Anonymous, Amitābha and Sukhāvatī, c. 1850 (detail)

by Douglas Penick

When a rainbow appears vividly in the sky, you can see its beautiful colours, yet you cannot put it on as a garment or wear it as an ornament. It arises through the conjunction of various factors, but there is nothing about it that can be grasped. Likewise, thoughts that arise in the mind have no tangible existence or intrinsic solidity. There is no logical reason why thoughts, which have no substance, should have such power over you, nor is there any reason why you should become their slave.

– Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche


Money is a kind of freedom that can be felt and heard; it is an inestimable treasure for a man deprived of true liberty.

– Dostoevsky, The House Of The Dead


In Rameau’s 18th century court opera Les Indes Gallantes, two wishful lovers sing:

Indian slave girl –
“Can one love in slavery?
It only intensifies life’s harshness”

Her young owner-
“One must love in slavery
To soften life’s harshness.”


We rely on a kind of conventional construction in which our experiences are seen as the outcome of specific (fabricated) events and circumstances. We try (by using “practices”, “therapies”) to make this mechanism of cause and effect work to our advantage. We see only causes and effects that seem to create a world that can be manipulated in this way.

We do not, except in passing, attend to dreams, day-dreams, imagining, flickers in which the previous logic, momentarily, divides and offers us, spontaneously and unsought, a hidden face, a flickering pure realm.

And yet what a larger expanse of being, what unknown dimensions might follow from stripping away, from surrender, to carry us beyond goals, articulation, understanding.

But our practical considerations, our causes and our effects continually limit, imprison, diminish, render unavailable to the senses and mind this unknowable intensity of the borderless.


A friend’s mother, in her intense Alzheimer’s took pleasure from the life of nature: flowers, clouds, trees, birds, grass. But utterly she was lost in the face of human artefacts. A fork was not easily distinguished from a toothbrush. The words “dining room” might easily indicate a toilet.


Alas, even in the Buddha’s teachings, the direct experience of omnipresent wakefulness falls prey to hierarchies and the need to sustain people on the path. More accurately, the latter seems needed to keep the faithful faithful, to keep the world of the faithful in plain view.


The unmediated (non-dual) “knowing” of the awakened state does not admit of enduring form, or limit or
It cannot quite be taught.
But it is transmitted

It is not quite received or learned.

The recipient falls off a cliff.
Forever and again

Liberation, one form falling away, then another
Eternally, is self-renewing, eternally self-reforming.


I was a person born directly into the desperate longings of imprisonment
Consoled there by those who knew slavery.
A mind/ imagination ever flailing in flight.

And so and fall and fall
In multiform torments


About the Author

Douglas Penick’s work has 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.

Details on the Text

Adapted from the text for the FREEDOM PRI exhibition in Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA, October 16,2022.

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