To dream in the mountains again

There’s an old Chinese Ch’an Buddhist/Taoist poem* that goes something like this:

Choking on the red dust of the city,**

I yearn for the solitude of the green mountains.

Drunk with the deep silence of the mountains,

I dream of the red dust of the city.

*(I don’t remember the poet’s name, & can’t find the poem anywhere. This is my version, from memory. If anyone can help me out, I will be beholden!)

**(red dust is a catch-word for all the positive and negative lures and allures, the attractions and aversions of conventional worldly existence, as well for the urban grit and grime. It implies the hubbub and jostle, the hustle and hassle, of life in the city as well as the pleasures, sophistication & decadence of urbane, civilized culture compared to the rustic wholesome simplicity of wood-cutters, contemplative hermits, and others who live immersed in nature, especially for spiritual purposes.)

I once saw a two-frame cartoon in a Chinese magazine that wordlessly illustrated this poem. A man sits with eyes closed at a desk in a busy urban office skyscraper. Above his head, a thought balloon shows a forest landscape. The second frame shows the same man sitting with eyes closed on a rock in the forest. Above his head, a thought balloon shows a skyscraper-filled cityscape.

This reminds me of the dilemma famously expressed by E.B.White:

“If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

—E.B.White (1899-1985)

I certainly share the dichotomous desires and dilemma these words and pictures convey. But I have not often felt so much of a conflict between these poles. I love aspects of city life and of forest life, both. I love contemplative life and a life of activism, both. And I tend to see them more as a braided stream, rather than as a conflictive or oppositional choice to be made between two divergent paths.

But naturally, as I say, I do sometimes find that a temporary choice must be made as to which of the two elements to favour at a particular given moment. And this can certainly be difficult, even impossible, at times. But for me, most often the two streams run concurrently, crossing and recrossing each other all along the way. Or even sometimes the two elements seem to be opposite banks of the same one stream, aiding and guiding the flow of the stream…

Life is something of a dance, sometimes encouraging us (often requiring of us) to perform some very complex and adroit moves with great élan, or as much trepident courage as we can muster.

Shri Shankara (historic codifier of the 2,500 year old Shankaracharya school of Advaita Vedanta) describes the subjective experience of the jivanmukta, one who has attained eternal liberation while still dwelling in the body, as like that of a dancer wearing a feather-light gossamer garment.

Following emancipation, the subjective complex of ego, mind, intellect, emotions and senses together with the physical earthly body continues to function normally for as long as it remains needed. But now, the jivanmukta “wears” his or her embodied existence, the entirety of his or her individuality along with the body, as a weightless translucent costume is worn by an adroit and debonnaire dancer.

As the Gospel says in French, but not in English, “Bienheureux sont les débonnaires.”

In the now-archaic English of the translation committee authorized by James Stuart, King of Scotland and England, this is rendered as “Blessed are the meek.” Meek in those days meant gentle. But the quality of being débonnaire is so much richer and so much more fun!

Historically, “meek” also specifically meant “disinclined to argue.” This reminds me of statements by various sages:

Philosophers never argue; students of philosophy may argue, but philosophers never argue.

—His Holiness Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (c1917-2008)

A true saint never argues; a true philosopher always argues.

—traditional Tibetan saying

With those who are sympathetic, let us have discussion on spiritual matters. As for those whose point of view differs from ours, let us treat them politely and thus make them happy. But disputes are alien to our School, for they are incompatible with its doctrine.

                             —Hui Neng (638–713), 6th Patriarch of Chinese Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism

We regard no one’s religion as contrary to ours.

True love is born where all faiths remain united at the Source

as one wholeness of unity-in-diversity and diversity-in-unity.

                        —Yunus Emre (1240-1321) Turkish Sufi mystic poet

As to life in the forest, I’ve appended below a few other passages that have been on my mind lately. Back in the legendary sixties, I corresponded with a most remarkable woman, a French former opera singer and best-selling adventure-writer who became a Tibetan lama & one-time Himalayan hermit, Madame Alexandra David-Néel (1868-1969). Sharing with me in a letter her enthusiasm for the solitary life in the mountain forests, she modified a passage by an unnamed earlier explorer:***

“To she who has once tasted the reckless independence, the haughty self-reliance, the sense of irresponsible freedom, which the forest life engenders, civilization thenceforth seems flat and stale. Its pleasures are insipid, its pursuits wearisome, its conventionalities, duties, and mutual dependence alike tedious and disgusting. The entrapped wanderer grows fierce and restless, and pants for breathing-room. Her path, it is true, was choked with difficulties, with dangers, but otherwise were the very spice of her life, gladdening her heart with exulting self-confidence, and sending the blood through her veins with a livelier current. The wilderness, rough, harsh, and inexorable, has charms more potent in their seductive influence than all the lures of luxury and sloth. And often she on whom it has cast its magic finds no heart to dissolve the spell, and remains a wanderer and an Ishmaelite to the hour of her death.”

 – Alexandra David–Néel (1868-1969)

*** (It was only some years later that I located the author and source of the original passage: Francis Parkman (1823-1893), The Oregon Trail (1847), the young adventurer’s account of his sojourn among Lakota Indians.)

“To wake up on a gloriously bright morning, in a tent pitched beneath spruce trees, and to look out lazily and sleepily for a moment from the open side of the tent, across the dead camp-fire of the night before, to the river, where the light of morning rests and perhaps some early-rising native is gliding in his birch canoe; to go to the river and freshen one’s self with the cold water, and yell exultingly to the gulls and hell-divers [pied-billed grebes], in the very joy of living; or to wake at night, when you have rolled in your blankets in the frost-stricken dying grass without a tent, and to look up through the leaves above to the dark sky and the flashing stars, and hear far off the call of a night bird or the howl of a wolf: this is the poetry, the joy of a wild and roving existence, which cannot come too often.”
― Josiah Edward Spurr (1870-1950)
                      Through the Yukon Gold Diggings: A Narrative of Personal Travel


 The silence of the forest is my bride

“…Like everyone else I live under the bomb. But unlike most people I live in the woods. Do not ask me to explain this…
…I live in the woods out of necessity. I get out of bed in the middle of the night because it is imperative that I hear the silence of the night, alone, and say psalms, alone, in the silence of the night.
It is necessary for me to live here alone without a woman, for the silence of the forest is my bride and the sweet dark warmth of the whole world is my love and out of the heart of that dark warmth comes the secret that is heard only in silence, but it is the root of all the secrets that are whispered by all the lovers in their beds all over the world.”

                                            —Thomas Merton (1915-1968), Journals, 1965

“When the sky above me teems with countless stars, when the wind sweeps through the wide spaces, when the billows break with a roar in the far night, when the ether reddens above the forest and the sun illuminates the world; when the mist rises in the valley and I throw myself down in the grass among the glittering drops of dew, every leaf and every blade of grass teeming with life, the earth living and stirring beneath me, and when everything is tuned to one chord, then my soul cries aloud with joy and flies in the immeasurable space around me, there is no longer any below or above, no time, no beginning, no end, I hear and feel the living breath of God, who holds and bears the world, in whom everything lives and works: here is the highest that we can actualize – God!”

—Philipp Otto Runge (1777-1810), 9 March 1802, letter to his brother Daniel Runge


))))))  ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^  ***** ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^  ((((((





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