Monday, October 31, 2011

Samhain ar bhaile?

Chuir mé cuairt ar na hÉireann coise tinne go Maigh Nuad dhá bliain ó shin. D'inis mé faoi é anseo. Ar feadh Oíche Shamhna, chonaic mé cat dubh ag trasna mo bealach in aice leis an droichead ard!

Ar bhaile, ní bhíonn a tharlaíonn sé i bhfad níos go hiondiúl. Níor thainig paistí ar ár tstráid ciúin mar riall. Ina theannta sin, thóg muid geata adhmaid nua os comhair ár dteach an tsamraidh seo!

Scríobhím seo roimh oíche eile, go fírinne. Ní mor dom mar go agam a bheidh ag taisteal ar mo bhaile ina gCathair na hÁingeal ar ais ag imeall Naomh Críos an trathnona ar leith sin.  Beidh mé tar éis labhairt go An Chomdháil Mheiricéanach do Léann do Éireann i Naomh Seosamh in aice leis Naomh Críos.

Ina dhaidh sin, beidh muid  tar éis fanacht trasna ó ár gcairde Bob agus Críos. Beidh Bob ag ceiliúradh a lá breithe. Chéiliúr mé mo breithe-lá leo Mheithimh seo caite, agus an Meitheamh roimh!

Dá bhrí sin, nílim go cinnte faoi ag insint agaibh anois. Níl fhíos agam fós cad a tharlóidh níos mó ansiud. Ach, tá veigeatóirí Bob agus Críos más rud é nach faoi dhraíocht. Mar sin féin, is féidir é a chinntiú go mbíonn agaibh de réir an áit álainn agus draíochtach suas ann.

Halloween at home?

I paid a rainy Irish visit to Maynooth two years ago. I told about it here. During the night of Samhain {Halloween}, I saw a black cat crossing my way near a high bridge!

At home, not much happens out of the ordinary as a custom. Children do not come on our quiet street as a rule. Moreover, we built a new wooden gate in front of our house this summer!

I am writing about this another night, in truth. I must do this since I will be traveling to my home in Los Angeles back from near Santa Cruz that particular night.  I will have spoken to the American Conference for Irish Studies in San José near Santa Cruz.

Afterwards, we will have stayed across from our friends Bob and Chris. Bob will have celebrated his birthday. I celebrated my birthday with them this past June, and the June before!

As a result, I'm not sure what to tell you all about now. I do not know about what else will happen up there.  But, Bob and Chris are vegetarians, if not under a spell. All the same, I can assure you all about the lovely, enchanting place up there.

(Cartún le/Cartoon by Mark Parisi.)

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Scott Berry's "A Stranger in Tibet": Book Review

After Colin Thubron's "To a Mountain in Tibet" reminded me of this account, I read it with pleasure. As an expat American living in Tokyo, Berry's well placed to navigate between cultures, and he retells with verve, erudition, and insight the saga at the dawn of the last century of Kawaguchi Ekai, the first Japanese to enter Nepal and Tibet, and the first non-Tibetan explorer since the middle of the 19th century to see Lhasa. Kawaguchi's priggish, hapless, and humanly unpredictable as he spends six years in the Himalayas, seeking to obtain a complete set of Buddhist scriptures to take home.

As an on-off again, but dedicated if eccentric Zen monk, Kawaguchi resists temptation by Tibetan women, resents what he regards as falls from grace by fellow monastics he meets, and reacts with honesty and bluffing both when his cover is about to be revealed by suspicious natives. They're determined to resist any incursion by a foreigner whom some regard, in their isolation, as even an "Englishman" sent via India to spy on Tibet, in a time, then as now, of international intrigue. Berry smoothly integrates details such as the evolution of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism, or the curiosities of the language, or the feel of village life, with aplomb.

Of his first stage, entering Nepal: "there is no more glorious time of year than January on the north Indian plains: the crisp, cool nights and clear, sunny days are enough to lift the heart of even the most jaded traveler." (52) In disguise as a Chinese monk on his way back to Lhasa, Kawaguchi found himself in a place where "one can get away with virtually anything by making it seem pious." (84) This was when he stayed in shape, on his typical one vegetarian meal at noon, at twelve thousand feet, by carrying rocks as he ran up and down slopes.

He tends to look down on Tibetan monks who were his hosts, who ate meat and sometimes lived with women: "Torn between his beliefs and the ragged reality of everyday life, Kawaguchi often had to give those who did not live up to his own strict standards the benefit of the doubt." (106) Later, the going gets rough. On the way across western Tibet's wilderness: "It was almost as if Kawaguchi himself were going over a checklist: robbery, exposure, starvation, snow blindness; now what else could possibly go wrong? Well, he had not yet been attacked by guard dogs." (140) The mastiffs rear up, on cue.

The first third of the book shows his early life, his preparations, which seem few, and his scholarly and geographical approaches before crossing into Tibet. The second part brings him into Lhasa. Berry shows us what Kawaguchi would have seen in 1901: the mix of peoples around the Potala on the Barkhor market route in the holy circuit around the Jokhang. Women with their hair in 108 plaits, menacing police-monks, crazed holy men, nomads in sheepskins, babies nursing, trinkets displayed, visitors and shoppers and pilgrims or all three,  "smelling of butter and yak-dung smoke."  (175)

Berry reminds us that Kawaguchi "was the first sincere Buddhist traveling simply for the sake of his religion" (176) into Lhasa. Unlike Burton or Burkhardt sneaking into Mecca, Kawaguchi came as a real pilgrim, if necessarily in secret. There his linguistic ease, his mastery of the sacred texts, and especially his ad hoc medical skills bring him to the attention of the Dalai and Panchen Lamas, for better and worse. The harshness meted out by the Tibetan lamas and their police to those who aided Kawaguchi in his deception and his escape (amidst lots of corrupt border guards and customs officials) darkens any expectation of this tale as a carefree retreat to a Shangri-La.

After his return to Japan, Berry shows how Kawaguchi cannot fit in again: he's spent too much time among the "barbarians," and his own people seem to suspect his tales. After eight years studying Sanskrit in India, he goes back for three more years to Tibet, and finds the land already changed, from its new contacts with the British and after having expelled the Chinese. This period is rushed by comparison to the earlier stint, but Berry seems to hint that as a more tolerant repeat guest in Tibet, Kawaguchi's more placid demeanor makes for fewer moments of deceit, danger, or drama. In his retirement in Japan, before he died in 1945, his mellowness winningly contrasts with his censorious youth among his Buddhist peers, at home and abroad.

Berry wraps it up with a postscript on his subject's first published account, "Three Years in Tibet," noting its many inconsistencies and sloppy preparation, while praising its vignettes of a land few had seen as explorers, but none other, at that time, had witnessed as a participant-observer, and as a pilgrim scholar. This is a moving, clear-headed, deromanticized, and skilled re-creation of the land and its longtime visitor, at a time when almost nobody else could have told what he could, as an Asian monk among his fabled confreres.

Illustrated with drawings and period photos, a few endnotes, and an afterword, Berry blends scholarship and travel, history and biography, with ease. (Also titled "A Stranger in Nepal and Tibet," originally issued 1989. Posted to Amazon US & 2-27-11. I reviewed Colin Thubron's Tibet trek here.)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Stephan Talty's "Escape from the Land of Snows" Book Review

This very accessible narrative carries wide appeal. With so many eager to learn more about the Dalai Lama, this popular, yet well-researched account aims at the curious reader who may want the dramatic story without too much historical analysis or political detail. Talty pitches this at such an audience, and he aims at the sweet spot of dramatic personal reports and thoughtful cultural observations.

Most of the action takes place in twenty-one days, after March 10, 1959 inspired Lhasa to join what had been a scattered uprising in the countryside against the Chinese PLA military occupation. The Dalai Lama's flight, disguised as a common Tibetan soldier, ensured the king would survive but his realm would vanish, at least as an independent entity. A third of Lhasa came to protect their leader after the Communists seemed to set up a trap for him, and the PLA and collaborationist officials and bureaucrats, bought off with bags of silver coins, earned the hate of most natives.

But in a nation where there was no word for "religion" such as was its ingrained presence in a sparse and remote land set up to run monasteries as the central institutions for an agrarian society under harsh conditions, and where for centuries even the words for "military aggression" had faded from memory, the Tibetans faced slaughter while struggling to justify self-defense by violent methods. The Dalai Lama could not express himself, as the Chinese watched, and in his year earlier in the 1950s when he toured China, Mao let slip in an aside to the Dalai Lama not propaganda of feudal overthrow but the truer Marxist truth: "Religion is poison, of course." 

Talty tells this well. He cites many observers and participants, and the first half of the story brings the Dalai Lama's life into this milieu that he faced as he came of age and sought to direct Tibet just as the newly victorious Chinese entered this newest of their territories to "liberate" in 1950. Shen Choa, a diarist with the PLA in 1959, demonstrates the gap of "false consciousness," perhaps, between supposed liberators and those whom the Marxists could not believe took up arms against their armed emancipators: "They are raising up such havoc all through the city that it's as if some imperialist invader had entered our land." (qtd. 84)

Meanwhile while the CIA had aided Khampa rebels (see my review of John & Elizabeth Roberts' "Freeing Tibet" for more), many stayed ignorant. Allen Dulles, CIA head under Ike, did not at first know where Tibet was on a map. Its isolation meant that few in the West knew much more than romantic stereotypes. Talty discusses the "foreign brother syndrome" which celebrated the Tibetan "who shares the West's values," somehow preserving them from antiquity while separated by centuries and geography from them today. (But this is a point he does not cite directly, only via "an expert," and this section lacks full documentation, although on the whole the book, seen in proof galley, appears to list sources conventionally. It also merited photographs; some maps lack detail.)

The second half of the book covers March, when the Dalai Lama's poignant escape begins, and when the rebellion bursts into an heroic, but hopelessly outmatched, ten days or so of war in Lhasa as monks and citizens fight the PLA artillery. He would have heard the propaganda loudspeakers: "You are like ants scratching at the elephant's feet. China is as mighty as the sun and wherever there is sun, there the Chinese are also." (123)

These fearsome conditions worsen, Talty intersperses well the saga of the Dalai Lama's clandestine flight, while Lhasa learns of his escape only to fight back all the more against the Communists and their sympathizers. When they learn of the leader's vanishing under cover of night, the danger grows, for turncoats and spies lurk. (Chogyam Trungpa's "Born in Tibet" --also reviewed by me--offers a similar story, from a monk's experience.) The Dalai Lama and his entourage face pursuit across grim and formidable conditions that daunt even the Tibetans.

Outraged and embarrassed by the Dalai Lama's plan, the Chinese attack those back in the capital. The vast monastic fortresses turn chaotic charnel houses. One defender's account is summarized: "Soepa remembered conversation after conversation with people who emerged out of the darkness and the billowing dust, only to disappear again on an errand or to be scattered by a shell dropping from the sky." (146) The bombardments and bloodshed gain vivid description as Talty mixes primary accounts, interviews archived, and oral histories skillfully.

When news of the desperate escape attempt reached the West, a race for reporters began. Two London-based reporters, the proto-activist George Patterson, and the celebrity yarn-spinner Noel Barber competed to get to where the Dalai Lama seemed likely to cross into India. A New York Daily News headline captured the mood: "Godless Reds vs. a Living God in Tibet" that summed up Cold War sensationalism mixed with tabloid Orientalism.

Tibet as a real place, too, turned famous "just as it ceased to exist," and Talty mentions (if in passing) how its transfer into today's globalized "place of mind" and as a "cause" started in 1959. The results, which are familiar if still overlooked by too many eager to emphasize the trade and economic benefits brought by the Chinese at the cost of cultural destruction and raw genocide, show the difficulty of knowing precisely what happened in the aftermath of the Dalai Lama's flight. Talty estimates that at least 1:5 Tibetans died.

Those who lived may regret their situation. The labor camps and killing fields wiped out many, while other Tibetans took advantage of the overthrow to persecute landowners, settle scores with rivals, and to confiscate property. In exile, the Dalai Lama emphasized the noble pursuit of freedom, for what he had gained for himself, he knows, comes at a tremendous loss to his homeland.

Fifty years later, Talty visits for a short stay allowed only under constant surveillance in "a parody of a police state." Lhasa, it is rumored, is miked and monitored in tourist areas, and Talty and his ever-present guide find little to celebrate. However, "Lhasa exists around an absence" of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Even as his books and photos are banned, the people manage, surreptitiously but steadily, to pay homage to his presence. (Posted to Amazon US 3-29-11 & 4-21)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Dalai Lama's "Beyond Religion": Book Review

If you've read a few books by (or interviews with) the Dalai Lama, much of his message here's familiar. Rather than a drawback, this may be an advantage, for he (and his editorial team) winnow down the essential kernels of wisdom into an accessible, brisk review of compassion and morality rooted more in what we have in common rather than what may religiously, culturally, or politically separate us. He makes the analogy of tea--it's mainly water, so the particular flavor of our own blend as if in a religious context effects the whole drink far less than the basic nourishment given by the primary ingredient, the universal liquid. In ethical terms, what we yearn for as righteousness and lovingkindness resembles the common nature of water, more than the religiously flavored tinges of a particular tea vintage or sweetener.

To connect this approach to secularism, he turns for this exemplar of  "ethics for a whole world" to the Indian concept that tolerates and respects expressions of religion (as in the Charvaka school), whereas the Western historical view tends to regard the secular state or mindset as opposing that of faith. While the Dalai Lama does not deny the good done in the cause of religion, he figures it's far more imperative to find a common level of ethics that people of all or no religions can agree upon. This stems from compassion, that Buddhist essential ingredient coupled with wisdom. By broadening the scope of his teachings so nobody reading this little book of advice can feel left out, perhaps it can widen the impact of his guidance. There's a winning humility in this book that seems very difficult to argue against.

The core of this book, thus, takes up a venerable theme of the Dalai Lama, how to gain personal and then social happiness, and this progresses into compassion, for one's self, and those around us, all of creation. He's not arguing for meekness or escaping conflict, but taking it on out of a sense of righteousness, instilled with the determination to defeat injustice, and who could argue with that? Awareness, in his Tibetan-filtered training, necessitates the establishment of the harmonious goals of science of mind schooling that the Dalai Lama figures can apply to any human being, regardless of religion or non-religious outlook. He detaches as it were the cultural underpinnings from his own background, so as to elevate mindfulness and "educating the heart."

His scientific and cultural reflections about goodness and human potential are ones he has pondered before, and how could he not, given his orientation? (For instance, see my reviews of his "The Universe in a Single Atom" or the interviews in Pico Iyer's "The Open Road.") The gist of this calmly conveyed look at how justice, well-being, and equanimity can be cultivated or "familiarized" by the meditator and the committed actor who wishes to direct goodness from one's self outward, therefore, follows Buddhist prescriptions for healing and detaching one's self from attachment to transience. It's a low-key collection of thoughts, to be read slowly. There's nothing really new about this compendium, and that in itself is a recommendation, for it comes as it were time-tested from the Dalai Lama's own encounter with a fulfilling, peaceful, and principled way of life.

As in many of his works, the Dalai Lama offers altruistic advice in discerning good, furthering ethical treatment of all beings, pursuing an interconnected role in society and in spirituality, and dealing with destructive emotions such as doubt, anger, and fear. Patience becomes key as he concludes this short book of advice, for nothing seems as simple as many leaders in politics or the pulpit may make it seem! Human values, this "old man" tells the reader, need to be applied now more than ever, as seven billion people must integrate as an imperative, however gently phrased, given the demands of a complicated interrelationship that pulls us all in together. (Posted to Amazon US 9-27-11)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Dalai Lama's "The Universe in a Single Atom": Book Review

With my interest in what happened before the Big Bang, Buddhism, and ethics, I figured this short book might prove a welcome counterpart to my current listening to the enormous audiobook of Brian Greene's examination of the laws of the universe, "The Fabric of the Cosmos." The Dalai Lama manages, through I assume the diligent help of his translators and editors, to convey succinctly his lifelong interest in science and space, and this reads smoothly. As with many of his musings rendered into English, this feels more like a transcript than a text, and it has an oral quality of thoughtful conversation with an attentive listener.

My favorite sections were on the beginningless universe of Buddhism and how the concept of tiny "space particles" might align with the quantum vacuum idea of astrophysics now proposed: the universe never came out of nothing, but was a residue from what astronomers (if not the DL) call the Big Splat, and so the universe came out of the collapse of a preceding universe before whatever preceded the Big Bang.

His reminder how Buddhism favors first experiential empirical testing of a concept, then reason, and only third scriptural testimony meshes nicely with his emphasis about the scientific worldview's compatibility, or dominance, over what even dharma may claim if the teachings do not hold up under modern evaluation. This sensible approach provides a welcome alternative to the difficulties that literal or fundamental interpretations of religious traditions, or political or ideological ones for that matter, may represent for many apologists. His openness to the wonders and revelations of the natural world, seen and unseen, enliven his recollections.

I also liked his recollections of conversations with such as David Bohm, about the danger of seeing as racists, Marxists, and extreme nationalists do nature and the world as "inherently divided and disconnected," and how the DL relates this to Nagarjuna's warning about believing in the "independent, intrinsic nature of things" (51) as leading us into attachment, karmic entanglements, and afflictions of suffering. Still, as with much here, the insights may rapidly fade as the author moves on to another, loosely related topic within each chapter. For instance, a few pages on (63), he goes into the Prasangika Tibetan school of neither idealism nor materialism, but instead "relative" reality of the external world, but then this is left behind quickly. A suggested list of where to find more about many subjects raised in this short book would have enriched its utility.

However, many chapters seem erratically organized, as if His Holiness is talking to you about one topic before veering off on a tangent or suddenly switching to another sub-topic. Therefore, the nature of this collection of chapters appears more as if talks transcribed than their actual written form, and the looser nature of this volume may have its own advantages or drawbacks for an audience curious about "the convergence of science and spirituality." I wanted more about where to read more--say, about David Bohm's ideas--for while an index is provided, no reading list or annotated bibliography was appended.

A lot of ideas in this book gain some elucidation, even if many remain as mysterious to Buddhists as they do to today's physicists. The DL asserts logically that a primary cause shaping the universe must be outside the laws of causality, but I wondered naively why the First Mover if such could not simply (if so omnipotent) will causation into existence with creation; but, perhaps this betrays too traditional a theistic or scientific stimulus? All the same, in this book, the nature of much of the cosmological content must remain ultimately speculative.

Similarly, the Darwinian aspects are hit and miss; I was never quite sure why Buddhism does not analyze the imprint of sentience into matter, rather than follow the progression from inanimate matter to animate organisms. Maybe due to tradition, the DL glosses over this shift, likely as Buddhism did not divide as Western science has the division between human and animate beings, but between instead animate and inanimate material as itself existing in a world not so much evolved over time as already existing and shifting between karma-driven states of existence for sentient beings? This aspect is developed in this discussion, and it does move the reader to consider how Eastern models stress compassion and altruism over competition and aggression as the Western expectations for why evolution favors certain mutations over others.

In turn, this prepares for an elegant chapter on ethics and genetics. After a long discussion of consciousness and karma, parts of which eluded me, the thoughts the Dalai Lama shares about moral considerations about genetic breakthroughs and applications reminded me of how his insights remain valuable for all of us. He closes with a reflection upon how valid non-scientific models of understanding remain within a world set on a materialistic, reductive explanation for the facts and mysteries around us can be. The spiritual side reminds us of the Buddhist goals of wisdom and compassion when so much of science leaves us forgetful of the need for the ultimate aim of progress that betters humanity. (Posted to Amazon US 9-22-11)

Friday, October 21, 2011

Chögyam Trungpa's "Work, Sex, Money": Book Review

Rather than stick to a notion that escaping the city, fleeing from making a living, and eluding the relationships to pursue and bills to pay that make up ordinary responsibility, Chögyam Trungpa urges the listener to embrace the everyday, for there lies the challenge to find balance between the demands of the spirit and the necessities of the body, and in overcoming the dualism that we falsely view as keeping these two apart. In these talks, mostly from the early 1970s, the newly arrived Trungpa tells his American audiences that the spiritual journey takes in the real world. While not really for a beginner to the dharma, the Shambhala (or somewhat secularized) content of some chapters and the down-to-earth advice seems accessible to everyone, even if intended for American Buddhists in the Age of Aquarius.

He often criticizes “spiritual materialism,” the solidifying of the ego into some mystic flight that only traps the self rather than liberating it into a rarified realm. For, the compassionate approach makes us look at the mundane, to find in it our destiny: to seek inspiration in the irritating surroundings in which we were raised, as our “true scripture.” Speaking at a time when many sought “back to nature” as a panacea, he sharply corrects his listeners and connects their misconceptions, for the familiar must be confronted, and compassion must arise in the offices, cities, suburbs, and homes of a less romantic life.

Learning to admire without possessing what one marries, sleeps with, works for, and accumulates means not to grasp at a spouse, a job, a product, or a lifestyle. This is where the title of the book matters. While the sexual aspect is secondary to that of the primal “tummo” energy, free of karmic debt, that can be unleashed in one who does not try to hold on to what one sees, the usefulness of this talks for those striving not to strive so much at work and with money may come in very handy.

He relates the “upaya” masculine principle of skillful means to the “prajna” feminine one of wisdom cleverly. The chaotic and seductive freer potential, he explains, balances the skillful aspects in interpersonal and business communication. Business ethics, in fact, gets its own chapter here as he applies nihilism and eternalism, two extremes that Buddhism tries to avoid, with how colleagues in business must be sought while not relied upon as if always there; similarly, despair that one has nobody to help when problems arise also needs to be defeated.

Trungpa excels at conveying the difficulty of running a spiritually oriented enterprise that always needs to ask for money from those whom it offers a chance to get away from materialism! He tells how money has a “green energy,” and how we inherit a connection for better or worse with money that usually endures for generations in our families and how we are raised.

The ideal marriage, he muses, treats our partner as a best friend and our child as an honored guest. He taps into the energy that allows a playful, responsive, flexible openness that heightens fundamental awareness of what can be done with work, sex, and money. Rather than control, one must learn to simplify life. He notes the Sanskrit “kusulu” tradition of “eating, sleeping, defecating” as the essentials: the rest can be cut back. Not that poverty itself is praised, so much as renunciation of what’s unnecessary.

Money’s compared to a mother’s milk, given freely as more can be produced. It’s a basic form of nourishment, rather than to be feared, in his intriguing presentation. Emanating non-aggression, kindness, and gentleness, Trungpa as a recent arrival to the West hopes that money can be cleansed of its historical taint, its alliances with cheats and colonialism, and that new business ventures by those of his audience may serve as harbingers of a less fraught tension associated with money as greed or shame.

He retells, if very briefly, the basic Four Noble Truths of the Buddha as a guide to find inspiration in avoiding suffering. Not by revelation from a divine message or flight to a forest paradise can the personal journey succeed for a Buddhist, but by taking on work, sex, and money as the challenges where fulfillment may be hard won. In this karmic-free energy, he hopes that his listeners can find freedom from grasping. With wakefulness, the “panoramic” perspective can be opened, and the positive force of a compassion that enjoys the adventure rather than seeking to pin it down to an experience or thing or person can transform the practitioner in the world.

The glossary, notes on Trungpa’s life and books (I have also reviewed his "Born in Tibet," "The Heart of the Buddha," "The Essential Chögyam Trungpa," and his wife Diana Mukpo's biography "Dragon Thunder") and the context of these transcribed talks all enrich this volume. The editors provide helpful footnotes, as when they remind us of the relevance of Trungpa’s warnings about a too-easy superiority of the counterculture rebel’s aggressive stance towards ripping off the system, as they relate this to a contemporary era of corporate greed and rapacious consumerism.

So, decades later, these talks remain helpful reminders of the tasks ahead for anyone who may be tempted to rush away to a quiet retreat, and what happens when the bills must be paid for the stay. Trungpa’s practical concentration, while here and there erratic in its mood and sometimes wandering with its casual tone, remains a thoughtful corrective to those who teach that enlightenment comes easily, or only far away from work, sex, and money. They read as they were spoken, and that simple profundity connects them to the tradition of transmission, one guru to another, over the long centuries down to us. (Posted to Amazon US, 2-21-11.)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

"Dropping Ashes on the Buddha": Book Review

"If you say yes, I will hit you thirty times. If you say no, I will hit you thirty times" will repeat often. Here's the type of "dharma combat" as carried out by Sahn. This collection of dialogues, dharma talks, letters exchanged, and a bit of biography by Stephen Mitchell of Seung Sahn's valuable for its exposure of this type of training, taken from Korea and Japan westward.

An apple is red, an apple exists, but how to capture the essence of an apple in a world of impermanence, and how can non-thinking be realized by those caught up in categories, binary oppositions of form and emptiness, and step-by-step ways to enlightenment? People cited herein keep getting these breakthroughs it seems in the old days, but even if Sahn did nowadays, it appears the Western students at Cambridge and Providence and NYC and LA heard here asking Sahn for advice and dueling with him and often failing come away as baffled by his gnomic, stand-up routine, childlike, and plain puzzling responses as often as many readers, I reckon. Part of the point.

But, in the venerable tradition of iconoclast Bodhidharma, the riddling kong-an (he studied Rinzai Japanese Zen, which translates this as "koan") give-and-take with master and student is a way of forcing students off the "discriminating path." Zen requires a direction that leaves behind discursive thought, and language itself, as a way to grasp the meaning of Buddhism. I find it a welcome counterpart to the "just sitting" zazen approach of Soto Zen explained by Sahn's contemporary, Shunryu Suzuki, in a similar collection, "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" (see my review).

If you've read earlier reviews [on Amazon], you can see how short they are. At first, I'd no idea how to sum up this collection. I thought it might defy commentary. Not the first place to start (I've reviewed David Fontana's "Discover Zen" which directed me), but a fine destination for those already meditating, I'd hazard.

It's difficult to write at length about a book that challenges linear thinking. The elliptical nature of much of the contents may tire readers. It may be opaque or infuriating to some; the dialogue here with "Swami X" shows well the frustrations a guru had with this enigmatic style. It may weary some readers for it returns to the same images and phrases, but in this repetition, one glimpses what it's like to hear a Zen master, day after day.

Mitchell does not step forward in these pages to interpose himself between Sahn and himself as the compiler and editor, so this means you feel as if witnessing student conversations, letters, and talks firsthand, with a transparent, hidden transcriber. This can be off-putting as the lack of a framework or preface sets you in his formidable presence right away. On reflection, however, this verisimilitude may best capture the uneasy, unsettling feeling of being there as an unpredictable, off-beat teacher starts challenging and testing you.

P.S. In light of subsequent revelations starting in 1988 of charges by some of Sahn's female followers that he engaged in secret relations with them despite his celibate status, this complicates the depiction of Sahn here. However, one of the hundred chapters presciently included (this book came out originally in 1976) has a well-known ancient monk learning by a night "on the town" at a bar-brothel how even the monastic precepts can be broken in the quest for meaning, so...enough said. (Posted to Amazon US 9-30-11)

Monday, October 17, 2011

"Buddhism for Dummies": Book Review

The core message here's "proceed at your own pace," that is, take what works and leave the rest, and to "question what you hear, experience its truth for yourself, and make it your own"--this tone shows the nature of this user-friendly guide. I never read a "For Dummies" book before as I suspected an insult, but when it comes to the message of the Buddha, we're all ignorant until we "wake up."

While "dependent arising," for me a crucial component of Buddhist understanding, gets only a quick mention in the text, its illustration by "12 links" elaborates this wonderfully. Similarly, the Wheel of Life and Tibetan iconography, in simple monochromatic drawings, gain clarity as often in other books, such concepts either are hard to discern in depicted paintings or relegated only to a block of formidable text. Many notions are of course streamlined, but this is precisely the intent of this encouraging, sensible overview and stimulant.

Origins and philosophy, compassion and wisdom practices, life and teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, meditation varieties and advice, the big questions of the here and now and what is to come, enlightenment, role models, pilgrimage sites, and historical contexts all gain coverage. The bulk of the book is on practice rather than on philosophy alone, which is proper. Ethics, putting others first, and widening one's awareness of how one fits into the bigger picture blends into an insistence that what is here is not only to be studied, but put into practice, literally. As they say (and quote here) in Zen: "a picture of a rice cake cannot satisfy hunger." The editors look in, as it were, while you read, as would a mentor or teacher, to direct you along.

This updates an edition nearly a decade old. I'm not sure what new editor Professor Gudrun Buhnemann adds to her predecessors Jonathan Landaw (Tibetan orientation) and Stephan Bodian (Zen & Yoga), but I suppose her academic expertise in Sanskrit, Indian, and South Asian studies widens the applicability and scope. Bodian wrote "Meditation for Dummies," and the attention given this fundamental practice enhances this volume considerably. The highlights for me included "a day in the life of..." different practitioners, the Ox-Herding Zen pictures, and the helpful sidebars and checklists (including a sensible pair on common misconceptions and on how Buddhism helps us deal with life's problems) that keep the brisk text running along, while allowing one to pause and reflect, of course.

That format works well; this combines the gist of what you may find in a more advanced academic textbook such as Donald W. Mitchell's "Buddhism" or Rupert Gethin's "Foundations of Buddhism" (both Oxford UP) with pithier advice common to guides like Sogyal Rinpoche's "Tibetan Book of Living and Dying" or Shunryu Suzuki's "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" (see my reviews). Appendices annotate more reading; a glossary reminds you of what tricky Sanskrit, Tibetan, Pali, or Japanese terms mean. It's an inviting overview, and as it's for beginners, the tone remains warm, reflective, and a bit witty, which eases the challenges of its contents.

For an introduction, and a reference, this title is recommended. Its title may still embarrass me, but it fits, for once, the spirit of anyone approaching dharma and practice in the right frame of mind. For those too who are ignorant of Buddhism or misled or little informed, this may direct one to learn more, to integrate with whatever outlook one may carry into this text. I have a hunch, however, that if thoughtfully read and acted upon, this book may not be one relegated to the shelf again so easily. (Amazon US 8-27-11)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Ag cloisteáil dhá leabhar le Seoighe

Bím ag cloisteáil leabhair eagsulaí faoi deireanach ann. Nuair ag tiomáint, éist mé go éisteo-leabhair difríulaí. Téann mé go mo h-áit na h-obair agus tagann mé ar ais go dtí mo bhaile ar an bealach fada, go minic. 

Scríobh mé agaibh faoi gníomhaíocht seo ní fada ó shin as Gaeilge anseo. Ar feadh an mhí seo caite, chuala mé "Cinmhíol an Chuilb Mar Óganach" a chum Seosamh Seoighe ag léithe le Jim Norton. Bhí maith liom seo go leor. 

Mar sin, lean mé leis {bíonn siad i gcónaí} "i mBaile átha Cliath" seo chugainn. Ar ndóigh, bhí brea liomsa seo freisin ann. Tá Norton léitheoir idéalach chomh de thógail na háite seo. 

Rúgadh agus tógadh Norton ina siopa grósaerí ina tSráid Grafton in aice leis an sean-ceantar Giúdach fós. D'fhoghláim sé chanúintí áitiúilaí. Fhreastail é scóil leis na Bráithre Críostaí i lár na cathrach, fósta. 

Ina theannta sin, chríochnaigh Norton i 2004 "Ulysses" go iomhlán. Tá sé fiche a seacht an chloig ar fiche a do dioscaí ann. Ba mhaith liom a cloisteáil seo a luaithe, go nádúrtha. Coinnighí an airdeall, leanúna dílis.

Hearing two books by Joyce.

I have been hearing various books recently. While driving, I listened to different audio-books. I go to my work place and I come back to my house often, on a long way. 

I wrote about this activity not long ago in Irish here.  During the past month, I heard "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" by James Joyce read by Jim Norton. I liked this a lot.

Therefore, I followed this with (the people living in)"Dublin" {~"Dubliners"?} next. Of course, I loved this too. Norton's an ideal reader as a native of this place.

Norton was born and raised in a grocer's shop on Grafton Street near the old Jewish quarter also. He learned various dialects. He attended school with the Christian Brothers in the city center, too. 

Furthermore, Norton finished in 2004 the whole of "Ulysses." It's twenty-seven hours on twenty-two discs. I would love to hear this soon, naturally. Keep alert, loyal followers!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Rupert Gethin's "The Foundations of Buddhism": Book Review

This was recommended to me as a scholarly but accessible introduction. While considerably advanced compared to other primers, Gethin explains the fundamentals persisting over 2500 years, across the various schools and philosophies, that unite Buddhists around a core teaching. For those wanting more than the usual summary found in other surveys, this fills a need.

While it takes you through the same basics as other guides, it may stress far less the Zen and Tibetan conceptions, for his goal is to examine how the scriptures and teachings emerged, how they are classified, what distinguishes interpretations, and how they are transmitted as monastic "vinaya," story "sutta," or Abhidharma "higher" teachings. The last category earns more coverage than is the norm in books for a general audience, and while it can be tough going even as summarized, it demonstrates the essence of the dharma as perpetuated into modern times worldwide.

He reminds us that there's no "pure" Buddhism. 19c British scholars tended to lean (erroneously, but perhaps given Protestant bias, I wonder?) towards the Theravadin, South Asian & Sri Lankan traditions as older and therefore truer to their founder than the richly populated gods and shrines of the Tibetan panoply, or the austere Zen. He hastens past what he admits are tangential concerns (regarding cultural differences or later developments in Buddhism) for his book, which is focused on the common rather than the distinctive elements of dharma. So, this may not serve the needs of those wishing for more contrasts among Buddhist practitioners.

But, Gethin emphasizes how mythic and Hindu elements filtered in and blended into Buddhism, from its earliest manifestations. It's not an "intellectual abstraction," no matter how elevated the teaching soars or roams. It's meant to cause a "radical change of heart," and the definitions in the end don't matter as long as the suffering eases, the mind is freed, and the ego gives way to the path towards enlightenment.

The Mahayana developments are not seen as some tainted, more attenuated form of the Hinayana or Theravada school, but as a mix of influences, always open as any other school to more innovation and fertilization than earlier scholars wanted to admit, based on recent scholarship. They may be very theoretical as presented here, but they mean to analyze progress away from the ego, and to erode the attachment to self. The terms may be foreign to us, but their message remains understandable.

Gethin also finds that Buddhist mental depictions, as in the Pali sources, mirror those of the cosmos, so the macrocosmic and microcosmic cultural perspectives differ from Jewish and Christian linear models. This is only touched upon, but it's a vast subject. His charts of "the thirty-one realms of existence" in karma-psychological and cosmic-world realms neatly show how complex this ancient mentality all is.

Meditation, he tells us in an extended and helpful analogy, is akin to playing a musical instrument. The self-conscious attitude of the newcomer gives way to pleasure as one loses one's self in the action, and the moment. The satisfaction gained resonates aesthetically and personally.

Dependent arising, "one thing leads to another" (not his phrase), is a core teaching. It is the way things are, regardless of a Buddhist label. Gethin presents this elusive truth and the related one of impermanence of "no self" in light of Nagarjuna, the Indian thinker, and how he tried to steer between the annihilationist and eternalist extremes to find a middle way that tended to deny any defining, enduring concept or thing or idea, even the dharma itself. By comparison, Yogacara, as Gethin sees it, offers a positive, practical approach that gives us the way, not what, things are. (Posted to Amazon US 2-21-11 & 2-27-11.)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Simon Garfield's "Just My Type: A Book about Fonts": Review

This lively look at how fonts fight to be noticed, even as we look right through them into the content they embody, depicts their tension between transparency and visibility. Simon Garfield-- first inspired at the age of eleven by the LP typography of David Bowie's Hunky Dory and T. Rex's Electric Warrior--displays a love of fonts. He delights in conveying too their impact on culture and their incorporation of meaning. 

Chapters introduce designers such as Eric Gill, Beatrice Warde, Adrian Frutiger, Matthew Cooper, Jim Parkinson, Neville Brody, Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert, and Zuzana Licko and Rudy VanderLans. The book is filled with representations of type in many guises. PopMatters' audience may recognize the cover of a 1980's issue of The Face, a Rolling Stone nameplate (not the same as a masthead, we learn), an Amy Winehouse CD graphic, or the Victorian poster's inspiration for Sgt. Pepper's Mr. Kite. Garfield explores a rich intersection of musical graphics with typeface, itself worthy of a much larger book. 

As this is a small book, Garfield packs as many graphics and photos into its contents as he can. The narrative hurries one along. Its balance tips here and there as the fascinating if brief treatment of album covers leaves scantier attention to the equally evocative realm of rock band nameplates (not the same as a logo, we learn). Too much time on battles between "pirates and clones" in this digitally reproducible age means less space for, say, the impact of the changes that professional soccer players might show as their surnames change with the font shifts on the backs of their jerseys, or the effect the iPad may have on font variety. While he credits many sources and websites in his coverage, I wish he would have nodded towards Gwyn Headley's comparatively compact The Encyclopedia of Fonts. It's graced with witty pangrams (phrases including all the letters of the alphabet) beyond "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog." 

Still, Garfield features a YouTube still of just such an event, and he urges us to click it on ourselves. That sentence shows the possibilities of a font. For a shorter example of a font's range, by the way, look for "h," "b," and especially "g" as the best indicators of its subtle distinctions. These varieties prove akin to those in wines even of the same vintage and same year, but harvested by rivals from neighboring vineyards.

His enthusiasm for this subject keeps the pages turning rapidly. After all, Garfield takes on a lot of digressions as it is, and if he had paid as much attention to all the aspects of this ubiquitous topic, the book would rival massive compendia of font types which number now in the thousands, compressed into closely-printed directories over hundreds more pages. Even for experts, it can be challenging to tell one font from another, as the limitations of size and shape constrain the font designer into a fixed range of expression.

Here and there, Garfield shifts the font from Sabon, his workaday text for this book, into one of 219 fonts that fleetingly signal the type under discussion. Naturally, this enhances the power of his lesson. For example, we learn what distinguishes the familiar Arial from the ever-present Helvetica. Microsoft, not wishing to incur higher licensing fees for its software, chose Arial. Made by Monotype, it was cheaper than Helvetica. That was bundled with Adobe, and designed by Linotype, the printer firm which would later buy out Monotype. Microsoft calculated that Arial could fit the same dimensions as Helvetica, and so its choice became for users almost as predictable, starting with Microsoft's word processing and desktop publishing systems of the early 1980s, as that most common of current fonts all around us, Helvetica. 

Out of such near-similarities emerge differences. IKEA switched from Futura to Verdana. Futura, rooted in the political ferment of the 1920s, stood for bold, European identity. Verdana, designed by Matthew Cooper (compare his serif version, Verdana, itself a response to Times New Roman), stood for his client, Microsoft, and a multinational, corporate conformity. Many fonts, in Garfield's presentation, symbolize subtle loyalty and dogged allegiance, and they also fit into what style appears better to marry form with content. The now-ridiculed Comic Sans would not work for a death-metal band. However, it pleases dyslexic children. 

The battle emanating from nearly six hundred years of fonts resounds as each generation finds its own favorites, fonts that fit its moods, ideas, and ambitions. "In type, the appearance of beauty and elegance depends on trickery and skill--perhaps the most fruitful and longest-lasting collision of science and art." Garfield explains how Kinneir and Calvert designed the lower-case dominant motorway junction signs that enabled postwar British drivers to make quick decisions on roundabouts thanks to a readable and legible font that could be seen at longer distances. No matter how elegant the fonts it defeated to win the national contract, the Kinneir and Calvert entry matched better our visual necessity to find an exit straightaway, an imperative that had not changed since, Garfield notes, the days of trying to find one's way out of the cave. 

"Fonts are like cars on the street--we notice only the most beautiful or ugly, the funniest or the flashiest." The good fill many pages, and as for the bad and ugly, author's best moments come when he lists the eight worst fonts in the world. I list them here, regrettably or thankfully shorn of their appearance, in case you wish to compare your list to his. Ecofont (full of holes to save ink on the printed letters); Souvenir (a 1970s' soft porn, disco and/or pop psychology staple); Gill Sans Light Shadowed (shames the name of Gill, as a three-dimensional "optical" raised-letter nightmare); Brush Script (looks folksy but no avuncular neighbor wrote like this); Papyrus (used to save money on Avatar ads even as it evokes a grade-school report on ancient Egypt); Neuland Inline (report on Africa, or Lion King revival); Ransom Note (when Jamie Reid designed the Sex Pistols' LP, he had to cut out newsprint; the ease of digital downloading makes this font's attempt at menace risible by its ease); and London 2012 Olympic Font (as a native, Garfield will have to endure this a while longer, accompanied by the reviled "Lisa Simpson having sex" spastic attempt at a Games logo). 

The abundance of fonts such as Ransom Note, replacing the craft of manual design with instant access, for Garfield diminishes the legacy of print. Fewer people press a pencil onto a sheet, a nib into a journal. You read this review not on an elegantly embossed page but through a plastic-covered screen. Its font may be standardized by a program neither of us have any control over. Yet, as you and I share this medium of print, these 26 letters endure in a form combining legibility with readability. You notice the font and you do not, alternately, and the wonder of this encounter, the shift between awareness and immersion, testifies to the legacy of print in new forms as new fonts keep replacing and contending with old ones, six centuries on.
(Amazon US 9-25 in shorter form. As above, featured at 10-7-11)

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Zoran Drvenkar's "Sorry: A Thriller": Book Review

Harrowing and bewildering, in the best sense, this German thriller kept me up late three nights. It's not for the fainthearted, more for what it suggests than it shows, even if it starts with a crucifixion. The hints of torment linger even longer and deeper than the gruesome effects of the suffering endured as the set-up of the blurb, two brothers and two friends who start an apology service for guilty professionals and business folks, spins into a client who kills and then wishes forgiveness to be conveyed via their new enterprise.

As a character says near the end of this complicated plot, "no one can apologize to a dead person." You learn who "You" are in the story, who "The Man Who Wasn't There" is, who the victims will be, and who the first-person narrator is. Characters also will blend and separate into third-person narrative segments also. All this sounds post-modern, but Zoran Drvenkar manages to keep the suspense alive for three-hundred pages efficiently and effectively.

One character's demise via ice, another's by the gun, are told grippingly in a few well-chosen phrases. Shaun Whiteside's translation reads as if the thriller originated in English, and the style is not showy, but taut and propulsive. It does not draw attention to itself, but for the structural arrangement of this intelligent thriller, it works well. It nears overload as mayhem spreads to swirl what you thought you had figured out into more confusion near the end, but all the clues are there, if a bit hidden earlier, as is fair for such dour entertainment.

Not a lot of philosophizing here, but it's more of a moralistic revenge tale mixed with bits of sly social observation as the four partners confront a Berlin which offers those nearing thirty not much in the way of success in a downsized, capitalized, and atomized, detached world. I liked these glimpses of modern life in a grim city as much as this clever, complex tale itself. (Amazon US 11-7-11)

Friday, October 7, 2011

Helen DeWitt's "Lightning Rods": Book Review

Joe, a struggling salesman, reasons that his job deals with people as they are, not how they want to be. He fails in selling the Encyclopaedia Britannica and vacuum cleaners, before he markets his erotic fantasy into a lucrative reality. In a corporate society fearful of sexual harassment lawsuits yet eager to keep high-performing, high-testosterone achievers, Joe concocts a sort of discreet cubicle mistletoe, a bathroom-stall version of Spin the Bottle: "An arbitrary device permitting yet limiting interpersonal interactions."

The covert installation of a set-up in disabled stalls of the men's room --by means of a "height-friendly cubicle"--reveals at designated times (set up by a computer network) the bottom unclad half of a woman from the corporate staff.  She, encouraged by a considerable pay increase, chooses to show her anonymous backside to a male employee who, with notification on his office computer, liaisons in a predictable, if fixed and standardized manner, with the designated "lightning rod" female provider of such limited interpersonal interaction. This innovation, to relieve male anxiety on the job and to enable females seeking remuneration that allows them a way to move up the company ladder (or to save up for, as two recruits will, Harvard Law School) proves a success for Joe.

But along the way, Joe meets the machinations of the FBI, the Equal Employment Opportunities Act, a blue peanut M&M-obsessed and obese human resources manager, a successful woman hired (who will become a Supreme Court Justice) who has hundreds of subtly matching outfits, another (a future litigator) who rationalizes her lightning rod function as about as arousing as inserting a tampon, and a dwarf who finds John Foster Dulles a font of humor.

Be assured that Joe through his creator has thought through, by the end of this novel, every possible complication that ensues after he resolves to implement this situation to not only stop sexual harassment but to increase productivity and eliminate absenteeism among prized, if restless, male employees, and many of their quieter, if curious, female colleagues wishing to anonymously augment their paychecks. Helen DeWitt's previous novel, The Last Samurai, roamed over diverse and erudite terrain, and while far shorter, "Lightning Rods" shares her odd notions of what intrigues us.

Ms. DeWitt tells this archly satirical tale full of "far-reaching psycho-sexual repercussions" steadily, if from a rather distant perspective. Joe and his colleagues possess quirks, but where similar send-ups of a near-future corporate and commodified American culture by George Saunders play better as short stories, at nearly three-hundred pages, stretches of Ms. DeWitt's novel weaken as she appears not that interested in her characters, as people rather than as types. She shares a potentially fascinating reflection on how the ambitions of female executives and feminist professionals have undermined the quality of what used to be the secretarial pool; she offers equally provocative glimpses of how such an innovation as Joe markets might assist "time-sensitive" women who have the body but not the face to continue in the escort trade.

Her best insights tend to hover around the inability of American law to anticipate its jerry-built, ramshackle modifications added over two centuries across fifty states. This subtext proves thoughtful, and she returns to it as the novel progresses, but the tale results in a stronger showing for its ideas rather than for the inherent depth of those men and women that she inserts to move her story forward. While readable, the wry nature of the subject matter and her usual focus on Joe, who frankly is not very interesting compared to his one great idea, gives this the nature of a fictional conceit which Ms. DeWitt sees to its finish as a dutiful exercise in speculation rather than a tale told for the sheer love of the telling.

More concentration on the formidable talent of his best recruits, Lucille and Renee, both future Harvard Law graduates, would have enriched the accessibility of this fictional surmise. The narrator tells us that Lucille will succeed in law and Renee on the Supreme Court, but these revelations lack much follow-through and one is left to wonder how their competent service in Joe's employment truly shifted them into the legal talents that they will display.

Joe allows himself (via the narrator) late in the novel a valuable lesson; salesmen try to appeal to people's better nature, but one cannot usually make a living off of one's highest potential. "We live in the kind of world where people end up with their third or fourth or fifth choice because there just isn't the money in their first choice." If even a few people could live out their second choice, Joe muses, how might we get by better?

We do not learn much about Joe off the job as the novel progresses, and we see few men or women, after the initial invention's impact, changed off the job by its inclusion. We hear of the nationwide sales as companies quietly adapt the concept, but we never hear of how this enters the popular culture, surreptitiously or in the media, beyond a few passing remarks. In an age so permeated by trends and networking, the force of such an invention to shift how people regard their jobs in offices surely would not remain subtle for long.

Late in the novel, a chapter about Joe's attempt to sell the opposite stratagem to Christian supervisors, a workplace guaranteed free of lightning rods, sets up a promising sub-plot which fizzles; another with an after-work conversation between Joe and Lucille, who are never sure if they have "met" on the job in such a compromising position, shows hints of Ms. DeWitt's ability to handle a potentially romantic theme, but again, this is not explored to its fullest. However, this supposition remains worth citing: "Joe was beginning to see that he now faced a social dilemma which had never been faced in the whole history of the human race. What do you say to someone if there is a one-in-five chance that you have had a close encounter of a ventro-dorsal nature through the wall of a disabled toilet?'

Ms. DeWitt, raised in America, studied in England and lives now in Berlin. Her novel, for a native American, betrays a few lapses in how Middle Americans talk, or at least how a narrator however omniscient might render their inner thoughts. "Canteen" instead of cafeteria, "aggro" for aggravation, and "talking clock" for alarm clock show that her time abroad has entered her fictional space. Granted, these remain small blips on the big screen of how male drives compete with female craft, and both sides appear to get what they want out of this exchange, not of fluids but of energy, harnessed to increase male satisfaction and female compensation on the job.

For readers captivated by a masturbatory rapture turned into a corporate model so successful that it becomes law, part of an "amendment relating to Vending Machines and Workplace Stress Reduction" tacked on to "School Milk" dispensing and related good works for disaster relief in the timely wake of Hurricane Edna, Ms. DeWitt's fanciful, yet usually very sober, tale may entertain.

The lightning rods enable the triumph of a peculiar degree of separation. Sexual contact, intimate but prophylactically at a safe remove, turns into a "physical transaction" separate from "social interaction." Here, intimacy is decoupled from intercourse. Sex gets marketed as a metaphor for how corporate life, dominated still by men but determined to accommodate women, wishes to pump the economy by stimulating, and then eliminating, the pressure one of our most basic human functions, achieved moreover by a convenient and discreet visit to a hi-tech,  “height-friendly,” designated bathroom stall.
(Featured 11-5-11 at New York Journal of Books)

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Jose Saramago's "Cain": Book Review

Sentences collapse; commas convey rapid, wry, ironic dialogue. Paragraphs expand into rushes of anger, bewilderment, frustration, and revenge. Cain’s life, one that will not end as God does not let him come to harm as an ironic judgment for the killing of his brother, Abel, upends the Old Testament through furious prose, ideological passion, and desiccated places. These themes inspired his 1991 revisionist effort, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ  (see my review). The author, a longtime anarcho-communist and outspoken atheist, left Portugal for Spain after the publication of this Gospel revision angered the Catholic Church. He died a few years later, at 88. This shorter, equally enigmatic 2009 tale, the final one from this Nobel laureate, arrives via Margaret Jull Costa’s fluid translation from Portuguese. 

In both novels, a distant, bemused narrator speaks omnisciently about God and his faulty handiwork. Saramago’s Jesus confronted his divine infusion and his messianic mission with doubt and hesitation, and that novel explored largely the “hidden years” in Nazareth and the desert before Christ’s public ministry. There, the author chose to blend critiques of belief with considerable insight into the comforts of faith, and the humanity shared by such fully drawn characters as Mary Magdalene, whose steady and sexual presence for Jesus eased the demands of a vindictive, crafty, and parochial father-figure. 

Cain’s story, by comparison, bursts free from its biblical origins, but Saramago hastens, in two or three pages, to recount the killing of Abel, and the punishment of God, who leaves a black mark on Cain’s forehead as a sign that he is not to be killed by other people, already roaming the plains outside of Eden. Cain holds his own against his Creator, whom he blames for refusing Cain’s own good-natured sacrifice of vegetables rather than Abel’s cattle, and whom Cain holds partially responsible for looking on rather than preventing the first murder. Cain assures his maker that “if I were god, I would repeat every day Blessed are those who choose sedition because theirs is the kingdom of the earth.” 

Later in this exchange, the narrator edges in: “Poor abel, deceived by god. The lord had made some very bad choices when it came to inaugurating the garden of eden, in this particular game of roulette everyone had lost, in this target practice for the blind no none had scored.”

Saramago, as these excerpts show, employs his characteristic use of capitalization, as in Blindness, to refer only to the start of a quote. Unlike Gospel, which used capitalization of proper nouns, and periods to set off dialogue even if paragraphs subsumed it, here only commas set off one speaker from the other. Capitalization starts a sentence, but that sentence may be very long, interspersing dialogue and narrative with internal capitalization inserted to mark a switch in speaker, but without quotation marks or often clear attribution except in context. This rapid, challenging, but “consciously” appropriate style conveys the flow of thoughts in the mind as much as in conversation, as the narrator and the protagonist shift and blur in their perspectives nimbly, if demanding attention by any reader. 

This prose commands the reader by its own subversion of Scripture, as form matches content. Both seek to overthrow traditional models, and to replace them with imaginative ones. Saramago’s humanism and his championship of the underdog and the rebel remain prominent. He resists authority, and he defends sexual liberation and communal love of family, partner, and neighbor. Cain’s brave acceptance of Lilith as not only Noah’s wife but Cain’s mate provides the most vivid scenes, just as his earlier allegory had enriched the character of Mary Magdalene, similarly maligned by other believers and tellers. 

Later, as Cain must leave Lilith to wander as his curse, he intervenes in other events from the book of Genesis. The narrator accounts for this loose itinerary in time and space as Cain moves through “alternate presents.” These, as Cain stumbles first upon the sacrifice of Isaac demanded of Abraham by God, recall themes in Gospel, as God commands the ritual slaughter of those closest to the protagonist. 

“What are you doing, you wretch, killing your own son, burning him, it’s the same old story, it starts with a lamb and ends with the murder of the very person you should love most, But the lord made me do it, said Abraham, struggling, Keep still, or I’ll be the one who does the killing, untie that boy at once and beg his forgiveness, Who are you, My name is cain, I’m the angel who saved Isaac’s life.” 

This conversation reveals how Saramago can extract the core of the story. He polishes it, in prose that forces a reader to look at it differently, as Cain inserts himself into the biblical narrative and wedges himself into these patriarchal stories to undermine their presumptions and prejudices. 

They lack, however, some of the resonance in terms of character and description afforded biblical scenes in the earlier novel. Some appear to incorporate the words of Genesis among the narration, and however lofty or direct this familiar, resonant paraphrase, this can edge into summation or recapitulation instead of a fresh take on events so recognizable to many readers of this novel. Many episodes are compressed into this dense tale. At times this becomes a hasty if memorable tour whisking us past Babel, Sodom, and Jericho under the siege of Joshua trying to halt the sun. We hear but do not feel as we might the depth of Job’s predicament after his first family has been killed and his second one is expected to appease his discomfort and ease his sorrow.  

Still, a brief reunion with Lilith offers a welcome return to Saramago’s skillful use of a female figure to enhance the possibilities of amorous and emotional rewards, and she adds commonsense. Sodom, she learns, has been leveled by divine fire, not only the perverse men but the innocent women they spurned and their blameless children. Cain tells her: “Anyway, the innocent are now accustomed to paying for the sinners, The lord seems to have a very strange idea of justice, Yes, the idea of someone who hasn’t the slightest notion of what human justice might be”. Lilith pointedly notes that Cain killed his brother; he admits that God is still the one whom Cain, as a selfish man, holds more responsible as a person fated to carry out what he does in an eternal chain of cause and effect that no human can ultimately control.

This may seem to beg the question, but the Big Questions are not answered, nor can they be, Saramago seems to say, here anymore than in Gospel. Unlike that story, ending on the Cross at Golgotha, Cain’s tale diverges into a clever and more open-ended direction. Saramago as the tale reaches its conclusion offers unexpected tension, as Cain finds himself, logically according to God’s life sentence as if in a divine oversight, on Noah’s ark. The climax and ending to this tale, truly novel, I leave for you to learn.

(Featured at New York Journal of Books 10-4-11)

Monday, October 3, 2011

Jose Saramago's "The Gospel According to Jesus Christ": Book Review

Reminiscent of the raw, magical, harsh parts of Mark's Gospel, this novel imagines the son of man, Jesus born of Joseph as he finds himself taken over by Christ, born of God the Father. Jesus hesitates to call himself God's Son, but a demon recognizes him, and his divine cover's blown, or revealed, to his followers. Saramago inverts the traditional accounts so we don't see the public ministry commence until sixty percent of the narrative has shown us the journey to Bethlehem, the "hidden years" in Nazareth, the death of Joseph on a cross by mistake during a Jewish uprising against the Romans, and the desert temptations powerfully conveyed as more understandable and less theatrical.

The lamb of God takes on great poignancy in its appearance, and "resigned to his virtue," the young Jesus ponders the voice of God heard as he submits to the divine commands to die as His Son so God can establish power over the whole world, to make all men love Him, rather than just the Jewish people. This forces Jesus into a compromise with his human side, and his tender relationship in the full sense of the word with a marvelously rendered Mary Magdalene deepens this accessible, modest, and slowly miracle-working figure as one we can recognize as one of us even as his transformation of fish and bread, waves and the possessed, angers fishermen and swineherders and causes ordinary folks to wonder who Jesus really is.

Sentences in Saramago's characteristic style, as in "Blindness" and his last work, related to this as a biblical take on God's demands and human reactions, "Cain," [see my blog review] prefer a headlong rush over paragraphed neatness. He forces you to get carried into his flow, and dialogue is subsumed within the long paragraphs that demand, therefore, careful attention.

This is a thoughtfully composed narrative, rich in detail. Saramago's narrator is omniscient, knows of Portugal, and comments wryly on what God chooses to remember and what He forgets about this world and its creatures. Over it all, "the indifference of emptiness" soars. Not even the narrator has it all figured out, about man's destiny and fate. In Palestine, on the edge of and in the desert, nature waits, remote from the living beings God claims to care for.

Brutality and poverty dominate the lives of the fishers and herders, the servants and beggars who populate the little villages, while the Temple rises in Jerusalem in a vividly rendered contrast of mercantile activity and priestly slaughter for the birds and animals killed for God. Jesus reacts to this as a compassionate boy, but his resistance to the system falters, and in a wonderful scene where he, Pastor the clever, skewed, devilish desert companion, and God Himself sit in a mist on the sea and discuss the big questions, Saramago demonstrates his ability to make such timeless concerns fresh.

Passages also leap out of Giovanni Pontiero's translation that arrest one's gaze. Jesus and Pastor debate back and forth in the compressed style rendered by Saramago: "Like my sheep I have no god. But sheep, at least, produce lambs for altars of the Lord. And I can assure you that their mothers would howl like wolves if they knew. Jesus turned pale and could think of no reply."

The story starts with the crucifixion and the beginning is a bit shaky, as it's hard to get pulled in to the story from a distancing narrative tone. But as the familiar tale goes back, it gains depth. Mary's bitterness at her son's reaction to her own supposed connivance in the slaughter of the holy innocents (this makes some sense in context of Jesus' knowledge secondhand, but gets teased out gradually), the debate in the Temple with the elders, the death of Joseph and the departure of Jesus for the desert, the way he finds out about what happened when Herod struck down the babies in Bethlehem, and his reaction to this haunting scene that drives him deeper into self-awareness--are all imagined intelligently,

You read this with an inverted sense of the gospel inspirations. Here, the previous stages to Jesus' ministry gain center stage, and his public life becomes almost secondary to his own struggle to comprehend his salvific role. A challenging representation of a sensitive and searching man who finds God speaking to him. claiming to infuse him with His own force, and ordering him to follow His will, this is accessible to anyone curious about a fresh perspective on Jesus from a very human perspective. However, if appropriately for a human telling, the book ends rather hastily and suddenly on the Cross, as if Saramago wanted to finally stop his imagination from weaving more out of the evangelical stories and the midrashic legends that may have inspired this depiction of the sacrifice of Jesus from a memorable, but ultimately enigmatic, compliance.  (Posted to Amazon US 8-16-11)

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Roger Zelazny's "Lord of Light": Book Review

What if people landed on another planet (albeit very much like India), and mastered the technology to transform into gods in the Hindu pantheon? By such skill, what if they tamed demons, nature, and other humans so as to force them into paying homage and making "donations" via slot machines, as prayer wheels made "pray-o-mats," to perpetuate the rule of the gods and to enforce obedience by their subjects to ensure a good rebirth, thanks to "psych-probes" able to check for dogmatic conformity and karmic approval? 

Roger Zelazny's Hugo-award winning 1967 novel blends the fantasy of epic battles, with a great confrontation in Hellwell as the centerpiece among many contentions well-told, with a SF veneer. This sums up how machinery might advance what meditation alone might not for a cadre of Firsts, colonists from a doomed earth who build their technocracy as "Deicrats." They repel the Marxist-tinged efforts of humanist inventors and innovators to re-invent printing presses and weapons and know-how to spur progress against the Deicrats, as dissident "accelerationists." 

This slow struggle over eons, as Zelazny tells it in a dense, wry, wordy style more akin to Hindu scriptures than your typical fantasy-SF tale (even if cynical gods smoke cigarettes and crafty humans try to invent a flushable toilet), brings Sam into the tale, as a Buddhist model of rebellion against the hierarchical oppression. Yet, he's not exactly the Buddha, and his ambiguous position allows him to manipulate his mission to his own advantage and that of the humans he champions. 

It demands concentration, but rewards attention. Zelazny expects you to keep up with the shape-shifting antagonists who thwart Sam, who goes through his own considerable changes. Chapters flow into each other even if separated in time by immense distances; the gods keep their reign strong, as Sam tries to recruit defectors from the Celestial City to aid him in overthrowing divine despotism. I did wish for more reactions or actions from the vantage point of the humbler men and women, not to mention those Christianized zombies in Nirriti's army, an odd touch indeed. The concentration on Sam's club of Firsts does tilt the action always upward or downward to hell, and what's happening to the successor-earthlings (as it were?) gets relegated to what happens to extras in a big-screen epic (the story of its attempted filming makes a great footnote to the CIA in the 1979 Iran hostage crisis). 

One slight drawback is that this novel is conveyed in a prose style that may discourage readers, as its elevated, verbose, if slightly mocking tone echoes ancient chronicles more than it does a typical paperback published around the Summer of Love! 

Still, insights prove memorable, amidst the deities bickering and plotting and scheming. Science depends on the known, fantasy on the unknowable: "The four points of the compass be logic, knowledge, wisdom and the unknown. Some do bow in that final direction. Others advance upon it. To bow before the one is to lose sight of the three. I may submit to the unknown, but never to the unknowable. The man who bows in that direction is either a saint or a fool. I have no use for either." So says Sam early on.

The Enlightened One tells Kali: "The religion by which you rule is very ancient, goddess, but my protest is also that of a venerable tradition. So call me a protestant, and remember--now I am more than a man." With the great demon Taraka, Zelazny allows himself to enrich this character, perhaps as Milton did Lucifer: we see guilt emerge as Taraka aligns himself against heaven with Sam, and this chapter turns vivid as their perspectives merge. "His hell was a many-colored place, somewhat mitigated only by the cold-blue blaze of a scholar's intellect, the white light of a dying monk, the rose halo of a noble lady who fled his sight, and the dancing, simple colors of children at play."

In one mighty showdown, the land is ravaged by heavenly hosts, demons, zombies, and men all warring. Zelazny edges into a massive scene, and prepares us in fitting words. "It is said that each day recapitulates the history of the world, coming up out of darkness and cold into confused light and beginning warmth, consciousness jumbling its eyes somewhere in midmorning, awakening thoughts a jumble of illogic and unattached emotion, and all speeding together toward the order of noontide, the slow, poignant decline of dusk, the mystical vision of twilight, the end of entropy that is night once more."

This is a memorable narrative, and one of the only ones I can think of that takes on theological questions from a cyclical, Eastern orientation over such an immense scale of story and imaginative application of concepts. It deserves its place among SF classics, and despite its difficulty, proves a rewarding climb up its lofty heights. (Amazon US in slightly amended form 8-27-11)