As the story goes, around the turn of the 20th century the late German Romantic poet Rainer Marie Rilke was given a copy of the recently translated Buddhist sutra, The Dhammapada, when he was young. He took it up eagerly, but cast it aside quickly–mostly unfinished. His disposal of the seminal Buddhist text was not, however, because he found something distasteful therein, but because he found something too quick, too close to his own nascent poetic sight. The Buddha’s words crowded out his own, and he wouldn’t have it. He had to find the fruit by his own way, even if it meant failure.
If you and I had the time, I could tell twenty such tales, and if I had the learning and you the patience, a hundred more besides. The sad facts are these. Yggdrasil lies at the end of a vast and trackless desert. No burro can carry you there. There is no vector upon which you can charter a flight across. You can’t circumnavigate to it, cleverly looping towards it from the underside, because the trajectory of your life is not circular, but shot straight from dark to dark like a bullet, corkscrew-spun from God’s only gun. You can follow no guru there. No messiah will offer you water. No angel the comfort of arms or maps. If you’re looking for Yggdrasil, you’re on your own.
We all know, however, that life need not be so lonely. Whole cities of revelers and libraries litter the desert–girded with aqueducts and power grids tapping water and light. These cities are fierce and grand, and friction the souls of men into explosions of violence and joy that help titillate their lives away. Out away from the cities, at a proper distance, are the various temples to exploration. You know them well. Perhaps even you visit them. The temples are filled with relics to nomads who, at one time or another, made their way across the desert. Some of them brought back a leaf or an atom, perhaps some soil or a light cone; some did not make it across, but only very far, to the desert’s rim, upon which the Great Tree’s mirage plays off fear and makes the world strange and the people strangers upon it. These nomads bring back something potent but flawed, so that their followers must keep one eye on the power and one on the crack if they are to benefit at all.
In any case, these temples and their relics are arranged on principles only dimly understood, because what grows on the other side of the desert cannot be properly planted in the dust, because it is before the dust; it is the thing of which the dust is made, but can itself not make. But still, the nomads come back, usually for love, but sometimes for vanity. Except for those who don’t come back, who are content to stay at the roots and marvel at the wonder, and about whom even a whisper is lost. It does not matter to them, of course, because even the whole celebration of human history is no more than the briefest of motes in the tiniest of eyes of the smallest of grubs. No less beautiful because of its inconsequence than any other magnificent inconsequence, like the supersaurus and the fusion of stars, but an inconsequence none the less.
There are caravans in the desert too, migratory herds of intellectuals, dissecting the dead and rummaging dreams. Their caution tape meditations protect against sink holes and false oases, but they travel very slowly, and usually only in circles. Sometimes one or two break off and venture out on their own, but eventually the others catch up, and set upon their corpses, and pick them apart, and spend years arguing over where the adventurer went wrong.
Yes, the sad facts are these: “the truth is a pathless land.” There is no way across the desert to the roots of the tree that has grown a cross and a mountain and a sacred fig and a burning bush and a river, and someday, the heavy elements of love and the general relativity of desire, except alone. No wife can walk with you there. No husband. No child in tow. There are no pets and no fathers too. If you would set out to count the stars you must do so alone, using only your fingers and toes and maybe your intellect if it can be properly fastened to your heart. If not, you are better off following the astrolabe of your body than the abstractions of the mind, since only one of them can finger the angels.
If you would follow Rilke’s example, but not the man, then you must be alone. Not in love, or joy, these can be shared, even if briefly, but in wandering. Some part of us must remain unsheltered in the waste. Exposed and unsatisfied and following no one. Ready to break the crucifix across a knee, toss the Buddha into a fire, lose parents and abandon children.
If you don’t believe me, read the Sermon on the Mount, if there wasn’t a man all alone and ready to break wide for love, I’ve never met one.
So please, don’t look for me in the morning, and I’ll do the same for you.