Namu And Sahaja In Santa Fe

The following is a sketch written while my wife Alexandra and I were in Santa Fe, New Mexico, last week to celebrate her birthday.

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It’s morning for us as we stride along a country road. We are four: you and I, of course, but also Namu and Sahaja.

Our first dog has been renamed–and isn’t that an act of conversion?–Namu. In “The Meaning of Namu Amida Butsu,” Richard St. Clair tells us:

Namu Amida Butsu has two parts: “Namu” means “I take refuge”, and “Amida Butsu” means “in Amida Buddha.”

That is one great meaning of the Nembutsu. It is the BASIC meaning.
For the person who is seeking salvation, the Nembutsu means “Save me, Amida Buddha.” It means that the seeker is opening her/himself to Amida’s saving Light and Compassion. It is the seeker responding to Amida’s Call and opening him/herself to Amida Buddha’s Other Power.

And our second dog, at 5 months now, carries within herself the key to salvation. In sahaja samadhi, one, being the All, is free, so free as to be as natural as the wind, as glorious as the sky, as becoming as the dawn. One shivers without shivering, unmoved, unmoving save, Ramana Maharshi’s life attests, by the suffering of other beings.

May Namu be a light unto others, and may Sahaja realize the great depth of her name!

On the road, we met David, which in the Hebrew means “beloved,” as well as his Dickensian dog Pippin. It was less what he conveyed in his words and more what he presented in his demeanor, and that was age, matter of factness, gravitas. He was here.

On our way home, an old woman in a blue bath robe gently chastised one of her dogs who’d come running off leash and who was, as she averred, friendly. Soon her husband arrived, and both offered a tableau of the hardscrabble life of homesteaders in the valley near Canoncito. Thirty-eight years ago, they came and settled here. Their house, quaint enough yet by no means elegant, is situated next to a creek that has–increasingly–carried precious little water during this 100 year drought. I found them–also old and, in a good sense here, resigned–to be quietly, perhaps also poetically heroic.

Dear Alexandra, we like, don’t we?, meeting people like this. Meek and mild. Moderate and without pretense. Simple, wry, candid, and hearty. Let those we meet be called “hardihood” or, to coin a neologism, “hearty-hood.”

Love In Santa Fe

The following are literary sketches written almost exactly 10 years after my wife Alexandra and I met. Then we were in Woodstock for a week and now we are in Santa Fe. Then it was her 30th birthday; now her 40th.

The Wicca Hour: A Literary Sketch (May 2, 2012)

It is entirely possible that we have been hallucinating since we first arrived on Monday. We saw a bearded woman in a cart being pulled up a hill by a bearded man in a cloak. We nodded at a leery, shady man in a robe who was watching the bearded couple. We passed by an old man riding a bike uphill on the sidewalk; he swerved like jagged teeth, nearly knocking us over. We met a checkout clerk at the grocery store, a cherubic boy with reddish hair, who scanned items with a cracked voice. We met a checkout clerk at the grocery store, a young woman who told us that she lived with her mother and that her vision was failing. We saw a robed holy woman on the front lawn, a lawn ornament of sorts, who, as much in her attire as in her demeanor, resembled everyone else. We met a wineshop owner who tried to upsell us with a bottle of wine that was $5 more than the one prior. He later pointed to the sign saying that he never accepted promises for payments, then showed us his IOUs, then gave us a discount that largely nullified the $5 upsell.

It is entirely possible that we have been hallucinating, unheimlich-style, but it could also be some numen. We have returned to the local grocery every day, twice last night. We have eaten food prepared by hand, looked at dandelions eye-dropped with rain, waded through wet grass in open fields, guessed at puzzling roofs and confusing light switches, mocked the birds with made-up dialogue. We have made things up as we’ve gone along.

We are learning to feel close. She is learning how to pump her own gas and uncork a bottle of wine and feel at home, learning more generally how to be self-reliant in and through another. We do not impose or oppose; we flow like the stream outside our cabin. And I am spending my days doing what I like where doing what I like–being for her, being with her–is entirely unlike however I thought my days would go. I cannot rule out the possibility that the philosophical life is a glorious, numinous vision.

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Love In Santa Fe: A Literary Sketch From Santa Fe (April 27, 2022)

It’s now 10 years since we went to Woodstock, and here we are in Santa Fe. Then we were almost kids–you were just 30–and now we have kids. Dog kids. 

Woodstock mornings were gloomy, moody, the fog rolling in off the distant hills. So I remember. Santa Fe mornings are quiet, reflective, the afternoons changeable, crisp, Zen. Like us now. So I feel. 

This morning those Woodstock mornings come back to me with intense vividness. I’d write downstairs while you slept upstairs. I’d recall the prior day and spell out a literary sketch. So different from this morning as we awoke together and then listened to Bob Dylan’s “Desire” album. Does Dylan, his voice now shot, shutter at the transience, glory in his memory of times long past? Has he become Johnny Cash who sung, at the end: “I hurt myself today / To see if I still feel?”

And, tell me, what has changed for us? It is, most surely, a sense of responsibility: for ourselves, more so too for others. Yet perhaps it’s more fitting to state what hasn’t, and that is love. I love you like the first dawn.

I was wrong when I replied, in Joshua Tree in 2014, that our love wasn’t special, no more special than anyone else’s. Truly, it couldn’t be anything but. For now when I think of I, I feel only we.

Our Daoist At-one-ment

The following are literary sketches written almost exactly 10 years after my wife Alexandra and I met. Then we were in Woodstock for a week and now we are in Santa Fe. Then it was her 30th birthday; now her 40th.

I. Ethical Life, Restored: A Literary Sketch From Woodstock (May 15, 2012)

Silent of speech is nature’s course.

Laozi, Daodejing 23

Can we still follow nature’s course under nature’s gently guiding hand? I think so but only if we let nature return to its humble home and only after we learn again to listen to its silent speech.

In early May, my love Alexandra and I spent a week at a cabin on the outskirts of Woodstock. We dwelled in seamless being, a time scarcely open for recollection because only one seamless fabric, the whole all seeming a single day that was filled with textures and rhythms and shades. The whole was enfolded in quiet calm, a mood of flowing sober joy.

It was then that we laughed lightly at the sparrows and the dandelions; then that we hiked uphill and rested on overlooks; that we ate food made with chafed fingers and sewn into our souls; that we drank wine and were charmed with our giddiness and our ruddy cheeks; that we sat in silence, dangling our feet over large opal rocks and bony froth; that we held each other closely and cried in joy, occasionally in longing; that we listened to loving words, ours so soft and caring, as steady as rubbing palms; that we slept when our bodies were aching for rest and could do no more for us; it was then again, a pail filling and refilling, that we awoke to morning mists and falling rains and birdsong calling from the hillside.

There was, we knew, nothing extraordinary in this, nothing save the constant humming, the thrumming of life amid life, the sense of being our best and our most spontaneous, of living according to our heart songs and day chants and night hymns. We were falling in love, this is true, but we were in love most especially with this way of living, with this way of being in touch with nature. For our natures were again following nature’s silent course and then love was all we knew.

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II. Our Daoist A-tone-ment: A Literary Sketch From Santa Fe (April 30, 2022)

We are settling in here. And where is here? Into ourselves most surely but, in the concrete, in the High Desert some way outside of Santa Fe.

Nothing much happens each day, and this is the Daoist spirit which we remember, with which we are in love, and to which we bow in reverence. Aren’t there places and times when this soft realization is so clear that there’s nothing to do in this lifetime but to deepen the realization of at-one-ment, nothing but to soften the edges of separation until it is seen that no such separation ever existed in the first place?

You are drawing this morning, and I’m dusting off my keyboard, my old typewriter, as it were. In some sense, it feels as if it’s been some 10 years since I’ve written anything like these literary sketches, and that’s because what I’ve just said is largely true. Personal essays fell out of favor slowly as we stepped onto the trailhead of the spiritual path. For is not the Supra-personal where it’s at?

The answer, of course, is yes and no. For the Supra-personal is everywhere, and thus is right here also. If one must rightly give up the memoir as there’s truly nothing puffed up to say or opine about some imagined and imaginary ego, then just as surely one may, after a time of deep practice, indicate something of the personal expression of the Supra-personal for the sake of others, each of whom is a unique and, in this respect, special prismatic reflection of the One Light of Being. May I do so humbly here.

A recursive reminder, inner friend: best not, inadvertently, to romanticize our time here. For sure, I feel at home among these particular slowly rising hills and in this modest valley. Have I not said so each day; not said so almost too often? Have we not recognized the country, not the city, in our gait and in our reserved gaiety? This landscape, by no means epic but, as you’ve often remarked, understated, sings its peacefulness straight to my heart and into yours: for it’s at once Daoist-Zen, given its wabi sabi twisting piñon and ponderosa pines, its moss-covered, rosa-tinted stones, its crisp shimmering (if thirsty) cottonwoods, and the very pulse of the Southwest. Our Southwest, my dearest one.

But to romanticize? To pronounce it perfect? No, we know it’s a delicate land as most have felt for centuries. There is very little water here, and the region is, news reports tell us, in the midst of a 100 year drought. The creek winding through this valley is but dust, and no snowpack is melting, no water rushing down through it this spring. Nor, an old couple living here implied as we spoke with them, has it been so in recent years, perhaps for many such. Therefore, if we want to live here, we’ll need to wrangle our way–not once but time and again–to water while living mindfully, almost watchfully in the shadow of its paucity.

Then too there are the wild fires, a few of which are burning nearby. Yesterday evening the haze crept in, strong winds carried smoke through the valley, and we were forced to wear our N95 masks outdoors for reasons other than Covid. Only outdoors long enough for the dogs to pee, we crept back inside our adobe, and it was not the coziness we felt but the smallness of our world. The angeleno look of the forbidding orange sun–smoldering and remote above one of the hillsides as dusk fell–here was a sign of the brittleness of temporal existence. 

“Have money and bring water,” one man told us a few days ago after we expressed a desire to live here. Has–I ask this figuratively–not the Southwest always been so? 

The Buddha’s Second Noble Truth: Is It Graspable In Terms Of Non-acceptance?

Can we get a better conceptual grip on Buddha’s Second Noble Truth?

I. Dukkha

Huston Smith, in The World’s Religions, provides us with an elegant articulation of the First Noble Truth. Loosely, it is that “life is suffering.” But this is too loose by far. Instead, we might say, thanks to Smith, that “Life (in the condition it has got itself into) is dislocated” (p. 101). Indeed, “Something has gone wrong” (p. 101).

If you’re sensitive enough, then you should be able to notice, in your own experience that is, this sense of ‘not quite,’ of ‘offness,’ of dislocation. It’s not only that the bone comes out of the joint–and hurts; it’s also that life feels sprained, limp, or tight. All of these.

All of this semantic richness should be regarded as dwelling within the Pali concept of dukkha.

II. Tanha

But what are we to make of the Second Noble of Truth–namely, that the cause of dukkha is tanha? The latter is translated variously as clinging, craving, thirst, attachment, and so on. For his part, Smith writes of “a specific kind of desire, a desire for private fulfillment” (p. 102), of “selfish craving” (p. 103), of any sort of desire that (citing Humpfrey’s book on Buddhism) “tend[s] to continue or increase separateness” (p. 102). In brief, for Smith, tanha signifies an “egoistic drive for separate existence.”

III. Making Sense of Tanha

I confess that, for some years, the First Noble Truth has made good intuitive sense while I’ve tended to speak, in Vedantic terms, of avidya (or ignorance) as the cause of suffering. After all, if I do not know what I truly am but instead live my life out of deep forgetfulness, I shall be living in suffering. Or as Francis Lucille said on retreat: “If you’re suffering, it’s due to ignorance.” There you have it (in Vedantic terms).

What sense, then, can we make of the Buddha’s articulation of the source of our suffering?

I would deign to reduce tanha to non-acceptance: I want what is not the case, or I do not want what is the case. Ergo, non-acceptance of what is. On this construal, there is ignorance involved (e.g., ignorance of impermanence), yet that ignorance could be said to be most evident in desire, i.e., in selfish desire.

  • (1) What is the case I cannot bear, so I desire another.
  • (2) What is not the case I cannot bear, so I desire another.

Concerning (1), I cannot (e.g.) bear to even think of the loss of my beloved, so I desire–while pretending–that she will always exist.

Concerning (2), I cannot (e.g.) bear not being successful, so I desire–hungrily, maddeningly–to be successful.

IV. Does It Start with Understanding?

With good reason did the Buddha place Right View as the first step on the Eightfold Path of Waking Up. Similarly, Advaita Vedanta suggests that the teaching, once heard, needs to be pondered until it is well understood at a conceptual level.

At this point in my investigation of tanha, though, I admit that I can’t help but continue to think that non-acceptance is still slightly downstream from ignorance. I do not accept because I do not know. If only I truly knew, then I would accept.

In fact, I find that, however hard I try, I cannot shake the preeminent need for self-knowledge. In my book, it must come first.

Have You Ever Seen Your Own Brain?

On Experiencing No Brain

“Have you ever seen your own brain?”

This could have been a question that Bernardo Kastrup could have posed in his book consisting of popular essays: Science Ideated: The Fall Of Matter And The Contours Of The Next Mainstream Scientific Worldview (2021).

Obviously, you haven’t experienced your own brain–because you can’t.

On Having No Head

I’m reminded of Douglas Harding’s book on Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious (1961/2014). Harding’s discovery is that he has–that is, can experience–no head. When he sought to describe this experience to others, most balked at the seeming absurdity of his professed discovery. In his words:

Discussion… proved almost invariably quite fruitless. “Naturally I can’t see my head,” my friends would say. “So what?” And foolishly I would begin to reply: “So everything! So you and the whole world are turned upside down and inside out…” It was no good. I was unable to describe my experience in a way that interested the hearers, or conveyed to them anything of its quality or significance. They really had no idea what I was talk-ing about – for both sides an embarrassing situation. Here was something perfectly obvious, immensely significant, a revelation of pure and astonished delight – to me and nobody else! When people start seeing things others can’t see, eyebrows are raised, doctors sent for. And here was I in much the same condition except that mine was a case of not seeing things. Some loneliness and frustration were inevitable. This is how a real madman must feel (I thought) – cut off, unable to communicate.

On Being Almost an Idiot

When it comes to deeper introspective investigations, you need to be almost an idiot–or at least an innocent. Zen, as you’ve no doubt heard, speaks of “beginner’s mind,” but I find that such is even, perhaps, too sophisticated. Be very simple.

Consider what Sri Ramana Maharshi often suggested as a starting point for visitors’ investigations of their true nature. “You know,” he would tell them, “‘I am’ or ‘I exist.’ Of this, you can have no doubt. In which case, begin by investigating what this ‘I am’ truly is. Find out by going all the way.”

Few are naive enough to heed his words. What he suggests seems altogether too intellectually obvious–or perhaps too unsophisticated. But if you want to engage in what Nisargadatta called “authentic spirituality”–by which he meant finding out who you really are–then such naivete is of the first importance. Indeed, such almost stupidity can’t be bypassed since it is the way, or gateless gate.

Back to the Brain and Mind…: Feels Like Versus Looks Like

Suppose you’ve become quite convinced that materialism (or, what is the same thing, physicalism) is very probably metaphysically unjustifiable; suppose, that is, that you’ve come to reject the view that matter is fundamental. Perhaps, then, you’re open to the position of Advaita Vedanta, which is that consciousness is fundamental and, as such, everything is, in some form or another, consciousness.

“OK then, smarty pants, how do you describe the brain, huh?”

One way of clearly stating Kastrup’s point about how to redescribe the brain within an analytic idealist metaphysic would be to appeal to a distinction between “feels like” and “looks like.”

As in meditation, so too in this way of doing philosophy: we must begin with conscious experience. From a first person point of view, my conscious experience consists of perceptions (strictly speaking: just hearing, just seeing, just smelling, and so on arising), thoughts (just thinking arising), emotions (just feeling arising), sensations (just sensing arising), and desires (just desiring arising). I can describe–or be metacognitively aware of–what it feels like for seeing-red to arise, for thinking-of-elephants to arise, and so forth.

“Have I, from a first person point of view, ever seen my brain–or my head?” I’ve seen neither, nor from a first person point of view can I ever see either.

But someone else, from a third person point of view, can see an image–for her, a mental representation–of my thinking. From her third person point of view, my brain is what thinking looks like as a certain representation of an appearance. So Kastrup writes, “The idea is merely that what we call ‘matter’ is the extrinsic appearance of inner mental activity, just as our brain is what our thoughts look like when observed from the outside” (p. 165, my emphasis).

My brain could be called her schema of my arising thoughts.

To be sure, what my thinking feels like for me is correlative–but this only–with what my thinking looks like for her. The former could be called mind, the latter brain.

But where is this brain? The brain, being her representation, is still mental, is still–that is to say–an appearance in the field of consciousness.