have been coming here for so many years that to walk down a foreign street in a foreign city filled with people of another race seems totally normal. There was no fear, no apprehension, no hesitation. There was just me and all these other ordinary people doing their ordinary things.

Tonight I am back at my five star hotel surrounded by technology, widescreen TVs, computers and voice dictation software. I am looking out over the People's Square from the 35th floor; a vantage point these people are unlikely to ever have. And yet they are here with me, in me.

How to explain that?

Somehow, in this act of consciousness, we all contain each other; everything blends into one harmonious whole in a manner we are unable to see and cannot even faintly taste most of the time. And now, a little tiny bit of them is in you, for as you read this, the chain of experience is transmitted, traveling from one organism to another through impulses magnetic and electric, ephemeral and yet completely material.

Mysteries abound. We are vessels into which the world flows.

Once again, on this trip, I am struck how the important moments are the ones where there is a bit of human contact. The woman who served me at the restaurant twice and recognized me, for example; she is not like the younger girls here at most of the hotels. She is a bit older, you can see it in her eyes. She understands the value of a bit of personal contact and she gave it to me. I really appreciated that; when I left we said goodbye to each other and to have a nice day, and we really, really meant that.

What kind of substitute is therefore an exchange like this, where there is heart and soul in a single sentence?

I contrast that with some of the more depressing human contact I had today; on Nanjing Road, at least 10 different young girls no older than my daughter must have approached me with the suggestion that we "spend some time together." The time, no doubt, to be spent with me paying for their sexual favors.

It was so sad. I wondered whether their parents knew what they were out doing this afternoon. I was tempted to give some of them money and ask them to take the day off without having sex with strangers. But of course that would have done no good. This reality that we shared together was their reality, and no wish of my own was going to change it for them.

Nonetheless, this was real contact that had an impact. Sobering, disconcerting, enough to jar me for a moment and take me out of imagination long enough to see where I was and what was happening.

All of these contacts, all of these moments, remind me of something my teacher said to me a number of years ago. "Life is so daily," she said. "So ordinary."

Certainly that has been the theme of this trip for me. I dwell within the ordinary. No matter where I go, no matter how exotic a location appears to be, it is still ordinary. What makes it extraordinary, if anything, is my relationship to it: the way that I receive it.

As Henri Trachol once said while I was present, "Life is an experiment. If we wish, we are invited to participate."

In this endless blending of impressions and molecules and energies, how miraculous it is that this thing called consciousness appears. How privileged we are to share it.

Be well, my friends, until tomorrow.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Buddhas made of stone

Today I took a long walk through the streets of Shanghai. I was walking towards a shopping area that generally has a lot of good antiques. This time I took a direction that I have not taken in the past, and accidentally stumbled through a little bit of what remains of old Shanghai.

Shanghai is a city in transition. In the last 15 years, an explosion took place which erased a great deal of the old city. Shanghai today is like Manhattan. Back then it was a lot like it was in the 1930s, or earlier.

What I found on my walk was narrow streets; low buildings, only one or two stories tall. Old and dilapidated, façades made of wood, paint peeling from them like dandruff. The balconies and windows were festooned with laundry, no garment too intimate to conceal from the eyes of passersby. On the streets, Saturday morning market was in full swing. Everywhere there were vendors selling roots, vegetables, and fruits, straight from blankets spread out on the street, with no pretensions whatsoever. Things were dirty and earthy and real. In this world, Target and Kmart and Wal-Mart were just fairy tales of corrupted temptations. No gleaming aisles, no rigid regiments of perfect products here; instead, swinging stainless steel basins served as gongs and empty plastic bottles as mallets. In this way, one mother and her child became a Dragon Festival parade.

It was a community. People knew each other; there was bargaining and arguing and laughter. In the chill, damp morning air, an exchange was taking place as ancient as civilization itself.

Our modern culture has sterilized this, and is stamping it out as ruthlessly as a man crushes an ant beneath his shoe. Supermarkets and supermarts de-humanize the entire process of commercial exchange. We pay a little less; we get a lot less. We have become fixated on the idea that making something cheap makes it good, when all it really does is cause us to value it less. In the end we rape the planet as we talk about how great all these low prices are.

I walked through the crowd a little grateful for the fact that markets like this still exist. The low buildings reminded me of the adage from the Tao, "in dwelling, be close to the earth." And the market reminded me that the food we eat comes from the earth, raw and untamed. The miracles of our technology may be able to change the way cells grow and divide, but they cannot initiate it. In the same way, our technical skills may change the landscape and alter the ways that culture arises within cities, but it cannot create the culture itself.

What does it mean to dwell within a culture? In this brave new world where we deconstruct cultures and paste them together again with websites and broadband and advertisements and production lines, the process has become an object of worship, and the end result a moving target. We call it the information age, but what is being formed inwardly? Everything is outward. It is only in the vestiges of what used to be, in the small, narrow, and dirty streets that seem so unappealing at first glance, that we find what it means to still be human. We are forgetting what it means to be in community; it worries me. In the end, I suspect the result of it will be that we will just find it that much easier to kill each other.

And we are good enough at that already.

Every human contact I had today had nothing to do with technology. I spoke in my very rudimentary Chinese, bargaining and arguing and cajoling. At one shop, a plump, red-faced lady grabbed me firmly by the arm as we haggled, allowing no escape. Locked in the ancient art of hand-to-hand retail combat, we both cheerfully insisted one was robbing the other blind. Elsewhere, art-eyed cynic that I am, I picked up things that have been buried for thousands of years and decided I didn't like them; perhaps, I think, they should have remained buried. I bought other, improbable things that weighed far too much to take home, put them in my knapsack, and walked all the way back to the hotel (a long long way) with an appreciation of my body and of gravity, worrying about how I was going to pack them and get them back.

Perhaps none of this seems to convey any higher spiritual truths; it is just about ordinary humans in an ordinary world.

But if we are to find any higher truths, they reside within this ordinary world; they are born within the hearts of stone Buddhas, they draw their first breath in the soil and the sunlight, and they spill their blood into the biology of the planet, where one cell feeds another, and all of us -- from the smallest to the largest organism – are in relationship both in life and in death. Those truths make their way to stalks of celery on a city street; they find their place in pieces of cushioning foam wrapped around bicycle baskets; they sing to themselves, and all of us, from woodland thrushes, caged in city parks, where old men do the slow dance of Tai Chi, as though trying to freeze time and allow themselves just a little bit longer on this planet. They take to the air in plastic bags floating between skyscrapers and they dissolve in water splashed from buckets that pours across pavements, seeking a return to the roots of the planet through the sewers.

Every impression is a stone Buddha: one immutable truth after another: resolute, irrefutable, eternal.

Take the time today: celebrate this life. Celebrate every moment; celebrate every breath; celebrate every contact, every person, every sight, every sound, every touch.

Go with God, and may God bless each and everyone of you today!

Friday, March 9, 2007

Bridges and lakes

In keeping with the landscape theme, this morning I got up early and took a sunrise walk around West Lake in Hangzhou.

The lake is world-famous for its genteel, magnificently landscaped shorelines, with picture-perfect gardens, elegant classical bridges, long winding causeways and grassy paths. Every step along the path reveals a new splendor: one can barely draw breath without encountering glory.

The landscape manages to achieve the highest Chinese ideal of the “Middle Kingdom:” it creates a superior vision of the space between earth and heaven, with the qualities of each blending harmoniously into one another. It is a poem, a song, a brush painting: time itself seems to be contained and distilled here. The paths are still fresh with the footsteps of emperors, concubines, scholars; the earth on the tombs of the courtesans and poets and warriors is newly turned, the flowers just planted.

This carefully manufactured landscape exemplifies the richness of “edge conditions” in a special and particularly human manner, exploiting the intersections between water and land, earth and sky, to create a sublime food of impressions. Japanese Zen Gardeners, stand aside: the Chinese got there first, and their skills are formidable indeed.

The allegorical idea of the “middle kingdom” is nothing less than the folk version of the same esoteric understanding we have reviewed many times together in this blog: the idea of man as a bridge between two levels.

Every human life is an elegant definition of the meeting place between earth and heaven. In fact, every manifestation of reality has that quality: As the dragon (vibration, male) meets the phoenix (matter, female), what we call classical reality emerges from the quantum state and explodes in all the glory of the known universe. Individual consciousnesses- including our own- stand in place like countless armies ready to receive and participate in the eternal, ever-mutable arising of this state.

It is up to us to see where, and when, we can participate in such a way as to enhance the value of this cosmic exchange,. By improving the quality of our relationship to ourselves, we cultivate the inner landscape, and it becomes more sensitive, more receptive to the outer world. Within the careful attention to the outer landscapes we read a lesson: attend, attend, attend to the flowers within, to the places where earth meets air and lake meets sunlight.

In the midst of these inner and outer dialogues, form and formlessness engage in an endless dance. Much is made, in religious work, of the superiority of formlessness, but I think there is also a strong argument for form. Personally, in the midst of my own search for the formless, I am ever-drawn to form: I’d rather give a formal bow than kiss and hug. I think it shows more respect.

Perhaps we could argue that Zen practice, Christianity, Hinduism, with their elaborate and care-ridden formal rituals, are no more than codpieces: offering their brightly colored outer shells as a coarse substitute for that ultimately subtle, real, and intimate sexual congress of the higher with the lower.

Still, the lower must meet the higher- it is only by the very existence itself of the lower that the higher can define its place- and the lower must express itself, if in no other way, through form. Where else but within form can this level find its own place, and show a real and appropriate respect for that glorious truth that lies above us?

Let us cultivate our landscapes with the same care and understanding the ancient Chinese aesthetes lavished on the West Lake shoreline-

Here, perhaps, we can help that living God we seek to find us.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Inner landscapes

At this juncture there is a general question afoot in my own work of what it means to receive my life; to inhabit my life. The question has been percolating for more than five years now.

Life: for a man, an inner landscape drawn by the lines of time, and colored with the shades of his experiences.

How to inhabit it?

There is a deep energy that flows within the body that can provide a different kind of sensation of life. Dogen’s sutra on mountains and water speaks about this energy in what one might call “global terms.” Let us, for a moment, consider this from an esoteric point of view: water and mountains as the inner landscape: as the lower, and higher, natural energies that intersect in man.

Water and mountains are, in Dogen’s treatise, to be understood as forces. Each one is a necessary feature of the inner landscape. Like real water and real mountains, our spiritual landscape is formed and shaped by these two great forces. Mountains push up and form landscapes; water flows through them and erodes them, forming new shapes. Together they form an edge condition: a crossroads. The higher meets the lower: man’s being inhabits the juncture.

Flowers bloom due to the interaction of mountains and water. Water wears down mountains, and makes soil; mountains catch winds, and make rain.

These forces can be connected to in a deep and satisfying manner that we don’t have a general experience of. Only prolonged meditation and effort in life can lead us to a deeper, physical understanding of how these two great forces meet within us.

If we attain an awakening of the presence of water and mountains in an inner sense, we begin to inhabit the landscape of our life differently.

You’ll note how traditional Chinese landscape painting emphasizes three major features: mountains, water, and scale. If you look at a Chinese landscape painting you’ll notice the people are almost always quite tiny: you have to search diligently to find them.

The act of inner discovery is the act of locating ourselves within this huge inner landscape of water and mountains. We seek a relationship with this deep energy of mountains and water within us, to see how they interact, and how together they can bring us closer to an experience of this moment we call living, which we are all too often apart from.

Does this deep energy answer our questions? No: it calls us to new ones.

It does not cure our disease; it intensifies it.

Only by inhabiting dis-ease: the lack of ease within life, the constant calling into question of where we are, what we are doing, can we deepen our practice. From this point of view, dis-ease is not disease: it is the one path towards health. The less comfortable we find ourselves, the more we have to gain. Every ache, every pain, every fear and doubt calls us anew to inhabit this life. As I experience each passing moment in this breathing, burning flesh, knowing more and more deeply- through pulse, through heartbeat, through sensation and through breath- that this thing called life is a finite proposition, that I am mortal- then I begin to understand that each moment is sacred and eternal and will never come again.

We ride our bodies through life like a roman general in a triumph: casting ourselves, in our imagination and our delusions, as the grand heroes of a great drama, a gay parade which is all about us.

When celebrating triumphs, Roman generals traditionally used to be accompanied by a man who stood in the chariot with them, whispering into their ear,

you are mortal,

so that they would not forget themselves and think they were Gods.

It would not be a bad thing, were we to have a similar companion. I believe that the only way I can truly begin to inhabit my life is by understanding my death. In each passing moment.

And that is an act born not of the soul, but the flesh itself.

Life needs to be understood moment by moment, mystery by mystery, as each impression is drawn inward, into this well of gravity we call Being.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007


Greetings to all, and my apologies for my somewhat extended absence. I am, you see, on a business trip in China. It is only just now -- 5 days into the trip -- that I have arrived in Shanghai and am at my hotel room early enough in the evening to feel up to posting something.

Today's picture is the great wall in winter: the former edge of the Chinese empire.

One of the things I have been observing on this trip is how dependent we are on the state of our organism for our spiritual work. The organism produces all the energy we need to work, and when it is being taxed by external circumstances, especially those that arise as a result of extreme time change, the parts of us that are available to receive the kind of material we need to feed our souls do not have as much at their disposal as they usually do.

There is a paradigm in spiritual practice that suggests we should become free of external circumstances; that is, that somehow we can attain a state where the external does not have anything to do with how we are. Personally I think this is impossible. We can only exist at the juncture between the internal and the external.

In biology, it is well understood that habitats that represent edge conditions usually present the richest habitats. That is to say, on the edge of the wood in the brush there are more birds and animals than deep in the woods or out in the meadow. The coral reef, which is the edge of a continental shelf, is rich in life. The lagoons behind it and the deep ocean on the other side are less biologically diverse. Again, where cold ocean currents meet warm water there is an explosion of life. So the greatest diversity, the most food, the most dynamic and compelling conditions for life, all occur on edges. They occur where two different states meet and form a relationship.

It is no different in spiritual work. What we call our being, or our consciousness, inhabits an edge, a point between two levels: the higher level from which God emanates his holy energies, and the lower level where they are manifest in material reality. These two levels need to be in relationship, and it is the job of our consciousness to try and be present within this habitat, this edge, to bring the two together. Exactly as in the biological world, a very rich food exists here in this edge habitat we call life.

Allowing for that digression, back to my observations about my state. Although I had plenty of energy for meditation and enough energy to have a reasonable connection during day-to-day circumstances, it has been difficult to muster enough energy to engage in the active kind of pondering that I also like to engage in during daily life. So I see that there is only just so much available to me to work with. As I adjust to the time over here, more becomes available, and I see that all of a sudden centers within me are able to form better connections than they were when I first got here. There is a gradual return to a state that has more potential, more sensation, more receptivity within the vessel.

We might liken it to building up an electric charge that can do more. We are, after all, electromagnetic machines and all of the work that we do in living this life has an electromagnetic character of one kind or another.

In my own opinion, it is a good thing for us to admit to ourselves that our inability to attend to spiritual practice is not always because of laziness or deficiency. In many cases, it is actually a matter of potential: that is to say, we are doing pretty much the best we can with the energy we have available to us. There is not an unlimited amount of energy, and we should not expect to launch rockets with a thimble full of lighter fluid. We have to accept our conditions gracefully and work with what we have.

There was a man named William Segal in the Gurdjieff work who, in his professional life, followed the adage, "make do with what you have." Hope I am not misquoting him here: in any event, you get the gist. We need to learn how to be within the way things are and do what can be done with them. Without criticizing ourselves, without feeling that we are crappy or unable, without a negative attitude that colors all of our effort.

It's a good thing to just live this life, to be within it, to see that it is good food for our soul, and to constantly make an effort to meet it with love and sensitivity- to the best of our ability. We do not have to be shining stars all the time;

it is better to light one candle than it is to curse the darkness.

I miss you all, whoever you are and wherever you are. You do me kindness to read my words and share my experiences. Hopefully they are food for you in your own search.

Godspeed to all of you and I hope that I will give you more postings before the trip is over.

With love, Lee.

Thursday, March 1, 2007


Okay, already you are probably wondering what molecules have to do with spiritual questions.

This morning I was eating breakfast at the dining room table on a rag placemat. A certain kind of energy entered me and I suddenly got very very interested indeed in the placemat. The texture of the mat, the weave, the lint that was adhering to it, all of this became quite fascinating.

I was almost immediately aware of the fact that there was some very fine substance present, both in me, and in the quality of the impression itself. That is to say, something unusual in my physical body was corresponding to the way that the impression was entering me. Something that is not always present but that enriches my perception immensely.

Perhaps it isn't a matter of course to study spiritual questions from a scientific perspective, but if East wants to meet West I believe that we have to do this in order to have a better understanding of both. So there I was studying the exact nature of this phenomenon and trying to understand it at the same time that I bathed in sheer appreciation.

About 45 minutes later I was driving to work. My commute takes about an hour, and during that time I often ponder questions that have come up for me either or the day before, or on that same day. This question of the impression that entered me came up again. All of a sudden I understood it in a very different kind of way.

In order to explain what that was, I am going to have to speak a little bit about biology and medicine.

The way that the immune system functions in the human body is that various molecules attached to the surfaces of immune system cells are configured in just such a manner that they can bond with foreign molecular matter, that is to say, fragments of molecules belonging to viruses and bacteria. When a specialized immune system cell with the right kind of molecules identifies an enemy, it reports back to the system and instructs it to manufacture an appropriate molecular response. Soon the immune system is flooded with molecules of just the right kind to meet the invader and engage it.

Our system of perception is probably very much like this, but we don't realize it. That is to say, as sensory perceptions arise and trigger chemical reactions in the nerve endings that receive them, there are potentially a wide range of chemical molecules that can interact with those. Some of the interactions are preferable to others in the sense that if the right kind of molecule meets an incoming impression, it might produce a feeling of joy, for example. If that particular molecule is not present and some less suitable molecule engages with the chemicals triggered by the incoming impression, the impression is less fine. This is why there are times when something that we see or hear or smell will move us in a special way and other times when almost exactly the same thing does almost nothing at all to us.

Another way of saying this is that indifference is produced by molecular deficiencies. If we can produce more and finer and more suitable molecules in our bodies to meet incoming impressions, the impressions feed us in a much deeper way.

So the whole work of meditation, the effort of sensation and perception with attention, is of trying to take in the right food in life actually an effort to get the right molecules into position so that when impressions come in we are better fed

It is possible to sense this quite precisely if we study incoming perceptions in more detail, especially in efforts to assess the physical, emotional, and intellectual effects they produce when we perceive those three factors acting in concert.

At a minimum we can begin to see how we truly are chemical factories, and how we need to begin to initiate some responsibility for our chemistry. Once again, it may sound peculiar to speak about this in the context of a spiritual search, but studying it could prove quite interesting for those who see the point.

Monday, February 26, 2007

the absolute

I have been engaged in some discussions with friends lately in which the subject of the absolute has come up.

When one looks this word up in the Oxford English dictionary, one finds that it has a bewildering number of definitions. Some of the definitions include the idea of something being perfect, completely sufficient unto itself. Another way of understanding the word is that it means "unconditional."

So we could take this word as meaning "perfect, sufficient unto itself, existing before conditions." Already to me this sounds like some kind of a distillation of Zen Buddhism. Yet this is the very same word that Gurdjieff used so frequently in describing what we generally call, in Christianity, God.

It's a big word, there's no doubt about it. And it turns out that we sell it short; we know little about the many different definitions it has, the many different ways that it manifests itself in usage; in fact, it turns out that we probably don't know what it means at all. Which is all too appropriate for a word that in some senses stands at the crossroads of all the world's major religions.

Not to mention the world of physics.

I'm going to use the word in a particular sense today in order to describe something we ought to be aware of, yet rarely are.

Over this past weekend, I found myself in a particular state of organic awareness that grows out of what one might call a cellular awareness of breathing. This state is not about recognizing the mechanics of breathing but rather the chemistry of breathing, that is, what is in the air that enters us.

Gurdjieff had a great deal to say about breath and air; he frequently explained that it contained the material needed for the growth of what he called the "kesdjan," or astral, body. I cannot say much about that, except to remark that some of the damndest strange things arise if one takes on the practice of intentional and conscious breathing of air.

Anyway, back to the point. This particular state I refer to above generally calls one to a greater awareness of one's mortality.

We are not aware of the fact that we are going to die. We claim we are, but the only place that this awareness resides is within our ordinary mind, which is a tiny fraction of our total being. This particular fraction specializes in theory, and has little connection to the emotional or physical parts which could, if they were working properly, also sense that we are mortal. Many of you who read the works of Gurdjieff are familiar with his idea that only a constant sense of our own mortality could call us to legitimate spiritual work. He said this, I believe, largely because any such "constant sense" would have to be born of all three centers- not just a resident of the part of us that construct theories about what we are, what we should be doing, and so on.

When the breath connects to the organism in a different way, the fact that one is in a piece of meat that is going to die becomes much more obvious. Dogen speaks a good deal of how we are "bags of skin and bones." I think he- and other Zen masters- were discussing the development of an awareness of this organic sense of mortality.

Now, you might say to yourself, "damn, that idea sounds depressing." But it is not depressing at all. If the sense of our mortality is developed through a connection between multiple centers in the correct manner, it is simply a fact that leaves little room for fear. I know whereof I speak, simply because when I was younger I always feared death greatly, and there are parts of me that still do. This understanding of death which I speak of is a different kind of understanding.

And why do I bring all of this up under the title of the absolute? Because, quite simply put, we are absolutely going to die. Every moment that passes by us is an absolute moment: it is as it is now, and it will never be again. Death is built in to time as intricately as cells are made up of molecules. One could say, without stretching the analogy much at all, that the entire universe is made up of an infinite number of deaths that proceed simultaneously everywhere. This may be a bit of insight as to why Gurdjieff called time "the merciless heropass."

In the same way that death is built into the universe, it is built into us. We have no real sense that every breath we take is a countdown to the one last breath of our lives, because we live in a theoretical part. We need to become much less theoretical in order to understand our mortality. Let me stress- the only way to do that is through a connection to inner centers with a more practical understanding.

The centers that regulate breathing -- the instinctive and moving centers -- are eminently practical. If we stop breathing, we die right away. Being in charge of that kind of activity conveys a real sense of urgency. The parts that do that work. They work because they have to work, and they know it.

We don't bother working because we don't know we have to work. And that is the problem in a nutshell.

If we can develop a connection to the centers that do know we have to work, maybe we can get somewhere. For as long as we dwell in theory, rather than in sensation and breathing, we are unlikely to believe we have to work in any organic sense.

Within the context of active, organic mortality, we can discover a sense of acceptance and we can immediately begin to understand our lives less conditionally. By that I mean we see ourselves less in the context of the conditions our theories impose upon us and more in the context of the facts regarding how absolute life is.

Every moment where we encounter the absolute nature of a moment in life, we value it better, we learn more, and our sense of humility can grow.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Dogen's water

Water plays a central role in man's life on Earth, and it also plays a central role in almost all of the world's great religions and religious practices. It is, in fact, a sacred substance in so many different ways that to begin a discussion on it is something like trying to describe a beach one grain of sand at a time.

In Christianity, water is understood to have the ability to become wine if a man reaches a certain level of understanding. The allegorical meaning of this, to me at any rate, is that the impressions of life, which flow into us like water, filling this vessel of our body, can begin to convey something much richer and more intoxicating into us. When the blessings of God fill us, this water of life becomes wine. The famous Sufi poet Rumi understood this well; too often he speaks of the presence of God as an intoxicant, a rapture, a magnificent experience of the ordinary which lies beyond the understanding we usually carry in us. So the idea of life as a rapture is not just an idea we find in Christ's love; the Muslims understand this the same way.

Let's take a look at what a Buddhist says about this sacred substance of water, which can be understood as the fundamental substance of our life.

Here is a quote from Dogen's sutra of mountains and water. I quote this text from the Shobogenzo, as translated by Gudo Nishijima and Chodo Cross, 1994.

"In general, ways of seeing mountains and water differ according to the type of being that sees them: there are beings which see what we call water as a string of pearls, but this does not mean that they see a string of pearls as water. They probably see as their water a form that we see as something else. We see their string of pearls as water. There are beings which see the water as wonderful flowers; but this does not mean that they use flowers as water. Demons see water as raging flames, and see it as pus and blood. Dragons and fish see it as a palace, and see it as a tower. Some see water as the seven treasures and the mani gem; some see it as trees and forests and fences and walls; some see it as the pure and liberated Dharma nature; some see it as the real human body; and some see it as the oneness of physical form and mental nature. Human beings see it as water, the causes and conditions of death and life. Thus what is seen does indeed differ according to the kind of being that sees. Now let us be wary of this. Is it that there are various ways of seeing one object? Or is it that we have mistakenly assumed the various images to be one object? At the crown of effort, we should make still further effort. If the above is so, then practice and experience in pursuit of the truth also may not be only of one kind or of two kinds; and the ultimate state also may be of thousands of kinds and myriad varieties."

Okay, that's a long a mouthful of words. Some words, however, are worth more than the other words, and Dogen's words happen to be superior in almost every case.

Here he is speaking of water on a number of different levels, and explaining to us that this allegorical term means different things according to the level of being one is on.

In particular, he is speaking of water as the energy, or prana, that saturates all of reality and gives rise to everything that is. Because Dogen almost always speaks of practice- not theory, no matter how much people want to read theory into his words- he is speaking here of various practices, inner practices which involve the experience and transmission of energies.

The string of pearls is an esoteric practice involving forming a specific kind of connection between centers. Seeing water as wonderful flowers has to do with the practice of opening your inner flowers, which I have spoken about before on this blog. The inner state of dragons and fish, who experience the majestic palaces and towers of inner silence, is yet another type of experience. In fact Dogen cites seven different kinds of experience here, each one of which probably relates to a center. All of them are worthy of diligent investigation.

He goes on to say "when we keep this point in mind, although there are many kinds of water, it seems that there is no original water, and no water of many kinds. At the same time, the various waters which accord with the kinds of beings that see water do not depend on mind, do not depend on body, do not arise from karma, are not self-reliant, and are not reliant upon others; they have the liberated state of reliance on water itself."

What is this water he speaks of? It is nothing other than what Christians call the energy of the holy spirit: that rapture which descends from above, penetrates all, and contains everything within it. It is "our Father."

No matter what tradition one comes from, no matter what practice one undertakes, no matter what form one believes in, when one comes to this point of work, there has to be agreement.

To me, the value of the Dogen text is that it places an understanding of the rapture of this sacred water firmly within the practice of weaving a connection between the inner centers.

Yes, perhaps I am obsessive: this is a subject which I will continue to return to over and over again. In order to understand this, we must abandon the analysis: we must instead turn all attention inwards and intentionally seek a very fine "something" that exists within the body and can be used for that purpose. There is a great deal of assistance available for taking in the right kind of food if we learn to use our attention in an inward manner. This is the kind of work that turns water into wine.

If we want to receive the presence of God we must prepare a place for it. That place has to be a vessel, and the vessel has to be able to hold a little water.

The potter who shapes this vessel does not work like an ordinary potter. He undertakes a very physical kind of work, using a different kind of mind. He does not use the mind that makes noise or the mind that resides in silence. He does not use the mind he knows. He uses the mind of the unknown-

shaping a vessel precisely designed to receive what is needed

-where it is needed.

And even then the work is not done, because every pot, in order to be durable,

must be fired.

Love to all of you today, now let's get back to shaping clay-