Monthly Archives: December 2008

Fire-poker zen

Hakuin used to tell his pupils about an old woman who had a teashop, praising her understanding of Zen. The pupils refused to believe what he told them and would go to the teashop to find out for themselves.

Whenever the woman saw them coming she could tell at once whether they had come for tea or to look into her grasp of Zen. In the former case, she would serve them graciously. In the latter, she would beckon the pupils to come behind her screen. The instant they obeyed, she would strike them with a fire-poker.

Nine out of ten of them could not escape her beating.

101 Zen Stories

I should be glad of another death

Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

— T.S. Eliot, from ‘Journey of the Magi’

The train

Those early days with him were like riding an empty train to an unknown destination. There was an obscure logic about it. She felt caught up in something she had no instruments to measure. As always, part of her stood on a hill watching, resentful at this being ‘carried away’ down the tracks into who knew what.

The two halves

He was so upset that he sat straight up in bed. Tereza was breathing deeply beside him. The woman in the dream, he thought, was unlike any he had ever met. The woman he felt he knew most intimately of all had turned out to be a woman he did not even know. And yet she was the one he had always longed for. If a personal paradise were ever to exist for him, then in that paradise he would have to live by her side. The woman from his dream was the ‘Es muss sein!’ of his love.
   He suddenly recalled the famous myth from Plato’s Symposium: people were hermaphrodites until God split them in two, and now all the halves wander the world over seeking one another. Love is the longing for the half of ourselves we have lost.
   Let us suppose that such is the case, that somewhere in the world each of us has a partner who once formed part of our body. Tomas’s other part is the young woman he dreamed about. The trouble is, man does not find the other part of himself. Instead, he is sent a Tereza in a bulrush basket. But what happens if he nevertheless later meets the one who was meant for him, the other part of himself? Whom is he to prefer? The woman from the bulrush basket or the woman from Plato’s myth?
   He tried to picture himself living in an ideal world with the young woman from his dream. He sees Tereza walking past the open windows of their ideal house. She is alone and stops to look in at him with an infinitely sad expression in her eyes. He cannot withstand her glance. Again, he feels her pain in his own heart. Again, he falls prey to compassion and sinks deep into her soul. He leaps out of the window, but she tells him bitterly to stay where he feels happy, making those abrupt, angular movements that so annoyed and displeased him. He grabs her nervous hands and presses them between his own to calm them. And he knows that time and again he will abandon the house of his happiness, time and again abandon his paradise and the woman from his dreams and betray the ‘Es muss sein!’ of his love to go off with Tereza, the woman born of six laughable fortuities.

— Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (trans. not mentioned)

The dog

Robin now headed up into Nora’s part of the country. She circled closer and closer. Sometimes she slept in the woods; the silence that she had caused by her coming was broken again by insect and bird flowing back over her intrusion, which was forgotten in her fixed stillness, obliterating her as a drop of water is made anonymous by the pond into which it has fallen. Sometimes she slept on a bench in the decaying chapel (she brought some of her things there), but she never went further. One night she woke up to the barking, far off, of Nora’s dog. As she had frightened the woods into silence by her breathing, the barking of the dog brought her up, rigid and still.
   Half an acre away, Nora, sitting by a kerosene lamp, raised her head. The dog was running about the house; she heard him first on one side, then the other; he whined as he ran; barking and whining she heard him farther and farther away. Nora bent forward, listening; she began to shiver. After a moment she got up, unlocking the doors and windows. Then she sat down, her hands on her knees, but she couldn’t wait. She went out. The night was well advanced. She could see nothing. She began walking toward the hill. She no longer heard the dog, but she kept on. A level above her she heard things rustling in the grass, the briars made her stumble, but she did not call.
   At the top of the hill she could see, rising faintly against the sky, the weather-beaten white of the chapel; a light ran the length of the door. She began to run, cursing and crying, and blindly, without warning, plunged into the jamb of the chapel door.
   On a contrived altar, before a Madonna, two candles were burning. Their light fell across the floor and the dusty benches. Before the image lay flowers and toys. Standing before them in her boy’s trousers was Robin. Her pose, startled and broken, was caught at the point where her hand had reached almost to her shoulder, and at the moment Nora’s body struck the wood, Robin began going down, down, her hair swinging, her arms out. The dog stood rearing back, his forelegs slanting, his paws trembling under the trembling of his rump, his hackle standing, his mouth open, the tongue slung sideways over his sharp teeth, whining and waiting. And down she went until her head swung against his, on all fours now, dragging her knees. The veins stood out in her neck, under her ears, swelled in her arms, and wide and throbbing, rose up on her hands as she moved forward.
   The dog, quivering in every muscle, sprang back, his tongue a stiff curving terror in his mouth; moved backward, back, as she came on, whimpering too, coming forward, her head turned completely sideways, grinning and whimpering. Backed into the farthest corner, the dog reared as if to avoid something that troubled him to such agony that he seemed to be rising from the floor; then he stopped, clawing sideways at the wall, his forepaws lifted and sliding. Then head down, dragging her forelocks in the dust, she struck against his side. He let loose one howl of misery and bit at her, dashing about her, barking, and as he sprang on either side of her he always kept his head toward her, dashing his rump now this side, now that, of the wall.
   Then she began to bark also, crawling after him — barking in a fit of laughter, obscene and touching. Crouching, the dog began to run with her, head-on with her head, as if to circumvent her; soft and slow his feet went padding. He ran this way and that, low down in his throat crying, and she grinning and crying with him; crying in shorter and shorter spaces, moving head to head, until she gave up, lying out, her hands beside her, her face turned and weeping; and the dog too gave up then, and lay down, his eyes bloodshot, his head flat along her knees.

— Djuna Barnes, Nightwood

He destroyed her image

Today I thought about that Something between our lips that we both agreed was real but couldn’t define: some infinitely gentle thing that turned into a brutal truth. It had our number all along, didn’t it? Then the newness and strangeness of mutual absence. Untidy destinies, punctuated by images like rocks jutting out of the ocean. My memory’s like a camera — I don’t even remember your name anymore, just soft silent pictures, sequences, movements. I’ll delete them as soon as I can; I like to think it’s up to me.

“You don’t understand the facts”

“You don’t understand the facts,” said the priest, “the verdict does not come suddenly, proceedings continue until a verdict is reached gradually.” “I see,” said K., lowering his head. “What do you intend to do about your case next?” asked the priest. “I still need to find help,” said K., raising his head to see what the priest thought of this. “There are still certain possibilities I haven’t yet made use of.” “You look for too much help from people you don’t know,” said the priest disapprovingly, “and especially from women. Can you really not see that’s not the help you need?” “Sometimes, in fact quite often, I could believe you’re right,” said K., “but not always. Women have a lot of power. If I could persuade some of the women I know to work together with me then I would be certain to succeed. Especially in a court like this that seems to consist of nothing but woman-chasers. Show the examining judge a woman in the distance and he’ll run right over the desk, and the accused, just to get to her as soon as he can.” The priest lowered his head down to the balustrade, only now did the roof over the pulpit seem to press him down. What sort of dreadful weather could it be outside? It was no longer just a dull day, it was deepest night. None of the stained glass in the main window shed even a flicker of light on the darkness of the walls. And this was the moment when the man in the cassock chose to put out the candles on the main altar, one by one. “Are you cross with me?” asked K. “Maybe you don’t know what sort of court it is you serve.” He received no answer. “Well, it’s just my own experience,” said K. Above him there was still silence. “I didn’t mean to insult you,” said K. At that, the priest screamed down at K.: “Can you not see two steps in front of you?”

— Kafka, The Trial (trans. Wyllie)