Almost from birth, we sense there is something more to be found, known, tasted, possessed. It seems we have all been launched on a journey to discover or make what we think of as ourselves. But everything feels subtly unfamiliar. We are uncertain of the significance of what we see, feel, want, fear. Like tourists sitting in a park or strangers in a bus terminal, we don’t quite know how to respond when people smile or do not, shake their heads, stare at us, look away. We are unsure of how we should understand sunsets, ocean waves, thunder, snow, mountains, trees, ants. It is inconceivable that there is no pattern, no final meaning.
I had gained the summit of a commanding ridge, and, looking round with astonishing delight, beheld the ample plains, the beauteous tracts below. On the other hand, I surveyed the famous river Ohio that rolled in silent dignity, marking the western boundary of Kentucky with inconceivable grandeur. At a vast distance I beheld the mountains lift their venerable brows, and penetrate the clouds. All things were still. . . .
Thus I was surrounded with plenty in the midst of want. I was happy in the midst of dangers and inconveniences. In such a diversity it was impossible I should be disposed to melancholy. No populous city, with all the varieties of commerce and stately structures, could afford so much pleasure to my mind, as the beauties of nature I found here.
– The Adventures of Col. Daniel Boone (1784)
But as the usages of the land that Daniel Boone made possible—towns, cities, farms, and new forms of manufacturing and commerce—found their place here, increasingly he preferred to live lost in the wilds. He also preferred the company of those who were native to this land, though he could not understand their speech. Did solitude, claustrophobia, uncertainty sometimes terrify him? This must have been so. But he wanted to escape the ways his people took possession of the world and wanted to return to the ownerless, wordless beauty he could never forget.
Our faculties of sense perception: our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin, and mind, cannot be separated from the endless unfolding of the world around us, inside us, from the unceasing swirl of appearances. We think we own our seeing and tasting, smelling, hearing, touching, consciousness, but how can we think this when we do not possess what we see, taste, smell, and so on? The perceptions and the objects of perception come together and are the gates to all awareness. We think we are at the center. We think we will order the world according to our preferences. But our faculties are as unstable as their objects. We think we are the possessors of our own minds, and yet we are unable to select what we see, feel, smell, taste, or hear. We cannot even choose what we are thinking. We are unable to sustain a thought or make it go away.
The Buddha has maintained:
All things in the world are inseparable from the five sense data of form, sound, smell, taste, and touch . . . and correspond with their sense organs. . . . You should know that the perceptions pervade all and do not change; they are unmoving space as well as all that move—the elements of earth, water, fire, and wind; they intermingle by their very nature and are the fundamental unborn seed and infinite womb of the awakened state (Tathagatagharba).
– Shurangama Sutra, trans. Lu K’uan Yü (Charles Luk)
The vastness, clarity, and immeasurable variety of experience that we all encounter without interruption—all this is given to us whether we want it or not, whether we can impose a convenient order on it or not.
My school friend J and I had not been in touch for most of our adult lives, and then only in a limited if affectionate way via social media. Nonetheless, I had never forgotten his kindness when we were in school together and went on long insomniac walks late at night. My state of mind had been tenuous, and our rambling chats helped.
Then, out of the blue, he wrote to tell me a story about a conversation he remembered between me and my freshman roommate. Apparently my roommate and I had been talking about how there were problems for which there were no solutions. I don’t remember this at all, but my peripatetic friend did, and it meant something to him.
Now he was writing to recall this because, as he explained, he had been diagnosed with an untreatable and progressive form of dementia. Soon he would lose most of his memory. He would see things that were not there. He would not be in control of his emotional states. He might not even know who he was. He wanted to write and give his thanks to people who had figured somehow in his life while he still could remember them.
Such courage, such heart and decency, overwhelmed me. I wrote back and gave him my phone numbers on the off chance that he might wish to chat in another version of our former late-night wanderings. I told him that reply or not, he’d remain in my thoughts. He didn’t answer, and I don’t expect him to.
Me (addressing my Alzheimer’s-stricken stepfather): This memory loss is really aggravating, isn’t it?
Him: Yes, it is.
Me: You seem to be handling it better now.
Him: Well, I wouldn’t know, would I?
According to the US Centers for Disease Control: “People with dementia have problems with memory, attention, communication, reasoning, judgment, and problem solving, visual perception beyond typical age-related changes in vision. Signs that may point to dementia include: getting lost in a familiar neighborhood; using unusual words to refer to familiar objects; forgetting the name of a close family member or friend; forgetting old memories; not being able to complete tasks independently.”
According to the Alzheimer’s Association: The percentage of people with Alzheimer’s dementia increases dramatically with age: 5.3 percent of people age 65–74, 13.8 percent of people age 75–84, and 34.6 percent of people age 85 or older have Alzheimer’s dementia. And Alzheimer’s accounts for only about 60 to 80 percent of dementia patients.
My friend’s mother fell quickly into profound dementia. He noticed that though her speech was almost incomprehensible, she used words for manufactured items (toilet seat, soup spoon, lipstick, light bulb, stove) interchangeably. Words for natural things (maple tree, cat, tulip, rain) remained distinct.
Most of the people I know are now more afraid of becoming demented and being institutionalized than they are of dying. We are more afraid of being incapable of taking care of ourselves, of becoming “management issues,” objects of pained revulsion, strained forbearance. But no one knows what we who require such care are experiencing. No one can know our struggles, our journey within.
The stream of the dreaming mind breaks through into the light of early morning. She cannot use her bathroom. There is a woman in there. She knows this. She waits for a long time. Finally, she makes her way down the crooked stairs to the basement. “I made a little bathroom down there,” she explains to her daughter. The daughter looks in the bathroom. The light is on, but there is no one there. The toilet has not been flushed.
There’s no one there, Mother.
There was a woman . . . I thought there was . . . What was I thinking?
He’s dead, Mom.
He’s been dead for 20 years.
I guess I knew that.
You did. You do.
They’re all dead, aren’t they?
So why is it that everyone I ask you about is dead?
Dream and wake. All that she loved in the living, all that was familiar, all that made up the problems to be solved, the uncertainty, the regularity of things, the secret desires, the secret regrets, the questions, all these have moved to the realm of the dead and emerge into waking life now on the rivulets of dream. They flow out into the day; under the hard light of day they soften, making a reality like quicksand. Daily life and the night world of the dead are merging, so much easier now to lose her way, easier now to sink into things that before were simply flickering thoughts. Now returned as shadow in light, as permeability, directionless.
Is she the nameless woman in the bathroom, or is it her sister, so long gone, but so vivid, so part of a life continuing,
The living, the dead.
She moves in the borderland where there is no path. You must remember, they say. Why?
She moves in the . . . not swamp. . . .What is the word? The marshes, lost amid their tall reeds. And walking, she suddenly surprises a huge blue heron that clatters up, up in ungainly flight.
No, that’s a memory. She was walking with her father. She was little, small.
Now still small.
Who was that small woman who was just here? She asks her daughter.
Who do you mean?
The small woman.
You’re a small woman.
No, it’s not me.
Real, not real.
She can’t explain it.
She is curious.
Why is she thinking these things?
They are taking her away.
– From The Age of Waiting
To the aging and the dying, the world is somehow less credible, less necessary. But there is a seed in the soil and the seed, for reasons unknown, sucks moisture and nutriments and needed microbes through its pores. And from that sucking and ingesting and being slightly invaded, there is swelling of inner parts and then a tendril erupting in the dark and moving up through dense and dark soil to light. There will be burrowing, growing, spreading, strengthening, until there is stasis, then rot, then another kind of beginning.
But in between there is inventing branches and creating leaves, and losing leaves and rising and hardening above and stretching ramified links below. So then there is the whole ensemble, still taking in light and water and nutriments and the interlinked biological union with the fungi, the insects, the birds that nest and eat insects.
Aging is here only partial, only part of what evolves to be an ensemble of many forms, parts, ages; of what is seed or youth or middle-aged in vigor and leaning together and apart. One vast tapestry of phenomena of all ages inseparable.
To the aging ones, the dying ones, the world is less credible, less necessary as their structures slowly break down, cannot contain moisture of nutrients. Now they draw a new form of being, mind, symbiont as fungus now consumes them, breaks them down further. Now whispering air, now seeping, now rich decay: there is no longer defining anything or guiding anything or pointing to a future. There is only that feeling of wet and hot and being moved this way and that and being torn apart and cold of shade. Where deep within a spore some new sense of time and linkage begins.
Here, nouns and verbs may not be separable.
Or what we call a noun (like tree, branch, leaf, moss, fern, mold, fungus, mushroom) may in fact (like love, hate, smell, taste, desire) be a verb. And what we call adjectives may then be adverbs (live, dead, true, false).
Or further, perhaps what we call language (a mechanism communicating between separate entities but unlike them) may not exist as such but may be simply the stream of phenomena in our vast primordial forest-mind.
Is it then possible that even when we are lost, we are seeking to awake? Is it possible that when we are imprisoned in our minds, still we are seeking not to dream? Paralyzed with fear, lost in the haze and shifting fog, can we still be walking a path we cannot see?
If this is so, we cannot prove it. If this is not so, we cannot prove it.
The final section of the Avatamsaka Sutra tells the story of the pilgrim Sudhana, who wakes to the reality of the awakened state and sets out to realize it completely.
The great 7th-century commentator Li Tongxuan says: “The thought (mind) of enlightenment is not learned or cultivated, it is always self-evident so long as we carry out the practices to dispel habitual patterns” (adapted from Flower Ornament Scripture, Appendix 3, Commentary on Book 39, Entry into the Realm of Reality, by Li Tongxuan; trans. Thomas Cleary).
Of the many deities, sages, and bodhisattvas whom Sudhana sought, here he finds the goddess of night.
Sudhana sought out the goddess of night so that she would show him the great domain of the awakened state, endlessly awakening, endlessly surpassing its own limits, opening pathway after pathway like moonlight on the oceans, lakes, and streams. Every part of her beauty was dazzling and beautiful; the light of the stars shone from between her brows. This starlight entered Sudhana as unlimited knowledge. . . .
He saw the goddess of night in all the worlds in every realm of being, illuminating every sentient being. He saw all the worlds and realms together and all at once, and everywhere, in darkness he saw her standing undivided and complete, adapted to the perceptions and understanding of every sentient being regardless of their life spans, beliefs, physical form, speech conventions, mastery, and skill. Her light entered all beings, and she was light even where there was no light. To all she opened paths to liberation from constriction and limit. Thus she was, by her very being, freeing those in hell, those starving as ghosts, those who sought to dominate, predatory beasts, those consumed by desire. The goddess of night radiated spontaneous purity in even the depth of darkness.
To this goddess, Sudhana sang:
You are light inseparable from darkness.
You are the live awakened state inseparable from all delusion, fear, and loss.
From every pore, you radiate nets of light
As many as there are minds and beings,
In each ray of light, there is a thousand-petaled lotus,
You stand on each, extinguishing all the pain of the world.
– Extensively adapted from the Flower Ornament Scripture (Avatamsaka Sutra), trans. Thomas Cleary
Another conversation with my demented stepfather:
Me: How was your day?
Him: It was very interesting.
Me: How so?
Him: In the morning it was cloudy, and it didn’t change.
Above the East Horizon
White, foamy and luxurious
Immense and ascending Center
A lightly pulsing tower
Coral at the base,
Towering clouds and opulence above
In a pale, attentive sky.
Stretching through a faint veil.
A red kingdom widens
Behind black mountains.
A pink proclaiming hovers
Now darkness and veils dissolve.
Wave on wave, change does not stop.
We want to reach the resting point.
We wish to find a point of view that can encompass it all and so it stops,
Stops change changing and changing, but
Study does not achieve a logic of change,
The observer, the point of view changes, shifts, alters as clouds flutter in the sky,
Looks down on the shifting earth, moves from dawn and dusk, and dark night and back,
As light ever shifting and viewer and scene.
And wishing there would be,
Acting as if there could ever be
A stable endpoint
To the aging ones, the dying ones
The framework of present appearance weakens.
The flow of sheer awareness seeps between the elements:
Primordial patterns show themselves
The world not exactly made for human habitation, but
for something more splendid and deep.
The world is itself beyond the world.
While a world we’ve known sloughing off, like a thick doughy skin.
And leaving . . . or not leaving . . . wonderful bright clouds fleeing southwards . . .
The blue blue sky.
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