Traditionally, clouds are symbolic of things indeterminate. Composed of air and water, their essential nature can be attributed to neither element but arises in an obscuring of the two, a betwixt-and-between phenomenon, not unlike human beings, those nebulous creatures who themselves seem caught between realms, floating along between the shimmering horizons of birth and death, here and there, earth and heaven. Buddhist psychology refers to the aggregate of what we call personality as “the five clouds of entanglement.”
But if we are clouds, we are also luminous. Xenophanes, writing at the dawn of Western philosophy, tells us that the stars are actually clouds “ignited by motion,” kindled in their rising and extinguished in their setting, like coals. The sun too is a burning cloud, and as with the stars, each day it’s a different cloud that is set ablaze, for no two suns are the same, though they share in the same flaring grandeur—and this goes on forever because the world is imperishable, without beginning, without end. Herein hovers a magnificent hope: Entangled clouds that we are, sooner or later in our driftings we’re bound to catch fire, become a star or maybe even a sun, and not just for fifteen minutes but for a whole day or night. Every soul is combustible.
We human beings remain fascinated by clouds, perhaps even more so today than in earlier times, because in their shape-shifting inexactitude, their openness to the world, clouds seem so entirely other to our rock-solid world of property rights, scientific and historical “facts,” fixed identities and the politics that go with them. What’s in a name? Wrong question. Better to ask, What’s outside a name? What you’ll find there is nothing but clouds, free and easy wandering. One of my favorite Zen koans contains the line, “I am not a human being!”—a gentle reminder of the clouds whereof each of us is composed.
From Writing on Air, edited by David Rothenberg and Wandee J. Pryor, © 2003 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Reprinted with permission of MIT Press.