Aug 29 • 39M

Red Dust Syndrome, Wholesale Belonging

The Strain of These Times & the Antidote of Reconnecting to Source

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Appears in this episode

Frank Inzan Owen
an exploration of Wayfaring, ancient and modern
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in memory of the beloved Wayfarer Timothy Duncan McCallum (1965-2023)

Greetings Good Travelers and Wayfarers,

I hope this note, posted in between Wayfaring Poet Profiles, finds you well and that your spirit is vital in these uncertain, perplexing, sweltering, and increasingly unhinged times.

On this end, I have had a very busy month but I did manage to squeeze in a few days away with family spent at higher elevations. In all honesty, I wish we could have stayed longer but even small sips from the Great Source of Nature can carry a Wayfarer’s soul for a while.

It is this topic of “sipping from the Great Source of Nature” that I want to briefly discuss. I want to discuss it in the context of being an exceedingly important antidote for the times we are living through, thus, a practice, and not just a fleeting pastime.

I’ve had many conversations over the last few months with people who’ve reported that they are struggling with feelings of being overwhelmed. Phrases I’ve heard include: “I’m burned out,” “I feel weighted down,” “I feel disconnected from something vital,” “I’ve lost my inspiration for my art,” “I have no energy,” “I’m beside myself,” “I need renewal.”

For some of these good “Travelers” (a term my late teacher used for anyone who is attempting to tend their inner life), the source of these sentiments is varied, ranging from internal shifts and experiences of an initiatory nature to the impact of personal losses and tragedies (grief).

Some are traversing the territory mentioned in the often quoted Dante line: Midway along the journey of life, I woke to find myself in a dark wood, for I had wandered off from the straight path. Translation: The experiences of midlife, what Jungian author James Hollis calls “The Middle Passage.” What often gets left out when citing this quote is the end of the phrase: …But if I would show the good that came of it, I must talk about things other than the good. And, so, alongside the topic of “sipping from the Great Source of Nature,” I want to talk about the ‘other than good’ — though I also hold the view that some of our challenges can ultimately be good because they lead us to where we need to be.

In many of the instances previously mentioned — namely, people experiencing overwhelm — there has also been an additional dimension that people are reporting as a contributing factor and this is a general exhaustion of the soul from the conditions of modernity.

Some of these feelings stem from what has been called “eco-anxiety,” which the American Psychological Association defines as: “the chronic fear of environmental cataclysm that comes from observing the seemingly irrevocable impact of climate change and the associated concern for one’s future and that of the next generation.” This is a phenomenon you won’t find in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition), but it is being reported more and more to therapists, chaplains, and spiritual companions around the world.

For others, it’s a combination of other factors: feeling spread thin from a high-velocity lifestyle, fear and unease generated from the media spin and barrage of bad news of the day, and — in addition to the climate of the planet — the current climate of culture, politics, and society. It can lead to intrapsychic conditions colored by feelings of futility, irritability, and some of the other symptoms mentioned above.

Drawing upon an ancient concept of the Wayfaring poets, I have begun to call this Red Dust Syndrome.


The term “red dust” comes down to us from early Tao (Dao)-oriented Wayfaring poets from thousands of years ago in China — tao/dao being a word that translates as “Way or Path” but which is nothing less than an ecologically-oriented ontology, a participatory spiritual cosmology.

The early Wayfarers used this imagery of the red dust to refer to the noisy, bustling life of worldly strife of the city and the many delusions and capacities for senseless destruction contained therein. In my path and way of seeing, I think of this as an “energy-residue” — a palpable psychospiritual state of strain brought on by overexposure to such conditions.

In contrast, the primal (meaning original) Wayfarers were classically drawn to the quiet, the slow, the peaceful, the natural, the rural, the realm of cultivated gardens, and the wilderness of forests and mountains. They were always contemplating the inner-pattern of life and gauging whether they were living in true accord with it. They were always attempting to cultivate a sense of harmony with self, other, Nature, Cosmos. Being deeply influenced by this Tao (Dao) concept / cosmology / experience, the same calling, or orientation of consciousness, led Wayfarers in Korea and Japan to seek out their own mountains, forests, tea houses, and gardens of contemplation as well. Intuitively, the loose confederation of scholar-warriors, artist-philosophers, mountain priests, and cloud-wandering poets that make up the Wayfaring lineage knew that Nature is the ultimate antidote to the consciousness-fracturing dis-ease of any time.

In our own case, we’re talking about the here and now, of course; our own conditions of strife and strain that are unique to our modern age, our particular culture(s). But there were sources of strife and strain in earlier ages, and in the case of the early Wayfarers, who took up this path of Nature-seeking and Nature-connecting in ancient days, it goes back even earlier than the year 400 CE (the era of the poet Master of the Five Willows a.k.a. T’ao Yuan-ming) to the Axial Age Daoists (Lao Tzu in the 6th-century BCE).

If we look at the translation of the concept “red dust” from the Chinese language we are given insight into the way of seeing of early Wayfarers. “Red Dust” in Chinese is 红尘, hongchen, and also translates as “the world of mortals.” In contrast, the word for one who “sloughs off the world of red dust” is “immortal” and that is 神仙, shénxiān in Chinese, which combines two characters shén 神 which can translate as “deity” / “soul” / “spirit” (and which is the same character used in Japanese for kami, by the way) + xiān 仙 which combines the radicals for ‘person’ and ‘mountain’, which — depending upon who you talk to — has numerous translations as well including “wizard”, “mountain man” (or mountain woman), or “hermit” (a person who enjoins with a mountain).

In effect, a shénxiān (or sen in Japanese) is one who sidesteps or minimizes participation in the red dust world (again, characterized by frenetic greed, materialism, extravagant, boisterous pleasure-seeking, frivolous mind-numbing “entertainment,” and the like) and, instead, is a person who enters the mountains for purposes of communing with the spirits of Nature, Tao/Dao, or the gods. Eventually, in classic Chinese culture, such a person ended up becoming viewed by others as a god-like immortal. This, of course, is not unique to Chinese culture.

Isho (that’s Jesus of Nazareth’s name in his native Aramaic) is known to have headed into the mountains at various times — such as the Mount of Olives above the Garden of Gethsemane and Jebel Quruntul above the town of Jericho — to fast, meditate, pray, and commune with God (Great Source). Moses did the same on Mount Sinai. The prophet Muhammad traveled up to Jabal al-Nour, the Mountain of the Light, in present-day Saudi Arabia, and — just like Daruma, or Bodhidharma of the Ch’an and Zen tradition — installed himself in a cave (a cave called Hira, where it is said he received his first revelations).

In the Taoist and Ch’an traditions of China, which eventually became Zen in Japan and the West, mountains have always been considered teachers in and of themselves. Even the process of ascending and descending a mountain is considered a teacher to a group of ascetic mountain priests (and priestesses) in Japan called the yamabushi (a name that means ‘one who bows down to the mountain.’). These brothers and sisters in the traditions of Shugendō-at-large, such as Yamabushidō, consider Nature the greatest teacher, healer, and restorer of harmony there is. Similarly, in indigenous traditions all over the world, and expressions of European earth-centered spirituality such as Druid spirituality, there are people who actively commune with Nature for spiritual purposes e.g. “going on the hill,” so to speak, to “cry for a vision” — what is known as hanbleceyapi in the Lakota language.

So, going into Nature to allow the “red dust” of the world to be washed off for a time is a near-universal human practice. Intuitively, there’s just something within us that knows that Great Nature can purify us and re-set us. We even encounter such sentiments in what may be a surprising source to some — C.G. Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst, and innovator in the realm of depth psychology. Psychologist Meredith Sabini tells us in her book The Earth Has A Soul: C.G. Jung on Nature, Technology, and Modern Life:

The practical advice Jung gave for remedying the loss of contact with Nature, within and without, is not much different from what is widely available today: to live in small communities; to work a shorter day and week; to have a plot of land to cultivate so the instincts come back to life; and to make the sparest use of radio, television, newspapers, and technological gadgetry. The purpose of doing these things, however, is not to repair Nature, but rather to let Nature affect us. The reversal of the common attitude of domination makes Jung’s contribution unique. Time, money, and energy are now dedicated to repairing the damage done to Nature. However, a balanced interaction between human nature and Nature requires that we also invite — allow — Nature to heal us.

Quoting Jung directly, we see that he shared the same sentiments as the Wayfarers:

“People got dirty through too much civilization.

Whenever we touch Nature, we get clean.”

C.G. Jung

This is something that Wayfarers have always known and we can see it in many of their poems.

In a poem entitled “Autumn Moon” by Song Dynasty poet Chéng Hào (1032-1085), we hear:

…with the red dust kept thirty miles away,

the white clouds and red leaves float leisurely.

Now, at first reading of this, we might be tempted to think he is only talking about clouds and leaves, but this would only be partially correct. He’s also talking about the quality of his own heart-mind and soul in relationship to landscape by stepping away from the world of red dust.

Sesson Yūbai (1290-1347) was a Japanese Zen man who was both a priest and a poet. He started off studying with a Chinese Ch’an monk named Yishan Yining (1247-1317) who had moved to Japan. Inspired by Yishan’s example and stories, Yūbai left Japan and spent twenty-three years in China studying calligraphy, painting, poetry, and Ch’an meditation. One of his famous poems reads:

thatched hut hidden in clouds

footprints washed clean of red dust

if you ask this monk’s plans for life, there are few

outside the window — flowing waters

beside my pillow — a stack of books

An excerpt from another red dust poem comes to us from the infamous 9th-century mountain hermit Hanshan (Cold Mountain) via the translation work of Kazuaki Tanahashi and Eihei Peter Levitt from their wonderful book, The Complete Cold Mountain: Poems of the Legendary Hermit Hanshan:

I’ve wandered thousands of miles —

from rivers that merge with the grasslands

to the frontier where red dust appears…

…Today I return to Cold Mountain,

where the stream is my pillow,

cleansing my ears.

Another excerpt comes from a Red Pine translation of Hanshan (from The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain) and it expresses a similar sentiment:

I left the world of red dust behind

All I do now is wander and read.

In addition to an obvious deep affection for good books, we see in the lives of the Wayfarers this theme of drawing close to Nature to wash off the accumulated residue of the world over and over again — even when the specific concept of the red dust isn’t overtly invoked.

Now, I imagine most listeners and readers of The Poet’s Dreamingbody are the kind of people who “see through the red dust” of our current age; we aren’t swept up by delusional conspiracy theories or the glimmer and glamor of the modern cult of frenzied materialism or celebrity and fame-seeking. Yet, we can still get the red dust on us and almost none of us can leave the red dust world behind in any permanent sense. It’s certainly always an option, of course, but, realistically, if we were to attempt to be like the ancient recluses or the dozens of modern-day hermits who live up in the Zhongnan Mountains of China today (documented in Bill Porter’s book, Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits) — it’s a one-way trip…and a hard life awaits.

Quote for Contemplation:

The small hermit lives on a mountain.

The great hermit lives in town.

- ancient Chinese saying -

So, technically, most of us will be more like those Wayfarers of old who were what we might call “Red Dusters” — folks that lived down in the town, in the trenches and mire, the churn and burn and goings-on of life in the lowlands and cities; and, if this is our chosen lot (for all the very good reasons there may be), naturally, we are going to accumulate some “red dust” on our feet, our shoulders, our eyelids, our lips, in our ears, and the crowns of our heads.

A brief sidenote: Don’t take me literally here in terms of actual red dust (one person has before). But, by all means, take me literally in terms of what is meant here by “red dust”.

When too much of the “red dust world” gets onto us we may not feel we are walking in our truth, even cowering from who we could be. We may feel we are carrying undue weight on our shoulders (some of which may belong to our ancestors and not to us). We may feel that we have lost our connection to the “inner pattern”. We may cease to see the joy in living due to a blinding scurry of gray days and routine. We may say things that don’t actually reflect the true depth of our souls (in an attempt to “off-gas” some of the negativity we have unconsciously taken on). We may cease to hear the beauty of birdsong, late-summer rain, or the precious human speech of those we love who will one day be gone. We may even cease to think clearly in terms of the watercourse way of the path of our life — and some choose to self-medicate themselves into a stupor so as not to have to feel the intensity and weight of the red dust that has settled upon them.

What are we to do, then? How can we practice good “Psychic Hygiene” so that we don’t live our lives perpetually saturated in the energy of the red-dust world? How can our souls and heart-minds thrive and not just survive? Some of the Wayfarers who were fellow “Red Dusters” offer us a formula through the example of their lives.

Meng Hao-jan (689-740) frequently engaged in Nature-connection expeditions, away from city centers, where he could allow his spirit to unfurl. Today, we call this: shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing”) — a poetic term first coined in Japan in the 1980s to refer to the practice of entering and absorbing the forest atmosphere for its verified physical and mental health benefits.

The poet Bai Juyi (a.k.a. Po Chü-i, a.k.a. Haku Rakuten, 772-846), lived down in the town, where he held a series of jobs in public service for decades, but he frequently spent time in meditation gardens and wandered up into the hills outside of town to practice his dao-ch’an-sitting. Likewise, a few times a year he would embark on spiritual retreats at mountain monasteries as a lay practitioner during the warmer months.

Other Wayfarers, such as Grandmother Lotus Moon (Ōtagaki Rengetsu, 1791-1875), a Kyoto urban hermit, poet, painter, and potter, had a small tea house and miniature garden adjacent to her humble home — bringing Nature close at hand so she could “wash off the red dust” as an ongoing practice as a townie.

It should also be noted that in studying the lives of the “Red Dusters” — those city-dwelling and edge-of-city-dwelling Wayfarers, we glean another way they washed their heart-minds clean of the strain and red dust stain of the world and this was through connecting with other Wayfarers, sometimes across great distances — comparing notes, reporting struggles, and sharing poetry through letters, and sometimes in actual meet-ups — hillwalking together, sipping rice wine or saké in the moonlight, and processing their own feelings and experiences of their unfolding paths. We also see evidence of this in the many poems written by Wayfarers memorializing the send-off of another Wayfarer after these meet-ups had occurred i.e. poems about friends parting as they headed back home, back on a journey, and back onto their own solitary path of practice.

We have numerous examples of these path-crossings in the lives of the Wayfarers such as Li Bai (701-762) and Du Fu (712-770), Li Bai (701-762) and Meng Hao-jan (689-907), Bai Juyi (772-846) and Yuan Zhen (779–831), Ryōkan (1758-1831) and the Zen Buddhist nun Teishin (1798-1873), Rengetsu (1791-1875) and various figures like Gankai Ajari (1823-1874) and Hara Tanzan (1819-1892).

It all makes sense. After all, if we accept the cosmological premise of the Wayfaring tradition — that we, too, are the Cosmos, we, too, are Nature…(Cosmos-and-Nature awakening to itself, hearing itself, thinking and feeling itself — as scholar-translator-poet David Hinton puts it)…then we can become washed clean of the red dust of the world by connecting with others who are also active expressions of Cosmos-and-Nature, embodiments of Path, Way, Tao (Dao).

In the words of David Hinton, from his riveting work Awakened Cosmos: The Mind of Classical Chinese Poetry:

It is a majestic and nurturing Cosmos, but also a refugee Cosmos: all change and transformation, each of the ten thousand things in perpetual flight, always on its way somewhere else. The abiding aspiration of spiritual and artistic practice [in ancient China] was to cultivate consciousness as that existence-tissue Cosmos open to itself, awakened to itself…made possible by the individuality of each particular person. This is consciousness in the open, wild and woven into the generative Cosmos: wholesale belonging.

Last year sometime, when I first began The Poet’s Dreamingbody, I had some playful banter with a reader who asked me what I thought the old Wayfarers offer us for our day and age. If I recall correctly, their question was something like: “What’s the point of studying a bunch of old dead poets?” I took this as a call to clarify what I was doing here with the Wayfaring Poet Profiles. As I have sat with this question more deeply over the last year, however, I’ve come to take it as a call to decipher more fully what the Wayfaring tradition offers us in the way of “antidotes” — antidotes to the red dust of the world.

I hope I’ve answered at least a bit of this in this reflection. But, perhaps, in conclusion, I could offer a couple of final thoughts in the form of poems — first, one of mine, and then some thoughts from one of my very favorite Wayfarers.

“Red Dust Ailments and Their Wayfaring Antidotes”

— an ode to the Slow-Culture of the Wayfarers and “Red Dusters”

We speak of the strain of high-velocity living.

Bai Juyi says: Balance it out with sacred idleness.

We discuss the strain of chasing wealth — addictive consumerism.

Stonehouse says: Fill that hole in your soul with enough tea and forest-sitting

and a season of pole beans will be more than enough satisfaction.

We speak of the strain of mental exhaustion — TV, news, foaming-at-the-mouth punditry, scrolling screens, floating world pop culture.

Wang Wei implores: Unplug to connect again to Great Source; within ch’an-rooted stillness, wind through the trees brings the only news we need.

We speak of the clamoring strain of climbing the ladder of fame.

Cold Mountain asks: The self is an illusion…what exactly are you promoting?

We talk of weary heart-mind, beleaguered souls in the red dust world.

Lotus Moon replies: Step away from the world’s turmoil; become one with Spring mist.

And, I’ll close with a compilation of thoughts, stitched together from Grandmother Lotus Moon (Ōtagaki Rengetsu), who — like all of the Wayfaring poets in time before us — offers us one of the thousands of “scent trails” for practice and contemplation.

Take your first steps on the long path of the Way.

Please do not dream your precious lives away.

Walk on to the end.

Reside in a living landscape and the two of you become one.

Feeling reborn, my heart renewed.

Freed from the world of sorrow

by the sight of blossoms at daybreak.

(John Stevens translations, Rengetsu: Life and Poetry of Lotus Moon)


Robert Rich / Travelers’ Cloth (inspired by David Hinton’s translations of Tu Fu)

© 2023 / Frank Inzan Owen / The Poet’s Dreamingbody