Because the study of the way is like this, walls, tiles and pebbles are mind. . . . At this time a wall crumbling away allows you to study the ten directions.
—Dogen, Body-and-Mind Study of the Way
As for towns and cities—they are (to those who can see) old tree trunks, riverbed gravels, oil seeps, landslide scrapes, blowdowns and burns, the leavings after floods, coral colonies, paper-wasp nests, beehives, rotting logs, watercourses, rock-cleavage lines, guano heaps, feeding frenzies, courting and strutting bowers, look-out rocks, and ground-squirrel apartments. And for a few people, they are also palaces. . . .
—Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild
In old-fashioned stores, still sometimes to be found in country towns, you could once see a sign in the window that reassured you: “Feel free to look around. No obligation to buy.” An era that obviously still respected dreaming forms of awareness; still respected people; in fact, had not yet invented “consumers.” I pay homage to that old vanishing courtesy by taking its invitation much further, out of the shop and into the street.
Zen literature is replete with exquisite imagery of the natural world—both because of the kind of barely urban world in which Taoism, Chan and Zen arose, and because of the kinds of places where monasteries, temples and hermitages tend to be built. Mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, grasses, clouds, blossoms and moon richly elaborate and differentiate our original face—more readily, maybe, than the world of streets and fire hydrants and electricity substations.
The flower in the grass may point the way with humble ease. But what about wall rubble and discarded plastic toys and broken tiles in the weeds? That too is where we live; it is a fragment of our regular world of human trouble and riches, and we have to meet it. I suggest we have to love it as well, tend it with our open attention, redeem it with our full imagination. To fail to truly attend to it is to lay waste the place right where we are, where we live our lives, where practice begins. It is to agree to live with indifference.
Is indifference so bad? Well, strange as it may first sound, it is a kind of terrorism, which from one angle of view may be thought of as the extreme expression of contemptuous indifference for the human world. A friend who is an ecophilosopher has suggested the only truly dangerous places in our human world are the only truly unloved ones. The concrete canyon of a freeway, the dark, fluoro-lit intestines of a grease-stained carparking station, the urine-desecrated stairwell. . . . And part of the danger is that we can’t be truly happy there.
When we recognize a place, or an aspect of a place, when we bless it with our inner recognition, then we know it to be part of us, and something can begin to live there. A home is made, a haven, in the most unlikely place. Until then, we dump there everything that we don’t like about ourselves, and it will seep back into our dreams like toxic waste.
Counterterrorism, in this sense, is to actively take up the practice of loving the order of matter generally. This is not the act of shopping—of turning compulsively towards material goods as though suffering and loss may be magically eased by that hankering. It is more subtly the act of not turning away, of not breaking faith with the things of this world. It is feeling for the mysteries beneath appearances, in other words, the far side of shopping.
So you can wander across an abandoned lot and begin to discover the suggestive fragments and relics of human life preserved in it, partly breaking the surface, molded into ephemeral sculpture. Or an improbable cluster of objects strange to one another but embedded together in strange kinship and richly art-directed by time. You can become an aficionado of outback gold field rubbish tips, where gadgets grown extraordinary and unintelligible by time have become welded and melded by rust into things both beautiful and so gone they can never be explained. When you feel free to look around, many of the beauties arise through a secret love of ruins and fascination with the sea-change of time; and others come with the sheen of nostalgia—but in its perverse mode, unsentimental.
A flattened tin can, as blood-red in its rust as the red dust that the heart so loves out there among the olive-gray saltbushes, can be a treasure to take home with you—on its upturned base, an imprint of the map of Australia. When you handle it, the dust as fine as incense ash, silt-layer memory of an ancient sea, lightly coats your fingers.
Each treasure starts with a sense of the world as distinct and penetrating, a little piece of the world’s grit trapped in the soft wet open eye. It is something like a pearl. The grit or grain of the world washes into the tender open oyster of the embodied self and leaves its residue—a kind of suffering accepted. Then it can suffer a slow sea-change in the depths of psyche, memory and imagination, and the abrasions of the world become gradually pearlescent, many layered, spun around the embedded injury to make it no longer alien but tolerable, included and strangely beautiful over time. So this receptiveness to the world is like practice, is practice—accepting the pain of openness in a human body, and turning that way. A storehouse of treasures is opening of its own accord inside yourself. Just letting it in is part of it. The rest is the willingness to play. That is the fantastic, uncalled-for, inspired movement back towards the suffering, the forgotten, unloved or overlooked thing. That’s the real meeting.
Such a sense of play is a true antidote to terrorism and its mortal fear of life, its aloofness from the complexity and duration of suffering, and its literally deadly disrespect for the comical and lovely human effort of making a world. I want to call our common comical, lovely, ugly human world “the street,” the shared social space we build and desecrate together. And I want to ask, what happens if we agree to live fully in the glorious mixed feast of the street? What secret dimension of play, what unexpected homecoming, may that open up in us?
There is a kind of attentiveness that can be cultivated and deeply relished, and a whole secret life of the street it brings to light. It gives to the human-made world almost the same kind of delight that the lover of the natural world (and I am also one of those) might take in lizard eggs, bird colonies, droppings, rocks and lichens. It does not oppose the wild and the made worlds but conjoins them, finds their overlap and resonance, sees the wild in the made, pays to the rust stains on an old corrugated iron wall the same receptivity it gives to dewdrops delicately strung in a spider’s web. It includes but goes beyond spotting and classifying attention.
Just as you might dream your way into the inner life of a honeysucker hatchling by exploring by finger the downy walls of a tiny abandoned nest, so freely looking around in the street demands that you find its imaginative resonance, that you dream and play your way in. To take up the street with your imagination and follow its back-ways into time is to allow the overlooked and overgrown and half-ruined faces of the street to become the topography of your most intimate being.
In my own looking around I have met people who were storm-water-tunnel walkers; people who even walked the underground train system in the quiet between midnight and 3 a.m. on Sunday nights, searching for the “false starts,” the abandoned tracks, the odd buildings said to be left in there in obscure places; people who visited disused gasworks, brick pits, the underneath of old wharves; people who boated up the old industrial canals of Sydney, who combed landfill sites and took sewage treatment works tours; people who knew about the underground passageways linking old mental asylums with landing-stages on the harbor. . . . I didn’t just meet them, I joined them.
I have slipped past the guards of many a “private” industrial road, sauntered round the backs of things, poked my nose into the cracks, hung around the parts marked “Danger: No Entry except to Authorized Persons.” You find your born right to be free to look around even there. Especially there! There’s a lovely freedom in stepping back into the privileges taken by children, withdrawing the diplomatic recognition adults extend to authority, finding the gap in the cyclone wire fence, sauntering along in that heightened state of casual alertness, exploring beyond the bounds of official permission, just having a good look around. . . .
I have begun to recognize other denizens of this layer of the street world. In Ben Katchor’s cartoon strips collected as Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay (Penguin Books, 1991), a hatted Jewish New York real estate photographer Julius Knipl walks the streets, his camera on his back. Knipl has a sixth sense for obscure bus routes facing extinction, notices how the telephone books in public places begin to yellow and roll their leaves as their replacement date approaches with its inexorable season, finds comfort in the sight of a remnant smokestack standing useless and abandoned in a corner of the city because no one can afford to demolish it, notices how the scar of a sidewalk excavation takes years to completely heal. . . .
The Yiddish word for little treasure to put away for a rainy day, little nest-egg that the palm of your mind can hold, is a knipl. Julius Knipl has an eye that can see a New York right down to the 1930s strata of the street. Ben Katchor gives an example of a knipl: “The best ones are things I never saw the interest in before. Like, today, I was walking down the street and noticed a very faded, tattered, almost illegible old sign, a sign from—who knows?—maybe forty, fifty years ago, warning about rat poison. . . . I mean, think about it: the rats are long gone, the people who posted the warning are gone, the people they are warning are gone. The sign’s still there. It’s a knipl.”
Knipls are always touched by time, carry evidence about its tidal shifts. When you recognize a knipl, you’ll notice at that moment that there is a private lair for dreaming created even on the most bleak or shelterless street.
Architects are only the inaugural dreamers of the built environment; what they make are merely the props for all the other dreamers. On the street, and there is a deep well-being in this, all of us have right of way, a share in it. The streets, even the most unlovely ones, are brilliantly art-designed stages for our dreaming minds. And streets have life of their own that we share in but do not own. It is a special joy, on the street, to be only one of the dreamers. In it, you blend your dreams with strangers. Some kinds of street are less alive to you than others, but a street has life the moment it grows interested in you—“has an interest,” as Katchor says. Then it will talk to you, waft smells at you, set off trains of inner connection and dreaming.
The street is a midden of the human world, and every thing in the midden has its proper place in our attention as it descends through the layers of time, acquiring “pearlescence.” Each thing in the human midden belongs to a natural poetry that the great Yun-men spoke word for word when he challenged his monks with “Everyone has his own light. If you want to see it, you can’t,” and then responded to his own implicit question with “The storeroom. The gate.” The kerosene lamp on the kitchen bench. The box of cabbages. The verandah. The front step. No one can go past poetry of this force (and everyday we do, we pass over it as if it were not the breath of God on our faces!).
A late twentieth-century shopping mall is not quite a fit place for feeling free to look around, for dreaming. On the air-conditioned, privatized “street,” your rights are restricted. The fluorescent bath of denatured light (we’re all suspects) is a part of the trauma, the trapped effluvium of electronic sound is another. . . . You can’t doss down on a bench there. You can’t escape the forced Muzak and announcements. In fact it is often frustratingly difficult to escape at all; the rare exits are marked in such very small print. Real choice, real surprise, real discovery is very limited—is this why sleepiness falls like a pall? Something has been fatally predigested, like the “imagination” called for by a video game. You are welcomed by the Cheshire Cat of commerce just as long as you consume, present a willingness to be consumed.
Feeling free does not take kindly to being badgered by too much everyday, administered reality, the kind you feel in a “mall.” However, it can take up even that—the bullying of administered reality—as a perverse pleasure when there really is no escape from the shopping. And even in the mall, a ruin is in progress if you really look and catch sight of how the maintenance deficit is growing and interesting little compromises or inventive stopgaps are creeping in: a tile has fallen off there revealing mortar texture and an unintended punctuation effect, and no one has bothered to replace the ceiling panel because the air-conditioning breaks down every day and continually needs adjustment. . . .
And you can always walk decisively through any nondescript door marked “Exit” to enter a vertiginous, bland maze belonging to the realm of Services, Deliveries and Security. A rabbit hole in Wonderland. A true exit to the street is almost impossible to find; instead, you may stumble into a loading dock, or you may have a door slam one-way behind you and a lot of time to explore the smells, the strange hot air, the scuffed white walls, the echoey steps and passageways before one of the attendants of administered reality finds you and shepherds you disapprovingly back to the public side of things like a stray, indeed, a bit of a suspect.
The proper pace of feeling free to look around is lazily slow, idiosyncratically detailed and half-entranced. It is the pace at which you might stop and stare and see the almost unseeable gap between two buildings, a gap big enough to let your eye look in and grow dark-adapted and begin to see, and to let your nose register the dankness of things down near the mystery area where a building meets the earth.
In the 1930s, Walter Benjamin explored Baudelaire’s Paris through the flaneur, the idle stroller whose slow and purposeless peregrinations brought the city into being. The flaneur “goes botanising on the pavement,” writes Benjamin. And then he notes (astonishingly!): “Around 1840 it was briefly fashionable to take turtles for a walk in the arcades. The flaneurs liked to have the turtles set the pace for them.”
The slow, mindful pace of walking meditation is in fact exactly the proper pace for feeling free to look around, feet paying loving dues step by step to the earth that is completely there under the brief asphalt. This is the pace at which the trance of looking and noticing can overtake your errand, your small sense of self-importance; and this is the pace at which the inventory of loved things has a chance to grow.
The deepest level of play with the locus genii of the streets you live on always knows that each thing is sacred and speaks the strongest, plainest poetry—a fast-dripping tap heard in the too-thick grass on an abandoned lot, the old tracery of bathroom tiles on a slab lost in weeds, the shape of a smokestack in the last light, the half-inch forest growing thick in the crack that marks where the tram tracks used to be.
When you touch such an intimate, inner perspective, a nest for dreaming right there on the homeless street, even the most routine city moment becomes a journey. Once you place one foot into the unknown and the other into the most deeply recessed self, you are in liminal space, traveling, any day of the week, right in your own home town.
There’s a pilgrimage aspect to this, too. The little “stations” of discovery can be revisited and celebrated—a small and secret homage to a crack in ordinary banality through which the light has shown itself. You can take other pilgrims to share your arcane joys, to strengthen the sacred as it stands up in the ordinary. Walking is a pilgrim’s wisdom. The categories of the “ordinary marvelous” opened up on foot cannot be praised enough.
And so letting the streets flow like water, mutable and empty, and entering the flow, mutable and empty as water—this is to encounter walls, tiles and pebbles as mind. “They passed eons living alone in the mountains and forests; only then did they unite with the Way and use mountains and rivers for words, raise the wind and rain for a tongue, and explain the great void,” says Dogen of the old hermits and teachers. In the hermitage of the everyday, we have to learn to talk the language and become the silence not just of mountains and rivers, but also the median strip between the sucking slipstreams of the traffic, the flare of neon in the mist, the rain staining a concrete apartment block, the broken tile in the weeds. . . .
And then the plastic bag pirouetting beside the grinding tires of a semitrailer is redeemed in a most profound act of counterterrorism; indifference is dropped away; boredom is a sheer impossibility; and general amnesty is proclaimed by each thing that is cherished just as it is.
Just—follow the little tug of curious interest somewhere in your chest, and curl your palm inward around the knipls as they collect you into the treasury of the ten thousand things.
It takes little more than missing your bus and walking in the rain those five blocks, finding that the streets are black mirrors and the rain light deforms each thing just beyond its habitual invisibility. . . . Enter there.