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From a Mountain in Tibet

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  My first 'encounter' with Tibet was reading at school Lama Anagarika Govinda's classic account of his journey there in 1948, 'The Way of the White Clouds' where this remarkably gifted man and his wife explore a culture poignantly, unbeknownst to them, on the edge of wrenching change. Amongst much else, their paintings, drawings, and photographs became a unique record of artifacts that were to disappear in the destruction of the Cultural Revolution. If Govinda's works of  Buddhist exposition now raise eyebrows among more straitlaced scholars (though I confess to continuing to love them), no one can, I think, deny his sincerity, enthusiasm, and genuine wisdom - or the role he played in Tibetan Buddhism's transmission to the West.  https://ncolloff.blogspot.com/2011/05/way-of-white-clouds.html My next encounter was a critical illumination. At university, I was reading Tucci's 'The Theory and Practice of the Mandala' and pondering with little succe

A saint in an age without God: Revisiting a remarkable novel.

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"....from unconsciousness to consciousness, from primitive impersonality to personality and from personality to sanctity which is transcendence, a higher impersonality, the gift of the 'me' acquired, enriched and harmonized by so much labor. And beyond this, there are heights of which it is not opportune to speak, since language has its bounds." (Petru Dumitriu, Incognito) This is one of three quotations that a friend has placed at the head of the manuscript of her proposed (and excellent) book on the German psychologist and spiritual writer, Karl Graf von Durckheim, that I have been re-reading. It reminded me of how we had become friends. Margaret had come to offer a lecture at the annual Eckhart conference in Oxford on Eckhart's profound influence on the development of Durckheim's thought (and as a therapist, practice). After her lucid and illuminating lecture, I found myself sitting next to her at lunch. She had a somewhat daunting demeanor as if she was ab

Tibet - a welcome history

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  If you still entered a view of Tibet (pre-1950) as a Shangri-la of peaceful monks fully engaged in pursuing enlightenment surrounded by a supportive, peaceful traditional culture, the harmony of 'Lost Horizons', you will emerge strongly disabused. If you imagine that Buddhism of all the main religious traditions is the most inured to manipulation by violence or the most likely to be conducive to peace, you too may have to reassess your views. There are plenty of opportunities, as Tibet's history unfolds, to encounter warrior monks engaging in a doctrinal argument with clubs and knives, monasteries of different suasions jostling for power with a liberal dose of poisoning, actual and suspected along the way. But if you wanted a balanced, intelligent, sympathetic but never credulous, history of Tibet, Sam Van Schaik's 'Tibet: A History' is excellent. I had bought it in the bookshop of the Rubin Museum in New York a couple of years ago but only got to reading it n

A memory journey through twentieth century Russia

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  Innokenty awakes in a private hospital room without his memory. His attended by a single doctor and a single nurse without change. He has no memory neither of why he is hospitalized nor of his wider life. He is a man without history. With time and caring attention, his memory returns - fragments float up at first mainly of childhood. A train journey, a summer dacha, aspects of his parents care, a party where an elderly admiral counsels him to, 'Go Intrepidly' in exploring the host's house. Memories of the good, the particular, moments in time but seemingly not of time, suspended in presence. As his time in hospital proceeds, with the doctor giving only the most sparse of prompts, other memories will surface of more complex times, then more difficult and finally plain, simple degrading horror. For Innokenty comes of age in post-Revolutionary Russia, he finds himself, with his mother, sharing an apartment with a professor and his daughter and a worker at the local sausage f

Winifred Knights: art in service of the vision of equality.

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 'Self-portrait' by Winifred Knights. I first consciously encountered Winifred Knights in 2016 when the Dulwich Picture Gallery hosted a wonderful exhibition. One of the benefits of such exhibitions is that they provide the occasion for the accompanying catalogue or monograph: a publisher can take the risk! The curator of that exhibition, Sacha Llewellyn, produced a highly sensitive, beautifully produced study, 'Winifred Knights' that I have been reading (and looking at).  Her first love was people in nature, people engaged in the harmonious business of living within a traditional landscape. She was a product of that moment at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century when a recognition of what was being lost in industrialization and urbanization was coming to the fore; and, that recognition was balanced between a realistic appraisal/critique and a sepia-tinged nostalgia.  One of the formative influences on her was Edward Carpenter, somewhat lost

A Landscape to Light

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  "The Lost Chart" is not Neil M. Gunn's finest hour as a novelist. The plot - a lost naval chart, fifth columnists, in this case, Communists, espionage and impending, possibly nuclear war - always comes across as a 'deus ex machina' on which to hang certain key observations and conversations woven into the book, even the characterization of the conversation holders feels weaker than it ought to be; and, for Gunn traditionally is.  I failed in my first and second times of reading it thinking to put it aside as the exception in his oeuvre. It, however, niggled away, and remembering sufficiently where I had broken off the last time, I thought, 'third time lucky'! And, I was! For at the heart of the book are a set of arresting vignettes of thought which are as timely now as when they were penned.  The first of which is where too now? The world it appears has not moved on from being a place poised on the edge of destruction trapped betwixt flailing capitalism

Disappear so that genius can appear: Life behind the Mask.

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When I went to the first Temenos Conference on art and the renewal of the sacred at Dartington Hall, one of the highlights of the program was a studio performance (with masks but no costume) of Japanese Noh drama with an accompanying lecture. I was transfixed. For two hours I sat (in their remarkably uncomfortable theatre) simply absorbed in the compelling flow of engaged feeling, bound in a ritual of gesture, sound, and music. This was surprising since most of my ventures to the theatre (before and since with notable, if rare, exceptions) are best characterized as ventures in patience, followed by disillusion! Thinking it might be a 'fluke' of place and circumstance, the next year, I discovered a Noh troupe was in London and here I could experience a full, costumed, ritualized performance. No fluke, once more I was mesmerized and left the theatre a few inches from the ground, thinking, 'This is what theatre is'.  A world beyond simple naturalism, an archetypal wo