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Creek Running North

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November 19, 2003

More happy fun thoughts on despair

The tide is on its way out in San Pablo Bay. Walking down here, I saw the kingfisher again, in the same old spot above the creek.

This morning, I put in seedlings of winter vegetables: Brussels sprouts, radicchio, cabbage, chard. The seedlings were thirsty: dry roots in dry soil anchoring swooning leaves.

Our meeting with the City Council went well last night. The lease process has been abandoned, and the project bounced back to the church and the neighbors for discussion. Talk is going around the neighborhood of a playground, day care center, other such amenities.

The oak tree is safe for the time being.

Out on the bay, the thin sliver of a sail just barely shows through the fog.

The frightening notion of harder battles for smaller spoils continues to haunt me. Over on Beth's blog, Cassandra Pages, a thoughtful commenter offers an observation on the loss of local authenticity. This world is not home, he maintains, whether shopping mall or wildlife preserve.

The corollary, to my mind: cease to care. The Buddhist teaching that all existence is Maya - illusion - is conceivably of some comfort to some people. Yes, one should of course go through the motions of working for good things: Right Livelihood is a hallowed Buddhist tradition as well. But care not. All this ye shall inherit - the oily seas, the increasingly tempestuous winds, the gentle and fierce animals beset with changes unmatched in ten thousand years - all this is illusion, a barrier our minds put in the way of enlightenment. We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.

A fine theory. A sublime, elegant, ancient theory. Unfortunately for my chances at landing that bodhisattva job, however, it's a theory that leaves me utterly cold. Shall I quote Donne to refute it, or Emma Goldman? I want no part of any enlightenment posited on the nonexistence of birdsong, of capsicum, of salt water or libido or tooth enamel. I spent a fair bit of time in my youth trying to accept the notion that the proper path involved turning inward, shutting out the world. This was time wasted, time spent heading in exactly the wrong direction. A cosmic cop-out.

"There is more charm in one cold simple 'mere' fact, confirmed by observation and linked to other facts through coherent theory into a rational system, than in a whole brainful of fancy and fantasy; more poetry in a chunk of quartzite than in a make-believe wood nymph; more beauty in the revelations of a verifiable intellectual construction than in misty empires of mythology."
- Cactus Ed

So I face the world instead, and for someone like me, sentimental enough to tear up watching Animal Planet, this necessarily involves a certain amount of discomfort. Suffering may be an illusion, but it's a damnably big and compelling one. Are my choices really limited to suffering along with the world or ignoring that world?

Back at home Zeke greets me with intense joy, then bounds out through the open back door to hunt imaginary mice in the compost pile, entirely missing the squirrels that dive for cover. There were a dozen of those squirrels in the black walnut along the creek. It's mast season, walnuts and acorns and pine cones, and you could hear the festive scrape of tooth enamel on nutshell from a block away. They are seethingly industrious. Still, I could look at them long and long. They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God.

[This entry has been edited for clarity.]

Posted by Chris Clarke at November 19, 2003 03:34 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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I've wrestled with that interpretation, too, yogini that I am. It strikes me as having much in common, ultimately, with the similarly "otherworldly" qualities of many of the world religions -- boiled down, the message is, "Don't worry about the things of this world; they are not important (or less important) than those of the greater/realer/purer world of the spirit."

My problem with this is pretty simple, yet large: my sense of the divine is very firmly -- indeed, literally -- grounded in the day-to-day web of existence. (Unitarian Universalists refer to this as the "web of life" -- my version incorporates the non-living as well.)

For me, reality IS -- even if I, with my limited human senses and fogging human preoccupations, cannot perceive it in all its full complexity. And here is one way to approach the Buddhist version of "illusion": accept that the illusion is Not reality, but rather our limited conception of reality. Once we begin to accept our human truth as a limited, distorted version of Truth -- AND that Truth incorporates the lives and experiences of beings and things other than ourselves -- then there is potential for growth.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of conditionals there, and it's often all too easy to boil complex negotiations of real and constructed space into either/or simplifications.

If nothing else, the world is NOT simple, and any system of understanding that tries to claim so is selling us a bill of goods.

(Whoa. I guess I've had this bottled up for a while! :) )

Posted by: Rana at November 19, 2003 04:22 PM
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Yikes! It never in a million years would have occurred to me that my words could be contrued this way. Cease to care about the world? Heavens, no. I'm the kind of maudlin person who can't stand to uproot a maple seedling even if it's tearing up the foundations of his house. Who holds a funeral for the broken-winged crow who lived in his apple-tree for two years until a racoon finally got it. And I live in an old close-in suburb because I can't stand watching the wilderness destroyed, and knowing I'm part of what's destroying it.

But it *is* all doomed. Like all of us, like the earth. Nature isn't on our side. I remember hiking on St Helens after it blew up. The summer before I'd been camping at Spirit Lake, a blue jewel in a pristine green forest. Now it was a heap of blasted grey sludge. For miles around, it looked like a vast construction site. Destruction beyond the dreams of subdevelopers. It was then that I realized that the nature I loved was just this little fleck of fragile habitat. Nature with a capital N didn't give a damn about it, and sooner or later it will destroy it, even if we don't do it first. One good writhe of the plate tectonics, one good-size asteroid, one twist of the magnetic fields, and we and our kindly nature with a little 'n' are out of here.

This world is not illusion, and my brand of Buddhism, anyway, doesn't claim that it is. It only claims that our perception of this world is not identical with the world, which is what I meant by saying that this world is not our home. But it distresses me greatly that I should have made you sick with my metaphysics. I have been an ardent, if silent, admirer of your blog ever since I stumbled across it. I think your kind of close & loving observation of particulars is worth much more than any of my theorizing about perceptions.

Posted by: Dale at November 19, 2003 05:01 PM
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Both of these are excellent comments, and I certainly do not want to give the impression that Dale intended any of the things I described as corollaries to his straightforward statement. (Dale's the "thoughtful commenter" I referred to, whose blog at is definitely worth a look!)

Rather, those corollaries came from my own experience with Buddhism, and I'm intrigued to learn of different interpretations of that nut I had trouble cracking - interpretations that closely mesh with my own view of the world.

That last bit about "making me sick," lifted from Walt Whitman, was intended to refer to my own self-absorbed introspection, and nothing else. I'm sorry if that was unclear. Whitman is an unreliable guide here: he also got sick listening to learned astronomers discussing mathematics. With science and religion making the poor guy sick, it's too bad he lived before the invention of Dramamine.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at November 19, 2003 05:45 PM
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It took me a little while to get over here...I wish everybody at my blog would read these comments too. For me, the world is definitely not illusion, and whether it ends tomorrow or an eternity away, nothing could take away my sense of wonder, or of responsibility...

Posted by: beth at November 21, 2003 04:29 PM
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Hear, hear to all of you (funny how the people who would completely disagree with us on these udeas never seem to join these conversations)! The main reason I started writing my blog (though I keep getting distracted by political hiccoughs) was to write about my PHYSICAL and very real connection to the natural world, and my great distress at the loss of what I love more than anything else (other than my family and friends) and that happens to define what I feel is the definition of who I (and everyone else) am.

I just wonder if the interpretation of the Buddhist concept of Maya is often misinterpreted. My knowledge and experience of (practiced) Buddhist cultures is that the citizenry very much care for and are aware of the natural world, much more so, in many ways, than many western cultures. Bhutan and Tibet (before the Chinese invasion), both of which I have yet to visit, base their entire history and ethos on their relationship to the natural world; indeed the entire Bhutanese policy of limiting visitors exists in great part because they want to protect their environment and way of life. Both the Bhutanese and the Tibetans daily practice avoiding killing any creature, even cretures considered to be nuisances by people in the West and other areas of the world. If this is not a powerful awareness and acceptance of the physical and real world, I don't know what is.

Here in Japan the attitudes used to be very much the same, before the war. You still come across elderly people in the mountains and remote villages who grow outraged at the killing of a mosquito that is biting them or to the killing of the macaques rampaging through their persimmon orchards. These people used to believe that living in the old style houses of straw roofs and uninsulated paper doors, which open directly to the surrounding world, even in midwinter, subzero temperatures, was the natural state of humans' place in the world. The physical duress of such living and the refusal to close themselves off from it very much coincided with their Buddhist (and Shinto, which closely resembles Druid thinking) beliefs in caring for the natural world and living in intimate relationship to it. There is utterly no differentiation between the human world, the natural world, and the idea of the mythical. It is all one. There aren't even words to truly divide the two in the traditional Japanese language, not in the way western languages do (the new, Western concepts are almost always expressed using the original English, Portuguese, and German words themselves); even animals, plants, minerals are all referred to using the suffix "----tachi", "tachi" referring to something similar to "people" or "personified group", ie. "bird people", "tree people", "rock people". When such ways of thinking do not exist (yet: in English very often these Asian concepts use Asian words to describe ideas that do not exist in the West) in a people's lexicon how can they truly conceive of what they mean?

Of course, modern Japan has been altered beyond recognition, almost all the new concepts arising out of the Japanese love-affair with the West. Tokyo (when it was called "Edo"), which used to be the biggest city in the world during the Middle Ages and yet also one of the most ecologically sustainable cities in history, has turned into a monstrous generator of garbage and waste.

I wonder if the interpretation of Maya ought to be understood as anything that refutes "reality", reality being anything that exists when human imagination is edited from the picture. But then, to me, the whole point of the beauty of a tree or sunset is that very essence created by the human imgination.

So, as Rana stated, the world, nature, is anything but simple. The universe is vast beyond human knowing. Perhaps trying to understand it all, as science does, is part of the illusion (though our modern life wouldn't be what it is today without science). Then again, Buddha's contemporary world problems were childlike compared to the threatening of the very existence of life on our planet that we face today. He never had to fear the actual destruction of all life. What would he have said had he lived today?

(sorry for the long comment... it's like all the ideas and words are spilling out... finding people to express it to...)

Posted by: Miguel at November 23, 2003 12:22 AM
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