Archive for October, 2009

The Traveller


Displacement, ‘the global village’, nostalgia, misplaced love…and the always-hidden pilgrimage. Published in Jack Magazine, 2005 (online); Platform Magazine, New Delhi, 2005 (print).

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[Uncovered in the year 2061, engraved schist dated c. 311 CE. Former South Aral Sea.]

Not to know, not to have heard […] Already time, then, bleeding from the eye/mechanism [not human]. Not a text religious – but, not to know, shaken like a twig in the last breath of wind. We have known, havn’t we, together, on the sea-edge? Havn’t we gone out there together, to see? Hydras and sea-wrecks. Hanging gardens under those swells. Deep fathoms…places of rest.

[The following reconstructed:]

You waited, Saviour, for the burning first to end. Came and plucked us out of boiling depressions in earth, insects and reptiles caught in our hair. You saw the nudity and the waste, the excrement dribbling down. Don’t tell me how your eyes too, didn’t burn and drop from their sockets. Perhaps, like others, you see not from eyes but from the fierce fire of truth that, they say, lights up all before it. (You are that, Lord, are you not? In such as you has trust been placed).

     They had forgotten your crime, if crime it was. No-one came to look there anymore, for the proof, the remnant signs, the footprints left in the ground. The ground itself had shifted, after all, and after all this time. You had worshippers and detractors both; they had all gone also. Who was left? (Not I…). Inestimable friends, who all were swept far by the tide. We come back to the sea, you tell us, to the edge of a vast tract of space, and I believe you because I have seen it is not in you to lead me astray, that all your false paths are still destinations without peer.

It was said you were both a woman and a man, Seer, in the beginning, and at your first arrival with us here. I have not seen it with my own eyes, but I have seen it in dreams, the forest of genitals I had been abandoned to, woken in me and sent on one mission following another […] No fruit on the vine, no fruit grows in that sea. Left there – they later told me – in a rush basket, an Orphan as you are Sire – so not surprising I should come to follow so many paths into jungle […] thickets growing thick in my veins, iridescent teeth flashing in the soup of blood and brine that rose over my head in a bath of foetid rapture. For I loved the blood, Master, of virgin and crone, though neither could still the noisome [dragonfly?] lodged in my innards, a tiny freak born in the wrong organism, the wrong climate, the wrong time […]

You starved it out of me, Deliverer, as you had so many others. In the time of invasion, when all my brothers went through desert in high-summer to hold the borders, you sent me, Lord, back the other way, away from mortal fight, to wage my own war with sickly enemies not outside myself. Alone, with only that old despised chimaera to keep me company during the worst of the cold nights. Scorpions, the rock held in my hand, the penis hard in its rope-sheath, for a thousand nights on end. Yet I was not deserted. You thought nothing of it, while a thousand miles away the city [self-destructed? imploded?], the dogs howled and they took the heads off peacocks, pregnant women, the old and raving with an equal disdain. You thought nothing of all that, Unbeliever, though it was my mother and yours that they raped. Vanquish the mother of illusion, you sent word, sooner than all the mothers of Christendom, the heathen lands and unknown worlds combined. Sever her grasp on your entrails, cut through her bonds and tear free. GAUNT [GALLED?] FREEDOM. Lord, I ate the asp and the antelope, the adder and the grape, and still there was provender left. Neither abundance nor riches were denied me. Yet I grew jaundiced and hollow, groveling under your palm of mercy, all those paradise fronds singed with sulphur. The interminable sun […] How you knew it would tame us, and bring us back to you, Great One, and your gilded road. Still scurvy and rackets of pain struck on bone and […]

[…] back to us, back to man and woman, ambigentile [?], suppurant wound, lie with the disease, the sign on the eye that dispels unwanted auguries – you have told grace on us. The wounded returned, on bandaged feet, no hands, or ears, or eyes, as you said they would, and came for our succour. I did my duty by you and lay down by them and drank blessed pus of their [ignorance?] but so imbuing their misdeeds with truth. For they know not what they do. You spoke of the Sun, of its burning, and we knew not what you spoke. You spoke of the Starvation, and we had hungered though never imagined of this eternal fast you have prophecied. You spoke of the cruel humour of Usury and we too laughed because we never supposed such riches and wealth not nourish and serve men but destroy them completely. Yet you were always right Lord though we had not listened to you […] as you were called in every land Unbeliever. ‘What power do you call on’, you asked us, ‘when no other power survives you? What believe?’ you asked, and in the long hiatus between times of life (it was a species of death, a pretend-life, you called it ‘practise time’ – but for what, our true demise, the end of things?) we tried to answer. But left with nothing, these scratches on stone, and hence we too Unbelievers. The scourge was waiting, with spear and haft, weapons raised in waiting […]. Back into cities we went, hemp rags hanging from our backs, no answer and none to be found, for they were ailing, so much stench, the fruits of their worldly endeavour strewn about, palaces fallen, carnage, piles of waste, flyblown, breeding in dull water, uneaten foetid edibles left aside, all the vast of that labour and long industry, and their hands now empty. Asking. Can you help? (Can you help us, now, Master?) And we could not, they had sown such seeds of their own will […]

Yet they thought us dying, as they were. Never saw in us the ember of life eternal, still lit […] Blessed untruth [?] of yours, Great One, the Sixth of your lineage […] bastard god, being of no Father.

[Entries in square brackets interpellations of the editor/translator, December, 2062]

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Man In A Wheelchair


A short ‘real fiction’, observed in Prague, March 2004. History and forgetting, reality and simulacra – and their double deceptions. Published online in Jack Magazine, 2005; Tirra Lirra, Melbourne, 2004, (print).

Man in a Wheelchair

Not far from the Charles Bridge they gather around a man in a wheelchair. It is not the man alone, or even his wheelchair, that draws them – he is also surrounded by another group, subsidiary to that of the people themselves. This second group is distinguished from everyone else – other tourists, casual observers, general passersby – by an ambience unique to them: their activity, erratic but loose, punctuated by laughter, is itself held in an aura of bland conspiracy, as if they share a confidence or a knowledge, a complacency of solidarity that is not so self-conscious as to demand attention, but aware enough of its privilege to know it is always being observed.

The lights and technical equipment that surround them – another concentric frame inside all the others – seem to confirm them in their singularity. No one else has access to the expensive apparatus; it is theirs to use at their discretion. Right now it lies propped vacantly against the old stone walls; the high spotlights pointing to the heavily-flowing waters of the Vltava river below. It is a calm, uncannily featureless day in Prague, but it is not as if the city stands still, as, at other times in its history, it doubtless has. Too much seems given over to the animation by the bridge for the day to be wholly surrendered to potential passionlessness. Many are there who would desire it, a beautiful inertia that would allow them only to watch the river, or sit by a wall, and wait for something to come to them. They could wait, on a day like this one, for an age before something more desirable should arrive. But that would already be in a different time, and the spurts of vital intention, of a sheer dedication to life that almost bleed through the air of Prague in this one, have to go forfeited. It would be a different life altogether.

In this one the large, constantly moving crowd press in closer to the man who at first has drawn their attention. They are all tourists, very young or barely out of school, mostly Italian, who chew gum and spin their heads quickly, as if on greased axles, towards different companions to suddenly throw out an insult or a joke for general consumption. They are in a perpetual distraction, moving like tadpoles among eachother, teenage lovers exchanging looks and reproaches, things to eat, cameras, notebooks, cigarettes, soft-drinks. They are never still, they all appear magically happy, as if Italy – or their absence from it – can only be the sundered homeland that provokes their delighted, disorderly charm with the paradise regained that surrounds them here. Their delight now is catalysed by the man in the wheelchair, who though he is entirely inert, generates it seems from his very immobility a constant flurry of attention around him.

He is young, though hunched in the chair, his face unshaven, attractive despite the thinning of his hair that makes him appear much older than he likely is. He munches on something, and grins, irregularly, as if he is waiting indefinitely for something but determined to welcome delay for as long as it lasts. He knows, after all, that he is being paid by the hour, and the longer he must wait there, the more surely will the dividends eventually come to him. Two women busy themselves around him – they apply touches of make-up to his face, daub their fingers in his hair, as if it is a sticky substance and they do not want to lose their fingers in its wispy strands. They peck his face with a pencil, to emphasise the stubble on his cheeks. The girls in the Italian crowd watch the women and call out, loud but embarrassed, to put more make-up on the young man.

“Rouge!” they yell out. “Rouge!”

The word rouge hangs in the air, not far from the sombre density of the bridge and the pale dull of the river: someone out of opera-buffa who has wandered into one of Prague’s gothic cathedrals. It stands loudly there, hands on hips, and demands an audience. The make-up women frown at the girls, but also laugh – they know that nothing the Italian girls can say can remove them from the exclusivity of what they are doing, of who they are, and so they are able to easily step aside from any potential affront. There is an invisible barrier that separates them from the others – not one of coercion, but one that comes from the audience itself and its respect for the terms of spectatorship: which pleasure is worth too much to jeopardise by the poor reward any outright disturbance could provide. The girls want to be able to watch, from the safety of distance, and remain unseen by what they observe. In the same way the women with make-up want to be seen, not as star-performers, but as indispensable elements to the spectacle, without which any performance would be a diminished one.

Because the performer, for his part, is ready to perform. Someone puts down their take-away coffee and reads from a clipboard. There is a sudden silence as all those assembled focus intensely on the presence of the young man in the wheelchair, unable to move and seemingly unable to speak. “Rouge!” is the only thing that is heard then, again, rebounding through the bodies on both sides of the camera, in the cracked voice of one of the adolescent Italians. He only yells it once, already his friends are laughing out loud, pushing him and threatening to throw him into the river. The girls hurl insults and laughter, at the male element at large, so that the audience have become the performers, and the real performers must wait before they are able to proceed to their – only marginally more important – business.

But once the laughter has died, something else starts, which threatens to interminably delay the sequence the film-crew have spent all of that morning preparing for. Thundering peals of the cathedral bells come out of the emptiness of the sky, repeated cascades of almost subterranean sound, as if it has been bottled up in a green earth far, far below, and erupts now out of the turrets of churches and castles and all of the old beautiful things of Europe. The wide-awake camera that might have caught the unshaven grin of the young actor in the wheelchair, or even the girl who had first called out for more rouge, grips the frame and swings in a fluid, fast panorama away from the crowd and the film-crew, further down the river, around a wall that in the fast-motion passes in the fluttering of tattered poster-bills that flank its surface. The shreds of paper could move merely by force of the fierce tolling of the bells, but there is no time to gauge how it might happen that way. Because the frame rests now, inevitably, on a man, another man, but a much older one, also unshaven and with broken teeth, that would be expertly crafted by make-up women if they were not real. A man in a wheelchair.

There is no sound apart from the bells, and they soon fade and are not replaced by Italian laughter, film-set humour, gum-chewing or anything else. The man sits in his chair, entirely immobile, his eyes barely open, and holds out a paper-cup for coins. In the time he waits there new tourist throngs scatter down his street – it can be no-one else’s – and pass him there. They do not know who he is, and never stop to put coins in his cup. They rationalise perhaps that the disuse of his legs does not really warrant his beggardom. He is old too, and old people ought not to stay out in the street, where they can be so easily seen, scrutinised, out in the open like sores.

Few others though, observe or even glance at the man. Hundreds pass him without registering that he is there, and there are only a very few who ever smile to him as they pass. Those that do might wonder if he notices them, or would especially care if he did. He is one of those who, more than thirty years before, when there was blood in the streets, had been taken to a police-cell and given the privilege of having his legs broken there by his own countrymen. One of the martyrs, in his defiance of the invaders of those times, too, had died for the man’s suffering, his broken legs, for the ignorance of the policemen who had carried out orders for the wrong masters. The commemoration of the martyr’s self-immolation is there now, thirty years later, and tourists and local people alike go there to pay their respects, to take photographs of the ground made sacred by one man’s absolute sacrifice.

The man in the wheelchair, not the young actor but his solitary, aging double, is unable to make the journey: not only because his wheelchair would be unable to accommodate the terrain, but because he might not anymore know a reason for taking it. He is already forgotten, and the more that world already gone is able to forget him, the more he is able to forget what it might once have meant to him. And with forgetting comes space, the frame left absent against the wall, to be filled in with other events, repetitions, or re-enactments of old history. No-one will know where to look, to pay their respects, to call for more “Rouge!”, to point the lens of the camera, when no-one is there to tell them.

The film-set, somewhere in artificial space, somewhere that could be another Prague, the double to his own, composes itself again, and the other one, the actor, dutifully plays his part in front of the lens, this time without disturbance. There are no sudden shouts, and no blood, real or otherwise, flows in the street by the heavy waters of the Vltava. Reality is caught, held and captured: there is no simulacrum to pretend to take its place.

Prague, March 2004

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Published 2008 Colloquy #15:  www.colloquy.monash.edu.au/issue015/kovan.pdf

This is a tripartite essay excerpted from a longer text which explores some of the central issues of a contemporary Buddhist ethics: how viable are Buddhist claims to awakening in relative terms? In which senses can they address the multitude of precipitous cultural, economic or religious determinations of different peoples with their often heterogeneous concerns? It asks how we read the ultimate metaphor of awakening in real terms, and in the asking, turns the question back onto the way in which our reading of it transforms, or fails to transform, our lived experience.

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An article written in 2006 that looks at the historical continuity of an aspect of the spiritual (in this case Buddhist) path, in which the security and identity made with a larger authority, more or less benign, is definitively left behind. Alan Clements is a contemporary maverick on the global dharma stage, a former monk in the Burmese tradition, whose provocative voice for a secular, engaged and dynamically creative autonomy is in many ways a re-casting of traditional elements of the biographies of the old Buddhist masters. The ‘second crisis of autonomy’ (after his departure from the palace of his family and kin) then refers to Siddartha Gautama’s eventual rejection of his contemporary teachers or authority figures as a condition for his own awakening. This article considers the nature of that ‘crisis’ and the grounds for Clements’ own passionately vocal version for our own time.

See Alan Clements’ World Dharma website: http://www.worlddharma.com/wd/media/interviews/Article%20-%20CrisisofAutonomy%20Martin.pdf

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Jalgaon, 25.XI.08


Grit that seems to come from under the door. As if self-willed, stolen in by night. In the morning, before I turn on the TV, there is a small ritual of gathering this fine sand, come in from the street, from different travellers’ shoes, from the largely arid wastes of the plains beyond the small town. A minor ordering against general encroachments.

In the mid-morning, the TV doesn’t work. The general power is disconnected, though this is only meant to last for three hours: a struggle with a minor addiction to the World Movies channel. There is a disturbance, outside, down the corridor, a brief verbal skirmish between a Spanish woman and one of the Indian workers: she is impatient and he is repeatedly apologetic, both it seems in a familiar mode, a small scene of disorder they have played out many times before this one. The woman wins the minor contest – even in India. ( In bed reading early Bellow by torchlight, this room immured from light, the adventures of the prose exploit this one, a youth again, in hiding, picaresque fugitive between walls. I never know what will come next.)

Later, with the power returned, there’s more sense in going out to eat. The Mumbai ticket needs confirming, down at the local station, an obscure, stray satellite of one of Dante’s purgatorial suburbs. And always far more people than the existing system seems able to accommodate. A thousand men materializing always at the head of the queue. If I were not a self with a self-project to enact in the world I could stay there indefinitely, eternally, relegated to the end of the line a martyr a saint of patience and waiting except that I have by this time gone beyond suffering it seems, suffering is what real people do and I am a cipher a circle a zero or orobouros not merely chasing its own tail because this tail and all its imaginary outgrowths have been digested, self-fellated so many aeons before there is no more of that fictional shambolic passage to show for it has been told a million times what more another Cervantes Sterne Rushdie or Foster Wallace to repeat the tale of misbegotten quests? Please, steal this cheap plastic pen, the cheap imitation watch from this same wrist that itself imitates how many yesteryears of DNA? In this queue in this queue in this queue I am nobody nada to wait to be waited upon by others to wait for the enaction the event the happening I believe it has become a truism to suggest that the à venir never arrives or does it or does it or does it.

I leave, I can’t wait, I abandon the confirmation side of the process, the ticket is in my hand, this is enough, this will be my way out of here, I will leave, I will be delivered in Mumbai, three hours away, tomorrow, my birthday, of all days.


Five more hours of powerlessness. It is good, it is better, to read, cut toenails, wash a dusty shirt, prepare cups of electric black tea and biscuits in my small escape-hatch, Bellow to hand. The town itself bellows, aches and roars dimly, beyond the single, barred window. The Spanish infanta departed. The Indian peon (archaic word, strangely permissible) – chastened. He eats his unlit lunches on the cool floor right in the corridor. In the early evening the TV appears to work. I seek ‘the world news’: but there is no English broadcasting. Hindi, Marathi, some Tamil, apparently. Perhaps Gujerati, even Malayalam. (Listed here only for phonetic pleasure.) But only brief skirmishes into English, occasional morses of escaped worlds: bandits, world summit, cholera, one-day test. Field day for a collagiste. (Be my guest, while I am yours.) Soon the transmission buzzes out, exhausted in the swinging temperatures. I sleep early, Bellow patient, near-silent (there are still echoes) by my ear. And it slips into the decision-making apparatus that I’ll go to the caves enter the grotto Buddha place, what wombs still there simple sublime, but here here but what I know but sublime but this desiccated wasteland outskirts of town, dried heart, small pitted dried fruit they sell like shrunken labia in the streets on a cart, to the caves on a cart thus have I heard Lord Buddha once saw lying beyond the palace gates a cripple an old man a corpse on a cart on a cart on a cart a corpse on a cart a corpse

and saw a robed giver-upper in the muddy street and did the same did the same did the same did the did he did he did did di di di didididididi


There’s no entry for the real-life journal, unlike this simulacrum. Strange European companion for the day, I never knew her name. Children, impeccably poor. Touts, scammers and shysters. Big thick horde-groups of French and German burghers. (Where’s my bacon, where’s my beef?) Not charitable, on my birthday, can’t afford to be, when so much is lost. Already gone. Gate gate parasamgate. Many of the finest wall-paintings ruined by vandals. But the echoing vaults there still. Buddhist sutta bled clean and transparent into the walls. Schist and basalt. Centuries of industry. Centuries passed now, only these marks here, nameless workers, unknown bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, carving into the empty vast of earth: full weight of elephant ear, chariot, flank of deva girl, so many breasts limpid fruit hung from the boughs of mango trees, how many sweat monsoons slipped away but for these austere dripping fruits of time. Before the body became an item, commodified by an unreal market value, gave supply a demand. Gave need, a craving. Tanha, or the Noble Truth, re-told by Cervantes and Co.

I pay the guide vastly inflated sums merely to regain my solitude. The beggars demand spiritual succour in the form not of mangoes but of Euros. Even the children disdain the bunches of bananas I offer them. While I am there I’m accosted by three local children, near-violent in their demands. I teach them to teach themselves how to make an offering – a Marathi folk song for paid lunch, a Bollywood shimmy for the schoolbooks they say they need. They are nervous at first, outside the regular routine, tentative as young horses drinking at strange water. Then satiric, parodic of themselves without ever knowing of punk or post-New Wave or postmodernism. They understand the disguises of irony, its self-protection, not yet ten years old, never gone to school. After their debut concert, shambolic but brave, leave them most of my last rupees. By then their song has been sung true. They can join the greats.

End of day dusk, before the bus is leaving, a poor farmer with splintering crystals gathered from his fields. Another I had had was stolen, weeks before. So I buy, just one, to replace it, the lucky charm from the Womb of wombs, the Door of all doors, the Cave of all possible recesses, refuges, and places of eternal safety. I buy, and will buy again, to pay penance, to placate the demons, to make feeble mark on my slate of credit out in the unreachable sky, I pay, I pay because in this world here below it is the only way we now know the only sacrifice we now make the only intermediary between the gods and ourselves we still trust in. So we will pay. And pay, and pay again. On the bus ride back I’m the only one standing, no-one offers me a seat. The ticket for Mumbai somehow between my fingers, November 26 ill-printed, foregone now, let slip through the window into the darkening night. The sunset is supernal. An ache of surrender.

Next morning the TV doesn’t work. I go for late breakfast, a year to add to those that have gone before. Back at the hotel the Jain proprietor offers me the front-page Times of India, shakes his head, little more. Then the TV is working, as if self-willed, I can’t follow the Hindi, but we watch, we watch, craning old survivors’ necks, lizards in the largely arid zones. Still alive, yes. Hell three hours down the line, the line that divides. But we know we have paid, as they have.

As they have but not as they have.

Published in Percutio 2009, No. 3, Paris: http://alpha.books.online.fr/Percutio/html/PastContents.html

 April, 2009 Paris





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Published in Journal of Buddhist Ethics # 16, 2009: http://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/2010/05/10/violence-and-non-resistance-buddhist-ahi%e1%b9%83sa-and-its-existential-aporias/

A long essay looking at an episode described in Alan Clements’ book Instinct for Freedom. I consider the Buddhist ethical grounds for Burmese former monks taking up arms against their own military oppressors in the long resistance against the regime of General Than Shwe (and his predecessors). Derrida and Levinas provide non-Buddhist ethical perspectives which underpin my otherwise Buddhist discussion of the philosophical implications of a non-dual ‘ethics of emptiness’.

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