“An Evil Thing in Spider-Form”

Why must the entrance to Mordor be guarded by an ancient “evil thing in spider-form”? Why do Frodo and Sam have to pass through the dark, spiraling tunnel of Shelob’s lair before they can reach Mount Doom? Not only is the spiral path up a cone reminiscent of Dante’s spiral journey downwards in the Inferno and then upwards in the Purgatorio, but the figure of Shelob — like the Balrog in the Mines of Moria — also recalls the various guardian beasts that Dante places at crucial transitions. Although Tolkien insists that he is not writing allegory, his guardian monsters nonetheless carry allegorical resonances beyond their function as physical obstacles in the narrative. To get at Shelob’s peculiar resonances, we have to pay attention to the way Tolkien handles her in the narrative as well as the unusual, sometimes startling words he uses to describe her. 

Whenever a skillful writer seems to break one of his own implicit “rules,” it is a signal to the reader to sit up and prick the ears. Near the climax of The Two Towers, when Frodo and Sam have found a way out of Shelob’s lair and are running towards the summit, Tolkien interrupts the action by doing something that he never does, at least in the Lord of the Rings: at this crucial moment, in the midst of a breakneck escape, the narrator pauses to give us “background.” Ordinarily, Tolkien supplies background through his characters, as when Elrond gives an account of the war, or when Gandalf tells us what he knows about the Balrog, or when Tom Bombadil is described by Goldberry, Gandalf, and himself. This way of rendering the world may carry less authority than a clear account from an omniscient narrator, but has the effect of being more honest to how we really form a picture of the world: do we not work with our little experience of what the person or thing says and does, the words about it uttered by other people, and our fluid interpretations of our experience and other people’s words? In our own lives we can never take an encyclopedic perspective. Besides, Tolkien knows well that a habit of presenting background to every personage and situation makes for a clumsy and boring narrator. 

   At first Shelob is presented piecemeal, through the sensory experience of the hobbits. First, there is pitch-blackness, in which the absence of markers causes all sense of time to disappear:

 Gollum led the way close under the cliff. For the present they were no longer climbing, but the ground was now more broken and dangerous in the dark, and there were blocks and lumps of fallen stone in the way. Their going was slow and cautious. How many hours had passed since they had entered the Morgul Vale neither Sam nor Frodo could any longer guess. The night seemed endless. (Ch.8, p.319)

If eternity is a state beyond time, then this is a kind of negative eternity, in which no calibration of progress or regress, motion towards or away from, location or destination, is at all possible. This darkness, however, is not void of any quality, for it does give out an overpowering stench: 

Darker it loomed, and steadily it rose as they approached, until it towered up high above them, shutting out the view of all that lay beyond. Deep shadow lay before its feet. Sam sniffed the air.

`Ugh! That smell!’ he said. `It’s getting stronger and stronger.’

Presently they were under the shadow, and there in the midst of it they saw the opening of a cave. `This is the way in,’ said Gollum softly. `This is the entrance to the tunnel.’ He did not speak its name: Torech Ungol, Shelob’s Lair. Out of it came a stench, not the sickly odour of decay in the meads of Morgul, but a foul reek, as if filth unnameable were piled and hoarded in the dark within.

`Is this the only way, Sméagol? ‘ said Frodo.

‘Yes, yes,’ he answered. ‘Yes, we must go this way now.’

‘D’you mean to say you’ve been through this hole?’ said Sam. `Phew! But perhaps you don’t mind bad smells.’

Gollum’s eyes glinted. `He doesn’t know what we minds, does he precious? No, he doesn’t. But Sméagol can bear things. Yes. He’s been through. O yes, right through. It’s the only way.’

`And what makes the smell, I wonder,’ said Sam. `It’s like – well, I wouldn’t like to say. Some beastly hole of the Orcs, I’ll warrant, with a hundred years of their filth in it.’ (Ch.9, p.326)

In general, Tolkien is not a writer who notices smells; even his corpse-strewn battlefields do not reek of slaughter and decay. He describes the other-worldly fragrance of healing herbs in The Return of the Kng, but in The Two Towers there is only a stench so tangible that it is felt like a blow:

At length Frodo, groping along the left-hand wall, came suddenly to a void. Almost he fell sideways into the emptiness. Here was some opening in the rock far wider than any they had yet passed; and out of it came a reek so foul, and a sense of lurking malice so intense, that Frodo reeled. And at that moment Sam too lurched and fell forwards. (ch.9, p.328)

Gollum’s words are suggestive: He doesn’t know what we minds, does he precious? — as he addresses the Ring, his only companion during his many years in the depths. Sam implies that they are standing above something like a vast grave and privy, holding — hoarding — the vile refuse of hundreds of years of Orc and spider bowels; and when Gollum uses the words through, right through, he too evokes bowels, an alimentary passageway which has even been his home for a while. Gollum has lost all squeamishness, and seems not even to notice the smell. To beings not inured to it, however, the badness of the smell is not physical but moral; it is as if this particular stink is intended to offend and brutalize — for why else would something smell so unnaturally bad?

   The third aspect of Shelob, as she manifests herself bit by bit in the darkness, is her sound, startling and horrible in the heavy padded silence: a gurgling, bubbling noise, and a long venomous hiss (328) — a mixture of poisonous snake and diabolical cauldron, a vat for processing meat. It is after the hobbits break out and manage to see her whole that Tolkien the narrator interrupts the action to give us the “background” to Shelob, just in case we were tempted to think of her as only a monster to be defeated on the way to the goal:

There agelong she had dwelt, an evil thing in spider-form, even such as once of old had lived in the Land of the Elves in the West that is now under the Sea, such as Beren fought in the Mountains of Terror in Doriath, and so came to Lúthien upon the green sward amid the hemlocks in the moonlight long ago. How Shelob came there, flying from ruin, no tale tells, for out of the Dark Years few tales have come. But still she was there, who was there before Sauron, and before the first stone of Barad-dûr; and she served none but herself, drinking the blood of Elves and Men, bloated and grown fat with endless brooding on her feasts, weaving webs of shadow; for all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness. Far and wide her lesser broods, bastards of the miserable mates, her own offspring, that she slew, spread from glen to glen, from the Ephel Dúath to the eastern hills, to Dol Guldur and the fastnesses of Mirkwood. But none could rival her, Shelob the Great, last child of Ungoliant to trouble the unhappy world.

Her past is essentially impenetrable: is she older than Tom Bombadil? Who is Ungoliant, and does Ungoliant have an origin?  Does Shelob have to be coeval with her food, Men and Elves? Does she eat flesh? — or is she an ancient vampire, living on blood and then casting the drained husks into the pit below? At this point the description starts to go beyond the physical: how does a creature grow fat with endless brooding on her feasts? Can brooding make one fat? What is it to weave webs of shadow? And what does it mean to say all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness? What is it for her to vomit, and how can darkness be vomited? Are the webs of shadow her vomit? What does this have to do with brooding, and what does the conjunction for mean here? Why not and? Physically, the description makes no sense, but spiritually it makes powerful sense in its evocation of a spreader of corruption and degradation. 

   Gollum treats her like a pagan god, either because he really thinks of her as one, or because he knows that she thinks of herself as a deity deserving worship and sacrifice:

Already, years before, Gollum had beheld her, Sméagol who pried into all dark holes, and in past days he had bowed and worshipped her, and the darkness of her evil will walked through all the ways of his weariness beside him, cutting him off from light and from regret. And he had promised to bring her food. But her lust was not his lust. Little she knew of or cared for towers, or rings, or anything devised by mind or hand, who only desired death for all others, mind and body, and for herself a glut of life, alone, swollen till the mountains could no longer hold her up and the darkness could not contain her.

Tolkien’s diction in these passages is thick, gnarled, full of knots: and the darkness of her evil will walked through all the ways of his weariness beside him, cutting him off from light and from regret? “Darkness of her evil will” is intelligible, suggesting a brew of malice, hatred, blindness, and inscrutability — but in what sense does such a will “walk” beside someone, and does “all the ways of his weariness” mean “eveywhere he went in his exhaustion,” or “all the actions and movements that came from his despair”? Does this evil will “cut him off from light and from regret” because under Shelob’s influence he deprives himself not only of actual daylight but also of his capacity for moral insight and innocent joy (two connotations of “light”), and is also rendered morally numb. The sentence reminds us that Gollum once had “light and regret” — but are these permanently gone, or can they be revived when he is out of Shelob’s reach? We are then told that she only desired death for all others, mind and body: thus, it is not merely the physical food of flesh that nourishes her, but the death of all others — and how would death of mind feed her, except as the profound  spiritual malice that delights in crushing love and hope? The foulness of Shelob is an expansive, metaphysical foulness that goes way beyond vampirism. She embodies the anti-life and anti-spiritual, and thus is uncontainable by anything merely geological: swollen till the mountains could no longer hold her up and the darkness could not contain her. What is meant by “the darkness”? — the one inside the mountain, or the one she vomits, which comes from inside herself and must be a moral or spiritual darkness? The implication is that she cannot be limited and, from inside herself, is unceasingly extending her borders. This, then, is no simple spider, but a spirit of negation.

   As the description progresses, the resonances amplify:

But that desire was yet far away, and long now had she been hungry, lurking in her den, while the power of Sauron grew, and light and living things forsook his borders; and the city in the valley was dead, and no Elf or Man came near, only the unhappy Orcs. Poor food and wary. But she must eat, and however busily they delved new winding passages from the pass and from their tower, ever she found some way to snare them. But she lusted for sweeter meat. And Gollum had brought it to her. (332-3)

Infinitely ingenious in her snaring of food, Shelob is not satisfied  only by meat: she lusted for sweeter meat — innocence , joy, love, which Gollum knows he can deliver in the form of Frodo and Sam. Does she communicate her lust by speaking to Gollum, or does he figure it out through some kind of latent sympathy? If she can speak her lust, it would seem that she has the deliberative, persuasive intelligence of a creature who is not fundamentally alone; but if Gollum can pierce her darkness to guess this desire, he must understand from within himself the satisfaction of devouring the morally sweet. He can understand that from her point of view he will be bringing “nice food”:

`We’ll see, we’ll see,’ he said often to himself, when the evil mood was on him, as he walked the dangerous road from Emyn Muil to Morgul Vale, ‘we’ll see. It may well be, O yes, it may well be that when She throws away the bones and the empty garments, we shall find it, we shall get it, the Precious, a reward for poor Sméagol who brings nice food. And we’ll save the Precious, as we promised. O yes. And when we’ve got it safe, then She’ll know it, O yes, then we’ll pay Her back, my precious. Then we’ll pay everyone back! ‘ (323)

We now see what Gollum has grown not to mind. He doesn’t mind digging around in the chewed bones of his former companions, and by implication, if he doesn’t find his Precious there, he also won’t mind searching for her in the pit of Shelob’s excrement. We realize that in his years hiding in the mountain Gollum has become a denizen of the sewer, and both physically and morally, nothing is too dirty for him. If this utter loss of inhibition comes about through badness or weakness of character, Gollum would be straightforwardly loathsome or contemptible — but the reality is more disturbing: his corruption issues from nothing less than love, which can value preciousness in something outside himself. 

   In contrast, both Sauron and Shelob find nothing precious but themselves, and every other being a means for their own satisfaction. Their relationship is symbiotic:

And as for Sauron: he knew where she lurked. It pleased him that she should dwell there hungry but unabated in malice, a more sure watch upon that ancient path into his land than any other that his skill could have devised. And Orcs, they were useful slaves, but he had them in plenty. If now and again Shelob caught them to stay her appetite, she was welcome: he could spare them. And sometimes as a man may cast a dainty to his cat (his cat he calls her, but she owns him not) Sauron would send her prisoners that he had no better uses for: he would have them driven to her hole, and report brought back to him of the play she made. (323)

What could be worse than Shelob’s horrifying, deadening darkness? — Sauron’s delight in hearing the reports of her play with victims. We can only imagine the questions he would ask and the pleasure of his contemplation. In Shelob, we see a mindless lust to devour goodness, but in Sauron — more sinister because Tolkien only hints at it and lets us imagine — we encounter contemplative, aesthetic sadism, a refined evil.

   Others have written about The Two Towers as a book of war, in which Tolkien draws from his experience as a soldier in some of the worst battles of World War I — for example, how the journey through the Dead Marshes resembles the experience of crawling through No Man’s Land during the battle of the Somme:

Hurrying forward again, Sam tripped, catching his foot in some old root or tussock. He fell and came heavily on his hands, which sank deep into sticky ooze, so that his face was brought close to the surface of the dark mere. There was a faint hiss, a noisome smell went up, the lights flickered and danced and swirled. For a moment the water below him looked like some window, glazed with grimy glass, through which he was peering. Wrenching his hands out of the bog, he sprang back with a cry. ‘There are dead things, dead faces in the water,’ he said with horror. ‘Dead faces! ‘.        

Gollum laughed. ‘The Dead Marshes, yes, yes: that is their names,’ he cackled. `You should not look in when the candles are lit.’

`Who are they? What are they? ‘ asked Sam shuddering, turning to Frodo, who was now behind him.
‘I don’t know,’ said Frodo in a dreamlike voice. ‘But I have seen them too. In the pools when the candles were lit. They lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep deep under the dark water. I saw them: grim faces and evil, and noble faces and sad. Many faces proud and fair, and weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead. A fell light is in them.’ Frodo hid his eyes in his hands. ‘I know not who they are; but I thought I saw there Men and Elves, and Orcs beside them.’

`Yes, yes,’ said Gollum. `All dead, all rotten. Elves and Men and Orcs. The Dead Marshes. There was a great battle long ago, yes, so they told him when Sméagol was young, when I was young before the Precious came. It was a great battle. Tall Men with long swords, and terrible Elves, and Orcses shrieking. They fought on the plain for days and months at the Black Gates. But the Marshes have grown since then, swallowed up the graves; always creeping, creeping.’ (Ch.2, p.235)

The passage also invokes Dante’s journey over the frozen Lake Cocytus, where he sees innumerable bodies in the ice. Shelob, the ancient goddess presiding over an abyss of blood, bones, and excrement, at the climax of a book of war, can be read as an incarnation of the mindset that doesn’t mind war, and that can live quite happily suspended over this nasty abyss.

   But I think Tolkien means her to be much more. The poets of the Upanishads saw our universe as an unending process of hunger and consumption: for a being to survive, something else has to die — and our lives, moment by moment, are made up of eating, digesting, and excreting other beings. We too are food; we do not get to escape the universal process. Shelob’s malice consists in trying to prove to us that we are nothing but this process: we are essentially food and shit, and essentially beings that reduce everything else to food and shit. This is the meaning of the overwhelming stench. Shelob is a vision of ultimate degradation, in which all higher aspiration quails to nothing. Sauron comprehends that all those trying to enter his kingdom via Shelob’s lair will perish as much from despair and demoralization as from fangs; to survive Shelob, we will need the invincibility of genuine love, which is why Sam and Frodo can make it, and also Gollum, who loves one thing. Of course, Sauron does not believe in this, so he expects Shelob to batten on all intruders.

   The narrator, having given us this important background to Shelob, then returns to the action. While we the readers now have a fuller sense of what Sam and Frodo are facing, they do not know what we know:

But nothing of this evil which they had stirred up against them did poor Sam know, except that a fear was growing on him, a menace which he could not see; and such a weight did it become that it was a burden to him to run, and his feet seemed leaden. (323)
The horror of Shelob is moral and spiritual in its reverberation, but through our heroes — who are not simple, but sensitive and innocent — such horror is felt with visceral immediacy, for true evil cannot be hidden but is atmospherically evident to the pure of heart. That we are allowed to know what they have no suspicion of makes them more helpless, more vulnerable, but also perhaps more capable of action; to have brooded over the meaning of Shelob might only have paralyzed them, and Sam’s heroism will be founded on love, not knowledge. 

The Difference Between Real Limericks and Lame Imposters

We all have two or three friends who tend to speak in the style of someone funny without being actually funny. For example, my friends of this sort like to speak in a clever, aphoristic style reminiscent of somebody’s idea of a British wit. This derivative form of humor is closely related to what happens at the opposite end of the scale of propriety — namely, the oaf who thinks he is funny when he is being merely coarse and boorish in emulation of someone who is genuinely good at being coarse and boorish. In each case, the speaker parasitizes the truly funny by evoking it through a stylistic formula, and the disturbing thing about this is that while the derivative style of speech might have been inspired by sincere admiration for something truly funny, over time and innumerable repetitions of the formula the speaker loses the ability to tell the difference between the authentic funny and the simulated funny. The dedicated practice of stylistic mediocrity always ends up dimming the lamp of insight.

   We see this with my favorite genre of humorous poetry, the limerick. There are many magnificently funny ones, but then a horde of facile, inventive minds — still chortling at the funny ones — must set their hands to generating hundreds of new limericks on stereotypically racy situations or bouncing off proper nouns in the first line that are difficult to rhyme. An example of the first:

There was a young lady who lay
With her legs wide apart in the hay,
   Then, calling the ploughman,
   She said, “Do it now, man!
Don’t wait till your hair has turned gray!”

Richard Erdoes, The Richard Erdoes Illustrated Treasury of Classic Unlaundered Limericks (ed., Isaac Asimov, 1975) 

And of the second: 

A Shakespearean actor named Yorick
Was able in moments euphoric
   To bring to perfection
   Three kinds of erection:
Corinthian, Ionic, and Doric.

(Ray Allen Billington, Limericks Hysterical and Historical, 1981)

Both of these are good specimens of the glib, formulaic limerick, or simulacrum of limerick. You will find hundreds of these in that monstrous artifact, the book of limericks, which can contain hundreds, even thousands, of such likenesses. The formula for manufacturing a limerick requires first observance of the mostly rigidly anapestic meter (the first foot can be either iambic or anapestic):


Merely reciting this meter can be enough to bring a smile to an English-speaking face (it’s worth trying it out on Chinese or Indian friends to see their reaction). The last words of first, second and last lines rhyme, and most good limericks begin with the provocation of a seemingly impossible word to rhyme at the end of the first line, usually a place name; the short rhyming middle lines are there primarily to delay the last line for the maximum surprise punch of the final rhyme. The classic example is Swinburne’s

There was a young girl from Aberystwyth
Who took sacks to the mill to fetch grist with
   But the miller’s son Jack
   Laid her flat on her back
And united the things that they pissed with.

Nothing is supposed to rhyme with “Aberystwyth,” but the poet succeeds in finding two rhymes that make narrative sense in a single sentence. Then there is the content: most good limericks culminate with an image of nether body parts or secretions. Clean limericks are always somehow disappointing, and it is impossible to imagine a limerick that conveys an edifying moral teaching. The form is designed for transgression: a narrative that would be scandalous or criminally perverse if true, a rhyme that should never occur, and the ruthless speed of an experienced burglar who breaks, enters, and escapes. Limericks are the perfect poetic subversion for northern Puritannical societies riddled with prurience and hypocrisy, and speaking languages in which rhymes are hard (not Italian or Spanish!): that is, societies in which the conjoinings of sex and rhyme are both a struggle.

   There is one book of limericks that I would call a gem — a vile, wicked gem. Norman Douglas (1868-1952) is better known for the comic masterpiece South Wind (1917), a novel from the uptight-Brit-finds -the-secret-to-happiness-in-the-Mediterranean genre, of which Where Angels Fear to Tread, Room With a View, and Enchanted April are more famous representatives. Accused of various forms of sexual debauchery and sex crimes for much of his life, Douglas belongs to the shady, unwholesome underworld of English writers lke Defoe and Wilde — and he too had an incisive, cosmopolitan mind with zero tolerance for intellectual pretention and self-righteousness. Some Limericks (1928) — one of the most banned and therefore pirated books in history — frames a few dozen choice limericks with an introduction, commentary, and “geographical index” of marvelous, poker-faced, pseudo-scholarly erudition. 

   For example: 

There was a young man of Peru
Who was hard up for something to do.
     So he took out his carrot
     And buggared his parrot,
And sent the results to the Zoo.

Douglas’ curator comments:

Golden Period. It is always when people are idle or ‘tired of doing nothing,’ as they call it, that these things occur. Which of us has not been told that:

‘There was a young monk of Siberia,
Who of frigging grew weary and wearier.
     At last, with a yell,
     He burst from his cell,
And buggared the Father Superior.’

Half the cases of rape recorded in the newspapers, the epidemics of onanism among schoolboys – to say nothing of a great many murders – would never be heard of, if the perpetrators were not hard up for something to do. The larger apes in captivity, notably mandrills, are liable to masturbate themselves into a consumption from sheer boredom, and it is not difficult to guess what would happen in such circumstances, if there were a bird handy. So true are the words of Dr.Watts:

Satan finds some mischief still 
For idle hands to do.

According to C.E. Hilliar (Avifauna of the Peruvian Highlands, London, 1888, p. 163) Peruvian parrots are of an ‘unusually confiding disposition.’ This may supply a key.

He sent the results to the Zoo – where, it is to be feared, so delicate a hybrid cannot have survived for long. I conjecture the specimen is now in the Museum of the College of Surgeons.

To me, what makes the poem even funnier is the persona of the curator: a refined connoisseur of poetic quality (“Golden Period”), a moralist, a speculator on human behavior, an ornithologist (“This may supply a key”), and a man driven by unbridled lubricious curiosity to fantasize on every detail surrounding peculiar sexual acts (“it is to be feared…I conjecture”), no matter how improbable they may be. His mind is relentlessly literal and without a feeling for boundaries — a startling fusion of scholarly instincts and absolute insanity.

There was a young lady at sea
Who complained that it hurt her to pee.
     Said the brawny old mate:
     That accounts for the fate
Of the cook, and the captain, and me.

It is to be hoped that the vessel carried a duly qualified surgeon, else one or the other of the sufferers might have been in hospital later on. A neglected clap is not all beer and skittles – beer, indeed, is strictly to be avoided, and jerky games may send the gonococks lower down with sad consequences, unless you are wearing a suspender. And even then….

Readers will note the genial conciseness of these lines. How much truer poetry they are than a great deal of what is printed under that name!

Here the insanity comes in the form of altruistic concern, from apparently personal experience, for the suffering of the personages in the limerick. With a single “indeed” the narrator moves instantly from the idiom “not all beer and skittles” to literal reflections on the physical pain that might be caused by beer and skittles. And what is he thinking with “And even then…”? The climax of the commentary is the general reflection on poetry, in which the speaker seems to praise the insight into passions, medical causation, and fateful suffering evoked in a mere five lines — far superior to the vapid sentimentality of most lyrical verse. 

   Throughout the book the limerick is set up as a competitor with so-called “high verse,” a kind of anti-poetry. Douglas is at his most impishly anti-poetic when he attributes the following “exquisite lyric” to Tennyson, of all people:

There was an old fellow of Brest,
Who sucked off his wife with a zest.
Despite her great yowls
He sucked out her bowels,
And spat them all over her chest.
Douglas’ curator claims to have been “assured”

that he wrote numbers of such, and that nearly all were destroyed after his death. In point of finish and good taste it is quite worthy of him, and that he should have indulged his genius with this class of poetry does not strike me as very unlikely. Whoever perpetrates solemn rubbish like the Idyls must feel the need of unburdening himself from time to time, especially when gifted with his powers of versification. Indeed, I should say that whoever lives Tennyson’s life must write an occasional limerick, or burst; and it would not surprise me to learn, when the real truth about him is published, that he died “with a limerick on his lips.”

The limerick now turns out to be medicinal, an antidote to the toxic and gassy excesses of conventional poetry; and it owes its effectiveness as a medicine to all the excellences that generated the disease in the first place. In point of finish and good taste it is quite worthy of him… High-minded Protestant poetifications need the low-minded precision of the limerick; without it, high-mindedness would burst from a surfeit of itself. Purity and pornography were secretly married a long time ago.

   Douglas quotes another jewel, later attributed to Swinburne:

There was a young man of Cape Horn
Who wished he had never been born.
     And he wouldn’t have been
     If his father had seen
That the end of the rubber was torn.
I should apologise for inserting this well-known lyric but for the fact that so perfect a specimen of the Golden Period cannot be excluded from a collection like this. The smoothness of the versification: the glamour that hangs about mysterious regions like Tierra del Fuego: the wistfulness of the opening lines and the anticlimax of the last one – they all testify to the genius of the Unknown Poet.

“Glamour” and “wistfulness” are deadly accurate characterizations — not of the poem, which bubbles with rambunctious schadenfreude, but of the kind of reader who would read it as if it were a serious 19th century poem about romantic wandering, remorse, and disappointment. Other limerick collections fail because their editors seek to be funny and are explicitly purveying tomes full of mirth; Douglas’ collection succeeds because his curator seems to have no awareness that these poems are funny. In this vein he launches forth into a stream of pedantic sexual antiquarianism culminating in a sublime moralistic non-sequitur:

It is not surprising that the young man in question should have suffered from melancholia. Travellers concur in stating that this is one of the gloomiest landscapes on earth; a desolation of fog, drizzle, and snow. Charles Darwin, in his Voyage of the Beagle, tells us that “Death, instead of Life, seems the predominant spirit” of those parts, and a more recent writer, Metcalfe, reports that the natives are letting themselves die out, apparently, from “sheer weariness of living.”

   I cannot say how that rubber came to reach Cape Horn; maybe it was bartered by the mate of a passing whaler for a dozen sea-otter skins. These appliances are supposed to be of French origin, but they must have been already known at the Byzantine Court, if what Gibbon calls “the most detestable precautions” of Theodora were of this kind. And some curious material has now come to light (Prof. O. Schwanzerl, Kondonsgebrauch im frühesten Mittelalter, Budapesht, 1903) showing that they were in use under the Merovingians. They were made of deerskin – gegerbtes Hirschleder – and smeared with tallow – Unschlick – to facilitate penetration. (For an analogous use of leather see Mime VI and VII of Herodas). The invention was attributed to the Queen who, while fond of lovers, insisted, and rightly, on the legitimacy of her offspring.

   The world would be a better place, if modern women had the same respect for their husbands.

Our narrator is an old debauchee with old-fashioned notions of propriety and an obsessive interest in the minutiae of sexual apparatus; he also has a wide-ranging and undisciplined mind that has to demonstrate its learning at every opportunity. Moreover, he is a reductive  materialist, insensitive to poetic ends and effects, and capable of seeing life only in terms of scientific or historical “facts.” In this respect Douglas’ curator of limericks differs little from the reductivist scholars of the Bible who sought to explain everything through historical circumstances and usages. 

   Even so, he sometimes hits a wall, when a limerick reveals to him the limits of his imagination:

That naughty old Sappho of Greece
Said: “What I prefer to a piece
     Is to have my pudenda
     Rubbed hard by the enda
The little pink nose of my niece.”
These lines being unintelligible to me, I sent them to my lady-specialist for comment and elucidation. Her reply, I confess, leaves me where I was – in complete ignorance of what the poem is about. She writes: ‘I learnt no Greek at school, but have of course heard of Sappho’s poems. They must be fifth-rate stuff, if she knew no more about poetry than she did about other things. The nose: what next? Be sure, dear Sir, there is some mistake here. The suggestion is too absurd. No woman is ever so much of a fool, not even under the influence of drink.’

    I will leave it there, and wait for enlightenment from some other quarter, merely noting that Sappho was not born in Greece (though a good many other people were) and that tradition fails to record whether she had a niece or not.

Douglas leaves it to us to imagine the curator striving but failing to imagine, while his “lady-specialist” (in what? — not in Greek, as she confesses) is able to imagine (“what next?”) but refuses to spell out: …not even under the influence of drink. What is funnier here than even the limerick itself is the curator’s blank incomprehension, which doubles the laughter — like the one person in the company who doesn’t get the joke. In fact, Douglas’ curator performs this role with every single limerick, and this is why the book is so funny: he gets everything but the joke and thereby becomes the joke.

   Unlike other collectors of limericks, Douglas knows when to stop: Some Limericks is delightfully short, and can be savored like a cup of rare tea. 


Norman Douglas’ Some Limericks can be read in its entirety here:


Frodo’s Laughter

In life, it is almost impossible to predict what a rescue or victory will look like before it happens: often, an apparent victory is Pyrrhic, and an apparent rescue may be “out of the frying pan, into the fire.” In fiction, victories and rescues can take obvious, stereotypical forms, such as the valiant destruction of the enemy in battle, or the seizing of the doomed hero from the maw of death; without doubt, we find these more predictable climaxes in The Lord of the Rings. But what distinguishes Tolkien’s power as a writer is his insight into the small and seemingly insignificant moments that most people do not notice — which is one reason he chooses to centre his epic on hobbits, beings whom no one could have expected to play the pivotal role in a cosmic conflict. He knows that the greatest turns in a story may come through a look, a gesture, a word — for such “little” things can change minds and hearts, and since all actions issue from minds and hearts, it is the “little” events in the soul that create the story. They are only considered “little” because they are not obvious to us, and they are not obvious to us not because they are little but because we are not good at noticing such things.
   In the second half of The Two Towers, nestled in dark crannies far away from the great battles, we witness a great transformation in Frodo’s spirit, effected by nothing less than the words of Sam. In chapter 3 of Part 4, Frodo finds himself paralyzed by a sense of hopeless inadequacy:

He sat upon the ground for a long while, silent, his head bowed, striving to recall all that Gandalf had said to him. But for this choice he could recall no counsel. Indeed Gandalf’s guidance had been taken from them too soon, too soon, while the Dark Land was still very far away. How they should enter it at the last Gandalf had not said. Perhaps he could not say. Into the stronghold of the Enemy in the North, into Dol Guldur, he had once ventured. But into Mordor, to the Mountain of Fire and to Barad-dûr, since the Dark Lord rose in power again, had he ever journeyed there? Frodo did not think so. And here he was a little halfling from the Shire, a simple hobbit of the quiet countryside expected to find a way where the great ones could not go, or dared not go. It was an evil fate. But he had taken it on himself in his own sitting-room in the far-off spring of another year, so remote now that it was like a chapter in a story of the world’s youth, when the Trees of Silver and Gold were still in bloom. This was an evil choice. Which way should he choose? And if both led to terror and death, what good lay in choice? (Ch.3, p252)

This is the despair of one who has just realized that he has undertaken a task impossible for him, and that the only outcome of the undertaking is “terror and death.” It is the sense that some of us wake up to in mid-life that we are unrescuably embarked on a course from which no success or happiness can be reasonably expected, and in which there is no guidance from anyone: we are on our own, without even the light of old hope. And Frodo is also exhausted.

   What starts to lift him out of his despondency is Sam’s unexpected reaction to Gollum’s report of a sighting of men:

`Were there any oliphaunts?’ asked Sam, forgetting his fear in his eagerness for news of strange places.
   `No, no oliphaunts. What are oliphaunts? ‘ said Gollum.
   Sam stood up, putting his hands behind his back (as he always did when ‘speaking poetry’), and began:
Grey as a mouse,
Big as a house.
Nose like a snake,
I make the earth shake,
As I tramp through the grass;
Trees crack as I pass.
With horns in my mouth
I walk in the South,
Flapping big ears.
Beyond count of years
I stump round and round,
Never lie on the ground,
Not even to die.
Oliphaunt am I,
Biggest of all,
Huge, old, and tall.
If ever you’d met me
You wouldn’t forget me.
If you never do,
You won’t think I’m true;
But old Oliphaunt am I,
And I never lie. 

‘That,’ said Sam, when he had finished reciting, `that’s a rhyme we have in the Shire. Nonsense maybe, and maybe not. But we have our tales too, and news out of the South, you know. In the old days hobbits used to go on their travels now and again. Not that many ever came back, and not that all they said was believed: news from Bree, and not sure as Shiretalk, as the sayings go. But I’ve heard tales of the big folk down away in the Sunlands. Swertings we call ’em in our tales; and they ride on oliphaunts, ’tis said, when they fight. They put houses and towers on the oliphauntses backs and all, and the oliphaunts throw rocks and trees at one another. So when you said “Men out of the South, all in red and gold,” I said “were there any oliphaunts? ” For if there was, I was going to take a look, risk or no. But now I don’t suppose I’ll ever see an oliphaunt. Maybe there ain’t no such a beast.’ He sighed.

Nowhere previously in the narrative has there been any mention of “oliphaunts,” a word from Old French that evokes wild imaginings of the great animal in medieval courtly romances. The possibility of an oliphaunt appearing pops suddenly out of Sam’s mouth, and it is one of those indications that Sam has an inner life that we are not privy too: his mind bursts with legend and lore, and throughout the journey, in his long stretches of silence, he must be thinking about things like oliphaunts. Moreover, even though they are in one of the darkest episodes of the journey, his excited curiosity temporarily banishes fear. This is a lesson for us: curiosity can kill fear, not just the cat. 

   When he “sighs” at the thought that he might never see an oliphaunt, his sad resignation is both insane and exhilarating: Now, at this terrible moment when you are staring failure and death in the face, you are worried that you might never see one of those mythical beasts from the poems of your childhood?! What exhilarates is the evidence that Sam doesn’t fully live here, in his immediate physical surroundings. This is why for him curiosity can conquer fear: his inner world, mostly hidden from us but occasionally manifest in his encounters with Elves, is much larger and more beautiful than his physical world, and it may be more real and vivid. What moves him most deeply, as we saw in Lothlorien, is the discovery that his inner world of image and story can spill over into the material universe in which he has to eat, act, and die. Unlike Frodo, who is driven by a heroic quest, Sam is on this journey because he wants to find out if the legends that have shaped his life are true or not — that is, whether in his own experience it may be possible for a legend and an actual life to tread the same ground. His concern for oliphaunts is far from trivial. 

   Gollum of course isn’t interested, and we don’t yet know that he has already hatched his plan to kill them both. What is interesting is that he maligns his old self: Smeagol, obsessed with finding the secrets of the world, would have been very interested in oliphaunts, but Gollum seeks to emphasize that he only thing that interests him now is safety. Frodo, however, is something of a mean between Gollum, who has long since given up the dream of happiness for himself, and Sam, who is invincible because most of his being is alive in a dream of happiness. This is why be can understand both: Gollum and Sam are two poles of Frodo.

`No, no oliphaunts,’ said Gollum again. ‘Sméagol has not heard of them. He does not want to see them. He does not want them to be. Sméagol wants to go away from here and hide somewhere safer. Sméagol wants master to go. Nice master, won’t he come with Sméagol?’

Frodo stood up. He had laughed in the midst of all his cares when Sam trotted out the old fireside rhyme of Oliphaunt, and the laugh had released him from hesitation. `I wish we had a thousand oliphaunts with Gandalf on a white one at their head,’ he said. `Then we’d break a way into this evil land, perhaps. But we’ve not; just our own tired legs, that’s all. Well, Sméagol, the third turn may turn the best. I will come with you.’ (255)

He had laughed: Only now are we told that the background accompaniment to Sam’s recitation was Frodo’s laughter. I can imagine that the laughter began when Sam adopts his recitation posture of standing straight with arms behind his back, a posture in which the poetry can shine proudly forth through face and chest. It is also the posture of a confident 10-year-old boy declaiming on stage — Sam’s unbreakable inner child, ready to stand and recite in even the darkest times. This magnificent vision is the first that loosens Frodo from his despair.

    Later, when they catch sight of the troop of men,

To his astonishment and terror, and lasting delight, Sam saw a vast shape crash out of the trees and come careering down the slope.

Again, “lasting delight” balances out “astonishment and terror” — and it is “lasting” because it can be savored in words and memories forever. The apparition of a real oliphaunt brings about a contact with immortality that completes a life and thereby renders death harmless:

Sam drew a deep breath. ‘An Oliphaunt it was!’ he said. `So there are Oliphaunts, and I have seen one. What a life! But no one at home will ever believe me. Well, if that’s over, I’ll have a bit of sleep.’ (270)

What a life! The greatest satisfaction would be to find ourselves living the life that we only dreamed about in our childhoods; only then could we go to sleep happy and fulfilled, even in the midst of battle.

   Frodo’s reinvigoration continues when, a few chapters later, the same conversation is resumed — once again, when he expresses grim hopelessness:

‘I don’t like anything here at all.’ said Frodo, `step or stone, breath or bone. Earth, air and water all seem accursed. But so our path is laid.’
‘Yes, that’s so,’ said Sam. `And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same – like old Mr Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into? ‘

   `I wonder,’ said Frodo. ‘But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.‘ (320-21)

And you don’t want them to: in other words, to be a participant in a story, you cannot be omniscient, because what it means to be someone in a story is that you don’t know how things are going to go or what the next moment will be, and you cannot really choose how things will turn out. Without the ignorance and terrifying uncertainty, there would be no stories and no heroes, only a chain of actions and events no more significant than any other. 

   As before, Sam is always fascinated by where tales end and “life” begins: do the two worlds councide or leak into each other, is the world of legend infinite like time and the universe? In these passages we witness Sam thinking aloud; perhaps these are good examples of what goes on in his head during the long trudge to Mordor. He may be the only character in the Lord of the Rings permitted to unveil his interior monologue, the swirl of his private preoccupations apart from the demands of the immediate action. Because Sam lives in two worlds, he is always wondering about his place in them and about how they might go together.

   What happens next in the conversation is surprising and powerful, because it holds the key to how Frodo finds the strength to go on:

‘No, they never end as tales,’ said Frodo. `But the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended. Our part will end later – or sooner.’
   ‘And then we can have some rest and some sleep,’ said Sam. He laughed grimly. ‘And I mean just that, Mr. Frodo. I mean plain ordinary rest, and sleep, and waking up to a morning’s work in the garden. I’m afraid that’s all I’m hoping for all the time. All the big important plans are not for my sort. Still, I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales. We’re in one, or course; but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards. And people will say: “Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring! ” And they’ll say: “Yes, that’s one of my favourite stories. Frodo was very brave. wasn’t he, dad?” “Yes, my boy, the famousest of the hobbits, and that’s saying a lot.”‘
   `It’s saying a lot too much,’ said Frodo, and he laughed, a long clear laugh from his heart. Such a sound had not been heard in those places since Sauron came to Middle-earth. To Sam suddenly it seemed as if all the stones were listening and the tall rocks leaning over them. But Frodo did not heed them; he laughed again. ‘Why, Sam,’ he said, ‘to hear you somehow makes me as merry as if the story was already written. But you’ve left out one of the chief characters: Samwise the stouthearted. “I want to hear more about Sam, dad. Why didn’t they put in more of his talk, dad? That’s what I like, it makes me laugh. And Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam, would he, dad? ” ‘

In the course of the conversation there arises in Frodo a new way to view his struggle: he learns, through Sam, to see himself as a character in a great story. No longer is he merely Frodo the hobbit, but now he is Frodo and the Ring, accompanied by Samwise the Stouthearted. From now on they will be the inspiration of books and movies, and of radiant faces enthralled by their story. The sudden realization is what makes Frodo laugh his long clear laugh. All the other characters are some how locked into dull, rigid programs: the warriors have to be warriors and they know at every step the grim duty they must follow, and the villains pursue their own narrow ends without humor. Warriors and elves have genealogies and histories, and it is for these that they live — to fix their names, and ensure their legacies. But genealogies and histories are not tales: tales exist for the sake of “lasting delight,” and they contain such beings as hobbits and oliphaunts — improbable creatures. Tolkien’s warriors are never astonished by their own improbability. It takes the comic sensibility of a hobbit to be amazed by self-recognition, and to laugh in it. The comic mind can step outside itself and see itself from new angles, precisely because it does not have a deadly investment in taking itself seriously. It’s okay, even wonderful, to be a character in a tale.

   In this tale, Sam will act Sam to the hilt, Frodo will be Frodo, and Gollum will be Gollum: each will play their roles perfectly, and thereby fulfill their tale. This is a tremendous lesson for those of us who feel ourselves mired, even doomed, in hopeless situations: we really don’t know how it will turn out, and at the present moment it may free us to imagine ourselves as characters in a great tale — not the noblest characters, far from perfect, and often unintelligent. What more can we do than play ourselves wholeheartedly and leave the world another story to enjoy? — for even when we fail miserably and die, we can still make an extraordinary and satisfying tale.

   This is why, when Gollum returns from his dubious excursion, he finds Sam and Frodo happily asleep: Peace was in both their faces. (323)



Essaying the Buddha: An Introduction

Thus I have heard. This, the characteristic opening sentence of the Pali discourses of the Buddha, makes us aware at the outset that what we are about to get is words refracted through memory, or through the memory of a memory. What relation do these words have to the earliest, most authentic words of the historical Gotama Buddha? No one can know the answer to this, but the teachings of the Discourses have such power, originality, and cogency that it is hard to resist viewing them as issuing authentically from a single, profound intelligence. The historical Gotama comes to us deflected by memory and the creative imagination, like the historical Jesus and the historical Socrates, but the deflected images taken in themselves yield such rich insight that their historical origins — which are not directly accessible to us anyway — are of only secondary interest to the reader who wants to understand the insight. It doesn’t bother me at all that I can only fantasize about the historical Socrates on the basis of the Socrates of Plato and the Socrates of Xenophon, who bear only a tenuous resemblance to one another both in the kinds of things they say and in how they say it. 
   Thus I have heard: About two and a half thousand years ago a single human being discovered a way to reconceive the problem of unhappiness. Realizing that all the various paths hitherto proposed as paths out of suffering were really either dead ends or paths that led deeper into suffering, Gotama Buddha — as the legend goes — sat under a tree and wouldn’t budge until he had understood the reasons for suffering and found a true path out of it. He knew that his discovery would be opposed and misunderstood by all the orthodoxies of his day, but despite his reluctance, he was persuaded to teach, and over the rest of his life held a vast number of conversations with many different kinds of people. Some of these people were perplexed by him, but most of them, after hearing what he had to say, could simply not go back to the way they had been living. After his death these conversations were recollected, and then collected, by his disciples; indeed, the Canon is mainly attributed to the prodigious memory of his closest disciple and attendant, Ananda. It was only in 29 BCE, about 450 years after the Buddha’s death, that the conversations were written down and became the Pali Canon, which comprises thousands of pages of the Buddha’s remembered discourses. 

Their style is terse, formulaic, methodical, and unappealing, full of repetition and patterned phrasing designed for efficient memorization. I’ve observed a number of different charismatic spiritual teachers and know that somebody who attracted as many devoted followers as the Buddha did could not have spoken in such a stern, charmless manner. It is as if his lovable, living speech has been freeze-dried and preserved in tight foil packets for future use. The writers have meticulously shunned any possibility of verbal seduction by stylistic beauty, and are forcing us to relate only to what the words are saying. While the first impression made by the Suttas is of a forbidding and desiccated austerity, after some exposure their atmosphere starts to feel like the healthy, refreshing dryness of mountain air: up here we can see farther and smell things more clearly. The studied inelegance of the language slowly acquires the homely, unpretentious beauty of unvarnished wood beams and bare earth floors. 

  The Canon is vast and daunting: where to begin, and how to proceed? Many students start with the volume called Majjhima Nikaya, or the Middle-Length Discourses, which covers the full range of the Buddha’s teachings. But this one volume contains 152 dense Suttas and is longer than War and Peace. The best way is just to start reading, and if a passage catches your attention, trust that there is a reason for that and dwell on it — asking exactly what the Buddha is saying, how it is responding to this particular interlocutor, and what the Buddha is not saying in this conversation. We can learn from the interlocutor too: what is his question, and why is it a question for him? Has the Buddha tailored his response to the character, background, and intelligence of the interlocutor? The dramatic situations of many of the discourses are themselves integral to the teachings. Reading the Suttas with careful, thoughtful openness is itself a form of contemplation, training attentiveness to the connections between thoughts and also developing a habit of testing thoughts against experience. The Buddha never asks us simply to believe him; instead, he asks us to “know for ourselves,” to penetrate and comprehend our own experience and everything that is given to us to experience. The conciseness and lean abstraction of these Suttas invite us to enter into them, open them up, and breathe our own understanding into them: we have to get them to speak to us, by engaging them personally. 

  The essays in these pages will be essais in the classical sense: attempts, forays, investigations, a daring of myself on the difficult terrain of the text. I try to read the Suttas with my own mind, paying attention to what the Buddha is actually saying, and ignoring later interpretations by the various schools and traditions of Buddhism. I read as a non-Buddhist and write for non-Buddhists — or for Buddhists who are not primarily interested in being Buddhists — hoping that my honest encounter with the discourses may generate fresh understanding or at least give a fresh view of old understandings. I read as a struggling, often dimwitted human being who has found the discourses helpful and illuminating, and who is plainly incompetent to give any authoritative overview of the multifarious beast called “Buddhism.” Here there will be no descriptions of higher spiritual states and no speculations about what enlightenment might be like. My investigation takes place at the lower reaches of the practice, where we learn to understand the human condition, the causes of happiness and unhappiness, how the heart and mind work. It is an immensely satisfying endeavor that can be undertaken wherever we are, at any time, because the conditions for it are universal and omnipresent.  

  In the first four of these essays, we will see the Buddha’s response to some relatively mundane preoccupations. He doesn’t go here into the core of his teachings, but addresses his interlocutors on their own terms. It was in discourses like these that I first grew to respect the tact, gentleness, and wisdom of this teacher, who always knows what to say and what not to say, who demonstrates reasonableness and moderation in every sentence and none of the relentless one-sidedness of an ideologue. The first of these discourses culminates in the unavoidable question, Do you know who you are? 

“Venerable Gotama, Is There A Soul?”

This may be the most burning question for seekers who come to the Buddha from religions built on belief in imperishable individual souls or in one all-pervading Soul. One of the most memorable exchanges on this question is initiated by a Brahmin wanderer named Vacchagotta, who in various suttas is featured as an asker of big speculative questions. The conversation begins enigmatically:

“Venerable Gotama, is there a self?”
When this was said, the Blessed One was silent.
“Then is there no self?”
A second time, the Blessed One was silent.

The word “self” translates atta (in Sanskrit, atman), and is one of those immensely rich, resonant words that have provoked thousands of years of debate and discussion. For human beings and other sentient beings atta means “the innermost self” or “soul,” the livng core that is eternal, persisting through time and perhaps even residing outside of time. When we speak loosely of the “self” of a world, a culture, a landscape , a mountain, we also mean the underlying essence that unites the varying appearances into “one thing.” Today I saw a murmuration of starlings squabbling with a flock of robins, noticed that the red leaves on my flowering pear tree have started to turn brown, needed to wear my thickest wool coat, and found feathery frost on my car window: all these bespeak a “self” of winter, which had suddenly arrived, ousting autumn, and which cannot be experienced directly but through signs.

   When we point to ourselves to say “it’s me,” we know that the Me we are referring to cannot be pointed at, cannot be pulled out and displayed: my finger points physically to my jacket, or when that is removed to my shirt, or my t-shirt under it, or to my chest, but none of these observable things is what I mean by Me. My Self underlies all of the phenomena associated with me and cannot be pointed to. My clothes, my body, my actions, my CV, are all a metonymy for something that exists in supposition as their substratum. Vacchagotta is asking if this substratum exists — if there is an “I” or not, if there is a unifying Soul, or am I nothing but a temporary aggregation of parts that are themselves temporary aggregations of parts, all changing from moment to moment?  

   The Buddha’s silence might be taken as either a refusal to answer Vacchagotta’s questions, or as the only appropriate answer. To understand this, let’s look at how the Buddha talks about the self in the Anatta-Lakhana Sutta (SN 22:59), which was the Buddha’s second teaching, given to the five monks who were his best friends at the time. Coming just seven weeks after his enlightenment, the teaching is charged with the electricity of new discovery: 

Thus I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was living at Benares, in the Deer Park at Isipatana (the Resort of Seers). There he addressed the bhikkhus of the group of five: “Bhikkhus.” — “Venerable sir,” they replied. The Blessed One said this.
“Bhikkhus, form is not-self. Were form self, then this form would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’ And since form is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’
“Bhikkhus, feeling is not-self…
[formulaic phrasing above’repeated]

“Bhikkhus, perception is not-self…

“Bhikkhus, determinations are not-self…

“Bhikkhus, consciousness is not self. Were consciousness self, then this consciousness would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’ And since consciousness is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’

“Bhikkhus, how do you conceive it: is form permanent or impermanent?” — “Impermanent, venerable Sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent painful or pleasant?” — “Painful, venerable Sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent, what is painful since subject to change, fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this is I, this is my self'”? — “No, venerable sir.”

“Is feeling permanent or impermanent?…

“Is perception permanent or impermanent?…

“Are determinations permanent or impermanent?…

“Is consciousness permanent or impermanent?” — “Impermanent, venerable sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent pleasant or painful?” — “Painful, venerable sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent, what is painful since subject to change, fit to
be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this is I, this is my self'”? — “No, venerable sir.”
“So, bhikkhus any kind of form whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near, must with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself.’
“Any kind of feeling whatever…
“Any kind of perception whatever…
“Any kind of determination whatever…
“Any kind of consciousness whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near must, with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not my self.’

Rather than just telling us how it is, the Buddha is giving us a framework of questions. If there is a “self,” where does it exist, and can we find it anywhere? Of the possible wheres, there are only five: the five skhandas, “heaps” or agglomerations, which constitute the entirety of our beings. These are 1) bodily “form”; 2) the “feelings” of pain, pleasure, or neither, which accompany every sensation; 3) “perception” or what we sense with our sense organs, including our organ of internal perception, the mind; 4) “determination,” which includes volition, predispositions, preferential tendencies, all the aspects connected with willing and choosing that have given our existences direction and that establish inertia for the future; and 5) “consciousness,” the dimension of thought, intellection, and awareness. There is no other skandha. All five have been compared to five heaps thrown together to make a single being, or the confluence of five rivers rushing together. If the self can be found anywhere, it must be in the skandhas.

   With characteristic methodical thoroughness, the Buddha then works through the skandhas one by one. Am I my body? If our selves were the same as our bodies, we would never be at odds with our bodies; instead, we struggle with our bodily limitations, with the frequency of disease and physical pain, with aging and with death. There is always tension between us and our bodies. But am I my feelings, am I my perceptions? Am I my desires? If not, then am I my thoughts, my consciousness? It turns out that the self cannot be found in the other four skandhas: we can struggle with our likes, dislikes, and neutralities, and are often surprised by our feelings; we can resist perceptions, and also be confused by our perceptions; we can suffer conflicting volitions and be paralyzed in dilemmas, and we are capable of not wanting what we want; we can make serious mistakes in our thoughts and judgments, and can repudiate states of mind and mental commitments that have until then dominated our sense of reality. Our inability to identify simply with any of the skandhas proves that the self is not to be found in them, and therefore not to be found in all of them taken together. 
   The Buddha then points out that in our experience, all five skandhas are subject to change and are constantly in motion. Every cell in our body changes moment by moment, the temperature and blood pressure vary, all the fluids are in motion, and the content of the blood changes in accordance with what we have eaten and with the capacity of the whole organism to digest. The body at least contrives to stay stable and recognizable from day to day, even though philosophers have been quick to dismiss the body for being mired in flux. The sensations, feelings, and volitions are much more volatile and harder to pin down than the body — and what can be less stable, more entirely in motion, than consciousness? It is barely possible to keep track, in the space of a day, of all our states of consciousness — not just the moods and emotions, but also the thoughts, the things that catch our attention, the preoccupations and vexations. Impermanence is what we experience in all the “heaps” of our being — but what we are looking for is that thing whereby we can be considered “ourselves,” something that continues selfsame from one moment to the next, unchangingly itself underneath the chaos.  We do not experience the self in any of the five skandhas, and there is no sixth skandha.

   There is a lot to unpack and chew over in the Buddha’s terse, repetitive formulations. The careful search for the self amidst the skandhas is itself a form of focused meditation, but in this search one of the things we notice is that in fact the self cannot be an object of the search. Instead, what we call “self” is a process of self-making, a continuous activity in which identification is constantly being attempted. With our bodies, for instance, think of all those times we reject photographs of ourselves that “don’t look like us” and settle on the one that is “us,” that is worthy of representing us; or, more interestingly, consider the person who cannot accept any photograph of themselves as a good likeness. The act of picking out a good picture of myself exists in the context of a lifelong and developing process of making an image of myself that I wish — for many complex reasons — to identify with. What goes on when we choose and reject an image of ourselves is worth investigating seriously. While we settle on an image, we can also at the same time rejoice in the lover who delights in our morning face and morning breath, and we can feel pleasure when a small nephew fondly plays with our grey hair or strokes our bald patch. We are caught here in a web of sometimes contradictory identifications; it can be consternating when our lover who adores our middle-aged frailty thinks that our favorite picture of ourselves is slightly silly and not like us at all. With feelings, volitions, and thoughts, the activity of seeking something to identify with goes on automatically  and at a much deeper level. When we are angry, in love, or feeling righteous, we identify so wholly with those states that it is impossible to see ourselves objectively, and when even close friends disagree with us then, we feel that it is our selves that are under attack. It is possible to feel anger, love, and righteousness in succession — and then the identification with three sets of thoughts and emotions can lead perplexingly in different directions.

   In an important conversation with the beloved disciple Ananda, the Buddha takes on again the identification with feeling:

“In what ways, Ānanda, does one considering (the idea of) self consider it? One considering (the idea of) self either considers feeling as self, saying: ‘Feeling is my self.’ Or he considers: ‘Feeling is not my self; my self is without experience of feeling.’ Or he considers: ‘Feeling is not my self, but my self is not without experience of feeling. My self feels; for my self is subject to feeling.’
“Therein, Ānanda, the one who says ‘Feeling is my self’ should be asked: ‘Friend, there are these three kinds of feeling—pleasant feeling, painful feeling, and neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling. Of these three kinds of feeling, which do you consider as self?’
“Ānanda, on the occasion when one experiences a pleasant feeling one does not, on that same occasion, experience a painful feeling or a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling; on that occasion one experiences only a pleasant feeling. On the occasion when one experiences a painful feeling one does not, on that same occasion, experience a pleasant feeling or a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling; on that occasion one experiences only a painful feeling. On the occasion when one experiences a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling one does not, on that same occasion, experience a pleasant feeling or a painful feeling; on that occasion one experiences only a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling.
“Ānanda, pleasant feeling is impermanent, conditioned, dependently arisen, subject to destruction, falling away, fading out, and ceasing. Painful feeling is impermanent, conditioned, dependently arisen, subject to destruction, falling away, fading out, and ceasing. Neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling is impermanent, conditioned, dependently arisen, subject to destruction, falling away, fading out, and ceasing.
“If, when experiencing a pleasant feeling, one thinks: ‘This is my self,’ then with the ceasing of that pleasant feeling one thinks: ‘My self has disappeared.’ If, when experiencing a painful feeling, one thinks: ‘This is my self,’ then with the ceasing of that painful feeling one thinks: ‘My self has disappeared.’ If, when experiencing a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling, one thinks: ‘This is my self,’ then with the ceasing of that neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling one thinks: ‘My self has disappeared.’
“Thus one who says ‘Feeling is my self’ considers as self something which, even here and now, is impermanent, a mixture of pleasure and pain, and subject to arising and falling away. Therefore, Ānanda, because of this it is not acceptable to consider: ‘Feeling is my self.’
“Ānanda, the one who says ‘Feeling is not my self; my self is without experience of feeling’—he should be asked: ‘Friend, where there is nothing at all that is felt, could the idea “I am” occur there?’”
“Certainly not, venerable sir.”
“Therefore, Ānanda, because of this it is not acceptable to consider: ‘Feeling is not my self; my self is without experience of feeling.’
“Ānanda, the one who says ‘Feeling is not my self, but my self is not without experience of feeling. My self feels; for my self is subject to feeling’—he should be asked: ‘Friend, if feeling were to cease absolutely and utterly without remainder, then, in the complete absence of feeling, with the cessation of feeling, could (the idea) “I am this” occur there?’”
“Certainly not, venerable sir.”
“Therefore, Ānanda, because of this it is not acceptable to consider: ‘Feeling is
not my self, but my self is not without experience of feeling. My self feels; for my self is subject to feeling.’
“Ānanda, when a bhikkhu does not consider feeling as self, and does not consider self as without experience of feeling, and does not consider: ‘My self feels; for my self is subject to feeling’—then, being without such considerations, he does not cling to anything in the world. Not clinging, he is not agitated. Not being agitated, he personally attains nibbāna. He understands: ‘Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no returning to this state of being.’

In brief, if I seek to identify my self in my feelings, which feelings do I fix on for identification? If it is the happy me, am I not myself when miserable? If my self is to be found in my pain, then am I not myself when in pleasure? Furthermore, any feeling of pain or pleasure is changing all the time, so in what part of them can I find myself? If I reject this and say that the self exists beyond feeling, unfeeling and therefore unfelt, why would I have any cause to look for the self anywhere, since experientially it is nothing to me? Only when the seeker stops trying to locate and objectify the self — both in feelings and in non-feeling — will he attain freedom from agitation. The agitation itself is caused by the futile attempt to solidify the self, whether as individual ego or as world-soul, which is an amplification of ego; the way out of this agitation begins with being able to catch ourselves in the act of making identifications. 

   In all of this, the Buddha is making no assertions about the existence of the self; he wants us to essay, to make an empirical inquiry into our experience of selfing, and to understand for ourselves in what way there is or isn’t a self. What we see is a continual process of identifying, of making selves — never unitary even in a single person. If this is what the word “self” means, then there is a self; but if the object sought for in identification is an eternal selfsameness from moment to moment, then we do not find it anywhere in any experience we can point to. He does not say this version of self doesn’t exist, just that we don’t find it anywhere except in the imagination of faith, which is also not simple non-existence. The more pressing question is why we are looking for the self, what is at stake when we want it to exist or not exist.

   To return now to the Brahmin wanderer Vacchagotta, the Buddha denies him a straightforward yes or no, and also a complicated explanation: he answers with silence, partly to throw Vacchagotta back onto himself and provoke him to question his question, but partly to show to this clever quibbler that to such questions there really is no answer. Non-questions get non-answers. It is comparable to someone who watches Star Wars and asks afterwards if the experience of the film was real or not. This is a non-question, because clearly in some way there was the experience of the film: there are dreams, there are fantasies. The non-question is generated by attachment to the idea of a solid reality. A genuine question would be something like, In what way is Star Wars real or not real, true or not true? The answers to this will be more intelligent and nuanced.

Then Vacchagotta the wanderer got up from his seat and left.
Then, not long after Vacchagotta the wanderer had left, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, “Why, lord, did the Blessed One not answer when asked a question by Vacchagotta the wanderer?”
“Ananda, if I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self — were to answer that there is a self, that would be conforming with those brahmans & contemplatives who are exponents of eternalism [the view that there is an eternal, unchanging soul]. If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self — were to answer that there is no self, that would be conforming with those brahmans & contemplatives who are exponents of annihilationism [the view that death is the annihilation of consciousness]. If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self — were to answer that there is a self, would that be in keeping with the arising of knowledge that all phenomena are not-self?”
“No, lord.”
“And if I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self — were to answer that there is no self, the bewildered Vacchagotta would become even more bewildered: ‘Does the self I used to have now not exist?'”

Answering yes would corroborate Vacchagotta’s predisposition to hold to an eternal self, which we don’t find in experience of the skandhas; answering no would corroborate him in his deep-seated anxiety that then nothing really exists. These theoretical positions are solidifications, congealments, of the more dynamic ways for self to be or not be. The self happens like the forming of a bubble, like the making of a dream, real in a way, and not real in another waythe point is not to recite this as a strikingly paradoxical proposition, but to be able to see selfing as it happens and to live it in its real unreality, its unreal reality.
The three Suttas quoted here are:

Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic (SN 22:59)
translated from the Pali by Ñanamoli Thera (1993)
Mahanidana Sutta: The Great Causes Discourse (DN 15)
translated from the Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi

Ananda Sutta: To Ananda (SN 44:10)
translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2004)

The Buddha’s Core Curriculum for Graduating Life: Mindfulness (8)

[Head of a monk: 4-5th century CE, Gandhara]

If the Satipatthana Sutta were to conclude after describing the first three foundations of mindfulness, what would we lose? Mindfulness of breathing, bodily movements and positions, feelings, and states of mind will be more than enough for most people to work on over several decades and still feel they haven’t exhausted the practice. We would gain closeness to our own experience: a refined awareness of all that is going on in our bodies, an understanding of how feelings work and how craving arises, a developed intuition for states of mind in ourselves and in others, a diminishing of compulsions and attachments, and all round — just by becoming more aware and self-aware — greater effectiveness in all human activities. Becoming more open to experience and more calmly intelligent about what really goes on, we will naturally suffer less because our expectation and demands will be more realistic; we might even find ourselves happier, because we are struggling less with people and situations, and because in paying attention we will start to find our own lives more interesting, more abundant. It could well be that knowledge of what we have to do and how we have to live will emerge naturally from understanding ourselves better — just as children who read and who thus spend many hours a day getting nto the minds of literary characters will expand their powers of empathy without having to be taught. 

   The Buddha himself made his great spiritual discoveries wholly empirically, through observing and comprehending what is present in body, feelings, and mind; no one told him where the practice was going to lead him. It takes tremendous trust in the process to be able to give oneself up to the lessons of experience, without being guided by a framework reassuringly provided by a wise teacher. Similarly, it takes an unusually trusting teacher to let the student loose in the laboratory of life to figure out for himself what works and what doesn’t. What if the student accidentally blows himself up? On the other hand, a real teacher — knowing that he is not omniscient — is always delighted when a student surprises him with a question or discovery that he hasn’t yet thought of. Throughout the Discourses the Buddha has emphasized “knowing for yourselves”; we only know the things that we find with our own senses and intelligence, and this is why the Buddha’s teaching style — terse, dry, understated — tends to give us space to question and investigate. It is also why the Satipatthana starts with meditations in which we develop confidence in our own powers of insight. In the words of the refrain in this Sutta, the practitioner “lives independent and clings to naught in the world” — not even the words of his teacher. In the cultivation if mindfulness, the Buddha is scrupulous not to introduce the conceptual frame too early, for premature reliance on someone else’s interpretation of phenomena always undermines our own ability to experience honestly.

   Only as the fourth foundation of mindfulness do we get contemplating the dhammas — often confusingly translated “mental objects,” because it deals with ideas and enotions, and consists of a series of formulaic encapsulations of the Buddha’s system that need to be thought through and understood. To oversimplify, the first three foundations of mindfulness cultivate accurate but passive awareness, a kind of wise receptivity to what is; by themselves, they have little power of active transformation, little capacity to take us further along the path that leads to the final destruction of suffering. In the first three mindfulness practices, we ward nothing away, repress nothing, and entertain with open arms both positive and negative equally; in the fourth mindfulness practice, we must now work to nudge away the negative and develop the positive, since we now understand vividly what negative and positive are.

   The martial sport of fencing offers a useful analogy. A budding fencer might be fond of swords, and while using the finest sports blades he might be thinking all the time of his collection of replica rapiers at home: mindfulness of the blade, an intimate knowledge of everything about swords, motivates and excites his practice. Another fencer might be on fire from the historical romance of fencing, and in each practice session he remembers real duels and the accounts of ancient combats. A third fencer, perhaps coming from a background in dance or gymnastics, might enjoy the technical drills more, and appreciate the science of movement: here we see a certain kind of mindfulness of body. None of these interests is wrong, and each of them brings into the foreground one aspect of the sport. The aspect that is foregrounded may be in itself endlessly fascinating and rewarding, but the fencer who is “lost” in this aspect will not become a good fencer. What is required in he making of a real fencer is the harnessing of a host of subordinate aspects into the ability to win bouts agains skilled antagonists, and this involves learning progressions directed towards a specific end. The training is vigorous and prescriptive — do this, don’t do that — as the student is actively transformed into a real fencer who might survive in an actual swordfight.

   The contemplation of dhammas (“mental objects”) takes place in accordance with five numerical frames that are given more detailed treatment in other Suttas: the five hindrances, the five aggregrates of clinging, the six internal and external sense bases, the seven factors of enlightenment, and the four noble truths.  Each of these is a concise, standard schema of ethical, intellectual, and psychological soul-work; they are compressions of the Buddha’s experience that need to be carefully considered and unpacked for ourselves — like seeds of wisdom, which grow only if watered, by our own hands, with our blood. The first three foundations of mindfulness were necessary propaedeutics to this, for without developed attentiveness to our own experience the contemplation of dhammas would be entirely out of our reach. The Four Noble Truths make only superficial, hypothetical sense to one who does not know how to be mindful of body and feelings. Indeed, many people who are suffering believe that they are fine, and many who think they are suffering badly are in fact better off than most — how would we know how to recognize and gauge our own state, if our powers of awareness are nothing more than rudimentary and blunt, like sticks that small boys use for pretend-weapons?

   I am not going to explore the contemplations of dhammas here, because they require longer and more detailed exploration, and because I am unqualified. Whereas the first three foundations make a lot of sense to me, the fourth requires trust and commitment to the Buddha’s system — trust and commitment that is backed up by seeing, in the practice of the first three foundations, that the Buddha always has a reason for saying what he says in the way he says it. The contemplation of dhammas is for students who have already committed to the path, but here too the articulations make sense to an ordinary thoughtful human being who seeks to be wiser. 

   For example, one of the contemplations of dhammas takes on the “five hindrances” (nivarana), those complexes of thoughts and emotions that interrupt and obstruct our efforts at mental clarity and tranquillity in whatever work we may be doing. They are difficult to deal with, because by the time we become aware of the presence of one of them, our work has already been disturbed. Because our foundations in mindfulness are now strong, we can nonetheless pull back and look at the disturbance. 

“Here, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu lives contemplating the mental objects in the mental objects of the five hindrances.

“How, O bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu live contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the five hindrances?

“Here, O bhikkhus, when sensuality is present, a bhikkhu knows with understanding: ‘I have sensuality,’ or when sensuality is not present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have no sensuality.’ He understands how the arising of the non-arisen sensuality comes to be; he understands how the abandoning of the arisen sensuality comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned sensuality comes to be. When anger is present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have anger,’ or when anger is not present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have no anger.’ He understands how the arising of the non-arisen anger comes to be; he understands how the abandoning of the arisen anger comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned anger comes to be. When sloth and torpor are present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have sloth and torpor,’ or when sloth and torpor are not present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have no sloth and torpor.’ He understands how the arising of non-arisen sloth and torpor comes to be; he understands how the abandoning of the arisen sloth and torpor comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned sloth and torpor comes to be. When agitation and worry are present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have agitation and worry,’ or when agitation and worry are not present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have no agitation and worry.’ He understands how the arising of non-arisen agitation and worry comes to be; and he understands how the abandoning of the arisen agitation and worry comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned agitation and worry comes to be. When doubt is present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have doubt,’ or when doubt is not present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have no doubt.’ He understands how the arising of non-arisen doubt comes to be; he understands how the abandoning of the arisen doubt comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned doubt comes to be.”

(Tr. Soma Thera, 1998)

Each of these hindrances hides a world of complex causation. “Sensuality” is not just sexual desire, but all those desires that come from an underlying belief that material pleasures can make us happy; “anger” expresses disappointment, dissatisfaction, and a sense of betrayal, stemming from some belief that people and the world “should” be other than they are, and from a concealed assumption that we are competent to judge their inadequacy; “sloth and torpor” encompass our various ways of resisting what we know we must do, ranging from not being to get up or to stay awake, to seeking distraction in trivial entertainments, to depressive paralysis; “agitation and worry,” which can creep in insidiously at any moment, can come from regret for things done, not done, or done poorly, as well as the anxiety that is generated by the knowledge of unfinished business, and general anxiety for loved ones and the world; and “doubt,” which is not just lack of faith in the Buddha’s path, includes philosophical disbelief as well as crippling lack of confidence in one’s own abilities and in the project as a whole. The Buddha has seen clearly — in himself and in his students — that whenever we find ourselves unsettled and derailed, it is usually because of one or more of these five hindrances. We also know from experience that the hindrances are addictive by nature: each time we indulge them, we make them stronger and more frequent in the future. Consequently, learning how to handle the hindrances is crucial to progress along the path, and mindfulness of the hindrances comes under the category of contemplating the dhammas in the dhammas.  While good, encouraging advice from a teacher and close friends is usually our best help in dealing with the hindrances once they have arisen and once we find ourselves wriggling in their clutches, we still have to learn to manage them ourselves by experiencing them directly and seeing what they are.

   Let’s look at just one of them: When anger is present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have anger,’ or when anger is not present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have no anger.’ The first step is to be able to recognize when it is there or not there. Often we can go for days in a bad mood without consciously realizing that we are angry; or we can find in the midst of our meditations that we are being swept along on a flash flood of grumbling, not having noticed when it started. This part of the contemplation requires skill in bare mindfulness. But what do we do, once we have noticed? He understands how the arising of the non-arisen anger comes to be; he understands how the abandoning of the arisen anger comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned anger comes to be. We have to study where the anger comes from, and be able to recognize it at its origination as it arises — and not only when it has already become full-fledged passion. Once we understand how it arises, we need to understand how it is abandoned. As in the other contemplations, we do not repress or force the hindrance out — because that will only give it more power. Sometimes seeing, hearing, and understanding are sufficient to calm an emotion, but most often we have to learn how to reroute or sublimate a thought that might grow into a hindrance. For example, when we are angry with a person, we might go straight to them and talk; or we might try putting ourselves in their shoes. When we have grasped this, we will be in a better position to understand how to live in such a way that anger never just arises. This work involves dedicated self-reflection, awaeness of our emotions, and creative intelligence with regard to our toughest, trickiest mental tendencies.

   Notice, too, how impersonal the Buddha’s phrasing is: when anger is present, not when he is angry. No one “owns” the anger or “is” the anger; rather, anger is carried by an inertia that we surely contributed to but that we are not agents of. For this reason, the hindrance can be calmly worked on, as a sculptor works on granite, and there is no extraneous emotion of blame or resistance that comes from disliking “being like this.” The first three foundations of mindfulness have trained us to find this work interesting and productive, and we can now approach the work like skilled craftsmen. One other benefit of this serene engagement is that we will find that other people no longer irk us much, and because we understand the hindrances in ourselves, we are likely to be more understanding and compassionate towards the hindrances as they appear in others. 

   The Satipatthana Sutta, in about 20 pages, gives us a complete curriculum for what can truly be called self-study, with the aim of understanding the origin of suffering and how to end it. Each of the four foundations of mindfulness requires dedicated, concentrated practice, and if we consider how difficult it is to be mindful of only breathing for a single hour, we will have a clear picture of how accomplished we would have to be to sustain mindfulness in all four dimensions for a whole week. But should any person maintain these Four Arousings of Mindfulness in this manner for a week, then by him one of two fruitions is proper to be expected: Knowledge here and now; or, if some form of clinging is yet present, the state of non-returning. In purely secular terms, it is possible to see how even a little time devoted every day to these meditative exercises will result in a happier, more effective human being, capable of helping himself and others, and more directly attuned to his own experience. The curriculum laid out in the Satipatthana may well be, as the Buddha claims, the only path to self-knowledge and happiness.  


For three different translations of the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10), see: