Thursday, March 31, 2011

Ag éisteacht go Raidió Bhlag Cainte leis Seán na Cliste

Dúirt mé faoi stair phoblactach agus mná go hairithe dó faoi deireanach. Tá agallamh ag craoladh le Raidió Bhlag Cainte leis craolfar trí roinnt go dtí seo sa Mhárta seo. Tá uair chéad orm go raibh ag rá ar an raidió ann, ar ndóigh.  

Bheul, ní raibh maith liom ag cloisteáil mo ghuth ag béiceach ann. Smaonaigh mé go raibh os ro-h-ardú chomh ag taifeadh mar ráite is ard. Áfach, bhí maith go díreach liom an seans ag caint leis Seán na Cliste, óstach carthanach, agus a h-éisteoirí cliste go leor amach ansin. 

Tú ábalta ag éisteacht go an clár anseo de 14ú Márta faoi bún-stair phoblactach (23:48-31:10). Tá roinnt de réir araon Maud Gonne agus Countess de Markievicz de 15ú Márta ansin (33:20-38:50). Leanaim ag caint fúthu de 21ú Márta ansiúd (28:30-39:50). B’fhéidir, cruinneoidh an clár go fógraí faoi abhar mar gheall ar mná phoblachtachaí eile agus feimineachas ar an saol Angla-Éireannach agus Caitliceach. Cluinfear an chuid eile lá is faide anonn. 

An chuid is fearr den scéal go mbeidh ag cluinfear mo chairde dhil Antoine agus Ciara Mac an tSaoi ag cheile. Is iriseoirí siad ag gcónaí in Eireann. Scríobhann beirt faoi poblachtas go minic. 

Go cinnte, níl fhíos agam chomh ná foghlaim siad! Dá bhrí sin, éist go Raidió Bhlag Cainte anois. Foghlameoidh tú níos mo rudaí Éireannach ag inste le na saoithe-- an dís ag cur tuarisc ar hÉireann acusan féin. 

Listening to Blog Talk Radio with John Smart. 

I spoke about republican history and women especially in it recently. It was an interview broadcast by Blog Talk Radio with three parts so far aired in this past March. It was the first time for me that I was talking on the radio, of course. 

Well, I didn’t like hearing my braying voice there. I thought it was too loud as taped as I spoke far too strongly. However, I was quite happy for a chance to speak with kind host John Smart  and his many smart listeners out there. 

You’re able to listen to the program here from March 14th about basic republican history (23:48-31:10). The part concerning both Maud Gonne and the Countess de Markievicz from March 15th there (33:50-38:50). I follow speaking about them on March 21st over there  (28:30-39:50). Perhaps, the program may announce my material with regard to other republican women and feminism in Anglo-Irish and Catholic life. Somebody may hear the rest at a future date. 

The best part of the story’s that somebody will hear my dear friends Anthony and Carrie McIntyre together. They’re journalists living in Ireland. The pair write often about republicanism. 

Surely I know less than they know! Therefore, listen to Blog Talk Radio now. You will learn more about Ireland told by the experts-- a pair reporting from Ireland themselves.

(Countess de Markievicz:  grianghraf/photo le/by B. Keogh. )

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Christmas Humphreys' "Sixty Years of Buddhism in England": Book Review

Six decades spans the coming of Buddhism as a novelty to the island into its hesitant acceptance, during the countercultural efflorescence, as a hip commodity. He compiles the movement's history, as unflagging co-founder of the Buddhist Society in 1924 that overlapped an earlier one founded in 1907.

He follows the Society's fortunes briskly, in a rapid survey of its challenges during both wars, and especially what faced its members when WWII London engulfed, literally, its situation. The men had to choose to serve or not, and Humphreys tells fairly of their decisions, and of the bravery that those in the City had to find within themselves as their Headquarters faced the flames. He learns the lesson of impermanence, to be sure.

Humphreys also shows characteristic wit. He finds at Westminster Cathedral circa 1928 a Catholic Truth Society pamphlet by one G. Willoughby-Meade, "Buddhism in Europe." It opens with a tirade against "a much more insidious foe" than even Spiritualism. Humphreys notes how: "The whole pamphlet is a fine example of the psuedo tolerance of Rome, which advises a careful examination of all other points of view on the unshakable assumption that they are all wrong." (31-2) Its condescending tone towards Buddhist adherents as "little children stumbling in the dark" will not be the last manifestation of the kind of intolerance that Humphreys and his cohorts will face in Britain.

Still, they soldier on as peaceful warriors. He promotes dharma as a harmony of religion (of a non-theistic sense) and science, a rational philosophy rather than dogmatic authority, and one offered "with humility and tolerance, yet as provably true, as tested by thousands of years of experience." (75) He strives to make it understandable for Westerners. Some later have criticized his approach as too humanist, too soft, but for his era, before the widespread transmission of Tibetan and Zen techniques over much of the West, he sought to dispel misunderstandings of a incense-wafting, nihilistic, idol-worshipping, Void-obsessed cult that repelled timid pallid inquirers.

In this, published in 1968, we find an concluding appeal for a more lasting Buddhism than a fad for instant enlightenment by chemicals or charlatans. He advises, against the fervor of that time, for a Buddhist institution to eschew "politics of any kind," but he also encourages each Buddhist to exemplify its deathless precepts in a disciplined, committed fashion. By this, he reckons, more by example than "by useless and generally harmful interference" can be done.

Arguable, but from one who lived through two World Wars and defended and prosecuted many at the Bar, he shows here as in his autobiography (1978's "Both Sides of the Circle"--also reviewed by me) a mature defense of one who sought to go beyond the introverted stance of many of his fellow British Buddhists and who took on moral causes as his own dogged radical in conformist's clothing. He and his colleagues as summarized in this report tried to put down roots within, rather than lay them across, the Western soil where they transplanted Buddha's message "against the darkness now descending on the spiritual world." (84)

Illustration: "Buddhism in England" 5:2 (June 1930) Published by the "Buddhist Lodge" in London, as an early effort of Humphreys and cohort to bring such experts as D.T. Suzuki-- via a publication later under the editorship or Alan Watts-- to the attention of Western audiences. (Posted to Amazon US 4-18-10)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Christmas Humphreys' "Both Sides of the Circle": Book Review

Famed London barrister and Buddhist popularizer, his 1978 autobiography reads as quaintly as his Edwardian verse that he preferred and imitated. Perhaps more of a curio than a solid look at what made him so determinedly countercultural well before the hippie era, nonetheless I found it instructive in an appealing musty, eccentric, and burnished manner. As you might expect given his first name, he unfolds his story erratically but in a rather calculated way to express himself as a clearly inspired sort of "character."

Certainly his life, spanning the century, epitomizes a kind of restless upbringing that marked many of his generation. Born in 1901, his brother's death in the Great War marked him early to turn from verities to searching, and soon he found Theosophy. Curiously, he never abandoned its tenets even as he soon practiced Buddhism, and this makes for an odd pair, for as an articulate, passionate humanist, his hankering for the transports of Blavatsky and her circle appears to be at cross purposes with dharma as Humphreys expounds it. Yet, after the trauma of WWI as he witnessed it as a student at a distance, he sought when up at Cambridge (just missing the war due to his age), solace for his nagging "What's it all 'about'?"

He soon became by the mid-1920s a spokesman for Buddhism. The sense of "unborn, unoriginated, unformed" fascinated him, along with its sense of justice along a "Middle Way." With his wife, he tirelessly devoted his time to the Buddhist Society as a co-founder (see my review of his summation, "Sixty Years of Buddhism in Britain"), when not prosecuting and defending at the Bar. He tells of how he sought to be scrupulously fair to those he represented or challenged in court, and how their karma, and his, made him take very seriously his role as their advocate or adjudicator.

Given my interest in Irish republicanism, I would have liked more on the case tried by his father of one accused of arson: "Mason," the "C.O. of the I.R.A. in Great Britain," but understandably he gives more time to his role in the postwar Japanese war crime trials, that of spy Klaus Fuchs, Ruth Ellis who killed her lover, and other spectacular cases for his British readership. He tells skillfully of his role as "Senior Prosecuting Counsel" and how he took his appointment, handling murder cases often as not, with the utmost sense of compassion mixed with justice. His words on "crimes of passion" merit meditation by many bent on "lock 'em up and throw away the key" today. "I repeat, there are worse crimes than the majority of the murders which for many years I put before a jury for trial." (170)

He journeyed to Asia, and offers a fine account of meeting D.T. Suzuki the Zen scholar. Humphreys asks him: "You mean that all is God but there is no God?" Suzuki responds: "I mean that all is God and there is no God." After that exchange, Humphreys "took a long step forward on my way to Zen." (129) He relates how the Buddha and oneself are not "'two' identical things but two 'identical' things." The difference is in the inflection.

He also sought to make Buddhism more relevant to the problems of the postwar world. He and his wife "Puck," of whom he writes touchingly, traveled widely to connect Western practitioners with Eastern experts at a time before the Tibetan diaspora spread teachings globally. Appended to his book's his "Twelve Principles of Buddhism," which he sought to promote as a sort of ecumenical common ground for all sects of the dharma. As an early confidant of the present and then young Dalai Lama, he assisted the first waves of refugees via the Tibet Society. He finds in 1956 the Dalai Lama's speech to a conference about a prophecy than spoken of in Tibet would come true soon: "that in the course of time the Dharma would move from Tibet to the land of the 'pink skinned' people." (195)

Humphreys concludes his tale still involved in this work among the 'pink skinned" people himself, as one of the earliest expounders of Buddhism in Britain. He urges us to find the moral ambition and common wisdom within all religions, and not to ignore in teaching the young "the Light which gave them birth." (252) He ends by elucidating the title of his story: "every pair of opposites is more than the two sides of a coin. It is, and never ceases to be the One from which both came. This Oneness is the Centre which, 'abiding nowhere', is each point of the circumference. Here is mystery, in a world of intuitive awareness to which, one day, knowingly, we shall arrive, At least, as we grasp both sides of the circle we shall be moving towards its centre, the Self within, which will be found to be at the same time light and life and love." (256-7)

This passage transmits some of the tone of this book. It may be too ethereal for some, too sentimental for others. But within, you get the sense of a sincere man who devoted his long life to bettering the condition of others, in body and soul, incarcerated or on the outside, who sought to solve some of the mysteries of our freedom and what we do with such a human condition in a world full of pain. (Posted to Amazon US 4-18-10)

Friday, March 25, 2011

"The Essential Chögyam Trungpa": Book Review

In bold fashion, this Tibetan lama challenges us to find secular, or Buddhist, enlightenment. Neither placid nor full of platitudes, this compiles 38 pieces from fifteen books in print. It may daunt most readers unfamiliar with basic hinayana- mahayana- vajrayana "vehicles" of knowledge and practice, but if you already have a basic grounding in these teachings, this book may inspire you to move deeper, and climb further.

Chögyam Trungpa's urging us against getting bogged down in the means, the material trappings that surround so many gurus, and the egotistical temptations which entrap so many ethereal seekers. His "cutting through spiritual materialism" encourages us to let go of "trying to live up to what we would 'like' to be," rather than "trying to live what we are." (50) Any technique associated too securely with the inexpressible divine, ultimately, prevents us from breaking free on our quest.

"Crazy wisdom" counters this materialism with giving up on answers but keeping a literal perspective, to keep on investigating without fixating on solutions or stopping at answers. "Both question and answer die simultaneously at some point. They begin to rub each other too closely, and they short-circuit each other in some way." (53) At that point, hope abandons us, yet transcending its saving grace pushes us into the deeper discoveries beyond in an unfolding, never-ending process of self-discovery by losing the self. This may sound elusive, and it may be, but this book takes this process seriously, if with oblique asides and a lot of metaphors such as a blue pancake falling on your head, to keep the elucidation unexpected. It can be tough going in many places, and tends to skip about-- being a compendium-- but it's a sampler to whet your appetite for his two dozen books listed in the appendix.

He tries to steer us out of our "huge traffic jam of discursive thought." (66) He excels in delineating the six realms of existence, the "styles of imprisonment" that entomb us. He tells the story of Marpa engagingly, and he explains the five Buddha families clearly. He lets us in on the secret that "cool boredom" can be a blessing for a meditator, however advanced all the more bored. Shambhala Training, an innovation of his, brought "secular enlightenment" to many, and this collection mixes its admonitions with those of higher levels of actual Buddhism.

As a lot of these doctrinal selections were talks, the verve of his delivery comes across, even if on paper his suggestions may seem rather disjointed. The sections shift quickly up into advanced teachings. The edition follows the three yanas as it leaves secular Shambhala approaches behind for dharma in complex, increasingly Tibetan forms. You'll even get a sense, deep into this book, of the true meaning of disorienting Tantra, and how emerging from "cocoons" (in a closing chapter reminiscent to me of "The Matrix"), can lead us out of shyness and aggression.

The surprise at such a "warrior's" brave, interior and exterior pilgrimage, he reminds us, shatters one's "ordinary approach to reality and truth," far too "poverty-stricken." (199) Truth encompasses all of its manifestations. "It could be everywhere, like raindrops, as opposed to water coming out of a faucet that only one person can drink from at a time."

In the end, with "maha ati yoga" (aka "dzogchen"-- a glossary explains many terms), the highest teaching of the Nyingma school is given, or glimpsed. The learning curve of these excerpts moves steadily-- if a bit erratically and unpredictably given its instructor's methods-- up steep heights. While it may be an uneven and rocky trek for those not acclimated to Chögyam Trungpa's pace, it does introduce us to this memorable guide for so many Westerners, the first Tibetan teacher to gain a wide following outside the homeland he escaped. (Posted to Amazon US 3-24-11 & 4-21.)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Nagarjuna's "Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way": Book Review

This treatise condenses profound teachings about the “middle way,” between idealism and materialism, as the philosophical grounding for the Buddhist balance. After seventy years of study, the venerable Japanese Zen teacher Gudo Nishijima and his student “hardcore Zen” American exponent Brad Warner convey the gist of this formidable series of condensed reflections on this ancient collection of insights. Någårjuna, a Buddhist philosopher who lived in India between 150 and 250 C.E., wrote the “fundamental wisdom of the middle way,” the Mulamadhyamakakarika. From a painstakingly literal Sanskrit duplicated here, Nishijima translated it into rough English. Warner shifts this into idiomatic, if still dense, vernacular. The pair added their commentary, further elaborating it into a style closer to a modern audience.

Warner admits in his preface that previous translators had quit this challenging project. Nishijima notes how earlier translations failed to capture the appeal of this philosophical forebear to Dogen, medieval founder of the Soto school which these two Zen priests follow. Their inspirations, Någårjuna and Dogen, earn accolades in surveys of Buddhist thought as its most advanced explicators.

Intrigued by the resemblance between these Indian and Japanese interpreters of dharma, Nishijima sought to prepare a fresh edition of the Mulamadhyamakakarika (referred to by him and this reviewer henceforth as MMK). He meticulously shows the original Sanskrit meanings by word-by-word definitions, he avoids reference to other editions so as to keep an objective reaction to the original text, and he respects the grammar of the text, however awkward in its English equivalent. Warner then adds his own idiomatic reflections and paraphrases of each passage.

While no direct transmission orally or in writing from Någårjuna to Dogen, over a thousand years apart, can be affirmed, they agree in their dialectic. Nishijima conceives how the MMK organizes each chapter around four concepts. “These are ( 1) the subjective concept from the idealistic viewpoint, which I will call ‘subjective existence’; (2) the concrete concept from the materialistic viewpoint, or ‘objective existence’; (3) the present moment, when real acts are done; and (4) reality itself, or ‘the reliable facts.’”

In turn, these four aspects follow Gautama Buddha’s noble truth of letting go of desire, in the sense of accumulation of goods or ideas. Nishijima reasons that the Buddha meant that desire needed to be analyzed by a four-fold method such as Dogen used: a transition from the competing versions of philosophy based on (1) idealism; (2) materialism; (3) action in the present moment; and (4) inclusive reality. In turn, the MMK, as the editors relate its meaning, moves away from an over-idealistic, subjective and an over-material objective emphasis to an imperative based in action apart from linear time, neither looking at the past nor the future, but now. Reality enters as the only graspable situation that a practicing Buddhist can admit is true: the encounter with enlightenment, however transient.

Even this summary eludes facile understanding. This work demands concentration. Otherwise, the temptation to skim and not study may overwhelm those unaccustomed to such complicated concepts. Warner patiently rephrases each pithy verse in the MMK’s many chapters. These follow the pattern that builds from basic teachings to explanations of the external world, the philosophy of action, and the ultimate reality.

Nishijima and Warner reject mysticism. Contrary to Zen stereotypes, they remind the reader of the immediacy of zazen, “sitting meditation,” and the balance between body and mind within that pose that repeats the balance of subject and object, and spiritual and material, in the practitioner who strives for level-headedness, so insight and action merge.

The ineffable may elude easy perception by Western minds, which split what can be sensed into the material and the spiritual. Nishijima and Warner seek another approach to relate this concept. Fire represents the abstract thought of image; combustion stands for the concrete expression of the material energy; the flame actually exists, as the reality. Results seem to jibe more with Western philosophy, but this focus on the real as the truth, they admit, may be even unique in Eastern concepts to Buddhism as the MMK formulates.

Self-regulation repeats in their translation. Even Nirvana, they judge, may emerge from those who enter this mature condition of one who accepts neither invisibility nor intangibility as a necessity for revelation. Nor do these editors of the MMK accept a totally material, grimly concrete foundation for their findings. Instead, they find the stance that balances between all extremes, and in its daily action of the immediate moment, achieves without conscious knowing the flow of the everlasting present slice of eternal presence.

Here is a relevant verse as translated literally and then their commentary following:
“Nirvåṇa is not a place to wish to enter, and our wandering through daily life is not a place to wish to depart.
The place where something that can never be expressed with words exists is just the place of our daily life, so how is it possible for us to exchange our daily life for the balanced state of Nirvåṇa?”

“The balanced state, or Nirvåṇa, is just the state, or the world, that naturally appears when we are neither too materialistic nor too spiritual. This occurs, I believe, when our autonomic nervous system has become balanced. It is not some other place that we can wish to enter because it exists right here in the present moment. At the same time our wandering through our daily lives is not something we should want to get rid of. Our own life is the life of Buddha. That which is impossible for us to express with words isn’t some mystical experience—it is just the wandering of our daily lives. But even the balanced state is also just a simple fact at the present moment. So it is completely impossible for us to exchange the wandering of our daily life for the balanced state of Nirvåṇa.” (Chapter 16, verse 10)

The translators highlight this idea of the nervous system that finds its equilibrium between the material and the spiritual. By focusing on the present moment, one can meet the heart of the dharma. It exists in the settled state, beneath conscious striving, of this original balance between the external and internal, the core of what Dogen and Någårjuna shared.

“Pain,” how they translate dukkha from the Sanskrit, remains for even the advanced practitioner, who cannot escape being human and being weak. Even if “dissatisfaction” tends to be favored by other translators recently, this concept of a basis of sentient pain becomes the situation that humans seek to avoid. This evasion then entraps them in fixed concepts that prevent them from awakening as the Buddha urged. Fictions of “me, myself, and I” separate us from the rest of creation. Unity must be sought instead of segregation of the ego and the individual. The Buddha reminds humans to reject this dichotomy, and to embrace the fusion of “we, ourselves, and the real phenomena of the world seem to be as if they were the back and face of the one real world,” in the phrasing of the translators.

Finally, while humans may fall short of Nirvana in everyday life, they may be inspired to strive for betterment even in their unfulfilled state. A verse late on urges: “Being decorated by brilliant colors, the fact that everything is totally in the state of splendid stability is just the real situation of the world.” That is, the beauty of the present all around exists beneath whatever illusions prevent people from seeing its truth. Stability beckons the shaky seeker towards a balanced state, the state of shunyata.

In this self-regulated state, the MMK shows how pain may give way to enlightenment. The dharma expressed here promises a better life can be grasped, within humans and the situation that they encounter all around, inside one’s self and out in the world. This presentation invites the serious student of Buddhism down the path to find meaning. (Featured at the New York Journal of Books 3-15-11.)

P.S. For more from Warner, in an admittedly lighter mood, if as serious deep down: see my reviews of Hardcore Zen (2003): in which this punk bassist/monster-movie worker discusses how during his work in Japan he met Nishijima; the aftermath of his Japanese stint, Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate: A Trip Through Death, Sex, Divorce, and Spiritual Celebrity in Search of the True Dharma (2009); In his slightly more traditional 2007 "Sit Down and Shut Up", he explains the intricacies of Dogen’s 1234 A.D. treatise Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye; finally, his 2010 Sex, Sin & Zen digs into what his title promises, sort of.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Olivier Roy's "Holy Ignorance": Book Review

When halal turkeys sell for Thanksgiving, "Happy Holidays" drowns out "Merry Christmas," Easter egg hunts replace Mass celebrating the Resurrection, and sacred Catholic terms in Quebec serve only as swear words, culture has parted ways with religion. French professor Olivier Roy built his career analyzing Islam's political aspects, and in this new study, he broadens his view to also investigate Christian and Jewish reactions (with glances at Hindu and Buddhist contexts) to secularization. While the dense results in awkward prose, translated (from the 2008 French original) by Ros Schwartz, slow down any reader of this brief book, they deserve attention for Roy's explanations of what happens when multiculturalism and diversity produce a "holy ignorance" where an anti-intellectual reaction to modernization opposes a world of many opposed or divergent believers, or of none.

Religious advocates may boast of a comeback, but Roy labels this resurgence as a transformation. Even if religions appear more visible now, they are fading. More people are not returning to a familial religion, for many of their recent ancestors have already abandoned its practices. Rather, believers often come as converts or born-agains, and they may demand sudden acceptance by a religious community from which the individual seeker has been estranged. This "unsaid" culture, that of subtle customs and unspoken norms, may appear alien to the eager newcomer. Those who were raised within a religion they may follow to greater or lesser degree, casually as well as fervently, may disdain the bumptious aggression of the novice who demands too loudly to be accepted as genuine. Here, Roy shows, the cultural aspects have been, for many discontented seculars who wish to reconnect with religion, already attenuated.

This disconnection between religion and culture allows a faith, in this globalized matrix, to either detach itself from its cultural origins, as immigrants and converts demonstrate, or it may force it to take the defensive approach, as with European Catholicism or Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and to wish for integration back into ethnic or national territories that have been secularizing rapidly during the past half-century and more. Roy sums up the challenge: "Either religion is reduced to culture, or it has to separate itself from culture (in any case from Western culture) to assert its universality." (62)

Cultural diversity, therefore, competes against religious claims to lift a message (as in Islam or Christianity) above its origins to save all men and women. Judaism and Hinduism mingle the ethnic and religious identities, so an atheist Jew may not be surprising, but if an atheist Muslim wishes to declare himself such, as at least one author listed here has, the fact of his Tunisian birth may be the reason that he has proclaimed his status as this only after moving to France. In turn, that nation, Roy reminds us, has 70% of its citizens claiming Catholicism, but only 5% practice the faith traditionally associated with its dominant culture for over fifteen-hundred years.

Four reactions define historic and current responses by religion as it seeks to survive within its milieu. First, deculturation occurs when Christians try to wipe out indigenous faiths, or when orthodox Islam dominates the Indian subcontinent. Acculturation happens when the Jews of the Enlightenment adapt mainstream European values, or as India's natives integrate Christian or Islamic influences. Inculturation places liberation theology at the center of Latin American's indigenous ideologies. Finally, exculturation marks the Catholic or evangelical reactions we witness, as these powers fight a rearguard action against a worldly set of values now ascendant.

Religion also manufactures its own culture: Roy explains how written languages set down to spread the Gospel often turn into media that may Westernize some peoples, while strengthening the national allegiances of others. In Northern Ireland or the Balkans, religion can mold into an identity marker for a person or group that may renounce or ignore its actual doctrine, while still retaining a cultural or tribal allegiance to its mores. Historically, such transitions and transfers express how religion relates to its cultural settings.

Roy intersperses case studies from across the world, mostly in the Eurasian realms, to show the situations that illustrate these changes. Christmas as celebrated with a Yule log by the hearth was not the old custom, but a new one invented in the wake of Dickens, and this "traditional" festival replaced the churchgoing that drew worshipers out into the cold air to walk down to their local church. Central Asians may demand to become Christians within an Islamic society; African-Americans may adopt Arab names while Arab immigrants may shed theirs when settling into America. Outcries over priestly celibacy and pedophilia and homosexuality and abortion command so much attention now because the core values that Catholicism proclaimed had, until recently, pushed opposing views on sexuality, individual freedom, and fidelity to the margins. In the heartlands of Islam, as Roy documents, similar protests remain marginalized, and therefore weaker.

As women claim more power, and as gay rights enter the mainstream, sexual freedom becomes the new norm for secular proponents. The private sphere shrinks by communications, the police state grows by surveillance, and law steps in where the clerics once patrolled. So, bolder individuals step out of the shadow and enter the stage. Modern identities favor public display, and demand "transparency, authenticity, and truth."

Religious defenders react in three ways. First, they may regard the competing culture as "profane," and look down upon it. The ultra-orthodox Jewish man may speak to God in Hebrew and to his family in Yiddish; the religious signifier separates from the everyday means of communication. Next, the religious movement may see the state as "secular," and regard it as parallel in function, as in the model of the First Amendment's separation of powers. The third approach treats the secular society as did the early Christians that of Rome: as the "pagan" enemy.

Nowadays, these "pagans" may enact, as in Western Europe, Canada, or the United States, laws that tolerate but supervise religions as to be accommodated without state favoritism. Religious adherents, from their dissenting perspective, get treated by secular, non-discriminatory laws as a sub-culture, perhaps relegated alongside other "minorities," such as the gays or feminists whom they oppose. Or, as in Scandinavia I may add, neo-pagans themselves may emerge to reinvent their rituals, while most of their neighbors may regard God as outmoded as the Greek pantheon became for the descendants of its ancient inventors.

This social downsizing spurs religious proponents into an assault on "materialism, pornography, and selfish pleasure" as the new idols. The reaction to California's Proposition 8 banning gay marriage in 2008, or the trials of gays in Cairo in 2001, marks as deviant those authorities or subversives trying to impose secular, godless, and sinful practices upon the community of believers. While such breaks from tradition tend to be perceived as sudden, Roy locates them in earlier disconnections between the majority in a culture who in fact lose interest in the dominant religion well before the exculturation process erupts into a radical-reactionary counter-movement. Reform Jews, mainstream Protestants, and assimilating Catholics, for instance, had already been lapsing decades before Prop. 8 galvanized conservatives to rally within those denominations.

Puritanical sects resent the dominant culture. Early Protestants sought separation, as this represented first a fall from Eden into the world, and second the taint of an imaginative Catholic sensibility that had piled up non-Biblical accretions that shoved an individual away from an encounter with Scripture. Roy notes how the Puritans did not celebrate Christmas, as it was not sanctioned in Holy Writ. Their spiritual heirs now flocking to evangelical storefront churches in the barrios or to suburban megachurches share a wish to separate from the immoral majority. Salafi Muslims long to revive the community as it was with the Prophet, before even theology arrived to dilute Islam. The Taliban ban television and videos; the Haredim of Jerusalem invent a kosher Internet even as they try to shut down the last movie theater in their neighborhood.

How does the title of this book align with Roy's viewpoint? "Holy ignorance" recalls the Pentecostal "speaking in tongues," as this obliterates the language and favors the unmediated, untranslatable Word. The Word inhabits the believer, and its truth transmits directly from God to penitent, without knowledge, outside of theology, linguistics, or culture. Language conventionally brings culture, but in this rejection of profane culture, even religious knowledge is suspected of interference with the primary need for an individual's salvation.

Two-thirds of this text explores cultural dimensions; the last third expands into globalization. Acculturation and deculturation both accelerate, as these two processes become more systematic, and more generalized. Acculturation expects that the dominant model imposes itself on a defeated group, which reacts by integrating or resisting. The center of Protestant and Catholic power may have shifted to Africa, where a more orthodox reaction to Western morality (as in the Anglican Communion's debate over women priests and gay marriage) has resulted in a base so confident that native African missionaries are now breaking through service to immigrant communities in Europe and reaching out to the secularized, re-Christianizing "whites." The Africans claim that they remain closer to Biblical norms than adherents in the West: culture separates from religion.

In another model, that of the free market, promoted by the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life in its 2008 survey, demand for meaning replaces imposition of values. Religion as another product's promoted to consumers worldwide, apart from culture. First among all Islamic movements, Al Qaida recruits 10-20% of its members from converts, for example, through its "internationalist wing." Conversely, those in areas hostile to other faiths, as in Algeria, Morocco, or Central Asia, may come to Christianity through radio, television, or the Internet. Secularization, Roy stresses, does not marginalize religion but isolates it from culture: independent of its origins, a globalizing religion can free itself via a "virtual space" that ignores "social and political constraints." Fundamentalism, no less than secularism, becomes then an export, and converts seek it out. In the past, whole nations were forced to convert by top-down mandates from invaders or rulers; today, individuals break away from their parent culture to grow up into a new religious identity chosen on one's own.

More than the migrations or demographic shifts assumed, some religions spread independently of many people: Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sufi brotherhoods need only a master and a few disciples. Self-conversions via the Internet or by those, as with Judaism, who come to a faith out of self-study in a tribe or community, also appear. This deterritorialization hastens as technology supplants a missionary into remote lands far from a religion's cultural origins. However, as with Mormonism, missionaries from a very specific place command their own success, as one of the world's fastest growing religions, especially among the black populations in Jamaica and in Africa. Yet, detached from its Utah Holy Land, half of its members now live outside the U.S.

Zen Buddhism exported by Americans back to Japan, Hare Krishnas re-Hinduizing via Indian immigrants to America, Korean Protestant missionaries in Afghanistan, Rastafarians in Nigeria, and Spanish converts to Islam who in turn converted Indians in Chiapas demonstrate how religions freed of a center reach out in all directions. Meanwhile, the territorial parish erodes into a "community of affinities," as believers may move by social mobility, bypassing ports-of-entry, to migrate to a new locale chosen by religious similarity rather than ethnic ties. They choose where to live because of their religious sensibilities, rather than social bonds with their kin. Proximity as in the immigrant parish declines; megachurches compete among new religious movements.

Standardization, for Roy, resembles "formatting" instead of acculturation. Religion's no longer embedded in a way of life, as cultural and religious markers float apart. Exported Buddhism follows a parish model in many immigrant communities; Western Christians may turn towards Eastern methods of meditation. Formatting means interaction: a consensus forms about shared values as religiosities converge into an eclectic seeker's quest, a defined system with legal rights, or an institutional "churchification" as Wiccans or Muslims expect a prison or military chaplain to match that provided by the bureaucracy for their Christian or Jewish comrades.

These examples stress the decisions of adults who choose to embrace a new faith. With converts, does their adopted religion pass down to the next generation, unless a culture beyond that of the household can establish its belief system within a stable community? "How can one be born from a born-again?", Roy wonders. Transmission breaks down when the new religion lacks visibility or permanence outside the home. Isolation as a counter-culture may occur, but often (as with communes or cults), this results in short-lived communities. Social climbing may tempt, as with evangelical revivalism tied to prosperity preaching. The Jesus People who jump started America's born-again movement in the 1970s often failed to pass on their own transient, dated hippie culture to their own trend-driven children.

Roy dismisses the appeal of these parents from the counterculture, who try to form hip sub-cultures through halal fast-food, eco-kosher initiatives, or Christian rock to draw in today's youth. Fundamentalism, he argues, has weakened, so religious "purity" dissolves. The Sixties by their promotion of the personal quest have changed even the born-agains and the conservatives. I opened today's paper to find an article on evangelical support for twice-divorced, newly Catholic politician Newt Gingrich, who has written with his former mistress, and now his third wife, a biography championing John Paul II.

The professor concludes that "religion has lost its original and perhaps incestuous link with culture." Family life alters as individual choice determines partnerships, as Gingrich's decisions illustrate rather than papal directives. Self-realization, for converts alongside those who have grown up guided by a doctrine's decrees, trumps "natural law." Religions, for Roy, will continue to drift away from a uniform global culture even as their followers find themselves on archipelagos, in real or virtual spaces within but apart from the rest of the world.

(Featured at Pop Matters 3-18-11. Posted to Amazon US in a shorter, edited version, as well as, 3-3-11.)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

J.S. Dunn's "Bending the Boyne": Book Review

This retells and expands the coming of those who engendered their own myths about ancient Ireland, and those whom they met. The Invaders here turn antagonists, unlike their counterparts in Celtic origin myths. Dunn shows us from the view of the Starwatchers, those already settled in the island, what this first of many incursions means for the oldest settlers. The figures of Boann, Aengus, Daghda, and Elcmar appear in legend, and many more whom Dunn introduces, embellishes, and imagines as full of longings, doubts, and concerns as you and me. Contexts about Atlantic Bronze Age trade, the dispersion of peoples, astronomy and traditions, and mercantile connections with Iberia and Britain, as sailing patterns are all integrated, smoothly and intelligently, into the plot.

While the tale starts and finishes in the present, this framing device coheres around a story from prehistory, when the Bronze Age reached the far fringes of Europe. About a hundred pages in, the setup is in place for the cultural showdown, and the main characters enter, so the pace settles in and sustains itself as Cian becomes the protagonist and we learn the combination of bronze and astronomy that allows him to mingle these crafts deftly. Dunn incorporates her academic studies into the story, not an easy task. "Bending the Boyne" blends knowledge and relationships, love and friendships, adventure and discovery into a fluid, steady narrative.

Dunn also sneaks in allusions to current politics, music, the Troubles, "A Modest Proposal," the poems of Yeats, and other cultural imports and inventions from the Ireland we know today. The narrative gives us a quick glimpse of where we're at now before taking us back very far. Then, we find out as the novel unfolds how what we see in a Dublin museum now might have originated thousands of years ago, if only a few miles northwards in distance, perhaps.

The tone, for an historical novel thousands of years ago, remains consistent: fluent enough for us to relate to, but enriched by a subtle register attuned to an ancient attitude, apart from our casual vernacular and casual exchanges. Dunn's characters regard status, relationship, and intention seriously, as misreadings of these cues can lead to their own doom. Therefore, I liked the slightly elevated diction and the avoidance of anachronisms, as if a resonant tale translated into modern vernacular does not lose its classical, measured cadence. I felt even for the "heavies" such as Elcmar, and what happens to such as Enya and Muirgen brings supporting roles alive as well. I felt I made friends with Cliodhna. I wanted to learn more of the elusive Sreng, and I wondered about Bolg.

Such open-endedness as to some characters, even as we follow others to the end, works well to expand the limits of the narrative, as with the Brighid and Connor episodes. I got angered at the Invaders and felt sorry for the Starwatchers. Dunn conveys the plight of those trapped by those determined to stop the mounds and erect the circles and this captures the societal transitions well, as does the way the "beaker" folk spread their technology. The explanations, as with how the newly imported, fashionable pots stand on tables, enter lightly, especially for historical fiction. Dunn makes the refinements of metallurgy as intriguing as astronomical alignment, resulting in an enjoyable and poignant account about these pre-Celtic Starwatchers.(See for information & excerpt. Posted to Amazon US 3-15 & 4-21-11)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

No praise for St Patrick?

How do today's Irish pagans react to March 17th? If Native Americans lament Oct. 12th as a day of cultural genocide, might a post-Catholic nation and Celtic diaspora resent celebrating the legendary arrival of its first missionary? As the Irish increasingly opt out of ritual "faith of our fathers," is the hymn's wish for "All praise to St. Patrick" replaced by a less dogmatic feast (as with the solstice at Imbolc instead of the Sun God's birth moved to Dec. 25th or thereabouts)? Does my once-axiomatically Catholic tribe, as we disperse, still treat the day as a clannish rally against the Crown and for Rome? Craic, fun, indifference, resignation: do folks care one way or the other as long as a pint's raised and toast shouted?

Didactic palaver ahead. I wonder how the 1600th anniversary in 2032 of Patrick's supposed insular triumph will compare with the massive Eucharistic Congress convened for the 1500th celebration of Patrick in 1932. That was one of the island's biggest gatherings ever-- until the Pope's children assembled at Drogheda in '79. This seems like a last gasp rather than second wind for my generation, raised in a barely post-Vatican II mindset still inheriting pre-conciliar submission despite guitar masses and godawful "Godspell."

Or, might revelers of whatever persuasion or denomination or lack thereof simply drink up? Goths party at Halloween, even if they may sleep in for All Souls Day. What's the use of doctrine in an Ireland, as Malachi O'Doherty surveys in "Empty Pulpits," pivoting from church or chapel to mall and football? Witness the media blitz by Guinness, Jameson, Bushmills to fill Oirish pubs in tourist traps and shopping "destinations" from Derry to Dubai. Even in Ireland, where departed Yanks were long derided as plastic paddies full of green beer doing what the natives back home disdained-- parades and pubs perpetuate a marketing myth: that Patrick was the first Christian to arrive in Erin. How many holidays these days remain holy days?

I wondered about all this blather when corresponding with Irish colleagues who've personally distanced themselves from Catholic identity. I keep their names apart from my entry, for even now, some suspect their allegiances. My correspondents possess excellent educations and deep immersion in academic and popular treatments of this theme. They also grew up resisting the long pull from Rome and the close tug at Maynooth. They managed to distance themselves it seems far earlier and more successfully than I did from Irish Catholic guilt, mine transmitted by nurture as well as nature-- somehow exerted six thousand miles westward. One professor about my rumination that for some now, March 17th celebrates "intolerance," remarked in terms of a Buddhist gathering, wisely: "Some people love what they grew up with and have a hole shaped exactly like that, others absolutely reject anything which looks even remotely similar. Perhaps." 

The professor continued: "What we tend to see mostly in teaching (and I would imagine this is fairly
universal) is the effects of pre-1990s Irish upbringing on people's relationship to their own bodies. Again, how they deal with that and what their agenda for change is varies - but very few Irish people (of whatever nominal background) my age or older are unaffected by how they were taught to inhabit their bodies, and we need a very particular sensitivity when teaching bodyscans etc."

This resonated with a conversation I had last autumn with an Irish writer who works in art therapy. Both therapist and professor tilt a bit younger than me, so given the time-lag between when the liberal reactions to (and massive rejections of) Irish Catholicism increased in the early 1990s vs. when I supposed they began to gather momentum in my homeland, the slight gap between us may even out the transatlantic comparison.

I recall walking the ghostly corridors of Maynooth at Samhain '09 during a conference at which alternative spiritualities were discussed at the university next to the site of the national seminary. As I commented at that time at the Maynooth link here, the dwindling annual photos of ordinands marked a tidal ebb after 1500 years. Yet, unlike America, Ireland's clerical aspirants dwindled dramatically as shown by classes after 1990. Before then, more priests (taking into account ratios of Catholics here vs. there) were ordained than had been the case for at least fifteen years or so back in my city each spring. This chronological slippage appeared to align with the decline in piety amidst the sexual scandals and institutional abuses which began to be exposed fully later in Ireland, whereas the most of the West had seen dramatic drops in vocations as early as the late '60s. Slumps hit Ireland later, as the counterculture itself had appeared in but small numbers well into the '70s.

Well, this writer observed a similar disassociation between the body and the spirit in terms of comfort. In that writer's work, emphasis on overcoming this breakdown within the energies of the soul and their expression via the senses means that healing remains difficult for many in Ireland today, raised under such a regimen. For her own generation, a much freer engagement with social, avocational, sexual, and aesthetic possibilities draws in those in the cities today, the past twenty-odd years. These changes have rapidly entered Irish popular culture.

I reviewed Diarmaid Ferriter's "Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland" last year, and it documents well the shifts from strictures in place figuratively if not realistically imposed (if not from Patrick on so much as from the post-Famine "devotional revolution" and moral crackdowns by the curates and prelates) upon most of the Irish. And upon, I may add, those of us who grew up imprinted by its severity far away from the island. Those who emigrated as priests and parishioners carried the distrust of the body and the elevation of the soul. I grew up still under the transmitted habits and dogmatic proscriptions of its clergy, our families, and our once-removed but not quite distanced psychic impact amidst a doggedly taught regimen.

Bad Ass Bard holds that Lá Fhéile Pádraig represents "the anniversary of the death of an English-born, French-educated* former slave turned Catholic zealot that led a campaign of Xian conversion  throughout Ireland in the late fifth century." II2aTee at myLot weighs in, if with the disregard for grammatical niceties all too common on this medium: "So, as Irish as I am, I wear black on 'Saint' Patricks day, to mourne the loss uncounted druids and  mystics... whos homes, lives, and knowledge were lost forever to the crucible of Christianity."

Danu's Daughter at her own blog earnestly notes that the wearing of green, the date of March 17th (supposedly his death date in 460, but note how Patrick beat the Druids back in 433 near this spring equinox to light his own Paschal Fire on Tara's summit instead of the usual bonfire), shamrocks, leprechauns, banshees, that damned elusive pot o'gold at the end of the rainbow: all derive from paganism. And, until 16, Patrick himself was a pagan, likely a
romanized Briton from the west coast of what was then still Celtic turf. Which may explain of course as with many converts his missionary zeal. 

I admit that Christianity did free Patrick's fellow slaves, eventually, and I don't romanticize any civilization ("What did the Romans ever do for us?"). Still, the aversion to the body as the spirit was elevated marked a severe shift for Irish mentalities. For all the era's innovations which incite my medievalist imagination, I've always longed for what preceded rather than followed that Latin hegemony, however Celticized and appropriated. The period which fascinates me most is the linguistic and social breakdown in Britain at this same period, as the imperium faded; for Ireland, concurrently, Rome neared rather than receded.

Another expert I asked, a participant-observer in Irish neo-Druidry, told me that "my feeling is that they just ignore it." I figure they may drink up along with everyone else, "offering it up" if for different intentions? "The Snakes' Farewell to the Emerald Isle" (a title I love, speaking of a counterculture mixing up the modern with the fabled, depicted cleverly on Horslips' cover art for "The Unfortunate Cup of Tea"--even if 1974 track and disc languish among their weaker moments) endures as far more fake than fact. 

Speaking of mixing it up, Sarra Barton at Yahoo responds to her question: Should Pagans Celebrate St Patrick's Day?
Today, St. Patrick's Day is mostly a celebration of Irish folklore and Irish beer, rather than the honoring of a Catholic Saint. Many pagans do observe the March 17th holiday. Some pagans celebrate out of spite; afterall, it is a celebration of St. Patrick's death. Other pagans choose to honor the Druid Celts by reliving the long-lost traditions of the Bards. Telling stories, playing music, and wearing early Celtic costumes are an excellent way to honor pre-Christian Ireland. Should pagans celebrate St. Patrick's Day? Every pagan must decide according to his or her own beliefs. Considering most of the Christian holidays were stolen from the Pagans, shouldn't pagans feel free to steal this Christian holiday?
Finally, the "modern pagan perspective" of Jason (a blogger at "The Wild Hunt") forgives Patrick. He reminds his readers that paganism persisted, that good cheer should reign, and he repeats a popular conception among neo-pagans that the snakes driven out are but a metaphor for the Druids as no serpents survived the Ice Age on the island of saints and scholars. Certainly a hideous statue erected of the island's croziered patron mars one ancient gathering place. The professor I cited earlier reminded me that when among confreres visiting the Hill of Tara-- perhaps on another Samhain than the All Saints Day  I climbed under considerable gustiness-- a snakeskin was planted within that holy ground.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Eleventh Dream Day's "Riot Act": Music Review

These Chicago-based indie-rock stalwarts return with a welcome jolt. I've admired them since their 1988 full-length debut, "Prairie School Freakout." That was recorded, its liner notes explained, in an all-night session, half of which was spent trying to fix the amplifier's buzz, the other half giving in and getting on with rowdy, rootsy tunes mingling harmonies with feedback, Rick Rizzo's guitar aggression with Janet Beveridge Bean's backing vocals and smart drumming. Along with bassist Douglas McCombs, the band weathered a major-label stint with A&M before releasing the solid trio of "Ursa Major," "Eighth," and "Stalled Parade" on smaller labels between 1994 and 2000, every three years.

They remind me of Yo La Tengo in the husband-wife pairing of guitar and drums, sweet and sour, pop and distortion. They've been around thirty years, as long as YLT and R.E.M., but as with the latter band, they slowed down creatively around the same time, releasing fewer songs and drifting off their early course. From one of America's longest-lasting indie groups that had never quit, I waited every few years, hoping for a sonic spark as bright as "Prairie School Freakout" (reissued in 2006).

Eleventh Dream Day's last album, "Zeroes and Ones" (2006) disappointed me. Working with the producer of the more recent of their albums, Jim O'Rourke, the band seemed too enamored of electronics. Processed tracks meandered, too remote from their sludgier roots to stick. Now joined by Mark Greenberg, the band had evolved from their guitar-rock into keyboards and moods, but earlier records blended louder and quieter songs. By contrast, "Zeroes and Ones" felt too digital, not melodically binary.

"Riot Act" opens much more promisingly. As with their first album, the tenth's mostly live in studio, with few overdubs. "It's time to cut down the damned tree down," goes the chorus of "Damned Tree," and Rizzo's irritation arrives with grit as the harsh song jerks into a rave-up guitar backed by Bean's hectic shouts. Already, this bettered any tune on their last record, I thought.

"Cold Steel Now" continues this downbeat content if upbeat mood, while "Satellite" mixes distorted atmospherics fitting its title, and its tale of a breakdown on high as "snowflakes fall from the sky." "That's What's Coming" recalls Rizzo's influence of Neil Young, not in vocals so much as in style, and it steadies the album's pace.

Most EDD albums slow down in the middle; "Divining for Water" alludes to the cover art graphic of a few slackers in line at a grocery store, security camera overhead. One wears the t-shirt emblazoned "Riot Now!" in a place where none appear ready to rally. "It's gonna take a lot more than luck," Rizzo grumbles, to wake his nation out of its malaise.

The doldrums don't hit, yet "Tall Man" and "Sonic Reactor" settle for a mid-tempo feel which keeps the album coasting rather than accelerating. Eleventh Dream Day chooses often to force its way through the brush rather than blaze a trail by fire, and its Midwestern, determined stoicism sinks into its stolid, measured delivery. "Away with Words" enters a slower trudge into a final passage with a soaring, desolate crescendo of Rizzo and Bean's voices, always one of the band's strengths.

Closing with "Maybe This Time," the title hints at hope. The tune aims to rise, but struggles against its modesty. That brave emotion's welcome on a record that needs it as much to escape its wintry grip as the heartland of its members does. (Posted to Amazon US, and 3-14-11 featured at Pop Matters)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Ann Matthews' "Renegades: Irish Republican Women 1900-1922": Book Review

Coverage of women's contributions to the struggle for Irish independence early last century harps on two names: Maud Gonne and the Countess Constance de Markievicz. These two genteel ladies managed to reinvent themselves, in their thirties and at forty respectively, into Joan of Arc characters, on a mission to liberate the Irish from the British. Ann Matthews regards both figures as far more self-absorbed than earlier historians have judged them. Gonne and de Markievicz disguised their own English backgrounds. They directed themselves as leading ladies in a martial performance, with the Irish as supporting cast and spectators, and the British as the villains. Their fiery rhetoric roused crowds, as they rallied the people of their adopted homeland to a brutal, desperate conflict. To widen the stage long dominated by their strident egotism, Matthews focuses upon the role of women who waited in the wings, second-billed, as thousands of extras, as spear-carriers.

Her narrative moves quickly, as she covers the rise of the Gaelic League, the Inghinidhe na h'Éireann ("Daughters of Ireland," INE), and community activism that hastened participation of women in the Easter Rising of 1916. Matthews, as with Fearghal McGarry's "The Rising" (also reviewed by me on this blog and on NYJB), draws upon witness testimonies recently released by the Bureau of Military History. These accounts, as well as memoirs and correspondence, show Dr. Matthews' concentration upon primary sources for her dissertation, revised into this study.

The rise of a middle class offered careers for many women. Running an empire meant technology, typewriters, and white collar employment. In 1861, the Royal Post Office and British government counted 8% of its workforce as female. By 1900, this stood at 50%. Women, beginning to free themselves from propriety, attended Irish-language lessons of the Gaelic League. As these often popularized a cultural nationalism as a vehicle for militant republicanism, along with an increasingly pervasive tilt toward triumphalist Catholicism, many women became politicized.

In the ranks of those in the Rising, only two females appeared in uniform, one of whom was the Countess in her own motley garb. But, by ignorance or cunning using the flag of the Red Cross sometimes to send messages to rebels behind the barricades of imploding Dublin in 1916, civilian women often showed courage under fire. Their sons, husbands, and fathers fought with rifles, but the women fought with equal courage against great odds.

After the failed Rising, a few women were arrested and a handful were interned. Some of these were the leaders of the faction most opposed to a second end to hostilities a few years later. Michael Collins and his delegation settled on a controversial treaty. Its compromise with a partitioned border and dominion status for an Irish Free State within the Commonwealth was met with bitter defiance by hardline republicans. Matthews shows how the Irish Women's Council, Cumann na mBan, manipulated its own record-keeping for propaganda and posterity to make it seem that more women delegates opposed the Treaty than appears to have been the fact. While her book ends before the 1922-23 Irish Civil War that followed the Treaty's acceptance by a slim majority of the Dáil Éireann, the Irish Parliament, Matthews documents how some women elected to the Dáil took strident and hostile stances towards any compromise. They vowed to fight against the pro-Treaty Free State, to bring about nothing less than total independence for the entire island.

While Matthews' account resists analyzing the psychology of why this defiance was so ingrained among so many men as well as women, she sums up the evidence of the Dáil Debates on the Treaty. "Their speeches were a combination of emotional entreaty on behalf of the dead men and hectoring on behalf of the same dead men." The term "tirade" in her narrative repeats. "Tortuous verbiage" characterizes many impassioned rebuttals to those who would accept partial independence rather than the Irish Republic fought for by the 1916 rebels and their comrades from 1919-21.

Charts, maps, and photographs enhance this volume; it will serve as a necessary reference for scholars of Irish republicanism, women's studies, and political history. Matthews incorporates her sources smoothly. Her narrative avoids theoretical cant and anachronistic judgment.

Yet, one wonders why these women fought so vehemently against the Treaty on behalf of their dead men. This study lacks a comparative perspective. How did the Irish struggle--with its role played by women as activists, rebels, and politicians-- compare with other revolutionary uprisings? Early in the twentieth century, was Ireland a pioneer in the prominence given to roles played by women to advance an anti-imperialist, originally anti-capitalist, and democratically socialist campaign? How did a society in which late-Victorian and traditionally Catholic pieties controlling women's social and moral activities contrast with the sight of a gentry lady in full uniform, or with women alongside men in the Dáil at a time when women's suffrage had barely been passed in the United States, for example?

Focused on primary sources where the women may not have articulated such contexts or concerns, Dr. Matthews' content often tends towards presentation rather than interpretation. Its strength as a direct explanation of what women did back then may be a slight weakness. For, we hear little of why and how these women devoted themselves so diligently to the struggle. How they managed to do so, while raising children, making a living, and conducting their duties within a traditional, devout, and hierarchical society remains a mystery in many of these pages.

Matthews emphasizes what historical records reveal. She relies on what was written down or dictated; this concentration highlights public admissions rather than private hopes and fears. Yet, these emerge in one chapter that constitutes what will likely be the most noteworthy section of this study. During the 1919-21 conflict, when British auxiliary "Black and Tan" troops demobilized from the Great War were recruited to attack the Irish Republican Army, attacks were perpetrated against women, in physical and emotional abuse as well as assault and rape. Shortly after, an investigation funded by Republicans was seen, correctly as Matthews avers, as biased as it failed to relate any Republican violence against women.

The British Labour Party conducted its own inquiry. These reports reveal crimes on both sides. As with propaganda of Maud Gonne and Countess de Markievicz as Fenian patriots untainted by British pedigree, so with the Republican forces as entirely noble, chaste heirs to the fighting Fenian tradition. This guerrilla war tarnished both rebel and imperialist. Often, as in the Civil War to come, Irishmen and Irishwomen in this small nation fought against their neighbors. The narrative halts after the Treaty is passed in 1922, but as Dr. Matthews concludes, this led to decades of Irish internecine conflict that in our new century have yet to fully end. (Appeared at New York Journal of Books 10-28-10; posted to Amazon US & 10-14-10.)

Friday, March 11, 2011

Chögyam Trungpa's "Born in Tibet": Book Review

Arguably the earliest breakthrough account of his homeland before and after the Chinese invasion, when this appeared in 1968 it preceded the Rinpoche's fame and the attention his "crazy wisdom" inspired among followers and detractors. Boldly, Trungpa sought to strip the Vajrayana, the Tibetan doctrine, of its factional distinctions and to transmit to the West, among the predicted "land of the red-skinned faces" in the age of iron, the dharma.

That episode, rapidly told, appends the revised edition of this narrative. It concentrates on a rather matter-of-fact, stolid recital of how he was chosen as a "tulku," a reincarnated lama, his entrance to the monastery, his education, countless visits to other foundations, more education, and careful wisdom. While this left me less satisfied, for its tone and style keeps you apart from the inherent interest in his spiritual formation and practical experience, it does provide a first-person report on traditional Tibetan inculcation.

Lama Pega tells him how Buddhist teaching can never be theory alone, but must be tested by practice, self-examination of precepts, and reflection over the meaning. True faith emerges only after the Middle Way of moderation. "Knowledge must be tested in the same way as gold; first refined, then beaten and made smooth till it becomes the right colour and shows it is pure gold." (98)

Sadness, but not resignation, pervades this story as it follows Trungpa's coming of age in an increasingly embattled nation. As Marco Pallis (see my review of his "Peaks and Lamas") explains in his forward, Trungpa conveys the incursion obliquely. It reflects how indirectly, by hearsay, rumor, distant report the natives heard of the coming of the Chinese. While this may cast a detached, fatalistic tone over the story told, it does express the slow infiltration of the occupiers that precedes their military and political conquest.

He climbs "the holy Mt. Doti Gangkar," where the founding guru Padmasambhava used to meditate twelve centuries before. Trungpa tells of its green and black lakes, and snowy summit.
"The legend goes that in the Golden Age this snow never melted and shone like a diamond. In the following age it was like an onyx in which light and darkness are mixed. In the third age, however, it was to become like iron; everything would be dark and our time in Tibet would be over. When we reached the top of the mountain we found that the snow fields were melting and that great expanses of dark rock were showing."(120)
(One wonders, fifty-five years or so later, what the expanse now looks like after Chinese decimation and global warming.)

About five years after the first occupation of the Communists, teenaged Trungpa is warned by Chentze Rinpoche, an elder lama:
"You must look after and guide yourself, as in the future there will be no further teachers. A new era has begun in which the pure doctrine of the Lord Buddha lies in the hands of individuals; each one is separately responsible, for I do not think that we can carry on in the way we have done up till now. We can no longer rely on groups and communities. The situation is very serious, many of us are old, and perhaps it is young people like you, the new generation, who shall bear the burden." (97)
By his twentieth year, he bears many burdens. After hiding, he must flee the Communists as they turn to all-out war against a few determined Tibetan guerrillas. This picks up the pace, and the latter half of the book tells of the escape as he leads three hundred natives from the threat of imprisonment or death-- towards exile in India. He briskly tells of this poignant departure and dangerous flight.

It ends with typical understatement; after recounting the fortunes of the survivors: "Nothing has been heard of Karma-tendzin, the Queen of Nangchen and her party, nor of Lama Urgyen's group of monks who went to the pilgrimage valley." (249) The following page gives a poem that laments the nature of the Buddhist lesson of life's impermanence: "Mortal, yet once we enjoyed the masquerade;/ Now we see clearly all things perishing." (Posted to Amazon US 4-12-10)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Marco Pallis' "Peaks and Lamas": Book Review

"Why climb?" On Sikkim's Zemu slope in 1933, this pioneering explorer wonders. He imagines "an unseen Lama" whispering: "There can be no true achievement so long as there persists the slightest hankering after an individual enjoyment of its fruits." (88) "The solitude to seek is the concentration of your own heart; if you have once found it, it will not matter where you are," Lachhen's abbot tells this mountaineer, who, thwarted from his Himalayan conquests, is asked his true purpose. (168)

The elevated register reflects Pallis' attempt to render in careful English the tone of dignified Tibetan, which he learned diligently and which later made him one of the leading interpreters of Buddhism to the West; he wrote the preface for Chögyam Trungpa's memoir "Born in Tibet." This account, edited in 1974 from earlier versions, never tells you of Pallis' WWI experience in the trenches, where he was shot in the knee, nor affirms clearly his own initiation into the dharma in 1936 Sikkim. The author opts for presentation of what he sees and hears and learns, more than telling you his own background (he's from a Greek family who'd moved to London), emotions, or personal insights. As the narrative deepens, the travelogue merges into a metaphysical presentation of Buddhism as encountered at the foot of lamas with whom he meets.

Pallis prefers a more self-effacing storyline to emphasize how, if in understated style, his mountain expeditions in 1933 once stymied lured him and his companions (rarely mentioned once the climbing so well described in opening chapters subsides) to the frontiers where Tibetan culture dwelt, if beyond the kingdom's southern borders. He differentiates bit by bit how a Westerner starts to separate once in the Himalayas from the dominant mindset, and the chapters unfold in the same manner, unfolding a deeper, elusive, yet tangible wisdom nearly imperceptibly.

For instance, compassion vs. charity early on gets defined. Buddhism favors an intellectualized concept recognizing inter-relations between all creatures, whereas the Christian-tinged view stresses a "usually more passionately expressed virtue." (50) The Hindu label of those who deny that a believer in one faith cannot express devotion or reverence in another place of worship get denigrated as "pashu," trapped by parochialism to condemn the practices of another sect. He contrasts this with "Viras," or heroes. The philosophy with which Pallis later has been identified, Traditionalism, holds the unity beneath diversity of religious traditions, and the need to ground in whatever way beliefs are demonstrated a respect for roots and customs if these convey more good than evil, more sense than their abandonment would bring to a people who deny or leave behind a culturally and ethically solid practice.

The way to Truth in a Tradition, Pallis holds, is like "a difficult mountain peak, which, though free of access to all mankind, is yet actually scaled by a chosen few, by those who are willing to pay the price in self-discipline, steadfastness, and risk." (125) Most doubt if the ascent is worth the risk; a few clamber up in pain, inching along. Once in a while, as with Milarepa (whose story later Pallis translated and here sums up), a mortal makes it by a perilous "direct path," as in Vajrayana or Tibetan Buddhism's "diamond-sharp" method of attaining insight.

The book tells of "The Round of Existence" or the wheel of dharma, and of Tantric teachings. He does not romanticize the poverty he saw, but he does insist that spiritually, Tibet before the Communist attacks was advanced spiritually in ways we Westerners do not value. Impermanence after all came to Tibet, and for this, Pallis offers a sobering lesson in Buddhist aspiration towards changelessness. Appendices delve into the defining Tibetan doctrine of the Bodhisattva, pre-1950 landed estates and medieval/ theocratic/ feudal parallels, criminal law, and especially artistic approaches.

Pallis explains deftly the demon-filled thangkas or wall tapestries: "Many of those diabolical-looking figures are in essence identical with those who look so gentle. The Tibetan divinities all have a variety of aspects according to the functions that they are called upon to fulfil, perhaps even more according to the state of mind of the beholder." Therefore, "to the saint and the evil-doer the same divinity will show himself in widely differing guise. To the virtuous soul the Divine is necessarily glorious and comforting, but to an evil conscience the same can be a cause of horror and anguish." (213) The abodes of gods or purgatories ultimately, as with those who populate them, are illusory revelators of what the mind suffers when it has not attained enlightenment.

There is an appeal to simplicity that may have inspired future countercultural readers. Pallis lauds the 1936 Ladakh villages however poor, for in them can be found a pair of "intangible amenities": "time to think without the sense of being driven, and the absence of organized persuasion and regimentation at the hands of a state or of a commerce that does not fall far short of it in power." (225) Vigilance, however, must be shown lest treasures of the tradition within such fastnesses decay. A visit to one dissolute monastery, Himi, finds wall paintings flaking: "Here the face of a Bodhisat, his finely chiselled features still composed under the impenetrable calm of Knowledge, looked out on us, though his body had all but crumbled away. There we saw a torso, there a pair of hands still making the gesture that bespeaks mercy. In a corner we discovered piles of books, volumes upon volumes, wood-block prints and manuscripts, all jumbled together, their loose leaves drifting about in hopeless confusion: who could tell what wisdom was on its way to oblivion?" (264) One reads this with a fearful premonition of the invasion of Tibet.

Pallis updated the 1948 second ed. in his 1974 final version, and he makes asides to this decimation of so much of the Tibetan culture he loved in its far western reaches. His appended chapters discuss-- if in a clotted, denser critical fashion than a narrative that opened so clearly with its evocations of icy heights climbed by mere mortals-- how perennial wisdom impels seekers to find in suffering as justice the method of release. This is Buddhist metanoesis, a "radical change of heart," with mercy as compassionate truth, for self-questioning draws one away from suffering through the dharma-doctrine onto the spiritual path. (313)

He insists to later devotees (he knew the Geshe Wangyal in his early travels; that lama later fled during the Cold War to New Jersey where he instructed Robert Thurman and inspired Allan Ginsberg as among the first Americans to learn about Tibetan Buddhism in the U.S.) how Tradition must form the shell around the kernel of insight. Adherence to a religious practice must precede the transcendence of dogma or ritual by careful discipline through a venerable authenticity. The seeker must never mistake the emanation for the vision beyond, the trappings for the spirit within it. This reminds me of Chögyam Trungpa's later warning about "spiritual materialism," confusing the means with the end, attaching to the method of guidance without letting go for the ultimate goal of wisdom beyond representation.

Pallis, like Trungpa, will inveigh against idolatry, confusion of the image with that beyond its manifestation. Pallis imagines a lama correcting an inquirer who puts Work or Service over Knowledge, which erodes the soul. "I would define it as an upsetting of the natural hierarchy, to the overvaluing of what is lower and the underrating of what is higher. Whoever holds to this principle is in no danger of misusing symbols, or of sacrificing to false gods, from the State or his own ego downwards." (356) The book's tone does hover around a shift in diction as it progresses, he revised it twice. It can be daunting, like the peaks Pallis earlier has ascended on paper. The metaphysical pilgrim replaces the physical journeyer, as Pallis himself has evolved imperceptibly from English trekker to Buddhist adept, without even telling us the moment outright. This is a modest yet ambitious chronicle, not for the impatient. It rewards study and contemplation. It's not the first book I'd begin with for Buddhism. But, it deserves its place on a higher shelf, so to speak, once a newcomer surveys and charts the terrain of deeper dharma.

With chapters titled "Porters and Sahibs," "The Bursar of Spitak," and "Of Missionaries and Moths," this book carries a slightly antiquated air, one enhanced by the decades since which must have altered every place Pallis witnessed. He conjures up the fragile forests and harsh horizons well, and for this memento, Pallis left us with a valuable testament. Thomas Merton would ponder this work in the 1950s at his hermitage; it remains a measured, thoughtful, and composed legacy of how an English adventurer, skilled in the viola de gamba, a man of culture and taste, learns slowly to discover an alternate direction into lasting achievement, to a more satisfying triumph than planting a boot on a summit. (Posted to Amazon US & 3-9-11)

Monday, March 7, 2011

Colin Thubron's "To a Mountain in Tibet": Book Review

Thubron's touted as a master of the travel genre. I agree. This tale immediately plunges you into the climb into the Himalayas, towards the Nepalese remoteness of Humla, on his way to the sacred "spindle" of Hindus and Buddhists as the world's axis, the Kailas peak over the Tibetan border. He describes the scenes clearly, without sentiment, but with compassion as well as objectivity. The estrangement he feels, as a British hiker able to enter the realm where Tibetan exiles cannot in search of this pilgrimage site, deepens the resonance of his story.

For instance, one guide's face "has the lemony blandness of a sumo wrestler's, faintly androgynous." A woman carries on her back a sick baby, "bundled like a sad, balding toy." His tale expands as he intertwines the story of his father, who hunted and served as a soldier in colonial India, and of his recently departed mother, for he must now figure out what to do with their love letters, dithering between destroying them and keeping them, for this is "how once-private things endure: not by intention, but because their extinction is unbearable." The combination of study, as a rather reticent Englishman, and candor as a tale-teller shows Thubron's commitment to convey the truth during his own journey inward as well as upward. He makes his own progress as a pilgrim, and his tale spirals as its direction narrows.

Determined to resist a soft-focus look at Tibet, Thubron labors up the trail from Nepal: "the journey does not nurture reflection, as I once hoped. The going is too hard, too steep." For Hindus, "'departure for Kailas' is a metaphor for death." His gasping high on the slopes between him and his destination reminds him of his deathbed watch beside his mother, with her oxygen mask. His sister's own sudden death enters later in the story, poignantly spare and eerily appropriate in what Thubron chooses to reveal about her own place of passing away.

His combination of reserve and admission admires as much as it decries in this haunted, barren, vivid wilderness where rivers littered by Chinese beer bottles and fill with the soil of construction projects by the regime. He knows its beauties offer little sustenance for its impoverished inhabitants, but he shares this dreamlike scenery that stuns jaded tourists. "But now, underfoot, spreads a glaze of delicate flowers I do not know, and the ground-hugging shrubs are starred with lemony blossoms."

He shuffles by the trampled clothing of those pilgrims who have succumbed on the circuit of Kailas, the kora, left for the vultures on the high plateau. Entering a half-Chinese, half-Tibetan settlement, Taklakot, Thubron walks through a ghost town. "Here and there, as in some surreal dream, a rotted billiards table stands upended in the dust."
His powers of description demonstrate his mingled compassion and scrutiny: "In this cold, weakened air I stare a little wretched at the heap of rags, which seems to symbolise pure loss: the loss that mourns the tang of all human difference, of a herdsman's impromptu song, perhaps, the lilt of a laugh in Grindelwald, or the fingers that caress a favourite dog. On the slopes beside me the dressed-up rocks, plucked by the wind, look like dwarfs watching."
He tells of Sven Hedin and cuckoos, sky burial and evangelists. He follows earlier Europeans into this fastness, and it seems about as far away from the West as one may penetrate. Vast peacock-blue lakes shimmer as the last remnants of a prehistoric sea. However, even skilled mountaineers such as Reinhold Messner have failed to scale Kailas. Perhaps this represents the power attributed to its home as Mount Meru, the mystical palace of Brahma. It keeps an aura about itself, apart from the highest, now almost too-familiar peaks climbed further east along the fabled ranges. Thubron respects the meaning of this holy setting.

After he inspects the burial site with its trodden and frozen rags of the departed, he cannot tell if mourners, as Buddhists, reject the soul and do not lament aloud, or if, as others report, they stretch out on the cold ground, weeping. Under the moon, he looks up where "constellations multiply and blur together like mist. The orange ones are probably long dead, their light arriving in posthumous and detached rays out of nowhere, while others are being born invisibly in the dark."

This narrative recalled for me Andrew Harvey's A Journey to Ladakh and Peter Mathiessen's The Snow Leopard in its combination of mountain trek and subtle insight, if on a more secular scale than those two seekers. Pithily, Thubron notes the non-theism of his hosts: "The gods were only guides to the enlightenment that would erase them." Bereavement tempers his excitement as he trudges up the summits and around the pyramid of Kailas. "In the minutes before sleep, a shadowy melancholy descends: the bewilderment when something long awaited has gone."

Thubron efficiently sums up the context of the Tibetan Book of the Dead and of Hindu lore, the Bon religion and Buddhist practices, Chinese invasions and incursions, and the remnants of a monastic culture half-hidden among Nepal's precarious position, after the Maoists overthrow its monarchy. The erosion of the deforested slopes corresponds to the globalization that even this explorer's presence represents, at the frontier, the axis mundi, the abode of Shiva where the ancients imagined heaven meets earth.

How much of the sacred persists among the profane remains to be pondered. Thubron meets a frail old caretaker of the shrine of the holiest of Tibetan gurus, but "it is hard to know, from his aged face and tortoise movements, or from his brethren chanting in the temple, how wise or indolent these monks are." Distance remains, even face-to-face.

I found this more invigorating than "Shadow of the Silk Road" (see my review 4-4-10 at Amazon) which captured the excitement of the start of his last Asian trek but which also, fairly if dispiritedly, documented the lassitude that followed as he trudged westward. In this new travelogue, taking place in 2009, Thubron's interest seems restored, and for us restorative. He does not romanticize but he scrutinizes, and allows us to see what he does, recorded meticulously but conveyed freshly in vigorous prose.

(Posted to Amazon US 2-2-11 & 2-20-11; featured at PopMatters 2-28-11.)

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Calvin Malone's "Razor Wire Dharma": Book Review

In short essays, that dwell far more on the life-lessons learned rather than his own troubles, Calvin Malone learns to transcend his cell's confines. A shiny apple, a pine tree, a brown banana, or fragrant oils inspire him. But so do the mad-dog stares of a hostile mess-hall mate, his forty-nine "cellies" to date with whom he's had to put up with and vice versa, his improvised Christmas presents, friendships broken and repaired, his former hobby of tying fly-fishing lures, artichoke hearts, and packaged soup. He can be wry, and he can be unflinching. He gets angry, he vows revenge, he paces and sulks and grumbles as anyone does after two decades behind bars.

But, he struggles to overcome his own aggressions and attachments. Thankfully, there's no sudden enlightenment into a saccharine feel-good moment or sappy morality tales. Malone keeps as he must his front to survive in a place that as he shows well can be fatal to the trusting, the unwary, or the distracted inmate. Few understand Buddhism in such an environment, although I wondered about what the staff and guards thought--these stories dwell nearly all on those doing time. He writes with clarity and compresses depth into simple prose, a quality common to longtime practitioners who have learned to cut through appearances to peel away lasting substance, it seems.

Yet, his honesty and goodness allow him to serve as a role model and leader of a "sangha" at Airway Heights prison in Washington State. He's preserved his dignity and protected his modesty. He retells the difficulties of those whom he meets and must live with and contend and confront. He appends a brief update on those who he's managed to follow up on, if only for a short time as they too must deal with a return to a very different society.

Since Jesse Kornbluth's "Head Butler" review posted [on Amazon] sums its message up well, I'll just add that from my admittedly limited perspective as one visiting a friend in prison, who struggles to practice and learn about his own ancestral faith in which he was not raised, the lessons Calvin Malone illustrates work well across the ecumenical spectrum. The advice he offers for overcoming frustration and becoming more forgiving, but not more naive, serves to uphold ethical ways of action that put dharma truths into practice, off the meditation mat.

He compiles also a list of contacts for books and supplies, he shares some favorite books, and he sums up neatly the Four Noble Truths. Invaluably, Malone offers guidelines for a wide variety of meditation practices that may fit those who live hectic lives, in or out of prison. I'd recommend this section to anyone, no matter where they find themselves. These examples are tailored for people with short attention spans, by nature or by circumstance. For example, he suggests those incarcerated may time their fifteen- or thirty-minute sessions to end with the shout-outs or bells for thrice-daily guard counts.

By the way, this account, as it deals with the library where Malone worked and where he first found out about Buddhism, will pair up very well with Avi Sternberg's spirited memoir "Running the Books" (reviewed by me on Amazon) about that Harvard grad/ex-yeshiva student's civilian job supervising the prison library in Boston. (Posted to Amazon US 3-3-11.)