Your life is short fiction, too, if you really think about it.
11159 words

I dress my wounds with sugar

Kampong Speu reeked of staph and all of the kids in our village seemed to get it. They had milky, irregular scars all over their arms and legs. You hardly see anyone outside Cambodia with that many scars.

Some of the Westerners got it too. I'm a Westerner. Like a ritual, I’d get infections in my feet just from the friction of my sandal straps. Was there staph in the soil? The water that I showered in? The noxious Kampong Speu air? I still haven't found a good explanation.

In the US children wake up every day to take their Adderall before going to school. In our Kampong Speu village children woke up every day to take their antiretrovirals (ARVs) before going to school. All but one of them had HIV.

In the best case ARVs give an HIV-positive kid a functionally normal life. But not everyone. I would bring coconuts from the local market to one girl who liked them. In the past she might have gotten them herself, but she had had an adverse reaction to the ARVs, and Cambodian roads don't accommodate the wheelchair she now needs.

With stakes so high the village didn't take chances, they just treated everything. Even for routine infections the village doctor often took the nuclear option of using maximum-strength antibiotics like vancomycin. So at noon, after having taken their ARVs, a second wave of kids with infected hands and feet would meet the village doctor at the clinic. He'd greet all their little open palms with tiny little gift boxes of antibiotics.

We didn't consider any side effects that such overprescription might have. For one, rampant infection combined with abundant prescription of antibiotics creates the ideal breeding ground for new resistant strains of staph. Instead we only thought about how antibiotics kept us on the safe side, however precarious it may be, lest a wound fail to heal or, worse, begin to spread.

And yet none of this interested me that much until one of my infections failed to heal and started spreading.

On the first night it felt like a bug wanted to eat through my foot. I remember tossing and turning, sticking out my leg hither and thither to escape the scorching brush of the sheets against my skin. When I checked in the morning I saw a tiny little bump just above my heel with two tiny white dots at the top. "Spider bite," I said to myself, and covered it with a Band-Aid.

Over the next two days the supposed spider bite grew and grew. It got puffy, it swelled, spread and deepened until it felt like it reached my bone. The swelling consumed first my ankle, then my foot, and then finally reached up to my calf.

By the time I limped over to the clinic to see Kathy I had the shank of a man three times my size. I explained to her the situation, showing her my cartoon leg. I asked her to cancel my PE classes unless she wanted me to teach the pogo.

"You need antibiotics," Kathy said, "It's cellulitis, I know 'cause I've had it myself. Could lose your foot you know." She carried herself with the authority of a woman who believes she's the mother of every child on earth.

"I'll take them as soon as I need them," I said, "My body can handle infections. That's what my immune system is for." As I said that, my immune system cringed.

"I'm serious," she said, pulling a purple box from the glass cabinets, "take the antibiotics. Start with the strongest ones." She tried to give me the purple box.

"Um, shouldn't we start with the weaker ones? Then move on to the stronger ones?"

"Listen," she frowned, "I've had my own kids die in my arms." Parry and riposte.

The purple box said vancomycin. I took it and headed out the clinic doors. As I limped towards my house, she watched me, imagining me dying in her arms.

When I got home I put the sealed box of antibiotics on my countertop. Americans like Kathy don't know a lot about medicine. Still, Cambodians know a lot less. Most of the educated people got killed by Pol Pot in the 1980s leaving a knowledge vacuum that never got filled. Due to a dismal health care system which puts western medicine in the hands of folk doctors, their life expectancy still hasn't cracked the 70-year mark.

I saw Cambodians cruising on motorbikes with IVs sticking out of their right arms, fluid bags and poles in their left. It harks back to a folk treatment — something they apparently did during the Khmer Rouge — where people treated anything and everything with a coconut IV. I prefer to drink my coconut water through my mouth. Call me old-fashioned.

I had read in the newspapers about hundreds of Cambodian doctors who had failed their doctoral exams and never got their medical licenses. They petitioned the Cambodian PM who relented and granted them their licenses anyway. After all, they did pay for the exams.

One newspaper reported that Cambodian doctors who passed their exams still misdiagnosed common diseases four out of five times.

You also have the folk doctors who bike from village to village peddling Western medicines that they knew little about. They have sacks full of pills and injectables that they prescribe to their regular clients. These folk doctors never went to school at all.

Lying on my floor I thought to myself. "You're a problem solver. The information is out there. Put two and two together. If you go to one of these witch doctors they'll just make it worse."

A voice popped into my conscious mind.

"Arrogant of you to assume you know better than the doctor," it said. "Also, Alec, how predictable."

"Well, maybe knowing absolutely nothing is better than knowing whatever this guy knows," I told the voice.

"Could be. Hope you don't regret this," it said, just before it disappeared.

I did the math. I had the antibiotics, and I had at least a few days of cellulitis before I'd lose my leg. Plenty of time to take an emergency flight to Bangkok. Maybe.

With the deftness of a blind ape I cracked open my MacBook Air and started punching the keys: P-U-B-M-E-D. I-N-F-E-C-T-E-D-W-O-U-N-D. H-O-W-T-O-T-R-E-A-T-S-T-A-P-H. Et cetera. I was squinting, concentrated, my fingers a blur. Firefox clenched its digital sphincter in preparation for a surge of open tabs.

PubMed taught me that I ought to clean the wound more often since a clean wound heals faster. I gathered my supplies: some gauze, a water bottle, tweezers, a flame, disinfectant. I sterilized my own water, created a pressurized squirt bottle, tweezed out the dead skin and regularly soaked the wound in iodine. This helped somewhat. More importantly, it gave me a tremendous sense of agency. "I'm a doctor now!" I thought to myself, "I'm practicing medicine! On me!"

Then I read something, and I sincerely don't remember how I discovered it and I wish I did. It was about doctors using table sugar to treat all kinds of infections. Chronic infections. MRSA. Diabetic ulcers. Shotgun blasts to the chest.

I thought to myself, "this is just the kind of thing Alec would do."

"And if it's not true," emerged the voice from my subconscious, "about the sugar in your infected wound?"

"I'll trust the science," I told the voice, cracking back open the MacBook and opening PubMed.

It couldn't be so big a risk, I learned. PubMed told me that Zimbabweans used sugar as a wound dressing for centuries. The dissolved sugar causes the bacteria to pump water out of their insides, basically making them shrink and dry out. According to some news articles (including one from the BBC) sugar worked about as well as anything else that I could find, including triple antibiotic ointment, when it came to surface wounds like mine.

I had gotten all the information I needed. I took the bag of sugar in my cabinet — leftover from when we tried to make tiramisu — and from that day forward I packed table sugar into my wound whenever I got the chance. Sometimes three times a day, sometimes four, and sometimes even more. I'd change the bandage every few hours. The sugaring made the wound weep ceaselessly.

Meanwhile, I walked around the village with my leg taped up. Kathy would ask me if I was taking the antibiotics. "As needed," I would say, technically truthful.

At least the wound had stopped getting worse. But the sugar didn't work a miracle, although that would have made for a neater story. Funnily enough I actually find myself in the office of the village doctor asking for him to take a second look. In his good judgment he tweezed out a chunk of necrotized skin.

In its place I saw a void about a cubic centimeter in volume. "That's gonna take a lot of sugar," I thought.

Over the next few weeks, with my foot elevated and marinating in that sweet saccharine nectar, I had time to think about why sugar wasn't more commonly used to treat cuts and wounds. How could we not know about a solution that's so cheap, effective, and widely available? The answer: probably because there's no money in a solution that's so cheap, effective, and widely available.

Out of sheer curiosity I called a clinic in Greenville, Mississippi: I had read that they'd been treating wound patients with sugar for forty years. I wondered how they saw the issue. Were they as excited about sugar as me?

A nurse picked up the phone. I said I'd like to know more about the sugar program. She asked if I was from a newspaper. "Oh, I'm just a student," I said, "just interested in hearing about what you guys are doing. Writing a little article."

"Um, no comment," she said, and hung up.

To this I wish I could tell her that she had nothing to hide, nothing to be shameful of. I'll never know what she thought however because that clinic never returned my follow-up.

As my wound healed I tried to explain the sugar methods to the village: the simplicity, the cost. No one cared. People liked to do things their own way. Instead they told me about their ointments. Tiger balm, iodine, Neosporin.

I nevertheless dreamed about children entering that little village clinic with their palms open, and instead of pills, little sugar cubes would fall into their hands. No more resistant bacteria, no more disrupted gut-brain axes, and no more pharma-industrial complex. But a dream it shall forever remain.

Still, I'll always remember my infected wounds in Cambodia, and how much they taught me about thinking for myself.

Kampong Speu being what it is, it couldn't resist sending me away with a little parting gift. I took to Greece an abscess in my pinky toe which I eventually had to get drained at a walk-in hospital.

That was the last infection I had. And now I have my scars, too.

This essay was originally written as a scientific explanation of why sugar accelerates wound healing, but that's just not as interesting as my personal experience in Cambodia. I wanted to weave the two ideas together to say something more compelling. I took some liberties with the storytelling but the main details are true. Especially the science. Sugar actually does help heal infected wounds, and it should be near the top of anyone's list of home remedies.

A short life

I watch the clouds,
The clouds go by.
They drift across
an empty sky
and dissipate,
as so do I.

To mountains, seas,
and deserts dry,
are not we measly
just barely born
before we die?

New study on biofields has scientists soul-searching

LOS ANGELES, CA — A breakout team of scientists from the University of California, Los Angeles has published the latest in a controversial series of papers on the mammalian biofield. Citing dozens of new case studies and laboratory experiments, the researchers presented a convincing case that the mammalian biofield may persist for some time after death, and even with the host body in absentia.

The discovery comes on the heels of a previous study in which Rebecca Gletshman et al. demonstrated that the human biofield is at least as unique as the fingerprint, which attracted interest from security agencies worldwide. Since then, a flush of money from DARPA, funding giant for the US military, has led to more sophisticated and daring experiments.

For decades, conventional wisdom had linked the biofield with life itself, and pioneering experiments had averred the connection. But in the group's latest paper published in Nature, Gletshman's results indicate that the preliminary research was in error, and that rather than vanish entirely, the biofield simply separates from the human body.

Advances in the sensitivity made the difference. The latest data come from the development of a new device dubbed SPIRIT — the Specialized Infrared Investigative Tool. Composed of conjugate polymer piezoelectrics, SPIRIT captures remarkably low-valence electrical activity at a distance. Gletshman's team was able to watch and even record the separation of the biofield as it occurred.

"We have yet to make the data public," said Gletshman, "but to describe it — the biofield basically peels away from the host body, similar to how a warm label comes off of a jam jar. After that, it just kind of floats around, sometimes out of the lab. We have no idea where it goes, but of course there are theories."

The UCLA biophysics lab has even attracted money from the purse of the Pope himself. Upon hearing of the press release from the university, the Vatican issued a statement unveiling a $110M plan to fund further development of the SPIRIT device.

"The Vatican has never been the enemy of science, as science can only reveal what already exists under Christ's domain," said Pope Francis in one interview, "And no expense is too great to behold and to protect the creations of the Lord."

Some speculate that the Vatican may have its own interests in developing the technology. An anonymous source from inside the church wrote that SPIRIT could be used as a test for "spiritual verification" — although the source was light on details.

But not all religious groups have been as rapturous watching the research take shape. Several have openly opposed it. In mid-October, the World Buddhist Council published an open letter belittling the research as "typical scientific arrogance," and "contradicting the [Buddha's teachings]. There is no soul, no self."

In Egypt muslims were filmed gathering in Tahrir Square. Present was Samir Al-Hassem, staff scientist at Cairo National Laboratory who, from behind a microphone, called the research "the devil's work" and said that "the infinite human soul must not be imprisoned by test tubes, nor traded like cards by hostile nations." The latter refers to a debunked internet rumor that the biofields were being be trapped and held hostage by the US and Israel.

Gletshman and her team dowplayed any religious or political implications. "First of all, there's a lot that we just don't know," said Gletshman, "We don't know where they go, what they do, or anything like that. I think people who refer to these fields as 'souls' are absolutely jumping the gun. And we have no evidence yet of any group or nation who has actually tried to contain these biofields in some other device. If that were happening that would certainly be worrisome."

"Even if we could consider these fields 'souls' or 'soul-like', if we can call them that," added Gletshman, "the fact that this 'soul' is material would actually resolve a number of philosophical questions. Like, how does a non-material 'soul' interact with a material body? It seems paradoxical. The answer might be that the soul was in fact material and that there was never any paradox."

But secular groups have too expressed concern over the research, as fears escalate that the technology might someday be abused. Various messaging boards were to blame for sparking a rumor which blazed through social media last month. Discussion centered around civil rights. Some worried that, combined with the biofield fingerprinting technology, US citizens could be potentially be "tracked beyond a single lifetime" or "imprisoned forever."

In an attempt to quell the rumors the US Department of Justice issued a public statement on its website last week saying that "the United States has no intention to use the technology imminently" and would "neither confirm nor deny whether [it had] its own SPIRIT devices in operation." The DOJ did comment that the research "raises new and challenging questions in the question of effecting justice."

The ACLU has already filed a lawsuit against the US government for failing to provide public documents related to the project. ACLU lawyer Tom Kennedy urged caution when speaking with the Times, saying , "If these biofields have any kind of human consciousness, awareness, volition, or experience, they deserve to have protection under the US constitution. We're basically working around the clock to ensure that. And hopefully we'll do it before any great damage is done."

Gletshman said that, rather than holding her back, the buzz around the research has motivated the group to work longer hours than ever. "We have certain experiments going on around the clock now," she said, "we're working to basically nail down the properties of these biofields, to the extent that we can, hoping to get a clearer picture and quell some of the misinformation."

"Plus," Gletshman continued, "I think most people will be surprised to find out that these biofields are weirder than we appreciated at the outset."

Gletshman is referring to a study-in-progress, one she claims may be the most controversial yet. She says that the lab has preliminary data showing the biofields can migrate not only out of human tissues, but into them as well — at least under certain lab conditions. The implications, she says, transcend even the imaginations of the ancient sages.

"If one did interpret these biofields as 'souls', well, then no religion that I know of describes a 'soul' with the complex behavior that we see in the lab," Gletshman says.

She continues, "Whether people want to believe the science or not, as scientists, we work hard to not to let our biases get in the way of the facts. We welcome all minds as part of the scientific process, but all parties involved have to be willing to part with their cherished beliefs. That's the price of admission, the price of seeing the truth."

UCLA has applied for a patent for the SPIRIT device and plans to license it for use after regulatory approval.

This year's top Zen koans

The following koans were selected by a group of awakened Japanese roshis specialized in the koan technique.

Koans are short poems designed to entirely rupture one's sense of logic, reason, and sense of reality, eventually culminating in insight. This year provided limitless such material to the roshis, who were scribbling down koans as fast as their little brushes could be dipped.

They then diligently pared down a long list of about a thousand koans to the most essential few, which I have presented to the reader below.

NOTE: I was personally entrusted with doing the English translation and I hope I have rendered them comprehensible. As aids to the reader I have added my own interpretations (when necessary) as "notes" below each koan.


Nansen told Jōshū, "I am going to travel."
Jōshū said, "There is nowhere you can go."
Nansen said, "I will travel in my imagination then."
Jōshū said, "You are just as trapped there."
Nansen said, "I shall go to sleep now."
Jōshū said, "You will not go to sleep."

NOTE: Jōshū has explained Nansen's insomnia.


Nansen asked Jōshū, "In this world, how can I stay free of harm?"
"Stay back!" said Jōshū, "Cover your face!"
Nansen then washes his hands many times.
Jōshū said, "Go outside!"
Nansen said, "What if I ingest this poison?"
Jōshū said, "Go outside, quickly!"
Jōshū then goes about his business, covering his face.

NOTE: Jōshū is trying to say that neither hand washing nor disinfecting are going to save Nansen.


Nansen entered the hall with his hands wide to either side of him.
Jōshū said, "Show me where the center is."
Nansen took three steps to the right.

NOTE: Jōshū wants to know: is Jordan Peterson really considered centrist?


Nansen began telling the news to Jōshū. Jōshū promptly covered his ears and said, "If you keep talking, I am going to die." Then Nansen stopped talking. Jōshū then put his sandal on his head and walked out of the room barefoot.

NOTE: Jōshū's putting a sandal on his own head is more useful and makes just as much sense.


Nansen said to Jōshū, "It is too dangerous to vote in person, too risky to vote by mail."
Jōshū said, "You must vote."


Nansen entered the room with a question in mind.

Nansen: "Who was elected?"
Jōshū: "The one who was not electable."
Nansen: "Who is electable?"
Jōshū: "The one who was not elected."

NOTE: Jōshū omitted saying whether the electable person would be elected in the end.


Nansen asked Jōshū, "How do I know who to vote for?"

Jōshū begins screaming, spitting, and kicking at Nansen's shins. "Now listen here you horse-headed bastard!" Jōshū said.

Nansen said "I must vote for you then."
Jōshū replied, "Then you are a blind idiot."
Nansen said, "I will vote for someone else, then."
Jōshū responded, "Then you are worse than I thought!"

NOTE: You can vote for Jōshū, or you can choose not to, but you'd be a real fool not to.


Nansen says to Jōshū, "My mother would like me to visit."
Jōshū responds, "Maybe you should call her first."
Nansen laughs, "She doesn't like to talk on the phone."

NOTE: Jōshū would have a much easier time calling Nansen's mother if he tried her work phone.


A monk said to Jōshū, "What happened yesterday?"
Jōshū said, "It depends who you ask. Why do you ask me?"
The monk said, "Because you are wise."
Jōshū said, "You wouldn't believe me."
The monk said, "I would believe you."
Jōshū said, "I don't even believe it myself."

NOTE: Jōshū lives in a post-truth world where facts are irrelevant and no one can be convinced of anything they do not already believe, and perhaps not even of what they do believe.


Nansen: "Why do you laugh?"
Jōshū starts weeping.
Nansen: "Why are you crying?"
Jōshū laughs hysterically.

NOTE: If Jōshū is laughing, he should be crying. If Jōshū is crying, he might as well be laughing.


Jōshū warned Nansen: "There is a snake behind you."
Nansen: "But I am not afraid of snakes."
Jōshū: "Did you try telling the snake?"
Nansen: "There is no snake behind me."
Jōshū: "Now there are two snakes, are you afraid now?"
Nansen: "How could I be afraid of what cannot bite me?"

Not knowing what Nansen thought, the snake bit Nansen. Not knowing of Jōshū's warning, the other snake then bit Jōshū.

NOTE: "If 1% of snakebites are lethal," Jōshū asks, "is bravery just a lack of fear, or something else?"


Nansen: "Having a job is unsafe."
Jōshū: "Not having a job is unsafe."
Nansen: "What is best?"
Jōshū snatches a meditation pillow and screams into it.

NOTE: Jōshū is showing the simple escape from the dilemma.


Nansen: "Do not wear a mask. Save them for the hospital workers."
Jōshū: "If we wear masks, why will they need them at the hospital?"
Nansen: "Masks don't work."
Jōshū: "Then why wear them at the hospital?"
Nansen thought for a moment and said, "Please wear a mask now."

NOTE: Jōshū did reluctantly wear a mask after this dialogue, but he will never trust the CDC like he did before.

Suttas for the uninitiated

Do you know what a "sutta" is? It might help explain what the hell these Buddhist fanfics are about. Quick historical primer:

Theravāda Buddhism, which claims to be religion's oldest school, bases its teachings around a huge collection of texts written in a dead Indian language called Pālī. The Pālī Canon is divided into suttas (Pālī: discourses). Theravādin monks claim that the suttas are the direct teachings of Siddhartha Gotama, also called the Buddha (Palī: awakened one.) Interestingly, the Buddha didn't speak Palī, but some other unknown Indo-European language.

It was in 100 BCE, around 400 years after the death of the Buddha, that the suttas were translated into Pālī, systematized, and written down. The long telephone game of oral tradition in the interim meant that some elaborations were bound to creep in.

In addition to their grounded wisdom, the suttas (like most religious texts) also contain a fair bit of repetition, counting, theorizing about the origins and ends of the world; talk about beings in the sky, ghosts, spirits, various realms of heaven and hell; and, naturally, a lot of made-up stories. So I wrote some of my own made-up stories to provide a kind of balance and posted them here. I like the idea of creating my own, cartoonish version of Gotama, re-fashioned as a chill guy you might be able to crush a few Corona— er, I mean, Miller Lights with. Plus I like to sprinkle in my own little philosophy on how Buddhism might have been had the Buddha been a rationalist.

The Buddha was by all accounts a kind, practical, and thoughtful person, but he was also someone who for years struggled to find peace. He's notable for having claimed success and building a set of teachings that presumably lead to the same kind of insight.

If you're interested in actual Buddhism but don't want to get bogged down with spiritualism, magic, or devotion, there are plenty of suttas minus that flavor of madness. The Buddha Before Buddhism by Gil Fronsdal explores this in some detail.

The Buddha's world tour: a Buddhist fanfic

So I have heard. At one time the Lord Buddha, the ascetic Gotama, was sitting in the shade of a bodhi tree in Jeta's Grove. The Buddha was relaxing with a pleasant, serene look on his face while contemplating the highest dharmas.

Suddenly a tremor moved the earth and a magnificent deva appeared in front of him. He introduced himself as Sakha, the king of all devas.

Sakha stood to one side and began speaking.

"Lord Gotama," said the king of devas, "I have come to tell you that you have impressed us by setting the Wheel of Dhamma in motion. We being: the devas of the earthly realms, the devas of the hellish realms, the devas of the celestial realms, the devas who delight in their creations, and I, the king of all devas."

He bowed. "I have come to ask, out of gratitude, how the devas might serve the dhamma."

"Deva Sakha, there is only one thing for the devas to do, whether they be earthly, hellbound, celestial, or otherwise. They must ensure that the Wheel of Dhamma continues to turn."

"Once the Wheel of Dhamma has been set in motion, Lord Gotama," the deva said, "there is no way to stop it."

The Buddha reflected. "Then tell me, deva Sakha, king of all devas, if the Wheel of Dhamma cannot be stopped, then does that mean that my teachings and discourses will one day spread far and wide?"

"It is certain that they will, Lord Gotama, for I have seen the future," said the deva to the Lord Buddha. "Over the decades your teachings and discourses will continue to spread, from Nagaratha to Bengal, and from Tathamurthi to Delhi. Over the centuries they will spread to China, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. And over the millennia they will spread further yet, to distant lands not yet discovered."

The deva bowed his head again. "This I tell you with honesty and sincerity. But as an act of gratitude for setting the Wheel of Dhamma in motion, I will show you personally, so that you may behold your teachings, and see for yourself that what I say is true."

"You will take me with you, then," said the Buddha.

In an instant, a flash, the Lord Buddha and the deva Sakha had vanished, leaving only a tremor which quickly faded away.


"Behold your teachings, Lord Gotama," whispered the deva.

The Buddha saw that on the floor of the temple were dozens of black robes wrapped around still, pale figures. The figures sat cross-legged, facing a blank wall, eyes half-closed. There was no decoration in the hall besides an and an electric waterfall and a statue of a fat, smiling man.

"They are sitting in meditation," said the deva Sakha. "These are your teachings. They sit and face the wall. Those are the only instructions they are given. They spend, ten, twenty, thirty years like this sometimes."

"Are they awakened?" asked the Buddha.

"Some of them, I assume, but they do not discuss it openly. They communicate only in riddles. Observe," and the deva approached the roshi, the senior monk.

"Dear monastic, I am the deva Sakha, come from another realm," he said, kneeling beside the roshi, "Tell me, are you awakened?"

The roshi opened his eyes, picked up a wooden shoe, and threw it squarely at the head of a junior monk.

"Ah! Ow!" the junior monk cried, holding his head, his face wrinkled in pain.

The roshi cried at him, "If you think this shoe is made of wood, you will never witness the Buddha!"

As the junior monk wailed, the Buddha stepped forward. "Actually, I am who you call the Buddha, monastic. I am the ascetic Gotam... oh!"

The roshi had thrown his other shoe at the Buddha.


"Behold your teachings, Lord Gotama!" said the deva.

In the middle of the field was a tall man standing on one leg. There was nothing but grass around him, not even a stump, not even a sapling. He had his hands raised as if holding an invisible ball above his head. He was like a tree. His body was perfectly still. His long, white beard lay at an angle in the evening breeze.

The king of devas assumed the same posture as the man and faced the Lord Buddha.

"They stand like this for hours. Or sometimes, like this," and the deva dropped low, as if he were riding a tiny horse. "They are unshakable, unmovable, standing between heaven and earth."

The Lord Buddha walked past the squatting deva and approached the man-on-one-foot. He was as still as a statue, as still as a mountain. "What are you doing?" asked the Buddha.

The man-on-one-foot said nothing.

"Are you awakened?" asked the Buddha.

The man-on-one-foot said nothing.

The Buddha had an idea. He stood beside the man. He carefully began to copy the positions of his legs, his torso, and his arms, until the Buddha was mirroring precisely the man's position.

He stood there like that for some time, until his muscles began to quiver and shake. This time, the man-on-one-foot did speak.

"Shaking body, shaking mind," said the man.

"I think I'm just out of shape," winced the Lord Buddha, "I am not as young as I used to be."

"You are think of yourself as standing. Not as being stood. That is your problem," said the man.

The Buddha considered this, and after a few moments the shaking calmed. Then a little later it ceased entirely.

"That is impressive, countryman," said the Lord Buddha. "And for what purpose do you stand for so long?"

The man-on-one-foot was silent.

"I'm fond of this fellow," said the Buddha to himself.


"Behold your teachings, Lord Gotama!" said the deva, flinging open the doors to the synagogue.

The Buddha witnessed pews full of men and women. The men were wearing shawls and strange little hats on the crowns of their heads. The hats were as small as dhosas. The men and women were singing in a strange language, songs in a melody unknown to the Buddha.

"What are they doing?" asked the Lord Buddha to the deva, "What language is this?"

"It is hebrew, Lord Gotama," said the deva. "Your followers recite it here. But I must confess that I do not understand the language. Temples such as this are elite training grounds for the awakened ones of this country, evidenced by the fact that all of this land's great teachers were trained in centers such as this one."

An assistant rabbi approached the Buddha and the deva. "Good shabbos," said the assistant rabbi, his arm extending a couple of prayer books and yarmulkes, "will you be joining us for services?"

"You are the senior monastic?" asked the Buddha.

"I'm, uh, well you yes, you could say that," said the assistant rabbi.

"Are you awakened?" asked the Buddha.

"Awake?" said the assistant rabbi, "You should ask if I ever get any sleep."


The Lord Buddha and the deva were staring at a writhing, contorting, shadowy mass illuminated only by the light of lanterns. Incense smoke filled the air and formed little whirlpools as the shadows on the floor grew, shrank, and grew again in a rhythmic pattern.

"Behold your teachings, Lord Gotama!" whispered the deva.

The shadows suddenly stopped their rhythmic motion. They looked vaguely like a couple of people who had arranged themselves in such a way as to leave as little space as possible between them.

"Huh? Who said that? Who's there?" erupted a deep, nervous voice.

The Buddha took a step forward towards the mass of shadows, trying not to trip in the dark. "It is I, the ascetic Gotama, having come to witness my teachings.” The Buddha squinted, then gave the deva a look.

“And, wow.”

“Wow,” agreed the deva.

“Wow!” cried a female voice, “It worked! Oh god yes!" Her shadowy figure sat upright, her curves evident from the lantern light. She was looking at the Buddha. The Buddha was about to speak to her, but the woman spoke first.

"I swear, all this time, I was doubting, foolishly doubting! False thoughts indeed, believing all this to be some kind of trick! Oh, after all these years, the Lord has finally come, just as you said he would! Oh! Oh! Oh!"

"Um," the man said.

"So, consort, shall we continue?" whispered the woman. The shadow shrank to one unit again. "I shall do whatever you say! I trust you... now kiss me," and there was the sound of the womanly shadow kissing the other one.

The kiss answered all the Buddha's questions.

"Um," the man said. The shadow reformed and began moving rhythmically again.

“Thoughts?” asked the deva to the Buddha. The Buddha briefly turned around.

“Not as soon as I spoke the words, 'refraining from sense pleasures,' I knew that someone, somewhere, would take it to mean this.”

"Nevertheless," the Buddha continued, turning back towards the scene, "knowing nothing of this method, all I can say is: maybe there is really something to it."

The deva considered this in silence, while the Lord Buddha squinted again, considering something else.

"In any case I am impressed at how they have twisted it all up."

"Twisted up all of your teachings, you mean, Lord Gotama?" asked the deva.

"No," replied the Lord Buddha.

Jeta's Grove

With a tremor, the Lord Buddha and the deva Sakha had returned to the shade of the bodhi tree in Jeta's Grove. With a warm heart Sakha turned to the Blessed One to ask him what he thought of his teachings and discourses, and how they had spread far and wide.

"I am pleased, Sakha, king of devas," said the Buddha.

"And you are not bothered at all, Lord Gotama, by how some might have interpreted your teachings?"

"No," said the Buddha, "I do not teach the only way, Sakha — I only teach The Way. The Wheel of Dhamma turns, but as the wheel of a large boat, it may steer one in either this direction or that one. It does not matter which way one goes, but only that one makes it to the other shore."

"You are truly the Blessed One, pure and holy," said the deva Sakha, who knew it to be true, "and now I have done what I can to ensure and prove to you that the Wheel of Dhamma will continue to turn." The deva turned away. "Knowing this, I will take my leave now."

"Where will you go?" asked the Buddha.

The king of devas stood silently with his back turned to the Blessed One. The Buddha sighed.

"I knew it," said the Buddha.

"You said it yourself, Lord Gotama," said the deva Sakha, the king of all devas, "maybe there is really something to it."

With a flash and a tremor, the deva vanished.

The river of mind sutta: a Buddhist fanfic

So I have heard. At one time the Lord Buddha, the Blessed One, the ascetic Gotama, and his five venerable ascetic disciples, were being ferried from Cittapālo to Kāsapo along the Titopañño river. The trip by ferry had lasted many hours, and hours on the ferry still remained. Word had begun to spread through the countryside of the Lord Buddha’s journey.

The Buddha was looking out over the water. He swept out a horizontal arc with his hand. "Look at this river," he said. And the venerable ascetic disciples looked.

"The mind is like this river, venerable disciples."

Silently, the disciples considered the river.

After a minute or two, venerable disciple Ānanda said, "Lord Gotama, the mind is like this river because, like the river, the mind never stops flowing."

The Buddha smiled. Ānanda continued, however.

"The mind is like this river because, from moment to moment, the mind changes. Yet mind is also like this river because, from moment to moment, the mind stays the same."

The Buddha gently nodded and looked away, his face now blank. "Yes, Ānanda," he said, while facing the river, "that was what I was going for."

"The mind is like this river because it never begins, nor does it ever end—"

“Ānanda, you are getting carried away,” said the Buddha.

The other venerable disciples turned their heads away, apparently to investigate a sound coming from the shore.

“You must learn to stop while you are ahead,” the Buddha continued. “It's just that rivers do, in fact, end. We disembark from this ferry precisely where the river ends — at the delta."

"You are right, as usual, Lord Gotama," replied Ānanda.

For a time there was no sound except for the gentle splashing of the water onto the hull of the ferry, and the whisper of leaves dancing in the wind.

Meanwhile, Ānanda thought some more. And then again he spoke:

"The mind is also like this river because although it is turbulent on the surface it is still and calm below. And, yet, for the man who is afraid to leave his boat, he will never experience the tranquility of being beneath the ripples and waves, and will instead remain transfixed by the reflections on the surface—"

"You're forcing it, Ānanda," said the Buddha. "You're trying too hard. Though the essence of what you say is nevertheless true, and I cannot, in my wisdom, deny it... perhaps you should consider..." the Buddha paused to think.

"Yes, Lord Gotama. Sorry," said Ānanda, and he went quiet for a while.

The other disciples were gazing away, into the trees, pretending to look for howler monkeys.

"Um... Lord Gotama?" said Ānanda.

The Buddha turned to look at Ānanda, who was looking at his feet and crossing his toes.

"The mind... is like this river..." he said, waiting for the Buddha to say something, but the Buddha did not.

Ānanda's words then burst out of him like a flock of starlings. "The mind is like this river because there are fish in the river that arise to the surface causing ripples in the water but in reality the fish live underneath the surface and although they cannot be seen when they are underneath they are always there and thus we realize that the fish are thoughts and the surface of the river is the consciousn—"

"Ānanda — please," said the Lord Buddha. He then smiled and offered a common refrain: “Those who know do not speak, and those who speak do not know."

A long time passed in silence. The afternoon sun grew strong and red.

As the ferry drifted along the Titopañño river, the Lord Buddha and his five venerable ascetic disciples passed a fisherman's boat. There was a lone fisherman inside who was pulling up his fishing net. The net was full of small fish. The Lord Buddha asked the fisherman, "Where did you cast this net to catch these small fish?"

"I placed the net just underneath the surface," replied the lone fisherman to the Lord Buddha.

The Buddha expressed his gratitude and thanks to the lone fisherman and the ferry continued on further.

They passed another fisherman's boat. There was yet another lone fisherman, pulling up a net full of medium-sized fish. The Lord Buddha asked the fisherman, "Where did you cast this net to catch these medium-sized fish?"

"I placed the net half-way deep in the river," said the lone fisherman to the Blessed One.

"I think I know where this is going," said Ānanda to himself.

The Buddha expressed his gratitude and thanks to the lone fisherman and the ferry continued on further.

They passed yet another fisherman's boat. There was a third lone fisherman, this time pulling up a net full of large fish. The Lord Buddha asked the fisherman, "Where did you cast this net to catch these large fish?"

Ānanda said, “He must have cast it near the bottom of the river," before the fisherman could reply.

"I did indeed," replied the lone fisherman. "But how did you know? Have you fished in this river before?"

"I know because the mind is like this river," said Ānanda, solemnly, his face assuming a frown, "The fish are concepts, concepts that contain other concepts. The small fish are the little concepts that abide near the surface — in other words, near surface consciousness. The medium-sized fish are the medium-sized concepts that 'eat' the smaller fish, in other words, they contain the smaller concepts. And the large fish represent the biggest concepts of all, the concepts that include all the others but that which reside in the deepest depths of the mind — er, I mean, the river..." Ānanda tripped over his words a little.

"Concepts?" said the fisherman. "But these are fish. Wait a minute,” the fisherman seemed to have an idea. “Are you the Buddha? The ascetic Gotama? I have heard about you. But you are different than I was imagining.”

"Well I’m not exact—"

"I am the ascetic Gotama," announced the Lord Buddha. "He who spoke is called Ānanda. Ānanda is my venerable disciple... I suppose."

The Buddha expressed his gratitude, thanks and apologies to the fisherman and the ferry pressed on.

It was nearing the end of the day and the ferry began to slow as it approached a river delta, where the it was to lay its anchor and where the Lord Buddha and his venerable disciples were to disembark. Beyond the delta the river spilled out into the sea.

Contemplating the delta, its features, details, and formations, Ānanda noticed the river dissolving, emptying itself into the vastness of the sea. Ānanda looked at the Lord Buddha. He could not help himself.

"Do not say it, Ānanda, do not say it," said the Buddha.

Ānanda barely lifted his hand as he pointed to the ocean.

"Please do not say it, Anānda," pleaded the Buddha.

Ānanda peeped, "...the collective consciousness?"

The Buddha put his face in his hands.

Ānanda tried again. "No... it's rebirth, because the river flows into the ocean, and continues on in a different form, before becoming a river again..."

He kept going. "And the strange creatures at the ocean floor — perhaps those are the devas? Celestial beings, guardian spirits of the earth, inhabiting other realms, only accessible to those who have gone forth into the depths of the mind? When the river water can flow to the bottom of the sea?"

"Ānanda," said the Buddha, calmly, "you are taking what I say both too literally and yet not literally enough. If you were careful in your thinking you would have noticed that the river water does not just empty itself into the sea. The river also evaporates into the sky; becomes clouds, rains, and icebergs; and forms drinking water all across the world. Some of the water molecules will even break apart to form oxygen and hydrogen..."

"Huh?" said Anānda. "Molecules?"

"My point being that you are thinking about rebirth in a simplistic way. Humble yourself. You are trying to play the wise man, but just because you know one thing does not mean you know everything."

The Buddha continued. "If you are not careful with your words, Ānanda, they will take teachings like yours and attribute them to me. And they will assume that because I knew one thing, that I knew everything else, too. They will say that I was perfect, pure, the greatest man to ever live. But that is not so, Ānanda, it is not so."

"I hope that someday my teachings will be explained in just a few succinct truths," said the Buddha, "or else they will proliferate. And if they proliferate, the lesser ones will crowd out the important ones. Such teachings would surely form the basis of some kind of religious text — long-winded, dogmatic, and stuck in the past."

The Buddha placed his hand around his chin. "Well, except, I suppose I'd have to explain the jhānas too..." He paused, frozen.

And then his face became animated again. "But I would keep those explanations brief, so as not to be misunderstood. For example, as a first instruction, ‘putting mindfulness to the front' is rather clear, no?"

Ānanda and the other venerable disciples nodded, acknowledging the Lord Buddha's wisdom.

One disciple whispered to another, "By ‘front’ the Lord must mean the 'front' of the body, near the face, by the nose, no?"

"I think he means to the 'front' of the mind, as in the forefront, a priority," said the second disciple, out of earshot to the Buddha. “I’m sure we’ll figure it out later.”

The Buddha continued talking, stepping off of the ferry and onto dry land.

“I teach only what truly matters — aniccā, anattā, and duhkha. Too many teachings, venerable disciples, are like too many channels for the mind to flow through. The mind has only so much vigor, only so many places it can go. Every new teaching which is incidental to the first, such as those of celestial beings, spirits, realms of heaven or hell, rebirth, astral powers, arcane rules and responsibilities, each of these leaves the mind with less power with which to flow to those parts that matter.”

Ānanda thought "the mind is like this river," but didn’t say it. He silently stepped off of the ferry, following the Buddha to Kāsapo.

The sandal sutta: a Buddhist fanfic

So I have heard. At one time the Lord Buddha, the ascetic Gotama, the Blessed One, was traveling near Benares, along the road between Ghandara and Nalanda, with a large sangha of around five hundred mendicants. Word passed through all these cities of the Lord Buddha's arrival.

The wanderer Rakhito who was traveling along the same road had managed to save up fifteen silver pãdas from begging. The soles of his feet swollen and tender from walking under the hot sun, he visited the nearby brahmin shoemaker Yasso.

Rakhito presented Yasso with his every last coin and kindly requested a pair of simple thongs, believing the cost of leather, string, and workmanship did not exceed fifteen pãdas.

But Yasso the shoemaker in turn demanded twenty five pãdas, believing that the cost of leather, string, and workmanship could not be less than twenty five pãdas. This angered Rakhito who felt that he was already being generous with his initial offer of fifteen pãdas.

Actually, Rakhito was right, and the shoes would ordinarily cost only ten pãdas, for the brahmin Yasso greatly overvalued the quality of his own workmanship. Such were the people of Benares.

But anyway, so they both went back and forth arguing with each other. Rakhito argued that fifteen pãdas was too much. The brahmin Yasso thought twenty five pãdas was plenty generous already.

The Lord Buddha then passed the two, the wanderer Rakhito and the brahmin shoemaker Yasso, and overheard the argument. He made a line towards them with his five hundred mendicants trailing like ducklings. As he got closer, the two began to talk more slowly, and quietly, until their mouths were just hanging open and making no sound at all.

By then, the Lord Buddha was standing just paces away.

"Lord Buddha," said the wanderer Rakhito and the brahmin Yasso, together.

The Lord Buddha turned his back to them. ”Mendicants," said the Lord Buddha to the crowd, “let us learn about our two subjects, a wanderer and a brahmin, who are arguing about the fair price of a pair of thongs."

Rakhito and Yasso exchanged a glance.

"Tell us, subjects, of your claims,” said the Buddha.

So Rakhito told his side of the story, followed by Yasso who told his side.

The ascetic Gotama appeared to consider for a moment. He had already mastered macroeconomics, microeconomics, behavioral economics, and economics not yet discovered; mathematics, both known, unknown, finite, and infinite; the natural sciences alchemy, chemistry, nuclear and particle physics; and as a hobby, he was rumored to do watercolor painting.

Yasso held the thongs hidden and secure behind his back, lest the wanderer try to grab them and make a break for it. Beside him Rakhito was fidgeting with his fifteen pãdas, the coins making gentle clinking noises.

The Lord spoke. "There are some ascetics and brahmins who, by dint of keen, resolute, committed, and diligent effort, compute the value of goods and services in the market economy. That is to say, goods of large value, medium value, low value, or even very small value."

Having heard of the Buddha’s great wisdom, Rakhito and Yasso were hanging on his every word.

"That is, experts have considered items of value of one pãda, two pãdas, three pãdas, four, five, six, ten, fifty, a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand, millions of pãdas!" exclaimed the Lord Buddha.

"They remember: in Benares, a pair of shoes is worth thus. In Ghandara, a single slipper is worth thus. That a fisherman at the river will sell a fresh fish for thus. And so on they recollect these goods and services, of many kinds, with all their features, details, and prices."

All of this seemed pretty true to Rakhito and Yasso, and they continued listening.

"Now, to get to the point, these ascetics and brahmins say: a pair of decent sandals in Benares is worth no more than fifteen pãdas. For although the leather and string are fair in Benares, the workmanship there is not as good as in neighboring towns..." the Buddha was making eye contact with Yasso.

The wanderer Rakhito, elated, pivoted on his heel with his finger pointed at the brahmin Yasso, his mouth open. The brahmin Yasso was already with a red face, both with anger and shame, for he had felt insulted and belittled by the wise Buddha's words.

"I told y--" started Rakhito, when the Lord Buddha started speaking again.

"But there are other ascetics and brahmins!" shouted the Lord Buddha, "Other ascetics and brahmins, who, by dint of keen, resolute, committed, and diligent effort, calculate the value to be at least twenty five pãdas!"

"What?" blurted Rakhito. "You just said I was right."

Yasso, pivoting with his finger out towards Rakhito, began to say, "I told y--"

"And yet there are still other ascetics and brahmins!" said the ascetic Gotama, his energy rising, “Other ascetics and brahmins, who, by dint of keen, resolute, committed, and diligent effort, calculate the value to be both greater than fifteen pãdas, and less than twenty five pãdas!"

At this moment, the wanderer Rakhito and the brahmin Yasso stood frozen in thought.

Not out of fear, anger, or hate, but out of compassion, wisdom, and understanding. They knew, at once, together, why the Lord Buddha was so praised; they knew how he had mastered all of the sciences; because of this, they knew that he understood.

The sentence echoed in their minds. "Both greater than fifteen pãdas, and less than twenty five pãdas." The ascetic Gotama, it appeared, was asking them to reach a reasonable compromise, to find the middle ground. Both the wanderer and the shoemaker felt their blood pressures drop a little bit. The Lord Buddha had shown himself to be a practical man.

A brightness crept into the faces of the wanderer and the brahmin shoemaker. But they jumped as the Buddha began speaking yet again, and yet louder.

"And yet there are still other ascetics and brahmins!" The Lord Buddha continued, frantic, “Other ascetics and brahmins, who, by dint of keen, resolute, committed, and diligent effort and right focus, calculate the value of a Benares sandal to be both greater than twenty five pãdas, and less than fifteen pãdas!"

There was a short pause for reflection on what the Blessed One had said.

"Um," said Yasso, looking at Rakhito now, confused.

"Wait, hold on," said Rakhito.

Rakhito spoke. "How can a sandal both be worth less than fifteen pãdas and worth more than twenty five pãdas at the same time?"

The Lord Buddha gave Rakhito a knowing look, but Rakhito didn't understand it.

Yasso spoke up, his face bewildered, the thongs now loosely dangling in his hand by his side. "Lord Buddha, your holiness, it seems as if you started off by naming the reasonable possibilities, but your last point does not make sense. If the sandals are worth greater than twenty five pãdas, then Rakhito could not afford them. If they are worth less, then he could. The two possibilities cannot be realized at the same time. It seems contradictory, abstract... and we are trying to settle an eminently practical problem."

The Lord Buddha gave Yasso a glance, or was it a smile? Yasso could not tell. And he said to Yasso:

"The ascetics and brahmins, who claim such -- of the claims they make, it is none of these. It is not fifteen pãdas, nor is it not not fifteen pãdas. It is not worth less, nor is it worth more. It is not neither worth more nor worth less..." and so the Buddha continued like this for some time.

There was a long pause while the crowd considered everything the Buddha had just said. Then Rakhito broke the silence.

"Lord Buddha, on reflection, you seem to have just given us every logically possible answer, plus one answer that, depending on how you interpret it, is either a philosophical statement about the subjectiveness of value, or just plain contradictory."

The Lord Buddha didn't reply. He stood there like a statue, unwavering.

“Hello?" said Rakhito, waving his hand at around shoulder height.

The Buddha did not reply. But slowly, the mendicants began to encircle him, and then started to grovel at his feet.

Confused and disappointed, the wanderer Rakhito wandered away, away from the Buddha, away from Yasso, away from the groveling mendicants, and shoeless at that.

He entered into Benares and followed a pillar of smoke. He knew that where there was smoke there was usually food.

The puffs of smoke grew and grew in size until he reached an old inn with a chimney. It smelled of lentils. He figured he'd spend his fifteen pãdas on a good meal at least, and perhaps lodging to rest his tired feet.

While washing his feet and preparing to enter, Rakhito observed that a rather curious and winsome stranger was seated outside. He wore an exquisite pair of sandals which stood apart from the rest of the man's simple clothing.

Rakhito had a thought. He wondered if this man had stolen the sandals. Perhaps reporting the incident to the police would get him into the good graces of a sandalmaker. He spoke to the brahmin thus:

"Brahmin," inquired the wanderer, "but where did you get those rare and desirable sandals? They seem rather dear compared to the rest of your simple attire."

"They were a gift from the innkeeper," replied the stranger without the slightest hint of offense, "I'm actually not that into shoes, I just accepted them to be polite. I'll be getting rid of them as soon as I leave this inn."

The cool, steady tone of this man's voice slammed into Rakhito with the force of a thousand rickshaws.

Then he realized.

He whisphered, "You — you must be the ascetic Gotama!"

"I am," replied the real, true, and veritable ascetic Gotama.

"I was just arguing... but I thought you, there was another..." Rakhito rambled confusedly.

"I'm not that into crowds either," replied the real Lord Buddha. "That's a disciple of mine who you met. He's not who they say, but he sells it well, no one's really the wiser. He's been doing it for years. Likes the attention," the Buddha spoke, softly.

"His wisdom was inscrutable, your holiness."

"Yes," replied the true Buddha. "That was the thing. I tried to get him to understand the teachings so that he could explain them to others on my behalf. Meanwhile I could take some time off. In the end, the teachings are impersonal, it doesn't matter who gives them. There have been many other like me before me, and there will be many more after."

The true ascetic Gotama continued. "None of what I teach is all that complicated, but the questions that I got asked were just the same confused ones, over and over again. Such as, 'How does the self continue on in rebirth if there is no self to continue on in the first place?'" The Blessed One appeared to chew on this thought for a moment, and then elaborated.

"I tried to explain that there was no such thing as 'rebirth', but such a belief ran through the blood of society, like the parable of the two fish wherein one asks 'how's the water today?' and the other replies, 'what's water?' People simply cannot imagine life without that assumption. It's foundational to their working model of the world, and yet they do not realize that it is assumed without evidence. Because all their beliefs are invisibly tangled up in the belief in rebirth, if you knock out that belief, you'd have to change everything else. The mind rarely accepts a change so radical, at least not without lots of training in the sciences."

"What are 'the sciences'?" asked Rakhito, but the Buddha just sighed.

"I then tried a different approach, trying to meet them in the middle. I said 'this is my last rebirth, after this I will not be reborn again.' I thought perhaps this might get the point across, that once you realize the no-self, you cannot be reborn again, because there's no self to be reborn! But that led to yet another kind of confusion. First, it appeared to validate the principle of rebirth. But also it added a new wrinkle into the process." The Buddha's face was calm, but betrayed an echo of desperation.

"Because how the cycle of rebirth supposed to end? How should the conditions of my mind cause the universe to change how it works? Again, this just led to more confusion, as some now believe that I will not be reborn because of events which occurred in my meditation practice -- not that I was never destined to be reborn in the first place!"

Rakhito stood there uninterested, his feet swollen and in pain. He was keen to come inside the inn and have a drink of water and some dal.

"So, anyway, I got my accomplice there to just list off all the logical possibilities for every single question he was asked, and even some supra-logical ones, if I may call them that, and then to simply say that all these possibilities were wrong. Do this enough and people will eventually stop asking questions -- questions I don't care to answer. And in the end you don't have to understand anything really, you just have to have the feeling that you understood, and for most people that's enough."

Rakhito spoke. "Lord Buddha, that does not interest me. I am not interested in the self or the not-self, logic or non-logic. I am an old wanderer, tired and weary. What interests me is the argument with the brahmin shoemaker Yasso, so that I may go back and buy some sandals, bearing the wisdom of the true, authentic, and veritable Blessed One. If he will allow it, I would like to recount to him my story."

He gave Rakhito a nod, and Rakhito told him the story, with all of its details. The Buddha listened with a finger on his lower lip and his eyes nowhere in particular.

After Rakhito was done, the Buddha appeared to think for a moment. He then reached down towards his feet.

"So, it's just sandals you want?" he said, undoing the leather straps around his ankles.

"I... I could never... accept a gift from the ascetic Go-- Go--" the words failed to escape Rakhito's mouth.

"Shoes, even sandals, aren't that good for your feet," said Gotama. "Better to just work on strengthening your insoles. Shoes should pretty much be worn in dangerous environments only.”

And with those words, then and there, Rakhito was enlightened.

Mushroom hunting in Salentu

Mugnola: yellow-fleshed boletes of the genus suillus.

I didn't know what I was looking for at the beginning. Giuseppe just showed me a picture and told me, "yellow." They don't distinguish different kinds of mugnole around here, "they're all mugnole," I was told.

I was terrifically excited when I first found them. I came home with a whole basketful, loaded with this big, dome-shaped boletes with twigs (rametti) glued to the caps (pellicini.)

Some varieties are tastier than others, especially the ones with the red netting that stain slightly blue. The ones I picked had a mild flavor when cooked. Unfortunately, glue from the caps tends to leak into whatever sauce you make, turning them into what some people called "snails."

Carduncellu: from ndu c'e' lu cardu, meaning "where the cardu is." Said in a circle, "ndu c'e' lu cardu ndu c'e' lu cardu..." you recover the name. Cardu is a thistle-like plant that grows in the steppes. The carduncelli, part of the genus pleurotus, grow in the dirt nearby it. The mushrooms blend in completely with the rocks.

He would point out similar looking mushrooms. "Check these out. See that the gills don't go down the stem? You want gills that go down the stem." But once I knew what I was looking for it was easy.

"You have the eye," he said.

People had visited the steppe before us. We know that because the previous folks took care to preserve the little mushrooms. Next to them, though, were the cleanly cut stumps. They must have come that morning. Carduncelli can fetch twenty to forty euros a kilo, which is a fine price. No wonder people hunt them.

Jo took me all around the steppe. He knew every little spot. "Walk towards the fence, and then walk parallel to it, about four meters away. Go for a while and you'll find a good spot." He was right most of the time. "You can walk for ages here and not find anything. You have to know where to look. I've walked around here for days and days. If it weren't so late we could go all around."

He brought up Giuseppe. "He's a character, huh," he told me. They had had a falling out, apparently Giuseppe got a bit too brusque with him one day. But they're back to being friends.

I know that Giuseppe can be like that. He's mostly kind, but I've seen that side of him too. Beside his considerate and friendly side is also an unfair side, a blameful side. You see this when he's stressed.

I told him that's how I felt about Francesca, but times a million. He knew her, said she came over for dinner once at Piccapane. He remembered that she had had cancer. I always found that strange about her. I thought that after 20 years of yoga, and having had cancer, she'd have softened up somewhat. But I don't know if I've ever met such a cold and hard berson before.

We even hunted for the carduncelli after dark. Jo brought out headlamps and handlamps and we scoured the field for thirty minutes before finally packing in.

On an evening I went to Jo's house to eat them. He had been cooking them in a pignata (terra cotta pot) by the fire for hours. He added green onions, a tiny tomato, origano, and some water. We ate them with our eyes closed.

Sanguignu: from sangue meaning "blood." When you cut them, bloody latex (latice) oozes out of the mushroom flesh.

Pietro was the first to show this to me on our trip through Parco dei Fossili. He had found a tiny one and the book was unambiguous about its identity: lactarius deliciosus.

Tiziana had mentioned that her husband found them. She showed me a picture. Ochre, orange, green, a whole basketful. She said they're better than meat.

Pietro didn't remember where he found it, so we walked through most of the park again. We found a lot of them this time, but they were a little older and drier this time. The blood had changed color to purple. We took them anyway.

No one would touch them but me. I simply trusted the book. I cooked them in a little olive oil and garlic. The flavor was on-point.