snatch, fly, eat

sparrowPOSTCARD #184: Geneva, Switzerland, August 28, 2012: The number 9 bus drops me near a shopping mall coffee shop. Order something and open my book: ‘Satisfaction is a moment of relief from the pressure of wanting.’  That instant relief from the pressure of wanting comes with a thirst for more.

Just then, a little bird appears at the table; hops over, quite close to me, where there are crumbs scattered, looks at me with a flick of the head, picks up a crumb and flies away, whrrrt. Mall sparrows are incredible; evolved as these urban forms in an artificial environment that doesn’t really look like what it’s trying to be; high ceilings, glass roof, obviously ‘real’ foliage descending from stylized pillars made from polystyrene, surfaced with a resin that makes it look like marble – a hybrid reality form, an act, stage-set for a performance.

I go on reading and the bird comes back, picks up another big crumb and flies off, whrrrt. I can see it going up to the top of a pillar and now perched on the plastic leaves, then disappears in the foliage. Hmmm… a nest constructed from woven drinking straws, paper serviettes, fragments of cash till receipts, hidden in the simulated foliage up there? Generations of sparrows and other creatures have lived inside these places for years, long since lost the inclination to find the way out. The birds wouldn’t survive out there, they’ve adapted to conditions in here; proximity to table crumbs…

The small sparrow comes back to my table, takes another crumb, flies off again, whrrrt. The speed of the action… snatch, fly, eat. Feed the offspring and that’s how it evolved here. The dukkha of endless searching is not an issue for this bold little bird. It has everything it needs. I wait to see if it comes again, there are still crumbs, more than enough. But I don’t see it again, time for me to go. Across the road and the tram I need is arriving at the stop, traffic lights change just at the right time, I cross over and jump on. Light and easy, moving from one thing to the next. Not driven by wanting things to be how I’d like them to be and never quite getting enough. It’s got to do with the way you see it; the tram speeds up and glides along on smooth rails.

‘When desire does not shape the mind and limit it to thought, consciousness becomes translucent. Entering into the spaciousness of the original mind, we become the vastness itself. Inseparable from all else, at one with all that is.’ [Stephen and Ondrea Levine, ‘Who Dies’, chapter 4: ‘The Thirsty Mind’]

Reblogged, edited post, original title ‘bird in the mall’

meditation and a dentist’s drill

POSTCARD#368: Bangkok: Practically no traffic in Bangkok on my first day out – clear blue sky because there’s no pollution. I’m going to the dentist, and fortunate that I’m able to share in a car with two other friends and a driver, all of us wearing face masks, venturing out for the day. Wonderful to be back in the outside world and I send best wishes to blogging friends in the UK and US, who are stepping out today, as the car seems to leap across empty Thai highways.

Almost nothing of my UK ‘self’ remains. I have a sister, the other chick in the nest. Also gratitude to our cousin who tries to keep the strands of family together. The others… all gone in the passing years, and all that I’m inclined towards is in my Thai family and the monks I’ve spent time with – Theravada Buddhism Ajahn Chah lineage.

Eyes closed and everything disappears… allow it all to fall away for a meditational moment; just the in-breath, the out-breath, but I can’t continue because thoughts of the dentist come crashing into mind. You may be surprised to know however that she’s a very good-looking lady, dazzlingly perfect teeth to smile by, and this makes the pain easier to bear. Also, I have to say they are generous with the Lidocain needle there, I haven’t experienced any pain after the needle goes in during the many extended restructure sessions I’ve had in the chair. Maybe also the meds I take for headaches combine with the dental painkillers and these contribute to a painless experience.

So I get to the building, up in the elevator and check in with the receptionist. Sit for a while in an empty waiting area, thinking of my old dentist in Switzerland, 18 years ago, who told me about stress and depression among dentists, and he did have a few personality quirks. I googled the subject and found the suicide rate of dentists is more than twice the rate of the general population. September 1, 2007 Randy Lang. DDS, D.Ortho

Then I’m escorted to the dentist’s room. Undo my mask as I enter and “Hello, how are you”, greeting also the dentist’s assistant, who seems less beautiful but happy enough with the way things are.

The Dentist is absolutely stunning, dressed in her PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) she has a mask and a face guard with shower cap covering her hair. Movie-star painted eyes, but it’s the whole body covering that gets my attention; it’s clear smooth plastic, not wrinkled as we see in the busy COVID-19 wards, and… it looks like it’s been made to measure?

Beneath that is a tight fitting white plastic suit with a black belt and she’s wearing white high-heeled shoes – very high, with slender heels. A vision of dental loveliness… she sees me watching and does a little-girl twirl, I think: should I say “cute” or otherwise remark on her costume. But I can only smile and that’s convincing enough because I am genuinely surprised.

Are there any traces of a personality disorder here, I wonder, remembering the google texts about Stress in Dentists:

“When performing dental procedures that evoke patient fear and anxiety, dentists experience patterns of physiological stress responses that parallel the patient’s responses.”

Seems to me it would be hard not to, being so close, head to head with a reluctant and disinclined patient.

Another factor is people just don’t like going to the dentist, evidenced by the frequency of missed appointments. Nobody wants to visit the dentist and it’s the last place they want to come back to.

In my case it’s different, I’m in a mesmerized state. We continue with the opening pleasantries, as I sit down in the fearful chair which sinks to a lower level that raises my feet slightly higher than my head – it seems very comfortable to me and I tell the dentist this, thinking I have to be nice to this lady who may have a personality disorder, and she’s hiding a razor sharp drill somewhere which is going into my mouth – no escape now.

Her assistant covers my upper body with these heavy green hospital linen covers and puts one over my whole head that has a round hole in the centre. I found it disarming and claustrophobic the first time but I’m used to it now. She adjusts the position of the hole and does an examination of my mouth, indicates that it’s all good, and starts numerous injections to block off an entire area on the right side

After that, I’m raised up to the normal sitting position, while we wait for the Lidocain to numb the jaw. I take the conversation further by asking how long she’s had a dentist practice here in this location. She tells me it’s been 11 years and likes the process very much. Then she says: “I was in the US for five years”. I understand her to mean she studied there and prefers the American way of operating a dental practice, therefore the Thai way seems really old fashioned to her. I think she thinks I’m American and therefore I should respond in a welcoming, member-of-the-family, ‘warm hug’, in a manner of speaking but I don’t know how to do that, coming from Scotland as I do, ancient and remote. Even though I feel like I should have been able to respond better than I did.

Sometime later in the sequence of time we were talking about something else I can’t remember exactly and “I was in the US for five years”, she says, unaware that it’s the second time she’s said this. Is she, a Thai person, so deeply acculturated in all things American, she has to tell me about it? It was difficult to see how this could be, having lived in Thailand for 35 years with its ups and downs – 5 years seems like such a short time to me.

I wasn’t able to figure out how best to deal with this. A big smile will suffice – anyway it was time to get down to business and she sends my chair back into that devastating lower position, it seemed to me now, where the drilling begins.

No choice, settle into a space in my being, and try to accept these fierce sounds. The dentist’s drill is a fearsome thing as we all know. it can change from high speed: tee-ee tee-ee to low speed: bhrrr-bhrr bhrr-bhrr and variations on that: bhaaa-bhee, chugga chagga, daaa dit daaa dit daaa!

The dentist’s assistant takes charge of all the sucking devices she holds in place in a way that obstructs the movement of the tongue and drains the blood or liquid or water from another device crammed into place leaving enough space for the Hollywood dentist to do her drilling.

Everything to do with my mouth is seen through the round hole, I’m aware of some movements in the darkness. An overwhelming experience if you’re not used to it, now trying to embrace these intense sounds as my jaw is being carved into a new shape. There’s a natural tendency to escape from the body. Then the attempt at meditation starts.

The sound and vibration is hostile and shocking and pulls my attention back into what is immediately present, I can’t find a balance at first… I feel confident enough about the painkillers, about how effective the headache meds are, but the vibration is traveling through every bone in my body. It’s possible for the first time in my life to ‘see’, to be aware of my skull and skeleton. Maybe I can be confident about the full extent and the limitations of the experience; the drilling sounds, the pushing and tugging. I know this and I know Consciousness is vast. This realization just tumbles out. For a few moments the drilling sound and scale or scope of the issue becomes smaller and smaller, less and less important.

After that I’m able to find a place up and above my head and focus on staying there, as all the unexpected jabs, jerks and vibrations shake my whole body. The dentist’s assistant pulling on one side of my mouth and the dentist shoving and tugging the other side. My awareness has to include having to deal with the gag reflex and involuntary swallowing – all this can be going on because there’s enough awareness to go around. I can stay in this space up and above, and contemplate the experience as if I were in a barrel being tumbled down a rocky hill road, and other images.

The chair is moved up and the drilling is over, now to take an impression. Liquid rubber material is spread inside both upper and lower jaws. I clench my teeth together and have to hold it for 3 minutes. This provides me with a sudden quiet time… up and above in the space where I was meditating, there’s a golden glow. If I focus on it, the glow expands; it’s unintentional and spontaneous. The golden glow is sending out warmth and happiness, an entirely unintended action spreading outwards and everywhere.

Sadly it’s interrupted by the dentist, green covers removed, moving along now. Put the mask on, fix the next appointment, and it’s time to say Bye-Bye.

Down from the 6th floor and the driver is at the car-park level getting a stamp on his entry ticket. We pick up our two other passengers and out over the deserted highways again. I feel liberated and glad the next dental appointment is not for a month and the remains of the golden glow is with me.

The Thai Government reported three new coronavirus cases and no new deaths on Sunday, May 10, 2020 with a total of 2,969 coronavirus cases and 54 deaths since the outbreak began in January

created fragrances

nose_sinuses_smellOLD NOTEBOOKS: Switzerland: Industrial Zone: Waiting for the bus home. There’s that slightly odd fragrant smell in the air again. Somebody told me about it; there’s a laboratory here that creates commercial smells: odorants, aromas. The air is always full of fragrances. It’s the smell of fruity jam today. Another day, it’ll be a different smell, a more subtle thing you can’t identify, a component of a popular smell – not unpleasant, just odd. The fragrance of fruity jam, which strikes the nose when I open a new jar, is  a ‘replacement aroma’ created under laboratory conditions by chemists.

The manufactured smell is a chemical compound designed to trigger an olfactory experience. I’ll react in the same way even though the smell/aroma/fragrance is completely artificial. I fall into the ready-to-purchase mode – mind is saying, yes, yes, yes, get it, own it, have it… the familiarity of the smell is all that it takes. A perfect example of the Buddha’s Paticcasamuppada, the chain reaction of consciousness (dependent origination). The wonderful smell of bread from the bakery section in the supermarket. I’m drawn to it because of the aroma even though there’s no baker’s oven in a supermarket. I know it’s an illusion, but still respond to it as if it were real.

The artificial smell starts a sequence of mini events in the mind instantly when it makes contact (phassa) with the memory/ recognition/ acceptance, and there’s feeling (vedana). As soon that point is reached there’s the craving for it (tanha). I experience a state of wanting, a kind of greed, (upadana) and it’s very likely that I’ll go into the ‘bakery’ just to take a look, caught by the nose… it’s not real, it’s a chemical compound pumped into the air or sprayed somehow inside the bakery section.

Airline food served at 600 mph, and an altitude 38,000 feet; an exotic olfactory experience of roast potatoes, beef, onions, cheeses, French cognac, a hint of cigar smoke, ground coffee, crème caramel, port, liqueur. And we are served sad-looking pre-heated food… a bit disappointing. Do they really expect us to not see through this? But I think that’s part of it; somehow we’re satisfied with the illusion, a puff or a spray that releases the manufactured odorant in the air we inhale. There’s a knowing acceptance of it: “well isn’t it interesting how they can create artificial fragrances these days?” It’s okay to do this. Not only food, there’s the smell of leather upholstery in a new car, that distinctive odor created by chemical processes sneaks into our consciousness and we allow it to happen. All kinds of products, the smell of a new carpet triggers something in the brain, a physiological change and in the mind there’s recognition and the familiarity about it. An acknowledgment of the illusion being part of the whole panorama of illusion we create in our world of perception. The characteristics of the illusion lock into place and it becomes as real as anything or everything else. Does it really matter if it’s artificial… the whole world of perception is artificial.

The bus arrives at the stop and we all get on. It rumbles off down the road into town and the smell of fruity jam is still in the atmosphere, I can smell slight traces, then I get distracted and soon after that I’ve forgotten all about it.

‘Though my view is as spacious as the sky, my actions and respect for cause and effect are as fine as grains of flour.’ [Sogyal Rinpoche]


Summarized from an earlier post titled Fragrant Illusion, written during my time as a teacher of English in banks and offices and small industries in a small town in Switzerland.
Source for header image. Please visit the original page for the interactive version of the image.


‘server not found’

dreamstimefree_26288_3OLD NOTEBOOKS: Here in our new place in South Delhi the internet speed is really low at the moment so I called the technician and he said it would be okay tomorrow for sure, but right now they were working on the line near to where I am. Okay, thanks, bye-bye and hang-up phone – that’s it… the devastation of no internet. How can I just say to myself, well you can read a book or something? We are internet-dependent beings, without internet we become kinda unstable… and I remember writing about this feeling before. So I spend some time looking for it in my drafts folder. There was a storm at the time too and I find it in the Search box, using ‘storm’ as a title, et: voilà! It felt like all the unearthed electricity in the air, had given my internet server a boost just at the crucial moment and ‘server not found’ was actually found:

Switzerland: Just before the storm started I was having this internet upload speed problem; trying to get a post into Publish but not enough oomph for it to go. I try again; waiting for it to slowly come up with the WordPress site to click on the upload button, but stuck again. I start to take it personally, caught in thinking this is ‘bad.’ And, pretty soon, it gets blown out of proportion, turns into a small crisis, like a fire burning down the house. The intensity of feeling is incredible. This is what a very low internet speed can do. Am I in withdrawal? Focus for a moment, just there at the desk, feet flat on floor, watch the breath, stop the mind, and suddenly I’m in an empty space, surprised to discover it was that quick! And without the wandering thoughts, there is just silence! Just the physical awareness of the body, comfortably seated with this inactive thought process like its engine has given up and it’s immobile. I could hear the storm really loud around this time; lightning and thunderous bangs and crashes across the sky – a perception of vast distance.

It’s like someone in the floor above has gone berserk, pushing over huge pressed steel cabinets and metal desks, metal oil drums, BOOOOM, BADAAANG, and a small silence in between, then the echo of it returning from a long way away in the immense space of night sky. Still sitting at the desk in the violence of the heavens and the room is brightly illuminated by a flash of lightning very close, followed immediately by another overwhelming CRASH. The lights go out, and for a moment I’m thinking the sound is the bricks and masonry of the building tumbling down.

I fall to the floor in a crouched position to protect the head and then up from there quickly out to the front room, and exit by jumping over the balcony from our place on the seventh floor? No, can’t do that, look around, no damage I can see. The flap of wings as birds roosting on the balcony rail are stirring a bit, but they’re not really getting in a tizzy about this. If the buildings were to fall to the ground, no problem, they’ve got wings and can just fly away.

Back into the room, waken up the computer and I get a connection right away, loading completed immediately. And that’s the story of how I got this post written in a room full of flashing lights like a Press event taking place and uploaded no problem – harvesting ambient electricity? The sounds of war and bombing raids; the noise of it was colossal, somebody said later it’s because of the Jura mountains reflecting the sound and the lake resonating like a huge sheet of metal; an area of about 500 square kilometers.

‘The first noble truth says simply that it’s part of being human to feel discomfort. We don’t even have to call it suffering anymore; we don’t even have to call it discomfort. It’s simply coming to know the fieriness of fire, the wildness of wind, the turbulence of water, the upheaval of earth, as well as the warmth of fire, the coolness and smoothness of water, the gentleness of the breezes, and the goodness, solidness, and dependability of the earth. Nothing in its essence is one way or the other.’ [Pema Chodron]


birds nest update

IMG_2537POSTCARD #183: Bangkok: I have to say that there’s not a lot happening here. One bird is tucked away down inside the ceiling fan wire guard and the other bird flies in with two or three longish springy lengths of leaf growth I can’t really identify. The seated bird inside takes the nest-building material in its beak, pulls it inside the enclosure and tucks it in around the space. The other bird watches for a while then flies away. In the photo you can see the long tail of the seated bird sticking up. The bird is inside the wire cage of the ceiling fan and the other one perched on top watching me take the photo.

Most of the day I’m sitting next to the glass doors of the patio, reading my book and a small flicker against the sky tells me when a bird is either coming or going. Strange how this whole thing is happening a second time… some years ago in Switzerland a couple of birds built a nest on the balcony and I encouraged this in the same way I’m doing now; next thing we had a whole colony of pigeons and doves, creatures of the air perched out there on the balcony among old discarded objects and summer furniture. I wrote a few posts about the experience, excerpts follow:

Switzerland, August 29, 2012: Awake at 4:00 AM this morning, came through and switched on the kitchen light; old style fluorescent neon tube-light, flicker-flicker flick. And a bluish white light everywhere with electronic buzz you don’t notice after a while. The light shines through the windows illuminating the balcony of this 7th floor apartment and the pigeons wake up. A very loud sound: croo-croo, croo-croo, croo-croo, croo-croo! So I switch off the light again and they’re quiet as soon as I do that. Now I’m sitting in the darkness, held back in my domestic activities by the wildlife on the balcony. What to do now? Can’t read my book. Stand there in the darkness, and it takes a moment to notice the silence the birds are in. I sit in my chair and fall into meditation state… first thing I’m aware of is entering the quiet space of the perched birds – so silent here, 7 floors above street level. There’s a presence around these birds in roost mode; it takes my breath away, winged animals, so close to me… metta loving-kindness to all beings. I can’t see them but I know I’m very close to a small family group inhabiting the balcony. Two adults and two young birds and there’s another one – the mysterious ‘other’ … the alpha male has taken a second wife? I’m saying this because in the evenings there’s often some extended flapping of wings as they get their places in the hierarchy settled for the night – it’s like who gets to be next to whom. I can’t imagine… return to mindfulness mode.

After a while, and maybe I’ve fallen asleep, the wing-flutter, flap gets my attention, in the light of very early morning. Then there’s an odd silence in the bird group out there; no wing-flap. I get up quietly and go over to see. They’re poised on the balcony handrail; all looking out, little necks extended, heads focused downwards on the space below; the great swimming pool of sky. Still no movement. Then simultaneously they burst into an instant wing-flutter-flap-flick of feather tip flip of flight, and they’re gone. As one unit they drop over the balcony and down. A moment later I see them swoop and swirl in a great arc in the sky then on eye level with this 7th floor and in a direct line away from me, they vanish in the distance.

‘… so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings; radiating kindness over the entire world: spreading upwards to the skies, and downwards to the depths; outwards and unbounded, freed from hatred and ill-will. Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down free from drowsiness, one should sustain this recollection.’ [from: Karaniya Metta Sutta]


Happy New Year Everyone all the best for 2016


IMG_2474POSTCARD #175: Geneva, Switzerland: Expecting things to be more or less exactly on time… or exactly on time with the precision of a Swiss watch. Allowing for as long as it takes to buy an all day ticket to maximise on the duration; time stamped by the machine just before the tram arrives… doors swing open and enter. Everybody programmed to believe they’re doing the right thing at the right moment – seems as if everything is like this; a fascination with the accuracy of the schedule and so many other things pass by… curiously concealed. We are unaware of the actuality, the feeling of being a human being – life itself, vanishing as we speak, an everyday sort of miracle of experience passing by… now it’s gone.

And it’s just this, the ordinary sense of things moving along in a comfortable way; we take it for granted so much it goes unnoticed. It’s this I miss the most – the normality – so often falling into the mind-state of wanting things to be different than what they are. Do I believe the neurologist witchdoctors when they say it’ll be okay in the end? Yes, nightmarish, because there’s this lady doctor with her pins and needles she intends to stick into my head, prickcan you feel zees? Prick… yes/no? (French/German accent) Yaow! Okay, try here: prick, Yaow! Is zat more painful zan zee first one, or not? TRY IT AGAIN! Focused on her needle so much, she forgets the closeness to my ear and it’s like she’s shouting. I jump, keep still please! I hear her breathing with assertiveness, confidence, I’m in her hands… she’s attempting to map out the route of the nerve. Then, after many punctures, and happy with what she has found, she tells me: ok you take a deep breath now and, as I do that, she pushes the long shaft of her needle into the scalp – I hear the point scraping across the bumpy surface of the skull. She depresses the plunger, starts to void the syringe; it takes a long time, the scale of it seems as if seen in close-up, huge like an approaching express train in a tunnel… high-pitched scream.

Things go dead and I don’t feel the many small injections that follow after. It’s done in ten minutes, excess fluid dampening my hair, trickling down my neck and the doc says to let the skin absorb it. So I lie on the left side, let it be like that, wet neck, head on pillow and for a jetlag instant, sleep arrives, crash… light is switched off – alerted suddenly by the blackness, crash, back here again, the world returns. Instead of the headache there’s this anesthetized skull-stuffed-with-cotton-wool feeling, like a loud party going on behind a wall that’s built inside my head and I already have the party hangover but can’t feel it because that’s behind the wall too.

So, nothing to complain about but when I sit in a meditative way, it’s like a loud electronic buzzing sound that masks everything. I feel I can’t get there; I’ve lost it, there’s a missing piece… seek/find; caught in the search mode – how will I know it when it returns? What does it look like, what does it feel like to be okay again? Or maybe it’s like this – right here and now in a darkness, indistinct, unseen…

I am the taste in the water, the light of the sun and the moon, the sound in the ether, the ability in man, the fragrance of the earth, the heat in the fire, the life of all that lives, the strength of the strong, the intelligence of the intelligent, and the original seed of all existences. [Bhagavad Gita]


Photo: a suspended art form above the estuary at Bel-Air Tram Stop, Genève

somewhere in a former life

IMG_2462POSTCARD #174: Geneva, Switzerland: People, hovering around the exit door on the 18 tram to Carouge, faces look at me incidentally, I sometimes see one I think I know from times gone by in the metallic click over smooth rail joints, and the gentle jigging motion of the tram as it is now, and so it was then, travelling under an assumed identity, peripatetic teacher of English, here and there on trams every day, passing through security, a practiced conversationalist, and into rooms in banks behind closed and thickly felted huge metal soundproofed doors, gold taps in old bathrooms. Are these the same francophone faces now? Not those emerging from soundproofed rooms and stepping into their black tinted screen limos with drivers holding the door, no, just the ordinary folk you see every day now and then but never talk to, maybe a passing gesture, a nod of recognition?

Now I’m back here nearly two decades later. Do I see those same individuals looking at me with a nod of recognition held in a moment paused, seeing me looking at them in the same kind of way… a hesitation almost: hmm, est-ce que je vous connais monsieur ? (do I know you sir?) Look into these eyes for a penetrating instant with the flickering expectation of acquaintanceship… and in the midst of finding maybe I can’t quite recall what it is exactly, realise with some shock that it’s the awareness of – what is it? The nearness of death? Is this what I see looking back at me? Death, the answer to that question about what didn’t happen here? The past tense disappeared; everything I did in the 8 years I lived here was/is unfinished, and cannot and will not ever continue. It died?

I was in a life here. Now I come back from the dead, the Ghost of Christmas Present, not to ungracefully haunt all these innocent bystanders with more foreign talk and raconteur. Not to upset these slightly-known people with faces turned toward me, stepping onto or getting down from the 18 tram to Carouge two decades ago, and even now turned to glance at me a second time with their elegance of wispy threads of golden hair combed carefully over a bronzed skull with large dark brown skin spots, vapourised and paperised faces, traces of soft skin held nicely like curtain folds at the corners, beneath which these old eyes look out like an unfinished sentence… Je m’excuse mesdames et messieurs, I’m not here to disturb you with things that never took place, but to close those thick soundproofed doors that seem to swing open by themselves somewhere in a former life.

Thus there’s always something about the question that’s gently pondered, not posed, but poised, considered…it has to be the right question, forever not quite decided upon; what might it be? The moment spent in contemplation of what form this sort of thing could possibly take is enough to begin to know it… or it begins to be known. A kind of indirect position so carefully arranged; or maybe it was like that as it fell into place, who can tell? Induced then deduced. Words don’t hold meaning for very long, the question gets forgotten about in the end (they usually do), or possibly it’s still there in the detached state, just not functioning as a specific inquiry now, more like a wide-openness that’s waiting for an answer in the same way as there are answers, lying in their own wide-openness waiting to be discovered. A kind of non-verbal alertness, a strange familiarity, a passing recognition that seems to go on opening and opening, and opening; déjà vu revisited. It was always here….

But if, transcending petty ego, all the world is known as life – as only living energy – then how can death arise at all? For one who knows the world like this, as only life, there is no death. In truth, there’s only deathlessness. [Upanishads]


Photo: Watching the sun setting from the room on the 8th floor of the building at Pont-d’Arve, near Carouge


floating mountains

DHPbackPOSTCARD #173: Dhammapala Monastery, Switzerland: I cannot seem to get a good photograph of it – as the sun appears over the mountain and lights up our small valley. Maybe a better photographer than me can try; there is a strange illusion on walks around the monastery. Mountains appear to be travelling through the landscape like great ships. Looking from a position high up on a steep incline, with tree tops near enough so you can follow their trunks down to the forest floor below, then looking up at the mountain top that appears above the tree line, which is still in the same frame of vision – and suddenly it looks like the mountain behind the trees has disconnected itself from the earth below, drifted away from its moorings; a gigantic gravity-free mass of rocky earth and vegetation suspended in the sky. I’m reminded of the floating Hallelujah Mountains in the Avatar movie; based on the Huang Shan mountains in China.

There’s a simple light-headedness about it, seeing these massive mountains drifting around in the air, I have that gravity-free feeling about everything I was formerly attached to in the mind. This is how it is; maybe all beings tend to be in a permanent state of ‘on hold’ because we’re earth-bound creatures attached by gravity to a spinning planet. Born with the received, deeply built-in default mindset that there is this holding-on thing we have to live with; it cannot be explained, it cannot be questioned – we can’t let go whatever happens. But today this usual uneasiness about letting go has vanished for me… just slipped away, the heavy pull of gravity is absent, missing, I feel released from a tremendous pressure; stepping easily over the snowy mountains of the mind. Leaping over the precipices, this freedom has always been here; I just didn’t notice it before. The mountains are liberated from their roots, groundlessness… it’s like this because everything we see, feel, smell, touch taste and hear is a perception, saññā . Things feel solid and appear to be real but they’re not ‘real’, there’s nothing to prove that there’s anything out there at all.

I came here once and spoke with a man who was experienced in hill walking and had been climbing for some years. He went into these mountains alone and started running and jumping over dangerous ravines to small footholds and making all kinds of joyful leaps but taking crazy risks and he got lost for most of the day. When he found his way back to the monastery he had a major epiphany about it all – realized he’d lost all normal sense of control. Gravity had gone from him for a while. I wondered how many mountain climbers really have a tendency to want to fly that they have to be rational about…

IMG_2441Normally we human beings assume the world ‘out there’ exists just as we perceive it (by way of eye, ear, nose, tongue and physical contact) but if we consider these sense organs, it must become apparent to us that the world ‘out there’ is really dependent on our particular modes of perception. For instance, the human eye limits conditions, by its very structure, the objects we see. It is well known that a bee can see, as a colour, ultraviolet but we have no idea what such a colour looks like nor, of course, can we find any words to describe it. It follows therefore that our sense organs being differently constructed from that of a bee (or any other non-human being), our world “out there” is not necessarily the world as it really is.’ [Phra Khantipalo, ‘Buddhism Explained’ 1965]


Lower photo showing the sun leaving the valley. In the middle of winter there is sunshine on the monastery for only a few hours per day

cold as a presence

IMG_3417POSTCARD #172: Dhammapala Monastery, Switzerland: Breathe out this huge cloud of steamy vapour, such a quantity, it feels like there’s nothing left in my lungs, it’s used up – can’t breathe, quick do the inhale! The cold is a ‘thing’, it enters my nose with every breath, fills my mouth every time I speak, pours into all the tiny cranial cavities and spaces I didn’t even know were there, it becomes an ice-cream headache – mentholated turquoise and pale blue razor-sharp ice edges. Teeth are cold, lips are a rubbery fumbling. It reaches around my face and exposed places, freezes these delicate little hanging earlobes.

Breathe normally, haaa! the cold is a presence, it seems to me, coming from the benign climate of Delhi, here it’s a motionless cold. Even so, there’s this raging inferno inside my head, a blazing coal furnace – I can hear it roar. The meds for my condition only convince me the pain is not happening, but I know it’s there; the wall between ‘it’ and ‘me’ is thin, fragile… hope that wall holds out! I mentally dive into this snow; the frozen everything. But let me get indoors quickly… leave shoes at the door, the monastery is warm, everything is soft and colourful, autmnal faded tangerine/brown robes, the monks seems to float across the carpet. I’m shown to my room, comfortable square pillows, freshly laundered bedding. The shower works, everything is as you’d expect it to be. No internet connection, I’m momentarily devastated… I’ll have to write the old fashioned way, but forgot to take note paper – no notebook to write on. So I rummage around in my wallet for receipts that I can write on the back of, all kinds of blank bus tickets and scraps of paper.

There’s an immediate familiarity with holding the pen, pressed point seems to etch the characters into the surface of the paper, black figures on a white landscape covered in snow; a photographic negative. So, what to write? What I thought it was, wasn’t – so I had to rethink that one. What else can be said? Everything overwhelmed with whiteness, I have to wear dark glasses. The monks don’t seem to feel the cold, shaved heads and smiling faces. They show me pictures of the standing Buddha outside and I notice something strange about one of the pictures; there’s a reflection in the upturned palm of the buddha while the arm is held in shadow.

Some hours later when I manage to get a connection, I write up the notes created in scraps of paper and the picture image used as the header for this blog is the one with the strange reflected light in the palm. Sleep that night and in the morning it is 10 degrees below zero Celsius, but the internet connection is suddenly good enough for a moment so I hit publish… and it goes.

Lovely snowflakes! Each one falls in the appropriate place. [Zen saying]


The header photo is from the Dhammapala collection
~   G   R   A   T   I   T   U   D   E   ~

something lost regained

IMG_2026POSTCARD #171: Zurich airport hotel: Hard to believe that, as I write this, everything in our old house in Delhi is being folded up, layered, packed, sealed into boxes and labeled with a number. When I return, all our possessions will be cubed, diced up, chopped into boxes and stacked on top of each other inside the waiting truck. Larger items will retain some of their shape; a chair will be recognizably ‘chair’, swathed in corrugated cardboard and bubble-wrap. Upside down table will be recognizable by its legs sticking up, wrapped to protect corners but its upside-down-ness, disconcerting… tables shouldn’t be seen like that. A bit strange, but we’ve moved so many times and it’s always like this; as if a surgeon removes a part of the mind/body organism, it’s taken away and never seen again, then strangely a new organ grows in its place, exactly like the old one but different… after that there’s no memory of it happening.

Except, of course, if something is broken or lost during the move and this thing, this object, is mourned and held in the memory for a long time. It must have been something like this that happened to me when we moved from the house in Japan to the new place in Bangkok. I was still working when the movers were boxing up everything and Jiab reminded me that if I wanted to get the bus leaving at 16.40 I could run down the hill and probably get it – if I left right now, She called out as I went that we’d all meet afterwards at the station. So I rushed out the door, ran downstairs and off down the path. Suddenly I remembered something, stopped, turned around and looked up at the house; top floor of a small 2 storey house – I’d stayed there for 3 years, and this would be the last time I’d ever see the house… how could it be so sudden like this? I would never be back here. Tears sprouted from the eyes, what to do? Just look and try to remember it… at the same time, turn my head away, a wrench, something torn – no time, against my will I continue running down the hill, almost as if I’m running away from the house… but focused on getting the 16.40 bus. The last image of the house clear in my mind for a moment then dissolving away and forgotten. Next day I was on the plane to Bangkok and that’s the last time I was ever in Japan.

In Bangkok a few weeks later, I was telling a friend about this, Curtis Cairns – his name was, and sadly I lost track of Curtis in the end… so if you’re reading this Curtis, please get in touch old friend! Anyway I was telling the story about the house to Curtis and he was just listening. When I finished, he nodded and looked at me, felt my loss. Asked me where the house was, and what was the address. It happened he was going to Japan the following week and when he got there, unknown to me, he took a few trains from Tokyo and got on the bus up the hill, walked the last bit and came up to my old house, took a photo of it (before the days of digital images) had the film processed and put the photo of the house in an envelope, stamped it and addressed to me in Thailand. A week later the post came to the house in Bangkok, there’s the slim, letter from Japan, opened it up and pull out the photo of the house, no accompanying note, just the photo. I still have it, pasted in an album – something lost regained.

Our own life is the instrument with which we experiment with truth. [Thich Nhat Hanh]


Photo: The last pic taken of the rooftop in the Delhi house