Myotis lucifugus

The portico light had been left on, and after a while I noticed that bats had begun swooping in to catch the insects that swarmed around it. Eva and I went to the door to watch. Just as we got there, a bat flew in above us and didn’t go back out. I opened the door and looked up. He had climbed into the crack between the end of the roof and the side of the house, and had begun grooming himself. With the aid of a flashlight, this turned into quite an engrossing spectacle.

The bat – a little brown myotis, presumably a solitary male – kept his face turned mostly away from us, so that what we saw most often looked like a big-eared mouse chewing on a tiny umbrella. Only when he worked on the surface of an open wing did we get a look at his face, dimly visible through the thin membrane of skin.

The contrast between the smooth wing and the deeply wrinkled, pushed-in face seemed to suggest some elemental truth about the night, and about the sort of consciousness one must evolve to fully inhabit it. I mean, one can easily follow custom and read into a bat’s face the stamp of evil, or an eldritch wisdom. But nothing of that sort came to mind; only now, in retrospect, do judgements like these suggest themselves. We felt, I think, only a simple awe.

We watched so long, Eva started to complain of neck cramps, and both my arms got tired from holding the flashlight in turn. He spent most of his time on the wings, with only a few nibbles at his abdomen. Is this something that bats have to do every few hours to remain flight-worthy? Bat Conservation International’s website says only that

In addition to day roosts in tree cavities and crevices, little brown myotis seem quite dependent upon roosts which provide safe havens from predators that are close to foraging grounds.

So possibly the screech owl that we heard calling intermittently had been too close for comfort.

When the bat finished grooming, he turned his listening face full on me for a few seconds, then, rather than flying out the way he came, scuttled up feet first through a crack in the tiles and disappeared. It was only then that I thought to wonder if the flashlight had hurt his eyes.

The world doesn’t end

We were so poor I had to take the place of the bait in the mousetrap.

Charles Simic, The World Doesn’t End

The Queen of Noisy Things says she misses the quiet. Everyone clamors agreement. Well, almost everyone.

The president of a small company whose one plant is far from the action says, We can only compete by focusing on quality. That’s the burden this isolated location has visited on us. In return, our workers get quality of life, close to the land. The plant sits a few miles from the exact center of the country. What could be more convenient? If you stand facing north, the sound of the ocean is just about the same in either ear.

The queen muses. It can crush you, that quiet. Hanging from a rope inside a crevasse in a glacier, out of the howling wind, hearing a sudden creak from deep in the ice: an extra shiver. Or in the silence after love, with the pounding of the blood slowly diminishing in the ears. So much tenderness, a single word could ruin everything.

The plant burned to the ground. The next day, everyone showed up as usual. The president, himself a line-worker then, remembers how the workers had to first draw up their own templates. In the temporary absence of everything but faith, without the clamor of machines to come between them, they pulled together. Production resumed within a month. The fire lived on in the workers’ bellies.

Comparative religion: a brief exercise

1.
Jesus wept.
Sarah laughed.
Gautama touched the ground.

2.
The Messiah came, and is expected to return.
The Messiah will come when all hearts are ready, when all minds have turned.
The future Buddha is still a bodhisattva, but you can visualize him as a Buddha in the present if it helps.

3.
With God, all things are possible.
With God, all things are possible except the forgiveness that only the person you have wronged can give.
With bodhi-mind, all things are as they are: impossible.

Dust

Some responses to a poem of Kurt’s over at Coffee Sutras put me in mind of the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch. Unfortunately, the only translation I have is pretty clunky, but it’s part of a thick volume of sutras, published in Taiwan back in 1962, that contains classical Chinese and English on facing pages. I remember just enough Chinese from college to be able to figure out how to improve on the English (which I otherwise use as a crutch).

Please note that I am not a Zen Buddhist, however; I welcome suggestions on how to improve the translation and commentary that follow.

The Platform Sutra is in my opinion a classic of world literature on the level of St. Augustine’s Confessions. Like that work, it does get rather dull in parts. But the opening section contains an autobiography that is remarkable for the author’s insights into the mental condition of his would-be adversary Shenxiu, the head monk at the Chan (Zen) monastery where an illiterate Huineng – the future Sixth Patriarch – is stuck in the kitchen, put on rice-hulling duty.

The central drama concerns the contest over dharma transmission, a perennial, defining feature of hierarchical politics within the Chan sect. Like the aging Isaac in the Bible, who to the utter perplexity of most modern readers has but a single blessing to dispense to one of his two children, Chan masters apparently could only transmit the mystical essence of their teaching (dharma) to one pupil. Such transmission can only occur if the pupil has attained some form of enlightenment. That’s the theory, anyway.

So one day the reigning patriarch announces what amounts to a poetry contest for the monastic succession. After a protracted argument with himself about what to do, Shenxiu sneaks out after dark to graffito his submission anonymously on the side of a wall:

The body is like the bodhi-tree,
The mind, a bright mirror.
Hour by hour one wipes it clean.
Dust never gets a chance to settle!

The sutra describes Shenxiu returning to his room and lying awake until dawn, plagued with doubts. “In the quiet of his room he pondered: ‘When the Patriarch sees my stanza tomorrow, if he likes it, it will show that I am ready for the dharma. But if he disapproves, it will mean I’m unworthy, owing no doubt to misdeeds in previous lives, karmic accumulations thoroughly beclouding my mind. What will he say about it? It’s so hard to predict!'”

Huineng doesn’t say how he gained this omniscient narrator’s perspective; perhaps the pious reader is supposed to take it as a sign of his unique attainment. But I wonder if this might not also hint at some otherwise secret rapprochement between adversaries, whose respective followers would maintain a strong rivalry for centuries.

At any rate, the next day when the Master comes across the verse, he diplomatically orders incense to be burned before it, declaring that anyone who follows its teachings would gain great merit. The monks lose no time in figuring out its author, and many of them quickly commit it to memory. That’s the other great thing about this sutra: its wholly convincing portrayal of monastic politics. Noble intentions and genuine insights mix with insecurity, arrogance and obsequiousness. The master himself, we soon learn, isn’t exactly a free agent, and fears violence and general insurrection if he passes over the head monk in choosing his successor. He sends for Shenxiu the following night, imparts some gentle words of instruction, and urges him to keep trying.

Huineng, engrossed in his kitchen duties, remains blissfully unaware of this swirl of political events. But one day, an acolyte passes by the kitchen loudly reciting Shenxiu’s verse.

“What poem is that?” I asked the lad. “You dumb hick! How could you not know about it? The Master told all his followers that, since the question of rebirth was so difficult, those who wish to inherit his robe and teaching should write him a verse, and whoever managed to express the true nature of the mind would become the Sixth Patriarch. Elder Shenxiu wrote this free verse stanza on the wall of the south corridor and the Master told us to recite it. He also said that those who put its teachings into practice would benefit tremendously and be saved from rebirth in the Hell realms.”

I told him I wanted to learn it too, so I might have the benefit of it in the future. Even though I’d been at the monastery for eight months hulling rice, I’d never had occasion to go to the meditation hall, so I asked the boy to show me where the poem was written so I could pay my respects.

He led me to the spot. Since I was illiterate, I asked him to read it to me. A petty officer of the Canton district named Zhang Zhiyong happened to be passing by, and he stopped and read it out clearly for me. [This presumably means he translated it into the vernacular.] Then I told him that I too had composed a poem, and asked if he could write it there for me.

“How extraordinary!” he exclaimed. “Can someone like you really compose a poem?”

“Even if it’s the highest form of enlightenment you’re after, you shouldn’t look down on a beginner,” I replied.

“Please recite your stanza, then,” he said. “I’ll write it down. But if you should succeed and win the dharma, don’t forget to bring me along!”

My stanza read as follows:

Bodhi has nothing to do with a tree;
Bright and reflective, the mind is nothing like a mirror.
Without so much as a single attribute,
How could there be any place for dust to collect?”

Later on, attracted by the gathering crowd, the Master came over and erased the poem with his shoe to prevent anyone from getting envious and beating me up. When they saw this, the monks assumed it meant that the poem’s author had not yet realized the essence of the mind.

The next day, the Patriarch came secretly to the room where rice was milled. Seeing me at work with the stone pestle, he said, “A seeker of the path risks his life for the dharma. Is this proper?” Then he asked, “Is the rice ready?” “Ready long ago,” I replied. “It’s just waiting for the sieve.” He knocked the mortar three times with his stick and went away.

Guessing what the signal meant, in the third watch of the night I went to his room. Using his robe as a screen so that no one would see us, he expounded the Diamond Sutra to me. When he came to the line, “One should use one’s mind in such a way that it will be free from attachment,” I suddenly became thoroughly enlightened and realized that the mind’s true nature can’t be differentiated from the world at large.

On re-reading this, I’m struck by the reverence for the text displayed throughout the Platform Sutra. Though the story of Huineng gaining enlightenment without the benefit of literacy would play a role in the development of anti-intellectual tendencies in some later versions of Zen, in his own teachings the recitation of texts occupies a central place. Silent reading won’t do; one must hear, take to heart/mind and speak. But as the example of Shenxiu demonstrates, words themselves, however worthy of respect, can be of little use to the mind that still sees itself as apart from its words and images, the “ten thousand things” that accumulate seemingly of their own accord, like dust.

It’s no wonder, then, that the portrait of Shenxiu is so sympathetic and psychologically realistic: we are meant to hear ourselves in his agonized self-doubt.

On a wing and a prayer

I’m tired. I woke up earlier than usual with stranger than usual phrases dancing on the tip of my mind’s tongue: still life with homunculus. The automata of experience. Three feathers for the last emir. There was also one that tasted deliciously ordinary, but melted before I could get downstairs and commit it to writing.

*

Crescent moon long set, starlight’s enough to make the mist visible in the corner of the field. On the other side of the driveway, a round, white spot the size of a small pumpkin. It isn’t moving. I carry my empty cup into the kitchen, fetch a flashlight, train it on the spot: it’s a balloon. Maybe one of the ones left over from when my niece was here last week, blown down from my parent’s house. I could make something wistful out of all this, I know. But one thing about living on a mountain is that the wind has a way of dropping off balloons let loose many miles away. “Happy anniversary,” they say, or “Congratulations on your retirement.” You know how it works, I’m sure: they rise only so high, the wind takes them a ways, then when enough helium leaks out they sink to the ground. A bit like prayer flags, a bit like roadside trash.

*

I wonder where the intrepid bicyclists spent the night. I’m talking about a group of twelve who left Pittsburgh on Friday, bound for New York City to protest at the Republican National Convention. The point of going there by bike is to draw attention to our gasoline addiction, apparently. But J., our contact with the group, admitted that she was mainly just curious to see if she could do it.

There weren’t any convenient state parks or state forests to camp in on the second night of their sojourn, so we offered use of the (ahem!) Plummer’s Hollow Private Nature Reserve. But they badly underestimated the distance and the extent to which Central Pennsylvania topography would interfere with cell phone reception. Many became separated from the group and got lost. In the end, only the four hardiest bicyclists made it this far, straggling in well after dark. The other eight ended up scattered all along the Allegheny Front.

By 9:00 a.m. yesterday, only one was still unaccounted for, and they arranged to reunite at the bottom of the hollow before continuing east. “Give ’em hell in New York, if you get there,” I said rather thoughtlessly as I waved goodbye from the porch. “Hey, we’ll make it!” the leader shouted, dismounting and lifting his bike over the first of the 45 grating-topped culverts that keep the Plummer’s Hollow Road from washing into the Little Juniata.

I hope the thick fog that had been blanketing the valleys at 7:00 when I walked up to the top of the ridge had burnt off a bit by the time they got down there. Good luck, y’all. Keep your powder dry.

*

The balloon turned out to be trailing a long, silver ribbon, so it wasn’t one of ours. I wonder how far it traveled to get here, and what might have been the occasion of its escape – or release? It’s completely blank. Supply your own message.

The ineffable, with a sore bottom

For Beth, because she liked it

You sit, spine arrow-
straight, aiming at
the center of each
ripple: that spot where
a mayfly guttered,
where a thought-
fish rose. Unwatched,
your face begins to show
its phylogeny, relaxing
against the skull’s
inverted cup. You start
to glow, like any primate
being groomed – though
there’s no other.
The preceptor’s long-
ago story has set
root: how the only guard
on duty left her post
because she forgot the
watchword, bought
herself a bottle &
drank & drank until
she forgot her own
name. So the city
was overrun: that’s
how you’re sitting.
Through the open window
the sound of rain like
the body’s finest hairs
whispering with static.
You sit as if you were
no longer waiting
for anything, as if your
bones were tired of talking
among themselves,
as if they could climb
an upside-down tree
of lightning.
If only they weren’t
sewn up in a bag like
field mice in their
cave of grass: all flesh,
all blister. I mean
this grab bag,
this very poem
so far from where
you sit.

The head cook’s instructions for Dogen

(Dogen’s Tenzo Kyokun, “Instructions for the Head Cook,” became a central text for the Soto school of Zen, which he founded in the 13th century. In a beautiful series of images, Dogen urges his monks to exercise the tender care of a parent or grandparent toward each other, toward themselves, toward all things, animate or otherwise. “Handle the grains of rice as if they were your own eyes,” Dogen preached. I started thinking, what a pain in the ass he must have been if they ever actually let him in the kitchen!)

Oh childless father,
let me tell you about
this Grandmother
Mind: she slices.
She minces.
She chops.
She makes short work
of fat monks.
Go to the Dojo.
If you want to eat
on time, let
me nap.