Painting Thing

I’m really getting into this painting thing. And with it, all the feelings, physical and emotional that accompanied the process decades ago, when I had a painting studio, shared w/my friend Sarah. Odd little anxieties about the creative process, and about committing to a visual idea; the joy of “feeling” the paint (although this time, using acrylics only, I’m not worrying about turpentine fumes. And acrylics are a bit kinder to the environment); using my visual and intuitive faculties to make decisions. A much more physical process than writing. Starting small, but realizing how much that’s like writing (I can tell because of the way my muscles tense up) and wondering if I should go bigger, which will allow for more expansive movements. But the materials are so much more expensive…

Recently I participated in a local Dr. Sketchy’s life drawing session. What a hoot! Figure drawing is not what it used to be. And kind of a re-initiation into the world of visual artists again. I was surprised at how quickly the motions of drawing came back to me. Glad that my hand-eye coordination is still operative.


Glenn Wallis on Siddatha Gotama (known as the Buddha) and Plato’s Socrates: “Both men were historical figures overwritten by their literary idealizations.”


Funny what 5 years distance can do to your memory. I read poems I wrote on a blog back then, and barely recognize–well, I should admit, I don’t remember it at all:

forgetfulness in the details. buzzing where memory ain’t. where in the blood exists a faint blur i relate to escapism, but also where the color washes out to a faint sigh on the canvas. she reminds me of rabbit skin glue, which i took pride in mixing. smelly the initiation into knowledge, and sticky. afterwards there were soft wet strokes, with which i prepared a future ground. i didn’t know that. in the ballad there is always a turn to or away. sometimes there are canyons, metaphors for descent and ascent. at one end of the plain, there is an edge nearly obscured by the grasses. this might’ve been in the dakotas, a few miles west of wounded knee. a cold breeze from the north bends us in one direction, and then another.

The Mystery of Things

Today I went to an open house for a Buddhist retreat center in-the-making. A respected sangha (Buddhist community) had purchased “The Mansion” as it had been previously called (a very large building with many rooms, and a wonderful top floor perfect for a meditation room). They were aiming to raise over 2 mil. and had already raised about 800,000. Of course they were seeking more donations, and with that in mind were arranging tours of the building and grounds.

So I’m thinking again of Glenn Wallis’ essay on “Making Decisions,” and about what constitutes the lived experience of the individual, the community, and the institution.

I’m thinking of the comfort of institutions and programs, and I’m thinking of how much we trust them. I’m wondering — how far can I trust poetry and art to take me? How far shall I trust myself?

The mystery of things, where is it?
Where is the thing that doesn’t appear
At least to show us it’s a mystery?

What does a river know about this and what does a tree know?
And I, who am no more than those, what do I know?
Every time I look at things and think about what men think about them,
I laugh like how a brook sounds cool on a stone.

Because the only hidden meaning of things
Is that they have no hidden meaning at all,
It’s stranger than every strangeness
And the dreams of all the poets
And the thoughts of all the philosophers,
That things are really what they seem to be
And there’s nothing to understand.

Yes, this is what my senses alone have learned:—
Things don’t have significance: they only have existence.
Things are the only hidden meaning of things.

–Fernando Pessoa (Alberto Caeiro)

Off the Program

Reading The Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry, I’ve been having a little trouble with the “buddhism-ness” of some (though by no means not all) of the poems. Well, the title of the book (albeit the first word refers to the publisher) puts me off a little too. Like, oh, you’re dispensing “Wisdom” right off the bat. Just so we know. Using that editorial structure to frame poems by Buddhists seems to set up a program that’s not useful, I think. If I were to edit a book like that I would go far out of my way to cut out that first word. Because (and I think Basho might agree) sometimes being a Buddhist is about being a fool.

It’s why I like the poems of Philip Whalen, Harryette Mullen, and Norman Fischer (all included in the anthology). They surprise, they embrace contradiction, and they come directly from lived experience, without spouting the jargon.

My take on this is that the Buddha was a guy who had discovered an important route by which humans could gain insight into their condition and greatly reduce suffering, but that he probably didn’t espouse all the hierarchical and baroque permutations on his teachings that many of his followers developed decades and centuries after his death. Glenn Wallis says something useful about this that questions the practices and assumptions of a lot of contemporary Buddhists:

Two aspects of employing a Buddhist framework are particularly disturbing to me. The first is that it usurps the practitioner’s actual, lived, experienced, process. That is, time and time again I have heard people use the same formulaic, doctrinal vocabulary to talk about meditative practice and the meditative life as a whole. Some see in such speech patterns evidence of “entering the stream” or maturing on “the path.” I see it, rather, as a disturbing symptom. I see the employment of borrowed language as a sign of evasion, of taking comfort in the warm embrace of community at the expense of the very purpose that that community is (ostensibly) meant to serve, namely, the combustion of delusion. I see it as a sign that someone is prescribing to a program, rather than engaging a potentially excoriating – and, to a great extent, lonely – practice of self-and-reality-knowing.

That is why I encourage people, as Thoreau put it, to keep language close to the bone. Let the language come out of the knowing – out of your bodily experience – and not the other way around. Because each of us has a particular perspective on “the knowing,” our language will be, at least to some degree, unique to each of us. It will be fresher, richer, more vibrant, and more honest than the borrowed language of Buddhism or any other pre-established framework allows.

Yet, still, I have to talk about these things. What language should I use? One possibility is the language of poetry.

So it comes back to poetry again. Why? Maybe the arts–poetry, visual arts–take you back to the body, to corporeality, which, in all its pain (I write this as my migraine slowly winds down to blessed relief), beauty, and complexity, says so much. Personally, I don’t have a problem with community — it has important functions; some point to the fact that communities can sometimes become insular, its traditions and habits inbred. But Wallis notes that one of community’s functions is to “dispel delusion.” I do think that American culture and religion (especially adopted or adapted religion) has certain programmatic elements to it that generally go unacknowledged because we assume that our ethos of individuality saves us from that. Well, it doesn’t; and when programmatic behavior goes under the radar, our best intent can be subverted.

Read more of “Making Decisions” by Glenn Wallis HERE.