Dog, spider, mask

A Husky-Shepherd mix dog regularly frequents the neighborhood. He has a collar, but at the appointed hour he is roaming in Husky style, visiting dogs fenced or otherwise unable to go far. He knows where there are oppressed and friendless dogs, and visits them. He knows where there are cats, bears, rabbits, mean dogs, mean people, dangerous vehicles. He is Han-shan, the hermit dog, roaming the woods, trotting on roads, meticulously avoiding people by leaving the road when they approach. He is never hostile. The time of morning anticipates his movements. Wait for him at a certain hour and he is usually passing by. If you greet him he will not look up. If you move toward him, he will pass on more briskly. Do not impede his way, for though he seems to move about without purpose, he recognizes every boundary line, ditch, rock, and entry. He is Han-shan, the hermit dog.


A green spider created a magnificent web under the eaves of the window. The spider was not one of the little random spiders that cannot or does not know how to weave, only producing a set of random threads. This spider was the classic artist of a magnificent symmetrical web that was topped by a better every night, until the web hung from the top of the eave to the bottom of the window, the spider growing large and sitting triumphantly at one end in the center of its ball of silk. The old web decals on the window, for years warding off torpid birds from flying into the glass pane, were pale versions of this web, insufficient imitations. To watch the spider at work, to rise and see the dewdrops on this work of art, was to inspire a faith in nature and beauty.

Then one morning, pulling back the curtain, there was a void — several random threads dangling ominously. There was no spider. She had not worked overnight. Her time had not come for her egg sac, had it, though she had grown large? On the ground beneath the window lay the spider, already shriveling, her magnificent legs pulled back, ants hovering. She was quite dead. Had she managed a secret egg sac after all, or been attacked by a wolf spider, or the chemicals of a mosquito-spraying airplane the previous night (yes, they are odious and ineffective, except at killing everything but mosquitoes — butterflies, moths, dragonflies, perhaps spiders)? The spider’s death was a blow to art, nature, and beauty. The Buddha was right: life is nothing but suffering, not even redeemed at such moments by the memory of beauty and love of nature. Lifting it while still lain out on a stone, the spider was buried quietly in a corner of a garden bed, where, perhaps, she will spin a different manifestation of nature and beauty in a flower.


Disappearances are disconcerting because they are often unexpected and startling. Just when familiarity has lulled one into comfort and routine, that which gave comfort, which represented routine, is gone. Not so much the larger things for which one can prepare psychologically, but the little things. Leave a vulnerable child alone too long and it wonders whether her parents will ever come back. Stand on a corner in a strange neighborhood too long and wonder if the bus will ever show up. Work in the same place and wonder if you will survive without the same dull and necessary routine.

Where have the raccoons gone, no longer raiding the compost pile for scraps not buried well? Where did the neighbors chickens go after watching them grow from wee chicks to waddling adults scattered about the neighbors’ lawn roaming innocently? Where do the bears go when there is not enough food or water and the heat far more intense than their heavy fur could anticipate? Where did the bird that sang so magnificently from the oak tree fly? The sly cartoon of the mayfly reading its fortune comes to mind: “Today is the last day of the rest of your life” (echoing the pop formula of decades ago).

The lesson of impermanence is not a lesson but a reprimand, not an insight but a blow. We excrete a shell of armor, like an oyster, expecting a pearl from our resulting invulnerability, but instead it is a mask that we do not know how to wear effectively in moments of passing. How many masks must we wear through before our arms tire of holding them up, our faces grow lined by trying to peer through its eye-holes and seeing only a shadow of what we hoped to see? Where, indeed, do the real things go, the real things as opposed to the impermanent ones that drift back and forth in front of our masks? Must we, as Pema Chodron’s book title suggests, grow comfortable with insecurity, meaning, one supposes, grow comfortable with discomfort, grow secure with our masks of nonchalance, get used to being drained of life and feeling if we don’t want to suffer?

There’s a black cat caught in a high tree top.
There’s a flag-pole rag and the wind won’t stop.
There’s a fossil that’s trapped in a high cliff wall.
There’s a dead salmon frozen in a waterfall.
There’s a blue whale beached by a spring tide’s ebb.
There’s a butterfly trapped in a spider’s web.
There’s a king on a throne with his eyes torn out.
There’s a blind man looking for a shadow of doubt.
There’s a rich man sleeping on a golden bed.
There’s a skeleton choking on a crust of bread.
There’s a red fox torn by a huntsman’s pack.
There’s a black-winged gull with a broken back.
There’s a little black spot on the sun today.
It’s the same old thing as yesterday …


Modern physics maintains that matter is energy, always pulsating, moving, restless. But what is energy? We cannot but use analogies that contrast matter as solid, stable, and unmoving. Even our notions of moving and unmoving are inadequate because nothing remains unmoved if we look at everything as energy.

The traditional yin-yang symbol of Taoism offers a representation of perpetual movement, but this perpetualness or indefiniteness of movement, is presented as patterned and symmetrical, whereas our experience of the universe is that eents occur assymetically. At least that is our perception, and we call it serendipitous, or the result of building pressures or conditions. Ultimately, our definitions of events must remain open and causes, meanings, and effects undefinable. This gap dogs both science and imagination.

Also representative of “perpetualness” are the enormous cycles of Buddhist kalpas wherein time and beings inexorably move, however slowly to our consciousness, however “assymetically” to our limited consciousness, a grand movement from one state or bundle of identifiableness to one less definable, to another that becomes definable, and so forth. In this vaguely “scientific” expression, the kalpas perhaps allow Westerners to accept and demythologize reincarnation to the point of tolerance, even prescience, if not literalness. But the disturbing lack of finality implied by energy, even slowed but never resolved, is foreign to conventional thought, especially Western thought.

In contrast to Eastern tradition, Western thought is bound up with the linear and with progress, lines and spirals in a great chain of being. Here the expressions of the past (theses) transmute into new uptakes (antitheses) and work themselves into new expressions (syntheses).

With Enlightenment thought, progress became material, social, and cultural. Hegel made his idealism — wherein the real is rational, necessary, inevitable, right, and the rational is real — manifest itself in history as necessity. Marx inverted the same dialectics by recognizing that the real is rational only insofar as the material conditions sustain it, but that the real is neither right nor necessary, and can change or be changed. In contrast to the aberrations of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes in the 20th century and beyond, not, in fact, strictly Western, Marxist dialectics do describe Western structures, but only because they assume the given Western thesis of progress and linear transformation built into the structures, built into the entire mentality of Western thought. The dialectics work best applied only to the West, in fact, and only falling short of accounting for a Western version of change and materialism that outstrips the historical conditions that could not foreseen in the 19th century, except, perhaps, by the very proponents of an unbridled material progress that had no social component.

Why has Eastern tradition refused change and progress? — referring to a now nearly moribund tradition, however. Spengler called this disinterest in change the “changlelessness of non-history.” He speculated that the excitement in the West, for example, over the steam engine in the 19th century, was experienced by China — in the Bronze Age, around 4000 BCE! An often cited example contrasting East and West is China’s use of gunpowder for fireworks contrasting vividly with Alfred Nobel’s dynamite soon weaponized for warfare (against his civil engineering interest) and Albert Einstein’s atomic research turned into bombs. Both men regretted the change, the development, the progress applied to their creativity. Nobel went so far as to consult with pacifists throughout Europe, eventually creating a peace prize which itself has become distorted and weaponized.

Did the attitude of “changelessness” arise consciously from a rejection of history, a rejection of time and place, of geographical or cultural factors? Perhaps the mountain landscapes of ancient China or the primordial forests and seas of ancient Japan suggest a philosophy of nature that spiritualizes beings, makes of beings a holiness, so that they are representations of the eternal even as they chart their lifespans? Lifespan is the yin-yang cycle, but on a larger scale; it transpires as a foreground, wherein the backdrop is the living silence and solitude of mountains, rivers, forests, sky that appears unchanging and eternal. To ancient Chinese, mining mountains, damming rivers, felling trees, were all arrogant and evil acts. The least intervention with nature was considered the wisest course. Nature extended not only to the beings of our environment but to the actions of individuals.

Contrarily, in the West, from the beginning, the coveting the gold in mountains, draining swamps and channeling rivers for commerce, felling trees for limitless fuel, poisoning the land of enemies by sowing salt (or depleted uranium), and building towers and missiles to scratch and scrape the skies above are signs of progress, not hubris. The West has closed the openness of eons, charted and graphed the universe between Big Bang and Entropy, scoured the heavens with SETI readings, but fails to understand its own motives, its own self-destruction and its willful destruction of other peoples and of nature. The linear depiction of time and history in Western thought transcends religion, for both scripture and science maintain the same cosmology.

But what underlies all that is living? At a minimum, it is the sensitive wave that science calls energy, that neither recedes nor goes forward without returning. Ancient and Eastern peoples treasured the root, the source, the origins, but Western civilization dispenses with the lessons of the past, even the recent lessons, on an inexorable and mad propulsion into the future. Dropping the inheritance of the past, ditching behind it the too slow nature and the too sluggish time, the West leads the world into a darkness.

The ancient philosopher Chao Chih-Chien noted that

Those who cultivate the Tao ignore the twigs and seek the root. This is the movement of the Tao — to return to where the mind is still and empty and actions soft and week. The Tao, however, does not actually come or go. It never leaves, hence it cannot return. Only what has form returns.

That primordial energy, that source of Something and Nothing, as Lao-tzu says in chapter 40 of the Tao te ching, underlines everything:

The Tao moves the other way
the Tao works through weakness
the tings of this world come from something
something comes from nothing