Martin Nakell, a factionalist/poet, believes that the experience of art is energy. That energy released – by the disruption of form – creates fissures along which it travels and is where the reader encounters it. Author of about 11 books – poetry and fiction – he has won several national awards and grants. On the &NOW National Board, he teaches at Chapman University. Of his novel, Settlement, Angela Genusa writes in Mad Hatters Review: “Nakell pulls off experimental literary techniques like a master prose magician, leaving the reader (after not only first, but repeated readings) to sit and marvel, ‘How did he do that?’”
Festival of Language events: 2012 Chicago AWP, 2013 Boston AWP, 2014 Seattle AWP
a reading eXperiment events: 2013 Boston AWP
The journals of a 12th century anonymous Buddhist monk wandering among the monasteries of Asia
One night I dreamt that I embraced Death. The next morning I rushed at the first opportunity to report this amazing success to my teacher, the venerable Master Lî Ino. Master Lî Ino asked me what vision had Death sent me; what had Death looked like in my dream? Like Death, I told him.
But how, physically? Master Lî Ino asked me.
Like a skeleton, with a skeletal skull absent of eyes.
Master Lî Ino laughed. I thought he was laughing out of the joy at his student’s progress. He laughed for a long time. When he stopped, he looked at me so calmly that I saw in his eyes the look of a kind and patient and powerful pity.
What? I asked him. What would you say to me?
I would say, Master Lî Ino said, that you haven’t seen Death at all; you have seen a diversion sent by Death to keep you from finding and knowing and embracing Death.
Master Lî Ino’s response humiliated me. Where I expected approval, I got rebuke. Where I expected a great leap forward in my studies, I fell a huge step backwards. Not only had I mistaken the vision in my dream, I had shown that my eagerness to progress had itself fooled me.
For Master Lî Ino then said to me:
Don’t forget that you created this skeleton. It was your dream. You fooled yourself in order to keep yourself fooled.
But, I countered, you said that Death had sent the dream.
And who, Master Lî Ino asked me, who do you think Death is? Do you think that Death is someone other than yourself?
I ran back to my meditations. I focused all my energy on nothingness until I burnt myself and nothingness to a cinder.
It was then that Master Lî Ino announced to the room of my fellow meditators:
Because our young monk (pointing to me) has made a great step forward in his studies today, we’ll give him the honor to serve us lunch.
Now totally confused, I went around the room with the pot of soup, ladling some into each monk’s bowl. As I went, I looked into each monk’s eyes to see was he Death to see did he know that he was Death? All I saw was life. In each monk’s eyes, weeping or laughing or still or lazy or drunk, life. Unable to eat, I went outside into the snow. I stood there while first weeping then laughing then stillness passed through me.
Someone tapped on my shoulder. It was Master Lî Ino. He embraced me with such good humor and so vigorously I almost lost my balance. Then he said something quite strange. He said to me:
Monk, my soul is your soul.
I replied, without even thinking:
Master Lî Ino, your soul lives in my house.
But you have no house, Master Lî Ino said. Master Lî Ino let go of me.
Is that my next challenge for meditation? I asked him.
That’s it, he said. Your next meditation challenge to solve is this: Where does the soul live in the house of a man who has no house? When you’ve answered that one, I’ll let you serve dinner! You can go around pouring from the bottles of rice wine that arrived just yesterday.
What about Death? I asked him.
What about Death? he asked me. I haven’t died yet, he said, so I can’t tell you much. When I die, I’ll let you know.
But I want to know what Death looks like. I pleaded with him: there’s a legend about you, the Venerable Master Lî Ino, that you’ve seen your own death.
There are so many legends! He said. So many!
He slapped me on the back so hard this time that I did lose my balance falling face first into the snow. Master Lî Ino ran back toward the Meditation Hall yelling at the top of his lungs: HA! HAHA! HAHAHA! Death and legends! HA!
I lay face down in that snow as it stung my face. Then I walked into the snow, inside the snow. Yes. Inside. The snow became air that I walked through. I swept my arms wide in that snow-air. I didn’t rise up I didn’t soar as I thought I might but I did walk lightly. The snow became ground that I walked on – not a covering of snow on the ground, but snow-ground, layers of snow through which I didn’t fall, but walked. Only snow. I breathed snow-air. I saw only snow. Was I upside down was I right side up? Where was forward where backward? All around, only snow. I was in another world. Not a Death-world at all but another world. My eyes grew wide. What was it I saw? Snow-sight? My ears listened to every snow-sound. Can I call it snow-music? An original an aboriginal original music of snow made of snow-sounds originating in the snow-world? My mouth pronounced snow-words, each complete unto itself but with an infinite extension. My mind was a realm of snow which held nothing which resisted nothing.
I wanted to remember the right words to describe that snow-world in this journal. No words can explain it; no words convey it; no words give the experience of it; no words correspond to it. Can I say it was a world of exquisite unknowing? Can I say it was a world of sensual immersion? Can I say it was a world of bizarre fullness? A world of begininglessness and endlessness which incorporates beginning because of end in one unqualified arrival departure? Coming from a world of ten million words but where each word is snow as only snow as words perfect of snow how can I use ordinary words to analyze it?
At dawn, a fellow monk, the one who’d arrived here from a place he called Roma, Roma Lópo, found me wandering, lost. Resting his hand on my shoulder, Monk Roma Lópo said in his funny accent, Are you alright, my friend? You look like you’ve been through the snow-world.
I came into the interview room.
I told Master Lî Ino that my challenge shouldn’t be:
Where does the soul live in the house of a man who has no house?
It should be:
Where is the soul housed in the house of a man who has no house?
Wow! Master Lî Ino said. You’re really a poet, aren’t you?
I’m not, I said. I just hear the sounds of words.
Words, Master Lî Ino said, are a great sea. Be careful that you don’t drown in the sea you swim in!
In one of those super-quick awe-inspiring flashes of visions of Nirvana that I’ve had, I said:
Nirvana is the sea that – wordlessly – we all swim in. We’re translucent white figures swimming in a dark sea of Nirvana.
Hmmmm, Master Lî Ino mused. I can picture that but it’s only a picture. Are there words in this Nirvana?
Yes, I said.
And Nirvana is where? Master Lî Ino asked me.
Nirvana, I snapped back, is nowhere!
I sat for a minute while Master Lî Ino let me catch my breath and catch my mind after this breathless and this mindless answer.
Now, Monk Wordmaster, before you can answer your challenge, before your challenge dissolves into Nirvana, you’ll have to tell me its best phrasing, its most euphonious form.
Words fell out of my mouth.
Could it be what I've just said, I asked, could it be:
Where is the soul housed in the house of a man who has no home?
That’s up to you, Master Lî Ino said. While I’m not a poet – every poem I’ve written is just silly – I am an acute judge of good poetry – so bring me your best final version. Then I’ll set you off on your journey of this challenge you’ll have re-written to perfection.
But, I said, when I hear the challenge re-shaped in new language, I forget to pursue the answer. I delight all day long in the sound or the shape or the form of the language.
Are you complaining to me that you delight all day long?!
Wait! I said. How about:
Where does the soul reside in the house of a man whose house is nowhere whose home is everywhere.
Master Lî Ino said: what about:
How does the soul of a house or the house of a soul reside or deride in the blah of a sunge contontinous
How about that for your challenge?
What could I do? I smiled. I meditated. I assured myself that when I abandoned my delight in language, I would be a ship setting sail. Nothing else would matter. But I had told Master Lî Ino that words exist also in Nirvana. How can I abandon them? I’d find my way to some enlightenment where I’d be able to really and simply delight in the sound of the language that had brought me there to abandon me there. I meant to tell Master Lî Ino that, but I kept forgetting.
When I came back to Master Lî Ino I blurted out to him:
Where does the soul live in the house of a man who has no house? It lives in his cock and his balls, Master Lî Ino! It lives in his cock and his balls!
Is that, Master Lî Ino asked me, where he meets his Mother Earth?
It is, I said, where I am the lamb being licked by the lion.
Days later, in the interview room, it just came to me:
Where does the soul of the soul live in the house of a man who has no home?
Yes, Master Lî Ino said, your words are taking you somewhere.
When, sometime about a month or so after that, I said:
The soul lives.
Master Lî Ino said:
You must be very tired now, to have searched so to find this soul. Go rest. You’ll find your strength now too. You'll need that strength.
I did rest. For three days, I rested. I didn't even meditate. But as soon as I returned to the cushion, I took the first chance I got to go see Master Lî Ino. He greeted me nicely. We sat for a moment. Then he said to me:
Monk, where does the soul of the soul live in the house of a man who has no home?
Everywhere, Master Lî Ino.
What happened was this: It was not my soul, at those words, that was illuminated. My soul, in fact, I could see, lived then in a darkness which meditations themselves had allowed me to know. But Master Lî Ino's soul was illuminated. His body startled at the moment of it. He shivered a slight shiver. Then he said to me:
Monk, you've gone as far as you can go on this road. It's time for another universe. Tomorrow, come back to me. I'll have a new challenge for you.
The night darkens so slowly I can only just bear the tenderness of this beauty. Its delicate air. A rose glow of diminishing sunlight lingers on the stone that sits Buddha-like and large beside the wall of the monastery; this sunlight seeps from the surface into the body of the small stones that pebble the pathways. I sit in the garden of fruits and vegetables that are the miracle of this season. This abundance too is something I can only just bear at the moment. When the senses are wide open they are vulnerable to a surfeit of sensation and yet they strive for a living stillness with which to absorb every ounce of perception of what the earth expresses. Time is another quality of nature now; it crawls with a liquid ambience. In my mind’s eye I see dimly then solidly the image that prevailed today in my mid-day meditations. I’ll describe it. I’ll make a record of my experience of it.
As I sat in meditation, first my mind was a wildness. Sometimes my mind is so wild I fear I’ll go mad; although I know that I won’t for I know that madness is one of those journeys I will not take – in any tempestuous disorder, my mind will find its living emptiness. Images of fire leapt up. The vision of faces I knew passed through me many of those whom I love or had loved long ago. Sensations of the many lives I have lived the many beings I have been came and went as if in a search for stability but themselves bearing in the ether of their beings the essence of stability. My mood swung from melancholy to delight from fear to contentment. I heard the sounds of voices I’d heard in the days so far of my living. I saw places I’d been. And then: all was darkness. Pure darkness in that no object could penetrate that darkness into even a visionary presence. I abode with that darkness without comment. I abode with it without restraint. And I abode with it without desire either to possess or to abandon it. And then, in the center of this darkness, there appeared a Buddha in meditation position: legs crossed, hands in his lap opened one on the other, eyes closed half way. He was not anything but that darkness. He was made of that darkness yet visible in every detail. He was darkness carved from darkness. He was a statue of darkness. He was a space of the energy of silence. An overwhelming absolute and creative silence? What went through his mind? Was it my mind? No. Yes. No. Was it his mind? No. Yes. What passed through his heart? Was it my heart?
And then a transformation took place. The blackness all whitened, became whiteness. This Buddha was now a whiteness-Buddha carved of whiteness as visible in the whiteness of which it was made as was the Buddha of darkness visible in the darkness of which he was made. And now over what world of the mind did the whiteness-Buddha prevail? Was it a whiteness-mind? Was it a mind smiling at the nearly audible inaudible whoosh of a whiteness-wind? Was it a Buddha-mind at once aware of everything and at once listening to the muscular heartbeat of its own body? While I penetrated the living emptiness of the body and the mind and the breath of this Buddha, I could only think that anything I thought about what the Buddha thought, what the Buddha saw, was my thought, my seeing. That’s all I would ever know. Is that all I would ever know? No. It was not. I would know more. And then more.
Carrying this question – would I know more? – in my hand, I picked a tomato from its vine. I stared at its red red red thin skin. The whole world is color that’s what the world is. Color! I shook myself out of that red-trance to bite into the tomato careless of the juices. I was an infant. I was a man. When I had finished the tomato, having wiped my hands clean, I purified my emotions until all became clear. Darkness then whiteness.
You can’t fool around anymore, Monk. You have your teacher. I will not say it is the-Buddha-I-have-created. That’s not quite it. I will not say it is the Buddha-of-my-self. That’s not quite it. I will not say it is myself-as-Buddha. That’s not quite it. I will not say it is the Buddha-every-monk-must-see-for-himself. That’s getting a bit closer. But you can stop wandering from monastery to Master. Whatever Master you study with now…..will answer to this Buddha. Whatever monk you are or you become will answer to this Buddha alone. To the gaze of this Buddha. To the question this Buddha – seeing you, asks: what does the Buddha you see see? Repeat: What does the Buddha you see see?
Will the vision of this Buddha ever recur? Will the vision of this Buddha ever not-be-there?
Should I take another tomato? Should I take a crunchy cucumber off the ground to bite into with the living teeth of my open mouth?
That’s how it was today. I can’t wait now until tomorrow at morning tea when we take in that certain light of that special time of day when we have no idea what’s coming but we reiterate the curiosity of our youth in the substance of our maturity.
I also want to report this:
The whiteness-Buddha also transformed. The darkness which had become whiteness now became invisible. I saw – I have to say either: I saw nothing – or – I saw the invisible. I don’t know how to say this, how do you fashion into words the palpable the actual the real invisible? Within this invisible there appeared the invisible-Buddha, made up of the invisible within the invisible – every bit as much as the blackness- and the whiteness-Buddha had been made of blackness and of whiteness. An invisible-Buddha made of the invisible. If this is nonsense if this is absurd if this is a visionless and soundless waking-dream so be it. If it is a contradiction to the nth degree, that’s the best I can do – it’s my greatest effort.
I did not experience – in my formal meditations with my legs crossed with my hands in my lap with my back straight with my eyes half-closed – I did not experience this invisibility with its invisible-Buddha. I imagined it, so I write it. As I write it, is it as real as the blackness and the whiteness and their blackness- their whiteness-Buddhas? Hasn’t this now happened by happening on this page? in the script of my hand? What don’t I now make of all my writings in my monk’s journal? Do I bow down in its presence? Or – not in its presence – it’s not an icon – but in the thought of it? In the gratitude for it? In homage to the words of it? To the alphabet? To the black earth-derived ink and to the gifted pen. To my writing-box? Its leaves of paper I take out one by one. To the idea of the invisible mind of being from which it all comes of its own with no ownership by any monk at all? By any monk who might perchance just happen to see it to read it.
A blackness-Buddha of blackness made. A whiteness-Buddha of whiteness made. An invisible Buddha. And a fleeting thought just now of home that makes me at once want to return and at once to push onward and at once aware of where it is I am right now.