Sansaku: Thirty-Three

Sansaku:   Finding the Touchstone


In Stevenson’s fable, the younger son goes home with the father and the elder son rides out to find the true touchstone of truth.   They take two very different paths.

If I were to be blunt, the king counsels his younger son to fake it well and play his cards right.   Essentially, he bluffs the priest king into believing a piece of plain mirror is the touchstone.   He buys the “seeming” and gives his daughter to the younger son. It’s all about appearances and flattering oneself.

The elder son wanders, and everywhere he goes people say they have the truth.   He asks them for the touchstone, and they are more than willing to give it to him.   He ends up with a wallet full of them.  It’s the one thing all people are willing to give.

After many long years, he comes at last to the ocean and the hut of an old man.   It’s different this time, and when he asks for the touchstone, is given what appears to be a plain pebble.   He’s disappointed and wanders on.

When he finally looks in the bag of stones, he sees.  In the light of the pebble, all of the other stones are still quite beautiful, but only the pebble is bright.   And after turning it on the world, he turns it on himself.

That’s the moment when he kneels down and prays.

It’s a bit of a shocker, what happens next.   He returns to the priest king’s temple, and finds his younger brother has claimed the prize.   He married the daughter and there are children at the door.

When he looks at his younger brother’s touchstone, the mirror of seeming, he sees an old man who has spent his life searching.   And he realizes how much he has sacrificed.   It grieves him badly, but then he pulls out the pebble and turns it on his brother and bride.

Stevenson isn’t gentle. “His brother’s soul was shrunk into the smallness of a pea, and his heart was a bag of little fears like scorpions, and love was dead in his bosom.”   And when he turns it on the maid, “She was but a mask of a woman, and withinsides she was quite dead, and smiled like a clock ticks.”

The elder brother, now seeing this, is finally set free.  “He will go forth to wander the world with the pebble in his pocket.”

I usually looked for touchstones in books. I might not have a single stone, but in the spirit of de Nerval, who said, “No religion? I have at least eighteen of them.”  That’s how I feel.

At some point, I stumbled on Blyth’s Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics.   I immediately sensed the presence of Lee and discovered it contained three of the stories Lisa had memorized, including “The Touchstone.”   I felt like I had found the source.

It’s in a chapter titled “Non-Attachment, Part III.”   At the end of it, Blyth repeats the story:  “When he turned the light of the pebble on himself, he kneeled down, what else could he do?  He prayed.”





Sansaku: Thirty-Two

Sansaku:   Wandering


There’s a line in a poem from The Jade Mountain, “Only to wanderers does the shock of beauty come ever anew.” Think about it.

Gary Snyder says the rocks won’t talk to trees, because the trees are only passing through. It seems we wander at different speeds.   I’ve been trying to slow down.  I’m wandering.

Sansaku is about wandering and being shocked ever again, but not just by beauty, but also by meaning.   I think it was Edgar Cayce who called dreams crystallized meaning.

And I think of these crystals of meaning as touchstones; which is an idea word that hasn’t been overused. I learned it from a story by Robert Louis Stevenson.   Lisa knew it by heart, and I often asked her to tell it.

If dreams are told in the dark of night, Lisa told stories around the campfire.  We were deep in the woods.  Lee liked to camp near rivers and waterfalls. This river rolled rocks. Lisa had to speak loudly and clearly for us to hear.

I wish I could describe Lisa’s voice.   A friend of mine, a psychologist, who knew both Lee and Lisa, said she sounded like someone from an alien world.   He speculated she might be schizophrenic. She wasn’t.

When I met her two sisters one afternoon, it wasn’t just Lisa who had that peculiar accent and way of speaking. They sounded the same. Each syllable of each word was slowly and carefully articulated. They had been home-schooled on classics in the wilderness.   The way they used language reflected this.

When I met her, she had never seen a movie. The modern world was as foreign to her as her world was to ours.   I did my best to enter hers.

“The king was a man that stood well before the world: his smile was sweet as clover, but his soul withinsides was as little as a pea.   He had two sons…”

Lisa took her time with the fable, and when she said “withinsides”, a word I’d never heard before, I knew exactly what it meant.   It’s what the story is about.

Stevenson, by the way, used his dreams to help him write stories. “Jekyll and Hyde,” which I had known since childhood, was one of them. And I was well aware I had a secret to my soul, just like Jekyll, which was coincedentally my grandmother’s maiden name. I hoped no one had a touchstone with which to see into me.

In the story, the king takes his two sons to meet a priest king, who has a beautiful daughter. When the elder son sees her, “Maid, ‘quoth he,’ I would fain marry you.” Lisa, by the way, talked like this.

Both sons want to wed her, but the priest king says, “One thing I love, and that is truth; and for one thing will I give my daughter, and that is the trial stone.   For in the light of that stone the seeming goes, and the being shows, and all things besides are worthless… Bring me the stone of touch, for that is the price of her.

The elder son was about to go wandering, like I am.  He wanted to find the touchstone and had no idea what it was.








Sansaku: Thirty-One

Sansaku:  Blessings


Yesterday we were paid a visit by two baby raccoons.   They were impossibly cute.   Both of us were tempted to feed and befriend them.   But I couldn’t help but think what my sister said about babies.

She thinks god made them so cute we would love them forever.   And I thought god had succeeded. But my sister always added, and god made teenagers to help you change your mind.   And I thought about those big-butt raccoons that terrorize the neighborhood at night.

The decision was easy, but the babies made it for us.   They were gone come nightfall and we miss them.  It feels like a prayer, a blessing.

And today I’m missing Japan.   Ten years ago my sister-in-law was married on a volcano.   If those baby raccoons were impossibly cute, this Shinto shrine was impossibly beautiful and sacred.   I had thought these shrines were only tourist attractions.

I could spend pages describing the place, with all its misty grandeur, but I’ll depend on Basho.   What would he say?

I imagine he’s walking up the stone stairs that lead to the courtyard and temple.   There is a wedding procession in front of him.   Both men and women wear kimono. It is raining and they hold artistic umbrellas. I cannot believe I’m here. He tells me, “You can die a little easier now.”

A day before the wedding, Ma-chan, soon to be the bride, made her famous tomato sauce.   Japanese spaghetti is different.  Like umbrellas, it’s a highly valued work of art and practically religious.   I don’t exactly know the ritual, but it’s easy to follow and feel it.

I drank two beers, thinking it would take the edge off of my culture shock, and it worked.  I am not used to being so vulnerable and helpless, since I cannot speak the language.   But it opens up my senses and I have to pay close attention.

I had been watching my mother-in-law.  I get to call her okasan, mother, most people call her sensei. She has been a teacher all her life.   Now retired, she sits beside me in a subtle grey kimono and is trying to eat the spaghetti without getting any sauce on the silk.   She sees that I am looking.

“I’m afraid,” she says.   I laugh and she adds, “Laughter is healthy for the body.”   And then she goes back to this artistic culinary creation that she wants to slurp with abandon, but can’t.

The Shinto priest and the two priestesses conducted the ceremony.   A huge taiko drum rumbled like thunder up the valley.   It was growing louder, moving faster, and pounded both body and ears.   I realized I’d gone into a trance.

The couple was standing close.   Somehow, I’m immediate family.   Their heads were bowed and I was transported to an alternate reality.   I’m thinking, “Thank god, this still goes on.”

The priest filled the sake cup, but the priestesses were the ones to pass the wine.   Three times I watched them sip, with great formality and care. The ritual was working.  They were married.

When I drank the sake that was passed to me, I said a vow.  No words were spoken, but it felt and feels like the way the baby raccoons have touched me.   Utterly privileged, outrageously honored and filled with grace, praise and blessings flow out like sake.   I’m filling the cup three times.




Sansaku: Thirty

Sansaku:  When You Come to the Land


When Chyako first described a Japanese novel as circular, I thought about a person or when you come to the land.  It doesn’t matter where or when you enter; and it doesn’t matter in which direction you walk; just start exploring from where you are.

That’s how I feel about “Best Slowly.” I know I skip around.   It’s even how I read it when I do.  There’s no beginning because it’s always beginning.

I’ve often thought that stories are the best way to embed experience.   They’re easy to remember, and it’s how we learn about character dynamics.   Blake said, “A fool and a wise man do not see the same tree.”

One of the many open secrets about dreams is related to this phenomenon.   While the world appears to be the same for all, it’s anything but that.   It all depends on who you are.

And dreams give us a chance to see the possible and potential futures.   They might use props from the past, but that’s not what they’re fundamentally about.

So often, we make that error in attribution. We mistake the situation, what happened and how we perceived it, for the character.   It’s like hearing one dream and thinking we know the person.   We all do it and therapists are particularly prone to this kind of projection.

When 9/11 happened, the faculty felt sorry for us in the counseling center and said we must be very busy.   I said, “Don’t you know?   It’s always 9/11 for somebody.   Every day is 9/11 for us.”

But counselors learn to ask, “What have you learned?”   It turns out that 9/11 is rich with meaning.

At the gay club in Orlando, it was 9/11 once again.   Counselors were being called to help with all the grief.   I could hear the stories without even being there.   I’ve been there, many times.

A good friend of mine had trespassed into a conversation about the tragedy in Florida.   He was surprised at what he heard and told me.   He said, “They turned it into politics.   I had to leave; I couldn’t listen.” I asked him what they said.

“They were blaming Obama and his failed war on terrorism.   And when someone mentioned it might be a hate crime, they were cynical.   One even said Obama wanted us to think that way.  That’s when I left.”

Not long after I met Chyako, it was the fiftieth anniversary of the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima.   It was in August and not September eleventh.   I was horrified by what I saw.

I had grown up celebrating our victory over the Japanese, who I had reduced to a single attribution.   Now I was looking at pictures of a Japanese city utterly destroyed.   The people looked like my family and my wife.   I couldn’t stop the crying.

I understand why Japanese write in a circular way, now that I have come to the land.




Sansaku: Twenty-Nine

Sansaku: The Favorite Scar


He was asking the audience what their favorite scar was, and almost a thousand hands were raised, and then he asked the shocker, “How many of you knew you had a favorite scar before this?” Now, hardly anyone raised a hand.

I often started groups with this exercise I took from Symbol, Story and Ceremony; I forget who wrote it just now.   It’s a sneaky way to reframe experience.   Most of us don’t think of scars as symbols of something positive.

By the way, I would have raised my hand both times. I was gifted as a child, although my family called it accident prone. I can think of six or seven scars right now.   For some reason, I was immensely proud of them.

But it wasn’t one of my scars I’ve been thinking about this morning.   And it’s not a visible scar.

Invariably, someone in the group would say, “My scar is on the inside.” In this case, she said, “I never talk about this, but I should.” And after telling us about her childhood abuse, said, “Favorite isn’t the right word.”

She often had dreams of dead trees, and quickly connected them to the trauma and her feelings.   I knew the group was suffering with her, and I did my best just to listen and hold to the fundamental skills.   She needed to process and tell the stories, again and again. It was painful for all of us.

And then she had an epiphany.

She lived far from campus to the south, and one day she realized she had a favorite dead tree.   It was an old pine to the west of the highway, perched on the mesa ridge.

She’d look for it each morning and then again in the late afternoon.   Hawks and other large birds liked it, too.

She told us, “Dead trees, they’re my favorites. I think they’re beautiful.”   And she went on to explain and describe how they were really alive.   They influenced the landscape.

That day became a landmark for me as well.   After group, she handed me an ink and colored pencil drawing she’d made of the tree.   It hung in my office for twenty-five years and I’m looking at it now.

It’s the kind of symbolic art Jung would have included in one of his books. I wish I could print it.

Of course, the tree stands in the center and in the center of the tree two eyes are looking into us. I think of Joseph Campbell’s phrase, the mask of god.   The eyes remind me of an owl’s.

Somehow she’s captured the complexity and grandeur of the tree.   It’s dead and it lives.   Behind it, looking like the great red spot on the planet Jupiter, the Sun.   There are two moons, and a honey gold sky. The roots spread out like feet and long toes.

I didn’t see her for many years.   And then one day in the grocery, a smiling woman approached me. I’m not good with faces, but I hadn’t forgotten and neither had she.   “I’m a healer now,” she said.









Sansaku: Twenty-Eight

Sansaku:  Craft Your Words and Heal


Red learned to string the bow, and he learned to make it sing.   It sounded like his voice.   Right now I’m hearing him say, “Craft your words and heal.”

After telling the story, he would often say, “Andy considered himself to be hopeless, but he was able to help me change my life.”   Red might have cut the line that was cutting him, but he was also pulled overboard and swallowed by a great fish.

When he returned to the college and teaching, he was marked like Frodo after his time in Mordor.   He wasn’t missing a finger, but the ring was gone and he’d survived the journey.

When he talked about his wounds, and he was honest in a way most men are not, he became what my wife called a small town hero.

Unlike most men, he studied and supported the women’s movement as best he could.   He knew that women were leading the way and men needed to follow.

Maybe because Red taught Shakespeare, the Bible as Literature, and often assigned Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, he knew what kind of a man he wanted to be and now, best slowly, he began to walk that path.

I remember him quoting his grandmother, who said, “Who we are is God’s gift to us.   Who we become is our gift to God.”   She’s the same one who wore Andy’s hat and urged him to cut bait.

It was not about living a safe and comfortable life or heading to the dry land and forgetting the fish.   That would be a disaster of a different kind.   She wanted him to care and do the right thing.   It’s a question that needs to be asked over and over again.

And because Red cared, he began to do the work. He knew he needed to change his life, and change begins with acceptance and getting honest.

I loved the way he did his shadow work in public.

For the most part, I didn’t trust many older men; I expected them to lie or not even know the difference. If Jung is right and evil is a militant refusal to face the shadow, Red was a light in the deep and deadly darkness that threatens all life.

As a soldier, Red had been ordered to witness one of the dirtiest nuclear bombs ever detonated. And when the lethal cloud lifted, he had been ordered to march to ground zero.   He writes about his experience and the cancer that came of it in Folding Paper Cranes.

And while the cancer killed him, he was far from hopeless. He was a man with a bow, and he learned how to string it by crafting his words and healing his soul.

I like to think of his bow as a masculine symbol for both men and women.   The weapon has been transformed into an instrument for peace,  truth-telling, and transforming wounds into consciousness.







Sansaku: Twenty-Seven

Sansaku:  Cut Bait


“Cut Bait” is a good title for Red’s dream, although there’s a number of other images that could serve to evoke the dream spell.   And remember, he woke to the first spring thunder; what the Japanese call haruichiban, spring number one.   I thought it meant the sound of the earth waking, but I seem to have made it up.

But you don’t make up a dream like this one. And you can’t plan on some shadow guide showing up in your life and giving you a token, a sign, of what’s going on and what needs to be done.

He was fishing with his grandmother – talk about two symbolic generators.   Jung often wrote about fishing. We throw our nets and cast our lines into the unconscious, into life.   How can we know what’s swimming towards us?  Christ was a fisher of men, and what about the Fisher King?

But it’s not just that, Red is fishing with his grandmother.   She is in the boat with him.   If memory serves and imagination helps, I see her as a fixed star in his childhood.   He could count on her earthiness, and guide by her cranky but constant light.

And she’s wearing Andy’s hat, which has become like a shaman’s cap, a wizard’s.  It’s amazing he didn’t become lucid or wake up at this point.   But the dream was a big one, and his psyche had something to say.

He’s caught a fish, and it’s far too large for him to land.   The line cuts his hands and the fish threatens to pull him overboard and take him down. This is the impasse, the stuck point; he’s entered the complexity zone. If his hands represent his ability to see things through, you can feel what it means to be swallowed by the deep.  And the fish, what is it?   That’s the great mystery.

His long-dead grandmother, wearing the hat that signifies so much, now speaks.  She is very clear.   The message takes no interpretation.   She says, “Cut bait, boy.   Cut bait.”

I don’t remember the first time this expression was told to me, but I can guess the situation.   I was probably hooked on some relationship that was cutting my hands and taking me down.   It wasn’t about getting into trouble, it was getting out.

For Red, this meant surrender. He needed to give up, give in, and any resistance was futile and useless. The defenses couldn’t hold and the long suppressed dam broke.   It wasn’t as bad as he thought.

Walking into Noble Hall, just before the talk that night, we stopped by the public phone and he told me, “I’m proud of my life as a teacher.   I don’t know why it took me so long to see this. I had thought I was a poet who also taught.   It’s the other way around.”

I don’t think I said anything, although the nonverbal message was clear, I agreed. He was never meant to be an executive, a businessman, and to work for mere money. Both Andy and his dream guide knew, he needed to cut bait.   Red knew, too.

And then he told me, “I’m not so proud of my personal life. It has been very painful and I’ve made mistakes.” But this is before he was diagnosed with cancer.