Utagawa Hiroshige, Wind Blown Grass Across the Moon, c. 1850

by Douglas Penick


Here, in the rolling expanse between past and future, we must find our way. Inevitably, we’ve already begun but do not know where things lead. Our uncertainty extends in silence and in every direction, through time, through many futures, pasts and presents.

Imagine. There are, they say, as many Buddhas and Buddha realms as there are atoms. There are as many forms of enlightenment and as many paths as there are sentient beings, included micro-organisms, insects and jellyfish. But how to find that path which is both unique to one self and common to all? There is, as must be, a primordial expanse before there was wisdom, ignorance, ground or path or completion, time or space.

So the stories the gods tell each other are not dependent on words or memory. In the telling, the gods convey the expanse of beginning, transformation, dissolution. Language is the first light. The stories they tell are what, for others, are change and time. Thus, for human beings, the stories of the gods are perceived as life and death, love, loss, comedy, war, gain, empires, family living, architecture, plague, tragedy. For the gods, these stories are unending music.

Humans so often look for a beginning here.

Shortly after time started, the first story tells about a man and a woman living quietly beside the Sea of Japan. They fell in love. Their love began like a breeze, expanded, solidified, became contoured into swales, fields of swaying salt grass, streams bordered by cat-tails and clattering reeds. The love these two shared became a broad rolling plain spreading between two cliffs. Though with the seasons, waters ebbed and flowed, plant life grew and died, the rhythms of their love were constant. They each became a towering pine, rooted in cliffs that seemed far apart, but which were inseparable in the space that appeared between them. Their beings enfolded all that lived around them.

Then, in a later time, Emperors created two great collections of the nation’s poems. Even now, everyone knows that these collections are the inner being of the ancient lovers. The two assemblies of poems have arisen from the old ones’ heart-breath, the continuity of their love, their knowledge of sorrow, and their longing, endless longing.

To the wanderer, these two may still appear as twisted pines on distant cliffs. Both may still be sometimes seen as a very small old man, a very small old woman, humming quietly as they sweep the ground beneath the storm-battered trees.



It is our habit to look at the moment that now emerges in the light of what has passed. It does not seem possible to do otherwise. Such looking at the new in the fading light of the old is what we call knowing, as we format wordless arisings in the familiar, the known. We know what is lost, but we do not know what is being born. We do not recognise things in their beginning.

Suddenly, as traffic abates, airplanes stop shaking the sky, a sense of being outside a self. A disjunction in the flow of the familiar, of words.

The cars speed by past the golf course across the highway in the summer sun. Shiny-bright purposeful objects, wheel spinning in a blur, purposes numerous but unknown. It is flying past, alive even when concealed in these manufactured forms.

What we call life is the moment beginning, utterly unknown, beginning as a vector to a form we cannot know. The beginning, over and over beginning, beginning without a rest or resting place. Beginning now and now and now.

The forms achieved are momentary; the understanding derived from forms impermanent.

“I believe,” Hélène Cixous wrote, “that one can only begin to advance along the path of discovery, the discovery of writing or anything else, from mourning and in the reparation of mourning. In the beginning the gesture of writing is linked to the experience of disappearance, to the feeling of having lost the key to the world, of having been thrown outside. Of having suddenly acquired the precious sense of the rare, of the mortal. Of having urgently to regain the entrance, the breath, to keep the trace.”[1]

And so, it is with swift and unquestionable presence, from the world beyond things, that a goddess enters the world of things. Spontaneously, the universe starts. “Her feet are lotus flowers; they are sacred; they are blessings. They are redness, coolness, brightness, fragrance, and all. If you can perceive the inner light of the sun, you can see these lotus flowers bloom. Who is the sun, you may ask, that brings this flower into bloom? It is destiny that these radiant footsteps follow me. The goddess will follow whoever is devoted to her. Her beauty, the intensity of her footsteps, are a great flood; they carry the poet away, they moisten the heart of the devotee.”

On the banks of the Ganges, the ancient poet’s eyes looked at a world as wide and deep as could be imagines. His gaze moved from the Goddess’s feet to her head. Her beauty is only one of her powers. “Her feet,” the poet whispered “are inside my eyes.”

“Oh,” called the poet, his heart filled with longing, “Come and stay in my eyes, in my skin, on my tongue, in my nose, inside my heart.”

“The river named Beauty,” he sang, “has spread across my chest. Adorned with sparkling eddies, it’s turbulent currents narrow and part. You are my chest, waist legs. Beauty descended from the mountain peaks at the top of my head, descended in roaring rivulets, spread, whirled, rushed and became me and all the world.”[2]

Then, wisdom, written teaching and ceremony, began with these sounds:


O Earth, O Expanse, O Sky
May we reflect the radiance of desire,
The intensity of the primordial sun,
The life of every thought.

This was written more than 3,000 years ago. No one knows its origin.

It is called the Gāyatrī mantra. Its meter is the goddess, Gāyatrī herself.

It is itself the goddess. Gāyatrī.

She opens the portal through life, death, form and formlessness. She is herself the portal of chaos. (3)

Whether we name her or not, whether we call on her or not, she draws us on.



Only the act of love – the limpid star-like abstraction of feeling – recaptures the unknown moment, the instant hard as crystal and vibrating in the air and life is this untellable instant, larger than the event itself: during love the impersonal jewel of the moment shines in the air, love the strange glory of the body, matter made feeling in the trembling of the instants – and the feeling is both immaterial and so objective that it seems to happen outside your body, sparkling on high joy, joy is time’s material and the essence of the instant.
– Clarice Lispector [4]



“He’s in the emergency room. Can you come? He’s in a coma,” my friend’s partner of many years is on the edge. She is inhaling loudly.

And soon I’m there looking down at my friend whose neck and head are in a brace, a white plastic respirator tube in his mouth. His skin is reddish. White hair pokes out from the head cradle which keeps him immobile. “He got food poisoning, then in the night he must have fallen. I found him on the floor. There was a lot of blood.”

“Do they know what’s wrong?”

“Maybe another seizure. I hope it’s not a stroke. They’ve done scans and an x-ray to see if he’s broken his hip. God, that would be a disaster.” She turns and takes his hand. “We’re all here, honey. We’re rooting for you. Please don’t die.” She turns back to me. “It’s an induced coma until they see if he can breathe without the machine. They’ve done the tests. We should know soon.”

She is weeping silently, trying not to sob. The ER nurses move about efficiently. I am aware of my friend, now. It’s almost as if I can feel him moving between realms, apprehensive, a bit curious, aware that there might be other possibilities.

The next day, he has been taken off the ventilator. His voice is low and gravelly, a little hard to understand. He motions me to come close. He begins. “The veils are very… thin” He shrugs, gives a little smile.


[1] Hélène Cixous – ‘From the Scene of the Unconscious to the Scene of History: Pathway of Writing’ in The Hélène Cixous Reader, 1994 (Psychology Press)

[2] Adapted from Suganya Anandakichenin – ‘Drowning in the Beauty of the Lord’ in Cracow Indological Studies, Vol. XXI No1

[3] Adapted from Dominick Haas – Dissertation Proposal: ‘GĀYATRĪ, Mantra and Mother of the Veas’, Universität Wien, June 2019

[4] Clarice Lispector, Agua Viva, 2012 (New Directions)

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.

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