A Journal of Life Pursued

Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

“…not of the world of me.”

In Adventure, Philosophy, Religion on November 10, 2015 at 6:11 pm

I had coffee with a friend last week, a novelist. I’d just read a draft of a new book he is working on. It’s a historical novel, set in the middle east in the fourth century. It deals with, among other things, the rise of the early Christian church. Although my friend was not aware of it, I know a thing or two about that place and time. I liked the book and was expressing my enthusiasm.

“You know,” I said, “the major world religions, those that were founded, came out of either the hot desert or the frozen mountains.” He looked at me intently. “And we know,” I opined, “that the desert breeds madness, and the mountains, isolation.” He said he’d never thought of it that way. But I had. “Nobody,” said Mohammed, “becomes a prophet who was not a shepherd first.”

There is that old adage that one is either a beach person or a mountain person. (I guess it’s like being either a dog or cat person.) In this context, perhaps one is either a desert believer or a mountain believer. I know my generalization is not entirely correct. The Buddha came out of the Gangetic plain, but his philosophy got the most lasting purchase at altitude. There’s no such thing as beach believers as far as I can tell, other than golden surfers, but that is a different strain of worship.

If pushed, I’d have to declare myself a mountain believer. That will come as no surprise. That is not to say, however, that I discount desert madness as a practice in insight. Not that one would want a steady diet of it–it didn’t turn out so well for John, the Baptist. It is no surprise that William James’s great work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, is subtitled, A Study in Human Nature. Give me the mountains and what comes out of them, that is my nature. This is not to say that the desert doesn’t hold appeal. My first trip abroad as a young man found me eating with a family of Bedouins in the Sinai. If the desert was in the offing, I wanted to be on the move like those people.

Three years ago while hiking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal I came across a holy man living in a cave, attended to by his sister. I paid homage and received a blessing after making a small donation. His cave was filled with iconography and statues. Outside the wind roared; prayer flags flapped. I showed a picture to a friend. “That’s not what I expected,” he said. I think he was expecting something more like a cartoon in the New Yorker.

The isolation of the mountain believer can be dangerous. The Dalai Lama claims that his nation fell to the Chinese because the remoteness of the Tibetan Plateau had made them a backward country, to use his words. Perhaps. It is more likely the Chinese would have invaded regardless of the degree of modernity Tibet had achieved. But dangers persist, regardless, national and human.

Belief without empirical evidence is fundamentally an effort in delusion. I suspect the mystic would not argue with this, the madman wandering the desert with the wild beasts, the recluse scraping by in the mountain enclave. I am envious of such commitment. Go up Cold Mountain and find the great Taoist sage, Li Po: “You asked me what is my reason for lodging in the grey hills: I smiled but made no reply for my thoughts are idling on their own; like the flowers of the peach tree, they had sauntered off to other climes, to other lands that are not of the world of me.” Flowers of the peach tree, indeed.

Corners of My Mind

In Religion, Writers, Writing on February 26, 2013 at 6:00 am

It was supposed to snow last night. I was to wake to half a foot of powder. Instead it rained all night. Mud Season is officially upon us here in Maine. Eliot was close. April might be cruel, but February sucks.

* * *

“A line is a single dot set in motion.” I don’t know who said this, but given to metaphor as I am, I think it is weighted with meaning to be extracted. It doesn’t require a lot of effort to suggest that life, a single dot, can either remain as a period on the page, or can be drawn across it, stretched to the margins. Experience the line, set the dot in motion.

* * *

“I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them.” That’s John Stuart Mill. I recall reading somewhere that as a young man trained as a classicist, Mill developed the ability to write Greek with his right hand while simultaneously writing Latin with his left–or perhaps other way around. No matter. Fitzgerald said the superior mind is one in which two opposing thoughts can be held at the same time. Mill obviously slam-dunks that observation. I said in a previous post that Peter Matthiessen is on record as expressing his life-long goal to not necessarily simplify his life, but to simplify his self. Mill and Matthiessen, two provocative ways of saying the same thing.

* * *

It is said that all the great religions are born in the desert. Deserts are thirsty places. There is madness in the sands and perhaps madness is a stop on the highway to the divine. I’d add that the mountains too, have a potency. If I were a religious man I’d seek my guru above tree-line. But I am a woodsman and only pagans fill their spirits among the pines and oaks. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” said my guru.

* * *

I recently finished George Saunders’s The Tenth of December. Earlier in the year, the New York Time’s Magazine sported a front cover declaring, “George Saunders just wrote the best book you’ll read this year.”  There is no better PR a writer could wish for. I found Saunders on Facebook and “friended” him. I wrote, “I just finished The Tenth of December. It is like dancing through a field by moonlight only to realize at dawn that the field is mined.” He accepted my friend request and thanked me for the comment, calling it apt. I find it equally refreshing, remarkable, and revelatory that a writer of his stature has a Facebook presence. Have we turned a corner?

Here’s a short clip from Saunders’s recent visit with Charlie Rose:

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Thanks for reading. I don’t say often enough how much I appreciate your support.


Om mani padme hum

In Life, Religion, Travel, Wisdom on June 11, 2012 at 6:00 am

om mani padme hum (in Tibetan)

A friend from many years ago recently saw a current photograph of me and noticed my tattoo. It’s easy to notice, would be impossible to not notice, being large and wrapping my left forearm. She asked what it meant.

A few years ago I got a hankering for a tattoo. It was likely one of those mid-life things, a harmless urge, as mid-life urges go. I’d been traveling a good bit and thought a tattoo might make for a nice souvenir. I remember walking down an alley in Gibraltar to a tattoo parlor. As the alley grew darker and dirtier my courage faltered then faded. Another time, in South America, the mood again struck. Again, I grew hesitent. Carole asked, “Why would you get a tattoo in a place where you can’t drink the water?” A wisely framed question, indeed.

I got the tattoo at home, in Portland.

It was Tibet, in 2004, where I first heard the mantra, om mani padme hum. Subsequent trips to the region, including Bhutan, a return to Tibet, trips to China, India and Nepal, underscored that initial experience. The best travel should afford the traveler an element of the transformational. You finish a different person than the person who set out. (Therein lies the difference between traveler and tourist.) Such was my response to Tibet that I wanted to honor it, and in doing so, found my tattoo.

Om mani padme hum is held to be the summary of the forty thousand teachings of the Buddha. It defies a straight interpretation but most scholars agree that the “heart jewel of the lotus” is a strict interpretation of the middle syllables. It is, as noted, open to interpretation and most practitioners of the mantra are simply repeating the sounds.

Personally, when asked, I prefer a layman’s interpretation. Specifically, the correspondence of the six syllables to what Buddhists call the six perfections. They are, in corresponding order to the mantra syllables:

  • om ~ generousity
  • man ~ self-discipline
  • i ~ patience
  • pad ~ virtue
  • me ~ mindfulness
  • hum ~ wisdom

I’m not keen on soft ideas and squishy notions. I’m a man who needs a philosophy that works. I lean toward the pragmatic. Of these attributes, all I can say is that they are the heart jewels of our humanity. They are tools by which a better self is molded from hard clay. Not a day passes that life does not present me an opportunity to study the ink on my arm.


Post script: A reader asked if I could put up a photo of the tattoo. Here’s the image that sparked my friend’s question:


Woof, woof. Bark.

In Dogs, Philosophy, Religion, Thinkers on April 10, 2012 at 7:35 pm

I was at a book reading a few evenings ago. Two rows in front of me sat a woman and next to her, on its own seat, perched an ivory-colored terrier. The dog was well-behaved and I was enjoying her (his?) presence when it turned and looked at me through the slats of the ladder-back chair. Her eyes were like brilliant black marbles tucked in a fluff of silk. I stared into them, lost, and was suddenly and unexpectedlly overwhelmed with the thought of those eyes locked on her master, then closing forever on the stainless steel veterinarian’s table. I chased the thought away it was so immediately and consumingly dark and troubling. Why such a thought would occur to me is a mystery. I’m not dark that way; but animals have always held an incomprehensible sway over me.

It is possibly apocryphal but reported that upon finding a horse being abused on the streets of Turin, Nietzsche threw himself, sobbing, around the neck of the beast. The event so overwhelmed the fragile philosopher that he never recovered, never spoke another word, and plummeted into a psychosis from which he did not recover. One can profess a will to power but protecting an animal might be the greatest philosophy.

I’ve had dogs all my life. One dog lost to illness years ago prompted a friend’s comment, “That must be like losing a family member.” No, it was not like losing, it was losing a family member. The most violent mourning I’ve ever experienced was at the loss of my Maggie a year and a half ago. As I write this my little Lucy, a terrier mix, is asleep at the office door, putting herself between me and any intruder who might make the mistake of crossing her without my permission.

Any philosophy I might have must include the beasts.

Hubristic medieval philosophers held that animals had no soul because they had no self-consciousness. Perhaps in that fact alone we hold the  evidence of a superior soul-filled being. This seems provable in that animals will not burn witches at the stake nor slaughter whales.

It is maybe that I want to be more like a dog and less like a human being. I find in them evidence of how to live in a moment so completely as to exist in full vibrancy. Too, I recognize love in a dog more readily and without apprehension than I do in people. Surely, that is a teaching. A dog does not make professions of faith, does not pray, does not sin nor seek redemption. Those are human designs extraneous to an animal intent on spirited life. There is joy at a dog park that is not found in a church. That is where I go to pray.

Moleskine Notes, redux

In Nature, Photography, Religion, Travel on May 28, 2010 at 6:05 am

…lying in wait, my muse?

* * *

Robert Sapolsky describes a parasite that infects the brains of rats with no effect on their behavior except that they lose their instinctual aversion to the smell of cats and, instead, are drawn to them. Needless to say, the rats are quickly gobbled up: bad for the rat but great for the parasite, since it can only reproduce inside a cat host. The next generation hitches a ride out on the cat’s feces, which are ingested by rats and the cycle starts again.

 * * *

Himalayas, Tibet: coming out of the mountains, descending, brakes overheating. My driver stops and pulls over. He pours water over the front wheels, cooling the brakes. He gets back in and we continue. I think hard on this as we continue our descent.

* * *

“It is hard to judge a photograph that does not include a human or a moment.” Constantine Manos, Magnum workshop.

* * *

Zen does not ask, Where are you going? Rather, it asks, by what means are you going?

* * *

“Die knowing something. You are not here long.” ~ Walker Evans

“What I am, I am by myself.”

In Life, Music, Religion, Thinkers, Travel on April 1, 2010 at 9:28 pm

Do you ever ask yourself what is the best we have to offer? The “we” here is the species, homo sapiens. I will pass completely on the who or what to whom we offer (the verb implying such: O.E., ofrian, from L. offerre “to present, bestow, bring before”). Not bringing this before anybody/-thing but myself, and I am the project here. Back to subject: What is the best we have to offer? I’ve been asking myself this lately and, assuming there is an answer, wondering why I’m not intent, no, hell-bent, on knowing better what that might be exactly. If you spend half your life living, maybe the second half, gods willing, should be spent trying to understand at least one true thing.

I speak as a Westerner, Norther Hemisphere. I think Confucius and the Buddha rank among the best, but, try as I might, I cannot connect there with a sense of well-intentioned synchronicity, if that makes any sense. And to a grown up kid from Ft. Wayne, Indiana, it makes sense to me, even if it doesn’t to you. (I have studied their work some, the Buddha in particular, gone to Deer Park at Varanasi, where he spent forty-years teaching. But there is a sense, synaptic probably, that inhabits the young mind grown old(er) that cannot readily adapt to new neural pathways.) So, travel aside (I’ve also walked the Via Dolorosa. That works no better, really. And ultimately we settle for what works–that is the nature of pragmaticism.), what settles and feels right? What makes sense. But I digress.

I’m coming to some conclusions and they are rudimentary. But they are a start. Socrates. Montaigne. Nietzsche. Beethoven. Mahler. Certainly Bach. Don’t you seek resonance with what preceded you? The big stuff, in particular? I want to connect with someone who got it. And I don’t accept mysticism. I think these guys got it. And many others.

“What you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am by myself,” said Beethoven. “There are and will be a thousand princes; there is only one Beethoven.” What I am, I am by myself. That declaration gives me great consolation. But what is this thing, myself? I have failed the Greeks in their first and most important admonition, Know thyself. So, that said and done, plot a course and take coordinates. Set out and discover. If we indeed stand on the shoulders of those who proceeded, us, shoulders of the giants–should we choose to climb upon them–we must not take for granted the view. That for starters. The rest will follow.