Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Aryadeva on Death

This is based on chapter one of the 400 stanzas of Aryadeva. The 400 stanzas looks like something very valuable to meditate on, but not necessarily easy.

The following haiku version is written instead from the point of view of the initiate being led to contemplate death and impermanence, and thus give up unwarranted fearlessness and certainty that things are permanent. There is therefore a trajectory to the argument. This contemplation and acceptance of Death is a powerful foundation, and reminiscent of the realization that must dawn on the Fool when stepping out into the abyss.

This was not easy to write, not easy to read, and not easy to contemplate on either which I am yet to fully do, so I might need to edit things and I'm open to suggestions of what might need editing.

The image is "The Angel of Death" (1880) by Evelyn Pickering de Morgan.

Living in Death’s realm,
Unaware and unafraid,
Sleeping like a star…

I don’t like to think
Of that far off place and time
When my life will end.

Should Death come too soon,
I would face him unperturbed,
Knowing I have lived.

If among my kin,
I alone should suffer Death,
That I would regret.

Though jealous of youth,
Sickness heals, age matures, just
Death I can’t outsmart.

That Death is common
Does not make its suffering less,
That I should bear it.

That Death’s uncertain,
Does not mean I should forget
Like cows for slaughter.

Let me live and love,
Each fibre of existence,
Each fleeting moment.

Should I fix my goal
On wealth or honour — then die,
All to what avail?

I shall not exchange
This short life for future gain,
Nor sin to guard it.

Like a passing stream,
This life, this thought, this haiku
Dies, each instant new.

Though I’m not attached
To this fragile earthen frame
May my line live on.

I grieve that one day
Son and daughter pass away,
I forget myself!

A child does not choose
To bear this heavy burden
Of my life and death.

Fathers love their sons
More than sons love their fathers,
Hard then to succeed.

Mother’s love for child
Is supreme, yet does it not
Desire obedience?

Were love absolute,
The suffering of parting
Would last forever.

What good love’s longing?
Knowing it but harms oneself,
Why languish in it?

What hypocrisy
To grieve in false sympathy
For affection's sake.

Meeting and parting,
Friendship and loss, joy and pain,
All come together.

Times we had seem long.
Eternity is longer.
I break attachment.

Time is not my friend.
I marvel at the moment
And life slips away.

Afraid, I delay,
But Death’s punishment is sure.
Time will force my hand.

Things gnaw at my mind
That first I do, yet what's done
Must be left behind.

The forest beckons.
Contemplating this life’s end,
I die to Death’s realm.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

To Heaven! (Two Love Letters by Yu Xuanji)

There is no other way
To heaven but through love
No faster way to hell
Than fearing love is lost.


Merry Christmas everyone!

In thoughts for those who are apart from loved ones over the holidays — 
a video offering: two love letters by the Tang dynasty poetess Yu Xuanji.

I'm really hoping this bout of melancholia doesn't make people sad,
but on the contrary grateful and happy...
But if it does dampen the Christmas party spirit,
 then that wasn't the intention and I'm very sorry!


Spring Love to Zian
The stone paths up the mountain are treacherous and steep.
I climb them without fear or strain, missing you so deep.
 Ice melts and in far streams I hear music from your lips.
 In snowy peaks I see the jade contours of your hips. 
Don't listen to gitana songs nor drink unripe wine, 
Give up idle company and playing chess all night. 
We shall hold firm in our union as the rock the pine, 
Two wings of the same bird, no-one else could give us flight.
Though sad I am to walk alone, this last winter day, 
When the moon is full, my love, we'll meet again I pray. 
Parted, what gift of mine could I offer up more true?
 Fallen tears in the spring light upon a poem... to you.

Yu Xuanji
a courtesan-poet-nun from 9th century China who died at 25 on charges 
(possibly trumped up) of beating a maid to death.

Gazing into Jiang-Ling Horizon Longing for Zian

Maple leaves, by thousands branching, ten thousand each tree,
Under yonder bridge, dusk falls, the last sails slowly leave.
Love! my heart is rushing like the flow of river Xi,
Day and night, it eastwards scrawls, longing you without reprieve.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

A Friend's Delight

This is a sonnet for children (and children-at-heart). :^)

The painting is "Child's Talk in April" (1914) by Emma Florence Harrison, originally an illustration for a poem by Christina Rossetti of the same name, which you can read here.

A Friend's Delight

Wake up!, rise up!, little starling,
The world is waiting for your song.
Do you know I love you darling,
So do not dream the whole day long.
Sun peers through your leafy shutters,
The sky, arms open, beckons flight.
Round and round, your old friend flutters,
The roses fragrant look so bright.
Won't you come out and play with me
On such a lovely day as this?
There's things to do and things to see,
So idle not in sleepy bliss.
My friend, you wake!, by heaven's might,
What joy to sing in shared delight!


Sunday, 4 December 2011

Knowing the Enemy (Pema Chödrön)

This is the eighth in the series of posts based on Pema Chödrön and accompanied by Chopin. It completes the first half of her book on living fearlessly. Previous posts in reverse order discussed equanimity, empathetic joy, practicing compassion, loving-kindness & compassion, learning to stay, three lords of materialism and bodhicitta.

We build further on the four immeasurable qualities of the kind heart: (1) loving-kindness (maitri), (2) compassion (karuna), (3) joy in the joy of others (mudita), and (4) equanimity (upekkha). I would like to challenge you to take this quiz before reading on. Please share your own answers in the comments.

1. What is the opposite of love, kindness and friendship? What resembles love, kindness and friendship, but is not love?

2. What is the opposite of compassion, warmth and support for one who is suffering? What resembles compassion, warmth and support for one suffering, but is not compassion?

3. What is the opposite of joy in the joy of others? What resembles joy, but is not joy?

4. What is the opposite of equanimity? What resembles equanimity, but is not equanimity?

The music is Chopin's Nocturne Op. 48 No. 1 recorded on piano rolls at the beginning of the twentieth century by the best of her generation, the American Fanny Bloomfield.

Later, I will leave you with Chopin's Waltz No. 2 Op. 64 played by the enchanting young Chinese-American pianist Yuja Wang of the current generation, but now it's over to Pema Chödrön:


The essence of bravery is being without self-deception. A warrior takes responsibility for the direction of her life. Our training encourages us to open and see any baggage we might be carrying. There is a traditional teaching that helps us in this process: the near and far enemies of the four limitless qualities.

1. The near enemy or misunderstanding of loving-kindness is attachment. There's a Tibetan word lhenchak that describes this well. Lhenchak points at how free-flowing love can get stuck. It is taught that the strongest lhenchak occurs in the following relationships: between parents and children, between lovers, and between spiritual teachers and their students. Lhenchak is characterised by clinging and self-involvement. Loving-kindness is different. It is not based on need, but a genuine appreciation and care for the well-being of another person and a respect for their value. Loving even a flower without lhenchak means we see it more clearly and feel more tenderness for its inherent perfection.

The far enemy or opposite of loving-kindness is hatred or aversion. Aversion isolates us from others. It strengthens the illusion that we are separate. However, in the tightness and heat of hatred is the soft spot of bodhicitta.

2. There are three near enemies of compassion: pity, overwhelm and idiot compassion. True compassion does not debilitate us with the emotion of sadness, but opens us up to the possibilities of what we can do.

Pity or professional warmth is easily mistaken for true compassion. When we identify ourselves as the helper, it means we see others as helpless. Instead of feeling the pain of others, we set ourselves apart. If we've ever been on the receiving end of pity, we know how it feels. Instead of warmth and support, all we feel is distance.

Overwhelm is a sense of helplessness. We feel that there is so much suffering — whatever we do is to no avail. We've become discouraged. There are two ways I've found effective in working with overwhelm. One is to train with a less challenging subject. Starting with something workable can be powerful magic. When we find the place where our heart stays engaged, the compassion begins to spread by itself. The second is to keep our attention on the other person. This takes more courage. Sometimes we should trust our sense of panic, but sometimes instead of turning inwards and closing down, we might let the storyline go and feel the energy of the pain in our body for a second. If this is not possible, we engender compassion for our current limitations.

The third near enemy of compassion is idiot compassion, when we try to avoid conflict and protect our good image, being kind when we should say a definite "no". In order not to break our vow of compassion, we have to learn when to stop aggression and draw the line, how to set boundaries and not allow our ideals to justify self-abasement.

The far enemy of compassion is cruelty. Brooker T. Washington was right when he said, "Let no man pull you so low as to make you hate him." Cruelty when rationalised or unacknowledged destroys us.

3. The near enemy of joyfulness is over-excitement. We can mistake riding high above the sorrows of the world for unconditional joy. Instead of connecting us with others, this separates us. Authentic joy is not a euphoric state. Rather, it is a state of appreciation that allows us to participate fully in our lives.

The far enemy of joy is envy. Some say it is also cynicism, despair or boredom. It is amazing to see how frequently we can react to others' success with resentment. The realisation is humbling. It is because these practices expose our hidden flaws that we are sometimes reluctant to do them. But that's why we must do them: it takes practice to stick with ourselves as we are, in our totality.

4. The near enemy of equanimity is detachment or indifference. Emotional upheaval is where the warrior learns compassion. It's where we learn to stop struggling with ourselves. It's only when we can dwell in these places that scare us that equanimity becomes unshakeable.

The far enemy of equanimity is prejudice. We get self-righteous about our beliefs and set ourselves solidly for or against. Taking sides, we become closed-minded. As we start training in opening our hearts, we get a close look at prejudice and indifference.
The enemies are good teachers. They show us we can accept ourselves and others complete with imperfections.


aspara121: Many thanks for your quality posts. I look forward to savoring each one. :)

satshanti: I thought there was no "enemy". I thought Pema and Tantra Buddhism taught the acceptance experiencing of everything to attain the Whole. Why not experience "attachment" as a "friend" coming to show where we are stuck? Why present the experience as a dualistic us-vs-them me-and-"enemy" dichotomy? That seems like a continuing of the dualistic problem rather than accepting accepting accepting experiencing experiencing experiencing - and watching the energy attachment relax dissipate fatigue let go - and then seeing false confused assumptions under the energies. Freedom acceptance presence mindfulness peace...

okei: From the section about the far enemy of equanimity: "Taking sides, we become closed-minded. As we start training in opening our hearts, we get a close look at prejudice and indifference..." There is no enemy. Sorry if I didn't stress that.

The "near enemy" she describes as the misunderstanding of... and the "far enemy" as the opposite of... they are our friends and teachers, so long as we recognize them for what they are. We are not trying to get rid of them as you say, but let their storylines go and rest with the energy. Well said, Peter.

satshanti: _()_

irishgall13: okei said: What is the opposite of love, kindness and friendship? What resembles love, kindness and friendship, but is not love? 
Fear. Fear of trusting your heart of love to another.
Fear of the vulnerability.

Just fear.

okei: Good point Marie!

I was looking through all the opposites, and the root of every single one is fear. Hatred, cruelty, envy/cynicism and prejudice all come from a feeling of a relationship to the outside world based on fear of the other...

The near enemies: attachment, pity, over-excitement and indifference could also be related to fear, but fear of oneself, of fulfilling our true nature.
The blog & comments originally appeared on Buddhist Travelers

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Boundless Equanimity (Pema Chödrön)

This is the seventh in our series of teachings from Pema Chödrön's "The Places that Scare You" accompanied by the music of Chopin. In previous posts, we discussed the first three of the four immeasurables: loving-kindness, compassion and empathetic joy, but it is the fourth – equanimity – that pushes the other three to the limits, and makes them limitless. In boundless equanimity, we have the transcendence of the extreme middle. 

Spinoza once wrote about how fame, fortune and pleasure were the pursuit of almost all men, but he chose to dare a different aim, renouncing these three. Little did he know of Buddhist teachings on equanimity which name exactly these, but also a fourth which, being a recluse, Spinoza had quite forgotten. Can you guess it? It was praise! Wanting these, and wanting to avoid their opposites, the eight worldly dharmas are fame & disgrace, gain & loss, pleasure & pain, praise & neglect. These eight traps, Atisha said, "make a person weak" and so his 48th lojong slogan reads: "Train without bias in all areas. It is crucial to always do this pervasively & whole-heartedly". We must take our practice into daily life!

Remember these eight and we begin to see how caught up we are in our selfish or selfless (projected) egos. The four pairs correspond to four types of ego: the idol, the idolator, the master and the slave, depending on whether desire's fulfilment is passive or active, and its orientation for self or for other. In the gap between self and other, between passive and active, the ego has no place to grasp. But in the meantime, it is forever reaching for one or other of these four corners, trying or wishing to satisfy our own or others' expectations. So long as we let it, the wheel of worldly dharmas keeps going round! 

I leave you with Chopin's Fantasie in F minor (Op. 49) played by the serene Arturo Michelangeli to accompany Chödrön's teaching.

By practicing maitri, compassion, and rejoicing, we are training in thinking bigger, in opening up as wholeheartedly as we can to ourselves, to our friends, and even to the people we dislike. We are cultivating the unbiased state of equanimity. Without this fourth boundless quality, the other three are limited by our habit of liking and disliking, accepting and rejecting.

Whenever someone asked a certain Zen master how he was, he would always answer, "I'm okay." Finally, one of his students said, "Roshi, how can you always be okay? Don't you ever have a bad day?" The Zen master answered, "Sure I do. On bad days, I'm okay. On good days, I'm also okay." This is equanimity. 

The traditional image of equanimity is a banquet to which everyone is invited. Training in equanimity is learning to open the door to all, welcoming all beings, inviting life to come visit. Of course, as certain guests arrive, we’ll feel fear and aversion. We allow ourselves to open the door just a crack if that’s all that we can presently do, and we allow ourselves to shut the door when necessary. Cultivating equanimity is a work in progress. We aspire to spend our lives training in the loving-kindness and courage that it takes to receive whatever appears – sickness, health, poverty, wealth, sorrow, and joy. We welcome and get to know them all.

That we hope to get what we want and fear losing what we have — this describes our habitual predicament. The Buddhist teachings identify eight variations on this tendency to hope and fear: pleasure and pain, praise and blame, gain and loss, fame and disgrace. As long as we're caught in one of these extremes, the potential for the other is always there. They just chase each other round. No lasting happiness comes from being caught in this cycle of attraction and aversion.

To cultivate equanimity, we practice catching ourselves when we feel attraction or aversion before it hardens into grasping or negativity. Whatever arises, no matter how bad it feels, can be used to extend our kinship to others who, just like us, get hooked by hope and fear. This is how we come to appreciate that everyone's in the same boat. If we can contact the vulnerability and rawness of resentment, rage or whatever we may experience, then a bigger perspective can emerge. Abiding with the energy, instead of acting it out or repressing it, we are training in equanimity, in thinking bigger than right and wrong. This is how all the four limitless qualities emerge from limited to limitless: we practice catching our mind hardening into fixed views and do our best to soften. Through softening, the barriers come down.

An on-the-spot equanimity practice is to walk down the street with the intention of staying as awake as possible to whomever we meet. This is training in being emotionally honest with ourselves. As we pass people we simply notice whether we open up or shut down. We notice if we feel attraction, aversion or indifference without adding anything extra like self-judgment. We can take the practice even further by using what comes up as the basis for empathy and understanding. Closed feelings become an opportunity to remember that others also get caught this way. Open states connect us very personally with the people we meet. Either way, we are stretching our hearts.

As with the other limitless qualities, equanimity may be practiced formally in seven stages, extending our aspiration in ever-widening circles. In culmination, through all time and space, "may all beings dwell in the great equanimity, free from passion, aggression, and prejudice". We can also do equanimity practice before beginning the loving-kindness or compassion practices, reflecting on the pain caused by grasping and aversion, by our fear of losing happiness, by feeling that certain people are not worthy of our compassion or love. Then we can wish for the strength and courage to feel unlimited maitri and unlimited compassion for all beings without exception, including those we dislike and fear. With this intention, we begin the seven-step practices.

The Maitri Sutra says, "With a boundless mind, one could cherish all living beings, radiating friendliness over the entire world, above, below, and all around without limit." Limitless equanimity is not an empty smoothing, rather it is a matter of being fully engaged to whatever comes up, to being fully alive. Training in equanimity requires that we leave behind some baggage: the comfort of rejecting whole parts of our experience, for example, and welcoming only what is pleasant. The courage to continue with this unfolding process comes from self-compassion and giving ourselves plenty of time. If we continue to practice in this way over the months and years, we will feel our hearts and minds grow bigger. When people ask me how long this will take, I say, "at least until you die".
Recognizing the limit of this life, 
we recognize the truth of dukkha.

Recognizing the passing of this single breath, 
we see behind to the eternal and limitless.

Witnessing self empty of desire which created it, 
we melt into anatta.

The blog originally appeared on Buddhist Travelers.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Idle Recollections (Du Mu)

I'd like to offer you my translation of a poem by the 9th century Tang dynasty poet Du Mu

The image is of modern-day Yuangzhou in China where the poem was set. Enjoy!

Idle Recollections

Lost, my spirit roamed carefree,
Rivers and lakes its scenery,
Gladdened by wine and girls from Chu
Whose slender waists my palms once knew.
Ten years, and then as if in sleep,
I wakened from this dream so deep
To find the only fame I'd won
Was in love's haunts for love undone.

Yangzhou bliss had brought no favour,
Just idle memories to savour.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Revolution Baby

A really fun song by Transvision Vamp from over 20 years ago...

Are the protestors just there to have fun?

No, they have a vision too...

But Zižek warns in this very insightful article that they are the beginning, not the end, so should not be trapped into specific demands, thus providing content for existing structures of domination because it is the structures themselves that are the target of the protest. The content can and will come later if they succeed.

If success means exposing a capitalist core to our democracy which is rotten, then they will only hasten its inevitable collapse. This will not be pretty. If success means reaffirming our core is democracy, then (unlike Zižek) I think capitalism could continue to thrive and serve us well, but this can only happen after a realization.

The protestors therefore pose an important question. Has capitalism taken over? If so, we need to breathe fresh life into democracy and reassess our priorities. It is not trying to change the system from within. It is trying to change the system itself, to refuse or even break it so that it may be built better from fresh foundations.

Emancipation of society is a bit like meditation if you think about it. If patience and resilience are the order of the day, I think fun plays an important role too.

Thanks to Jon:
Thanks to Hille:

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Touring the Future

What do you think the future will look like in 20 years. The link was the industrial/commercial vision from 1939 America. I found it very interesting. What now?

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Watching Mind-Spin (Sister Kovida)


Watching Mind-Spin

This is based on a dhamma talk by Sister Kovida.

The first thing I do when I meditate is just very simply turn my attention inwards, just that very simple act of turning attention inward. So, it’s not a type of meditation that begins with an agenda to change the experience of my mind, change what I’m feeling, stop my thoughts, and this is not a criticism of meditations that do that, but it’s something different. We have a sense of both having a feeling, or having a physical sensation, or having a busy mind, and with the attention turning inwards, we can begin to attend to the feeling at the same time as experiencing it, the content as well as the sense of the mind chewing over it. Quite often, whatever is going on in our bodies or in our minds, if we have an idea about meditation, it’s to quiet it down, make it peaceful and then we’re on track with our meditation. The kind of practice I’ve been trained in, and what I do, is instead turning attention to the mind just as it is. Normally, through our day, we’re stimulating our minds quite a lot. Everything we put into our minds, reading newspapers, doing our jobs, all the engagements and relationships, all of these contacts if you imagine your mind like a pool of water are like the pebbles being thrown into the water. We experience all sorts of things that send ripples through our minds, churn up our minds, or settle our minds, we’re moving through things which affect us in all sorts of ways. When I turn attention inwards, simply to notice my mind just as it is, I can begin to see how it’s affected, how it’s rippling.

The way I’m describing the mind might be a bit unfamiliar to some of you, describing it a bit like an instrument or an object. Whereas mostly, our minds feel very personal, they’re who we are, they’re what we are. What’s quite interesting about turning in to see the mind, for instance there might be a mind-state where I feel agitated, I feel worried, and I’m just in that dynamic of worry. I’m in that sense of agitation, wobble, fear, and the thoughts that go with it, and then just turning attention, and just letting, not trying to change or get rid of that feeling or sensation, it’s possible to simply feel the mind is this way, right now the mind is this way. Quite often when we experience mind states like worry or doubt or fear, we come in with another reaction, another pebble in the pond, to fix it, sort it, move with it, or move it away, and with this act of turning inwards, we are not adding a further ripple, it’s more like receiving, making space for what’s here. And that has a really interesting effect. One effect it has I find in my own mind is that it’s settling, it’s not trying to fix the worry, but just simply not reacting to it. The mind can actually start to relax. And I also then begin to recognize what’s driving me, what’s feeding the worry.

Wanting things to be a certain way and not being in control of conditions can feed worry. Just recognizing that is helpful. Recognizing the struggle to have things a certain way, and the uncertainty because I can’t guarantee that I’ll succeed, just recognizing that is a very effective policy without adding more turbulence. And it begins to become possible to see what’s spinning, where my mind’s got attached or invested. One way our minds, very characteristically, get invested is by having an attachment to how we want to be seen, an idea of ourselves, what we should succeed at, how we should avoid failure, how we think others see us. These are very sensitive areas. We are deeply conditioned around them, and they are very habitual. As I turn inwards and see these patterns, see these ways my mind has landed and invested in a particular situation, reacted to a particular situation, I begin to see behind that, the belief, the thought, the idea about myself and the situation, that are feeding those perceptions, that are feeding those feelings.

So it’s a way of seeing and then understanding the cause and effect process that arises in our mind. We’ll do a bit of meditation now. Even if you’ve done meditation before which many of you have, I would like to suggest you don’t do the meditation technique you would normally but make yourself comfortable and just shut your eyes. Keeping it very simple, spend a few moments just noticing what it’s like for you to be sitting here in this room, a very general overall sense of how you are, just taking a few moments to tune in to yourself. It helps to let your attentiveness be very relaxed, not trying to focus on anything in particular, just mindful of what you notice.

Our minds will be stirred up from whatever we’ve been doing through our day, and when we don’t add more in, it just naturally starts to settle in a very… natural peaceful way, not trying to have anything, not trying to get rid of anything. If the mind feels sleepy, just feel, it’s ok just to allow that… not running off with it but simply… noticing it…

simply noticing sitting here in this room…

feeling the sense of your physical body, your weight on the chair… your feet touching the ground… just the sense of sitting, and letting your awareness be relaxed and open.

not trying to have anything, not trying to get rid of anything…

feeling drawn to the sounds outside the room, just notice if your attention is drawn, what that feels like… whatever mind state you’re experiencing, just letting it be there, noticing it in a very open relaxed way, just letting it be as it is.

if you need to move, just be aware of the need to move, you can let yourself move, but connect with the movement

being with the body, being with the mind, just letting it be just as it is

reminding yourself to allow the mind, the mind state to be as it is, not trying to change it

ask yourself, can I let this be here? this feeling, this mood, can I let this be here?

letting your attention be very broad and relaxed

like if you are sitting on the banks of a lake

(background noise of a birthday party)

Happy Birthday dear …
Happy Birthday to you!


and just again coming back into connection with the sense of sitting, the sense of weight sitting in the chair, the sense of your feet touching the ground, the sense of your whole body, and in your own time open your eyes, experiencing the light… and have a little stretch.

Sometimes I use the metaphor for watching the mind as like observing an animal in its natural habitat, and if your job was to analyse and research it, you would try to minimize interfering with it, to see it just as it is. So how we watch, how we attend is very important, the attitude we have towards ourselves. Quite often if something’s unpleasant, the mind state’s unpleasant, it’s very natural to want to get rid of it, if we’re feeling dull it’s very natural to want to feel brighter, or if we’re feeling agitated, to want to feel peaceful. We’re actually conditioned very deeply to want pleasant and get away from unpleasant. But it’s often that very habit that creates a lot of turbulence in our mind, that habit to get away from what we don’t want and try to get what we want. Particularly if a mind-state I’m experiencing is quite hard to stay with, I’ll investigate my attention, how I’m being with it, is there hardness of rejection in how I’m being with this experience? Am I being with it in order to get rid of it? And just asking that question, “do I want to get rid of this?” acknowledges the truth of it, and makes more space for it being there. I’m not telling myself I should like it, I should be ok with it, be nice to it, I’m not telling myself to be peaceful, I’m just acknowledging the truth of what’s arising in the mind, so there’s an unpleasant mind state and there’s aversion, there’s two contractions. And there’s something a little bit magical about awareness — just noticing what’s happening seems to have a certain effect when we do that in a very true way, just noticing, just aware. You naturally wake up and become more connected and more open, with a brightness to your attention. And what’s interesting is that then it’s possible to make peace even though… there’s a birthday party happening next door! It’s a peace that is not conditional on our life experience being a certain way.

Quite often we try to get away from our mind, so it’s going almost against the grain to turn towards the mind. A lot of the time, our attention is out there, or we’re engaged in activities which are distracting, or we’re simply in the mood or mind-state we’re experiencing and running with them. And often we feel we don’t have a lot of choice about these thoughts. And that’s because most of them are the result of habits and ways of being which we’ve built up that just keep re-arising, not to judge or denigrate the mind because of that but just a natural quality of our mind that they’re conditionable. Our minds get trained in particular ways. And that’s why we can train awareness or attentiveness, another aspect of the mind.

This practice of turning attention inwards enables you to see these habitual tendencies, first see them and then understand what’s arising in association with them. I’ll give you a simple example. A long while ago when I was living at the monastery, I was doing walking meditation in a big field on a hill, quite a windy place. In walking meditation, you choose a path about thirty paces long and you stand at one end, then walk the length, turn round and walk back, and I was doing a similar practice to what we were doing right now, just noticing what’s arising in mind and body. So I determined to walk for an hour, and it was just as the light was turning. About twenty minutes into the meditation it got dark and started to rain, and it was getting cold. What seemed like it would be quite a nice pleasant thing, walking in the balmy evening, suddenly became unpleasant, cold. And so I was standing at the end of the path and I thought, “aww, maybe I’ll go in, maybe I’ll stop”. Just as I had that thought, I noticed my mind having that thought. So, I decided before I go in to spend a few moments just noticing that thought, instead of going automatically with the urge, to just stand there feeling the aversion, the sense of wanting, pulling away, I don’t want, I don’t have to be with it, I could go in, the mind starts rationalizing, might catch cold, got to be up early, the mind concurring with the feeling of wanting to get away. So I decided to stay with it a couple more lengths of the path, walking, just staying with the sense of feeling of the movement, and then I had this little fantasy of being back in my room having a hot drink. See how the mind goes with the urge to get away! Then I stopped, and this urge and the unpleasantness were even stronger by contrast with the pleasant idea. I thought, oh, this is really interesting, it’s really seeing cause and effect, the rain is still the same, but it felt a lot worse now that I’d imagined the positive experience of being back in my room. It’s not wrong to desire that. This practice is not about controlling or getting rid of desire, but understanding desire, any desire, positive or negative. Because desires aren’t ours. It’s simply a process of cause and effect, and the only way is to understand that process. As I noticed this, my mind started to be more at peace with what was happening at the present moment. As I noticed how my mind was pulled, I came back to the here and now of what was happening, just feeling the contact. There’s all this stuff arising and this sense of peace, not being pulled around by my mind going here and there. Then, I felt one raindrop touch my cheek and it was cold and it turned warm, and it was very pleasant and I felt very alive at that moment. There is a certain peace that I’ve only ever experienced by coming out of the reactive level to conditions, and I haven’t experienced it through having things the way I want them.

So I think I’ll stop there. If you have any questions or comments, I’d be very interested. Has what I’ve said made sense?

Monday, 10 October 2011

A Hundred Vistas to Self-Fulfilment

Like a tree whose falling leaves
Cultivate new birth,
Misty clouds soon clear,
Opening a hundred vistas
To self-fulfilment.
—okei, Tamara & Basho

*improved double-haiku-version*

Like a maple's leaves
That fall in festive hue and
Cultivate new birth

Misty clouds soon clear
Opening a hundred vistas
To self-fulfilment.


Monday, 26 September 2011

The Sage's Journey (Parmenides)

Only a few fragments remain of the poet-philosopher Parmenides from the 6th century B.C.. The following is a translation I did from the Greek of the first ten lines of fragment 1 of his poem that goes on to tell about how he met the goddess and what she taught him. One striking feature is that it is not the archetypal journey of the fool, but rather of the sage whose understanding paves the way for him to meet the goddess and learn more...

The audio was just a test-run, but it came out ok. Still, I ought to redo it one day.

The Sage's Journey

The racing mares that carry me
As far as ever my longing reached
Kept bearing me onwards after
They'd set me on the channelled way
Of divine presence through every stage
That ushers straight the learned sage.

Along this way I was carried,
For the nimble mares carried me there,
Pulling forth the hurtling chariot,
Maidens guiding it with great skill,
The axle screaming a piping note
As it whirled, driven at both ends
Blazing between two metalled wheels.

Thus they made haste to convey me,
Maidens born of the sun who had
Abandoned the abode of night

For the light, and hands at their heads
Thrust aside their covering hoods.

Painting: thanks to Catherine!

The poem continues in the comments...

Thursday, 15 September 2011

The Birth of Tragedy - Nietzsche

Genre: Literature & Fiction
Tagline:The Life Affirming Power of Art & Music

In this, his first book, written when he was 27, Nietzsche offers a dense but compelling speculation into the psychological origins of Greek tragedy, its untimely death after a few brilliant years, and the potential for its re-birth in the German context at the end of the 19th century. But as well as philosophical examination, this is also a celebration of music, dream and myth in art forms that defy conceptualization, transcending the plastic boundary of the individual and rational, and reflecting an intuitive feeling of will that strives not for satisfactory resolution, but rather to suffer the veils of appearances and so burn through them to the ineffable things-in-themselves. Tragedy then is the fusion of Apollonian impulses for individuation, beauty and restraint with Dionysian impulses for unity, intoxication and participation, these two, objective and subjective, represented in poetry by Homer and Antilochus respectively. In the witnessing of the tragic chorus, in whom the audience see themselves, these two impulses merge in imagination and music. But the Apollonian was neutralised over time by the scientific impulse for mastery that yearns for a continuous unveiling of the goddess of truth, a delighting in the outer forms of her appearance without getting to her heart, while the Dionysian was poisoned by Socratic optimism unfit to withstand the retribution of her violent sensuality. Nietzsche's dream then is a revival of that divine intercourse, and tragedy's re-birth.

Whether we agree or not with Nietzsche's thought, the call is to bring our understanding to life!

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Two Sonnets

The Dance of Artemis & Eros

From the cover of shade, eyes blinking,
We can best see out into the light.
So it is that in shadows sinking,
The poet and the Muse relish Night.
The green eyes of a black cat slinking
Pierce the darkness with ethereal might,
Startling a wild deer in sudden fright
That by the waters had been drinking.
Dawn’s caress awakes the circling kite
And the sweethearts who without thinking
Reached precariously in maiden flight
Enter now their new morn, arms linking.
Fragrant petals quiver with delight,
Sprinkling like stars in the wind tonight…

I Listen with the Ears of my Love

I listen with the ears of my love—
What tension, what promise, and what lack!
But why write these lines, my long-lost dove,

Unless I should hope to win you back?
Shiver, shiver, for what the heart craves

Its heels unrelenting will set free,
Fire in the belly, rain on the sea,
Ripples that turn into pounding waves.
Blessings trickle at our fingertips
Where the air is fresh and milky dew
Leaves its taste upon the pristine lips
Virtue, Honesty and Laughter knew.
Can you smell the salt earth on their tongues?
Breathe deep, my Love, and revive your lungs!


Thursday, 1 September 2011

Would You...?

This is a reading of a love sonnet "In the Eyes of Your Desire, Would You...?" accompanied by the piano piece "Danse Bohémienne" by Debussy. The video is of the Spanish sea crashing against the rocks to set the mood and the painting is Ekval's "Fisherman and The Siren".

The poem had its origins in a dream I had a few days ago
(edit: it only occurs to me now that this must have coincided with hurricane Irene in the U.S. which I was not really aware of). There were two seemingly opposing aspects to the dream: "erotic passion" and "the bailing out of water", and my intention over the following days was to try to work some alchemy out of these two base emotions which I realize afterwards to be simply love and fear. I would hope that the result is gender-neutral so the voice of the poem could be either male or female, depending on how we would like to imagine it, and not necessarily one or the other. Perhaps something is lost because of this wish to universalize, but I feel I must. No doubt there is room for further improvement... and exploration... and any ideas are most welcome!

In the Eyes of Your Desire, Would You...?

On siren rocks, worn down by cruel seas,
Would you nestle, head arched back, chest bare,
Tempting Fate your carnal lust to please?

Should your longing rise with body fair,
Would you turn away or would you seize
The moment and no seduction spare?

When passion's grip leaves you gasping air,
Would you try to run with shuddering knees
Or would you stay and your passion share?

If you sense your yearning is a tease,
Would you, with wet hands, brush back the hair,
Unveil each round breast and firmly squeeze?

Would you in Love's consummation dare
Stake your life, your all, for Beauty's care?


Friday, 5 August 2011

Symposium - Plato

Genre: Literature & Fiction
Author:Encomium to the Holy Spirit of Love
The reader might be tempted to dive into a book in search for truth just as a gold-miner hunts for treasure or a bee for nectar, waking up before dawn and setting to work at a furious pace for a few hours before hurrying away, arms filled with booty, tracks concealed, only to return again the following morn and so continue until either the work is finished or the rewards no longer exceed the effort, and then move on. Such a reader has a selective eye set on capturing beauty and possessing it: the image, story, or turn of phrase, the cherished seeds of truth that please the senses and out of which all good things might grow. Yet what we read might instruct us to dive into our own mind, as Ella Wheeler Wilcox urges us to do in the following beautiful poem.

Hidden Gems

We know not what lies in us, till we seek;
Men dive for pearls–they are not found on shore,
The hillsides most unpromising and bleak
Do sometimes hide the ore. 

Go, dive in the vast ocean of thy mind,
O man! far down below the noisy waves,
Down in the depths and silence thou mayst find
Rare pearls and coral caves. 

Sink thou a shaft into the mine of thought;
Be patient, like the seekers after gold;
Under the rocks and rubbish lieth what
May bring thee wealth untold. 

Reflected from the vastly Infinite,
However dulled by earth, each human mind 
Holds somewhere gems of beauty and of light
Which, seeking, thou shalt find.

Plato’s Symposium forces us to look within as to the nature of Love, for the dialogue is unsatisfactory in providing the answers we seek. There is a distinct absence of absolute truths, and all attempts at absolutism are soundly rejected within the context of the whole. So the reader must rather uncover its meaning like an archaeologist, each layer carefully peeled back, each stone examined and preserved, however worthless it may at first seem. The gems of truth find their value not in themselves, but within their greater context.

The Symposium tells of a banquet which was held at the house of Agathon, a writer of tragedy, in celebration of his first play, a resounding success, which has just been performed before thirty thousand Athenians. But instead of descending into drunken revelry as was usual for such occasions in honour of Dionysus, the participants decide instead to make speeches in honour of Love, or to use the more precise Greek term — Eros. The Symposium consists of seven speeches by: the aspiring young sophist Phaedrus, the old lawmaker Pausanias, the doctor Erixymachus, the comedian Aristophanes, the aforementioned tragedian Agathon, the philosopher Socrates and finally the gate-crashing ambitious rabble-rouser Alcibiades. We hear all this at a distance twice-removed from Apollodorus, who heard it in turn from Aristodemus who accompanied Socrates to the banquet and memorized the events of the evening. But there is even a further removal within as Socrates recalls the speech that he once heard from a wise woman of Manitea by the name of Diotima who taught him on the subject of love.

Why all this removal of the subject? By introducing Diotima, Socrates, who always likes to talk in dialectic, is able to criticize Agathon (and to a lesser extent Aristophanes) whilst standing in his shoes, thus empathizing with his wounded pride. There are also reversals. Agathon, the host, tells the slaves to “imagine that we are all your guests, myself included”. Meanwhile, Phaedrus, the youngest of the group is made “father of the speeches”, when Erixymachus suggests on his behalf that each make an encomium to the god of Love, citing Euripides’ Melanippe: “Not mine the tale”. But there are hints that Agathon and the rest are prepared for what is to come and this is no impromptu suggestion. For when Socrates makes his delayed entrance and is mocked by Agathon for having seen the light, praise which Socrates turns back on him in a sign that he’s back in good form, Agathon tells him not to exaggerate and forebodingly, “Dionysus will soon enough be judge to our claims to wisdom.” He is more prescient than he could have possibly realized, for once the speeches are finished, a living embodiment of Dionysus bursts through the door in the form of Alcibiades. Perhaps all the reversals and removals of subject and removals in time are for the purpose of escaping judgment and absolving responsibility.

Why the absolving of responsibility? Perhaps because if we are to be responsible to Dionysus, god of drunken festivities, and be judged by him, then we might find our concepts of things taking on opposite meanings. Perhaps, it is because each speaker is inspired by their own Muse, or by the god of Love himself, impersonal forces that possess them to say the things they do. When Erixymachus dismisses the flute-girl before the speeches begin, saying, “she can play for herself, or for the women if she prefers”, he pointedly ignores the possibility that a flute-player could simply not play. It is as if the flute-player could not exist without her function. Perhaps the same is true of man with respect to Eros. Does Eros absolve man of responsibility? Or can man be responsible for directing Eros? Let us keep these questions in mind.

In some ways, the first praise of Love does not come from the speeches, but in the offhand remarks of Apollodorus when he tells his friend how philosophy, that is love of knowledge, gives life a sense of direction, that the greatest pleasure is derived from discussing or even listening to it, and that whilst before he drifted aimlessly thinking that what he did was important, now he knows for a fact that it wasn’t. “Perhaps, you think I’m a failure, and believe me, I think what you think is true. But as for all of you businessmen, I don’t just think you are failures — I know it for a fact!” Apollodorus, like Socrates, has found that only love for philosophy, even to the point of mania, is what gives life meaning. So saying, he proceeds to recount what Aristodemus had recounted to him.

We have an image of Socrates out of his comfort zone to begin with, freshly bathed and wearing shoes, on his way to Agathon’s party, and rather putting his foot in it as he uses a saying from Homer to convince the uninvited Aristodemus to join him, unwittingly comparing the latter to the weak Menelaus. Thankfully for the reader, Aristodemus comes nonetheless, but curiously he never recounts his own speech in praise of Love at the Symposium. Whether overlooked, or omitting himself in embarrassment, he is our silent witness.

Socrates is an eager participant of the proposed speeches, declaring Eros to be the only subject of which he has any knowledge, an unusual boast for in Plato’s dialogues he normally claims to know nothing. Yet he also recognizes the difficulty he will face in speaking last when there might be nothing left to say.

And so the speeches begin! Phaedrus praises Love as the most ancient of the gods, alongside Chaos and Earth, thus implicitly a harmonizing force in the world, a theme which will be developed further by Erixymachus. Love’s power is to inspire man with fearless courage, to “breathe might” into the ordinary mortal and make one like a god. Love of honour and shame of disgrace elevate the lover to even die in the name of love, and be rewarded an after-life in the Isles of the Blest. The lasting image from his speech is that of the “army of lovers”. Love for Phaedrus is powerful and righteous. It binds lovers against foreign enemies outside the state and against disgrace within it. Phaedrus’ speech is essentially utilitarian. Love is good because it is useful to man, and the measure of its usefulness is its power.

When Aristodemus says that there followed several speeches which he could not recall later, we are inclined to think that they were philosophically uninteresting, perhaps variations of a traditional view of Love already expressed by Phaedrus. Socrates, in a later aside to Agathon, will hint at a problem with this view of Love. The feeling of shame and honorable courage which empowers it derive not from loving but from wanting to be loved, and moreover is dependent entirely on appearances, or imagined appearances. This is Love borne of childhood. The baby’s love is one of complete trust to be fed, cared for and protected, the child’s love rebels against these and is rather to be cherished, supported and guided. while the adolescent’s love rebels once more and is rather to be loved for what one loves oneself. The Arthurian knight inspired by the love of his princess to do great deeds is in fact inspired by his own concept of love, for his princess might not be much interested in his displays of bravery, but he must pretend she is if Love is to be useful to him. This Love could end up being quite narcissistic. The Beloved is merely a shadow, the appearance of what one would like to believe. A similar idea can be found in Oscar Wilde’s play “The Importance of Being Earnest”. Earnest is loved for who he is, Earnest. When it turns out that his name is not Earnest, then as the Beloved he is emptied of all identity. If Love is to be real, and not a mere love of shadows, then it is time to rebel again, and recognize a higher ideal of Love, not the asymmetric heroic egotistical love that gratifies the self and renounces the other, nor one that renounces the self and gratifies the other, both of which impose a forced passivity on the Beloved, but rather a Love of mutual ascension.

Pausanias, in true Socratic fashion, says that Love has not yet been properly defined. He proceeds to distinguish between honorable and lustful Love, corresponding to Heavenly Aphrodite and Common Aphrodite, and then attributes the worthiness of an action to the form of Love that inspired it, and the regulations and customs of society as designed purely to inhibit the Common form of Love and thus promote the Heavenly. So long as the lover is motivated by honorable Love, that is not by money or power, and the beloved is motivated by wisdom, or more generally virtue, such love is divinely blessed and even if lover or beloved were deceived in this relation, then they would suffer no blame so long as their own intentions were good. The lasting idea from his speech is of lovers being the greatest protection against the lawlessness of tyranny.

Pausanias is still utilitarian in his praise of Love, but his measure of usefulness is not by honour in appearances, but by virtue of intentions. To shun measuring utility by wealth, power or even honour and instead embrace virtue appears to be a “good” move. But it also seems to mask a subterfuge. For having started so seemingly well in putting forward a dual nature of Love, Pausanias goes on to implicitly define virtue from this same duality as dependent purely on the form of Love which inspired it, thus emptying out all virtue from actions in themselves into the intention and manner in which an action is carried out. Also, he does this in true sophistic fashion, firstly by putting forward his idea as if there were no reasonable alternative, and then secondly convincing us of it. The Socratic way would be to work towards what we believe to be true from what we all know, and then still to be open to exploring the viability of contrary beliefs. Disregarding the deceptiveness of the manner of this manoeuvre, let us satisfy ourselves with examining its outcome — it is a utility of intentions. One might object that this is meaningless, for how can one know the minds of men? But what it inevitably leads to is a belief in divine karma. Ironically, Pausanias, the expert in law, seems to advocate that the only justice is divine justice. The lovers inspired by Heavenly Aphrodite will be rewarded by the gods for their good intentions, while the vulgar kind of love will get no more than it deserves. The role of law is reduced to a secondary means of encouraging virtue, and because all intentions lack concreteness, the good speaker could manipulate such law to justify their own virtuousness. One suspects that this is exactly what Pausanias intends. His idea of Heavenly Love, regulated by law, demands of us a faith in divine karma.

Through the end of Pausanias’ speech, and the beginning of the next by Erixymachus, Aristophanes has been overwhelmed with a fit of hiccups, so he yields his turn, following the medical instructions of Erixymachus and speaks after the latter once they have subsided. Symbolically, his hiccups wordlessly critique these two speeches as representing sophistic air.

Erixymachus universalizes Pausanias’ argument. He extends the idea of harmonious and inharmonious Love to agriculture, music, the universe and even the gods themselves, and in so doing, in effect, dispenses of the gods as final arbiters. As a doctor, knowledgeable in medicine and the ways of nature, he prides himself in being able to distinguish between the two types of Love. His measure of utility is not honour or virtue, but vitality, health and pleasure, as opposed to death, disease and pain. Just as one must regulate the appetite by eating good food without over-indulging, so Erixymachus believes that Love in all its forms must be regulated. We have reached a culmination, from the Love that through shame regulates the lovers, to the Love that is regulated by the laws of the state, to the Love that I through my own knowledge must regulate.

Aristophanes’ hiccups have now been cured by a simple sneeze as Erixymachus had recommended as a last resort, and Aristophanes cutely suggests that the sneeze must have been just the right kind of Love that the hiccups required. Of course, we usually associate a sneeze with illness, so we are led to conclude that Erixymachus’ two kinds of Love are not absolutes but things in relation, and also to contemplate because Pausanias equates Love with virtue and Erixymachus with scientific knowledge, both of which have little bearing on our actual experience of Love. The thought arises that the first three speeches could be adapted to any subject whatsoever. Phaedrus says that X is good because it maximizes our potential. Pausanias cautions that X is sometimes good, sometimes bad, and that the good and bad kinds of X must be distinguished and regulated so as to promote the good and extinguish the bad. Finally, Erixymachus points to natural and universal principles which underlie a general science which we must master in order to know good forms of X from bad, for ignorance is the cause of all our suffering. These three approaches to X are increasingly generic, and they fail to provide the means by which we might attain the wisdom we need about X itself. Yet it could well be that once we truly know X, each approach is equally and essentially true.

Indeed, on the subject of Love, Ramon Llull writes the following in “The Art of Contemplation”:

Virtue, Truth and Glory met in the thoughts of Blanquerna, when he contemplated his Beloved. Blanquerna considered to which of these three he would give the greatest honour in his thoughts and will; but since he could conceive in them no difference whatsoever, he gave them equal honour in remembering, comprehending and desiring his Beloved. And he said: “I adore thee, O Virtue, that hast created me; I adore thee, O Truth, that shallt judge me; I adore thee, O Glory, wherein I hope to be glorified in Virtue and Truth, which will never cease to give glory without end.”
If we are to realize a higher insight into the first three speeches, then the Erixymachean ego that claims the possibility of mastering the Truth of Love must itself be overturned. Love is not an object of Knowledge, but a relation. The self that knows cannot be separated from the rest of the universe, but must be re-absorbed into the unitary whole in order to participate in that relation. So we are led to the necessity of self-knowledge. Instead of praising the ancient origins and useful consequences of Heavenly Love, we must ask, “What is the meaning and means of knowing Love for the Self?” This is the question that the first three speeches have been avoiding.

Aristophanes will tell a vivid tale of how men were once spherical like the Earth, Sun and Moon, but they rebelled against the gods and so were split in two. Love then is the seeking of our other half to regain original wholeness of Self. The gods are portrayed not as good, but as greedy and wilful, yet they must be obeyed out of fear that they will split us again. Love is then a movement towards that original unity, a movement against separation and specialization, and an act of man’s defiance. The tale is pessimistic, but comic. Ironically, Aristophanes, the comedian, wants very much to be taken seriously. By contrast the next speaker, Agathon, the tragedian, will be optimistic, but ask not to be taken seriously. He will bombastically equate Love with Good, and the gods as harmonious since Love came into being.

Socrates then, through the words of Diotima, will seem to bridge Aristophanes and Agathon, just as Plato in the Symposium bridges comedy and tragedy. Both Aristophanes and Agathon are partly right. The wholeness that Aristophanes would seek is to be found in Agathon’s divine Good, but Love itself is not good or beautiful, but (born of poverty and resourcefulness) is rather a bridge, a holy spirit between man and the divine, between good things and the everlasting Good. The trinity in Hesiod’s cosmogony of Chaos, Earth and Eros is being replaced by one much closer to the Christian tradition. There is only one thing needed to make the separation of this trinity complete, and that is that we are not gods ourselves — the Self is distinct from the Good. It is this final argument which Alcibiades will provide in his double-edged praise of Socrates.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

140 Characters: Double-Haikus

  • The tube is a train
    Packed with people like smarties
    Wrapped in bright paper

    The chairs are a show
    A symbol of politeness
    Just waiting to go

  • Like summer kisses,
    We melted in the star light
    Of our racing hearts

    On the sunbathed roof
    It seemed like a good idea
    Until the wasp came.

  • The first time they met
    So fresh was the morning dew
    So red the rosebush.

    In the beginning
    She had the same name as all
    But he renamed her.

  • I did not come here
    Just to skirt my fingertips
    Around your desire.

    Trees cloaked in moonlight
    Yawn in the April umbra
    Of my longing heart.

  • Life’s a question mark
    You are the dot in suspense
    And the answer’s Love

    O Breath ephemeral
    Brave nymph of Eternity
    What makes you mindful?