ReStorying Dazu

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.

Where is Heaven?

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.
 How so?
 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.

The Fate of Heaven

Fear of the humans is the beginning of wisdom — The Wise God’s Handbook

I meditated in in the shell of Asanga’s house in Ayodhya, the Red Monk said, near the monastery where he taught the view called Consciousness Only. It’s said that at night he ascended to the Tushita Heaven where he consulted with his teacher the Buddha of the future. You’re from the future he noted: how did that work out? Has she arrived yet?
 I don’t know, I said.

 Anyway, I didn’t think anything would happen, he said, but my legs crossed themselves, my head rose, pulling my back up from its usual slouch and my attention turned to my breath, following each out-breath into the gloomy space around me. The interior of the small house was all one room, the space between four crumbling walls illumined by moonlight that shone thru the roof where winds had taken several tiles, allowing weeds to grow from the rotting poles beneath. There was a tiny hearth with a clay chimney at one end, for cooking tea and rotis, a rusty iron pot and pan. The walls were lined with shelves, mostly empty except for a few sagging scrolls and butterfly books, notebooks bound with butterfly binding that itinerant scholars like me carry in their robes to capture the butterflies of insight and epiphany.

My attention returned to its body just in time to follow another breath into the room and the silence of the night beyond. Then I must have dozed because a sound lifted my head and I heard the sound again, a sound like Who? Who? Who what? I wondered, then realized it was simply the call of an owl, perhaps alerting any nearby tigers that there was a vagrant monk to be had in this abandoned house. Then a cloud blocked the moonlight, plunging me into blindness and my ears strained to hear the faint pads of tiger paws, their claws retracted for a stealthy approach. My heart skipped a pulse then the moonly contours of the room reassembled and I saw that someone who was probably not a tiger had entered the room and now sat as close to me as you are now, on a cushion that seemed to hover a few inches above the floor.

 Asanga? I croaked.

 The stranger’s shadowed face smiled. No, she said, tho I sometimes met him here, to discuss his curious thoughts about something he called Reality. What is your name? she asked.

 Some call me Daena the Persian, I said. Some call me Bodhidharma.

 A fine name, the stranger said. I hope you don’t find it too hard to live up to.

 I try, I said. And who are you?

 You sound like that owl, she laughed. Some call me the Tathagata which means Thus Come, or Thus Gone, because they find my comings and goings hard to explain.

 I heard that Asanga came here to consult with the Buddha of the future, I said. Do you live in the future too?

 The room darkened again and the Tathagata became invisible but I heard her whisper, We don’t know yet. If future children imagine and embody me I will live but many seem no longer able to imagine a future in which any children can live, much less imagine and embody the full meaning of Awake.

 There is a crisis in Heaven, she said. Western scripture says that Heaven is God’s throne and Earth his footstool but we know that all gods, buddhas and their heavens will only endure so long as they are sustained by the hopes, dreams and beliefs of physical sentient beings.

 At this point she produced two small cups, brimming with a clear liquid and offered one to me. I downed the cup with a single swallow and she did the same. I’m glad to see, I said, that in heaven you can still get sake.

 She smiled and said, as fewer and fewer humans believe in the gods they go the way of Asgard, home of the northern gods, whose names now signify nothing more, to their former believers, than the days of the week. They were broken by a god of West Asians who was in turn brought low by his submission to technicians and mechanistic thinkers who have become little more than servants of the oldest god of all, raw greed.

 Ah yes, I said, god of bankers and warlords, glittering embodiments of primitive ego with its central focus on making itself great and secure by making all others small and fearful. But ego will probably survive the collapse of heaven and its children may one day wake to the dream of something better.

 Given time, said the Tathagata, but humanity is running out of time.

 The proliferation of atomic weapons– i said.

 Yes, she said, but the ultimate threat to all our futures is not plutonium but petroleum, and other fossil slimes which are destroying the basis of earthly and heavenly life. And even if a remnant of humanity survives, their suffering may erase their belief in anything beyond brute survival.

 If we cease to believe in a heaven of wisdom and love then you will cease to exist, I said.

 Yes, she said, but you will also cease to exist as fully human beings.

the long road to the angels


My dad used to say it’s a long road
that has no turning

some nights I dream I am still
in a dark city
hunting for a job or a squat
in a dark building
where floors with rotting timbers
invite me to fall into depths
of dead darkness
once sitting in a park I heard kids shouting
with budding summer joy
and thought when I am about to die
I would come to a place like this
where I could hear the voices
of new humans
who never guess when they sing and call
who sings and calls with them
as I never guessed I would end up
working around my sister poet
in a house where small ones come
to sometimes wonder at and tangle
the white moss on my chin
no poet or prophet has ever known
more potent angels of light and hope
than these I meet every day

a window of time

A window of time should never be ignored
because sometimes it’s a door
to the hard road that waits
for those who are hungry to climb
in the high wild country of awake.
Old dog zen says
death often comes without warning
you may never find this road again.
Will you gnaw that same old bone
or will you now attend
to the great matter?


Begin at the very beginning which
as Walt said was never more an inception
than this local now which
extrapolating from Albert’s amazing theory
begins and is begun by
an infinity of other local nows
one of which was ye olde big bang
which was actually tinier than anything
i can think of
almost as tiny as zero
which i can only think of as
that which comes just before
the b
in bee butterfly and become.
Fittingly zero is marked by a circle
like a poem that ends
at the end of all things
which is also where all things begin.

inconceivable fire

Back in my ink and paper days
while waiting for the first or next black word
the white page sometimes seemed
a seething texture of possible forms.
Now i think this light is the womb of all poems
dreams, gods and the notions we attach
to nouns and names we use to
divide the Inconceivable
into seemingly separate things.
In June the kids run round the play room
shaking tambourines and singing Jingle Bells
not yet knowing
what all the word sounds mean.
We learn the names that name the parts and learn
that they are parts of larger parts
from hand to body to humanity to biosphere to universe
to wondering
what is the ultimate part and
what it might be part of.
At that point adrift in emptiness
most draw a circle around the parts that matter
and seldom trouble their sleep with the thought
that what is everywhere is also right here
in each local and supposedly ordinary thing.
Like a yellow snail on the stem of a dandelion clock
bristling with parachutes awaiting the breeze
that will send them sailing thru blue light
bearing their seeds of inconceivable fire.