To paint the perfect dragon

(First published as ‘Landscape’ in Buddhism Now, June 1991)

What is a landscape? – an innocent sounding question but one which started me off on a train of thought which was to waste most of a perfectly good Sunday afternoon. That’s the trouble with being a philosophoholic, one thought is never enough…

My dictionary defines a landscape as ‘picture representing, art reproducing or actual piece of inland scenery’. If only it were that simple I might have hoovered the bathroom carpet, got the washing out before it rained and peeled a sprout or two.

The trouble is you see there is no such thing as a landscape. For a start, the scene you are looking at changes from microsecond to microsecond, or rather from so-vanishingly-small-as-to-be-non-existent instant to so-vanishingly-small-as-to-be-non-existent instant. Now you see a blue sky and bright sunshine; blink, and there is a wisp of cloud or one of those long-rolling shadows that blight the British summer. Who knows, a rabbit may have popped its head out of a hole while you blinked, a leaf may have fluttered to the ground, and of course the grass is growing.

For another thing, you have selected the landscape. If you are an artist you will no doubt have borne in mind the harmonious pattern, the beautiful balance it would make on the canvas, and even if you are without the artist’s eye you will be looking at that part of the scene which particularly interests and attracts you. An inch to the left here, two inches to the right, and it would be a different landscape. Unlike a painting a landscape has no edges.

Furthermore, the landscape you see depends on the way you see. If like me you are short-sighted what you see will be blurred and Turneresque – only experience and glasses tell you that it is not actually that way. If, on the other hand, your vision is 20-20 you will see every vein in every leaf, every nuance of the light. If you were an animal you would see in a different way again. If you were a frog you might see the Lake District as a series of moving coloured squares, rather like looking through a frosted glass window; if you were a sparrow you would see a range of colours undetectable to man. Who is to say which is the real landscape – a myopic blur or the bird’s kaleidoscope of subtle greens?

And it isn’t just our eyes – we see with our minds. If we didn’t, the landscape would mean nothing: a tree would not be a tree, sunshine would not be sunshine, or even yellow. It would just be. So we reinvent each landscape we see from a compound of personal associations, memories, attitudes and the way we happen to be feeling at the time.

For example, looking out of the window onto my garden at this moment I see a small black tree, leafless but decorated with strings of raindrops. Beneath that, somehow, is a memory-picture of the wire fence running alongside the allotments I used to pass every day on the way to school. After heavy rain the raindrops would be strung out along the wire in just that way and if you tapped it, it vibrated, showering raindrops anew. Now, you wouldn’t see that.

Similarly, if I am in the depths of depression I will see the most picturesque scene as boring, picture-postcard stuff. But if I am in love I may well float through some ruined dockyard marvelling at the glisten and swirl of oil in the puddles, the geometric patterns of cranes against the sky, the fiery colours of rust. We have all experienced such miracles.

A landscape is not a neutral thing – it reacts with the personality of the watcher. I worked once at Dungeness on the Kent coast and loved the bleak landscape out there, the shingle and the sea plants and the lurid skies. But a lady visitor from London hated the place. ‘It’s hideous,’ she said, ‘so empty. It gives me the creeps.’ You may be drawn to a landscape because you sense that it expresses an aspect of your personality, one which you couldn’t put into words. Equally, a landscape can be a threat, a contradiction, even a negation of your personality. It’s like women with perfume, or people with each other.

The Zen way of ‘seeing’ a landscape is different. Instead of there being an ‘I’ to view and an ‘it’ (the landscape) to be viewed, the viewer melts into the landscape. He becomes it, and it he. This is very difficult to understand and in fact cannot be understood, only done… sometimes… maybe. I am remembering here the Zen story about the man who wanted to paint the perfect dragon, and was sent away for years, until he could see dragons, hear them, even smell them. But that wasn’t enough. Before he could paint the perfect dragon he had to become the dragon. But the dragon doesn’t exist… ah, but does the landscape?

And if a landscape is something which cannot be defined because there is no universal standard by which to define it, doesn’t the principle equally apply to reality itself? A madman’s reality may be quite different from mine. Another example: some years ago I was told of a woman who insisted that there was an extra, invisible storey on her house and up there a gang of wicked men were forging money using her electricity – that was why her electricity bill was so high. Well, maybe she was right. How can I be sure?

How can I be sure that time is as it seems? I see a black bird apparently flapping across my chosen landscape, but how do I know that bird has not always been flying and will not always be flying, just so? Supposing all time is really happening in an instant, simultaneously. At one and the same time the bird is on the upstroke, the downstroke, not here yet, long gone.

Time is surely a function of perception. If I were a butterfly with only a two-day lifespan I would surely feel that my two days lasted as long as threescore years and ten. Human beings would move so slowly that they would not appear as living creatures to me at all, but static pieces of scenery, like rocks. So maybe rocks are living creatures too. If we could time-lapse film them over millions of years, would we see them heave, groan, yawn, lumber around a bit?

Perhaps I should just forget about the washing, get into the car and drive to some shady hillside. Yes, I shall reach for the thermos, break into the chocolate biscuits, wind down the window and remark to the nearest rabbit, ‘Nice here, innit?’

Strange stars appear in our skies

In Reason to Believe, Bruce Springsteen sings, “At the end of every hard-earned day / people find some reason to believe.” What’s your reason to believe?

I went back to the song itself, to digest the images he has conjured up for us:

  • A man stands on out Highway 31, poking at a dead dog with a stick, as if hoping it will get up and run.
  • A woman loves a man. One day he leaves her. She waits every day at the end of a dirt road, for him to come back.
  • A baby is baptised in the river, and his sin is washed away.
  • An old man dies in a shack, and his body is prayed over in a churchyard.
  • A groom waits by a river for his bride but she doesn’t arrive. The congregation leaves, the sun sets and the groom continues to wait, watching the river rushing by.

So this is about how we are transfixed by love, and continue to love when there is no reason to hope. This is about our sense, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that there is more than there appears to be; that the obvious and the logical need not apply. We assume the baby comes from another place, bringing with it a burden of some kind – whether of sin or ‘clouds of glory’. We assume that the old man has gone to another place, become something else, and therefore it is worth praying for him. The groom senses that in another place – another reality – his bride did arrive – and in yet another reality, might still. The man, puzzled by the dead dog and his inability to will (or poke) it back to life, has been ‘blurred’, momentarily, by a version of reality in which dead dogs do run and death has a different meaning.

And all this comes down to all things being possible, and the sensing of this by some people, even though it makes no sense. It seems to me that reality is a straightjacket; something we have to sew ourselves into, to be able to cope. Most people never feel the straightjacket, but some do – maybe those with a fractionally higher tolerance for uncertainty.

Suffering – because reality, when you do begin to sense it, hurts. It hurts so much. Jung wrote something about the process of individuation which struck a chord with me:

The words “many are called, but few are chosen” are singularly appropriate here, for the development of personality from the germ-state to full consciousness is at once a charisma and a curse, because its first fruit is the conscious and unavoidable segregation of the single individual from the undifferentiated and unconscious herd. This means isolation, and there is no more comforting word for it. Neither family nor society nor position can save him from this fate, nor yet the most successful adaptation to his environment, however smoothly he fits in. The development of personality is a favour that must be paid for dearly. But the people who talk most loudly about developing their personalities are the very ones who are least mindful of the results, which are such to frighten away all weaker spirits.”

I read something in a stranger’s blog yesterday about people who live in two worlds at once. I considered that carefully: it seemed almost right, but too simple, not quite fuzzy enough round the edges. As a child, and then a teenager, I knew that there was another world. It wasn’t a long way away, it wasn’t Up In Heaven – it was here, just not accessible. It was next door. My feeling was of standing next to a threshold: I only had to take one step to the left and I would have crossed the border. I needed to take that step, but I couldn’t work out how. I missed that world – felt a kind of homesickness for it.

I even wrote a poem, all those years ago. Reading that lady’s blog recalled it to me, but I assumed it was lost. I was wondering if I might be able to ‘reconstitute’ it from the few lines I could remember. But no need – here it is. I found it:

WE LIVE ON THE BORDERS

We live on the borders, some of us, / Between the other world and this. / Further out than all of you, / Still we can only peer at distant hills, / Catching whispers in the wind sometimes, / Channelling darkness drifting through, / Weaving the two. Strange stars appear in our skies.

We’d give our breath to breathe that other air, / And sanity to hear the singing truly – / For it is joy and madness both, to be so close / To all that’s dark and dreaming, and yet to have / No hope of homecoming.

Reading back over all the airy-fairy, grasping-at-thistledown stuff in this post I’m not sure it’s going to make sense to anybody. When you attempt to cross, or even approach, the boundary between This and Other, words bleach out; they lose their relevancy. But words are our shield against that Silence, and for the moment we do need that shield. I can only say – that’s what keeps me going. It’s not so much a reason to believe as a sense that I need to keep to my own internal faith however much it costs me. I must keep the channel open so that the music – and the darkness – can drift through.

Is there anybody there?

You may remember me describing a dream I had. I was standing in Nan and Grandad’s kitchen – this was after they had died – and Grandad pushed past me, muttering to himself. It was as if I wasn’t there – as if I had become the ghost.

It started me wondering. Is it possible that when you die you go on existing, but in some sort of alternative reality? You are not aware you have died. As far as you are concerned things are going along as normal, but you are in fact living a different version of your life. The people you once knew remain in the original life – close by, perhaps, but impossible now to touch.

And that made me think of the saying spiritualists use for people who have died – beyond the veil. What veil? I thought. Looking it up I discovered the veil was originally the one in Solomon’s temple – the same veil said to have been split from top to bottom during the crucifixion, and the final barrier between the Ark of the Covenant and the rest of the temple.

Why am I suffering a fit of ontological insecurity? It’s just that for the past 24 hours I’ve had no stats at all in connection with this blog. No little lit-up countries, no national flags, no ‘likes’, no visitors, no comments – nothing. Furthermore, I have had no emails; not even the one to say my cat litter will be delivered on Thursday, or the one offering to sign me up for a course in Journalism, or the one about Viagra. Have I disappeared? Has everybody in the world vanished? There’s nobody out in the street. I mean, I can hear a few things: somebody’s singing drunkenly further down the hill, the ice-cream van is playing a tinny version of Teddy Bear’s Picnic, one cat is threatening another cat – but nothing is moving. Well, maybe that tree waggled a bit, at the top. Hard to tell without the glasses…

Halloooo? Is there anybody there?

Rupert-land

Every Christmas for years and years I was given a Rupert Book, and this was the one present I would look for among all the things I didn’t particularly want – the plastic doll with the pink skin and the wiry orange hair; the tin telephone exchange, the sugar mice with tails of string and the inevitable 5 shilling postal orders from Great Aunts I was never sure I had met.

rupert

I always knew which present the Rupert Book was because it was heavy and flat, and you could feel the ridge of the spine down one edge, the hollowness of the opposing edge, where the pages would open. I always thought I might save it all year just to think about unwrapping it, a preserved pleasure like bottled cherries. But Christmas night, alone in my room, escaping at last from the gross overeating and generalised squabbling of the day, I would always open it. Reading the Rupert Books showed me that there were in fact two worlds, not one.

To start with I would be absorbed into the story, fallen among black-clad, pointy-hatted imps in their subterranean laboratories or being punted along a dark river by a Chinaman in embroidered silk and a pigtail. Those strange barges, clad in hoops and canvas like the wagons in Wild West films. I imagined that when you were tired you would retire to sleep amongst the cargo in the tea- and rope-smelling darkness. In Rupert-land all good things were possible. One minute you would be safe at home with Mummy Bear in her flowery apron, and Daddy Bear with his pipe and slippers; the next minute you’d fallen through a trap-door in a hillside, discovered a secret stairway in the middle of a thicket or been kidnapped by pirates.

Then I would look up. There would be rain on the window, stars in a navy-blue sky and my father coughing after his once-a-year cigar. For a moment, suspended between the two realities, I would know that I could fly. This was how I felt, and still occasionally feel, about the world. Reality is a precarious affair. At any moment things might cease to make sense. I still come home from work sometimes and expect the plants in the front garden to have rearranged themselves, or a brass fox’s-head door-knocker to have materialised on the door, and it is both a relief and a disappointment to discover that everything is exactly as I left it.