108 Names of Now
Waking up, stretching, having a good look around. Tara's still here, the green curtains drawn, the Bhutanese universe above me & the old Venetian mirror above the dresser, ghostly number 16, bowing lovers. Above the window, there's a painting I made while looking at a desk lamp, shining down into a pane of glass, on which rested several potatoes and onions, plus some oranges studded with cloves. This was my way, at 21, of saying, Everything orbits around the core of some central, bright intelligence. I spent a lot of time in that Gothic attic studio, with the lights out at night, burning candles, moving around the desk lamp, orbiting potatoes around a central core of longing to wake up.
I am not even sure, back then, that I knew waking up was what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to be a painter. I thought I wanted to be a photographer. Night after night, I was going into an empty art history classroom in the dark, photographing my shadow against the chalk crosses I drew on the blackboard by the light of an ancient slide projector. Dingloskeit. Thinglessness. I was becoming aware that what was interesting here was not Me becoming a painter, or a photographer, or a painter-photographer, but this longing to understand light and shadow, embodiment and emptiness, marks and potatoes, and the ways they could be made to play out scenarios of my longing to wake up.
Later, living in Hong Kong, I gave up the classroom & the studio, choosing the world instead, waking up to the saddle shape of Ma On Shan, in October days where all the smog blows away, and the mountain stands awake, wave after wave of long grass whipping up the wind to meet it.
I still made photographs, but these were of the world as I found it & it found me. These photographs had altitude sickness in them. They had being kicked in the ass by an angry monk in them; homesickness and anger in them; wonder and curiosity in them. Moment by moment, in allowing myself to be a free citizen of a much larger world, I was waking up.
Central Tibet had a kind of nerve-jangling rawness, everything turned up to barely-withstandable intensity. The sun fried the tops of my ears to blood-blisters. The air scoured my throat with smashed mountain-bits. There were bones everywhere, and just when things seemed nice and dim and colorfully soothing in some temple, I would notice that what was painted on the walls was flayed bodies, piles of guts, eyeballs winking from flaming gobs of brains. Tibet wanted me to wake up. Tibet was not letting me get away with blaming and aestheticizing, idealizing or distancing myself. I was going to be in this crappy jeep for days and days more, with no way to go to sleep, no escape from my travel companions, and no way to pretend that what I was encountering was not worth paying attention to.
That summer of traveling continued in raw, unplanned, unmediated, yet merciful intensity. I arrived in Dharamsala just in time to book the last room in town with two strangers: an American yogini, and a British meditator. What did either of these things mean? Besides photographing my shadow in the dark, I had had little exposure to other people who might be stumbling their ways towards waking up. The yogini had a snake tattooed wrapping around her toes; the meditator seemed dissatisfied about a lot of things, but happy to have found a place to sleep.
We all went to see the Dalai Lama the next day. First, we had to stand in line to have our passports registered with
Tibetan security. Then, we - hundreds of us - stood around grumbling in the hot sun. Whoever heard of a bunch of international hippies standing in some line to see a holy person?* Anyway, we were a young and antsy crowd, until the moment His Holiness appeared and we spontaneously shut up and formed two straight, parallel lines, filing by, one by one, to be beamed at, comforted, and, in some obscure yet tangible way, congratulated.
I became obsessed with waking up, and I thought - because Tibet, because the Dali Lama - that Buddhism was the way to do it. Pre-internet, I remember looking through the Hong Kong phone book, but the best I could find was Buddhist Utensil City, which actually didn't sound so promising. Luckily, there was also one bookstore with one shelf for books on Buddhist practice, in English. I set about reading all of them. I had no idea what any of this stuff had to do with potatoes, brains, winking eyeballs, thinglessness, or my life.
One night, on a train bound for expensive gin-and-tonics on top of the Peninsula Hotel, I was reading Trungpa Rimpoche's talks to his first students in Boulder. "If you are here because you think the ideas are neat, but you've never practiced meditation, get out of here right away, and go learn. Don't do it in the Tibetan tradition - it's too complicated. I felt certain this was directed at me, this life, this waking up.
I sought out teachers in Thailand, I learned, I decided to be a nun. I've gone through endless rounds of getting confused & thinking my work is to be a potato expert, losing track of waking up. But it's always come back to find me, moment my moment, step by step. Keep looking for this light. It is with you and it is within you; in the potato-painting, as in the blackberries on this table; in the bridge workers, as in the Dalai Lama. It is not a thing of expertise: it is a recognition and a birthright. Keep listening, letting go of any end, and it will keep showing itself to you in its many exquisite, almost unbearable forms. There is nothing you cannot feel, express, be part of. Be moved: this is the essence of waking up.
*Actually, this happens a lot.