The Fail

Dark Mountain: Issue 5, our brand new collection of uncivilised writing and art, is now available. Over the past few weeks, we've been sharing a little of what you'll find in its pages. Today, we bring you a piece of nonfiction writing by Charles Foster.
is a Fellow of Green Templeton College, University of Oxford. Previous books include Being a Beast, Wired for God: The Biology of Spiritual Experience and The Selfless Gene He lives in Oxford and Exmoor.


 A student came to a Zen master, and said, ‘I am seeking the truth. What state of mind should I train myself to have, so as to find it?’

The master said, ‘There is no mind, so you cannot put it in any state. There is no truth, so you cannot train yourself for it.’

‘If there is no mind to train, and no truth to find, why do you have these monks gather before you everyday to study Zen and train themselves for this study?’

‘I haven’t an inch of room here,’ said the master, ‘so how could the monks possibly gather? I have no tongue, so how on earth could I call them together or teach them?’

‘How can you lie like this?’ asked the student, outraged.

‘If I have no tongue to talk to others, how can I lie to you?’ asked the master.

The student said sadly, ‘I cannot follow you. I cannot understand you.’

‘I cannot understand myself,’ said the master.

There are four life stages in the Vedic ashram system. The first is Brahmacharya, the stage of dedication to the great quest – to realize Brahman in oneself. It is entered into by bright-eyed youths and entered or re-entered by repentant, cloudy-eyed dissipates. Its music is that of sometimes quiet, sometimes exultant consecration. Then there is Grihashtha – the stage of settling down. Wives and mortgages are acquired, children are born, cars are polished, lawns are mown, businesses grow, fortunes are made. Then, when the children fly the nest, the wives sag, and the machinations of the firm become unbearably grey, there is Vanaprastha.

The Hindu goes into the forest, and begins to prise from his soul the deadly things that have stuck to it over the years of domesticity. He pays off his debtors, and tries to pay off the demons too. He has been dying since he was born, and now is the time to do something about it. The house is sold; the business is given to the sons. He takes with him into the forest only the sacred fire, the cultic implements and, optionally and unusually, his wife. He lives off wild food; his hair and nails go uncut; his capacity for delusion is gradually ground down by austerity and meditation. Eventually he may see clearly enough to go into the final stage – Sannyasa. Then he will wander alone through India, begging. The ties with the old life and the old self will have been severed; he will be teetering on the edge of enlightenment, or living in it. He will know his place in the mind of Brahman, or at least where his place is not.

It is a stern system, now rarely followed. It has generated immense spiritual wealth. There is nothing in the system that cannot be described very well in the words of St. Paul.

I thought that my adolescent contempt for the suburbs meant that I had transcended Grihashtha, and so I took a bus, a train, another bus and a rickshaw to a hot wood. In my rucksack, since I didn’t know the botany of India well enough to live safely off berries, I had lots of tinned fish, a bag of apples and a sack of porridge oats. I brought very little else of any sort with me. In particular I brought no spiritual resources of any kind, as the episode brutally showed.

Things happen in woods, whether you are prepared for them or not. To begin with, you think that you’ve found things. Wisdom, later, tells you that you’ve found nothing at all, but that you are in the process of being found. Finding, in fact, is the business of being found. And to do that (as I now notice happens in all the Arthurian legends that I love the most), it helps to be utterly lost.

My bit of wood was about a mile from the nearest road. The road was a rutted, dusty track along which trundled occasional bullock carts loaded with improbable bric-a-brac going from nowhere to nowhere. Walking into the fringes of the forest I nearly trod on a jet-black cobra which slid into a stream, looking fiercely back over its non-existent shoulders.

I’d thought of building the sort of leafy bivouac in which I’d spent many a summer night in England, but when I got to the place where I knew I should stay, I couldn’t bear the thought of looking up at the sky through something I had made. I’d thought of finding the edge of a glade, but I found that I wanted desperately to burrow as deep as I could into the wood. If I could have squeezed myself inside a tree trunk I would have done. So I kept on walking until, at midday, there was more shadow than sun, and I threw my kit down by the bole of a tree that must have fed on the same light that shone on the Mughals.

I sat and I listened. It seemed to me that I heard with my nose: the silence here smelt different to the silence of the clouds in which I’d been living. It didn’t last for long. It was a response to my own clumsiness. The forest was holding its own breath so that it could listen to me properly and watch more steadily. Soon it began to breathe again. When it began, it did not begin tentatively, with a tweeting of little brown things. It exhaled suddenly and loudly. A coucal lumbered through the bushes by my side, booming to the sky. A brainfever bird began its own shrill frenzy, and a wave of noise crashed over me. Colour exploded out of the green. The fallen leaves undulated with the life burrowing under and over and through. A bush rat sat on a branch, looked at me, and beckoned with its nose to another.

Over the next few days I lay for many hours flat on the forest floor, my face in the mulch and my eyes at the level of a bandicoot. I saw the gently depressed roads through the leaves where the mice ran; the questing antennae of the woodlice; the aphids tapping columns of plant sugar; the delicate shifting shadows cast by little things. I looked into the ancient eye of a mildly modified dinosaur (a Green Barbet), which was trying to work me out. Because I was still for long enough, and because it does not live for long, in three days I became part of its memory as old as my memories of life as a ten-year-old. For the gnats and the fireflies, I was a part of the landscape, known for several generations. For all the animals there I am a folk memory. Each thing here lived its whole life with an intensity I could not match for a single heartbeat, and with an intimacy of relationship with everything else that has no parallel in any human experience other than marriage and parenthood. Each came from a family incomparably older than the crass hairless ape.

I saw ants taken by a jungle babbler, a babbler taken by a Shikra hawk, and a Shikra eaten by ants. I lay there watching the wheels of karma turning; wheels within wheels; intricately geared; powered by thirst, pain and desire. My wish to bury myself in a tree now seemed morbid – a wish for annihilation of something that I called myself. I ran from the wish and stood up, suddenly the tallest animal there. It was a journey of six feet and about 3 million years. The perspective, the intimacy and the fear dropped away. I brushed the last of them off with the last few leaves in my hair. I’d failed the first, ecological stage of the process of identification with Brahman.

I slung my pack on my back and walked back to the road. The road took me back to somewhere. I started walking along the road out of town, and that’s where I am still. The editor of this book asked me to end this piece by explaining where I am now, but that’s the best I can do. I’m on a road out of somewhere. A road’s not a bad place to be. But it’s not as good as a wood, because you can’t really get lost on a road, and so you can’t be found. But some roads lead to woods.

There’s more where this came from in our latest book.



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