Red Dust

The world of red dust. This is an expression found in ancient Chinese Zen and Taoist poetry (sometimes simply “dust”).  It is a vivid image and a sharp metaphor–have you ever driven down a dusty dirt road? Imagine now villages, towns, and cities with nothing but dirt roads. So it was everywhere at one time. For the Chinese Zen poets (and poets inspired by them) the “world of red dust” was the world of human agitation and deluded activity toward accumulation, possession, a manifestation of greed, a seeking of power, the give and take of commerce, the pretentions of government and officialdom, etc., etc. What an apt metaphor! But it also refers to something much deeper…there are many references to “dust” in the heart and the mind.

A couple of examples:

            “The mountains stand unmoving just the way they are

All day they let the clouds roll out and roll back in

            Even though red dust is countless layers deep

            Not a single speck reaches my thatched hut”

                                    Han-shan Te-ch’ing (translated by Red Pine)


            “I carried books and a hoe in my youth

            When I lived with my older brothers

            Somehow I met their reproach

            I was even disdained by my wife

            So I left the world of red dust behind

            All I do now is wander and read

            Who’ll spare a dipper of water

            To save a poor fish in a rut”

                        Han-shan (the famous Cold Mountain, translated by Red Pine)



I am sitting at a campsite about 10,000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada. All alone. The quiet is immense. Even more so than found entering an empty church or a true monastery. Oh yes, there are sounds–the wind blowing in the tall trees, the coyote at night, sometimes a bird…. But these sounds do not disturb the silence; in fact they only accentuate it, so you feel it sinking into you very deeply.

Merton quote: “No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees. These pages seek nothing more than to echo the silence that is ‘heard’ when the rain wanders freely among the hills and forests. But what can the wind say where there is no hearer? There is then a deeper silence: the silence in which the Hearer is No-Hearer. That deeper silence must be heard before one can speak truly of solitude.”

The wind in the trees says “Be Nobody.” Do not be afraid to be Nobody. That’s what the wind and the solitude say. Zhuangzi’s and Lin Chi’s (Rinzai’s) “true person of no rank”–no credentials, not even religious ones. Enter that nothingness where the fires go when they go out. The fire of your ego identity will go out too, with all its grasping at this or that identity. A scary invite. So misunderstood. Something in us pushes us to be “somebody,” to have all that stuff and all those people telling you who you are, that you are somebody. The world of red dust.

Las Vegas, Wall Street, the Pentagon, etc.–all these are merely externalizations of what we are inside, of the “dust” of our minds (or “hearts,” the hesychast would say). But there are deeper levels still.


Now I think of Ash Wednesday and our ritual: You are dust, and to dust you shall return. This is another and somewhat different use of “dust,” but it points in the same direction.


The Tibetan Buddhists express all this with different images. Some of them that are borrowed from their own native shamanistic Bon tradition are the demons, so prevalent in many of their festivals and rituals. The demons are all within one’s mind and heart, they are the devouring passions that eat people up with their unending demand for fulfillment. So, the seeking of liberation. The Christian Gospels touch on this in their own way also. Recall the various parables of Jesus and his sayings. Recall that vivid image of the man who is totally wrapped up in expanding his “barn” not realizing that he will soon die. And the Desert Fathers really read the Gospels in such an interpretative scheme.


It’s a very cool evening at 10,000 feet; the city below me is sweltering in heat. Interesting contrast! It’s so cold I am trying to build a fire to warm up. Full moon and wind. I am reminded of a Jack London short story, “To Build a Fire,” a story of a man who freezes to death in the Yukon as he is unable to build a fire. I read this story decades ago, in high school. Never have seen it since. Funny what things you remember at what points in your life. Mostly it is the red dust we carry within.


Why is it that all of us “good people” get so caught up in the red dust of religion? God is then no more than our own ego identity projected large, really large! The call to be Nobody is then totally incomprehensible; religion then becomes a way of enhancing the self, immunizing the self, instead of deconstructing the self. The Upanishads make it a Divine Calling. You are THAT! The Divine Reality does not make a big deal about being God! The Divine Reality is the “Ultimate Person of No Rank,” the Ultimate Nobody, abiding and hiding within all that is, or nothing would be. And the New Testament invites you to recognize yourself as a “child of God.” What if that’s the same call? I am beginning to agree more and more with Abhishiktananda, that without the interpretative schemes we find in Asia, Christianity has only a faint grasp of the “gift of God” and all that implies. Christianity itself partakes of the world of red dust — the delusions and confusions of human beings. Certainly this is not the “orthodox” view!


Merton’s “true self,” Lin Chi’s “the true person of no rank,” the Upanishad’s “You are THAT,” even the New Testament’s “child of God” language, all these point to something that is impossible to point to. That’s why all this language is mostly paradoxical, symbolic, and indirect.  Perhaps they all do not refer to the same thing, but what they do refer to has this common characteristic that it is not something that you can “grasp” and make it a possession or something that your ego can hold before itself. Who you truly are is therefore this Nobody which defies all categorizations–not something you can look at in the mirror and admire and measure and enhance, etc. All this is in the world of red dust. Who you really are is so limpid, so clear, so pure, so lucid, so luminous, that not a speck of dust can find a place to land. True religion is NOT “cleaning up all the dust”—that’s the shallow view of religion whether Buddhist or Christianity or anything else. Rather it is a realization, a waking up, to what is Real….


Consider one of the most significant, most profound and most fascinating encounters in the history of world religions which occurred when Bodhidharma met the Emperor of China. Recall that Bodhidharma was the Indian Buddhist monk who had inherited the mantle of transmission of that which was later called Chan or Zen, and he came to China for some reason to “spread this Gospel.” (Recall that Buddhism had already been in China for several centuries, but not the Chan kind. Let me now relate this story in the words and translation of John C. H. Wu:

“Bodhidharma arrived in south China in 527, and was immediately invited by Emperor Wu of Liang to his capital, Nanking. In his audience with the emperor, a devout Buddhist, the latter is reported to have asked, ‘Since I came to the throne, I have built countless temples, copied countless sutras, and given supplies to countless monks. Is there any merit in all this?’ ‘There is no merit at all,’ was the unexpected reply of the Indian guest. ‘Why is there no merit?’ the emperor asked. ‘All these,’ said Bodhidharma, ‘are only the little deeds of men and gods, a leaking source of rewards, which follow them as the shadow follows the body. Although the shadow may appear to exist, it is not real.’ ‘What then is true merit?’ ‘True merit consists in the subtle comprehension of pure wisdom, whose substance is silent and void. But this kind of merit cannot be pursued according to the ways of the world.’ The emperor further asked, ‘What is the first principle of the sacred doctrine?’ ‘Vast emptiness with nothing sacred in it!’ was the answer. Finally the emperor asked, ‘Who is it that stands before me?’ ‘I don’t know!’ said Bodhidharma, and took his leave.”

The Emperor is a devout Buddhist who is caught up in the “red dust” of his own religion. There is this self that accomplishes these pious acts and then waits for its reward; and of course the real reward is that all these acts come back and “congratulate” the doer and confirm the self in its illusory existence. People in monastic life do this all the time, and it is a waste of their monastic life. The trouble, of course, is not with the acts themselves but the mind of the doer. The Emperor, without realizing it, exhibits a typical dualistic vision. Can you see the comparable dynamic in Christianity? Well, the next statement by Bodhidharma will inevitably seem to most Christians as nihilistic and totally incompatible with Christianity: Vast emptiness with nothing sacred in it. But this is precisely the language of Chan for nondualism in all its deepest forms.


Much more about this later…..