Oh, to be clipclopping along on the back of an Ox . . .

Lately I have been remembering a good slow walk I took with Thich Nhat Hahn and a large bunch of friends, known and unknown, in an Oakland park in 2000. It was the kind of walk that was beautiful, strange and otherworldly in so many ways. With all that company just as ordinary, and just as weird (or even weirder) than you looked or felt, walking as if for the first time, any sense of cringey self-consciousness was cancelled out. There we were: open, intentional, attending, grateful.

That walk has been on my mind because a couple of weeks ago, as a result of a misstep, my knee caps have become partially (and temporarily, pleasegod!) untrammelled. I have been decelerated and now walk with an ungainly hobble or an oozingly slow gait. I take great pleasure in the monk-shuffle-one-small-step-for-humankind type of walking when I have committed to a slow walk but my ordinary velocity from place to place is rapid. To me, walking is medicine. St Francis de Sales said “Half an hour’s meditation is essential except when you are very busy. Then a full hour is needed.” Replace the word ‘meditation’ with ‘walk’ and you get the picture. (Though as walkers will tell you, walking itself often is a meditation . . . even when you don’t do it in a formalised manner)

Serendipitously I came across Mags Blackie’s recent pensees on questions of freedom and was especially (and perhaps obviously) struck by one on Interior Freedom [see posts on May 14, 19, 23]. In her series of reflections she raises questions about fears and insecurities, how one appears to others, one’s engagement with the Idealised Self and the degree of transparency one is able to bench press. How apposite as I make reluctant acquaintance with Limitation.

Mulling over this notion of Interior Freedom I was reminded of one of my favourite stories from the Buddhist tradition that comes in handy with any and all kinds of problem solving: the parable of the OxHerder. It is a story about being human. At the moment, I’d be grateful to hitch a ride on the Ox – making peace with the condition in which I find myself – but truthfully, I estimate myself to be around the 4th stage.  The Ox & I have to go a few rounds yet before I return to the marketplace utterly transformed and completely – blessedly – ordinary.

Parable of the OxHerder




A Wholly Loving Gaze: Questions for a Waiting Room

Finding myself in a hospital waiting room yesterday for a large chunk of the day, I was grateful to Mike Higton for these marvellous, dizzying riffs on the central question at the core of the Christian gospel:

What difference would it [make] if I . . . let myself believe that . . . I was held in a wholly loving gaze?

“What difference would it make if I believed myself subject to a gaze which saw all my surface accidents and arrangements, all my inner habits and inheritances, all my anxieties and arrogances, all my history — and yet a gaze which nevertheless loved that whole tangled bundle which makes me the self I am, with an utterly free, utterly selfless love?

What difference would it make if I let myself believe that I was held in a loving gaze that saw all the twists and distortions of my messy self, all the harm that it can do and has done, but also saw all that it could become, all that it could give to others, and all that it could receive?

And what difference would it make if I saw each face around me . . . as individually held in the same overwhelming, loving gaze?

What difference would it make if I believed each person around me to be loved with the same focus, by a love which saw each person’s unique history, unique problems, unique capacity, unique gift?

And what difference would it make if I believed that this love nevertheless made no distinctions between people more worthy and people less worthy of love, no distinctions of race, religion, age, innocence, strength, or beauty: a lavish and indiscriminate love?

. . . to believe in such a loving regard, and to let belief in it to percolate down through all the sedimented layers of my awareness, may indeed be shattering. Such unfettered acceptance is utterly disarming; to believe such good news, such a Gospel, [seems to be] very, very difficult.”

Mike Higton, pp1-2. Difficult Gospel: The Theology of Rowan Williams (lightly edited)

 Yes: you may now gaze off into space. May your contemplations be fruitful!

Make Love, Not War: Japan’s Article 9

Both the Japan Times [here and here] and the BBC have run articles on Japan’s Article 9 debacle which I have read with care and with caution. I cannot help feeling (along with many other right-thinking, peace-loving people) that something fishy’s going on.

I have always thought it the mark of a highly cultured and civilised people, the forsaking of war. I deeply admire it. It is courageous and humane. And I know this is complicated for some people, and I sometimes wonder if, for them, peace is conceived more as an absence than as something crafted and shaped, a reward for creative alternate strategies for resolving conflict? Echoing Spinoza’s remark in the 17th century, Thomas Gregor in A Natural History of Peace (1996) writes:

Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice. 

I have always enjoyed this disposition here and in spades.

These are the things I am thinking around on the topic at present:

  • What kind of reasoning is it in a country battling declining birthrate to be spoiling for war? (Let’s call what appears to be a spade, a spade . . . we can re-interpret later if more evidence emerges to the contrary.)
  • I am grateful in this respect to Noda Seiko who criticised the move to amend Article 9 as a failure of imagination. She is quoted as having said: “lawmakers and people should have the imagination to realize that engaging in collective self-defense means that Japanese will not only end up killing in overseas conflicts but also being killed.” It is so obvious to so many, but apparently not to all. I’m glad she said it.
  •  All interpretation involves the mind, values and interests of the interpretive community for which the text is interpreted. How will the Japanese people reveal themselves?
  • If we allow that interpretations are always provisional and open to ongoing reformation how does a country make peace heroic? (James Hinton: The only way to abolish war is to make peace heroic.) There is no shortage of the glamorisation of war. This, for example, (what I could stomach of it) is extremely creepy.
  • And, here we are, advertising how we are going to get women to ‘shine’ in Japan (they already do, but not as “Economic Resources” – charming terminology, I know) – a good thing. Is this so that we can spend more on war games, er, “Collective Self-Defense” (which, let’s admit, is a bit of an oxymoron.)
  • Judith Butler said in this interview: “Peace is a resistance to the terrible satisfactions of war.” It’s really worth a read, as it reflects on some philosophical questions about peace, particularly on vulnerability (which, as I see it, is one of the motivating factors for this foray into constitutional interpretive exercises.)

One more thing – in case you hadn’t heard: Japan’s article 9 is a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Lady Athena, Warrior, Craftswoman


We are not given to understand that Athena, sprung fully formed from her father’s head, clad in  armour, clutching a spear and bellowing a war-cry, was really that into a life that could be described as playful.  And yet as the goddess archetype identified by Jean Shinoda Bolen as The Craftswoman she certainly must have known the pleasures associated with play. But the image of this fierce energy got me thinking about whether and how the craftsperson can be reconciled with the warrior? I wondered what practices and skills are common to both?

Athena’s legend has it that she “was involved with making things that were both useful and aesthetically pleasing. She was most noted for her skills as a weaver, in which hands and mind must work together” (JSB, 81). Curiously, Sennett, for whom craft is just this combination of ‘concrete practices and thinking’ invokes from mythology not Athena but Pandora, the troublemaker Zeus sent to punish Prometheus. [The disquisition is really worth a read and can be found here in the Prologue.]

Athena, one of the virgin goddesses, is at one with herself. Her boundaries are set and well-guarded. She is known, too, as goddess of Wisdom and has as a familiar the owl.


Is this wisdom to do with the integration of martial energy and craft? For women trying to carve out a space for the work of making, an image like that of Athena, in all her berserk glory, may be just the thing to fire us up!


Images: Athena from the Greek Masterpieces (Exhibition at Nat’l Museum of Singapore, hslo, Flickr, cc); Coin with Owl and Athena from the Numismatic Museum of Athens (Xuan Che, Flickr, cc)

Asymmetry & Poiesis

Note to self (& other perfectionists and obsessionals out there):

Contra the old saw, studies show that practice itself does NOT actually make perfect. The good news, less alliterative, more accurate, and admittedly a bit of a mouthful, is that practice enlivens asymmetry.

I began to turn over asymmetry in my mind after listening to a conversation between physicist Marcelo Gleiser and the novelist Marilynne Robinson [here] and found convergences with a book called The Craftsman [1] by Richard Sennett that I’ve recently finished reading. There was, however, something that met resistance in me and felt counterintuitive in Gleiser equating asymmetry with imperfection [2]. I wondered why for a few days while working out this essay, and cast about for possible explanations.

My first thoughts turned to the craft of poets and potters which seemed to go against it. We have all seen and heard poems that appear to be jagged in some way (‘imperfect’) but work powerfully as poems, nevertheless. Also, I confess I am all too readily charmed by the slightly off-centre, possibly wobbly-looking , earthy style of the work of art that is a Japanese pot or vase. Not for me the pretty, delicate and finely-tuned porcelain.  Those very leanings, it turns out, however, tippled my linguistic instincts a bit on asymmetry.

The etymological dictionary tells me that ‘perfect’ comes from the Latin meaning ‘complete’; ‘symmetry’ from the Greek meaning ‘with+measurement’. Asymmetry (and imperfection) speak then, properly, I see, to provisionality. They really do not have any connection to right and wrong at all which I found a helpful insight, and something of a relief. We live in quick fix times and though we may intellectually submit (more or less) to things changing, there are some certainties we want to rely on and have difficulty holding lightly and trustingly.

Earlier, I wrote that poets and potters were one of the reasons I resisted the equation of asymmetry and imperfection. In poetry and pottery asymmetry seems a primal intuition in the sense that something gets made ‘out of nothing’. What was not, becomes. Why? How? The initial condition for its coming to be–the impetus– is asymmetry.

Asymmetry, I think, is the true shape of desire. It is Trinity. It is dynamism, the heart of the universe, animator of rhythm, repetition, refinement. Without asymmetry there would be no movement. Asymmetry signals a different kind of balance. So, while we may be drawn to the symmetrical as a classical (western? [3]) signpost of beauty and even perhaps, perfection, one need also consider its often indelicate, often more interesting, provocative, possibly disquieting and perhaps more honest opposite, asymmetry. It seems that as long as we subscribe to the delusion of completion, we interrupt the necessary flow of transformation and becoming that is Life. Gleiser says outright:  “Symmetry may have its appeal but it is inherently stale. Some kind of imbalance is behind every transformation.” This leads me to the transformations found in poiesis.

Close up, mitsudomoe

Poiesis is rooted in the older Greek word meaning ‘to make’. I first encountered the word in the ‘autopoietic’ sense of the universe being a self-organising entity [4]; that is, an entity which creates and tends toward cosmos (order). Sennet writes that “making is thinking”, an aphorism more loosely (and, ah, alliteratively!) expressed as: “doing is discovery.”

You will recognise in the word poiesis a hint of the English word, ‘poetry’. The poet, Mary Oliver, like Sennett, recommends a courteousness and faithfulness with respect to the cultivation of craft. She frames the relationship to the work in terms of a courtship. She describes the Muse who dwells in a ‘mysterious, unmapped zone’ somewhere in the territory between consciousness and psyche. It is the Muse that imparts ‘the heart of the star as opposed to the shape of the star,’ and who weighs, waits and watches, tests and tempers her aspirant courtiers.

Will the right conditions of the mind and its receptivity, the heart and its obedience be found?

— Notes —

  1. How about craftician as a neologism for a gender neutral term, Professor Sennett?
  2. See, Gleiser, A Tear at the Edge of Creation
  3.  What does this word ‘western’ even mean nowadays in the global hodgepodge?
  4.  The subtleties of autopoiesis can be read about in Fritjof Capra’s The Web of Life (1996).

Image by OK from a wall at Hokaiin Temple