Saturday, June 30, 2012

Cheilíuir mé aríst

Bím ag scríobh seo ar feadh mo leathanta saoire i gCalifoirnea Thuas. Bhí dith mór agam ag dul amach an blianta seo. Tá lucht obair go leor agam faoi deireadh ann.

Bheul, Léna agus mise ag cuir cuairt leis ár cháirde dhíl Crios agus Bob a teach tabhairne anseo inné. Tú ábalta féiceail beirt againn os cionn. Tá muidsa ina baile beag ainmithe "Pescadero" ag imeall an Aigéin Chiúin.

D'ith muid ansin aréir. Búnaithe i 1894, tá bialann ag raibh stad coiste agus an áit chun uisce beatha trádála. Rognaith mé iasc a tógadh go háitiúil, leis beoir, anraith, agus toirtín sméar dubh. ar ndóigh.

Ina theannta sin, tá mé ag léamh úrscéal is mór le Pól Scott de reír An India ar feadh an Dara Cogadh Domhanda inniu. Is leabhar is faide go raibh mé ag féicthe ar feadh tamaille. Ach, béidh mé bain sult as agam é, gan amhras.

Cheilíuir mé mo lá breithe agus comóradh fiche bliain ó chead an tseachtaine seo caite. Tá mé sásta é seo a dhéanamh leis Bob agus Crios suas an crannaí ruadh anois. Bím ag tnúth leis an gach blianta.

I celebrate again. 

I'm writing this during my holidays in Northern California. I had a great need to get away this year. I had a great deal of work lately.

Well, Layne and myself paid a visit with our dear friends Chris and Bob to this tavern yesterday. You're able to see the two or us above. We ourselves are in the little town called "Pescadero" near the Pacific Ocean.

We ate there last night. Founded in 1894, the restaurant was a (stage)coach stop and a place for trading whiskey. I chose fish caught locally, with beer, soup, and {ollala}berry pie, of course.

Otherwise, I am reading a massive novel by Paul Scott concerning India during the Second World War today. It's the longest I have seen for a while. But, I will enjoy it, without a doubt.

I celebrated my birthday and my twenty-first anniversary this past week. I am happy to do this with Bob and Chris under the redwoods now. I look forward to this every year. (Grianghraf le/photo by Crios!)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

22 Books for Reflection on Reform?

Over at Glenn Wallis' Speculative Non-Buddhism, a debate's on (or was at that blog and there'll be others by the time I publish this weeks later due to my own strange predilections, and after my paired posts will have appeared on his own ideological and musical transmissions, past and present) about how Buddhists capitulate to capitalism, and go with the flow of Our Fearless Leaders' assurances that tides lift all boats, and I suppose dharma rafts across life's streams. A few days later, the NYTBR relays: "China’s Communist rulers have reached an easy accommodation with Zen, whose practitioners are, [Andy Ferguson] believes, 'usually content to practice their religion quietly and . . . tend to emphasize meditation over confrontation.”' Perusing over 150 comments under "Un-Mindful Collusion" on the political ramifications (or lack of) in Buddhism, and the need to "wake up" from its transports or cushions, to celebrate my "blackjack" wedding anniversary plus one I recalled (mostly) recent titles that touch upon eclectic if related aims at betterment, and reform.

That may betray my own bent to read first and ruminate often, rather than rush out as an agent, but as an instructor myself if from a more modest background and credibility-claim than most who frequent S N-B, I (mostly) lurk there and listen, a few months in. It's a site--as its creator-daemon wisely warns--not for beginners.

While it champions the ordinary inquirer, it prefers academic language, with no apologies. I advise not venturing into its terrain without a few years studying Buddhism, as it'll disorient the newcomer and I confess it sends me to look up philosophical terms that few outside of Continental seminars depending on German and French may follow with fluency. As with Wallis' editions, S N-B rewards reflective re-reading. Wallis (see my reviews via those paired posts) shifts tone from his two Buddhist commentaries--S N-B deploys a baited, barbed, stealthy application of theoretical jargon sprinkled by playful invective to dismiss the verities of timeless truths of dharma blah blah via confrontational analyses of the underlying mystifications that, after 35 years doing the business of Buddha as a practitioner turned critic-professor with a Harvard Ph.D., he rejects as obfuscating or delusional. He examines the Pali texts as such, not as discoveries of a deeper "understanding" or "insight." Humanistic analysis of dharma dismembers a hero-Buddha, and dismisses any fetishized "master knowledge." His year-old site urges a dictionary, unsparing scrutiny, and defines his S N-B project as an attempt "to think new thoughts, non-Buddhist in nature but using Buddhist postulates."

Anyhow, when between laundry and grading duties I studied over 150 (at the moment) S N-B responses, I reflected how a confrontational style enjoyed by regulars (as on many blogs) repelled some greenhorns while it amused old salts. I spent long years (free-time at least) in attempting to change a small place in a large world, alongside Marxists and socialists. My non-aligned skepticism persisted, but I watched and I listened, to radicals and their rivals. I saw there in the real realm and then the cyber one the same mixtures of idealists and pragmatists, armchair revolutionaries and a few who had done their deeds and written or dug their plots in ways arguably best not to fully know.

From there, once that struggle had faded as geopolitics and greater battles took over, a like-minded colleague directed me to participate in a contrarian political blog where the past four years I have watched similar energies ebb and surge. This comrade and I both wearied of the infighting amidst the countless petty wrangles and character assassinations online as in the "real" world. So, I evolved to keep my distance to protect, yes, my illusory ego from those who can't wait to chop me/it down. I suppose patience necessarily achieved however flawed from nearly thirty years teaching matters, and I also know how online many of us boast on parading personae that in person we might not flaunt. I take the gladiatorial nature of such blog fora as a lesson in humility and a reminder for care and tact.

Those who run both S N-B and that political site proclaim their own refusal to act as playground cop, and it may come down to Type A personalities who thrive from debate while I seek sustenance more in contemplation. As I look upon religious or political allegiances more as rooting for one team or preferring one sport, I find as a spectator often a sense of bemusement as I sit mimicking a Deist's deity, even if I didn't start this ball of confusion rolling. I cheer few causes. I'm an untrue believer in idols or role models. My attitude--after my own long march through academia to find only a frontier post distant from the heartland of cultural capital--comes as a stoic outlier, in lean times relegated by market forces and lack of preferment from those able to court favor or tenure, far from Byzantium.

Temperament: it may come down to our own style of coping, and in that spirit, my titles may invite you--whatever your own personality and mood--to learn how others have dealt with troubles of the political, spiritual, personal, and ideological realms as these collide and merge. I list them in alphabetical order. They reflect despite my own situation in L.A.'s smoggy sprawl my leaning toward British, Celtic, or punk sources. Not all reach perfection, but how else can we seek to find solutions?

The American Bible by Stephen Prothero. This collects political core texts from throughout our nation's struggles with self-governance. It imitates the structure of the Bible into Genesis, Exodus, Prophets, et al., to demonstrate the evolution of debate and a Talmudic pattern in arranging commentary around central readings. Recommended: the discussion about "under God" in the Pledge.

The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. This necessarily incomplete, rambling, academically dense yet restlessly searching testament records the monk's final seven weeks, as '68 'Nam rages a few nations over from his retreat and attempted renewal. Transcribed headline: "Smiling Boy Dies of Poison."

Basic Teachings of the Buddha by Glenn Wallis. This presents sixteen suttas in a phenomenological order exacting the self-transformation demanded by the contents themselves, ingeniously. While Wallis since this has progressed to criticize the "dharma-raft" and the fundamental (x-)Buddhist enterprise, his fluid translations and astute commentaries represent the profoundest expression I've found (in four years) of the Pali paradigm, in this deceptively titled edition, far from "basic" at all.

Buddha Da by Anne Donovan. This novel shows the results of a Glaswegian housepainter's decision to devote himself to a lama who comes to the city, and the effects on his wife and daughter, ca. 2000.

Good Friday: the Death of Irish Republicanism by Anthony McIntyre**. This study collects columns and essays during the aftermath of the GFA, as the sharp perspective of an ex-IRA blanketman turned political journalist and academic informs us on the costs of compromise and the collapse of idealism.

Ecopunks by Tony Bailie. This novel combines an ecological topic with a politicized thriller. As an Irish journalist with a deep familiarity with musical as well as literary and psychological mythmaking, Bailie dramatizes the power of the media to "cover" climate change via New Age networked activists, who must succumb to the lure of a platform from which to preach, and to yearn.

The 'England's Dreaming' Tapes by Jon Savage. This transcribes his 1992 interviews with sixty-one pioneers of the (mainly London-based) punk movement, centered around the Sex Pistols. It provides a case study and cautionary tale about the fate of an idealistic effort to incite, for a few, real change.

Everything Must Change by Grahame Davies. This sharp novel of ideas and characters expands the Welsh-language original, alternating enigmatic Simone Weil's existential quest--as a convert mingling Catholic mysticism with anarchism and working for Renault (however awkwardly) into her pacifism, the French Resistance, and possible self-starvation during WWII--with a young woman's 1980s attempt to fight capitalism and anglicization within the non-violent campaign of Welsh nationalism.

The Heart of the Revolution by Noah Levine. This third installment by this scion from an American Buddhist family I found more nuanced and grittier than I expected. I admit I remain by nature very distanced from elements of this stylized, recovery-based, and mannered presentation (which may overlap with Kuhn + SxE's "bad religion" if slightly). However, Levine's maturation and his caution for the platitudes with which many Buddhists coat their mindsets may encourage a few of his S N-B detractors. From within the Buddhist movement, this blunter, streetwise approach mixing "dharma punx" tattooed contexts into Tibetan "tonglen" practices to generate compassion--and stir up social change --may be a harbinger of how emerging teachers raised in Buddhism may wake their ilk up.

In Utopia: Six Kinds of Eden and the Search for a Better Paradise by J.C. Hallman. This astute, detached, steady chronicler of idealism, fanaticism, and ennui turns his careful eye to ecological restoration, a Virginia commune, a millionaire's cruise ship, an Italian communist turned Slow Food advocate, a Korean high-rise city, and a Nevada gated community for paramilitary gun owners.

The Lost Revolution by Brian Hanley and Scott Millar. This exhaustive, long-due history unfolds a worst case scenario, as "Official" Irish republican radicals decide to promote Marxism to workers and neighbors, first by bomb and Armalite, later with the ballot box despite relentless strife among  themselves as well as against the British state and their former IRA comrades now Provos. It demonstrates how what's concocted as viable in the seminar room or the pub cabal generates a free-fall into brutal, bitter marginalization, at the cost of lives and not only reputations or theories.

Mánchan's Travels by Mánchan Magan. This narrative of an Irish journalist's encounter with early-90s India reveals subtly his own spiritual and cultural discontent alongside that of a changing sub-continent full of seekers and charlatans. It explores (as his other accounts, all recommended), the unease of an educated observer who must deal with his own insecurities as well as the poverty, delusions, desires, and contrasts of those far worse off than his comparatively pampered, edgy self.

The Monk and the Philosopher by Jean-Francois Revel and Matthieu Ricard. This dialogue involves the father, a French political philosopher and his son, a molecular biologist Ph.D. turned Buddhist monk in Nepal. They discuss many of the Big Questions about science, humanities, hope, and reform.

Peace, Love, and Petrol Bombs by D. D. Johnston. This semi-autobiographical, witty novel shows how history happens and gets lionized or demonized. Teen Scots burger-flipper turns anarchist, joins sloganeering squatters in France and Greece during the anti-globalization demonstrations ca. 2000.

The Philosophy of Samuel Beckett by John Calder. This examines the existential humanism within his life and texts, in a straightforward, candid, moving, and accessible study from Beckett's publisher.

Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson. This novel follows a Vermont hardcore band, the Green Mountain Boys, in the fading of Reagan's second term, as they embrace Krishna and tour the Northeast. It contrasts their rebelliousness with their parents, in hippie New England and yuppie NYC. Flawed, but it conveys some spirit of hardcore and the later punks who tried, again, to revolt.

See a Little Light by Bob Mould. This autobiography of the Hüsker Dü guitarist-singer-songwriter follows him from angry if Monkees-loving kid to punk to minor star, WWF (panda-less) storylines to gay love, in diligent detail of how the aspirations of alt-rock contend against one's lingering anger, sexual insecurities, and emotional frustrations. It shows the slow evolution of his life into a graceful arc, accepting responsibility for his own role yet not letting others off easily for their manipulation.

Sober Living for the Revolution by Gabriel Kuhn. These interviews with Straight Edge (SxE) punks from the later decades may not nestle neatly with those of us who toast a pint or two, but it offers a look inside many anarcho-communal, manifesto-driven, vegan-radical communities within which international SxE struggles against overwhelming odds, as a testament to defiant if rigid commitment.

Thirst: The Desert Trilogy by Shulamith Hareven. These three biblically-inspired novellas upend the hero-worship for Moses or Joshua, and strip Torah to the bare-bones, raw, off-handedly rendered backstories which became Exodus and Numbers and all that. This is how it felt if you were the type who was pushed aside or kept out of Moses' way. Existentialist, evocative, haunting. One reads these stark lessons and understands the hazards of mythologizing, the despair of marginalization from the self-promoters and bandwagon jumpers, and the unsettling but enduring identity of "border-crossers" unable to get with the Levitical program. Possibly an allegory for Israeli-Palestinian relations, but it need not be viewed by this perspective: Hareven rescues ordinary people from the chapter and verse. 

To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron. This travel account by an eloquent chronicler relates a secular pilgrimage to Mount Kailas, a site held sacred by many Indian-born faiths. It examines, sparingly and subtly, the rigors of humanism when an observer cannot find solace in custom or belief.

The Visionary State: California's Spiritual Landscape  by Erik Davis with photography by Michael Rauner. This handsomely documents the attempts of radicals, fanatics, utopians, charlatans, and/or otherwise inspired neighbors who come to the Golden State to convert and/or solicit us natives.

Why Marx Was Right by Terry Eagleton. This revisionist survey attempts to prove where Marx was not perfect, but plausible. Like his "Marx" monograph, it suffers from compression and the forays of a lit-crit prof into poli-sci and econ, but his assertions of a more humanist, humane vision merit study.

(Links to my Amazon US, PopMatters, NYJB, or blog reviews; **see my in-depth one on Good Friday. Poster: James Montgomery Flagg, 1917)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

On the Road with Ruin

While The Road to Ruin was the second LP from the Ramones, another punk band, in the next decade, provided music as punchy as the New York suburban kids but with a considerably heftier lyrical and spiritual impact. Philadelphia's quintet wove a Buddhist message within an artistic tapestry enmeshed into hardcore. My first post about Ruin juxtaposed their stance in the '80s with how guitarist-founder Glenn Wallis has moved along an increasingly unsparing interrogation of what we call the buddha-dharma, which recently he dubs Speculative Non-Buddhism. Today's entry looks not at (x-)Buddhism's "shell game," but the now-Dr. Wallis' band's sonic outreach. These paired posts reveal what I've been unable to find much of elsewhere online: how Buddhism and punk ignite.

We first hear Ruin's path to dharma in 1982's flexi-disc singles "Twilight" and "Phenomenal Expression" in Terminal! Magazine. These sound, as flexies did, as if their hometown Flyers used them for pucks. Still, you notice why Ruin stood out even them. This pair reminds me of Husker Du's early singles before they signed with SST. The latter song of Ruin is short even by punk standards: 45 seconds of atomic meltdown. As the titles hint, there's a gleam amid the gloom. The glimmers of melody and lyrical insight may elude casual listeners, but both bands hint at maturity within hardcore's slamming compression.

1983 found the band with two songs on Get off My Back: A Philly Hardcore Compilation. These cannot be found online, so I cannot comment on "Love Dog" or "Proof" in its first version. Still, from hearing it later on 1985's "White Rabbit" promo demo cassette, it's easy to understand why "Proof" was re-recorded twice more. It focuses their sound more intensely, and the hardcore expectations of barked vocals and hammered delivery are seasoned with mood shifts and starts and stops. It's a more physical song, and this helps. There's a splendid video of the band bobbing heads in unison around their drummer (not sure if it was Richard Hutchins, or Pete Della Pelle who replaced him), as they unite in generous obeisance to their common cause. The love they share for their music can be felt.

The previous year, their first LP, He Ho, appeared. I wish I could review this as it was meant to be received, but I can only reconstruct most of this from equivalent live tapes at XPN radio and a St. Mary's 1997 concert, both available via Freedom Has No Bounds. As a band interview at The Worst Horse Buddhist pop-culture site documents, this album was primitive compared to what they wanted to get down on tape. "Rule Worshiper" stands out most. As it's the only one I can access on both a Fiat Lux studio and remastered version, it appears that this song on its reissue on the long-deleted 1996 anthology Songs of Ruin and Reverie has been edited into a sudden fadeout, which hones the power of this sharply defined attack on the titular fealty.

For me, the songs (I'm handicapped by live versions and not studio ones) hold up by the standards of what must have been a no-budget, mid-80s tiny indie release. Taking up Leonard Cohen's "Master Song" and the Rolling Stones' "Play with Fire" demonstrates Ruin's proverbial range of influences beyond the MC5, Stooges, Clash, Ramones, and Motorhead nods their "Worst Horse" interview credits. Commendable as such touchstones remain, I'm enticed by a subtly artsier side that appears to bury the jackhammer patterns of the Buzzcocks within the staccato tempos of Wire--these may reflect what I want to hear; these two endure as my own exemplars of how punk could challenge its formula.

Unlike the musicians in the previous paragraph (even if some albums had to be burrowed out from imports six thousand miles away in very few stores), Ruin might never stay on a road, at least on a blacktop far enough west closer to me. Given the smoke signals and rattle patter of what passed for communicating the appeal of what could remain very regional music back then--as the pages of Touch& Go (anthology reviewed by me) display for '79-'83 (oddly overlapping my undergrad years)--the welcome a band received in its hometown might be utterly unknown a state away.

My hometown band X sung about this as the "unheard music." Bob Mould in his recent See A Little Light (memoir reviewed by me) movingly tells of how the Huskers moved from town to town, setting up a presence, sleeping on couches, talking to the local college radio station perhaps (I worked at mine, KXLU), and seeking out like-minded outliers, the kids who hung out in record stores, who read existentialism, who didn't fit in. I'd like to think Ruin attracted some of the same, across the continent from where SST came to dominate the local L.A./O.C. scene, as hereabouts hardcore became, well...

Nick Rombes wrote well a few years ago about punk's rapid implosion from 1974-'82. I note that T&G and Professor Rombes' own A Cultural Dictionary of Punk (reviewed by me) nearly coincide with their terminus. Ruin, however, crafted its blend starting when critics and listeners like me (and Rombes perhaps as a contemporary) had pushed away as sour whatever artistic integrity had curdled into punk conformity. The Minutemen and Huskers (for me the most visible, as they shifted to SST and could be found gigging around here and their records could be bought) expanded their horizon of what punk could mean less as the corrosion of conformity and more as personal liberation.

This draws me back to Ruin's coming-of-age. By the mid-'80s, Ruin had taken what few punks took seriously--a path to freedom along lines of transformation less by political or gender confrontation, more by a religiously faithful path. I'd heard vaguely a few punks had found Krishna, as Eleanor Henderson's recent novel Ten Thousand Saints (reviewed by me) dramatizes in the second term of Reagan. But nobody I listened to or talked to tried to align a spiritual search with a musical one. My encounters with the world of the intellect, like my musical forays, were largely solitary, autodidact. So, I used to wonder, as I took on the tensions and aspirations comprising my own Irish Catholic upbringing during this uneasy time, how the music I played could show me literary and personal role models, guides out of my own confusion. Music had started this for me, long before I found the Mekons annotated their vinyl and the Crass anthology I'd bravely sought out filled its paper sleeves.

It's difficult to know if listeners could make out paeans to dharma anymore than anarchists memorized what Brits shouted out in angry spatter, or Americans chanted in hoarse cries. On vinyl or in concert, without a lyric sheet committed to rote recall, I was often left clueless about the "message" as the "medium" blasted my admittedly fragile ears, so much I (carless anyway, riding my bike around, taking the bus, bumming rides, the thin kid on grants and fellowships, worried more about a GPA and passing scrutiny than scoring tickets) rarely went to shows, and ruined my hearing cranking up headphones in a grad school dorm or a rented apartment, dissertation looming, qualifying/ language/ oral exams over me, a personal life careening into an unwisely chosen relationship amidst a climate of economic straits, ideological rants, and the hothouse climate of doctoral programs in literature, obsessed with nouveaux French varietals. Meanwhile I tackled Old and Middle English, Shakespeare, Milton, Richardson, Eliots, Joyce, Beckett, and this year's model of impenetrable, translated, thick theorists vs. close readings of verse. Teaching remedial or frosh comp, grading blue books, dealing with pampered and/or poorly-prepped undergrads often left me nearly response-less as a weary reader, with always more to pick up by my desk, on the bus, in my apartment or co-op bed.

I include my own encounter, as (post-)punk played steadily during this decade. Grad school began with British Marxists and post-structuralist myth; Jacobeans and "ordinary language philosophy" in less than everyday prose. Ten years earlier, I had to leave the town where I'd been happiest, when my parents moved. As part of my childhood was spent happily wandering the blasted heaths and scrubby chaparral around what would be the final lemon groves in the county, I lamented what I'd come back to. First draft of this blog entry, I was reviewing Hari Kunzru's Gods Without Men. Early on, Nicky, as dissolute English rocker, flees the pressure to perform in the Westside manse-studio. He drives out past where I was raised, oddly at my cheeriest as a boy, if pale in smog and heat. I lived north of the last town in L.A. County on the border of the nation's largest county, arid east way past the Eastside.

"LA faded into a thankless dead landscape. You couldn't call it a desert, really. It was waste ground, the city's backyard, a dump for all the ugly things it didn't want to look at." (26) Yet amid the "valley of the dirt people," as the Inland Empire's denigrated, before millions filled tracts and big-box malls full of junk from the warehouses there that distribute junk from the ports which comes from China, I found it pleased me to explore once dusty spaces. We all love where we dreamed, the music we first heard--even if 93 KHJ Boss Radio and "White Rabbit" over and over, more than "Play with Fire." For me a jackrabbit was a glimpse, a coyote a fact, a smudgepot the winter night's heavy orchard scent.

Now, I returned, staying but half-a-mile from where I'd grown up, to begin my program in English literature. A small fan blew. I studied Gawain as the local college station played the Dead Kennedys and the temperature hit 108 outside in Claremont and my rented room was where I paced and typed and translated, my fingers staining the pages with sweat. The English Civil War boomed again within the small print of one of many used Penguins, next to my Pearl. The clock radio transmitted whatever eclectic playlists the local d.j.'s played, often under an influence. A year later, M.A. in hand, I was off to UCLA. Living at the once-Paul Robeson socialist, now overtaken by Chinese grad students, ramshackle co-op, the weather eased, the climate changed. In Orwell's year come to pass, a Ph.D. hovered, a Grail for my medievalist-modernist self, seeking meaning between glosses and footnotes.

Meanwhile, what was Ruin up to? The Philly punk archive Freedom Has No Bounds takes its name from a Ruin lyric; find them all at the link via the band's website. In this already long article I will spare you the English major's exegesis of particular songs, but check at "Freedom" for how Ruin covers a song I long ago (the age of, what, six, seven?) tired of from endless AM let alone FM radio blare, "White Rabbit." Lysergic swirl fits Ruin's embrace of letting their songs lag and roam, away from hardcore's hurry into more guitar solos (brief, I assure you) by Glenn and his brother Damon. "Proof" from the promo cassette sounds as if the Flyers skated on it, and "Life After Life" suffers from a noise annoys production on an understandably lo-fi format, long before such became hip.

On the video stream embedded on the band's website, Vosco Thomas Adams' vocals resemble the DK's Jello Biafra; Ruin gravitates towards lurching and swaying on much of 1986's Fiat Lux. Small world: as I started UCLA, a guy I met the first night told me he'd dated Jello's sister. As with the Dead Kennedys, earnest bands wearied of packaging intelligent commentary within restrictive structures. If punk--political or spiritual--meant to encourage us towards freedom, how could it pressure us, as hearers, concertgoers, fans, to conform to a mohawked, leather-jacketed identikit?

To its credit, Ruin realized this impasse on its own road. Last Days of Man on Earth offers (links to other Ruin songs on this side are sadly as of this writing dead; everything's out-of-print in this impermanent realm) a portal to hear this band's best work. It's preceded at "Last Days" by what may be (given the limits of retrieval) my favorite song of theirs, the single "By the By." Catchier, as if Pere Ubu's electronic squeals warped into Vosco's muffled, stomped-on, muttered staccato as it alternates with more-Jelloish bellow. The postpunk, edgier, nagging riff merits applause, and the band charges forward in an unpredictable, call-and-response tune that I play over and over. Mission of Burma, as I noted in my previous review, comes to mind as a parallel for where Ruin roamed next.

As for this and the album that followed, their recordings, even altered into a digitally compromised state through files to laptop to headphones, open up far more the melodic vision the band found to expand their consciousness on their second full-length record. I detect hints of Misfits and Motorhead, maybe a bit of Minutemen. I'm biased towards bass, and I sense more seeps up from the mix of Cordy Swope's playing in the later work by his band, which seeks a hard rock, less punk orientation paralleling the move of many "college rock" ensembles during that pre-grunge decade.

While rapid in time, Fiat Lux slows in space. They push into wider terrain, eager to play off textures and voices that swoop in and draw back. The approach favors intensity, but akin sometimes to mainstream rock in its decision to ease up on hardcore habits and to embrace accessible if still rushed and loud sounds. "Hero" was covered a decade later by Superchunk and this up-tempo anthem's well matched to the latter group, who (two songs by the Verlaines!) know good music, along with equally attentive devotees Yo La Tengo. Here's hoping Hoboken's trio considers Ruin on their next album--for all I don't know, YLT may have played a song in one of their audience-request concerts.

I wonder if YLT during their annual Hanukkah charity concerts (see my bio review) has paid tribute to Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat"? Ruin delivers a solid version, and for me, being vaguely familiar with the surprising hit (at least in what used to pass as alternative radio) of Jennifer Warnes way back around the late '80s of this song, I liked hearing Ruin's assertive response to its sensitive but defiant declamations. "Proof" gets a third try, but the file on "Last" does not include this as far as I can tell; the numbered tracks appear one shy of the discography via the band's website. I would have liked to hear this in a better-than-hockey puck material manifestation of its metaphysical teaching.

Side two of Fiat Lux opens with the lighter (if barely) tone of "China," with a chorus of "dig a hole" and what may be a piano imitating a "Chopsticks"-type progression. It's refreshing to find the band allowing some humor coming into what can be a fierce, committed mode of delivering an uncompromising mission. The lyrics page shows their mindset, and it's maturing into doubt. Their eponymous song "Ruin" finds Vosco growling his band's name, and this harsher reproach balances nods, as with an inclusion of "White Rabbit," towards a broader appeal. "Great Divide" returns to a more hard rock place, and the Stooges' "Real Good Time" hastens the LP to its close in a more partying mood than the philosophical content of the bulk of this album hastening enlightenment.

A 1997 reunion after a decade's disbanding finds the band opening a live concert with a propulsive instrumental that's one of their best songs. Rings for weeks in my head. You can hear it via Ruin's Soundlift sampler page. It reminds me of a less histrionic Killing Joke riff entangled with the confident clanging exuberance of industrialized, gritty, barking Wire in their early '00s incarnation.

So, that's Ruin on records' road. I wonder what a producer like Steve Albini or Bob Weston could have done with their talent. Link to the Buddhist entry previously posted on my blog for more overlap and excursions into the band's ideological and phenomenological shakeups--especially from the band's founding member, Glenn Wallis.  Earlier this month, one year on at S N-B, he explained:

Really, this project is an extension of Ruin. I have dropped hints about it all over the site. I also have lots of veiled references to punk rock and rock n’roll in all four of my books. I always told my bandmates: “this has nothing to do with music!” The punKoan, then, is: with what does it have to do?

I invite you to find out more, as I do. I commend them for their ambition, and I await (perhaps without fulfillment in this incarnation) a pristine presentation of what they sounded like on records.

I suppose shortcomings contain their own moral. A lesson learned--we seek a sound and a pleasure that eludes our grasp. While I lament the absence of CDs and the demise of an anthology that from the few songs I can find appears to noticeably sweeten the sound and force open its dimensions, the links above enable you to brave the entrance and meet the band's invitation to reorient your life (as I mark another anniversary/ birthday-week among my family and dearest friends up north, who all love raucous music, if not the same bands!) around a band that could be your life--if a life lived depends on waking up to another outlook, stance, defiant possibility for "phenomenal expression."

[Photo c/o "Worst Horse" of Ruin "with sparklers": Damon left, stage diver center, Glenn right.]

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Buddha estranged: Ruin & Glenn Wallis

I stumbled upon Glenn Wallis' music after I reviewed his compilation "Basic Teachings of the Buddha" on Amazon US. Far from the quick introduction that its title or brevity may suggest, it's a challenging, iconoclastic confrontation against speculation and "Buddhist Hybrid English" which interferes with our understanding of what the earliest Pali texts convey about dharma. Similarly, his hardcore punk ethic, as in the band interview at "The Worst Horse: The Sub- and Pop-Culture Buddhist Site" reveals Wallis and his Philadelphia comrades as committed--for Wallis from the age of fifteen--to a principled combination of outreach and testimony. Inspired not only by MC5, Stooges, and Motörhead, Ruin covered simpatico Leonard Cohen more than once, and they managed to edge towards rock during their stint from 1980-87, before debt wore them down.

I'd never heard of Ruin, although last year when reviewing for "Interface: A Journal of Social Movements" Gabriel Kuhn's straightedge-anarchist anthology Sober Living for the Revolution, I lamented in a footnote left out of its scholarly incarnation Kuhn's exclusion of any religious or spiritually oriented bands. A priori, as Kuhn set his nonsectarian sXe parameters, but I wondered how many punks had turned towards Buddhism, as some did to Krishnacore. I'd written recently on testimonies of Noah Levine's "dharma punx" and Brad Warner's "hardcore Zen." Levine's a decade behind me, recovery from his Santa Cruz skate-punk juvie-detox rite of passage underwritten as Asian Grand Tour. Warner emerged from mid-Ohio's collegiate shadows. Levine's return to dharma (his father's a prominent Taos teacher) seemed after his hardcore hijinks, while Warner's band Zero DFX appeared not to share his own direction, started when he'd started at Kent State. Back then, regions mattered. Philly or Akron's basement draws might stay "the unheard music" out here in L.A.

I found Wallis' own websites. I learned of his hardcore punk roots. A radio interview delves into Ruin's Nichiren practice, as of the (anti-)Reagan years. Two LPs, He Ho & Fiat Lux, languish out-of-print, along with an anthology. I searched online but it's vanished from MP3, impermanent.

I'm intrigued by his German and Harvard-trained, yet raw and passionate, approach as "an observer of Buddhism" towards a secularized, skeptical non-Buddhism aligned with my own academic formation and internal orientation. I agree with his warning that advises those new to Buddhism to take time to learn about it for a few years, and then to come back to his site. I make an analogy of a mature artist able to challenge the treasured canon after he's studied it lovingly--and rebelliously. 

Reviewing "Basic Teachings" (2007), I wrote how it jibed with my take on Stephen Batchelor's "Buddhism Without Beliefs" and "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist." Now, I'm glad I read Batchelor first. Wallis today veers decisively away from any parallels to Batchelor; Wallis has contrasted "an aporetic-speculative argument with one that seeks to stoke Buddhism's charism." Both have stared down over decades the Pali texts; Wallis wearies of a secular search for canonical verity. He rejects the "recovery of a lost truth" by secular Buddhists and he rejects the historicity of its "Protagonist."

Wallis elaborates: "I think that I have arrived at my Speculative non-Buddhism view in large part because of the fact that it continually dawned on me that sitting—session after session, sesshin after sesshin—was empty of the complex representations that Buddhism insisted on." In an existential sit with my (similarly non-labeled if non-Buddhism="acid" and "subtraction" as Wallis sharpens his incisions into the dharmic subject) meditation mentor, albeit committed to the "recollective awareness" ("anupassana") of the Skillful Meditation Project, he mused: The Buddha uses [or he's ghostwritten with] language based on his experience. How do we express our distinct experience?

Wallis now rejects what he christens as adjective-laden "x-Buddhisms"--he identifies "buddhemes" as endemic labels with which we obscure its this-worldly teachings. Can dharma's syntax be "shorn of its transcendental representations"? He's sick of pursuing a "shell game" that keeps admiring its own reflection; he wants to shatter its illuminated mirror. It's an "archaic relic", a sop to modern vanity. He wants to "empty the dharmic dream". He prefers Charlotte Joko Beck's "no hope" and his own "unhitching" from the Buddhist bandwagon. He's "breaking apart the dharma raft," on a barren shore.

His eponymous website's files reveal speech and silence, "Ovenbird" his poetics and meditation. He confronts, after three decades-plus of practice, "this tedious tessalation called 'Buddhism.'" He links to his record of sound (see below). He penned an eloquent commentary on the "noble truths"[sic]. He's dogged but wry. He teaches "devastation". Peering into the SN-B arena, I've no dog (or bet) in this x-Buddhist fight. I like his self-summation: "The older I get, the more I shrug my shoulders."

My blogroll's added Speculative Non-Buddhism: creative criticism of Buddh-ism. This flips (a bird to) the paradigm. Wallis emphasizes in "Basic Teachings" the Buddha's sensory-grounded dharma, opposed to untenable speculation. Perhaps at times--as he and the Buddha warn--papañca proliferates on SN-B. Wallis calls that forum a stoa, where he's "interrogating a pathologically nice tyrant." The Buddha warned of the "fifth hindrance" of doubt, a "a tiger-infested journey" resolved by deepened commitment to dharma. Wallis' liberation from this path may draw critical inquirers to enter back into doubt's stream, unbewitched. SN-B delights in a call to "pump up the polemos" by ethical polemics.

Yes, Buddhism may roam anarchic. SN-B opens up a "what-if" thought experiment. The Buddha encouraged followers, once across the river, to abandon even the dharma, as a raft's burden. SN-B's seekers wish to reach the opposite shore, where they can "let the collapsed house lie in shambles"

Yet, might they drift in samsaric miasma back to the other shore where the rest of us shuffle? Wallis quotes Kafka: "Beyond a certain point there is no return. This point must be reached." Steve Hagen defines "the dark end of 'duhkha'--existential angst"; SN-B traffics in blunt dialogue. Harsh tonic, a fire alarm to wake us up. Dissidents explore an amplified, profane, if ludic, ens sacra. Lately, they wonder: “Can Buddhist practice be the one place where we are still allowed to open our eyes to the truths that shape our lives everyday? Can it teach us not to hide from the truth inside a cloud of incense, mindfully experiencing our bodily sensations?” Has Buddhism ultimately failed the human?

A gompa as mosh-pit, where Situationists, Crass, Beckett, and Heidegger resound as blooded participant-observers face off agonistically. Bob Mould wrote in his memoir (my review) how Hüsker Dü envisioned punk to be for such--shy spectacled misfits, the gays, the art crowd, those at the edge of the crowd--as much as L.A.'s mohawked who gatecrashed, in poses I stepped aside from, wearing glasses as I did, soon after. With a jolt, SN-B's an antidote to anemia. ("Ipecac"?) Its philosophical level's steeply elevated. Tenderfoot climbers seeking vertiginous vistas may not acclimate easily to its exposure at rarified heights. But we can gloss our topographical charts. We can call upon scholarly Sherpas as guides. Maps lure us, goad us, sway us into braving thinner altitudes.

SN-B's heuristics remind me of epistemological lamas shouting demystifying, dadaist disputations citing Slavoj Žižek more than Śāntarakṣita. Interlocutors extend Professor Wallis' investigation into what--or what does not-- underlie the "hybrid" formulations we've imported or imitated. Wallis delights in "theory-fiction" and his "Before You Read" demands to be done. Peeking out from my medievalist training and Irish-language regimen to suss out linguistic walls and gaps far from my native habitat, I admire Wallis' "lyrical and aggressive" direction into derivations, where they've blurred and warped over time and translation. These commodify the branded export of/as the Buddha.  Given my interest in how dharma's marketed and transmitted West (as in Ireland) via such "x-Buddhisms," adding my (post-)punk leanings, my lurking's a bracing if disorienting encounter.

The Existential Buddhist ("dharma without dogma") critiques Wallis' own "corrosive" SN-B claims; he and others respond over three weeks of testy inquiry, three Monty Python allusions; "Rainer" muses on Wallis' punk motivations among 95 comments nailed to EB's cyberdoor. Dana Nourie sums up "Basic Teachings" in the generous resources of the Secular Buddhist Association. After I drafted this, I found valuable, pointed debate in a SBA exchange via Stephen Schettini with SN-Bers (You can search its wordcloud for entries by Wallis, now a defector approaching escape velocity from any dharmic "vibrato" as I revise this draft. Again, as SN-B generates dozens or hundreds of comments per post, so I've been trying to keep up as comments replicate. I barely grasp the day's thread, before it unravels like Penelope's loom.) Before the Pali texts he rendered as "Basic Teachings" (advanced as they are), before his "pathless path" of aporia, Wallis translated the text that got him started decades ago, the Buddha's "verses on the way," as the Dhammapada, in rounded resonance.

I've reviewed Valerie Roebuck's didactic austerity in her Penguin edition in 2010. Wallis at anarchic fifteen had read the superseded Juan Mascaró version. If I had ruminated in a high school of a far different sort, what might I have pursued for my doctorate? I had glanced into the bardo early in my dissertation but I had to return from Tibetan "psychonauts" to Catholic Europe. Purgatory's ideological and literary echoes, still, resonate as my karmic what-ifs. Would I have blazed another trail earlier, East not West, with or without the jolt of first musical and then intellectual energy that punk's arrival sparked? Hard to tell, as my companion post confides, given I grew up next to a dog kennel by the rail tracks. Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O'Connor, Joyce, Kafka, Tolkien, Borges, Beckett: my ur-texts. Given my reluctance to limit or define myself now by any ideology, who knows. Did Warner or Levine in 80s hardcore forays cross-country know Wallis? They may've mentioned him in their memoir-accounts without my being clued in to Ruin or his later scholarship.

As for his band, Ruin reminds me of O.C.'s Adolescents' debut with anthemic, bucking, propulsion, while embedding--as if Martin Hannett-haunted--Mancunian post-punk shards honed into uneasy tempos, swaying lyrical shifts. Later emanations, gleaned from my limited access to a videostreamed 1986 show, demonstrate a Dead Kennedys lurch; reunion concerts resemble a lysergically enhanced Big Black--albeit clad in white. The glyph Wallis drew in a trance, spacing out at Temple U. in 1980 (I studied religious themes in lit at L.M.U. that same year: the design reminds me of not only the Aryan sun symbol but a solar wheel within "noble" Brighid's Imbolc cross/ Cros Bríd) is their logo.
Ruin opened once for Boston's own The Volcano Suns. Roaring, pummeling pop-punk; skewed, melodic, rambling, mocking albums mixing Mission of Burma's intelligence with raucous, sophomoric wit. And, is there a Buddhist nod(-off) in their title (cover below; see review) of record #2, "All Night Lotus Party"? Find out more in my next post as I dive into Ruin's shards, mornings after. He ho, let go.

"The Buddha, our guide, becomes a stranger;/ The Dharma, our doctor, goes mad;/ The Sangha, our friend, weaves bloody tapestries./ Might hidden treasure lie in ruins?/ Our ruin is a ruin because of treasure."
"The Pessimist Club" where Anonymous' post raves: "Ruin were incandescent. They were otherworldly -- phantoms, ghosts, bewildered gods. White clothes, black light, darkness, candles." And perhaps (not) again, being the same moniker, raves the soundboard guy at a reunion show: "they are a nuclear bomb brought to a knife fight.."

Friday, June 22, 2012

Glenn Wallis' "Basic Teachings of the Buddha": Book Review

Similar to Stephen Batchelor's existential re-evaluation of dharma, scholar Glenn Wallis corrects the distortions of  "Buddhist-hybrid-English terms" which interfere with true understanding of key concepts, in sixteen suttas. (Often known to us as "sutras." This type of reversion to the Pali, closer to the language by which the Buddha would have transmitted--and had preserved in oral form by his followers--his teachings in, rather than Sanskrit, shows how exacting this translation and commentary will be.) I found this approach to go back to early texts very compatible with Batchelor's "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist" (2010) and ""Buddhism Without Beliefs"  (both reviewed by me as linked on Amazon [and this blog]) as a serious study of how teachings can answer our own longings and challenge us as post-modern readers. 

Umberto Eco may be familiar, but not in a book on Buddhism; he and Hans-Georg Gadamer suggest model approaches for Wallis' reader: a dialogue must be entered with a text, lest it as a "lazy machine" prove inert for us. The heavy work we put into mastering these sometimes repetitive, intricate, insistent teachings pays off. Wallis expects us after studying these "basic teachings" to have a "doctrinally responsible basis" for more study, and to put words into practice as actions. 

I could have read a whole book on what the introduction hints at in three-dozen concentrated pages of suggestion, insight, and challenge. "Religious literature is immediately recognizable as religious in large part because of its extravagant language. Such language is not inviting the reader to examine closely, much less argue with, the claims that it is conveying." (xxxiv) Wallis adds how we seem predisposed to accept as plausible a person's proclamation using grand language, and we become enchanted, awestruck, taken in. 

He finds the Buddha himself took this tack in his initial attempt to sway his five former companions and Upaka! And, the Buddha learned to persist, to overcome doubt and to convince his audience as the suttas do us, in Wallis' expectation, if we regard the dharma "as at least potentially verifiable." (xxxv) Quite a demand for a reader coming to this as if a quick introduction--which it is and is not, so be prepared. He hints at sly wit.

His determination to present a non-speculative, experientially based dharma in the early teachings aligns too with many raised in a more secular or skeptical culture, but who still search for meaning. (After reading this, fittingly, I learned that Wallis co-founded "Ruin," a hardcore 80s punk band, when in college in Philadelphia.)

Amazon Reviewer E. Godfrey sums up the six-part structure or path constructed by Wallis to arrange the sixteen suttas. Habitat, De-orientation, Re-orientation, Map, Destination, and Going comprise the stages. These, Wallis explains, "are the result of my effort to trace the footsteps of the Buddha," the "Fortunate One" as he renders his title (although I did not catch why this was)--a nice twist on the conventional "Enlightened One" or "Awakened One." Although Wallis lists many appropriate synonyms for "dukkha," arranged by intensity on pp. 120-1, he agrees they all contain "some degree of unease," and I accept his nuanced choice. 

Instead of "suffering," then, we get a more flexible term; so with "Four Noble Truths," here as "pre-eminent realities," which to me fits with a conception of the points as aligning with "reality," or to me, how things are. Wallis also nods to Old English and Germanic roots, and this linguistic care is echoed in our tongue as well as the Sanskrit and Pali in which I trust Wallis' expertise, frankly. His commentaries appended after the suttas, separately, account for his careful selections of terms, and these should be consulted--as should the introduction and the eloquent, carefully delivered suttas themselves--with patient reflection. A book I can return to, and study over and over. (I have since compared this with Rupert Gethin's "Sayings of the Buddha"; I reviewed Wallis' companion edition of "The Dhammapada".)

P.S. The Amazon U.S. reviewers --my review appeared there on 2-9-12--generally favor this book, but one to date did not. The author leapt to his own defense against one hasty critic: "is this a parody"?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

"The Dhammapada" (tr. Glenn Wallis): Book Review

Diligence repeats; negligence looms. If "anthology" derives from "a gathering of flowers," than this "verse text" of four hundred blooms from the core teachings attributed to the Buddha must be not only taken up by an admiring reader. Its teachings of and about dharma, as "the way" to liberation from delusion, have to be distilled. As skilled compiler and translator Glenn Wallis urges in his appended "Guide to Reading the Text," the imperative phrasing demands that the verses undergo "a delicate alchemical task" by a reader turned practitioner, one who extracts the essence and scent and pith of the flowers, lest they wither and leave the reader but a passive beholder of their petals and nectar.

Wallis, as in a companion volume of earlier Pali texts comprising "Basic Teachings of the Buddha" (2007; see my review), nudges the reader to become an agent for change, to engage with these mnemonic prescriptions so as to find renewal and to develop skillful means of making their inspirations into perspiration, to transform an inert text--however lovely on the page and in his version-- into real energy. He applies reader-response theory deftly to carry out his editorial mission, and this enlivens his book's utility. His sharp notes guide one to become an agent for change, by understanding verses relating to suttas, the teaching-narratives gathered by the Buddha's followers.

These form, in the Dhammapada, thematic chapters arranged around metaphors or repetitive patterns. While "Basic Teachings" in its repeated, sonorous, prose sometimes felt--no fault of its own by its orally based origins--at odds with our more terse modern Western manner of inculcation--the repeating phrases of these briefer verses do not jar as much with our sensibilities. As in lyrics, their flow sounds easier upon the ear than the eye, often. Wallis comments how an "ethical polarity" arises, between optimal and destructive choices. Meanings hover within between quatrains, usually, so the tension between doing the right thing or the wrong suspends between one verse and the next. This draws the reader along, and the translation's efficient pace and graceful delivery underlies insistence.

I reviewed Valerie J. Roebuck's 2010 Penguin translation, appearing after Wallis' 2004 edition. She does not cite Wallis, as far as I can tell, but these two accessible editions compliment each other. Wallis prefers the suttas preceding the preparation of the Dhammapada for his overviews and notes. Roebuck's equally extensive appendices paraphrase each verse's "story" and offer glosses of key terms. Comparing two verses at random, you can judge both translators' choices in straightforward tones. Roebuck, a fellow practitioner-scholar, leans in my hearing towards a more terse, didactic, austere manner, perhaps reflecting her English training, vs. Wallis' confident, American delivery.

#6 Roebuck: Others do not understand/ That we must control ourselves here:/ But for those who do understand this--/ Through it, their quarrels cease.

Wallis: Some do not understand/ That we are perishing here./ Those who understand this/ bring to rest their quarrels.

#85 Roebuck: Few among humans are those folk/ Who cross to the other shore:/ These other people/ Just run along the bank.

Wallis: Few are those among the people/ who cross to the other shore./ The rest of humanity just runs about/ on the bank right here in front of us.

The choice remains; perhaps both editions will enable you to leave "childish" things behind, as Wallis renders what Roebuck does those clutched by "fools," and to mature by putting these verses to use. (Amazon US 2-25-12)

Monday, June 18, 2012

Lá faoi Bhláth aríst

Bhí an lá faoi Bhláth aríst i mBaile Átha Cliath ar 16 Meitheamh i ómós do laoch an leabhair Leopold Bloom ó "Ulysses" ar ndóigh. B'fhéidir go d'fhéadfaidh a bheith Sherlock Holmes nó Huck Finn chomh coitanta fadó. Ach, measaim go mbeadh an fear uasal Bláth agus bean a tí Mollie go mbeadh anois.

Ar an laghad, sílím seo ar ár domhain féin. Faoi deireadh, scríobh mé léirmheas ó beathnáiséis nua le Gordon Bowker faoi Séamus Seoighe anseo. Go minic, ceapaim mé go cumhacht mhór na Seoighe.

Mar sin féin, nílim ábalta léamh go heasca "Muscail Sochraide i ndiadh Fhionnagáin." Thósaigh mé treoir-leabhar lé Seosamh Mac Cathmhaoil agus Enri Morton Mac Roíbín areir. Léigh mé timpeall a leath de.

Bhuel, iarraim ag cur suim ansin. Bhí suim agam air nuair a d'fhóglaim mé faoi forógra de ALP (1.5). Is docha agam go raibh tugann díospóreacht leis an ollamh de reir an scóth den scéal!

Mar sin, is féidir liom mó cóip a fháil an roinnt sin. Go dtí seo, níl suim agam leis an chuid eile den abhar.  Níl foighne agam a léamh an chuid mór, freisin. Tá brón orm, an tUasal Seoighe. Béidh mé ag iarraidh, ceart go leor?

Bloomsday again.

It was "Bloomsday" again in Dublin the 16th of June in honor of the character in the book Leopold Bloom from "Ulysses" of course. Perhaps Sherlock Holmes or Huck Finn were as popular once. But, I reckon the gentleman Bloom and the woman of the house Mollie may be now.

At least, I think this in our real world. Recently, I wrote a review of a new biography by Gordon Bowker about James Joyce here. Often, I muse on the great power of Joyce.

All the same, I'm unable to read easily "Finnegans Wake." I started a guidebook by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson last night. I've read around half of it.

Well, I seek to find interest there. I had interest in it when learning about the manifesto of ALP (1.5). Most likely for me that I found about debate with the professor concerning it the best part of the tale!

Therefore, I may get my copy to find that section. For the most part, I don't have an interest in the rest of the material. I lack patience to read the larger share, still. Sorry, Mr. Joyce. I will try, o.k.?

(1939 Clúdach iris/magazine cover Time.)

Saturday, June 16, 2012

William C. Dell's "Time's Hidden Dimension": Book Review

This advances and expands what "Deconstructing Zen" by this same author proposed. Time as we perceive it in three-dimensional space-time opens up as we pass with it into an intersection with its hidden dimension of possibility that bursts into the infinite as quantum physics constructs, or breaks down what we know and where we live and who we are. Perceptions that expose us in meditation or enthusiasm or panic or uncertainty reveal the peripheral vision that tantalizes and perplexes our linear self and sense-based understanding. At this junction, the M of string theory beckons us.

Such encounters create power-claims and have long been disseminated or exploited by religion, first polytheist and then monotheist. But these are earlier stages on human paths to self-actualization. Now, as William C. Dell reminds us, we can take on our own awareness as liberating, and no longer must we rely on the "kingdom of God," as Jesus announced, to be anywhere else but within us. Profound yet simple, endless yet understandable: how do you condense lofty wisdom sought for thousands of years in texts and rituals into a short e-book that one can take off into a quiet sitting?

The Bhagavad-Gita, Basho's haiku, Faust's bargain, Wordsworth's lines at Tintern Abbey and his ode to immortality all demonstrate past attempts by people to make sense out of this brush with the infinite. Dell becomes neither scared nor smug about what this opportunity offers us. He urges us to stay hopeful. I finished this as I did his previous work wondering about death's seeming finalty and how this message may cheat death, but I suppose the other dimensions of M- or string theory may hold answers we can only grope towards, for now. He brings in Emily Dickinson's "I heard a fly buzz," and I admit that's one poem that's always unsettled me, even though I've taught it in class!

I also wondered how the "bulk" or origin of the brane speculated about in "Deconstructing" might play into recurring multiverses or Buddhist concepts of cyclical renewal, religious concepts of a "uncaused cause" or creator deity, and how astrophysics and religion might agree at last on what was incomprehensible remaining such (forever?) or becoming less so. Let alone problems of dark matter, dark energy, and entropy. How we outwit mortality eludes my weak grasp. The fact a brief study sparks such great wonder serves as its own recommendation. I predict any reader will find a series of such questions to muse upon. As science opens doors to awe, we can adapt its explanations and combine them with the poetic and spiritual pioneers who've directed us towards vast horizons.

Diagrams, from the kind of knack I imagine Dell's decades as a humanities professor have sharpened, show such examples as how to compare and contrast a poem by William Carlos Williams, a painting by Monet, and a surrealist version--all of the same (or not) cylindrical figure. Such visual aids, as with those on time plotted in the e-book, enhance the reader and viewer's comprehension of what can often be engaging but erudite and fast-moving, allusive lecturettes. Reflections gleaned from Dell's years as a meditator and poet glisten, as hints of autobiography and his personal quest enrich the narrative. Chapters continue to fill every sentence with considerable weight, but the feel of the overall series of short essays remains more gently burnished, perhaps due to letting this all sink in.

Many of the same philosophical themes, literary citations, and scientific dimensions repeat from his earlier book--this shows signs not of lassitude or laziness but how a teacher ponders his subject, one term to the next, and repeats its core content without duplicating a particular lesson, as the class and the season and the mindset all shift, and the core texts remain the same, but differently analyzed, more or less so. He revamps the very complex ideas he's mapped out, in a streamlined revision.

In my review of "Deconstructing," I noted how within the elegance of that discussion, some knotty neurological details merited more elaboration. Also, the final literary explications might have been directed back to support the scientific and spiritual ideas so compactly explained in the rest of that book. That book sought to pack so much into a hundred tersely written pages that the poetic voice of Dell fought for space with the scholarly tone, and for both, a reader such as me wanted to hear more. I recommend both works, but this newer one might be a better way in to the condensed matter in "Deconstructing," which spins fittingly back to the themes herein while remaining less personalized.

Therefore, in "Time's Hidden Dimension," the author's two intellectual outlooks--even if the e-book is shorter--feel more relaxed in the telling of another chapter in this ambitious tale of how our small lives might leap--somehow? how?-- into the beyond. Teilhard de Chardin might play off this material, it occurs to me. The pace and mood are well tempered by Professor Dell's reflections on his life, whether on a boat at the end of a day in dock, his uncle's mysterious brush with death in a train tunnel, or a hummingbird's attachment to its human rescuer. Such anecdotes work well to balance the denser presentations of scientific material, such as microtubal neuron networks and the origins of consciousness within a quantum model, which necessarily challenge even the most learned among us. I still insist there's far more Professor Dell can tell. Perhaps this and its companion study are but introductions for a longer work, delving into the intricacy of such verses and the visions once again. (Thanks to the author for providing me with a review copy of the e-book: Amazon US 4-13-12)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

William C. Dell's "Deconstructing Zen": Book Review

This is our brane, no drugs. That is, Dell takes us beyond our perceptual limits, trying to convey in language and diagrams the universal and eternal nature of the inexplicable. He locates the Zen no-mind of "satori" within string or M-theory, the six dimensions since the Big Bang so far inaccessible to us in our three-dimensional slice of space-time. This deconstructs as our universe expands from its initial (and seemingly cyclical) inflation. No meaning can be fixed in this flow.

By seeking these strands of the brane which constructs and spins out our world hovering between real and imaginary time, Dell posits we can extend our orientation towards the infinite and eternal "bulk" that lies behind (not that such prepositions work too well) our brane in this universe. He sets up Zen and string theory and combines their "oscillating meaning." He ties this in turn to intricately if often tersely argued models of what St. John of the Cross called "beyond all science knowing." Quite an elegant evocation of the erasures and elisions which impel Dell's own exploration.

Even if Roger Penrose, Stephen Hawking, and Brian Greene (whose "Fabric of the Cosmos" similarly challenged me if at far greater length last summer as an audiobook) build the scientific knowledge necessary for Professor Dell to project his vision, ultimately, as with the Zen koans and parables and verses with which he begins this hundred pages or so, words fail. This small book compresses libraries of data and decades of contemplation. It's difficult to put the substance of this book into a review. As with Greene and astrophysics, the models depend on visualization, and an interior perspective that takes us inward to our own powers of imagination crossed with reality.

Yet, such intersections, as the plotting shows in "Deconstructing Zen," work to make us work. While Jacques Derrida is cited but twice, his "differance" distinguishes the utility of this combination of close readings of poems by Blake, Coleridge, Donne, Herrick, and ingeniously Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar." This last selection opens up a chart of how imagination and reality overlap at "satori," and this as "the navel of the world." While Joyce to my surprise is not drawn in (for once), the Rg Veda's dignified comments on creation and creator and Lao-Tzu's Watcher segue from such mapping well.

"The temporal and the eternal are the same at the navel of the world. Arrival, like inhalation, is a departure, an exhalation. It is both something and nothing, empty consciousness, the mind of no-mind." (74)

Books on Zen, such as Shenryu Suzuki's "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" or the one I started with four years ago before Suzuki's, David Fontana's "Discover Zen" (both reviewed by me) tend towards similar brevity. William C. Dell appears from his prose to have practiced a long time; the more writers do, the less they have to say. Therefore, the short length of this book is not a discouragement; much can be meditated upon in its suggestive chapters. So much that I wished for more in Chapter Five on the quantum mind, about its microtubulin organization that generates consciousness. Dell packs so much into so small a space that while he does not to his credit lose his train of thought, the elucidation of this material demands for less gifted audiences more than the few pages given over to this topic. It deserves its own book.

Quantum physics, the importance of peripheral vision, and the adage of the "watched pot never boils" gain freshness by their blending. Dell's diligence reminds me of my own classroom efforts to get across complicated mental models by a few lines drawn with precision yet open-ended direction. His many years as a humanities professor and interdisciplinary scholar certainly emerge.

While the final few pages diverged into explications of "Kubla Khan," Wordsworth's "Lucy Gray," and Donne's nocturnal on St. Lucie's Day and eased away from the provocative build-up of the previous chapters, they may inspire readers to return to such poems with a twenty-first rather than Romantic or early modern sensibility. Tempered by the humbling discoveries of our own insignificance in a multiverse that earlier generations thought they knew so well, we can learn from Dell's ambitious search into a new variety of "natural philosophy" how to breathe in the same wonder that old poets captured for us. (A copy was provided by the author for review; I have no connection with Professor Dell but I thank him for his offer. See also his follow-up "Time's Hidden Dimension" which allows many of these same themes to open up and "breathe" more freely.) Amazon US 4-9-12.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Owen Flanagan's "The Bodhisattva's Brain": Book Review

This philosopher from Duke applies neurobiology and psychology to "Buddhism naturalized": a way to achieve "eudaimonia" or a steady-state of ethical happiness (not the smiley-face touchy-feely blissed-out caricature) and flourishing in the moral sense of that term. Humans, Flanagan reasons, may benefit from adapting a secular approach stripped of gods, nirvana, and "superstitious nonsense." He wants to get beyond Buddhism as "mental hygiene" or "moral self-improvement" or, tellingly, "self-indulgence." He looks to its metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics as a natural philosophy.

He reminds us that "there are only Buddhisms, no Buddhism." (xii) Meditators in its Eastern societies tend to be fewer than Westerners suppose--they in turn are chided for often practicing meditation as the primary avenue to awakening without concentrating on the wisdom literature and study necessary, it seems in Flanagan's subtext, to achieve true insight. This may annoy readers, but Flanagan's point is that meditation in itself, disconnected from an ethical action or moral investigation leading to actualized improvement of one's self and others (however impermanent) has been too often left on its own as the "sine qua non" exercise by which the West defines a reductionist view of Buddhism. He compares this to how many Christians may pray without formally doing so during the day, or often at all. (See p. 106.) His main point is to show how mindfulness predominates among Eastern Buddhists.

He wishes to explore where brain chemistry intersects with meditation claims, and he finds less substance than what a decade or so ago he and his colleagues were attributed (by the media or some Buddhists) to have discovered as tangible evidence that happiness could be located on a brain scan, or that meditation led to such a steady state. Intriguingly, twice he in passing alludes to his surprise in meeting the Dalai Lama as to his apparent differences in how he regards reincarnation not in whatever "literal sense" can or cannot be aligned with "anatman," no-soul as contrasted maybe (Flanagan raises this elsewhere also in passing) as a flow of energies transferred from being to being. Unfortunately, at times Flanagan brings up such points so casually as asides that it frustrated me.

Owen Flanagan remains a skeptic, and in a fine section investigating the claims of the Dalai Lama (especially in "The Universe in a Single Atom" also reviewed by me) he compares and contrasts "karmic causality" with "the natural law of causation" in light of neo-Darwinian theory. This is challenging territory. A postscript calls this "an essay in Comparative Neurophilosophy." He concludes his attention to Buddhist epistemology by declaring that science will resist the attempts of those who say consciousness is an illusion or that choices are not made by sentient beings as agents. "There is no longer any need for bewilderment, befuddlement, or mysterianism from Buddhism or any other great spiritual tradition in the face of the overwhelming evidence that all experience takes place in our embodied nervous systems in the world, the natural world, the only world there is." (90)

Therefore, the inflated claims that at the turn of the millennium sprouted in the popular media as neuroscience was given a dubious credit for "proving" how Buddhist meditators demonstrated a happier cerebellum are debunked by a relentlessly empirical Flanagan. He insists, as an atheist and a rationalist, that any such claims be backed by proof that is not untestable, ungrounded, nor false. So far, consciousness appears to be physically based, and no leap into the ethereal for spiritual "proof" can convince his "naturalist" and materialist insistence.

Part two of this dense if brief study (it can be tough going as parts feel more like lecture notes than smooth prose for the uninitiated; many great insights are found relegated to endnotes) tackles Buddhism as a natural philosophy. He returns to the happiness question as he tries to advance the study of "eudaimonia" as a "condition for the possibility of happiness" directing us away from our "first nature" bent on our "untamed desires" towards a "second nature" akin to the Buddha's happiness as was taught by him and his followers, as "selfless persons" open to impermanence, to eliminating suffering as much as possible in the here and now, and to flourish free of delusion.

Accepting "no-self" impels us, in Flanagan's take on Buddhism, to be more kind and more compassionate, as we let guilt and anger go, and the delusion that such states define our identity in a fluctuating passage through formless time and space where we instead find a "metaphysic of morals." While Flanagan rushes past this-life nirvana vs. a post-mortem one, and his discussion of no-self might have been simplified with an earlier (he passes by it on p. 144 of 207 pp. of the main text) inclusion of conventional vs. ultimate truth-claims of existence that Buddhism makes, he segues into moral psychology and "fluxing" to give a helpful East-West comparison few studies have, by taking on scientific studies as well as philosophical explications.

Even if personhood is always changing, moral character traits for a no-self arise to spur happiness; this ontological and ethical connection Flanagan emphasizes as "eudaimonistic virtue theory." This chapter moved from basic to academically advanced discussions where Flanagan answers his peers regarding earlier cognitive research, and the shifts can be sudden. He sensibly compares and contrasts Aristotelian virtue theory (even if for Aristotle, our characters have staying power) to Buddhist solutions of how to live with "virtue, happiness, and flourishing," even if "anatman" is the real human state of no-self and emptiness ultimately comprises the nature of things. Qualifiers persist in this open-ended inquiry. Choosing the best projects to devote one's life to compassionately, unselfishly, and wisely appear to enhance long-term, if still this-life limited flourishing, in Flanagan's perspective.

His final chapter situates Buddhist happiness within liberal and classical "therapies of desire."  He addresses the Abhidhamma's classifications of the "three poisons" and how "wholesome" vs. "unwholesome" or "neutral" classifications of states of consciousness may spark insight into normative assessments made by philosophical Buddhist texts defining what we call phenomenology. He places Mill's utilitarianism and Jesus' Golden Rule next to Buddhist ethical recommendations for a similar style of impartial or universal ideal of compassion or loving-kindness. While Flanagan still finds Buddhist recommendations somewhat vague as to how much compassion, the bias when considering the "self-purified life of the arahant versus the active life of the bodhisattva" sums up the reason, perhaps, for the book's title. (Amazon US 4-23-12)

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Matthieu Ricard + Thinh Xuan Thuan's "The Quantum and the Lotus": Book Review

Over two decades ago, inspired by Galileo's "Dialogue on World Systems" between a poet, a politician, and a scientist, Fritjof Capra (oddly not mentioned in this book) the systems theorist who gained attention for his "The Tao of Physics," co-wrote a film, "Mindwalk." Although the three talking heads bored some viewers, I found the film engaging at least for its ideas, enhanced by its Mont St. Michel setting. Reading this dialogue between a French Buddhist monk resident in Nepal, trained as a molecular biologist, and a Vietnamese astrophysicist raised as Buddhist and now teaching in America, I found a similar meeting of minds, enriched by the depth three hundred pages can offer for such wide-ranging explorations into the infinitely small and infinitely large, as Heisenberg and Bohr meet Einstein or Plato before all bow to the Buddha.

So Ricard would have it. Fifteen topical chapters progress through the Big Questions as science tries, for Thuan, to live up to the Platonically inspired models that appear to underlie the visible realm for many physicists and mathematicians. He articulates this worldview eloquently, as when citing Einstein's vision of viewing the watch's face, watching its hands move, and hearing its ticking without ever being able to open up the mechanism inside. Ricard counters this doggedly with a dual vision of impermanence underlying all existence, and interdependence on the quantum level linking all the universe. This precedes the Dalai Lama's 2006 "The Universe in a Single Atom" but compliments it well. In fact, it betters it, for the back-and-forth between monk and scientist pushes both farther; also see Ricard's spirited discussion with his father, political philosopher Jean-Francois Revel, in 2000's "The Monk and the Philosopher".

Both Ricard and Thuan explain their concepts energetically, and I was never bored, even if this took me awhile to finish, as many pages merited close attention. I found clear presentations of Bohr's Compatability and Heisenberg's Uncertainty principles, as well as astutely delivered summations of astrophysics and time-space from Planck measurements onward. Thuan insists it seems on a Big Bang and leans towards a Big Crunch, but he accepts a Big Expansion as also possible--as of the writing of this book ca. 2001 it appears the data's still debated. Ricard defaults often to Buddhist cosmology not in its classical sense, but in the manner in which nothing's inherently existing, and no steady states endure. He tends to get the upper hand in the dialogue, and I wondered if he had final say over the book--it felt as if tilted towards his stance.

The chapters do roam about, and some topics such as the beauty of mathematical theories or the structure of mathematics vis-a-vis Godel's Incompleteness Theorem appeared underexplored. Some chapters end a bit suddenly, and I was curious if the authors were discussing this and making a transcription, or if, given the heavy use of quotations, sending each other drafts of talking points that they edited into one document. However produced, as they note, we are limited in what we conceive to how we perceive, and one closes this thought-provoking exchange wondering if Ricard's "dharma" itself is but a limited creation of the human longing for meaning, compared or contrasted with the laws that Thuan values in his everyday analysis as a scientist, far from Ricard's Asian monastery. (Amazon US 5-20-12)