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I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the parable of the spider web after an arts-intensive trip as a tourist to St. Louis Missouri.
This is the parable, as I remembered learning it as a child in Japan.
There are people suffering in hell. Among them, a thief. One day while rotting in his misery the thief crosses the path of a spider but avoids stepping on it, and articulates the thought that even a spider deserves mercy. The Buddha witnesses this act of mercy and sends down a spider’s thread from above; itself a mercy. The thief starts climbing the thread, grateful, ecstatic. Soon, others see the thread and follow the thief. These miserable souls climb the thread, clamoring over each other. The thief looks down and kicks people off the thread he believes will be broken with too many people hanging on. Or he just doesn’t want anyone else to benefit. In any case, he is preventing others from coming with him. The Buddha is disappointed and breaks the thread, forcing the thief and everybody else to fall back into hell.
I was provoked in St. Louis, by the appearance of spider webs. Literal ones. In the morning I would walk through the northeastern corner of Forest Park (larger than Central Park!), and visit the small bird and fish conservatory maintained by the city’s conservation department. On day 1, I saw a blue heron and a stork. On day 2, I saw a spider’s web neatly organized like an invisible lid to a large metal trash can at the entrance of the conservatory. The spider web floated elegantly in the wind and caught reflections from the unadulterated sun. Later that day I saw a spider web configured between two beams in the rib cage of a public art installation (“Lava and Bird (Scott Joplin)” by Torkwase Dyson, for the public art triennial COUNTERPUBLIC). The whole piece measures about 15 feet in total length. The beams were about a foot apart. The web caught my eye because it vibrated to the low frequency of the music that aired from the sculpture, made of wood and bronze. As a visiting cohort, the arts organizers on the trip talked at length about gatekeeping (to summarize hours of much more nuanced and complex notions), and of course I can’t help but think of the layered metaphors of holding and connecting space, while also enjoying the beauty of the membrane which succeeds when allowing itself to dance in the surrender to its environments.
On my last day, I went back to the park and saw threads of spiderweb floating through the air. Like, an alarming number of broken spider webs flying through the sky. Minor snakes slithering on a bias through the sky, a linear balloon floating away, a figment of my imagination. And while mesmerized by the iterative shape of such visible and invisible nature activated by wind—and because all art activated by wind is sublime—I also pictured the thieves who were left falling back into their hells when these threads were cut adrift, and marveled. Was I the thief?
Without knowing the entomological properties of a spider’s ecosystem, I’m left guessing what the spider wants when it weaves its web. The guessing is what makes the web so beautiful to me. Does the spider desire a home, a meal, a reproductive partner, something else or all of the above?
When I picture the Shakyamuni sending a thread to the thief now, I imagine in this case the divinity is also a spider. No one else can make a spider’s thread but the spider. So perhaps the spider desires to feel compassion. Is your intent to feel you are compassionate?
A lover once described me as the cloud on the tip of his tongue, or better yet, a spider, quoting a Taiwanese novelist. I did not think to question the poetry of such a beautiful image but you are, to me, also the sensation at the tip of my tongue to encapsulate the feeling of a “barely there”-ness. Like a thread the force of metal and the weight of wind. Why do the eternal teachers prefer the metaphor of a thread to the universe these threads have created? The myriad geographies of drawing a straight line from my tongue to yours.