Words. Or no words. Maybe.

This is for my three readers (you know who you are) one of whom has requested a blog post.

Occasionally I become enthusiastic about things but can’t convince myself that anyone else would be interested, even should I manage to find words to convey whatever the enthusiasm was. There’s more than enough stuff out here on the internet so why would I add to it? However I did flex the fingers and write quite a long email recently to my meditation teacher, Alistair Appleton, which is reproduced below.

The discussion could probably be said to have been generally about ground in Buddhism.  Or perhaps ultimate reality. Or maybe Buddha-nature. Or could it be madhyamaka… It’s all very very slippery.


My most recent thrilling discovery is Nagarjuna. Quite randomly I got an audiobook called “Verses from the Centre” by… Stephen Batchelor! without knowing anything about it. Turns out it’s his translation of and exposition upon the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā . But for the hard of thinking, such as myself. Even rather beautifully read in his very deliberate style it is far too dense for me to chew on in audio book form, so I got the kindle edition as well. I’m still chewing, slowly and contentedly like a cow with ambrosial cud and haven’t finished it yet (several weeks later) in either form.

This is where I’m up to, and the most recent block of text highlighted in the kindle edition (which I can also copy and paste, rather thrillingly)

“Nagarjuna’s vision is one of uncompromising immanence. What keeps one locked in repetitive cycles of anguish has nothing to do with being cut off from a transcendent God or Absolute or Mind. The classical Buddhist notions of buddhanature and nirvana are treated as metaphors for a freedom that occurs in this very world of sense and reason. Nagarjuna says that 

When transfixed
On what’s unwavering
Beyond fixation’s range,
You see no buddhanature. 

Buddhanature Is the nature of this world.
Buddhanature has no nature,
Nor does this world. 

To elevate anything, however noble or exalted, to the status of a transcendent reality beyond this world is fixation’s final and yet perhaps most seductive strategy of all. 

Fixations are deeply embedded traits of human behavior. They do not magically evaporate the moment one experiences the world as “unfixatable.” However liberating such insight may be, it is insufficient to free one from the habit of fixation. Once the intensity of the unfixated moment fades, fixations reassert themselves. Even the experience of freedom itself is not immune to the corruption of fixation. As Nagarjuna is aware: 

“I am free! I cling no more!
Liberation is mine!”—
The greatest clinging
Is to cling like this. 

A glimpse of freedom does not in itself free one from the craving to be someone special and apart. To be free from such longing entails the patient, ongoing cultivation of an intelligence that is acutely alert to the danger of self-deception. The aim of this process is to go beyond the very need to stand out. As Nagarjuna says, 

Clinging is to insist on being someone—
Not to cling is to be free to be no one.”

Ah the fixations. Sometimes they feel like an entanglement of barbed wire, sometimes like the softest of comforting shawls. And those are just the ones I’m aware of! I suppose they are related to, if not actually co-terminus with, Trungpa’s “thingies”. I don’t like the use of the word “intelligence” towards the end there, because it takes me back to a head space of intellectualism (but that’s one of my thingies) and would probably prefer the word “awareness”. However I absolutely love the use of the word “transfixed” in the first line of the first verse quoted working as a wonderful counterpoise to “fixation”. A sort of “is-ness” contrast to the “made-ness”. (Although as we know there is no is-ness.)

I’m so interested in the intersection between the glimpse of not-stuff and the overwhelming love that, for me, came with it. (Batchelor has also translated Shantideva’s Bodhcaryavatara which I downloaded as a pdf from the internet somewhere.) The nearest I have got, so far, is the thought that, in the freedom to be no one there is also the… what? responsibility? (totally the wrong word, too dualistic, too constraining) of being every one.

Coming home from somewhere or other I sat, by chance, opposite this, a rather lovely reminder that language has limits, and that’s ok.

No word necessary

A short post

… for a short walk.

I don’t like thinking about how little time I have left here in Plummers Hollow on this trip, and want to make the most of every moment.

This is the closest I get to the bears that, yes, shit in the woods. This less pungent leaving is fur caught on the wooden pole of the power line which is a favourite back-rubbing, clawing and general display spot. I’m convinced there’s more hair there than when we last walked past, Dave contends that while it’s entirely possible that bears are hibernating lightly in this warm winter and could be ambling around I am wrong about a further accumulation. Usually almost immediately after I leave hordes of bears amble around the property, sashaying on the drive in broad daylight and I get to sit in London and see the photographs.

An undisputed change since our last walk in this direction is the toppling of two trees in the “vernal” pond. No longer just a feature of spring the water logging has caused these trees to die and a recent strong wind toppled them over. Both managed somehow to fall into a crotch on the same nearby tree. Unfortunately it is near the bench placed for optimum enjoyment of the view and the top of at least one of the fallers broke off and crashed onto the bench below. Repairs are required

In the twilight quiet of the spruce grove on a deep bed of needles this white-tailed deer is changing too. For some reason I love the process of decay and dissolution, probably because I find it compellingly beautiful, a reminder of the inevitability of change and the promise of renewal and regeneration.

Walking back to the house I was swept with wonder and gratitude that Dave can ever tear himself away from this extraordinary place. And also that I am able to share it.

Getting inked

We’d talked about getting ring tattoos around the time of our wedding but somehow never got round to it despite researching tattoo parlours in Altoona and State College (the major towns near Dave) and in various parts of London. This time we happened upon somewhere much nearer home…

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…the Grin-N-Bare It Tattoo Parlor in Tyrone. Business there is good and although our needs were very small and basic we were lucky to get an appointment with tattoo artist Reagan Lavish fitted in before I leave.

I guess from the number of cigarette butts outside and the pool table inside that this is quite a happening place later in the evening (open from midday to 9pm most days) but we were there in the quiet of the afternoon.

Not being an habitué of tattoo parlours and never having had a tattoo before it was, of course, a fascinating experience. As well as the aforementioned pool table there are comfortable sofas and a coffee table ladened with magazines for inspiration.

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Dave flicked through Ballistic (“The Premier Firearms and Survival Magazine”) but the only ink-action to be found was on the cover, everything else was guns. This perhaps was related to the most notable interior design feature, the mounted specimens of various creatures along one wall.

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Although we are led to believe that the trophy on the left was offed by an arrow which it is vainly attempting to remove with its teeth.

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At the other end there was a rack of a different sort.

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The sheep’s upward-pointing hooves at the bottom of the mount are apparently designed to act as coat hooks. Dave’s grandfather had a white tailed deer with four hooves available to hang coats and hats on. It made a strong impression on him as a child.

Having taken us back through to her centre of operations Reagan put up with our (ok, my) chatter and endless questions with great good humour, was a fount of information and more than happy to be photographed while she worked. Ring tattoos do not go all the way round the finger, she told us, because the skin on the palm of the hand wears away so quickly it’s not worth wasting the ink. Useful, Dave opined, for infidelity if approaching open-handed and palm up.

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As Dave’s finger was shaved he mused on the possibility of tattoos on hairy arms. Some people, Reagan informed us, have a woman tattooed on their leg, say, and shave all the hair around the image to leave the woman isolated in hirsute glory.

Political tattoos? I asked… oh yes, someone came in before the 2016 elections had even happened and had a skull sporting a Donald Trump hair-do tattooed with “Make America” above and “great again” beneath. Sadly this does not seem to have made its way into Reagan’s Instagram feed.

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The purple in this picture is the colour of the transfer applied as a guide. The outer edges have been inked and now the filling begins.

And the laws governing tattoos? Apparently anything the customer wants, and the artist is comfortable doing, is permissible. We heard of one person who requested and received (but not from Reagan) the name of her pimp daddy inscribed around her anus.

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It didn’t hurt, really, although the level of discomfort increased with time as the skin became more irritated. But these are teeny tiny simple little designs that took very little time and on parts of the anatomy that are less painful than others to ink. Feet, apparently, can hurt a lot, as can anywhere where skin lies thin over bone. Having something added behind your ear can sound like the dentist’s drill from hell as well as, I imagine, being rather painful.

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There we are, all newly inked up. I decided to have a small triskelion on my hand at the same time but only later discovered, rather to my dismay, that it may significantly negatively affect my employability when I start job-hunting in February. The ring could be hidden under… a ring, but the triskelion will require a more imaginative solution. But really, am I going to want to work somewhere which would refuse my labour because of such a small and obviously delightful personal embellishment? I think not.


The Pennsylvanian, Amtrak’s route 43, deposited me at Tyrone station yesterday after a lovely journey down from New York’s Penn Station. On a whim I took a picture from my seat of what could be seen of every station we stopped at and posted them to Instagram. This wasn’t possible for Tyrone of course since I had to shift myself and luggage to the one door of the train that actually allows egress and ingress at the stop so there’s an external shot.

All the journey was interesting scenically, not least because train tracks tend to run along the back of things showing the non-public face of place where image and presentation is less important for inhabitants to cultivate, apart from the graffiti artists who are all about display in this liminal space.

New York gave way to areas of poverty and decay where even signs proclaiming regeneration were peeling and abandoned. The bright burnt ochre of rust was everywhere making the landscape look as though it had been ravaged by fire. Piles and piles of junked cars and other bits of scrap. Ranks of disused shipping containers built like bricks into enormous walls. One, with rusted holes in its side, had even found its way onto the flat roof of a derelict building. Few windows on crumbling deserted industrial buildings were unbroken, many had been bricked over. Red brick chimneys many with faded white paint wording down the side proclaiming the pride of their long-ago companies remained erect. One, proclaiming “PRECISION” in block capitals down its length, had sprouted a top-knot of mobile phone masts. The graffiti was in exuberant contrast – huge flowing designs on the brick surfaces in bright neons and candy-coloured pastels.

Elizabethtown station

Beyond Philadelphia the rear of suburbia could be seen, collections of unwanted or temporarily unneeded objects piled chaotically at the rear of houses belying the regularity and precision of individual dwellings strictly bounded by their personal space of tightly controlled and mowed grass. Beyond the edge of the suburbs there were large areas of what appeared to be terraces of toilets, uniform rows of small structures each with one door, all the same colour. These turned out to be storage containers presumably for the “stuff” which didn’t fit in the suburban dwelling, basement, garage, attic, box room, shed and/or pile at the back of the house but which was deemed too precious or potentially useful to otherwise dispose of. Beyond the burbs, rolling farmland with the contemporary towers of silage and grain, round-topped and gleaming, the occasional majestic old wooden multi-storied barn surviving among the much less charismatic modern metal box structures.

Harrisburg station

Beyond the rather impressive and elegant Harrisburg station the pace slowed noticeably, due in part to the fact that this stretch of the line is shared with freight trains, the only other trains we passed in the entire journey. The scenery was breathtaking, from the east of this part of the Appalachian ridge and valley system across to Tyrone at the western end.

Trees! So many trees, their leaf-free branches strobing the setting sun when it was behind them, turning pink gold when it shone on them, revealing the geological contours through their branches of the land on which they grow.

Steep dark cuttings in the rock green with lichen interspersed with knob-like structures hirsute with bare branches. The Juniata river alongside the tracks was sometimes dark, sometimes green, sometimes aflame with the reflected sky.

It was so beautiful, now so familiar, and it felt like coming home.

Listen with Mother

It was part of my early childhood, that radio programme which enquired “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.” My mother would have been around, no doubt, the hand that turned on the wireless, but not with in any meaningful sense.

Our relationship was difficult, principally because of her undiagnosed but severe mental illness. It was so difficult, in fact, that it seemed a necessary act of self-preservation to cease all contact with her at the age of 23. This remained the case until her death, news of which prompted an exultant uprush of relief.

Only recently, in the last few weeks in fact, has it occurred to me that this person who provoked so much fear and distress would themselves have been suffering, and suffering terribly. Such is the power of the entrenched personal narrative, I suppose.

Slowly and very carefully I have been practicing tonglen with my mother. Feeling towards that hurt at the heart of her, the loneliness, confusion and prison of pain. It is searing in the hearing.

And I, who was never allowed to touch, or be touched by, her in life have held her in my arms, rocked her and stroked her cheek and her hair. We are so alike. Her pain is my pain. Which, since I appeared to her as a physical manifestation of everything that was unwanted and, frankly, evil, should come as little surprise.

We are so alike. We are utterly inseparable. And, absolutely astonishingly, I discovered that I love her.

Dharma dog

Dharma dog

Maizy and I take turns on the cushion, but it has to be said that her practice more often resembles sleep.

Another excerpt from the meditation buddy correspondence.

Yesterday I signed up to the Dharma Ocean website and today downloaded the free guide to meditating that signing up gives access to and started listening. It’s like two CDs worth of stuff and the third track of the first part (which is as far as I’ve got) is a guided 10-point meditation. I carefully shut my door and assumed that Maizy would remain asleep on the bed as she had been while I listened  to tracks 1 and 2.

Oh no. The moment I was on the floor she started pacing around, whining gently, licking my hands, scratching at the door and eventually pawing at me, pulling at my hands. I decided to just leave her be, but when the meditation transitioned from lying to sitting I took the opportunity to open the door, let her out and shut it behind her.

Silence for just long enough to relax and re-engage… and then whining and scratching at the door. And it occurred to me that she was being a physical correlative of my thinking mind/ego – disconcerted, agitated, seeking attention. Now, of course, that I am tapping away at the laptop she is again asleep on the bed snoring gently.

Interestingly, this was how she behaved initially when I was sitting, in my usual place in the corner of the room. She would pace around, lick me, nudge my hands off my legs with her nose and generally make it clear she felt disregarded. As time passed she got accustomed to the situation and generally lies down and curls up, sometimes at my feet, sometimes on a nearby rug on the floor. Perhaps it was the unaccustomed procedure, lying on the floor near the door, that disturbed her, just as a new technique disturbs the thinking mind. Who knew? Maizy the great teacher!

Round midnight

At the bus stop, chips getting cold in the plastic bag leaking vinegar, rain gathering into bigger drops dripping off hair ends. This battered and discarded bouquet, bruised hydrangeas.

Serjeant at arms

The fantastic Carole Cadwalladr has another scoop in the ongoing efforts around the world to hold Facebook accountable for its actions. It details efforts by the UK Parliament to get hold of internal Facebook documents in light of the continuing refusal of Mark Zuckerberg to answer its questions. These documents, which were originally obtained by a company during legal discovery in its court case in California against Facebook were, presumably, physically (or digitally) present with the company founder when he was on a business trip to London.

Damian Collins, the chair of the culture, media and sport select committee, invoked a rare parliamentary mechanism to compel the founder of a US software company, Six4Three, to hand over the documents during a business trip to London. In another exceptional move, parliament sent a serjeant at arms to his hotel with a final warning and a two-hour deadline to comply with its order. When the software firm founder failed to do so, it’s understood he was escorted to parliament. He was told he risked fines and even imprisonment if he didn’t hand over the documents.

This has all the ingredients of a blockbuster international legal thriller, with the additional spice of a walk-on part by a man in tights with a sword. Well, maybe.

The use of the indefinite article – a serjeant at arms – rather clouds the possibility of this note of colour. The UK Parliament website uses a definite article – the Serjeant at Arms – and the description of the role implies there’s only one of them. He wears, it says, a traditional uniform (that would include the tights) and a sword.

Picture from Politics Home

However when he’s not around his place is taken by a deputy Serjeant and there’s a whole Serjeant at Arms directorate which is part of the In-House Services Team.

Personally I love the idea of Kamal El-Hajji striding through London in his duds and regalia with all the dignity of his six-century-old office to pry out the evidence at the point of his sword. Sadly for the film version of The Fall of Facebook this seems unlikely to have happened. Although, come to think of it, when did accuracy ever get in the way of, well, almost anything.