Prose By C. Derick Varn
My mother’s face is flush with blood since she left her internet chat room for a minute to deal with my half-brother, Miles, kicking his younger brother in the kidneys.
“Off him now, Miles,” I hear her yelp from my bedroom. Time to brace myself for an argument. Then I hear my mother scream. Rushing down the hall, my eyes dried up when I see Miles standing over her.
He holds a piece of plastic piping. My mother curls into fetal ball on the floor. Between every breath is a whimper, and I look on the mauve carpet to make sure there is no blood. I pounce. Miles slings the piping at me, knocking my shoulder. Blood splatters across my knuckles. My mother grabs my leg to pull me off his torso. I strike him again. His fragile body hit the wall, going into the plaster. His eyes vacant, they stare up at me as if he doesn’t realize I am here.
My legs stiffen and my zafu flattens from my weight. A bird flutters in the window. The seed of emptiness grows in the sewage of the world. It grows in the corpse of the self. My bedroom is hot and my chest is sweating.
“When the ‘I’ is eradicated, that is true Dharma,” says Suzuki Shôsan. The self must be supplicant. There can be no more assertion of individuality within unity. The candle must burn backwards where there is no heat, no dripping wax, no oxygen. My mouth starts to dry. The air conditioning is off and it is July. Flies hum in the absence of central air. I take a breath and wait for stillness to come.
Musk fills my nose. My calves ache, choked by tights, and the firm grip of my opponent around my ankle. Slipping through, extending my right leg forward and turning myself, I press him to the ground. His grip on my ankle does not give until it he thinks that I willing to break my leg to tear into his chest with my skullcap. Pressing my face in to his rib cage, I dig my nose into his spine causing both of us incredible pain. I can hear cheers from my team as I bow into his guts.
He flips on his back, afraid that I have figured out a way to break his bones without breaking the tournament rules. My ankle twisted, my nose near broken, and my lip ripped to shreds, I have a referee raise my right arm in victory. Most matches take longer than this, but I still retreat to the dressing room to vomit. I limp down the white brick hall lined with various trophies: 2nd Place State Finals 1988, 1st Place State Finals 1992, and so on. After dry heaving into an empty toilet, I press gauze to my lip. My ankle is purple and pulsing. I feel disconnected from my body. Looking at swelling skin, my brain does not even register an injury, future tendon damage, the beginning of the permanent lilt that will inhabit every future step I will take.
“You okay?” my coach says as steps behind me. “Derick, you’re a fish out there. If you weren’t strong and fucking stupid when it comes to taking pain, you’d never win a match.”
“Yes, Coach,” I say with blood on my tongue. “But I won.”
“You’ll never make it to State if you tear yourself apart.”
“It’s my body, Coach.” I peel the sterile cotton from my mouth. “I can tear it apart to my liking. Besides, I won.”
“Give me twenty push-ups, Varn.” Coach stands over me as I hit the ground, pressing myself up and down as I peer at the mildewed tiles below me. He is tall man without a stitch of fat on him, but he weighs-in at two hundred and twenty. I don’t have to see him standing over me as I watch my shadow wax and wane across the shower floor. My ankle gives, I collapse onto my chest.
“Damn it, Derick. Didn’t your mother ever take you to church? Genesis says ‘God created man, and it was good.’ It’s talking about your body.”
“I’m not a Christian, sir.”
“Your mother’s Catholic. So what’s this about not being a Christian?”
“I am a Buddhist.”
“Give me twenty more, Varn. Then get ready to hit the mat again. Make sure you’re not bleeding or you forfeit your next round.”
My brother slams a touch-lamp into my skull. Glass rolls down my back, perforating the knots of my spine. A brown glass lampshade shatters on impact. This is my half-brother’s attempt to end our conflict. The touch lamp bulb glows a soft white as I continue to ram my fist into Miles’ side. He stands back, his muscles limber, his greasy hair hangs in his eyes. He huffs. We have been fighting for thirty minutes.. Miles pulls a shard of brown out of his arm, and looks down at the air-brushed flower that decorated the lamp.
I look down on sheets. Blue floral pattern is already browning around the edges from my dried blood. The air seeps with minerals. Copper, iron, salt. A haze of a stitched sunflower blurs in and out of my vision. My eyes tear. I’ve lost lots of blood.
“Oh fuck,” Miles pulls my head up by my hair. “You okay?”
I swirl. The cotton garden underneath me continues to get fresh fertilizer. The sheets are ruined. The leaves change color like it’s autumn. I have no idea how far I have pushed this. What were we fighting over? An insult maybe.
“You okay, Derick?”
I close my eyes and feel my body give way. The glass does not seem to cut deeply. I stumble back, my leg bouncing on the nightstand. In fourteen years, I’ve never done this much damage to myself. Miles continues to try to hold me up.
“Help!” He screams, presumably for my mother to hear.
Taking a deep breath, I wheeze. The smell worsens. I pass out.
“Judo is the gentle way,” sensei says. He is a round man, his gait rolling, his hair graying, fat collecting around his arms and legs. There is a soft glow about his face as he stands with legs apart. From the first day I was instructed by him, I learned quickly never to underestimate a man, even one who looks like a cartoon satyr. I quickly found myself with my back on the mat. The thud of my spine bouncing filled the dojo. My wind was gone, but I was not hurt.
“’Ju’ is gentle, ‘Do’ is way. These principles have guided our art since its beginning.” His judogi opens in the front, letting white chest hairs poke through. The black obi sacks underneath his belly.
“Yes, sensei.” We chant. For the ten dollars a month we pay for these classes, we can’t complain about the daily philosophy lesson. My blue obi is tied too tight.
“Jigoro Kano’s work, we continue here. The Buddhist philosophy of creative energy in action. No moment is offensive, no energy is asserted. It is just counter balanced,” he says. I try to ignore the sweat slipping from my brow into my eye. The intense burn distracts me. My breathing is scant from a half-hour of warm-up. Sensei continues on about the responsibilities of a martial artist as we all rest. My knees bear the brunt of my weight. They hurt.
“Mat work time, then spar.” We spend time on the mat in a variety of grappling techniques: the mune gatame, the kata gatame, and any number of other vaguely obscene bodily contortions. Legs twist and arms weave, but with unseen precision in the older students. This reminds me of the Greco-Roman wrestling I did in high school; at least, it does from a distance. The strain on the body in Greco-Roman stiffened the tendons in my knee; the strain of Judo never seems to rip muscles or joints unless a mistake is made. The difference is flow—the tuck of gravity on the sinew. In traditional wrestling this is ignored, even fought. Here gravity is source of power. The pull of the spinning earth upon a body can be used to deflect its will. The will of any oppressor thus becomes it own momentum and the impetus of its own counter attack. Still, I find myself forcefully throwing my opponent out of a hold—a reflex from my Greco-Roman wrestling days.
“Mr. Varn.” My sensei calls me up from the floor where my practice partner hovers over me.
“Yes, sensei?” I pop out from under his Kuzure Kesa Gatame, a choking grapple, as he relieves the pressure from my chest. Both of us big men, it is my strength that pulls me from under him.
“You are still using too much of your own strength. Too much of your own will. This may allow you to win a competition. But…” His jaw is lax, but he retains authority. Even though he is not Japanese–he has a mild Brooklyn accent–his words have been altered by extended trips to Japan. Quite often he spits out long tracks of heavily accented Japanese, rolling equally stressed syllables while his students stare blankly. “Perhaps some sparing with Erica.”
“She’s tiny, sensei.”
“Size does not matter despite the competition weight classes. She is a higher rank.” Ikkyu, a brown belt nearing the completion of that rank, but that won’t phase me.
“She may be half your weight, but challenge her. Use all your strength. See what happens,” Sensei says and smiles.
Bowing to each other, then to the sensei and the picture of Master Kano, we wait for the match to begin. Erica stands still, muscles lithe. She is about five feet and four inches tall and her long hair is pulled back tightly. Her body is calm, her breath slow. The white flaps of her judogi only partly obscure the chiseled green scales of a dragon tattoo slithering between her breasts. My limbs are still but contracted.
“Hajime.” I pounce, grabbing the collar of her gi and her wrist. She is shorter than I, and immediately I realize that my posture is compromised. My center of gravity higher, I realize that I am about to be propelled. I feel myself twist over her shoulder, my head pointing towards the blue padding of the mat.
“Ippon.” My sensei stands above me. I am flat-backed to the floor. He laughs.
“It’s all fair play, Derick,” Erica pats my shoulder as I stand, struggling to gather my breath. Her blond hair pulled tight, her blue eyes focused.
“I’ll treat you to dinner. How’s Subway sound?”
It’s the second week of the meditation retreat and I am distracted. I run the yak-bonemala beads between my finger tips and recite, Om Mani Padme Huum. I exhale. I half-know this mantra is for Avalokiteshvara, bodhisattva of compassion. My back stiffens with each bead. I inhale. The image of Avalokitsehvara sitting lotus style watching British television enters my mind. I exhale.
Someone needs to have compassion on the BBC, I think. Mantra mediation numbs the brain after hours of wondering mindlessly into the sitcoms of God-heads.
Enlightenment: to lighten up.
“Focus on the breath,” the senior monk says, “Let the breath penetrate you like the three jewels of refuge. Let the breath be sangha, dharma, and buddha. Feel it go in and out.”
The Tibetans seem to be fond of archetypes. Avalokitsehvara sprouted 1000-arms to spread compassion to all living beings, I was told in a dharma talk. Surely, he could spare one for a remote control. Collectively speaking, of course.
“Feel the breath clear away all thought.”
I lose count of the mala beads and thus have no idea how many breaths I have made with each “Om Padme.” The exoticness of it all is over-whelming. I exhale. One. Two. Three.
Body erect, poised towards the ceiling. Legs crossed with ankles hooked like two crossbeams. Lotus position: body is symmetrical, balanced, supplicant. Focus on breathing. Breath and soul were once considered one. Spiritus, latin root of spirit, simply means wind. Feel each hair, each tightening muscle, each tense tendon, and then forget. Breath and mind, focus solely on these threads that tie this frame to the true. . .
Here I have always broken off. The resonance of emptiness has left me shivering. Five years of meditation and the seed of emptiness have not implanted itself in my sternum. No matter how I feel air pass from my nostrils through my throat and into my lungs, I have never felt the mind leave; body is merely a husk in stillness.
It is the body, the meat of the self, the flesh, I have not been able to address. Opening my eyes and untwining my legs, my hands run over my chest. The tips of the fingers brush skin; each digit sliding past hair and scars that litter my breast. I feel my zafubeneath me. The black pillow relieves any stress on my knees that could bring about self-consciousness. Self-consciousness—the term is a redundancy. The scars draw the limits of the self. They draw consciousness to themselves. The self is consciousness. The flower is the seed. I continue tracing the scars on my chest. Each one is a map of a former consciousness. Each scar blooms into a memory.
My body bear no tattoos, but is riddled with scars. Four large ones on my torso: an appendectomy, the slash of a knife lining the space under my third rib, the remains of a nipple piercing, a jagged burst of a windshield. In addition, the girth rolling from my belly forms stretch marks, seams in the flesh that I have always tried to burst from. My legs and back, ravaged by skin disease and glass, have too many scars to count.
Watching Erica have her ankle tattooed, I finger the incision of my appendectomy. Her slender legs are held up by the artist’s chair. Her arms clench the sides of a vinyl cushion beneath her. The shop glistens, clean. The floors scrubbed so frequently the tiles have started to fade. The room smells like a hospital: disinfectant and alcohol hang in the air. It’s comforting.
The artist is not comforting. Her hair is dreaded and pulled back. A labyrinth of tribal signs dresses her legs. In flashes of skin that peek through the fishnet shirt and ripped jeans, I can see that her whole body is dressed in an ink suit. Black, blue, and green lines scar her flesh. There are almost more designs on her than the pre-fabricated Japanese characters, Pacific island designs, and abstract roses hanging on the wall. Each image’s curves waiting to be carved into the dermis in bold black as we sit.
“Hold on, girlie. I told you that this tattoo would hurt like a sonofabitch,” she says as the rapid-fire needle gun blazes a trail of ink and blood on Erica’s skin. The artist dabs away at the mixture, obscuring the lines. “I’d imagine it hurts worse than a pierced clit. Hurts a lot more than the one on your sternum, don’t it?”
I raise my eyebrow. “You sure you know what you’re doing?”
“Yes, I have a degree in anthropology and five of these bad boys on my legs. I am not doing anything to your friend here that I wouldn’t do to myself.” She says this without looking up. I can make out the blue line of contact paper that traced the series of Japanese characters Erica is immortalizing. Erica’s blond hair hangs over her tightly shut eyes. “You want one, you’re a flesh virgin.”
“He just turned eighteen,” Erica mutters through teeth that refuse not to touch.
I look at the array of needles in various jars, each factory wrapped and sterile. “It’s against my religion.” This is, of course, a total lie.
“Your loss.” The hum of the needle gun drowns out Erica’s grinding teeth.
The buzz of plumbing fills the room as Ellie bathes. She has been in the bathroom for forty-five minutes and steam crawls under the door. My fifteen-year-old mind knows that if a person is in the shower for more then forty-five minutes, they are probably asleep. I remember occasionally sitting down in a shower to wash my feet and closing my eyes, only to be awakened by my stepfather rapping at the door thirty minutes later.
Fearing that she’s sleeping face up and drowning, I take a clothes hanger and pop open the lock. The mechanism gives easily. She is my girlfriend of three months and we have been alone in her mother’s house for three hours, so I do not think seeing her nude would be a violation of trust. Indeed, it is much preferable to drowning in a few inches of water.
Pulling back the shower curtain, I close my eyes for a second. Upon reopening them, I see mist gather on my glasses, I struggle to see through the spectral light of beaded water. I see red. It swirls to the drain, spins in water, hangs thick to the edges of the tub. Hot water dive-bombs the flesh around my neck, each drop stinging from the heat. The shower squeals as it comes to a halts.. Violence hides under the showerhead.
Ellie is silent. Holding the razor blade between her thumb and pinky, avoiding veins and arteries, neat slits trace her legs. There are old scars on her legs, as well, fleshy welts and white nubs. This is not the first time, nor is it suicide.
She says, the drenched curls of her hair hanging in her face. The back of her hand slaps in the nape of my neck. “Get out!”
It’s been a year since either of us discussed the knot-work of scar tissue on her thighs. Lying in bed, Ellie traces the thick skin of my leg, the patches of crimson from old lacerations. She nuzzles herself under my chin, fingering the lines on my legs.
“How did you get that?”
“My cousin wrecked his Camero. The door ripped off and I hit the pavement.” I take deep breath. “Not as questionable as some people’s.”
Ellie asks if I want an explanation. Ellie sits on my waist. “The adrenaline pulsed through my body and pain stopped. Thought stopped. ”
I ask what she means. I try to push her off me. Her pelvis giving her leverage, I can’t use my two-hundred-pounds to throw her with my hips. She is topless, but her jeans rub my khakis. I tickle her belly, the muscles around her naval tense. Adjusting her hips, she presses me down with her palms. My shoulders dig into the mattress. There is a mirror across the room reflecting the small of her back. From a Queen poster next to the window, Freddie Mercury seems to stare at me, trapped like a pinned beetle.
“Kinda like what the Buddhists say about Nirvana.”
“I don’t see how.”
“The pain made me forget myself.” Ellie rolls off me, onto her belly. “You forbid me to do it, so I stopped.”
Words are formed by lips, tongues, and hard palettes. The sounds extend past the body, loom in the air. The paradox: Words extend past the self, but are products of volition and gut. With each sound, does the self exist beyond the limits of teeth, mouth, or body?
This has burned my brain for years. Visits to the Zen Soto Center in Atlanta and an extended stay with the Georgia Buddhist Vihara in Lithonia, Georgia have not clarified the issue. A monk at the Soto Center reminded me that a koan rooted in the nature of samsara, the cycle of the physical world.
“Samsara is Nirvana,” says both Zen and Vajrayana sages. You may not be able to get much more confusing than that.
“A koan?” I ask the Roshi. “Like does a dog have Buddha nature?”
“Be careful with your contempt.” The Roshi’s smile does not leave his face. He is an older man, different from the monks I have previously known for two reasons: he was born in the United States from Irish stock, and he always smiles. The curl of his lips can be seen under the white beard he keeps trimmed.
I sit cross-legged. The Roshi is instructing.
“A bodhisattva lived alone in a small temple. One day four traveling monks appeared and asked if they might make a fire on his property to warm themselves. While they were building the fire, the master heard them arguing about what is real and what is not. He joined them and said: ‘There is a big stone. Do you consider it to be inside or outside your mind?’ One of the monks replied: ‘From the Buddhist viewpoint everything is an objectification of mind, so I would say that the stone is inside my mind.’” The Roshi paused taking a sip of tea that he poured at the beginning of our session, giving the next few words a rhetorical flourish. “ ‘Your head must feel very heavy,’ observed the master, ‘if you are carrying around such stones like that inside it.’”
This is the weight of sitting, wondering about how the words that float like stones in the mind. Light breath, still passion, each bodily function a red thread that binds us tosamsara. The red thread of passion ties us to the cycle of the world. The koan to end all koans begins here: There is no escaping the physical world. We must transcend the self. Could we give up? The path of nirvana is a candle burning backwards. Could we be active? The path of bodhi is a light passing through the world. Every sentience illuminated must be beautiful. Every sentience must be eradicated. We cannot cut the red thread that binds us to this world. We cannot live solely within this world. The world isdukka, suffering. We must laugh and smell the lilacs and roses.
Mixing egg tempera with linseed oil, I smear pale blue paint all over my shirt. The solution congeals to a paste. I add water, sticking a wooden spoon in the bucket. The clots and clumps are to be smoothed. Twisting the spoon until my arms tire, I continue to mix my paint.
My best-friend Amy stands nude nearby. I began this sort of work with Erica, my sparring partner, a year before. She had needed a costume painted for Halloween: A snow leopard. I blazed across her arms and legs with a thick latex paint that dried like rubber on the skin, suitably covering all of her tattoos. The work took three hours of my brush strokes and air-brushing. This would take much more effort and time. Amy wants her entire body painted without any air-brushing.
Sponge bathing Amy with Witch Hazel, I gently wipe all of her body. The dorm room at Georgia Tech at very cold in mid-January. Goose bumps have popped up on her arms and legs. Dyed-red hair brushes against my face as I wash her back. I throw at least eight cotton pads into a mesh waste bin. Anointment and cleansing has always been a greasy project. Her stomach slender, she has a tiny lump for a belly.
The first coat is applied with my gloved hands. I press the tips of my fingers into her skin. This is not usual: a latex paint is applied with an airbrush. The linseed oil makes this impossible. I focus on not noticing her flesh. The moles, dimples, and contours guarded only by a thin veil. Her body lacks scars. A membrane hangs between the ridges of my fingers and goose flesh.
Blue and red paint on her skin dries and slightly cracks around her joints. Taking out a board stroked brush, I plaster more of the paste over her chest, back, thighs, feet. Each stroke details the twist of her body. A flower of pure flame traces the contour of her leg. The arch of a comet flies on her back. Each is an ember I cannot touch; the sparks rise above her chest. I paint quickly. Avoiding the brown of her areolas, I paint her neck.
After I finish, we sit awkwardly. We hang a green blanket over the door of her dorm room as a backdrop. Pinning it underneath the Dead Can Dance poster that lines her closet, we turn and shrug. The blanket flutters in the draft from an overhead vent. The lighting is terrible.
“Here, use this.” Amy throws me a disposable Kodak Fun-Saver camera. I sigh. Not the greatest way to record four hours of work that is already beginning to flake off her flesh.
I take a few snaps of her legs and back. I snap a few tasteful frontal shots. The lighting is still poor and the hour is beginning to show on her face. The paint looks like scales—the linseed oil has not worked as expected.
I walk over to the dorm sink and wash my hands. There is paint on the camera.
“Where are you going to sleep?” Amy asks, wrapping a beach towel around her body. “I’m about to shower, so you need to start getting ready.”
“The floor is fine.” I take off my ruined shirt and wipe the floor with it. Digging my zafu out of my backpack, I prepare to commit sacrilege. Well, sacrilege if you believe in such a thing and perhaps I do. Still too Catholic, I think. Sleeping on what is supposed to be sat upon. I am confused with mixed longings:
What does this illusion of a self want? If it is an illusion, how can it want? Anatman, Sanskrit for “no-self” or “no-soul.” This is only to be taken half-literally. The self, in Buddhist thought, is a creation of culture and psychological necessity. It is not eternal—nothing essential. Even the meat on my bones will rot. Even if this corpse is embalmed, time will claim each and every particle.
So what did this self want when I left the monastery? Words for something that couldn’t be said? That can never be said? If this world is both symbol and not symbol, both real and unreal, both samsara and nirvana, then why does my leg ache? Is it the desire for leg ache?
The words of one of the most innovative thinkers after Siddhartha, Nagarjuna, come to mind: “All philosophies are mental fabrications. There has never been a single doctrine by which one could enter the true essence of things.”
My head is full of rocks.
“Why did you leave the monastery?” Amy says as she swipes a fry in ketchup.
I take a huge bite of my Whopper, chewing the beef slowly.
“Let’s see. No sex, no property, little contact with women, no beds, only eating vegetables and rice once a day before noon, living entirely with Sri Lankans and Thais, only one or two of which spoke any English.” I sip my Cherry coke. Her eyes are sagging, ringed by gray and purple, only vaguely disguised by blue eye shadow. “I like women too much, mostly.”
“You don’t think you’re getting bad karma for leaving?”
“Karma simply means reaction. It’s not nearly as retributive as everyone seems to think. Maybe that’s Hinduism, maybe some of more austere Mahayana schools of Buddhism. Not Theravada. Not really Zen either. Not Vajrayana.” My skin itches, my appendectomy wound rubs against my sweatshirt. “I’ve visited the Tibetan Buddhist community at Losel Shedrup Ling and the Zen Soto Center. Both local. Both gave better results than the monastery. I mean, it one thing to start shedding desire, but its another thing to try to shoot it in the head.”
“You’re hiding behind intelligence.” Amy sips her Dr. Pepper. “I don’t know that you even want to shed desire.”
“While there is something about the basic tenets that I have trouble with.”
“The no sex thing?” Amy smiles. I blush. I can feel my throat constrict.
I explain the way the four noble truths can be summed up. Dukka, I mean the suffering and need of the world, it stems from want. How we gather up all our belongings, throw them in the ocean, and sit in perfect stillness until we are no longer subject to the problem.
“What do you mean, D.?”
“It feels like my whole religion is based on giving up.” There are squeaks and squeals in the background from a distant I-75. I sit sipping my coke. Amy places her left hand over mine, wrapping each finger around my knuckles. I sit.
My knees are buckled as I try to shift to a half-lotus posture. Words slip past my mouth: Tridentine litanies I recited as a child on one knee in St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Pali chants, Japanese koans from the Blue Cliff Record I learned at the Soto Center. Each in a language I barely understand and cannot claim to truly know. The language I do know, the one that slides most freely from my tongue does not involve sound, but sinew.
“I’m a lousy Buddhist,” I say as I stand, my legs pulling muscles I have forgotten I have. I kick my zafu to my closet and put on my shirt. The seeds that grew in knotted flesh are shaking off. Enlightenment means to lighten up, or, more precisely, to forget the heft of the stones weighing my head down. A blackbird caws at my window and sun inches through the blinds.