Ptarmigan

a grouse with completely feathered feet

9/22/2004

It looks like it's raining outside but it's not. I'm not sure if it's haze or minute insects. It's supposed to rain tonight. I'm on pg. 71 of the poem. I'm exhausted by it. But I'm not stopping as of yet. I'm not entirely sure how the different sections are cobbled together coherently, as there's a panoply of, er, "expedient means" throughout the poem, with some recurring characters, or should I say "characters". One of which is my father in a recent section, who was a courier in post-world war II germany for army security. There are mermen on the base but not the trains. In progress, in progress. I'm afraid of having it just konk out and end--like my novels tend to! Funny that.

More Lotus Sutra poetics. Although it might seem counterintuitive and even paradoxical, I've been mulling over and over how much Buddhism is about the body, and as a correlation, about the mind as an extension of the body. A body of work. A desire for (a) work. A desire for body. I posted an audioblog of a section of my poem. Thought I sounded tinny. Erased it. That's not a successful repudiation of the body. Which I'm thinking doesn't get at the center of Buddhism at all. Or one of its many centers. There is no way to destroy the body to find the text without reprocussions or missing the mark entirely. This destruction (posited, often, as an overarching narrative of anti-narrative) is concussive; it might even make for good copy and career. But..."I will suggest that this disparity between theory and practice--between imagined and actual forms of collectivity--arises from a pair of contradictory commitments: to a radical concept of freedom on the one hand and to a repressive hypothesis of cultural determinism on the other." (Oren Izenberg)

How does one explore this, then, without hypocrisy? Is that even possible? One of my favorite parables in the Lotus Sutra is that of the phantom city, which I'll quote at length here from the Burton Watson translation:
"Let us suppose there is a stretch of bad road five hundred yojanas [a rough unit of measurement adding up to the distance an army could march in a day] of long, steep and difficult, wild and deserted, with no inhabitants around, a truly fearful place. And suppose there are a number of people who want to pass over this road so they can reach a place where there are rare treasures. They have a leader, of comprehensive wisdom and keen understanding, who is thoroughly acquainted with this steep road, knows the layout of its passes and defiles, and is prepared to guide the group of people and go with them over this difficult terrain.

"The group he is leading, after going part way on the road, become disheartened and say to the leader, "We are utterly exhausted and fearful as well. We cannot go any farther. Since there is still such a long distance ahead, we would like now to turn around and go back.'

"The leader, a man of many expedients, thinks to himself, What a pity that they should abandon the many rare treasures they are seeking and want to turn and go back! Having had this thought, he resorts to the power of expedient means and, when they have gone three hundred yojanas along the steep road, conjures up a city. He says to the group, 'Don't be afraid! You must not turn back, for now here is a great city where you can stop, rest, and do just as you please. If you enter this city you will be completely at ease and tranquil. Then later, if you feel you can go on to the place where the treasure is, you can leave the city.'

"At that time the members of the group, being utterly exhausted, are overjoyed in mind, exclaiming over such an unprecedented event, 'Now we can escape from this dreadful road and find ease and tranquility!' The people in the group thereupon press forward and enter the city where, feeling that they have been saved from their difficulties, they have a sense of complete ease and tranquility.

"At that time the leader, knowing that the people have become rested and are no longer fearful or weary, wipes out the phantom city and says to the group, 'You must go now. The place where the treasure is is close by. That great city of a while ago was a mere phantom that I conjured up so that you could rest.'

Sike! There is actually an interesting article on the ethics of the Lotus Sutra, on what the sutra itself calls "expedient means." The Lotus Sutra, then, turns itself so that it's predicated on a secret history. Strip away the veil and you see the previous history of Buddhism as a series of ebullient phantom cities. It's a striking claim in that it provides a framework (physical, metaphysical and otherwise) for continued permutations. The gnostic gospels do this in the Christian traditions, but in esoteric, not exoteric fashion. The Lotus Sutra is straight up about its access. It does not require secret handshakes.

Language itself is one of our phantom cities. Because it is illusory doesn't make it any less emancipatory. Or escapist. The phantom city is not in the skies. Knowing the topography helps. And our frail bodies do tire. So much of what we write is tied to the daily schedules--whether we are in a degree-granting program, a prison, a cubicle, a factory, wherever. The squirreling away of time, moments of spontaneity that can become cavernous. Anxieties blossom when you don't expect them. I had a biopsy done last week and I'm desperate for news as to whether I have skin cancer or not. For so long I was so fucking cerebral about everyday actions that I would almost will myself into clumsiness about them. Still am, way too much. But I'm trying to notice my own body more. As I type this, this sounds like the most new-agey sentence imaginable, but I'm trying to convey how important this is for me. And if my writing sharpens this awareness in the midst of ephemera (even when its saying sounds blunt to me), then I'm tenatively pleased. Trying not to double back on doubling back all the time.

The act of conjuring the phantom city is an act of compassion.

The body is also conjured, initially, out of compassion, and then we get busy unpacking our doubts and hopes and inclinations into the world. But it's like college (or our house)--just when you get all your shit unpacked, it's time to move again. The trouble is the next neighborhood has the continual absence of the sun shining on it.

According to some Buddhist traditions, we live in mappo:
According to The Lotus Sutra & The Nirvana Sutra, the Dharma (Teaching) of the Buddha will degrade over 500 or 1000-year periods after the Buddha's entry into Nirvana.

However, slyly, it later says:
There is no Nirvana that is detached from Life & Death...They are inseparable parts of each other.

There's a fine line between destruction and decomposition, but this is it. Willfull destruction is ultimately a form of detachment. Decomposition will continue apace anyway. But this too is a part of an authentic life. This tension was probably felt in every age, that the age would collapse at any given moment.

When the phantom city disappears, is that a collapse?

This has turned into something much longer than I expected. And now I'm finishing this up two days later, and it's rather sunny. But it's supposed to rain later.

2 Comments:

At 9/23/2004 12:19:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

First off, I hope your biopsy results show no signs of cancer, Alan.

Regarding the rest of your entry, your discussion of writing in a Buddhist context is fascinating. I think all writers have Phantom Cities, but most do not recognize them as such or realize that those cities are subject to destruction (or stagnation).

My spiritual frame of reference is likely too Western to get a strong grip on the _Lotus Sutra_ (even my word choice affirms that), but it's certainly intriguing.

Good luck with your goal of tuning into your body and good luck with your long poem.

Eric Marin

 
At 10/02/2005 11:00:00 AM, Blogger jon said...

I was looking at your posts about cancer stomach and found a good article about the same cancer stomach info too...

God luck with it : )

 

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