Monday, March 31, 2014

Ag dul go Londain aríst, cuid a cúig

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

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

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

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

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

Going to London, part five.

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 29, 2014

"Many Many Many Gods of Hinduism": Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 27, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Bill Porter's "Road to Heaven": Book Review

Porter, who translates Chinese poetry under the name of Red Pine, travels into the Chungnan range dividing the wheat from the rice, the north from the south. His visit is either well or badly timed, the late spring of 1989. He gets caught up in a pro-democracy demonstration, but departs for the hills in search of hermits before the Tiananmen Square crackdown in early June. He and his photographer partner decide to return that August. Perhaps the chill in the political air permeated those he meets, for there's less told here that delves into the fate of hermits under Mao and the PRC.

In a sort-of sequel to this account, "Zen Baggage" (reviewed 6/2013), Bill Porter relates this demonstration to a CIA operative, who wryly notes that the Agency noted Porter's spontaneous involvement. Like "Zen," "Road to Heaven" carries a wandering sensibility. Porter reveals less than in the other book about himself (not that he tells much) but lots about the dates, names, and history of the contexts for the shrines, temples, and hermitages he visits. While accessible to the non-specialist reader such as me, this material can slow the pace. Porter favors lots of detail and the result feels like a guidebook's commentary rather than a vividly conveyed, personal, rendering of sights.

However, he intersperses conversations, often terse, with often no-nonsense Taoist (and a few Buddhist, or hybrid) monks and nuns who've managed despite persecution during the Cultural Revolution to survive, on and off for some, steadily for a few, in the remote regions traditionally sought by those dropping out from the pressures of society to pursue the precepts of the Dao and the simple but demanding solitude that for them leads to wisdom, and if Taoists, to try to attain entry into immortality.

Like the Dao, this concept's pretty fuzzy even when hermits try to articulate this famously allusive ideal. I like Lao-Tzu's notebook remark, after he passed royal graves: "we can see the loss of desire/the cost of what we keep" (40). An abbot sums up the pursuit of Pure Land Buddhism or Zen as basically two paths to one goal. "Practice is like candy. People like different kinds. But it's just candy. The Dharma is empty." (96)

Not much happens during the travels Porter shares. He's off on less beaten paths, he does not have many extraordinary encounters to enliven these pages. Grounded more in historical narration and brief, sometimes stolid, interviews, there's far less of the itemized, step-by-step, price-by-price pace of his later travelogue from 2006 when he sought out Zen practitioners. But there's a similar reticence among those he talks to to reveal what life was like during their privations under Communism or during WWII. The recovery of the Zen monasteries after decades of persecution ties into the regime's wish to cash in on tourism. For Daoists, the same profit motive via the Party's control as a trade-off for monastic survival, as on fabled Huashan, appears to threaten the hard-kept and hard-won isolation that few monks or nuns can find today.

As Porter concludes after a visit to the splendid vistas of Taipaishan: "Those who follow the Tao cannot divorce themselves from others, yet to find the Tao they must retire from society, at least temporarily, to practice self-cultivation and concentration of mind." (199) Porter fittingly tries to capture what he knows he cannot, the message of the Tao that can be found by practice, and meditation, not by study or books. But, a few hermits try to explain; so must Porter. This little book may not succeed more than any other in that attempt, but it avoids the wry aphorisms or exotic packaging that commonly makes this challenging self-scrutiny too tidy for us. (6-16-13 Amazon US)

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Jane Dobisz' "The Wisdom of Solitude": Book Review

As I get older and my house gets more cluttered, I wonder what paring my life down to a bare minimum might look like. How large a dwelling, how many possessions, how much baggage? Jane Dobisz examines in short chapters her own approach towards radical simplicity. She stays a hundred days at a former health resort, a remote place in New England's woods known as Temenos, and as a Zen practitioner, she reports on her winter experience in a 150-square foot cabin with no running water, heated by a stove and whatever wood she can chop and stack.

Dividing her stay into forty vignettes, each prefaced by a Zen poem or saying, and arranged loosely by tens under headings of  "Arrival," "Rolling Up Sleeves," "Hard Training," and "Spring Comes," the results come as expected. My practical mind kept wondering how she could afford this stay away from whatever her work is, what her background was that allowed her this luxury amid privation, and as the book's dedicated to a daughter and Dobisz is not that old--how her family fared without her.

She chooses not to tell. While introducing her list of what she carried in and what her demanding schedule of mainly sitting and walking from 3:15 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. meant in terms of mental stability as well as the fitter and tougher physical benefits she acclaims, her 2004 account examines less of her surroundings or amenities and orients itself more towards spirituality. Unsurprisingly, the benefits, even if she accepts that "there is no safety net" in more ways than one, outweigh the burdens.

I preferred her reactions to the environment even if these remained often only asides. For instance, she notes her visual spectrum altered as the neons and garish tones seen on computers, in ads, and stores fade into the few shades of a sparer, snowy landscape. She also fits a poignant chapter on how the "Sipping green tea, I stop the war" teaching she brings excitedly to a Korean teacher is met--in the second clause-- with dismissal as "b.s." Dobisz ties this into her reminiscence of a section titled "Ten Years Dumb," about her father's death of natural causes in Saigon when she was six, eloquently.

Yet, many other chapters prefer a more enigmatic or suspended tone. This attitude's typical of a Zen student or teacher writing a book of teachings or lessons. It may not satisfy fully those without this training, but I reckon this title will appeal to precisely those who share Dobisz's outlook and standing. (Amazon US 3-24-13)

Friday, March 21, 2014

Lawrence Shainberg's "Ambivalent Zen": Book Review

This memoir spans forty years of a smart man's attempt to shake off an authority figure. That figure may be his father, Alan Watts, Krishnamurti, a series of Japanese Zen masters, a psychoanalyst, a martial arts instructor, an aeronautical engineer turned real estate investor determined to remake monasticism in the leafy New York suburbs, his own addiction to zazen, or his self, struggling against its own annihilation as meditation demands Shainberg examine himself. The question remains, as a fellow practitioner who winds up under psychiatric care puts it, whether one "trapped within his own thoughts" can free himself from the discipline that promises such reflection. It reveals a mirror facing another mirror, and no image in between but emptiness.

Previous {Amazon} reviews focused on the author and the general topic, but Shainberg's structure for his chapters and his phrasing of the dharma both merit attention. The chapters divide along 1) his earlier years, 2) his relationship, admiring and resentful in turn with a more recent Zen teacher full of "crazy wisdom" and fractured, pithy Japanese-English pronouncements, 3) and past teachers, his former wife, fellow seekers, and figures with whom Shainberg from the 1950s onward tries to tackle the challenges of self-awareness bent on understanding the ego in therapy or undermining it in Zen.

This conflict is more tangential than central, but as Shainberg alludes to early in the book (29), D.T. Suzuki's version of Zen promoted for psychiatrists in postwar America and their patients a guru-student relationship ironically built on stronger rather than suspect examinations of the ego. This exacerbated the power of a teacher over a novice, whether on the cushion or on the couch. The manner by which he relates his life's ambition to know himself better by attacking the notion of a self may fit his book's complicated structure, which does not follow an easy-to-follow chronology but which leaps ahead and doubles back.

Shainberg breaks up his version of the dharma too, so it comes bit by bit, as he tells his tale in the triple form I've noted. The Buddha's Middle Way of moderation offers a problem for the ego. It demands its own dissolution. (36) The Way "attacks" our "need within the rational mind to make the obvious inaccessible and mysterious." We carry our own solution, but "the target towards which he directs their consciousness is the one which, above all others, consciousness abhors." (37)

In his late teens, a child with a well-connected father whose own existential search compels his own life of inquiry, the two meet Alan Watts over vodka in a Chinese restaurant. Watts quotes a Zen master's analogy that "clinging to yourself is like having a thorn in the skin and that Buddhism is a second thorn to get rid of the first." When one thorn takes out the other, both can be discarded. Watts warns about grasping even Buddha's teachings as a sure-fire remedy: "The medicine is another disease!" (48) Yet, Shainberg as with his father and more and more of his peers will search for cures.

The First Noble Truth, for Shainberg, rejects future-oriented thinking which turns the wheel of hope, "of birth and death." Caught in the web of the self, "there is nothing more certain to make you feel worse than the dream of feeling better," (54) So, is freedom found within self-annihilation?

Maybe, he wonders after decades of pursuing therapy and Zen, "Zen is nothing more than a means by which self-consciousness is exacerbated until finally unbearable, it obliterates itself." (156) Little wonder at one point he retreats to his brother's isolated cabin, where for months he meditates longer and longer, on a scanty diet, driving himself by reading Samuel Beckett's prose trilogy and later asking that author about his affinities, supposed by more than one critic, with Zen. There aren't any
["Exorcising Beckett" in The Paris Review 104 (1987) reproduces and expands material in this book] but Shainberg lets us see why so many like himself imagine this connection.

Irony sustains Shainberg. Hosting a visiting master from Japan on the roof of Shainberg's apartment, the master tries to bite the moon and wants Shainberg to follow suit. "Why is my mind in two pieces while his is so clearly in one?" (170) Self-conscious, wishing he could abandon himself to the dissolution of satellite object and human subject, he reflects that he mentally observes the scene, taking notes for the book on Zen he's never writing. Until, of course, he does for us. 

He learns it's easier to write about Zen than to practice it, but he tries both and finds his breakthrough. His profile on Bernie Glassman, engineer-turned-Zen convert full of schemes revealing "management by meandering" brings him into the chosen circle near power--how an American adaptation of coed and non-celibate monasticism and utopian communal ideals pursued through endless committees, ecumenical reading lists, delegation of tasks, and frenetic fundraising transpires in Greystone, a mansion in upscale New York suburbia. This proves the most engaging part of this 1995 memoir. However, Glassman's scattered energy and grand visions remain ambiguous in the telling of his trusted advisor, apprentice monk, and resident author Shainberg. 

For, not only at Greystone, this transformational campaign feels hermetic. Its outreach to soup kitchens gets one aside. The impact of those following Zen beyond the zendo for the betterment of those not in the know remains blurred. This choice appears intentional, but it hovers: what does Shainberg do all day? Inherited wealth presumably affords him as he notes in an aside the leisure and income to take off with others in similar circumstances not burdened by children, families, or limited vacation time for a week's retreat, for example, in a manner those outside the professional classes find difficult. His occupation seems to be trying to write a novel, and moving about in search of a master he can believe in as he immerses himself in a series of personal commitments to get in shape and repeated attempts to join communal regimens. This quest, going as far as Jerusalem, becomes his life's insistent pursuit. Given his own marital failure even as he and his wife devoted themselves to Zen and physical betterment, one ponders Shainberg's terse admission that the best "catalysts for practice" come from the lonely and despairing, often from the "recently divorced." (244) 

Perhaps this reticence despite so much disclosure for Shainberg fits his intent. He offers an honest and more in-depth account of Zen's elusive message and those who appear to accept it more easily than he often does. His periods of exertion may stimulate an eagerness for more discipline, or they can plunge him into more doubt. Neither period appears to last for long--a moral in itself, although it may not please the unwary reader seeking an "inspirational" account full of platitudes or affirmations.

In diligently attempting to demonstrate the struggle of the mind (and the put-upon body, as considerable pain comes to many from sittings, not to mention the dubious ministrations to his eye from his martial arts teacher) which envelops the Zen practitioner, he shows the results on the ego. It's a memoir that attempts to examine what may be inexplicable in words. For, up until nearly this book's end, Shainberg squares off against himself--as that self reflects the teachings of non-self. (Amazon US 6-13-13)

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Jason Siff's "Seeking Nibbana in Sri Lanka": Book Review

This California meditation teacher draws upon his experiences as a monk abroad as inspiration for this 2008 novel of ideas and insights pursued by Buddhist seekers. These recollected concepts, developed further if in factual format as Unlearning Meditation, circle around the difficulty of pinning down the elusive "nibbana" (nirvana in Pali spelling via Theravadin tradition of Southeast Asia). Its practitioners puzzle out if the ineffable but presumably unconditioned realm of transcendence may be if not grasped then, by a meditator, glimpsed.

Jason Siff draws you in as monks, or "bhikkhus," convene at a forest hermitage in Sri Lanka. Its long civil war recedes into the distance, as Aggachitta's renown as a meditation instructor attracts Sumana, a San Diegan come to find himself as a monk near a far different, less balmy coast. There, he finds Rahula, a "temple boy" appointed to feed the monks and care for the simple hermitage; myriad rules prohibit its monks, for instance, from even dishing out food to their confreres. This rule-bound monasticism, as we see it through newcomer Sumana, gains neither romanticized nor cynical depiction in Siff's narrative. He gives an indirect first person, largely unadorned editorial perspective, allowing each main character time to reflect and filter what transpires (much of it over only a few frenetic days, it seems) as the group grows despite itself.

Sumana rushes into his next stage: "He is certain that he wants to make an end to this round of rebirths right now, before he turns thirty, and then he can face anything in life with calm equanimity," with an unshakeable peace of mind. (4)  The monk's way of life certainly has benefits. The layfolk wait until the monks have finished praying, as the merits then accumulated for these donors of food will increase. Such calculation, with enumeration of attainments doled out by masters to students, and steps up towards heightened ranks of enlightenment, demonstrates what Theravada has become.

Aggachitta wonders, sparked by Sumana's request to learn meditation and the teacher's simple if bold response to "just sit" and then report on whatever happens, threatens to upend the system. Rather than adding up what a meditator appears to have reached on a five faculties, five-point scale, Aggachitta counters that this venerable accounting may be "nothing more than an intellectual model made up by some brilliant bhikkhu ages ago as a way to measure and assess meditative experiences without resorting to theories of divine intervention, psychic powers, or mystical revelations." (70) Although the characters here report sometimes their own lively visions and vivid sensations, they don't appear to receive them as if from above, and Siff subtly integrates his own recollective awareness process which he has developed to demonstrate the relevance of realizing the impetus for such "revelations."

This long-solo adept starts to feel crowded. The arrival of mercurial, unstable fellow "white-skinned" bhikkhu Palaparuchi, Sumana and then Rahula and his erstwhile suitor Devi fills the hermitage, along with Aggachitta's colleague Maggaphala, who tends not to be the intellectual Aggachitta, a Ph.D. before he donned his robes, strives to be, after decades in the forest pursuing a less worldly vocation. Siff introduces each of these antagonists or protagonists and we see, for instance, in the careful details afforded to the act of bathing (a repeated motif), Maggaphala's incorporation of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet, and Rahula and Devi's attempts to sort out their relationship relevant scenes from a surprisingly varied array of contexts which play off deeper concerns of the characters.

While these could provide another review's worth of content, for a short entry, I will stick to Aggachitta's quest. He leaves for a town monastery to work out, in some snatches of quiet, what troubles him about what he has taught Sumana and discussed with Maggaphala. This novel will be challenging for a reader lacking familiarity with Buddhist philosophy, but I suspect those opening these 360 pages will know the basic material already. Aggachitta grapples with detaching from a view that conventionally sees the twelve-link chain of causation leading from delusions to ignorance to liberation from constraints as a forward momentum; he proposes that delusions (in the plural) and ignorance interplay. This takes close attention, but he develops a theory that dependent arising can be observed in one's life "without taking up either the belief in rebirth or in an imperceptible rapidly changing reality" that leads to consciousness envisioned as a white thin flat panel of infinity, lacking  any support from above, no strings attached, suspended in space, "emanating from itself." (180)

Quite a challenge to convey in an accessible work of fiction. Nibbana then might be hinted at as not constructed but wordless, for how if the mind's truly empty can nibbana be built up in one's own suppositions as if present? (184) Aggachitta tries to meditate on this conundrum, to see if his idea of emptiness might match that attributed to the Buddha. "He does not know what to call it. Words can't survive here, and meanings seem to be as empty as their evanescent shells." (196) Ultimately, before he falls asleep, Aggachitta feels that he again lives and knows nibbana without any desire or derivation of it. (Maybe as elusive as trying, for Shakespeare's lovers, to truly speak of love.)

The "gap" concept of "nirodha" may help, what is glimpsed between links in the chain as they emerge and then fade, but Aggachitta figures this better conceived as a "clear space of knowing the act of knowing." (252) This is not sophistry. It's a fleeting hold on what may be permanent. "Nibbana is the path to its attainment." (263) Although unelaborated by Siff's characters (who must reflect their own cultural backgrounds and denominational affinities, after all), I've come across this phrasing before, but probably from Zen rather than in the Vipassana tradition by which they were trained and taught.

Meanwhile, it's not all speculation. We see how, in a couple of apposite chapters, various meditators undergoing their own reporting of what they ponder, and this helps show the process Siff favors in action, within the student and the master in the aftermath of recollection and recital of what's happened. This dramatizes and humanizes the material in his follow-up book which offers a non-fictional analysis of the same procedure. For, Siff keeps the story moving well, and he packs a lot of character development in a short span. Sumana finds his own interest in fellow former San Diegan Gotami, a blonde (or is it reddish-brown as a few pages apart in his own imagined or unreliably fevered recollection?) if now shaven young nun looking for her own teacher, and finding the same in Aggachitta. Palaparuchi and Maggaphala square off as age-old archetypes appear to return. Rahula and Devi must battle with their own families and their own fulfillment, and we also see how men and women in this traditional society encounter different opportunities, given long-held proprieties.

Aggachitta has the last word. A penultimate chapter wraps it up in a sylvan ending that Shakespeare himself might have liked, but the restless drive of the meditation teacher keeps the plot pushing on, even as the other characters relax and enjoy their hard-won peace. Still, I understand the riposte of Suriya, Aggachitta's brother and Rahula's father, who wonders as we may in the East or the West if his son is there only to learn another lesson: "How to get everything you need given to you?" (272)

I also append the warning of Maggaphala to Sumana and Gotami, all perhaps familiar with such gurus: "Ask those who write the books on meditation and teach to crowds, who have big centers and wealthy organizations, who do missionary work under the guise of giving people the true teaching of the Buddha, and who make a mockery of the noble path by granting attainments to practically every student who comes their way." (219) I waited for more self-criticism, or awareness such as this. A hermitage, relying on the goodness of donors, a place where men seem not to be able to treat women with full equality, and a place that prevents monks from even feeding each other directly, represents in a war-torn society a rather complex haven; like Shakespeare's retreats, one reflects on its ideals.

What perhaps Siff's own method conveys as a remedy might be how insight may be open to all of us. I was lent this by a teacher (a student of Siff's) after I responded with interest to his suggestion that liberation itself may be a construct. This always made intuitive sense to me. Lately, as an instructor in Comparative Religions, I've found that, without hints, some students have asked the same question.

The teacher Aggachitta may not go this far in his quest for meaning, for he concludes: "It is faith in something that is possible for one to attain because someone once, long ago, attained it." (311) This trust that if one man did it, so may his followers, persists. "Sati," we are told, is not the platitude or buzzword of  'mindfulness," but what's created in meditation and recollection as an imperative to break out of "samsara," the ordered world of mindfulness where all is in place, the "dana" of food and goods is delivered by laity on time, and all know their place. This subversion never overthrows the hermitage, but I wonder if a follow-up novel might do that. Although I was pleased that his characters after a hectic week wound up relieved, I ended this novel with this curiously subversive expectation.

To order or sample chapters: Seeking Nibbana. This review 10-18-23 as a bit altered to Amazon US.

Unlearning Meditation (author's website); I reviewed this 2010 study on Amazon US (7-18-10) and in different form at the New York Journal of Books (8-12-10). For more: Skillful Meditation Project

Monday, March 17, 2014

Laurence Cox's "Buddhism and Ireland": Book Review

Marxist sociologist of social movements Laurence Cox’s Buddhism and Ireland expands into nearly four-hundred lively pages what to him first appeared to take but a chapter. In fact, this topic elicited his first dissemination in 2009 in JGB 10. His astute interpretations and groundbreaking research stretch into a sustained grappling to pin down a phenomenon that presents a case study beyond any insularity. One end of Eurasia connects with the other/ Other, for far longer and with more traffic than arguably any previous scholars or practitioners have surmised.

Professor Cox contrasts the academic focus on who controlled the means of intellectual production with “grey literature” in Asia (tracts and agitprop as produced by late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Irish bhikkus who deployed anti-Christian polemic to rouse natives against missionaries). He elaborates how “experience breaks up the smooth flow of discourse” as authors and activists wander East to West and back again unpredictably.

He highlights his investigation as “a history of people in relationships, rather than a history of ideas; it is a history of empire not so much as ideology but as lived practice, and it is a history of social change as anti-colonial struggle and as counter-cultural transformation.” (pp. 39-40) He arrays his findings, drawn from testimony and texts, for a stress akin to what E. P. Thompson asked about Marx: “the question is not whether we are on Marx’s side but whether he is on ours.” (p. 14) That is, Cox confronts the academic bias for textual domination. However reliant upon the written record for his quest, he prefers whenever possible to interpret decisions as carried out or mooted by those Irish who, having found out about Buddhism, acted on it.

Similarly, Cox asks “whether particular choices and actions mark a step forward in relation to people’s previous situation and in the direction of greater personal clarity, interpersonal solidarity and capacity for transformation” regarding globalizing systems and ideologies, from the two tips of Eurasia -- and everywhere beyond and between as the dharma spread, up to nine centuries delayed in transmission. (pp. 14-15) He distinguishes ancient and medieval glimmers of Buddhist content as consumed by Westerners from more recent contributors (as Orientalists, as missionaries, but also a few introduced here as converts turned propagandists). Since the middle of the last century, he locates a shift back to Westerners consuming Buddhism. He cautions against overly reliant textual emphases for interpretation; trinkets, retreats, or travel may as they do nowadays convey for many far more product labeled “Buddhist” rather than books. If agency rather than doctrine, as with many New Religious Movements tends to dominate over dogma or “official” devotees regarding the prevalence of Western Buddhists who primarily identify through meditation, this too needs reiteration, for the fluid nature of identification with Buddhism leads many to a revolving door, challenging census data. In the Irish case, where some interviewed here still fear “outing,” the pressure of conformity and the impositions or allegiances of a dominant culture must be included, and the ability of Buddhist identification and practice to elude facile equivalences. Cox never assumes a devotee of a certain sangha can be summed up by the precepts of that sangha, as if affiliation sums up one's outlook.

Cox cautions that two millennia of Buddhism accumulates vast knowledge and claims, but that these “make it harder for researchers to hear the ‘needs’ which bring people to Buddhism, the problems they are grappling with in their own lives or the hegemonies they are attempting to dismantle.” Rather, organizations step in to “impose their own interpretation and articulation of these needs.” This occludes what people on the everyday level mean by Buddhism, and “we cannot take accounts formulated within this language at face value-- contra both the guardians of Buddhist orthodoxy and the left-feminist critique of ‘religion’ per se.” (p. 33) Cox explains how Westerners often drift into Buddhism as converts or fellow travelers and insert or fixate their own naive or filtered predilections.

These may often not be what sanctioned ministers desire. Teachers, schooled and approved as the establishment no matter their often promoted counter-cultural claims, may crack down on the earlier experimenters. This imported hierarchy may arrive years or decades later as a witting or unwitting force to push heterodox practice towards uniformity, and this in turn clouds subsequent understanding of how ordinary people as well as those in charge of imposing order or recording dogma reacted to Buddhism. Cox suggests instead examining practice “as a pointer to needs,” as a corrective to too much text. While this proves difficult given the paucity of material for many Irish encounters, the reminder that Buddhism appeals or repels many based on their own pressing conditions grounds this invigorating approach while it justifies the humanist and Marxist theoretical framework Cox applies.

Curious readers, to take one persistently purported Irish Buddhist encounter, that of pre-Roman influence on Celtic monasticism from (quasi-)Buddhism, will find that here, the material basis is thin and the testimony muddled.  Cox documents well in his survey how some scraps of “what-ifs” enticed those in the distant and recent past. The gap in transmission is itself a sobering corrective; as much as nine centuries between the East and the farthest island of the West attenuated even a glimmer of the dharma. However, as Cox finds, the core of the "misrecognised biography" within Barlaam and Josaphat medieval legend does prove (at least for once) semi-cohesion of that popular, transmitted ur-tale. Contrasting what W. B. Yeats invoked in “Under Ben Bulben” as “Swear by what the sages spoke/Round the Mareotic Lake” near Alexandria, the Therapeutae rumored (wrongly) by Eusebius as the original monks, Cox finds attempts at claiming Buddhist forebears for Christian monasticism (or Celtic nature poetry by implicit concatenation) inconclusive. He gently shelves fervent attempts at “origin relations” alongside Graves’ The White Goddess as “poetic myths." (p. 63)

The second chapter collects many examples of how the West consumed Buddhist accounts. Testimony from clerics, soldiers, diplomats, pilgrims, and tale-spinners as expressed by learned texts, romances, and chapbooks dominated. The Irish learned more than scholars have claimed. Networks (as Cox examines the Anglican holdings at Trinity College, Dublin and the Catholic equivalents at his home campus, now the National University of Ireland, Maynooth) joined the small farmer or laborer, who might have heard a newspaper account of the East recited by a local priest or merchant, in turn informed reliably or otherwise by Jesuits, Dissenters, traders, or journalists, via communication from China or India. French-language reports enriched Enlightenment discourse in Ireland which began to attempt to make more than mythical sense out of the East. Yet, constrained by conformity to Irish denominational and ethnic allegiances, "being Buddhist" did not appear for pre-modern readers back home or for curious travelers in those Asian realms as a viable or comprehensible personal option.

The "circuits of distribution" for Buddhist material into Ireland as mapped by Cox overlap. A Protestant, "English," and imperial system intersects with the Catholic, "Irish" and diasporic one. By the eighteenth century, a middle-class or plebeian readership itself blends with an orally dispersed set of listeners in cities and towns. Steadily if slowly, the sphere of Buddhist transmission widened. A "more restricted distribution of medieval and classical knowledge before that" period gave way to hedge-schools for Catholics under Penal Law, mass education under Protestant reformers, and then empire-building in which the Irish themselves, once colonized, took part via the military and trading.

All the same, active interest in Buddhism had to wait for opportunity. This came when "the rising power of Catholic nationalism created a new kind of crisis for old affiliations." (p. 97) The nineteenth-century agitations for Home Rule, loyalty to, or freedom from the British Crown eventually forced what exposure alone to texts or hearsay about Buddhism could not invite or suggest. Conversions began only when Buddhism "became an attractive 'Other' for some Irish people," and a choice became feasible, "possible and meaningful." (p. 96) Cox estimates that this choice to legally register as a Buddhist did not occur until a decriminalization of "blasphemy" which occurred after the (partial) independence of the Irish nation, and nearly none took advantage of it, .
at least as far as the historical records, always only part of the Irish Buddhist chronicle, document.

Part two of this study offers a theoretically sophisticated analysis of Ireland as a case study for European reception to, and propagation by a few of, Buddhism. Contrasted with the (unmentioned by Cox) 1994 attempt by Stephen Batchelor in The Awakening of the West, Cox's work remains on firmer terrain as he constructs his case with care. He cites often another popularization of Buddhism's globalization, Lawrence Sutin's All is Change (2006), but he applies J. Jeffrey Franklin's "cultural counter-invasion" thesis from The Lion and the Lotus (2008) best to posit Buddhist hermeneutic challenges to Christian mindsets, as Cox unveils this "minor moral panic." Avoiding when possible any sole reliance on textual evidence for earlier centuries, Cox places knowledge of Buddhism within wider networks. These expand exponentially as Asian anti-imperialism plays off of concurrent Irish colonial tensions. By the end of the nineteenth century, the choice to convert or sympathize loomed.

As formal sanctions declined even while "informal social costs" accrued, a few Irish people contemplated taking refuge in, or encouraging the promotion of, Buddhism. Cox emphasizes the impacts of this decision. Most of those so inclined early on were from the Anglo-Irish establishment, and if they served overseas in Asian locales, their careers would have to shift, languages had to be mastered, and new networks had to be found to replace those freethinkers cut off from ecclesiastical or imperial enterprises. Outmarriage usually met with disinheritance, and within what Cox labels Dissident Orientalism, the decision to separate from a matrix where "religion, ethnicity, career and social identity were intimately connected had enormous implications for one's whole life." (p. 110)

His third chapter pursues Irish participation in the British Empire and missionary efforts. The Irish "used religion to critique empire and their own culture," and as with other colonies caught up in the running of the royal realms, ambivalence about what was carried out overseas in relation to what was perpetuated back home continued among a few, driven to chastise what most did without complaint. Soldiers and missionaries brought into Ireland many stories and images from Buddhist culture, and among intellectual Catholics at the turn of the last century, these messages met with interest and dread. Cox charts a "minor moral panic" by papal pundits recoiling from Buddhism's nihilistic aura, even as plain Catholics were kept from knowledge of its energies, a process Cox finds akin to Gramsci's "firewalling" by an Italian clerisy of ideas labeled as too volatile for parishioners to handle.

Meanwhile, the Catholics charged with converting the Asian pagans quailed. Overestimating Buddhists to be forty percent of the world's faithful, they blundered into mission territory severely unprepared. The Columban Fathers entered China not knowing its language. They failed to sway many to the Church, and Cox compiles their incomprehension of the religion they met as their foe. Buddhism tended by the intelligentsia to be handled with care for its prestige and lineage, but consigned by Christian evangelists to the bin of racial stereotypes and character flaws of its adepts.

However, Irish awareness in a less stigmatized form of Buddhism filtered down, if obliquely, into popular culture. Sir Edwin Arnold's successful poem on the Buddha, The Light of Asia (1879), found itself publicized in the Dublin press in bowdlerized or blinkered fashion as a story of a prince's reformation. Cox locates in its coverage no mention of the Buddha. Conversely, most Irish instances then to Arnold's title "are to racehorses or greyhounds, indirectly attesting to its popularity." (p. 169)

Another encounter with the East, the best-known instance for Western readers, has been analyzed far more widely over the past century and more. Theosophy earns a chapter devoted to three concerns. First, it beckoned some Anglo-Irish away from the "service class" (in Marxian terms), to pursue esoteric concerns. Next, it forced followers to choose between Blavatsky and Olcott's Eastern variety or the Western occult tradition in what became the Order of the Golden Dawn. The careers of respectively Æ (George Russell) and Yeats epitomize this bifurcation among this Irish class. Finally, as Indian contact deepened Western awareness of key distinctions between Hindu and Buddhist concepts as actually practiced rather than as textual claims, theosophical divisions widened.

Cox situates his subjects, marginalized yet inextricably tied to identity, within their era, 1850-1960: "For most Irish people, politics was spoken of as religion, as it was in India or Ceylon." (p. 195)  His fifth chapter features the stories of many less heralded than Yeats or Blavatsky, "those who resisted sectarian closure at its height" as "solidarity activists" and agents outside Irish or British confines.

Cox and his colleagues Brian Bocking and Alicia Turner continue to investigate an enigmatic working-class hobo-turned-bhikkhu, born in Booterstown, Dublin to an Irish Catholic family. He covered his perhaps subversive tracks as he wandered across America and took the name, after he wound up in Rangoon to go sober and get religion, of U Dhammaloka. Well into middle-age when in 1900 he burst into notoriety as a preacher against Christian missionaries, his career, until it just as suddenly vanishes after 1914, enlivens a memorable case study. He promoted by his Buddhist Tract Society what Cox superimposes as importing Daniel O'Connell's Irish model of cultural nationalism, defending the popular religion (this time, Burma) against the colonial elite (again, Protestant Britain).

While more from Dhammaloka himself would have jolted what remains a jaunty chapter, a snippet from a sample polemic, The Teachings of Jesus Not Adapted for Modern Civilization (1910), conveys his flair. Denouncing "the necessity of a vast host of able-bodied, well-fed Sky-Pilots" as "managers of matters between men and the big Papa in the Clouds," the BTS "holds that if a man's soul is to [be] saved by man's work, the man that has the soul has got to do the work." (p. 251) As Cox's "classic Irish Buddhist" by his defiance of the norm and his sustained reinvention in a different guise and a different realm, to this reviewer, Dhammaloka furthermore appears to fit Gramsci's model of an "organic intellectual": this formation of such a wry, self-confident figure suggests further application.

These Irish Buddhists at home and abroad comprise a memorable faction. Their numbers may have been larger than what can be surmised up to a century later, given that reliance on the "means of intellectual production" limits research to those who have published, as had Dhammaloka and his ilk. Many of those who can be verified emerge, moreover, from the educated elite. Even a shortlist of those who can be verified finds Cox resorting to the modifier "eccentric" more than once. Their common roles found them on the fringes, relegated there for counter-cultural (in the 1890s sense as well as the more recent usage) claims that featured republicanism, the avant-garde, mandarin poses, a spurious if bestselling claimant (Lobsang Tuesday Rampa for a while had fled to Ireland to evade British demands for his purportedly Tibetan passport) of transmigration, and, in Michael (born Laura) Dillon's case, the first female-to-male transsexual through plastic surgery. A doctor, he shifted from Theosophy as he traveled East. Remaking himself into Lobzang Jivaka, his life commemorates total devotion to breaking barriers first of gender, and then, as Cox narrates movingly, those of class and race as he sought to become a humble Gelugpa novice in Ladakh, before his untimely death in 1962.

Bedeviling identification now as then, the pressure for Irish Buddhists to "pass" as Catholics leaves Cox's study necessarily reticent regarding who can be singled out. Allegiances being fluid, those officially Buddhist tally as its smallest cohort, most likely. "Hinduism, paganism and ritual magic" appealed to mavericks who could creolize these practices more accessibly, given purported Christian or Celtic affinities as imagined or invented by Irish adepts. Cox avers that the "sub-Theosophical version" of Buddhism edged too close to Victorian beliefs for its adoption by seekers, while its "orthodox Asian versions" remained too risky for public identification until a few Buddhists stepped forward in 1971. Historically, "most survived by their pen and died poor" even among the smattering, usually those who had left an intolerant Ireland, who admitted their devotion to the dharma. (p. 281) 

Such intolerance, as Catholic hegemony over the southern part of the island crumbled between the 1960s and the 1990s, ebbed. The patrician Protestant service class, after the British Empire faded, retreated or emigrated. Educational opportunities and economic expansion drew working-class Catholics into the (sub-)urbanized, and somewhat secularized (if far less than the rest of Western Europe until very recently) middle class. While midcentury Victorians knew more about Buddhism, gleaned from imperial information, than almost any Irish people did between the 1920s and 1950s, the counter-cultural turn beckoned a handful towards a hesitant, perhaps furtive, move towards practice. Wearied by sectarian verities and stagnant piety, Dissident Orientalists from among disaffected Catholics revived within Irish culture, as communities formed in remote retreats as well as Dublin and Belfast. Blow-ins from Britain and Western Europe conveyed "imported Buddhism" during the 1970s-1980s. Then Irish inquirers, often self-taught solitaries who had tended to lay low, invited missionaries with their "export" version of Buddhism in the 1990s. By the millennium, "baggage Buddhism" increased as Asian immigrants contributed to Ireland's globalizing economy.

Cox parallels these changing Catholic reactions to Buddhism with the "Brezhnev era." That is, "following a brief period of openness and self-criticism, an institution turning back to internal certainties and organisational routine, relying on increasingly greying cadres to sustain itself." (p. 316) Syncretism, meditation mixing Christian and Buddhist approaches, and ecumenical dialogue after Vatican II capitulated as Rome turned away from liberation theology and Eastern-inspired practices, and as conservative Irish clerics denounced "cults," yoga, and the New Age in the 1980s.

The American-Irish Dublin student-turned-Zen monastic in Japan Maura O'Halloran attests in her journals to the power of activism, as socialist, feminist, and anti-capitalist campaigns across the world engaged her while fueling her practice in the late 1970s. Cox aligns such awareness with contexts which, while they kept Irish Buddhists marginalized due to sectarian pressures, allowed networks along alternative politics to flourish, even if their precarious nature meant they often had to start from scratch and may not have lasted for long. Still, they managed better than those in the North during the Troubles. Buddhists in the British-occupied province often have emigrated (before as after the partition of the Irish Free State in 1921), yet the identification of "peace and tolerance" with Buddhism, conversely, has appealed to a few daring to defy deeply divided lines. This topic begged for far more space, but the reserve of many Irish, from the North or South, persisting among certain interviewees demonstrates the difficulty that Buddhists there have had, via the diffidence they show.

The final chapter elaborates Jan Nattier's "baggage, import, and export Buddhism" models. Cox distinguishes the Irish from the American differences. Migrants comprise so tiny and so recent a cohort that nearly no Asians in Ireland have sufficient numbers to build their own Buddhist institutions. Western European teachers exported Buddhism into Ireland from the late 1980s on. Importing Buddhism relied on lay rather than monastic trainers, while "Mind-Body-Spirit" circuits construct "informal Buddhisms in private contexts." (p. 328) Moreover, the domestic or occluded nature of Irish Buddhism by many still in the "closet" or who mix its precepts with other spiritualities evades clearer academic scrutiny of its hybrid, creole, and characteristically dissident manifestations.

Cox estimates a third of such practitioners lack affiliation, and the global dependence of the Irish on British and international "imported knowledge" and contacts means that groups may gather at a home to listen to tapes or meditate rather than, say, flock to Rigpa's Dzogchen Beara on Cork's coast, Samye Dzong or the Zen/Insight group in suburban Dublin, or Black Mountain Zen Centre in Belfast. Less-educated and more female contingents, depending on commercially distributed product for their Buddhist connections, increase among importers in Ireland, Cox confides "anecdotally" if relevantly. Current varieties of Irish exporters, by contrast, gravitate towards hierarchy, rely on tighter doctrine and ritual, appeal to those making a "spiritual career" out of the quest, and may suit male ambitions.

Most seekers aiming at a career train abroad. Most teachers serving the Irish move there from abroad. Immigrant communities also recruit overseas their leaders. Cox analyzes O'Halloran's choice to leave 1970s Dublin for Japan as representative. Rejecting home, family, and a job, the option to travel to an enduring Buddhist enclave in its traditional heartland or at least already solvent Western settlements carried more weight than trying to build a sangha or a monastic manifestation within Irish society.  Very recently, while the strain of pursuing the dharma openly in Ireland may be easing, the daily difficulties of professionally sustaining a Buddhist enterprise limit opportunities all over the island.

The copy for this book claims that since the 1960s, "Buddhism has exploded to become Ireland's third-largest religion." This boom echoes as a whisper. The progression from under a hundred self-identified Buddhists in the Republic's 1991 census to nearly ten thousand (estimating too the North) in 2011 reveals a dramatic, if still infinitesimal leap forward, to 0.19 percent of those reporting a recognized denomination. Converts make up less than half, with fewer than forty percent of these Irish nationals; nearly half of the Buddhist E. U. immigrants hail from Britain, trailed by Germany and France. Cox reckons these total about a third of Irish Buddhists, however loosely defined by their own affiliations. Reacting against their nation's past, more persist in autonomy and/or "reflexivity in all fields of life" as part of their counter-culture. For instance, nobody polled among local Irish adepts appears to want to establish a  Buddhist school. In a country where pedagogy may likely fall under  Catholic or Protestant supervision or intervention, this suggests a fresh start for its nascent Buddhists.

Over ten thousand Chinese immigrants dominate the numbers of ethnic Buddhists. But no temples or organizations exist; the sangha remains within the home or family. Falun Dafa/Falun Gong, contested as to its Buddhist claim, emerges as the most visible Chinese denomination in Ireland, where many students and a turnover population may weaken a more elevated base for Buddhism in public view. Sōka Gakkai International, typically, blurs or breaks down ethnic and convert distinctions, boosting its modest Irish beginnings one-on-one in 1978 by way of a growing Japanese presence during the 1990s. A Dublin Thai center opened in 2011; Cox suggests the recession may spur greater cooperation between immigrants and converts, drawn together by dependence and common ground.

Commonalities with Catholic, Christian, or Celtic and pagan outlooks creolize Buddhist adaptation. Samye Dzong in the 1990s tried to link Tibetan doctrine with Celtic lore, and Sanskrit with Irish-language parallels (however sketchy given evidence). A few Celtic Buddhists invented a lineage, emanating through the aegis of an English-born, American-Canadian émigré butler of Chögyam Trungpa back to Tibetan origins, blending ecological and pagan elements into a hybrid vocation.

In turn, engaged Buddhists agitate alongside Catholic Workers against U.S. military planes at Shannon, raise funds for Tibet, build cross-community outreach in Belfast, or carry out prison visits. Buddhists, as ever enmeshed in their set and setting, have sidled away from Maura O'Halloran's affirmation of socialism as the proper response to injustice and inequality. Reflecting "mindfulness" mantras marketed by seminars to corporations, many Buddhists seem readier to turn inward to transform themselves first, rather than to reduce suffering. "Service-class romanticism," Cox chides, pays less attention to "changing social relationships" while perpetuating the endemic Irish entanglements thwarting equality, given monolithic "ethnic and religious community structures." (p. 369) The "neoliberal boom" harnessing all to relentless workplace productivity finds Irish of all sects or none confronting long privation after pursuit of quick profit, so Buddhism may appeal to restless seekers. Whether this brand of Buddhism becomes a narcotic or a shock to the system remains open, as this far Western island ponders how to integrate, share, peddle, or disguise lore from the Far East.

New Age adherents propel many contemporary innovations branded Buddhist, stirring meditation and mindfulness mantras into an eclectic mission of "self-development" aligned with holistic medicine and psychotherapy. Cox avers that today's status of Buddhism as "tolerated and timid challenger" may not last as Irish Catholicism weakens and the Celtic Tiger slinks. He asserts that Buddhists will fare better not to defend religion as placid allies from "spirituality." Given the mordant Irish experience with organized power controlled by clergy, Buddhists should rally "those who seek an end to suffering in the world." (p. 377) Rather than compromise, they must contend and confront.

If change will occur, Buddhists need to stand among those refusing to step aside when churches or states shove back. Rejecting both the "moral monopoly" assumed by clergy and the "consumption as a way of life" which for many Irish as for most in the rest of the world has become the new creed, Cox pushes Buddhists into the front lines, using their momentum gained by an association with "downshifting" out of the rat race. Like the evanescent presence of many past Irish Buddhists, these activists may flicker and fade from the present or future as well, unless published and recorded, for scholars such as Cox to track down and promote. Small flaws (a welcome index and bibliography, but inconsistent inclusions and indentations; Maura O'Halloran's Asian years ended not in 1992 but 1982 with her sudden death [p. 324]) will not discourage any inquirer opening this to learn so much. Professor and practitioner Laurence Cox's survey of Irish Buddhism shines as the first light projected into a dim space nearly every colleague might have dismissed as all but vacant. Instead, this lively book sparks energies within texts, interviews, tracts, tapes, filled by traces he delineates and connects.

(P.S. Some of my citing from and musing upon Dr. Cox's opening chapter was shared on Speculative Non-Buddhism . See comments #11 and #24 [to #14 {cf. #26}] by Patrick Jennings and #17 by Glenn Wallis in response to his "Non-buddhist blotter, anyone?"  I thank them for suggestions; their fuller consideration awaits my further elaboration on this study, which will appear at The Non-Buddhist. My review appeared in pdf (via JGB homepage), edited from the 4300 words above to less than 3900, in the Journal of Global Buddhism 15 (2014):79-86. At about 1100 words, 3-17-14 to Amazon US)

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Ag dul go Londain aríst, cuid de cheithre

Dhuísigh muid Dé Domhnaigh ach bhí beagán tuirseach riamh ár turas go Cookham an lá riomh. Mar sin, theastaigh Léna a shúil ag timpeall an comharsanachta. Thosaigh muid leis spaisteoireacht go taispeántas de liníochtaí na Breataine ina Músaem na Victoria + Albert.

Chónaic muid líníocht béag le Stanley Spencer nuair a bhí mac léinn ansin, agus líníochtaí go leor Bhreataine. Bhí Nollaig, ach go raibh plódaithe suas i an músaem is h-iontach. Mar sin féin sna galearaithe na Breataine, bhí daoine níos lú ann.

Nuair a thug mé cuairt na Músaem na Londain na nDugaí, ghlac mé faoi deara de chreidmheasa a Músaem na Brandaí, Pacáistiú, agus Foghlaíocht. Bhí óiche nach beag, ach go raibh am beag a fheicéail sé ansin in aice leis Bóthar Portobello i gCnóc Notting. Tá sé lán lena mílte na rúdaí ó 1837 go inniu. 

Caith muid shiúil fada ar ais dinnéar in aice leis ár óstan. Chuala cloiginí ag Eaglais Naomh Mhuire  Abaí ag imeall Gairdíní Kensington. Ith muid bia Bhreataine leis leann agus leann úll maith le grúdlann Shepherds Neame ag Bumpkin i gKensington Theas.

Ar deireadh, chuaigh go Chelsea leis cuimhneacháin na Thomas More agus Úllord na Roper air. Shiúil muid ag dul na tithe go leor ealaíontóirí agus scríbhneoirí ar fud timpeall Cheyne Walk. Bhí ciúin ag deireanach ag timpeall an Thames, ach ní raibh ar an chláifort glórach i Londain anois.

Going to London, part four.

We woke up on Sunday but we were a bit tired after our journey to Cookham the day before. Therefore, Layne wanted to walk around the neighborhood. We began with a stroll to the exhibition of British drawings at the Museum of Victoria + Albert.

We saw a small drawing by Stanley Spencer when he was a student, and many British drawings. It was December, but there was a crowd below in the wonderful museum. Nevertheless in the British galleries, there were fewer people there.

When I paid a visit to the Museum of Londain at the Docklands, I took note of a credit to the Museum of Branding, Packaging, and Advertising. It was almost night, but we had a short time to see it there near Portobello Road in Notting Hill.  There's thousands of items from 1837 to today.

We spent a long walk before dinner near our hotel. We heard bells at the Church of St. Mary Abbots around Kensington Gardens. We ate a British meal with good ale and cider from the Shepherds Neame brewery in London at Bumpkin in South Kensington.

Finally, we went to Chelsea with a memorial to Thomas More and his Roper's Orchard. We walked past the houses of many artists and painters around Cheyne Walk. It was quiet at last around the Thames, but not on the noisy embankment in London now. (Grianghraf/Photo: Executed Today)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

"Cruel Theory/ Sublime Practice": Book Review

Glenn Wallis, Matthias Steingass, and Tom Pepper reevaluate Buddhism. Dismissing quiescent and supernatural states, they seek a practice grounded in liberating socially engaged agents, committed to intellectual rigor, ideological application, and political confrontation.  If they push Buddhism to the brink, they may glimpse an abyss, or play among the ruins where a tipped, upended rupa shatters. Expanding ideas discussed at the Speculative Non-Buddhism online project, they deny world-transcendence while affirming a collective mind--outside the individual brain--as liberated subjects revitalized, after a truth-event named as Buddhadharma.

This esoteric, exacting study demands concentration. In cruelty, via Antonin Artaud's theater, it unnerves the practitioner. With practice, invigorated by theory, the informed and radicalized subject revives. After Wallis's précis about its individually authored chapters, Tom Pepper rejects an "ultimate cosmopolitan anti-intellectual aesthetic practice" which comprises most of Western Buddhism. In "The Radical Buddhist Subject and the Sublime Aesthetics of Truth," he equates postmodernism with "sophisticated anti-intellectualism." (22)

Given Pepper is a literature professor, I pondered (fresh from reviewing Thomas Pynchon's forthcoming novel Bleeding Edge) if erudite evocations of power and control within Pynchon's works or, for example, Roberto Bolaño's 2666, Don DeLillo's Libra, Haruki Murakami's 1Q84, or José Saramago's allegories and chronicles deserved this tacit dismissal as "anti-intellectual" for their own sophisticated postmodernism. Pepper may intend to blame the secondary orality of postmodern culture. When fewer people read closely, they parrot received ideas with less self-awareness. Such lassitude enables the solipsism of consumers seeking Buddhism now, as marketed often in the West.

Pepper prefers to dismantle philosophical rather than fictional constructs which ease disengaged, dissatisfied audiences away from "the desolate landscape of postmodern thought." He castigates those Western Buddhists who eschew thought within meditation, and those who further "global capitalism" by choosing a more comforting "aesthetic negotiation" which prefers the comfort of beauty to any confrontation with an edgy, uneasy "sublime" harnessed to economic reform and radical change. (23)

Moving from David Hume's aesthetics, through Pali texts, past Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics into Louis Althusser's "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses," Pepper promotes as a corrective Alain Badiou's version of the sublime. Here, Pepper's definition meshes with postmodern literature, if by implication: "The sublime assumes a lack or emptiness, a gap in our World, our ideology, and also assumes the emptiness of conventional truth." (58) Pepper sharpens his perceptions, urging the need to acknowledge conventional truth. He reflects on Nagarjuna in light of Hume, Althusser, and the search for the Higgs Boson, as ways to start remapping worlds which stop reifying false premises. He uses Badiou's agency to propose common efforts which, as in the Aristotelian sense of making a habit a commitment to serious play and immersion in moral action, together create social transformation.

How this revives Buddhism might be, Pepper suggests, akin to how Keats's "Ode to Melancholy," the Harry Potter series, or the film Avatar may be studied. Students can unite to dismantle ideology, and to rebuild it. Exposing the mind as the core, not the brain, for "symbolic communication, which must always take place between multiple individuals," Pepper draws on Marx and Lacan (in passing), Badiou, and Buddhist thought for his remodel. (56) This "sublime" may not soothe, but it can awaken. No-self, dependent arising, and conventional truth provide markers by which humans can achieve consciousness rather than submission to "reactionary or obscurantist subjectivity." (83) How this will be achieved pragmatically, as in many manifestos, remains nebulous, but the promise of philosophical and political change lingers. Knowing this dependence on better ideology, and not being discouraged by this necessity to live with an ideological foundation, people by choosing wiser ideological constructions will transform reality.

Elaborating his scrutiny on the Speculative Non-Buddhism site, Glenn Wallis has moved beyond his phenomenologically inflected interpretations infusing his translations of the Dhammapada (2004) and sixteen suttas as Basic Teachings of the Buddha (2007). Neither merits mention in this volume. Currently teaching applied meditation at the Won Institute of Graduate Studies near Philadelphia, he devises "non-buddhism" inspired by the procedures of François Laruelle. Wallis alters "critical operations" to produce "theorems that are buddhistically uninterpretable." (91) He seeks to expose the hidden syntax, the viability of the propositions, and the "ideological excess" within Buddhism. (92)

Through fifty-eight numbered sub-sections of "Speculative Non-Buddhism: X-Buddhist Hallucination and its Decimation," Wallis establishes his terms, with a coda revising a few as a thought-experiment. His training as a Sanskrit and Pali scholar, his incisive tone, and his occluded career as a hardcore punk guitarist (he applies "decimation" as taken from digital sound processing) hover around a set of propositions and definitions. Confronting "x-buddhisms,” (I follow his punctuation) where x="unending modifiers" (93), Wallis locates in each version an embedded "decision" to affirm that type as a synecdoche for the whole of the dharma. The "non-" disables the Buddhist "network of postulation" while enabling Buddhism to remain as a "positive value." (95-96) "Speculation" requires that x-buddhism remain as is, so that critical inquiry may proceed, doing what x-buddhism will not do.

Therefore, integrating Laruelle's "radical immanence," this non-buddhism exposes x-buddhism. It can dissect, say, a concept such as śūnyatā to demonstrate how it works within a "symbolic system" freed from having to prove or disprove the truth-claim of emptiness itself. (103) "Decision" unplugs the current of self-reflexivity, the self-sufficiency of a Buddhist version unable to examine its own syntax. Non-buddhism, neither negating nor affirming Buddhism, incorporates a concerted strategy which "aims to stimulate the cognitive and affective conditions that render decision intelligible." (105)

Ironically, as a doctrine abounding with metaphors of voids, fingers pointing at a moon, discarding rafts, or burning houses down, x-buddhism refuses to notice its “flinch” when presented with these tropes. It resists its radical terms. Within a loop, trapped by clinging, it fails to provide "knowledge of real processes"; tautologically, it whirls within a "matrix of hallucinatory desire" (112). As a counter-measure, Wallis adapts Althusser's formulation of interpellation, the way people are molded into subjects through "ideological state apparatuses," to show how a "contemporary Westerner" refashions into an "x-buddhist subject." (115) Unless the "bad" subject disidentifies (as Althusser's student Michel Pêcheux phrases this oppositional stance) with the community's ideology, that interpretation seems natural and self-evident. This complacency, Wallis (Pepper concurs although nearly no cross-references connect their essays) demonstrates, prevents the adept from challenging, revolting, or leaving the dominant system. Liberation lets go of the "thaumaturgical refuge of x-buddhism" full of "ventriloquized subjects," as the one unthinking one's self as a non-buddhist enters into exile. (121)

Wallis directs the exiled subject towards "non-buddhist terms for practice." (124) Intrigued by the potential within x-buddhism yet no longer bound to its "dharmic norms," he lists three-dozen varieties of a heuristic within which speculation may work. "Buddhemes" as the reiterations of x-Buddhism, Buddhism as a constantly morphing ideology credited to "The Protagonist," a "Gotamic calculus," "humophobia" or a fear of flesh and blood, the "principle of sufficient Buddhism" as a nostrum for all that ails us, "spiritual narcissism," and a "voltaic network of postulation" speckle these exempla with provocative insight if considerable compression. Eager to defeat Buddhism as a "particular variety of sameness," Wallis escorts "x-buddhism's representatives" (136) to his "Great Feast of Knowledge." (144) There, these claimants can hold their own, albeit democratically, under the "same rules of engagement as all of the sciences and the humanities, as all local knowledges." I add that feasters might look up a Chinese student statement issued in June 1986, “The Not-Not Manifesto.” Consider this, cited by Jonathan Spence in his The Search for Modern China: “Not-Not is not the negation of anything.  It is only an expression of itself.  Not-Not is aware that liberation exists in the indefinite.”

Concluding with a thought-experiment substituting non-buddhist terms for x-buddhist ones, Wallis reckons a "decimated calculus" to distinguish, for instance, śūnyatā from "nihility" or "truth of void." He argues that nihility concocts an "antidote to the inexorable human drive toward transcendental illusion." (148-149) If the dharma defines the void while it evades this truth, it cannot endure as it is.

After this pair of scrupulously academic entries, a digressive approach follows from Matthias Steingass, who jumpstarted this Non-Buddhist site after running Der Unbuddhist. "Control" opens with an anecdote about stumbling across a lavish, graphic book of war photography, in a store tucked away within one of Europe's wealthiest cities, and the unease this juxtaposition created. He sidles into a riposte to the supposition by Robert Thurman and Sogyal Rinpoche that the ego is but an "expert at trickery and guile." (161)  Thurman's "terrorist in your brain" can only, it appears, be disarmed by not thinking, a release of the self into pure consciousness.

Steingass pinpoints in Thurman's salvific, Tibetan version of Buddhism a lack of ethical embedding in a "social context." (165) A disengaged version cannot impel followers to awaken. Thurman garbles the roles of Morpheus and Neo from The Matrix with those of the spectator. Steingass confesses confusion why peace-promoting Thurman advocates a film with such a splatter-specked climax. 

Paralleling this viral, slapdash "Neo-Buddhism," Steingass charges Thurman with denying "Tibetan Buddhism's violent heritage." (172)  (Thurman in Joshua Glenn's 1996 Utne Reader interview  "The Nitty Gritty of Nirvana" responded to such allegations. Thurman encourages engaged Buddhism, although his extended paean Inner Revolution, strangely missing from Steingass' citation, will appease no non-buddhists. Why the Dalai Lama Matters speaks for itself.) Charting cruelty within the rise of the Dalai Lamas, Steingass notes that neither a Shangri-La fairytale nor a dynastic clash of titans reveal a realistic approach towards Tibet, drifting as "oscillations in a fantasmatic landscape" mirroring a Western gaze. He nods at Tibet's noble savage as the West's preferred reflection. 

This crosses (if covertly) with Wallis' discussion of the credulous x-buddhist; if x=Tibetan for Steingass, then by adapting Max Weber's definition of a charismatic leader, Steingass reveals how journalists endow the current Dalai Lama with such an aura. Pascal Boyer's notion that most religious concepts serve as parasites on mental systems (akin to the aesthetic, vis-à-vis Pepper's inclusion of Hume) furthers this dependence on evolutionary psychology, an urge to bow before the shaman or submit to the seer. This propensity endures "below the conscious threshold of individual phenomenological access." (186)

As a "ritual specialist," the lama or priest, Steingass elaborates, gets singled out by Western as well as Eastern cultures as special. This human propensity appears deeply rooted in phylogeny, irrespective of explicitly religious manifestations. Icons endure as both gurus and guitar heroes, after all. As another musician-contributor, Steingass segues into how cultural movements and modern music lack a guiding principle or a framing device-- any more than that aligned by Thurman to limit Tibet.

Steingass summons not only Nietzsche and Foucault but Arthur Rimbaud to match Woodstock and intense social experimentation in the 1960s with the arrival of Chögyam Trunpga in the U.S. Blaming that lama for a "here and now" immersion into a simplistic view of reality "as it is," Steingass adapts Wallis' "principle of sufficient Buddhism" to account for what became a perennial philosophy brand of "Neo-Buddhism." (198-199) Unstated by Steingass, Wallis’s analogous appraisal of the “human drive toward transcendental illusion” propels Trungpa’s Shambhala vision. It rushes past ecological issues to assure the retrieval of a basic goodness without situating this phenomenon within consumer capitalism. Trungpa peddled a remedy to "spiritual materialism," yet he failed to analyze the sexual, political and social predicaments his own actions and those of his sangha then generated.

"Just look inside and the rest will follow" keeps the meditator on auto-pilot, according to Steingass.  Post-1968, an insular authenticity at work or play rules. Whether Jimi Hendrix jamming care of vacuum tubes and magnetic tapes invented in WWII (I detect Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow) or Marina Abramović slipping into shamanism as museum performance, capitalism perpetuates the search for the "authentic." It's a long march from Trungpa's childhood in pre-communist Tibet, but these pop gurus--by reproducing aesthetics and commodifying their emanations-- may nudge, however slyly, individuals to find their empowered vocation, to achieve their own self-actualization.

Winding back to what disturbed him in the war photography volume in that elegant bookstore, Steingass reflects that the sudden encounter "shifted my perception and intensified it." (208) Options exist beyond Abramović displaying herself, Hendrix recording at Woodstock, or Trungpa, Sogyal, or Thurman selling entry into a "gated community" of blissful disciples as a portal to freedom. Instead of acceptance or resignation, Steingass concludes, we as liberated spectators turned wise subjects can look at each other differently, as he looked at the war photos, or how museum goers look at an artist as an installation. Abramović posed herself in a gallery where visitors expect to find a framed masterpiece or an imposing sculpture. She tapped into the market, fueled by her own novelty.

Similarly, Steingass reminds us as do his co-contributors separately, Buddhism pulses with a potency that jolts a witness. (The sublime is achieved, not the aesthetic, to apply Pepper’s terms, albeit unspecified by Steingass.) Freeing viewers as actors, as those liberated from consumers to appropriators who own the art, and who create their own, radical reclamation beckons.

Each section contains documentation but each remains autonomous. A few introductory paragraphs by Wallis and three synopses of the chapters by each contributor provide a cursory overview.  The authors could have transcribed a panel discussion on “what is to be done,” sifting and refining their collective ideas. But, this lacks an agenda to synchronize students and critics of Buddhism dissatisfied with so many x-buddhisms. Instead, three authors leave it up to a radicalized reader who will reply with reason to x-buddhisms, to unplug what Wallis hears as their "dharmic vibrato." Moving from in theory from “x” to “non-,” the next step stays shadowed in practice. 

So far, coverage as far as I am aware of the non-buddhist juggernaut outside of predictable blowback at secular or legion x-buddhist sites has lagged in print.  In a recent review at New Clear Vision, "Sacred Activism," I summed up Jay Michaelson’s forthcoming Evolving Dharma. He introduces in a section on secular and non-theistic versions of Buddhism both Speculative Non-Buddhism and Matthew O’Connell’s Post-Traditional Buddhism. Michaelson paraphrases O’Connell’s disenchantment with Tibetan teachings before turning to Wallis.  Michaelson credits “scholar-practitioner” Wallis’s work as “marked by academic sophistication and self-reflexivity,” but concludes that “the actual practice of his sangha is not substantially different from the post-Zen Zen teachers of independent teachers such as Adyashanti” (loc. 1048 in e-galley proof), who gains little elaboration from Michaelson other than that he combines Zen with Vedanta and seeks a non-meditation state of “just sitting.” Michaelson, an adept in the Burmese Hadasi lineage (and as also a Yale Law professor, Ph.D. in Jewish thought, journalist, poet, and LGBT activist himself eclectic) extrapolates Wallis, “perhaps the most theoretically and academically rigorous of the post-post-traditional mavericks,” i.e., a prefix ahead of O’Connell’s own mavericks, as converging despite himself with those who “dispense with theory entirely.” 

Michaelson then muses that the “apophatic mystics” might have been right after all, for the likes of iconoclasts such as Wallis, whom he finds not as far apart from his secular antagonists as Wallis and allies may insist.  To me, Wallis has left the building, and the icon will not return for an encore, but to his critics, the threat of the new boss reclaiming the throne of the old boss, one party line shutting out other gatecrashers at the Feast, has generated mosh-pit jostling, at least on the Net. Pepper, after this book appeared, began his own investigation of the Buddha's "truth-claim," at The Faithful Buddhist.

O’Connell and Steingass try to ease some of the internecine tension, with fora open to more accommodation than excoriation as they ponder competing versions of x-buddhisms. Meditation in particular occupies a zone where practitioners continue to debate how much or how little of the dharma need be perpetuated when it comes to imagining reformed spaces for a skeptical sangha. I repeat Michaelson’s telling phrase: “the actual practice of his sangha” implies that Wallis and non-buddhists comprise already, two years after that site arose, a living entity, beyond—and/or as-- a virtual community. Australian sociologist and Zen student Joanne Miller in Buddhist Meditation and the Internet has examined such communal challenges for those attempting to build a cyber-sangha.

The reader, after examining three expansive exegeses, will find a few hints how to put non-Buddhism into action, in either the virtual or real worlds. Wallis's revised vocabulary as a thought-experiment, Pepper's admonition for an ideologically aware cadre, or Steingass's wish for an invigorated viewer's insight to adapt as a common vision offer suggestions, if inclined toward subtlety or density. The adamant tone of two-thirds of this treatise may daunt some readers, however familiar with Buddhist and philosophical concepts. By contrast, Steingass roams into popular culture and recent history widely, but he shrouds several thematic links. What deserves keeping and what needs discarding from the dharma, after such fierce scrutiny, waits as tenuous. Context may be gleaned by inspecting the Speculative Non-Buddhism website, as well as the emerging perspectives at The Non-Buddhist and Post-Traditional Buddhism and other sites linked therein, but this book does not duplicate (contrary to a claim in the first review extant at Amazon US/UK; my review has been posted there in short form), beyond the numbered elements underlying Wallis's section, the objectives of his original, often contentious, online project.

Encouragingly, this volume moves into fresh areas of inquiry. Pepper's hopes for a revolutionary vanguard and Steingass' concluding appeal to passive consumers turned engaged appropriators of art tend not to intersect on their respective paths to pursue the possibilities of non-Buddhism. However, with Wallis' ambitious formulations as the book's pivot, the patient reader will uncover his or her own suggestive resonances and correspondences. A tighter connection between essays and a bit more proofreading (I tally a few slips in the first section for spelling and usage and a couple in the last) would have amplified the long-range impact of Cruel Theory/ Sublime Practice. All the same, as a re-evaluation and valuation of the hidden drives within Buddhism, this strategy invites those in search of radical renewal.

(Thanks to Camelia Elias, EyeCorner Press, for a review copy. Remake-remodel as edited from above to 3300 words, 3/12/14, at Journal of Buddhist Ethics (2014) 21: 261-271; mostly as above 3100 words 9-9-13 to The Non-Buddhist. Update at TNB on JBE review (and pdf). Finally, 1160 words, revamped at Amazon US 9-8 and British Amazon 9-9-13. Order info.)