Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Ghosts of Empire

Out walking this morning, I noticed the effort people put forth in cities to contain the growing environment. The streets that slice across and cover large swaths of the land. The sidewalks that mirror the roads. The alleyways that linger behind our homes and businesses, attempting to hold creeping weeds at bay. Trees circled by grates and other holding devices. Lawns of imported, uniform grass mowed flat and inconspicuous. And for whatever breaks through all of that - weed wackers, poisons, more asphalt, the occasional hands of mostly elderly folks living alone, perhaps forgotten, with too much time on their hands.

I think of lines from Shitou's Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage: "When it was completed, fresh weeds appear. Now it's been lived in covered by weeds."

Somehow, most of us have forgotten this. Maybe never knew it all at - consciously at least.

Over a hundred and fifty years ago, American artist Thomas Cole painted a series of paintings charting the rise and fall of Empire. I remember first discovering them during a traveling show of 19th century American landscapes several years ago, and being in awe of the grandness of the images.

Now, though, they feel like ghosts taunting us "modern Americans," living as we do in a crumbling empire.

Elementary school comes to mind. Discussions of what the world might look like after nuclear war. The horror that multiple generations of children have had to think about such things happening.

What would last? Rats. Cockroaches. Twisted up trees perhaps. It's hard to have a real sense of what nuclear bombs can do when you are nine years old, but you're mind is open to possibilities in a way adult minds' rarely are. So, things get strange, very strange. Like elephants with rat heads flying through fields of black smoke.

Perhaps today's children are more worried about terrorists destroying their homes, or some generalized form of environmental collapse. Nuclear war still lingers, but isn't the only major specter haunting us. I've heard people use various Buddhist terms to describe this day and age, but more and more, the Hungry Ghost Realm seems most appropriate.

More lines from Shitou spring forth: "Who would proudly arrange seats, trying to entice guests?" Isn't this the whole basis of the modern, settler colonialist world so many of us live in today? Aren't we all called upon to be proud arrangers and enticers, regardless of the consequences?

The pockmarked, synthetic, damaged, and obliterated landscapes we live in reflect exactly this. What it comes down to is that most of us really can't handle the weeds that always appear, no matter what we do to keep them away. I used to obsess about clarity. Wanting a mind that could basically see the future, including where those weeds might appear, how I should deal with them.

Just another form of intolerance and resistance to the wildness that is our true nature. When the empire was completed, fresh weeds appeared. Now it's been lived in, covered by weeds.

Let it go. Let it go.


Was Once said...

I remember as a kid a whole swash of houses were condemned for a new freeway.
The houses were fine, but all as kid it was a powerful wake-up to impermanence of everything. We would walk into them, and help with 'demolition,' and our version was serve as a outlet to the confusion in our homes, most of us were faced daily with alcoholism….and could tell no one.

Anonymous said...

"Thus evolution is equally difficult for a cultured or an uncultured man. A cultured man lives far from nature, far from natural conditions of existence, in artificial conditions of life, developing his personality at the expense of his essence. A less cultured man, living in more normal and more natural conditions, develops his essence at the expense of his personality. A successful beginning of work on oneself requires the happy occurrence of an equal development of personality and essence. Such an occurrence will give the greatest assurance of success.

"If essence is very-little developed, a long preparatory period of work is required and this work will be quite fruitless if a man's essence is rotten inside or if it develops some irreparable defects. Conditions of this kind occur fairly often. An abnormal development of personality very often arrests the development of essence at such an early stage that the essence becomes a small deformed thing. From a small deformed thing nothing else can be

"Moreover, it happens fairly often that essence dies in a man while his personality and his body are still alive. A considerable percentage of the people we meet in the streets of a great town are people who are empty inside, that is, they are actually already dead.

"It is fortunate for us that we do not see and do not know it. If we knew what a number of people are actually dead and what a number of these dead people govern our lives, we would go mad with horror. And indeed people often do go mad because they find out something of this nature without the proper preparation, that is, they see something they are not supposed to see. In order to see without danger one must be on the way. If a man who can do nothing sees the truth he will certainly go mad. Only this rarely happens. Usually everything is so arranged that a man can see nothing prematurely.

"Personality sees only what it likes to see and what does not interfere with its life. It never sees what it does not like. This is both good and bad at the same time. It is good if a man wants to sleep, bad if he wants to awaken."