Friday, August 26, 2011


Calligraphy by Mehmet Shefik, Ulu Camii, Bursa, Turkey.

Since selling or mostly giving away my possessions, save some of my library, papers and singular and precious things such as family photographs, art works of my son, myself and others - putting all this in a five-by-five foot storage locker - I have been living out of a suitcase, staying in hotel rooms (mostly) or with friends for almost a year now. I feel the reality of this renunciation each day, though I can't claim it as an especially heroic act. I was a lousy homeowner and am so easily distracted (or subject to multitasking) that it has only been through simplifying my life to this seemingly utmost degree that I can achieve any kind of focus (that feels right in my heart). Another way of putting it is cultural speed and my need to slow down have kept me on a surfboard rather than a boat, which is precarious and visceral and gives me a chance to get to the "fundamental principles" (as a surfboard would tell the rider more about the ocean than a passenger in a boat). This is also how I feel about meditation, that is is something fundamental, and so I always shared Gary Snyder's statement about mediation in the classes I taught at Naropa University:
Meditation is fundamental, you can't subtract anything from that. It's so fundamental it's been with us for forty or fifty thousand years in one form or another. It's not even something that's specifically Buddhist. It's as fundamental a human activity as taking naps is to wolves, or soaring in circles is to hawks or eagles. It's how you contact the basics and base of yourself.
It is precisely this sensibility that animates the passion of my exploration between the teachings of Lord Mukpo and those of Ibn 'Arabi, between Buddhism and Islam, and between the so-called profane and the so-called sacred - which I continue this week with a series of photographs and prose entries, taken and written from surfboard.

Quote from The Real Work: Interviews and Talks
1974 to 1979, by Gary Snyder. Pg. 83. 


While I was walking down Tophane Iskelesi Cadessi I turned to the right and saw a wall and on it a poster and I made a copy of a portion of it ("copy" is how my photographic hero Daido Moriyami speaks of what the camera does): the woman above. This photograph stayed with me as one I wanted to write about, to decipher its symbol. I left Istanbul and traveled to Bursa and during yesterday's breakfast I read a sentence that the photograph seemed to be waiting for: The intermediary "symbolizes" with the worlds it mediates. In the word decipher, "de" expresses reversal and "cipher" is a figurative person or thing of no importance (one who does the bidding). This particular meaning of cipher comes about because cipher itself traces to the Arabic ṣifr or zero. Yesterday I read the quote on symbolism and today over breakfast, unknowingly, I wrote down the Turkish word for zero, which is sıfır. Now I am at the moment where the etymological synchronicity with events and their time sequence has became a platform suspended in air (I have vertigo). Symbolism is a form of dance where the partners change unexpectedly and you just have to stay with it.
[The intermediary "symbolizes" with the worlds it mediates. Pg. 216, Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi by Henry Corbin.]


This is a photograph I took of a photograph I came across in the Hürriyet Daily News earlier this month. The original picture was taken by an unnamed Reuters photographer whose connection with the man shown in the photograph was visceral or primary. The photographer's photograph was copied by the newspaper and now by me; an echo of an echo of a starving man walking somewhere in Somalia, with his dead child wrapped in what looks like the remains of a cardboard box. Photographs could be called intermediaries and I have stayed with this one. It calls out for causes, and the article sites this most immediate one: drought. "It should be the rainy season" but no rain is falling. Other immediate causes are displacement by war and less directly rocketing food prices as global demand increases, commodity speculators manipulate markets, supplies dwindle and as wealthy countries (as well as individuals) buy vast tracts of land in Africa and other less "developed" countries to guarantee food for their own people. Ever increasing tracts of farmland in, say, Sudan or Kenya is now owned by China or Saudi Arabia, and local farmers are displaced from the land and countries are dispossessed of their own farming resources. Global warming will increase drought and desertification, especially in Africa, all of this making the man in the photograph an intermediary of the highest order. Membranes are typically so thin they seem miraculous and unbearably vulnerable: our skin and the blood so close to the surface, so easily spilled; topsoil, so meager compared to the earth's diameter to be laughable; our atmosphere that once seemed so infinite.


I took a passenger ferry from Istanbul to Bursa. I thought I purchased a window seat but what I ended up with was a seat against a wall, below a television monitor and facing the other passengers; the perspective from which I took this photograph (it seems a small point-and shoot-camera can be used almost anywhere now; no one notices, no one cares). The woman in the center of the photograph was cloaked in a burqa; it was not just her dress but how she held herself that contrasted so greatly with the woman beside her, attired without elegance and slumped in her seat. Putting aside the complexities and furor of debate about the burqa (which exist everywhere, including or especially Muslim countries), and how difficult it is to confront from a feminist perspective (my own), in that moment, for that moment, I envied her. What an experience to be invisible to others and thus take up no social mask, as well as be freed from having to engage in small talk (though traveling in Turkey has left me largely without either the mask or the talk). I studied her as I could because she impressed me in other ways and my potential to judge or dismiss became instead to inquire: this woman was in individual human being and therefore, as we all are, a mystery comprised of complexities who ultimately thinks like no one else (not even herself). Soon after the ferry embarked the woman opened her Quran and read it for the entire journey. To read something that demands contemplation is itself a form contemplation, and potentially to be admired. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the secularist founder of modern Turkey, dismissed Islam and once claimed the entire "Turkish nation resembled those who commit the Quran to memory without understanding the meaning of a single word and thus becoming senile." Atatürk's view was materialistic in the way Lenin's was (in the way modernity en mass is) and set one wave of history into motion. Removed from historical-political generalizations, I sat in the anecdotal, seat 324 of the Yenikapi-Bursa ferry, and observed the other passengers. The woman in the burqa carried a potency, a high-frequency focus, quite ennobled. Her clothing extended to her hands, the black gloves she turned the pages of her book with.

Quote from Atatürk: An Intellectual Biography
by Sükrü Hanioglu. Pg. 132


 Ulu Camii, Bursa, Turkey.

Nearly two years I bought a book by Ibn 'Abrabi (Journey to the Lord of Power: A Sufi Manual on Retreat) that was illustrated with reproductions of the "monumental mural compositions" by Nineteenth Century calligrapher Mehmet Shefik. The racing freedom of Arabic had always appealed to me, particularly in these highly stylized and energized works. The text explained the calligraphies were made for Ulu Camii (Grand Mosque) in Bursa, Turkey. And now, because of the book, I was standing in front of them, photographing them, experiencing the reality of Ulu Camii.

My "reality" of Ulu Camii consisted of the plastic bag I had wrapped my sandals in and now carried in my left hand, and of a rapidly decreasing sense of self-consciousness. My experience inside the mosques I've visited - including the prayer ceremony I once took part in - is one of solitude and fraternity, and that the mosque, in its greatest conceptions (as Chartres, say, is to Christianity), is a space of inwardness, extremely personal even. Allah, the divine or the unconditioned not expressed so much though a vaulted ceiling (though some domes are huge) but in an intimate nook, the wall in front of one, or simply the carpet below, and that an ideal (or enlightened) "society" would momentarily occur not only as people prayed together, but as they congregated somewhat informally and haphazardly in the various sections of the mosque's omnidirectional space (the mihrab not being the "front" so much as a direction) and in these "gatherings" the highest conversational prajna (understanding, cognitive acuity, or wisdom) might occur, a Socratic salon that would not argue dogma but open portals beyond it.

I had sensed all of this eleven years ago when I visited the Cathedral and former Great Mosque of Córdoba. In that astounding work, 856 columns and countless arches create a labyrinth of contemplative space and here, in Ulu Camii, though the arcitecture was different the potential was not only the same, but continues to be realized (the Mosque of Córdoba no longer functions as a mosque but as a Cathedral and museum).

Inside Ulu Camii is a large ablution fountain which one may both wash and drink from at length. Outside the mosque I'd washed and drank from the ablution fountain there, and inside I drank again, making my reality water (its consciousness), there was a tangibility to this, as if I "entered" the Camii through the water. The "real" murals didn't impress me as much as when I'd seen them in the book (that seeing was the kind of imaginative moment or "transmission" that seldom arrives again in the form of a now-met external expectation-destination). I was transfixed by the welcome of the atmosphere and I felt in no way an intruder, nor did I detect the slightest glance of disapproval. Muslims often speak of Islam as a religion of peace and I felt a tremendous, palpable peace in the Camii, also very strong and potent. When I left Ulu Camii I experienced an unmistakable sense of being "changed" though a kind of blessing or spiritual grace, the same thing I felt in a single moment of Lord Mukpo's presence, or other great teachers of the Tibetan lineages.


I took this picture of the surface of the Bosphorus when I was still in Istanbul, from a viewing platform at the half-way point of the Galata Bridge. The photograph suspends the movement of the water into a simulacrum of the mountain ranges found on land (or below the sea). My experience of the drala principle and the drala has often (unexpectedly) corolated with water (Boulder Creek, the River Arno, the Mekong) and so made me more devoted to water, its element, idea and necessity. I came down with food poisoning the day after visiting Ulu Camii and lay in bed for thirty-two hours, for much of the time unable to drink water because it made me vomit again. I slept most of it, two nights and the entire day in between - though I also woke up dozens of times. Each time I woke, it was as if I'd just been taken to an earlier time of my life in order to feel its particular suffering, duration, or epiphany: a certain hike I took in southern Utah when I was nineteen; a desk I worked at doing accounting; the first time I took my son to Mexico.

I've been working with this process for some time: writing down, if I remember to, the thought I have when I first wake, even if just from a nap (sometimes especially a nap) as if this was one of the moments Lord Mukpo's dream-time could spill in; as he once said, "All the relative thoughts that happen in your mind in connection with cause and effect are the agents of the dralas." Yesterday I was too sick to write anything down, but the whole episode aligned with a memorable and poetic statement by Antonio Gramsci I had read the day before, that history "has deposited you in an infinity of traces without leaving an inventory" and as part of becoming conscious it is necessary "to compile such an inventory."

Quote from Orientalism, by Edward Said, pg 25.

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

Saturday, August 20, 2011


This Western Mountain blog of writings and photographs is from Turkey, where I am exploring relationships between (Vajrayana) Buddhism and (mystical) Islam, and more specifically between the teachings of Lord Mukpo and Ibn ‘Arabi. I have always heard and felt called to a “universal voice” and trajectory in Lord Mukpo’s teachings (particularly those of Shambhala and the drala principle), and that “universality” is also part of my exploration. An exploration occurring mostly haphazardly and anecdotally, as confusions and new discoveries - whether they occur on the street, so to speak, or in bed at 3:33 AM. But there is also an element of concentration, holding the themes I’ve mentioned and mixing them with a good deal of reading and practice. - Bill Scheffel


This is the view from my hotel window, room #1501, brought closer by the zoom lens of my camera. Normally I cannot see the highrise buildings in the distance with the detail shown here. Normally I cannot see a second sun, a fugitive image of the camera’s projection. The sensor in the camera, with its correspondence to the processing in my own brain, has created a second sunset, imbedded on the endless apartment covered hillside of Western Istanbul. The camera believes the projected sun to be true, just as I believe my own projections are real. The camera and I have much to learn from each other.   

9-Aug: 2011 Istanbul


Yesterday I took a walk in the early evening. I walked out of Beyoğlu and across the Galata Bridge. I walked through the pedestrian underpass at Eminönü and into the thicket of streets that I have leaned instinctively to find my way through, the streets of Eminönü, Beyazit and Sultanahmet as they meet in the ancient center of Istanbul. The sights were my companions, as always. Random, disjointed, sudden encounters, each as distinct from the next as one book is from another. Many were bewildering, bludgeoning; incessant, commercial, covered with grime and advertising. Mosques were everywhere and this one offered a garish pink wall nearby and a courtyard of weeds. I allowed the camera to find a perspective I could not have. I let it peer like the periscope of a submarine through the iron linkage of a closed gate. The shutter opened and the camera saw. It saw my own epiphany.  

10-Aug:2011  Istanbul


This was the amber light that greeted me just before I crossed Atatürk Bridge, on my walk to Fatih Mosque and the district around it. The amber light is our relative truth expressed in a color, Caution. The amber light brings faint panic - if we are driving. Some speed up (some joke the yellow light means speed up), some brake. Each country, each city, has its own ways of driving (I would never drive in Istanbul). As a pedestrian I saw the amber light as a foil for the graying, cloudy and multi-hued blue sky, a contrasting globe too gorgeous not to stop for.

11-Aug: 2011  Istanbul


I took this photograph as I did the others, in my first week back in Istanbul - only days ago, but now it seems like weeks. All the photographs have so receded from recent memory they could as easily be from someone else’s camera. Like playing cards shuffled in a deck their linearity has been dissolved and “unreal” things appear, as this photograph shows: there is not this kind of space in Istanbul, seldom a time when only two men are seen to fish, not always this kind of clear sky, or a boat appearing like one that might have taken Joseph Conrad up a river.

15-Aug: 2011  Istanbul

gnosis |ˈnōsis|nounknowledge of spiritual mysteries.ORIGIN late 16th cent.: from Greek gnōsis ‘knowledge’ (related to gignōskein ‘know’ ).
Spirit traces to the Latin spiritus or “breath” and in this sense every moment (of breath) is a “spiritual mystery.” One day the phrase, See the you of diamond light that others see when seeing you, occurred to me as I was speaking with a friend. As I observe passengers in airports, order eggs and coffee from waiters or fleetingly meet the glance of subway riders my perceptions sometimes shift or “crossover” into seeing others as Lord Mukpo might (or is), as if this is the only way to experience real sympathy. The world is seeing us as we see the world, that is what this graffiti told me, that primordial wisdom had symbolically found its way to a side street of pimps and graffiti covered walls. 

16-Aug: 2011  Istanbul


This is the sun and crane nine days later (after the arm of the crane had been assembled). The sun was setting as I took the photograph and now, as I am writing about it (moments later), the sun in the photograph and the “real” sun have (both) set. The buildings are there, the newer ones, as well as the minaret to the left, which might have been built six-hundred years ago (depending on which Istanbul mosque it belongs to) and resides in the collision of time and events and apparent objects that play upon the optic nerve. When the nerve is gone the memories scatter. In Ibn ‘Arabi’s experience of time, the most “all embracing of the Days of God is the Day of Essence,” which he described as not the longest of days (as we would have thought), but from our standpoint the shortest. As William C. Chittick writes: “Its length being one instant, which is the present moment, which is defined precisely as the instant that cannot be divided into parts. But, this shortest of the Divine Days lasts forever.”

19-Aug: 2011  Istanbul
Quote from Ibn ‘Arabi: Heir to the Prophets
by William C. Chittick


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Father as Ancestor, Part II

To my fathers...

Chögyam Trungpa
February 28, 1939 - April 4, 1987
Photo by Cynthia McAdams

William S. Scheffel
October 12, 1921 - August 2, 2010
Chögyam Trungpa, or Lord Mukpo, is my spiritual father or root teacher. My own father, William S. Scheffel, died exactly one year ago today. In the memory and living presence of both of my fathers I offer the following prose poems, poems I wrote in three different countries and in three different years. The pieces are not about my fathers per se, but about their imprint, their echo, their request.


Unconditional faith is not something to believe in but something to know. It is not forcing myself to believe but encountering something believable, something undeniable, something innate. The encounter itself is intangible, a substance I cannot collect, bring home, or experiment on. I cannot prove its existence or even that it happened. Faith is packaged intangibility as terrain, an invisible homeland we emerged from, or once crossed over, or slept on for a night - that continues to exist as a spiritual echo or postcard.

The text says, “That mind of sadness, possessing faith, free from thought is the profound tradition of the genuine great warriors.” Faith is an innate aspect of the mind of sadness - which is unconditional sadness: the all-embracing mercy, love and compassion that is an ocean without shore, distributed evenly and without beginning or end throughout the timeless and unbounded cosmos. It discovers us as gravity, intangible attraction. The mind of sadness possesses faith as the universe is possessed by gravity.

The mind free from thought is like the moon without space probes or discarded fuel tanks. A perfect sphere of non-interference that has no diameter. The thought that goes looking for something it can never find is freed by outer space and faith flares in countless unique constellations. The profound tradition of genuine great warriors are those who open to witness this immensity without location.

These warriors have journeyed though countless light years of aloneness. Since awake travels at the speed of light they became ever closer to themselves. On an endless journey, they have nothing to dispense but gravity itself; compassion or mercy in all its faces - terrible fires or the miracle of water. The most perfect geniuses of awakened warrior-ship travel faster than the speed of light, which explains how they might arise between the thought we just had and the one we haven’t had yet. The gap in thought is our invisible homeland and our faith the felt evidence of each of their visits.
31-May: 2009
Boulder, Colorado

In Paris

In Paris it was difficult to determine what the situation required of me. Was it grief, sharing, practice? It must have been all three because only those three were real. Sometimes the coffee was real, the blue of a cup as I photographed it. The Metro stops were real, the beauty of their names: Anvers, Pigalle, Blanche. The grief was real (points of exhaustion in the free-fall without station as one ages and those one loves are gone or far away, is that not demanding enough?) It would have been best to become still. And we did, in practice. Dominique, Sylvie, Lou, Alimone, Valerie. I discovered a voice of my own, made friends with it, shared it in stillness, finding accurate descriptions of mind’s cognizant nature functioning in the emergent, thickly inhabited easterly now. Each morning I pushed back the shutters of a window three stores above the sidewalks of Rue de Mont-Dore. Nothing mitigated a haunting sense of withoutness. Except the sharing. Dominique twice bought a cheese made in Switzerland one cuts with a special blade into the shape of crumpled flower petals, no thicker. Cote de Rhone and cheese and endive and walnuts and conversations, always about beauty and what we want to commit ourselves to: incessant spotlight imaging the future.

16-March: 2011

It is the Street
It is the street that works on me, tutors me, undoes me. It is as if I have never seen the streets before, any of  them (though I have walked them for weeks). A violet wall. Charcoal in a bucket brings flames to the corn husk. Bananas dry in the sun lit upon by fly swarms. So many restaurants (mostly tables on the street-side) you never know where you should eat. Or what. There are as many smells as colors. Motorbike horns and frying oil airborne, drift by the boy who runs in a green shirt but without any shoes.  Often I take the road that borders the causeway and try but cannot find the place in the scent of sewage that is awful. The logic of the street is survival, accommodation and change. People have found themselves economies. Some wash clothes. Some flatten bananas and grill them. Some sell gas out of liter bottles. Thousands of men drive motorbike taxis, wait on corners for passengers: slyly humorous, predatorily alert and quick to call out or guffaw. The sidewalk (to call it that) is intently inhabited, used, each person accommodated as they survive while changing economies worm along the street, behind fences, tearing down older houses and erecting new ones. This accounts for the variety of architecture but not its incoherence, a kind of rampant imagining of new wealth and how to express it.  I am a wanderer, a foreigner, a walker, a post-meditater, a writer walking the street as it is walking me.
Phnom Penh

 Bill Scheffel

 "Stray Dog"