Miao woven fabric from Guilin, Guangxi Province, China

Notes on a winter journey to the interior

on a treadmill facing north

Jan 27 · 14 min read

What does not vary is the variation
— after Heraclitus and Charles Olson

across 3.5 ether/ breath, 1.4 physical education, 2.2 questions about what there is

Variations cards showing the themes and contexts for the six sections of the journey

Late afternoon, cooling down after a hard run in the condo gym, Herbie Hancock’s Butterfly breezes onto my playlist. We breathe together deeply, and I don’t know whether it is I dreaming that I am the bass clarinet, or the bass clarinet dreaming that it is I.

The music and the vision fades, and I’m sitting in my armchair doing mental exercise. From high school trombonists and collegiate level cello students to elite athletes and surgeons, cognitive rehearsal in the absence of physical movement has been shown to improve physical performance. In the same way, listening to one of my 5K run playlists gives me a perfectly good workout without the inconvenience of even moving a muscle.

‘Feeling the song, party done, shadows walking home.’ Next track comes on, and I’m back in the zone, nothing if not thorough in my mental exercise regime, which depends upon willing suspension of disbelief. I pause on the way back from the gym to note a few ideas that flashed upon my inward eye during my run, sitting next to the long cold pool stretching between the buildings on one of the oddly shaped wicker objects, assuming they are meant to be used as chairs at all.

in butterfly dreams
one wing flap changes the world
play pretend it’s true


#HerbieHancock #Butterfly #ChuangTzu #ToveLo #Flume #MentalExercise #Wordsworth


art for art’s sake
across 4.9 self awareness, 1.5 biology, and 2.7 questions about materials

Plodding along, dragging my sore feet, in the backwoods of a Buddhist monastery to the north of the Northern Capital, and entirely for my private amusement in the moment, I imagine myself as Bashō, imagining himself as Saigyō, on their own Narrow Road to the North.

And when we saw a greater racket-tailed drongo in the high branches near the temple ruins, and then two more in trees behind us as we stood at the pond, I didn’t then know its cultural significance, including Berkeley sinologist Edward H. Schafer’s view that it inspired the fantastically long-tailed kalaviṅka birds of Buddhist art and literature in Japan and elsewhere: ‘It might be supposed that a creature whose whole existence seems confined to religious metaphor and iconography would be sought in vain in the real world. The assumption would be mistaken.’ (The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: a Study of T’ang Exotics, 1963) But though conditions of the search be satisfied, is the search itself an act of vanity? ‘Who cares for their feathers now?’ I asked myself, eyeing the blazing blue kingfisher, a midwinter visitor resting alone in tangled roots on the far side of the pond.

I wondered also if Bashō would fritter away seven of seventeen syllables on a single creature reference, had he happened upon one on a stroll, or in a book of symbolic ornithology, wanting to record it for posterity. In Japanese, it may be less than seven, I haven’t looked, but still, in principle? In a prose section, maybe. ‘Bashō incorporated various aspects […] into his poetics […] to make it part of the larger poetic, cultural and aesthetic tradition, and to give it spiritual depth, making it, in some sense, an art of living’ (Shirane, Traces of Dreams, 1998). Neither a sinologist, nor a philosopher, nor really even a believer, what do I have to offer to make my own glass bead game (thought by most to be merely a metaphor) part of something more than just art for art’s sake? Making it, in some sense, a way of seeing, a gift of believing. For a little while. What needs to be included to allow it to create a moral and sensual universe that can ‘“elevate the individual above himself”’ and afford ‘“a life very different, more exalted and more intense” than that to which their mundane circumstances would consign them — which is Émile Durkheim’s (Le problème religieux, [1913] 1975) definition of religion’ (Wacquant, The Prizefighter’s Three Bodies, 1998)? An art of looking at one thing and in it seeing another, a reality beyond appearances, whether it’s snow becoming blossom in the moonlight, the rock garden becoming a tiger and its cubs crossing a river, the bullseye of the archery target as an extension of the unreleased arrow and the poised archer, or our narrow existence as part of an unlimited and interconnected whole.

winter morning’s dream
greater racket-tailed drongo
pearls strung on a thread


#BhagavadGita #Olson #ChiangMai #WatUmong #Bashō #Saigyō #Tang #China #Japan #Buddhism #GlassBeadGame #Hesse #kalaviṅka #birdwatching #kingfisher #drongo #JossWhedon #Dollhouse #Shirane #Wacquant #Durkheim


across 3.1 earth/connection, 1.3 religion and 2.5 questions about what to do

Everyday life itself can be seen as a matter of being awake to the high, returning to the low. Buddha’s patron and disciple Vimalakīrti manifested a well-proportioned middle way in his own life, remaining grounded and retaining connections to family, friends, wealth, appearances and pleasures, while using his material resources and sacred, wordly and profane teachings to benefit others. He frequented bars, brothels, and gambling dens, connecting with ordinary folk and enlightening them through his eloquent wordplay, especially chiasmus and punning, a rhetorical style which was the ‘outward, visible linguistic sign of the Boddhisattva’s otherwise imperceptible inner resolution of these and all other apparent contradictions’ (Mather, Vimalakīrti and Gentry Buddhism, 1968).

In the Vimalakīrti Sutra (Taishō Tripiṭaka, XIV) all differences are reconciled and all contradictions harmonised: ‘The Buddha with a single voice declares the Law, while sentient beings, each in his own way, construe the meaning.’ This resonates in Chuang Tzu: ‘All kinds of things can be put to the same use; all kinds of uses can be made of the same thing.’ Mather (ibid) shows a later parallel in the syncretist administrator, Wang Chin: ‘How much more does the Dharma-body encompass the corresponding phenomenal world, so that now the round, now the square, imperceptibly stand in congruence with it? And how much more does the One Voice match its hearers, so that [within them] the pitches kung and shang move in harmony with it?’ Buddha’s Law is synonymously anything, now circle, now square; it homonymously resonates differently with everybody, now doh, now re. Everything is anything, anything everything: ideas resonating forward into the Chan and Zen schools, into Old Japanese poetry through Korean-born refugee Yamanoe Okura’s Old Paekche Mādhyamika (Middle Way) Buddhism based on the Vimalakīrti Sutra (though utterly smashed at home by a destructive Tang-Silla alliance), and backwards through the Sanskrit source of the names Chan and Zen, dhyāna or meditation, to Saraswati’s imaginative vision of the Vedas, dhi.

Brushwork art by Lao Jia depicting high-speed horseback archery

As for what must be done to acquire this imaginative vision: control the mind and senses, as a charioteer controls his horses and keeps them moving in harmony along the chosen path. In Reining in the Passions (2008), Max Latona shows this to be a well-known Hellenistic trope (Pythagoras’ Golden Verses, Parmenides’ B Fragment 1, Plato’s Phaedrus): ‘According to Parmenides, the greatest obstacle to such an understanding, and the reason it is largely out of reach for the common person, is the distracted mind and its habitual enslavement to impulse.’ The allegory of the centaurs on the Parthenon‘s southern metopes, the separation of horse and man, and the taming of the horse, are a metaphor for emerging self control. Latona also shows it had broader Indo-European currency, for example in the Katha Upanishad: ‘But when a man has understanding/ Whose mind is constantly held firm/ His senses are under control/ Like the good horses of a chariot driver’ (trans. Olivelle, 1996). In turn these remind us of Buddha’s response to Sariputra in the Vimalakīrti Sutra (Mather, ibid): ‘BUDDHA (to Sariputra): Our sun and moon are pure. If someone doesn’t see their purity, is it the fault of the sun and moon ? SARIPUTRA: No. BUDDHA: Then it’s your fault, Sariputra, if you haven’t the wisdom to see the purity of the Tathagata’s Buddha.’ And very much later, in Bashō (via Shirane, ibid): ‘Without realising the creative within, what the poet “sees” […] cannot become the “moon” and “cherry blossoms.” Without spiritual cultivation and the ability to enter into objects, the haikai poet will not have the power to discover the high in the low, to find beauty in the mundane.’ In the western tradition, in early designs of the Chariot trump card (the Visconti-Sforza and Marseilles packs), the charioteer’s horses are yoked, but the charioteer holds no reins, and with his will alone harmonises their power with his intent. Like the martial artist ‘discovering within the body direct access to its capacities to sense and act, while contrasting with the well-embedded habit of discipline over both mind and body […] following strict orders with their body alone, letting the body decide on its own when and how to attack or defend,’ who can ‘perform his art with no conscious effort, without correction, and without a “self” to monitor the action’ (Bar-On Cohen, 2014). Without first gaining such control, it’s useless to ask what is to be done next.

blue-necked peacocks peck
among smashed temple roof-tiles
horses munch mallow


#Bashō #rhetoric #paronomasia #chiasmus #Buddha #Mādhyamika #Vimalakīrti #Paekche #Silla #Tang #Korea #China #Japan #Parmenides #horses #charioteer #Tarot


across 4.4 enjoyment, 1.1 fundamentals of culture, 2.8 questions about cause and effect

I thought of the E on the Sopron pot, hands held high in ecstatic dance as the weaver weaves and the lyrist plays and sings. ‘Is weaving a figurative speech, or is poetry a figurative web?’ (Bergren, Language and the Female in Early Greek Thought, 1983) Even if the main ground of the fabric is in plain weave, we can well imagine the corresponding rhetorical flourishes of lozenges and chiasma of the Sopron weaver and poet, and the criss-cross step of the dancer, all connected in ecstatic enjoyment. Let’s spin a semantic yarn ourselves with dhyana, chan, zen, all words derived from the Indo-European root, *dheiə-, seeing or holding in view, the warp waiting tight on our loom for the shuttle. For the weft we take yoga, meaning connect, yoke, or use. The patterned fabric of reality results: a connecting concentration. A sacred and esoteric rite, or a secular and everyday prehistoric practice enduring to the present, as you prefer, but both embracing ecstasy.

Material remains may be meagre, but they suggest this lozenge to be a central motif of a very old and widespread artistic tradition (Schuster, 1937): on a relief sculpture of a pregnant woman from the wall of a shrine at the early Neolithic town of Çatal Hüyük, in Turkey, the preserved parts of the skin are covered with tiny red-painted designs, mostly forms of lozenges; a linen band dated to 2100 BCE from Molina di Ledro shows concentric and touching lozenges; and the lozenge motif remains important in women’s aprons in the central Balkans and Ukraine, where it’s said to be a fertility symbol (all examples from Barber, 1991 and 1994); in Asian textiles such as the pa sin tin jok of the T’ai Yuan women, where a game of Variations might be playing out visually along the multi-coloured lozenges in the foot of the skirt; in Luzon, Borneo and the Western Pacific (Allen, 1981; West, 1985); and indigenous American weaving such as the Zuñi (Spier, 1924). And a linguistic figure of interconnectedness and interdependence as widespread as the woven lozenge motif, being found in Ancient Greece and Rome (Thomas, 2013), Ancient China (McCraw, 2006), Sanskrit (Brockington, 1977), Ugaritic and Hebrew (Ceresko, 1976), Bantu (Lestrade, 1935), Early Celtic (Eska and Mercado, 2011), Mayan (Hull and Carrasco, 2012), Austronesian Tawala (Ezard, 1978), and in its larger-scale structural form of ring composition or concentric symmetry in Old Norse poetry: the chiasmus.

Plate from: A Comparison of Aboriginal Textile Designs from South-Western China with Peasant Designs from Eastern Europe, by Carl Schuster, Man, Vol. 37 (Jul., 1937)

The ubiquity of occurrences from two diverse fields such as the lozenge design in weaving, and chiasmus in language, proves nothing about a relationship between the two — in fact a little less generalisation and a little more correlation would be more persuasive. But where the two fields have already been shown to be so intimately related that the directionality of the metaphor is in question, the cause and the effect so intertwined, and the two specific details so structurally similar, we may at least be permitted to ask: what would it take for us to believe?

the E on the pot
connecting concentration
the fragrant fields blend


#weaving #Sopron #dhyana #tantra #zen #yoga #lozenge #chiasmus


across 4.6 surprise, 4.10 social awareness, 1.8 language

A week later, back on Bashō’s path in the woods, it wasn’t easy even to retrace our own steps from the week before to the beginning of the narrow trail. Things looked surprisingly different now that it was later in the morning: more vehicles in the car park, monks and tourists milling around, stalls raising money for charity, the gates of the stupa open for business. Leaving the bustle behind, passing through a rusting gate, and crossing a small wooden bridge reassured us we were on the right track, but nobody could remember the small, old concrete building we passed shortly after, or whether the ancient tree had been blossoming. And so it went on, now lost, now unexpectedly recognising forgotten but newly familiar things.

Any fears proved groundless as we arrived at the grassy terrace where we’d first seen the drongo a week before. Again a kingfisher, and another one joins. And there’s a family of drongos. Oxen and deer stand in the path, staring at us as we pass, careful not to startle them, slowly moving aside. A kindly gentleman makes us a friendly gift of a peacock feather, the peacock itself sitting high on a perch it must have flown up to between two poles — we didn’t know they could fly with such trains — and all at once it’s quite a crowd. The deer have slid along into the cracks of the wall of the forest.

You never step/speak into the same river/language twice — actually, these days most people wouldn’t step into the river at all, especially if there’s a bridge. But the idea remains the same, in variation: though all bridges may be similar, only one can go from just here, to just there, just so, just now, so that you never cross the same bridgehead to mutual understanding twice in quite the same way. Both here and there, and in different ways for both you and I, the evolving context and horizon, the intended journey and the bridge itself are all unique. But we can understand across horizons. And we are never anywhere in total isolation, but always somewhere in the context of other places and journeys between them, and in relation to other points of view from other dream bridges. Even retracing an interior journey will take you somewhere different every time.

old tree blossoming
ideas buzz, present feathers
horizon fusion


#Heraclitus #Karcevskij #Gadamer #hermeneutics #Frege #grundlagen #Heidegger #Wittgenstein #Austin #Husserl #Olson #Wordsworth


across 4.12 change catalyst, 1.9 geography, biology, history, 3.6 third eye

Back home after winter break, a different kind of everyday life takes over. With summer so hot here, winter’s the fertile season, for the land and the mind alike. I hit the road on foot to figure out how to end (for now) this reverie on reverie, these ‘various thoughts, scenes, feelings, taken up for a moment, only to be discarded in the next, so that nothing adds up’ (after Ramirez-Christensen, Emptiness and Temporality: Buddhism and Medieval Japanese Poetics, 2008). In Japanese Religions and Kyudo (Japanese archery) (2014), anthropologist Einat Bar-On Cohen proposes a mutuality beyond cause and effect, a homology she sees as a Deleuzian ‘line of flight’ as defined by Tamsin Lorraine (in Parr, The Deleuze Dictionary, 2005): ‘a path of mutuation precipitated through the actualisation of connections among bodies that were previously only implicit that releases new powers in the capacity of those bodies to act and respond.’ She goes on: ‘Activating a line of flight or homology opens up new connections, relationships and potentialities, and thus is an imminent way to augment the whole.’ And here I’m talking as much about the connection a single player makes between a theme and context, as I am about the intermingling of the connections players make with each other in their ‘mutual- and self-production’ (Sánchez García, Spencer, 2014) of competent glass bead game game contestants. ‘It is never clear which plane is a reflection or imitation of which other, since they recursively feed one another’s existence and are nourished by it, generating both meaning and life processes concomitantly’ (Bar-On Cohen).

Here’s something for nothing: Buddhism is Indian by origin, and was sinicised in Chan and japonised in Zen, for example, before being reexported to a Greco-Latin-Judaic west of dharma bums already converted by Josaphat. On the other hand, it’s said Nagarjuna was influenced by Pyrrho of Elis, and Diogenes Laërtius reports that Pyrrho himself was influenced by the naked philosophers he met with Alexander in India, beyond which point we can only guess. Democritus? Parmenides? Already we’re dealing with fragments and dust at the frontier of history. Could Chuang Tzu have been exposed to early Buddhism before its wider spread in China? There is no direct evidence, but ‘Indian philosophies in the fifth and fourth centuries BC belonged to a fluid category’ (Stoneman, 1995) which we might reasonably presume to have been all the more fluid in prior ages, and if they influenced and in turn were influenced by the West, why not also the East? The unstable Heraclitean flux will not be fixed, but the free variation of various views we take in on the way at least aspires to some kind of… can we call it transformation? Some kind of additive potential to generate from something something else. And nothing is fixed, by the way: the whole game will play out differently, next time.

Meanwhile, running by the beach, white horses stretched in never-ending line along the bay, then through the embassies district: I ran to China today past India. I imagine the treadmill facing north, the evening sunlight reflecting on the pool, the couple emerging onto their sunlit balcony arm in arm, the armchair athlete lost in music 500 miles high in the slowly fading light, and I withdraw automatic responses to pounding feet and other sense impressions, remaining aware while unaware. An ultimate emptiness that enables the game to be played, the infinite possibilities, the unceasing movement. A cultivated and humane practice that instead of evading difference honours it by a strenuously demanding application of the mind in confrontation and accommodation, an art of conversation that makes room for every participant (Ramirez-Christensen). An emptiness that can ‘generate different intensities relative to the objects that are separated by the void and to the potentialities of energies that may be released by their coming together. Thus the empty space between the archer and the target generates a whirl of potential intensities.’ (Bar-On Cohen). Then how much more so will the line of flight of the butterfly? The true beginnings of poetry.

butterfly’s flight line
all places and things stardust
bay horses foam white


#Wordsworth #Buddhism #kyodo #chan #zen #Nagarjuna #Pyrrho #Democritus #Parmenides #Heraclitus #emptiness #poetry #homology #Deleuze #ChickCorea

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