From Conflict to Peace: In Praising Herakleitos

Scott Mandelker, PhD

February 27, 2002; San Francisco

I. Emerging From Waters --

"Dry, the soul grows wise and good."

Herakleitos, fragment 74

Relishing pleasure, ankle-chained to mighty desire,
Souls here grow wet, haggard, swamped in emotion,
Devouring the hollow succulence of ghosts and shadows.

In the end, all searching grows dulled, the last taste is loss.
Yet over time, souls that loved water dry of their own doing.
The thirst to become, so totally moist, in the end blows withering flame,

As fevers of perpetual insufficiency burn in another weary mind.
Burden of futility bends us over, dark eye rings and tottering stance.
Swamps of our seeking are drained over lifetimes' dismal search.

No wrong in desire, no cosmic judge above condemns.
Such seeking, chasing, folly is normal to the world of doubling flesh.
Simply the "realm of desire," just as Buddha said, no need for tears.
But the real gain is loss, and most slow over time,
My tendrils of longing retract, bent back inside.

II. Light in a Realm of Desire --

"By cosmic rule,
as day yields night, so winter summer,
war peace, plenty famine.
All things change . . ."

Herakleitos, fragment 36

It cannot be helped, altered, or changed.
The doubling flesh world and weak mind we're granted to use,
Are just geared to the chasing, conflict, ever gaming, trusting that form.
To soul it is no problem, not the disaster we feel.

Our purpose here is hidden by mind's normal reaching.
Trickster slaying the real, mind always imagines world as its source,
Like gifts Christmas morning, awaiting joy in unwrapping, pink pajama dreams.
Bleary-eyed phantasms of small orphan children, wandering aimless in cold woods.
These roots of human tragedy.

Yes, momentary joy does come, transient sating of fevered wishing,
But in the next it is gone, vanished off to tepid pools of memory,
Back home in the imagined, returned to storage in thick curtains of hope.
Human beings are the most miserable of creatures,
There is no doubt of it.
Many a divine one has come here to live it.

And yet, humans, a rare one, opens the gate to wondrous being.
Tasting true freedom, final Life beyond change in the flux.
Returning two into one, smiling harmony while small children weep,
Bringing dreams of the other back to their source in the projector.
So rich this pairing of animal body and spirit,
Fecund soil of harvest bounty coming, deep dark yoni of illumination.

But generally, only the gods know the score,
The value of our strapping to wheels of rude fortune,
The point of this life, such constant loss, such true vivid dreams.

Many a divine one has come here to know it.


"While cosmic wisdom understands all things are just and good,
intelligence may find injustice here, and justice somewhere else."

Herakleitos, fragment 61

Earth human, seeking the joy last found beyond struggle,
Finds instead, sharp contrast and discord all around:
Evil rewarded, good in obscurity.
Plans cut midway, suffering of innocents.
Fires of desire, aggression and ignorance,
Blazing inside and out, wrecking this world…
The Buddha spoke it plainly.

No final harbor in all three realms,
Let alone this plane of desire, especially, meant to be thus.
Continual opposition, gloomy rave of confused thrashing youth.
Few wish to see it.
Souls in self-doubt, self-lost, self-forgotten,
Making their own misery, then blaming another.
Adrift on splintered rafts in oceans of birth-and-death cycling.
Those who see wish it were not, but the gods love it simply as Is.

Those above know it as other than we in the cave do squint.
Seeing plainly the timeless, far beyond struggle,
Truly at ease, at ease, at ease . . .
With joy in the fullness of their own light, aware of the totality of justice,
Seeing both kingly and despised, two points in the circle.
Those above offer their light, their hand, their lives; yet few here partake.

Not averting their eyes from the tears filling our seas of samsara,
Instead, holding a gaze steady in love on these fields of our travail.
My beloved, we honor your work, as you honor ours.


"From the strain of binding opposites comes harmony."

Herakleitos, fragment 46

The drying soul,

Slowly emerging through membranes of lonely wisdom,
Grows tired of the cycle of seeking and loss,
Sick of the bitter fruit of death, again and again,
Wearied of lowland tag in damp meadows of weed.
Comes slowly to know a greater good, a bridge to forever,
Brilliance of the vast mind-sky, happiness without pause,
Seen both inside and out the shimmering mental play.

The dried soul sees the white canvass below,
Upon which run all oily paints of this world.

Slowly, the soul begins to hear its own Voice,
Turns toward the source of all wishes and hope.
Waking within the fascist reign of desire, paint peeling off,
Realizing that its own grasping is but the fast path to death in this Life,
Chimerical presents in the sand, merely dreamed by drunken mind.
Those sad transient ghosts, pale-faced heavy lids of life-long demise,
Hold never the promise of ending my longing.

But at last we can see: the Mind holds it all,
Their world is my dream, projected by me,
No peace in the hunt, nor ever was.
Though indeed I did like it,
Or so did I think.

Endless chasing my own tail,
I thought it was mine, the heart of my search, the search of my heart.
I thought it was home to my glory, my rich seedpods bursting;
I thought it led home, I thought it would slake thirsting.

But alas, those objects of desire were just me all along,
Thinking it wasn't, searching for pots below rainbows.

I fancied lovely those delights, salivation running, tongue adarting.

I still long for their taste…

But in the end, I went so far down the track, so far from core,
Those bright colored ribbons tied sweet round my neck, choking off life.

I went deep down the coalmines of struggle, flesh cut by the rocks and the thorns.
Veins clogged by old-grown anger and pain, the sorrows, the hopeless self-pity.
Obstructed my channels, encrusted my eyes, till I could bear no more.
Till all I could see was my nose . . .
And there, at my nose, I began to come back.
When I hit bottom, there in the heart of the darkness, was a pinprick of light.

And though the old ways die hard,
At last I do know, the tides of this fortune, no matter how high,
Can never wash me to peace, never blow out the flame.
The games of small children, the furious hunt,
Lustful embrace of devouring passion,
The toys of group pecking, the manners of so-called class --
All are but empty and led only to pain, subtle or coarse, high and the low.
And yet, even Buddha gave fully to lust for a time.

Awakening of flesh-bound souls is a boon,
Not quickly achieved and rarely complete,
Yet never forgotten.
The downward way at last reversed course.

I now see mind-source formless and vast,
Within the heart and not husk of all changing forms,
Within, yet far from my biting desire.

Seeking the form, finding hunger, conflict and doubt.
Yet beyond all shifted sands, there will I find my true home.


"Under the comb,
the tangle and the straight path
are the same."

Herakleitos, fragment 50

Decades of search, finding then having,
Having then losing, then newly fresh seeking again.
Tussled ways of my life, these tangles of hope.

In the end, I found hope of the hopeless, the desire for none.
Only then did the citadel journey begin in earnest; the path was then seen.
Just wishing and working for freedom from all clinging, old grasping and need,
Just this will suffice.

Only this will suffice.

Nevertheless, some love their tussle and tangle, dreadful locks and their chains.
I comb my own, and leave you to yours.
Indeed, I can never wield your comb, so subtle is it.
Comparison is but folly at the head of the Way-- each soul tests itself.
In the magnificent illusion of form, desire for the doubling is honored.

All ways lead us home, some faster than others, and choice sits above progress.
What I do today, you do tomorrow, and those who dish pain, come later to eat it.
Those who seek ghosts, come later to rue it.
Those who give up get bound in their ruts,
And all my self-doubting, self-losing and shame,
Will someday grow straight, when all change goes to bed.

Yet pain's a stern teacher, and hitting the wall, again and again,
At last I must stop, stop seeking, stop hoping.
At last fallen off the spinning-on wheel,
And removing my straps,
Bid goodbye to infant dreams of joy from without.
All children grow up.

The straight path is vision, a disciplined way,
A way of self-knowing, not shying away.
How much pain must we take, till at last we can learn,
That we make our tangles, and we paint our frown.

It is the end I now seek; yet I do feel the strain,
The strain of my judgement, all I never can gain.
To let go to now, it is really the way, the end of all seeking,
The end of the flame.
Blown out from below.
The end of the game.


"The harmony past knowing sounds
more deeply than the known."

Herakleitos, fragment 47

Bridge below gone, deep oceans beneath, I hold on for my life,
And drifting down slowly, the way takes me home.
The motion itself leads ever onward, approaching the far shore,
And the work turns to holding above, as the cord leads me on.

My hands cannot move, it's the descent that is in charge,
And the ways of this world go farther away.
With faith in the way, my own willing is shot,
And turned into trust, that guidance is king.


"Silence, healing."

Herakleitos, fragment 130

At the end of the road, alone she stands there;
Awaiting return, embracing my coming.
The union I've sought, the joining of being,
Upon that farther shore, the city of darkness long gone.

The dream is now over, the wheels have been smashed,
The seas are all drained, the thorns all removed.

In the end, no more to say.

I simply watch all the dance, the dancers and sets,
Those scenes of high drama, the makeup and garb.
The play ever plays, but I no longer join in.

My remainder still remains, and the ghosts of the past,
Still call and recall, but I know who they are.
I know it is transient, and I know it is true,
That the games are for children, and slowly I must go.

Silence, healing.
Healing, then silence.
The words may be used, but they're not what I think.

All things not as they seem, and nor are they otherwise
When at last flames burn out, then only the darkness is seen,
And forms on cave walls disappear in the light.

Nowhere to go, no one to be, nothing to do.
I sit still and await, awaiting and still,
And still the games play, and still the wheel turns.
But now I can see, it's all for today, and it's already in peace.
I make my way back and find my true place, and find my old group,
And return to the source, the dance has been danced.

* * * * * 
All passages from Fragments, The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus
(from On Nature; translated by Brooks Haxton; Viking, New York 2001)

"Only the Perfect Man can wander in the world without taking sides,
can follow along with men without losing himself.
His teachings are not to be learned,
and one who understands his meaning has no need for him."

-- Chuang Tzu, Basic Writings

(p. 138, translated by Burton Watson; Columbia University Press, New York 1964)

May you find your true path, and wake into light!