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.


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