In one of her colorful travelogues of early twentieth-century Tibet, Alexandra David-Neel tells of a hermit lama who received a bag of money from a benefactor to be used for provisions. The lama’s unscrupulous disciple stabbed his master with a knife and fled with the money. When visited by another disciple days later, the hermit’s wound was festering badly; he had bled a great deal and was weak. The hermit must have been in excruciating pain. But as in so many hermit stories of the east, the hermit insisted that the disciple not summon a physician because then the assailant would be sought and, if found, even be killed. The hermit hoped for time to let the assailant get away. The disciple was obviously concerned about the master’s condition. But the hermit told the disciple to go, adding, “When I meditate, I do not suffer, but when I become conscious of my body, my pain is unbearable.” A short time later, the hermit died of his wound.
Whatever we may think of various ways of reflecting on the future — turning up a card, consulting a celestial chart, or lighting a candle with a prayer — the fact that one is focused on the future is a tenuous practice. Focusing on the future works for practicalities, like appointments and due dates and business plans, but in resolving life’s true dilemmas, the future does not exist. We must gauge the sensibilities of the present, not predict the sensibilities of the future. The goal must be based on a realistic now, on the path’s first step, not on the endpoint. But too often the present is an emotional cloud, and we are prevented from being very effective concerning either the present or the future.
The koan has the ability to break through both these foggy states of present and future. Rather than try to assess the present fog and fight through it to the equally foggy future, the koan snaps us out of (or, rather, into) the present altogether. The koan does not give an answer or even hint at one as such. Rather, it is a tool for – to invent a verb – “presenting.” The koan is an honest shout of “Hey!” to the universe, and to one’s own morose ambivalence, demanding a new look, a fresh perspective, and not even an answer to the koan’s question. The koan is akin to modern notions of asymmetrical association in psychology, where something startles us out of our preoccupations with the non-existent future and the dissipated present to make this moment worth it.
A sure sign of spring around the “Hermitary” is the reemergence of bears, in this case, an adult female and her three cubs. Perhaps this is the same mother bear from Spring 2003 (see photos in Features), or perhaps one of her daughters, or perhaps newcomers altogether. But they have occupied the same dry slough behind the wooded area, and make the same regular trek to investigate birdseed and water sources around the house. The cubs are as small as puppies, and at the first sign of danger, the mother grabs each by the scruff of the neck and they scurry away from frightening sounds like motors. Sadly, the neighborhood here, once semi-rural, has suffered discovery as an exurbia. There are many more houses, many more trees felled, more noise and other pollution. One wonders how the bears persist, but I suppose the same question can be directed to oneself.
(New bear photos coming soon.)
Beat generation writer William Burroughs broke with his compatriots in not being enamored with Buddhism. Burroughs was once persuaded — in 1975 — to attend a retreat with the famous Chogyam Trungpa and loathed it. First he wanted to bring a typewriter but the request was turned down. So he took concealed paper and pencil. He insisted on recording his every thought and dream. Burroughs argued that he did not like Buddhism’s closed and predictable system of karma and rebirth, and preferred instead the open system of Don Juan in the Carlos Castaneda books. In that system, the individual is like a warrior cutting a path through unpredictable obstacles, there being no “final solution or enlightenment.”
I’m not sure all Buddhists would agree with Burrough’s dichotomy. In any case, he is not so independent of his culture as he might imagine. Burroughs’ creativity is as much the journalist’s and diarist’s less the artist’s, meticulously recording what goes on around him, including everything that goes on in his mind. Self-perception is inflated to the status of a raging warrior’s combat against the universe. It reminds me of what one of the characters in a beat story objects to about meditation, about its silencing all the chatter in the mind: “But I like all the chatter.”
This icon portrait of a hermit is a glimpse of the inner hermit, says the painter Ann Lang. The hermit and seeker is within the psyche of each of us. The portrait invites reflection on what that inner hermit in all of us really is. Does the hermit represent or symbolize something other than that primordial search for solitude? Is it childhood reverie free of immediate (but not ultimate) authority (a la Freud)? Does it invite us to acknowledge the growth of self that can still be attained regardless of age or vicissitude (a la Jung)? Perhaps it reflects the perennial sense of freedom and harmony that all hermits seek: a little austere like the tarot hermit, not so self-consciously deferential as the institutional monk. He is diverted or distracted from his path by our interruption, our questioning presence. His glance waits for our question, or waits for our reply, or wonders why we speak (or don’t speak) at all. But having run into him, we now know he is lurking in this edifice, and we wonder when he will manifest himself again.
— Image sent to Hermitary by the artist.