In ten days time, our friend Tenzin Shenyen will embark on a 3-year Tibetan Buddhist retreat in Germany that “begins a cycle of practices to stabilise, concentrate and open the mind through more meditative practices that… include practices aimed at transcending one’s deeply ingrained delusional tendency to see oneself and the world as ordinary.”
Q: It’s been 3 years since you gave a talk at Service Design Conference in Stockholm. It was wonderful to see the whole conference meditating with you. It palpably changed the energy in the room. I especially appreciated your advice for design professionals to ‘Just Say No!’ more often. I think that advice is more important than ever. Can you expand on that a bit?
A: As I said in one of my posts about the approaching retreat, I think human beings are machines for producing works of art, and that the best works of art are nameless and invisible. Saying “no” to what is visible and which already has a name is one way into that space. I also re-read Castaneda’s Journey To Ixtlan recently and was touched by how deeply I still resonated with it. There’s a lot of ‘no’ saying in it, from ‘erasing personal history’ to ‘losing self-importance’, to ‘becoming inaccessible’ and ‘disrupting the routines of life’. The genuinely ‘new’ comes out of nowhere – and I mean absolutely nowhere, a brutally total nowhere- but we are too eager to be ‘somewhere’, no matter how shabby and derivative that ‘somewhere’ might be.
I hope at least one designer out there reads this and decides to say ‘no’ to the whole works — until reappearing twelve years later with something with no name and no identity that the whole world needs.
“Saying goodbye to house sits and temporary rooms, to the forest and one-litre bottle-showers at twilight, to the over-exposure of homelessness. Saying hello to deep seclusion and practice. The worlds we inhabit are neither visible nor invisible, but secretive, coded, nuanced and blessed. Saying goodbye also to Facebook, and hoping something more nuanced, respectful and soulful has taken its place by the time I come out again. I’ll meet you there, I’m sure.”
Q: What impact does your Buddhist practice have on your daily life today? How does Buddhism work as a practical guideline for daily decision making? How can this shape a layman’s decision-making to live an ethical life as an ‘ordinary’ person?
A: My daily life is perfumed by Buddhism. It allows me to see everything I do as a kind of prayer. For example, right now I’m watching the world cup. It’s football and I love it, it needs no justification. My unconscious is working tremendously hard preparing for the retreat, so Shenyen is balancing that by just relaxing. I don’t need to justify it. Justifications are for people who are organising pogroms, or asset-stripping entire national infrastructures, etc. not for people who are … content just being nobody, nowhere, just talking with The Invisibles, just owning one pair of shoes … or just watching Argentina’s slalom into the knockout stage while reading Jorge Valdano reflecting on the military dictatorship of the 1970’s, along with his plea to stop treating football as a science; it all turns it all into a kind of dream yoga. And dream yoga is part of the path to Buddhahood. You cannot live an ethical life without nurturing your imagination.
Elaine Scarry’s talk, Beauty as a call to justice, will explain that in detail. I re-posted it on my youtube channel. Ultimately no-one can tell you how to live, they can only seduce you into living in a specific way. Ethics thus emerges from Eros, from loving relationships — with yourself, people around you, your own karmic history, and the culture around you and the times you have been born into.
Q: You spoke once about the importance of combining Buddhist practice with your own ‘culture’ or your natural place in contemporary society as a western monk. Will you still have space for that kind of ‘personal cultural research/ observation’ on your 3-year retreat? Can you watch football when you are there?! Can you read Artforum? Can you write your blog, radioshenyen?
A: Football? Probably not! But in between the meditation blocks, that will usually last about 6-8 weeks per topic, we are encouraged to relax, maybe even listen to a little music. And I will have my Artforum scrapbooks with me. Enough for one exhibition a week I think! But I don’t see too much separation between the centuries-old tantric stuff and my personal interests. Doing the retreat in all its traditional structure is also a part of my ‘personal cultural research’.
“Study, a mixture of chaos and silence, concentration and fragment.”
Q: How much meditation do you recommend to a layperson or beginner? Is frequency important for practice? Are there other types of activities such as physical work (making things, cleaning, gardening, etc.) that are also seen as part of Buddhist practice? In Asia, meditation isn’t seen as something that ‘ordinary people’ do. Lay people often ask the monks to meditate and pray on their behalf.
A: Meditation is extremely over-emphasised in contemporary Western presentations of Buddhism. Ethics, study, art, service, offering, confession, purification, prayer, chanting, and vows, among other things, are all sidelined, or dismissed as ‘obvious’, ‘old-fashioned’, ‘embarrassing’ or ‘peripheral’. But Buddhism only really comes alive when you take on board it’s entire culture, it’s ‘world’ while being willing to do the work of engaging that world with your own. Thus, my love of contemporary art is inseparable from my study of Madhyamaka and tantric meditations. My best moments of mindfulness occur when on alms round. You can’t just meditate in a vacuum, in a fog of mundane activity and thinking.
But nevertheless, it is part of the path.
I would recommend a very short commitment — 10 minutes a day is fine — to being quiet, still, disciplined and visionary on one’s cushion. But instead of wanting to meditate I would suggest that people simply pray to be able to meditate, and then relax. Thinking about what other people need — the immediate needs of the people around you right now, at home or on the train platform — is so much more powerful than some half-hearted meditation practice.
Genuine meditation comes out of uncontrived faith. Faith arises out of joy and ethics. Ethics from art and empathetic disciplined imagination.
Q: We need to manage negative attachments to the idea of future, such as fear or sadness or anxiety, as these feelings arise, to avoid shutting down altogether. Is hope also an attachment?
A: Attachment is one of those words that are easy to misconstrue. In Buddhism, liking something isn’t an expression of attachment; wanting something good to continue, or to happen if it hasn’t yet happened, isn’t attachment. Attachment is defined as a state where ‘you are willing to do something bad in order for something to continue (or begin)’. So ‘hope’ in itself isn’t attachment. Love isn’t attachment, not even fierce love. Whereas cowardice would be.
Q: What is your favourite festival or holiday? What practices in your life have changed significantly since becoming ordained?
A: I like New Year’s celebrations. Awareness of time cycles is a lovely thing and transcends specific religions and worldviews. And the atom bomb memorial day in Hiroshima is also high on my list of ‘things which make the heart beat faster’ – if that’s what you mean by ‘festival’.
Ordination, by providing an absolutely fundamental challenge to my sense of identity, in both challenging (demanding, humbling) and transformative (blessed) ways, has helped me to explore more deeply the teachings on non-self as a meditative state.
Q: How important is it to be altruistic?
A: It is impossible to become a Buddha without practising altruism. And never mind Buddhahood, it is impossible to keep enjoying positive samsaric rebirths without practising altruism. All art comes from altruism.
Radio Shenyen has now moved to it’s own dedicated space on Tumblr. The old posts will remain here in the archives. Radio Shenyen is a blog part poetry, part diary, part letter, by the British born Tibetan Buddhist monk, Martin Hodgson, aka Tenzen Shenyen.
Shenyen received monk’s vows from His Holiness the Dalai Lama in July 2004. Shenyen, that means ‘friend’, has spent the last ten years wandering around the world, allowing the blessing of the tradition to mingle with the secular beauties of his own culture. In 2008, Shenyen slept in 93 different places. His office consists of a rolled up copy of Artforum and an old Nokia 100.
In October, Shenyen will be speaking at a Nordic Service Design Network’s conference on ‘Creating Value for Quality of Life.’ His talk will offer a Buddhist take on design, arguing that karma and experience cannot be correlated for predictable effect, much less be designed. The task of designers today is to ride the chaos and make decisions characterised by ‘innocence’ and precision. From cinema directors to kamikaze pilots, from biographeme to biography and back again, Shenyen traces a soft logic lineage of ‘contemporaries across millennia’.
radioshenyen: Roberto and Jane
February 2012 Spain
“He wants to live long enough to witness a new, post-genomic fiction, one that grasps the interpenetrating loops of inheritance and upbringing so tangled that every cause is some other cause’s effect. One that, through a kind of collaborative writing, shakes free of the prejudices of any individual maker. For now, fiction remains at best a scattershot mood-regulating concoction – a powerful if erratic cocktail like Ritulin for ADHD, or benzodiazepines for the sociophobe. In time, like every other human creation, it will be replaced by better, more precise molecular fine-tuning.”
— from ‘Generosity’ by Richard Powers
I already have the voices: what I’m dreaming right now are the instructions that come with the voices, the writing of the instructions, and the packaging of the writing. A writing like radar and radio and radiation and reckless love sonnets and an everyday kind of yesterday; a packaging like homelessness.
In William Gibson’s ‘Spook Country’ there’s a guy who chalks out GPS grids on the floor of whatever structure he is presently staying in and refuses to sleep in the same square twice. I think about him so much – I mean ‘think’ in a nameless, fraying, post-calculative sort of way. The guy’s in deep – real deep – in some ghostly new world that’s coming. A witness to tomorrow’s unimaginable ordinary. People like this make me feel very still, make me able to smile – and disappear. People like this I can trust.
I think about fictional banking and the set of all people who dream of knockin’ in Mitsubishi’s. About landscape poetry and linear deepening and superflatness and cardboard. There are days when every single thought feels like the gift of buddhas. And there are days when I find myself wondering which will disappear first: all my hesitations or all my friends.
“True happiness, we are told, consists in getting out of one’s self; but the point is not only to get out – you must stay out, and to stay out you must have some absorbing errand.” — Henry James
I think about the different ways different writers take us to the edge of the abyss: Roberto Bolano for example, whose ‘2666’ contains a three hundred page section that catalogues the murders of over a hundred women in paragraphs of blank forensic detail wrapped around images of a hallucinatory televisual ‘Mexico'; or Jane Austen, whose graceful and intricate novels contain little UXBs of addressed human sadness, such as when the heroine of ‘Persuasion’ is forced once more to learn ‘the art of knowing our own nothingness beyond our own circle’. I try and imagine Jane Austen inside the world of ‘Spook Country’ or wandering the wastelands that surround the maquiladoras of Bolano’s nightmare. But the real mystery here is this: I imagine her safe.
I look for things to give you that wont waste a second of your time. Things like this 19 minute video diary for instance by war reporter Tim Hetherington, Or these – though I’m a little less confident about them! – these images of I know not what. Mexican ice creams for Jane perhaps, or midnight hats for her to wear in the midst of some absorbing errand. I really dont know.
“There is a fine line between what we like and what affects us. There is a fine line between what we can manipulate and what is close to us. There is a fine line between using technique and making music. We must be open to the spaces (silence) in order to fill them just right. We must see the spaces, inhabit them, live them. Then the next note, the next move, becomes apparent because it is needed. Until it is apparent, nothing should be played. Until it is known, nothing should be anticipated. Until the whole appears, the parts should not be criticised. Until — ”
— (source unknown) (IL: Keith Jarrett, we think)
“Another picture was of two girls with their arms around each other’s shoulders, their heads tilted to the left, gazing at the camera with similar expressions and an incredible assurance, as if they had just set foot on this planet or their suitcases were already packed to leave.”
Roberto Bolano, ‘2666’
In Colombo a man lies sprawled out along a bus shelter bench, holding his head. beneath a poster of a smiling vibrant female boxer.
A girl steps onto the bus wearing a t-shirt that says ‘another girl’.
A shop selling bird cages and weighing scales, examples of both hanging in the window, each of them empty in their own way.
An 87 year old blind woman becomes president of Egypt. The ghost of a 9 year old girl wanders the Midosuji line singing her grandmother’s favourite enka song.
A traffic accident victim lies dead in the middle of the road covered by a plastic sheet with only his feet sticking out, next to his smashed motorbike which has only one wheel. In the twenty minutes it takes for the police to arrive and sort out the traffic jam that my bus is caught in I watch people get out of cars and off the bus to go forward to have a look. I cannot understand anything they are saying but I know its a death scene. As the bus finally drives past the body the image of the victim lying there with just his feet sticking out of the sheet strikes me very strongly and I start saying vajrasattva mantras for him.
The bus driver is driving like a maniac but I dont mind, wrapped as i am in a cocoon of silence and faith, inside the formlessness of my life’s direction. The bus radio is playing Indian pop, the kind where the male singer sounds like he’s singing in front of a mirror and is profoundly moved by the beauty he’s seeing there, and the female singer sounds like an angel who made it to heaven on the strength of her housework. And then Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ mixed to a techno beat starts and suddenly I realise there’s no such thing as a ‘buddhist country’, there are only buddhist moments: buddhist bus journeys, buddhist convenience store car parks, buddhist playlists.
Outside departure gate 7 an airport worker walks past pushing a cart stacked with a pyramid of different coloured plastic bins. As she passes beneath a structure hanging from the ceiling – a crown of little golden lights – her gaze meets mine and we smile. And I say to myself: all tools, all technologies, are essentially extensions of the body: pencils, shopping bags, aeroplanes, tantric sadhanas. I make no distinctions.
Secrets, when combined with love and selflessness, are the greenhouse of language.
On the plane during take-off, listening to favourite songs, I can still see vividly the image of the road accident victim, and the songs become prayers that the dead man’s universe reappears as a white limousine with 17,000 wheels to make up for the one he lost yesterday, a century ago, just now.
Radioshenyen: Nonlinear Friendship
February 2010 Cornwall, UK
(click here for someone to watch over you, then come straight back and continue reading…)
“With each new boost to the number of connections, Lenz had to improve the computer’s ability to discard as it generalised. Intelligence meant the systematic eradication of information. We wanted a creature that recognised a finch as a bird without getting hung up on beak size or colour or song or any other quality that seemed to put it in a caste by itself. At the same time, the discarding had to stop short of generalising the finch into a bat or a snowflake or a bit of blowing debris…”
( – Richard Powers, ‘Galatea 2.2′)
– Ghost Brought Back to Life
– A Song of Love
– Country Gentleman
– Deranged Man
– In a Fret: A
– Man of Excessive information
– In a Fret: B
– Faculty Meeting
– La Grande Place
– Efflorescent Town
I ask her what’s her favourite book. “It’s called Hey! Digger-Digger!” she replies, “and its about this monster which befriends abandoned technologies and makes them feel wanted and useful again. It also makes friends with the swanky new technologies and leads them astray, gets them into trouble with their owners.” “Is it a fairy-tale type of thing?” “Er, Yes… A combination of fairytale and molecular anthropology, distantiation poetics, paramathematics and er.. plot.” Its the way she says that last word that’s really sweet. She’s a thousand years ahead of me already, and accelerating..
– Hi !
– A Man Climbing the Stairs
– O, la, la !
“European starlings have a way of appearing in unexpected places — the United States, for example, where they are not native but owe their origin to a brief reference in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part 1.” In 1890, a drug manufacturer who wanted every bird found in Shakespeare to live in America released 60 starlings in Central Park. After spending a few years nesting modestly under the eaves of the American Museum of Natural History, they went from a poetic fancy to a menacing majority; there are now upward of 200 million birds across North America, where they thrive at the expense of other cavity nesters like bluebirds and woodpeckers, eat an abundance of grain — as well as harmful insects — and occasionally bring down airplanes.”
( – from an article on the photography of Richard Barnes
– Lab Oratory
– Jameel Jiddan
– And Then It Was Gone
– Sleeping Bag Concert
– A Year From Monday
– How I Got Home
– Phrase-Book for Shy People
– Last Orders
– Bumping Into the Network
“As I, the girl Dawa Drolma. continued on my way, a yogin dressed in white, with long flowing locks of hair, approached, surrounded by a host of dakas and dakinis. He turned a prayer wheel with an elaborate brocade cover, and his feet did not touch the ground. He passed by me on the way to the hells. When I asked him where he was going he replied, “To the lower states of rebirth. I’m going to lead away all those who have shared food with me. I am a master guide of beings, Togdan Pawo, whose very name means ‘hero of spiritual realisation’.” As he chanted the mani mantra three times to a melody the houses of burning iron became palaces of crystal, and all the beings there were transformed into bodies of light. He headed off, taking them to the sublime pure realm of Potala mountain, like a flock of birds startled by a stone from a sling.”
( – from a Tibetan Delog text)
– Molecules and Buildings
– This Is Almost You And That Is .. Almost Me
– Breakfast Date
– The Sick Panda
“…Jesus slips into a house to escape enemies,
and opens a door to the other world.
Solomon cuts open a fish, and there’s a gold ring.
Omar storms in to kill the prophet
and leaves with blessings.
Chase a deer and end up everywhere!
An oyster opens his mouth to swallow one drop.
Now there’s a pearl.
A vagrant wanders empty ruins.
Suddenly he’s wealthy.
But don’t be satisfied with stories, how things
have gone with others. Unfold
your own myth, without complicated explanation,
so everyone will understand the passage,
‘We have opened you’…”
(- Rumi, ‘Unfold Your Own Myth’)
– Speaker’s Corner
– Reverse Commuter
– One Line in a Letter Written From a World of Two
– Cicada Program
– Technology Shepherd
– Talentless But Connected
– Rub With Ashes
“Help them, then, to speak and write themselves in unstable, open, undecidable spaces… without ideological, moral, or biased suggestions, but through a simple listening, lovingly absent-minded…”
( – Julia Kristeva, ‘Tales of Love’)
– Insect 47
– The First Two Seconds
– Immaculate Panda
– Exit Anywhere
“When spring came, when every crow announced its arrival by raising his cry half a tone, I took the green train of the Yamanote line and got off at Tokyo station, near the central post office. Even if the street was empty I waited at the red light—Japanese style—so as to leave space for the spirits of the broken cars. Even if I was expecting no letter I stopped at the general delivery window, for one must honor the spirits of torn up letters, and at the airmail counter to salute the spirits of unmailed letters. I took the measure of the unbearable vanity of the West, that has never ceased to privilege being over non-being, what is spoken to what is left unsaid.”
(from Chris Marker’s film, Sunless)
She is standing two steps beside me. We are re-characterising the world. We are tracking the transformation of beauty into exact science. Or so i like to think. But then she does something like this:
I wake up each morning to find busy bees in the L.A. night leaving gems like that in my twitter box. Its like what that one square metre of space next to the front door – where the mail would land – used to be before the white envelope culture took it over.
I live alone – everyone does, one way or another – but the walls of my castle are broad: bands of strangers stroll the battlements or camp out overnight in ten minute segments, wrapped in shawls of golden languages and unique, precise worldviews. More super-barrio than superhighway, it is a new kind of talking and listening, raggedy, discontinuous and a kind of heaven, where the mind can feel distributed yet focussed. I’m happy here..
As a Buddhist monk I no longer use the word ‘battle’, and if I still have a fondness for reading the Art Of War its only to better appreciate the strategies of up and coming artists as they edge their way in from the periphery, from tiny gallery to magazine reviews to mid-career museum retrospective, or FIFA’s breathtakingly semi-conscious attempt to reposition the world cup as a kind of secular kalachakra.
Did you know there are kids – I mean here in our American-European cities – who have never heard of Bugs Bunny or the Soviet Union? (In 20 years we’ll be able to add ‘universities, newspapers, national anthems’.) Their world is changing so fast. Those plastic toys they play with which you think of simply as dinosaurs, they’re actually Winicottian transitional objects representing the whole of culture up to 1992.
We drive ourselves to exhaustion trying to be productive and ‘a little bit famous’ while our 9 year old kids shuffle dreamily around the house, productively playful and famously anonymous. Their one-sock-on-one-sock-off world is awesome in its simplicity, and so new it doesn’t even have a name. But yes: “ordinary is no place to be…”
I think what the web is secretly saying is ‘forget about fame: its just an electronic slum, a leftover from the pre-1980s world of 4-channel tv, soon to be replaced by towerblock forests of web-feeds and URLs.’ Watching the X Factor show highlights just before xmas I couldn’t help thinking of the helicopter evacuation of the US embassy in Saigon in 1974… Its the end of a world, not the start of one; a nostalgia for fame. “And when all the celebrations are over it remains only to pick up all the ornaments – all the accessories of the celebration – and by burning them, make a celebration.” (‘Sunless’)
A typical night of immersion: I read essays on the mathematician Godel while listening to music from Sweden and Santa Fe (the Swedish music brought to my attention via a secondary review from a reviewer of a book on Godel, creating a beautiful strange loop), wander through the last few years’ work of www.raqsmediacollective.net, watch old Russian folk-tale animations and electronic art pieces on Youtube, see a thought-provoking photo on www.designforhaiti.com
… set up a list of future feeds into my Twitter site that extends into the next two months. They will be released at the times given for each tweet, down to the very day-month-year-hour-minute – if i wanted i could make it look like radioshenyen is the monk who never sleeps!
… friends in London take actionmonk photos according to specifications and post them to me in minutes (check ’em out on www.yfrog.com / radioshenyen) while someone who lives half an hour away phones to arrange a meditation sitting for tomorrow. But it takes me forty minutes to walk to the garbage drop-point and back. high-speed super-slow.
I’m working slowly through hours of good responses by 168 ‘smart ‘uns’ interviewed by Edge magazine (www.edge.org) about ‘how the internet is changing the way we think’
I’ve saved the best till last: I watch this video over and over – about the 1982 Brazil world cup team – 5 minutes of immaculate editing and awesome beauty (no, seriously..) made to honour the passing of team manager Tele Santana when he died in 2006. Even the incidental details in this video would have made a medieval painter proud. Check out the Scottish (?) goalie walking back towards his goal like someone in the corner of a Breughal painting.
The video is a measure of what ‘sacredness’ should mean, regardless of – and way beyond – the fabricated limitations we place on the term. And i know of no western buddhist practitioners – individuals or organisations – who get anywhere near exuding this level of beauty in their sense of who they are and what they are doing. Including of course myself. And you will have to decide for yourself just how serious I am when I suggest that one shouldn’t even consider oneself as having a spiritual life if one isn’t asking the painful question ‘why aren’t I as beautiful as this video?’
And maybe that’s what this essay is all about: ‘how the internet is changing the way we think about the sacred’…
“In the mist, snow fell for nine days and nights.
Then more and more for a further eighteen nights and days.
The snow fell, big as bags of wool,
fell like birds flying in the sky,
fell like a whirling swarm of bees.
Flakes fell small as a spindle’s wheel,
fell as tiny as bean weed,
fell like tufts of cotton.
The snowfall was beyond all measure.
Snow covered all the mountain and even touched the sky,
falling through the bushes and weighing down the trees.
Black mountains became white,
all the lakes were frozen.
Clear water congealed beneath the rocks;
the world became a flat, white plain;
hills and valleys were leveled…”
– from ‘the hundred thousand songs of milarepa’
“she would not cross a road or a rail line in daylight. she would not cross under a wire fence twice in the same place. these were the new protocols.”
– cormac mccarthy, “the crossing”
full moon night. i’m staying in a shed, reading descriptions of eleventh century snowstorms like it was today’s news, wrapping myself in milarepa’s childlike sense of safety, a safety i need now at this point in my life. and a safety i will find, for sure. when you read properly, with the self held in abeyance, the written things that trigger love in you become memories, and when memory comes out of love (the love of another’s world, another’s words) rather than experience you understand a little more clearly the nature of the emptiness of all phenomena and the unity of emptiness and compassion, openness and otherness. so i read often, and everything: i read, too, cormac mccarthy’s howl of a book, a book that destroys false faith, a book that uses wolves and bandits and blindness and quiet mexican doctors the way nagarjuna uses madhyamaka logic.
i’ve just arrived in london, for some teachings and a whole lot more. i should be able to write a few times, i feel, as i pass through. but i’m on my way out of here. suddenly a voice beside me said stop. those well-dressed people from the invisible world. i’m physically exhausted but mentally at peace after another three months of wandering and i’m on my way out of here, walking in one last snowstorm, surrounded by books and telephone calls and subway stations, heading towards some hut in sri lanka, some world, and the feeling of someone’s hand on my shoulder, just the lightest of touches – otherworldly, you might say – telling me to just let it all go. memory and love. surrounded by friends and strangers and arcs of silence. but on my way.
“…the truth may often be carried about by those who themselves remain all unaware of it. they bear that which has weight and substance and yet for them has no name whereby it may be evoked or called forth. they go about ignorant of the true nature of their condition, such are the wiles of truth and such its strategems. then one day in that casual gesture, that subtle movement of divestiture, they wreak all unknown upon some ancillary soul a havoc such that that soul is forever changed, forever wrenched about in the road it was intended upon and set instead upon a road heretofore unknown to it. this new man will hardly know the hour of his turning nor the source of it. he will himself have done nothing that such great good befall him. yet he will have the very thing, you see. unsought for and undeserved. he will have in his possession that elusive freedom which men seek with such unending desperation.”
– cormac mccarthy “the crossing”
the south west of england
“proximity to a concept, and a gentle shove, are often all that is needed for a major discovery.”
– douglas hofstadter
“i dont have to give them any rules about poetry. they live in that space already. close to things.”
– natalie goldberg
indescribable music. the kind that will be played in hospitals in the 22nd century to accompany brain surgery. dj orchestras, lost appetites, pacification of the emotions. stranger-radio. i’m wandering around again, sleeping in forests and fields, in unlocked churches and ruined castles, reading on beaches and listening to such music float through my mind at odd moments. just turning the pages – essays and books on mathematics, architecture and the post-death experiences of tibetan ‘delog’ wanderers, and imaginary five-second songs that come out of sudden moments of gentle formlessness in the mind. folded patterns. voluminosity.
i’m tying nothing together. i’m very disciplined. almost invisible. just a series of frayed edges. and i love imagining your ticker-tape gaze, your own inexpressible speed as you read. you really are free to read your way into your own subconscious, past the grammar and the stories. that’s what i want.
fifteen years ago she was living in london where she saw the dalai lama give a public talk and felt some kind of connection with him. now she’s back in cornwall and trying to meditate on her own but feeling a bit isolated. so one night she makes a simple spontaneous prayer to the dalai lama: “please send me a friend i can talk to about my meditation practice…”
a few weeks later she sees me walking down the street in cornwall. “are you a buddhist monk?” “yes.” “what’s your name?” “shenyen.” “what does that mean?” “it means ‘the friend’ …” and that’s how we came to practice together for five days, as smoothly as if we had known each other for years.
wandering on the moors, i rest for a while on a hill with beautiful large stones deposited from some ice age maybe. i find a little hollowed out stone containing two inches of rainwater, strip myself down and wash myself in it. i feel clearly the unfabricated nature of the space, of a water supply from the sky, held by slender parameters of sun and wind, and a basin designed by geological forces rather than factory processes. in such a space the act of washing becomes something neither forgetful nor forced, and a given thing, unexpected, unrepeatable, which is the way meditation – all things – should be understood.
i’m listening to two old folk laughing and teasing each other in a small village square: “how come you got that grant? i thought it was only for young ‘uns.” “well i’m only 21…” “if you’re 21 i’m only 18…!” “well then maybe we two should get together…” (laughter) … and then i notice that the car pulling away from the kerb just in front of me has three or four beautiful lotus flowers painted on it.
i may be catapulting out of the uk again this autumn. its already too cold, wet and windy here for my liking and it’s becoming physically tiring. and something is saying it’s time now to settle and practice in silence, in solitude, for a good stretch of time. if i can find a way to do it here in the uk i will, but i can’t quite see it somehow. i’m thinking sri lanka but i’m not totally clear yet. but for now i’m still on the road.
The best signs of history are objects so complex and so bound in webs of unpredictable contingency that no state, once lost, can ever rise again in precisely the same way.
– stephen jay gould
Since there is no way the human world is in itself, language need not – in fact, cannot – simply correspond to reality. But we can’t just arbitrarily make up any old vocabulary either. Rather, language has the crucial role of reflecting and focussing the current practices in any epoch. It does the same job as a cultural paradigm. For Heidegger a vocabulary, or the kind of metaphors one uses, can name things into being and change the sensibility of an age… Language is a marvellously powerful way to preserve and extend practices by focussing them. For Heidegger it is the poets and thinkers, not the priests or scientists, who are receptive to, and use, new language and so promote and stabilise new ways of being… they alone offer hope of some new, non-individualistic, non-wilful world.
– Dreyfuss on Heidegger
on the back of a man’s t-shirt, an image of a tree with flowers and birds, painted medieval style.
a japanese guy busking in a corridor on the underground – completely immersed in the song he is singing, with very soft-edged guitar and with equally elusive vocal patterns drifting in and out, amazing stuff – can still be heard as i arrive on the platform to be greeted by a poster advertising a film about a woman with motor neuron disease which announces that she wrote the text of the advert using tiny movements of her chin.
a few steps further along the platform another poster confidently announces in big type: “I was the man in the blue shirt sitting opposite who stared at you all the way from camden town to charing cross. You were the woman in the fantastic glasses.”
the woman opposite me on the train is reading a matt black paperback with a gold band around the top. i cant see what the book is but i sense that it contains a beautiful language, mathematical and attentive in a formalised but kind way. and then i realise: i am that language.
a blond girl carrying a small swedish flag – the kind used to guide large parties of tourists through busy urban settings – walks quietly down a crowded street, on her own, lost in thought.
on a man’s sky blue t-shirt is a print of an orange bicycle, but only the front two thirds have been printed: the back wheel, half of the chain, and the frame from just behind the seat are all absent.
as i sit down on the train i suddenly sense that the woman in the seat next to me is shining. i do what i always do in this situation: i refrain from looking at her, allowing the sensed algorithm of beauty to generate medieval patterns of respect and quietness and joy inside me.
entering liverpool street station a few hours later that awareness re-emerges inside me for a few moments. i slow down my walking a few degrees and feel the soft focussing of a kind of loving intelligence inside my body.
she sits next to me on the train.
“are you a monk?”
“do monks usually call themselves monks?”
“well, only when their mind is very quiet or the situation is kind of formal.”
“what do they call themselves at other times?”
“they call themselves whatever they want.”
“what do you call yourself at such times?”
“i call myself a mathematician.”
“a mathematician. how would you define a mathematician? ….. i guess a mathematician is just someone who does maths.”
“well, that definition is a bit weak. everyone does some maths during the course of the day. they look at the train timetable and look at their watch and do a little subtraction, that kind of thing. but they dont consider themselves mathematicians. a better definition would be ‘a mathematician is someone who sees opportunities for doing mathematics where most people dont.’ ”
“you could apply that to being a buddhist too i guess. to being a buddhist monk.”
“yes. a buddhist is someone who sees opportunities for studying or practicing buddhism where most people dont.”
“as a buddhist mathematician what have you seen today?”
“well, i saw a tree on the back of a man’s t-shirt, painted medieval style, with leaves and birds on it. it was recognisably medieval. and i started thinking about how trees change through the centuries, both in art and in real life – how a tree in a nineteenth century painting doesnt look like a tree in a fourteenth century painting, and how the DNA – do trees have DNA? – anyway, you know what i mean – how the DNA of trees has probably changed too. and i started thinking about mapping these two histories of change onto each other, two fuzzy discontinuities, and mapping these two lines onto logic trees. i started thinking of creating a kind of … foliage … for logic trees using algorithms of change created from the natural and artistic history of trees. i wanted to paint these trees, and have all the lonely people walking beneath them…”
“this is my stop. thank you for talking with me. do you think we will meet again?”
“i’m sure we will.”
¨Everyone should have two voices: one truthful, the other natural…¨ – Euripides
¨it isnt that we´re alone or not alone
whose voice do you want mine? yours?¨ – ikkyu
¨i wont die i wont go away i´ll always be here
no use asking me i wont speak¨ – ikkyu
a house in the mountains, without a bathroom… but a house! so happy to be indoors and in one place for a while…
i´m brushing my teeth under the stars. on the other side of the valley the snow-topped mountains are glowing beautifully, reflecting the moonlight, and a stray voice inside of me says: the world is beautiful for no reason, not for a reason. i´m brushing my teeth under the stars and then its there – this feeling i´ve been homing in on again and again over the past year: the nothingness of my life. and i´m writing you a postcard, as i always do when this feeling slips into view. its just writing, something vague and gentle, and it either holds your attention for a little while or it doesnt but either way is ok. and if you can hear love rather than indifference in that last remark then i guess i´m still managing to take you with me. its just writing. formless yet disciplined, its just an attempt to protect the unforseeable nature of speech.
¨The reputation of Shabkar, the perfect hermit, spread far and wide, inspiring another renunciate, Patrul Rinpoche, to travel from Kham to Amdo to meet him. Unfortunately, after Patrul had gone halfway he heard that Shabkar had passed away, whereupon he prostrated himself a hundred times in the direction of Amdo and sang a supplication for Shabkar’s swift rebirth. He then added, ´Compassion and love are the root of Dharma. I think that there was no one more compassionate than Shabkar in this world. I had nothing special to ask, no teachings to request from him, no teaching to offer him; I simply wanted to gather some merit by seeing his face…´”
i watch you step down from the train, a frail thing on fire, beautiful, closed down, almost invisible, not through any fault of your own but because the culture around you lacks discipline. ¨when will people look at me with something other than bulldozer eyes?¨ maybe when enough people are walking along the same dual highway of love and resignation that patrul rinpoche walked along. you asked me once to define buddhism without the ¨-ism¨. do you remember? and i said: it´s a kind of training, a response to a sadness without an object with a love without an object, combining some kind of discipline lovingly accepted and free of superstition with an ongoing education in inconceivability and boundarylessness.
i´m up in the mountains doing my one hundred thousand prostrations (a standard tibetan purification practice). there are times in your life when all you can do is… bow. when the person you thought you were or the world you were walking in suddenly disappears. to just say thank you. so i´m up here, with a winter to spare, and hoping to make one pure bow within the hundred thousand. i´m managing 1,500 a day, rolling through a cycle of one hundred tiny visualisations to help me keep count. there´s an eighth century translator in there who´s so focussed and gentle he can reach out his hand and catch birds as they fly past (setting the benchmark for all future translators), and a lama from the 16th century who returns to the room where he received his first initiation many years earlier and covers the walls in gold leaf to express his thankfulness. entering my own fractured era, there´s a high lama escaping from his own monastery at night disguised as a simple monk as chinese soldiers pound it with mortar shells. he´s my ordaining abbot. and a zen master who was a kamikaze pilot in the second world war, the war ending one hour before he was due to fly. he gave me instructions in shikantaza – ´just sitting´.
some of the images are only lightly held, allowing other occasional images to pop up as i roll past. thus it is that mandala offering allows for occasional appearances by bobby womack, and prajnaparamita texts flip into contemporary art documents. as i roll past shantideva i sometimes find myself reciting lines of his (¨… with reverence but without conceptual target…¨) while suddenly standing, invisible, in london´s liverpool street station. ¨tilopa´s song¨ becomes an indian sweet shop and a coffee machine on a korean street corner becomes the kindness of everyone everywhere. this for me is part of the spirit of refuge: an imaginary life focussed on the real, undermining its hegemony, and a buddhist universe being patiently stripped of its superstition and boundaries.
i´ve just been told i can extend my stay here until the beginning of april. i´ve decided to accept.
and for the first time in years i can receive mail – i have access to a postal box in the town post office. so if anyone wants to write to me – even if its just a blank postcard from the local museum, a painting of some inocent-looking minstrel from the sixteenth century or something – they can do so at:
i remember, twenty years ago, a postcard from a friend making a long bus journey across north africa. a rough journey it sounded too, but it ended with the words ´…but i have music with violins and this always helps.´ i´ve always remembered that sentence. dont know why it makes me smile so much. this is what memory is for: not for all the times when we devour each other but for those rare, accidental, ludic moments when we set each other free through the unforseeable nature of speech.