Tuesday, May 31, 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 precocious) of thirteen and its realization of suffering, its causes and its cessation was and remains a deep revelation of truth.

If I did not take a Buddhist path, it was because I had been claimed by a different, but complementary path, I had in George Fox's inimitable words discovered one who spoke intimately to my condition: Christ as inner light.

That the two are doctrinally apart is an exoteric truth, that they join at an esoteric level is equally true. Both encompass that vulnerability to what is from which flows abiding compassion. It is beautifully captured in this icon of their greeting.

Both stand upon their respective truths - of dharma and logos - that circulate their patterns of discipline and form that fully entered into are saving vehicles and yet beyond that, beyond the vehicle is the destination, they embrace. They recognize each other. We may embark, necessarily, on different journeys, require often radically different methods, but the destination is the same.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

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 lucid prose and like John Blofeld creatively mixes personal anecdote and intelligent description of the tradition. He was ordained in a tradition that allowed for marriage and he and his wife (a Parsee convert from India) traveled extensively in Tibet and the surrounding kingdoms.

I am re-reading his spiritual autobiography, 'The Way of the White Clouds' which is a model of its kind. Travel in the land of snows is inter-woven with reflections on all aspects of Buddhism - popular and metaphysical - captured beautifully in Govinda's second language.

He was also a painter - and I would love to see examples - and his early interest in and continued practice of art colours both his interests and his descriptive capacity.

It is also a book saturated with magic - there is a striking account of a waking vision of Maitreya (the Buddha to come to whom his guru was devoted) emerging from the wall of his cell, before sleep, a cell (unbeknown to him) that had not been slept in (until then) because dedicated to the Buddha to come!

He continually draws our attention back to the importance of 'experience' and the discipline required to transform consciousness towards the practice of compassion; that the task of any person is to move, however slowly, towards the realization of the Buddha-hood that is our inheritance, the ground of our, all being. His description of the meaning of those disciplines and their practice is exemplary, as are his comparative references to Christianity (though not always to Hinduism - an example of sibling rivalry)?

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' swept through the music that itself was amplified to the verge of recognition as fado. No one who was there will ever forget it - my favourite was the man in sixteenth century dress, platform boots with a whip and these two characters who were whisked around the stage, serenading on a bull!

What I noticed most from sitting near the stage was the poor production values - what might have looked glamorous from 'out of space' (at the back) looked distinctly threadbare at the front: costumes especially sadly. Meanwhile one episode, when the Lisbon court took exile in Brazil, positively offended the Brazilians present at the depiction (too light hearted) of their colonization!

I enjoyed in that way that terribly bad things can be!

It contrasted vividly with my previous visit to Lisbon when I had sat in a smoky cellar listening to a woman and her accompanying guitarist sing one hauntingly lament toned piece after another, immersed in the melancholies of (fado) fate filled lives.

I managed my first visit to a casino without gambling (no time) and only a glanced glimpse at rows of waiting slot machines, no tables visible, nor indeed elegant Bond-like beings! I think more Vegas than Monaco.

Portugal, in spite of being on its uppers, was its eccentric self: relaxed, friendly and often quietly charming. The architecture in Cascais is eclectic - the old, tiled, quirky jostling with the modern, sharp, often disconcerting. The building next to the conference hotel - made as if from giant container boxes - was stunningly out of place and ugly. But the whole seems to work together.

It was lovely to sit in the small squares and watch life flow by into the early hours, exchanging earnest conversation about saving the world or given foundation clout, nudging it, occasionally, in the right direction!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

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 only met once on his final trip to England, 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 meeting. I had prepared a series of serious questions that I might appear profound (or, at least, marginally intelligent) and they all evaporated as inconsequential in his presence: humourous, still, holy. It was a memorable lunch and afternoon that left you several inches off the ground.

But it is Thomas Merton who continues to exert the deepest influence. What to make of this extraordinary man? A contemplative addicted to writing, a solitary addicted to people: his autobiography is one of the small of number of books that I have read through without pause into the early hours, more than once. Like any torrential writer, his work misses sometimes, but when it strikes home, it does so with such precision and grace that it remains with you, burrowing away, breaking you open to new realizations in its wake.

It is this passage (from his 'The Asian Journal') that I want read at my funeral. It tells of a visit to the great Buddha statues at Polonnaruwa and a moment of illumination.

"The path dips down to Gal Vihara: a wide, quiet, hollow, surrounded with trees. A low outcrop of rock, with a cave cut into it, and beside the cave a big seated Buddha on the left, a reclining Buddha on the right, and Ananda, I guess, standing by the head of the reclining Buddha. In the cave, another seated Buddha. The vicar general, shying away from “paganism,” hangs back and sits under a tree reading the guidebook. I am able to approach the Buddha barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in wet grass, wet sand. . . .

Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious. the queer evidence of the reclining figure, the smile, the sad smile of Ananda standing with arms folded (much more “imperative” than Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa because completely simple and straightforward.) The thing about all this is that there is no puzzle, no problem, and really no “mystery.” All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear. The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya. . . .

Everything is emptiness and everything is compassion. I don't know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination. Surely, with Mahabalipuram and Polonnaruwa my Asian pilgrimage has come clear and purified itself. I mean, I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don't know what else remains but I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise. This is Asia in its purity, not covered over with garbage, Asian or European or American, and it is clear, pure, complete. It says everything; it needs nothing. And because it needs nothing it can afford to be silent, unnoticed, undiscovered. It does not need to be discovered. It is we, Asians included, who need to discover it."

Monday, May 23, 2011

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
Assembled there in gentle congregations,
Or sought apart their leafy oratories,
Or walked in peace, the wild and tame together,
As if, also for them, the day had come.
The shepherds’ hovels shone, for underneath
The soot we saw the stone clean at the heart
As on the starting-day. The refuse heaps
Were grained with that fine dust that made the world;
For he had said, ‘To the pure all things are pure.’
And when we went into the town, he with us,
The lurkers under doorways, murderers,
With rags tied round their feet for silence, came
Out of themselves to us and were with us,
And those who hide within the labyrinth
Of their own loneliness and greatness came,
And those entangled in their own devices,
The silent and the garrulous liars, all
Stepped out of their dungeons and were free.
Reality or vision, this we have seen.
If it had lasted but another moment
It might have held for ever! But the world
Rolled back into its place, and we are here,
And all that radiant kingdom lies forlorn,
As if it had never stirred; no human voice
Is heard among its meadows, but it speaks
To itself alone, alone it flowers and shines
And blossoms for itself while time runs on.

But he will come again, it’s said, though not
Unwanted and unsummoned; for all things,
Beasts of the field, and woods, and rocks, and seas,
And all mankind from end to end of the earth
Will call him with one voice. In our own time,
Some say, or at a time when time is ripe.
Then he will come, Christ the uncrucified,
Christ the discrucified, his death undone,
His agony unmade, his cross dismantled—
Glad to be so—and the tormented wood
Will cure its hurt and grow into a tree
In a green springing corner of young Eden,
And Judas damned take his long journey backward
From darkness into light and be a child
Beside his mother’s knee, and the betrayal
Be quite undone and never more be done.

Edwin Muir

An Anglican priest friend was talking to a primary school class of children, 8 and 9 years old, just prior to Easter. He asked them, 'So, what happens on Good Friday?' Many hands shot up and the answer given: the day Jesus is killed. 'And on Sunday?' Fewer hands but a few and the answer being that this is when Jesus came back to life, returns. 'And in between? On Saturday?' my friend probed adventurously. A single hand goes up. A boy. 'That is the day when Jesus goes in search of his friend, Judas'!

How extraordinarily right - according to tradition - hell is harrowed and new hope comes to all.

Muir's poem captures this. The light that penetrates all things, it is their true nature, and one day it will infuse all, when all that is summons it. A Bodhisattva commits to postpone the fullness of Nirvana until every blade of grass reaches into enlightenment and is revealed in true light. Here it is Christ who will be brought to the point when everything can unfold into its true nature and everything, every blade of glass, will come into its fullness.

It is my myth. This sense of paradise lost, disguised by our ignorance, the fear of our freedom; and, paradise restored. The grace of paradise is always present, waiting for our ability to summon it. The veil is thin, if resolute, but can be tweaked, drawn back, lost in light. It was Muir's abiding myth - paradise and the long journey back from darkness into light. It is why I love him as my poet: the one who most deeply encapsulates our seeing of the world.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

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 played a role in my own life: the splendidly named (and, as it turned out, anachronistic) Christmas Humphreys (shown here): high court judge, esotericist and popularizer of Buddhism. He had surrendered his Christian faith in the First World War when his beloved elder brother was killed. The world was not under the guiding hand of a loving God (especially not one shared by competing protagonists). It was to be found for Humphreys in Buddhism of whom he became a spokesperson, rooted in serious practice and a catholic embrace of its many forms, traditions.

I read his admirable introduction to Buddhism, published by Penguin; and, I met him subsequently at the meetings of the Buddhist Society that I attended as a student. He was every inch the English gentleman, utterly of his class and position, and yet wholly approachable, hoping to prompt whatever glimpses of spirit he found in others. I had several private conversations with him (and a wholly memorable trip to visit the anti-guru, Krishnamurti)! I wish I could have realized what a legacy/strand of networks, he lived through and in.

He did help me appreciate how Buddhism's many traditions shared common principles (though some that he suggested remain controversial and speak of his esoteric, Theosophical roots) and gave encouragement to a young man, asking serious questions and testing them (as the Buddha suggested) on the strands of one's own unfolding experience. He was briefly a mentoring presence.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

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 distances but never tasted. Add them to the aspirational listing!

Friday, May 20, 2011

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 deeply interesting, this question of how you come to identify with certain past periods, and not others. 

It is not only when the China/Mongolia/Tibet of the 20s and 30s is presented in its religious dimension that this feeling is evoked. I remember watching Edward Norton's film of 'The Painted Veil' and having precisely the same sense of an imagined world that felt deeply familiar. I should perhaps construct a past life narrative for myself!

In the present, the closest I have been to this world (apart from working trips to Hong Kong and Mongolia) is three visits to the Republic of Tuva, whose nomadic (Buddhist and shamanic) society has many resonances with some of what Blofeld describes; and, where I have felt deeply at home, and at peace.

It cannot be simply the hope for the exotic because it appears radically time and place specific this feeling. It remains an enjoyable mystery.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

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 and without collapse in one world is the same as the farmer who repeating the name of Amida, calling for birth in the Pure Land, becomes so focused that the 'without' of Amida's grace collapses any sense of 'within' or 'without': all is the same dynamic graced being with and in the world. It is a beautiful exposition - and an account of how different approaches (truths) are necessary to ensure that everyone has access to the truth.

It is classic Blofeld description - suffused with a genuine humility allowing you to see his stumbling after a genuine encounter and a beautiful account of a realized sage.

I am fully in love with this book - and its author. I am so happy to be engaged with three authors whose work you simply want to work your way through.

A common strand is the humility of enterprising after truth, not imagining that you capture it, but that you evoke it - and a respect for the wisdom of mystery (for John Blofeld and Neil Gunn this is explicitly 'zen' and its commonality with the contours of their experience, for Rumer Godden, it is a subtler sense of an experienced wisdom, often rooting in India). Three different authors (though all contemporaries and all from the United Kingdom) cannot be imagined - from political engagement to sense of place, from explicit religious commitment to free flowing connections; and, possibly equally true 'marginal' figures - recognized as important but treated as 'minor' - two novelists who are admired but not feted, a religious scholar and translator who does not come equipped with the precise qualifications.

They make me feel at home.

Monday, May 16, 2011

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 retire to Taoist hermitages, amidst the clouds, to drink tea and pursue immortality in the last phases of their earthly life. His accounts of visiting such hermitages are a sheer delight: such a graceful account of lives lived with rare simplicity and quiet style.

Even the accounts of the miraculous are offered with a quiet tone, allowing for possible doubt. I loved his meeting with a Taoist sage as the communist surge is known as final. Blofeld asks what will become of him. The sage declares he is old, of no worth, and thus not likely to be molested. However, as a sage, he knows the time of his death. It is soon: he names the time a few short years into the distance. Blofeld leaves, and forgets. However, at the exact time of the sage's prophesised death, when Blofeld is in Singapore, he finds himself strangely oppressed one evening and steps outside onto the terrace. There he sees a white crane, highly unusual, if not unknown in Singapore, flying across the sky, lingering over the terrace, looking at him. He remembers the sage's prophecy - and the symbolism of the crane - the immortality of the soul, the bearer to a new world.

It is a lovely story whose truth lies open to the reader.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

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 humility. You must not consider your self worthless - no one can if in each and every one there is that which is of God. Keeping your counsel may be an inverted pride that is a misplaced abasement.

It is this hallowing of the person that is one of the virtues of the Friends - early champions of equality - that has had influence beyond their number. It is hard to imagine such influence in the nondescript room of nine but if as Pascal claimed the world's problems originated from people's inability to sit quietly in their own room, the Quakers have begun on a solution, and from that ability to be with silence has emerged a continuing witness towards a justice grounded in each person's inalienable value.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

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 sounds so banal to my (over) sophisticated mind (at least) but it continually and beautifully catches you short, slips its simplicity beneath your complex defences.

I find myself pondering what he means when he reports Marie Louis von Franz's remark that shyness is a form of arrogance (delivered to him, a markedly shy man). Slowly it begins to make sense that withholding of self aloof and distant from others, assuming characteristics of the other for which you have no guarantee, projecting the worst, a form of arrogance, refusing to place yourself humbly in the hands of others.

The 'Inner Gold' to which he refers is our ability to project not only the dark elements of our  personality onto others but also our neglected potential, the possibilities that we have refused. We repress the good as much as the bad Jung observed and Johnson gives a beautiful account of the challenges of re-absorbing our potential that we have imagined another to possess.

Finally, I love the shaping anecdote, at the close he remarks that St Theresa often slipped into ecstasy except when she was cooking her breakfast: eternity accommodates the necessities of time.

Friday, May 13, 2011

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 spreads, sprawls outwards incorporating politics, history, religion but never departs from the intimate texture of particular lives. It is a remarkable achievement.

The television series that I watched in my early teens was the first time I knowingly saw the depiction of homosexuality on screen. It was a covert, electric excitement - and, thankfully, Merrick was not the only model. There was, most of all, the suave, accomplished Count Bronowsky played by Eric Porter who runs a minor Indian state for his compliant prince (what an opportunity to identify)!

The book is a rich and complex meditation on identities - their capacity to fascinate and bind.

Merrick is exemplary. The grammar school boy confronted by a public school educated Indian who repels in that difference and attracts in his physicality. A man who every day lives with a double exclusion - the wrong social status amongst the English, and a repressed sexual identity that (at that time) would distance, repulse most, who projects power as a compensation, and a place to hide. His death comes when finally he lives out (in private) his sexual fantasy - a mixture of desire, power and violence.

It is a series of books noticeable for the absence of any simple solutions (or escapes). In many ways a tragic narrative of people misunderstanding and misunderstood but there are glimpses of light. Lady Manners adoption of Daphne's child of ambiguous origin - Hari's or a rapist's? The count's non-judgemental attitude to the world, his ability to navigate towards well-being, recognizing the compromises on the way, and light's fragility. Sarah Layton's even temperament and capacity not to succumb to easy prejudice or false certainty.

It is in the small acts of human decency that hope is found even as the tides of history sweep on.

I am thinking of embarking on a second reading...

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

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 expensive for my family)!

I was struck by the production quality and the pace, so much slower than now, and was reminded of absorbing so much television as a child and yet because there were only three channels absorbing such quality (by default as much as by choice)!

We have contested conversations about 'dumbing down' but for me the arguments are unanswerable. When I was in my late teens, the BBC ran a series of Luis Bunuel films - ten in all - one each Friday evening on BBC 2 from 9pm. A film, in a foreign language, on one of three channels: an introduction to an extraordinary artist that I watched with often uncomprehending fascination - culture by default or accident.

Now, sadly, you would be hard pressed to find a foreign language film except on BBC4 - avoidable and now offered within the framework of 'choice' rather than from within a mission to educate.

A sad depletion.

Monday, May 9, 2011

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 particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

Mary Oliver
There is something so elementary and right about Mary Oliver's poems: accessible, quietly profound, moving and unfolded from within the world, radiated by presence.

Sunday, May 8, 2011


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 attested to in their rapid collapse.

What emerges is a very different picture of landscapes long fashioned by human habitation, sophisticated but different cultures, carrying very substantial and complex societies. No part of this picture is non-controversial - and one of the side 'attractions' of the book is the internecine wars between academics as they grapple with rival theories with a distinct lack of objectivity and lashings of enthusiasm (for good or ill)!

But it does appear relatively clear that the Americas were inhabited for much longer than previously thought, that they separately developed urban cultures and that they worked out, most successfully and originally, how to live in very different, often challenging landscapes (not without periodic failures). They were also as fond of warfare as their fellow humans - though tended towards the Italian city state limited form rather than the Tamerlane sweep all before in brutal conquest form!

Most interesting was speculation on the Amazon - and the striking ways in which people may have shaped a living agriculture that supported significant levels of population in ways that have continuing relevance. The methods of soil creation making raised beds utilizing pottery shards and charcoal are strikingly 'innovative' and ripe for reinvention and deployment.

And the collapse of this - primarily the unintended consequences of populations not resistant to Eurasian diseases, compounded by the sheer brutalities of occupation, that divested people not only of their lives but by the extent of the collapse patterns of meaning as well.

It is a hauntingly sad unfolding of lost opportunities of cultural interchange and the brutal realities of colonialism.

It is a beautifully written book - the science is lucidly explained and the arguments balanced. You know where the author stands but the counter-arguments are boldly and fairly stated.

And the continuing mysteries - for example whence comes maize? How was it effectively engineered from its distant relative? Much dispute, no complete answers to the origin of probably the most successful crop ever domesticated...

Saturday, May 7, 2011

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 whooping CNN anchor that Bin Laden's death would offer 'closure' to the grieving relatives of 9/11. This latter I thought the most crass and fundamentally insulting remark offered by a journalist that I can recall. Leaving aside the absurdity of 'closure' invented by pop psychologists that might usefully go 'pop' and leave people with the realities of grief, it was the presumption that was breathtaking.

The rectification of government said Confucius begins in the rectification of names. By which he meant that we can speak the truth only if words have an objective currency and used with care. We all have a long way to travel to that ideal. 

CNN would not even recognize it.

Friday, May 6, 2011

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 the book works at many levels - there is the strand that talks of the 'folk': the education in and within a community that shapes character and fashions affections and which (this is written in 1937) is a meaningful counterpoint to darker (and more disembodied) forms of nationalism infecting Europe.

There is a celebration of nature - the sheer beauty even in the simplest, most austere natural forms and the challenges of living from it - the poaching of salmon, the fishing of the sea.

It is beautifully written, deeply autobiographical and a quiet, unsung masterpiece.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

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 swept aside. Yet the dream offers a way of responding to this in the form of a traditional symbol in the form of a bird, the chickadee, that is a bird that listens and learns from the world around it. A symbol that urges a new flexibility towards the world, the practical application of which helps the Crow survive, adapt to, and eventually flourish in their new circumstances.

The book is a beautifully subtle and intelligent account of how one thick description of identity might be thinned and transformed to new circumstances - and what is the nature of the courage it requires of us to do this? It is a study in the practical application of virtues.

I was struck reading this slim volume of many things from how do we understand cultures different from our own that constitute themselves so differently we have difficulty truly understanding them?

In this context I was thinking of youth cultures: the fragile identity, concern with honour, and proneness to violence that characterizes the fascination with gangs. Here is a culture where shame and the avoidance of shame in the look of 'admired' others appears critical. Here is a culture prone to a sense of collapse, besieged by a world that cannot apparently be participated in on its own terms, that fails to find the courage to promote human flourishing and retreats into illusion yet it attracts people powerfully.

I, also, found myself asking: where do we have a place to dream our culture, and to honour that dreaming. The Crow did and found it deeply helpful as they managed new possibilities. Can we even ask the question of ourselves? Do we dream our stories forward? If so when? I was reminded of the 'Dark Mountain' project of Paul Kingsnorth that is a conscious attempt to fashion new cultural narratives in the face of perceived imminent environmentally imposed culturally (and physical) change?

The book makes a powerful case for the threat we face from conceptual change. What happens to us when we can no longer think in old categories? When for example with Dark Mountain, we can no longer see ourselves addressed by wilderness because there is nowehere our human hand has not touched and (in ironic use of the word) soiled? What Bill McKibben described as the 'End of Nature'?

At one level the book might be seen as working with a tangential question to our lives: we are not Crow (or a member of any indigenous group currently under threat).

But I felt the questions urgent - we find it hard to answer, positively, in what does a flourishing life consist? We are anxious that our answers (if any) tend to the obsolete. We do not know what kind of answers we may need in a new world.

We need the 'radical hope' that Plenty Coup exhibited to navigate the challenges. The courage to imagine new possibilities without the certainty of their adoption.

Everyone is interesting, even if to requires a few sherries to find out how

V.S. Naipaul, who died recently, once asked one of his interviewers, before he would permit them to start, "What have you read? And do...