Drinking the sun

Drinking the sun
Image courtesy graysnork

We can embrace our monstrosity while cultivating our human nobility. We can allow each to transform the other, so we become cheerful, kind, useful monsters who are also overpowering, unpredictable, and dangerous heroes.

This is the last essay in a series on “how to be a Buddhist monster.” In “Eating the shadow,” I suggested five phases: hunting, chewing, swallowing, digesting, and burning. Previous episodes explained hunting (finding traces of your own everyday monstrosity), chewing (becoming intimate with it) and swallowing (accepting it as a fact and taking it in, so it no longer not-me). This page covers the last two phases:

  • As you digest the shadow, it becomes a normal aspect of experience. No longer threatening, it changes in consistency, becoming increasingly malleable.
  • Digested shadow is fuel for creative work and practical magic.

Digestion: a certain kind of humor

To digest the shadow requires what Robert Bly, in A Little Book on the Human Shadow, calls “a certain kind of humor.” You have to find your own monstrousness funny, because the alternative is to find it horrifying. If you find it horrifying, you will reject it again. The humor has to be affectionate: a “laughing with” yourself, rather than “laughing at” yourself in a mean way.

At the same time, you have to acknowledge awfulness. All of us are sometimes cruel. All of us harm others. All of us suffer and die. Regret, grief, and despair are often in shadow, and must be eaten: fully experienced. That can provoke depression, or hysterical exaggeration. Wry humor is an antidote. Wry humor allows awfulness, but doesn’t go on and on, making a big fuss about it.

You can hear both the affection and the wryness in Bly’s humorous story of discovering his inner banker.

Monsters find humans ridiculous. When you view the human condition from a monstrous standpoint, you realize that humans make things much worse than they need to be. Humans insist on taking their artificial meanings seriously. They make up stories about what life means, forget they’ve invented them, and get trapped by them.

Monsters poke fun at pointless human preoccupations. That is the playful witch laugh; the playful giant laugh.

Buddhism for Vampires explores intense emotions and cosmic insights, but it also makes fun of them. It simultaneously promotes tantra and satirizes its excesses. Seriousness and humor, practice and play, are not mutually exclusive. They may—they should—combine seamlessly.

Monsters at play

Humans are remarkably self-centered. They only see the world as being about them. Humans notice monsters only as threats, so humans imagine that monsters spend all their time being malevolent. When there are no humans around, monsters must constantly obsess about finding humans to harm, must sharpen their teeth so they can eat humans faster, must sing grating chants about how much they hate humans. This is absurd; humans aren’t worth any of that.

Monsters spend much of their time at play, reveling in their monstrosity.

We’ve sanitized the world so much that people think “play” is for children, and is “nice.” Play can be as dark and dangerous and adult as you want to make it.

What that means is up to you to discover. Play is an expression of individual monstrosity.

I will give one personal example. I was a dreadfully nice boy at one time. I was wretchedly politically correct and committed to non-violence. I had also rejected physicality. I lived the life of the mind. I was perversely proud of being clumsy and weak.

I took up kung fu. It was monstrous. It was a blast. I was good at it.

At a certain point, it became clear that I could kill people with a single unarmed blow. That radically reorganized my idea of who and what I am. I am dangerous. If you have the capacity to kill at any moment, then you are a killer. I have absolutely no desire to kill, and it is extremely unlikely that I ever will strike anyone outside a martial art practice session—but I am a killer nonetheless.

You can be one too.

I now think this was a little over-dramatic; I let the rhetoric run away with me a bit. However, practicing a martial art is a good way of exploring shadow energies of aggression, dominance, violence, pain, and injury, in a playful and reasonably safe social context.

A final gift: shadow as creative fuel

Doc Togen sculpture: frogs in amplexus
Frogs in Amplexus

It takes a lot of energy to un-see patterns, to maintain the membrane between “self” and “shadow.” As that wall crumbles, energy is freed. One automatic expression of that energy is creativity.

Creativity gets exiled to the shadow because nice boys and girls are predictable. Whatever is odd gets rejected. To eat the shadow, you need to pay close attention to what is—and then you recover the sheer weirdness of reality. That is raw material for art.

You also discover what you like, which is the basis for aesthetic judgment. Knowing what you like, and freed from embarrassment about its peculiarity, you naturally want to share it with others. Bly recommends playing music, writing poetry, telling fairy stories, and “creating frightening figures in clay.”

That reminded me of Ngak’chang Rinpoche’s sculpture “Frogs in Amplexus”:

It began life as a clay statue. [I] created it originally as an illustration for poetry which contained emblematic frogs. The frogs of the poetry were depicted as surreal aspects of perception. Being amphibians—they live in two worlds (the aquatic world and the other one), so this statue is supposed to depict that in terms of how human beings can also live in two worlds—the world of ordinary every day experience and… the other one.

It is not “frightening,” exactly, but I find it rather disturbing. It is repellent and attractive, monstrous and whimsical, at the same time. The frogs are too human for comfort. (Girl frogs do not have breasts.) Their eyes are too big, their faces too blankly abstract. Yet it is charming and cheerful. Allowing such contradictory feelings, and finding the conflict funny, is a way to eat the shadow—and so come to live in both worlds at once.

Despite rare outbursts of painting, poetry, and calligraphy, I never thought of myself as an artist before Ngak’chang Rinpoche started teaching on the topic. That world was closed to me. I was a scientist, engineer, and businessman. “Art” was not-me.

It is not that I have “taken up art” since then. It’s that his explanations made it obvious that much of what I did, and do, had always been art—and I had to acknowledge that.

(This is also true of you.)

The Vetali’s Gift, my unfinished Tantric Buddhist philosophical vampire romance novel, is a dark fairy tale, in which characters tell fairy tales in which characters tell fairy tales in which…

Although material retrieved from the shadow contributes to many works of art—perhaps most or all art—this is particularly true of worthwhile horror fiction. It’s probably not hard to guess that many images in The Vetali’s Gift were shadow-hulks that floated into my awareness as gifts on black water, like the corpse of Dharmakirti:

Peering into the gloom, I saw a dark mass in the water downstream. It was floating toward us. Its motion was smooth and constant, ignoring the twists and eddies of the fast-moving stream.

I realized that since it was floating upstream, it could not be floating at all, but moving under its own power. It must be an animal of some kind—a crocodile, perhaps. It could be dangerous; I stepped back from the stream bank.

The thing floated up to the bank by the ogress and stopped. She kneeled down, and before I could give a warning, reached out and turned it over.

It was a human corpse that had been floating face-down.

She stroked its face.

“He has sent me a final gift,” she said.

Drinking the sun

Everybody thinks they want to find their True Self, the Buddha Within, the brilliant shining goodness hidden deep inside.

No one succeeds—because it does not exist.

Most spiritual systems promise to rout the shadow and deliver you to the shining. That is not possible. It is precisely this impulse that gives the shadow its dark power in the first place.


There is that which we cannot see because it is hidden in darkness; and there is that which we cannot see because it is too bright to look at.

That shining is not within; like the shadow, it lives in in perception and in interaction.

We create the shadow as a “perceptual flinch.” That-which-is-too-bright also provokes a perceptual flinch; and so we also consign it to the not-me.

After you have eaten the shadow, and mostly digested it, you can begin to drink the sun.

It seems the work has to be done in that order. I am not entirely sure why.1

To stare into the radiance of being is, literally, painful. It is not “nice”; it is not comfortable. It can be more frightening than the monsters of the darkness.

Drinking the sun cultivates nobility.

We can embrace our monstrosity while cultivating our human nobility. We can allow each to transform the other, so we become cheerful, kind, useful monsters who are also overpowering, unpredictable, and dangerous heroes.

I will not say much about this. First, because this series on the shadow is already long. Second, because I cannot steal material from Robert Bly’s book, which does not talk about it at all—not explicitly, anyway. Third, because this is my personal “growth edge” and I do not yet understand it well.

My “Reinventing Buddhist Tantra” series describes the fruition of Vajrayana as “mastery, power, nobility, and play.” I wrote individual pages on mastery and power—but found myself unable to complete the page on nobility. That is the first missing page in the series; after a long delay, I continued the series from the point in the outline right after it.

It is not that I have nothing to say about drinking the sun, or about nobility. I wrote a page on nobility in 2009. It is brief, but I am still happy with what little I did say.

I now have vastly more to say; but it is less than half digested. It is not yet ready to burn.

Chekov’s gunmen

This series has been infuriatingly incoherent, vague, often meandering and off-topic, uneven, and—in the end, I think—a failure in its own terms. One wishes I had written A Medium-Length Blog Post on the Human Shadow, and that my editor had demanded that I make more sense and tie up loose ends and get to the point instead of gesturing in its general direction.

By now, as the series finally staggers to its unsatisfactory ending, you have forgotten some unresolved plot points. Or, characters, actually: “Chekov’s gunmen,” in the delightful jargon of TV Tropes:

Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.
Anton Chekhov

Early on, I quoted a dense paragraph from Bly: his answer to “How does one go about eating the shadow, practically?” I’ve elaborated on every phrase in that… except one. A practice of view: “regard yourself as a genial criminal.” Has this criminal faded into the shadow and escaped?

Just before that, I provided a dramatis personae: “gods and giants, bankers and bishops, patriarchs and witches; and, at the end, something between zero and two Wise Old Men.” We’ve met all those characters… except… who are these Wise Old Men?

They’ve all weaseled off to another web site.

To tell the tale of the shadow, I had to go meta to my own 2010 draft, to discuss it in quite a different style—and that is what you have just finished reading. But to tell the tales of Chekov’s Gunmen, I have to go meta to everything you have just read, to discuss it in quite a different style. And that is better done elsewhere.


My thanks to:

Ngak’chang Rinpoche, who pointed out problems in the 2010 draft; who taught me most of what little I know about Buddhism and about art; and for permission to use “Frogs in Amplexus.” This is not the revision he hoped for. (It is not the revision I hoped for. Sarva mangalam.)

Rin’dzin Pamo, for lengthy discussions of this topic; valuable insights and advice on writing and on life; for the China Miéville quote; and much else.

Trudy Goodman, for teaching from my “Eating the Shadow”; and Marie Ramos, for alerting me to that.

Timothy Roy, for pointing out the connection between the work of Robert Bly and Robert Kegan, and linking my page on the latter. Replying to his suggestion was another main motivation for returning to the topic. Unfortunately, the genial criminal has absconded with my response, and you will have to chase him across cyberspace to recover it.

Gary Basin, for helpful discussion, and for encouraging me to finish this series, despite my doubts.

  • 1. Perhaps nobility depends on recognizing positive aspects of monstrous tendencies.