The Emptiness of Curtains:   Some reflections in retreat.

We need to make a practical decision – where to sit Donal our facilitator. The choice is limited to beside a door or in front of a window on the north side of the room: and we choose the latter. 

Then, another decision – should the curtains behind him be open or closed?  These are small but important things to consider.  We play around with it: morning light – closed; midday – open; evening – closed.  And they stay closed for the rest of the week, so that only the southern sun illuminates the room.

The curtains are a floral grey and pink meandering design, hanging from the ceiling to the windowsill just above the radiator:  two curtains on a rail.  Objects intended for letting in or keeping out the light.

There are 26 of us here, together for the week of retreat.  Sorrow’s Springs  is a phrase from an allegory by Gerard Manley Hopkins in which he grieves for a young girl’s future sorrow (even before she has come to know grief for herself) and is one we return to over the week, exploring through dialogue the meaning of the poem and how it may differ from suffering? How does it resonate with bodhicitta and compassion? Could it be the doorway to wisdom?

We are reminded each morning to consciously generate bodhicitta: to be active with it; to let it be the fundamental ground of all we do.  We sit with the intention – to paraphrase Donal’s words – to understand that the ways of thought are generally mistaken and lead to the mess we generate in our lives.  He speaks about the different ways of viewing thought in meditation:  thought as a major agent of destruction, an enemy to annihilate; another way to see thought is as a friend providing the fuel for meditation; but then again perhaps thought is the meditation. I play around with these ideas in the hope that thought will not totally absorb me.

The dharma text that supports the week is one of Ringu Tulku Rinpoche’s teachings, taken from his publication, ‘Like Dreams and Clouds’ about emptiness and interdependence.  Sahaja is the Sanskrit word, meaning born together with or naturally co-emergent.  Each time I hear the term I think I have understood it: that nothing can exist on its own by or of itself, nothing arises without a prompt, an interference, an injunction from elsewhere, a coming together of elements to create something afresh. It is the dynamic substance of life. Emptiness is both the basis for and result of things coming together and parting.  Another way of saying it is that everything is possible and that change is a permanent condition. An empty mind is a blank canvas, pregnant with unborn arisings.  Yes.

Donal brilliantly elucidates these ideas and I listen with all senses open, attending to the belly-breath.

But then my mind moves once more to the pink and grey curtains that were parted before coming together to keep out the light. On reflection their closure seems counter-productive – a sort of oxymoron– contrary to our purpose here which is to illuminate the source of sorrow, to let in the light. 

And surely, a curtain is a curtain, a functional, light obstructing and single object, in a form that we identify as cloth.  I sit and allow these curtain-thoughts develop – deliberately bypassing my own wellspring of sorrow.

Studying the pink flowers, I begin to wonder who designed the pattern? Someone with a unique life and a family, do they also meet with sorrow and how does it manifest for them, or do they name it as suffering?  And the colour, the dye, the chemistry and the alchemists who worked in the lab to find ways to create a shade that would print and not fade on curtains. I imagine the toxicity of the dye stuffs inhaled in the process; and of the endless supply of precious water needed for the dyes, and the poisoning waste spilling into the rivers and streams and killing earth-beings in its discardment.  

Dyes used to be a product of nature, and this cochineal red was extracted at one time from a female Mexican beetle called dactylopius coccus, dried and ground into powder before chemists found ways to replicate it with precious minerals mined from rock, to be fixed with formic acid.  Suddenly I recognise that this dye-knowledge, born and developed across hundreds of years to enter my curtain story, came out of a time when there were no windows and no curtains; and that these curtains could not be here in this form without crushed beetles and earth poisoned in the process.

And the cloth, the weave, the interlacing of threads into fabric: this curtain that blocks our light has been woven by a machine.  But once, weavers worked by hand, in attic homes with roof windows to let in the light on the southern side. Until the coming together of weaver and engineer at some point in history (herstory) brought forth a mechanical loom to create a cloth that one person printed and another sewed and another hung on the window in this room wherein now I sit.

Emerging from these phantasies, I mull over which category of thought they have been: friends or enemies, or, is this a form of curtain Vipassana?

The curtain is also composed of fibres: cotton, perhaps from Uzbekistan, where children are removed from school to help with the harvest because their families are too poor to live any differently. So child labour and poverty and famine in the Old Russian Republic now also belong to this curtain that keeps out the light. 

The other fibre, polyester, starts as oil.  And when I look more deeply with my weaver-eyes I see that the oil-fibre that has been processed and spun into the finest curtain-yarn was extracted from a fossil yielded by our Earth-mother, a million year old gift from trees and plants in the landscape of a time when no humans were yet even dreamed of.

Perhaps it was drilled from a well in Texas where hurricane Harvey recently un-homed thousands and then tore over Pacific rigs raised higher each couple of years to compensate for the rising sea waters as the Arctic melts; and where a ship has just boasted its traversal across the North Pole because the ice is no longer an obstacle and has gifted the boat a passage.  Or maybe the oil was from the Gulf where Arabs are killing Yemeni husbands, fathers and sons and raping their women, using guns and bombs supplied by foreign governments (who also strive to destroy their own folk in different kinds of ways). That too I see in this curtain. 

Intelligent investigation into the mind requires both trust and doubt: trust that we have the means to the answer, and doubt to keep the questioning mind active and alert to the quality of arisings and insight. Doubt reassures us that there is an issue, something to work with, without doubt we will not search, without trust we will give up the search, each is crucial in its own way.    This week it has been difficult to find the trust sometimes. Each day, news brings a fresh onslaught of fires, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, drownings, mudslides and massacres and unintentional loss of life: nowhere escapes the ensuing mental suffering.

Here in this curtain-protected room we have created a trusty vajra tent within which illness, suicides and other deaths of loved ones visit us each day to ask for inclusion in our evening prayers.

And I remain aware, also, of the ancient forests, the alchemists, dyers, weavers, seamstresses and their sons and daughters, the Arabs and Yemenis, the children of Uzbekistan, hurricanes, tornadoes, dictators, Mexican beetles and earthquakes, dependently arising as curtains, open or closed to the light.  

Annie Dibble is currently co-ordinator for Bodhicharya Ireland, and a Tara Rokpa Therapist. In another life she recently retired from teaching 3rd level art and design and is now working to create supportive links between weavers in India, Nepal and Dublin.

One thought on “The Emptiness of Curtains:   Some reflections in retreat.

  1. Patricia Little

    A lovely piece, Annie. You have bound the everyday with the sublime, so that everything has meaning, and the world’s sorrows are just part of the whole. The textures that form your craft are given significance, but the tone is light, as light as the voile curtains stirring in the wind.

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