Thursday, January 6, 2011

Relentless Ants, Drifting Clouds

Hakuin (1685-1768)

This Zen master, I've recently learned, often painted the image of an ant circling a grindstone. Round and round the ant goes. Ants will relentlessly follow an ant track. Repeat, repeat. Relentless repetition: call it obsession; call it despair, call it slavery. Slave masters enforce unrelenting repeated motion. Why when the slave master is dead or no longer in power, do we repeat, repeat, exhausting ourselves? Even a wise person like Hakuin cannot give a pat answer. Instead he exhorts:

An ant goes round and round without rest
Like all beings in the six realms of existence,
Born here and dying there without release,
Now becoming a hungry ghost, then an animal.
If you are searching for freedom from this suffering
You must hear the sound of one hand.

(Not "one hand clapping," the way the line has been translated.)

I wonder whether Hakuin drank tea. I did this morning--some green. Not bad!

Yesterday I shot a picture of an empty decaying house in South Beach. The ants and termites are taking it down. Eating it, undermining it. Are you smiling with me? Are you ant-like today? Are you free? Are you both? I can't do it alone. Ants of the World, Unite. We'll wear away the world together. And unlike ants, watch the clouds drift. They're massing southward, cumulus; low, stratus. Mixed: there's even mackerel-mottled. I grew up, a noodle-eating city girl who seldom looked at the sky. Books and mud-pie pleasures. Years later, the window of my Boston room had a view to the sky. With J. I saw the sky over the Allagash--other skies too. The same sky here in South Beach seems endless--more endless, if there is such a thing--endlessissimo. Venus low and bright at 4: AM. My Crocs squeak on the tile floor. Dust blows in. The little metal table rusts. From the trash shoot on our floor, my lithe neighbor runs barefoot, bare-chested back to his apartment, empty handed.


  1. Miriam,

    What a joyous read. The last paragraph reminded me of Benjamin.

    Do you know the Tom Waits song, 'Army Ants'?

    It is commonly known that ants keep slaves.

    Certain species, the so-called "sanguinary ants" in particular, will raid the nests of other ant tribes and kill the queen and then kidnap many of the workers.

    The workers are brought back to the captors' hive where they are coerced into performing menial tasks.

    And as we discussed last semester, the army ants will leave nothing but your bones.

    Perhaps you've encountered some of these insects in your communities, displaying both their predatory and defense characteristics while imbedded within the walls of flesh and passing for what is most commonly recognized as human.


  2. Nice to see you back in the groove.
    Like Penal and many others, I am sure, I have thought some about ants. Here's an interesting factoid that goes along with Penal's comment: "An intimate, symbiotic relationship exists between ants and aphids. They are often compared to cattle, with the ants acting as protectors and ranchers. What aphids have that ants want is something called honeydew, a sweet substance that is excreted by aphids through their anus and contains surplus sugar from the aphid's diet. Ants protect aphid eggs during the winter, and carry the newly hatched aphids to new host plants, where the aphids feed on the leaves and the ants get a supply of honeydew." Very nice view of slavery.

  3. Penal-Colony: Yours is fascinating information, ripe for parable. I don't know the Tom Waits song but will you-tube it. Common knowledge about ants is uncommon to me, though I know about ferocious red ants and steer clear of them.

    Bluedog: Symbiosis beats slavery!

    P.C. and Bluedog: Happy to connect!

  4. Single hand, no claping sound.

    What a great exercise for the mind, at twenty to four in the morning. Thank you. Please have a good Friday.

    daily athens

  5. Good to read you, Mim.

    I have never heard the sound of one hand. At least, I don't think I have. An absence of clapping, is it? In terms of absence, I can perhaps hear something.

    Yesterday I saw a programme on TV about The Mind (basically behaviourist psychology). I was going to say I am an ant, but fear I am just this human creature whose brain has been programmed to respond in a certain way. But a certain quiet freedom utters something else that I can't quite hear but will trust. The sound of one hand?

  6. Miriam -- total awareness of nature brings freeing thoughts. Ants are just one part -- possibly a good place to start -- up close.
    -- barbara

  7. Signs--the sound of one hand? Is there a sound?

    Barbara, When I was a kid I used to love watching a single ant enter an ant hill. Yours for always starting again . . .

  8. Fascinating congress about ants, Mim! And people seem to know so much about them. Nice to know you are in South Beach. What is the name of that spectacular red tree that has taken the place of your lovely desk and rainy window?

  9. That tree, Melissa, has many names; among them: Flamboyant, Poinciana, Royal Poinciana, Flame Tree. I like to call it Royal Flush. It does well here. The one in this picture blooms next to a small house a few blocks away. I took the picture last June, I think.

    That desk in the black and white picture belonged to Josef Sudek, the Czech photographer. I think you would love his work--and his story.

  10. Do ants have an option, though? And what happens after freedom? Don't some ants want to go back to moving in circles?

    Excellent post, and good food for thought. Funny how instinct works sometimes. It's the same with some human beings. And we have a brain.

    I think I've heard the Tom Waits song but that was a long time ago and I probably didn't even know it was Tom singing it. He would have written something about ants, Tom, the man, definitely. :-)

    Welcome back. I've been missing your posts.

    Greetings from London.

  11. Hello, Cuban! Has there ever been an ant who broke out? As for ant-like humans: yes, some want to go back to the familiar circles after they have tasted freedom.

    Has the snow melted in London?