Deep Within (Dis)Quiet


Attributed to Emperor Huizong, Gardenia and Lichee With Birds, c. 1120 (detail)

by Douglas Penick



Li Shang-Yin wrote a poem called “Exile” in the 850s. It begins:

A spring day at the edge of the world.
On the world’s edge, once more the day slants. [1]

Now, 1200 years later, this echoes like a flickering moment in our passage through the global pandemic. Quarantine and the silence of the outside world are, it seems, reducing people’s traction on existing. The world tilts strangely. More than half a dozen people I know have died somewhat unexpectedly in the last four months. They have slipped away. A friend wrote that three of her closest long-time friends also just died suddenly. Yesterday, one of my dearest fellow students from long ago died quickly. She was 90, but still quick, witty, heartfelt, impossible, when I last saw her two months ago. Voids sudden and transitory.

It seems that without the flow, the bustle, the sense of (unnecessary and necessary) things that have to be done, seen, bought, enjoyed, fixed (amid the chaotic, mindlessly destructive idiocy of public life), there’s just less to stay stuck to. We are no longer so anchored. It’s easier to find oneself sliding off. This is, of course, intensified, by the quasi-quarantine which us older people particularly (and, because of our place in the cycle of things, can) take seriously. So, far fewer daily interactions. This reduces the surface tension of daily living. Life’s hold on all of us is just less.

The most significant communications in our time and in our culture are shaped around ownership, valuation, exchange, loss and gain. Ours is a world where education is focused on the skills involved in buying and selling, and the usage of information, natural resources and people to that end. Deeper and non-negotiable rhythms fit awkwardly in this program. And, surprisingly, in the absence of the tangible events of life, of the gatherings related to birth, marriage, death, this absence is even more awkward.

Now, as dear friends die, there is no body to be viewed, no uncertainty about what to say, no confusion to be patient about, no unsatisfactory gatherings to attend, no too long speeches in which to act solemn, no tears except in private. And there are no little meetings in coffee shops, no sad impromptu encounters, no…whatevers. There are no sad embraces, no enfolding, no shy touches. There are none of those superficial comings-together that serve to reweave continuities when such gaps weaken the fabric of our life together in time. We’re left with news, information, a mental more than a physical loss and an invisible societal rupture. And, when it ends, and we emerge blinking, and the crowds are smaller, won’t we wonder: Where did they all go? What happened? Where are we now?

Of course, we might have seen things this way without such large-scale breakage. We might have had a deeper sense of the preciousness and tenderness and vulnerability of it all. But this, it seems, is the ground in which now we must evolve, for good or ill, whatever world we can make for others yet to come.

The grave limits affecting people’s standards of living and the world economy overall during last April and May produced a pronounced reduction in pollutions. And this showed us clearly what kind of personal sacrifices will be necessary if we are to slow down, much less arrest, impending ecological catastrophe. But to sustain such improvements would require a coordinated world initiative, the subordination of national rights to global needs, the subordination of individual desires to collective survival etc. However, since then, we have seen very clearly that people just won’t do it. Businesses won’t or can’t consider a purpose beyond profitability. Regional and national governments won’t look at plans not reliant on the growth of income. And few serious politicians will go there at all. Our inner and outer worlds feel unmoored, adrift.


We are not the first people to see our world moving towards destruction.

When the Emperor Huizong of Song unexpectedly became ruler of China in 1100 AD, the Jurchens from the North were already poised to invade and conquer. This Emperor was a supremely cultured man with no talent for politics and less for military endeavours. Despite the self-evident threat to his empire, he made deepening Taoist practice and the arts of music, calligraphy, painting and poetry his principal areas of activity.

On one occasion, he decided to commission a new porcelain dinner service that would elicit a deeper sense of harmony in his new banquet hall. All of the most distinguished potteries in his domain were invited to compete for this honour. The Emperor wrote a poem that was sent to the master potter of each firm. Each potter was to create a design reflecting, not the images or colours in the poem, but simply the poem’s spirit. No one found this ridiculous. All exerted themselves to link their intuition with that of the Emperor and the submitted work. The potter whom the Emperor deemed to have been most profoundly attuned to his intuition was awarded the contract for an object that would be not just visible but tangible. For bowls and plates convey their poetry in the weight, balance and smoothness disclosed to the touch.

Even as the people of China faced a threat that would soon lead to the Emperor’s captivity, the loss of half of China to the Jurchen and the re-location of the survivors of the dynasty to Southern China, here was a culture determined to hold on to certain priorities.

The Emperor was not alone in believing that spiritual and aesthetic development were as essential to social continuity as military strength.  Expressions of such cultivation conveyed subtle and very personal yet shared meanings that served to bind people together across variations of class, family background and location. It may seem that such delicate linkages have been swept away by the tsunami of man-made sensations that inundate us in the West of the early 21st century. But it is not so.

Strangely, art and beauty from times when culture was so different can still reach out and touch us as clearly as a stranger tapping on our shoulder to wake us when our bus has reached the end of the line. What we take so unquestioningly to define how communication happens, how consensus and friendship and even true love evolve, is the product of temporary historical conditions. There is a far wider, deeper and more mysterious expanse in which to encounter the power, the splendour, the reality of even such a raddled world as our ours.

Awareness, even what we call our awareness, does not, of course, begin with us. If there were nothing outside, nothing we thought of as other, we would not call it awareness. Similarly, if those things we say we are aware of, those ‘others’ like clouds, heat, moisture, disgust, yellow light, thoughts and hilarity did not exist, there would not be what we call awareness. It does not originate from within us and it does not terminate in an object outside us.

Primordial awareness is pervasive and innate; thus, it does not need to be found. Accordingly, as Zurchungpa (1017-1074) said:

There is no finding an object that truly exists only outside you.

There is no finding the mind that exists only inside you.

There is no finding a body that is in between.

There is no finding the sentient being you do not want to be.

There is no finding the Buddha you want to be. [2]

Awareness joins inner and outer, near and far. It can also be referred to as compassion. It is pervasive, omnidirectional, omniintuitional linkage. It is not limited as vector or definition or duration or place or event. There is no individual experience. Everything hinges on something else. When we move within what is deepest in us as human beings, our awareness is a clear expanse alive with junctions, meetings, possibilities. There is no human individual. Each of us is a tapestry.  Our space and time are displayed in the weft and weave; our histories and dispositions in innumerable strands, colours, tints, hues, touch. All our actions produce more than one outcome; all radiate the display of primordial and uncontrived compassion, a basic love that is never circumscribed by goals. In the field of awareness beyond concept, there is no separation.

Constantly, our lives are woven together and are weaving together. We are multitudes of worlds, microscopic and immense, none complete, none abandoned, none that do not move. Always, it is this way.

We are living in a time when we are aware of increased threat, reduced contacts, reduced stimuli, reduced activities. We are more isolated and the world outside seems further from our grasp. Things seem to be unravelling, and perhaps we, in unsuspected ways, are in part unravelling with it. The question is not only what the world will become, but who we will become. Memories, old regrets, twinges of remorse, abandoned ambitions, old loves, current disappointments, present love, oblique possibilities, gentle happiness, uncertainty. In the context of unknowing, we are taking on an unknown shape. The world will not return itself or us to what it was, what we were. The world and our time are re-weaving anew, are reweaving us again anew.

As Xue Tao (768-831) wrote in “Peonies”:

It’s always like this.
I catch their scent and
Old feelings come around.

Still, we know one another
Or should

All I want
Is to take my quilts,
Spread them beside the porch rail,

And deep in the night
At ease together,
speak of longing and love. [3]



[1] Poems of the Late T’ang, tr. A.C. Graham, Penguin Classics (p.156)

[2] Adapted from Zurchungpa’s Testament, tr.Padmakara Translation Group, Snow Lion Press (p.245)

[3] Xue Tao, Brocade River Poems, tr. Jeanne Larson, Princeton University Press (p.7)

About the Author

Douglas Penick’s work appeared in Tricycle, Descant, New England Review, Parabola, Chicago Quarterly, Publishers Weekly Agni, Kyoto Journal, Berfrois, 3AM, The Utne Reader and Consequences, among others. He has written texts for operas (Munich Biennale, Santa Fe Opera), and, on a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation, three separate episodes from the Gesar of Ling epic. His novel, Following The North Star was published by Publerati. Wakefield Press published his and Charles Ré’s translation of Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace In Rome. His book of essays , The Age of Waiting which engages the atmospheres of ecological collapse, was published in 2021 by Arrowsmith Press.


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