Showing posts from May, 2011

The Buddha meets Christ in embrace

Reading Lama Anagarika Govinda is proving nostalgic on a number of fronts.

I recall my first reading of it in my first year at university, bought at Watkins, the famous 'esoteric' bookshop in Cecil Court in London. I sat in my hall of residence room transfixed by a world made familiar; and, it was deepening of a commitment to contemplation (which has been observed fitfully)!

I remember returning, at the time, to my school to give a talk to the combined fifth form on Buddhism and using Govinda as the backbone of my delivery (both this book, and his equally wonderful, the Foundations of Tibetan Buddhism). I was voted (I immodestly remember) their best invited speaker of the year. I had even bought a recording of Tibetan music as opener and closer!

He reminded me of how important Buddhism was (and is) to my own thinking and comprehension of my experience. The Buddha's First Sermon in the Deer Park was the first religious text I read (of my own volition) at the tender age (or …

The Way of the White Clouds

Completed 'Journeys East: 20th Century Western Encounters with Eastern Religious Traditions': it is an excellent survey - balanced, intelligent and absorbing. It is written from a particular perspective - that of the 'Traditionalists', defenders of the perennial philosophy.

Reading it has been a journey of nostalgia and recovery. He touches on a number of writers, explorers in the Spirit, that have been important to me and whose work has shaped me; and, would appear now to be in a process of return and recovery.

In addition to the Catholic monks: Griffiths, Le Saux and Merton and the ever-present Jung is the German Buddhist convert, Lama Anagarika Govinda. He began as a Theravada monk in Ceylon and set out for the Himalayas one day to a conference to defend this older, austerer tradition from the apparent superstitious accretions of Tibetan Buddhism only to be 'converted' for a second time.

He was one of the early expositors of the Vajrayana in beautifully luc…

First trip to a Casino

This week I went to the European Foundations Conference held in Cascais near Lisbon.

This gave me my first ever opportunity to visit a casino. The juxtaposition of sober grant-making bodies and the free-wheeling of wheel and dice was an interesting one (perhaps a side opportunity to make up on declining portfolios after the financial crisis)! But I think conditioned by the need to find an alternate space (to the hotel) that could house 600+ for dinner and entertain them.

The restaurant glittered starry in black and white with ranks of tables ascending away from the stage and into 'space'  was, I think, the effect looked for. The food was surprisingly good given its mass production.

This was followed by a stage show: the History of Fado, designed by an apparently famous theatre director/producer which I can safely say astonished its audience. It was if Portugal's ancient and distinguished folk tradition had decided to compete in Eurovision: high camp and florid 'acting&…

Travelling East

Harry Oldmeadow's excellent accounting of Western encounter with Asian religious traditions continues to prove gripping. I think his best chapter is 'Christian Missionaries, Monks and Mystics in India' that focuses on the four noble spirits of Jules Monchanin, Henri Le Saux, Bede Griffiths and Thomas Merton.

This is neither simply because they are figures close to my heart (and unfolding narrative) but they are (you may equally surmise) close to the author. He has also written individually an excellent book on Henri Le Saux/Swami Abhishiktananda.

Fr Bede I knew, though we did meet, mainly through correspondence and for being a patron of the Prison Phoenix Trust: geographically the most distant, in practice the most active most especially writing to people in prison (by return) in his spidery but clear hand. I recall our first meeting. I had prepared a series of serious questions that I might appear profound (or, at least, marginally intelligent) and they all evaporated as…

My favourite poem

The Transfiguration So from the ground we felt that virtue branch
Through all our veins till we were whole, our wrists
As fresh and pure as water from a well,
Our hands made new to handle holy things,
The source of all our seeing rinsed and cleansed
Till earth and light and water entering there
Gave back to us the clear unfallen world.
We would have thrown our clothes away for lightness,
But that even they, though sour and travel stained,
Seemed, like our flesh, made of immortal substance,
And the soiled flax and wool lay light upon us
Like friendly wonders, flower and flock entwined
As in a morning field. Was it a vision?
Or did we see that day the unseeable
One glory of the everlasting world
Perpetually at work, though never seen
Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere
And nowhere? Was the change in us alone,
And the enormous earth still left forlorn,
An exile or a prisoner? Yet the world
We saw that day made this unreal, for all
Was in its place. The painted animals

Christmas Humphreys

Harry Oldmeadow's 'Journeys East: 20th century Encounters with Eastern Religious Traditions' seemed a good place to go after having read John Blofeld's autobiography. I have read it before. It is an excellent survey (and an expensive book, so many authors/books to follow up).

What was the 'Orient's attraction'? How did people approach understanding its religious traditions, and assimilate them?  In what ways did they transform them and in what ways were they transformed by them? Some of the characters are deeply familiar - Mircea Eliade or Carl Jung or Fr Bede Griffiths - many are obscure to any other than specialists. All are woven into a text of great insight and skill that is written with a clear eye to current controversies, not least Said's 'Orientalism'. It is written from a traditionalist perspective - espoused by Guenon, Schoun, Coomaraswamy - but with an openness of tone and fairness that is admirable.

One of the early characters playe…

Zen and Vajra

John Blofeld's 'The Wheel of Life' culminates in his initiation into a Vajrayana path in Sikkim. He has tested many of the principle paths in Buddhism and has been drawn to this one.

Zen requires one to plunge to the heart of things, and from there surface, allowing that centre to verberate through the layers of obstructing ignorance. Vajrayana peels those layers away, one by one, confident in arriving at the centre. The choice is one of temperament (shaped a Buddhist would argue by karma). The intensity of Zen proved unfitting to Blofeld's ox-like nature: plodding towards truth rather than plunging!

The account of that plodding is at once informative, illuminating and delightful. It both captures alluring incident, trending narrative, and intelligent discourse on the core truths of Buddhism (shared by the cores of all authentic traditions).

It stirred my own slothfulness towards truth: a nurturing of holy desire.

It, also, evoked the Himalayas: seen from diverse dis…

Time bound Asian Nostalgia

Can you be nostalgic for something you have never experienced?

It is a question that has continually presented itself to me by reading Blofeld's account of his journeys in China in the 1930s.

He has reached the sacred mountain of Wu T'ai whose bowled valley contained a diversity of monasteries, nestled amongst its flower-filled grass land. The valley as religious site is now devastated. First it was fought over between Chinese and Japanese, then by competing sides in China's civil war, subsequently followed by the coup de grace: the cultural revolution - that collective act of ideologically inspired insanity.

As I read his account and running below the sadness of a world past, whose merits I recognize, is a sense of knowing that cannot be placed, as if I had indeed been present to the realities described. Blofeld would suggest no doubt that this was evidence of a subliminal memory pattern from a past life (and who can say if this is not a reasonable proposition). But it is…

Wheeling after life in the Zen monastery

Hui Neng, the Sixth Zen patriarch, achieved his recognition by responding to a poem that suggested the mind was a clear mirror on which no dust collected. Hui Neng proposed that the mirror had no existence on which the dust could collect; thus, demonstrating his state of illumination.

John Blofeld, in his continuing autobiography, 'The Wheel of Life', has decided to visit the monastery where Hui Neng's body was kept, miraculously as befits a saint, in complete preservation (though you might imagine that a Zen saint might delight in stinking to confound such stereotypical thinking as did Dostoevsky's Father Zossima)!

Here he encounters a centenarian abbot with whom he carries out a wonderful conversation, with the impulsiveness of youth, on the relationship between 'self-power' and 'other-power'. How is it possible maintains Blofeld to believe in both and, with simplicity, the abbot answers that it is. The adept who meditates from within until within an…

The Wheel of Life

The Wheel of Life: The Autobiography of the Western Buddhist is John Blofeld's delightful account of discovering as a child that he was attracted both to the Buddha and to China and followed his attraction with single minded zeal.

Arriving in China in the 1930s, with virtually no money, he made his way by way of teaching English, tailoring his means and on the hospitality of strangers, many of whom became friends.

Running throughout is Blofeld's modesty. He became an accomplished scholarly commentator on both Buddhism and Taoism and translator of texts but in every work he grounds learning in the humble examples of everyday life, including his own.  He always held a deep reverence for the different levels of people's apprehension of truth - the simple hopeful prayer of a farmer through to the deepest illumination of a realized saint.

He is also an historic witness to a passed way of life. His China was irrevocably modified by communist revolution: no longer did people ret…

A Quaker meeting

Nine people gathered in a nondescript room, seated in pale, rigid chairs, the sounds of bird song in the garden beyond the window compete with the differentiated noises of shuffling, shifting, breathing folk.

We are entering silence, separately and together, in an act of worship fashioned over three hundred years since its inception by George Fox. Over the next hour, there will be only one break in this silence (or, more accurately, insertion into it) when a member reads from Quaker Advice and Queries a short passage about the nature of the meeting and how offerings of speech are to be given and received. 

An hour is a long time. The mind wanders to and fro - deepening in reflection, lying distracted in the shallows, glimpsingly stilled into a silence that feels both collective and a presence.

In my occasional attendance at meeting I have never been tempted to witness, give any intuition of mine a form in speech; but, the reading today reminded me that this may be my own false humilit…

Inner Gold

Robert A Johnson reports that during the war as the German's retreated up Italy they naturally destroyed bridges as they went until that is they came to the Ponte Vecchio where Dante famously beheld his first vision of Beatrice. They could not bring themselves to destroy it. Would the Americans, they asked, refrain from using it, if they refrained from destroying it. The answer was yes, an agreement reached, the bridge remained, and inviolate for either side.

It is a remarkable story - even within that most violent of conflicts: something yet other could be honoured. In this case a dominant myth of the West: of a romantic love that survives (in this case the disillusionment of death) to emerge as a guide towards eternal wisdom.

Johnson, whose memoir of the inner life, Balancing Heaven and Earth deserves to rest with Jung's own, 'Memories, Dreams, Reflections', is a writer (or speaker) of such quiet, simple lucidity that it is easy for you to miss his own gold. This sou…

The Jewel in the Crown

I spent six months in Nizhny Novgorod ostensibly as both the chair and the director of a micro-finance fund. I must confess much of that work -apart from the spectacular resignation of my predecessor as director - has faded from view but what I vividly recall is at weekends progressing through Paul Scott's 'The Raj Quartet' and subsequently re-watching its painstaking and triumphant dramatization (by Granada) that I had watched, long before, on the television.

It was without doubt my most deeply cherished reading experience to date.

This extraordinary narrative of the British in the last, declining days of colonial rule that begins with the doomed relationship of Hari Kumar and Daphne Manners, her rape, and the injustice of Kumar as accused by Ronald Merrick, the Police Superintendent, and one of the most malevolent characters ever created in fiction. He is a magnified alter ego of Scott himself especially the sharply, destructively repressed homosexuality. The narrative …

A nostalgic plunge

Elizabeth Sladen's untimely death has prompted BBC 4 to repeat the last Dr Who series in which she appeared as the Doctor's assistant, Sarah Jane. This was broadcast in 1976 when the Doctor was played by the delightfully eccentric actor, Tom Baker. 

It was a compulsive journey back into nostalgia. I was reminded of all those early Saturday evenings when it was a need to watch the latest episode. Each story was delivered in four separate parts of half an hour each, each episode ended on a point of suspense except the last. Both the sets and the special effects offered in imagination and enthusiasm what they lacked in sophistication. It was a weft around which one's childhood was woven.

Only the ubiquitous Blue Peter has a deeper hold on an English child's collective experience (if you are under 60)!

It was at a time when there was only three channels of television - and there was no possibility of recording (video taping had only just appeared, was exotic and too expens…

When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps his purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particu…


Visiting Dumbarton Oaks last week, I admired their collection of pre-Colombian art as I pondered the societies that shaped it and their predilection (shaped by religious motivation) for human sacrifice.

As Charles Mann points out in his fascinating portrait of pre-Colombian societies, 1491, at the point where Aztecs (by Cortes' estimation) were killing 3,000-4,000 people by this method, England was executing possibly 10 times as many as presumed criminals. Both sanctifying order (in different ways) by displays of mortal power. It is nice moment of perspective setting.

The book as a whole seeks to explore 'new' evidence (some stretching back into the 1920s but not yet emergent) of what the Americas may have been like prior to conquest - and how this picture differs radically from the one that still inhabits textbooks (and popular imagination) of a relatively empty place (at least in the north) and of fragile 'civilizations' in the south whose inferior status was at…

Depressing coverage

CNN's credibility evaporated the day I watched their coverage of the Oklahoma bombing from my hotel room in Sofia. They did not speculate on the origin of that terrible event, they attributed it. In their mind there could be no doubt, it was an act of Islamic terrorism. Except it was not, as we know, it was a 'home grown' act of violence.

But they surpassed themselves this Monday as I sat, being 'forced' to watch at my Washington airport gate. Osama Bin Laden was dead and the presenter was dancing on his grave. Gone was any objective accounting of the event replaced by an ogling, celebratory tone that did not betoken anything approaching reporting. It was deeply depressing.

Virtually everything about this event struck me as a misplaced opportunity - to bring a criminal to justice rather shoot him unarmed (apparently), to take his death as an opportunity for reflection rather than celebration (no death should be celebrated) and the strange assumption made by the who…

Highland River

Hesse's Siddhartha discovers enlightenment by following the rhythms, the teaching of a river.

Kenn's ambitions in Neil Gunn's wonderful 'Highland River' is more modest in ambition: the education of a young man through the mediums of both nature and community; and, yet the narratives do touch because at the core of both is a liberatory experience, the consciousness of a transformative mystery.

"In some such mood the Creator must have looked upon his handiwork and called it good. Kenn has long suspected that at the core of goodness there is neither solemnity nor observance, but only this excitement of a perfect creation."

This rhythm of seeing is at the heart of the book when the world is not exalted but simply seen, when all falls into its place and flows. For this river is a deep symbol, and exploring the river, and allowing the river to explore Kenn is at the heart of the book. A book that symbolically ends with a journey to the river's source.

But t…

Radical Hope

How do you re-imagine the possibilities of flourishing in the face of cultural collapse?

This is the question that Jonathan Lear sets out to address in his 'Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation'.

He does so through picking a particular case study (with universal implications) that of the Crow Indians as they moved from a life bounded by hunting and warfare to life on the reservation where the deep structures of their conception of a honourable life could no longer be lived. What does courage and honour look like  if the world you inhabit no longer allows you to hunt, no longer allows you to test yourself in battle, define the boundaries of your identity as a tribe through conflict? No longer helps you configure courage after traditionally accepted rules?

The narrative focuses on a Crow chief, Plenty Coups, who when still a child, learning the traditional ways, and excelling in them, has a dream that captures what everyone sensed: that the old ways are to be…