Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Hound of Heaven


Whenever I see my spiritual adviser and make my confession, I always forget, almost instantaneously, the penance I have been assigned. So later when I get home I try to recreate what it may have been based on our conversation. It's usually a reflection of some sort, rather than the standard 5 Our Fathers and 5 Hail Marys. After meeting one night, I picked up from the rubble of my mind the essence of what he said to me that night, as if it were a piece of metal lying amidst a pile of cold embers:

What is the One Thing?

Lying in bed (okay, lying on my mat on the floor for the second night in a row) I tried to remember the penance that Fr. Vince had assigned that night. I couldn't remember specifically. But as I turned from side to side, scraps of words and apparitions floated through the mist of my fading consciousness, and I followed them like a trail of litter left by some inconsiderate person. Voices swirled and whispered around me as I was enveloped in the folds of the dark aqua sheet, kicking my feet together and exhaling a galaxy of little worlds, clear biodomes escaping to the surface, seeking to be pricked into existence by the sting of the cutting salt air.

Above me, as I search amidst the soiled wrappers and scraps of bound memories for the trail, my breath crosses over from this world to the next, pop-pop-pop (the excited fizzing of a birth and death), and in their last breath release what was said:

The Hound of Heaven

And that's when I remembered Francis Thompson's poem, a favorite of Fr. Vince's, which he told me to read, which I got up and did last night. The fact that Thompson was an lifelong opium addict made the poem that much more potent. I won't write about it...best to read it yourself:

The Hound of Heaven

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat -- and a voice beat
More instant than the Feet --
"All things betray thee, who betrayest Me."

I pleaded, outlaw-wise,
By many a hearted casement, curtained red,
Trellised with intertwining charities;
(For, though I knew His love Who followèd,
Yet was I sore adread
Lest, having Him, I must have naught beside.)
But, if one little casement parted wide,
The gust of his approach would clash it to :
Fear wist not to evade, as Love wist to pursue.
Across the margent of the world I fled,
And troubled the gold gateways of the stars,
Smiting for shelter on their clangèd bars ;
Fretted to dulcet jars
And silvern chatter the pale ports o' the moon.
I said to Dawn : Be sudden -- to Eve : Be soon ;
With thy young skiey blossoms heap me over
From this tremendous Lover--
Float thy vague veil about me, lest He see !
I tempted all His servitors, but to find
My own betrayal in their constancy,
In faith to Him their fickleness to me,
Their traitorous trueness, and their loyal deceit.
To all swift things for swiftness did I sue ;
Clung to the whistling mane of every wind.
But whether they swept, smoothly fleet,
The long savannahs of the blue ;
Or whether, Thunder-driven,
They clanged his chariot 'thwart a heaven,
Plashy with flying lightnings round the spurn o' their feet :--
Fear wist not to evade as Love wist to pursue.
Still with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
Came on the following Feet,
And a Voice above their beat--
"Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter Me."

I sought no more that after which I strayed,
In face of man or maid ;
But still within the little children's eyes
Seems something, something that replies,
They at least are for me, surely for me !
I turned me to them very wistfully ;
But just as their young eyes grew sudden fair
With dawning answers there,
Their angel plucked them from me by the hair.
"Come then, ye other children, Nature's -- share
With me" (said I) "your delicate fellowship ;
Let me greet you lip to lip,
Let me twine with you caresses,
Wantoning
With our Lady-Mother's vagrant tresses,
Banqueting
With her in her wind-walled palace,
Underneath her azured daïs,
Quaffing, as your taintless way is,
From a chalice
Lucent-weeping out of the dayspring."
So it was done :
I in their delicate fellowship was one --
Drew the bolt of Nature's secrecies.
I knew all the swift importings
On the wilful face of skies ;
I knew how the clouds arise
Spumèd of the wild sea-snortings ;
All that's born or dies
Rose and drooped with ; made them shapers
Of mine own moods, or wailful or divine ;
With them joyed and was bereaven.
I was heavy with the even,
When she lit her glimmering tapers
Round the day's dead sanctities.
I laughed in the morning's eyes.
I triumphed and I saddened with all weather,
Heaven and I wept together,
And its sweet tears were salt with mortal mine ;
Against the red throb of its sunset-heart
I laid my own to beat,
And share commingling heat ;
But not by that, by that, was eased my human smart.
In vain my tears were wet on Heaven's grey cheek.
For ah ! we know not what each other says,
These things and I ; in sound I speak--
Their sound is but their stir, they speak by silences.
Nature, poor stepdame, cannot slake my drouth ;
Let her, if she would owe me,
Drop yon blue bosom-veil of sky, and show me
The breasts o' her tenderness ;
Never did any milk of hers once bless
My thirsting mouth.
Nigh and nigh draws the chase,
With unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy ;
And past those noisèd Feet
A Voice comes yet more fleet --
"Lo ! naught contents thee, who content'st not Me."

Naked I wait thy Love's uplifted stroke !
My harness piece by piece Thou hast hewn from me,
And smitten me to my knee ;
I am defenceless utterly.
I slept, methinks, and woke,
And, slowly gazing, find me stripped in sleep.
In the rash lustihead of my young powers,
I shook the pillaring hours
And pulled my life upon me ; grimed with smears,
I stand amid the dust o' the mounded years --
My mangled youth lies dead beneath the heap.
My days have crackled and gone up in smoke,
Have puffed and burst as sun-starts on a stream.
Yea, faileth now even dream
The dreamer, and the lute the lutanist ;
Even the linked fantasies, in whose blossomy twist
I swung the earth a trinket at my wrist,
Are yielding ; cords of all too weak account
For earth with heavy griefs so overplussed.
Ah ! is Thy love indeed
A weed, albeit an amaranthine weed,
Suffering no flowers except its own to mount ?
Ah ! must --
Designer infinite !--
Ah ! must Thou char the wood ere Thou canst limn with it ?
My freshness spent its wavering shower i' the dust ;
And now my heart is as a broken fount,
Wherein tear-drippings stagnate, spilt down ever
From the dank thoughts that shiver
Upon the sighful branches of my mind.
Such is ; what is to be ?
The pulp so bitter, how shall taste the rind ?
I dimly guess what Time in mists confounds ;
Yet ever and anon a trumpet sounds
From the hid battlements of Eternity ;
Those shaken mists a space unsettle, then
Round the half-glimpsed turrets slowly wash again.
But not ere him who summoneth
I first have seen, enwound
With glooming robes purpureal, cypress-crowned ;
His name I know, and what his trumpet saith.
Whether man's heart or life it be which yields
Thee harvest, must Thy harvest-fields
Be dunged with rotten death ?

Now of that long pursuit
Comes on at hand the bruit ;
That Voice is round me like a bursting sea :
"And is thy earth so marred,
Shattered in shard on shard ?
Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest me !
"Strange, piteous, futile thing !
Wherefore should any set thee love apart ?
Seeing none but I makes much of naught" (He said),
"And human love needs human meriting :
How hast thou merited --
Of all man's clotted clay the dingiest clot ?
Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art !
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me ?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might'st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child's mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home :
Rise, clasp My hand, and come !"
Halts by me that footfall :
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly ?
"Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest !
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest me."

Quote for the Day:

“Christianity, to me, is like a hopeless love affair. It is infinitely dear and infinitely unattainable. I . . . look at it constantly with sick longing.”

--Malcolm Muggeridge, 1958


PostSecret for the Day:


Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A Place on the Floor

Last night I became 10 years old again: I played. Granted, it was in "adult" guise, and I was "playing" with myself (don't get the wrong idea), but it was still bonafide playing.

What does playing look like as an adult? It can look like a lot of things. For me, on many particular nights, it's smoking pot, maybe reading some of my favorite books, and listening to John Coltrane. It is a very simple pleasure and one that gives me the chance to forget everything for the day and just be absorbed for an hour or two. It is this respite from the distractions and responsibilities of the outside world that allow me to sit (or lay) for an hour and give a musician like John Coltrane my complete attention and appreciation...something his music is completely worthy of and, in fact, calls for.

But I must have been feeling the need for respite more than usual last night, because I ended up building a little fort in my living room where i could eat and listen to music and sleep close to the floor. It wasn't a fort proper with all the cushions and accutruments; just a bamboo mat spread out on the hardwood near the sectional, with a pillow and my white comforter laid on top. If I was a clinical psychologist trying to make sense of this, I would say that I have probably been missing the safety of the monastery (including the concrete and wood-slat mattresses) and am attempting to recreate that within the walls of my apartment.

Naturally this is a one-person game; it is far too eccentric for me to call Tim up and say, "hey, do you want to come over my house for a sleepover?" especially since our "sleepovers" as adults usually consist of getting drunk and crashing on one or the other's couch for the night. Still, I wonder what Abbot Ajhan Poh would think of my little sanctuary of candles and tea pots and pillows and jazz and books by Hunter S. Thompson and Thomas Merton and straw mats. I can see his stone-cold face in the candlelight as he emanates a word:

"In-tox-i-ca-tion mind"

and fades from sight, leaving me floating on a bamboo raft in the dark, the notes of a soprano sax swirling underneath like fish, looking for a final resting place.


FOUND piece of the Day:



Michelle's Spell:

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Need for Need

This morning I visited a client at her home in Manayunk. She was sick, and had a scratchy throat. We chatted a bit and watched The View on the tv. She is in the process of looking for work, so she has had some time on her hands.

I thought about those times in my past where I was just existing, when the world outside was too big to deal with. Going food shopping was an epic task; taking the bus somewhere was a trepidous adventure. When you "drop out" of life for a time, the world tends to forget you. Sometimes I want to be forgotten, but it's also my worst fear, aka Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf. Things have been low-fi overwhelming with work and school since I got back from Thailand. I also feel like I've dropped right back into the same seat I got up from when I left. I can't help feeling like I've learned nothing, and that nothing's changed.

As painful as those times of depression were, I still look back fondly on that time when I had dropped off the world's radar. Nothing was expected of me. Other people, people who loved me, were helping to carry the weight of my responsibilities. I could rest. Why do I always want to rest these days?

Recently I read that "a man's deepest fear is that he is not good enough or not competent enough." The feeling of failure is accute for a man and it is one that is not shared in the same way by women. The "good enough" and "competent enough" extend to all areas of life. In depression, the unshakable feeling of not being "good enough" attaches itself to the soul like a leach; being convinced that you are not "competent enough" to accomplish even the most basic daily tasks--grocery shopping, showering, etc.--is enough to undermine your feeling of worth as a human being, but especially your usefulness as a man. It translates, essentially, to feeling like a failure at life itself, and that can get pretty low. In that same article it was written:

Men are motivated when they feel needed.

Notice you don't have to be needed...it's enough to simply feel needed. The first step of my hundred mile journey out of depression started with, of all things, a little greenhouse from Home Depot. My friend Joe, who came up from DC to stay with me while I was sick, drove me to Home Depot so we could buy seeds. It was wintertime--I wanted to grow something. I wanted to be responsible for something. But watering a handful of seeds was the only task I felt capable--competent in--at the time. I cared for the seeds; they helped take me out of myself and into something else. By springtime they had gotten to be little sprouts, which my mom planted outside. When I returned for a visit that summer, they had bloomed into full grown tomato plants, and I had come back out of the valley.

Not being in a relationship, I have a lot of time to myself. I spend time with friends, but everyone has their own autonomous lives that we share with each other. There's work, though someone else could easily fill in for me. There's the guys I tutor at St. Vincent's--"they need me," I tell myself. And they do. But they also need someone to help them with math. If someone else comes along who can do that, then they don't need me anymore--I drop off the radar.
Maybe you can judge how old you're getting by when your shifting starts to shift from "I want someone to love me" to "I want someone to love." Loving is an exclusive job...in the context of a relationship, only one person can do it. Men can be bastards, but women also have no idea the extent to which men want to love, protect, and provide. Without the opportunity to do that, it's no wonder why a cold wind blows through the kitchen some nights.

Theological Responses

This is a response to a Christian friend inquiring about the Catholic faith. When you don't have the time to post...recycle!:


it's a shame something can get painted a certain way by people who have no idea how to hold the brush. you're right about the ignorance most Catholics have about their faith. keep in mind, though, that you are basing your beliefs and perceptions about Catholicism (with a capital 'C') on what you have seen in people who may have been 'name only' Catholics.

Catholics are unique among all the Christian denominations because, like Judaism, Catholicism is as much a culture as it is a religion. for this reason Catholics may have no problem referring to themselves as Catholics culturally (born and raised) but who not identify with the Church religiously in the same way a Jew might call himself a Jew and never go to Temple.

the guy who shouted at your dad about meat during lent was ignorant, esp. since it is only applicable to Catholics (i'm assuming your dad is not Catholic) and not people who do not live by those rituals (i don't fast during Ramadan do I. Why should I? I'm not a Muslim.)

The thing about rituals is they're not necessary...not as far as I'm concerned. But a lot of people like them because it preserves something from the past. This is usually a big point of departure between 'conservatives' and 'progressives'...conservatives want to preserve the past while progressives want to let it go and move forward with the changing times. When rituals get in the way of a relationship with God, then they should be abandoned. When they foster such a relationship, they should be preserved, if desired, for that purpose.

If you become a Catholic, ritual is a part of the package. I'm not big on it (as I was writing in my blog) but I put up with it, just as I'm sure there are things you don't understand but put up with in a marriage. I don't let it detract me from cultivating my "personal relationship with my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ," as the saying goes. I just accept it for what it is--part of the richness of the Christian tradition that can (and has been) taken too far, overemphasized, etc. to the point of idolatry and/or skewed focus.
To be honest, Marian devotion is probably as unclear to me as it is to you. Theologically, it is sound: because Mary said 'yes' (when she could have said no) to God when she was found to be pregnant--a decision the fate of the entire world rested on--we pay her a special reverence. The Catholic Church loves heirarchy, and in the heirarchy of "saints, angels and archangels," Mary is at the top. Mary is not a Goddess, not to be worshiped, but is acknowledged as someone who had an especially close relationship with Jesus, because he came from her. Because Catholics believe in the intercession of saints (eg, the Church Triumphant. The Church Militant refers to us here on earth, while the Church Penitent are those souls that can be prayed for in Purgatory (i get the feeling you'll ask me about that one at some point too), we can ask Mary to pray for us to God, because her prayers carry so much weight. It's hazy theology for a non-Catholic, and not having had a strong relationship with my mother, I can't say I have a very strong devotion to Mary. Not that I don't recognize her role or importance or revere her less. I can't say much more than that...what ever brings someone closer to God, I guess.

Like I said in my other email, Confession is not what most people think it is. You do not need to confess to a priest to be forgiven and go to Heaven because the priest is not the one who forgives you--Christ does. The Church has historically been exacting in its dissection and separation of sins, thanks in large part to Thomas Aquinas, who shaped a lot of the Church's theology from the 13th century on. When I was becoming Catholic that was how I was taught to approach Confession: mortal and venial sins, how many and how often, the anxiety of trying to remember all of them and if i didn't then i would go to hell. It's an awful way to be introduced to God's forgiveness, and has taken me years to get away from that way of thinking. I have a regular Confessor who is also my spiritual advisor. Confessing my sins and failings to him on a regular basis keeps me accountable to another human being and helps me to navigate through life with guidance and encouragement. And as the "agent" for forgiveness (think catalyst, the thing that gets a chemical process started but is not involved in it in any way), he offers the forgiveness of Christ. When I feel his hand on my head with the words of forgiveness, it is not a priest mediating between me and God...it is God himself speaking to me through the priest.I hardly view that as a negative thing, but it makes it that much more upsetting when I see it being performed with a list of sins and 5 Hail Marys.

One thing I do not agree with is your view that one needs to repent only once to be saved. I believe that one is "born again" in baptism, as Jesus says ("unless a man is born of water and spirit, he has no life in him.") Repent, and believe in the Gospel. Conversion is a lifelong process. To use the marriage analogy again, I think it's like placing the ring on your spouse's finger and saying "I will never hurt you, because I love you and I have faith in this union." Like that saying, "Love means never having to say you're sorry." It's an awful saying. Any married person will tell you that marriage is a cycle of sins against the other and against that vow which require forgiveness, and the only way real forgiveness from the other can occur is when real repentance is present. Of course I have faith my spouse will forgive me because they love me...the admission of fault in repentance is the acceptance of my actions and is our way of saying to our spouse, "This is all I have to offer to you. Please take it." God does not need our repentance...we do.



I have to run. Write back.



rob



PostSecret for the Day:



Sunday, November 25, 2007

West Returns East

If you've ever been to a Russian Orthodox liturgy, you know that there is a lot of ritual involved: the incense, the non-stop crossing, kissing icons, performing every action in symbolic threes. Many people who feel the Roman Mass has become impoverished since the liturgical reforms of Vatican II change to an Eastern Catholic rite, or join the Orthodox Church. These are people who love liturgy; I am not one of them.

But whenever I am home I go to church with my dad, a small Ukranian Catholic church in Warrington. The gold domes spiked with the signature three-bar crosses of the Eastern Church can be seen from 611 as you pass the Porsche dealership and the AAA store. Inside the church is the iconostasis which separates the congregation from the sanctuary. Icons of the Theotokos, the Mother of God, and stern-looking Christs adorn its walls. The priest's back is to the congregation and he alternates between Ukranian and English. If you've ever longed for the days of Vatican I (before the progressives sacked Rome with their "reforms"), this is it.

The church received a new priest after I had moved out. He was from Ukraine, and came with his wife and daughter. I saw the daughter at the summer festival while my dad was playing bartender and I was slinging holubtsis with the old ladies in the kitchen--no complaints there.

But when it comes to attending services there, I have lots of complaints (which I keep to myself). It mostly has to do with the fact that I am a "big picture" person, not a detail person--and an orthodox liturgy is chock-full of them. Maybe the Roman Mass is just as detail-laden, and I have just grown accustomed to it. But I also grew up going to church with my dad and getting the feeling that God was in the details--in the icons, the gold guilded crosses, the elaborate and perplexing rituals. I thought it was silly that the services were in Ukranian when only the old ladies understood it. Maybe the church was for them, but as for me, I wanted God.

I still live with this "religious aversion to religion" in a state of uneasy tension: I am attracted to the fundamentals of religion as a means to an end, but repelled by the attachment to religion and all its accoutrements that many people have. I don't even like to pray out loud.

But, as always, a lot of these feelings rise up from the muck of history. During the patristic period, when Christianity was just starting to shape itself, the Greek and Roman churches took two different approaches to their formal conception of Christ. The Greeks, with their long pagan history, glorified the body through statuary, a practice the early church saw as dangerous because it emphasized the flesh more than the spirit. The Greeks made prohibitions against statuary, the Romans did not, and that is why you see statues in Roman churches emphasizing the humanity of Jesus and icons in Byzantine churches stressing Christ's divine nature.

It's no accident that two of my favorite books are Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ. They celebrate humanity religiously--not the other way around. But to each his own.


PostSecret of the day:

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Storytime

It's fun to revisit the past sometimes. My dad was going through some of our old school things this evening and pulled out a story I wrote in 6th grade about a man stranded in Vietnam. My brother was surprised to read the dedication on the inside (and even laughed a little):


I dedicate this to all the brave soldiers

of the disastrous [sic] Vietnam War.


I would like to thank the makers of

"Born on the Forth [sic] of July"

for inspiring me.


In the "About the Author" section, I listed writing as "my number one hobbie [sic]" and said that one of my goals for the future was biking to Atlantic City with my dad ("that would be neat").


I've heard it said that we fully reincarnate aproximately every seven years. If that's the case then I'm reading the work of a person who lived two generations prior to the one I am living now. While his work bears my name, and his features resemble mine, we are not the same person, and we never were.

Moving Forward

Here's an interesting post about a new development in photovoltaics by a research team at Georgia Tech: 3-dimensional solar cells that are sixty times more efficient than their flat-panel counterparts. Go Tech!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Zen and the Art of Wood Cutting




As I end up doing most Thanksgiving weekends, I helped my dad in the yard. He was getting his firewood collection ready for the winter. He used to tell us when you were little: "You can never have enough of two things: money, and firewood." I thought it was kind of a bizarre maxim. When we were little, he used to have a mighty pile. Now, sixteen years later, he was left with the damp dregs of what would probably be the last cord burned. I'm sure he will make do.

The wood still needed to be split, though, and we alternated with the work. The trees had exploded in the backyard and the rainbow confetti lay everywhere on the grass like the remains of a ticker-tape parade. I thought about my journey to faith and to the Catholic Church: those trees were just saplings my dad had planted when we had moved to this new house. Now, whenever I come home to visit, I will notice how much bigger they are and how they have transformed the backyard into a lush, shady place in the summer and a picturesque space in the fall. Had they already been planted when I was a baby, I may just have assumed they were always there. But I remember the bristly, scorched brown grass in the summer before they were planted, trees with branches that you could count on one hand. It makes me appreciate them that much more when I am outside chopping wood in their midst.

These particular pieces were not the easiest to split. They were damp and knotty and tinged green inside. It was tricky business getting the wedge in far enough so that it would stay up long enough so that you could hit it. Of course, if you didn't hit the wedge flat on the head it would fall off or fly out and you had to set it up again. Always trying to find a shortcut, I did this for a number of rounds before I realized it would be worth focusing on getting one solid hit, rather than a bunch of half-assed knicks.

It reminded me of little league, the coach admonishing us: "Don't take your eyes off the ball." He made it sound pretty straightforward: as long as you keep your eye on the ball, there is no way you will not hit it. When you try it and end up hitting the thing it is this dumbstruck moment of enlightenment, like "holy shit. this stuff really works." That stuff being Zen, of course. Sometimes the little tykes are so mystified at this force they had momentarily aquired that they forget to run, and it's very cute, and makes for good home video footage.

I guess at its deepest level, Zen is the realization that there is no 'you' or 'me,' no 'this' or 'that,' no disassociation between one thing and another. The dualistic mind has been locked out of its house. It will find its way back in eventually, but in the meantime a moment of two of respite from the relentless chatter and activity is like an oasis in the desert. I experience this when I am hiking and run (rather than walk) down a rock-strewn mountain trail. You are moving too quickly to rely on your mind to tell you where to put your feet--you have to let go of that part of your mind and turn it over to instinct--natural and effortless flow of action. If you stop to think, you bite it.

So, as in Eugen Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery, chopping wood (as with everything else) is best done mindfully so as to 'hit the mark.' I tried to concentrate on the One Thing as I held the sledgehammer: Strike One. Strike Two. And then...crack! I felt like I had just parted the Red Sea. That was easy!

Strangely enough, riding my bike over to Lenape to play football this afternoon I witnessed a head-on collision, right in front of me. A man was driving one way through an intersection, a woman was driving the other way, and then BAM, both of their cars are crumpled like a couple of smashed Twinkies. The woman looked like she wasn't hurt. I biked over and asked the guy if he was alright. He looked angry and didn't say anything, so I rolled out. I wasn't going to tell him about my Zen experience that morning; though it did seem like a little mindfulness would have gone a long way there.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Older than God

I've heard the expression 'older than God' before; it was always used to express that something was old...really old. But in reading the fourth chapter of the Tao Te Ching tonight, the use of the term took on a whole new meaning.

It is hidden but always present.
I don't know who gave birth to it.
It is older than God.

It rings like a koan...something for the logical mind to play with. What is older than God? How was God born? These are not speculative questions. In fact, I jotted down some thoughts to stay balanced on this theological tightrope.

God is a label.
There is Something greater than God.
Nothing is greater than God.
What is greater than God is not God.
What is greater than God is.

Hm. Surprisingly, I don't feel the need to write more; it's all in the five lines above, cryptic as they might seem. Lao Tse had the right idea: sometimes it's best not to waste too much ink or energy writing about the Named Unnamed, given that its essential nature is that of unnameable integrity and thus outside the realm of sensory/rational consciousness we are confined to.
Attempting to solve the problem of "who" It is is like doing a police sketch: you're working based on verbal descriptions of what was seen. That person, in turn, is relaying what has already passed through her subjective filters, that which attaches itself to words and is communicated as such. An encounter with a perpetrator is not the perpetrator. A picture of a man is not the man.

Thus, what is greater than God, is.


Quote of the Day: "To label something is not to see it and seeing is the one thing a writer cannot afford to lose." --Michelle Brooks

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Just Say 'No'

Here's an interesting article I stumbled across this morning written by a hybrid hater. Always give the other side a chance to speak and listen to them...they may have some points worth considering (though in this case the lousy writing, lack of statistics, and conservative propaganda-tinged tone and reasoning undermines a good bit of credibility such an argument might have). I have the feeling that if the author was cast in a movie, it would have been for the part of Biff in Back to the Future.





Master of His Domain

If I was making a postcard to send to Postscript, I think it would read:



But it's also where I get caught up on what's what and who's who in Hollywood. Needless to say, I was surprised to see Lance Armstrong's name romantically linked with...An Olsen Twin. It wasn't any character fault of Lance's that I couldn't believe the greatest cyclist of the 21st century would be all about a 21 year old child sitcom star (though it was a wtf moment).

I was surprised because cycling had finally cracked into the sports-celebrity underworld (with the help of Lance's admittingly bizarre behavior) and claimed a seat at the bar next to greats like Muhammud Ali, David Beckham, Andrew Agassi, and fellow cyclist, the great Italian sprinter Mario Cipollini. As far as the general public is concerned, Lance Armstrong is the face of cycling in the U.S. And the face of cycling is...making out at a nightclub with "Michelle?" Yes, I think a 'wtf' would be an appropriate reaction.

All that nonsense aside, that status as the face of ______ seems like a peak of sorts. Being King of the Castle, your name is like a bubble that travels from the depths of the ocean floor to the surface of the water. You can see everyone below you in the fiefdom of _______ but there is no one above you to say the same. You are The Man.

So for someone who has fought tooth and nail to reach the summit of this one particular mountain and can be considered master of his domain, rising from the depths of obscurity into the glaring light of cameras and papparazzi, I'm curious just what a day in the life of Lance Armstrong is like. I'm sure it is much different than those early days training alone on borrowed equipment and driving yourself to races.

Professional sports are a career path for many athletes. You know you can't be master of your domain forever, because all your stock is in your body and its ability to outrun, outscore, or cross a finish line before your competitors and, as everyone really knows, deep down inside, bodies age, get sick, and eventually stop working altogether.

Master's of their Domain receive ample compensation for their dedication to achieving and maintaining their status as #1 Man of _______.

Blaise Pascal wagered that faith could be cultivated through action. It was called Pascal's Wager because Pascal wagered that while someone might not have a theistic faith, "playing the part" of one who does can lead someone towards stronger belief. In other words, when you can't make it...fake it. Assuming this theory holds true, it suggests that playing holy makes holy; environment and moral behavior matter. In the world of athletes, this translates to the constant repition, the drills, the practice, the strategy for success.

Having lived and forged an identity (or at least having been the victim of a society that cast one on you like a fisherman's net on the sea) in this fiefdom for half your life, it must be a hard transition to step down into a world where you're not the Man of anything. You have a swollen bank account and continuing endorsements from Wheaties and Nike. But what do you do? You're just another guy with too much time and money to know what to do with it. Since you've retired, there have been more world champions, more records set...your name is already starting to depreciate in the minds of the general populice like a Cadillac being driven of the lot.

So what do you do? Well, I guess you do what my friend Michael suggests after going through a breakup: "Go crazy"...in a 'wtf' kind of way. Sharing martinis and swapping spit with a 21 year old former child star--seems as good a thing to do as any when you once had the cycling world as your oyster and are now living off a pension that reminds you of what you were...and what you have become.

PostSecret for the Day:



Listening to: Sufjan Stevens

Monday, November 19, 2007

1957 Man

I was reading a great article in the October issue of GQ about a correspondent who attempts to recreate, in modern society and with the help of plaid suits, a manual typewriter, and a penchant for martinis at lunch, the man of the 20th century par excellence: 1957 Man (that's Peter Krause to the left, btw...doesn't he look great?). He plays the part like an actor but lives in this temporary journalistic immersion as if it were real. It is an entertaining read which I don't have time to write about now, what with 3 weeks worth of paperwork glaring up at me from my desk.

One line from the article really stuck with me, though: "1957 Man works." In context, the author is referring to the crisply partitioned roles in post-WWII American culture that allow for a man to be confident in his identity. 1957 Man works; working is what 1957 Man does. When 1957 Man comes to work, he does not surf the net, ordering birthday presents from amazon.com and discussing on the phone with Mrs. 1957 Man who will pick up the kids after school. He lives by the clock, and gives himself fully to the task at hand--because this is what 1957 Man does. He does not ask a lot of his wife: just cooking, cleaning, childrearing, and everything else non-work related;) 1957 Man sees it as a good system and a fair division of labor, because it allows him to do fully the one thing 1957 Man does well: work.

Although I don't have any delusions about living the present through a dead era (though I do have my occassional fantasies of flat-blade razors, fedoras, and all-natural fibers), I would really like to emulate 1957 Man's singular sense of commitment in the workplace and his ability to check his private life at the door (it is bad form for Mrs. 1957 Man to stop by the office unannounced or calling on the telephone). I don't know if this is a reclaimation of masculanity that has fallen by the wayside or just another historically constructed timepiece critical of a headward progression into the future, but one thing is for sure: 1957 Man was mindful of his work. He took it seriously to the point that it oftentimes (perhaps unfairly) trumped family and other commitments. But loyalty to the company, the ability to separate private from work life, and the deferrence of multi-tasking in favor of doing things, mindfully, one at a time, are traits which I think are worth emulating.

With that it might be a good time to get off Blogger and start digging in to the work at hand--with a cup of black coffee, of course.

U. S. and A.

Well I am finally home, and on familiar turf, donned in wool socks and flannels, padding around the house sorting through junk mail and playing with my bike toys. Going from 90+ degrees humidity to just-above-freezing New England autumn has given my immune system a few swift kicks to the ribs. Aside from being sick, it was a great weekend in Boston with friends, wine, and a bruiser of a game of tackle co-ed football--it could have been a J. Crew Fall cover, honestly. All we were missing was the dog.

I really am too tired to write much more than this tonight, but I'll be posting some additional reflections from the retreat this week. I think the key to continuing with this transition back into things, everything--back to work, to responsibilities, school, family, etc.-- is going to lie more than anything in the balance. Trying not to gorge myself on my thoughts like I was at a Bob's Big Boy. Also being confident that some things really have changed despite appearances and the continued dominance of habit. So its off to bed with unclenched fists, thoughts circling overhead like gnats on a sweating, tired piece of sirloin sighing in the heat of the summer sun.


Listening to: Blocparty

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Reflections from Suan Mokkh

The following are a series of reflections from the ten day Vipassanna meditation retreat held at the International Dharma Hermitage at Suan Mokkhabalarama Monastery, Chaiya, Surat Thani Province, Thailand, November 2007. If I had to convey the experience to someone in one sentence, I would say that it was like boot camp, fat camp, basketball camp, and summer camp all rolled into one and carrying with it the best--and worst--of all four.

Since reading and writing were not permitted during the retreat, and time lost its traditional meaning, sitting down in my hotel room now to write about the experience carries with it its own unique challenges. Fortunately I don't follow rules very well and was able to procure a single sheet of paper about half way through the retreat on which to jot bare-naked notes. It made me think about the days when paper was so rare and expensive that you only wrote the most important things and did away with margins and spaces between words.

In a monastic environment the most mundane tasks take on a sacred deliberateness, with little room for wasted words or actions. You don't gobble plates of food; you chew, bite by bite. Even the monks and nuns parred down their speach when they gave talks, since English did not come to them naturally. Their translations for certain words, though, were endearing, especially those of the Abbot (think Thai Yoda). It can be refreshing to eat and hear like this, and I am hoping that writing in this way will maybe keep from giving anyone mental indigestion or migraines.

In writers circles, there is a saying: Writers write. It is a simple but profound mantra, but serves to keep egotism at bay: It is not, "I write, therefore I am a writer," but merely, "I write." If you want to get really Zen about it, you could question, "Who is this 'I' who writes?" But we'll save that for another time; on to the reflections. Photos to come.


* * *


Time for Loving Kindness


First Bell rang at 4am, birthing our consciousness into the world each new day. Without a watch, you live by the bell; it reminds you of your "duty": when to eat, when to sit, when to sleep. You got to know the time by the sun, and by every session's relation to each other.

The morning and afternoon is filled with sitting, walking, and standing meditation, readings, and dhamma talks. By the evening, I am ready for bed. But I would always forget about the session on loving-kindness. After the chanting meditation on the Law of Dependent Origination, I would think, "ah, that was nice." But then K. T_ would come up and say softly, "now please prepare for meditation on loving-kindness" and I would hear this loud "DAMMIT!," like when you stub your toe, and hope I did not say it out loud. Needless to say, my attitude towards loving-kindness left room for improvement.

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Haters Hate


Jeannie once pointed out to me a big difference between us. While she would start her sentences with "I love" (as in, "I love the snow."), I would frequently begin my sentences with the words "I hate" ("I hate it when it rains"). It's funny now that I think about it.

Someone asked Tan Dhammaviddu how you can tell what your primary defilement is: greed, delusion, or hatred.

"When someone gave me a book on loving kindness with a picture of a fat, white, self-satisfied woman on the cover and I wanted to smack her, I knew I was a hater. Haters go around hating everything. The only solution is loving-kindness."

I burst out laughing so loud I think I scared the girl sitting next to me; I knew exactly what he meant.

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What's Love Got to Do With It?


A highlight of the retreat was on the evening of the last day, when people were allowed to give a brief reflection on their experience. This was the "secret weapon," pressurized by ten days of silence, used to expose prejudices. Someone pointed out that it was amazing you can spend a week and a half not talking or interacting with a group of one hundred people and still pick out certain people you "like" and certain people you "dislike." This is very true, and very strange also.

At the reflection a girl from Norway got up to speak. I decided I did not like her most of the retreat because she was a hippie, or at least gave the appearance of being one. But when she spoke she was so funny. She told a story about how she was struggling during the retreat because she loved to dance and sing, and she couldn't do any of these things. She even wore a scarf because she said she loved to smile but felt she had to hide it, so when she felt like smiling she would pull the scarf over her mouth and smile.

"One day," she said, "I get this song in my head. It's Tina Turner. You know? What's love got to do with it? And I cannot get it out.

"I have this character. She lives inside me. Her name is Wilomena (something like that). She is this big fat African gospel lady. And so when I cannot sing or dance, she sing and dance inside me." And the girl closes her eyes and sways side to side and snaps. Everyone laughs, because it is so bizarre and funny.

"And so one day when Tina Turner come into my head, I go to my room and close the door and I let Wilomena out and I say, 'okay Wilomena, 'what's love got to do with it?' And she sing and dance and everything is okay."

I get an image of the two of them (Wilomena for some reason looks like Mrs. Butterworth) snapping and swaying to imaginary music in their room together and can't help smiling. I don't not like her anymore. It's okay to dance, and sing, and smile.

+


Tired of Running


A girl from Australia shared her story. She looked like she had cut her own hair, but had not done a very good job, because there were big bald patches everywhere. Or maybe it was intentional, and she was a punk-rocker.

"I got a backpack for my 19th birthday. And then I hitched a ride out of town and haven't really been back." After living in Tazmania and sailing around Indonesia, she came to this place.

Craving takes different forms for different people. For this girl it was a crazing always be "somewhere else." Suan Mokkh stopped her dead in her tracks. "When Tan Dhammaviddu was talking about the ice cream on Anji Road, I started to think it was like that--going from place to place to get ice cream. But the ice cream doesn't taste as good anymore.

"It's my 23rd birthday tomorrow. I have to think about settling somewhere; I'm tired of running."

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Cries in the Night


One evening as I was washing my clothes at the well I heard someone crying. It was the pimply English kid two doors down. Since our rooms are only semi private, noise is hard to hide. Snoring, burping, farting--these are all accepted as part of living in a dorm with fifty other men.

But among men, crying is not generally accepted. When it does occur, and you are trying to practice loving-kindness in action, your hands are tied. If you ask, "are you okay?," they may feel embarrassed about their private moment being uncovered; if you fail to say anything, you wonder if you are being calloussed, and they may think no one cares about their suffering.

I laid on my bed and listened to him cry. I wondered what he was crying about. Was he homesick? Did he just find out someone in his family died? Did he have depression? It could be anything, and so it was best to assume nothing.

Despite its emphasis on compassion, Buddhism can feel very cold at times. In an environment like this, you must stand on your own two feet. There is no God to save you, and no one can carry you through life. Suffering is at the heart of all things, and so we must go through it in the same way we go through times of joy.

Fifty or so men started the retreat, and I was told about fifteen had left, many after having made it to to seven or eight. Some times all it takes is encouragement. I thought about slipping him a note or something, but figured it was best not to. Anyone who has suffered from depression knows that the worst thing to hear from someone is "are you okay?" I stopped by Kevin's room and mentioned it to him, so that he might want to see if he's okay.

I went back to my room and prayed the rosary and tried to send loving-kindness, though that is still strange to me. Mostly, though, I meditated on his suffering in the heaving of his sighs. It was heart-breaking, and I felt great compassion. Everybody is suffering; some people just pretend that they're not. Like DNA, suffering is the building block and unifying force of our existence.

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No Time


K. Ben explained to us that in Buddhism, time is not measured in minutes or hours. Rather, time begins with the birth of desire and ends at its death or satiation. That is why Buddha is said to have transcended time--he is free from the hand-ticking clock of samsara. No desire = no time.

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Itching and Scratching


When spectres of lust would visit from time to time, I would meditate on the mosquito bites on my body.

When a mosquito lands and bites, a bulbous mound surfaces on the skin. If it is left alone it goes away in time. The body's first instinct is to scratch it to alleviate the itchiness. The craving to do so is very strong, as is the pleasure produced when one begins to scratch it. The mind reasons, "I will just scratch it this once." One scratches to the point of satiation and then reasons, "okay, that is enough," thinking the itch will now subside. But in fact the more one scratches, the harder it is to stop. As long as this continues, the welt, the itch, the scratching, and the madness remain.

This is what is meant by pulling craving out by the roots.


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The Chirring of the Locusts


One day I took a different path back to the dorms after doing my chores. It was a dusty red path flanked by banana and palm trees. I heard a buzzing near my ear; I swatted at it, but there was nothing there. As I continued to walk it grew louder and shriller and I soon found myself in what must have been a cicada grove. I couldn't see anything; it felt like pure energy, each producing its own frequency and vibrations.

One of the speakers spoke about a scientist (whose name I forget) who questioned the idea not only that the atom is the smallest particle, but whether or not there is a constituative foundation for matter at all given the very nature of sub-atomic flux (path of electrons, free-floating isotopes, etc.) being recognized in quantum and metaphysics. In other words, the existence of matter is an illusion; as a friend of mine put it, "we are all energy," vibrations, electricity. Chaos and instability at the sub-atomic level should not be surprising. It is dhamma law: Permanence is an illusion heard in the chirring of the locusts.

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Breakfast


Watching orange cat squat,
yawning in morning sun--
poop slides out.

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Too Much of Anything


My father told us when we were younger: "too much of anything is no good."

Twenty years later, I see now that he knew the Middle Way.

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Boxing Buddha


Tan Dhammaviddu told us of a Scottish boxer who said about training: "if you're enjoying it, you're not doing it right." I thought that was very wise--and very true.

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Body and Mind


In the tapestry of Dependent Origination, the relationship of mind and body is represented by a man and a woman sitting together in a boat surrounded by water. They are afloat in the sea of samsara trying to get to the Other Shore, which is nibbanna.

Tan Medhi tells us, "they are like man and woman, husband and wife, yes? Must work together. Sea is...very very hard. If no...crash! You know this one?"

It is true. The body is affected by the mind and the mind is affected by the body. They are two wholes of a whole.

Can there be mind without body? This is a thick question. Maybe the best answer is: mu.

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Heart and Mind


Someone admitted during one of the question and answer sessions that they did not understand what Buddhists meant by heart and mind, since they seemed to use the two interchangably. Tan Dhammaviddu replied, "There is no difference--they are the same thing."

But it seemed that in speaking and in reflection, each gender identified with one term more than the other; men with the mind, women with the heart. This seemed natural. But whenever someone spoke about the "heart" as if it were a fitting substitution for "mind," my mind's reaction was, "no it's not; we are different, seperate and distinct."

In the end, though, they are just words, what we call "heart," or "mind," or "lotus flower" (as in the sutra) and not worth getting feathers ruffled over.

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Figures of Speech


Buddhasa Bhikkhu admitted that he was somewhat self-conscious about his self-taught English. He even went so far as to call it "childish."

But I loved listening to the Thai monks and nuns speak. In conversations or talks, they would sometimes hit a knot in a translation and be forced to adapt a Thai word in the best way they knew how. This applied not only for the meaning of words, but how to pronounce them.

K. Ben and K. T_'s speech was light and gentle. They would always start with a joke or story, and encouraged us to love all sentient beings, even "the creepy crawly things" we find in our rooms.

Tan Medhi was a young monk, always "happy, happy," as he would say. He usually led our chanting and would say we were getting better when the cows stop in the road to listen. He also joked about the wooden pillow, saying, "this is like wooden pillow?" or "when you go home you sleep on wooden pillow."

But the best was the old abbott, Tan Ajahn Poh. He was seventy-five years old and wore big glasses. Everytime I saw him sitting motionless in the dark morning hours, I called him Stone Cold Buddha. He never smiled, but was neither mean nor overly nice. He spoke very slowly, and when he did, he reminded me of Yoda. And so he became Stone Cold Yoda Buddha.

His English vocabulary was limited, so he tended to repeat words a lot. One of his favorites was "defilement." He must have used the word a thousand times over the course of the retreat.

To show you what I mean, a sample dhamma talk might go something like this:

"Good morning...all good frends. Today is last day of you spend time here. Maybe you get body pain. Maybe you wonder, 'why do I sit in sand? Why do I sit with...my mind?' It is because you mind get defilement. Defilement like: drugs...alcohol...liquor...wine. Sensual pleasure. These things enemy of...the mind. These things kill...the mind.

"Many many people...get kill when cross...the highway. If you don't see car to speed you...get kill. Killing is defilement. To not kill, need med-i-tation. Need con-cen-tration. If not these things kill...your mind. Defilements kill...your mind. Things like sensual pleasure. Sexual pleasure. Cigarette to smoking. Please now to sit. Mm..."

Ajahn Poh was a diamond covered in muck.

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Life and Death Zen


People who practice martial arts realize that certain things cannot be done with the body alone--they require the concentration of the mind as well. Breaking bricks and wooden blocks with one's hands is one of those things. I don't know much about martial arts, but from what I do know, it sounds similar to anapanasati practice. Buddha used anapanasati--mindfulness with breathing--meditation to liberate his mind from the world of form and achieve enlightenment. He seemed to prefer sitting calmly under a tree rather than putting his fist through it.

The martial arts, on the other hand, seem to capitalize on the mind's capacity for mindfulness and acute concentration for the benefit of transcending physical boundaries--such as brick walls. Tan Dhammaviddu tried to teach us about this slippery concept: I only experience dhukka (suffering) because of my association with form. I only experience pain because my mind creates it.

When I was little I remember one day playing on the swingset in my backyard. I was climbing on the monkey bars and then slid down the chain of the swing like a fireman. It was not until a few seconds later that I looked down at my hands and realized they were covered in blood. It was only then that I began crying and screaming. If my mind was able to concentrate on something other other than pain (such as the breath) with complete focus, it would not experience it.

And so people are able to break blocks of wood with their fists--that is, only if they can maintain perfect concentration through and through. Otherwise you end up with a broken hand. It makes you think twice about "trying" to break a block of wood. Losing awareness of even one breath at this level can mean the difference between living and dying.

Tan Dhammaviddu told us that some of the monks at Suan Mokkh will go out into lion-infested areas of the forest to meditate. Others will practice walking meditation over creeks and gorges. Fear sharpens concentration, so it is not surprising that they would do this: they have devoted themselves not to self-improvement, but to liberation from the self. I put an opened water bottle on my head to keep focused during evening meditation. This seems a little pale in comparison. But I'm sure it looked just as inane.

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From Womb to Grave


Everytime I would see an old monk with flabby arms and jowels moving slowly down the street, I would think, "he looks like a baby." Maybe it is being dressed in orange swaddling clothes or the slow padding down the street in bare feet. Either way, I would be overcome by a strong urge to pinch his cheeks.

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The Most Important Person


F. Ben asked us, "who is the most important person in your life? Is it your mother or father, sister or brother? No. It should be me, because I am the one speaking with you. And when you are speaking with me, you become the most important person in the world for me."

Barry, the Australian boxing promoter, told me he once met George Foreman when he was on a world tour. He said that when George Foreman shook your hand, "he looked right at you. In a crowd of people, yours were the only two eyes he saw." The most important person in the world.

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Washing Mind


Washing was my favorite meditation because it was the time when I was most present. Even back home I would sometimes do my laundry by hand rather than take it to the laundromat. Maybe it was the process of making something clean, or the rhythm of kneading, emptying, and rinsing. I wrote a poem once:

Hakuin told me:
Enlightenment comes to those
with a clean toilet.

So I liked washing my clothes in the big blue basins on the concrete patio of the dormitory, making dirty things clean.

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Gasping For Air


Buddhasa Bhikkhu once said that one must strive after Nibbanna the same way a drowning man struggles to breath.

Our life depends on our breath; if we are not breathing, then we are not alive. This is samsara--the world of unrealized consciousness. Until a man learns how to breath, he will continue to flail around in an endless sea, gasping for air and swallowing saltwater instead.

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Sun in a Bottle


On Day 10 we were allowed to take photographs. In the morning a beautiful orange sun rose in the sky. People were admiring it and snapping pictures. Shooting film. Taking pictures. Why such violent words? Buddhasa Bikkhu said, "we have been thieves all our lives." Best to leave the sun hanging in the sky.

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The Shortest Poem


At a cafe in Surat I bumped into an Australian boxing promoter named Barry, whom I recognized from the retreat. He said he had been to Suan Mokkh at least thirty times. It helped keep him clean, since he admitted to being a long time heroin addict. Drugs create a "vicious cycle" of craving that he felt could only be combatted with something like anapanasati (mindfulness with breathing). He said that boxing, also, was like Vippassanna--focus, dedication, and a do-or-die attitude is what breeds champions.

He said he was also in Australia when Muhammud Ali took a blow to the face that send him to "like, a fourth dimension or something."In the locker room after the fight he reportedly began to speak in an ancient African dialect, having never been to Africa before. He became a Methodist minister for a time after that, and was never quite the same after that experience.

Muhammud Ali is reported to have written the shortest poem in history: Me. We.

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Meets His Maker


Thomas Merton died in a Bangkok bathroom while visiting Thailand in the mid 1960's. As is the case in most places in Thailand, the electrical work is shoddy, and Merton was electrocuted while standing in a puddle of water after a bath.

Now, with wet feet, squatting on the bathroom floor of my five dollar a night guesthouse in Bangkok, I want to know where he stayed, to see if I might have an hour with him to talk. I still close my eyes whenever I turn on a lightswitch.

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Den of Theives


While shopping in Chinatown one afternoon I bumped into a Phillipino man on the street who was very excited to meet an American. He introduced himself as Nicky and said he was living with his brother, who owned an apartment in Bangkok, while he was stationed in Thailand. He said his daughter was with him also. When he asked where I was from and I said Philadelphia, he was very excited--his daughter had just finished nursing school and was getting ready to go the United States to work in a hosptial there, though he couldn't remember which one.

We went across the street and he bought me a drink. He asked me questions about Philadelphia and how much I paid for my apartment and would I be willing to meet with her so she could ask me questions. I said I would, but it would have to be this afternoon because I fly out the next morning. So we took a cab to another part of the city. "It is no coincidence that we met," he assured me.

His brother's apartment was in a nice section of the city on the outskirts of Chinatown. When we arrived a beautiful young Thai servent girl opened the door for us. Nicky told the servent girl to get me ice water and coffee, and he invited me to take a seat on the leather couch. By Thai standards, the apartment was somewhat luxurious, with polished wooden floors, bi-level with a driveway, and, of course, a servent girl.

Nicky yelled to his brother upstairs. "He is very funny," he assured me. He shook my hand warmly, introducing himself as Milo, and offered me a cigarette. He said that I would have to forgive him, but his wife had just gone into labor today. Nicky's daughter and Milo's son were at the hosptial with her, though Nicky assurred me they would be back soon.

In the meantime, Milo talked about his work at the "shipyard." At first I thought he worked for the Navy like his brother, but then it became clearer that he actually worked in a casino on a cruiseship (he had a picture of the ship hanging on the wall). He asked me if I had ever been to Las Vegas. "A lot of money in casinos. I get you a discount."

I wasn't following him, since at one point he was talking about discounted vacation packages or something he could give to "VIP's." He was eager to show me what he did for a living, and suggested we play cards while waiting for his neice to return. We went upstairs to a room with a table and Milo invited me to sit. He started to explain to me how the business worked by drawing a map of the casino floor.

"This," he explained by drawing a series of slashes, "is where the regular players play. But because you are with me, you do not play here. You play in V-I-P section. In VIP section, you play banker, just you." He drew a smaller square to represent the VIP room with a small opening for a door. "I have a guy watching the door, so no one come in, since it VIP only."

--------------------------BANKER---------
| |
| DEALER |
| |
| PLAYER |
|__________________________|


"But, you must understand, I can only give you twenty-five percent, since you are my guest. Seventy-five percent is for my 'company.' You understand?" I didn't quite understand. But I thought I'd take that cigarette after all, because it was starting to feel a little Tony Soprano up here. I nodded.

"So, you know how to play this game?" I thought he was talking about poker but it turns out he was referring to blackjack. When I figured it out, I said 'yes,' since I did.

"Okay," he said, pointing to the map of the casino floor. "When you play VIP, there are rules. But Player has no rules; only Banker has rules. You the Player. You understand?" I understood.

He turned over the map and began to write. "For Banker, if cards 12, 13, 14, 15, or 16, they must draw. If 17, 18, 19, 20, they cannot draw. You understand?" Okay, yes, I think so. We practiced a few hands--some I won, some I lost. Milo said this was playing 'chance'--you might win, you might not win, but you don't know.

There were other things too: Banker was always dealt one card up; Player's down. United States rules face cards all value 10. Etc. Milo stubbed out his cigaretted and yelled to Nicky to bring up his coffee. He then went over to a drawer and took out a set of chips.

"There are two kinds of betting for you," he explained: "winning-hand bet, and losing-hand bet. Winning hand bet you bet when you know you are going to win. Losing hand bbet you bet when you know the other person is going to lose." The emphasis here was on the word know. He leaned in and asked me straight-faced: "Remember, you are playing with my money--do you want to play a game of chance, or do you want to play a game of skill?" Ummm...

"Skill," I said.

A big smile broke on his face and he extended his hand. "Very good. Now, let me show you how to play a game of skill."

By this point I had a pretty good idea of what was going on but was to deep in to get out of it easily. I was starting to feel the need to take a shower; despite the sparkling floors and lush decor, things were beginning to feel grimy, like the soot settling over towns like Pittsburgh as a result of booming industrialization. But I continued to play along.

"If you want to know what card I have, how you think to get it from me?" Milo asks. Umm...

"Blinking?"

He reacts as if it was a mistranslation, even though he was sure of what I said. "No," he said. "And you do not pull your ear like in football coach." Got it.

"You see my fingers?" He started to count off from his pinky: "2,2,2,2...and thumb is 1. My whole fist is 10." So, if I have this many fingers on table," placing four fingers, "how many is that?" Umm...

"Eight."

Again, a pleased smile and warm handshake. In a naive way it did kind of make me feel proud, like I could be the next Blackjack Kid of the Thai Shark circuit.

I was learning to cheat. It was innocent enough to learn, I suppose. The more he spoke about it, the more curious I was. But like all the bastard tuk-tuk drivers and hawkers on the street, I started to wonder what lies beneath the surface of the game.

"Now you look," he said, while picking up the deck to deal. "What card I show you?"

I must have missed it, because I didn't know what he was talking about. He looked disappointed. He picked up the deck to deal again, this time poking the top card out a half inch and flashing it with a quick snap of the wrist.

"Six."

"Very good," he said. At that point his phone rang. It was an English speaking man whom Milo seemed to be familiar with, asking if he could come by to pick up his "pass."

"That was Mr. ____," Milo told me, showing me the personalized VIP invitation card with the man's name on it. "He is already rich. But he come still because as I tell you, you can make very much money as my guest at the casino--V.I.P."

I was getting tired of these schinanigans. It was becoming more and more apparent that there might not be any daughter traveling to America, no wife in labor. This guy had already wasted enough of my last afternoon in Thailand.

"Now, when Mr. ____ comes, we will play a game. Nicky will play Mr. ___; you just watch." It was like when Christopher was becoming a made-man in the Sopranos. Except that I didn't want to be made into anything--especially a professional sheister.

Despite Milo's sharp pitch and confident persona, there was a crack in his front just big enough to reveal an inner poverty, despite his polished floors and servant girl--it wavered behind his eyes. I'd never met a tax collector before, but I imagined if St. Matthew came back to life, this is what he would be like. Not lust, not pride--the love of money was the nail that needed to be let fall to the floor in order to be free. I imagine Jesus just looked at him, and that was enough.

"No, I think I'm going to get going, thank you," I told him.

"No, no, you just watch," he assurred me.

"No," I said, "I'm going to go."

He could not understand how I could turn down something that promised so much for so little. "Why you don't want to stay?" he asked.

I looked him in the eyes, confident for the first time in our interaction.

"Because I don't want to."

His eyes lowered to the table, but he made a second attempt to persuade me. I responded the same.

The tables had turned a bit and I found myself with some power I didn't really care to have when he saw I meant what I said, and why I was saying it. In a apologetic, but groveling kind of way he asked me not to tell anyone of his 'top secret' operation, since he could lose his job. I assured him I had no interest in doing so, and we went downstairs.

I asked Nicky to call me a cab, which he did. An awkward few minutes ensued while waiting. To add hurt to insult, they asked if I could help them with some money for blood, since Milo's wife was having a C-section at a private hospital. "Lots of money." Money. He asked for 1,000baht. I thought about the beggars with no legs I passed in the street asking for pennies. Disgusted, I gave them 160B and left.

On the ride back to Bangalampoo I stared out the window at the golden bridge over the river, the saangthews choking on the street and ferry boats on the shore, Bangkok in the evening and a settling sadness. I felt like something had been taken from me unfairly. But I also felt like I should have stood up taller, said something more. In the reflection of the window, I stared at my own eyes and saw Milo's eyes looking back, from the outside.



+

To Come:

No Mirror, No Face
Horrible Emptiness
Judgement
The Cruel Tutilege of Ajahn Poh
Saved by the Bell
Blood-Hand-No-Mind
Field Trip to the Lion's Den
White Circle Buddha
Dependent Origination
Sweeping in the Morning
Two-wheeled Sirens
"With Wise Reflection I Eat This Gruel..."
Just Practice
Tan Medhi's Wooden Pillow