Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Ag éisteacht go leabhair léamh ag údair

Le déanaí, tá mé ag éisteacht a roinnt leabhair nuair ag tiomaint go obair agus ar ais. Cuirim fáilte roimh seans a foghlaim faoi cinn éagsúlaí gach lá ar an bóthar mór ag imeall i gCathair na Áingeal. Scríobhfaidh mé faoi ag cloisteáil cúpla dóibh inniu.

Tá mé spéis sa Hiomoliatha fada. Mar sin, chuir mé cóip na "Sa Aer Tanaí" sa leabharlann. Is maith liom mar raibh inste os ard le an scriobneoir féin, Jon Krakauer. Chuaigh sé go Sliabh Everest chomh sliabhadóir; d'inis sé faoi ag tharla go dubhach ansiúd. Insíonn a ghuth an fulangach go díreach.

Go cosulacht, éist mé a scéal eile i bpian le fear Éireannach. D'inis Proinsias MacCuairt, ar ndóigh, ag insint faoi a óige i Luimneach. Meas mé go faigthe a aithris aige cumhacht speísealta go "Luaithreach na hÁingeala."

Tá suim agam leis ábhar eile fós. Mar shampla, thosaigh mé "Dia agus Fear: Reiligiúin Chomhparáideach." Thug leachtaí a thabhairt le Ollamh Robaird Oden. Bím ag imirt teíp de cúrsa léachtai anois.

Is gaire, fillfeadh mé chuig ar an leabharlann ar ais a cruinniú dhá leabhar go leor go luath. Bíonn beirt ag fanacht dom "1984" agus "Ag Fanacht Leis an Scuad Goon" le Fionnuir Nic Aodhagáin. Mar sin féin, nílim ábalta a éisteacht leabhair seo ag léamh le na scribhneoirí siadsa, go beo nó marbh.

Listening to books read by authors

Lately, I have been listening to some books while I driving to work and back. I welcome the chance to learn more about various items every day on the highway around Los Angeles. I will write about hearing a few of them today.

I have a long interest in the Himalayas. Therefore, I got a copy of "Into Thin Air" from the library. I liked this because it was read aloud by the writer himself, Jon Krakauer. He went to Mount Everest as a mountaineer; he told about what happened tragically over there. His voice tells the suffering firsthand.

Similarly, I listened to another story of pain by an Irishman. Frank McCourt, of course, told about his youth in Limerick. I reckoned that he gave a special power to his recital of "Angela's Ashes."

I have an interest in another topic too. For instance, I started "God and Man: Comparative Religions." These lectures are given by Professor Robert Oden. I'm playing a tape of this lecture series now.

Next, I will return to the library to gather two more books soon. Waiting for me are the pair "1984" and "Waiting for the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan. All the same, I'm not able to listen to these books read by these writers, living or dead.

P.S. Aistriúchán go Gaeilge le Pádraig Breathnach den leabhar ‘Angela's Ashes’ ó Frank McCourt/Translation into Irish by Patrick Walsh of the book "Angela's Ashes" from Frank McCourt. Order from/Ordú ó An Siopa Gaeilge anseo/here.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Geoff Dyer's "Otherwise Known as the Human Condition": Book Review

Dyer likes the odds-and-ends he's gathered from '89-'10. Doughnuts, desert, lots of sex and drugs, photographers, jazz, book and art and music reviews, and autobiographical fragments fill these readable pages. Even when the topic didn't interest me, at least I paid attention, in case I might get interested. The unpredictability of his observations keeps you as alert as he is to what appears total recall of whatever this enviable Oxford grad (even if working-class background and after university unemployed for a long stretch) has seen, read, or done. His diaries unearthed from the early '80s attest to both his powers of recollection and his occasional lapses, which themselves gain, ironically, lavish documentation in his attempts at recalling when he was fired, when he met so-and-so, when he bedded her, when he got high with him, while thriving on the dole.

He has somehow constructed a career "as a gate-crasher" doing whatever he wants, writing when he wishes, wandering when he doesn't, or when he gets a magazine to pay for his expenses to write. A Serbian bus driver, sex in hotels, Airfix model planes and Marvel comics, unwanted books, being an only child. What appeals here as in his fiction and travel reporting and non-fiction remains his ability to capture a restless, disheveled mood. In Algeria, he remembers his stay. "In a restaurant--womanless, smoky--I order a beer. It comes in a green bottle and that is the major pleasure it affords. The food--chicken, brochettes, couscous--comes on a plate and half of it stays there."

One aspect that could have improved this collection? It begins with many eloquent essays from catalogues of photographic exhibits. Yet, few photos are included. This forces a reader to rely more on Dyer's evident skill with words to tell us what is shown, but often, it's frustrating to have so few examples as illustrations. That being said, William Gedney's power as an artist leaps off the printed page, thanks to Dyer's verbal skill.

An encounter with Def Leppard ends perfectly; another with Richard Misrach's photos and the Utah sand flats ends with a scene "like a contemporary monument to the Donner Party," where "a family car has sunk up to its axles in an area of sudden mud." Rebecca West's massive "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" represents for Dyer a model of sprawling reflection on his own Balkan quest: "as a kind of metaphysical Lonely Planet that never requires updating." The strength of this admittedly diverse and diffuse anthology for all its "unruly" assembly testifies to West's disciple, another restless and engaging guide to one eccentric, lively, and unfailingly erudite, take on his--and perhaps our-- human condition. (Amazon 12-9-11)

Friday, January 27, 2012

Peter Englund's "The Beauty and the Sorrow": Book Review

This “intimate history of the First World War” blends twenty accounts by those who fought, and those who nursed, watched, waited, and were imprisoned. Peter Englund provides a narrative framework which avoids the usual summations of battles and fronts; a chronology for each year of the conflict precedes the excerpts from diaries, letters, and memoirs which enhance this military historian and war correspondent’s panoramic array of individual experiences. This book retells forgotten tales of an international and diverse set of participants, in combat or as civilians, at home or in the trenches. 

Olive King leaves Australia to drive a Serbian ambulance; Andrei Lobanov-Rostovsky goes home from the front to stumble into the Bolshevik uprising; Vincenzo D’Aquila sails from New York City to join Italy’s forces, only to be jeered at by native recruits unwilling to fight for a collapsing nation; Rafael de Nogales as a Venezuelan adventurer winds up on the Ottoman side witnessing the Armenian genocide. 

At first, many are eager to join; the initial enthusiasm fades as rapidly as hopes that the war would be over by Christmas 1914. Mr. Englund observes how the previous European conflict, between Prussia and France in 1870-1871, had been brief, and the difference between that clash and the Great War unfolds through his attention to Mesopotamian, East African, Italian Alps, Galician, and Russian conflicts. His focus beyond the Western Front may remind readers of why this war merited its new adjectives. 

A commander, after the war to take the name of Kamal Atatürk, at Gallipoli earns a cameo in one of many footnotes from Mr. Englund which add commentary or insight. This Turkish leader told its 57th Regiment: “I am not ordering you to attack. I am ordering you to die.” His regiment was annihilated. 

Gaza falls, and de Nogales rides into its ruins. “On the blackened walls of buildings that were still smoking and tottering on the point of collapse could be seen large purple patches that resembled red carnations, carnations of blood marking where the wounded and dying had rested their chests of heads before drawing their last breath,” he recorded. 

Peter Graves translates this from Swedish seamlessly. Mr. Englund’s compilation slows in pace as the war drags on, its coverage can weary, his index needs more listings, but his details educate. Men depended on horses for supplies; their casualties soared as did the troops. The cavalry’s replacement as a secret weapon had been rumored in advance as a “tank” carrying water. Skirts shortened as women’s fabrics thinned. Soldiers, to evade service, might rub in gonorrheal pus from prostitutes. 

Cigarettes freed soldiers’ hands, while lessening the stench of corpses and excrement. Close-cut hair eased treatment of head injuries. The war’s first skirmish was in Australian waters against a German ship. Many who enlisted faithful to the Continent’s monarchs found themselves radicalized. If the Germans had known of widespread French mutinies late in the conflict, they might have achieved a breakthrough, but word never reached them across No Man’s Land. 

Brutalization wears down, early on, all who write. At first, a kind of beauty might be glimpsed amidst sorrow. Sarah Macnaughtan learns to dress wounds a month into the war when already many await her care in Antwerp: “Some of them bury their heads in their pillows as shot partridges seek to bury theirs among autumn leaves,” she reports.

Soon, deprivation and tension erode empathy. Pál Kelemen after being wounded sees in a mirror “a strange, yellow old face instead of my own.” Edward Mousley reflects after being able to see a man shot beside him and for himself to go on giving orders: “Am I callous? No, only less astonished.

After ten days in the trenches at Verdun, René Arnaud can leave. The rule is that when a company loses seventy-five percent of its strength, it may be replaced. There are so few left of his comrades that they are amalgamated into another battalion, another number. After ten days “face to face with death,” he realizes: “I had lost my youth.

Elfriede Kuhr, in her German schoolgirl’s diary at fifteen, lives near the eastern border. She remains one  contributor who is spared direct conflict, but its impacts weaken her own youth. She describes the mood by the summer of 1917: "This war is a ghost in grey rags, a skull with maggots crawling out of it.” 

Fourteen of the twenty included here were in their twenties when the war broke out. Three will die, two will be wrecked, two will be captured, and two, one a Belgian flying ace, will become heroes. 

D’Aquila sails home at its end. His ship passes another. Signals are exchanged. “’Is the war over?’ The answer came, technically correct. ‘No, it’s only an armistice.’” The envoi to this history reminds us of the enduring if sinister truth of this remark, as a soldier who had served as a runner of messages for what had been the Austrian forces laments the defeat of his homeland. He learns in the hospital of his homeland’s defeat. The text ends with Hitler’s vow:  “I decided to become a politician.” (Featured in edited form at New York Journal of Books 11-8-11)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Michel Houellebecq's "The Map and the Territory": Book Review

Michel, appearing in his own fifth novel, has his artist-protagonist Jed Martin's father say of their creator: "He's a good author, it seems to me. He's pleasant to read, and he has quite an accurate view of society." He later's "a loner with strong misanthropic tendencies; it was rare for him even to say a word to his dog." His anodyne, but dryly witty summation characterizes the feel of Houllebecq's streamlined, yet often curiously detailed, fiction. I've admired his previous fiction, "Whatever,'' "Platform," and especially "The Elementary Particles"; "The Possibility of an Island" tried to be too ambitious, but it remained readable and thought-provoking as the first three novels. (All reviewed by me.)

Gavin Boyd's translation keeps the hermetic, slightly antiseptic feel of Houellebecq. For all his detail, here lavished upon the art world as well as the vagaries of male power and female "plenitude" marshaled as how our third millennium's establishing its time-tested control over we weaker consumers, he remains distant even as he digs into how we create, buy, sell, and ruminate, in everyday language and coolly observed branding. Transport, cuisine, shopping as in earlier novels earn his scrutiny and inclusion in efficiently conveyed prose. Naturally, the evolution of European sensibilities via the visual arts within a networked, high-tech world is discussed, in the academic tones of an historian. Therefore, the author's delivery usually keeps you at a safe remove from Jed--Houellebecq shrinks from predictable emotion or facile melodrama. He likes to stand back from indirect narration via Jed to adapt a stance of an art curator or critical scholar.

Taking photos of Michelin road maps, Jed finds a perfect title for their exhibition--"The map is more interesting than the territory." Typically for Houellebecq, this opens up a rigorously factual, while speculative, novel of ideas. Jed's efforts tie into making the French countryside "trendy" for the first time since Rousseau. Jed's relationship falters; after setting up background, Houellebecq in part two returns to the novel's opening.

Jed goes to the airport town of Shannon in Ireland (and then to his place in his native land) to meet and to arrange a sitting to paint Michel. He takes along a Samsung camera to shoot him first, a mechanism oddly described in typical terms, and ten years' gap shifts forward and back in expected form for this novelist. Damien Hirst, Bill Gates, Jeff Koons, and Steve Jobs pop up, subjects of other sittings. So do discussions of William Morris, Le Corbusier, silicone breasts, and Tocqueville. As in earlier novels, suicide of a loved one looms large as a revelation for the main character; his anomie and midlife ennui are juxtaposed with success by bourgeoisie standards. "Sexuality is a fragile thing: it is difficult to enter and easy to leave." Upending what you'd expect?

Well, I will leave part three to you. Suffice to say it's clever if not that unexpected, given it's from a French intellectual au courant not only police procedurals but with textual theory. (Amazon US 12-20-11)

Monday, January 23, 2012

Johnny Fincioen's "India Charming Chaos": Book Review

For five weeks, this Flemish couple, now living in California, visited Northern India. Dozens of temples filled their itinerary, and as with their dutifully memorizing guides, the array of facts and dates slowed the pace of how much they or we the readers could keep up with such unfamiliar data. So, illustrations help us take in images when words may tire. Johnny Fincioen wrote the text and his wife Claudine Van Massenhove took 178 photos, some within the pages and many more linked to the e-book. These capture what words cannot, and the combination of Johnny’s careful, precise descriptions, and his Claudine’s photos make this a virtual slide show, as it were, with extended narration. (I’ll call them by their first names, as they become familiar here as if characters themselves.)

I liked Johnny's observations about Indian culture and modernization within tradition. Social engineering’s impact on the poor in education earns thoughtful consideration; “affirmative action” programs fail rather than ease disparity. Long-term implications of “gendercide” also gain reflection as female fetuses are aborted throughout Asia. The culture so reliant on inequality makes itself known as Johnny and Claudine are treated far more considerately by many of their hosts than how Indians treat each other.

Johnny offers novel insights into Flanders-Indian ties to nationalism, cultural celebrations, religion, and WWI memorials. He keeps a jaundiced view of how religion generates scams, no matter the faith. He wearies rapidly of business as usual full of middlemen, bribes, and “offerings.” The wealthy build Hindu temples to generate donations from the poor while owners rake in tax-free, untraceable income. Still, “charitable contributions” given by the couple for hard work done do get money directly to those who labor to serve tourists and who merit reward for diligence, and this, the author reasons, beats handouts.

An afterword by Dr. “Reddy” balances with a Hindu’s perspective, perhaps to counter the skeptical view of Johnny advanced doggedly in the previous 250-odd pages. Similarly, a forward by Dr. Koenraad Elst from Antwerp sets this narrative within a context of how India’s policies have or have not advanced the nation, and how the impacts of technology will alter what his compatriots have seen in these pages.

Traffic congestion, lack of rules, roadblocks for the Delhi-Mumbai highway to create business along the side of the road, the stenches and sights and smells--all are described with clarity and wit. Luckily for the couple who have a background in exporting Belgian beer, Kingfisher bottles, if no comparison for their native brands, manage to show up in most places they visit. While the details do weigh down the narrative at times, more a journal for privately recalling one’s hosts and costs and purchases rather than one a reader might expect, the level of attentiveness to such a journey’s requirements and expenses does put you in the same position as Johnny and Claudine as they deal with the unexpected detours as well as the planned itinerary. One learns not to plan too tightly, too cheaply, nor too ambitiously!

For a multilingual writer, Johnny does a solid job of expressing his honest, forthright report in conversational English, and the added angle which he and his wife’s Flemish upbringing and European mindsets provide enriches their encounters as set out on the page.  The book may err on the side of generosity when it comes to the level of information shared. For once, we get a travel account which does not edit out any meal, driver, payment, meeting, or sight seen.

The e-book is split into two volumes due to the welcome abundance of photos. The first half goes from Delhi to Naguar and Jaipur, then to Agra and the Taj Mahal. Orchha, Khajuraho, Varanasi and the Ganges, Allahabad, Kanpur, Bithoor, and Old Delhi comprise part two. 

The amount of data about temples and lunches and accommodations may please those wanting to consult this as a practical guide for planning a similarly ambitious and thorough visit. For me, as for now a traveler only via a book, this reminded me of listening to a sharp-eyed, sharp-witted pair who’d come back from a journey with lots of photos to share and lots to relate. We hear—language barriers permitting-- from everyday Indians, and not only guides or docents. This adds to the grittier texture of the travelogue, but it may make its fidelity to the daily grind too burdensome for some. How much detail is welcome and how much is overwhelming may depend on how much you as an audience wish to hear or see. Overall, passing these data heaps amassed along the couple's long Indian road, it’s an intelligently rendered, if very minute-by-minute, intensive journey worth following.

Johnny sums up wryly one of India’s newest inventions: "Nano, the mini-car sitting twenty Indians on four seats." He and Claudine see, one morning in Orchha, silent old men crossing a river bridge into the jungle. These eccentrics move as if zombies "with their eyes set on infinity and their brainwaves tuned to zero." Such scenes, and Johnny’s humanistic but business-savvy tone, make this a fine companion for an armchair traveler, and one which may inspire some readers to become actual visitors to India themselves. There they can match their own perspectives with those captured by Claudine’s camera.

(I note I was provided a copy online {Kindle E-book] of this by the author who requested my review, posted on Amazon US 12-19-11.)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Lodro Rinzler's "The Buddha Walks into a Bar": Book Review

This follows the Shambhala practices introduced by Chogyam Trungpa to America to the counterculture; Rinzler updates them for today's alt-culture or perhaps mainstream hipsters. The publicity claims this targets "Generation O." While for me strongly reminiscent of Dzogchen Ponlop's "Rebel Buddha" published a year before (see my review), the emphasis on adapting Tibetan Buddhist teachings aimed not at endless prostrations or mantras or deity yoga but a down-to-earth approach--aimed at younger folks who like a drink, have sex, and love their cellphones (nearly?) as much as their similarly frenetic and chattering friends--has its relevance.

Rinzler risks aiming at trying to sound trendy and winding up like the preachers who marketed denim-clad bibles to the Jesus People in the hippie era; that is, packaging tradition for mass appeal. However, Rinzler's audience like that of Jesus or of the Buddha lives in cities more often than in monasteries! Rinzler wants to go into the dive-bars, the cyber-cafes, the cubicle, and to show how Buddhism can calm, can soothe, and can rouse.

He does this by taking venerable teachings and using parables, anecdotes, and everyday tales to make dharma matter. He translates "the four dignities of the Shambhala" empowerment teachings for us, as tiger, lion, garuda (man-bird), and dragon. "Windhorse" teachings, in Shambhala, enrich these practices which sustain a bolder sense of wise fearlessness as a way to make what insights come to one in meditation become self-actualized. These animals are metaphors for not otherworldly "Super Friends" from above but as qualities we desire to embody.

The "three yanas" or vehicles of dharma comprise the structure of this guide, as they do many introductions to Shambhala and Tibetan practice. Yet, the vocabulary's lightly sprinkled (if more than in most of "Rebel Buddha.") Focusing on relationships, careers, and attachments, Rinzler moves happily between pop culture and literary references (more the former than the latter) to draw in one chapter from "Ocean's Eleven," "Hamlet," the Green movement, beer, and hailing a cab from Grand Central Station.

Certain chapters, as on compassion in sexual relationships, zipped by too rapidly. But on accepting a degree of using materialism and dealing with money, as with Trungpa, so with Rinzler: his enthusiasm carries many pages with zest; he pushes a vision, as did his guide Trungpa, that will better the world as well as the individual. Meditations on lovingkindness, death, and basic goodness will be familiar to readers of Trungpa and followers, but they may be fresh and new for those who open "The Buddha Walks into a Bar" who may not have encountered Trungpa or Shambhala concepts before.

There's a winning ethical dimension that Rinzler, all of 28 years old, extends, true to the slangy, conversational, but firmly (if oddly skewed at times) moral mission of Trungpa, and the other teachers he has studied and whom he presents here. Although Rinzler's reading list's surprisingly terse, the book's value lies in putting its advice to work, not in mulling it over for a seminar or keeping it for one's own retreat. This isn't for intellectuals or monks, but for us stuck in the 9-to-5 or 24/7 wired world.

He relies on his own inspiration of Sakyong Mipong, reformulating this lama's teachings for a wider readership. Sometimes I wanted more depth from his student; although this is a galley proof given for review, it appears to be more or less complete in this version. Lodro Rinzler loads on the references designed to make this up-to-date, but the risk of a shorter shelf life when quoting a particular drink mix or rapper or '80s kid's show does loom. (I think of those earnest recastings of the Good News for Flower Power.) For me, a generation older than Rinzler, I fall into the awkward gap between Chogyam Trungpa's Aquarian Age cohort and Rinzler's--maybe I'm closer to the "hardcore zen" of Brad Warner or as an older brother for Noah Levine's "dharma punx" who grew up after the hippies but before the maturing of a perpetually wired audience. I'm glad to see that Buddhism continues to be rethought and reframed every few years.

So, as I'm interested in how Buddhism gets transmitted to the West today, I find Rinzler's urban, artsy-Brooklyn tone appropriate. He tries, as does Trungpa, Warner, and Levine, to remind us that the Buddha may not have been as ascetic as his monastic interpreters intended him to be seen by his followers among the laity. Rinzler touches lightly on this, but his placement of Buddhism in a bar-hopping, night-crawling, texting and frenzied atmosphere makes for a novel and necessary translation of the dharma to a less austere, if no less idealistic-- and maybe not so hedonistic after all--set of "early adapters" in this new century. (Amazon US 12-24-11--see my reviews of all of Warner and nearly all of Levine and many of Trungpa's works on this blog and there...)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Noah Levine's "Against the Stream": Book Review

This "Buddhist manual for spiritual revolutionaries" may appeal to the tattooed and shaved crowd that the author and cover beckon. Levine sums up how not to be a Buddhist but a Buddha. He emphasizes actual experience, not book learning, so this is short on the usual history and cultural contexts other introductions provide, but this is not a shortcoming. He suggests a few sources, but Levine conveys dharma directly.

Good books by Buddhists tend to tell their message clearly and concisely. His 2003 memoir (summed up as a preface) "Dharma Punx" (see my review) narrated on his own rebellious quest and travels in Asia rather than give substantial content about the dharma. This 2007 follow-up covers little about his own struggles. Instead, Levine puts the knowledge he shares into action.

He distills the Buddha's message: "Pain is unavoidable. Suffering is self-created." (19) Levine demonstrates how we can overcome attachment to the cravings that inevitably arise that keep us tethered to things, people, and concepts that prevent us from growth and tempt us away from insight. He teaches, but free of jargon, Theravadin Southeast Asian-Sri Lankan "insight meditation/vipassana" traditions that he's studied for twenty years. He conveys them in calm, but forceful tones.

"Against the Stream" is counterinstinctual; this phrase from the Buddha means to go "against our very human instincts to accept pain and not chase pleasure." (100) As one in recovery, Levine conveys the difficulty of breaking patterns of how we react to pleasure and avoid pain. "Our conditioned tendency is to push or pull or grasp or run." (103) As a solution, he gives us three stages-- corresponding sort of to the "three jewels": the Buddha, the dharma teaching, the sangha of community-- that comprise the heart of his emphatic presentation.

He starts with the Buddha's life and his guidance. Levine offers helpful perspectives on "basic training" and his treatment of the Eightfold Path is free of jargon. Change being constant, dissatisfaction's inherent in us. Mindfulness (even if nearing pop-culture cliche now) regains its power when Levine provides this analogy: we need to let each moment die naturally. Attachment to or aversion from the passing moment means we try to "resuscitate or kill an experience. Mindfulness allows us to receive the experience directly and to respond more like a compassionate hospice worker than an aggressive ER doctor." (28)

Levine illustrates the complex idea of "dependent origination" and how karma's responded to with the example of craving ice cream, buying a triple-scoop hot fudge sundae, getting full after three bites, but scarfing it down anyway, before feeling queasy. He explains another tough concept, how the mind "experiences itself" so we realize we are not the mind or even its contents. (31) He advises that the reader learn to regard the mind as impersonal, so as to detach one's identification from its passing fancies. Letting go, as renunciation, helps to let the self separate from the causes of desire and suffering. It also helps us put into action "the intention to stop hurting ourselves and others." (32)

"Cognitive disobedience" makes this a difficult practice, for meditation rebels against the mind's defenses. As "the highest form of the inner revolution," Levine argues that this liberates the practitioner from the "dictates of the mind," for one can choose "for ourselves how to respond to the "thoughts, feelings, and sensations of being alive." (45) Throughout his book, he refers to easily understood instructions, compiled in an thirty-five page appendix, of "meditative trainings" keyed to these various stages on the path.

The second level enters "boot camp," as the practices emanate from the person outward, to get off the meditation cushion into one's livelihood, encounters, and activities. Compassion, loving-kindness, appreciation, and especially the often-overlooked quality of equanimity represent the goals for a spiritual revolutionary. (For more, see his 2011 "The Heart of the Revolution: the Buddha's Radical Teachings on Forgiveness, Compassion, and Kindness.")

No divine revelation enters, and no entreaties to a higher power need be sought. Instead, the experience of freedom, as the Buddha taught, comes not from books or observation, but from experience. Pain continues, and bliss does not descend for long, but the way people react to suffering, and the growing ability to detach from one's dissatisfaction and to create satisfaction for one and others, begins to tidy up some of the messiness of unpredictable reality as lived by the dharma practitioner.

Part three as "field guide" engages with our common reality. The "outer revolution" that follows the inner one will take time to transform society by positive change. Sexuality earns an extended reflection, and even if Levine's advice for celibacy may be surprising for some readers, and not an option for many whom I assume are in committed relationships, he does caution all of the need to accept the unavoidable presence of "the truth of impermanence" in intimacy, and the suffering that it does bring for all partners, eventually. (93)

As with the Brahma god's conversation attributed in legend with the Buddha after his enlightenment, the appeal of this rigorous approach may not be among the masses but the few, the elite, the renunciators "with but little dust in their eyes." I felt, as with "Dharma Punx," that this portion of Levine's regimen relates to those who can commit to celibate periods, extended residential retreats, financial independence, familial support, and distance from the chores, duties, demands which fill the hours of working folks with partners and children.

More discussion of how the renunciation of intimacy relates to many of us ("married with children") would have enriched this section. It's helpful for its reminders of what people do want to forget, but its lesson's directed more at those able at his most "radical" level to live as sort of on-off monks, not a realistic option for many Westerners after a certain age. Levine notes how temporary celibacy, as with his sexual relationships, remains "the most challenging realm of his practice and the cause of the most suffering in my life." (94) [For another p-o-v, see "hardcore Zen" Brad Warner's books, all reviewed by me, especially "Sex, Sin and Zen"]

Like Brad Warner, Noah Levine speaks as one in his forties to a crowd impatient with "the delusion of knowledge" vs. the nitty-gritty immersion of those raised with punk (or hip-hop) and after the 60s & 70s, the period when Noah's father Steven emerged as a noted American Buddhist teacher. For Noah, he shares his father's countercultural resistance to what culture creates as philosophies with all the right answers neatly packaged. Bliss cannot stay, and pleasure vanishes. Gurus in Levine's version of true Buddhism are not to be found: one cannot gain the magic mantra or dispensed wisdom secondhand. Insecurity and ignorance must be overcome by a constant battle inside one's self, as that self itself begins to be dismantled.

In its place, the "present-time experience" grounds a practitioner not in belief but in action. Freedom comes as one's awareness of passing desires and pains and pleasures diminishes their hold on one's conditioned tendencies to grasp or to flee. He closes with a "manifesto." By serving others with a renewed energy to better them and ourselves, we can "defy the lies" of material comfort and dogmatic oppression as the way to satisfaction; "serve the truth" with honesty and integrity, not violence and greed; "beware of teachers" as "no one can do it for you!"; and to "question everything" until one has experienced it for one's self. I found it sensible and worthwhile as a practical guide free of technicalities. (Posted to Lunch.com & Amazon US 3-14-11.)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Noah Levine's "Dharma Punx": Book Review

A dropout at fifteen, and by nearly thirty, a grown-up, Noah Levine shares his troubled journey. The son of a prominent American Buddhist teacher, Noah was raised in Taos and Santa Cruz, two not-exactly hardscrabble countercultural enclaves. Still, he seems to have spent little time with his father and stepmother, and early on became alienated from his mother and stepfather, turning to drugs by the age of ten or so, and then integrating hardcore (and then Straight Edge) punk and skating, tagging and panhandling, stealing and crack, into his lifestyle spent on the streets. He rails for much of his upbringing against hippie idealism and spiritual messages, but as the title indicates, he manages to survive stints in juvenile hall, twelve-step programs, and among many rebels in the Reagan-Bush-Clinton years who wind up in prison and/or dead.

He tells the story with lots of did-this, done-that detail for the first half of his narrative. He tends to fill pages with who he hung out with and what happened next which may be interesting if you were there with him, or were listening to his anecdotes now and then, but after a few chapters of similar-sounding mishaps, travels, parties, girlfriends, and concerts, it blurs as much for a reader as it must have for Noah back then. I sympathized with his torment, but it played like a long episode of MTV's "Behind the Music"--by a fan.

Halfway, the narrative lightens and widens. A solo camping trip to Big Basin park to see the redwoods he loved sounds predictable. But, the emotion invested in his sight of a deer, and the feelings evoked, demonstrate movingly, in his entrapment in temptations, how estranged from nature he has become.

His share of his mother's inheritance must have stood him in good stead, for he travels a long time across the US and all over Asia. To his credit, earlier (as with "My Name is Earl," I thought), he repays those he ripped off and makes amends to those he cheated, and he does put his fairly-earned income from medical and social work to good use, going off for stays to Hindu ashrams and Buddhist shrines, as well as a Sufi encounter. He follows his parents' model of acting as if he had a year to live, and he lives it up, and down, on his travels.

At Bodhgaya, where the Buddha sat under the bodhi tree, Levine seeks his own "intention to awaken in this lifetime" and to overcome his fears and mistakes and loneliness by "a victory over suffering." (161) Such self-surrender contrasts with his ornery past, and restless present, disdain as a punk for those who have chosen to play along with the system. Slowly, he realizes his own complicity with such a stable system, grateful for the safety it allows him as an American, compared to the assaults on the senses and body that much of India inflicts.

On his second trip to Bodhgaya, to see the Dalai Lama, he realizes his inconsistencies. "The day before I had taken a vow to be compassionate and there I was threatening some crazy Indian man with a stick. The absurdity of it made me laugh. I was very far from becoming a bodhisattva but at least I was trying." (205)

He tells of his on-again-off-again relationship with a girl named Lola, and of his gradual acceptance of their life that must be spent apart. He struggles with his desires, and despite his vegan, hardcore, purifying blend of dharma and punk ethos, he finds the practice as difficult as ever. But, he channels his rage and revolutionary idealism into a positive energy. "I had found the solution to my once-hopeless situation and lack of faith had been replaced by a verified understanding of the path to freedom from suffering. I knew that the path led upstream, against the current, and was the most rebellious thing I had ever done." (217)

As that last sentence of his shows, he can be a writer who struggles with a more fluent style, but the rawness, despite a typo or gaffe now and then, does reflect an honest account that surely has wide appeal for his audience, those who have come of age alongside him, and not the hippies of their parents' (or by now, grandparents') era. Levine can merge the discontent of punk with the First Noble Truth of Buddhism. By the end of his tale, he's finished college and started grad school in a program combining psychotherapy with spirituality, and he's serving the kinds of people he grew up with in Santa Cruz, with a Mind Body Awareness prison ministry, a safe-sex outreach program, and AIDS education.

He contemplates the funeral of one of his best friends, one who saw him both shoot up and meditate, and Levine resolves to keep doing better. He notes how few punks break through their anger at consumerism and conformity to get to "the causes and conditions of the suffering and falsehoods." (230) In dharma, personal freedom and a solution to the wrongs that fill society, he reckons, come together in his deeper, mature understanding. While this will not teach you much about what the Buddha taught, it's a nudge in the right direction. It's a rough ride over two decades, and the feeling that his father and his renowned colleagues intervene more than once to bail him out does persist. Still, the Buddha himself lived as a pampered prince before he saw the reality outside the palace gate.  The rich as well as the poor need guidance, the suburbanites along with those in the slums. Therefore, especially for younger readers turned off by musings from his father's generation, Noah's energetic, if rambling, memoir should prove a wake-up call.

P.S. The title may promise more dharma, but it gives you more punx. Here, Levine appends an overview of his father's meditation practice based on breathing but you'll need his 2007 "Against the Stream: A Buddhist Manual for Spiritual Revolutionaries" (see my review) as "a navigational chart" for that inner journey that returns to helping others along their own path. His 2011 book, "The Heart of the Revolution" shares his take on the Buddhist teachings of forgiveness, compassion, and kindness. For comparison, along the Zen path and amidst American hardcore punk and Japanese monster-movie culture, the similar memoirs and studies by Brad Warner (all four recently reviewed by me), are recommended. Like Levine, Warner mixes his own (sometimes repetitious, but entertainingly self-deprecating) punk saga into the Buddhist quest; unlike Levine, he's more insistent and more explanatory about how you can and should accept the regimen of Zen as a path to dharma. (Posted to Lunch.com 3-14-11 & Amazon US 3-11-11, the latter an attempt at balance among severely bipolarized reviewers; I've since reviewed his third installment, sign of his growing if delayed maturity: "The Heart of the Revolution" in 2011 for NYJB.)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Ag féachaint do aon 'anglais tae'

Tá mé ag féachaint tae níos mó anois. Nílim ábalta fáil cinealáchaí éagsulaí dó ina margadh i gCalifoirnea Theas anseo. Ina theannta sin, sílim go bhfuil 'anglais tae' a fáil sa cheantar.

Is maith liom tae níos laidre agus braiche, ach leis bainne. Mar sin, bhí cuimhne liom fógra beag go feicthe i gcúl 'An Nua Eabhracnach'. Chuir Upton Tea Imports a fógra ar iris sin.

Fuair mé níos mó na 420 chinealachaí de tae duille scaoilte ar díol leo. Chaith mé chuid de tráthnóna ar lorg a clár eolasach agus léirmheasannaí le custaiméirí ar líne inné. Roghnaigh mé fiche samplaí a chosnaíonn triocha dollar, lena n-áiritear loingseoireachta.

Líon mé cáirt leis cinn difriúlaí. Déanfaidh mé iarracht naoí samplaí leis caiféin ina maidín go hiondúil. Sa tráthnóna le dinear ag an obair, gan bainne, iarraidh mé seacht tae leis torthaí nó blás fanaile.

Sa bhaile, leis bainne aríst ina tráthnóna anois agus ansin, ólfaidh mé ceithre cinn gan caiféin. Scríobfaidh mé san iarrach seo nuair a bheidh mé ag críochnaithe na samplaí sa iarrach. Inseoidh mé agaibh cinn go beidh mo roghannaí deiridh a ordú cúpla pacáisti--ach níos mó!

Searching for not "watery tea"

I'm searching for more tea now. I'm unable to find various kinds in my market in Southern California here. Moreover, I think that 'watery tea' [literally "English tea" in Irish!] is found locally.

I like stronger, maltier tea, but with milk. Therefore, I remembered a little ad seen in the back of "The New Yorker." Upton Tea Imports advertised in that magazine.

I found more than 420 brands of loose-leaf tea sold by them. I spent part of an afternoon peering at their informative catalogue and reviews by customers on line yesterday. I chose twenty samples costing thirty dollars, including shipping.

I filled my cart with various types. I will choose nine samples with caffeine in the morning as is customary. In the evening with dinner at work, without milk, I am seeking seven teas with fruit or vanilla flavor.

At home, with milk again, but in the evening now and then, I will drink four kinds without caffeine. I will write about my selections when I will have finished the samples by spring. I will tell you all the ones that will be my final choices to order a few, but larger, packages!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Jack Kornfield's "Bringing Home the Dharma": Book Review

Over twenty-five years of reflections merge into this thoughtful anthology. Jack Kornfield's one of America's pioneers when it comes to bridging the gap between the often challenging dharma of Buddhist instruction with the struggles that Westerners tend to encounter as they try to align what happens in the heart with what happens in the mind. As one of the nation's leading teachers of Insight Meditation--derived from the Vipassana Southeast Asian-based school of looking inward for analysis as well as calmness, stability, and the experience of emptiness and transcendence (as in Tibetan and Zen methods)--Jack Kornfield emphasizes his subtitle: “awakening where you are”. He shows how his audience can heighten wisdom by increased, and less selfish, self-awareness. He presents his guidance through a careful examination of one's potential to overcome one's shortcomings by increasing compassion and altruism.

This inner-grounded, other-directed approach mingles often in Western Buddhism with a stress on "emotional intelligence" and a gradual outward integration of self with society. In turn, these concepts are gaining wider acceptance through therapies and self-help treatments outside of the circles of Buddhist practitioners. However, as the title of this book reminds us, Dr. Kornfield's training as a clinical psychologist allows him additional consideration of how this spiritual practice can enrich one's mental, physical, and social health as he seeks to help readers connect the teachings and findings gained from retreats with the everyday, workaday, world. Bringing it all back home means to blend the elevated or heady accomplishments gained in solitude or sitting meditation with the necessity to direct the insights gleaned to assist one's self and those around the practitioner.

Therefore, "bringing home the dharma" allows a reader to comprehend through these linked inclusions Dr. Kornfield's varied suggestions about how what may be learned on intensive retreats, or in a monastery as a monk or nun, strengthens the practice of those who may not have the luxury or the time to benefit from such intense, prolonged immersion into a total atmosphere of lived Buddhism. Too often in this reviewer's opinion, Buddhists tend to overlook the pressures and difficulties of those in the West who try to take on the disciplines of the East, but who due to work and family and budgets cannot afford the separation from the rest of the world to pursue an in-depth regimen of meditation apart from daily life. This contingent, I assume, comprises many readers of this collection.

Despite his prominence in the American Buddhist leadership, Dr. Kornfield keeps this discussion down to earth. Part One explores how mindfulness links to meditation and then putting into practice what one may perceive first in contemplation. For those with the "monkey mind" so easily distracted, he makes the analogy to training a puppy. The mind must be gently but firmly halted, lifted up, and corrected if one is, like a puppy being potty-trained, to be disciplined to change one's habits.

Speaking of habits, this first section also investigates how political change, better parenting, and the cultivation of love and joy can be encouraged through a more life-affirming vision of dharma. Countering the nihilism or death-haunted versions of Buddhism as seen by some practitioners and some detractors, Dr. Kornfield counters in Part Two with a vision of a more mature dharma based on his own Thai stint as a monk decades ago. He writes with great affection of his mentor, Ajahn Chan, and returns to his example frequently throughout this book.

As a young countercultural adept, Dr. Kornfield learned from his monastic experiences how to lighten up as well as bear down on himself on the road to enlightenment. He presents detailed accounts of his days in a Thai forest establishment, half-hermit and half-communal monk. He shows how a mature form of practice seeks not only the heady delights of the transcendent, which can prove illusory, but the more prosaic rewards sifted from daily life. He may refer to an Argentinian tennis pro or a San Francisco inner-city coach to make a point, as well as to his many students and teachers, all of whom gain his respect as characters in brief examples interspersed to clarify or elaborate a telling point.

Part Three recapitulates and expands accounts of his spiritual teachers, Ajahn Chan, the Indian female guru Dipa Ma Barus, and the controversial Tibetan lama Chögyam Trungpa. For Mr. Chan, his student celebrates his humor, his honesty, and his unflinching conviction to instill humility in those he led. For Ms. Barus, her love and affection endure. For Mr. Trungpa, his quirky, unpredictable ways of battling "spiritual materialism" among Westerners seduced by fads and charlatans as well as his innate mysteriousness impel Dr. Kornfield to admire his legacy.

The last section of essays confronts the impact of such teachers as Mr. Trungpa upon the Western followers creating their own eclectic, but informed, dharma style. As the historical Buddha warned that the dharma itself was but a raft, to be abandoned and not clung to once one reached the farther shore, so Dr. Kornfield uses this parable to stress the necessity of liberation. He considers sexuality, drugs, the roles of meditation teachers, and personal pain as obstacles or portals to freedom. He tells of his efforts, with Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg, to found (while all three were in their twenties) the Insight Meditation Society in Vermont. This was later joined by Spirit Rock in Marin County, California; these now stand as two leading centers for Vipassana meditation in the United States.

He addresses an audience impatient with platitudes, who understands that the Buddhist path offers no shortcuts. This book, for those already informed about dharma and knowledgeable about its practice, should illuminate at the hands of a master guide some of the pitfalls along the slow way out of one's dark corners. Such readers represent at such centers a new flock of seekers: contemporary, likely lay and maybe urban, who come to Buddhism but do not perpetuate territorial, sectarian, or denominational strife that has divided Eastern adherents and some Western disciples.

Instead, democratic decision-making, feminism, the pursuit of wisdom, and a shared practice that frees itself to take what is best from each tradition becomes Dr. Kornfield's model for Western practice. Three essentials endure: kindness of heart, inner stillness, and the promotion of one's liberating potential to assist all who long to break free of pain and suffering. As a clinical psychologist, he advises the connection of freedom found by therapeutic methods with those of meditation, dharma study, and the practice of actions aimed at compassion and joy.

Rather than the fearless warrior model often promoted by Asian societies for the practitioner, Dr. Kornfield suggests that of the Buddhist learning to let go of self-hatred and self-judgment as a more healing treatment for what ails one's psyche and hinders one's mind and body. Fearlessness can remain, but the shift from stoic warrior to gentler seeker, he reflects, seems likely to do more good.

His book concludes with three short meditation practices. As well as the forgiveness and lovingkindness ("metta") exercises, the simple one (at least on the surface, as it is perhaps the most profound) one of taking on the dignity and simplicity of "taking the one seat of the Buddha" as the core practice for any meditator says it all, without saying it all. In four paragraphs, Dr. Kornfield manages to hint at vast insights and wisdom that escapes verbal summary. His eloquence and accuracy, here as throughout his collected articles and essays, demonstrate his own mastery of many of the everyday and ethereal insights he sums up skillfully and elegantly.

(Published in the New York Journal of Books 12-8-11)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Moh Hardin's "A Little Book of Love": Review

After forty years, Moh Hardin distills his “practical advice on bringing happiness to ourselves and our world” into a few pages. As often with books by long-time Buddhist teacher-practitioners, the prose may be brief, but the insights emanate from the depth of unarticulated experience. Inspired by the example of his Tibetan émigré mentor, Chögyam Trungpa, the author seeks to cultivate love beginning with one’s self. Then, moving to one’s partner and child, the circle widens to those around us. Gradually, “skillful means” and wisdom applied from the Buddhist tradition allow seekers to include others in this attempt to heighten compassion and wisdom, until all beings receive the goodness inherent in creation.

Such profound ambitions characterize the message of the Buddha. Mr. Hardin starts by reminding readers how a gentler approach does not preclude truth, when it comes to becoming one’s own best friend. Rather than a platitude, this foundation remains necessary, for upon an acceptance of one’s own self, without harshly judging one’s own ability, one can learn to strengthen one’s own potential to “wake up”, as the meaning of the term “Buddha” promises, and to recover one’s own “Buddha nature” as the “fundamental nature of our being”. This aligns with his mentor Trungpa’s definition of “basic goodness” as an understanding of one’s own presence. This energizes one’s own life, and offers a forgiving alternative to Christian concepts of original sin and guilt, and to scientific materialism which reduces life to mechanical functions.

This acceptance in turn stimulates inner strength, kindness to others, and the warmth of friendship. It flows away from self-recrimination towards meditation, and then action based upon a balanced perspective that analyzes the good and the bad within us, as we see this same blend within our close friends, with whom we continue our relationship even as we do not overlook their flaws or exaggerate their perfections. This draws us away from ourselves to our partner.

Here, Mr. Hardin encourages the reader to allow “giving space” to one’s lover, husband, or wife. That is, to diminish friction, one must begin to pause before reacting to another’s irritation. Basing his teachings on those again of Trungpa, one learns not to possess but to appreciate another person. This exemplifies “bodhichitta”, the “awakened mind or heart” which generously holds a partner free from one’s own projections. Trust and “right speech” play key roles here.

These “skillful means” carry over to the raising of children. A parent’s duty and responsibility must be to “touch a child’s basic goodness”. He or she teaches a parent to grow as well. By “focused attention”, a child can find encouragement to be open alongside a parent. This exchange of goodness allows “bodhichitta” to deepen, and this nourishes a child’s healthy ego, one that can live among others as with the self, confident that life can be faced and enjoyed.

Part Two expands this “basic goodness” to embrace those outside the home. The “Four Limitless Ones” or “immeasurable” components of the Buddha’s message apply: love, joy, equanimity, and compassion. This other-directed “bodhisattva path” moves an awakened heart to care about more than one’s own preoccupations. Mr. Hardin narrates how difficult such an aspiration proves. “May all beings be happy” can be an elusive wish to fulfill by one’s intentions and actions, given the reality of an often grudging reaction to those whom one judges or demeans. “Sympathetic joy”, the author explains, helps this progress towards caring about others. That is, being in touch with the happiness of others and wishing them the best can begin to replace the habitual envy, bitterness, and jealousy with which many of us have been raised to regard the accomplishments and successes of those with whom we live and among which we work.

The section on “True Bravery” incorporates Shambhala Buddhist concepts popularized by Trungpa. It stresses openness to others as they are. By a “flash of generosity”, the potential to do more may ignite one’s energy. Self-discipline, patience, exertion, and even the control of anger may play roles in teaching readers to “catch ourselves” before acting out negatively. By this re-direction of energy, one may come closer to the ideal of wakefulness promoted by the Buddha.

“Love and Loyalty” combine in the final chapter. The latter concept is defined by the author as “not giving the other person any reason not to trust you”. He cites Albert Einstein’s notion of an “optical illusion of consciousness” trapping human conception, as if we remain ego-grounded, separate from what’s “out there”. This denial of interconnectedness with all beings and creations, for Buddhists, represents a fundamental conceptual flaw within our understanding of existence.

Trungpa’s teaching of loyalty, strengthening gentleness combined with an abiding quality of causing no harm, stems from a determined “warrior” balance embedded not in weakness but in power. Open-hearted confidence in one’s power to change comes from one’s moral progress. A warm-hearted yet strong-minded, person, in this model, possesses an “innate basic goodness, the natural, clear, and uncluttered state” of being.

Discernment keeps a practitioner steady as one progresses towards virtue, with a fearless recognition of potential and action in the present moment. This transforms into an “authentic presence.” No clouds persist, for behind them, one sees “the sun of basic goodness” as always present, no matter how shadowed by the moment.

Combined with brief but practical exercises for meditation and actualization, Mr. Hardin’s small guide should prove beneficial to anyone seeking a handbook for one way out of egotism towards a self-confident, other-directed practice of Buddhist compassion. This path, as directed in this little book, may generate more happiness beginning with the reader and then circling outward. (Featured 12-27-11 at the New York Journal of Books)

Monday, January 9, 2012

"Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree": Book Review

What's this first-ever anthology of "Buddhist fiction" offer? Editor Kate Wheeler comments how according to dharma, everything's already a fiction; stories represent "a redoubled version of the existential mistake that lies at the heart of all suffering." (xiv) Still, traditions in Buddhism tell stories, and the ones here come from contemporary writers, a few well-known, many humbler practitioners. I preferred the longer stories to the shorter-- they can range from the standout not-quite holiday in Cambodia "Beheadings" by Kira Salek at thirty-four pages and the fine first chapter from Keith Katchtick's ambitious novel "Hungry Ghost" (see my review) to three-paragraph glimpses of insight.

I liked the stories that took on the curious predicaments of people trying to learn about Buddhism or attempting to practice it while questioning its estranging qualities in daily life; those by some writers from within the tradition tended to be less gripping, perhaps from insider's situations unfamiliar to me. Some entries appeared to be memoirs rather than fiction. Sharon Cameron's essay on meditation in its disorienting intensity seems not so much fiction as self-dramatization; Anne Carolyn Klein's account of translation appears non-fiction; Pico Iyer's excerpt from his Japan narrative feels factual.

Others by certain, higher-profile writers may have been chosen more on their content or the reputation of their contributors rather than merit that a "blind" selection process might have selected, I suspect. Some of these, taking place in monasteries or on retreats, appear aimed at the likely audience already in the know. Still, especially for experienced students and teachers, I suppose many of these entries might satisfy-- the key verb for inclusion Wheeler notes--most readers.

Gerald Reilly's title story and M.J. Huang's parable "Rebirth," start off this collection promisingly. Ira Sukrungruang's "The Golden Mix" keeps the oddness of its setting, an animal shelter, and its visitor without becoming cloying or cute-- which in less skillful hands could have decayed. Instead, we get this easygoing, yet unsettling, tale in everyday dialogue and ordinary Midwestern settings infused with a bit of mystery. Such offbeat, without being coy, moments enrich Francesca Hampton's "Greyhound Bodhisattva" and Easton Waller's "The War Against the Lawns," paired well together, as are many entries as arranged by Wheeler.

Salek's inquiring narrator takes us into the longest story, "Beheadings," which in the best manner feels as if told to us first-hand, as real life. It concludes perfectly. Seeking her brother in Cambodia as the Khmer Rouge still occupy parts of the territory, she looks for her vanished, damaged, suffering brother. "David might have said my karma was good, though he couldn't have known how much I tempted the world. How much I hated it for its senseless parceling of benevolence and pain."

This tough-mindedness, in Reilly, Huang, Sukrungruang, Hampton, Waller, and Salek, makes this anthology at its strongest far from a sentimental or pat assembly of platitudes. Buddhism upends many from their meditation mats. In some of the best stories, these challenging rather than comforting teachings are confronted and puzzled over by those on the outside looking in, in more ways than one.

Victor Pelevin's "The Guest at the Feast of Bon" shows why his postmodern novels attract a cult following. I can't give away much, but this reminded me of his Russian forebears, or Hesse or Camus, in his philosophical reflections merged into an eerie meditation. "We call God that which we are not yet capable of killing, but once we have killed it, the matter is closed." (237) Killing one's self, the narrator reflects, "is an attempt to kill the God dwelling within us. We are punishing him for condemning us to torment, we are attempting to match him in omnipotence, we may even usurp his function by putting a sudden end to the puppet show he began." This existential tale takes on Japan, St. Sebastian, belief, death, and dragons and it ends as the penultimate entry in this collection hauntingly. (Posted to Amazon US 4-17-11 & Lunch.com 4-21)

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Anne Donovan's "Buddha Da: A Novel": Review

Three tellers narrate, in dialect (which flows fluidly even for foreigners after a few moments), what happens in their Glaswegian family after Jimmy McKenna starts attending a local Tibetan Buddhist center. He cannot explain it, but the comfort he feels overcomes his awkwardness and what began as a lark turns out to be a fascination with "this incredible feelin of peace come ower me, soft like. So ah just sat."

But, this happened on New Year's of the new millennium: Jimmy'd gone to the temple to avoid the drinking that had led him at his birthday party to make a fool of himself on video, and his discontent with his immaturity and his marriage amidst his career making a living as a housepainter leads him to renounce first meat, then alcohol and, at least for now, sex with his wife.

Donovan sets this Scottish situation of domestic strife and inner searching up nimbly, and the tension moves this deservedly award-winning 2002 novel along swiftly. In a Barcelona Review 2003 interview, she explains how Liz responds to smells and senses; Jimmy to visuals, and Anne-Marie to sounds and hearing, and the chapters do sound similar among the three family members while keeping subtly distinctive tones, word patterns, and attitudes. The book moves quickly and fluidly as Donovan uses the novel of family relationships to explore the appeal of the exotic and the surprising as they enter each protagonist's experience. Jimmy's birthday party, Anne-Marie's concert, a New Year's celebration, and a funeral all set up dramatic showdowns that integrate the shifts in the dynamic, as Liz's power seems to grow as Jimmy steps aside, as the novel continues over a year or so full of challenges.

Liz feels she must deal with raising their daughter, who tells her own reactions to her parents' strife as she works on a tape to enter in a music contest, blending Tibetan chants with the "Salve Regina," and she finds herself soon living with a father who's does not stay at night at home, but in a sleeping bag at the temple. I felt her character needed more elaboration, and given Donovan was a long-time teacher, Anne-Marie's school settings appeared very underdrawn and dull, but that's a minor point in a very solid storyline. Maybe they reflect the girl's reaction towards school but she's meant to be a good student, so her seeming lack of attention to her environment and the comparatively little time devoted in the book to her studies puzzled me.

As Liz reminds him, Jimmy misses Anne-Marie's school concert "tae go and see this wonderful lama who's an enlightened being and is gonnae unlock all the secrets of the universe tae yous special people who sit on yer arses every night wi yer eyes closed while we unenlightened beins dae unimportant things like dae a washin or make a dinner or iron yer claes..."

Meanwhile, Liz finds her own escape. Her decisions create the uncertainty that she and Jimmy must deal with, if not solve, as the novel reaches its satisfying, open-ended conclusion. Liz watches in a doctor's office "the wee pulse of light, like a faraway star," and that symbolizes the possibilities that the author, in the voices of three convincingly related characters, creates to delve into the mysteries beneath the mundane working-class life in Glasgow that she, a native, invigorates with recognizable emotion and sympathetic compassion. (Posted to Amazon US & Lunch.com 3-6-11)

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Keith Kachtick's "Hungry Ghost: A Novel": Review

A dissolute photographer, well-meaning but wayward, almost forty, falls for a Catholic convert thirteen years younger who's determined to save herself for marriage. Carter Cox's travels take him to shoot glamorous models worldwide for upscale magazines and ads that mirror his own conspicuous consumption in his Manhattan apartment. But--as the title shows with its Buddhist reference to the realm where unsatisfied "pretas" must wander until they gain liberation when they realize that their parched, greedy, tormented existence is an illusion--Cox's own journey will take him for his latest assignment to Morocco, and there, he and his new companion, Mia Malone, confront the meaning of their existence.

Kachtick brings ambition and range into this narrative, as Carter integrates, half-successfully, his growing commitment to Buddhism with his louche bedding of more women in his thirties than the time Mia's been kissed. We find this and all information conveyed in a daring, and initially off-putting, voice in the second person. Carter's taken this on "to fully disassociate" awareness "from the obstructing, lower-self 'I' that thinks in terms of 'me' and 'mine' and 'may I unbutton your blouse now, please?'" (14)

He attempts to desire to be without desire, and this telling of his tale as he tries to overcome his passions shows how he fails, and how he succeeds, in a book combining character studies with adventure, and social commentary with spirituality. This narrative voice, we later find, is the omniscient one we readers recognize, but with a deepened dimension I will leave you to discover.(I found a similar approach in Wilton Barnhardt's novel "Gospel" years ago, and it works as well here as it did there.)

Because of and not in spite of Carter's weaknesses, I cringed at and cheered him on, as a caddish fop, but also a struggling dharma practitioner, engaging with Mia's own formidable belief system. (Even if she claims to volunteer with a "Jesuit nun," inaccurately.) He grew up wondering what many may in a rather worldly, vaguely Christian upbringing: "Where was I before I was born? Why does my body feel like a guest house?" (51) He meets Mia at a Tibetan retreat at a former Catholic monastery upstate. She "possesses the milky-white skin and praying mantis beauty of someone who haunts museum archives and listens to Chopin while baking bread." (65)

Kachtick has a challenge in giving us a twenty-six year-old determined to wait for Mr. Right. She regards sex as sacred, so much that it is worth the wait to make it a sacrament. She disagrees with what she regards as a Buddhist contempt for the world and the flesh: "The work of heaven is material, the work of hell is entirely spiritual." (83) She then bums one of Carter's cigarettes, a sign of her own links to the body. They debate their differences and find similarities. They discuss Thomas Aquinas, cite Thomas Merton, and mull over St. Francis. Then, they make out. "She can't decide whether God has sent you into her life as a test or a gift." (88)

The tension within Carter goes beyond the bedroom, as he courts Mia, to a degree, while after she goes back to school, he beds others more compliant, if less intriguing. Later, as his Morocco jaunt brings him and her into conflict over their relationship, he reflects: "You'd long fancied yourself as a talented juggler of pleasure and ethics" (216)-- but this balancing act fails, as he must face what his teacher, Christopher Wolf (a skillfully depicted, poignantly captured character), warns him of: for bachelors perhaps in particular, the abyss where middle-aged lust leads into fear.

As the Buddha taught, drinking saltwater never quenches one's thirst. Whether in a New York City nightclub or binging on Entenmann's cookies, prowling for porn DVDs or amassing more gadgets, seducing tourists in Mexico or dealing with a temperamental model or vain windsurfer on a shoot, Carter faces his demons, even if disguised as long-legged angels: "you're like an alcoholic who punishes himself by drinking more." (232)

The novel takes a daringly imaginative twist. I feared Kachtick would let me down, but he does a deft fake-out and save and he pivoted gracefully, in more ways than one. If you lack a grounding in Buddhism, some of this novel may stall, but as a committed Buddhist himself, Kachtick's trying to merge his own compassion into a novel that entertains and instructs. He may switch to the former mode, almost as in a script made for Hollywood, later on, as if to make up for the earlier discussions that Mia or his teacher, Christopher, have, but for a thoughtful story that demonstrates right and wrong in scenes that take place in the bedroom or bar as well as on retreat or in meditation, this fairly conveys what a modern urban seeker, Catholic or Buddhist, may face when testing their faith against their works. Kachtick wants a wide audience for this novel, so he accommodates all these elements.

I will leave it for a reader to discover where the plot roams as Mia and Carter arrive in Morocco. The second half accelerates, and the pace moves rapidly. Conflicts thicken as the spiritual collides with the social, the Third with the First World.

Kachtick's to be commended for his energy and his range, and with Christopher as well as Mia and Carter, he creates characters you care about, no matter their own weaknesses, which endear them more rather than make them contemptible. He makes out of our urban, unhinged, dehumanized, web-obsessed, consumer-driven, sex-and-drug-and-media hookups a tale of morals and choices as profound as that of Henry James, if far more fun for me to read, as it's branded in the latest (as of 2002!) fashions, gizmos, and labels. (Posted to Amazon US & Lunch.com 3-6-11. See review by my friend Tony Bailie on his "Ecopunks"blog. )

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Eric Weiner's "Man Seeks God": Book Review

"Confusionist,” reasons agnostic fellow traveler Eric Weiner, defines his "spiritual-but-not-religious" outlook. As a "gastronomical Jew" but not raised with any belief, this skeptical, neurotic journalist begins his global exploration by recounting a nurse's whisper to him as he lay on an operating table: "Have you found your God yet?" This inspires his search among eight "varieties of religious experience," as he credits William James’s pioneering study. He starts, as do many seekers, by going to California.

However, Mr. Weiner does not last long on the Mendocino coast at a Sufi camp. Falling down a "New Age rabbit hole," he laments that the establishment's more "camp than Sufi." As a National Public Radio correspondent, he had witnessed the darker side of Islam, and he wishes now to find the meaning of that word's core, "submission," in its more mystical manifestation. He departs for Istanbul, visits sites connected with the medieval visionary poet Rumi, and finds that surrender to Sufi's spell, as shown in the famous whirling dervishes, comes closer to the power of love than of capitulation to a cold creed.

His trek into Buddhist wisdom leads along a well-worn path, to Kathmandu. His guide, a Virginia-born investment banker who left Malibu to model in Asia before finding his fulfillment as a student of Buddhism, leads him first to ponytailed ex-pat Wayne from Staten Island, a fellow "middle-aged Jewish guy" in a baseball cap. From Wayne, Mr. Weiner learns to meditate, and not to do it as he does it. The process of self-examination as the way to liberation feels as if biting his own teeth, endlessly self-referential, but he perseveres a bit. He finally has a brief audience with a Tibetan guru. "Meeting a revered lama is like having sex with a woman you've fantasized about for a long time." That is, anticipation leads to anxiety, bewilderment and disappointment.

His breakthrough comes not with the guru, nor with an attempt to learn about the often-sensationalized Tantric approach. (That works less effectively for him than a visit to a massage parlor.) Wayne goads Mr. Wiener towards what gives him "pause." Between the moments, choices are made to attach or let go, and effects happen for better or worse. Buddhism elongates awareness of these moments, and allows practitioners to choose how to act and react to such endless situations daily.

Many Buddhists and a few Catholics praise fewer possessions as a way to increase spiritual maturity. With the grey-clad Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in the South Bronx, Mr. Weiner learns of their "radical dependency" on a life committed to poverty. Unlike most Franciscans today, these friars have returned to a rejection of most possessions, truer to the intent of their founding saint. They manage in their gang-plagued neighborhood to act as both "savvy and naive".  Accompanying Father Louis, who gave up a successful career in Manhattan, and Brother Crispin, Mr. Weiner witnesses their challenges, as they strive to detach themselves from their duty towards good works, doing tedious tasks to serve the poor, without congratulating themselves for doing so. 

As one friar confides: "You find yourself trying to love somebody who doesn't want to be loved." Mr. Weiner receives advice for his own skittish need to underline books, to analyze what he finds: "When in doubt, give thanks." Rarely thanked, these diligent if weary friars persevere.

Indulgences are discouraged for Franciscans, but encouraged by Raëlians. This, "the largest UFO-based" and IRS-registered as tax-exempt religion, glories in bonding, and hands out condoms. Founded by "a second-rate French journalist” who, for Mr. Weiner, espouses motivational-seminar speak as if "Tony Robbins in a space suit", Raëlism invites or expects less respect than the previous religions. One chant surrounds him at an enthusiastic meeting: "free your breasts free your mind."

To his credit, Mr. Weiner lets his prejudices ebb even as he keeps his critical acumen flowing. Talking to a convert, John, in a "gender-switching workshop," Mr. Weiner shares the appeal for many educated and scientific types of a religion based on a modern myth. He deftly connects strands of Raëlism with Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim predecessors, even if he cannot commend, finally, its lack of rigor or lowered expectations, where easy pleasure dominates as its "theme-park" message.

Next, the search brings him towards not a myth but the ancient homeland of a five-thousand word "short ode to conciseness," the Tao te Ching. Traveling to China's Wudang Mountain (gifted with an mist generator after "The Karate Kid" was filmed there), Mr. Wiener learns from a fellow American on tour, Sandie, how smoking and drinking are fine as pleasures as long as one is "in the moment." Taoism may share something of offbeat Raëlism as well as affinities with Buddhism, and Taoism looks to this world and this body as the gateways to truth. They "shape their God-shaped hole with a hole-shaped God." Their elusiveness--that which can be defined as the Way, the Tao, is not the Way," as the Tao te Ching opens--intrigues him. Sandie goes with the flow, literally, at the heart of the Tao. Whereas most religious folks, Mr. Weiner supposed, care more, Sandie as a Taoist tells him she grows to care less.

Taoism lacks a center, however. What if a religion had not one doctrinal approach, one god, but hundreds? What if it allowed choice, and inspired invention of new gods and goddesses? Wicca, as Mr. Weiner finds in Index, Washington, offers Jamie the witch this chance to guide herself by an ethical system open to possibility. Magic can be channeled for good, and what is conjured up as if invented then takes on a real power for those willing to guide its forces towards healing and renewal.

Mr. Weiner imagines the passion and intensity of Wiccan ritual to echo that of the now-faded ceremonies at the start of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Freed of sin, compelling its makers to use the forces for goodness and not harm, Wicca's ethical component resonates with Mr. Weiner. 

Its demands for moral accountability gain careful explanation. He tells of this often caricatured religion's attempts to direct natural forces to generate righteous behavior and careful choices. Yet, as with other religions he has encountered, it fails to appease his own darker side, his melancholy. Figuring that paganism's "lowercase gods" would have little time for him, he turns towards perhaps the ancient ancestor of witchcraft, and religions that have evolved slowly since, that of shamanism.

Shamans, after all, were primitive psychiatrists. Today, Dana, a former executive in Beltsville, Maryland, hosts a drum-led circle: "now materialize your power animal." Participants fantasize and let go of their worries. guided into realms of the spirits. While all this pleases the "smart-ass" Mr. Weiner more than he may have expected, he cannot shake the mental image of one dream weaver's companion, Sasha the Poodle, whose eyes lock into his as they both wonder what those humans are up to.

Finally, he faces his ancestral Judaism. Dreading the meeting, he goes off to Tzfat (Safed) on the Sea of Galilee, settled by Kabbalists expelled by the Spanish Inquisition. This settlement, orthodox yet open to Jewish misfits, endures as a spiritual center. What makes a place such, Mr. Weiner wonders, may elude explanation: is it the place that imbues its residents with an aura, or do holy people wind up in such a hallowed place? 

This thoughtful section of his tale takes him deep into difficulty. His psychological unease grows. He finds that one can convert to one's "own" faith, but the memory of his brother who embraced Orthodoxy creates more rather than less tension. 

In Israel, Mr. Weiner faces the Jewish reverberations of a faith dimly known but evaded and avoided for a lifetime. His Jewish soul, his "nefesh," a variety of patient teachers show him, reveals itself by patience, and by "kavanah," intention, within such a soul. Shabbat in Tzfat, when time appears to halt, opens up the promise of living within space devoted to peace, worship, and community. Here, he glimpses the potential of the oldest of all the organized religions which he has participated in during his quest.

The wise observer of the hopes for religious harmony in Israel, writer Yossi Klein Halevi, tells Mr. Weiner that the Jews need him. Those who turn him off, by rules and rituals, will choke the life out unless Mr. Weiner brings what he has learned from Kabbalah--that such teachings open up life by its eternal forces. Mr. Weiner cannot agree with Yossi; he insists that he remains temperamentally a seeker who must wander. He convinces himself as he leaves Israel that he is not a dilettante, but a universalist. He argues with himself, and sometimes others, how his orientation transcends any denomination or affiliation. 

In conclusion, Mr. Weiner remains faithful to his convictions. This narrative moves smoothly between erudite quotes from James, Jung, Heschel, Chesterton, and Durkheim. (It also recalls strongly here and there a recent work, J.C. Hallman's The Devil is a Gentleman, that had its author travelling to sites founded by America's new religions over the past century. It mixed personal interviews with Hallman's own story, through an application of William James's sociological research from a hundred years ago.) 

God Meets Man: My Flirtations with the Divine scans rituals so venerable they lack inventors and doctrines so fresh he watches them evolve in Washington State and Las Vegas. True to Mr. Weiner's nature, he constructs a composite God. One that cobbles from all the faiths he's studied, and more, yet has an identifiably Jewish angle that he finds he can admire. Mr. Weiner confesses that out of small steps, progress towards understanding emerges. He no longer flinches from observing the Jewish holidays with his little girl. (Featured at New York Journal of Books 12-5-11 in condensed fashion--about half the length of above!)

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Interviewing Myself

This self-interview via "Vilges Suola" at the wonderful blog "Lathophobic Aphasia" and "Bo" at the equally rewarding "The Cantos of Mvtabilitie" inspired me to fill it out myself. I've even adapted it, with some dumbing down ("poem you know by heart" becomes "movie...") for my Speech students to use when interviewing each other week one. Maybe you'll fill it out too? Happy New Year: I figured this'd be a fine way to begin again, with the only form of small talk I can tolerate. 

What three adjectives would you use to describe yourself?
Self-directed, intellectual, introverted. (Jibes with my INTJ Jung Typology/Myers-Briggs results.)

What is your greatest achievement?
Finishing my Ph.D., with all due credit to my wife's logistic support and rapid typing assistance.

What’s your favorite smell?
Lemons remind me of now-vanished groves behind my childhood house where I played.

What is your favorite taste?
Garlic and onions on a white Fugazetta pizza from nearby Glendale's El Morfi restaurant.

What’s your favorite piece of music?
"Coinleach Glas An Fhómhair": Clannad--before they bought synthesizers and did New Age soundtracks.

What book would you like everyone to read? Why?

The Bible. With a (post-)modern commentary. Then we might discuss sensibly and calmly how to handle, and progress from, its cluttered transmission of hopes, confusions, contradictions, ideals, and failures.

What website would you like everyone to visit? Why?
Religion Dispatches. The older I get, the more I view religion as a spectator sport, or an Olympics of various competitions. I may cheer some, jeer some, and watch events or turn aside from them as I wish. Yet, as with sports, a childhood part of me wants to participate, to join in, to gain the thrill of accomplishment. And, the adult part of me knows that such contests are but attempts to capture this fleeting moment forever.

What is your favorite sound?
My family's voices, suitably muted.

If you were an animal, what animal do you think you would be?
An owl. I want to turn my head all the way around.

What do you like to do in your spare time?
Reading and listening to music.

How many languages do you speak and why?
As this came off an EFL teacher's site, it's tilted against me. Speak: Spanish and Irish in basics. Reading knowledge predominates as it's my medievalist background: Latin, Old and Middle English. Smatterings of Hebrew, Welsh, Manx, bits even of Czech, Hungarian, and NT Greek from past forays. I wish I was skilled at language learning, but I am not. A visual learner, vocabulary's easier to acquire; grammar's a challenge.

What do you like most/least about your job?
Most: being left on my own with enough trust to carry out my classroom, online, and administrative duties given my experience. (I'm in my twenty-seventh year of teaching and my sixteenth at my current institution.) Least: mandated meetings every term as required. Face-to-face can be tedious. I'm tired of PowerPoint.

What would heaven be like if you were in charge?
Comfy recliners, surrounded by my beloved cats and dogs who've preceded me, drinks to cheer you free of hangovers, food that you could enjoy untiringly and with no harm, family and friends worth talking to, noise-cancelling headphones linked to endlessly blissful playlists to shut out revellers next cloud over. Dark, not raisin-eyed houris-- women could enjoy similar companions, however refurbished to suit their recliners. 

When and where are you happiest?
Sitting by Bean Creek watching its purling, susurrant flow in the Santa Cruz Mountains under the redwoods.

Something you are never without.
My glasses, or within reach of them.

What is your most appealing habit?

Is having a bibliographical mind and nearly total recall of authors and titles a habit?

And your least appealing habit?
My inability to hide what I'm thinking or feeling: my face betrays transparency.

What is the trait you most dislike in others?
Entitlement: displayed in body-language, words, fashion, accomplishments, and/or acquisitions.

What is your most treasured possession?
I spent hours looking for my wedding ring when it slipped off.

If you could have a supernatural power, what would it be?
Immortality as long as it brought me happiness: I've always feared death.

What words or phrases do you overuse?
Domestically I have been long criticized for "I'm not a ___ kind of person." And, "I prefer___" instead of stating a dislike directly. I was brought up and beaten up to be polite. 

What single thing would improve the quality of your life?
Until it's no more wage-slavery thanks to a MacArthur grant afforded me in perpetuity for this blog's brilliance, less of a L.A. commute; I live so far from work there's no non-freeway option to take.

How would you like to be remembered?
"Sly and tender"--the way my gaze has been described by my wife. And "quietly foolish," as an acquaintance summed me up in my formative years. (Better than a grad school prof's summation: "superficially brilliant.")

What music do you enjoy listening to/playing most?
My family years ago mocked my midlife struggle to teach myself the tin-whistle. I wish I'd learned music as a child. I have a good ear for tunes, and I like droning folk and rock best, often repetitive or psych-tinged.

What did you dream of being when you were younger?
An astronomer until I found out about my lack of math skills. A composer although I could neither play nor read music. An architect (math again--INTJ's are stereotypical scientists, damn it). A priest until I contemplated my disdain for groupthink. A baseball player until I hit a ball once in two years of Little League.

What were you like as a student at school?
More autodidact than model boy. Teachers disliked my lack of cheery cooperation. I muttered, smirked, lost patience. I chose to work on my own and to overcome challenges without assistance. I wasn't a team player who wished to wait for others to catch up. I'd finish my assignments early and then read what beckoned. I kept to myself and as we moved so often, I had difficulty making friends. I found solace in books and music.

How do you cheer yourself up when you are feeling down?
Listening to music, often what I loved growing up; I suppose this is normal no matter how critically sorry the bands or the decade. We associate beauty and comfort with tunes and sounds from our formative years.

If I hadn’t been a teacher, I would probably have been a...
If I had taken that INTJ test as a teen, a form of research less people-oriented would have enticed me. A librarian or archivist holed up in an office far from an importuning undergrad-- unless she was attractive.

Who has been the best teacher you have ever had?

No particular person stands out, but overall those who encouraged me to find my own way. A philosophy professor the day I finished college advised me when he found out I was headed for grad school never to make myself a slave to any one theory, and that's suited my eclectic and interdisciplinary direction well.

Something that few people know about you.

I found out a few years ago my great-grandfather was found "drowned in mysterious circumstances" in the Thames after having gone in 1898 from Co. Roscommon to London as part of a Land League delegation.

If you could travel back in time where would you go and why?
Certainly that event mentioned inspires me to travel back to find out why. It's that "grandfather paradox" of science fiction and time-travel, isn't it? You can't stop your own grandfather from being born. His younger brother, who became a minor politician, was conceived already when their Fenian father was found drowned.

What’s your best learning memory from school?
Finding out in third grade that before a vowel, we (usually) use "an." This excited me: I'd learned a rule without knowing one, and such patterns of language inculcated before being taught in class fascinated me.

Are you a tidy desk or a messy desk person?
Tidy. I clear off my desk at work. I share an office, soon to be demoted to an open cubicle, so this is wise.

What’s your favorite thing to do when it rains?
Go back to sleep.

A poem you know by heart.
Sonnet 55 by Shakespeare; I had to memorize a poem for Beginning Acting class freshman year of college.

What would you like to learn to do next?
I'd like to figure out Welsh: its look has always enchanted me, inspiring Lloyd Alexander's "Chronicles of Prydain" discovered by me around ten, which led me into Tolkien's Middle Earth and "eurocatastrophe." 

What question would you have liked me to ask you?
Is there life after death?

What would have been your answer?
When I find out, I'll get back to you.