Our collective future follows from the way we have lived. The extraordinary levels of personal comfort and convenience we have achieved over the past three hundred years have resulted from the ways in which we have exploited the natural world and the lives of those we call the less fortunate. Now we can’t imagine living differently, even as we recognize the dangerous consequences of what we have done. Now our inner resources—our capacity to observe, reflect, empathize, consider, analyze, be open to sudden insight and inspiration, even the capacity for prayer and vision—all seem inadequate to the scale and complexity of our terminal, man-made future. Thus our culture is failing us.

Mass public culture forms, such as films, pop music, computer games, sports, and TV are created by the employees of large corporations and are ultimately intended for economic gain. Our corporate culture encourages passive participation, immersion in communal delirium. In the entertainments that fill our home life, we can ignore what we cannot face. Sounds and images of overwhelming intensity and unrelenting violence provide oblivion from isolation and a brutal fate. We can hide in the noise from the anxiety, indifference, and powerlessness that are the truth of human existence.

Historically, however, culture has consisted of the ways we cultivate, the way we develop our perceptions and awareness so that we can share the things we find meaningful or simply enjoyable. Culture is not merely the creation, ownership, and appreciation of high-status objects. It is the ensemble of beliefs, values, and skills that enables us to connect our inner and outer worlds, to share our lives with one another and to find the continuity of past and present.

Human cultures create portals into continua that enable us to extend our understanding, our sympathy, our awareness far beyond the constraints of time, place, and individuality. Out of solitude and love, the deep bond of our humanness allows us to share worlds that might otherwise be inaccessible. Accordingly, might it be our obligation as human beings, even on the point of extinction, to continue in this endeavor?

Su Tung-p’o was an exemplary scholar-poet-official of the Song dynasty. His life was subject to the rigors of looming military threat and political instability. His accomplishments were scholarly and artistic, as well as administrative, which last included redesigning the system of dams and channels in the West Lake district. He wrote many poems, among which was “On a Boat, Awake at Night”:

Faint wind rustles reeds and cattails;
I open the hatch, expecting rain—moon floods the lake.
Boatmen and water-birds dream the same dream;
A big fish splashes off like a frightened fox.
It’s late—men and creatures forget each other
While my shadow and I amuse ourselves alone.
Dark tides creep over the flats—I pity the cold
The setting moon, caught in a willow, lights a
    dangling spider.
Life passes swiftly, hedged by sorrow;
How long before you’ve lost it—a scene like this?
Cocks crow, bells ring, a hundred birds scatter;
Drums pound from the bow, shout answers shout.

–trans. Burton Watson

For us, the world of the moment evoked here has disappeared more irrevocably than perhaps even the poet could have imagined. And yet, moon, water, sleep have a presence, a mystery. We are, if only for a moment, in a world pregnant with subtle futures and so poignantly alive that our hearts touch those who live there. A vanished outer world comes to life within us, and we are bound together in this singular moment beyond place and time.

So even as the Song dynasty and all who inhabited it are gone from the face of the earth, something deep in human feeling and unique to a specific time reaches out to enrich and encourage us. It is impossible to know whether Su Tung Po hoped this would be the case, had faith that it would be, or could not imagine otherwise.

Related: A World Ever at Its End 

Throughout our lives, we are drawn on in the world by one desire after another. Endlessly, we crave, we want, hunger for, we wish, we yearn, we’d like, we need, we long for, require, thirst for, prefer, covet, we ache for and aspire to. Our inner being seems constantly incomplete, lonely, hollow. We feel ourselves to be unfixed, unstable, unsure, insubstantial. We seek form to find meaning and fulfillment for our longing. We want the world to enfold us and to speak to us.

Across great spans of time, and in spite of continuous destruction of innumerable civilizations, we still possess sculpture, architectural fragments, jewels, paintings, porcelain, lacquerware, poems, epics, histories, records of songs and dances, profound reflections on the nature of our world and cosmos, all evidence of our search, our longing.

These portals, sought and unsought, open for us. Unexpectedly, we find ourselves carried on by subtle streams that take us elsewhere. We are moving slowly, quickly in variant continua. A new range of intensities, almost like memory, but less personal. It is a shared expanse of intuition, possibility, insight. It is like entering a dream that we all dream. It is a flow of alternatives that underlies the reality of the ordinary.

Toward the end of his life, Jean-Antoine Watteau asked Edme François Gersaint if he might paint a sign to attract customers to Gersaint’s small art gallery in Paris. Watteau worked on the painting in the spring of 1720. At approximately ten feet wide and five feet high, it was the largest of Watteau’s works and the one, he said later, that pleased him the most.

The painting shows a deep and rather dingy room with glass doors at the center. It is hung to the ceiling on either side with paintings, mostly with swirling scenes of classical nudes and rhythm of looking captures us. We move from figure to figure, space to space, and we are drawn not so much by curiosity about the men and women here as by a continuously renewed pleasure in moving back and forth, in and out of the world he is showing us. There is a continuum, formless but redolent throughout form, moving within beginning, developments, endings, continuing not as form or not-form.

And what he is showing is simply a world of commerce, of objects for sale, of buyers and sellers, with an idler and a stray dog thrown in for contrast. There is no hidden drama, not much by way of suggested lechery, seduction, romance, except in the paintings themselves. This is a portrait of shopping. But it also shows the deep subtle music and harmonious joy of living in the visual world. And as we stand before the painting, we are part of the life of this world.

Our possibilities are conditioned by the fact that, as is maintained in the Buddhist tradition, the human realm is a realm of desire for form. Here our inner life is determined by cravings that are only satisfied by altering our outer circumstances.

There is always something within passion itself that opens doors to a different world and a different way of embracing the world in which we find ourselves. 

Throughout our history, we have used our arts to explore this condition, and we have evolved techniques to share our discoveries in forms of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, or understanding. Form stimulates desire, satisfies, and ends it. Our lives are an unending interplay with desire and form. Even our tasteful erotic encounters, but to the left there are more austere portraits of nobles and merchants. On the left side of this stage, a boy idly watches as one apprentice moves a mirror while another packs a portrait of Louis XIV. Toward right center stage, a bewigged young man gracefully offers his hand to a young woman in a pink silk satin coat as she enters from the cobbled street. She looks down at the painting being packed. We cannot see her face, but the ease of her gesture and the luminous beauty of her coat sweep us into the painting and to examining the others in the scene. Just to the right and a bit farther back, a woman in widow’s garb bends and an older man with elaborate wig in gray satin kneels to examine details in a large round painting of celestial revelry. Gersaint himself coolly encourages their interest. Along the right side of the shop is a long counter. Two aristocratic dandies stare at a small painting that a young woman in tan silk is showing them. We cannot see it, but a young woman in a black shawl and an opulent cream-colored silk skirt spread out before her leans back to look. The only other figure is on the far right, a small black-and-white mangy dog gnawing at fleas on its leg.

The sheen of the pink satin coat has drawn us in, and the luxurious shimmer of the wide cream silk skirt somehow holds us, suggests a wider movement of the eye, as we begin to take in the other players, their postures, gestures, hesitations, interests.

Somehow, Watteau made a picture where the sheer physical bodies are the result, agent, and exhaustion of desire.

Related: The Buddhas Go to Washington 

Our languages carry us from the silence of unspecified longings and wants into the articulation of specific passions. Our language, even that of a scientific treatise or a business letter, is inseparable from desire.

In his famous miniature poem “Mattina” (“Morning”), the Italian modernist poet Giuseppe Ungaretti gives us a moment that satisfies one kind of longing and is the beginning of another. Here he brings something vast out of something tiny:


(I am illuminated
with/from/by immensity)

In four words, a moment of morning light opens suddenly within us. In seven syllables, in this simplest of forms, we enter a shimmering expanse. We experience an almost nuclear fusion of outer and inner worlds, and time is momentarily suspended. Su Tung-p’o, Watteau, and Ungaretti, in the pieces mentioned here, open different kinds of suspensions, of streams flowing beneath or continents hidden just within the surface of our lives.

As the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote: “Our waking life is . . . a land full of inconspicuous places from which dreams arise.” 

And so we come to someone not always thought of as an artist, but who might well serve as the paradigm for these times.

Every day for more than three years, Scheherazade did not know if she would live through the night. Every evening, she knew she might be killed in a few hours’ time. For more than three years, she continued to exert the power of her art to preserve her life and the lives of others her husband would, if she failed, marry afterward.

Scheherazade, as everyone knows, had married a king named Shahriyar, a man with such a violent desire and hatred for women that he married a new wife every day and had her beheaded the next morning. To put an end to this mindless slaughter, Scheherazade roused all her courage and gave herself to King Shahriyar. She had a plan. On their wedding night, Scheherazade asked the king if she might tell him a story. The king, ever restless, agreed.

So began 1001 nights and 1001 stories. On some nights, Scheherazade told several tales, on others she told stories that took days. But every day, as the sun rose and whatever tale she was telling was not complete, King Shahriyar postponed her execution. Every day, Scheherazade lived because her husband wanted to hear the rest of the story.

They reflected the travels of thousands and thousands of merchants who ventured across vast deserts, through deep mountain ranges, and sailed on uncharted seas. They had risked their lives for adventure and to find their fortunes. And everywhere, they traded goods and everywhere, in every city and bazaar, they traded stories.

It was not Scheherazade’s aim merely to distract the king from his rage or to keep him occupied until his passion for her became stronger than his desire to kill her. In Scheherazade’s telling, these stories reflected elements of each other and echoed each other. She wove them together, joining images and themes in a great magic carpet that transported her husband to many unfamiliar places and showed him many secret worlds.

Did she know she would succeed in changing her fate? No. There was no certainty here. Each night, she faced her death. Each night she drew on all her resources of courage, charm, and invention. Even so, there was not an instant when the king could not suddenly decide he’d had enough. She would die and the slaughter would begin again. All she could do was continue.

At first, the king may have postponed his wife’s execution out of mere curiosity to find out what happened next. But slowly his imagination came to life, as he found himself living lives other than his own and exploring realms he had never before imagined. He encountered unknown peoples who wore strange clothes, spoke unknown languages, had unfamiliar creeds and customs. He entered unfamiliar cities, saw palaces of great beauty, was threatened with dungeons and tortures, diseases, and many kinds of death. He faced bandits and corrupt officials, wise men, despots, generous patrons, beautiful women, shrews, and magicians, as well as sea monsters, genies, animals that could talk and statues that could kill. And sometimes he himself was an old man, a child, a bird, a donkey, a woman. Scheherazade’s stories changed King Shahriyar. They made him fall in love, and they brought him into a larger world.

For three years, in the strange intimacy of artist and executioner, Scheherazade and King Shahriyar shared hundreds of adventures in hundreds of lands. The story by which we know them became, for them, only one of innumerable possibilities. In that time she bore him three sons. After one thousand and one nights of such journeys, King Shahriyar had been changed. He lifted the sentence of death and prayed aloud: “May God prolong your life and throughout all time increase your dignity and the awe that you inspire.”

This is the gift of Scheherazade: a world that resists death, defeats death, and never dies.

Centuries later, another great storyteller, Marcel Proust, had one of his major characters point to the solace and transformative power of art. In Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, Charles Swann, tormented in love, tries to lose himself at a huge evening party (rendered with Proust’s uniquely nuanced social wit). But he finds himself captivated by a piece of music, a violin sonata that is being performed to entertain the glittering audience. The music takes him on a sequence of reflections that lead finally to this:

Perhaps it is not-being that is the true state, and all our dream of life is inexistent; but, if so, we feel that these phrases of music, these conceptions which exist in relation to our dream must be nothing either. We shall perish, but we have as hostages these divine captives who will follow and share our fate. And death in their company is somehow less bitter, less inglorious, perhaps even less probable.

Somehow, in the world of passion and relentless craving, the world of form, with its suffering, slaughter, vanity, selfishness, waste, and inescapable death, there is always something within passion itself that opens doors to a different world and a different way of embracing the world in which we find ourselves. Knowing that death stalks us, we do not stop looking, listening, touching, feeling, knowing. And the whole of life seems ever reflected in galaxies of shards like a wave breaking against a cliff, sparkling, enticing, radiant, and always shimmering before us. 

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