Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Fáilte go Nestor

Cheannaigh Léna mo triú bonsai le déanaí. Bhuel, bíonn seo difriúl é go fírinne. Mar sin, tá sé bláthanna agus níl sé buaircíneach beag chomh Bráthair Áitil agus Páidí.

Déanaim mé a cheangail idir Léna agus mé ag dul go Naomh Crios ag fhéiceail ár chairde Bob agus Crios ansuid. Sheolaidh siad Bráthair Áitil chuichi riamh an marbh na mathair na Léna. Thúg muid Páidí nua go Naomh Crios ar leath bealach an bliana seo caite agus go dtí ár bhaile a dhéanamh cara nua chun Bráthair thuas staighre sa ghrian, lenar dhá cait ag coladh.

Ainmithe Léna sé do Nestor. Dúirt sí mé go raibh sé mar gheall go bhfuil sí "empty nester" an bliana seo. Mar sin féin, shíl mé faoi an Íliad...agus "Ulysses" le Seoigh, ar ndóigh, go tapaidh.

Fuair sí é ag an áit céanna, nuair áit a mbíodh Páidí ar feadh Mhárta seo caite. Bíonn seanfhear tSeapáinis faoi chúram na plandaí ag an taobh na bhóthair go Coalinga ann. Measaim faoi sé gach uair a théann mé an comhartha buí B-O-N-S-A-I ann.

Tá suiomh ag fás na crannaí beag ag imeall Bóthar Cúig ag trasna ó Feirm Harris in aice leis an sli amach go Coalinga ann. Tá áit mór leis béilí úr, ach tá eallach chruinniú agus maríodh ansin. Tá trua agam nuair a théann.

Is féidir leat boladh an boladh láidir ó an Bóthar Mór. Bhain mé úsaid as feoil a ithe go leor an chuid is mó de mo shaol.  Anois, is dóigh liom ciontach as ithe iasc! B'fhéidir, is cuimhne liom Nestor agus a chairde ag fás faoi an spiorad na beatha ansin, agus ina bhaile anseo.

Welcome to Nestor.

Layne bought me a third bonsai recently. Well, it's different, really. That is, it's a flowering and not a little coniferous like Brother Juniper and Paddy.

I make a connection between Layne and me going to Santa Cruz to see our friends Bob and Chris up there. They sent Brother Juniper to us after the death of Layne's mother.  We took new Paddy along halfway to Santa Cruz last year and back to our home to make a friend for Brother upstairs in the sun, by our two cats sleeping.

Layne named it for Nestor. She told me that it was because she's an "empty nester" this year. Nevertheless, I thought about the Iliad...and "Ulysses" by Joyce, of course, immediately.

She got it in the same place, where Paddy was from during last March. An old Japanese man takes care of the plants on the side of the highway to Coalinga there. I think of him each time I go past the yellow sign B-O-N-S-A-I there.

It's a site growing the little trees next to Interstate 5 across from Harris Ranch at the Coalinga exit there. It's a big site with fresh meals, but the cattle are raised and killed there. It saddens me when I pass.

You can smell the strong odor from the Interstate. I used to eat lots of meat most of my life. Now, I feel guilty eating fish! Perhaps, Nestor and his friends are a reminder of growing concerning the spirit of life there, and now here at home.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Peter Watson's "The Age of Atheists: Book Review

If neither science nor religion suffices, how do we get past our present impasse? Do we lament our lack of progress, or welcome possibility? Seven years to the day, I finished this after the same author's "Ideas: A History of Thought from Fire to Freud."  Both hefty works share this veteran journalist and now intellectual historian at Cambridge's dogged devotion to rational thinking over supposition, and the view, as his 2006 book concluded, that our human perspective is better suited to watching our world pass by and act out as if we peer at a zoo rather than a monastery. He acknowledges the scientific mission to dissect and pin down all that we observe, yet he nods to the atavistic tendency embedded within many of us to yearn for transcendence. That impulse, his new book agrees, will not fade soon, but the twentieth century charted here (although starting with Nietzsche towards the end of the nineteenth) celebrates the triumph of evolution, the breakthroughs in physics, the insights of psychology, and the wisdom of philosophy, art, literature, and communal engagement which enrich our current times and allow us so much liberty.

"Ideas" took me a month of evenings to study, given its 740 pages and 36 topical chapters, book-ended by a substantial introduction and conclusion, to chart the multi-millennial span of civilized endeavor. By contrast, I fairly raced through about 540 pages of the present book, which I highlighted (on a Kindle advanced copy, which had its flaws in format) in eighty-five instances that show my engagement with its provocative exchanges, cover roughly 125 years; Watson has also written (unread by me) "The Modern Mind" (2001) about the twentieth century, so I wondered how much of that third big book overlapped with "The Age of Atheists."

"Ideas" anticipates many of the newest book's themes. Progress continues despite those who fear it. The brain battles those who fear it. Meaning beckons but floats out of our grasp. Science discovers more only to ponder ultimate questions to pursue. Unsurprisingly, William James' pragmatism and Max Weber's sociology return, prominently among the hundreds of thinkers summarized and paraphrased here. That is both Watson's skill and this book's necessary limitation: he quotes and cites nimbly, making recondite concepts accessible. Yet, this popular touch and the breadth required to survey so much as an historian with his own biases and predilections may leave the specialized reader frustrated that his or her pet theory or favorite thinker suffered by its few pages meted out per topic.

That caveat addressed, an inevitable result of a one-volume book able to be held in two hands, this presentation conveys a firmly Western-centered, by-now familiar point-of-view. Nietzsche remains its driving force, and his fervent denial of a divine presence outside of the alienated, defiant human imagination reverberates through mavericks as diverse as Lenin and Joyce. Watson recognizes that German iconoclast's insanity, even as he roots for this raw challenge to Christian hegemony which encouraged his subjects, American and European rebels who rejected God and welcomed inquiry.

Watson's investigation roams as widely as one expects for an historian tracking modernity's slow march away from credulity and comfort found in the ethereal or emotional, to where more and more of us wind up today, in the post-modern predicament of a worldview where neither cold science nor warm faith eases the loss of grand meaning or ultimate purpose which many contemporaries lament. 
He addresses, as an early example of his wide-ranging bent, Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart's assertion that charts richer nations' secularization offset by declining birthrates, whereas poorer nations' perpetuation of belief-based systems as a solace for suffering and privation leads to a more populated humanity with "existential insecurity" which overall is becoming more, not less, religious.

Secular proponents, therefore, must contend with sociological explanations for belief, as well as psychological ones. Atheism, Watson finds, may be in the ascendent among the cohort he supports, but a growing sense among developed nations and educated societies of pervasive personal and social disenchantment reveals that consumerism cannot assuage the longing for meaning deep within us. William James agreed that religion emanated from what Watson phrases as "born of a core uneasiness within us" and that for many, faith was seen as the solution. Replacing that with the inspiration of music, the escapism of art, the thrill of scientific discovery, the plunge into sex or drugs, drove many in these chapters to attempt to fill up their empty souls with a spirit energized by bold possibilities.

The usefulness of religion, for James, might be succeeded by the vocabulary of reason; others who followed his suggestions looked to fields as different as dance or fashion to apply more daring experiments. Stories we tell ourselves, as Watson portrays Richard Rorty's model, move beyond the transcendental to the empirical and experiential narratives and scenarios which ground themselves in the body. Watson presents the Swiss art colony at Anscona, the critical faculties generating doubt as explored by Stefan George, and the Symbolist poetry of the early century as settings within which ecstasy might sustain itself, as generated within a movement breaking down distinctions between individuals and between concepts so as to release a mystical jolt, or a disorienting confrontation. These encounters, which would engender the cult of the body and the New Age or therapeutic trends which would return with the "religion of no religion" at Big Sur's Esalen in the 1960s, carry a charge that Watson credits by way of many current approaches in which we treat and regard each other.

George Santayana mused: "There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval by discerning and manifesting the good without attempting to retain it." A common sentiment among those Watson favors, as resignation to mortality and the impossibility of knowing the secrets behind all of creation appears to gain pace as the century's wars and brutalities weaken rational explanations. Impotence to change human nature contends against discontents driven to improve the human condition. Freud represents the latter contingent: Watson credits him for the dominant shift in modern times, "which has seen a theological understanding of humankind replaced by a psychological one".

Watson observes intriguing indicators of this shift, across the creative spectrum. The cover illustration of Georges Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon at the Island of La Grande Jatte" (1884-1886) depicts people not worshiping, but picnicking and promenading. One couple, dressed in black, appear to be looking on, "from the (moral?) higher ground" at the crowds "enjoying themselves in very secular ways, most with their backs turned". Additionally, this French painting continues a tradition of "public contemplation" as its many figures reveal serious play. This happens despite a breakdown on the canvas of perceived or imposed order into a teasing shimmer of reality manifesting itself more subtly. The satisfaction for the viewer emanates in impressions "as a web of tiny, distinct stillnesses".

Revolutions and conflicts darken chapters; from the Soviet triumph, "one propaganda poster posited 'prayers to the tractor' as alternative ways to produce change and improvement in the community". Watson emphasizes the substitution of idolatry and worship within totalitarian societies and parties. He also notes that religion was not eradicated in many regions of the U.S.S.R. except by elimination of believers during Stalin's purges. An underlying message persists: belief will be a fallback for humans caught in difficulties, and faith may be wired into human nature despite rational powers.

Rilke sought in the foreknowledge of death that which appears to distinguish humans from other mammals: a direction to guide searchers towards a sense that mortality "drives the plot of life". He recognized that consciousness itself, as Watson puts it, may be "a crime against nature". Why evolution may have embedded within humans the powers of song, the aleatory, musical ability, or a sense of beauty, as well as a tendency in many to interpret phenomenon as supernatural, sparks some of the liveliest later chapters. Suffice to say that many arguments arise, and as many suggestions.

Virginia Woolf's often-quoted observation that around "December 1910" a change happened, so that "reality was no longer public", accompanies modernist plunge into the interior response rather than the recording of the focused, outward observation. The loss of confidence in a shared vision and the gain in conviction that a personal reaction conveyed the spiritual experience that whirled within the intimate sphere and not in the emptying cathedral propels the writers and creators Watson introduces. Oscar Wilde sums up the leap forward: "It is enough that our fathers believed. They have exhausted the faith faculty of the species. Their legacy to us is the skepticism of which they were afraid." Kafka throws up "the sediment left by the great monotheisms: that the mind of God can never be known, we shall never solve the mystery of God because God is the name we give to the mystery itself". (Watson astutely footnotes, if half the book away, an apposite aside that St. Augustine had a similar opinion.)

Through Chabad and Beckett, Salman Rushdie and The Doors, Philip Roth and Theodore Roszak, Boris Yeltsin and Timothy Leary, as the second half of the century progresses, Watson explores the impacts after the purported death of God within academia, theological disputes, and popular culture. He delves into less-familiar texts such as the forgotten bestseller Joshua Liebman's "Peace of Mind" (1946) to prove how the post-WWII merger of religion with psychology enticed clergy into roles as counselors, and how this promoted the therapeutic rather than theological cure across America. Such a range of references and examples accounts for much of the bulk of this book, but its contribution towards an accessible account from which a patient, intelligent, and reflective reader will benefit greatly cannot be diminished. Predictably, those immersed in a particular school of thought may cavil at the generalizations and judgments Wilson must convey by such compression given three-dozen chapters. However, the documentation he provides and the stimulation he generates merit respect.

Countercultural chronicler Roszak, to whom Watson gives welcome and lengthy attention, repeated José Ortega y Gasset's reminder: "Life cannot wait until the sciences have explained the universe scientifically. We cannot put off living until we are ready." An urgency boosts these late-century sections. Their pace quickens as Watson weighs dozens of competing or compatible attempts to forge a third way, apart from the calculated certainties of a stolid scientific method or the fervent claims of a fundamentalist religious precept. Roszak, following Roth and Beckett for Watson in mapping a humanist response looking hard at death if perhaps a bit more softly at mortality, laments the "boundless proliferation of knowledge for its own sake" and the exclusion of many seekers who cannot enter this closed system, and who find themselves alienated as democratic culture weakens.

Watson encourages in his closing chapters those who strive to build meaningful structures by which ecological imperatives and economic equality might co-exist. He rejects those who by faith in a better life to come justify the rape of the earth and the pain of its inhabitants. He accepts that science may not provide comfort for those who, however irrationally, search for truth and beauty beyond what can be calculated or purchased. Mark Kingswell's philosophical rejoinder to a capitalist culture "based on envy, and advertising, the main capitalist means of 'selling' consumerism, works by 'creating unhappiness'". Happiness, if God is removed from the window through which we view Watson's earlier model of the zoo vs. the monastery, may emanate from a rejection of what for many people in Western society supplants or supplements fading religious belief: the "pathography" (he credits Joyce Carol Oates for this coinage) of the dysfunctional, confessional, survivor-strutting meta-narrative that has drowned out the traditional monotheistic, and arguably I may add, modernist world-views today.

Ronald Dworkin may speak for many of his colleagues in the seminar or clinic: "Philosophers used to speculate about what they called the meaning of life. (That is now the job of mystics and comedians)." Thomas Mann cautioned that the concept of "one overbearing truth" has been exhausted. Jürgen Habermas directs us to look not above for answers but to listen to each other, for communication may produce critical meaning, and within an informed public sphere, guidance can be generated. Watson finds truth in pragmatism. "We make our lives tiny diamonds in the cosmic sands."

Few will choose this enriching and rewarding removal from reality TV and manufactured distraction, along the course mapped in these heady pages, to a sobering path of self-awareness of our fragile presence surrounded by darkness and mystery. Fewer choose Kafka over Chopra, and fewer may finish this book than the latest novel by even Oates herself. But those who persevere will glimpse in Watson's closing chapters spirited and moving testimony by wise professors and writers exchanging their versions of what Sartre phrased as "lyrical phenomenology": what Watson calls "the sheer multiplicity of experience as the joy of being alive". This quest for meaning may endure, parallel to or divergent from science. This search embraces a persistent appreciation that beyond facts hovers that which may forever suspend itself apart from our perception, no longer named God, still ineffable.  (Edited in RePrint at PopMatters 3-28-14 as "'The Age of Atheists' Considers That Beyond Reason or Science, Our Quest for Meaning Endures" and a second time to Amazon US 2-19-14)

Friday, April 11, 2014

Jeremy Carrette + Richard King's "Selling Spirituality": Book Review

A scholar of Foucault and another of Orientalism combine to expose how deeply the market ideology of the 1980s and 1990s has infiltrated secular and economic contexts. They argue in this clearly conveyed 2004 book a necessary thesis. This "silent takeover of religion," as British critics Jeremy Carrette and Richard King demonstrate, reveals how business repackages religion, cynically or cleverly supporting the selfish motives which underlie unregulated capitalism.

But this corporate capitalist version does not need to dominate the treatment of spirituality. Anti-capitalist or revolutionary, business ethics or reformist, individualist or consumerist, as well as capitalist spirituality, defines this typological range. The nebulous term "spirituality" expresses the privatization of religion by modern secular societies. The commodification by corporate capitalism of what was religion strips that "ailing competitor" of its assets, in a hostile takeover, while rebranding its "aura of authenticity" to convey the "goodwill" of the company, which sells off the religious models of its trappings and teachings at the marketplace. (15-21) God is dead; long live God as Capital.

They cite a 2002 interview with the late Tony Benn to telling effect: 
"Religions have an extraordinary capacity to develop into control mechanisms . . . If I look at the world today it seems to me that the most powerful religion of all-- much more powerful than Christianity, Judaism, Islam and so on-- is the people who worship money. That is really [the] most powerful religion. And the banks are bigger than the cathedrals, the headquarters of the multinational companies are bigger than the mosques or the synagogues. Every hour on the hour we have business news-- every hour-- it's a sort of hymn to capitalism." (23, qtd, from An Audience With Tony Benn audiobook) 

The "religious quality of contemporary capitalism," the authors remind us, now lacks restraints of earlier societies. The market as God, as Harvey Cox herein acknowledges, rules, and seeks monopoly. Killing Joke's song, after Thatcher's fall, looped in my mind as I read: "Money Is Not Our God": "Will you swap your hi-fi for a clear blue sky? Will you cash in all your shares for God's clean air?"

As the authors explain: "The 'spiritual' becomes instrumental to the market rather than oriented towards a wider social and ethical framework, and its primary function becomes the consumerist status quo rather than a critical reflection upon it." Spirituality gets harnessed to "productivity, work-efficiency and the accumulation of profit put forward as the new goals" to supplant "the more traditional emphasis upon self-sacrifice, the disciplining of desire and a recognition of community."

Over fewer than two-hundred pages, Carrette and King elaborate in four chapters the impacts of this takeover. Chapter one surveys spirituality, as it separates from religious contexts and adapts itself to individualism under liberal democracies and then corporations. Chapter two attacks the role played by psychology in "creating a privatised and individualised conception of reality" to align itself with social control and social isolation. (26) Psychology, produced by capitalist intervention, fools people into spirituality as "an apparent cure for the isolation created by a materialistic, competitive and individualised social system." (27) This chapter castigates James, Maslow and Jung for their compliance to cultural, political, and economic norms which fail to liberate those in pain. The sustained and potent argument advanced here indicts New Age practices linked to therapeutic cures. Carrette and King critique this as a trap for sufferers lured in to a desire for elusive remedies. Having been sold escapes from oppression, these intensify rather than ease isolation. Freedom is out of reach.

The link between New Age and esoteric teachings sold to the West and Asian traditions elaborates into chapter three. Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist versions get sampled. The dissonance between systems advising renunciation and capitalism promoting accumulation provides logical case studies. Some of this coverage examines the careers of Osho/ Bhagwan Rajneesh, Deepak Chopra, and the "Barefoot Doctor" Stephen Russell. Carrette and King suggest the Socially Engaged Buddhism and related movements as alternatives, as well as a study of the teachings of Vimalakirti as correctives (if slight taken in their original contexts where neither "social revolution" nor "mass mobilisation" were realistic possibilities) to the prevalent materialism of the times and places generating those teachings.

The fourth chapter circles back to the opening critique. The authors find a vivid analogy to sharpen or sweeten their analysis of how "rejection of the discourse of professional 'excellence' among employees is often presented by managers as 'resistance to accountability'. What such resistance often represents is not a rejection of accountability as such but rather a rejection of a narrow logic of accountancy with regard to such processes." (137) Similarly, they show how difficult it is amid the cult of devotion instilled in the market-driven workplace to resist "spirituality" or "excellence" as a catch-phrase repeated mantra-like by those who act as missionaries bent on preaching a bottom line.

When spirituality gets used such, it "ends up acting like a food colouring or additive that masks the less savoury ingredients in the product that is being sold to us," they demonstrate convincingly. This content throughout this short treatise remains accessible, as the authors admirably seek "to raise a series of questions in a narrative style that is more open-ended and provocative than traditional academic discourse allows," hearkening to the French "essai" to address "wider political concerns and constituencies than are usually appealed to in scholarly works." (ix-x) The Feast of Knowledge?

This remains to my knowledge a under-investigated area of sociological or cultural criticism, at least in passionate, spirited examples aimed at the masses. Given Occupy a decade after this has appeared, two years after that, Matthew Fox and Adam Bucko's Occupy Spirituality and Nathan Schneider's Thank You, Anarchy (see my reviews here and here) covered congenial themes. LGBT activist and Jewish-Buddhist journalist Jay Michaelson's Evolving Dharma, by comparison, overlapped with Fox and Bucko by praising Lama Surya Das, although Michaelson aims his take on Buddhist Geeks-friendly meditation as "brainhacking" liberating a savvier, hip audience. It's the first book (preceding CT/ST naturally, if by a few months) I found that nodded to the project Speculative Non-Buddhism.

In fairness to Michaelson, while he will not win over any non-buddhists, he mingles caution into his treatment, seasoned by his experiences as one albeit from a privileged cadre, able to amble off to Nepal for months of silent retreats. This implicates him as part of the problem he seeks to solve, to adopt Carrette and King's diagnosis. Michaelson will never assuage those sworn to annihilate x-buddhism, but I mention these mass-market books as complements to the popular front (my terms) which underlies Carrette and King's campaign against capitalist spirituality. I raised related issues (at #2, 6, 11, 21) in response to Glenn Wallis' "A Spectre Is Haunting Buddhism or Give Marx Some Credit" about anarchism and the countercultural roots of certain x-buddhisms. To complete my run-through of responses to inequality and spirituality, I'll draw upon what I read immediately before Selling Spirituality: George Packer's The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, which documented the cause of neo-liberal market ideology and its everyday effects, since Reagan's rise.

In a chapter set at Occupy Wall Street in Fall 2011, Packer filters his narrative through reactions from representative activists. New Yorker Nelini Stamp, from the Working Families Party, sticks it out, but she wonders about OWS efficacy, as disruptions intensify assemblies and thwart their progress.

"Occupy was dominated by the kind of people who ran the Canadian magazine that had gotten the whole thing started. Adbusters--very educated postmodern anarchists. Nelini was self-conscious about never having finished high school--they'd read so many books she'd never heard of--and they also made her feel sometimes that she wasn't radical enough. She was an organizer, and she worried that Occupy was becoming too narrow, and she wanted to figure out how to turn it into a durable movement that could work on achieving practical goals, like getting people to close their accounts at the big banks and moving the homeless into foreclosed houses. She thought at some point Occupy would need to come up with demands. She was even beginning to think it might be better to move on from Zuccotti Park." (375)

How may this intersect with the non-buddhist project?  While many of its proponents marshal difficult language to shake hearers out of their expectations, to undermine trust in timeworn verities, and to force new reactions that shatter complacency, Occupy's predicament demonstrates the limits of "very educated postmodern anarchism" as perceived by Stamp. Now organizing the left in Florida, she writes: "We were trained to talk to all types of people and got a well-rounded perspective on our issues and how to present them in the most effective ways," since "I couldn't afford to go to college."

I note as an aside that Packer (who does not enter this 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicle directly) in the 1980s organized for the Democratic Socialists of America. As I co-founded a chapter of this organization back in my own college stint during Reagan's first term, I presume that Packer's no stranger to registers of rhetoric employed by the Direct Democracy Working Group or those provocateurs or promoters at OWS. Nelini Stamp's testimony reminds us of those on the margins, those who may feel overwhelmed by those who shout down the participants, who listen but who may fidget. They may shrink from engagement, as barriers to learning and communicating in the manner of the elite loom so high. Stamp reminds us, from her canvassing: "The left has broken down into separate interest groups. We have to find ways that we can work across them, ways we can unite."

Matthias Steingass reminds us of the imperative we face, speaking of unity beyond slogans or cant. Red Dust comments, responding to him: "People who are ready and open to your message will get it. My only advice would be keep it simple and talk to people at their level of understanding and don’t take joy in pointing out people’s faulty views. Most folk are like me, not that well educated and get anxious trying to talk to well educated people. The really hard nuts to crack are the well educated."

There's no room for navel-gazing or seminar slouching when "the planetary capitalist hegemony," as Steingass phrases the threat (Carrette and King will label its reification as the Borg) looms. He cites Craig Hickman's "Global Resistance and the Collapse of Civilization: Berardi, Deleuze, and others" and I add a book I'm studying now by anarchist anthropologist David Graeber, Debt: the First 5,000 Years; this exposé may have energized the subsequent OWS movement itself the year it appeared. (When I raised what I contemplated as connections between homelessness, Occupy, and bhikkhus, I found at a sitting that most preferred to keep that dharma-talk focused on the existential self.) Participating in Occupy L.A. in fall 2011, I "meditated" on disparities between those agitators who trafficked in theory and those who attempted praxis--as well as how barter or a cash nexus reified into a novel market, where neither milk nor cereal could be exchanged, but plenty of 40 ouncers and pot. 

I'm reminded of the Marxist pamphlets I saw, scattered underfoot and presumably discarded, when I hauled books to the makeshift library at Occupy L.A. Whether or not those encamped dithered over dialectics spurred me to review Jonathan Sperber's 2012 Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. After all, Stamp asked for practical applications rather than theoretical discussions, to fight the powers that be. This revisionist study shifts Marx into a backward (to 1789) looking idealist more than an "intransigent revolutionary" idolized posthumously by Engels. Sperber scrutinizes MEGA archives opened after the Cold War. He observes how Marx's concept of an Hegelian proletariat emerges more as Marx's invention to advance the dialectic materialism he concocted rather than a milieu within which he moved at ease. He made enemies, to whom he attributed many of his own discarded ideas. He crammed his journalism so full of erudition that the laborers it meant to direct found it too heady to figure out. As to alienation, his letters display a dominance by ideology, via score-settling.

Here, a connection can be forged with Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion. Packer, by highlighting Stamp's frustration, articulates the need for moral action, and the dangers of bickering or solipsism. Considering this, I drafted this well before catching up with the comments on Patrick Jennings' "Where We Are. Where We Might Go" so it may run at cross purposes rather than merge with psychology not to mention neurobiology; my own orientation centers on literary and cultural critique. (In my defense, I note that while my favorite book is Ulysses, I prefer over the effluvia of the Wake the astringency of Beckett. After all, he chose the sparer vocabulary of French to hone in on.)

In my local if attenuated, unaffiliated sitting group which discusses Buddhist concepts, the day after I finished both Packer's and Carrette and King's books, we shared a section from David Kalupahana's A History of Buddhist Philosophy commenting on the Kaccāyanagotta Sutta. In summing up the Middle Way, he opines: "Thus the difficulty in perceiving and understanding dependence is due not to any mystery regarding the principle itself but to people's love of mystery. The search for mystery, the hidden something (kiñci) is looked upon as a major cause of anxiety and frustration (dukkha)." (59)

I reckon this resists reduction to a Principle of Sufficient Buddhism. This feels our primal plight, our existential yearning, hard-wired despite our denials, as inherent pattern recognition tangled into clan cohesion and personal solace, as scientific writer (non-believer) Nicholas Wade charts as The Faith Instinct. We inherit it: Beckett stared this down, dismissing liberation while exposing our endgames.  Yet, he risked his life to resist hate. When evil arrived, he fought it, until another liberation arrived.

Is religion another evil? Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell for me reiterated the conclusions of Sam Harris' The End of Faith. Harris urged idealistically that if only all parents told their children only the truth, the future could be secured for rationalists. Dennett too places his trust in the secular. That's about it for big answers. These are so simple, yet so elusive: do not many true believers of gods or God or no gods think exactly that? That we no matter what we preach have a handle on the truth, and that we mean best for our progeny as we raise them in the light of our own understanding; all the while, however, unable to step out of our own limited perspective of the universal and the eternal?

While diligent deniers of the transcendental still search for meaning beyond our own ken, as Peter Watson's new The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God confirms, many of us still indulge this persistent itch to scratch, to reflect upon our mysterious kiñci and ponder if it's accidental or intentional. Watson considers the shortcomings of science and religion in soothing our troubled minds. Carrette and King, revolting against the legacy of Thatcher two decades earlier, sustain in their book a like-minded entry into "new configurations of resistance -- in terms that are not blinded by the modernist separation of the religious from the secular." (180) Perhaps this may nudge a few into the wedge where a secular-religious divide since the Enlightenment has widened. This figure may, after capital's global triumph, sharpen and alter itself into an edgier shape.

The authors encourage a Marxian critique, to "go beyond" Marx. They diagnose the damage done by many opiates, peddled by psychiatrists as well as priests. While unfortunately they do not detail a Marxian alternative in what remains a brief survey, they seek to "reclaim the ground of social justice" from fundamentalists (faith-based or free-market), and to seize the debate. Patrick Jennings has provided much on The Non-Buddhist for this reclamation, introducing a human Marx. Carrette and King similarly (but see my endnote citing Ann Gleig's recent riposte at SNB) suspect any nostalgic claim to revert to religious tradition; they remind us that religions in turn have "also moulded our civilisations, our sense of ethics and community and our concern for social justice." (181) As they scan a de-sacralized atmosphere from Northern Europe, they demur from commitment to "a similarly materialistic and economically oriented heresy." If they urge--if as an aside--going beyond Marx, we're left to wonder how their final suggestion of "spiritual atheisms" might spark our future. (182)

This raises the prospects of where secular-minded activists may ally with similarly minded believers. Of course, the separation of church and state, so to speak, endures, but if we contemplate how in our daily lives and work, odds remain some of us mingle and may live with those who do believe, in religious or "spiritual" senses as well as relentlessly rational manifestations. Carrette and King, from their residences in Canterbury and Paris respectively, may relegate to the venerable facades of Christian Europe in these cities the endurance of any medieval sensibility, but even in Western Europe, if my own extended network stands as verification, believers endure alongside us skeptics.

Do, then, those who promulgate a rejection of traditional religious or modern spiritual affirmations deny those who practice them or pledge fealty to forces at which "postmodern anarchists" scoff? How far, if one pursues a rigorously non-theistic or non-spiritual response to faith, does the denier go to cut him or herself off from the rest of the community? As Stamp reflected at OWS, class divisions deepened by the "very educated" may discourage those who seek less lofty and more direct actions.

As professors, Carrette and King offer no remedy to the plight of those who, like Stamp and another man (once a techie, now homeless, he leaves Seattle with a duffel bag to sleep at OWS; after police crack down, he wonders where to go next), may sympathize with secular and radical movements, but who may lack the wherewithal in terms of academic preparation or financial resources to sign on as fellow travelers. As with many such tracts, Selling Spirituality sketches out a faint path to pursue. In closing, it vaguely advises Michel Foucault's strategy to resist: "move strategically and then wait for the next assertion of power," given resistance may be futile to a corporate, shape-shifting Borg. (172)

They advocate anti-capitalist, social justice, and compassion-based movements. They also realize most people who may need such movements to lessen their burdens are not secularized. Therefore, they advise strategic alliances by progressives with principled religious organizations as practical methods of opposition to capitalist spirituality. While they remain committed to study religious and spiritual impacts, and never advocate belief, the authors, rejecting retreat into texts, understand the limits of a lasting, convincing appeal based on only a secular disenchantment of the spirit. Instead, they seek to align radical factions to the faithful majority, who still believe, but who may be open to engagement, in solidarity against what Noam Chomsky calls "the control of the public mind."

(Amazon US 3-24-14, in far shorter and non-non-buddhist form. I learned of this book on a SNB thread "Why Buddhism?" via Ann Gleig: "Historically, I would argue anatta has shown little or no signs of manifesting a politically robust subjectivity reflexive of its own ideological constituents. By the way, Carrette and King made the same argument in Selling Spirituality in 2005 but with an explicit concern of having a stake in protecting traditional Buddhism". After my reading of it, I conclude that the authors wish to advance a engaged, ethical, and subversive Buddhism as committed to radicalism aligned with anti-capitalist global movements; how "traditional" this leaves that system is open to debate. As non-buddhists discuss, such "buddhemes" as traditions may be moot by now.)

[As above to The Non-Buddhist 3-27-14 as 'Money Is Not Our God': Selling Spirituality"' Occupy L.A. photo by Arkasha Richardson at the Bank of America standoff downtown, 11-17-11. Use the Occupy L.A. keyword to search this blog for my own reflections from autumn 2011, and afterwards.] Thanks to Patrick Jennings and Ann Gleig for the incisive comments in response to this at TNB.]

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Joanne Miller's "Buddhist Meditation and the Internet": Book Review

If you enter Second Life with an avatar for meditation in its Buddhist hall, are you meditating at home, too? Can you gain the authenticity of millennia of dharma transmission in Zen if you join Amazenji's online zendo? How can anyone charged with teaching meditation or verifying its success for a student figure this out if separated in time and space from the traditional face-to-face reliance?

Such questions occurred to Joanne Miller, a sociologist (I suspect she's Australian) and a practitioner. Her research, integrated smoothly (footnotes speckle the plain-spoken text, blessedly free of academic jargon), confirms her suspicion. However, she then takes us into an examination, graded from casual to more intense sites, of how the Net has evolved, or not evolved, to handle the demands some expect cyberspace to solve regarding online Buddhist community and the formation of what duplicates or expands what happens in more intimate settings of a zendo or meditation group. The book does tend to focus on Zen--which aligns with Dr. Miller's orientation, it seems--and I wondered how Tibetan or vipassana approaches might compare or especially contrast. That aside, this book succeeds in demonstrating the difficulty of transferring a physical experience.

Unlike other religions, the text or the ritual is not the stress for dharma; it's the embodied presence of the meditator and actor. Understandably, the former category gains more attention than the latter. However, Dr. Miller correctly notes how Western Buddhism pushes meditation as the be-all of Buddhism in some insistent corners, to the detriment of ethical activity, study, and application of what is inculcated on the cushion.

The "main performative action" of sitting, she relates, cannot be reproduced technologically. What a screen may generate as a visualization is not from within the mind, and similarly, what is presented via mediation cannot substitute for what may be produced and shared in intangible but present ways between those in a real-time sit or dokusan. Also, the authority of those in a dokusan cannot be backed up with an online teacher, and many such, she reckons, deny the need for such approval before setting themselves up online or in the world as instructors.

Lots of points raise reflection. Doubt can grow when one's precepts are exposed online, she tells us as an aside. Individualization accelerated by the curious seeker online may increase confusion. One is networked, true, but also adrift and dependent on guides who may not be able to provide the direction of personal ones in one's own life, one-on-one in person. This menju, this one-to-one interaction, Dr. Miller repeats, cannot suffice online. Words, dependent for our transmitting what is going on online (this may change if we can plug in more directly one day...), are also insufficient to give each other the dharma-value that menju does.

Yet, out of this same experimental situation, Buddhism may arguably evolve and test itself in an entirely new venue. Gregory Grieve is quoted as suggesting "a real and authentic 'virtual embodiment' can equate with offline embodiment." He defines this as "a sustained, immersed bodily performance in a virtual space constrained by physical norms." We'll see!

Erika Borsos has preceded me [on Amazon US where this appeared 10-23-12--I too was provided with a review copy] with a fine summation of Dr. Miller's argument. I added to her precis my own reflections. I recommend this study. In my own college course in Comparative Religions, and Technology, Culture and Society, I anticipate passing along insights gleaned within this valuable work. May research and progress continue in this field, as scholars and practitioners both will learn from Dr. Miller's survey-to-date of the past decade or so.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Bruce Wagner's "The Empty Chair": Book Review

These paired novellas explore a triple significance of this titular piece of furniture. They convey, in casual, yet learned while often blunt language, the lessons learned by those who grapple with sudden departures by loved ones. Their despair, mingling with a typically Westernized, upscale variety of spiritual quest, flows through these two monologues from Americans now in their fifties, told to what we assume is a fictionalized Bruce Wagner, who claims to have "redacted" them in "the summer of 2013".

Known for scabrous satire about Hollywood's addled or addicted insiders, Mr Wagner's here explores what may be a natural if less-known milieu for him and his affluent, privileged, and erudite storytellers. His fictional narrators look to "diet Buddhism" and New Age teachings for guidance; the author himself has been a devotee of Carlos Castaneda. Therefore, he knows this type of set and setting well.

Told by a "First Guru", the unnamed narrator of the first entry over a hundred pages relates his identity as a gay man. Molested by priests in his teens, married to Kelly, who does not discriminate between men and women in her own romantic liaisons, he lives now, in a furnished van shelved with his favorite books, in Big Sur. At the time of this story's telling, in 2010, he parks himself at a Catholic hermitage. At nearby Esalen, he meets "Bruce" in a hot tub. There, he commences what will be a back-story including Ryder, the son he and Kelly created.

A self-described "motor-mouth", the narrator worships the Beats and Thomas Merton, as well as medieval mystics Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen. He shares their search, while divesting himself of Catholicism to pursue Buddhism, along with Kelly. Yet, she surpasses her husband on the road to find, in her borrowed phrase, that "impermanence rocks". For, she markets the dharma to Marin County schoolchildren by her trademarked campaign to rouse "Armies of Awareness".

Mr. Wagner as expected sends up this sort of ambition. Kelly lands a $20,000 advance from Chronicle Books "for a memoir about being a menopausal, bisexual, Berkeley-bodhisattva". The glib catch-phrases she peddles will haunt her; loss forces the couple to confront their own heartache.

"To save herself from the unbearable anguish of the present--present imperfect tense--present impermanent--Kelly had to take up residence in the future--future perfect permanent. The present, once venerated while she was an ecstatic, card-carrying member of the All-We-Have-Is-This-This-Moment! cult, had been stuffed in the recycle bin along with its jealous, immutable, implacable shadow, the past."

The narrator longs for a "teachable moment of" one's "own death: the lesson of impermanence". This may arrive, but may not come until one's last breath. This story segues, after a second introduction by Mr. Wagner, into one told to "Bruce" five years earlier, in the New Mexico desert. There, a similarly affluent and formidably confident narrator, who nicknames herself as Queenie, lives also a nomadic if even more coddled existence. She travels about "in an imposing black bus with a full staff". Sporting kohl-lined eyes, she dons gypsy dresses, "half-Zaha Hadid, half-Stevie Nicks".

Her story stretches back to 1968, when she was sixteen. She, who seems more to boast than regret having "three kinds of VD" by the age of thirteen, grows from "wild child" to "Earth Mother" as a countercultural Eloise, rootless from normal residence, brought up allowed to roam her domain. However, as with "First Guru" as designated by the one who takes down on tape their stories to transcribe, "Second Guru" cannot escape the reminders of transience despite her own charmed life.

"Think of yourself as a spelunker--join me in my nightmare, won't you?" So she invites "Bruce" in, early on, and what follows in an extended cave-diving metaphor takes up five pages. This type of expansion, characterizing both garrulous tellers, may weary those less enchanted. As Mr. Wagner warns at the start: "The 'authors' here are vessels, not virtuosos." That is, they do yammer on and on.

Such verisimilitude--even as the transcriber assures us he has edited and streamlined their revelations--can drag down the pace of both novellas, even if it convinces us that "real" people told them. This type of craft, subtle in its insistence that these stories truly happened, displays the "real" Bruce Wagner's skill in a naggingly truthful manner, masking itself as what we find around us footnoted for our consumption as increasingly "inspired by true events" or "based on a real story".

Queenie possesses awareness of her own "inspired pastiche"; portions of this as tellers fold into each other layer four times over. No wonder she compares herself, on "silly tangents", to Scheherazade. 

One difficulty for believing these stories as genuine emerges in the similar tone of both novellas, and the manner in which long-ago monologues gain precise re-creation by considerably retentive hearers. Ryder's father admits of the aftermath of the discovery he and Kelly must deal with: "O we had mourning sickness (mourning with a 'u') for sure!" Despite the "fact" that narratives by Queenie, Kura (an African-born Francophile), an Indian "Great Guru", his wife, and the Guru's successor, "The American" all elaborate the second installment, these five international and multilingual tellers do manage to sound not much different (despite what we are told is the wife's "comically fractured syntax") in diction or content. For instance, Kura laments of the wife: "O, she cast her meretricious net far and wide, tarnishing all the fishies in the sea!" These tellers regale themselves with like wit.

Mr. Wagner may be indulging in his own reminder of truth-telling and fact-checking, as he too inserts himself into the two sections as listener and editor. However, both tales do, by revealing their protagonists' dogged efforts to break free of surety, manage to sustain interest, for those possessing a compatible interest in spiritual journeys told by affable, if coddled, guides who have been there and done that. Summoned thirty years after their first meeting to reunite with Kura, Queenie's hesitation proves recognizable to any reader. She sums up herself in 1997: "A depressed, childless, perimenopausal woman, unlucky in love, with a shelf life of self-esteem long past its expiration date, I presumed I would throw off a medley of scents: potpourri of moribund pheromones, burnt adrenals and brokenheartedness."

Near the end, the significance of the title Mr. Wagner offers deepens. He began by referring to the gestalt practice where his therapist set up an empty chair for the analysand to talk to, as that space allowed a place for the patient to make more concrete his absent focus, the invisible person from the past whom he or she wanted to confront or appease. Queenie reports, in one layered conversation, how her long-sought holy man asserts "it is only the second guru that allows you to make sense of the first". Another analogy then blends the two stories, and the two gurus, in patterns that reverberate.

Mr. Wagner wisely structures the two stories to draw out the maximum potential of his metaphors. While their pace may slow, for better or worse to make it appear as if we too are listening to hours of one confessing or chortling over past triumphs and present humblings, The Empty Chair succeeds in presenting the often-caricatured or sometimes smug searches undertaken by those able to afford such quests and it convinces the patient reader that revelation may lie within the reach of the lonely pilgrim, in the pages of the devotional text, or in the conversations of the fictional characters he tells us are real. (12-26-13 to New York Journal of Books)

Saturday, April 5, 2014

David Chadwick's "Thank You and OK!": Book Review

After 22 years studying with Shunryu Suzuki-- whom he'd later write very fluently about in "Crooked Cucumber" (see my July 2009 review)--Texan-turned-San Franciscan Chadwick decamps for Japan in 1988. Interspersing an account of his second marriage, to Elin, and the birth of their son there with an immediately prior stint as a practitioner at the tiny temple he calls here (names are disguised) Hogo-ji with another teacher he knew back in the U.S, the elderly Katagiri, the results aren't truly what the subtitle reckons as "an American Zen failure" there. The point that he's already spent decades sitting and that he's ordained speaks for itself. The back-and-forth twinned threads can be unsettling as one constantly veers from a monastic situation to everyday encounters in the bustling place he calls Maruyama. 

Perhaps these shifts replicate the familiar tale of a foreigner struggling to find a place in Japan. A lovely moment comes as, comforting a Filipina barmaid, she asks him as a "priest" for a blessing. She takes his hands and puts them on top of her hair. "I felt the hands of a woman who has pulled men down on her many times." (20) Twice, black butterflies will hover together to express beauty. The fearsome incursions of giant wasps and enormous centipedes Chadwick summons up well, as well as more mundane encounters. The title itself comes from a ubiquitous box of matches. As he tells his fellow monk Norman: "'Thank you' is the gratitude, the gateway to religious joy, and 'OK,' which comes from 'all correct,' represents the perfection of wisdom. This is our mantra." Of course, Norman responds that David's infected with, using his friend's favored phrase, "brain weevils." (311)

His added Zen however wobbly enables him to be more patient than many would coming to the Far East from the Far West. There's an off-kilter sense often present here. A funny anecdote about the ridiculously pedantic forms required for his driver's license, the motions assumed one has to go through even if faking it, make for a great story about a rigid system that (as when he gets his visa extended) can still be bent. Late in this series of rambling vignettes, he reflects that Katagiri was suspected on coming back to his native land from his work in America, and that Japan tries to resist outside influences. "It's pretty obvious that the extent to which foreigners suffer here is the extent to which they try to belong." (386)

The push against innovation pulls against the subtly more gentle, more humane attempts of the few monks to lighten the weight of discipline and hierarchy that impose their presence on those at Hogo-ji.  Lightly, he critiques the way (this is delineated well in the "Crooked Cucumber") that for Japanese, Zen means the stick, the pain of sitting, and the hardship endured. As for "helping anyone or offering anything accessible to the average person in terms of daily practice," he wonders what the Buddha would have thought. He doesn't delve deep into Buddhism itself, but he suggests in zazen that one's "just finding out a hint of what we are beyond our little boxes of unfolding thought." (369) 

Chadwick does not come down too hard on Japanese Zen, but as the book progresses, you sense the need for American versions to adjust to their own culture. There's a telling scene after Katagiri's ashes are returned to his native terrain: the village has lost its young to the cities and the allure of the Western-imported ways; meanwhile, Americans clad in monastic garb, half of them women, attend the funeral in the dying rural village. 

The book is marketed as humorous, and it's in a light tone that helps readability. Yet, while for me it went on far too long, it's worthwhile to a patient reader for the subtler cultural differences. These need not be sent up always as folly. Surely Chadwick with his own relative fluency in the language he diligently studies accounts for more insight than many visitors possess. (5-2-13 Amazon US)

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Bernard Fauré's "The Red Thread": Book Review

From this French post-modernist professor, it's no surprise that this collection of essays (more than a seamlessly argued or tightly assembled study) roams over not only the map but the territory into his "own private" excursions and byways. Bernard Fauré warns as he introduces "The Red Thread: Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality" that it's not systematic, and that he favors Japanese sources for their own historiographical contexts over those of India and China, unlike many Buddhist or Asian scholars who try to cover this ideological and cultural realm. The result, as he promises, is more his "own private" record of what he finds, often in the nooks and crannies of monastic proscriptions, tall tales of mystics, and transgressive parables by Zen masters (male, at least).

This does drift into engaging moments. The "two truths" theory that ultimate revelation may necessarily override fidelity to the here-and-now conventions allows wiggle room for monks (for better or worse, this book focuses on male and monastic contexts as these tend to survive down to our times as obsessing most over violations of the precepts, sacred and profane). This underlying direction--it bobs up and down, submerged by hundreds of notes which appear to have been built into a chain of associated examples more than a tight thesis--does not prevent Fauré from digressions. These may be underwhelming--much more on Bhutan's Drukpa Kinley appears to be relevant to Fauré's study than the snippet he sums up meagerly. Or, as in the Japanese poet Ikkyu, emotion emerges as we read spare verse to share his bold vision.

Ultimately, after chapters on homosexual behavior in Japanese monasteries, and tales that promote a subversive (or maybe not) male archetype, Fauré's accounts end with more a whimper than a bang. Dutiful research offers few surprises: the yin/yang oscillates as do the Two Truths. Marginal nods to Martin Luther, Alison Lurie, Borges, the classics, and clerical casuists from the Catholic tradition demonstrate his broad learning as fun or sly asides.

However, his "Afterthoughts" allude if in haste to his most intriguing interpretations. He rejects any "'pure,' atemporal, and changeless doctrine." Flexibility rules. As he anticipated in his denial of the easy trope of anticlericalism and decadent monasteries as a reliable genre for East or West, he later opens up for scrutiny a preconception of a normative Buddhism. Given the Middle Way's path between desire and non-desire, interdiction and transgression, Fauré tracks it as itself "double tracked and double edged: maintaining in principle a precarious balance between the the two extremes, yet constantly torn in practice between these two centrifugal tendencies." (279)

Feminists offer a bold alternative. Instead of awakening "as a rupture, a reversal, a social drama" as in hagiographical treatments, feminine practices "tend to insist on the progressive, nondramatic, intimate character of their religious experience." (282) He promises a follow-up volume on this subject.

Finally, what of another direction? Earlier he quotes Georges Bataille's "Eroticism" (1947, p. 42; cited p. 98): "The knowledge of eroticism, or of religion, requires a personal experience equal and contradictory, of taboo and transgression." He muses perhaps both aspects may remain in a fuller consideration of religious impact upon the realms of the red thread which connects us all by blood. (Amazon US 4-7-13)

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Tim Ward's "Arousing the Goddess": Book Review

Certainly this memoir reads as if a novel. A Canadian writer reminiscing on his adventures a decade earlier--erotic and emotional, spiritual and travel--this tale of "sex and love in the Buddhist ruins of India" from the mid-80s recounts in appropriately graphic detail Ward's initiation into what he accounts for as "tantric" experiences. These enter his physical relationship with Sabina, an alluring honey-blonde Indologist from Austria who's researching the earth-touching gesture made by the Buddha to reject the alluring daughters of Mara and his own temptations, the night he found enlightenment under the mythic bodhi tree.

The search for "shakti," the life-force transmitted by a thunderbolt jolt he feels as he makes love to his fiery girlfriend in India, impels the middle of this narrative. It starts in Ladakh with Lama Philippe, who's rather improbably lecturing about recondite Kaliyuga lore at the top of the knife-edged summit they share where they try to plant prayer flags in the harsh wind.  Ward throughout this spirited tale interweaves what seem fictional interludes, or improbably detailed conversations a decade later reported (he does keep a journal, I admit), so I am unsure as to the precise veracity of his recollections. However, allowing for this literary conceit, the results tend to be as exciting as fiction and as engaging as a spiritual and erotic quest can become in talented hands and a thoughtful, and considerably honest and relentless, mind.

As the narrative progresses and his visa circumstances, complicated by the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the resultant tightening of an already recalcitrant bureaucracy towards foreigners, Ward must choose his predetermined itinerary and wish to travel about as a bhikku (wandering monkish sort) in his eagerness to try out the mendicant life amidst his recent fascination with Buddhism and Indian thought. This separates him in more ways than one from Sabina. The tension increases.

With the growing unease, Ward chooses to drift into reverie or nightmare to convey some of his inner turmoil. A Nepali woman in a red vest at a millstone grinding rice, a crammed train, a slaughterhouse by the Calcutta tracks, a visit to a hospice run by Mother Teresa's sisterhood, or a riotously risque retelling of the Mara's challenge to the one who will be the Buddha enliven this direction. "You quit your job. You deserted your wife. You're a deadbeat dad, and you're a welfare bum dependent on handouts." (210)

It may depart from conventional truth for a first-person account, but it enriches it with verve. It may not please purists, and it may draw into suspicion other parts of the narrative, perhaps, as much of this story with Sabina feels very dramatized. But she's quite a force of nature, evidently, and intellect; her emotions are as mercurial as his. Their mutual need for comfort deepens their "tantric" engagement, and complicates their alliance.

She confronts him, but indirectly, as in this internally dramatized passage, via Tim's Belgian lama: "You come to live like a monk but won't give up desire; you pursue Sabina, but turn back because you think God speaks to you." (115) Similarly, when a horrid encounter with an armless boy bound by a leash to his begging elder (grandmother?) haunts him, he ponders: "Pity in Calcutta could only be a means to alleviating one's own suffering: the suffering of the rich, come so unpleasantly face to face with human misery, mass-produced in the squalid streets." (151)

Such predicaments deepen the impact of what begins as a (delayed) coming-of-age story for a Canadian abroad looking for enlightenment. I encourage any reader put off or bewildered by the tone to continue, for Ward knows when to tell all and when to hold back. He also ends it realistically yet gracefully. No easy feat for what appears a tough story to relive and set down on paper years later. (author's website; Amazon US 4-13-13)

Monday, March 31, 2014

Ag dul go Londain aríst, cuid a cúig

Bhí Dé Luain go raibh ár lá deireadh íomlán i Londain. Chuaigh muid go Gailearaí Marlborough i tStraid Albermarle in aice leis Piccadilly. Ní raibh muid ábalta a fheiceáil ealaine le Sarah Raphael, ach bhí maith linn líníochtaí le Henri Matisse.

Shiúil muid triu Piccadilly agus Holborn go Músaem le Sir John Soane, ach bhí sé dúnadh ann. Chuaigh triu Garraí Lincoln's Inn agus An Scoil an Eacnamaíocht i Londain. Tá mac léinn go leor ag timpeall, ag fanacht a ith lón ina tstraideannaí cam agus sean ann. 

Thóg muid leis cuairt ag Na Institiúide Courtauld. Is gailearaí níos iontach. Tá beag ach go raibh den scoth. Fhill muid a fheiceáil Teach Somerset aríst béal dorais ar ais leis taispeantas le Stanley Spencer.

Músaem na Iompair Londain ro-dheor, ach bhí maith taispeantas speisialta póstaeir ar an Tube. Ith dinnéar ag Union Jacks i Garraí na Covent. Cheannaigh Léna milséain de Hardys agus ansin chuaigh muid ar ais go dtí dtaibhléirithe amharclann, ag Apollo ina Deireadh Thiar (sular thit sé i deich óiche ina dhiadh sin!) ag freastail an dráma uaillmhianach, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. 

Bhuel, caith muid a fhágáil. Bhí ceo i Londain, ag deireanach ann. Thóg amach muid an dara Dé Máirt sin go Aerfort Heathrow is gnóthach leis an grian ag ardú.

Going to London, part five.

Bhí Dé Luain go raibh ár lá deireadh íomlán i Londain. Monday was our last whole day in London. We went to Marlborough Gallery on Albermarle Street near Piccadilly. We were unable to view the art of Sarah Raphael, but we liked the drawings of Henri Matisse.

We walked down Piccadilly to Holborn to the Museum of Sir John Soane, but it was closed there. We went through Lincoln's Inn Fields to the London School of Economics. Lots of students were around, waiting to eat lunch in the crooked and old streets.

We paid a visit to the Courtauld Institute. It's such a wonderful gallery. It's small but it's excellent. We returned to see at Somerset House next door again the exhibition of Stanley Spencer.

The London Museum of Transport is too expensive, but we liked the special exhibit of Tube posters. We ate dinner at Union Jacks in Covent Garden. Layne bought candy at Hardy's and then we returned to the theatre, a show at the Apollo in the West End (before it fell in ten nights later!) to attend an ambitious drama, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.

Well, we had to depart. Fog was in London, at last, there. We took off that second Tuesday from very busy Heathrow Airport with the sun rising. (Píctúir le Paul Mitchell: "London Fog"/Ceo Londain)

Saturday, March 29, 2014

"Many Many Many Gods of Hinduism": Book Review

There's some clever shifts here. The title evokes the legendary 330 million deities but the text denies other than one ultimate manifestation of Brahman. Swami Achuthananda seems to be credited here and there as if another source, although he's on the title page himself. Kerala gets some patriotic boosts in one footnote, for its coconut oil pomade boosting the brain cells of residents, where even beggars look healthy. A sense of humor certainly enlivens this take on the oldest surviving religion.

The author (an Indian with evident ex-pat ties to Australia) emphasizes that what since the 18th century we in the West define as Hinduism encourages the diversity of belief and the harmony of all faiths. Beginning with an informal roaming around India and the quirks of his homeland, the first part gradually if idiosyncratically in little topical reflections widens the reader's exploration of the culture, not only Hindu but Parsi, notably.

He nods often to Buddhism (in one section like many in this brief book of quick chapters, in an unresolved exchange with another debater about the merits of that related but "nastik" system denying the Vedas) and he likes to remain open-ended about certain doctrines. Maya, the Atman-Brahman distinction, and reincarnation, part of the central portion dealing with concepts, sparked my interest but all concluded without leaving me with tidy answers. This approach may betray the limits of the scope of a short study for newcomers, or it may hint at many possibilities beyond articulation.

However, regarding the study of RISA [Religious Studies in South Asia] by academics in the West, via Wendy Doniger and her legion of acolytes, he brooks no argument. The swami insists on the maladies rampant after exposure to "Wendy's Child Syndrome," as a fellow Indian critic labels this ailment. It peddles poor scholarship as the final word on subjects where its own professors confess or are seen to lack proper linguistic training and cultural exposure to the nuances below the texts they too eagerly try to psychoanalyze. [P.S. Update: Penguin India's capitulation in Feb. 2014 to stop printing Doniger's The Hindus, after nationalist protests and censorship, disheartens for all of us who admire academic and legal free speech, whatever the relative merits of pro-/ anti-Doniger factions.]

As a careful reader, while I welcome this as a text to recommend to students looking for a resource (and I wish a list of further reading or sites might have been appended; there is an index), I must admit some small shortcomings in the pdf I was kindly provided with to review. There are a few slips in typography, usage (although accounting for Indian English may be germane for a couple of these), or spelling. One paragraph, for instance, on p. 71, shifts from "Sanatana" to "Santana" Dharma and each is given twice, leading one to wonder which is true, or at least used more often nowadays.

I liked the easygoing nature of the mini-essays. Some are joined well and foreshadow others. Some jump from one theme to another. Most follow in more or less logical order, but as with the chaos seemingly on the surface of India itself, it may take sly or careful notice to reflect on the subtle ties.
Amazon US 9/24/13.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Bill Porter's "Zen Baggage: A Pilgrimage to China": Book Review

A skilled translator under the name Red Pine, as Bill Porter, he wanders ten weeks in early 2006, with a bottle of port, Snickers fun bars, tea, and pumpkin cookies. He travels north to south, pursued by the yellow dust, into the world of "red dust," the real realm as opposed to that Zen monks pursue. That realm strives to plunge the practitioner into language so as "to make us let go of language." (16)

He makes a great analogy when he visits a Choukoutian site for "Peking Man." "Early humans lived in a sea of sound. It took a long time before language and music pulled us out of that ocean and we had to start using religion to find our way back to its shores." (26) There's not a lot of fancy prose here, but Porter's a patient guide.

He stresses Zen as "just a way of living" (182): the simple admonition reverberates in the monasteries trying to expand after being crushed by Mao and the Cultural Revolution. The monks stopped between 1960-1980; today, the monasteries fill, but you don't get much sense of how monks suffered or why Zen appeals to younger cadres today. People don't appear to open up much to Porter, or he chooses not to probe--it may be caution on both sides in what in a rare aside he notes is still a "brutalizing" regime.

Porter argues for a Zen model based in communal living and self-sufficient farming. Few monasteries can live like this now, but some try to return to this ideal. As for Zen's origins in China, he differs with the academic interpretation of Chinese Zen as a fusion of indigenous Daoism and Indian Buddhism, favoring Zen's persistence as an "invisible tradition" not recorded in orally-based India but which by private transmission emerged into China, "affecting everything from art to gardening." (308)

Porter writes genially. He hints at his past and these brief interludes prove intriguing. Avoiding being sent to Vietnam by going AWOL; studying Intensive Chinese under a "Dragon Lady" at Columbia; working as a Taiwan-based journalist; stumbling into a 1989 PRC pro-democracy rally; meeting a hobo with a tale to tell: Porter conveys these few paragraphs of each scenario with verve. Yet by comparison to his previous book "Road to Heaven," about Chinese hermits, "Zen" revealed more about Porter's colorful life.

As for his main tale, not much happens. Lots of names and dates pass, and while Porter meticulously transfers his journal notes (what he paid is related diligently for every taxi ride or dessert treat) and his dutiful itinerary, this content will slow the pace to that of Porter's own. His bad back gets massaged and he welcomes sweets. He records his every move south, and you do find yourself witnessing what he does, even if it's not that exciting. Which may be the quiet lesson: how to make your life useful, if not flashy. This version of a pilgrimage may offer verisimilitude, but you don't come away with as much of a vivid sense of what it's like to meditate as a Zen adept or dramatic insights into monastic life today; you do feel you are with Porter each step of his long, patient, subtle way, on the other hand. (Amazon US 6-7-13)