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Sunday, March 31, 2013

Description

Video of the Author Reading Aloud



When I was a child cigarettes cost just thirty five cents a pack. I remember my uncle the priest standing in the church parking lot smoking one after another while saying goodbye to his parishioners on Sunday mornings. When he came to visit our home my mother didn’t like him smoking in the house so she refused to provide him with an ashtray. Rather than going out of doors to smoke he flicked his ashes into the palm of his hand and rubbed them into his pants.
Before he left our house my uncle would always reach a coarse hand into a deep pocket to pull out some change. Sorting through the coins he would hand me a quarter and dime holding it out to me in his ashy palm. As he did so he would wink while cautioning me not to take the money and buy cigarettes with it. I always felt like winking back at him as I promised not to; when I retrieved the coins they felt dusty and smelled faintly of tobacco.
Reaching into that leathery wrinkled palm always reminded me of the moveable feast called Ash Wednesday when my uncle would make a cross on everyone’s forehead out of the ashes of last year’s Palm Sunday leaves while admonishing them to turn away from sin. I thought how he might well have used cigarette ashes instead of burning the old palm leaves and how no one would know the difference.
When I grew older I wondered why my uncle was tempting me. If his goal was to keep me from buying cigarettes it seemed odd he would always give me the exact amount required to purchase them. I wondered if his intention wasn’t to provide me with a little spending money so much as it was a test of my resolve. Perhaps he thought temptation must be present before a person knew if they were strong enough to resist it. A description of temptation might not have been enough; he sought to make it real.
Other people have goals in their lives. They have purpose. They know where their life is heading. The experience of their lives is real and concrete. They hold an image of the perfect world in their hearts as they spend their days striving towards it. To these people the description of the world is of paramount importance. Nothing else matters. By ignoring the mystery they keep to the description; by succumbing to temptation their lives are filled with desire.
The strong attack the weak. Great countries look to conquer small countries to prove their greatness. They muster armies along with myriad weapons of destruction; when the small countries have been laid to waste the learned of the great countries write down the history of these exploits. As they grow up the students revel in their learning. Thus war is repeated generation after generation.
While he lived my uncle always seemed disappointed both in me and in my actions. He expected me to live a life without sin and yet I was a sinner. In his descriptions of heaven there was no room for a person of my caliber. He made a point of informing me how much I would have to change in order to become a man of god. I wanted to tell my uncle how I had no expectations of heaven or of god but I knew I would only disappoint him all the more.
I suspect my quiet cemented his suspicions.
Having no expectations I find I am never disappointed. By following the source I forego the description of experience; by stilling desire I leave temptation behind; by acting in the moment I let go of the promise of tomorrow and the sadness of yesterday’s regrets.
By keeping to the mystery I am without substance. People enjoy pleasant music and good food and fine paintings. They smoke their cigarettes and drink too much while telling others not to follow their example. They describe the way of the world; they caution me to be aware of sin; they do not walk the way of the mystery. These are all descriptions of experience. But the mystery is without flavor; it cannot be heard; looked for, it cannot be seen. Use it and it cannot be exhausted.
So I cultivate peace and happiness; I allow the mystery to rest in my heart.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Without

The Author Reading Aloud

After my young wife died during childbirth I was left without direction or purpose. We had been a family. We were building a home together, a life. Though her parents disapproved my wife had seen something in me no one else ever noticed before.
I’d been working at a job site some thousand miles away. Though I worried about her she allayed my concerns by assuring me it would be months before she gave birth. Since we needed the money I left her there in the care of her family.
When they told me what had happened I was consumed with guilt. At their funeral I was sure everyone was looking at me knowing it was my fault my wife and my son lay dead. In every spoken word I heard her name. In every waking moment I longed for the peace sleep would bring. In every dream I saw her. She was standing in a doorway waving goodbye. When I called out she turned away as she closed the door softly.
I drank to find solace in forgetfulness. For a time I did. But I would always sober up and the memories would come rushing back. So I drank more. Though I knew she would never approve I also knew she was gone. So I drank.
I found myself lost in a strange city on a chilly autumn night. A store window showed me my reflection. I looked disheveled, hungry, and alone. A black cat sitting on an orange pumpkin grinned at me. There were dusty bottles in the store window too with dirt and junk piled in the corners as if someone was going to fix it up but then grew tired and stopped.
Standing there staring at myself I smelled something bad; it was me. I hadn’t bathed in weeks. I felt ashamed of how I had deteriorated. Looking about me the street was empty. It pleased me to be alone in such misery.
I walked on. I came to an old church with a rusty padlock on the door. A hand-written sign taped to the door said closed. It must have been closed a long time; the sign looked faded and weather-beaten. I recalled my uncle’s church as being bigger but I was young then and the whole world seemed bigger.
I walked around back to the alleyway to test the back door. It too was padlocked but a window up high was broken out. By turning a rusty metal garbage can upside down I was able to stand on it and gain entry.
The old church was darkened; a nearby streetlamp threw enough light in the window that as my eyes adjusted I could make out overturned and broken pews with trash—empty wine bottles, discarded food containers, old clothing—covering the floor. I kicked aside the garbage to turn an unbroken pew right side up as I lay out my bedroll on it. I fell into a troubled sleep.
I dreamed it was springtime and I was a boy again suffering under one of my uncle’s rages. As the crack of his words dissipated he looked at me a long time, a sad kind of look; as if he knew whatever he said would be lost upon me, as if he were gauging whether or not to waste any more of his energy. And then he thundered that I would go to hell for my sins.
Waking I could still hear his words echoing through the abandoned church where I found myself. I wondered if hell was where I was. Listening to the rats scurrying under the pew where I lay it seemed as if it might be. I remembered how I wanted to tell my uncle that once I got to hell my sins would no longer matter. It dawned on me that if I was in hell then all my sins had been absolved.
The guilt I had carried with me for so long began to evaporate as I realized the world does not reside outside of me. The world is me. Looking up through the gaping fissures in the roof of that old church at the autumn stars wheeling through the heavens I realized they did not exist on their own apart from me. Though that night of my grieving seemed never-ending I realized when the dark is long it is because I make it so.
When those who are loved pass away they are bitterly lamented. Mourning taken to its absolute depths should stop there, however. The living glory in life, not in death; the virtuous take their mourning to the extreme and then let it go in order to go on living.
The good, the clean, and the careful people of the world are thieves of virtue. Having never suffered great loss they have yet to achieve their desires so they are full of anxiety. Once their desires are achieved they are full of anxiety that they should lose them. When they are anxious they will lose the things of their desires there is little they will not do.
I left my wandering and my drunken ways. I cleaned myself up. I took a new wife and found a job someone of my nature could perform well. Together we grew a new family of laughing babies and happy times. I never forgot but I ceased to wallow in my memories; instead I learned to revel in the moment.
Now I am an old man; once again I find myself alone in the world, without family, with no purpose, and without any clear direction. Since I have the mystery to comfort me, however, I know my non-purpose and non-direction as signs of it and not of my misery.
Without leaving my mat I know the whole world. Without gazing at the sky I see the ways of heaven. The farther I travel the less I know. From a distance I appear stern. When approached I am mild-mannered. When listened to my words are firm and decided.
I see without looking. I listen without hearing. I know without learning. I work without doing.
This is the way of the mystery.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Interfering

The Author Reading Chapter 48 - Interfering



I always thought there must be a mystery in the world about which no one would tell me. The mystery wasn’t to be found in any book; I had read them all. The mystery wasn’t to be found in the universities; I had attended all the classes. The mystery wasn’t to be found on mountain tops; I had climbed them all.
I always thought people were interfering with me so that I would stop seeking for the mystery of the world that no one wanted me to know about. I imagined them outside in the dark hiding in weeds watching me through lighted windows ready to pounce upon me should I come too close to my goals. Though I pulled down the shades and stayed up all night lest they break into my abode during my sleep to steal my dreams I never saw anyone at all.
After a while I began wondering if I was wrong about the mystery in the world. I reasoned that if such a mystery existed everyone would know of it. Libraries would be filled with the knowledge. The mystery’s splendor would be written across the mountains and reflected by every ocean. Every scholar would be aware of it and teach it willingly.
I took a family and a job. In time life interfered until I forgot about any lingering trace of the mystery. Once in a great while I might hear a snatch of song that reminded me of something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on; once in a blue moon I might catch a glimpse out of the corner of my eye of a fleeting image that seemed both foreign and familiar at the same time; when I looked it was gone.
I immersed myself in the world of desire; I no longer had any time to dream of the mystery. I told myself I had imagined it all. I scolded myself for letting my sense of the mystery interfere with my life for as long as it did. I knew there was no one waiting outside my windows watching me; I knew there never was anything in the world like the mystery I had chased after so intensely that I exhausted myself. What a fool I had been.
Sometimes it seems as if I’ve done it all. I no longer have the strength of my youth. Everyone wanted to make me into what they thought I should be, not what I wanted to be. When I wouldn’t be what they desired they turned on me. They always had to have more. I gave them everything asking nothing in return; that is what I got.
Sometimes I wonder what it was I wanted. It must have been something.
In the days before I knew of the mystery I went to school eager to learn all I could from the great masters. In the pursuit of learning about the world, each day I obtained new knowledge and precious ideas.
When I heard of the mystery I quit school and scorned the masters. In the pursuit of the mystery, every day I dropped a little part of my knowledge and let go of each one of my precious ideas like dropping pearls one by one in the dust.
Though I know I will never attain great virtue, by gathering up a store of small virtues I may gradually pass and repass the boundary. Still, these branches of learning that are picked up in answering and replying, in advancing and receding, leave me lacking in essential wisdom. Even in mediocre work and study there is something worthwhile; but if I stay with these pursuits for too long a time there is a danger of them proving inapplicable. Therefore I do not practice this mode of behavior.
There are those who say not to associate with people who cannot be a blessing to me. I have heard it said these people will interfere with the path I walk, leading me down dark corridors. This is different from what I have learned. I honor the talented and the virtuous yet I bear with everyone. I praise the good and pity the incompetent. Since I have no great talents or virtues are there those who refuse to associate with me? What right do I have to pick and choose who is right and who is wrong?
For one word people are often taken for being wise; for one word people are often deemed to be foolish. Therefore I take much care in what I say. Without knowing the force of words it is impossible to know people.
Pursuing the mystery means less and less is said and done until non-action blossoms into being. When nothing is said and done, nothing is left unsaid and undone.
The world is ruled by allowing things to be as they are. The world isn’t what we think it is or proclaim it to be. It cannot be ruled by interfering.
That is the way of the mystery.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Wholeness

She was diagnosed in the spring of her fortieth year. Though she had been troubled with pain for years the doctors all pooh-pashed it, gave her some pills, and sent her on her way. When the spasms of hurt became too much for her to bear she collapsed at work.
The hospital called me on a Tuesday afternoon so I left my job to rush right over. By the time I arrived the emergency room physician had done some scans. The doctor discovered a mass in my wife’s pelvis. The physician referred us to an ontology specialist who said a biopsy was in order. Two days later the cancer was confirmed. It had metastasized by the time they caught it though. They advised us that her chances for survival were nil.
She insisted on aggressive therapy. I felt it was my wife’s call to make. The children were only in their early teens. She wanted to be there for them; she desired for our family to remain whole. I guess she hadn’t reckoned on the side effects of the treatment being worse than the disease. When she died six weeks later on a cold September night I had learned hard lessons about how to insert catheters and intravenous needles and other niceties that go hand in hand with late-stage cancer. As she withered away the children watched in helpless horror by her bedside.
Sometimes even now I awaken wondering why her part of the bed is empty. Is she fixing breakfast? As I come more fully awake of course I remember. I wonder if I should have advised her not to have the radiation and the chemotherapy that so sapped her strength turning her into a living skeleton. I know she would have died either way but she went through so much suffering for nothing.
We take what authority figures like doctors and nurses say as gospel. But they aren’t the ones who will suffer when the treatment ends up killing the patient more quickly than the disease it is meant to alleviate.
When I follow the dictates of society I am ensnared by it. I am constrained in my choices. The moral choices that I make are identical to the values of society. Everything in life is an ethical activity. When I do this instead of that I do so because it is better.
The children are grown now and on their own. My wife has been in her grave for many years. These days I often travel deep into the mountains far from society; I am free to follow the mystery. When I am all alone from my vantage point I see there is more than one moral structure called society; there are many.
All these moral structures are little empires onto themselves. Each of these moral codes is fighting one another for supremacy. They are not simply conflicting rules; there is a deep underlying clash between the old and the new, the good and the evil, the haves and the have-nots.
By following these moral codes people are forced to pick and choose which ones are of value. They choose the one and neglect the rest. Their lives are never complete; they are full of desire forever grasping for that which they do not possess. Rotten wood cannot be carved; a tower of dirt will not stand. While others may rival their wisdom no one can match their stupidity.
When I follow the mystery there is fullness. Though I have nothing I am complete and whole. Since I have no desire I practice non-action. I let go of that and do not choose this. I keep these four characteristics in mind: I am humble in my conduct; I am respectful in serving others; I am kind in dealing with people; I am just in leading others.
When I rise from sleep and stumble onto the dusty mountain path I see no east and west in the sky; it is whole and clear. When I climb high on a ridge and look down upon the world below I see no north and south; the earth is whole and firm. When I see my reflection in a clear mountain lake I see no separate body and soul; I am whole and strong.
Naming these things I see no up and down in the valley of experience; it is whole and full. The clarity of the morning sky allows me to see. The firmness of the humble earth allows me to walk. The strength of my spirit prevents it from being used up. The fullness of the valley of experience prevents it from being exhausted.
Learning virtue without proper cultivation, not thoroughly discussing that which was learned, not moving towards a righteousness that I have discovered, being unable to change that which is not good, these are things which occasion me concern.
So I see that being humble like the earth is the core of nobility. I see that the low valley is the foundation of all high knowledge. I see that too much success is never an advantage. I do not draw attention to myself by showing off my wealth and chattering of my hubris.
I consider myself worthless, orphaned, and widowed, and I am free and whole.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Beginning of Folly

I seem to remember when I was very small how my older sisters used to read me fairy tales from children’s books. They were scary stories full of wolves and bears and crocodiles and though the colorful characters all wore smiles on their faces those grins were always full of sharp and pointed teeth. Though I was frightened I couldn’t bring myself to turn away.
I learned to write my letters by tracing their geometric patterns with a finger on my thigh as my sisters read. After the reading was done and I was supposed to be sleeping I would crawl from bed to get my crayons and my coloring book to try my hand at tracing the letters for real. Though I tried again and again I remember how I could never seem to get them quite right.
I thought how the patterns of my creation should mirror the objects of my ideas. It surprised me when they did not. I thought if only I mastered those patterns then they would be true representations of the world. So I practiced all the time. But I never got them right. When I grew older I knew this as the beginning of folly.
Though we tell ourselves we are creatures of intellect and reason we live within a myth-bound world. Science has taught us that only the objective world has value. This is called the myth of independence.
One day I learned to sit quietly; the world began to slow down. The more I practiced the more the world slowed until in the stillness of my heart I came upon the memory of the mystery. How could I have forgotten?
One who remembers the mystery comes to see that objects begin with the idea of those objects; objects do not exist as independent things apart and forever separate from the observer of them. By neglecting the mystery the world is its own beginning.
When the mystery is forgotten, goodness arises. When goodness is forgotten, kindness arises. When kindness is forgotten, justice arrives. When justice is forgotten, ritual comes into being.
Ritual is the belief in these representations of experience, not in the mystery of the source. Ritual is the beginning of confusion. To know the future is to believe in the trappings of experience. This is known as the beginning of folly.
Fine words and an insinuating appearance are seldom connected with true virtue. I am neither proud of my wealth nor do I flatter others in my poverty. Though I find myself living a life of wealth I uphold the rules of propriety. Should I lose all my riches to become mired in poverty I hold onto my cheerfulness. This is known as sustaining the proper sequence.
When people are guided by laws they seek to avoid punishment but have no sense of shame. If people are led by virtue and learn to follow decorum they develop a sense of shame; they become good of their own accord without threat of retribution. For a person to sacrifice to a god that doesn’t feel right to them is known as flattery. To see what is right and not to do it is known as lack of courage.
These days I write the stories that others read. I call them my stories yet they are but mirrors of the mystery. If I tried to force them into being in the same way I used to work at copying those letters from the books my sisters read to me I would fail to get the stories right. Rather, these stories arise from nowhere; they are not my stories any more than is the world. They are not meant to impress the readers but to perhaps inspire them to lead a better life.
When I do a good turn I do not see the good that I do. When a fool tries to do a good turn they brag about it and so it is not good. By not-doing anything I leave nothing undone. A fool is always doing something and so much remains to be done.
It is needless to speak of things that are done; it is needless to remonstrate about things that have run their course; it is needless to blame things that are past. Why should I contemplate high offices filled with indulgent generosity, ceremonies performed without reverence, or mourning conducted without sorrow?
I dwell on what is real and not what is merely on the surface. I focus on the fruit and not on the flower. I accept one and reject the other.
The cautious seldom err.