Mistaking the genre of Catch 22

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George Clooney and his actor friends have made an actorly mistake in adapting Catch 22 for a TV series. They thought it was about characters, but it isn’t. They thought they would create some splendid parts for themselves. But there are no “characters” in Catch 22, in an actorly sense. There are what we call “larger than life” characters, each one with an extreme characteristic, which you might think was like a Moliere comic extreme – the Miser, the Snob, Jealousy. But it is not a human characteristic that a Heller character has; it’s a mechanical one.

Each Heller figure is a function of the insane bureaucratic mechanisms of warfare. Each one is an extreme of something institutional: Parades (Sheisskopf), Hierarchical Ambition (Cathcart), Neatness Obsession (Bomb patterns), Hiding in a Non-job (Major Major), Institutional Opportunism (Milo Minderbinder). These are the cogs, rods, joints and dials of a bureaucratic machine. They do not have “personal feelings” or “back story” or “motivation”. The only motivation they have is the inexorable crazy logic of a machine blithely churning out death with no regard for the humans at all. Acting them as fully rounded human beings is absurd and ruins the whole enterprise.

You should not cast serious actors. You need Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, Eric Sykes, the Goons, the Carry-On Crew, Sacha Baron Cohen, the Keystone Cops. It is a farce, and needs to be a fast ratatatat of quick-fire absurdities as the careless logic of bureaucracy crushes one human need after another with irresistible paradoxes. You need a cardboard stage set with revolving doors, collapsing walls and exploding beds. The music should be played on a kazoo and a penny whistle. To see actors frowning, emoting away, and being wistfully contemplative, mistakes the genre. It is horrible,  slowing the whole thing down into a turgid mess. The Clooney dramatisation is a mistake.

Genre-busting role-shifters: Hannibal Lecter and Killing Eve’s Villanelle

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Thomas Harris in his Hannibal Lecter books developed three rather brilliant genre-busting features to supercharge his surprising variations on an ancient format. The creators of Killing Eve have taken the same tricks even further and with wonderful panache.

Firstly, Harris took a good old-fashioned Villain out of the role where he attracts all the opprobrium and hatred rightly heaped on criminal masterminds with hearts of ash, and switched him into the Helper role, where he could blossom into an interesting and appreciated character, free to enlist our sympathies. We liked his intelligence, culture and wit. He was safely incarcerated, so we could get close to him and hear him talk, and he had the scope to indulge his florid genius without threatening us too much. This meant that Harris had to create another person to fill the vacant Villain role, and he duly offered a dull cypher to occupy that space, while the Helper doubled as a False Villain, a much more zingy role, full of ambiguity.

In folktales the Helper is a wise one, in sympathetic harmony with nature and the animal kingdom. It might be old woman, old man, badger or bird or breeze, but the Helper is closer to understanding the workings of fate and the mind than ordinary beings are. The Helper can see the Hero’s future and offer warnings and a magical amulet.

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The Villain-in-Helper-role was an original idea and Harris ran with it very cleverly. But after the second Lecter book, The Silence of the Lambs, he saw an even more genre-busting opportunity. In Hannibal he cunningly led us, the readers, to think we were settling into a Detective Thriller. He duped us with the expected clues, and suspence. But we weren’t in a cop story. It turned out to be a Killer-Chase sensuously mutating into a Romance, and he managed to keep us guessing, and to spring a strikingly effective surprise ending, full of gruesome black humour.

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Killing Eve uses the same tricks, but with a feminine wit all of its own. Series 1, brilliantly brought to life by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is a story of a detective chasing a serial murderer who is every bit as psychopathic, charming and stylish as Hannibal Lecter. Jodie Cromer has a wonderful time pouting and winking as the spoilt brat charming assassin, creating one of the most memorable characters of the decade. The detective story begins to look like a Romance as it gathers momentum at the end of Series 1, but in Series 2 Villanelle is shifted from the Villain role into the Helper role to keep her out of prison and give her scope to entertain us with more tricks. The Romance deepens, but rather too much, in my view. It should be a tease, not a full-on courtship, if we are to keep the genre teetering between the positive Romance and and the negative Assassin poles of the two characters’ magnetic field.

An extra layer of fascination develops as we hear the expert on psychopaths turning his attention to diagnosing Eve. Her obsession with Villanelle becomes a mystery about the depths of their character flaws. The creators of Series 2 go further, and very funny it is – both funny and disturbing – because all the detectives start showing the same symptoms as the slavering psychopathic killers: low boredom threshold, callousness, attention-seeking, deceit. The mirroring of the Villains by the Heroes is an intriguing tease that adds a much more interesting brand of “constructive ambiguity” than the stuff peddled by the NEC of the Labour Party at the moment. It keeps us guessing. Is Eve a psychopath? Is Hugo? Is Carolyn? Am I? I love it so much, I must be one too. Are we all?

Emerald Fennell took over the writing for Series 2 and she has drawn us deeper into psychopathy whilst spraying sparkling jokes around. It is a very clever variant on Aristotle’s Reversal and Recognition through which we recognise our appalled collusion with the imaginative charm of the violence. The same thing happened to Starling in Hannibal as she switched to the Dark Side and gave herself to globe-trotting arm in arm with Lecter, from one pleasure to another, opera houses to fine dining. It is the third genre-busting role shift, from Hero to Submissive, no longer the hunter but the one who has got her heart’s desire and retired from the chase, much to her own surprise. A Heroine, in the uncomfortably ironic Romance sense. Eve has not quite reached that point yet. But she will. Or will she?

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Selected Haiku (and a tanka)

Matisse tanka

Calm red inside
and blue veins climb. A woman
touches the fruit bowl.
In the window, trees
white-blossoming.






More grandson haiku


Before school
ten minutes in heaven
drawing devils

It’s after bedtime -
he proffers a specious argument
with a smile.

Drawing
he moves his mouth in silence
as the head appears.





Koan retreat haiku


On Here Hill,
at Now o’clock, I meet This.
A chestnut stallion.

A new gentle me -
sheep keep their distance
the crow flaps off

Roshi’s sermon -
a wren at the window
hops from thought to thought

Fire-heat and the lamp’s hiss.
Whilst from the kitchen
the sound of a whisk.

Path to the farm -
herringbone ruts
glistening with ice


Zazen - I have
“Ordinary Mind”; my shadow
ordinary head

Daydreaming
the demon plans a well-received
study of demons.


Tralfamadorians
sit under their stars
sharing our wonder






Haiku


Maglev train
picnic party - the floating world
on a concrete path

Three people
I judged uncultured
kind to me today

Again and again
the white surf breaks
as we hold from talking

Kitten
in my stiff fingers
its eager heart

Rain on the window.
The knife in the bowl
trembles

Ten thousand bright waves -
the anchor warp squeaks
as we bow to each one.

Lord Plover
in wet ermine
sucks mud

Dad never spoke of love
but now, the tongue risen
the mouth gapes

The curlew’s call
still resonating, I dream
the withered baby

Spotlit, stepping
on a gold-flecked plinth,
the chipped old buddha.

One son missing
the other a fool
Christmas marmalade

Tugged half under,
the mooring buoy
in the spring ebb tide

Incense for John
rising into whatever
the grey sky is

Cockerel
the same notes at dawn
for 10,000 years

Contorted trunk
clambers its twist to
a tuft of birdsong

Sparrows
splash and scream
in an angel’s wing

In the winter wind
between derelict factories
waterripples

Feeding ducks
the ginger skinhead
opens and shuts his mouth

The wipers sweep, sweep,
on the radio news
an abandoned child

Orange sun white cloud
through the plane’s
egg window

Flapping fingers
stinking of varnish
she laughs at vanity.

Always roaring
the echo in me
of the wind between stars

Fractals in sand -
the ebbing tide
knows how

Picking winter scraps
in The Mower’s blades
old yellow-beak.

Always roaring
faintly in the background
tinnitus of bliss

Ken’s Great Leap
into the all-too-clear
from the unknown

Golden snakes
behind the bins,
the dog eating wasps

Flickering shag -
at first thrilling...
then baffling     

(after Basho)

Under the hill
tarmac whispers
shadows of passing

To stragglebush
the topiarist
brings pride

In a non-world
I taste the salmon sandwich
I didn’t choose

Rounding the headland home
the shushing of ripples
licking the hull

Forgiveness -
and after the rain swallows
feast over fields

That pretty cloud
I saw yesterday
and liked so…

On the hilltop
lying back listening as
the skylark disappears

Family barbecue
the moon sails West

clouds sail East

Rain on the frail roof
fiercely drumming
Ancestor Blues


In reverie I feel
her shadow cross my eyelids.
Rockpool scattering

I bow to great nature
and wave a goodbye
to all of you

The Image of Britain Part Deux

William L Wyllie had a successful exhibition which made his reputation, called The Tidal Thames, in 1884, but this etching is from 1924. Presumably he had seen the Monets exhibited in 1903 (see my previous post). Did he rework one of his Tidal Thames images? Or remember the Monet series?

He has drawn the Parliament much more beautifully than Monet (with two towers, Victoria tower added behind Big Ben), whilst rendering it mistily, like a great idea: the historical framework. In the foreground, solid and dirty, is the industrial present, staffed by straining workers heaving at a monstrous barge. There is a bridge, but otherwise the view is of a maritime democracy, an island at flood tide, just as Monet portrayed us.

It took a Frenchman to make the image of Britain!

Claude Monet came to London in the early 1870s to escape from warfare in France, fearing that he would be conscripted. He returned to London thirty years later at the turn of the century, now a successful sixty year old, to stay in the Savoy hotel and paint the Houses of Parliament. In 1899, 1900 and 1901 he painted them again and again, particularly fascinated by the effect of light on fog and fog on the precision of one’s perceptions. He thought that, “It’s the fog that gives London its marvellous breadth.”  Oscar Wilde said that the painters “invented fog,” a typically striking exaggeration. As my friend Francis points out, Dickens did fog very well in Bleak House half a century earlier.

Monet painted parliament in sunrises, and in sunsets; he tried to find the place on the South bank from where he could get the sun to shine directly above the parliament, reflected on the water. He continued working on the whole group of canvases on his return to France and in 1904 exhibited thirty seven of them in Paris. The exhibition was a great success.

The central image is of the Houses of Parliament, blurred by fog into an archetypal fortress shape, with a tower. Parliament is apparently surrounded by water, as if an island in the middle of the sea. As a portrait of Britain at the height of its imperial pride, the pre-eminent naval power in the world, reduced to its essence, it could not be bettered. And although the first impression is of solidity, the massy structure enduring the blasts, the aftertaste, of course, is of the strength of democracy and ancient inherited freedoms under the people’s law made in parliament.

French painters paint the quaies of the Seine, but as promenades, not as a surrounding sea. English painters paint parliament, but as a piece of intricate architecture. It took Monet to make the image and reduce it like a French chef to its intensest jus. Boiling off the steam, he repeats it into significance, its aroma arising, its resonances ringing: the sea, the parliament, the fog! In his sixties he wanted to “sum up…impressions and sensations of the past.” No doubt the idea of parliament in London’s marvellous breadth of fog, seen across the river from St Thomas’ hospital, had stuck in his mind from the 1870s.

 

The image for France is Liberty leading the people, with Marianne the embodiment of French liberty.

Liberty Leading the People. 1830. Oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm.

If I look for a great portrayal of Britishness I think of The Monarch of the Glen, Rowlandson’s Portsmouth Point, or a crowded Hogarth print, perhaps The March of the Guards to Finchley.

 

 

 Turner painted all around the British coastline, but perhaps the image that sticks in the mind is The Fighting Temeraire, a sad piece of nostalgia for a Britain once great. It took an obstinate, repetitive Frenchman with an outsider’s eye on our weather, to spot what was right in our noses.

  

Fishy Economics

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The unintended consequences of Labour’s price-capping policy will be shortages, corruption and widening inequality. This outcome is inevitable. It is clear the moment you work out what will happen to a fish dealer.

Alfie Bass is a Portsmouth fish-dealer employing a dozen or more people. He is squeezed from below by fishermen who want the best price for their fish, and from above by wholesalers at Billingsgate market, and restaurateurs buying in bulk, who want the lowest possible prices. Alfie has only remained in business for forty years by being very clear about negotiating price. He has to acknowledge the fishermen’s right to a margin, and explain to the wholesalers his need for a small margin, and still arrive at a competitive price in a market where the other South coast fish dealers and those in Normandy and Brittany vie for business. He has a good reputation and is trusted by all parties. You can’t fool any of them anyway, as they all talk to each other. If he wasn’t honest and clear he would not have lasted.

Price is the key mechanism. It changes hourly sometimes, according to the weather, the tides, the movement of shoals of fish, the size of catches, and the euro exchange rate. It is a delicate, and sensitive instrument at the heart of all that makes the business swing. The competition, and the incentives built into the price negotiation, keep Alfie Bass honest.

Now suppose that a well-meaning Labour minister of Food in Mr Corbyn’s government decides to price-cap fish, so that poor people can eat more cheaply. (Price capping is Labour’s manifesto policy in the energy market and in the rental housing market). The first consequence of the price cap reducing the price of cod will be that Alfie Bass sends all his cod to the markets in Normandy and Brittany where he will get the proper price. Before half a day has gone by, the Minister has achieved shortages in the shops, and turned an honest man into a criminal smuggler.

Only the worst fish will be sold at the fixed price – fish that a week before he would have thrown away – and within a week or two a black market will develop at Alfie’s back door, selling good fish to rich customers. The poor get rubbish, if anything, after queuing, and the gap widens between the privileged and the poor. Alfie is now a black marketeer.

Ah, but Alfie and his employees and his dependent fishermen will be compensated by subsidies, I hear you cry! Maybe, depending on how Labour intends to pay for the cheap fish. If they just intend to force Alfie to sell cheaper, the consequences will obviously be shortages, dangerously poor quality and a black market. If they fund it through subsidies the consequence for Mr Bass and his business is that instead of concentrating on fishing, keeping the fish fresh and getting it to market as soon as possible, his main job will become claiming subsidies. If he turns over £200,000 worth of fish a week, and half of that is subsidy, then snaffling subsidies will be the way to earn a living for his family. He will fill in forms for an ignorant bureaucrat in Whitehall, who does not chat with fishermen and restaurateurs on the dockside, and does not understand tides, and fish. Just like all the other fish-dealers, Alfie will be tempted to weigh all his stock twice, or thrice, for inflated claims, to claim for rotten fish, which on paper looks as good as real fish, and to game the system.

When it becomes clear that the market is no longer honest an inspector will be sent down to the fish dock to check the catch weights as trawlers come in. But £200,000 a week is a goodly amount to split between claimants and the temptation to collusion and corruption with a little double-claiming will be very strong.

And how are the fishermen paid? If through general taxation, then everyone is paying for the fish anyway. We are not avoiding the cost. Using bureaucratic subsidy-claiming is the worst possible way of getting good value for money, so in the end we will all pay more. We will be weighed down by taxes, vegetarians as well as pescatorians.

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If you insert an expensive bureaucracy between the fishermen and the fish-eaters you incentivise corruption, inefficiency, and turn everyone involved at every stage into cynics. Give the poor money so that they can afford good food, by all means, but don’t bugger up the price mechanism that keeps everyone honest and keeps the market in fish lean and fit.

Those notorious East German shortages, long Polish queues for basic goods, all that notorious Chinese corruption, the thriving Soviet black markets for the elites, characteristic of all socialist economies, are not some weirdness attributable to nasty Communists (nothing to do with us Socialists). They are the inevitable results of price-capping, and will be playing on a street corner near you very soon.

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The Actual Realisation of Emptiness

This is a retreat report on the Western Chan Fellowship retreat called ‘Shattering the Great Doubt,’ held at Maenllwyd, in September 2014. The retreat was a nine day silent meditation retreat in the Chan (Zen) tradition of koan study. The focus of one’s meditations is a self-selected koan from one of the classic collections. In addition to the long periods of silent meditation, there are daily talks by the teacher, and occasional one to one ‘interviews’ with the teacher (dokusan), usually about once every two days. One hopes to break through to Enlightenment, an experience variously described in the literature of zen as ‘the falling away of body and mind,’ or ‘seeing the nature,’ or ‘the realisation of emptiness.’

The first evening, before the rule of silence takes effect, each of us says why we have come. To simplify, simplify, simplify, I said. I did not want elaborate conundrums. I wanted to strip things down to as little as possible. When the koans were offered on the second day, there was the perfect one for my purpose: “Ordinary Mind is the Way” (Mumonkan, Koan 19). It continues: “If you try for it you will become separated from it.” And, “The Way is not a matter of knowing or not knowing.” It was an instruction manual in how to simplify.

The koan in full goes like this:

I had a new agenda to work on in meditation: get out of the way; be in the present; add nothing; have no expectations. But it did not work because I began finding out shocking things about myself. Simon’s next talk pushed me further into the pretentions and complacency of my sense of self. I realised I was only interested in other people if they had something to offer me. I realised that even my caring for dying friends was contaminated by bits of ego, and limited by my other priorities. The koan was right. If I was seeking some satisfaction or sense of goodness from the encounter with a friend, then we would, “become separated” from the Way. I recalled many instances of feeling sadly separated when I had wanted to feel intimate and open with someone. I found ludicrous examples of pride wherever I looked. Even my relationship with the sense of mystical bliss, The Mystery itself, was selfish: I wanted it when it suited me, and for it to go back in its box and wait for me at other times. It should not disrupt my pleasant, busy lifestyle.

In the next interview, a day later, as I reported these dreadful findings to Simon, he said, “You have got plenty of time for yourself, not much for others. It is controlling. Is there a fear of letting others in? The Mystery might take you anywhere.” I wanted to get rid of myself, shoot the greedy little selfish so and so. “Just relax,” said Simon. “Soften. Open to the Mystery.”

I did now realise how ridiculous and insubstantial all my cherished bits of pride and ambition and complacency were. I let go of them. Then the last piece too, had to go: the affection I had for my pride, the attachment to my idea of myself. All of these ideas I had about myself were flimflam. All my favourite beliefs, my specialist knowledge, my attainments, my hopes, my doubts, the life-story I repeat, they are all flimflam. They are unreal. They are bits of invention, imagined fantasy productions. Let them go. Open yourself to what you don’t know.

With this insight, I could now proceed with my simplifying agenda in meditation: get out of the way; be in the present; add nothing; have no expectations. The following morning, Thursday, in that beautiful first hour of meditation, I did it. I monitored my mind for any trace of the things Nansen warns me about in the koan; any trace of seeking; any trace of knowing; any lack of trust. Instead of having ideas about The Mystery (that it would deepen and be more blissful and explode into enlightenment) I just examined it. It has absolutely no concern for my absurd hopes and fears and ambitions and pride in attainment, I realised. None whatsoever. And why should it? The whole lot is absurdly trivial. And not really there. Not there at all. The universe flows on. Thousands of generations of creatures grow and die. Their wanting and attachments and ego concerns are all empty imaginings. It’s not just that they are self-serving – we all know that when we think about it – but that they are not there, and nor are the people constructed of them, such as me. Flimflam. Not there. I’m not really there. I feel like a root and nothing growing from it but an awareness of space. It is a jolt. I am not now thinking empty, I am really not there. It is a vivid and dramatic experience and emptiness is the right word for it, a word that has for years been elusive and ultimately incomprehensible to me. It is now clear to me how to be with my dying friends. By letting go. Death is empty too. All that cloudy stuff of wishing it away, clinging, protesting – that stuff is not real. It is empty. What dies is the body. All the highly valued personality that we are so profoundly attached to was never there in the first place. Life is the value. But what it is, I have no idea. There is a great Mystery but nothing for a self to seek or attain. There is the ordinary sublime to wonder at, but our reactions are neither here nor there and we can’t know anything about it. I sit through the beautiful morning service and as others eat their breakfasts I do many prostrations of gratitude to the Buddha.

Simon’s next talk was on, “All our world of experience is created by the mind. There is nothing that is not produced by the mind.” Wonderful. He manages to explain these abstruse ideas in very down-to-earth terms and make them perfectly clear. He guides my practice and I can feel the profound changes happening within me.

At the end of the day I had the opportunity for an interview. I had seen empty, Simon implied, but not entirely emptied myself out. You are dying, he insisted. What do you feel about that? I was stumped for the moment. Tired now, hours after the morning’s elation, my sense of an empty self was not secure. Keep practicing, he said.

The next morning, Friday, with new energy and the wonderful clarity of the dawn sit, I pushed on with my stripping down, simplifying, and letting go. I had to loosen control, receive rather than transmit, and be wu wei, empty of ulterior purpose. I monitored my mind clear of self-concern and the last vestiges of wanting, to just accept the experience of the present, with no expectations.

I saw how it corrupts to have any views or intentions, even well-meaning ones (in caring for my dying friends, for example, or in any kind of loving relationship). I was now convinced that my selfish little bits of wanting were standing in my way and really needed to be rid of them. I followed the guidance of Nansen in the koan, watching out for seeking, knowing, and doubt. It was surprisingly easy. Everything opened up. It was “vast and boundless like outer space”, as the koan said. As I emptied, the whole universe emptied, and there was no centre. The root I had yesterday was gone and there was no viewing position for me at all. Vast undifferentiated emptiness. It is not just a bigger version of the oceanic sense of spaciousness one gets in a clear meditation but a completely different experience, very distinct and vivid. Not that the world outside had gone, or that my body had really disappeared, of course, but that there was no bit of me in the way. How extraordinarily straightforward it was. The mechanism was simple: root out all the deluded flimflam of the seeking, wanting ego… and there is nothing but the boundless Mystery. Later, outside, the world shines, fully itself in perfection, pristine. You’d have thought that to make the world perfect all those bloody people with their half-baked beliefs and violent reactions would have to be emptied out, but no, it’s nice little me who has to be emptied. How extraordinary. I can answer the question Simon challenged me with. The proper attitude to my death is to go through it without wanting anything to be different, because I can see how futile that is, and any wanting at all gets in the way, ruining your joy in the present, closing you down to one needy issue. Acceptance. I should start now, because as Simon has pointed out with relish, I’ve already started dying.

Simon quoted Master Shengyen distinguishing between Contemplating Emptiness and the actual Realisation of Emptiness. He thought my Thursday experience was Contemplating Emptiness. As we talked, he acknowledged that the complete emptiness of Friday was the actual Realisation of Emptiness. Keep practicing, he said.

I am deeply grateful to Simon for his teaching. I have the greatest possible respect for him. The koan retreat at the Maenllwyd is a rare and beautiful experience, beyond all valuing. If only people knew what an amazing resource it is! It is a national treasure. I think it is the perfect way of doing these things and I would not want to go to any other kind of sangha. I love the place, and I love the flexible, helpful, but brilliantly focused spotlight of the teaching. And I am grateful to Simon for transmitting the magnificent Buddha dharma of compassion and wisdom passed down through all the teachers from Shakyamuni all the way to Masters Shengyen and John Crook, and transmitting it with humanity and humility.

In a Shoreham garden by Samuel Palmer with grateful acknowledgement to the Victoria & Albert museum.

Is this life or is this death?

A koan is a teaching tool to challenge you to solve the insoluble. It is a most ingenious Chinese invention in the history of Zen education. It is not entirely silly. You can solve the insoluble, but you do not get a ‘solution’ that is transferable to other people as a gobbet of knowledge. And you do not get an ‘answer’ that is in the form predicted by the question. What you get instead is a series of insights about the assumptions built into your thinking, your language and your perceptions. And you somehow mysteriously come to a sense of satisfaction with the meaning even though you have no ‘answer.’

As an example, take koan number 55 from the Blue Cliff Record:  

One day Dogo, accompanied by his disciple Zengen, went to visit a family in which a funeral was to take place, in order to express sympathy. Zengen touched the coffin and said, “Tell me please, is this life or is this death?”

Dogo said, “I would not tell you whether it is life or it is death.”

Zengen said, “Why don’t you tell me?”

Dogo said, “No, I would not tell you.”

On their way home Zengen said, “Please be kind enough to tell me. If not I’ll hit you.”

Dogo said, “Strike me if you like, but I would not tell you.”

Zengen struck Dogo.

Blue Cliff Record Case #55

Your task, on a koan retreat, or in your practice at home, is to meditate upon the koan. At the heart of it is the burning question, “Is this life or is this death?” Can you resolve the disciple Zengen’s anxiety?

In your meditation the question becomes an examination of your own sense of life, which includes your own sense of your dying.

You carry the koan around with you in your mind in daily life and apply it like a measuring instrument to all that you encounter: chicken tikka – Is this life or is this death?” Dead leaves, fading flowers, flourishing mosquitos – Is this life or is this death?”   In the end you have to make your own peace with the conundrum, in your own way.

I start my notes like this: The question is about life and death; all life and death, not a specific corpse; and it challenges me to investigate the life and death in me. I start by feeling the life in my belly, as I breathe, in my meditation. It is consciousness, whatever that is. I feel it, or, at least, I am conscious of it. Is it inside me or outside? Is it generated by my biology, or by the environment that makes the food, the air, water and sunlight? Impossible to tell. Is there a “life force,” and is it inner, or universal? Impossible to tell.

It is life; or it is some inspiration in the universe that keeps life going and is beginningless and endless. My life is short, I know, so why does “life” feel beginningless and endless? I have a striking insight: it is not personal. It is not “my” life. It is greater than me, and indifferent to me, in a benignly neglectful way. In that sense “my life” is empty. The “myness” of it is an illusion; my sense of being in charge of it is empty flimflam, a fantasy of self reassurance. There is life, and I am hitching a ride on it for a short while.

‘What is my “Original Face” from the time before my father and mother were born?’ (that is another koan) – and, I add, as I think about it, ‘What is my Original Face after my grandson will be dead?’ It is a universal life, the possession of no one. To name it would suggest that it is a great thing, and that it could be worshipped, but that would be inappropriate.  It is not an it. It does not give a damn for me, and it is wonderful. What is it?

 

No doer of the deeds is found;

No one who ever reaps their fruits.

Empty phenomena roll on,

This only is the correct view.

No god or Brahma can be called

The maker of this wheel of life.

Empty phenomena roll on

Dependent on conditions all.

Buddhagosa, 5th century.

 

My death would not be a personal thing either, I reflected. There is a great impersonal living process going on, irrespective of anyone’s opinions or desires, and we are all grist to the mill. The universe churns out life, all of which ages, decays, transforms, dies and is recycled. Like my life, my death is also “empty” of myness. It is quite unconcerned with notions of deserving, justice or care. “Death is just the end of the assumption that there is someone who owns Life” (Unmani Liza Hyde). “Empty phenomena roll on.”

On retreat in Normandy I had another insight, feeling for the first time the full force of the phrase, “The life and death of each moment.” It began when I tried to recreate in my mind the pleasure of being hailed by Mathilde, daughter of my friends. She appeared in a garden, to my surprise, and called out, running towards me. I was delighted to see her again. Can one keep hold of a special moment like that? Can we recreate it? Can we sustain its life in nostalgia’s aspic? No. It lives gloriously, and then it is gone.

 

Greeting Mathilde!

Can I keep the moment

like dew in the fridge?

 

A second insight came quickly: if one is living vividly in the present moment the potential for experiences of great joy and fullness is all over the place, all the time. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “M’installant dans le moment présent, je sais que c’est un moment merveilleux.”

Mathilde may be specially wonderful, but, in fact, watching any old bee nosing in any old flower is beautiful, as generous a gift as the universe has to offer, and available at this time of year all over the place. When one is completely clear in Ordinary Mind and focused on the present marvellous moment, all moments are vivid bliss. But time moves on. You can’t hold any of them. They die, all of them. You have to move on to the birth of the next.

What an incredible waste of life it is that we miss so many of these gorgeous, vivid experiences all around us all the time! They are born in their fullness and then fade as our attention shifts to the next.

What do I mean by “born”?  The same flowers are here in the garden today as were here yesterday, a little older, but to a quick glance, the same. The trees are the same. Some things have relatively stable continuity over time, relatively much longer than flowers or even trees, – so how is glancing at them the “birth” of them? Do I give birth to Rouen cathedral by looking at it?

Yes. It is the noticing. Instants are born in one’s consciousness. There is no continuity in the mind’s vivid perceptions, in full attentiveness. It is in constant motion. It flows without stopping. It is time. The noticing is not a copy of yesterday’s noticing of the same flower, the same tree, the same cathedral, and cannot be so. The perceptions flare and die, flare and die, flare and die, moment by moment, each one the distillation of the whole universe, and all its life, in this second. This second is the only bit of time that is alive, and it is already dying.

The great mystic William Blake saw it:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.

The continuities are reassuring constructs in the background. They are a notional framework, but they are not where we live. We live and die each moment, in our beady looking, riveted on a close-up; or listening, note by delicious note. Tasting. Touching. That is how we are alive in the present. We live where our attention is fully focused. “Eternity” and “Infinity” are concentrated there. The relationship is best expressed by Blake again: “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”

In the following morning’s service we chanted The Heart Sutra. I was struck by how lines of text are like our journey through time. They remain the same through a thousand years as ink printed on paper, but when your eye travels along the lines, and you voice them, your mind flares with the imagined fullness of a word or phrase. It leaps into an idea and its implications and then attention smoothly moves on, echoing or resonating with the idea and adding to it the next one. The silent symbols spring into life and speak their meanings.

You lose attention for a bit, distracted, or recalling an earlier phrase, and miss half a sentence, which lies there dead, as you pass by without bringing it to life. According to how focused you are in the moments of your reading, the words leap into life briefly and then fade and die as you move through the space-time continuum of the text.

 

Phrase by phrase

The Heart Sutra

bursts into life

 

There is a physical landscape of short-lived or long-lived stable things, a mix of continuities, through which one moves, carried by time: flowers, trees, cathedrals, and the culture of historic texts. But one lives in the mind’s awareness. Living moments flare in one’s perceptions, fade and die, flaring and dying. Is this life or is this death?”  

I would not tell you.

I would not tell you, but my answer to myself is this. It is. Life and death. Each of them separately. Both of them together. Neither of them. It’s impossible to tell them apart. The words are nonsense. But I am content.

 

 

 

 

 

George Marsh 1652 words May 2017

Photographs: Tom Moulson

 

 

Who Will You Call? & April in Dublin

Krystyna

Krystyna Jankowska

Krystyna sings another of our songs, Who Will You Call? What a voice!

I like songs with characters in a specific dramatic situation. In this song we have a highly intelligent man who sees through hypocrisy and mediocrity but is cynical and unforgiving. He is loved by a woman who can see his qualities but also sees that he is destroying himself with sour despair.

And here Krystyna sings April in Dublin. It is a song which breaks into kletzmer music in the last section, for a change of mood.

April in Dublin has a bit of the mood of Cotton-Eyed Joe about it: the sense of regret; the sense that lives were forever changed by something that happened – or failed to happen – long ago. And there is deep respect for someone very special, who was not fully appreciated as they should have been.

We hope you like these songs! Let us know your feedback.

Psweet and Psour Psychology

User comments

 

For the purposes of this argument we’ll identify five elements to our psychology: The Self, The Personality, The Brain, The Child Mind, and The Unborn.

The Self

is a piece of software running in babies from birth which looks out for its needs and wants: primarily food, warmth, attention, interaction, and whatever takes its fancy. It looks out for our interests, and as we grow up it wants more sophisticated things, like reputation, success, appreciation, status, love. It compares itself with others and veers moodily between feeling superior and feeling inferior, feeling powerful and feeling powerless. It is self-obsessed and churns out excuses, denials and rationalisations necessary for its self-regard. It reacts instantaneously with its likes and dislikes, constantly alternating, as the Buddha taught, between attraction and aversion, going towards (the movement of greed), and running from (the movement of hatred), fight and flight. The funny thing is that we fondly imagine that this really is our self! “Me.” No. It is the same self-concerned stuff as everybody else’s. But all that attraction and aversion, picking and choosing, dignified with the name of “good taste” (judged as appropriate to your cultural group), leads directly to….

The Personality

A mixture of

  • Taste in music, design, books, clothing, cars, entertainment, lifestyle, friends and so on, based on the Self’s likes and dislikes, picking and choosing as appropriate to one’s class and ambitions in a self-defining, self-projecting way
  • Identity attachments (culturally a Celt, a Manchester United fan, a Labour voter, a feminist, a Buddhist), the grander expressions of attraction and aversion choices
  • Education, special skills, specialist knowledge, profession, management experience, manner of wielding authority
  • Habits and conditioning, much of it from parents and childhood experiences, shaping one’s emotional disposition (I, for example, am terrified of anger, from a family that suppressed all expression of anger ; I have a friend who is very much at ease with anger, a familiar friend to it, from a family happy with flare-ups)
  • Inherited dispositions (tall, strong, athletic, intelligent, clumsy, prone to heart trouble) and learned behaviours which may have developed often admirable qualities of character: courage, determination, confidence, patience, kindness, for example.

The Brain

Which comes into its own at work, discriminating, reasoning, assessing, arguing on the evidence, drawing upon experience and knowledge, reporting accurately, taking objective decisions. Not used as much as we like to think.

The Child Mind

Which persists into adulthood and old age. It likes fantasies, magical explanations, blaming, sulking, and extremes (things are either perfect or dreadful). It clings to what it wants to think, even in the face of conclusive evidence to the contrary.

The Unborn

The Original Face, the Deep Self, the Ground of Being, the One Mind, the Essence of Mind, the Buddhanature, or whatever you call it: the sense of life that you find within you, and find mysterious, not sure whether its energy comes from inside or outside, and not sure what it is, except that you find it nourishing and strengthening. It is the peace at the heart of you that you find in meditation and at times when you forget the Self and merge with nature, giving yourself up to something greater. But is it something special with its own qualities? Or is it simply the sense of life of the default state of an ordinary mind when undistracted, cleared of conditioning and self-concern? The Unborn is perhaps a default state that is both luminous, and “nothing special”! One can experience it, but not know it.

Our task in this life is to stop the Self, Personality, and Child Mind from obliterating the Unborn.

Chattering mind, fantasies, busy busy-work, entertainments, anxieties about self, fears for the future and endless trains of circular, repetitive thought blot out the sense of life in the present, the sense of being vividly alive now. To set the Unborn free we must get control of the Self.

 

With grateful acknowledgements to A Life of One’s Own by Joanna Field (Marion Milner) Chatto and Windus 1934, Virago 1986.