O little town of Nowheresville

In a culture that has lost any sense of words as (potentially) living things – as spells, or as vessels for the spirit (Word) – proverbs decay into cliches. For the word-artist, struggling against the tide, some of these cliches may still possess a certain buoyancy.

This morning, reading in Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution about the necessity of duration to life, for some reason a phrase popped into my head: going nowhere fast! (The exclamation point is endemic.) Like most phrases invented to make conversation interesting, it partakes of hyperbole and humor: since it is already nonsensical to go nowhere, to do so rapidly connotes true desperation and/or imbecility. Where is this ‘nowhere’? Someone like me, living ‘way out in the country, can be said to live in the middle of it. Cities are never described this way, but small towns and suburbs might be. Where then is ‘somewhere’? Over the rainbow, perhaps?

The no-place that is unlike home, Utopia, More’s coinage: so often taken to mean Eutopia, when in fact Dystopia is almost inevitably the consequence of such abstract idealism. The most successful utopias, Martin Buber found in his brief historical survey Paths in Utopia, are those based on a shared belief-system that acknowledges ultimate indebtedness to something Other. A contemporary reader can’t help feeling rather disappointed in the irony and naivete of Buber’s crowning example, the one with which he concludes his survey: the Israeli kibbutz. Of course, a North American (particularly a Pennsylvanian!) can hardly afford to be smug about folks whose eagerness to build more perfect communities blinded them to the fact of usurpation. We are all going nowhere in a hurry!

Is it too much to ask that the stranger, the unsavory foreigner in our midst, be seen as an image of the divine perfection we seek? But this would require us to come to terms with the always-unsatisfactory realities of the present, rather than the over-the-rainbow dreaminess of a land where nothing ever dies. This was the Buddha’s great discovery: existence is inherently unsatisfactory!* Compared to any preconceived notion that privileges our own comfort/gratification, yes. That is why salvation must be sought in the present moment, right here and now.

Let’s remember, then – whether we believe in it or not – the significance of the Christian myth that so many are presently involved in reliving as best they can. Bethlehem is, in the Bible, the quintessential nothing little town in the middle of nowhere. And, as if that isn’t enough, the messiah has to be born in a barn yet! An in-between place, neither wild nor civilized. Where all manner of outlandish gifts and visitors may be received.

*According to scholars of Pali, this is a much better translation of the first of the Four Noble Truths than the traditional, “Life is suffering.”


The sun sings a song of oneness: Take off your dark glasses, undress, succumb! She holds nothing back, that’s why it hurts to look directly in her heart. From too much whiteness, vision fails. The way of light leads straight through the valley of the shadow. (Or something like that.)
After a week of cold, today the temperature is up near 50 degees F. & even with the sun behind the clouds, the six inches of accumulated snow are sinking fast. Unfortunately the flu has kept me inside for four days, missing out on some great x-c skiing.
“Snowblind” was one of the best songs on Black Sabbath’s flawed masterpiece, Vol. 4. I think it was about the perils of cocaine use. One of the many great LPs I sold off, ten years ago or more, to buy alcohol.

More than metaphor, less than equivalence

Today is the solstice.

“We cannot, I think, install ourselves in being itself, we cannot capture or seize it, any more than we can see the source giving off light – all we can see are surfaces illuminated by the light. I think that this comparison between being and light is a fundamental one. And I hardly need mention that at this point I am very close to the Gospel of John where he speaks of the ‘Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.'”
– Gabriel Marcel, Tragic Wisdom and Beyond (Northwestern U. Press, 1973, p.14).

Making the two one

Recent issues of the rival news weeklies Time and Newsweek buzzed with the new-found popularity of early Christian/Gnostic writings. The Gospel of Thomas is, to me, one of the few really thought-provoking among the vast number of extra-canonical Jewish and Christian texts of the inter-Testamental period. I am using the Helmut Koester translation from James Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library, Revised Edition (Harper, 1999).

This Thomas is not the “Doubting Thomas” of the New Testament, but the purported twin or brother of Jesus. As alluded to in the previous entry, pairs of siblings play prominent roles in many of the major narratives in the Hebrew scriptures: Cain and Abel, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, Moses and Aaron, Moses and Miriam. I mentioned the tension between wild and settled, and some of these sibling pairs do seem to symbolize that conflict. But there may be a political dimension as well, and not just with Isaac/Ishmael and Jacob/Esau. The two kingdoms of Israel and Judah continue this pattern into the historical books of the OT. And for the last two thousand years, it is no stretch to see Christianity and Rabbinical Judaism as twins and rivals in this same mold.

There is of course an epistomological dimension as well. Judaism, Christianity, Gnosticism and Hellenistic philosophy are all, in a sense, stages upon which the ancient conflict between Egyptian monism and Persian dualism played out. Thomas escapes the dilemma by means of the via negativa. The opening verses describe a radical, extra-temporal inversion:

“(1) And he said, ‘Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death.’
“(2) Jesus said, ‘Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the all.’
“(3) Jesus said, ‘If those who led you say to you, “See, the kingdom is in the sky,” then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, “It is in the sea,” then the fish of the sea will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will come to realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.’
“(4) Jesus said, ‘The man old in days will not hesitate to ask a small child seven days old about the place of life, and he will live. For many who are first will become last, and they will become one and the same.'”

This type of inversion reminds me of the widespread folk motif of a land where everything is backwards or upside-down; the afterlife is sometimes described in such terms. Certain holidays in many traditions (including pre-modern Europe) were celebrated with such ritual inversions, as an attempt to manifest the other world – a literal utopia. The art of comedy arises from this belief complex, in Japan and Zuni Pueblo no less than in ancient Greece.

Is there a layer of utopian comedy in the Bible? If so, it probably begins with Sarah, who laughed in God’s face, and laughed again when she bore a son at an impossibly advanced age: “And Sarah said, God hath made me to laugh, so that all that hear will laugh with me.” (Gen. 21:6) The institution of the Sabbath, with all its inversions of ordinary daily practices, is undeniably utopian, though it may or may not be considered comic.

The gnostic imperative of self-knowledge derives from sources more ancient than Socrates; Socrates himself credited the Oracle at Delphi. Bika Reed’s translation of an Egyptian papyrus, allegedly a libretto for an initiation ceremony, finds this idea in explicit practice over 1,000 years earlier. (Rebel in the Soul, Inner Traditions International, 1987.) Although inevitably our judgements are biased by the chance survival of texts, it’s hard not to see Leviticus 19:18 as an important advance. Apropos of yesterday’s entry on Zen, it seems that “Know thyself” should always be twinned with “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Thomas refers again and again to the necessity of seeing like an infant. This obviously goes beyond comic inversion; I can’t help thinking of the Fukuoka quote I brought in for the second entry of this weblog. As most readers are probably aware, Taoism and Zen make much of this motif. References to drunkenness are reminiscent of Taoism as well, though of course Sufism is the direct heir (think especially of Omar Khayyam). From saying 13: “Thomas said to him, ‘Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying what you are like. Jesus said, ‘I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring which I have measured out.'” Jesus then takes him aside, we are told, and favors him with three teachings that cannot be expounded, even to the other disciples.

Saying 22 combines all these motifs: “Jesus saw infants being suckled. He said to his disciples, ‘These infants being suckled are like those who enter the kingdom.’ They said to him, ‘Shall we then, as children, enter the kingdom?’

“Jesus said to them, ‘When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female; and when you fashion eyes in place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, and a likeness in place of a likeness; then will you enter the kingdom.'”

Holy hell!

The stuff of dreams – and the dreams of stuff

(I reproduce this essay from my website as an introduction to some thoughts on the Gospel of Thomas. I no longer agree with my linking of the Native American twins motif with a wild/civilized dichotomy – only a few tribes have myths that might be interpreted that way. It is definitely true of Cain/Abel, Esau/Jacob and Ishmael/Isaac, however.)

Occasionally, across the gulf that is said to separate us dull-eyed, tin-eared interlopers from the ancient owners of the land, there comes a familiar cry. Some sign of our shared humanity, perhaps, reminding us that for them, too, the world was always an ineluctably tragic place. The great comparative religionist Mircea Eliade somewhere says that the major problem with the myth of the “noble savage” is that the so-called savages, too, believed it–about their own, most distant ancestors. Which is to say, in the mythologies of virtually all peoples, indigenous or otherwise, paradise is lost: either in time, or in space. And it’s this acute sense of fallenness that has given rise to codes of ethical behavior based on Welcome to the widow, the orphan, the stranger in the land. Any one of these wanderers (literal or figurative) could be an emissary from that back-of-beyond in the sky, or in the heart of the hills.

But for many traditions, that seemingly inaccessible realm remains nonetheless at hand, in the form of all that is irreducibly Other, beyond human control or comprehension. For American Indians as for the ancient Hebrews, wilderness constitutes a kind of mirror to the settled, human domain. For both, this relationship is most often symbolized by the sometimes friendly, sometimes antagonistic bond between brothers or twins. As in many cultures, the realm of the sacred manifests itself as a living paradox, a union between the two poles of Human and Wild that may be approached through ritual but only experienced directly at death, or through dream and vision. A place inhabited by the sacred is like a transformer, crackling with power and danger. And in fact, the imperative to protect sacred places is sparking a return to traditional conservation values among Native peoples throughout the hemisphere.

I worry that, in trying to understand such traditional worldviews, we risk distortion by assimilating them to our own abstract dichotomies. For instance, is finding a spirit guide really the romantic errancy that New Age would-be practitioners of shamanism imagine–or simply a pragmatic necessity for survival among potentially malevolent forces? There’s very little that one could call dreamy or sentimental in the visionary experiences of Elijah in I Kings, or of Tecumseh, Black Elk or Handsome Lake.

With this lengthy introduction I offer a quote from historian Anthony F.C. Wallace. At issue here are the dream-therapy customs of the Huron as described by early Jesuit missionaries. To my way of thinking, this has the quality of an environmental morality tale.

“The whole village vied to give the sick person his every wish, for any frustration was a threat to life. A dying man might be seen surrounded by literally thousands of scissors, awls, knives, bells, needles, kettles, blankets, coats, caps, wampum belts, beads, and whatever else the sick man’s fancy, or the hopeful guesses of his friends, suggested. And if he died at last, “He dies,” the people would say, “because his soul wished to eat the flesh of a dog, or a man; because a certain hatchet that he wished for could not be procured; or because a fine pair of leggings that had been taken from him could not be found.” And if, on the other hand, he survived, the gift of the last thing that he wished for during his illness was cherished for the rest of his life.” (The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca, Random House, 1969, pp. 70-71.)

As Americans, I believe it is our sacred and patriotic duty to pay much closer attention to the often barely comprehensible demands of our most afflicted: the dreamers and the drug addicts, the autistics and the schizophrenics, the nihilists and the fanatics. Edward Abbey once pointed out that unlimited growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. Out of the depths of our shared sickness, what is it that we truly crave? What gift will save us?

If you meet the buddha . . .

What about Zen? The Dark Zen website offers a new/old version of the teaching that bears a striking similarity to the classic via negativa of the West. Rather than maintaining that a sudden enlightenment experience is the final goal, writers on this site claim that it is only the first stage. Descriptions of subsequent stages of mystical experience are reminiscent of The Cloud of Unknowing or St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night.

In this, they claim to have returned to the roots of Chan (Chinese Zen), and they may be right. Linji (Rinzai) admonished his disciples that “Mind is without form and pervades the ten directions. In the eye it is called seeing, in the ear hearing, in the nose it smells odors, in the mouth it holds converse, in the hands it grasps and seizes, and in the feet it moves and runs. Fundamentally it is a single subtle radiance, divided into six sensory perceptions. Yet since this mind is nothing, it is free, wherever one is!” (Ruth Fuller Sasaki, tr., The Recorded Sayings of Ch’an Master Lin-chi Hui-chao of Chen Prefecture. Institute for Zen Studies, 1975, p. 9.)

What I particularly like about the site, however, is the number of good, critical articles. This seems to be one school that is able to take an unflinching look at Zen’s authoritarian tendencies, as well as what our anti-intellectual, consumer culture has made of it.

“Taking a quick sample of popular Buddhist literature, including slick magazines like Shambhala Sun or Tricycle, from what I can surmise, the profane product they’re all trying hard to sell is how to feel good or the same, how do I restore and keep myself in a state of feeling good about myself?”
Zenmar, “Modern Buddhism: Sacred or Profane?”

“It is fashionable among practitioners in the West to consider critical thought as “un-Zen.” With this view in place, the entire spectrum of permissible thought is now caught and limited within Zen’s mythological presentation, which was a completed creation by the eleventh century in China. Analysis or active use of “the discriminating mind” is frowned upon, or worse, it is viewed as a sign of having too large an ego. Any genuine interpretation or questioning of the meaning of Dharma transmission, lineage, the Zen roshi, their place in the institution, their accountability, and so on is made to seem absurd. The idea and ritual of Dharma transmission rather than the meaning or content of that transmission, becomes the prominent and meaningful fact. Zen elevates its leaders to super-human status, then emphasizes that we should be obedient and subservient to a powerful and supremely accomplished authority figure, precisely because he is powerful and supremely accomplished. Is it any wonder that the inevitable abuses that we have seen for the last thirty years should follow?”
Stuart Lachs, “Richard Baker and the Myth of the Zen Roshi”

“The idea that Zen’s emphasis on wisdom while only giving lip service to compassion in reality is then about power is an idea that I have just begun to examine.” (Ibid.) This is a very interesting point. I am reminded of a quote, which I just came across, by the psychologist Adolph Guggenbuhl-Craig (The Emptied Soul): “Those who cannot love want power.”

When I lived in Japan, I found myself drawn much more to the Pure Land sects, especially Jodo Shinshu. They dispensed with monasteries entirely and, along with the followers of Nichiren, were the first to pay any attention to the common people. They put much more of an emphasis on compassion and on something called Other-power (tariki), analogous to the Christian concept of grace.

Many of the Zennists themselves have historically acknowledged the fairness of the Pure Land sects’ critiques of their practices: that they are available only to an elite few, and that they place too strong an emphasis on individual power (jiriki). In China, Chan was eventually supplanted almost entirely by Pure Land sects. In Korea, Zen or Seon evolved into something more moderate and humane than what it became in Japan under the patronage of the samurai.

“In Korean Zen, the equivalent of roshi/Zen master, the pangjang, is surprisingly an elected position and carries an initial ten-year term… If the master does not perform adequately, a petition by fifty monks would be enough to have a recall vote… A monk’s affinities are more with his fellow meditation monks than with a specific master”. – The Zen Monastic Experience, Robert E. Buswell, Princeton University Press, 1992, cited in Stuart Lachs, “Coming Down from the Zen Clouds: A Critique of the Current State of American Zen”
Yay for the Koreans!


Several years ago, when I was reading Edward Snow’s translations of Rilke’s Book of Images* for the first time, I set about trying to write the mirror image of a Rilkean portrait. The end product was nowhere near his league, of course, but I still include it among those few I am willing to share because I like the way it describes without describing. Our theme being the via negativa, it seems appropriate to reproduce it here.


A pile of shed
garments on
the hardwood floor
rising in layers
of ever thinner
from denim
to lightest cotton
to breath-
less silk &
a trickle
of sunlight
spilling through a crack
in the curtains.
the prim unwrinkled
bed, the generic night-
stand pinned under
a thick phone book
& the blank TV atop
a chest
of drawers
all resist
engagement: nothing
to capture
the enchanted gaze
or even the bemused
No stage
hand could stand
such inattention
to properties,
such utter abandon as
this room’s lone
occupant displays.

–From the manuscript entitled Capturing the Hive, p. 57.

*Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Images. Translated by Edward Snow (bilingual edition), North Point Press, 1991. (The original, Das Buch der Bilder, was published in 1902 and greatly expanded in 1906. Rilke was one of the 20th century’s three or four greatest poets, and Snow is without a doubt his greatest translator.)

'Tis the season

Last year at this time I was putting together a deliberately chaotic personal website. Now, as the longest night of the year approaches, without really thinking about the timing I’ve launched this weblog to document and celebrate the limits to human knowledge – if possible, to “speak the shade.”

And being the kind of crank that I am, as others are celebrating the return of light, I will be mourning the gradual loss of darkness. My cousin Josh sent around the .url for a site on Celebrating Winter Solstice as a Pagan. As usual with this kind of thing I feel a vague nausea at the squishiness of it all. All the world’s a spiritual Wal-Mart – let’s go shopping! Put everything that comforts in your basket, and let nothing you dismay!

I have a theory that the Hebrews fled Egypt to get away from just this sort of thing. Memphite theologians developed a whole system for squeezing the life out of local traditions and sweeping up everything with a Vacuum. Next thing you know, over-awed Greek merchants are pulling their money out of pagan temples to endow chairs in philosophy. This was the original spiritual conquest – not so different in its methods from the economic colonialism that Athens made such a science of.

The Romans were New Agers par excellance. Christianity was just one of a whole panoply of exotic cults that found favor in the later days of the empire. Goddess worship was rife among upper-class matrons. The Roman legionnaires tended to worship Mithra, the Persian personification of light, apparently because his cult celebrated loyalty, obedience, fraternity and celibacy as its chief virtues. Ironically, Persia was Rome’s arch military rival for hundreds of years, but the prestige of its religious traditions was immense in the ancient world. “There was a Persian dispersion similar to that of the Israelites. Communities of magi were established not only in eastern Asia Minor, but in Galatia, Phrygia, Lydia and even in Egypt. Everywhere they remained attached to their customs and beliefs with persistent tenacity.” (Franz Cumont, Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism, Dover, 1956, p. 139.)

Yes, Virginia, there were Magi. It is thanks to their influence that Christian doctrine ended up demonizing Nature and propagating the absurd doctrine of Original Sin.

The Romans saw themselves as a tolerant and enlightened people. What they didn’t like about Christians was their ideological intolerance, their claim to a monopoly on truth. They were dangerous subversives, because they refused to acknowledge the divinity of the emperor. Both Roman and Christian – like the Muslims after them – insisted that they were pursuing the way toward peace and justice and the Brotherhood of Man. It was a clash of competing universalisms. The verdict is still out on which ideology triumphed.

Blah blah blah, whatever. Meanwhile I have become “attached with tenacity” to the phrase, “Persian dispersion!” No wonder Cumont’s translator(s) chose to remain anonymous!

And the critics go wild

dude, what kind of blog is that? I can’t even make fun of you in the comment threads. How am I supposed to infiltrate and undermine nothing? I am an anti-nothing and want my right to dissent back!
– Jim K.

(Dave’s note: bookmark Jim’s own blog for all your northwest PA news needs, www.seamuspress.com.)

I read your blog some. Lots of nuggets there but, in general, it hurts my head. Too much at once for me, end result is mental chaos…for me. Good ideas tend to have more power when they’re all by themselves on a page…IMHO
– Snoid

– Marcia B.

There is no substitute for conversation…there just isn’t.
* * * *
Since reading your blog I look at my old pants very differently.
– Lucy B.

too deep for me. play some skynrd.
– Mark B.