Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Beirt baile na h-iarnróid

Chuaigh mé go dhá iarsmalann faoi deireadh. Tá beirt i mbailte na h-iarnróid ann. Roinnte siad geimhreadh agus gaoth--agus carraigeachaí de luach.

Chuir cuairt mé go mBoron i gCalifoirnea--agus múseam umhal--ar feadh ar coicis seo caite. Tharlaíonn miandoireacht borax ann. Tá fásach is mó go léir ar fud an bealach gnótach na hAigéin ó Thuas ann.

Fhill mé go Utah aréir! Chonaic mé an Loch Salann Mór. Ansin, thiómaint Léna i stiorm sneachta go Sléibhte Wasatch go dtí gCathair na bPairc. D'fhán ag na loiste na scíala is níos iontach i Ghleann na Fianna in aice leis.

Thug mé caint faoi Caoimhin de Barra, an scribhneoir nua, don Chomhdáil Thiar Mheiricéa ó Léann Éireannach. Bhain sult as Léna agus agam ag plé an craic leis eile ina h-óstan mar sin fheictear. D'ith agus ag ól ina tithe tábhairne (ach, bhí drioglann Siar Ard, go fírinne) in gcríolár an bhaile d'aois fós.

Mar go raibh múseam in aon bhaile na h-iarnróid, mar sin sa tír eile. Bhuel, ní raibh muid an iarraidh a íoc deich dollar gach chun dul isteach an ceann ansin. Chuala muid faoi "Teach Sínis na Joss" trasna na teorann ina h-Evanston, Wyoming, an lar de réir na Iarnróid na h-Aontas Aigéin ansin agus gual anois.

D'imigh muid Utah. Duirt leis an stiurthoir ó An Muséam na gContae Uinta i h-Evanston. Thaispéain sí duinn sin agus an Teach Sinís fréisin. Is maith linn an beirt acu--agus an teach tábhairne timpeall an chúinne ina sean-bhaile eile ó Thiar. 

Two railroad towns

I went to two museums recently, They're in a pair of railroad towns. They share sand and wind--and rocks of value.

I paid a visit to Boron in California and its humble museum during the past two weeks. Mining of borax happens there. The vast desert is all around the Southern Pacific's busy tracks.

I returned from Utah last night! I saw the Great Salt Lake. Then, we drove to the Wasatch Mountains in a snowstorm to Park City. We stayed at a very wonderful ski lodge in Deer Valley nearby.

I gave a paper about Kevin Barry, a new writer, to the Western American Conference of Irish Studies. Layne and I enjoyed discussing the craic with others at such a charming hotel. We ate and drank well in pubs (but, one was High West Distillery, truthfully) in the heart of the old town.

As with one rail town's museum, so with the other. Well, we did not want to pay ten dollars each to go inside the one there. We heard about a "Chinese Joss Museum" across the border in Evanston, Wyoming, an old center on account of the Union Pacific Railroad then and coal now.

We left Utah. We spoke to the director of the Uinta County Museum in Evanston. She showed us that and the Chinese House too. We liked both of them--and the brewpub around the corner in another Western old town.

Grianghraif/Photos: Lora Hartley, Museums of the Mojave/ Múseaim na Mojave; feach eolas faoi/see information about the Uinta County Museum/ Múseam na gContae hUintah anseo/here.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Rupert Gethin's "Sayings of the Buddha": Book Review

After reading Gethin's "The Foundations of Buddhism" I sought out this companion volume from the same press, Oxford. True to that institute's reputation, "Foundations" proved both rewarding and challenging; "Sayings" sustains the discipline applied by this scholar to his subject. Both books, taken together, in a comparatively brief study manage to cover the essentials of, respectively, the common doctrine and the earliest suttas.

Enamorato's review, also online elsewhere via a FWBO site, sums up Gethin's anthology alongside Bhikkhu Bodhi's "In the Buddha's Words" and John Holder's scholarly collection of teachings. Mine will focus on its editorial approach. I came to Gethin's edition after Glenn Wallis' "Basic Teachings of the Buddha". I admired Dr. Wallis' reader-response theory and philosophical approach, conveyed well in his introduction and commentary. Similarly, Dr. Gethin constructs from a solid linguistic command of the earliest extant Nikaya collections from the Pali his own rigorous interpretation of the core of the Theravada, Southeastern Asian dharma teachings. Unlike more popularized collections, this can be used by a student in a class or on one's own to study the stories seriously--that is, with a guide taking one closer to the dialect in which the historical Buddha is said to have conveyed the teachings, as transmitted by monks into oral and then written form a few centuries later.

These are sorted traditionally as longer, middle-length, grouped, and numbered discourses. Gethin follows this organization and offers examples of all four from the vast number edited by scholars. He tries to give an accurate rendering, including the repetition that hammers home the point even if this may be strange to readers. He reasons that this oral feature embedded itself in the writing down, and this repeating of phrases offers its own pleasure in the recital of these passages and their inculcation.

As with Glenn Wallis' more compact but equally eloquent translation and commentary of sixteen essential suttas ("well-said" sayings), his fellow scholar Gethin captures in his introduction an enthusiasm for dharma. He may translate it as "Truth," "teaching," "practice," or "quality" to catch the most precise meaning of this all-encompassing term. He bases this on his own research into Pali.

The contents speak for themselves. Suffice to say that Gethin (as does Wallis) allows the suttas to sit as complete narratives, in their original form, so as to let readers appreciate the elaboration of points, their repetition, and their gradual unfolding in the words attributed to the historical Buddha. What in his "Foundations" study may become paraphrased, debated, and cited here, by contrast, emerges as if told by one person to others. You will find preaching, but you will also find dialogues and advice.

Each entry is preceded by an efficiently condensed preface and supported with precise end-notes. These may refer one to linguistic points, or other works elaborating topics here alluded to or compressed. Therefore, this is an excellent introduction that I'd recommend following up Wallis, and perhaps preceding Bhikkhu Bodhi's "In the Buddha's Words," for three variants on this wise teaching. (Amazon US 4-9-12)

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Bhikkhu Bodhi's "In the Buddha's Words": Book Review

The need for a larger anthology of the earliest extant texts attributed to the Buddha has been met by this compilation. Bhikkhu Bodhi is a Brooklyn-born monk in the Theravada tradition who has translated the Nikaya suttas. These "longer," "medium-length," "grouped" and "numbered" collections in the Pali dialect closer to what the Buddha had used when he orally transmitted the dharma are as far back as we can go when trying to find the "original" sayings that summed up and expanded the many teachings of the founder over four decades of preaching.

These can be famously repetitive, astringent. This comes from their oral nature, as this aids memory and invokes its own state of reception. These formulae for repetition and recursion remain here, but modified in the middle of repeated paragraphs so the first and the last are kept full but not the intervening. It's a fair compromise for the reader, and it allows more selections to be included in this generous, sober, stolid, if daunting, collection.

Bodhi here compiles highlights from the Nikayas. He tends towards conservative interpretations, as a monk himself seeking the early texts to put in Theravada context. He orders them into what makes sense for a student needing a way in to the vast corpus of suttas. It starts with the human condition before the teaching is heard, then moves step-by-step along as the Buddha arrives, so to speak, and the dharma unfolds and grows in complexity as the hearer advances along the path to awakening. Bodhi arranges substantial sections of the suttas so a reader can get a sense of the core teachings. He prefaces each thematic or cognitively arranged chapter with a detailed introduction and follows with endnotes. This leaves the texts themselves to be faced apart from an orientation or commentary.

Now, unlike the shorter collections of equal value, Rupert Gethin's "Sayings of the Buddha" let alone Glenn Wallis' "Basic Teachings of the Buddha" (both reviewed by me before I read this anthology--I'd sample these before taking on Bodhi's bigger book), Bodhi does adhere to a conventional, more obedient stance regarding the dharma. That is, as a monk, he's grounded in elucidating this dharma as not a scholarly enterprise or a linguistic exercise or a philosophical confrontation. Rather, he mixes a more devotional approach that assumes the dharma's truth-claims while inviting a reader to understand the original suttas in light of later monastic commentaries and interpretations. Wallis eschews this approach and Gethin minimizes it; Bodhi as a monk embraces the suttas within a larger framework of those Theravadin monks who have pored over the Pali texts and come to their own conclusions, as his predecessors and masters within the South Asian community. I admit I lean more towards those who challenge the texts rather than bow to them, but that may be my nature! One can't fault Bodhi for a more "literal' stance towards the canon, but this needs mention. He does peer beyond the Pali to later commentaries to tackle textual cruxes and obscure passages.

Wallis and Gethin have based some of their work on Bodhi's even if they differ from some of his choices for translation; Bodhi has pioneered anthologies aimed at a wider Western audience than professors or linguists, and for this, the affordable and handsomely designed book (as with many from Wisdom Publications) fills a space on a short shelf. Endnotes, a brief glossary, charts of where the texts fit into the canon, and a full index with italicized Pali and Sanskrit terms enhance its use. As I consult this more as a researcher than an insider, my judgment of it is aimed at a similar reader.  (Many previous reviewers have reacted to this book with bursts of heartfelt praise; I wanted to provide rather a sense of how it compares and contrasts with other popular press Nikaya collections.) [Amazon US 8-29-12]

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Steve Hagen's "Buddhism Plain and Simple": Book Review

No gilded statues on pedestals, no gongs, bells, or chants. This Zen teacher relays "uncluttered, original insights and observations" from the Buddha, gleaned from Hagen's three decades of practice and study. He refreshingly dismisses, when instructing one in beginning meditation, to stay with the basic breath-awareness, for instance, free of "visual object, sound, or thought." He insists throughout to "'see' Reality" as that which Zen masters define as One Mind, the unchanging seamless Whole behind a parade of passing moments.

He coats his approach with a light but sturdy veneer of Dogen's "just thusness," with a touch of Nagajuna, and a dab of Shunryu Suzuki. As in that teacher's "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" (see my review), this is not an historical survey. Like Suzuki's book, this brief account uses parables to teach, but Steve Hagen adds his own lessons from our own Western lifestyles in more American prose, in an unassuming style which sounds like a good friend's side of a conversation.

Unlike most popular books aimed at fundamentals of the buddha-dharma (Hagen wisely prefers this term to "Buddhism" with its institutional accretions and cultural obfuscations), this author stresses a streamlined approach. Hagen constantly repeats the message of the dharma of the awakened one: to "'see' Reality." He, as with the more advanced recent works of Stephen Batchelor (great follow-ups are "Buddhism Without Beliefs" and "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist," both reviewed by me), advocates the eventual possibility of "leaving the raft behind" once the teaching's succeeded.

That is, not to confuse as so many practitioners do the "territory for the map," as if one tries to cling to a particular practice or hold on the dharma, as if to "box it up and cart it away." He cautions about "the deep end of 'duhkha'-- existential angst," (111) and he resists the temptations of settling into a smug routine. "Final job of teacher: free student of teacher" (82) remains wise advice he passes along. The dharma is none other than things as they are, filtered via our senses. "It hurts to defy Reality." (127)

While accessible for beginners, this book does skip about, and it does not always convey its structure as clearly as it might have. (One paragraph as a précis on pg. 4 is very general.) Hagen follows the typical outline of introducing the Buddha (two pages to cover the supposed facts of his life--this book eschews legends and claptrap) and the four truths before extending its reach into the eightfold path for two-thirds of the narrative, concluding too hastily in a compression of the twelvefold chain. Hagen keeps the enumerations (which some writers use to weigh down their expositions) to a blessed minimum, but he needed more pages to elaborate this final section; the chart's too pithy and the appendix too truncated.

Hagen also jumps past his initial treatment of inherently good or bad people as categories impeding "right speech." He criticizes "judgment or discriminate thinking" but he doesn't return to this until more than forty pages later, when decoding (well) what the Buddha called "frozen views" of conceptions. Hagen muddles his interpretation of a classic "Gestapo ask where the innocent family is hiding--do you lie?" case study, and this inclusion and related eightfold sections needed tightening.

But, even if an index and suggested reading list are absent and the organization of this narrative can slacken as well as tauten, the no-nonsense direction generally favored by Hagen may appeal to many seeking a discussion of buddha-dharma scoured of incense smoke and guru dust. He prefers straight-talk to platitudes. "The buddha-dharma doesn't ask us to give up control. Instead, it acknowledges we never had it in the first place." (51) (Amazon US 2-25-12; cf. his sequel reviewed 3-21-13, "Buddhism Is Not What You Believe")

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Carole Tonkinson's "Big Sky Mind": Book Review

"Show me a good Buddhist novelist." So challenges William Burroughs, in italics. In his Retreat Diaries, he prefaces this with a nod to how he uses writing for meditation. However, he distrusts giving up what Buddhism deems "distractions" such as "visions and fireworks" in order to find creativity. "Indeed existence is the cause of suffering and suffering may be good copy." (298)

This tension permeates many within this anthology subtitled "Buddhism and the Beat Generation." The editor conflates the Buddhist transmission with the literary and intellectual impact of the Beats. She argues for a more spiritual appreciation of their cultural mission, and she shows briefly how what had been orally passed along in Asia now started to find Western recipients, eager to learn not from books but each other the dharma. Some poets had stumbled upon the teachings on their own, and were astonished to learn that others had preceded them. Jack Kerouac strutted into a gathering announcing himself a Zen "expert" only to find that all those there knew at least one Asian language.

Tonkinson arranges authors by "The Beats" (Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Diane Di Prima, Harold Norse); "The San Francisco Poets'' (Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Joanne Kyger, Lew Welch among others); "Echoes" (Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Michael McClure); "Like Minds," fellow travelers Kenneth Rexroth and Anne Waldman. Stephen Prothero adds an introductory essay emphasizing how the "middle way" of the Beats, inspired by Transcendentalism a century before, connected the "early era of armchair Buddhism" with the contemporary practice of a formal setting and recognized teacher. As this 1995 collection comes under the aegis of the American Buddhist review Tricycle, it fits into the readership anticipating a sustained presentation of Beats as bhikkus. Examined carefully, hints of complexity emerge to counter the usual pop culture, marketed storyline.

Kerouac's familiar celebration of Japhy's (Snyder) "rucksack revolution" appears from The Dharma Bums. Yet, less famous works do too: he watches a Mexican bullfight as "the bull slid in dust like a dead fly kicked unconsciously." So does his 1960 departure from a Buddhist affiliation via an interview in a "men's magazine" Escapade. Kerouac explains how he could no longer reject the love of women (while the as of 1995 unpublished Some of the Dharma notebooks document his earlier, more fervent stages in exhaustive detail, a facsimile of the notebooks he kept while trying to live like a monk in the world).

Tonkinson does not include those notebooks or Kerouac's life of the Buddha, Wake Up! (Copyright issues may be to blame, as both works appeared only in the next decade.) Still, the editor shows how he and Ginsberg utilized meditation--as would Burroughs in less dogmatically earnest fashion--to inspire insight for prose and verse. Spontaneous writing guides them, and it's not so much writing as reading, Burroughs insists, what has previously been revealed. Ginsberg ties this to the "actual breath" for the line, and this expands for him and the 60's revolutionary stances assumed by Diane Di Prima into a "spiritual poetics," a "disembodied" adaptation of Keats' "negative capability."

Lew Welch tried to follow a hermit's path, taking Kerouac's direction further. He fashioned North American koans. In "He Prepares to Take Leave of His Hut," he ends up with two juxtaposed quotes. "Why should it be so hard to give up something you know you can't possess?" "Who ever said it was easy?" (259) He wound up ending his life.

Gary Snyder sought nature also, and found more healing and similar honesty there. He contrasts in a 1977 essay here the mountains and waters of Asian "mythic iconography" with the "dusty world" of 7-Elevens and parking meters to which we must return. His 1961/9 essay "Buddhist Anarchism" gains inclusion. It calls for the "mercy" of the Western "social revolution" joined to the Eastern "individual insight into the basic self/void." (178) This compliments the reminder from that essay about the cost exacted of "natural-spiritual price" when we pay for "this particular piece of affluence, comfort, pleasure, or labor saving." (182)

Snyder's journey to a more formal identification with Japanese practice intersects with Philip Whalen, who wound up leading a San Francisco monastery. Still, Joanne Kyger--in a poem about his green Walgreen's tropical hat perched high on his bald pate as he sits--finds humor in such a meditative state. It concludes: {...}I ask him which mantra he is doing--but he tells me/ in Zen, you don't have to bother with any of that./ You can just play with the beads." (239)

Finally, Kenneth Rexroth, who as an earlier student of Asian culture as well as a proto-radical had jump-started the Beats out in San Francisco even as he then quickly sidestepped away from the hype, weighs in. His poetry tends to be more academically mainstream, more controlled. Similarly, he finds a more analytical ground in his 1980 interview "The Jewel Net of Indra" with the pioneering chronicler of Buddhism in the U.S, Rick Fields. Rexroth preferred less explicit identification with Buddhism until much later than the Beats. He sought to accommodate the dharma within a more eclectic mindset, as did in a different fashion on paper his contemporary Burroughs.

Still both men, as the Beats themselves, could not fall in line with conformity. Rexroth's anarchism (shared with Snyder) meshed with his pacifism. "A life lived according to the Buddha law will not need much. If Christianity was put into effect tomorrow every state on earth would collapse in twenty-four hours." (336) He may differ somewhat from other radicals, as he places Buddhist practice apart from political alignment. He takes pains to show how Zen had been connected with right-wing Japanese movements, and how the power structure in many Asian regimes helped form a "synthetic" Buddhism abhorred by "Buddhologists" from the West who seek in vain to recover a pure form from the "so-called historic Shakyamuni." (337-9) For Rexroth, the meaning lies in recognizing that evil is always present, and always passes. War continued as sport under the Buddhist reigns in Japan, for fun. Honesty exacts a toll. Illusion is confronted and worn down by steady observation and principled scrutiny. He cites St. John of the Cross: "the measure of the defect of vision is visions."

Here, Rexroth as elder statesmen comes round to what one of his first Beat proteges also figured out, in time, by that Escapade interview in 1960. "Buddhism is just words. Also, wisdom is heartless. I quit Buddhism because Buddhism--or Mahayana Buddhism--preaches against entanglement with women. To me, the most important thing in life is love." (83) As you can see, this anthology reveals many provocative moments, and it digs deeper than the stereotypes to uncover--beneath trace elements of pious smugness inherent to shallower Beat braggadocio--the core of a tougher, sometimes playful but often more persistent, existential, everyday dharma encountered, transformed.

(See my reviews of Kerouac's "The Dharma Bums,"  "Some of the Dharma,"  "Wake Up! A Life of the Buddha" and "On the Road: the Original Scroll". I also reviewed Prothero's subsequent "Religious Literacy"  and "The American Bible") (Amazon US 8-26-12)

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Alain de Botton's "Religion for Atheists": Book Review

As with his previous books for the "educated reader" looking for a light but worthwhile introduction to philosophical and moral issues, Alain de Botton relies upon a mix of photos and illustrations with witty or profound captions to lighten the heavier lessons of his text. He glides over as much as he digs into. Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion indicates by its subtitle the utility to which he puts beliefs and rituals. Whether this fervent application of Photoshop and pious belief in the transformational potential of humanism will find many converts, given its erratic and at times superficial coverage of issues and ideas, remains as open-ended as its contents. These direct the seeker to secularize ancient stories and venerable practices in the therapeutic service of one's own growth and that of the community, bereft of belief in a higher power.

Born in England to a family of Jewish ancestry but one lacking personal investment in its spiritual inheritance, de Botton respects the cultural legacy and virtuous examples inculcated by religion. He contrasts his gentler skepticism with the harsher diatribes of prominent neo-atheists. Instead of damning the damage done in the name of faith, de Botton urges a mature acceptance of the benefits religion has given people in the past. By applying ethical lessons in short but sprawling chapters organized around a righteous virtue or moral principle, he encourages skeptics and non-believers today to learn from centuries of religious experience in dealing with human limitations.

De Botton begins by listing the reasons humans invented religion: to live in communities while overcoming selfish and violent impulses; to cope with pain--caused by our failures, troubled relationships, and the death of loved ones--and to face "our own decay and demise." (9) This short study, the size of a prayerbook for a secular aspirant, serves as inspirational reading for those who may admire some elements of sacramental rituals, Zen tea ceremonies, or Torah readings, but who cannot believe in them as other than inventions of our ancestors to explain or interpret the mysteries around us.

The first chapter argues for reversing the societal "process of religious colonization" to claim its moral legacy and cultural richness while separating secular identity from religious rituals and beliefs, thus to enrich "our soul-related needs" (13). De Botton refuses to discard the lessons of religion along with its encouragements and prohibitions, for religion’s enduring impacts can teach us how to live better. By burning off the residue of an outmoded set of dogmas and doctrines, he seeks to distill the essence of what can nourish a non-believer.

Next chapter, bonding gains analysis. The comfort of the Catholic Mass, a Passover meal, Yom Kippur’s congregational confession, and the upending of the medieval Feast of Fools are all examined skillfully as communal rituals uniting and enriching us. The satire of the last example channels the playful nature underlying games and rules which humans create. People need to letting loose rather than restraining sillier impulses. De Botton proposes a standardized framework that allows tension to be released now and then. He imagines, as he inserts altered photographs throughout this volume, the opening of an Agape Restaurant able to satisfy the culinary and communal longings of its non-churchgoing clientele.

De Botton reminds us of how religions cement people together, whereas modernism tends to isolate them. Reflecting on the appeal of paternalism and guidance rather than a vain libertarianism elevating individual gain above all other priorities, de Botton remarks how reform can come from efforts which involve others. "Religions understand this: they know to sustain goodness, it helps to have an audience." (39) Chapter Three explores the continuing need for direction, if not from heaven, than from the angels of our better nature. While atheists lament the imposition of scriptural injunctions in public spaces, they overlook their own complicity in encouraging the relentless promotion of consumerism and consumption, in ways as damaging to modern sensibilities as the outmoded frames of traditional reverence which secular adherents disdain.

Chapter Four contrasts secular education's ambitions that cultural events and literary studies may supplant spiritual searches. De Botton also confronts the lack at the heart of university preparation which stresses careers over insight, and which divorces the improvement of the soul from soulless practicalities for the job-seeker. He suggests that re-reading texts and repeating rituals, as is done in the yearly cycle of Torah readings or the Zen tea ceremony, might serve as models for secular instruction aimed at inculcating lasting, as incremental and lifelong, alteration of one's outlook and one's relationship with the self and with others.

He then powerfully speaks to what atheists deny: our frailty when nobody is there to comfort us as flailing adults. The fifth chapter discusses eloquently the need fulfilled by Buddhist or Catholic models of maternal compassion. He wonders if "Temples to Tenderness" might not replace shrines and statues for those moored within an uncaring world. Earlier, he noted how hard it may be to take solace from our common humanity when enduring the crush of people on Oxford Street or the airport terminal, and here, de Botton reminds readers of the coldness of modernity, and the timeless appeal of being held, caressed, and soothed.

The following chapter praises another quality inherited from religious tradition, that of pessimism. Secular people today tend to be more optimistic than believers, a reversal de Botton notes from past patterns. The admonition "why can't you be more perfect?", he adds, may be more common in marriages between those who lack Christian or Jewish beliefs. These insist on stability more than happiness as the prerequisite for an adult relationship that will endure as a partnership to perpetuate and direct the ongoing family. Secular people, by comparison, may flee fidelity. They pursue their own ideals and dreams, chasing an elusive fulfillment. Modern people need, he concludes, a Wailing Wall to share and shove the little messages of our problems into perspective, amidst fellow sufferers.

He pithily summarizes the anguish within the Book of Job and Baruch Spinoza's philosophical constructs, both of which tried to place human despair within a universal perspective. De Botton turns to vast space seen by the Hubble telescope today as a corrective for our own myopic era. Chapter Seven reminds us of how puny any earthly ambition or failure registers when set within such an immense panorama.

Then, de Botton adjusts his scrutiny. He wonders what happens when religious works, sold or stolen from their chapels or temples, adorn modern museums. How can art, for a patron, speak to a century where few kneel before reliquaries or relics in churches empty of the faithful who once filled them in an older Europe? Atheists might be inspired, de Botton proposes in Chapter Eight, to erect an atelier of modern artists "depicting a Seven Sorrows of Parenthood, a Twelve Sorrows of Adolescence or a Twenty-one Sorrows of Divorce." (I am not sure how many will rush to contemplate such monuments to desolation, on the other hand.) De Botton examines for instances of popularized sympathy examples from Christian art and contemporary photography, and he repeats in one caption his moral: "what separates indifference from compassion is the angle of vision."

Visualizing within a wired age, we have only our feet to gaze at, De Botton avers, not our concrete jungles and stucco canyons. Perhaps we can appreciate why monasteries were invented. After all, Protestants bear the blame for modern architecture. That is, they denuded church interiors, and stripped buildings down to austere dimensions. Modern cities and suburban landscapes attest to this imposed sense of being made to "feel small". De Botton suggests in his ninth chapter a remedy to such diminished dimensions. Temples to Perspective might show us how humans fit, although our hominid era albeit may be barely visible, into the towering scheme of time and space, and this might restore a humbling sense of our dimensions in the cosmos.

With their reliance on modest reason rather than pious elevation, secular intellectuals, de Botton observes of his earnest colleagues, usually lack the historical or cultural advantages afforded their religious counterparts. The unbelievers as "volatile individual practitioners run what are in effect cottage industries, while organized religions infiltrate our consciousness with all the might and sophistication available to institutional power." De Botton contrasts the scholarly success of Thomas Aquinas in a popular career against the obscurity endured by Friedrich Nietzsche during his life in support of this argument. This appears, however, to skim over the neo-atheist appeal of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens among audiences. De Botton aims this volume at overcoming the weaknesses of this cabal, but he exaggerates the difficulty of secular proponents finding a ready audience and warm welcome in person and via many media.

While de Botton understates the role in the century and more since Nietzsche of tenure, talk shows, and an occasional book to spark controversy (at least for a few media-savvy competitors to de Botton--although his own accessible but erudite works have gained him far more acclaim than those of most philosophers these days), one notes how inspirational volumes often top American lists. Consider one of the past year's most persistent number-one titles, a toddler's testimony Heaven Is For Real “as told to” his father (an evangelical pastor in Nebraska), about the not-quite-four year old's meeting--after an appendectomy gone awry--with Samson, John the Baptist, and a blue-eyed Christ. Nearby on the bestseller charts, self-help nostrums adapt conventional pieties as marketed for niche Christian, New Age, and/or business-oriented audiences.

Commodification has its benefits, as religions organized around easily recognizable symbols, icons, and rituals verify. The author encourages secular proponents to transmit their views more forcefully and cleverly, to compete by campaigns of wise and witty branding. He intersperses mock-ups of these throughout his volume. Despite de Botton's earnestness and wit, these altered images may provoke mockery or parody rather than convey comfort or inspiration.

Its American dust jacket features a paper imitation of a leather bound bible. What Sartre called a "god-shaped hole" provides a clever depiction of the existentialist audience primed for its preaching. The title nestles inside the void opened up by the cut-out, and the burnished letters of Holy Writ, half-visible, half-excised, symbolize de Botton's mission: to accept the possible limits of humanism without discarding the cost-benefit equations tallied up over thousands of years of religious practice.

He wraps up this brief handbook with a nod to his "only intermittently sane" ideological forebear, Auguste Comte, who in the early nineteenth century established a template for, and hoped for temples to, a Religion of Humanity. However, as de Botton admits, Comte's rational replacements for religion failed to inspire but a few of his French heirs to separation of Church and State after revolution and the Enlightenment, a consequence this author may underestimate as a cautionary tale. Visitors to Notre-Dame vastly outnumber those to any shrine to Comte's ambition. Granted, worshipers at such cathedrals usually are dwarfed by tourists, while parishes and shrines languish; de Botton's European perspective neglects the megachurch phenomenon popular in the U.S. and increasing in the Third World.

De Botton acknowledges the difficulty of constructing such a rational, but inspirational, effort, when religions have centuries if not millenniums of a headstart on human habits. Still, he reminds his readers at the close of this diligently illustrated, devotedly skeptical, but ultimately encouraging guide: "Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone." This curious, if cautiously phrased, conclusion sums up this message of this philosophical heir to Comte and centuries of dogged rationalists who seek the solace of a higher power: as a force for inspiration generated from our own ambitions, dreams, and longings. (As above, shared on The Pensive Quill 12-9-12; Edited and shorter version to Amazon US 3-5-12; 3-8-12 at PopMatters)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Daniel Dennett's "Breaking the Spell": Book Review

Every reader of this book needs to constantly keep in mind Dennett's reminders about his authorial attitude. On pg. 103, speaking of the three favorite purposes for religion (comfort, explaining, cooperating), he reminds us: "The main point of this book is to insist that we don't [italicized emphasis in original type] yet know--but we can discover--the answers to these important questions if we make a concerted effort." That is, questions about why these three purposes emerged, how they were diffused, and why these and not other ideas about religion's efficacy. "Probably some of the features of the story I tell will prove in due course to be mistaken." He stresses: "The purpose of trying to sketch a whole [italics in original] story now is to get something on the table that is both testable and worth testing." (103-4) As he says, so I concur: "Many people may wish that these were unanswerable questions. Let's see what happens when we defy their defensive pessimism and give it a try." (104)

Now, I as with anyone who has actually read all of this book (including endnotes and appendices), can cavil with some of his "sketch"--but like Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel," Dennett is giving us the big picture, not filling in the details. This does make for a very uneven survey.

If I could finesse my rating it'd be 3.65/5 stars at best. It could have been so much better if he took more time to polish his arrangement and explication. He wants to pour it all out right away on to paper, and the book for all its learning documented reads as if too rushed off to take advantage of the notoriety aroused by 2004's Sam Harris' "The End of Faith." Too often--in both books--chapters drift in and out of focus. Subtopics come up as in an intelligent conversation, but in permanent form (for both Harris & Dennett) more cohesion with the rest of the chapter is often woefully absent. Inevitable perhaps for popularizing books tackling for a wider audience an immense and subtle and rather intangible morass of belief, fact, and supposition. Dennett's engaging, even if he too thinks smugly from his tenured comforts and rarified perch that "brights" are smarter, better, and wiser than believers.

He also, I find, tends to assume brights are all atheist. Liberal Christians and progressive Jews, I suggest, share many of the "God as essence but not as being" tendencies that exposure to higher education (in or out of college) has given recent generations raised with notions of biblical 20c "higher criticism" or Mordecai Kaplan's "Judaism as a Civilization." He also gives but one bare mention in the entire book to even the word "agnostic." (Not to mention Buddhists and their own approach to the divine.) I think many of the topics here are mulled over also by agnostics and rationalists who still support culturally religious identities. Dennett seems to want to set off a binary atheist vs. believer standoff, but glosses over many millions (perhaps billions if more of us were honest with our own souls and selves?) who waver in between the two too easily polarized and stereotyped positions of faith vs. reason, assertion vs. evidence, secular vs. spiritual. Lots of us live in the middle.

I think too he takes easy potshots at those smart people who have chosen to place their trust in prayer--especially those in contemplative monastic orders, for example; his attempt to explain "ex nihilo" creation as if it came out of a substance nearly indistinguishable from nothing (a close paraphrase of his phrase) seems shaky when placed against those positing a prime mover or first cause: are not theists and scientists occupying the same ground (or lack of matter!) for argument here, when the names and labels are removed? But, Dennett's a good sport, and notes again with italics: "Assuming that these propositions are true without further research could lead to calamitous results." He wishes on pg. 311 this could be placed as a cautionary sticker on this book's cover: may I suggest this for the paperback edition?

His conclusions are about as commonsensical or as quixotic as those of Sam Harris' "The End of Faith" (also reviewed by me on Amazon): Harris urged idealistically that if only all parents told their children only the truth, the future could be secured for rationalists. Dennett too places his trust in the secular. That's about it for big answers. These are so simple, yet so elusive: do not many true believers of gods or God or no gods think exactly that? That we no matter what we preach have a handle on the truth, and that we mean best for our progeny as we raise them in the light of our own understanding; all the while, however, unable to step out of our own limited perspective of the universal and the eternal?

Dennett's devilishly entertaining, if a bit too enamored of his own cleverness. You need to imagine him on the first day of the term impishly riling up a class full of naive freshmen. He manages to make you think, although I personally was never shook up, let alone shocked, by what he had to say--despite his oft-repeated desire to ruffle (if not pluck out) all of our protective covering of faith-based feathers.

A savvy reader, in fact, will note that his book does not exactly disprove God/gods. Dennett's only asking why and how do many believe based on natural rather than supernatural explanations. A good counterpart: Randall Sullivan's "The Miracle Detectives," all about how the Vatican investigates the veracity of otherworldly visions and purported miracles. Like Dennett, Sullivan creates a readable, erratic, but thought-provoking account of how grownups in the early 21c can go about asking tough questions about faith-based suppositions and expect honest answers, or at least acknowledgements that none of us have all the answers. Both authors (like Harris, too, in another erratic but worthwhile screed) express refreshing caution in an era too in love with righteousness. Dennett's book makes a big splash, and gets our attention. From here, it's up to all challengers to take him on and support or qualify his initial rabble-rousing. He wakes us up. What will we do when jolted out of our spell?

His note #18 on pg 412 bears repeating: "(As all you careful readers know full well, I am an equal-opportunity teaser, who refuses to tiptoe around for fear of offending people--because I want to take the 'I'm mortally offended' card out of the game.) It will be interesting to see who, if anyone, falls into my trap. They won't be assiduous note readers, will they?" Caveat lector.

(Amazon US 5-12-06. As I wrote this before I started blogging, I figured it merited a reprise here.)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Donald S. Lopez' "The Scientific Buddha": Book Review

Professor Donald Lopez investigates the past century and a half of how the West invents a Buddha in its own image with typical incisiveness: “Why do we yearn for the teachings of an itinerant mendicant in Iron Age India, even of such profound insight to somehow anticipate the formulae of Einstein?” (15)  Dr. Lopez proposes a revised version of Buddhist thought in these 2008 Terry Lectures at Yale, established in 1905 to examine “religion in the light of science and philosophy”. He examines cultural impacts and purportedly scientific shifts in modern reception of a congenial Buddhism which tallies as rational, mindful, and practical. 

He explains how, in the 1840s, European scholars began to analyze Eastern texts in the original languages. Philology applied scientific approaches, correcting misconceptions from missionaries, explorers, and merchants. “The myriad idols coalesced into a simple figure, who then became an historical figure, a founder of a religion, and a superstition became a philosophy. This is what used to be described unequivocally as progress.” (39) 

A textually based and earnestly fundamentalist Buddhism emerged to compete against Christian claims to reasoned inquiry and factual verification. A “primitive,” humane, and historical Buddha emerged, as a founder of a progressive tradition ideal for the scientific, secular age. Westerners—aided by certain Asians recently—rushed to credit this reconstructed Buddha with prescient insights from “a natural law of the mechanisms of the universe to the structure of the atom, from morality to the deepest workings of the human mind”. (41) 

After this survey of that manufactured scientific Buddha, Donald Lopez examines the problem of karma. Darwinism ensures a species’ survival by random mutation and natural selection, whereas Buddhism encourages natural extinction. It insists that creation must lead to cessation, an end to attachments by “conscious intervention” of the advanced sentient being. (73) Darwinism finds physical endangerment in pollution; sentient beings in Buddhism find mental entanglement in preservation, by karmic perpetuation, by polluting desires for permanence rather than liberation.

This conservative tendency sustains the Buddha’s teaching while disclaiming whatever innovations keep it adapting for twenty-five centuries. Confronting this mindset, Dr. Lopez encourages not harmony with science, but incompatibility. He rejects “mindfulness” and quantum analogies by medical and pop-culture practitioners. He proposes “seeking extinction rather than survival, seeing persistence only in impermanence, stressing intention over compulsion, consciousness over matter”. This potent Buddhism may enable its power to remain metaphysical, “beyond the world, completely at odds with the world, and with science”. (79) 

Rather than expect an ancient wanderer’s mentality to anticipate Newton, then Einstein, particle physics, and the Big Bang, Professor Lopez prefers the honesty of rejecting earnest efforts to make the dharma a “post-scientific religion, the one religion that has withstood the critique of science”. (78) As a counter-evolutionary, the Buddha sought “to escape the burning house” of birth, death, and rebirth. He wanted to extinguish life to free it from suffering. He desired to eradicate the selfish gene of self-perpetuation. 

An interlude in these linked lectures follows. This elucidates categories of meditation, and—similar to Owen Flanagan’s The Bodhisattva's Brain (2012)--Donald Lopez diminishes the prevalence for the ordinary adept of meditation. He promotes the ethical imperative and communal necessity of acting upon the compelling insights gained from the tradition. 

He also dismisses “stress reduction” peddled by wellness providers. Meditation seeks to hammer home in a “non-judgmental” manner a renunciation of “all the objects of ordinary experience” as scarred by the “three marks” of reality in Buddhist teaching: “impermanence, suffering, and no-self”. (108) If the Buddha had wanted us to bathe or floss, “two millennia ago he would have set forth the Indoor Plumbing Sutra and the Lotus of Good Dental Hygiene.” (109)

Instead, Dr. Lopez rejects “false resonances” of karma with evolutionary theory, emptiness with physics, or antiquated cosmology with contemporary astronomy. Yet, he pauses with a provocative if elusive suggestion. He advocates research that delves into the “irretrievable” findings of meditating monastics.  He wonders how this might somehow translate beyond verbal articulation into scientific data. 

In conclusion, Donald Lopez rejects the Victorian construct of the Buddha. This emanation’s time has passed. The Buddha, in Lopez’s estimation, leads beings compassionately towards their own extinction. This liberation cannot coexist with perpetuation.  Morally, concern for one’s self brings one to Buddhahood. From there, the enlightened being shepherds others along the path to nirvana. “The sucker is exalted to the rank of savior.” (131)

This engaging series of lectures demonstrates the appeal of the Buddha and how this venerable icon has been remodeled to please modern desires. With references to Moby Dick and Google search, Viagra and a curious apocalypse of “third-grade tyranny”, it sustains in characteristically lively fashion Donald S. Lopez, Jr.’s contributions to Buddhist studies. It continues his career full of sly, scholarly challenges to the common wisdom peddled as dharma, karma, and nirvana. 

(In slightly edited form to New York Journal of Books 9-25-12. Expanded and revised substantially for The Non-Buddhist 6-2-13 as "The Buddha as Counter-evolutionary"). See also Lopez's Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West.)

Monday, October 15, 2012

Craobh Curtin i Milwaukee Dhonáill

Duirt mo chara Dónall i Milwaukee faoi Conradh na Gaeilge leis Craobh Curtin anseo. D'inis sé go "World Irish" mar gheall ar fiche blian ó An Craobh sin. Scríobh mé ar mo blag roimh i 2009 faoi seo, freisin.

Bhuail mé le Dónall ina Ghleann Cholm Cille ar feadh an samhraidh i 2007. Thaistil beirt ar chéile--ar fud an ro céanna ar chúl an bhus--go an gCathair na Luimheach go dtí Dún na nGall ar bealach fada triu Sligeach go Gaillimh. Ach, ní raibh fhíos againn faoi eile go dtí go ar an mbus deireanach go Baile Dhún na nGall go dtí An Ghleann seisean féin.

Ar ndóigh, fhreastail muidsa Oideas Gael a fhoglaim Gaeilge. Ní raibh muid sa ráng céanna. Bhí leibhéil éagsúlaí, go nádúrtha, ansin.

Ach, bhí a fhíos ar an cheile as an teach tabhairne in aice leis an scoil, Teach Rhuartaigh. Tá tú ábalta a feiceáil an 'Rorty's' féin ar an grianghraf ar an nasc leis An Craobh suas. Tá áit go clú ar seinm ceoil tradisiúnta ann.

Mar sin féin, is cuimhne liom mac léinn baineann go an ollscoil na Wisconsin i Milwaukee chomh mac léinn eile i mo rang. Bhí gruaig daite corcairdhearg ag Cáit! Tá beagnach gruaig liath liomsa anois, faraor.

Craobh Curtin in Dan's Milwaukee

My friend Dan in Milwaukee spoke about The Gaelic League's Curtin Branch here. He told "World Irish" regarding the twentieth anniversary of that branch. I wrote on my blog before in 2009 about this, too.

I met Dan in Glencolmcille during the summer of 2007. The pair of us travelled together--across the same row back of the bus--from Limerick city to Donegal by long way of Sligo and Galway. But, we didn't know about the other until the last bus from Donegal town to the Glen itself.

Of course, we attended Oideas Gael to learn Irish. We were not in the same class. There were different levels, naturally, there.

Yet, we got to know each other by way of the tavern near the school, Teach Rhuartaigh. You are able to see "Rorty's" itself by the Branch link's photo above. It's a location famed for traditional music playing.

All the same, I remember a female student from the state university of Wisconsin in Milwaukee as another student in my class. Cáit had crimson-dyed hair! My hair, unfortunately, is now nearly gray.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Tara Carreon's critiques of Tibetan Buddhism

Tara Carreon tells of her frustration with long giving in to a lifestyle based on corrupt and illogical practices. While her arguments may be familiar to anyone who's read such from disillusioned former true believers, I found, as an interested bystander looking in on how Buddhism is marketed and disseminated in the West, a worthwhile articulation in 2000-odd words of her discontent with this popular if certainly off-beat justification for returning to what drove Tibetans, in Robert Thurman's worldview, to attain a spiritual revolution full of superlative, supernatural, and utterly fabled or fabulous, incredible, incredulous to me, achievements. You can find Carreon's reaction as a Kindle single, or in earlier publication on the website she co-authors, American-Buddha.

My review of "Inner Revolution" remarked similarly on Thurman's combination of sincerity and naivete, nostalgia and wish-fulfillment in Sept. 2009. Congenial to Donald S. Lopez's "Prisoners of Shangri-La," (see my review in July 2009) Carreon castigates the outmoded concepts of a medieval dharma combined with a naive Western audience eager to embrace anti-democratic, theocratic attitudes they'd never support if presented to them in America or any advanced society for fealty.

Carreon in an 8000-word-plus essay "Another View of Whether Tibetan Buddhism Is Working in the West" here (or Kindle single) responds (as of a decade ago) to Alan Wallace who at the magazine "Tricycle" settles into to a comfort zone that for me has been vaporized via the project at Glenn Wallis' "Speculative Non-Buddhism" the past year. As he typically comments on Thurman, DL, Wallace, et al.: "x-buddhist=a species of clown." (I note, in passing, synchronicity as Carreon credits on her "Nihilism" page a collage via "Killer Klowns from Outer Space," a pre-Jugaloo and therefore interminable cult film I saw in the glory days of VHS.) Although I confess that the Pixar co-founder's-funded Juniper initiative seeks less jarringly to pioneer a secularized Tibetan-spiced dharma more harmonious with the science and the everyday outlook we less-enchanted types share, before Juniper or Wallis promoted their philosophies online, Tara and Charles Carreon had produced an enormous website chock-full of personal musings, New Age or occult readings, and an enormous mix of ideas culled from and culling many sources--this resulted in Penguin suing them in 2009.

That aside, the couple's site advocates, unsurprisingly, a very vocal team of naysayers who share her jaundiced reaction to a belief and practice she'd spent over twenty years immersed in devotedly, before turning away from it in dismay, to popularize Jeffersonian tenets and homegrown, less obsequious approaches to advance res publica and to pursue a betterment of humankind. (The legal battles of her husband, Charles, I leave to those able to follow relentless litigation and to conjure some edification out of vicarious struggles in court and on the Web, well-covered elsewhere. As all parties involved air considerably blunt rhetoric, I keep a neutral stance, and direct you to a search engine if you wish to find out more about the ongoing machinations that may turn out to be longer than Bleak House's Jarndyce. v. Jarndyce's "scarecrow of a suit." Given bewildering or bizarre claims shared by legally, diligently documented "legendary hatreds," spontaneous combustion may ensue.)

All the same, I'd be cautious of advocating as enthusiastically as do the Carreons two dissidents who adapt the pen-names of Victor and Victoria Trimondi. As Swiss Tibetologist Martin Brauen documents in his enlightening survey of Tibetan collusion with Western occultism, "Dreamworld Tibet," (see my review in Feb. 2012), these German far-left critics, originally Herbert Röttgen and his wife Victoria, crusade relentlessly against the Dalai Lama's cult, and they've sought to establish its past ties to the psuedo-Aryan quest of the Reich. Other Tibetologists, from my estimation on the sidelines, warn to approach the Trimondi critique with due allowance for the pair's own bias--Victor's rooted in '68 Maoism and their demystifying ambitions may have caused them to confuse symbols with reality as they tried to interpret notoriously coded and esoterically occluded Tantric texts--in their attempts to right the historical record vs. present-day adulation for the exiled celebrity-leader.

As I've reviewed (see my search engine/keywords embedded for my blog) many accounts of the Tibetan predicament, I'll add as an aside that Tara Carreon stands with certain far-left colleagues I know in calling for a radical end to any hopes that Tibet will recover its patrimony. I've found that a lot of progressive types deny Tibet its future except in exile, and that they denigrate as a lapse back into feudalism any plea that China step away so Tibet can advance towards a democracy. After all, the Dalai Lama has relinquished the political rule over his former realm, and from what I can find since perhaps Carreon penned her pieces, a crackdown has only worsened post-2008, as my review of Tim Johnson's "Tragedy in Crimson" explores in-depth, in Tibet and abroad, under PRC surveillance.

I'd agree with how the Carreons remind audiences of the dangers of idol worship. I've noted in my reviews of the books "authored" under the Dalai Lama but surely written by a team of deft ghostwriters off of his venerable input, so to say, that the acclaim showered upon them seems overwrought and easy, as if none dare take criticism into account. His popularized versions of Tibetan wisdom, ethical advice, and inspirational guidance I regard as hit and miss. Given the disparity between his spoken English and what we read in that language conveyed, I suspect "lost in translation" or glossed are many subtleties his cabal coats for mass consumption. I've found wisdom in passages attributed to the DL, but often "he" dispenses sensible observations akin to those of humanists. He does appear to charm any skeptical journalist who approaches, but as my wife avers: maybe this is a willful surrender, a public-relations ploy? I tend towards leniency, but given the scrutiny with which the Fifth Estate examines other statesmen and preachers, one does wonder about objectivity. For all his flaws, the DL does command a media spotlight that reminds us with our own faults of at least our aspiration towards a less destructive direction. However cleverly promoted, he appears to comfort many seekers in a less injurious fashion than many leaders, religious or otherwise.

I am aware from my medievalist training of the multiple levels a religious presentation may inculcate, and how certain texts address the initiate and others the novice; some see within the DL's esoteric discourses sinister subtexts, but I leave those to the Buddhist scholars, frankly. My encounter has been more detached, and less gullible; I don't bow to role models. I've read widely in Catholic, Jewish, agnostic, atheist, and pagan sources. I spent a long time in grad school under the scrutiny of those who grappled with one theory and then another, trying to stand tall on Continental crests. I tired of this; it reminded me of Gulliver's reports on bladder-bearers and excremental exegetes in Laputa.

Those who have fallen out with their mentors often bring valuable lessons. They show us what happens when one stops thinking for one's self, and one embraces a code or creed that silences doubt. For a while, at least, if one still harbors a sharp mind or a suspect soul. My tendency remains not to elevate one particular tradition or denial of tradition above any other, and while this eclectic mentality may enrage some, I find it the more sensible and less provocative way to learn from what's around me, and to go my own way rather than follow a lama, a messiah, a politician, or a pundit. Didn't Van Morrison title an album not (only) "Enlightenment" but "No Guru, No Method, No Teacher?"

(Image credit

Thursday, October 11, 2012

(Formerly known as) the Kingdom of Lo/ Mustang

When Michel Peissel died last autumn, I was reminded of his exploration of this remote--even by Himalayan standards--desert realm that while within the boundaries now of Nepal is over the range in the Tibetan plateau. I looked up in the Wikimedia commons for Mustang (kingdom) photos and I was reminded instantly of a postcard I'd bought (discounted of course) twenty-five years ago at the bookstore while a student at UCLA. Tom Zetterstrom's black and white photo of "Lhasa Valley, 1981" looked not at all like the Land of Snows yet eerily like my memory of Myoma, a desolate area north of Palm Springs whose topographical map I'd long kept after a Scout campout the spring of '73.Tibet

Its odd trees, tilted brushy against barren hills, drew me in. As if the lunar landscape sprouted some symbol of arid California, all over the vistas of my childhood. While the valley's water lent the scene a watershed-adjacent air my desert encounter--I got lost on the way between the campsite and the ride home, in predictable heat and thirst--lacked, it enchanted me. It looked like an engraving from a Victorian ethnologist from the burnished reign of some Raj. I kept the postcard safe for years as it appeared to me as if a dream to be fulfilled. Despite the title, mun tan, Tibetan for "fertile plain," much of Lo/ Mustang appears differently than advertised, or as it is shown in this shot from Ghemi:


Seeing these photos of Tetang...

and the capital, Lo Mantang...

File:LoManthang.JPG ...reminds me also of visions as if glimpsed by Coleridge, Calvino, or Borges, of impossible cities beyond our comprehension. One impossibility is assuming such places will stay this way. When the Maoists overthrew the kingdom of Nepal in 2008, so went the last king of Mustang. As the new regime courts the Chinese, tourism and modernization will follow as inevitably as Kathmandu's made filthy by Israeli and German trekkers and Lhasa by military-owned brothels, neon, Holiday Inn, and every manner of cynical exploitation. Such realms contract and dry up, pressed between China and India, and a Nepalese effort to supplant Buddhist fastnesses with Hindu-dominated enclaves where monasteries may turn more museums.

As with Bhutan, which just raised its $200 per diem rate to $250, at least Mustang requires visitors to pay $50 a day. Yet, according to the Wikipedia entry, the locals have resisted the visits as of 2010 as none of that fee goes back to them. So much for Marxist reform of an unjust system for the peasants.

As you can tell from my Scouting, my ventures outdoors remain infrequent. For now, I mean to look up when I have more downtime what's been written by those who ventured to the little-known kingdom the past half-century. However dated, three library titles may open up this redoubt to curious eyes like mine. Peissel's 1967 bestselling "A Lost Tibetan Kingdom"; "The Last Forbidden Kingdom" by Clara Marullo in 1995; Peter Mathiessen's "East of Lo Monthang" the same year await.

Then it may be on to the tale of finding the mysterious source Peissel traced for Herodotus' "gold-digging ants" into the Himalayas, or his book on yet another "hidden kingdom" of Zanskar, in Kashmir near where the Baltis live, in the last places far from our relentless network, where few discoveries await today's adventurers, at least on the surface of our topographically diligent globe.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Bruno Portier's "The Flawless Place Between": Book Review

This novel dramatizes the bardo passages from death into afterlife and then rebirth from the teachings known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Bruno Portier, a documentarian turned ethnologist, tells a tale both straightforwardly linear in some sections, and post-modern in its cyclical and fragmented structure in its middle sections, as the protagonist Anne's fate after a motorbike goes off of a cliff in the Himalayas leads to her own entrance into the worlds beyond.

Gregory Norminton translates Bardo, Le Passage, from 2009 fluidly. It's noteworthy that the title in the original implies the French audience may be familiar with this term already, while the English-language audience encounters a more poetic evocation of the "place between." The version's not quite flawless. A few glitches remain, one in the footnoting and a couple in botched phrasing. But overall, this imaginatively depicts what happens to Anne before the accident and after. Interspersed we find the plight of her lover, Evan, and the intervention for the couple by Tsepel. As a Tibetan, this old man speaks aloud to Anne the text of the Bardo Thödol Chenmo, the "liberation by hearing in the after-death transition" meant to liberate the departed one's entanglement from the mental projections that keep one locked in the cycle of death, liminality, and rebirth.

This review will not give away much more, as the chapters following the bardos of the moment of death, of reality, and of rebirth possess inherent fascination and uncertainty of what will happen next remains this novel's strength. Portier enters the last beats of the heart and the first glow of the womb with equal imagination. Relationships past and present emerge little by little, revisited and revised as their repetition sharpens their meaning for the one caught up in the passages beyond this life.

Portier's patterns reminded me of the 2010 film by French-Argentinian director Gasper Nöe, Enter the Void. This presents a bolder, rawer vision compared to Portier's, yet readers of this poignant story may be prepared better for the raw depictions of this cinematic assault which takes one into similar spiritual terrain. Fans of that daring depiction of the bardo stages may compare the gentler, quieter upheavals undergone by the book's similarly distraught and confused characters, as death descends.

The book offers a brief introduction summing up the TBoD  and a short bibliography. It needed more inclusions. I'd add to the Fremantle-Trungpa and Thurman translations and Sogyal Rinpoche's Tibetan Book of Living and Dying of the Bardo Thödol the full edition of liberation teachings composed by Padmasambhava, revealed by Terton Karma Lingpa, translated by Gyurme Dorje, edited for Penguin by Graham Coleman and Thupten Jingpa as The Tibetan Book of the Dead: the First Complete Translation. Also, for beginners, I recommend a handsome version by Martin Boord and Stephen Hodge, The Illustrated Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Reference Manual for the Soul. Finally, Richard Gere's audiobook recital of the Fremantle-Trungpa can be an appropriate way to listen to the teachings, in the way closest to that of Tsepel within the action of this thoughtful novel.

Putting these esoteric and challenging manuals of advice into a short, vivid tale represents a fine endeavor to widen their impact. An author's note mentions that Portier is working on a sequel. I look forward to it. (Amazon US--and British--8-3-12)

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Randy Boyagoda's "Beggar's Feast': Book Review

Ceylon over the twentieth century, seen from a determinedly cussed and ornery self-made man's mindset, infuses this picaresque novel by a Canadian child of Sri Lankan parents. Now a professor, Randy Boyagoda tells what appears to be a melange of ancestral lore and diligent invention.

Beggar's Feast, by its title, introduces a wry tone. The protagonist's parents bear him, a middle child, in 1899. They take him a few years on to the village's astrologer. The report: "he will never give when he could take, never serve when he could be served." He's abandoned to the monks. After years of abuse, he fights back and flees. He takes the name "Sam Kandy," and refuses to acknowledge his upbringing. He tries to trap butterflies, he trades in spices, he tames elephants in the hold of a ship. He sails off from Colombo to Singapore and Sydney, before returning to his homeland. There he partners with one similarly reinvented character, Saul Kurtz of Chicago turned "Charles Curzon" after the English lord, and supposedly a nephew. This proves one of the liveliest sections, as "Charles" regales Sam with his own ambitions, and they join to corner part of the island's lucrative shipping as agents.

Many chapters, however, heap detail for a page or two, and then leap years ahead. As Sam's tale spans the century, this understandable compression may be necessary, yet Dr. Boyagoda by a rush to cram so much life into his irascible and usually unlikeable character leaves the reader distanced and sometimes indifferent to his fate. Although his waspish mood predominates, Sam woos a "high-born upcountry girl." Children appear, but George and Hyacinth rarely rouse themselves as individuals from the plot. Their father treats their mother, "city thin, village pretty" Alice, with contempt, and an offhand insult turns their already fragile relationship into a situation that sparks murder and brutality.

Sam demands (if by interior monologue, a common device for this often detached, indirect first-person perspective) of his second wife, green-eyed Ivory: "Did she really think she could tell him about the village? Did she actually believe centuries of mud and hanged stories could be conquered with English medium and a music cabinet?" Sam desires power and craves success, but one does not feel as if the fulfillment of these goals leaves him or the reader any happier in this curdled narrative.

While this may remain Professor Boyagoda's intention, to feature an unappealing central figure to filter the changes in his parents' homeland, it does not leave the reader with much sympathy for Sam. A subplot with Lord Mountbatten visiting him during the war to care for mysterious Ethiopian prisoners of war transported with their Italian allies to Ceylon peters out with far too subtle a resolution if any. Sixteen children will result from three marriages, but very few of Sam’s sons or daughters emerge as memorable, and many are barely mentioned. Scenes with elephants or spices or George's "engagement tour" as he deflowers at least ten lasses in turn show promise, but these all lose momentum. Sinhalese terms (untranslated; here and there contexts persist as puzzling for this reviewer despite a passing knowledge with the background) speckle the text. While they add verisimilitude, they do not welcome a hesitant reader.

For what becomes Sri Lanka--as resurgent Sinhalese assert their Buddhist culture against Tamil Hindus and if less vehemently against Catholic "burghers" of very distant Portuguese and Dutch descent-- the political upheavals of the 1970s onward, with leftist revolt and then civil war, remain usually offstage, understated. In a vivid vignette, radicals with "village skin and university mouths" fail in the 1970s as in the 1930s to rouse the villagers, who refuse to take up arms against each other. This exemplifies Mr. Boyagoda's control over his volatile material. This increases as the novel follows aging Sam less, as he enters his third marriage to a much younger Catholic woman, Rose.

Bastian, the latest in a line of helpers to Sam, sneaks off to Munich to find family; emigration after the Second World War and independence from the British accelerates the diaspora. Here, Randy Boyagoda finds, in the last of twenty-eight chapters, his most convincing voice. Sam returns to his native village of Sudugama. Its fate serves as a synecdoche for that of "heritage centers" worldwide.

Concrete poured, parking paved, a butterfly hall and gift shop and dance performances appeal. A sign welcomes tourists, with miniature flags of Britain, the U.S, and Germany. Credit cards accepted. A Lonely Planet logo adorns the billboard, next to a Sri Lanka Tourist Board seal of approval. The villagers used to offer coconut drinks gratis to those admitted, but after a professor's curating is denounced, the native successor, an entrepreneur charges separately for everything.

This marketer hires Sam to pantomime as village judge, and he naps in between play-acting with those he had left behind nearly a century ago as supplicants and brides, grooms and adversaries. Not only pale-skinned tourists but emigrants from London, Australian cities, and the Toronto suburbs throng to Sudagama. Better there to take their families back than their real villages full of importuning cousins desperate for a high-tech job abroad. In this attraction, "history and memory and butterflies were conveniently located and reasonably priced, and also reachable by safe roads lined with newer rest-stations and only a few army checkpoints." The acerbic reaction of the omniscient narrator has permeated the preceding three-hundred pages, but here it blends with sharp social critique to establish the author's perceptions in a compelling, recognizable, and insightful manner.

There, Sam at a hundred years old finally dies, among "more little men in cheap slacks and t-shirts and Bata slippers smoking in the shade, men who never studied like they should have when all of them were village boys, and so could now only watch as those who did study left the village again, while they remained here, weeds in the garden of the world." Leaping from Sam's funeral bier, fireworks explode. So closes this rambling account of how Sam Kandy left his village, where he went, and when he returned. It presents a parable for modernized, and globalized, restless identity.
 (New York Journal of Books 9-25-12 in edited form)