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Saturday, February 23, 2013

Heaven's Net

My uncle was an acknowledged expert on what it took for a person to get into heaven; I listened to him many Sunday mornings preaching his sermons, his eyes alight and his hair ablaze in the glory of his god. Even as a child I knew his words were but foolery. He spoke them with such certainty that he had to be mistaken.
He no doubt looked at me as an expert at what it took not to get into heaven. He counseled me to walk in the certain light of his god. Instead I walk in the uncertain darkness of the mystery. He counseled me to take Jesus by the hand and forget all my troubles. I have known nothing but trouble all my days yet my heart is serene.
I loved my uncle as a man while he loved his god as his servant. My uncle’s god asked him to devote his life to teaching that which everyone already knows. The mystery asks nothing of me so I devote my life to not-teaching that which no one knows.
My uncle and I were together only a short while—less than fourteen years—before a horrid fire in his church took his life. At his funeral the priest said how angels were sent down by God to bring home the faithful folk like my uncle. I envisioned heaven’s net being cast down from on high gathering in his ardent spirit to be hauled before his god for his day of reckoning. For a long time after I prayed that day went well for my uncle.
I’m sure my mother loved her older brother as I loved mine yet I always sensed a splintered crack separating their love. When my uncle visited our home my mother returned to her little girl days eager to please him but she always seemed to be falling short. Today I recognize the same sickness in the love I felt for my older brothers.
A troubled person is drowned in water; I am drowned by my mouth. Water is always nearby yet those who know it not drown in its depths. Its nature makes it easy to play with but dangerous to approach. The mouth is loquacious and troublesome for words once uttered have scant repentance; people are easily ruined by them.
If people are taught lessons of virtue and uniformity by rules of ceremony their minds will dwell on what is good; if they are taught by laws and uniformity is enforced by punishment their minds will be thinking of how to escape. If I bind people to me by my good faith they do not turn away from me. If I show them courtesy their hearts are docile to me. I watch how others use restraints of punishment against people calling them laws. In this case people become bad and are isolated.
Words begin as threads but when spoken they become as rope binding the speaker. Therefore I do not take the lead in idle chatter. I never speak words which may be spoken but not embodied in deeds nor do I perform actions which may be done in deed but not expressed in words. In this fashion my words are carried into action without risk and my actions can be spoken of without risk.
I once met a brave and passionate man. We were traveling together on a passenger train going west to the sea. Over the course of the trip we talked of many things while watching the scenery flow past the windows. He must have come to feel comfortable in confiding his secret to me as he whispered how his wife had run off with another man; opening his coat he showed me a pistol he carried; he told me how he planned on killing them both or to die trying.
I once met a brave and calm man. We were traveling together in a truck while working as barkers in a carnival. Our talk served to pass the long hours driving down one Interstate highway after another. On the last day in each others’ company he whispered to me how his wife had run off with another man; he showed me his tears; he told me how he planned on letting them go. He said only God had the right to judge them.
I often wonder which of these two is good and which is evil? I suppose some things aren’t favored by heaven but no one knows why. Even the wise are not sure of this; so I practice disinterest and revel in not-doing.
Now I am as old as my uncle the priest on the day he perished. Unlike him I don’t talk much but of course I never did. Our natures differed in that. While he made a life of standing before his flock leading them to the nets of heaven I sit silently staring out of the backdoor screen at the hummingbirds flitting about and dancing bumble bees and lazy cats sleeping in the sunshine.
Because the highest virtue is found in disinterest I never yelp about God. When I think of heaven I think of the mystery. It doesn’t strive but it always overcomes all obstacles. It never speaks and yet it is always answered. The mystery asks for nothing yet it is supplied with all its needs. It seems to have no purpose yet its every aim is fulfilled.
It is said heaven’s net casts wide; though its meshes are coarse nothing slips through.
This is the way of heaven.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Body and Soul

When my uncle told me I would go to hell for my sins I knew he didn’t mean I would go there bodily. I knew he meant my ever-lasting soul would burn in that lake of fiery torment for all time. I wanted to tell him of the mystery but I had no words. I still don’t.
There was a time when I was the world, not a part of the world. I know this instinctively although there was also a time when the feeling was quite foreign to me. I rejected the one by embracing the many.
Now I embrace the one by rejecting the many.
I don’t remember being a baby. But over the years I have learned what it means to be a baby by watching my own children as they grew into the world. By learning to be a baby again and what it means to be a part of all this I see a mirror of me studying to be a part of it all.
There are those with whom I may learn in common but I find them unable to go along with me in principle. Perhaps we may go along together in principle but I find they are unable to become established with me on these. If we manage to become established in principle I find them unable to weigh occurring events along with me.
I was taught to look at the world objectively. I studied the world like it was something quite apart from me, like it might be nothing more than pictures in a book. I thought I could disappear from the face of the earth and look at it undistorted, like God looking down from heaven. What rubbish!
Growing up I was known as a big part of all the trouble in the world. My uncle warned me to stop doing the evil things I did. If I could have made him understand I might have told him the only way I knew to be part of the world was to be parcel to the misdeeds that were the foundations of everything. I knew such talk was blasphemous in his ears so I kept quiet and in continual trouble.
I would have told him the only way to find out about the world is to care for it, to win its love and respect. The only way to learn about the world is to believe in it and to have it believe in me. The only way to learn about the world is to immerse myself in it and to let it immerse itself in me. The only way to know the world is to suffer its pain. That makes all the difference.
A baby is one with the universe. Soon, though, a baby grows into two people. One is the world; one is the baby. One is the body; one is the soul. One is full of suffering; one is disinterested.
I am like two people: one who feels at home and the other who wants to leave. The first person doesn’t show itself to others. It will never be any count and knows it. The other person loves to show off. It revels in pride. The first person never speaks. The second person never stops speaking. The first person is the mystery. This second person I know.
I say I have a body and I have a soul. Why do I embrace the one and neglect the other? There is no telling them apart. By cleansing my soul of desire my body is without blemish. By discovering the face I wore before I was born I dream the original dream.
I hold loyalty and sincerity as first principles. Having no friends unequal to me I am unafraid to drop my faults. I dislike none; I covet nothing. Should someone refuse my words of admonition they shun that which is valuable in the manner of changing their conduct. When they are displeased with my gentle advice I can do nothing for them.
My uncle the priest worried about my soul. I wanted to tell him my soul was eternal and so it might be better to worry about this frail and mortal body. But I hadn’t the method to inform him of the mystery.
By keeping compassion in my heart I am without cunning. By understanding the shadows from which I came I see the root from which experience springs forth. By quieting my thoughts I open myself to all things. By considering the gloom behind my eyes I do nothing and yet achieve everything.
I take what I need and leave the rest. My load is light for I possess nothing. I let others take the credit so I can better lead without dominating. The wise are free from perplexities; the virtuous are free from anxieties; the bold are free from fear.
This is the way of the universe.

Saturday, February 9, 2013


The world is full of achievement. Most people spend their lives seeking to attain success, wealth, and fame. These are all great things to be sure but they are not the highest achievement.
Almost everyone lives their life alone though they are surrounded by the mass of humanity. Almost everyone has a secret they never share; they spend their life hoping no one guesses what it is. By living in pretense they deny themselves the truth of their achievement.
The truth is that all their wealth and success are built upon a foundation of folly and futility. It may comfort them to hold these things dear but when death comes a-calling they will be willing to pay any price to have just one more day of life, nay, another hour, even a minute more. All those high and mighty achievements pale beside that one little thing that sneaks in through the back door when no one is looking.
I never tell anyone that I know their secret. They think I don’t see how weak they are and how confused. I let them pretend they are big and strong; I let them imagine I am soft and feeble. If they think I am as mixed up as they are then they will leave me alone. If I smile just right they believe I am as unhappy as they are.
One summer many years ago while crossing from Tennessee into Arkansas over the wide Mississippi in a place which had no bridge I marveled at the expertise of the ferryman. I asked him if such a skill could be learned. It can, he replied. Good swimmers learn quickly but a diver who has never seen a boat manages it at once. I thought perhaps he had misunderstood my question as he hadn’t answered me directly so I asked him what he meant.
He said good swimmers since they forget the water and its dangers acquire the skill of sailing the boat quickly. As to those who are able to dive and having never seen a boat, they manage it at once. They look at the watery gulf as a hillside and the ups and downs of the boat as a ride in the country. Such happenings have occurred to them a multitude of times so they do not affect their minds. Wherever they go they feel at ease.
I’ve been told I was a troublemaker as a child. My parents would send me to church so that I might there find salvation but instead of turning left at the fork in the road and achieving my goal I would somehow end up turning right to spend my Sunday mornings smoking cigarettes I bought with the money I’d been given for the collection plate while playing pool with the other miscreants at the pool hall.
Of course word trickled back to my folks from my uncle the priest who missed my shining face sitting in the familiar pew. The following Sunday I would be driven by my scowling father and my mournful mother in the family automobile to the church steps with stern words of warning from my folks. But again, instead of turning left into the church I somehow got sidetracked into turning right invariably finding my way back to that smoky old pool room.
My uncle came to our house one dire Saturday. He sat me down to talk to me, words of doom and how disaster would follow me the rest of my days lest I repent. He always said I would go to hell for my sins. But I figured when I got there my sins would no longer matter. I wanted to explain that to him but I knew he would never listen. So instead of learning to speak I learned not-speaking.
I talk very little even when spoken to. I learned from my uncle that those who talk much know little. He always spoke of what he knew. Of what I know I cannot speak.
By taking the world of troubles on his shoulders my uncle could never rest easy. The great problems of humanity weighted him down with baggage he couldn’t seem to shed. By masking my knowledge I simplify my problems.
I once observed a contest of skill between several groups of pool players. In the first contest the prize was but a shiny ribbon worth very little. I noticed how the players were able to put forth all their skill. The second contest was for a large trophy with the winner’s name emblazoned upon it for all to see. I witnessed how the players shot timorously. The final contest was for a golden medal. I noted how the players shot as if they were blind.
So I shield my senses from bright objects of desire and temper the need to possess them. I am at one with the choking dust, with the swirling water, with the temptation of fire, with the high hard sky, and with the wind that speaks my name. This is called original union.
I am unconcerned with friends and with enemies. Though I walk alone I am surrounded with virtue. I am unconcerned with good and harm, with honor and disgrace. Though I am full of dishonor and hold my disgrace as a natural part of myself I am as innocent as a newly born baby.
This is called the highest achievement.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Executioner

I’ve worked many jobs never becoming proficient at any of them. In time the ax would always fall. While living in the north woods and unable to find any other work I hired on to cut trees and clear brush on hillsides in Canada.
I needed the job but I hadn’t reckoned on the sacrifice it demanded of me, of my family. I na├»vely believed I could leave my young wife safely behind while I made like Paul Bunyan and cut down tall trees in a land far from home.
I made a bit of money but when I got back home there was no one to share it with. While I was away the executioner had paid a visit claiming a prize too horrible for my mind to consider.
Our world is built on a foundation of mythology. In our superior times and our wondrous age we overlook that even the names we use to denote the passing of the days are remnants of the old gods who once ruled our desires and terrorized our nights; we forego the customs but we still perform the rituals.
The old gods demanded sacrifice. At first simple prayers were enough to pacify them if accompanied by a gift of grain or a spot of wine. In time those sacrifices became more complex with a whole class of priests sprouting up to act as official executioners, splitting open the chests of willing victims offering up to the gods the blood of still-beating hearts torn from the torso of the sacrificed.
The ritual of sacrifice became connected to the good resulting from it and on a par with natural law and moral behavior. In time the ritual of sacrifice came to mean religious merit so the performance of certain virtuous conduct would automatically lead to a better existence: to a secure life, wealth, and family. Ritual became the bonds which held a society together. When the priest came to be viewed as the executioner magic disappeared from the world.
When magic disappeared virtue and righteousness followed. By establishing their way as the only way, by becoming overpowering and overawing, the executioner pursued people even to their deaths. Yet life is what most people desire; death is what they dread. By shunning the execution I welcome the season of my death even as I relish this flavor of life.
Her ghost comes to me often even now, decades after her death. Our son stands with her. They are holding hands while standing in a green field dotted with summer flowers; he died a newborn but in my dreams he is a handsome man fully grown who in his looks takes more after his mother, although I see he has my eyes. I desire to linger there with them however I realize my place is here in the world; it gladdens my heart to know they wait.
Knowing their spirits watch over me I act respectfully even when I am deep in the mountains many miles and days away from other human beings. By being reverent and sincere I maintain harmony with the world. By offering my desires as a sacrifice I enrich the heaven of memories that flow at times unforeseen.
I had no money to buy a casket in which to bury them. Though I tried borrowing no one would loan me even so much as a dollar so I built a coffin myself out of scraps of lumber stacked in the attic of our garage. It was exacting work, the kind I had never before attempted; since I hated the doing it required all my skill. Each cut was an epiphany; as each nail sank into the uncaring lumber I felt a scream form deep within my soul. The salt from my eyes stained the wood. Though I tried to wipe away the tracks of my tears I am confident their marks yet remain.
As my young wife and our unborn son lay sleeping the slumber of death in that horrid plywood coffin I remember how I thought of my brother, of how he and his lover gave up their baby for adoption rather than marrying and raising a family together. They said how they weren’t ready to give up the life they had to raise a child. I wondered why some are blessed and yet turn away the proffered gift while others yearn for that same blessing and yet are denied.
Still, to offer oneself up for sacrifice is not to be taken lightly. When people identify with the son of heaven and not with heaven itself they fall back to the ways of the jungle whereby everyone approve of their own views and disapprove of the ways of others. Mutual disapproval arises resulting in the disorder of the world.
I thought of my uncle who being a priest had sacrificed any happiness he might have found in the warm arms of a woman and the shining eyes of a child. I questioned if the ache of my loss was equal to the wondrous feelings I experienced during the short time together with my family; upon reflection I knew I would have never forsaken the wonder of the love I felt for my wife and child even while knowing it would end as it did.
By returning to the mystery I witness once again the magic that creates the world. Though I will always carry the guilt by understanding the sacrifice as ritual I am absolved of my sins. By recognizing the executioner I leave him to his own devices as I hold close to the center. By using my death as a guide I forego the fear and revel in life.
In times past I understand the executioner dressed in a black cloak in reference to thoughts dark and unseen; he was shunned by others except during the ritual. Over the years customs have changed but the executioner is still avoided six days a week; instead of dressing all in black he now wears a white collar; the only time people come to see him is on the day of the Lord when fear drives them to his house of sinners and the cross holding a god of unrepentant pain.
However fine the viands may be if a person does not partake of them they will never know the taste; however perfect the lesson may be if a person does not learn it they will never know its goodness. When I learn I come to understand the paucity of my knowing; when I teach I realize the difficulty in learning. After I know my deficiencies I am able to examine myself; after I know the difficulties I am able to better stimulate my efforts. Teaching is half of the learning.
Most teachers today speak of how rapidly their students are advancing paying little regard to what they acquire. Their lessons lack sincerity; neither do they put forth all their effort into teaching them. What they inculcate is contrary to what is right and their students are disappointed in what they find. They may seem to finish their work but how quickly they give up their lessons.
The executioner knows all too well that prohibition from evil after it has manifested meets with opposition; instruction given after the time for it has passed is done with toil and difficulty; the teaching of lessons indiscriminately and without suitability produces disorder. Understanding the nature of proper instruction makes for both a good teacher and an excellent executioner.
So it is I know that even today there is always an official executioner. If I try to take the place of the teacher it would be like trying to cut plywood like a master plumber. If I try building a coffin like a master plumber I will only hurt my hand.
I know someday death will reach out to tap me on my shoulder but I am untroubled. By being a reflection of the mystery I hold both life and death dear in my heart yet neither find anywhere to enter. The mystery comes before the first breath of life and it remains when death has stolen the last gasp away.
Who in the world does not fear death? Those who are not afraid to die do not fear death; in fact they welcome it. For those who do not fear death it is no use in threatening them with the executioner. But for those who fear death, if breaking the law means they will be executed, who will dare break the law?