Friday, July 31, 2009

Crocodiles' "Summer of Hate": Music Review

Great title for a familiar sounding CD. Fans of Jesus & Mary Chain will like this best. Beat in German motorik, a touch of Suicide, a dash of Velvet Underground, and, given the band's name, Echo & the Bunnymen: ingredients for a post-punk set that brings the duo and their drum machine (not named Echo?) into a revival of alternative rock's darker, but not dreadful, attitudes.

After a short "Screaming Chrome" that's rather subdued, "I Wanna Kill" replicates the JMC's "Head On," but it's not bad as a tribute to them. "Soft Skull" sounds like Echo's "Pictures in My Room" with the same comment. "Here Comes the Sky" shows more originality as its keyboard waves shimmer. "Refuse Angels" bursts into a primitive punkier rave-up that reminds me of a single by one-chord wonders on a Rough Trade compilation circa 1979. That's a compliment.

"Flash of Light" dawdles until halfway it enters Oneida's experimental territory, repeating the patterns minimally to good effect if you like krautrock without a beat!
It's a direction they should explore more. It segues well into "Sleeping With the Lord," where the synthesized flow reminds me of Spiritualized mixed with JMC, reaching dignity in its simplicity. Emotions here gain by their vocal understatement, reminiscent of Spacemen 3's delivery and religious allusions.

The title track reminds me of their peers The Black Angels or The Warlocks, more percussive and more tribally grounded. "Young Drugs" sounds like musicians for the first time trying out a krautrock song-- the demo nature and hesitant playing gain a bit of charm by their artlessness.

Compared to peers Darker My Love, The Warlocks, Farflung, The Black Angels, Black Mountain, or Oneida, the return to familiar post-punk, neo-psychedelic attitudes by Crocodiles here remains far more derivative. But, the bands I just mentioned all had their growing up in public as they tried to marry the anxious beauty of the Velvet Underground to the intensity of such bands as Spacemen 3 and Echo & the Bunnymen. I'd keep an eye on Crocodiles, as JMC, Spacemen, and Echo all represent the various, and well-chosen, influences that may take them more in one or the other direction in future recordings towards a more original blend of these fine flavors. (P.S. I've reviewed albums by DML, Warlocks, Farflung, BA recently on Amazon US, by the way. Review posted 6/28/2009.)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Christopher Brooke's "The Monastic World": Book Review

A renowned professor joins his concise survey with Wim Swaan's expansive photos. The result's an ideal portal to enter cloisters, view naves, and walk via your armchair, for this is a heavy book worthy of a scriptorium, into ruins that comprise many abbeys today. The popularity of this academically grounded yet accessibly told narrative remains through three versions, reissued as "Monasteries of the World 1000-1300" in 1982 and with slight updating, "The Age of the Cloister" in 2002.

Chapters move efficiently; Brooke chronologically describes the origins in the Middle East briefly before examining Benedict's Rule; Cluniac and related expansion; the daily routine (about 2 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.); eremetical movements such as Carthusians and Camaldolese, secular relations with growing political and mercantile forces 900-1050; and the twelfth-century renaissance of nascent humanism. Part Two looks at new orders: Augustinian canons, Cistercians, military hybrids, abbesses and priories, and birth of the Norbertines and the Franciscan friars.

Part Three takes you to three exemplary abbeys: Fountains in Yorkshire in a remote beauty spot attests to the massive changes wrought on the environment and economy by Cistercians who built austere yet sprawling foundations all over Europe that today witness to their determination and organization. Brooke reminds us that in many rural areas where the White Monks entered, laborers likely lacked steady work outside harvest time, so the strain on resources supposed by critics of medieval monasticism may in fact have provided needed commerce and employment; he admits this topic (as of '74) needs study. Brooke provides endnotes and a bibliography that show the reader where to find out more than a necessarily rather short text within pages given rightly over to sumptuous or severe depictions of medieval art and architecture at their best.

Mont Saint-Michel, memorably explored by Henry Adams, for Brooke shows the collision, literally, of a monastery not isolated from a town that crowded around it on the Norman sandbar coast. Awkwardly, it tries to "keep one's hands within reach of earth and heaven at once" while perched on a rock and stranded by the English Channel's tide today. Sant' Ambrogio in Milan reaches back to monastic roots with Ambrose, who influenced Augustine; the Roman Empire connects with the Roman Church, while showing too as "a palimpsest" the structural and symbolic accretions of Catholicism within its Italian bastion-- and as it spread northerly across the Alps.

Brooke writes with verve for a topic deemed by many today doubtless devoid of humor. He sees the impossibility of separating the gains accrued on earth with the treasures invested in heaven by the vexed Templars and Hospitallers as they tried to combine martial brutality with apostolic mercy in the defense of pilgrims and crusaders. He shows the power of a childhood recollection of weeping as he left his father forever, as in early centuries, many men and women found themselves donated as children to the cloister and its vows for life. And, he shows the contradictions that followed the amassing of so much temporal gain by those who tried to own it not personally but collectively, and the troubles with kings and reformers and popes that accompanied the decline of high-minded standards within worldly compromises.

Similarly, Brooke notes how the satires of such as Chaucer could not have hit their broad targets so sharply unless audiences knew not only of unworthy friars and monks, but so many who tried to live up to their lofty ideals among their peers. Today many scoff as they did in 1400 at the Church, its culture, and its clergy, but it's wise to keep Brooke's caution in mind: "It is equally false to judge a religious movement by its notorious failures. Few men have enriched the world more evidently than Francis and Dominic." (198) He also reminds us that students never confuse friars with canons and monks; errors that appear almost inevitably in most books, press coverage, and media today I add. Invariably those less learned than Brooke call Franciscans, the Orders of Friars Minor, persistently as "monks"!

While the legacies of crusades, missionaries, and inquisitors may cause some thirty-five years after these words first appeared to differ vehemently with the measured praise afforded by Brooke to the founders of the two greatest orders of friars, the repose, the daring, and the contributions to a better life dreamed of and made real by men and women within their own troubled centuries show in Swaan's photography and Brooke's text their own human attempt to grasp the power of the divine, and within stones, mosaics, parchment, and chronicles to make it real.

As he ends the epilogue skimming the post-medieval fall and rise and fall of the monks, he tells: "In this book I have tried to throw a pebble into the centre of a pond of clear water. As the ripples spread we see the life of medieval monks spreading out into the whole history of an epoch." (251) While acknowledging the failures of the monks, Brooke fairly memorializes-- but does not romanticize-- the still-evident legacy of their monuments, intangible in education and literacy and peace as well as tangible in the arches, buttresses, psalters, and calefactories enshrined within this handsome book.

(Posted to Amazon US under each of its three titles, 6-27-2009; cover photo scanned by Ken W. Deaver to Amazon: Swaan's typically magisterial view-- of St.-Martin-de-Canigou, French Pyrenees, founded 1001 by the Benedictines.)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Ag breathnú "Julius Caesar"

Chonaic muid an dráma seo cáitiúil arú aréir. Ghluas muid chun na "hAmharclainne Luibheolaíoch." Is áit go halainn ina ghleann Topanga in aice leis an tÁigeán Ciúin ag timpeall na cathrachaí as an bhfarraige Naomh Moncha agus Malibu.

Shroich muid go luath ansiúd. Iarr muid a súi ag déanamh cóisir faoin aer an uair roimhe sin i dtósach na dhráma. D'ól muid leann silín dubh. D'ithe muid sicín, rís, agus trataí go húr.

Ní fhaca muidsa féin an ionad siamsa sin riamh ansin. Bhí fhíos mo bhean a tí agus mé le fada roimhe sin, mar sin féin. Thóg Will Geer ó "The Waltons" agus a theaglach air ar feadh na caoga nuair go raibh sé ar an liosta dubh go Coille Chuillean.

Thug an clann airsean féin dídean shábháilte a páirt a thógail i ndráma nó a seinm amhrán béaloidis. Anois, feictear Shakespeare, Moliere, agus Chekhov i tsamraidh faoi láthair. Is é mír bídeach faoin tuatha ag imeall na gCathair na hÁingeal.

Súitear ina haimfitéatar amuigh faoin spéir. Rinne an léiriú go drámata, ar ndóigh. Mheas mé go raibh ag fanacht go "An Liathróid" ina Londain ceithre chéad blianta go ham seo.

B'fhéidir, rinneadh taibhreamh dom ag baint orm de An Ghréig anallód nó An Róimh riamh anall. D'éirigh achrann ag déanamh clonscairt ar achan taobh againn leis dráma cúlaithirte clasaiceach. Is maith linn an radharc os ard agus dathannach mórthimpeall faoi réaltaí.

Bhuail claimhteoirí máguaird. Ghlao an slua Rómhanach ag clamhán in aghaidh an dúnmharú na Caesar. Ar scor ar bith, nuair bhí ar a ghlúine Marcas Antoine os cionn i gcorp fuilsmeartha na Caesar amháin féin, thósaigh ómós corraitheach.

Thit tost ann. Ní raibh focal as aon duine. Faoi mharbhchiúnas na hóiche sin, d'fhán na criogair amháin i do thost.

Watching "Julius Caesar."

We saw a famous drama the night before last. We drove to the "Theatricum Botanicum." It's a lovely place in Topanga Canyon near the Pacific Ocean around the beach towns of Santa Monica and Malibu.

We arrived early over there. We wished to sit making a picnic {=a feast under the air] an hour before the start of the play. We drank black cherry cider. We ate chicken, rice, and fresh tomatoes.

We had not ever seen that recreational site there. My wife and I knew about it for a long time before, all the same. Will Geer from "The Waltons" and his family started it during the Fifties when he was on the blacklist in Hollywood.

The family of his gave a safe retreat to put on plays and to play folk music. Now, one may see Shakespeare, Moliere, and Chekhov in the current summer. It's a tiny bit of countryside bordering Los Angeles.

One may sit in an amphitheater outside under the sky. It makes a dramatic performance, naturally. I though I was staying at "The Globe" in London four hundred years ago.

Perhaps, I dreamt of taking myself away to Greece of yore or Rome of time immemorial. The clash rose up making a clanging on every side of us with a costumed classical drama. We liked the very loud and colorful scene all about us under the stars.

Swordsmen struck all around. The Roman mob cried clamoring against the murder of Caesar. However, when Mark Antony was on his knees above the bloodsmeared corpse of Caesar, a moving homage began.

Silence fell there. There was not a word from any one. Under the dead silence of that night, only the crickets did not stay silent.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Wooden Shjips' "Dos": Music Review

I liked, and reviewed, the earlier WS releases, their s/t début and "Vol. 1," their earlier singles. "Dos" (or "tres") continues their Loop-Spaceman 3- Suicide- Doors blend, with a touch of the Velvet Underground in beat and Echo & the Bunnymen for vocals. It's not an original sound, therefore, but a satisfying concoction-- provided you're a fan of the groups I mentioned and the band's first two records.

The diminishment of any Jim Morrison grandiosity in the lyrics works to the band's advantage; the voice is used as thoughtful, almost muted, texture and the singer therefore directs the pace rather than standing out. There's no showy moments for the band, and they work to support the songs in steady, perhaps obsessive attention to patterns. It sets up a trancelike quality for the listener, if you're in the right mood.

The group builds up its appealingly layered sound early each song and it rarely varies afterwards. This may either annoy or entice you. If you like the "motorik" beat of Krautrock, "Motorbike" takes this and adds a Suicide-like flanged vocal treatment on top of a Spaceman 3-Loop guitar-bass-drum simplicity that in its fuzzed-out repetition can be catchy, with a nice shaker percussion underneath it all.

Track 2, "For So Long," is more Doors-y, like many moments on their s/t record. I favor this sound slightly less, as I am not a Doors fan, but if you are, this matches the songs of the first "official" LP well. The third track stretches out, something I wish the band would do even more; all three CDs stop around half an hour, all with five songs! I bet live that these songs truly would open up and overlap well, and the studio may constrict their intended reach somewhat.

"Down by the Sea" sounds very very much like "Dance California"-- the single on "Vol. 1" that's probably their most lively piece. It's a great song originally if you like a ten-minute vamp-drone, but it does puzzle me why the bass line's nearly identical for long parts of this "new" song. There's an art to consistency, but this may take self-referentiality a bit too far. Luckily, it's a great riff, as the band must recognize to pay themselves this homage!

"Aquarian Time" resembles a mash-up between tracks 1 and 2; the last track, also ten-minutes or so, again allows the band to lock into a groove and take it away, over and over. This, of course, may resemble the Velvet Underground, and "Fallin'" does recreate that era with a lighter guitar overlay and an organ fill over another mechanical beat.

So, for the third release called "Dos," the San Francisco-based Wooden Shjips continues in the spare, intense, but appealing form they've made their own. In a time when so many groups imitate their forebears, this band knows from whom to choose the best elements. Like the classic-rock template crafted by The Soundtrack of Our Lives from other early-70s styles, Wooden Shjips may not be fashioning at this late stage in rock an original approach for a combined post-punk and Krautrock-psychedelic (two of my preferred genres) presentation, but I'm satisfied with their focus, their sources, and their interpretations! Quality has its rewards. (Posted to Amazon US 6-2-09)

Monday, July 27, 2009

Kaoru Nonomura's "Eat Sit Sleep": Book Review

"My Year in Japan's Most Rigorous Zen Temple," the subtitle explains. At 30, weary of the world, Nonomura tells of his year at Eiheiji, founded by Dogen in 1244. It reminded me often of Nancy Klein Maguire's recent "An Infinity of Little Hours" about five men who entered the Catholic equivalent, perhaps, the Carthusians. Whether Soto Zen or Charterhouse, a monastic life as its most ascetic, like marathon runners or Marines, attracts a few men young enough and driven enough to test their physical and emotional limits under extreme pressure. (For the Carthusian novices at St. Hugh's Parkminster in England 1960-65, see my review: "Swimming in Solitude's Cold Lake" May 4, 2006, Amazon US.)

Juliet Winters Carpenter translates this handsome 2008 edition of the 1996 bestseller in Japan. Nanomura in an afterword noted how he wrote it, standing or sitting, on the notoriously jammed commuter trains after his year; I admired the discipline he showed and the detail he evoked. Carpenter captures in English the quality I have found frequently pervading Zen practitioners in their prose: the poetic, resonant, evanescent, and tough-minded combinations that enable such as the monks at Eiheiji to endure considerable torment, mentally and spiritually, as they seek to detach themselves from cares by a brutal regimen meant to strip away their egos so as by habit, discipline, and sacrifice to find the purified, beautiful core.

Many natural descriptions capture beauty and harshness there. Snow falls "as if the sky itself had broken into a million pieces and was tumbling down on our heads." (287) "The monastery complex deep in the heart of the mountains was full of beautiful pools and shallows of darkness unknown to a city at night." (241) Zen seeks harmony, not conquest or overcoming nature, Nonomura reminds us; while no doctrinal discussions unfold within these sparely told pages, you do find insight by the setting into the extremes, not only of nature but of human endurance.

In subtlety, essence rests. The means is the end; denial and desire keep pursuing within us when instead, the monks strive to forget about self-satisfaction. They try to stop their longings, to listen to what remains afterwards. Difficult concepts to put into words. The year teaches him to "just sit." The moments follow each other, and it's useless to try to get used to sitting "zazen" or to get over the pain of it. The freedom in Zen, he finds, means "liberation from self-interest, from the insistent voice that says 'I, me, my.'" (292) In this, he learns the Buddha's lesson.

The nature of Eiheiji freedom, he sums up, depends on the beholder of it there. Shelter or holy place, the site sits there, century after century; "There is no compulsion to take up one view or the other." (281) Yet, when he sees himself bowed to in the eyes of first-year arrivals, or the gaze of elderly women whose sons or husbands died in WWII that come there to pray or sew washrags for the monks, who are charged with constantly cleaning their premises, Nonomura finds compassion, and humility.

However, he must sternly inculcate the ancient lessons of how to eat, sleep, pray, work, and defecate to the newest trainees. Those just above the entrants must force newcomers into shape quickly. The instructions for each task are exacting, and the boot-camp drill is told in fearsome and harrowing scenes. Nanomura came to the Zen temple expecting silence and meditation. What he finds during his first months: beatings, shouts, and punishments for the slightest infraction. But this is no masochistic regime, for the violence turns a "means of conveying living truth from body to body and mind to mind, a form of spiritual training and cultivation." (149)

Out of such reversals, you as the reader gradually learn to follow Nanomura as he adapts to the long day's routine, and to the necessary willpower, fortitude, and understanding he adopts as he figures out that the hundreds of "hows" perhaps lead to one simple "why": "Ascetic discipline at Eiheiji suppressed our desires to the point that the divide between body and spirit stood out inescapably forcing us to face this dilemma head on." (174) The mind-body problem, at the temple, reduces itself to this rationale for its willing trainees.

A few comments for the version we read; there's comparatively little on the "substance" of Zen-- I get the feeling that for the Japanese audience, Nanomura probably assumed more familiarity with its integration into the lives of some of those with whom he trained, who were preparing (details seemed vague about how long or how exactly) to return to take over their family's temple appointments on the outside. I also could not figure out how many monks lived there permanently as opposed to trainees, and how many, like the author, who came there by choice and not as a career choose to stay at the monastery for life. Finally, a few more endnotes were needed by the translator, who herself may have assumed a greater understanding of Japanese life than many of the English-language readers, like myself, may have.

P.S. A good companion to this, about running a Zen temple more along the lines of ancestral rituals than prolonged "zazen," is "Crooked Cucumber." For that, see also my recent blog post, and Amazon US 7-6-09 review of David Chadwick's biography of San Francisco Zen Center founder Shunryu Suzuki, whose career started as a temple priest in Japan and who spent time at Eiheiji: "Crooked Cucumber review". This "Eat Sit Sleep" review posted to Amazon US 7-23-09.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Malachi O'Doherty's "I Was a Teenage Catholic": Book Review

Theology vs. decency? During the Troubles, this Belfast journalist mulls over how Irish Catholicism and Ulster evangelicalism tangled his generation. Long an astute observer of republicanism, he proves here a diligent seeker into belief. Stubbornly skeptic, he concludes that in a sectarian North both sides may be groping, along with increasingly secular or agnostic counterparts, towards a simple human need: to test tradition that we're born into against our hard-won experience.

Like the republican and loyalist movements, Catholicism and Protestantism have operated in the North of Ireland upon fundamentalist tenets; their adherents generally claim allegiance not after mature choice, but by habitual upbringing. "I fostered fantasies of my own martyrdom, perhaps because that was all I could ever imagine my teachers would approve in me." (22) Early on, O'Doherty chafes against a 1950s childhood among the Christian Brothers. He insists upon testing what he's told to avow against his own bold life, and he finds wanting the faith of his fathers.

Yet, such a fantasized martyrdom "became more tangible against the background of Northern Irish sectarianism." (28) Circa 1968, "I was deciding that I wasn't a Catholic when others were deciding I had no say in the matter." (53) Losing his commitment before his convictions, his faith withers. He leaves a career in journalism after three years covering Irish strife, and after three aimless years in England he snags a vague job offer to compile a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita for a Hindu sage. He's off in the mid-'70s down the countercultural trail to an Indian ashram outside Delhi.

Swamiji looks like a mop of black hair, whether back or front. Loneliness consumes O'Doherty, and he tells movingly of the despair that kindles desperate trust in a stronger man than what one perceives as oneself. Beaten down by the Brothers as a boy, he struggles as a man nearing thirty to recognize how the soul's longing can or cannot be separated from devotion to a cause. Those who resisted the Christian Brothers, he notes, belatedly became Provos in the IRA, bowing to an Irish need for old conservative ways drummed in by parents and teachers. Threatened early on by the British Army in an home invasion, O'Doherty covers the Troubles for three years, while figuring out how far he can go down the path to belief as a secularized Irish man, schooled in the tenets of a creed and a cause both of which he has disavowed. After England, in India his need for uplift returns. He's attracted to an even more idolatrous manifestation in the utter obesiance a guru demands from a disciple.

He drifts, it seems, into lengthy meditation, mind-expanding to the point he envisions his head swelling like a ball, until he sees a white disc hover before his eyes, after years of relentless practice. Yet, he shrinks from Swamiji's Brahmin disdain for everyone else. O'Doherty, of no caste, is as untouchable as the Hindu tradition he cannot defend for his own adaptation or appropriation. Compared to Catholicism, at least its worst priest, he reflects, would have to care for a beggar he publicly met on the street; gurus like Swamiji loftily disdain any such charity. He grows impatient with O'Doherty's humanism, while Swamiji tries to impel his Irish charge to bend to traditional ways. But, as in Ireland, O'Doherty cannot kneel.

No surrender brings eventually his epiphany: "I cannot die to the world to save my soul." (134) Religion, he reflects, seems in the Irish to be divided between magic and fatalism; neither can soothe his innate rebelliousness. After a year apart from Swamiji wandering India and resuming his writing career, he goes back to the North as a religious affairs correspondent, whose specialty becomes the soundbite from the field, or the parade route, without profanity but with enough naivete or hatred from his earnest or fiery interviewees in the field that will get the best bits aired.

The first part of this narrative began as he braved a protest while working for the BBC in the Protestant enclave of Harryville; as his name reveals O'Doherty's counted among the enemy. After the central Indian portion, the story pivots back to his continued immersion in the North, where religion battles with politics. It's where one standing on the sidelines with a BBC microphone in hand must jump into the fray again, still marked by friend or it seems more often by foe by the faith he left behind. He's a wise interviewer; he stays detached. His discovery: God keeps out of our affairs, entreaties by gurus and claims by visionaries to the contrary. "Our language about God is like the language which in our dreams describes the world. In both we are insulated by metaphor from what we cannot know or must not know." (169)

As expected by readers of "The Trouble With Guns: Republican Strategy and the Provisional IRA" (1998), O'Doherty can be prescient about the dangers of rigid fidelity to irrational ideals and rabid trust in destructive ideologies. He's at home with Irish end-games of all pursuits. I note that he has since written more about republicanism as "The Telling Year: Belfast 1972" and continued decline in Irish religion as "Empty Pulpits." I look forward to these; unlike other analysts of the Troubles and Irish culture, he's able to link the rise and fall of monolithic republicanism and inescapable Catholicism to the maturation of his fellow citizens.

He proposes that the peace process and the collapse of clerical authority came about when "literal minded and obedient religion" dissolved, and when the republican cause found itself concurrently unable to command once unswerving ranks of those who learned that for contraception or decommissioning, "truth itself became negotiable." (137) O'Doherty lacks fellow commentator Eamonn McCann's radical stance, in his similar blends of autobiography and analysis "War and an Irish Town" and "Dear God"; the two authors share an ability to move between the personal and the political nimbly, although McCann's harsher on these twin fallen idols than O'Doherty, whose faith led him not to Marx but to India along the way, expanding his perspective in metaphorical and practical ways neither lad raised in postwar Northern Ireland might have imagined. O'Doherty's tenure in these twin fields of wartime dissension and religious agitation provides many anecdotes, at first appearing perhaps as casually as this short but densely packed and philosophically challenging book's title.

That is, it seems a throwaway line. But, "teenaged Catholic," existing in the past tense for this first-person subject, stands for a whole world-view, one that younger folks like myself (exactly a decade younger), cannot truly remember. O'Doherty's exploration takes familiar topics such as priestly scandal, poverty, hypocrisy, Ian Paisley, theodicy, and the impossibility of proving God's existence. "And if God is a myth, he is the patch we cover ourselves with." But, he's too smart now to deny God. "I take God to be the mirror in space of the whole self, to which nothing need ever to be said, which acknowledged, can be taken wholly for granted." (169-70) Facing death in his family, he accepts it as "Nature's rebuttal of tradition." (166)

This 2003 memoir stands beside his peer's eloquent 1995 defense of a similar agnostic balance that measures an adult's distance from pre-conciliar Catholicism, by the late Waterford-born, Cork-based journalist-poet Seán Dunne. "The Road to Silence" tracked an interior journey paralleling O'Doherty's, if removed from the Troubles in the relative calm of the South and the Continent. Younger journalist-memoirist, Manchán Magan, in his "Manchán's Travels" in early '90s India, provides another skeptic's testimony, another republican-raised Irishman's more recent reaction to Hindu fanaticism and the predicament of outcasts and India's poor. All three writers share respect for their Irish culture, and objectivity about their own loyalties as men who've outgrown their childhood pieties, political or spiritual, while becoming cautious and patient enough to listen to the yearnings and to record the longings of those at home or abroad who hold dogged beliefs or generous decency within themselves as believers.

Enriched by his probably unique comparison of a Belfast boyhood with a Hindu exposure, plus a journalist's objectivity with a cradle Catholic's scrutiny, O'Doherty combines disparate threads and casual scenarios. Upon reflection, for this reader he reveals a carefully arranged pilgrim's progression through the byways and highways that all of us, whatever our denomination or lack thereof-- or muddle between-- can recognize as an modern man's honest tale of how he tried to look God in the eye, and what happened when he faced that moment and decided to turn away.

(I've reviewed Dunne & Magan on this blog and on British & US Amazon; also see my review of "The Miracle Detective" by Randall Sullivan on Amazon US about the Marian apparitions at Medjugorje that O'Doherty also recounts in a vignette here; Posted to Amazon US and Britain 7-25-09. See also my review there of Henry McDonald's "Colours" and Anthony McIntyre's "Good Friday" as journalistic counterparts about growing up and getting involved in Troubles-dominated Belfast.)

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Coirnis: an teanga Ceilteach beo aríst

Tá Coirnis beo slán aríst. Léigh mé an alt fúithi. Tá sé anseo: "Cornish Coming Back from the Brink" le Henry Chu ina 'Amanna na gCathair na hÁingeal' inniu.

Is cuimhne liom chomh ag léite fúithi agam go bhfuil dúshlán de réir aistriú ceart. Mar sin ní raibh comhcheangal ag rá Coirnis, níl leagan sin in úsaid gach uile duine anois. Tá tri modhannaí: Coiteann, Aontaithe, agus Nua-aoiseach i An Corn.

Ar scor ar bith, insíonn Chu go raibh aontaithe anuraidh faoi caighdéan ag scriofa sí faoi dheireadh. Mar sin féin, tá trí chéad duine Coirnise ag labhairt go líofa an teanga seo anallach Ceilteach is cosúil as Breatnais agus . Tá duine leath-mhillúin i gcónaí i gCornach.

Is iníon deiféar bhean a tí agam. Tá an nheacht seo i a chónaí ina Ghleann Féir i gCalifoirnea Thuaidh. Tá sa cheantar go raibh áitriú leis mianadóirí Cornach ar feadh an "Ruathar Ór."

B'fhéidir, tá foghlameoirí fásta ina bhaile sin féin ag éisteacht a podcraobhannaí "Miotas Ceilteach" gach seachtaine leis An Corn as Coirnise. Cuireann Maitiú Ó Clerigh Kernewegbva amach bealach naisc sin fós. Ní bheireann mé an podchraobhanna eile as Coirnise ansiúd air triu iTunes i Meiriceá, os a choinne sin.

Go iontach, bhí eipeasód de "Na Siommainach" leis "Sibeal" ag liú as Coirnise: "Rydhsys rag Kernow lemmyn!" {"Saoirse dó An Corn anois!"} Deir Chu go raibh cúis is déanaí uirthi. Ar ndóigh, níl ábalta muid ag féiceáil an eipeasód seo amuigh An Bhreatain Mhór ach oiread.

Cornish: A Celtic tongue alive again.

Cornish is alive and well again. I read an article about it. Here it is: "Cornish Coming Back from the Brink" by Henry Chu in the "Los Angeles Times" today.

I recall while I was reading about it that there was a struggle concerning a correct version. Since there was no continuity in speaking Cornish, there is no rendering that's in use by every person now. There are three styles: Common, United, and Modern in Cornwall.

However, Chu tells that there's unity last year about the standard in writing it, at last. All the same, there's only three hundred Cornish people fluently speaking this ancient Celtic tongue, similar to Breton and Welsh. There's a half-million people living in Cornwall.

There's a daughter of [the] sister of my woman of [the] house {="my wife's niece"}. This niece is residing in Grass Valley in Northern California. This district was settled with Cornish miners during the "Gold Rush."

Perhaps, there's adult learners in that same town listening to "Celtic Myth" podcasts every week from Cornwall in Cornish. Matthew Clarke sends out "Kernewegva" by way of that site too. I cannot catch the other Cornish podcast from over there through iTunes in America, on the other hand.

Wonderfully, there was an episode of "The Simpsons" with "Lisa" {"Lizzie" is closest in Irish} yelling in Cornish: "Rydhsys rag Kernow lemmyn!". {"Freedom for Cornwall now!"} Chu says it was her latest cause. Naturally, we weren't able to see this episode either, outside Great Britain.

Ghriangraf/ Photo: "Bheith móralach as Cornach/ Kernow bys vykken/ Proud to be Cornish" cap from/caipín ó/"Cornish Heritage Shop/ An Siopa Dúchas Cornaigh".

Friday, July 24, 2009

BBC Book List: How many have you read?

Have you read any of these books?

Where do you fall in the list? The BBC believes most people will have read only 6 of the 100 books here.

Copy this into your NOTES. Look at the list and put an 'x' after those you have read. Tag other book nerds.

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen X
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien X
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte X
4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee X
6 The Bible (The entire thing!)
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte X
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell X
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens X

Total: 7

11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy X
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller X
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien X
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger X
19 The Time Traveler’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot X

Total: 5

Total so far: 12

21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald X
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens X
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky X
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck X
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll X
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame X

Total: 6

Total so far: 18

31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy X
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens X
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis X
34 Emma- Jane Austen X
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen X
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis X
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne X

Total: 6

Total so far: 24

41 Animal Farm - George Orwell X
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez X
44 A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood X
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding X
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan

Total: 4

Total so far: 28

51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52 Dune - Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons X
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen X
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens X
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley X
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez X

Total: 5

Total so far: 33

61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck X
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov X
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt X
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy X
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary - Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville X

Total: 5

Total so far: 38

71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens X
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker X
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses - James Joyce X
76 The Inferno – Dante X
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray X
80 Possession - AS Byatt X

Total: 6

Total so far: 44

81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens X
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker X
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert X
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web - EB White X
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle X
90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton

Total: 5

Total so far: 49

91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad X
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery X
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams X
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole X
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare X
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl X
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

Total: 6

Total totalled: 55
(On Facebook where this appeared, Carrie appended, and I agree about the bias: "Obviously this was put together by the BBC, very British biased in its choices." She also hoped, and I agree if I am that "John"-- "I expect Sheila & John to have the highest score!" And, by the way, there's a lot of middlebrow airport-reading beach paperback dreck here-- People You Meet in Heaven, Dune, Time Traveller's Wife, Bridget Jones's Diary, DaVinci Code, Life of Pi, Kite Runner, John Irving, Alice Sebold, Douglas Adams-- that hardly deserves to share space with Shakespeare. But who on the other hand has read ALL of his works, let alone ALL of the Bible? C'mon...I started a few more I didn't check as finished, by the way.)
Photo via "Chalkdust 101" blog by Patrick Higgins, Jr.; credited by him dutifully as originally from: “summer-reading-533.jpg.” Online Image. New York Times. August 7, 2008. May 13, 2009 .

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Nick Laird's "Glover's Mistake": Book Review

His début "Utterly Monkey," likably set in 80s Northern Ireland and today's London, seemed too eager for adaptation into a Guy Ritchie ladz romp; this new novel's composed, crafted, and updates Henry James, Shakespeare, and "The Apartment." Love's imperfections, revenge's joys, and God's absence allow chaos to come again to hipster London.

Laird listens to how we talk and how we think. David Pinner, a 35-year-old teacher and a bitter blogger of our foibles, resents his 21-year-old Bible-reading flatmate James Glover's object of affection, 47-year-old American ex-pat Ruth Marks, who once taught David at art school. She's formed in Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party" mold, deftly summed up in deadpan fashion filtered as is nearly all the action by David's p-o-v: "creating a gigantic papier-maché teapot with a door, and then covering it in silver foil, takes two and a half months and requires two assistants." (129)

David, lonely, resolves to sabotage Ruth and Glover. That's the novel's plot. It's simpler than "Othello." Like Iago, we understand David's betrayal even as we're distanced from it as we see its toll taken. David yearns to restore meaning, and in art he sees the addiction of multiplying allegories everywhere, to assert Newtonian solidity rather than quantum unpredictability, even as he despairs in our secular era of finding consolation as he tries to play God and manipulate his flatmate and his muse. David despises the solipsism and flatulence of so much of what's peddled as contemporary art, yet his determination both to take down Ruth and to replace Glover beside her reveals what he may not articulate to himself: a way to heal the atomization of London, of our faithless mindset, and our tawdry wastes of time.

Laird published two well-received poetry collections before his novels. His phrasing shows this to be at its best a better book than the satirical, arch, pitched tragicomedies of metropolitan manners it may be shelved beside. Christmas with the parents, a party on "London's premier mobile disco," a party's failure, an awkward meeting with somebody you've known first on-line: all these gain by Laird's steady observation. Roofs look with satellite dishes as if "white carnations fixed in buttonholes." A girl's eyes "the same tense blue as Microsoft Word." A woman's "forehead dappled evenly with sweat as though she'd used a pastry brush" as she's "spent ten minutes coughing her illness into [David's] face" on the Tube.

How does Pandarus, Sancho Panza, Mercutio, or a eunuch feel as he witnesses the pleasures of those among whom he lives? David's plight may cause little admiration, but Laird draws us into his reactions to the privileged life Ruth embodies unthinkingly, and which Glover, a very ordinary barman, enters. She's always had it all, both men have not, and on this simple but eternal rationale for envy and motivation, the novel unfolds astringently, yet often tenderly. It's a bracing, uncomfortable, and poignantly fresh take on a familiar story, and Laird's to be commended on his ability to keep one interested in David's desperation. This may not please readers wanting a light read; as with "Utterly Monkey," Laird's ambitions and erudition deepen and enrich what in lesser hands may have been a pat storyline.

(Posted to Amazon US 6-30-2009; I also reviewed there "Utterly Monkey" 2-28-2006. Unlike the first novel, his London-based second work has no references to Irish contexts, but David's father's from Northern Britain and drinks Guinness.)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

3X Tagging

I did this last year in a different version before joining FB. But, I less playful people may resent being tagged, so I'll post it for you to (ab)use at a discreet distance.

I was tagged so now... You've been tagged! It works like this: you are supposed to write a note with the 3's of YOU. At the end, choose people to be tagged. You have to tag me. If I tagged you, it's because I want to know more about you - but not in a creepy stalker kind of way. (Yes this is what the note said)...HA!

To do this, go to "notes" under tabs on your [Facebook, from where I paste verbatim these instructions] profile page, paste these instructions in the body of the note, type your 3's, tag at least 10 people (in the right hand corner of the app), then click publish.
Three names I go by:
Tootie (only by my wife)
Murph (only by my permission)
Fionnchú (nom de plume et guerre; a conflation of my surname with my birth surname, both in Irish)

Three jobs I have had in my life:
Chicken renderer (this is not a joke)
Parking attendant (college work-study)
Red Cross Blood Services (I scheduled donors)

Three places I have lived:
Los Angeles (birthplace)
Claremont, CA (25 miles east, not much variety)
Temple City, CA (12 miles east, even less so)

Three favorite drinks:
Belgian ale
Red wine
Tea, strong with milk & sugar

Three TV shows that I watch:
Curb Your Enthusiasm (to understand the culture I married into and the city I was born in-- or its Westside congested by East Coasters and Eurotrash not born here)
The Soup (saves time by regurgitating best bits of the worst shows digested)
Dexter (Leo got me and Layne, uh, hooked recently)

Three places I have been:
Czech Republic

Three people who e-mail/IM/Facebook me regularly:

Three of my favorite restaurants:
El Morfi (Argentinian-Italian)
Water Grill (fancy fish)
Tam O'Shanter (somewhat cheaper fish)

Three friends I think will respond:
Layne (technically not a friend, she's my spouse)
Leo (ditto, son)
Niall (ditto, ditto)

Three things I'm looking forward to:
Marital bliss (anew)
Drinking poitín (once?)
Eternal bliss (finally)

Three Places I would like to visit:
Bhutan (unless the bohos and/or hippies get there first)
Béara peninsula, Co Cork (they already did)
Iceland (ditto)

Diagram: "Social Bookmarking and Tagging Concepts Interaction" from "Irish Wonder's SEO Consulting Blog." 2-13-06.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Learning from Frank McCourt, Teacher Man

I'm not sure if exchanging smiles in a Limerick elevator counts as "meeting" Frank McCourt, but even that brief encounter convinced me of his humanity. He was leaving an Irish Studies conference at the university there as I arrived to give a paper. My talk was on an Irish republican propagandist whom he would have heard of in his youth. His youth in a sullen nation after war, recounted in "Angela's Ashes," will be familiar to readers; I leave others to remind those unfamiliar of its evocations of a Limerick utterly changed from that where he and I passed a moment back in 2000.

The common touch with which McCourt delivered his stories bore a long-lasting imprint. As a teacher, I recognized how he honed the craft with which he told his tales on the page. They reminded me of the oral traditions long associated with the "seanachie," the storyteller. I imagined, even before he regaled us with the inevitable pair of sequels, "'Tis" and "Teacher Man," that he polished his narratives over decades in dusty classrooms in New York City. More than any other writer I'd found in my decades of academic study or armchair reverie, McCourt captured the frustration and joy of connecting with students. Not privileged college prep but remedial; not those destined for Harvard, but those facing a life little distinguished from their upbringing in a overwhelmingly diverse city.

Having taught at as many levels as McCourt, for me facing an ESL class full of adult Armenian immigrants in East Hollywood, "at-risk youth" at a shelter for runaways not far away off Sunset Blvd., high schools such as Jefferson, Marshall, and Manual Arts, and Los Angeles college students from backgrounds even more polyglot than those of postwar NYC, I shared his insight into what makes failure and what causes success within a weary school system. We had both entered graduate school after periods teaching in the public schools; in his sequels, he explained his frustration with his chances to rise into the academic stratosphere. While I had earned my Ph.D. in English while continuing to work in the L.A.U.S.D., I gave up my job security there upon completion of my doctorate.

I chose to teach college locally, resigning from a rare tenured position in the Adult Academic division, for I wearied of the cynicism, corruption, and indifference expressed by many who supervised me. I needed the challenge of a higher level of performance that only college-level classes could offer me. Still, like McCourt, teaching remedial English at whatever institution does little to rouse most minds after one's rarified encounters with seminars taught by the world's leading professors among the nation's most ambitious students. The trick, as McCourt shows readers, lies in the knack of making whatever you must teach matter to whoever sits in front of you. And, to make them, for forty minutes or two or four hours, forget that they're sitting there, watching you. By stories, by anecdotes, by examples, any teacher must become a "seanachie." We must enchant our audience.

For, whatever the lesson plan dictates, a successful teacher needs to talk with students. Not at them, as if one of them, or down to them. I asked my Public Speaking class last week what they thought about a teacher or speaker using language associated with a younger crowd, such as they are-- about half my age now. They responded that they liked it. Not that the speaker or teacher would try to ape their clothes, their slang, their mannerisms. But, they admired it when a speaker had taken trouble to listen to them, and had heard how they talked and what they talked about. The speaker, by adapting a lesson or a speech to the audience's own comfort level, would, they told me, respond better to whatever the material.

McCourt, and any successful storyteller or lecturer, can regale an audience by the empathy that imbues this identification. Near the end of "Angela's Ashes," he tells of a sympathetic priest who took the time to hear his teenaged anguish during the often dreaded confession; this charitable breakthrough led McCourt back to remember the humanity that pulsed within even the enforcers of a fearsome clerical discipline that permeated Irish society in ways that, for today's strollers along streets around the Franciscan church in Limerick, would appear utterly changed. When I walked from the bus station to my digs on my last visit to McCourt's hometown, I saw littered on the sidewalk ads for Polish taxi services. I passed an African market. I heard and saw Slavic reminders of an Ireland as unpredictably transformed from the slums once there where McCourt suffered and sang. They were now respectable streets.

Change whirls around us in classrooms today, which mirror its cities in a globalized age. No longer do the Irish constitute the diaspora most common in American ports of entry. Through the stories of one of our nation's largest city's most famous Irish immigrants, many students in classrooms in cities and towns this morning may be reading about a man not that different from them. His accent and complexion may differ. Yet, he too struggled to master a form of English unheard in his childhood; he wandered past traffic looking for comfort; he knew what it was like to be humbled at home and humiliated in school. He faced unemployment and discrimination also. Out of his example, his determination to rise above his origins, he gave a voice to others. In three books he celebrates his own courage and passes on his stories. In them, we will hear him many more years after his death-- speaking to a far greater audience than confined to any bell-timed classroom.

P.S. Inspired by four people I sort of know recently published on the Op-Ed page in the Los Angeles Times, I fired off this in record time to them. Rejection a day later, so here it is for the blogosphere. P.P.S. In fairness to my lovely wife's supportive comment appended, I found out later that already the LAT's published their resident intellectual, Tim Rutten's reminiscence yesterday, Monday, July 20, 2009: "Frank McCourt's Career Rose from Ashes." Serves me right for cutting our subscription back to Thursday-through-Sunday now only.

Monday, July 20, 2009

"A finger pointing at the moon"

Commuters hear announcements "Waxing Philosophical on the London Underground"; we in L.A. endure canned bilingual static. London's tubeway army meets comic relief, wry wit, and/or poetic aperçus. A quick net search to get the proper hook on that word at an eponymous website lists synonyms: Zizek (I won't bother with Slavic accoutrements), Derrida, Foucault, humanities, and the dreaded "theory." Although I teach the penultimate of these signifiers, I habitually shrink from such academic ossification. Even if radicals proclaim freedom, by such articulation, in written and not oral form per Derrida, we ossify liberation rigid as Lenin's corpse.

One of the quotes suggested for Tube broadcast: "An ounce of action is worth a pound of theory," by Friedrich Engels. Neither he nor Marx may be freeze-dried in Red Square, but even atheists venerate idols. By their little red books we shall remember them. Underground, trapped ourselves in our routine rush, we escape towards an idealized realm.

Reified rabble rousing, spiritual solace, or literary reflection: for not plugged into iPods or unable to understand the language blared, perhaps broadcasts uplift an semi-literate, ever more polyglot, and stubbornly impatient popular front that may not march towards utopia by any overthrow of the capitalist system a century and a half after its two apostles decay, one at Highgate not far from a tube station. Still, on our way to shop and spend and toil, we witness as any good Marxian theorist to the control of our destinies under the cash nexus we find ourselves enmeshed within, across hundreds of city center subway lines. The promoter of inspirational or entertaining messages on the Tube counters that the usual bray's "soul dispiriting." We all need coddling inside, secular or adherent.

I saw a glimpse on t.v. in a show about ossuaries, catacombs, and cadavers that St. Bernadette, of Lourdes fame, herself rests, unembalmed, in a glass casket. Snow White-like, I admired her porcelain beauty in peaceful repose; in life the dim monochromatic daguerrotypes seemed to shadow her upper lip with a mustache. In Stephen Batchelor's "The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism with Western Culture" that I finally found-- although its pages halfway are slightly out of order, so I have to go six-steps-forward, three-steps back in a paginated shuffle-- this oddity of another incorruptible within a story that stresses Buddha's teaching of impermanence only enhances the strangeness of an attenuated narrative.

Batchelor tells of early, often uncomprehending, prejudiced, baffled, or hostile meetings by European friars and Jesuits with the emissaries from the East. They spoke of a faith that frightened Catholics and Protestants alike by its apparent nihilism, confused by its serene tolerance, or discomforted by its apparent imitations of Catholic ritual, vestments, incensed litanies, and monastic chanting. In Batchelor, I also learned of St. Francis Xavier's own body that rests uncorrupted, despite whatever malarial heat off the coast of Macao hastened his early demise as he sought to enter China as its first missionary to Sons of Heaven.

As with St. Francis of Assisi's stigmata, the first such appearance of these wounds of Christ symbolically (for transfixed nails into palms cannot long support a crucified body) imprinted and permeating the flesh, it's strange that such phenomena then engendered others with similar markings, up through Padre Pio, a friar centuries later who in my childhood I recall inspired holy cards galore with him brandishing what looked like enormous mittens, hagiography proffered prematurely by a fervent cult to his canonization as a Son of Heaven.

Whether in ideas or the body-- and certainly contemporary philosophers (many following Marx & Engels) have inspired countless dissertations among my more theoretically-addled peers to the point of exhaustion, trivia, and parody-- the idea that we seek to outwit mortality sustains our investigations into the sanctity of theory, the body, the soul, and the patterns we all try to tease out of what we see. We long to find, as in Rathkeale, Co. Limerick now, a Marian imprint in a tree trunk, or Jesus on a screen door or Mary in a tortilla. Daniel Dennett in "Breaking the Spell" finds the roots of religion in our primitive urge to make stories out of nature, as with the shapes we find in the clouds. Perhaps such patterned narratives inscribed themselves into the flesh, willed by its ascetic devotees who wanted, by breaking their body's spell, to release its spirit. They aspired to be crowned a Son or Daughter of Heaven while still on earth within the prison of their carnal cell.

Saints remain pure in their torn flesh even as they sought in Catholicism its utter rejection, scourging (see my recent review on this blog and Amazon US of Valerie Martin's harrowing re-telling of Francis' mission in "Salvation") the flesh to an early grave or at least mortifying it by an ashy diet, disciplines materially inflicted (the old whip beloved of "Da Vinci Code" pulp), and austerities demanded, long nights without sleep, without nourishment, without ease. Rigor mortis following such mortification, ironically in some cases preserving the same body that, beaten, starved, and scorned, persists without the chemicals applied to Mao or Lenin in their secular mausoleums, shrines to another world credo once captivating billions, despite its denial of a salvation outside the dialectical process and class struggle.

Buddhism, as Batchelor certainly would support in his "Buddhism Without Beliefs" book (see my review), seeks the middle way of moderation. Red Buddhists under B.R. Ambedkar contemplated an alliance of Marxism with dharma to rally their mass conversions of the Dalits or untouchables midway through last century; this manifesto and that on "dictatorial socialism" urged by a Thai activist can be found in the excerpts of a book I reviewed last week, "The Modern Buddhist Bible" edited by Donald Lopez. I wonder how the Tibetan cause, nearly beyond hope now, will fare after the death of the current Dalai Lama. Will radicals unite with activists to arouse a somnolent world? Or, have we all submitted to Chinese hegemony? Full of the messianic age of global capital, PRC crap on every stuffed shelf market after mall.

William Gibson in 1993's "Virtual Light" in near-future San Francisco imagines there immigrant Mongols driven westward by such political and cultural convulsions, as the newest surplus labor, bottom of the ladder for huddled masses. We all need our slaves for our own materialist empires today, under cleric or capitalist. Perhaps out of diasporas future odd strains of Buddhism, finance, searching, and beliefs will mutate. Translations we cannot imagine. Stalinists changed the Mongolian language, by the way, overnight in 1944 to a Cyrillic script so Buddhist tracts could not be deciphered by the young; similarly, Tibetan is forbidden to be taught in Chinese-controlled territories. As with Basque, Breton Irish, Scots Gaelic, Manx, Cornish, and Welsh, one recognizes how cultures become eradicated as memory fades.

Wrapped up in causes championing oppressed minorities and endangered species, Westerners can turn, as with the Derridean deconstructionists, Foucauldian social constructivists, or nearly any Marxist perhaps with the exception of bewildering Zizek (see my review of his "Violence"), well, risible, redundant, reductive, and, if you can catch the gist of their often impenetrable discourse, risible. It's hard to decode the messages from the past when we change to catch up with our daily future. Wiping out nature, bulldozing beauty, we all scurry to hoard our riches.

We're great at romanticizing class warfare, ideological revolution, or mass uprisings that promise an end to such getting and spending and wasting what we cover. Until the films get made decades later, reality's not much different than the agonies of the Tube, mass movements made mass transit and mass chaos. At least we're spared the labor camp at the terminus. North Korea radios, in a nearly Orwellian simulacrum, have a volume control only, but no off-on switch, nor any channel control. Some feel God transmits to them on a similarly reliable, constant frequency.

Out of such veneration of the Voice, we perform obesiance as we wish lethal effects on defiant foes. No Two-Minute Hate, but the rote decrying of the designated traitor does wonders to cow or protect or anesthetize any hesitant individual, within a city's bustling crowd. On L.A.'s MTA or London's Tube, we all try to burrow into our iPod, our detached gaze, our careful distance despite the jolts and affronts of municipal transport by default if not always by choice. The messages broadcast appear to be London's, if not L.A.'s, campaign to return civility, humor, and a modicum of value added back into the automated babble bubble within which we whir.

Any political or religious power, perhaps, cannot control for long without such manipulation of its citizens, slaves, and/or commuters. We want to preserve our version of the paradise, the status quo we know, the dictatorship of the proleteriat, Goldman Sachs, the Democratic National Committee, Kim Il Sung, or your Chosen People's Party. No creed's safe from our sins. Batchelor does not ignore the tortures inflicted by Japan's xenophobic Tokugawa Shogunate around 1600 upon Jesuit, mendicant, and lay martyrs (see Shusako Endo's remarkable fiction such as "The Samurai" and "Silence"). Yet, he does note fairly that Buddhism can be blamed for far fewer outrages-- and very few in the cause of the dharma itself, the lusts for control exerted by its rulers professing an inevitably corrupted version of its creed-- than Christian, Mongol, or Islamic foes decimating its Asian heartlands.

Ironically, as Batchelor's cover shows, the Greeks left behind by Alexander to run Bactria (today's Afghanistan) and India's frontier memorialized the smiling, serene, enigmatic Buddha in stone; earlier followers did not, preferring an eight-spoked wheel, a tree, or a footprint. The Greeks modelled their figure of Gautama nearly five hundred years after his death, after Apollo. We all create our gods, out of stone or silicon, to look up at as they soar above our launch sights. We count holy days by the moon still in the faiths that sprang out of nomads staring up at the sky. We delight in the coincidence they feared of an eclipse, the sun and moon looking the same size from our planet's perspective. We celebrate as they did festivals and stories about the gods and goddesses we create out of sun and moon, male and female, light and dark as our oldest opposites that we love to join.

We substitute a flag or a missile for a giant Buddha in an Afghan canyon, but even the iconoclastic Taliban worship their own Kaaba, their own stone-moon goddess transformed into a monument to monotheism, behind the protective veil. Their ancestral sun-god many across the Middle East commemorated as Phoebus. We deify his rule over the light, forty years after Apollo's eleventh mission landed on the moon.

We come out of the underground shelter eventually. We're not meant to stay in caves. Even if our commute takes us, as mine has, before dawn into the subway and after dark out of its compartments, we when departing at night after a long day's work aim naturally to tilt our eyes higher. As for millions of years, like moths to the flame, we aim for the place brightest to us above, not the sun but its reflection.

Buddhists talk of their teaching as a finger pointing to the moon-- we're meant to focus on the goal, not the means to it. Above, on that dead satellite, whose glow we continue to imagine as its own, and not a reflection of the absent sun each night, we make our own myths. Progress has impelled us to set foot that far now, but we hesitate today to conquer the universe. Maybe getting there four decades ago humbled us. Up there, we still see a fabled expanse free of commutes, communication, or contention. There my nation's flag's frozen in the vacuum of space, stiff, unfurled, as yet out of range of territorial grasp, from our yearning, explosive rockets.

Moon & flag photo via "Unpacking Images: Material Culture"

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Black Mountain Zen & Belfast Peacemaking

Straight man for a predictable punchline to a sectarian joke? I felt wary when asking about Buddhist peacemaking in the North of Ireland. I was pleased that this dialogue's taken seriously in Belfast. Although I am sure that humor comes in, somehow, given the inspiration of such as Shunryu Suzuki's San Francisco Zen Center, where the founder of this initiative studied many years.

Thanks to journalist Liam Clarke, who sent me this timely piece, I'm sharing it with you. While I figured, given the presence of Zen centers across Ireland, that such an initiative had begun long before my inquiry, it's encouraging to see it spread. "Black Mountain Zen Centre" has a very comprehensive array of material, with many talks by Haller to download. A very basic directory of other centers: "Buddhist Network Ireland".

Clarke added that actor Michael O’Keefe belongs to "the Zen Peacemaker Order which is led by Bernie Glassman. I think the[re were] stress reduction classes which Paul gave to community. Women’s and survivors groups were the most lasting and some guided meditations were reproduced on a CD with the help of a grant from Belfast City Council. He uses the Jon Kabat-Zinn programme, which has Zen elements but is also different, for this."

Zen Buddhist monk aids peace efforts in native Belfast
Special to The Japan Times. Saturday, June 27, 2009.

When the Zen monk Dogen Zenji returned to Japan from China in 1227 with the ideas that would become the Soto school of Zen, could he have imagined that centuries later, on the other side of the world, those very ideas would be used by people to try to overcome their society's deeply rooted conflict? Most likely not, but that is exactly what is happening.

In Northern Ireland, which is primarily known in Japan as a place of violent, religious conflict, small Soto Zen groups have been formed and are flourishing.

The people behind this unlikely development began by bringing together former combatants from the two conflicting groups, the Irish-Catholic and British-Protestant communities, and using Dogen Zenji's ideas to help them overcome their differences. To tell the story of how this came about it would be best to tell the story of the man who started it all — Irishman Paul Haller Roshi.

Haller is the abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, but he spends his time between San Francisco and Ireland, working with the Zen groups he helped establish and overseeing their peace-building work.

Originally from the Falls Road area of Belfast, he witnessed his society collapse into bitter sectarian conflict as a young engineering student in the late 1960s.

The Catholic Falls Road area became the cradle of the Irish Republican Army's campaign of violence aimed at securing independence from Britain.

In 1969, Paul Haller joined the legions of young people who left Northern Ireland looking to escape the conflict, find a better life or just explore the world. He first moved to London and then traveled through Europe, the Middle East and Asia, before ending up in Tokyo.

In an interview from the San Francisco Zen Center he reflected on his early travels, "I was very religious as a child and my travels really engaged my interest in religion, from the various Christian faiths, the Koran to Buddhism."

In Tokyo, he began to focus his attention on Zen Buddhism. "I had read Alan Watts' book, "The Way of Zen," among others, and I wanted to study more. I met a young student Soto Zen monk in Tokyo, whose father was a Soto Zen monk, and we used to talk about Zen a lot, but in order for me to study Zen formally in Japan, I needed a letter of recommendation from a teacher, which I didn't have."

Determined to continue his Zen studies, Paul went to Thailand where he didn't need such a letter. In Chiang Mai in northern Thailand he entered a monastery and studied under Buddha Dasa, a famous Thai teacher at that time.

He then moved to a remote meditation center in a forest nearer to Bangkok where he spent months immersed in meditation and seclusion.

"My time in Thailand was a time of great personal questioning, but the time spent in the meditation center was very beneficial for me. It was my first experience of intensive meditation." Soon afterward, he was ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk in Bangkok. It was 1973.

"My time in Thailand had been very good for me, but I wanted to practice Zen in a Western society."

"Soon after being ordained, I met a young American-Thai monk who suggested that I make the journey to San Francisco, to join the Zen center established by the famous Japanese Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki, which I did."

Paul settled in San Francisco and stayed at the Zen center, in time becoming a co-abbot.

Twenty years later, major moves toward peace in Northern Ireland's long, drawn-out conflict were being made. Against this background Paul's close friend and Zen practitioner, the movie actor Michael O'Keefe ("Caddyshack," "Michael Clayton") suggested to Paul that Soto Zen might have something to offer a society emerging from decades of sectarian violence.

Paul agreed and soon arrangements were made. A group went to Belfast with plans for a retreat that would include ex-combatants to see if they could be helped to overcome the suffering they had endured during the conflict.

"Initially, 25 of us traveled from the U.S. for the early work. We held the retreat in Belfast itself and we had people who had fought on both sides come together.

"We asked them how they had suffered, because the basic teaching of Buddha is to address suffering. There we had people who had once been mortal enemies, many of whom still didn't want to be in the same room together.

"But they listened to each other's stories of how they had suffered and they came to empathize with each other. We saw real progress being made then."

At the time, Haller said, many people and groups from around the world converged on Belfast to offer their "cure" to Northern Ireland's ills.

"People were coming in for a short time, undertaking some sort of peace activity and then leaving again," he said, "But I wanted to establish a center which could work with people's long-term development and sensibilities."

Therefore, a Zen meditation group was formed, with its membership drawn from both of the conflicting communities. Within a short while, permanent premises in the center of Belfast were secured and the new Black Mountain Zen Centre became Northern Ireland's first Soto Zen group.

Now, Paul tells us, it has a flourishing membership and schedule. There are regular peace-building workshops dealing with trauma and stress reduction.

Local community workers are involved in much of this work. Bi-annual Zen meditation retreats are held out of the city in the Irish countryside, and are often attended by as many as 50 people. Now another five new Zen groups have formed in towns around Belfast.

"Those groups in Northern Ireland that strongly and simply align themselves with Soto Zen do so because they see it as a method of meditation, as was taught by Dogen Zenji, rather than a religion," Paul said.

"They don't see themselves as adhering to a church or religion, whereas in Japan it has more of a religious identity, of course noting the difference in Western and Japanese understandings of the term 'religion.' Meditation is the most important thing about Soto Zen to them, not funeral rites."

"The heart of Dogen Zenji's teachings is relevant to any society at any time and that is what I attempted to bring to Northern Ireland. Through Dogen's method of meditation, to practice awareness and live in the moment is to discover what Shakyamuni Buddha was teaching and to discover for yourself the way of life that he proposed."

Caption to photo: Friends of peace: Haller (center left) stands with members of the Catholic and Protestant communities at the Black Mountain Zen Centre in Northern Ireland. To Haller's left is his close friend American actor Michael O'Keefe, who had encouraged Haller to return to Northern Ireland to engage in peace-building activity. COURTESY OF BLACK MOUNTAIN ZEN CENTRE

Permalink to Japan Times article, with another picture of Paul Haller in his robes: "Zen Buddhist Monk aids peace efforts in native Belfast."
P.S. My own review of David Chadwick's biography of Shunryu Suzuki, "Crooked Cucumber," can be found on Amazon US, and on July 9, 2009 at this blog "here." Without Liam Clarke's suggestion, who knows when I might have gotten around to this fascinating book-- and, it's refreshingly not a hagiography-- by an early follower of Suzuki during San Francisco's countercultural heyday. Perhaps one day I will turn off that favorite route of mine, a long lovely country road south of that city, between Carmel Valley and Greenfield, for the even more sinuous path up to a remote place I have never seen, S.F. Zen Center's retreat at Tassajara, to buy their bread.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Ag siúl timpeall an sú fágtha

Chuaigh mé amuigh ag siúl aréir. Cheiliúradh muid de muintir na bpáistí de naíolann áitiúil. Mhúin Lamont ár bheirt mhac nuair bhí muid uile níos óg!

Ní maith liom dream go hiondúil. Bhí níos mó ná chéad duine i bPairc Ua Ghríobhtha a cheiliúradh Lamont ann. B'fhéidir, aithain mé dosaen ansin.

Mar sin, shuigh mé leis mo teaglach i dtosach. Thug achan duine bia againnsa féin chuig cóisir faoin aer. D'ith muid pizza. D'ól Léna agus mé "Babycham"-- "an ól is sona ar domhain"-- leis a mála ban páipéir ag timpeall an buidéal. Thaispeáin an lipéad logo beag leis síogaí buíbhán. Leath an gáire ar a aghaidh, ag marcaíocht aonadharcach.

Go luath, rug gardaí ag stad chucu duine eile leis fionn ag imeall muidsa! Ar scor ar bith, d'imigh cheana féin. Chonaic mé an sean-ghairdin ainmhithe os cionn an láthair campála.

Ní fhaca mé an áit seo go dtí sin. Chuir cuairt mé i bpairc ar feadh mo saol, ar ndóigh. Ach, ní bhfuair mé an radharc ar gach taobh orm, in aice leis an ceile suas.

Thóg cáisannaí ar feadh An Lagar Tráchta Mór. Bhí tionscadal obaireachta poiblí leis an "WPA" ann. Bhí sú idir 1912 agus 1965 ann.

Mheas faoi an obair láimhe na lucht dífhostalíochtaí agus seanábhar mhiotal storrúil acu. Rinne na duine gan obair go rialta cás láidir, ar bheágan ar beágan anseo. D'éirigh siad inniu i measc léirscrios.

Faoi scannan, chuala béir ag tógtha an bóthar mór. Faoi deannach, ghlaoim amach meacaicaigh ar aghaidh ag breathnaigh buachaillí chomh mise féin fadó. Bhí an lá ag diúltiú da sholas, eist tíogair ag duine ag imeacht ar bhaile eile.

Fhill mé ar ais go dtí an ceile ag imeall an sean-sú. D'imir loráin ar an bhféar. Stád dhá mac agam ag rá leis cairde is faide níos ciúin i bhfad an bhrutainn agus an muintir Lamont acu.

Walking about the abandoned zoo.

I went out walking about last evening. We were celebrating [~bidding farewell to] the teacher of the local kindergarten [~creche]. Lamont taught our pair of sons when we all were younger!

I don't like a crowd customarily. Over a hundred people were there in Griffith Park to celebrate Lamont. Perhaps, I recognized a dozen there.

Therefore, I sat with my family in the beginning. Everyone brought a meal for themselves to the picnic [~open-air feast]. We ate pizza. Layne and I drank "Babycham"-- "the happiest drink in the world"-- from a white paper bag around the bottle. The label showed a small logo with a blonde pixie. She grinned broadly, riding a unicorn.

Soon, the police came to stop every one with wine around us. However, I had already gone off. I had seen the old zoo [~garden of animals] above the camping ground.

I never had seen this place until then. I had paid a visit to the park during my life often, of course. But, I had never found the sight all around me, near the party below.

Cages were constructed during the Great Depression. It was a public-works project there with the "WPA." There was a zoo between 1912 and 1965.

I thought about the handiwork from a group of unemployed [~uncared for, unlooked after] and their old materials of sturdy metal. People out of regular work made strong cages there, little by little. They stand today amidst total desolation.

Under shade, bears heard the freeway built. Under dust, macaws cried out before watching boys like myself long ago. In the growing dusk, tigers listened to people going away to other homes.

I returned back to the party on the edge of the old zoo. Urchins played on the grass. My two sons stood talking with their oldest friends more quietly beyond the toddlers and their teacher, Lamont.

Ghriangraf/ Photo: "Cás". Sean Sú na gCathair na Áingeal/ "Cage," Old LA Zoo. Flickr, le/by Matt Logelin.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Donald Lopez' "A Modern Buddhist Bible": Book Review

"Tired of listening to eulogistical messages with empty contents," a Thai activist castigates Buddhist leaders for smugly promoting their tolerance, scientific compatibility, and downright goodness while his people starve under dictatorship. The selections compiled show a Buddhism that turns from worship and ritual towards meditation, but also towards social justice. Many books on Buddhism tend to be slim, full of platitudes, and self-congratulatory. This one strives for a truer depiction of how, from 1873-1990, Buddhist leaders and popularizers have engaged contemporary problems, and also have perpetuated modern fantasies, about the truth of the dharma.

Jack Kerouac claimed to have stolen a copy from San José, California's public library of an earlier assembly of Buddhist scriptures arranged by Dwight Goddard as "The Buddhist Bible." The incongruity and the compatibility of such a juxtaposition reveals Western and modern attempts to package dharma for a popular audience schooled in Holy Writ, and then, like Kerouac, wanting to step beyond it or integrate it into a modern encounter between East and West, mystic and mass-market, venerable and hip. Out of such conventional dichotomies, such authors as included here seek also to bridge cultural gaps, correct (or in earlier decades continue or distort) misunderstandings, and to realign Buddha's instructions as operating manuals in an age of faster transport, bolder power, and quicker communication.

The editor introduces modern Buddhism that "rejects many of the ritual and magical elements of previous forms." Instead, "it stresses equality over hierarchy, the universal over the local, and often exalts the individual above the community." (ix) It does not improve earlier Buddhism so much as-- and the Protestant and/or secular, New Age, and/or rational qualities of many who started the effort from both Eastern and Western backgrounds must be emphasized-- seeking a return to a truer, more primitive, simpler practice. The ancient form is argued to be the most modern.

Lopez, a Tibetan expert, does insert practically verbatim parts from his 1998 debunking "Prisoners of Shangri-La" as he introduces Evans-Wentz' "Tibetan Book of the Dead," for example. Some earlier excerpts such as the historically important Madame Blavatsky with her Theosophical flights of fancy, Evans-Wentz' rather lugubrious interpretations, and Sir Edwin Arnold's once popular "The Light of Asia" will probably bore today's reader. But, they are necessary to show the start of the dialogue between Eastern reformers and Western explorers who discovered Buddhism and wished to present it as an alternative to imperialism, Christianity, and Darwin; or, perhaps rather compatible with at least the last two.

I found my own favorites. Shunryu Suzuki (see my review of David Chadwick's "Crooked Cucumber" biography) sensibly sums up Soto Zen's stress on simplicity. "It is like studying a foreign language; you cannot do it all of a sudden, but by repeating it over and over you will master it. This is the Soto way of practice. We may say either that we make progress little by little, or that we do not even expect to make progress. Just to be sincere and make our full effort in each moment is enough. There is no Nirvana outside our practice." (135)

Alan Watts seems to have fallen out of favor among current audiences, but he prepared the way for Shunryu Suzuki's impact in the San Francisco counterculture. Unlike the Beats (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Snyder) here featured, in his 1959 essay "Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen," Watts appears to have outlasted the Beats when it comes to a prescient observation of the permanence of true insight vs. the fads of a passing trend-- an aspect that continues to color how Buddhism gets marketed globally more than ever. Watts starts by nodding to the Japanese twist. Zen historically attracted the samurai class for its power to get rid of their self-conscious youthful education. But, this plays into the "Japanese compulsion to compete with oneself-- a compulsion which turns every craft and skill into a marathon of self-discipline." I thought of the bizarre game shows that try to humiliate or reward contestants with death-defying or at least stomach-churning feats. Watts finds that Japan's version of Zen "fought fire with fire, overcoming the 'self observing the self' by bringing it to an intensity with which it exploded." (161)

For Westerners raised within a Jewish-Christian culture, whether or not adhering to its beliefs outright, Watts understands the appeal of a Buddhism that the Beats enjoyed, one that did not preach or moralize. Yet, Watts knows the dangers of distorting dharma into existential folly. He insists that anyone from the West must get beyond being "swayed by its promises unconsciously." One must be able to take or leave "the Lord God Jehovah with his Hebrew-Christian conscience" but "without fear or rebellion." A comparison may be Rodger Kamenetz' studies (reviewed by me) in "The Jew in the Lotus" and "Stalking Elijah" about how Jewish and/or Buddhist seekers try to balance their psychic inheritance with their practical search.

Watts finds that unless one is freed from the "itch to justify" one's self, one's
"Zen will be either 'beat' or 'square', either a revolt from the culture and social order of a new form of stuffiness and respectability. For Zen is above all the liberation of the mind from conventional thought, and this is something utterly different from rebellion against convention, on the one hand, or adapting foreign conventions, on the other." (165)
He contrasts the "underlying protestant lawlessness of beat Zen" as calculated to annoy the squares, who seriously try to pursue the "satori" or breakthrough by gaining official stamps of calligraphed approval. Their own spiritual tourism, their rush to wander Asia to find what they can obtain in their own garden, also presents dangers, when such "fuss" gets "mixed up with Bohemian affectations." (168; 171)

Chogyam Trungpa in the last selection, after the next dozen years of the Beats turned hippies found many Americans unable to handle true wisdom, also finds that without a "spiritual friend who is a doctor with a sharp knife," seekers will fail to free themselves from "spiritual materialism" and "shopping" for one layer after another to put on and discard as they wander the bazaar of the next hip spirituality.

Thich Nhat Hanh offers another alternative to such restlessness within the modern heart. "A human being is like a television set with millions of channels. If we turn the Buddha on, we are the Buddha. If we turn sorrow on, we are sorrow. If we turn a smile on, we really are the smile. We cannot let just one channel dominate us. We have the seed of everything in us, and we have to seize the situation in our hand, to recover our own sovereignty." (205)

Allying individual renewal to social transformation, Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, and Taiwanese activist Cheng Yen urge smiles to accompany little shifts in personal behavior that start to ripple out to those around us. While B. R. Ambedkar's Indian manifesto shown earlier tying Karl Marx to a revolutionary dharma may have never come to fruition, nor the Thai Buddhadesa's call for "dictatorial socialism" to overcome the dictators in his homeland, the gentler calls for reform dominate later appeals to apply the dharma to change the world, rather than play into stereotypes of a navel-gazing Buddhism concerned only with monastic ritual, inner exploration, or exotic mantras.

Arranged chronologically by the birth of their authors, the thirty-one selections do not follow any logical pattern otherwise. As with "Prisoners of Shangri-La," this anthology will prove difficult to plow straight through; a glossary does help somewhat, but not a book I'd recommend to beginners. Try Rick Fields' narrative history of Buddhism in America, "How the Swans Came to the Lake," first. Lopez can be less than helpful in some of his too-compressed introductions; I am not sure where a "Calvinist convent" is for Alexandra David-Neel's early education. Some excerpts are astonishingly dull, predictable, or obtuse. Still, this forces the reader like it or not into hearing a diverse array of voices demanding renewal and rebirth of Buddhism. I shared a few of my favorite passages above.

Lopez views the modern Buddhist movements as their own sect. Not mutually exclusive of earlier forms, but often compatible if with "its own lineage, its own doctrines, its own practices." Here, from "a cosmopolitan network of intellectuals," he attempts to present "its own canon of sacred scriptures." (xxxix)

While William Burroughs' rejoinder "Show me a good Buddhist novelist" (155) remains to be proven, given the lack of fiction and not much poetry of any worth within these pages, I do hope a century later readers of a "21st Century Buddhist Bible" may find much to celebrate in the genres not only of polemic, sermon, address, scientific speculation, and inspiration, but in the realms of the creative arts. (Posted to Amazon US today, and also on my blog where longer book reviews occasionally appear, "Not the L.A. Times Book Review.")

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Donald Lopez' "Prisoners of Shangri-La": Book Review

How we idealize Tibet as the white man's spiritual treasury, protected by monks within frozen lairs, links seven essays. Acerbic, dispassionate, and unromantic, Lopez demystifies what much coverage of the Dalai Lama and centuries of fables have obscured: Tibet's reality. This book talks little of politics, but much about the predicament that the West has placed Tibet within: we cannot allow it to escape our own fanciful prison, within which levitating lamas, carefree peasants, and many monks pursue beneath rarified skies the mysteries of a higher realm.

This emphasis, despite Lopez's knack for deadpan dismissal of tall tales, can be dispiriting. While I admire his efforts to dismantle the Orientalist construct that freezes Tibet, I wondered why he remained so dispassionate about its current plight. The final chapter, "The Prison," appears to castigate the Dalai Lama for his difficult balancing act between political leader and spiritual director, but it's hard to see why Lopez ignores the destruction of so much of the learning and culture that he, as a professional Tibet expert, would surely lament.

Perhaps the "surely" betrays my own prejudice, however. In professorial mode rather than as gulled tale-teller, he seeks to distance himself from Western stereotypes of Eastern wisdom. He studies how Western reception makes "things Tibetan become not particular to a time and a place, but universal, and in the process Tibet is everywhere and hence nowhere, functioning as an element of difference in which everything is possible." And in this non-historical, non-geographical, nonsensical depiction, Westerners form their own deluded knowledge of what they claim to know.

Chapter One examines at great length the term Lamaism as a definition for what Tibetans believe. Often Protestant or rationalist interpreters sought to taint Tibetan practice and belief as "papist," and while Lopez does not cite Ram Dass' later summation of Tibetan Buddhism as "Roman Catholicism on LSD," this later, and perhaps approving, tie of the Vatican to the lamasary may be a rare instance of a positive spin on the topic. Even early friars visiting Lhasa despaired at finding an eerie funhouse mirror of Catholic ritual seemingly repeated by the panoply they found. It later became justification for the fears of the West that the Church and Tibet both represented, to be conquered by either reforming Christians and/or rational imperialists. He concludes: "The very use of the term Lamaism is a gesture of control over the unincorporated and the unassimilated, used first by the Qing over Tibet, then as a code word for 'Papism' by the British over Catholic Ireland and Europe, and finally by European Buddhology over the uncolonized and unread." (44)

Chapter Two extends the reach of the West through Jung's commentary and the various editors and renderers of the mislabelled (to allude to the 1920s King Tut craze, a point Lopez does not mention) "Tibetan Book of the Dead." Lopez repeats a minor error in recounting the tale of its earliest popularizer, Walter Y. Evans-Wentz. Lopez notes that Evans-Wentz "enrolled at Stanford, where he studied with William James and William Butler Yeats." (52) While W.Y. Evans-Wentz pursued Yeats to his Irish home at Coole in the summer of 1908, and dedicated his 1911 "Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries" (originally his Rennes thesis, published by Oxford) to WBY, I can find no record in the standard biography by R.F. Foster that Yeats himself taught at Stanford, only that his lecture tour from 27 Jan.-3 Feb. 1904 covered the Bay Area, with a lecture on 29 Jan. at Stanford. ("W.B. Yeats: A Life" 1:305; Foster makes his own minor slip, indexing "William" rather than "Walter.")

Lopez, here and in his edition of the life of Milarepa, appears to borrow the last phrase of the blurb (repeated on Wikipedia) in "Fairy Faith" that's "about the author." This claims: "He received both his B.A. and M.A. from Stanford University, where he studied with William James and William Butler Yeats." In "Fairy-Faith," Evans-Wentz dedicates it to AE (George Russell) and Yeats, "who brought to me at my own alma mater in California the first message from fairyland and who afterward in his own country led me through the haunts of fairy kings and queens." This seems more accurate. The earlier claim repeated by Lopez about the "where" is the point in question; Evans-Wentz came in 1908 to learn from Yeats; Yeats did not come to teach Evans-Wentz per se-- unless a few conversations with WYE-W by WBY during California speaking engagements count as such.

Returning to the main text, I disagree with Lopez' assumption that Sogyal Rinpoche's "Tibetan Book of Living and Dying" too heedlessly sidesteps the idea of the "six realms of rebirth" by avoiding a "literal rendering." (80) As a Californian, I liked Sogyal's analogy of my state as, for "the demigod realm," reified by deluded, "high on meditation," surfers and lounging, affluent layabouts. He, as Lopez glances at only, simply gives us a comparison Westerners can relate to. He later shows in his book much more about traditional depiction of the bardos, but his purpose is not the straight translation (or as Francesca Fremantle later in "Luminous Emptiness" strove to do, the applicability of it to life and not only the afterlife) or commentary that Thurman may have favored--admittedly with his own very contemporary slant. After all, Fremantle & Chogyam Trungpa, Thurman, and Sogyal Rinpoche tried to shift the text from Evans-Wentz's esoteric eclecticism and Jung's archetypes so as to position it for post-hippie, post-lysergic readers today. This mission in the Penguin complete edition (by Gyurme Dorje, Graham Coleman, Thupten Jinpa, with the inevitable if certainly welcome prefaces and comments by the Dalai Lama) continues to strive to overcome Evans-Wentz's Theosophical & New Age bias. And, as Lopez deadpans, if E-W had found in the 1919 detritus of a returning British officer instead a Buddhist logic tract, we'd be telling a far different tale of the dharma in the West today.

Lopez raises an excellent question. Perhaps New Age devotees of Evans-Wentz's Theosophical and willfully eclectic "California Cosmology" (see Ronald Hutton's "The Triumph of the Moon" history of modern paganism and witchcraft) and eager Tibetophiles such as Tim Leary, Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), and Robert Thurman might agree: early Buddhism anticipates later Western physics, regarding deeper levels of consciousness accessible by psychedelics, meditation, tantra, or combinations thereof. Yet, Lopez interrupts, why do we believe Buddhists and their sympathizers? "When we read the claims of Hindu fundamentalists that locomotives and rocket travel are described in the Vedas or that the beam of light emitted from S[h]iva's brow is really a laser, we smile indulgently." Compare to Buddhist claims from the same time and culture for "a universe that moves through periods of cosmic evolution and devolution," for which many may "assume that this is simply something that physicists have not yet discovered." (76)

Such claims permeate those who, as with Lama Govinda, may not even know Tibetan, yet speak as purveyors of hidden wisdom from "treasure texts" long preserved in Shangri-La. By contrast, Lopez is almost gentle in Chapter Three with Lobsang Rampa, the "mystifier" in a double sense, born Cyril Hoskin in Devonshire. He handles the persistently popular New Age assertions that this British man had his "body actually taken over by the spirit of an Easterner"-- to quote him-- and so he "became" a lama, although unable to speak any Tibetan in his Anglicized manifestation, although he could communicate with cats. His many pulp paperbacks recount his adventures in Tibetan and spiritualist realms, and while shelved among "occult" titles today, Lopez notes with a touch of sympathy how many of his professional colleagues first learned about Tibet in the pages of such as 1956's début by Rampa, "The Third Eye."

Chapter Four takes on "om mani padme hum" at much length, equalling that of "lamaism." Again, he delves into how interpretations-- eventually by Tibetans themselves in their explanations-- turn into a rote recital of "the jewel in the heart of the lotus" to sum up this endlessly recited formula as speaking for Tibet.

I found its most evocative, if provocative, exposure near the end of a rather exhausting chapter. It may be that early missionaries quailed at its meaning, if they dared to penetrate its mystery. If the "feminine form of the Sanskrit vocative" for "mani padme" apparently as "O Jewel Lotus" appeals to Avalokiteshvara, who holds both items, why would this masculine figure receive a feminine form? Lopez quotes June Campbell's "Traveller in Space"-- it's unlikely that "mani" means phallus, as "vajra" [often "thunderbolt" in common translations] is "more common." Campbell posits "mani" as clitoris and so the mantra invokes "the deity of the clitoris-vagina," an indigenous deity before the coming of the dharma, who underwent a sex-change by those Campbell deems "the zealous missionaries of Tibetan Buddhism." (133)

The tendency to misinterpret art in Western exhibitions and catalogues takes up Chapter Five; Chapter Six presents a fascinating topic that I have never seen raised in a popular account of Tibetan Buddhism. Jeffrey Hopkins, along with Thurman the pioneer of Western transmission of Tibetan dharma into academia, is also a practitioner. Many of his American Ph.D.'s-- as with Lopez, I gather-- in the field turn "scholar-adepts." Unlike Continental scholars emerging out of Oriental Studies programs, for the U.S., the seminary model influenced the Religious Studies set-up for colleges here. Tibetan Studies Ph.D's often link their study to their practice.

Perhaps, one cannot easily sever study from inculcation, as one seeks "salvation by scholarship" by collegial tenure rather than as a celibate monk. This intrigued me, for how many other departments may boast this psychic identification by professors? Can one teach communism or Freud or Islam without avowing its tenets? Certainly. Given the transmission that Buddhism relies upon of the teaching in a one-on-one chain over 2500 years, I wonder if this can be adapted to academia, or if the monastic pattern will be substituted in universities. What he does not explore is whether a non-believer in the dharma can truly comprehend Tibetan texts, that need-- if Lopez and Hopkins are correct-- to be taken in by those encountering them by methods defying mere translation or equivalents.

Lopez shows how Hopkins at the U. of Virginia took his students into in-depth re-thinking so they could learn the syllogisms and rationales upon which non-Western philosophy as taught by the lamas rested for their students. This re-orientation of the mindset necessary for understanding Tibetan teaching, due to its difficulty, means that a UVA dissertation may still aspire to the level that, among Tibetans, may be reached by a twelve-year-old schoolchild in a monastery. It's that arcane. Just comparing the Tibetan transliterations to their Western compression shows the challenge of crossing what I imagine may loom as a considerable barrier for those not fluent in Sanskrit and Chinese before tackling Tibetan and its cousin languages.

The final chapter raises how we construct prisons around fantasies. Pico Iyer in "The Open Road" (reviewed by me last year here and on Amazon US) raises the same example as Lopez. How many who revere in stadiums or seminars the Dalai Lama know of the "Shugden affair"? Westerners tend to respond to a secularized, ethical, and non-theistic, non-ritualistic, ecumenical style of Buddhism as packaged for wide audiences. "The Tibetan Buddhism practiced by Western adherents was generally of the Buddhist modernist variety, with an emphasis on meditation on emptiness and on compassion, and did not include ritual offerings of fire from a lamp made of human fat with a wick made of human hair." While Tibetan teachers themselves propitiate this controversial "demon" deity, such veneration to say the least does not constitute the retailed version of what gurus offer to their students abroad.

And, on such contrasts, Lopez ends his uneven but worthwhile 1998 study. This book feels as if he wrote separate essays on aspects of how Westerners interpret Tibetan Buddhism, and then he later linked them, often loosely, and widened them for a broader readership. Unlike Jeffery Paine's popularized "Re-Enchantment," Lopez includes substantial scholarship with complete references; many of the endnotes are essential for complete appreciation of what can be advanced academic discourse. Despite the apparent outreach to a wide readership, this book tells almost nothing about the basics; I'd recommend it after Paine, who while he eschews the learning appended and permeating Lopez, would be more accessible for newcomers. Thomas Laird's "History of Tibet" compiled with interviews with the Dalai Lama would also be a good start for those craving more background.

(This to Amazon 7-16-09. I reviewed Fremantle, Thurman, the TBoD editions by Dorje et al., Laird and Paine on Amazon US and my blog; I also recommend and reviewed Tim Johnson's "Tragedy in Crimson," Martin Brauen's "Dreamworld Tibet," Richard Gere's reading of the Fremantle-Trungpa TBoD ed., and Patrick French's disillusioning "Tibet, Tibet" about the aftermath of Western activist enthusiasm for what seems increasingly the lost cause of Tibetan freedom.)