Thursday, October 13, 2011


It has been a while since I posted on "Persist: The Blog." This is not because I have not, myself, been persisting. Indeed, the opposite is true. I have been working to assemble a new collection of essays, and it's now ready for publication. It will be coming out in due course with Parami Press, as did "Persist." I have just completed a rewrite of the book's preface, which I think is appropriate for these pages. It's called, like the title of the book...


Sometimes I have to get back to my yellow pad.

I do love my computer, of course. It has made my life easy in so many ways, and it has certainly opened a window to the world for me, as a writer. It has brought me a readership that I scarcely dreamed of having. It is also much more like a yellow pad than the typewriter with which I started out many years ago. That trusty old machine had the advantage of making things legible (my handwriting was not, and never has been!) But it also locked my writing in progressively from word to word, from line to line, from paragraph to paragraph. It did not accommodate change in the same way as a scratch pad. By contrast, I discovered, working on the computer I could readily wipe out a thought and substitute a new one, change a word or a phrase, go back a dozen pages once I’d found a new direction and wanted to prepare for it. It was a miracle.

Still, there are times like the moment of this writing when I need the yellow pad, times when I need the contact between pen and paper, the barely mediated flow from heart to hand, the engagement of the whole body-mind process of finding my way through the enchanting thicket of words. It has to do, as I see it, with authenticity, with absolute directness. With having no digital intermediary between the inner voice I’m listening to as I write and the one that speaks out on the page.

I was standing in a gallery the other day, gazing around at the work of Leon Kossoff, a painter now 85 years old. We share the origins of birth in Britain before World War II—though he a decade earlier than myself. I fancy that I find in his work the evidence of centuries-long traditions of British—of European—art, an historical depth that seems to echo back richly through the ages. There is something of this, some sense of same substance in his landscapes, his Gothic churches, his portraits, all of which speak to a distinctly un-American (I should perhaps say rather, these days, pre-American!) part of my heart and soul, the part that remains unalterably rooted in the English soil. Looking at Kossoff’s paintings, it’s a resonance, a recognition, a sense of common origin. There’s something in me knows whereof he speaks.

But there’s more than that. Not matter how richly textured with their impressive layers of paint, these paintings are reduced to nothing but the bare essentials. Even the palette is subdued, reductive, as though color were now dispensable. What’s left is the palpable energy, the insistently personal vision, the quiet, unmistakable mastery of the brushwork, the tactility that seems to call for the forbidden touch in order to experience it to the full, even as it tells us of the painter’s touch and speaks to us of the interface between his heart and mind, his eye, his hand, and the surface of the canvas. These manifestations of a man’s hard-earned maturity are stripped of all pretension, all desire to conform or please anyone other than their creator, all need to shine or proclaim their virtuosity. They are, in a word, authentic.

So this is what I have come to think about. The essays in this collection are, to my way of thinking, all about that stripping down and stripping away, that need to get to the core of being, in order to fulfill what it is I’m given to do with my life. For much of our early lives we are driven by the need to establish an image of who we think we are, or who we are encouraged to believe we might be in the eyes of others, or even who we think we ought to be. To this end, we work hard to assemble fabrications of the self to which we soon become attached in the sincere belief that these fabrications are indeed our selves. And there is not just one, there are many of them, intertwined, inseparable, often bringing us suffering and confusion in their conflict with each other as we act them out. We work hard at being our “selves.”

The thing is, none of them are real. Each one is provisional, a product of our imagination, our desire, our fear, our need. Each one, in what I have come to understand through the teachings of the Buddhist dharma, is its own delusion—and if I qualify that understanding, it’s because I consider myself a journeyman Buddhist, an amateur, let’s say: an escapee from the Anglican faith in which I was brought up, I do not go much for the trappings of religion, still less for the dogma that too often accompanies them. But the idea of delusions makes perfect sense to me. We live with them, for the most part, unaware of the extent to which we have become their servants. We can, however, choose to open up our eyes and recognize them and, in recognizing, free ourselves from their subtle, unsuspected tyranny. And in shedding delusions, we have the opportunity to leave behind those selves that no longer serve us and, indeed, too often stand stubbornly between us and the fulfillment of our mission on this earth. This is the path to authenticity, to the creative core.

This is what I call “mind work.” It requires nothing but the hardest things: clarity, right intention, honesty, vigilance and effort. This is what I have attempted, however inadequately, in the essays in this loosely assembled and necessarily incomplete collection. They are the result of a continuing effort to deconstruct the self—to disassemble some of its component parts and take a look at how they work, or sometimes fail to work, in the broad context of my life. I say incomplete because the task is of such a magnitude and the self such a seemingly solid entity that I do not see myself quite ever achieving the final goal: to liberate myself from the stress of holding it all together, in order to come closer to that elusive happiness of enlightened clarity and peace of mind.

The epigraph with which I introduce the collection is bound to seem quite blatantly paradoxical when all this writing is about the self. Well, my self. My selves. The words are those of my favorite Buddhist mantra: This is not me, this is not mine, this is not who I am… I return to them for understanding and guidance every time I find myself entrapped in the delusion of my identity or enchanted by my ego; whenever I attach to those possessions I imagine belong to me; or whenever the vicissitudes of life become so overwhelming that I slip unconsciously into knee-jerk response.

They are words of great resonance for me; their profound truth never fails to bring comfort and reassurance. I have only to take a few good breaths and repeat them quietly to myself, and I find that I can usually re-establish inner calm in the most adverse of circumstances, along with a reasonable sense of proportion. Hearing them, I see my attachment to self-image or possession in the light of a greater perspective, and manage to let go of some of the stress and suffering these delusions cause me. The more I become aware of them and the power they exercise, the more easily I am able to free myself from their grip. That freedom, in essence, is what I would want this book to be about.

My daily blog, “The Buddha Diaries,” sent out into the world from my home in California, is the source of most of these essays. It is not particularly a “Buddhist blog,” in that it does not attempt to promote or explicate the fundamentals of the religion. Rather, it’s a journal whose pages allow me to explore any aspect of my life and any event that occurs in it from the wise perspective afforded by a strictly lay person’s acquaintance with the teachings. Collectively, these teachings constitute what’s called the dharma, but since I want my essays to have broader and certainly a not-exclusively religious appeal, I’ll settle happily for “teachings.” In them I have found the wisest and most practical guide to the examined life that I seek, in my later years, to lead.