On Saṃsāra

Saṃsāra, Sanskrit for the eternal cycle of death and rebirth, of endless reincarnations determined by karma, is a concept that permeates many Asian religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism. It means “wandering through”, and is used to highlight the impermanence of life. It teaches one to abandon over-attachment to worldly desires and experiences.

Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson, the creators of the marvellous Baraka, ground their film in this concept, through beautifully crafted filmography, void of any dialogue or explanation. It is a purely image-driven film. Ranging from the beauty of the earth, to religious worship, human discipline, sombre examination of consumerism, the film is a wondrous accomplishment. A fantastic tribute to humanity that also underscores the transience of our momentary existence, Saṃsāra is an altogether awe-inspiring experience.

Saṃsāra truly begins and ends with Tibetan monks painstakingly crafting sand mandalas and subsequently destroying them. “A sand mandala is ritualistically dismantled once it has been completed and its accompanying ceremonies and viewing are finished to symbolise the Buddhist doctrinal belief in the transitory nature of material life.” The film embodies the struggle of reconciling the vibrancy of life and its impermanence, something that deeply resonates with me.

It brings to mind a favourite haiku by Kobayashi Issa, written a month after the passing of his daughter:

The world of dew —
A world of dew it is indeed,
And yet, and yet . . .

Watch the trailer below. A masterpiece.

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In the Midst of Such Paradox

How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.

Sage advice by Barry Lopez.

On Johnny Cash

“How well I have learned that there is no fence to sit on between heaven and hell.”

I have a special place in my heart for Johnny Cash and his American series of albums. According to NPR, these were produced the decade leading up to his death in 2003 and they are some of the darkest, most introspective and evocative songs of his career. He explores religion and sin, reflects on his life, those he let down, those he has hurt and wonders about where he is bound. American holds some of his most potent and sorrowful songs, every single word striking true. Even the covers were carefully chosen and undergo transformation in Cash’s apologetic baritone. In the twilight of his life, Cash continued to enthral us. Remember what he sang in Man in Black: 

Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
Why you never see bright colors on my back,
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there’s a reason for the things that I have on.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.

I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you’d think He’s talking straight to you and me.

True, he might seem mighty preachy at times but American is more of a documentation of Cash’s struggle with his drug/alcohol problems, the moral degradation he saw all around and how he reconciled this with his faith. He bares himself, cuts right down to the bone and the humanity in his voice is truly striking.

Aside from his originals like I Walk The Line, Folsom Prison Blues, Ring of Fire, listen to his legendary covers of Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt (absolutely devastating, resignation in every note), Leonard Cohen’s Bird on A Wire, U2’s One, Tom Petty’s I Won’t Back Down, Sting’s I Hung My Head, Gore’s Personal Jesus, Will Oldham’s I See A Darkness countless others. Traditional folk songs like Wayfaring Stranger, God’s Gonna Cut You Down…

Here is a playlist for the best of Johnny Cash; it’s not supposed to be exhaustive.

I play his songs (especially American III: Solitary Man) in the middle of the night, to hear his gravelly voice cry out into the humid darkness:

Oh like a bird on the wire,
like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.

On another note, his relationship with June Carter remains one of the best love stories in music history, a love that changed the man in black.

“This morning, with her, having coffee.”

– Johnny Cash, when asked for his definition of paradise.

On Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski’s poems hit you like a punch to the gut and dredge up emotions buried deep, deep down with your fears. His poems are often gritty, bitter and dark. The shadows of his childhood and human failures are unflinchingly presented to the reader. The honesty and realism that runs through his poems, however, are what draw you back and back again. No other modern poet manages to peel back the facade of humanity to reveal the dirt that clings to us all, yet finds that, to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Even in the mud and scum of things, something always, always sings.” He doesn’t want your pity, he acknowledges that everything is just a messy, dirty, chaotic affair; his final message is that life sucks, but you get to live it on your own terms and there is beauty in that.  

Bluebird

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I’m not going
to let anybody see
you.
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I pour whiskey on him and inhale
cigarette smoke
and the whores and the bartenders
and the grocery clerks
never know that
he’s
in there.

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say,
stay down, do you want to mess
me up?
you want to screw up the
works?
you want to blow my book sales in
Europe?
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too clever, I only let him out
at night sometimes
when everybody’s asleep.
I say, I know that you’re there,
so don’t be
sad.
then I put him back,
but he’s singing a little
in there, I haven’t quite let him
die
and we sleep together like
that
with our
secret pact
and it’s nice enough to
make a man
weep, but I don’t
weep, do
you?

(Yes, Charles, we do, thanks to you) 

Cause and Effect

the best often die by their own hand
just to get away,
and those left behind
can never quite understand
why anybody
would ever want to
get away
from
them

To the Foxes

don’t feel sorry for me.
I am a competent,
satisfied human being.

be sorry for the others
who
fidget
complain

who
constantly
rearrange their
lives
like
furniture.

juggling mates
and
attitudes

their
confusion is
constant

and it will
touch
whoever they
deal with.

beware of them:
one of their
key words is
“love.”

and beware those who
only take
instructions from their
God

for they have
failed completely to live their own
lives.

don’t feel sorry for me
because I am alone

for even
at the most terrible
moments
humor
is my
companion.

I am a dog walking
backwards

I am a broken
banjo

I am a telephone wire
strung up in
Toledo, Ohio

I am a man
eating a meal
this night
in the month of
September.

put your sympathy
aside.
they say
water held up
Christ:
to come
through
you better be
nearly as
lucky.

How is Your Heart? 

during my worst times
on the park benches
in the jails
or living with
whores
I always had this certain
contentment-
I wouldn’t call it
happiness-
it was more of an inner
balance
that settled for
whatever was occuring
and it helped in the
factories
and when relationships
went wrong
with the
girls.
it helped
through the
wars and the
hangovers
the backalley fights
the
hospitals.
to awaken in a cheap room
in a strange city and
pull up the shade-
this was the craziest kind of
contentment

and to walk across the floor
to an old dresser with a
cracked mirror-
see myself, ugly,
grinning at it all.
what matters most is
how well you
walk through the
fire.

Say what you will about Bukowski, his women, his booze, his bitterness. But he certainly wrung the most out of life and died beholden to no one but himself. Listen to Atticus Finch describe Mrs Dubose and decide for yourself. 

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew.”

On Stanley Kubrick and the meaning of life

“However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”

I recently watched Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I finished my last day of lessons for the semester, met up with my brother and we caught the IMAX showing of Interstellar, which was mindblowing. But that is for another day. Afterwards we bought trays of sushi and discussed gravitational time dilation, the cheesiness of love as a “quantifiable” force. That night, through googling Interstellar I learnt that Nolan had been heavily inspired by 2001. I’d heard of Kubrick’s work: the massively violent A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut etc. but I’d never been moved to watch any.

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Watching 2001 was a strange, awe-inspiring experience. Rather than what Hollywood expected, Kubrick gave us a massively artistic work that would not be out of place in some avant-garde museum or arthouse cinema. From the first act of the dawn of mankind, the iconic transition from the bone to the spaceship, the haunting end, it is a painstakingly crafted film. Though filmed in 1968, its influence on modern space films is evident: Star Wars, Sunshine, Interstellar, Aliens. Kubrick was incredibly visionary. Artificial intelligence, robots going bad, distrust of technology and TPTB, aliens (and NOT little green men or crude monsters, but sleek, menacing black slabs). The maddening, dizzying techno wormhole at the end, with mysterious shapes resembles an LSD trip. How insane it must have seemed in the confines of a neighbourhood cinema in 1968. Some might call it a boring, tedious film, but its purpose is not entertainment; it is to provoke thought, it is Kubrick’s thesis on our place in the universe and our future. This is him throwing down the gauntlet.

I might do a full review on 2001 someday, but my mind is still unsettled. I went to sleep afraid of waking up to a black monolith standing over my bed.

Stanley Kubrick was an insightful man. His interviews are a joy to read. While I am writing this, I am listening to a 1966 audio interview of him, which can be heard here. My favourite interview has to be the 1968 Playboy Interview, courtesy of Brainpickings which featured some extracts in an article. They are reproduced below and are infinitely inspiring, much like Carl Sagan’s words.

Playboy: Thanks to those special effects, 2001 is undoubtedly the most graphic depiction of space flight in the history of films — and yet you have admitted that you yourself refuse to fly, even in a commercial jet liner. Why?

Kubrick: I suppose it comes down to a rather awesome awareness of mortality. Our ability, unlike the other animals, to conceptualize our own end creates tremendous psychic strains within us; whether we like to admit it or not, in each man’s chest a tiny ferret of fear at this ultimate knowledge gnaws away at his ego and his sense of purpose. We’re fortunate, in a way, that our body, and the fulfillment of its needs and functions, plays such an imperative role in our lives; this physical shell creates a buffer between us and the mind-paralyzing realization that only a few years of existence separate birth from death. If man really sat back and thought about his impending termination, and his terrifying insignificance and aloneness in the cosmos, he would surely go mad, or succumb to a numbing sense of futility. Why, he might ask himself, should be bother to write a great symphony, or strive to make a living, or even to love another, when he is no more than a momentary microbe on a dust mote whirling through the unimaginable immensity of space?

Those of us who are forced by their own sensibilities to view their lives in this perspective — who recognize that there is no purpose they can comprehend and that amidst a countless myriad of stars their existence goes unknown and unchronicled — can fall prey all too easily to the ultimate anomie….But even for those who lack the sensitivity to more than vaguely comprehend their transience and their triviality, this inchoate awareness robs life of meaning and purpose; it’s why ‘the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,’ why so many of us find our lives as absent of meaning as our deaths.

The world’s religions, for all their parochialism, did supply a kind of consolation for this great ache; but as clergymen now pronounce the death of God and, to quote Arnold again, ‘the sea of faith’ recedes around the world with a ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,’ man has no crutch left on which to lean—and no hope, however irrational, to give purpose to his existence. This shattering recognition of our mortality is at the root of far more mental illness than I suspect even psychiatrists are aware.

This segment cuts to the ultimate question of why we should value life. And his last line (my favourite quote of his) inspires such hope (or the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without words).

Playboy: If life is so purposeless, do you feel it’s worth living?

Kubrick: The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning. Children, of course, begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder, a capacity to experience total joy at something as simple as the greenness of a leaf; but as they grow older, the awareness of death and decay begins to impinge on their consciousness and subtly erode their joie de vivre, their idealism — and their assumption of immortality. As a child matures, he sees death and pain everywhere about him, and begins to lose faith in the ultimate goodness of man. But, if he’s reasonably strong — and lucky — he can emerge from this twilight of the soul into a rebirth of life’s elan. Both because of and in spite of his awareness of the meaninglessness of life, he can forge a fresh sense of purpose and affirmation. He may not recapture the same pure sense of wonder he was born with, but he can shape something far more enduring and sustaining. The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death — however mutable man may be able to make them — our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.