Shuffling thru cold fire
shaped like fallen leaves:
after all these years
I still don’t know
what they are.
Shuffling thru cold fire
shaped like fallen leaves:
after all these years
I still don’t know
what they are.
Waking in my room above the Clear Light Cafe, I slip into my patched robe and descend to the kitchen where i wash my face, start a fire in the iron stove and make what I call coffee here at the charred edge of history and the end of Time with a big T. A few nows later finds me dining on bannock and coffee in a bombed out upper room that serves as a deck for surveilling the village below and the ashen waste beyond. Presently I notice a figure in black threading the empty street in my direction. Even at this distance I can tell from her gait that it’s a woman, one with no nonsense on her mind and soon I see that it’s my dear Lucida. As she comes near her face turns up to reflect the morning sun and I wave. She waves back and soon I hear the door jingle open, her steps on the creaking stair and here she is, coming for a hug and breakfast. Eagerly she tears into her bannock and something in a tin she has brought with her. She passes the tin which I sniff then taste on my knife. A ghost touches my scalp and I whisper one word: strawberry. You have strawberries, I say. In old cans loaded with sugar that some call white death.
Yes, she says. There are cases of it, in a warehouse exposed by the shifting dunes.
We best call a meeting, I say.
Let sleeping dogs, lie she says.
Yes, but not starving neighbours.
Of course, she says, but that can wait. What you been doing?
Still talking to the Red Monk, I say, roughing out his story. He’s currently locking brows with a philosopher in 5th century Alexandria about his way of communicating with the gods.
Oh the gods, she says. Where were they during the holocausts?
They were burning, I said, and pouring oil on the flames.
And where are they now?
Having breakfast, I say, and doing what they can to survive.
I’d like to talk to a god, she says. How would I do that?
Depends on the god, I say. The philosopher Proclus described it like this. First you have to choose which god you want to link with, preferably one for which you have a natural affinity. If you like the sun you choose Helios, if the moon: Selene, War: Ares, Love: Aphrodite.
What about the children of Night? she asks, with a different voice.
Some like it darker, I say. Perhaps you would like to commune with Fate, Doom, Death, Sleep, Dreams, old Age, Pain, Revenge, Strife, Deceit or Sexual Pleasure.
I thought sex was the province of Eros, she said.
Eros was the god of sexual love, I said, it includes all pleasures that are ruled by love but excludes any that accrue to cold hearted fucking or rape.
Death and I are already close, she says. No help needed there. I could have a better relation to Sleep. I guess belladonna or opium would bring me closer to her but I don’t have either of those, yet.
The Red Monk says he met her once, in a crypt under Alexandria. she was surrounded by torches and her face was hidden behind a mask with two curved tusks, I say. A mask of hide.
An animal, she says, with tusks curved like the new and waning moon. I’d like to meet her.
I know a place, I say.
The green hill is still there, half buried in grey sand, its charred top still surmounted by nine grey pillars supporting nothing but the pale sky. Between the pillars we approach the low dome of age worn stones, pass thru the entrance hole and descend the ashy spiral stair by the faint glow of an unseen source and presently come to a tall, curved gap in a curved wall. Stepping thru the gap we find ourselves at the rim of a vast sphere, seemingly clothed in a tapestry of vistas, each framing a long road or avenue along which processions, small groups or individual beings are travelling to, thru and from this intersection, this tiny node in the warp and weft of inconceivable emptiness.
Now Luci and I are moving toward a tall figure which has magnetized our attention. It’s robed in the same fabric as the outer sphere and it seems to be instructing those who come to pass, about which paths are safe or wise or otherwise worth taking. Then the figure turns and I see that its face is a blur of possible beasts except for the bright, curved tusks which resolve at last into a disc of light around a human face. I bow toward that face as it bows toward me and as our eyebrows touch I hear it say, Ah, Light. Things are much more visible when you’re here. Then the moon beast bends to touch brows with my friend, asking her name.
Lucida, she says, tho he calls me the Dark One.
Nothing is more lucid than a clear night, says the Guide, a perfect medium for luminous things.
And you are?
Like you, he says, a medium, a guide. What are you looking for?
Poetry, she says, I weary of all this circumambulation.
Straight to the point then, he says, and sings:
I loved your master perfectly
and I taught him all that he knew.
He was starving in some deep mystery
like a man who is sure what is true.
At this point I begin to feel uneasy. The story is getting away from me the nominal author. But that verse has been going thru my head intermittently for hours, days and I begin to see maybe why. As Lucida and the guide continue to chat I put my guess into the following words:
The deepest reach of my poeticosophical quest so far is my understanding that I don’t and never will possess more than partial knowledge of the ultimate nature of existence, the cosmos, things as it is, what is actually happening here and now: this hand that moves the brush, the brush, the ink, the paper. When I reach this point I am suspended in mystery but I’m not sure what to feel about it. Is this the ultimate epiphany? Part of me hopes not because it wants that hunger for a deeper understanding and the thrill when it is reached.
Lucida and the portal guide are still in conversation, not noticing my absence, which has only been a moment really. If I’m starving in this great mystery I’m like a person at a banquet who can’t decide which dishes to eat before he becomes the skeleton at the table.
Lucida disappears for days at a time and when she does my brain starts to play an old song by Bill Withers:
Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone
Only darkness every day
Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone
And this house just ain’t no home anytime she goes away
Kitty feels the same. We mope around the caff and she steers clear of this melancholy beast who tries to console himself by doing little chores. Like installing an under sink valve I found in the salvage shop, in its original box which said it was made by Honeywell. According to the restored microfiche at the Dead Library I learned that biz was an industrial conglomerate that once sold 20 backpack drones to the US navy for the modest sum of 8 million bucks but the brass valve only cost me a few barter bucks and works well.
In the morning I mix thawed plums with oats, water, ground flax and olive oil then bake the paste into a tasty muffin to go with coffee and read some news from the era just before the Burn. The big stories were about a British populist coup, the impeachment of the clown in the White House and a debate about whether the global heating was real or just a left wing hoax supported by more than 90 percent of the world’s climate scientists.
Since I have a free weekend I have time to read further about Proclus, who lived in Alexandria and Athens fifteen centuries ago and wrote about rituals for linking the soul to its god or gods and ultimately to the inconceivable source of all this flow we call life and existence. No philosopher of his time wondered if the gods and associated invisibles were real tho they were sketchy about where they lived. Some believed they inhabited certain mountains and rivers but Proclus probably thought they resided in some domain beyond any human conceptions of space.
I think it’s obvious that the gods and their associates live in the neural activities of the individual subconscious mind and imagination and in the broader field of conscious and subconscious minds connected by culture, media and conversation. In that broader field they appear as figures of religion, ideology and myth but also disguised as memes, cliches and characters in books and movies.
Looking up from my book I see that the Red Monk has entered the Clear Light and notice as he passes the luminous windows of morning that he casts no shadow. Tho I had not noticed the chair on the other side of my table I wave him to take it and bring a bottle of warm sake with two small cups. He holds it in his mouth before swallowing then, like the spirits in Hades, he is able to speak.
Only one thing I’d rather have on my tongue, he says.
That some zen riddle? I ask.
He only grins and says, I met Proclus in Alexandria, in the new Mouseion which local philosophers had improvised in the house of Theon. A youth 12 years my junior he had begun his education in Xanthos and moved from there to Alexandria to pursue the study of rhetoric in order to become a lawyer but during a journey to Byzantium he discovered philosophy as his vocation. Back in Alexandria he studied Aristotle and mathematics. Learned all of Aristotle’s logical writings by heart. Soon after our meeting Proclus moved to Athens, attracted to study at the Platonic School there. In Athens he would expand and systematize the philosophy of Plotinus which was a response to the sceptical position that we only know the appearances presented by our senses, and not the world as it is. Plotinus believed that the nature of the world is inherent in each part of it, including the part of the world that receives sense data, which he called the soul. This I learned from his lectures at the new Museion and our conversations after.
The soul, he said, knows the world thru sense data but it can also know itself directly by turning away from the senses which are of the external body and the external world. This direct knowing of its own nature is reflected in the insights and epiphanies produced by philosophy, and especially by its three primary practices: meditation, contemplation and theurgy. Meditation calms the mind and enables it to see what controls its attention. How its attention is commanded by habitual practices that offer relief from the pain of want, desire, insecurity, lack of freedom and lack of control, including self control. The soul then sees that the basis of taking command of its life is taking control of its attention.
Plotinus’s extension of Plato described a simple cosmos elaborated from an ineffable One which produced a supreme Intellect which produced a cosmic Soul of which each individual soul was an emanation. The individual soul then somehow produced the body locally as an instance of the cosmic Soul’s production of the material world.
What is theurgy? I asked.
Just as the cosmic soul is the sum of all souls, said Proclus, the One is the sum of all the great ones who are called the gods. Theurgy is the practice whereby an individual soul orients its attention toward the One by prayer or ritual directed to communion with one or several gods. On the day of the Sun, for example, my soul turns like a sunflower toward Helios the Sun who is the god of all sunlike forms.
According to Proclus philosophy was an activity which could liberate the soul from subjection to bodily passions, remind it of its origin in Soul, Intellect, and the One, and prepare it not only to ascend to the higher levels while still in this life but to avoid falling immediately back into a new body after death. Thru these methods, he said, philosophy shows the soul how to resume command of its attention, wake to its origin, resume its journey back to the Source and liberate it from its obsession with the body so that, if death comes before it attains the goal it will not automatically fall into rebirth but, if reborn, will resume the journey at a higher level.
I concluded that Proclus had created an impressive picture of a dynamic cosmos of things, intellects and souls and their relations to each other. But was not convinced that this was the universe I was living in. Even so, I liked the idea of a practical way to find out who or what was really in control of my attention so I asked Proclus to teach me how to use meditation for this purpose.
A few days later I found myself led by torchlight thru a dark cavern beneath the radiant marble of Alexandria. On either side the walls were scooped with shallow cavities filled with bones or dedicated mummies, the entrances festooned with the stink of dying flowers or candles where mourners knelt to murmur prayers, oblivious to the rats whose eyes occasionally reflected our passing light. Finally we came into a deep side channel and I realized that this dry necropolis had once been an underground river that had forked here on its way to the great Middle Sea. Here we stopped and sat on ancient stones to contemplate the walls inscribed with the shapes which ancient plants and fishes had left in the walls before their contents rotted away. I could almost here the sound of waves then I heard a deeper sound, the sound of a conch that seemed to rise from somewhere deep below the ground and a chorus of deep voices began to chant in unison until the torch bearers moved forward to encircle a robed figure with the head of a strange animal.
I surmised that it was a person wearing a mask of hide that enclosed her head, leaving only holes for three eyes that glistened thru the dark above two pale parentheses of horn. Tho the figure had no visible mouth it produced a voice that sounded clear but soft, like a child’s.
I am, it said, the first mother of all animals and men. You are the children of my children and all living are your kin. What can I tell you? What do you most need to know?
What is the origin of evil? I asked.
Look within, she whispered, as the torches withdrew and she melted into darkness.
Back above ground I walked with Proclus thru the hot, white city, keeping to the shade of trees and walls as we returned to our apartments. Your question, he said, is probably the most urgent a soul can ask. Plotinus said evil stems not from the soul but from matter. Not that matter is evil, as some Gnostics say. It rises from our fascination, absorption in material forms. Evil happens when we get mired in material concerns and forget to look up toward consciousness and the emanations of the Divine. Plotinus teaches that even tho the soul so distracted may fall into evil thoughts and actions it is still intrinsically good and just has to wake to its true nature and divine origin.
So you believe there are no irremediably corrupted souls, I said.
Plotinus believed that, he said, but when I consider, for instance, what the vile monks of Nitria did to Theon’s daughter I am not convinced. I think they serve an evil god.
But Plotinus probably believes that the souls of gods, like those of humans, are essentially good?
Exactly, he said, I will move to Athens soon, to study at his academy and I intend to question Syrianus his successor about this absurd belief.
But, I said, if the souls of humans and gods can be corrupted how far up the ladder of souls can this corruption reach?
Well, he laughed, if you believe, as we Platonists do, that the gods are real and the myths about them must be taken seriously you must accept that the gods are sometimes ruled, like us humans, by passion, ignorance and hate and these forms of evil go back to the very beginnings of the world as depicted by our creation myths. Shall I go on?
I nodded my eager assent.
According to our earliest myth there was originally a formless state called Chaos from which arose Darkness and Night who copulated to give birth to the bright upper Aether and Day. Then Night by herself produced Fate, Doom, Death, Sleep, Dreams, old Age, Pain, Revenge, Strife, Deceit and Sexual Pleasure which of course leads to all the miseries of embodiment. Chaos also produced Gaia the Earth who gave birth to Uranus the Sky and with him bred the Titans. One of them was Cronus and Gaia persuaded him to castrate his dad with a threshing sickle. (Cronus is also a name of Time which produces and consumes all things.) Because he castrated his father Cronus feared that his own children would do likewise so every time his wife gave birth he grabbed the child and ate it. I could go on but you see my point.
Your gods, I said, have even more mischief in them than you Greeks do.
Exactly, so if Plotinus believes that our gods are real and that they are void of evil then he must believe that our myths about them are lies. But then you are denying the authority of tradition which says that to err is not only human it is also a propensity of the gods. I intuit the truth of that view and I believe the propensity to think or do evil is present in all beings, all the way up to the First Soul and the First Intellect. So I do not accept that evil only arises from us lower souls and our fascination with material form.
So evil is a propensity of being, I said. What about good?
Evil is just good with its power drained by evil and vice versa. Both are polar manifestations of the energeia which stands beyond good and evil.
Energeia? I said.
Aristotle’s word, he said. It has to with the power that enables movement between the possible and the actual, dream and reality, thought and action.
I would like to learn more about that, I said. But what, in your view, is the original or primary good to which good minds aspire.
That’s a good question, he said with a laugh. Plotinus said that the primary good is the One because it makes all things, and in so doing it bestows on each one the primary good of individuality which makes it distinct and separable from all others.
That also describes perception, I said. Maybe things only become distinct when I perceptually distinguish them, from the background.
That would usurp the role of the Creator. We Platonists believe that things first become distinct individuals when the original Intellect so distinguishes them.
But maybe, I said, when you and I perceive a valid distinction between a bird and a tree we are channeling the creative perception of the One and bestowing individuality upon each of them.
I like that idea, said Proclus, it would mean that each of us participates in the creation of each thing in the act of perceiving it.
That was my first contact with the idea that mind is the source, the generator of all forms, says the Red Monk. Later, when I reached the lands of the Indus and the Ganges I found the school of Mind Only which takes the idea even further. The Platonists say that the first mind the Nous or Intellect creates all souls and all bodies but that matter so created exists independently of our perception. But the Mind Only schools teach that material forms are forms created by each mind that are fundamentally insubstantial figures of change and the dreaming mind alone is real. That view is erroneous I think because mind can no more exist without body than darkness without light. Mind minds body and body embodies mind. If there were no embodiment of mind in thoughts, feelings, words and acts what would the mind be? Conversely if there were no thoughts, feelings, words or plans for action what would the body be?
In dreamless sleep, say I your humble narrator. Which suggests that matter might exist before mind then evolve into thinking matter.
Yes but at what point does it become mind-like matter? If mind is a function of evolved matter then matter must always be latently mind-like.
Or mind must always be latently matter-like, I say. So the primary delusion of the Mind Only schools is the notion that a mind could exist that is not actually or latently material and the converse delusion, held by materialists, is that matter could exist that was not actually or latently mental.
Yes, says the Red Monk, but the Platonists built a second illusion on the first. They claimed that the Mind bestowed individuality as the fully separable and unitary nature of persons and things. But in deeper meditation we see that no man is an island entire unto itself. Our unity is only complete insofar as we share in the unity of all things.
That suggests an aphorism, I say: only the One is entirely one.
One what? He asks.
One cup, I say, of sake. I pour and we sip in silence then I ask, what does this have to do with your question about the source of evil? Is it not just an inexplicable propensity?
That propensity is at bottom a propensity to see myself as fundamentally separate from others. Ironically the Platonists, however pious their intentions, actually divinized the common illusion that our separate individuality is fundamental. They failed to see that we are only superficially separable and the delusion of a separable self is the source of the constant anxiety and coldness that alienates us from all other beings. Ironically even our mutual indifference and hostility is produced by our inseparable natures because they impel us to act as one in mutual hostility when we fall as one into the collective delusion that we are fundamentally separate, a delusion that denies our natural impulses to love our other selves. All hate is self hatred.
That hatred is really the tension between our true nature and our delusory separate persona, I say, the mask and the true face beneath it.
So what is this book you’re reading about? asked the Dark Youth.
It’s one of the Red Monk’s notebooks. I’m helping him write a memoir of his journey from Persia to China and this notebook covers his side trip to the city of Alexandria where he met a philosopher named Proclus. He was a follower of Iamblichus who called himself a theurgist. Iamblichus said philosophy was talking about gods but theurgy was working with gods which involved rituals and prayers.
What are these gods? asked the Dark One.
They were a race of beings who lived near the top of the pyramid of predation, higher than angels who were their messengers and delivered their dictates to the warlords and presidents who ran the world. The philosophers developed elaborate schemes to chart who was above whom in the cosmic hierarchy of power and the theurgists devised prayers and rituals that pleased the gods and won their favours which might include wealth, physical or mental powers, love, healthy children and of course an afterlife in heaven or hell.
All the bullshit that religion promised, said the Dark One. And where are those gods now? Now that their worshippers have turned Earth into a wasteland.
Where they have always been, said the Red Monk, who had come as he always does, simply appearing before you have noticed his approach. I smiled and brought him a cup of sake which he drank in one shot then licking his lips he turned to the Dark Youth and said: Regarding gods there are two beliefs held by the simple of mind— that the god’s exist somewhere in the sky and that the god’s do not exist anywhere. The latter belief is based on the fact that gods have no bodies of their own, which is probably true.
No bodies of their own? said the Dark One.
They don’t need them, noble son. All they need to operate on Earth and elsewhere is the body of at least one believer and some of them had millions of eager, believing bodies, before the floods and the great burn.
Which were caused by those gods, said the youth. I’d like to kill them all.
No need, said the Red Monk. Their believers are mostly gone now, drowned or fried, and a god without believers is no god at all.
Their are still some believers around, I said, on Mars, on a starship I hear, carrying the god virus to some other unlucky planet.
But there must have been good gods, said the youth.
There were a few, said the Red Monk, but they were scattered and failed to collaborate in time to withstand the great monotheisms, the followers of powerful primitive gods who hated each other, each claiming to be the one true god who told his troops to have no other gods before him. The big ones were all male gods who ordered their followers to destroy the temples of the earlier goddesses and murder their priestesses the witches. They were celestial warlords, deifications of the territorial male ape and the physical dictators of the world and their obsequious priests were happy to do their bidding.
The historical sequence is graphically charted in the Buddhist Wheel of Life, I said. At the top of the wheel is the realm of the gods, all opulence and splendour. Then territorial conflict drags them down to the realm of warring gods, which drags the whole world in and lays waste to it until it becomes the realm of hungry ghosts. You see a lot of those around now and most of them descend even further, down to the hell realms of fire and ice and finally the survivors crawl away, reduced to the realm of animals, just getting by from day to day. You see a lot of that around here too.
That’s how I live, said the Dark Youth, hand to mouth, abandoned houses.
You’re welcome to camp here, I said. The Clear Light Cafe is slowly rising, into the human realm and I could use some company on the trip. By the way, I’m tired of calling you the Dark One, what is your name?
He pulled back his dark hood, revealing a brilliant smile:
It’s Luci, he (she?) said, Luci with an i,
short for Lucifer.
Such a powerful thought, I said, so loudly that the Dark Youth woke from his dark thoughts and said, what are you reading?
“In the existential situation of embodied souls, Iamblichus’s introduction of theurgic rituals provided a mediation between man’s experience of matter as an oppressive weight, separating him from the divine, and his innate awareness of matter as the vehicle that joined him with the gods.”
Matter sure is heavy, said TDY.
Yes I, said, but what would we be without it?
And what would that be like?
Sex, drugs and ice cream, whatever you cared to imagine.
So what would you imagine? I asked.
A world, he said, like this one but better.
And what would you make your world with?
Mind stuff, he said. I’d make it out of my own substance—pure mind.
And it would have grass that lived on dirt and deer that lived on grass and tigers that lived on deer?
Yeah, he said, it would all be made of dirt, but nicer dirt.
Nicer matter, I said.
Yeah, he said, magical matter.
Could this magical matter evolve into an animal that thinks?
Sure, he said. A magical animal.
What would it think about?
That would depend, he said. When it was little it would think about its mom and dad.
Then it might pick up a magical leaf or stone, I said.
Yeah, he said, it might pick up a red leaf, dying on the ground. And wonder.
Yeah, he said, it might wonder why leaves turn red and fall. Why anything falls, why things have weight.
Why magical matter is so heavy, I said.
Yeah, he said. I saw them carry a man I knew on a stretcher. Two ambulance guys with a heavy load. He had just died, someone said, and I was surprised. His body should be lighter now, I thought, since he’s no longer in it.
So if you want to imagine a world, I said, you have to imagine matter. And it has to be heavy so that it gloms into planets and sprouts bodies that struggle with their own weight and the obdurate solidity of walls and floors, the permanence of struggle, the impermanence of pleasure. When you step away and look at the whole show it is…
Is what? he asked.
A child, I said, looking at a leaf, the veins that branch like highways from the stem, to the edges where her fingers curve then let it fall to examine those very fingers that branch from the palm of her hand, an expanse of living translucent stuff that makes her ask, What is this stuff I call my hand?
What is this stuff called me?
I am about to die tho it may take a few more years
So what can I say to wake myself and maybe you
To the wonder that grounds the ground itself
And every blade that grows to knit the tongue
That twists my breath into these words
This is my only gift the gab that wakes me up
And maybe you if you can cut the crap
Of endless craving for anything but
The treasure that is always here
At the tip of your tongue
Like that word you have forgotten
The word for that dimple between your nose
And your upper lip
Or the kind of rain that evaporates
Before it reaches the ground
Ah there it is the ground
Of gods and gourds and words
You see it if you turn away
From all those words
About things that everyone says
Will bring you peace and just
Hold some dirt between your hands
And consider the stuff of which
Each one of us is made
How strange that dirt can weave
A thing like you or me
A thing that shapes these sounds
Between its ears
Then bends the air it breathes
To send them thru
Another pair of ears into
Of dirt and wind and worlds
The Clear Light Cafe has a strange back garden. When it first landed here (Did I forget to mention that the caff is also a spacecraft?) this area was what the French call un terrain vague, nothing but dust and debris, but after we arrived the weather changed, water fell from the sky and seeds I guess, because all sorts of little green fingers and heads sprouted from the moistened earth and some of them began to wriggle and slither, to swim in the pools that emerged, some even grew wings and flew from branch to branch of the fruiting trees, taking their seeds to shit somewhere beyond the blue dome that circumscribes the scene. I noticed then that living things seem to come in two primary flavours: those that root in the Earth and those like you and me that are capable of locomotion. Customarily called animals most of us move by means of moving limbs and wings.
We animate animals have three primary modes of relating to the things outside our hides and these three modes are the root causes of the whole trajectory of our evolution from our first forms to our present dilemma aka the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth. Extinction 6 has already erased thousands of species in my lifetime and bodes likely to erase homo sapiens as well or most of us unless we find a way to free ourselves from our enslavement to these three modes of interaction.
Which are? asked the Dark Youth.
When an animal encounters anything outside her skin she moves toward it, away from it or ignores it.
She may also freeze, he said, like a bunny or a deer.
Yes, I said, which may cause the other animal to ignore her, since the other may see her camouflaged form as simply an ignorable and move on until it sees or smells something that triggers approach or avoidance, like a source of food, comradeship or copulation.
So how does this lead to Extinction 6?
With humans this instinctive triad of interaction becomes the template on which our trainers cultivate each child’s view of itself in relation to its world. When I was a child I learned that I occupied a unique position in the world: I was alone on the inside, looking out and all other beings were on the outside and they occupied three categories:
Let me guess, said the Dark Youth, friends, enemies and ignorables.
Yes and based on what I was told by my teachers and the media I created a story about a boy who lived in a largely ignorable world, divided into hostile tribes. I was one of the white English speakers who had won a global war against the evil Nazis and were now waging a cold war against the godless communists. I was told that my tribe embodied and enjoyed a superior religion, technology and political system that naturally dominated the planet because we were better and we were making the world better by bringing light to the unenlightened, freedom to slaves, civilization to savages and prosperity to the poor. All of which was a lie, with requisite window dressing, and that lie included a combination of lies about me, about what it really meant to be a boy and to be the men I was encouraged to emulate, ranging from the soldiers who slaughtered and dispossessed native North Americans, died in the bloody mud of the European wars, filled the gas ovens of the Holocaust, incinerated Dresden and Hiroshima and came home to dominate their wives and children just as God dominated His Church. Not to mention the small-minded men who ran the schools and households in my town.
Now, in my seventies, I see that these same walking lies still dominate our planet and are still ruled by the templates on which they were built. Imagining that they are free they ravage the world, helplessly driven by fear/aggression, passion/craving and ignorance that admits no ray of light or wonder. Princes and oligarchs strive to ensure that their pyramids and towers are taller and more opulent than any of their neighbour’s, encircled by unexcelled batteries of missiles and systems of electronic espionage while the lower ranks emulate their aspirations down thru all the layers of middle class, working class to working poor which is the milieu in which I have always lived. Always on the inside of the Lie, always looking for a different way to be a man, when I should have been getting ahead I worked instead at growing a different kind of head that could tell a better story.
The one you’re telling now is kinda sad, the Dark Youth said. We must be more than organic robots programmed to fear, crave, kill and make little robots we teach to do the same. That’s no life I want to live.
And that’s what Aristotle said, I replied: the unexamined life is not worth living.
Did he find a better way?
A life of examination and natural philosophy is already a better way, I said.
So he wasn’t driven by fear and craving?
He was, I said, but what he feared most was the sleep of the unexamined life and what he craved–and found–was wisdom.
So how do you do this ‘natural philosophy’? asked the Dark Youth. What do those words even mean? And if it’s so much better how come most people don’t do it?
That’s three questions, noble son, let me start with the first.
Philosophy means love of wisdom, a love that comes from the pleasure of watching unintelligible phenomena begin to make sense, like learning that the sounds our parents make are this beautiful thing called language. Likewise all of nature is a web of languages that we can learn to read.
What do you mean by nature?
Your skin, everything around it and everything within. It’s all just so much stuff until we begin to examine it.
It’s all those ignorable things! said the Dark Youth.
Yes, I said, all that unseen because ignored terrain between the objects of our craving and the things we fear.
And we don’t even really see them, he said.
No. I don’t see the beautiful woman until I take some time to see her soul. I don’t see the ugly prince until I learn how his world made him that way. I don’t see the man inside my clothes until I examine his dreams, his parents and the world that shaped his mind.
So becoming a natural philosopher means taking time, slowing up and taking time to look more deeply at things i normally ignore. But why don’t more people do this?
Because of the ancient triad, i said. We’re all taught to live in fear and craving for all the things we’re told to buy and animals that live in fear have no time to stop and breathe and consider the structures of the lie.
We humans have finally come face to face with the greatest threat to our continued existence as a species on a small planet–ourselves. Some think the answer is to gather a band of technobuddhas and move to Mars but every buddha knows that we will only carry the deadly matrix of ego and ignorance with us.
The only way I can see to survive the threat we are is to become natural philosophers and help our children grow into wise animals who identify consciously and passionately as members and defenders of the tribe of life itself.
So you say you talk to people who lived centuries ago. Are you saying that the Red Monk travels into his future to visit the Cafe or that you travel into the past to visit him?
No, the Immortals live now but they never grow old because they don’t have physical bodies of their own. They have imaginary bodies, sustained by the imaginations of their believers and to some extent they are embodied by their worshippers or avatars. Each believer embodies a different version or aspect of each god or buddha and if their versions are harmonious they share a common kerygma of dogma or a more flexible communion like gnostics, pagans or some Buddhist schools.
But the immortals are not really immortal. Buddhists sometimes call them the long-lived gods because they can survive for millennia so long as they are embodied or honoured by mortals. They are also called immortals because they symbolize and sometimes embody immortal truths about life, such as love, conflict, chaos, impermanence and the conditional nature of all forms.
So when all believers and their gods have perished what happens to the immortal truths?
They continue to exist as latent realities until life, however rudimentary, emerges again on this or other planets and if it evolves eyes that can see them and hypostatise them as entities they become visible in words, icons and exstatic visions.
So the immortals never change?
Every life form changes but as long as we exist we reflect and embody the immortal truths. The immortals embody and exhibit them more clearly but every example of life reveals them to an unwavering eye.
Living in heaven I could not always keep my feet from walking out the door, leaving the cafe in the capable care of my assistant Dazu, he of the strong right arm and the missing left.
According to Dhamo (the Red Monk) he had once come to his nine year cave when the master was immersed in creative trance so had not noticed a miserable person seeking refuge from the bitter cold. But a sudden burst of agony broke his concentration and he turned to see Dazu standing beside him holding his severed left forearm in his right hand while his whole body trembled with pain. Then Dazu fell unconscious, into Dhamo’s arms.
The rest is history or myth. When Dazu woke, somewhat groggy from the poppy juice the Red Monk had dabbed on his tongue after tying off the stump of his left arm, he found his nurse holding out a cup of hot broth which he helped him drink. It tasted of nettles but he drained the cup and laid back on the mat and slept again. After a few days of this he became clear enough for conversation and the Monk asked for an explanation.
I heard you are a wonder worker, he said. I am tormented by my own mind.
Show me this mind then, Dhamo said.
How do I do that? he said, it’s not a thing I can just pull out of my pack.
What is it, then? How do you experience it?
Thoughts, he said, memories and fears about my future. I have enemies. I fear they will ruin or kill me. I fear I will be reborn in a hot hell, or a cold one, like this winter.
It’s been a cold one, Dhamo said. So you experience your mind as a bad story, or collection of bad stories about this person you call You.
That’s it, he said, I’m a poor monkey chased thru the world by a cloud of bad stories.
That’s your story in a nutshell, said Dhamo. Who created that one?
I did, he said.
You or your mind?
Dazu was silent then, struck dumb by insight, before he found the words.
I am my mind, he said, I mean my mind is part of me, just like my hands—hand. It’s the part of me that makes stories but it also feels like my persecutor.
So your mind has different parts too, said Dhamo.
Yes, said Dazu, one part hates and torments me–with all these bad stories. The other part wants it to stop. I hate it. I hate that part of myself. I want to cut it off.
Dazu paused his narration here in the Clear Light Cafe then said: That’s when I saw that I tormented myself because I hated myself for tormenting me with self-hateful stories and that it was not some separate ‘mind’ that created the stories. It was me. I also created this notion of two separate selves, tormentor and victim. Like two separate hands. I tried to cut off the tormentor by cutting off my left arm and that might have been one more crime to add on. But then I saw the exit.
You saw a way to stop making those hateful stories, I said, by making no more stories at all, attaining a silent mind.
No, said Dazu, I chose a different path. I decided to use my passion for storytelling to make better stories. I decided to make a better story about being Dazu Huike, about being human, about the illuminating alliance of compassion and imagination.
After my first creative trance encounter with the Red Monk I was left with some unanswered questions so I was delighted when he actually walked into the Clear Light Cafe. In his signature red robe he looked as though he had been walking in the summer heat so I waved him to a table and brought two iced coffees. We lifted our glasses and he drank his down in one go then wiped his brow on a red sleeve and smiled, showing gold teeth between the red parentheses of his whiskers. His blue eyes waited for nothing.
So, I said, you have ‘thus come’ from Tushita Heaven?
I’m still in it.
Noting my puzzled expression he continued. This cafe and this entire village are in one of the interzones, he said, where Earth and Heaven overlap. That’s why you left the darkness and came here to die.
I glanced at my notebook and saw that our words were forming on the page as we spoke.
So where is Heaven, Dhamo–or is it Daena?
Chinese monks call me Dhamo, their word for Dharma, the Persians called me Daena. Both words refer to the Way. Call me whatever you please.
All heavens and hell’s are embodied in human life, he said, but the heavens of myth, art and trance are here in the interzone between full consciousness and the Great Sleep.
You mean death?
No, he said, I mean the sleep you share with all other sleepers, conventionally called consciousness because the sleepers, walk, talk and share information. They think of it as sharing consciousness but mostly they share the Great Sleep.
I wonder if this is what Jung called the collective unconscious?
He was pointing to a deeper stratum, said the Red Monk, inherited and instinctive archetypes that are the armatures on which the gods are modelled with the clay of imagination and this modelling happens both in dreams and in the realm of the Great Sleep.
So what about you? Is the Red Monk an imagined being?
I am a product of your imagination, he said, and of the minds which have impressed it with images of me or someone like me. I am based on an archetype that appeals to you: the lonely resolute yogin/poet who withdraws from the madness and fashions a blade of reason and love that cuts thru the noise and nonsense of conventional consciousness. I’m also a product of the forbidden foods you have used to help you break thru. Many versions of me have been active for millennia, in thousands of divergent minds, shaping and being shaped by them. I am one of your fathers and you are one of mine. Even as we speak we are reimagining the idea of yoga, poetry and the Red Monk.
This great sleep is full of talk about gods and heroes, I said. Some of them are authentic but most are just made of words, fictions that sleepers believe because they trust the authorities who believe or pretend to believe them. How do we decide which gods or teachings are worth our precious time?
All of us are largely fictional persons, said the Red Monk but some are more fictional than others. You are a story you tell yourself and others. Sometimes the story is supported by memory and serious consideration of your experience and behaviour but often it’s just a convenient fiction that conceals your true nature because you want to conceal it or have so long pretended to be your fiction that you no longer know what you really are.
Yes, I said, zen teachers often say: show me your true nature. The question can be unsettling.
So there are true and false personas, he said, and there are true and false gods.
The main difference between a god and an ordinary person, he said, is that an ordinary person has only one body but a god has several bodies, the bodies of her/his believers. Most gods start out as imaginary playmates. An ordinary mind creates one self to serve one body but some minds, for various reasons, like intellectual loneliness, create an additional self so you have two selves with one body.
That could get interesting, I said.
Yes, depending on how the two personas get along. Sometimes the new one turns out to be stronger and, usually after a struggle, replaces the old one, saying I used to be her or him but I have changed. Sometimes the guest persona is a disembodied voice or a felt but invisible presence, an apparently external figure in shining raiment or conventional clothes who mysteriously appears and disappears, walks on water, hovers in the sky or inscribes it with visual signs that feel potent with meaning.
These phenomena have been explained to death, I said, by doctors of psychology and neurology.
Yes, the abundance of such phenomena keeps them busy. But they generally miss the point which is that whether the gods are in the sky or only in our heads they are no more imaginary than these personas we think of as our selves and they are often more powerful than our habitual selves, powerful enough to inhabit and control thousands or millions of human bodies.
But how does my personal angel or tutelary deity become the god of another person?
The same way politicians and ideologues do, said the Red Monk, by the power of the word, of bread, of wine, of the sword.
When your god, speaking thru you, tells people what they want or need to hear, they congregate around you, the god’s prophet. If they doubt you convince them by feeding the hungry with empty calories and slaking their thirst with intoxicating promises.
If doubters seriously disturb the peace of the faithful they can be frightened into silence by the flat or the edge of the sword. As a god’s stories and instructions attract more attention the number of bodies at his/her command grows. A few of them come to feel your god as their own personal god but most just conform out of fear. Fear of death, fear of hell, fear of unemployment, fear of being reborn as a slave. Better to be the god’s slave and use your talents painting icons, writing propaganda or assembling missile guidance systems.
It all sounds horrendously archaic, I said, but the viral gods have never been more powerful than they are right now, in this age of reason and enlightenment.
One of your heroes delivered a response to that, he said. It’s called the parable of the sower.
A farmer accidentally sows a bag of wheat seeds that were mixed with the seeds of tares. What shall I do? he cries. The seeds are too tiny to separate.
Don’t worry, says his wife, just water the ground and let them grow. When they are large enough for the scythe we will easily separate the wheat for bread and feed the tares to the fire.
In this case, the wheat stocks represent the bread of truth and the tares are the vendors of bullshit and lies.