The Hermetic Welch

by Charles Upton?

Lew Welch wrote a poem called "Wobbly Rock" about a large rock on the California coast that moves when hit by waves; he used to sit on it to meditate. In the poem he poses the following riddle:

Dychymig Dychymig: (riddle me a riddle)

Waves and the sea. If you

take away the sea

Tell me what it is

It took me fourteen years to solve this riddle — or only a moment. I’ll give you the answer a little further on.... But elsewhere in the poem, Lew says:

Sitting here you look below to other rocks

Precisely placed as rocks of Ryoanji:

Foam like swept stones.

(The mind getting it all confused again:

"snow like frosting on a cake"

"rose so beautiful it don’t look real")

Isn’t there a clear example here --

Stone garden shown to me by

Berkeley painter I never met

A thousand books and somebody else’s boatride ROCKS



(nearly empty despite this clutter-image all

the opposites canceling out a

CIRCULAR process: Frosting-snow)

What he's saying, literally, is that the rocks on the California coast, with white foam between them, remind him of the rocks at the famous Zen garden of Ryoanji, placed on a field of raked white gravel — a garden, which, furthermore, he knows only through a painting of it — but then (or simultaneously) he remembers that Ryoanji itself was made that way to remind us of the seacoast. Looking at the California coast, he sees (simultaneously) in his mind's eye the rock garden made to suggest the Japanese coast of the same Ocean — a garden constructed in the Taoist manner, "deliberately unintended" (as he says in another poem) — and so the rocks and white foam light up in his vision, in a moment of what Joyce called "aesthetic arrest"; they have become more apparitional, more real.

The artificial, imagined garden that is and is not the sea-coast (where, as in all gardens, art and nature unite) unites with the "real" seacoast — and the effect of this on the poet's perception is that the ROCKS and his EYE unite. Subject and object are transcended, or become one; the separating ego is dissolved.

Furthermore, to say "snow like frosting on a cake" is both to show again how an aesthetic image can "cleanse the doors of perception" by simultaneously separating from and uniting with its object, and to demonstrate how a vulgar, cliché-ridden perception (educated by the Reader’s Digest) will always miss this, while "rose so beautiful it don’t look real" both expresses the "metaphysical transparency of phenomena" seen as they really are, and shows how a vulgarized perception — the kind that likes artificial flowers better than real ones — will miss this too.

Welch's teaching here has to do with the distinction between Essence and Being, which derives ultimately from Aristotle, and which has always been the central question in Islamic philosophy.

Being is the "isness" of things; Essence is the "whatness" of things. That a rock is is its Being; that a rock is a rock, and nothing else, is its Essence. This way of thinking will sound to many, as it once did to me, like a meaningless head trip. After all, since no thing exists that has Being without Essence (since it wouldn't be anything) or Essence without Being (since it wouldn't be), and given that Being and Essence can only be separated within the mind, then why separate them? Why, except to create a meaningless illusion?

The answer to this question, or one answer, is — as Blake would say — "to cleanse the doors of perception." If you drive by a redwood tree that you've whizzed past a thousand times before, you will tend to not really see it; you will take it for granted. However, if one day you were to see a redwood tree, normal in every way except that it is hanging in mid-air, It would rivet your attention. You would see it in dazzling clarity and incandescent detail. The "real" tree was of no particular interest to you, but this "unreal" tree, this apparitional one — how vivid it is; how real.

Elsewhere, Welch defines what he is trying to achieve in these terms: "I try to write accurately from the poise of mind which lets us see that things are exactly what they seem."

This is an extremely subtle concept. It seems like naive realism, but it is really the furthest thing from it — except that the most exalted perception, or spiritual state, is finally outwardly indistinguishable from the most common. Ibn ‘Arabi’s Sufi "people of blame" look the same as ordinary, simple believers; Kierkegaard’s "Knight of Faith" is like a normal, happy-go-lucky carpenter or fisherman; the most advanced Zen sage, in the last of the "Ten Ox-herding Pictures," mingles with the crowd in the marketplace and in no way stands out.

Likewise in the world of perception: If things are only what they are, heavy literal lumps (as seen by the naive realists, the simple believers in what they see), then they can be taken for granted, and so remain hidden. They are in samsara. If things are "literally" illusions (as seen by the spiritual travelers, whose vision penetrates to the Real hidden behind phenomena), if they are mere seemings, then we can safely ignore them, and concentrate on the Real, on Nirvana. But if they really are what they seem, then they have all the radiant transparency of apparitions, plus all the solidity and presence of real things. Redeemed from both heavy literalism and subjective fantasy, they act as mirrors reflecting the Divine: Samsara is Nirvana.

The Buddhists say that the intrinsic "emptiness" of things (shunyata) is not other than their essential "suchness" (tathata). Shunyata is being, since pure being is empty of specific determinations, empty of Essence, while tathata, the property of things by virtue of which they are exactly what they are, is Essence.

Now, back to the riddle:

Dychymig Dychymig: (riddle me a riddle)

Waves and the sea. If you

take away the sea

Tell me what it is

The answer is: If you take away "the sea" from "Waves and the sea," you get "Waves and," which, to the ear, is also "waves sand" — So the solution is something anyone who has seen a sandy ocean beach has seen: the pattern of waves, or ripples, left by the ebbing tide in the drying sand.

This stationary wave-pattern is tathata, Essence. The absent sea is shunyata, Being — or Void. To separate Essence from Being like this, and reunite them on a higher level, is what all true art does, to break us free from our habitual ways of looking at things and cleanse the doors of perception. The Chinese landscape painter, say of the Sung period, renders his pine branches, waterfalls and misty crags imply by removing the Being of his subject, and leaving only the Essence (though not, of course, the Being of the painting; the Essence of his subject, first given Being by water, timber, rock and air, is now reflected in ink and rice paper).

The great classical Chinese or Japanese painter does not try to reproduce nature, like the "realistic" or "naturalistic" artist, but rather makes a painting which, because it is obviously an "apparition," an image, and not an imitation or counterfeit of a real thing, thereby reveals the essence of its subject — so that, when we find ourselves walking through a landscape of pine trees and waterfalls and misty crags, and suddenly recall such an image, it immediately superimposes itself upon and blends with the picture painted by our senses, since there is no "rivalry of two beings" to prevent it. And so we suddenly witness a world in which Essence fully reveals Being, a world where "things are exactly what they seem."

This is a kind of alchemy. Being and Essence, in their fallen state, where manifestation obscures rather than reveals the Principle manifested, are like alchemical Mercury and alchemical Sulfur chaotically mixed or crushed together, producing that state which the alchemists call Lead. For this Lead to be transmuted into Gold, where manifestation reveals its Principle rather than obscuring it, Mercury and Sulfur — Being and Essence — must be separated, clearly distinguished, and then reunited on a higher level. This is the alchemy which true art serves. As the human substance is purified and refined through spiritual practice, the vision of nature becomes a theophany, a revelation of God. As the vision of nature is purified through art, the human substance is refined as well, so that it can more perfectly reflect its Divine Source.


My latest book is The System of Antichrist: Truth and Falsehood in Postmodernism and the New Age. In it you can hear the story of how Lew introduced me to Carlos Castaneda at one of his Full Moon Mussel Feasts, Muir Beach, California. You can get it through:


In Lew Welch's book Ring of Bone, three riddles appear. One (the Rider Riddle) can only be answered by each one for himself. The other two (The Riddle of Bowing and the Riddle of Hands)

each have only one right answer. Lew told me the answer to The Riddle of Bowing, and I solved The Riddle of Hands by myself. (The answer was confirmed by Lew’s wife, Magda Cregg). So if anybody wants to try and solve them, e-mail me at uptonjenny at hotmail.com, and I can say "pass" or "fail".