Tuesday, 14 October 2014


We were talking about how a handful of words can fish a single video out of an ocean of millions and place it right at the top of the list of search results. About how Googling is a new form of 'address'. Location is no longer ascertainable through a fixed language protocol but through an exercise in lateral thinking where precision combines with a kind of 'scattergun' delivery. Location was now a dream-language.

We wanted to live like this: to live like an address, like these new addresses. To be precise and specific, coded and silent. To be hidden and lost and recollectable and findable. We wanted people not to know we existed, not to even think about us, yet be findable by anyone anywhere when the right time came.

We were talking like this, as I was looking for this video:

The Third & The Seventh from Alex Roman on Vimeo.

Monday, 13 October 2014


“Through weakness or anxiety, to be serious or for effectiveness, we no longer know how, we are no longer capable of speaking in any but disjointed terms, in special, specialised, specious discourses, as physicists or politicians, as historians or pious believers, through equations, poems or prayers, as scientists or those in love, in bad French or exact algebra. None of these discourses can or wants to rejoin the other, to encounter it, recognise it… We claim to hold colloquia, but we speak there in these dislocated terms.”
     -- Michel Serres “Biogea”

"Write in the morning, revise in the afternoon, read at night, and spend the rest of your time exercising your diplomacy, stealth and charm."
    -- Roberto Bolano "The Savage Detectives"

We were talking in her studio, alone together, wrapped in a hundred voices whose volumes have been turned down to almost zero, voices which, consequently, can be heard but not recorded. Something akin to the voices of insects, of tiny insects with revolutionary aspirations or a taste for opera. Insect choruses.

We were talking about imaginary unknowns: about cinema and cinema's 'little sister', about Bach and 'Bach squared'.

We talk about how Dante would send his poems into the world to go and greet his beloved, with instructions 'to talk to no-one except virtuous ladies along the way'. We talk about encryption, about how 'the door to the invisible has to be visible', about Godel and Claude Shannon, about encryption and love and secrecy, and semi-secrecy, and quarter- and sixteenth-secrecy. All the homeopathic secrecies that allow us to think we understand things.

We talk about reading a story first thing in the morning and then listening for every accidental quotation throughout the day.

We talk about the literature to come. About words with shadows and ambience. Words with data structures forming protective umbrellas over them. Words without dictionary definitions, that operate instead as handles and switches, as security clearance for other, noisier words. Words which gather like shoals of post-grammatical fish coded for music, tonality and absolute rhythm, inside pages that resemble lakeside ripples, or mobius strips, or icebergs.

That's how certain nights go in her studio, imagining the voices of a new Jane Austen, a new Emily Dickinson.

Friday, 10 October 2014


I'm riding the bus
rice paddies
and pachinko parlors.
their surfaces
shine like diamonds
powdered by
nuclear suns.

outside my window,
a heavy hauling-truck
rumbles past
and i effortlessly visualize
it plowing through
the thin skin of this side
of the bus, and each of us
in this line of seats
softly breaking
into colored smokes,
like 23 candles
beneath a few breaths.
conversely, i feel no
confidence to imagine
what the woman
on her cellphone
on the sidewalk
is talking about.

(poem and images by Jerry Gordon)


Thursday, 9 October 2014


Like everyone else speaking at the conference I was asked to begin my talk with an image showing what 'quality of life' meant to me. But I don't have a camera, so I decided to just use the opening slide of my talk. But i must admit, after seeing the various homely, friendly slides presented yesterday, I began to wonder how my one would look - because its a bit weird in comparison to those other slides! But as I began to look deeply into the image it began to be quite revealing.

The right side of the opening slide contains a photo of me at my friend's house, and in this picture she used an app which bleached the photo so it looks like I'm kind of disappearing, and actually that it what I'm trying to do: I'm trying to disappear into a 2500 year-old Buddhist tradition while staying in touch with my own 21st century Western culture.

And on the left is Vajrasattva and consort, who represents or symbolises the purifying power of the Buddha's enlightenment. This is one of my meditation practices. And I love the fact that this image is so radiant and clear. That what I am disappearing into is clearer and brighter than what I am coming out of.

So you can see that I'm reading a book in the photo. Whenever I have money I buy books. I love reading and I read all kinds of stuff. The memory of a map-making monk has to contain all kinds of oblique and wonderful things. And now I have a kindle, so I'm no longer limited to carrying just one or two books - electronic culture and homelessless go so well together! And I wanted to have fragments of that reading in the slides today. So I asked myself what would be a good quote to share with designers? And immediately I thought of this passage from William Gibson's "Spook Country":

Wouldn't you love to have a design brief like this? No explanations, no goals cited, no budgetary cap, absolute priority in any queue...? That's the kind of the space I live in as a Buddhist monk. Of course, I have my vows to live within, and my life is very limited in terms of money and devices and those kinds of things. But psychologically... no explanations, no goals...

The rest of the slides I wont be talking about - they will just accompany me, a kind of ambient voice, representing the angelology of words. An expression of ambient intimacy. And you don't have to understand these images, you just have to stand under them for a few moments.

So... the theme of my talk here is "There Are Things In Life We Cannot Design". And to lead into this let me tell you two stories.

The first one takes place in Tokyo in 1923. A huge earthquake has just devastated the city killing more than 100,000 people. And in the days immediately after the disaster a ten year old boy decides to take his six year old younger brother by the hand and lead him through the destroyed city, forcing him to witness the entire disaster: dead bodies floating in the river, traumatised survivors sitting motionless in the ruins. We don't know why he did this.

Later in life the elder brother sinks into a deep depression and eventually commits suicide. But the six year old, little Akira, grows up to become one of the greatest film makers in the history of cinema: Kurasawa Akira.

The second story concerns a zen master I had the wonderful experience of studying with in Japan in 2005. His name is Harada Sensei and he has been teaching quietly at the same monastery in Obama, Japan, for sixty years. The story I want to share with you today concerns another disaster: Japan's imminent collapse in the closing months of World War 2. Its 1945 and Harada-san is just a kid; he's seen so many people sacrifice their lives in the war and now he feels its his turn. He's 20 years old and he just wants to help his country. Those were the words he used in a talk one evening at the monastery: 'i just wanted to help my country'. The army and navy were more or less finished, as indeed was the airforce. All that remained were the kamikaze squads. So he volunteers to become a kamikaze pilot. That's a suicide bomber in our world, yes? We think of them simply as psychopaths. But I cant stop hearing the gentleness in his words: 'I just wanted to help my country...'

One of the students at the monastery had a copy of a photo of Harada-san and two fellow pilots having their last cup of Japanese sake before flying to their deaths. You should see their uniforms: they're just bits of rags sewn together - the poverty and desperation of the whole situation is obvious.

And then, one hour before he is due to fly, the war ends. Japan announces her surrender. He came so close to death and then it was taken away from him. (You can read his own teaching on this experience and how it permeated his thinking and future direction here.) But the experience was not in vain. After the war he met a zen master in Tokyo who invited him to train under his guidance. "I can see you've sacrificed your life once already and it didn't work. Now give it to me. Train at my temple and I promise you you will have a deep awakening within three years." He accepted, and a few years later he had his breakthrough. And for the past sixty years he has been teaching in his little temple on the north coast of Japan.

What is the purpose of these two stories? I want to say that there are things in life that you simply cannot design. I mean, if I asked you to design a filmmaker or a zen master how many of you would dare to include an earthquake or a war in your proposal? The obvious solution would be to build a film school, say, and that's fine as far as it goes but it doesn't touch the whole situation.

I remember a teacher of mine talking about life in a traditional Tibetan Buddhist monastery. Some of the monks commit to a 20+ year-long course of study. In the beginning they study things like Buddhist logic and epistemology, how the mind works, the rules governing a monk's life, things like that. And then, I'm not sure when exactly, maybe around year six, they start to really focus on the wisdom teachings, on prajnaparamita and madhyamaka philosophy. These are the teachings that can end suffering forever. You can't escape from samsara on the basis of ethics alone, or through the power of a concentrated state of mind in itself: you have to have wisdom. These teachings will be the basis for developing the mind of a Buddha. They are very, very precious. And before they start they take a break from their studies. Some of the monks go into retreat for six months, perform purification practices, make vast visualised offerings to create the spiritual energy in the mind necessary to have realisations. They make vast aspirational prayers just to be able to understand what they are about to study.

I don't know of a single university in the UK where the students pray just to be able to understand what they are about to study. In our modern scientific-materialist cultures we have this kind of abstract 'democratic' understanding of knowledge. We feel, basically, that we can understand anything and that all we have to do is receive the information. The acquisition of knowledge is imagined as a neutral and 'flattened' experience. "I'm here and my mind is functioning and I can basically understand anything. Just give me the information."

This is not how Buddhism understands the mind. The idea of - and I like to use a medieval spelling of the word to protect it, to return it to its lost world of meanings - of 'virtu' has (sic) virtually disappeared from our cognitive vocabulary. We have no idea that there are levels of consciousness and increasing subtleties of mind, and that working on the mind's radiance - its virtu and clarity and inner state of being - is just as important as the content of what that mind is trying to understand. We have no idea that the approach to knowledge contains ethical and ritual dimensions.

If we are going to talk seriously about quality of life, we have to have two things in place: we have to understand how reality works and we have to have an understanding of what a human being is capable of, what it can aspire to. If we don't understand these two things clearly and completely, in all their existential vastness, all attempts to end the sufferings of beings will ultimately fail. They may succeed within temporary and limited contexts but ultimately they will fail.

These two things have to embrace the entire existential context: what is visible and invisible and what is simply beyond the present limits of my imagination and rationale. In Buddhism we aren't just aspiring to make our little place in life more comfortable - we are aspiring and training to become the kind of being who no longer has to experience this kind of body: a body which has zero tolerance for pain, which is destined to grow old, sicken and die. My design brief as a Buddhist monk is to end suffering forever. For everyone, everywhere.

I'm running out of time now so I will leave you with one last slide, and I will leave it for you to decide for yourself just how seriously I would like you to take this suggestion. But again, when I first read it my inner radar went very quiet and affirmed the deep relevance of this remark and I sensed a wildness and an accuracy in its words. Here it is:

I would love you all to consider what it would mean to just say no to ... everything. To free yourself from the limitations of the world you operate in, the endless demands to perform, to meet deadlines, to find solutions to problems over and over again. I would like you to at least imagine, as a kind of ritual action that you perform occasionally, saying no everything you are entrapped by: the need to succeed, to have a career, to be accepted, to be understood (even by yourself).

There is something quietly nihilistic in being so blindly positive, of moving ever forwards with an invisible glass wall in front of you: namely,  a limited - even delusional - sense of what reality is. And there is something liberating and purifying in being willing to stay in the space of not-knowing for as long as it takes.  I can imagine the pressures you are under just to ... continue ... and I live with gratitude in the world(s) you design. But I really hope you get the chance to just ... do nothing, be nothing. Thank you.

The following link is to a collection of photos and sketchbook responses to my talk put together by the conference organisers, plus a video clip: