cold mountain (14)

he mastered the sword and brush …
what’s left isn’t worth saying

Life in a border state. First the river rose up and washed away the streets and yards. Then the wind rose up and took down all the walls to the foundations. I found three pencils and a butter knife in the basement. That was before the snows settled five feet high and banked in drifts between the sunken walls. When the thaw came the pencils were nothing but lead cores and pink gum bb’s, and the butter knife had buried itself somewhere in the mud. A man with a briefcase came through the other day asking what this place was. I said nothing, since words are like sieves and all my speech was running torrents. I pointed west to where the sun sets on a horizon as thin and sharp as a sheet of paper, pressed against the earth.


peeling an orange: Kumarajiva, the Diamond Sutra, and the mind that abides in no place

One of the essay questions I’m preparing for the Full Precepts Exam (4급승가고시/구족계 시험) in March takes the following line from chapter 10 of The Diamond Sutra and asks us to “explain its meaning and describe its relationship to spiritual cultivation.” (“[이 구절]의 뜻을 설명하고, 수행과 연관시켜 서술하시오.”):

應無所住 而生其心

(Found in Chapter 10, marked section C in Edward Conze’s translation and as Chapter 10, section 5 in Mu Bi Sunim’s concordance, Complete Commentary on the Diamond Sutra, 금강경전서, 무비 스님.)

Before the Zen hall wolves descend upon me to cry that what is beyond words and speech can’t be explained or described, much less packaged into a five-paragraph essay for an exam, let me issue a disclaimer: I’m just trying to answer the question because I’ve been asked to. I’m not aiming for an answer that would win in a kong-an interview, or even one that would stand its ground in the average Zen dialogue. I’m neither a full-time meditator nor a full-time scholar, although I am asked to think and react like both at various times. Given all that, and seeing as how this particular question stands a very good chance of showing up on the exam, it’s worth my while to examine it even while I can’t and won’t make claims to anything more than a careful reading of the text and a thorough respect for the effort necessary to put words into practice.

I will employ Edward Conze on my behalf briefly. In his introduction to the section on The Diamond Sutra in Buddhist Wisdom Books, a collection of his translations from the Sanskrit of the Heart and Diamond Sutras, he writes:

It cannot be the purpose of a commentary [or an exam essay, or a blog entry] to convey directly to the reader the spiritual experiences which a Sutra describes. These only reveal themselves to persistent meditation. A commentary must be content to explain the words used. As such is has some preliminary usefulness, since without having understood even the words one could not easily know what to meditate about.

~Buddhist Wisdom Books

That said: here we go!

The essay question asks first for the line’s “meaning.” There are two ways to approach this: inside meaning and outside meaning. (I’m not going to employ Conze’s far more appropriate “four angles” here simply because of time constraints.) I usually approach inside/outside textual analysis like peeling an orange: although you can cut straight through to the center, sometimes it’s helpful to peel away the rind first before getting to the fruit, if only as an exercise in understanding what an orange is from rind to pulp. Get your hands messy, I say; don’t be anxious to sidestep the process of peeling just because you’re impatient for a taste of what’s inside.

In this context, the “outside” meaning I’m going to explore is the line’s textual/linguistic context(s), and then perhaps consider its function in the greater context of Buddhist literature. What’s happening in this line that we can understand rationally? What can’t we understand? It has a grammar, and for a reason; what does that grammar suggest? How does the grammar fail, if it does? Does this line relate to any other lines or passages in the same text, or other texts? Does it have references? How did others understand it and use it? These are some of the questions I ask myself when I sit down with a passage or line from a text, especially a text in translation like The Diamond Sutra.

The first thing to note is that this line is Kumarjiva’s translation of the Sanskrit; in the Sanskrit-Chinese concordance of Complete Commentaries on The Diamond Sutra that I use, this line renders the Sanskrit tad. Three translators, Kumarjiva, Bodhiruci, and Paramartha, translated tad in the same way (應無所住而生其心). The other three translators, Gupta, Hyeonjang (玄藏), and Uicheong (義淨), each translated the line differently, though both Gupta and Hyeonjang differ only slightly from Kumarjiva, etc.

According to the Monier-Williams Sanskrit Dictionary, the tad in this case—and I’m no Sanskrit scholar, so bear with my guessing and if you know better, please chime in—probably means “in this manner, in this way,” and refers to the previous sentence, which (indeed) describes how a Bodhisattva Mahasattva should “produce an unsupported thought, i.e. a thought which is nowhere supported, a thought unsupported by sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touchables or mind-objects.” (E. Conze, The Diamond Sutra in Buddhist Wisdom Books, from the Sanskrit.) I suppose that tad could have been treated more literally by saying something like “And so should [a bodhisattva] cultivate (his mind),” “如是修(行)心(?),” but Kumarajiva and company decided on a more rhythmic and somewhat more concrete translation that allows for some of the open-endedness of “in this way” (which references without stating what that way is) while also giving parameters for what that way might be. This is how I might approach the line if I had no recourse to either further Sanskrit or Chinese resources on the text; and I mean “concrete” in that Kumarjiva goes so far as to talk about mind, and what kind of mind a bodhisattva should and should not give rise to. A simple, stand-alone tad and an equivalent, literal Chinese translation would have been vague, referencing the previous sentence and its meaning instead of establishing its own, complementary meaning. Which would have made the East Asian tradition of treating this single phrase as a lynch-pin or keystone to the whole sutra rather impossible. Uicheong seems to be re-stating the previous sentence in its entireity, moving the (Chinese) grammar around without changing the meaning drastically or offering an alternative meaning. I find it significant that no translator did what seems at first an obvious choice to just take tad literally. All feel the necessity of “explaining” the Sanskrit.

I brought up the alternate translations of the Sanskrit text to illustrate that Kumarajiva made choices in his translation; despite the deference given his translations by the East Asian tradition, he is not the only translator nor, depending on which set of criteria you use to evaluate a translation, unconditionally the best in all cases. He is, however, the one people read, and it is his translation of The Diamond Sutra that has become authoritative in Korea. Therefore I’ll now turn to his translation exclusively.

First of all, there is an immediate peculiarity to Kumarajiva’s translation. At first glance, he seems to have skipped some sentences and re-arranged the rest. In his translation of this section, Kumarajiva leaves out the Sanskrit “…apratisthitam cittam utpadayitavyam yan na kvacit-pratisthitam cittam utpadayitavyam,” translated as above by Conze and by Red Pine as “[fearless bodhisattvas] should thus give birth to a thought that is not attached and not give birth to a thought attached to anything.” Kumarjiva glosses this as “…[Bodhisattvas] should in this way give rise[=生, birth] to a pure, lucid [淸淨] mind…” (“…應如是生淸淨心…”) He then goes on to enumerate what such a mind is not attached to and does not abide in, namely the six sense-objects.

From the Mahayana and particularly the Madhyamika or Yogacara point of view there is an inherent fallacy in strictly defining the object of analysis as phenomena. That’s what the six sense-objects are, among other categories of phenomena; and analysis of the world according to such categories was the special exercise of the Abhidharmists. According to the Abhidharma school, the world could be reduced to discrete phenomena, which could then be categorized, analyzed, and ultimately understood with penetrating insight, which would lead to awakening. The idea that discrete entitities existed in a form that either suggested ultimacy or actually were defined as ultimate, meaning they were not absolutely empty, was a position opposed by the early Madhyamikans. They worked to show the Abhidharmist theory of “dharmas” as discrete entities as false by proving emptiness, not discrete dharmas, to be the ultimate nature of reality. Much of what early Middle Way texts try to establish, with Nagarjuna as the author and spokesperson for the school, is the absolute emptiness of any phenomenon.

Yogacara would build on Madhyamika’s return to fundamental emptiness by positing the (largely) psychological processes by which phenomena could arise from so-called emptiness. I’m neither knowledgeable enough nor confident enough to wade into the waters of Madhayamika-Yogacara theory, so I’ll only go so far as to say that where Madhayamika responded to Abdhidharma’s substantive suggestions about phenomena by positing absolute emptiness (even emptiness of emptiness), much of what Yogacara attempted to do was answer, “Well then, but how does this world and the mind function in this emptiness?” They came up with their own innovations, the most noted of which is the theory of a storehouse consciousness (alaya-vijnana), and also joined up with Tathatagarbha theorists, especially in East Asia. My point in outlining these schools and their trajectory of response to one another is so that we can have a broad sense why, when it should be perfectly clear to any average Mahayanist, The Diamond Sutra would belabor the point that a bodhisattva should not be attached to anything, and why Kumarajiva would make an effort to evoke an image of purity and lucidity in association with a mind that is unattached to any phenomenon.

Simply put, this point wasn’t obvious to everyone when The Diamond Sutra (in either Sanskrit, in India, or Chinese, in China) first began circulating. What we now call the Madhyamika, which formalized the concepts of emptiness found in the Prajnaparamita literature, came after the Prajnaparamita Sutras. Buddhist readers at the time of Christ might pick up The Diamond Sutra and be thinking in terms of the discrete dharma theories of the Abhidharmists. The chronology, over-simplified, is this: Abhidharmic schools (best represented to later Mahayana schools by Vasubandhu and his Abhidharma-kosa), ~3rd cen. BCE; early Prajnaparamita (emptiness) thought and texts, ~ 1st cen. BCE; Madhyamika/Nagarjuna, ~ 1st. cen CE; Yogacara, ~ 3-4th cen. CE; Kumarajiva’s translation of The Diamond Sutra, ~4th cen. CE.

There’s a fair amount of overlap between these phases/schools and the emergence of texts. What I hope is clear is that it’s not unlikely that early Yogacara thought, even in an uncodified form, influenced or reached Kumarajiva; and it’s recorded that he studied both Sarvastivadan (a school associated with Abhidharma theory) and Nagarjuna/ Madhyamika in Kucha before journeying to China. Chinese Buddhists didn’t receive all these texts and schools in the same order in which they developed, call-and-response, to one another in India, however. Confusion as to which teaching should supersede another was a standard problem in early Chinese Buddhism. Part of Kumarajiva’s purpose in translating texts was to provide authoritative Chinese versions of key Buddhist texts so that the Chinese could begin to work on the meat of the issues that consumed the Madhyamika, Yogacara, and Abhidharmists schools for themselves. When it comes to the Chinese intellectual landscape and Kumarajiva’s understanding of what’s at stake when describing phenomena and attachment, I propose that Kumarajiva chose to use 淸淨, which can translate as a compound to “purity” or as separate characters to “pure and lucid,” when he did for one (good) reason, and chose again to translate tad at the end of that section with a sentence that, in the Sanksrit, came earlier for another (good) reason.

By emphasizing “lucidity/purity” as a state of mind associated with non-attachment to phenomena, Kumarajiva skirted the Abhidharmist’s mistake of positing pure and impure states both as phenomena in their own right. (See the first chapter of the Abhidharma-kosa for what problematic Kumarajiva might have been thinking about, or at least the kind of problematic I think about when considering the same questions Kumarjiva had in front of him.) If a “lucid/pure mind” (Kumarajiva, in Chinese) is associated with “non-attachment” (both Kumarajiva’s Chinese translation and the original Sanskrit text), then a lucid mind is defined by its non-attachment, not by its ontological status as a phenomenon opposite other phenomena. Put differently, a pure mind is not a phenomenon, but an approach to phenomena; a process or state, not a material mind.

(Any Yogacarins in the group? Anyone? Because we can have a field day with the imagery of lucidity/purity and the vijnanas if we want…but I’m not going there unless someone mentions it in the comments.)

You’ll notice, though, the Chinese phrase in question is simply the last of the section in this chapter; nor is purity mentioned in the original Sanksrit. This brings up two concerns. If we read this phrase alone and out of context, we miss the incredible imagery of “the lucid mind” that Kumarajiva introduces as something like a synonym in his translation for the phrase he places where tad comes in the original; so, concern number one, should we read this phrase in isolation? Concern number two, especially if we don’t read the phrase in isolation, is “lucid and pure mind” an allowable synonym for “an unsupported thought which is nowhere supported”?

To approach these two concerns holistically, because they are related, I’m going to pretend I’m Kumarajiva. I have mastery of two great languages, Sanskrit and Chinese, as well as an entire staff to help me work out the nuances of the language into which I’m translating (Chinese). I also hold the collective history and development of all of Indian Buddhism up that point in my head. I’m keenly attuned to language as a tool and an art, something that can point the way to truth; or, if used incorrectly, knock someone off-course. Sanskrit is “a highly rational language, capable of great precision, and amenable to thorough grammatical analysis.” (Conze, Buddhist Wisdom Books.) Not so Chinese, however, which often seems to work like a malleable echo chamber of meanings. If Sanskrit allows you to precisely analyze a sentence, Chinese will ask you to sense your way to the meaning of the words. I’m aware of this (because I’m Kumarajiva!…and also because I’m a struggling student of Classical Chinese) and I’m trying to figure out a way to convey the meaning of the Sanskrit. Literalism isn’t my goal. So I build a series of associations into the Chinese that will aim the reader back to the same meaning, even if by a different route, because a different route is required for a different language.

My answer to the first concern is obvious: no, we shouldn’t read the single phrase 應無所住而生其心 in isolation from the rest of the text, or at the very least its section/chapter. We can, but we miss that careful layering of image and association that Kumarajiva builds throughout his translation. (It’s also present in the original Sanskrit.) I’ve recited the Sutra in both Chinese (Kumarajiva’s translation) and English (from the Sanskrit), and the feeling of the images and phrases coming over me in waves is remarkable. It’s like a variation on a theme that progresses with incremental changes to that theme. Proximate sentences seem exactly alike, or to be making the exact argument; only when they are repeated again and again at different points in the text, now from this viewpoint, now from that angle, that the variations become apparent. Re-reading the sutra then layers the fore and aft associations over any single instance of a word or image, so that the text is no “flat” or “linear” in meaning: it is multi-directional, something nearly tangible, if it weren’t that it keeps shucking off a reader’s grasp with its defiance of logic and its absolute rejection of grasping. Reading this single line in isolation, we lose more than we gain as readers and practitioners. The crux and strength of The Diamond Sutra‘s argument lies in its radical simplicity, expressed through the varied theme of the chapters; reading the line in context adds to the depth of that argument and our experience of it without unnecessarily complicating it.

As regards the second concern, Conze’s commentary on this section is highly pertinent here:

…But that much is clear that the ability to raise one’s mind to these heights of non-attachment is equivalent to the conquest of emancipation, whether temporary or permanent. For beginners the phrase used in chapter 10c can be further clarified by considering the synonyms and alternative translations of the term unsupported (21 are listed on pp. 95-6 of my Rome edition of the Vajracchedika). Once this rather elementary task is performed, one would next have to describe the meditations by which this state of mind is made into a living reality on successive stages of spiritual development. …In this context it is sufficient to say that the thought which the Bodhisattva should produce, or raise, is a completely free thought, which depends on no object or motive. It is the white heat to wisdom intent on the luminous transparency of the Void.

~Buddhist Wisdom Books: The Diamond Sutra, pg. 48. Emphasis in original.

Conze intuits, or at least seems to intuit, something about the unattached state in a world where phenomenon are not the ultimate, but emptiness is: non-grasping directly constitutes awakening,* and it is a luminous state. Why non-attachment/non-support as awakening? Because to be free from supports is to have broken the cycle of dependent arising. And, according to both Conze and Kumarajiva, it is luminous, lucid: clear and unobstructed. The poetic leap to lucid isn’t far. Kumarajiva also understood language, and the reason his translations are favored and read is for their poetry as much as anything. By using “lucid and pure mind” instead of “a thought which is nowhere supported,” he introduces a kataphatic and beautiful image of the awakened mind. Why does he follow it with “[A bodhisattva] should [give rise to a mind] that abides in no place; he should give rise to this mind”? To undercut attachment to a positive statement about the nature of awakening and reality. To balance kataphasis with apophasis. To keep us from thinking that this lucid, pure mind is something.

(Quickly, though, before I forget, one thing to note about 無所住 is that 所 performs two major functions in Classical Chinese. One, when placed in front of a verb it nominalizes it, so that 所生 could be “that which is given rise to” (among other possible translations, I’m just trying to make a point here, so bear with me). It can also, as a full word, indicate place, such as 生所, “the place where (it) arose/was born.” 無所住 is literally, “The place of abiding (which) is not,” or less literally “abides nowhere/has no place to abide.” I don’t know if a native Chinese speaker or a serious academic of Classical Chinese would disagree with me, or disagree with me strongly, but I like the resonance that appears to me between the two meanings of 所 both as a physical location and a verbal/grammatical location, and how both don’t exist.)

Conze said it first and best: now that we’ve gotten to this stage of intellectual understanding of the line and the mental state it describes, what should naturally follow is an explanation of “the meditations by which this state of mind is made into a living reality on successive stages of spiritual development.” The Ch’an/Zen/Seon traditions, of course, say that this single line and its instruction to give rise to a mind which abides in no place, is the pith instruction. So much so that the Sixth Patriarch is reputed to have gained awakening upon hearing this line, and echoes of it can be traced in the pair of stanzas that Shen-hsiu and Hui-neng submit to the Fifth Patriarch as signs of their attainment, Hui-neng writing:

The mind is the Bodhi-tree,
The body the mirror bright;
(Since) the bright mirror is originally lucid and pure,
Where would the dust alight?

In The Platform Sutra, Hui-neng also says,

Learned Audience, when we use prajna for introspection we are illumined within and without, and in a position to know our own mind. To know our mind is to obtain liberation. To obtain liberation is to attain samadhi of prajna, which is thoughtlessness. What is thoughtlessness? Thoughtlessness is to see and to know all dharmas [things] with a mind free from attachment. When it use it pervades everywhere, and yet it sticks nowhere. What we have to do is purify our mind so that the six vijnanas [aspects of consciousness], in passing through the six gates [sense organs], will neither be defiled by nor attached to the six sense objects. When our mind works freely without any hindrance, and is at liberty to come or go, we attain samadhi of prajna, or liberation.

~The Sutra of Hui-neng, trans. A.F. Price and Wong Mou-lam, pg. 85

OK, back to the original question. What does this line mean? In the context of everything I’ve looked at here, I would say:

應無所住 而生其心 points to our lucid, pure original mind free from attachments, beyond the cycle of birth and death, fully awakened.

(Those who are following carefully will note I just leapt to include Yogacara theories of consciousness in my explanation. Why? Because regardless of whether or not Kumarjiva meant to include allusions to Yogacara, people in East Asia have read him in light of Yogacara ever since.)

And what is this line’s relationship to spiritual cultivation?

To not allow the mind to grasp at any phenomenon, mental or material; to maintain a clear awareness of the impermanence and selflessness of all phenomena; to not abide in duality: this is the practice of “giving rise to the mind which does not abide anywhere.”

Not enough? KATZ!

…But I think I said I didn’t want to turn this into a kong-an interview.

Why go through the bother of peeling this orange? I probably could have whipped up these two conclusions without wading through Sanskrit, Chinese, English, three dictionaries, three different English translations of the Sutra, two of The Platform Sutra, that concordance I mentioned, and a bunch of Wikipedia sites for dates. …Because, for me, if I really want to know the taste of an orange, I have to practically grow the tree myself, harvest the fruit, pick the one I want, and then get through the rind with my own hands to feel I’ve gotten “eating an orange.” I’m one of those people who, knowing how solar flares form and what, scientifically, the aurora borealis is, feels more awe, and not less. Knowledge increases mystery for me; the intellect it the tool and handmaid of the profound. I could have written the same words without all the fuss, sure; but then they wouldn’t have been mine, something with weight and significance, like a lantern I lit and hold in my own hand, if I hadn’t.

In that spirit, may any merit which has accrued from the study, writing, and posting of this bring about the direct and indirect benefit of all beings. May all enter together the ocean of infinite light!

*I would, if I hadn’t lent out his book, reference Lusthaus’ discussion of prapti or “possession” in Yogacara, because I think it would be reasonable to think that pre-Yogacaric ideas of possession and non-possession were possibly already under discussion in Mahayana circles during Kumarajiva’s time.

cold mountain (13)

far away from your native land
swim with fish in a stream

Reminds me of a boy I used to know. Grew up down aways from us, but the folks used to come by every so often. Boy wasn’t right, they said. Nice but couldn’t speak proper and he had an eye that floated, see, so he was always looking two ways at once. Had brothers, and every one of them as normal as could be. But you couldn’t trust him with no machinery nor no animals. What good was he on a working farm? His folks loved him, sure, that’s why they sent the boy off when he was near about 15 or so, to that home in the next state over. Said it was a good place, give him something to do with other folk like him. But then last I heard some years ago that boy had gone and run away. Found the clothes he had been wearing in his room, folded neat, and a pile of fish scales on the pillow. What he do, run out of there stark naked? They couldn’t figure the scales, since there weren’t no stream nor lake around and the cook didn’t keep fish for the suppers, ‘cept on some Fridays and that boy ran on a Monday before the shopping got done anyways. Martell, now, he told me the folks brought the clothes and them scales home, though no one could figure why. But Martell said, he said, them scales glittered like gold and silver. Said he never saw any so beautiful from round here.


cold mountain (12)

If you want a zither, play my heartstrings; if you want a covered carriage crawl inside my ribs. If I were that man’s wife, I’d tell him: Be like the snail and carry it all on your back. Be like the magpie and know how to build your home out of whatever’s around. Be like the dog and become master of whatever yard you find yourself in. I’m not saying go, I’m not saying stay. My knuckles are raw in the wash-water, my hips ache with a thousand unbirthed hopes. Not saying go, not saying stay. It’s easy to be humble when you’re given the choice.

the most beautiful thing (living hagiography 2.18)


A pressure. A presence.
Black and warm, like a coal moving backward,
entropy in regression: heating up.
Become an ember.
To become a blaze.


I don’t often consider myself a sickly or weak person. By conventional or Western standards, I’m not; each physical I’ve had for the past ten years has turned up normal. Since I was about 17, however, I’ve gotten headaches. Blinding, incapacitating things. What began as single or paired episodes in my late teens and early twenties became, by the time I graduated college, a regular cycle of headaches that no amount of Advil or Excedrine could kill. I’ve been in emergency rooms for them, incoherent with pain, only to be told I had “migraines,” despite the fact that no migraine treatments worked. It wasn’t until my sister, who had the exact same symptoms, was diagnosed with cluster headaches that I also learned what was accompanying me through my adult life. Not migraines.

These headaches are terrible. According to a number of sources and judging by my own experience, cluster headaches are the worst pain imaginable.

Terrible and beautiful, though. Rilke, who yoked the terrible to the sacred to the beautiful, had it right. The pain is like a flower, among other things. Something that emerges from a seed, puts down a few slender roots, releases an insistent, strong stem, and then pushes forward and back into the substance of the brain, creating a vine of sensation that, like anything that grows and lives, changes continuously. If you handed me a translucent model of my skull and brain, I could track for you, with great precision, exactly where the pain was each and every moment. There is nothing vague about it. It is like having another entity in my head, with its own boundaries. When the pain begins to peak, it’s the same as a bloom unfurling. A black-and-purple, like a burnt bruise, maybe streaked with an rusty iron-red bloom. It flings itself out broadly over my left temple, always my left eye. Like a perfume, secondary symptoms emerge, the drooping eyelid, the unstoppable tearing, the runny nose, the inability to withstand strong light, rooms too hot or too cold, or noise of any kind, the swelling that takes over half my face, the nausea and heaving that turns everything from my diaphragm to my esophagus into a long sack of knives, inside-out; the roots of the pain, good and strong, stiffen my neck and shoulders into rigid cords.

If I could ask someone to paint these headaches, I would ask Hieronymus Bosch, channeling Georgia O’Keefe, and working with Mark Rothko’s palette and technique. Something grotesque but suffused in both color and form, fantastic and yet imbedded in the ordinary; sublime, too, but grounded in our physical world.

The pain terrifies me, I tell you. When it begins, it stays for its own season. It cannot be reasoned with, cannot be anticipated nor managed. It puts forth bloom after bloom until finally, exhausted, it recedes and goes dormant again. I become little more than a field for this thing, and I spend the entire cycle, about a month, with attacks coming anywhere from twice to five times a week, in tense anticipation of the next attack, attendant to the smallest shift in the barrage of sensations in my head and body.

One thing my headaches have taught me is not to expect a pain-free existence. Pain is not, contrary to the popular axioms of unearthly good health and prolonged youth our contemporary culture spouts, a failure of the body or personality. It simply is, as much as appetite or curiousity. Pain is simply part of having a body, and isn’t something to get overly worked up about: it is not abnormal in and of itself. It signals something is out of balance in the body, but it is merely that: a signal. The body is full of them. To have a body is to have a switchboard for one’s vehicle, for the duration of conscious life. Pain’s part of the deal.

I would like others to acknowledge, as I have to, the existence of pain and the experience of it. I am not “better” because I’m not in the middle of an attack; I am not “worse” because I am. The tide of pain/non-pain is simply the natural cycle my body lives with and through. To afix the idea of “well” and “ill” to either end of that cycle misses the point of it completely. I shy away from affirming I’m “well again” simply because a single headache has calmed down. I can’t overlook the overwhelming and far more important context of any one attack in the cycle of this disease, and I would ask others to do the same. I don’t live like an invalid, babying myself when it’s unnecessary. I move when I can move, and do what I can do; and when an attack comes and I can’t move or function, then I retreat. People seem disappointed when I don’t “get better” and have another attack, as if it were a moral failing of mine; they also can’t forgive me my activity between proximate attacks, as if I’m asking for another headache. I am neither of the two extremes, frail or foolhardy. I just know that I have to function when I can, because I don’t know when it is I won’t be able to again. That’s all.

These attacks leave no physical mark. They are exquisite! Can you think of anything else that conveys its own weight, form, color, and existence with such precision and eloquence, and then manages to exit the physical body as if it had never been? There should be a bloodbath, I’m telling you. Open-brain, open-heart, open-marrow-and-slice-all-the-veins-and-capillaries kind of stuff. I have had my innards churned inside out by it, have beaten at my head in futility trying to drive the thing away, have sensed its every living motion like a mother feeling her baby move within her, and it leaves no physical mark!

There are times when I can let go of the terror having an attack induces and just feel what’s happening, raw sensation without the overlay of emotional or intellectual response. And what happens in my brain and body is beautiful. Terrifying, and beautiful.

Do I pray when I’m in pain? Yes, before thinking too becomes too painful; I usually recite the four immeasurables. Has this disease taught me empathy? Yes, though I hope that most of us can learn empathy without this kind of suffering. But what I am grateful for, truly, is how pain is ever-present in my life, something I can’t ignore. The impatience this world has with discomfort, our modern unwillingness to look straight at pain and just accept it as a fact of living, like changes in the seasons or the digestion of a meal: I am less impatient with the limitations of the body and more willing to look directly at things, as a result of this pain. I take a day less for granted, when that day is without pain, than I did when I was younger (and relatively more pain-free). I could quote a well-known Buddhist teaching that sums up what these headaches have taught me, but it’s a little cliche and besides, I expect you all will figure it out for yourselves without me providing a spoiler.


Jeder Engel ist schrecklich. Und dennoch, weh mir,
ansing ich euch, fast tödliche Vögel der Seele,
wissend um euch. …


cold mountain (11)

The old paths are quietest. No one whistling to his dog, or (forbid) wearing a crackling radio around his neck. No one bothering to ask the way, no one disturbing the peace. No one to test the waters of your solitude or interrupt your dreaming. No one to intrude on your meditation or pass the salt. No one to bring a bowl of soup or hold the other end of the sheet while you fold it. No one to laugh at your jokes. No one to answer your call. No one to play devil’s advocate. No one to play your advocate. No one to check the rice while you chop the carrots. No one to share a meal in warm silence, no one to notice when you don’t wake. No one to bury your body and pile the cairn, though there’s something to be said for a sky burial; my point is, you’re in your spring now. And that is not all there is.

Another lovely bout with headaches today means I’m not able to post the Chinese of this poem. See the second poem, pg. 42, here for the text.