Douglas Penick


As the world was consumed in war, when the outcomes were in no way certain, Wallace Stevens wrote: 

“It is the human that is the alien, 

The human that has no cousin in the moon. 

It is the human that demands his speech 

From beasts or from the incommunicable mass.” (1) 

Mankind now may seem even more adrift and perhaps more malignant. Now we are moving in a dream from which we cannot wake. It seems we are caught in a stream of causes and effects from which we cannot find the means to wrest ourselves. 

We can hear the distant roar of water falling over a precipice. There is a scale of loss we cannot comprehend. It encompasses the natural and social orders of the earth. It lives in the intimacy of choices we make daily. We have no alternatives in so many of our options. A take-out coffee cup, the carrots sold in a plastic bag, gasoline, electric baseboard heating. On we go. We are caught, powerless in the face of vast inevitable loss. 

Now we know. We know. Our conveniences spawn mountains of garbage. Our linkages, social and material, require that we despoil the subsurface structures of the earth. Our mobility poisons air and sea. Even if we knew how to stop, how could we? We don’t know any other way to live. And those too poor to live as we do, they desire our way of life, desire it ardently. Obviously, our culture of comfort is hastening our end. 

So, what or where is the continuity? We sense what is lost. History points to the specifics of loss. Lost texts, lost cities, even if there are always histories. We feel trapped in a dream. 

In the time between the two World Wars, politicians, scientists, artists strove to find a new basis and less lethal basis for humanity’s continuance. Looking at the world of dream and culture, Walter Benjamin remarked: “Dreaming has a share in history. … Dreams have started wars, and wars, from the very earliest times, have determined…the range of dreams. 

“No longer does the dream reveal a blue horizon.

“The dream has grown gray…

“Technology consigns the outer image of things to a long farewell… 

“Chattering, the fantasy images of things fall to the ground.” (2) 

Then, as now, our progress on this earth, what, in writing our histories, we call our progress, means increasing material ease, increasing freedom from hunger, illness, pain. We seek greater longevity, greater self-determination, greater power over circumstances. To these ends, we make use of everything occurring in the world and we will make use of those people less powerful individually and collectively than whoever we define as we, in order to achieve these goals. We own and use the world as we see fit. 

We have subjugated the world, and now, as the slave turns against us, we see how dependent we have become on the abject servitude of our environment. And our dependence permeates our entire being. As Susan Buck-Morss put it: “Under conditions of modern technology…the human sensorium changes from a mode of being ‘in touch’ with reality into a means of blocking out reality. Aesthetics – sensory perception – becomes an aesthetics, a numbing of the senses’ cognitive capacity that destroys the human organisms’ capacity to respond politically even when self-preservation is at stake.” (3) 

The world presents its movements through the screens on our myriad devices. There we have what we desire and see the consequences. Whether we want to or not, we see thousands of acres of plastic waste floating on the sea, while below the surface miles of light absorbing, barren sludge. The images of the shore of Fukushima where a tsunami has uprooted an orderly human enclave and all its accoutrements, fishing boats, toilets, libraries, baseball caps, schools, green plastic bowls, stores, white socks, cars, street signs, books, TV sets – everything and smashed them together in a mad assemblage that makes no sense. They say the reactor there is still spewing radioactive waste into the ocean. Then, on the screen, we are shown the results of innumerable plastic surgeries, a desperate search to be beautiful. The news provides accounts of endless murders, reports of epidemics, pictures of lines of uprooted children, women, men standing by the fences of refugee camps, clinging to rafts in muddy oceans, pictures of bald, bird-like children with cancer. We are shown a wristwatch more expensive than a house.

Temperatures are going up, they tell us, glaciers are melting Whatever sympathy or compassion we may feel can only be assuaged by sending money to an address on the screen. Yemen is being bombed flat. Toxic chemicals are used in commercial food. We are informed that half the wealth of the world, (half of which are gains from crime), are hidden in electronic banks. There are expanding domains outside the law. We hear of rape sanctioned as a weapon. We are shown the golden interiors of penthouses. Sickness, old age and death are important profit centers in the national economy. Unspeakable wealth, violence, destruction and suffering are offered constantly as a kind of pornography in all the media. The deafening roar of pop music pulses in the air. 

We can’t imagine how it can go on. It is leading to an ending of everything, a war of all against all. We close our eyes. We move such images from in front of us and put them in the back of our minds where they ferment. 


At the end of the 12th century, the ambitious visionary Taira Kiyomori led the Heike to become almost absolute rulers of Japan. Increasingly corrupt and despotic, the clan provoked the Minamoto or Genji clan to rise up and finally to destroy them. At the end, the Heike embodied the elegance and splendor of courtly life, while the Genji had become the embodiment of a far more austere and harsh samurai code.

The Heike finally were driven off the land and had to take refuge in their sea-born fleet. In the last battle of the long war, the great Battle of Dan-no Ura, they were effectively destroyed.  The infant Emperor Antoku was a scion of the Heike. His grandmother, Nii-dono, held him in her arms as she leapt from their flagship and sank in the sea. As this scene is told, or sometimes sung:

Amid the roar and crash and screams of battle,

She called for the emperor and for the Imperial regalia to be brought to her.

Calmly she put on her gray silk mourning robes.

She slid the Imperial sword in her sash

She hid the Imperial jewel in the robes under her left arm.

She held the grave and frightened child with her right hand.

She did not waver.

She stepped to the bow of the Imperial Vessel.

The child Emperor was a beautiful boy with long black hair and a radiant gaze.

He looked puzzled, but unafraid. He asked:

“Where are you taking me, Grandmother?”

“The fate and good fortune that you made you a lord here

Is over. This day is the end of that destiny.”

The child, resplendent in his parrot-green robes, began to cry.

His grandmother lifted him into her arms. They looked at the dark water. Clouds reflected on the surface made it seem there might be something in the depths.

“Oh my child, there is a splendid city beneath the sea.”

With that, offering a vision of a world hidden, like all our dreams, beneath the surface of the world, holding the silent boy tight in her arms, she leapt into the sea.


In 1242, the great Zen pioneer Dōgen Zenji said: 

“Within a dream this is the dream you express. Because awakening is seen within awakening the dream is expressed within a dream…The place where the dream is expressed within a dream is the land and assembly of Buddha ancestors. The buddhas’ lands and their assemblies, the ancestors’ way and their seats are awakening throughout awakening and express the dream within a dream.”(4) 

Seven hundred and fifty years later, ten years before I read Dōgen’s words or encountered his lineage, a dream was somewhere waiting and sometimes took me. Sleeping, I found myself daydreaming on a street corner before a small delicatessen. Next door, there was a narrow building in that 1920s Federal style. On a whim, up three worn granite steps I went, then in a shallow alcove in the brick façade, framed by marble coping. There an old green wooden door with a large brass handle. 

I opened the door and entered through a narrow hallway with brass wall sconces. Then another door, wood painted black, and this opened suddenly onto a room with pale gray walls and white trim, cool and evenly bright. There I found an old-fashioned, academic museum with bronze and glass cases in orderly ranks. No other wanderers, though the hum of voices in perhaps an office not on view. The wood floor creaked as I moved slowly through the frozen panoply of antiquities on display. Mostly these were Greek and Roman, small terracotta statues, fragments of faces, pottery and glass. Attention wandered. I drifted along the outer walls, there coming to a brown unmarked metal fire door. Unmarked. It opened easily. I entered. Before me, an iron staircase rose in a shadowy stairwell. Trying to step softly, to muffle the clanking, I climbed up several stories.

I felt both curiosity and deep loneliness. 

Through another door. I entered a large attic. The room smelled of dust. By instinct I was sure the public was not welcome here. The room was completely silent. Many of the objects were in shadow. But slowly, as my eyes adjusted, I made out cases upon cases filled with gilded bronze statues of unfamiliar deities, small solid gold animals, beautiful geometric polychrome vases, stone sculptures of sages, courtesans and rulers. Innumerable objects clearly of great value. There were no labels. Propped against the wall in wooden crates were fragments of faded murals depicting battles, ceremonies, and landscapes from nowhere known to me. They were like the remnants of dream worlds. I was touched by a new and wordless kind of inspiration. I examined pictures and objects until they all were once again engulfed by sleep. 

This dream was repeated about 10 times over half as many years. And on each visit to the attic, I saw some vase or image not noticed before. I felt something new and unfamiliar. But never could I remember what I had seen. I knew I had seen something, felt a companionable presence, felt myself wandering on the verge of some completeness, some expanding amplitude. 

Then, one night the dream began again as ever, but now the door to the attic storehouse was gone. The wall was smooth and hard. I returned in dreams a few more times, looked for the door. It didn’t exist. I felt an ominous and bleak disappointment. The dream ceased, but, even awake, I still maintain the useless hope that one day, it will return. 

Dōgen again: 

“(The dream within a dream) is neither the realm of humans nor of heavenly beings, and cannot be judged by ordinary people. Who could doubt that a dream is enlightenment since it is now within the purview of doubt.” 

“There are inner dreams, dream expressions, expressions of dreams and dreams inside. Without being within a dream, there is no expression of dreams. Without expressing dreams, there is no being within a dream. Without expressing dreams, there are no buddhas. Without being within a dream, buddhas do not emerge.” (5) 

I dreamed last night that I was imprisoned in a dim cement cell that resembled one of Piranesi’s towering nightmare structures. The cell had a cement bed angled strangely, gray-blue, faint light descending from portals high up and hidden by the turns in the chimney-like concrete structure above. Suddenly, violently, I flew up. I could fly. Overjoyed. A kind of freedom I never imagined. Battering the walls, I flew up and around, a trapped bat. I… 

This dream stopped suddenly. It has never returned, but it reminded me that once or twice, I have flown in my dreams. We do not possess it, but clearly there is a continuity of dreaming. It surfaces, unbidden, in the lives of all children, men, women, animals. It appears during sleep. Sometimes our dreams involve people and situations we know, though usually they are manifesting in unfamiliar ways. Often they carry the imprint of things we have read, seen in film or television, been told of. They emerge, in part, from this indecisive realm where our cultural experiences flow into our personal experience. They appear in sleep and disappear in waking. We feel their presence as they depart, but can rarely recall the specifics, even though, as we wake, it seems we will be able to do so. 

Our dreams, however, always feel alien, unlinked to the causes and effects that characterize our daily lives. We do not know where they come from or what they mean.  In dreams, we do not carry and are not carried by the history of ourselves. We may not recognize the dreamer or those the dreamer encounters. These may indeed be familiar, but behave in ways they do not in waking life. We do not know who controls our dreams, why the events therein take place, where they are leading. Even telling of them, commenting, analyzing, reaching some kinds of conclusions in frames of reference we would like to call wakefulness or reality is not sufficient to create any separation between awake and dream. Dōgen is quite insistent that we cannot escape. The dream, in its fleeting promises, lurking terrors is truthful in that it reveals we have no control of content and outcome.  

“Making one brief utterance, beyond understanding and beyond knowing, is the expression of the dream within a dream…Taking hold and letting go are the expressions of the dream within a dream. Directly pointing is expressing the dream. Hitting the mark is expressing the dream.” (6) 

Here, and here alone, we might wake up. But not in a place that we desire or dream of.


Now, as traffic often does not exist, as so few jets vibrates in the sir, as neighbors do not wander in the halls, a primordial silence is rising from beneath the surface of distractions. An ancient being, always waiting to return, slips in between our thoughts. Stillness expands. Links between one thought and another are not so obvious. Links between thoughts and actions are not so compelling.

We are dazzled in a hallucinatory torrent of infection rates, death statistics, indicators of impending economic collapse, sickness, misery, accounts of ordinary heroism, assertion of raw venality, out-and-out lies.  In ancient times, dreams were thought to come from the future. They articulated what lay ahead, provided prognostications, oracles, visions of what was to be. In the all-destroying 20th century, dreams were thought to be the hidden evidence of past lusts and terrors, hints at the inescapable causes of present disasters. And, of course, here and now there is still what is called “the American Dream”, the promise to be realized in the “pursuit of happiness”; a kind of tangible bliss that can be contracted and paid for in advance, a freedom from an arbitrary fate that is promised in advertisements and mass entertainment. What Walter Benjamin called the “phantasmagoria” of the consumer’s world in the age of high capitalism.

In the stillness of a consumer world shut down, buying and selling sorely reduced, pollution of the air, sea and land is declining. At the same time, for many people, food, medical care, a dwelling place, many forms of security, all are vanishing. The colors of skies, lakes, streams and landscapes. are more and more vivid. The empty air is more scintillating, more transparent. Love and friendship has more meaning. But dreams, for now, do not guide, explain or promise. Our dreams now skitter aimlessly on the clear, impassive surface of a silence now returned.


(1)Wallace Stevens: (1940’s) In Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit 

(2) Walter Benjamin, tr.Howard Eiland: Dream Kitsch in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproduction and Other writings: Harvard UP 2008 – p.236 

(3) Dreamworld and Catastrophe:Susan Buck-Morss, MIT Press 2002 P.104 

(4) Dōgen Zenji – tr.Tanahashi- Enlightenment Unfolds- Shambhala 2003 p. 165 

(5) ibid. p.167 

(6) ibid. p.169