Thursday, October 14, 2010


"If you can really visualize this it will be there in the morning"

Drawing by Jack Niland.
"If you can really visualize this it will be there in the morning." Venerable Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Snow Lion Inn, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, October 1972.

The first book of Chögyam Trungpa’s that I read was his first book of teachings in English (besides his autobiography, Born in Tibet), Meditation in Action. The year was 1970 and I was a Sophomore in High School. I had already had my LSD experiences and carried the book around in my back pocket as an emblem of a new, emerging identity (as I carried books by Alan Watts and Albert Camus), a cognoscenti of the spiritual search, no longer dropping acid or eating meat. Over the next six years, I acquired other equally stimulating and confusing identities, for a while forgot about the book and its author. In 1976 I stumbled into one of his meditation centers, met Chögyam Trungpa a few months later and studied at Naropa Institute that summer. That first, single year was such an acceleration of the real and the possible, such a collision between myself and the irresistible and overwhelming world of Chögyam Trungpa, that 1976 alone could be a year to digest, practice with and be in service to for the rest of my life.

 Jack Niland in his NYC apartment.

Jack Niland, Dharma Art International Treasure

My meeting with Jack Niland two weeks ago was a kind of re-union with 1976 or, I might say, 1976 required me finally to have this meeting (no more than an accident). That summer, Jack taught a four-week class on the “dharma art” principles he had learned from Chögyam Trungpa. I sat on the floor with the seven or eight other students and listened to Jack’s lectures, his pure, smitten and unflagging enthusiasm for such things as how the rods and cones of the eye corresponded to the design matrices of Tibetan thangkas, how the earth was a “rinky-dink” planet compared to many other world-systems, how a dot was the first work of art and how the aesthetic and moral catastrophes of the late nineteen-seventies could be transformed into wakefulness through art – all of these, teachings and tales conveyed to Jack by Chögyam Trungpa.

The class did drawings and other "dharma art" exercise and I took copious notes. My notebook probably contained at least an outline of everything Jack had received from CTR, but a few years later I somehow lost it. I still think about the notebook and still feel its loss. 

Jack Niland's design for the 40th anniversary celebration
of Karme Choling (originally called Tail of the Tiger).

Earlier this year, I received and invitation to write an article about Chögyam Trungpa for an anthology on “artists of the Counterculture.” In the beginning of the article I described Jack’s story of first meeting Chögyam Trungpa, which can be heard on The Chronicles of CTR - (PLEASE listen to this recording!) 
At that time, Jack Niland, a young aspiring artist from suburban New Jersey was about to become one of Chögyam Trungpa’s first students. Niland, though just back from living in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury and after countless LSD trips, still had no satisfying insight into striking moments of perception he’d experienced as a child: how, for instance, an electric fan clipped afternoon sunlight to produce mesmerizing geometric designs inside his eye. Even the beauty of a schoolgirl in his first-grade class lingered as a haunting apex of the real. Niland not only wanted to reproduce such moments, but to understand them. Academic studies left him bored and feeling sidelined; Niland wanted personal access to the doors of perception. He’d had studied at Cooper Union and conversed with Jerry Garcia but had not found answers to his questions. He was about to take yet another road trip when his sister told him, “Jack, The Dalai Lama has moved to Vermont.” 

“Cool!” Niland said, “We’ll visit him on our way to Canada!” 

A few days later, Niland found his way to “Tail of the Tiger” a fledgling, semi-impoverished spiritual community in northern Vermont with a young Tibetan teacher in residence, a lama who of course was not the Dalai Lama but thirty-year old Chögyam. Niland knocked on the front door of the farmhouse which was the living quarters of the community and was forthright ushered to a small room where Chögyam Trungpa sat by a table with a pad of drawing paper, a brush and a bottle of India ink.
Jack Niland and Tao, when Jack met Chögyam 
Trungpa in 1970. Photo by Roland Sherman.
“There was this little Tibetan hippy guy, this cherubic guy with long hair and a huge grin, Niland recalled, “who looked up and said, ‘Oh, I’ve been waiting for you!’”

Trungpa, with “radiant energy and unbelievable charisma” immediately enlisted Niland to assist him in making his “very first work of art in North America,” a calligraphy of the Tibetan syllable Ah.  As he drew the syllable, Trungpa called Niland's attention to the “dot,” the first moment when pencil, pen or brush meets paper, which is not only the beginning of any line but also the moment form materializes from space. Trungpa called Niland’s attention again and again to the significance of the dot, how the dot is the first moment of arising in space, how the dot is in our hearts, how our mind is a dot. The splash of India ink is really the center of the cosmos.

As he was listening to Trungpa, Niland realized he had found someone who understood the phenomenology of perception. When he mentioned his experience with the fan, Trungpa replied, “Sure, sure, I understand, those colors come from the rods and cones in the eye. Tibetan thangkas are all based on that.” For Niland, Trungpa was the opposite of art history lectures and theories of aesthetics. Sitting in that room with him, Niland had no idea who Chögyam Trungpa was, he just knew Trungpa wasn’t explaining electricity but handing him the current. The syllable Ah, Trungpa added, means what it sounds like, a baby’s sense of wonder. If the Ah, a “pre-thought” and innocent moment of surprise, astonishment, even shock, was Chögyam Trungpa’s first work of art in North America, it was also the signature of his behavior, what it meant to encounter him.
.  .  .  .  . 

The First Western Thangka

A thangka painted by Jack Niland 
according to Chögyam Trungpa's instructions.

According to Chögyam Trungpa, this is the “first Western thangka.” It is a portrait of Sara Kapp, an early and close student of Trungpa’s, who was also Jack’s romantic partner for many years. Jack painted the thangka in the fall of 1970 according to Trungpa’s instructions.

Chögyam Trungpa fully believed in developing “Western thangkas,” works based on the discoveries of Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan painting but in no way requiring the wholesale importation of Tibetan iconography. A fully-functional Western thangka would have to utilize images that arise from the Western psyche; or, we could say, from the “first thoughts” of the artist-practitioner. As I wrote last week, Images arising from our unconscious - from space itself - are not yet tethered to our hopes and fears, but can represent pure moments of meaning or "first thought." The valid image of, say, a wrathful deity could as easily be that of a Hell’s Angel on a bike rather than a red demon with multiple arms. 

To appreciate that a thangka could be Western and still convey  sacredness one, of course, needs to go no further than Giotto, Vermeer or Jasper Johns. But the principles of dharma art are an every-person’s art in that (visual) art emerges from a primordial language of mind and cosmos, a language it is impossible not to possess and that becomes evident even in the simplest of diagrams or drawings, if we know how to associate with them.

Drawing by Jack Niland.

In a sense, these diagrams are little more than doodles, but just as it is impossible not to have narrative in writing, it is impossible not to have primordial-ness in doodling. A dot, as we know, is the expression of mind and the first discovering of mind and a line can be none other than the connection of two dots – a simple unity more intriguing than a möbius-strip, something neither one nor two. 
Jack has been doing drawings like the one above for decades. What could be more beautiful or compelling than this diagram which combines dot, circle and square? And it really “works,”  not only as something visually arresting, but as a yantra or vehicle for meditation. I tried it and these are the words that came to me. 

Breath is drawn from all of space, the latter best expressed by the circle. The end of the in-breath is a dot because there clearly is an end, a turning point where breathing in is no longer possible. A point of non-existence. With the out-breath we discover the world, which is a kind of order, the things around us have lines and ninety-degree angles: buildings, telephone wires, trees and the flight of a bird. A square turned 45-degrees inside another square creates a dynamic space, an energy-infused space, a space with lots so of stuff going on. One's own in-breath brings completion – the circle – through the new beginning of the dot, which is also the return to simplicity, becoming primordially refreshed. Or, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Breathing in I know I am alive; breathing out I smile at myself.”
One doesn’t need to continuously reference what one is doing to “dharma art principles” but can, instead, trust ones own associations (as I not only trusted what I wrote above but found it helped me!). Associative mind is the mind of poetry, dream studies and dharma art. In associative mind, one allows the first thought connections with a subject to be accepted – the only way to write a poem, the only way to understand a dream. If we learn the fundamental principles (such as those of painting thangkas) we can become accurate in our creativity and accept all kinds of associations. Accuracy rather than indulgence was another important teaching Chögyam Trungpa gave us about art.

The Law of Correspondences

One of the concepts I find most arresting as I study the universality of the drala principle is the so-called law of correspondences, the Hermetic notion of as above, so below, the relationship between microcosm and macrocosm. We could also say that human (instead of saying "spiritual") systems correspond. That fundamental principles correspond is surely the basis of dharma art. It is not that all systems are the same but that all systems of truth find analogs in other systems and these mutual reflections, besides offering bonds of understanding between peoples, help us understand our own path – and often our own path calls upon us to take up seemingly new and different paths as our own correspondences lead us to our own primordialness.

For me, a good example of all these dimensions of the laws of correspondence is the I Ching and it’s elegant and unfathomable binary simplicity (yang or yin, solid or broken), its ability to describe any and all time scenarios we find ourselves in, and its profound spiritual guidance which seems to stand outside of any religion – or feeling of being religious. 

Learning the meaning of each of the I Ching’s hexagrams is a matter of accumulated associations, matching ones own experience and first thoughts to the gradually internalized or even memorized textual meanings the each hexagram. Eventually, each hexagram becomes an abode one shares – if only for a fleeting second –with the dralas, an abode that has been created through mutual the participation of ones own thoughts and the “thoughts” of the drala (who are a “source” of our own thoughts). 

Inner Truth, hexagram #61

Inner Truth, hexagram #61, is a good example of such an abode. The foundation of all hexagrams are the lower and upper trigrams, and the foundation of the trigrams are the elements themselves, the phenomenal world which is our collective above. The lower trigram is the joyous lake; the upper one, the penetrating wind/wood. Joy within and gentleness without are the most immediately evident aspects of this abode. When we know something is true we suddenly feel so centered (this hexagram is visually symmetrical) that we don’t necessarily even feel the need to express it. The joy of truth is carried gently by the wind and can reach others even if we are not speaking, even if we are not even with them. 

(More on Jack Niland soon.)

Friday, October 1, 2010


History is the dream of what can be. - Diane di Prima

Postcard (by Delfina Piretti) with dorje.

Since my last journal (Sept. 3rd), I have left Boulder Colorado and traveled, with my son Devin to Turkey, via Boston, Vermont, New Hampshire and New York City. I have taken the post card Delfina Piretti made for me seven years ago, as I have on all my trips abroad. It was her tribute to the Western Mountain (the same image I used at the top of the last post) and now I have photographed it in Istanbul, with a Buddhist dorje on it, a symbol of "indestructible truth."

This journal is a continuation of the theme of imagination and a tribute to three people I have encountered on my journey - John Perks, Madeline Bruser and Jack Niland - each of who have contributed to and extended Lord Mukpo's teaching legacy. Each of the three I first imagined visiting earlier this year. Without making much of a plan, it happened.

First, a continuation of the theme of imagination...

The war that matters is the war against the imagination. 
All other wars are subsumed in it.
Diane di Prima

. . . . . . . . 

The war against the imagination must be traced to ourselves and the acquired conditioning we receive that supports the mechanism of war within us. As used in the drala principle and in Diane di Prima's poem Rant, imagination has nothing to do with fantasy, mere daydreams or avoidance of reality. Imagination is the communicative and subtle expression of reality. Images arising from our unconscious - from space itself - are not yet tethered to our hopes and fears, but can represent pure moments of meaning or "first thought." The potentialities can be taken up as guidance and, depending on the strength of our character and the firmness of our determination, can become the foundation of "establishing our kingdom" (to cite the words of Lord Mukpo).

Istanbul, 2005.

Ideas and images of the imagination arise unbidden and suddenly. They are not manufactured by our ego and contain unimaginable (no pun intended) potential; they are expressions of what Tulku Ugen calls the "unconfined capacity" of mind.

 Tarot cards chosen by Jesse Goldman
history is a living weapon in yr hand
  and you have imagined it, it is thus that you
"find out for yourself"
history is the dream of what can be
                                        - from Rant
Nearly every line of Rant is a point of entry, a valid chunk of imagination explication. Instead of the dull and mordant notion of history - and our life - receding into an irretrievable past, history (as Rilke told us) is circular and comes toward us from the future. The "living weapon" is this unconfined capacity of mind which offers us a vacant future, one of pure potential, instead of the narrow route of habit which usually dominates us. But as di Prima says, one must "find out for yourself."

Devin at the piano.
Madeline Bruser

Last last year, my son Devin read a book on playing the piano by Madeline Bruser that changed his way of playing (and ruined his life, as changes in our habits can do, shifting him away from a highly rigorous and ambitious routine of daily practice into... well, he has ended up in Istanbul). After reading parts of her book, I, too, wanted to meet her. Madeline was an serious and accomplished classical pianist long before she met Chögyam Trungpa, but a single opportunity of playing for him in 1979 changed her life and her way of playing the piano forever. The short version of the story is that Trungpa ignored and seemingly mocked Madeline's playing - at the time, a highly dramatic style - until, barely able to maintain her composure any longer, Madeline suddenly clicked into a new mode of playing, far less self conscious and far more natural, actual. She could only remain in the mode for a few moments, but after that night she could never return to her previous way of playing. From the gap of reality Trungpa opened, Madeline went on to develop a way of playing that become a way of teaching others. She wrote a book, The Art of Practicing, and eventually retired from performing in order to devote all her energies to sharing what she has learned with others. In Madeline's words:
In connecting so much with music I was also connecting to my whole life more. Professionally, the key moment came when I discovered a new posture at the piano which came directly from meditation practice, from sitting still and upright for a set period of time every day, no matter what emotions were going through my body. That discipline, after eight years, resulted in my being able to maintain simple, upright posture at the piano too, no matter how emotional the music was. I was able to just let the music flow through me without reacting against it or manipulating it. It just happened that way I just found myself playing that way. Then I had my students try this posture, and they all played 100 percent better on the spot. And that was like light bulbs going on in my head I suddenly realized that I had something important to teach, and that became more exciting to me than performing.
 Madeline Bruser
I respect - and am honored to share - Madeline's assimilation of her experiences and lessons from her teachers, her own diligence and rigor, her commitment to the way of the piano. I visited Madeline at her NYC apartment and 99th and West End Avenue. In upcoming weeks, I will post a video interview with Madeline, a document of our two hour conversation.

John Perks

Adanaire Celtic Buddhist Center, Saxtons River, VT

John Perks

As the maple leaves were accelerating their turn to red, I rented a car in Lebanon New Hampshire and took the short drive sought to Saxtons River Vermont, home of a longtime friend, John Perks, founder of Celtic Buddhism and known within that community as The Venerable Seonaidh Perks. John is also the author of The Mahasiddha and His Idiot Servant, a memoir of his time with Chögyam Trungpa. The photograph above - and the fact that John went on to be Bill Cosby's butler - shows John to be the man he is and as I perceive him: the recipient of many experiences, with a profound, incessant and activated  sense of humor, affectionate, loving, exploring and contributing to the human journey, a sane and lunatic tributary from the mind-transmission of Lord Mukpo (it could not be otherwise). John was quick to dress up for my proposed photo shoot and I assured him his choice of costume would dispel the sense that others might have that he is crazy.

The Venerable Seonaidh Perks

Julia and John Perks

I can't pretend to know what Celtic Buddhism is, though what I encountered at Adanaire - of John, his wife, the land they live on, the stones and shrines he showed me, even the beef bourguignon he cooked for me - was animate with the drala teaching principles; their universality, their common sense, their way of making the spiritual obvious. For instance, from the Celtic Buddhism website, John gives this definition of having a teacher:
With the teacher, whoever is your teacher, in Celtic Buddhism we say Anam Cara. It’s a Celtic term that means “soul mate” actually, so that the relationship between you and your teacher is a similar aspect – it’s one of being soulmates. We’ll talk about the Anam Cara system possibly in our next talk. In any case, when that transmission occurs maybe nothing special happens for a while. Then, because of one’s whole openness and sensitivity towards another being, one’s teacher, then even after that teacher is no longer physically present, still the relationship is there and is still continuing. So that lineage is very much like that.

Central stone of stone circle, Adanaire

From the website, the origin of the Celtic Buddhist lineage:
Trungpa Rinpoche felt that a culture needed to deal with its own history, mythology and social structure in its relationship to Buddhism. He felt that these cultural aspects were difficult to ‘see' because of their transparency, and that through investigation one could come to understand his or her cultural biases and their illusory nature. In Seonaidh's travels with Trungpa, particularly in Ireland, they had many long discussions about the early nature-based Celtic religion and also the Celtic Christian Church. Before Rinpoche's death in 1987, he told Seonaidh that he should go out on his own and start a lineage.
The Venerable Seonaidh Perks says of Celtic Buddhism: 
It's still a big question mark as to what Celtic Buddhism is going to evolve into. It's important to make the question mark very big, so that it remains a big open question. Not only about oneself, but the society in which one lives. Celtic Buddhism could be viewed as an open exploratory adventure with no conclusions.

View from stone circle back to farmhouse, Anadaire.

Jack Niland

I've run out of time to feature Jack Niland in the post, so I will do so next week. Jack is a mind and lineage holder of Lord Mukpo's legacy, someone fated to receive teachings on art and Buddhism no one else necessarily did, meeting Trungpa/Lord Mukpo early after his arrival in the United States. In fact, Jack did not even know who Trungpa was in 1970 when he was ushered into a room - seemingly by accident - to meet him. Trungpa immediately announced, "Oh, I've been waiting for you!" Below are two products of Jack's continuing work with the principles of art and dharma; the first a design motif, the second a pair of identical silk-screened tee-shirts he gave Devin and me.

A current design Jack is working on.

Devin and Bill, Istanbul.

View from 6th-floor hotel room window, Istanbul.

Thursday, September 2, 2010


Handmade postcard, Delfina Piretti


I have incurred a five-week hiatus in my journals; my father died on August 2nd, eight days after my last posting. In July, I wrote an essay I called The Almost Zone; reflections, among other things on war and my father, who served in WWII. Here is the last paragraph of the essay:
From The Almost Zone: Besides the clothes he wears - and he is helped in and out of them by the staff - the only objects my father has in his possession are his glasses and his walker.  He lost his wallet soon after he moved into the Alzheimer's facility, he keeps nothing in his pockets, I took his ring off his finger and he no longer wears a wristwatch. My father has almost left this life, but his almost zone is very different than, say, my mother's in her last months. She was aware of all her objects and remembered everything, from who won last year's Wimbledon to how much yogurt was in the refridgerator. My father's almost zone in a crazy one; sometimes he thinks I'm his brother, between my visits he almost always thinks I'm overseas, he doesn't know where his living or why he lives there and remembers no ones name. He is trapped or liberated into a kind of relentless now. He's quite alert in the now, keen to respond and his dry and sarcastic wit can be as sharp as ever. The relentless now of war is said to be horrifying and intoxicating - though at other times tedious, mind-numbing boredom, drugery and idleness. I wonder how much my father's life now is like it was fifty-six years ago, when he was stationed in Guadalcanal or Tokyo?

William S. Scheffel 12-October 1921
to 02-August 2010.

In the almost-zone of my father's last two years of life we spent a great deal of time together. During this time and following my mother's death, I moved my father from his own apartment into an independent living center, then into assisted living and finally into an Alzheimer's facility. This time was a continuous lessen in the vulnerability all human beings are born into and return to in old age. In his last years, what my father desired most from others was also what he was able to give, what we all most want and most want to give: affection and love.


The handmade postcard at the top of this journal, and the artworks below are all expressions of what I call the handmade life. As I wrote in the previous journal:
I first heard the term "the handmade life" from Clarissa Pinkola Estes' telling of the Hans Christian Anderson fairly tale The Red Shoes. In brief, the red shoes represent the glamor of the careerism, consumerism, acquisition and ambition. The wearer of the red shoes, though beginning with good intentions, is eventually "worn" by the shoes, swept into a life of speed one cannot control. Taking up the handmade life means taking off the shoes - an initially uncomfortable, disarming, confusing, lonely and very vulnerable process. It means saying "no" to a lot of things and saying "yes" to... slowness. Perhaps the foundation of recovering our connection to the "indigenous mind" is slowness.

All of the artworks on this post were done by my friends and many were given to me as gifts: postcards, greeting cards, birthday cards and condolences upon my mother's death. Most if not all were make of "junk" - things that have been or otherwise would be thrown away: old magazines, cardboard boxes, business cards. The products of imagination, accident, affection - premier creations of the handmade life.

Birdwoman, chipboard and acrylics
on plywood. Elizabeth Trulio

Oil pastel, Lisa Havelin

Collage, Cathy Hubiak

Collage, Theresa Luttenegger

Watercolor, Devin Scheffel

Ink drawing, Devin Scheffel

Collage, Melina Mejia Stock


Below is one of the most important poems, in my opinion, of the 20th Century; Rant by Diane di Prima. Diane is a teacher of mine; I've heard her perform Rant at least once and I have lived with the poem for many years. I once taught a course on it. I might easily call it the "western version" of the drala principle. It is an artist and human rights manifesto, an explication of our first suffering (when "we hesitated to speak," to quote Gaston Bachelard), the existential backboard upon which we etch our legacy, a warrior's song of courage, a diagram of the handmade life.


You cannot write a single line w/out a cosmology
a cosmogony
laid out, before all eyes

there is no part of yourself you can separate out
saying, this is memory, this is sensation
this is the work I care about, this is how I
make a living

it is whole, it is a whole, it always was whole
you do not "make" it so
there is nothing to integrate, you are a presence
you are an appendage of the work, the work stems from
hangs from the heaven you create

every man / every woman carries a firmament inside
& the stars in it are not the stars in the sky

w/out imagination there is no memory
w/out imagination there is no sensation
w/out imagination there is no will, desire

history is a living weapon in yr hand
& you have imagined it, it is thus that you
"find out for yourself"
history is the dream of what can be, it is
the relation between things in a continuum

of imagination
what you find out for yourself is what you select
out of an infinite sea of possibility
no one can inhabit yr world
yet it is not lonely
the ground of imagination is fearlessness
discourse is video tape of a movie of a shadow play
but the puppets are in yr hand
your counters in a multidirectional chess
which is divination
              & strategy

the war that matters is the war against the imagination
all other wars are subsumed in it.

the ultimate famine is the starvation
of the imagination

it is death to be sure, but the undead
seek to inhabit someone else's world

the ultimate claustrophobia is the syllogism
the ultimate claustrophobia is "it all adds up"
nothing adds up & nothing stands in for
anything else

                        THE IMAGINATION
                        THE IMAGINATION
                        THE IMAGINATION


There is no way out of the spiritual battle
There is no way you can avoid taking sides
There is no way you can not have a poetics
no matter what you do: plumber, baker, teacher

you do it in the consciousness of making
or not making yr world
you have a poetics: you step into the world
like of suit of readymade clothes

or you etch in light
your firmament spills into the shape of your room
the shape of the poem, of yr body, of yr loves

A woman's life / a man's life is an allegory

Dig it

There is no way out of the spiritual battle

the war is the war against the imagination
you can't sign up as a conscientious objector

the war of the worlds hangs here, right now, in the balance
it is a war for this world, to keep it
a vale of soul-making

the taste in all our mouths is the taste of our power
and it is bitter as death

bring yr self home to yrself, enter the garden
the guy at the gate w/the flaming sword is yrself

the war is the war for the human imagination
and no one can fight it but you/ & no one can fight it for you

The imagination is not only holy, it is precise
it is not only fierce, it is practical
men die everyday for the lack of it,
it is vast & elegant

intellectus means "light of the mind"
it is not discourse it is not even language
the inner sun

the polis is constellated around the sun
the fire is central

Sunday, July 25, 2010


Ward Reilly, Vietnam era veteran, supporter of IVAW from Bill Scheffel on Vimeo.

In this video you can hear Vietnam era veteran Ward Reilly tell his version of the "handmade life" as he speaks in a Warrior Writers workshop, a group of Iraq veteran writers and artists (more below).

. . . . . . . . .

I was a culture assassin for the United States government. That’s what I was trained to do in the Special Forces. You go into a simple and indigenous society and train them to fight or train them to do something for the U.S. Government and then try to replace their system of government with our system of government.
                                                            Jacob George

Jacob George is the Afghanistan war veteran who appeared in the videos I featured in last week's posting and who started the bicycle project, A Ride to the End. In the second video Jacob discloses, "I was a cultural assassin for the United States government." When I heard that I realized I'd encountered the narrative, a synchronous connection between victory over war, the IVAW Convention and the drala principle. 

The United States in its role as one of the world's latest empires (since 1991 the only empire) has unleashed drone strikes, depleted uranium bullets and death squads in the name of democracy upon third-world countries for decades. In these nearly continuous wars (many covert and unreported at the time, such as the carpet-bombing of Cambodia in the early 1970s) the worst of the violence typically hits the countryside, rural areas where collateral damage goes particularly unnoticed or uncared about, places were life is still "indigenous and simple."  

The United-States-as-Empire is not alone among countries in profiting as a delivery system for violence, nor can the historical complexity of conflict zones  be reduced to a slogan or single explanation. The tactics of extrication from violence are not simple, obvious or easily done (Obama's dilemma), but Jacob's statement raises a crucial question: To what degree is modern war a war on the drala principle?


Today a friend showed me a recent interview with Maladoma Somé. Born into the Dagara people of Burkina Faso, Maladoma was forced at the age of four into a Jesuit boarding school. Eventually he was able to return to his village and receive the initiations of his own tradition, a process he called "unlearning." A person trained in both indigenous and modern culture, Maladoma has become one of our most articulate advocates and teachers of the drala principle.He has come to believe that,
"the intellect, as it is programmed by modernity, may not be equipped to comprehend certain kinds of reality. The modern mind has alienated itself from indigenous cognition in order to obtain a kind of control over the world." Maladoma Somé July 2010 issue of The Sun.
This "control over the world" Maladoma Somé speaks of is the war on the drala principle - and it has brought us to the brink of environmental catastrophe. The roots of war as a war on the drala principle has much to do with the rise of modernity and with it, a sharply increased disassociation between the human body and the earth. In the dynamic of this disassociation, the understanding that we must cooperate with nature often loses out to an urge to control it. 
When human beings lose their connection to nature, to heaven and earth, then they do not know how to nurture their environment or how to rule their world - which is saying the same thing. Human beings destroy their ecology at the same time they destroy one another. - Chögyam Trungpa
In 1939, Chögyam Trungpa-Lord Mukpo was born into the medieval world of Tibet, which was also a simple and indigenous world. Among the great Tibetan Buddhist teachers of his generation, he was alone in speaking about our disassociation from nature as the destruction of the drala principle (of course by the late 1970s, countless environmental writers, historians and and scholars had written on this subject; more on this next week). It is these very teachings that has galvanized the creation of this blog. The drala principle is a way (a universal principle active among countless teachings today) to reprogram the modern mind to reconnect with and inhabit the indigenous mind, a mind that has not been lost forever (after all, indigenous means inborn, innate).

Demeter, Rome.

Fundamental aspects of our humanity - our dream life, our poetic mind, what we refer to as shamanic experiences, and our relationship to the spirit world (whether one consider "spirits" as nature itself or as specific living but invisible beings, such as angels) - are denied by modernity. Some are simply neglected or left to die by the roadside (poetry); others became taboos, objects to shame under the broad heading of "superstition" and for continuous centuries were suppressed or destroyed by imperialism/colonialism, a kind of mono-theistic need to destroy what others believe (and what monotheism once "believed" itself; the angels and archangels are spirits after all).

Here are some of things Lord Mukpo said in 1979 about the war on the drala principle. (This is from a lightly edited transcript, truer to the speech of his talks than the more heavily edited books in print.). 
Christendom abandoned any sort of drala principle a long time ago. Whatever drala principles remained were regarded as superstition. The Christian empire of early medieval times desecrated the drala principle. 
Here, Lord Mukpo criticised Christendom, the conquering forces of a merged church and state, and not Christianity, which he did not condemn, to say the least. He befriended Thomas Merton, visited monasteries and abbeys when he lived in England and hosted annual Buddhist Christian conferences at Naropo University in the early 1980s. He was sincerely interested in the contemplative traditions of Christianity and supporting their revival. In the above quote he is talking about a Christianity far removed from its founder's intent, the kind Constantine was the first to propagate (an emperor who murdered his own son and wife), the man who set a precedent for the next 2000 years: Christianity as an intolerant empire (see Eduardo Galeano trilogy Memory of Fire for a chronicle of the disaster Christian Spain and other European countries visited on the indigenous world of Latin America).
Nowadays we make fun of the Greek gods or the Roman gods. We think they're funny; we think they're just a story. Because we have been indoctrinated by the Christian tradition, we never pay any attention to the ancient traditions... I feel our attitudes toward those ancient civilizations are not very justified. There were numerous traditions that understood how things worked. But nobody knows the sacred rites on any one of those traditions (any more)...
A key statement here is that these local-indigenous drala traditions "understood how things work." What Lord Mukpo means is that drala traditions, by definition, are elemental, they are linked, without exception, not just to the representatives of fire, water, wind and earth as deities, but to the function of fire, water, wind and earth; when to plant, how to harvest, the behavior of the landscape and needs of that watershed .
You can go to Rome, you can go to Paris, you can go to Athens and you can see the statues. They were the ancient gods. But what has become of those gods?... Suppose you were a Hellenistic practitioner, and you related with those gods, those dralas. How would you feel? Those people were bound to have incantations intended to provoke and invoke all sorts of drala principles.... But we have ignored all that. We think: "Ha. Ha. They had those sculptures and those things happening (referring to the way a typical tourists view the sight of antiquity)." So now a great tradition has become a tourist piece. It's very sad."

Statue, Rome.

We have to think back to those days. We have to think back. To some people it might be very shocking to reignite paganism altogether... The influence of one particular religion has harmed the indigenous traditions of Western Europe altogether. There are lot of gods in the Western tradition. The Greek and Roman deities are not the only ones... There is one Scandinavian deity who is referred to as the all knowing. He has four faces... What happened to all those gods? Even their shrines have been dismantled. Ladies and gentlemen, there were lots of drala figures within the European tradition. The drala principle exists everywhere - always, everywhere. But with the invasion of Christendom, when one God was announced, many of the other gods - the other dralas, we could say - were completely undermined; they were forgotten. People weren't even allowed to mention them.
I sat listening to the talk these excerpts are from over thirty years ago. Of all the talks I heard Lord Mukpo give on any subject, this was the perhaps the most interesting, the most galvanizing, the most unusual (to consider it brings tears to my eyes, always). His passion for the subject was so great he talked for what seemed like for hours; this is arguably the longest talk he ever gave - which could be an argument for how important he considered the subject of the drala principle to be! 

Again, Lord Mukpo was not condemning the religion and faith of Christianity and, in fact, he's not really talking about Christianity. He is talking, I believe, about a kind of paranoia that arises in the human psyche. When this paranoia is mixed with ideology and greed it unleashes a "one god" principle; zealous, aggressive, in need of ideology and with little empathy for other. I studied the legacy of this in Cambodia, when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge declared the country would go back to "year zero," a fatal experiment in an extremely single-sided Maoism (atheism is also a form of one-god.)

Lord Mukpo's Tibet - and all its dralas - came under Chinese occupation in 1950; the ongoing decimation of Tibetan culture was particularly acute during the Cultural Revolution, the zenith of the one-god principle of Mao. But Tibet was not free of this either. Internecine campaigns of suppression - including war - by the dominant schools, such as the Gelukpo, against the "lessor" sects were long part of Tibet's history. The Rime movement, which Lord Mukpo embraced and taught from, was founded by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye and Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo in the 19th Century. Rime means "lack of bias" and was founded not to synthesize the various traditions and sects of Tibetan Buddhism but to respect their differences and preserve each as a distinct lineage (the opposite of the one-god principle and a model for tolerance and respect for diversity so many people now embrace).

In our current time, when the Soviet Union collapsed, collectively we went from two one-gods - Communism and the Free World or The West (terms of great irony)- to a single one-god; the free market capitalism of The West. The drala principle has not fared well under any of these systems. In 1931 Stalin, out of spite and whim but for no practical necessity, razed The Temple of Christ the Savior (considered as an "eighth" wonder of the world) and replaced it with a Soviet office building (one-god eating another one-god!). Far more significantly, and as an illustration of modernity as war on the indigenous, we can see the one-god epitome of the Soviet centrally planned state as environmental disaster almost beyond comprehension (but not widely known) in the destruction of the Aral Sea.This plight of the Aral Sea is brought to light in the following 10-minute documentary, a devastating work of great beauty.

A 10-minute documentary on the Arel Sea.

Lord Mukpo believed that reestablishing a sane and effective culture required combining the wisdom of the past (the indigenous, the drala-principle) with the reality of the present, including our technology. Like Gurdjieff and C.G. Jung, Lord Mukpo could see that contemporary humanity was ill equipped to handle its own inventions. To combine the wisdom of the past with our current technology would be to reestablish a morality (which he called sacred view) toward our environment in which we would refrain from consumerism and the culture of convenience, not to mention such blatant insanities as mountain-top removal or pumping dry our aquifers.


This has been a long digression since citing Jacob George's quote or reporting directly on the Iraq Veterans Against the War Convention, but the accidental narrative has returned here, in the theme of the handmade life, which is the theme of Jacob's bicycle ride for peace [as well as (with a couple of caveats) the phenomena of blogging].

I first heard the term "the handmade life" from Clarissa Pinkola Estes' telling of the Hans Christian Anderson fairly tale The Red Shoes. In brief, the red shoes represent the glamor of the careerism, consumerism, acquisition and ambition. The wearer of the red shoes, though beginning with good intentions, is eventually "worn" by the shoes, swept into a life of speed one cannot control. Taking up the handmade life means taking off the shoes - an initially uncomfortable, disarming, confusing, lonely and very vulnerable process. It means saying "no" to a lot of things and saying "yes" to... slowness. Perhaps the foundation of recovering our connection to the "indigenous mind" is slowness.

We often ask what we can do in the face of war, environmental catastrophe, personal depression or even simple stress. The handmade life is always available to us as remedy and creative opportunity. The handmade life ranges from taking a mindful breath to fulfilling a vision (for instance Allen Ginsberg's vision of Blake when he lived in Harlem). The handmade life is the principle of creativity and of the drala principle. The handmade life came front and center to me at the IVAW Convention, in particular though the book depicted below and meeting some of those who contributed to it:

Warrior Writers: Remaking Sense is an anthology of poems and prose from Iraq veterans (as well as the name of their website), some of whom I met in a writing workshop held during the conference. The subtitle of the book, Remaking Sense, echoes the theme of slowness and the handmade life; once we slow down we can begin to deconstruct our experience, identify what is toxic and what is healthy, what to refrain from and what to cultivate. For these young Iraq veterans, healing from war and recovering from PTSD are matters of life and death. More than one veteran told me writing had saved her life.

Here is a video I made as a guest in the Warrior Writers writing workshop. In this sequence, participants are talking about the role of art in their lives.

More on the handmade life in the next posting.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


An entire body of Chögyam Trungpa-Lord Mukpo's teachings was captured in a phrase he gave to his students, Victory Over War. Initially, this body of teachings had to do with protection; that a talk on Buddhism, say, needed to be given under a correct set of circumstances in order to be effective. A certain precision, decorum and beauty needed to be established for an audience to open to the teachings. The audience needed to feel safe and welcomed, yet also provoked toward clarity, becoming awake.

Lord Mukpo translated these principles into issues of aggression, the military and war. Any society needs members who are sworn to protect it (firemen, policemen, soldiers); pacifism is not always possible, but meeting aggression simply with more aggression is counterproductive, wrong and typically horrible: war begets war. An opportunity to further explore the possibilities of Victory Over War arose for me in these last two weeks.

Daughter of an Iraq era veteran.

Annual Convention, July 8-11 - Austin, Texas

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to Democracy Now with Amy Goodman interviewing three U.S. solders speaking out against the war in Afghanistan. It was mentioned that the Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) were having their annual convention in Austin, Texas on July 8-11. Within a couple of minutes of hearing that I went to the IVAW website. At that moment I knew I was going to the convention myself.

Ten days later I unpacked my bags in room 200 of a dormitory on the Huston Tillitson University campus, an historically black school founded in the Nineteenth Century (it turns out Huston Tillitson was the only place, among those contacted in Austin, that was willing to host the Convention.) Over the next three days I took hours of video, met dozens of people, immersed myself in the convention, but also spent hours alone in my dorm room, downloading video footage, writing, collecting my thoughts - and sometimes simply escaping from social overwhelm and a certain anxiety (perhaps these arose, not just from arriving as a stranger, but from hidden collective and personal aspects of war I was encountering?).

Ones expectations are not always fulfilled, but in the case of the IVAW Convention mine were. I expected to find kind, mature and committed human beings who would be an inspiration to others. I found this and more. This was an age and gender diverse group of friendly, thoughtful, well-tattooed, well-spoken, courageous, shattered (occasionally I would see this) and perhaps above all creative people. A colony of artist-activist-leaders.

Personal stories of the horrors of war were not particularly on display or subjects of the workshops.  I learned only a few of the stories of what these men and women faced when they refused to deploy, became conscientious objectors in active duty, deserted or simply announced their opposition to United States military policy. Many were new, many who had attended previously had not returned. A growing but no doubt vulnerable colony as burnout, finances and other life priorities created a 2010 Annual Convention that was somewhat smaller than hoped for yet was also their "first" (previous conventions had been held in conjunction with and supported by Vietnam Veterans Against the War).

I will publish more videos and journals about the convention over the following weeks. For now, I have some photographs below and, especially, the following video-interview. Jacob George and Spencer Hindmarsh are riding their bicycles, along with other veterans, across the U.S. until our government ends the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.  Their website explains further:
Do you support war? Do you have a job? Do you pay taxes? Then yes, you support war. You’re supporting two wars actually. We are here today, to ask every single one of you to STOP SUPPORTING WAR. But how, how do we stop supporting war? How do we stop a war? Since our elected government has decided to continue funding this war with money coming from your paychecks, the first thing you can do is QUIT YOUR JOB. If you feel strongly enough about not supporting war to do that, you might be interested in taking the next step. Get a bicycle and join us for a ride. We are going town to town, spreading this message face to face and we are not stopping until BOTH WARS END!
Most would probably consider this statement absurdly impractical and wildly idealist, but I would say quiet the contrary. If only, say, a quarter of 1% or our population did this that would create a protest of almost a million people - which could easily galvanize popular opinion into a war-paradigm shift. But think of an even greater impact. A mass shift to bicycles could immediately begin to rescue our planet from runaway global warming. In short, Jacob and Spence's suggestion is sane, continuing to do what we are doing is insane. Plus these guys are cool.

[If you watch and enjoy this video, please see the YouTube link at the bottom of this page. That video profiles Jacob and his brother Jordan, is a documentary of sections of their ride and give essential background to their views and courage.]

Faces of some of the veterans - not just from Iraq, 
but from Afghanistan and the Vietnam era - who attended 
the IVAW Convention.