Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Blue Sapphire

Evagrius of Pontus, a fourth century monastic writer, describes the reality of contemplation to dwelling in a certain kind of place (according to Douglas Christie in his exemplary 'The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes towards a Contemplative Ecology' which I am reading at the moment). "When the mind has put off the old self and shall put on the one born of grace," Evagrius writes "then it will see its own state in the time of prayer resembling sapphire or the colour of heaven: this state scripture calls the place of God that was seen by the elders on Mount Sinai."

Reading this on the train today brought to mind the painting very kindly commissioned for my birthday from Andrea McLean: http://andreamclean.org/, It is a sapphire place of contemplative imaging where sun and moon, angel and tree dance together in an harmonious whole and where the deeper you look the more that surfaces within a contained whole.

Christie's book is dedicated to thinking through how we might engage with a pattern of contemplative living that reconnects us with the reality of our living within that containing whole.

Andrea's painting sings that whole in an abiding vision.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

I Capture the Castle

Dodie Smith is best known as the author of 'The Hundred and One Dalmatians' turned (twice) into execrable films by Disney. Disney drained the book of its wonder and mystery and turned a fable of good and evil that beautifully balances the humorous and the serious into comedic farce. You can only be thankful that they have never perpetrated similar violence on its sequel, 'The Starlight Barking'!

'I Capture the Castle' was Smith's first novel (having pursued a career as a playwright and screenwriter) and is magical. A precocious seventeen year old girl, a budding writer, observes her family trapped in genteel poverty and varied forms of eccentricity and their transformative encounter with two visiting Americans. It is set in the 1930s but was written in the 1940s when Smith, resident in the US, longed for her homeland - that it might survive its trial and that she should share in its trial.

It was a novel that united Smith's friend, Christopher Isherwood, and the composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams in an unlikely union of praise but it is a union that suggests two of the book's abiding virtues.

The first being the acute observation of the unfolding events through the eye of the seventeen year old Cassandra who is a blending mixture of prejudice, common sense, insight and the certainties of youth.

The second being a deep, abiding affection for a certain vision of England - genteel yet resilient, amateurish yet accomplished and decidedly and affectionately eccentric!

As with her books for children, there is too the subtle presence of the magical - coincidences turn meaningful, prayers are unexpectedly answered and the world turns on hidden hinges.

It is all done with grace and humour and a simplicity that cost untold effort on Smith's part.

It too gave rise in me a renewed sense of why reading such novels is important, not simply entertaining.

I was reminded of a earnest young monk arriving at an Orthodox monastic community on Mt Athos, eager to become a starets, a holy father. Meeting his teacher for the first time in the monastic library, his teacher, a man of renowned holiness and simplicity, handed him a copy of David Copperfield to read. 'What this?' asked the young man in disgusted tones, 'with all the holy books we have here of the Saints and Fathers of the Church, you give me this novel to read'? The elder replied, 'Yes, if you cannot align your sentiments with the compassion of a simple man like Copperfield, how can you expect the more difficulty task of having them transformed in the saintly life? They cannot be transformed if the sentiments are not anchored in the first place!'

Novels are, amongst many other things, read aright, educators of the heart.


Thursday, April 25, 2013

Jonah and the Whale

The Cathedral of the Annunciation in Moscow's Kremlin has, in the entrance hallway, a rather vivid and humorous portrayal of the story of Jonah and the whale that I saw on Monday.

The story is read on the holiest of Jewish holidays, 'Yom Kippur', for it tells the story of the repentance of the people of Nineveh, confronted with the truth of their sinfulness by the reluctant prophet, Jonah, whose attempts to escape his vocation have been thwarted by God (helped by storms, sailors and whales).

Having finally embraced that vocation, he is disappointed that his prophecy of destruction is thwarted by the people of Nineveh taking his message seriously and changing their lives. It beautifully suggests that the art of prophecy is not predictive but performative. The performance is meant to make people reconsider their lives and take a new course, turned from their crooked directions to the straight path of their being. The future is always open to our turnings.

The story of Jonah is seen as a foreshadowing of the story of Christ, not least the three days spent in the belly of the whale, a descent that leads to new life. But it also contains the seed of a radically different way of seeing Christ's life. Jonah is a (reluctant) messenger but the onus of turning away God's wrath is not in anything that he is but rests in the individual consciences of the people of Nineveh.

God can speak in many ways but what matters is our receptive hearing. Jesus does nothing but point us to the reality of God and invites us in. There is no complex story of  sin, sacrifice and redemption but one of a calling prophet that directs our attention to what is possible within ourselves. There is no need for complex mediation between God and human beings. They stand before each other speaking and listening - a dialogue of opportunity.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Being a poet visionary is a bad career move...

Having read, mesmerised, Thompson's 'The Fathomless Heart', I am continuing my exploration of this forgotten English poet-mystic by reading his journals, both volumes of which have been carefully edited by Richard Lannoy.

Today on the train forth and back from London, I read the section in the first volume on dreams. My friend, the artist, Thetis Blacker, would have called Thompson a 'gifted dreamer', as she was herself, whose dreams spoke reality, that were gifts, to use the language of Hinduism, of the Self. They were not products of the unconsciousness to be interpreted by the ego but gifts to be inhabited as real places in which a person dwelt and in contemplating them saw into the truth of things. 

He describes his own, beautifully, as worlds inhabited as truly as those inhabited by waking consciousness; and, indeed makes the point, that the preconceptions of what we should or are seeing, when waking, often obscure more than they reveal about the reality of where we are.

We are used to thinking that dreams are, at best, unconscious prompts of what our waking selves might be failing to attend to. For Thompson, as for all traditional religions, dreams are a living part of the fabric of the reality that we inhabit. They interpret us, and our present level of consciousness, we do not interpret them. Who am I in relation to the dream consciousness not what is it in relation to me? 

Such questioning radically deepens one's own soulfulness or ought to.

Reading Thompson makes one deeply grateful to Lannoy for the perseverance of his work making access to Thompson's work possible. I am reminded of Flaxman's work in preserving Blake. Being a poet-visionary is obviously not a vocation to assume if you want a career.

                                 Thetis Blacker: 'The Birds Who Flew Beyond Time"

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Dispossessed

Shevek is a physicist on Annares.

Annares is an anarchist community founded on a harsh moon, some one hundred and sixty years before, as a compromise between its revolutionary founders and the home world of Urras. The two worlds have stood at suspicious length ever since until now when Shevek will travel to Urras to both work on his unifying theory in physics and hopefully build bridges between the separate cultures. It is a visit viewed with hostile suspicion on Annares and greeted with manipulative glee on Urras, as they want Shevek's theory for their own political purposes.

Ursula Le Guin's novel creates out of the drama of this visit (and Shevek's unfolded life that leads up to it) a remarkable novel of ideas. The principal of which is that of 'anarchy'. This is not the anarchism of protest - violent or petulant - but of Kropotkin's mutual aid. A society (on Annares) built from a consensual way of building a world that takes from each according to their ability and gives each according to their need. She beautifully shows how both this world might be possible and how it may be distorted by our inability to genuinely honour (or abide with) people's individuality. There is always the creeping potential for bureaucracy and conformity. Patterns of how it has always been, stifling the new, the strange, the possible. What is the balance between responsibility to the whole and genuine freedom?

But in the process she creates a world, which whatever its flaws, is deeply, abidingly attractive. A world in which there is no want. Reading it does press you to consider why such a world is not so and it is difficult to imagine what a response might look like. For example, in the UK, the seventh 'richest' nation on earth, why is it not possible to provide a basic, living income for all, simply by the fact of us being citizens? I suspect the answer is because we do not trust people then to contribute to the whole. In fact expecting that what lies behind our economic arrangements is a fiercely negative view of what it means to be human. What is so moving, and compelling, about Le Guin's vision is that it protests our flaws and yet sees possible sources of hope beyond them. 

It is where I too stand recognising our multiple abilities to miss the mark of our being but recognising that there is a fundamental 'communism' within us: the reality of our unified nature made in God's image (though Le Guin would express this differently) to be at one with one another. The only thing we have to fear, to quote Kennedy, is fear itself.

It is a very potent fear - that of our freedom and our compassion - but not one that has the final word.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Three books in the post

I wonder if there is a nearby chapter of Book buyers Anonymous I could join. Today saw three (separate) deliveries. I must stop (or pause at least)!

I bought a second hand copy of Kathleen Raine's 'The Human Face of God: William Blake and the Book of Job', beautifully produced by Thames & Hudson (though all the illustrations are black and white) which, to my surprise, I have not read before. It was Kathleen who gave me a key to understanding Blake and to whose friendship I owe an immeasurable debt giving me, as it did, a trust in my own aesthetic judgements, a renewed confidence to be myself and a wonderful, replenished supply of fruitcake and whiskey (...we often skipped the tea...). I especially wanted to read her closing chapter comparing Blake's interpretation of Job with Jung's since, following my recent re-reading of Jung's 'Memories, Dreams, Reflections', Jung's interpretation of man's role in making God conscious has been on my mind.

This plays into the second arrival: Edward F. Edinger's 'Ego and Archetype' as the classic account of what Jung described as the path of individuation, the journey to psyche wholeness that centres the ego in the Self that is itself an imaging of the divine. The ego is a necessary condition of coming to realisation (rather than simply an illusion) in this account. We are meant to be uniquely our selves, this particular person, yet enfolded in a deeper unity. We do not lose identity in the divine 'oneness', we fully express it.

That captures a real element in the third arrival, "Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan'. Ryokan is the most beloved of Japanese poets and the most eccentric of Zen masters. The poetry captures a paradox of a person wholly transparent in the Spirit and yet wholly themselves. A person who disappears:

"If someone asks
 about the mind of this monk,
 say it is no more than
 a passage of wind
 in the vast sky."

and yet who dances, here, present, fully now, uniquely:

"Won't you sing?
 I will get up and dance.
 How can I sleep
 with the timeless
 moon this evening?"

St Thomas Aquinas' advice to the New Atheists


Interesting article about Islam and the New Atheism (though the Independent ought to know that Richard Dawkins is an Oxford not a Cambridge scientist. Fact checking)!

I agree with Richard Dawkins that anyone can have an opinion about Islam without having read the Koran. Many no doubt practice Islam without having read it completely (as do people practice Christianity without having read the Bible from cover to cover though they have a better excuse given its comparative length) but what is the weight of that opinion if it is grounded in ignorance?
Richard Dawkins' opinion on Islam comes to have the same value as my opinion on genetics and if one is going to be a public intellectual critiquing Islam, I think one has to do better than that. New lazy atheism is not going to win many battles...

Equally curious is suggesting that having an opinion about Islam without having read the Koran is similar to having an opinion about Nazism without having read Mein Kampf. The first is a normative scriptural text embedded in a community of believers; the second is a part political tract, part autobiographical testimony that not even its author thought of in normative scriptural terms (though some of his followers may have) though its was politic to own a copy (if reading it was optional). Islam's core is its embedded belief structure, Nazisms' core was its power grabbing dynamic at a particular moment of history. Of course the choice of comparison is undoubtedly meant to be offensive and from a basically good, and indeed shy, man that is depressing.

The charge of 'Islamophobia' would be undermined and deflected if the New Atheists were able to focus on criticising Islam as such (and reading the Koran might be a good place to start) rather than on what a proportion of Muslims may or may not be inspired to do by a complex set of motives only some of which may be religious.

Indeed the New Atheists need to take a leaf out of the book of St Thomas Aquinas (of whom, I do not expect, they are a great fan) that in criticising the arguments (or world views) of another, you first construct their best possible arguments (or accounts) of what they believe and then critique them. For what is the point of criticising something at its weakest point? Know thy 'enemy' from the heart not from the periphery.

Now I expect that many professors of Islam think any criticism of Islam by atheists (new or otherwise) is impermissible but I think every tradition ought to welcome criticism as from a believer's perspective it helps refine why (and what within in it) we actually believe in? Lao Tzu says of the Tao that if it was not laughed at, it would not be the Tao. By which I think he meant that anything that aspires to being ultimately true acquires around it all kinds of untruths not least the fanaticism of belief. These need to be shed. After all if we are secure in the ultimate reality of things should not the result be a mirroring of that compassion and mercy that is at the heart of things? Nothing is more unnecessary than killing for the truth!

The opposition to Mrs Thatcher manifest this week after her death might like to ponder this rule to rather than participate in, I confess, rather offensive parties at her demise personally take the opportunity afforded to assess her legacy and show why you see it as having failed, deconstruct the ideological hagiography, with a different portrayal, not of the person, flawed as we all are, but of the truth claims and consequences of the ideology. Find the opportunity to protest 'Thatcherism' by bearing witness to alternatives.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Ursula for Nobel

There are three good reasons why Ursula Le Guin should be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

First, she writes beautifully. Her sparse, short sentences build cumulatively to develop arresting narratives of both inner space and unfolding action. They are completely accessible.

Second, her stories are stories but are suffused with running sets of intellectual challenges to consider different possibilities for human society. She is a thinker who builds representative anthropologies in which our society becomes mirrored. They too are completely accessible.

Third, it would shatter the artificial barrier between 'serious literature' and 'genre'. Le Guin writes science fiction (and fantasy), for both adults and children and is immensely popular - three traditional barriers to acclaim -  barriers which ought to be dismantled. They were not obviously present in the nineteenth century, they were built in the twentieth, they should be disassembled in the twenty first.

On winning the Nobel prize, hopefully some enterprising film maker will seek to convert one or more of her novels into films (previous attempts have been, by her own admission and my acknowledgement, lamentable); thus, deepening the uptake of her work yet further.

Imaginative literature, when it works, is offering the complexity of embodied, embedded worlds rather than 'messages' but her championing of appropriate scale (in communities, technologies and states), of diversity of peoples and possible truths, of story telling and exploration rather than imposed truths; and, of the necessity of living within the boundaries of natural necessities are all deeply appealing.

She has a quiet voiced prophetic quality that I like.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Genuine fake

I was once offered a 'genuinely fake' Rolex in a market in Kuala Lumper and when I asked what differentiated a 'genuine fake' from a 'fake', the vendor replied, "It will work"!

My friend, Monica Furlong, wrote a biography of Alan Watts entitled 'Genuine Fake' (a title taken from a chapter in one of his many books) and it was an apt one.

Watts was a scholar who never had a sustained academic home and whose scholarship was questioned partly because he was such an inspired populariser (yet he did once enjoy a fellowship at Harvard).

He was criticised for his understanding of Zen by D.T. Suzuki and Philip Kapleau (though only the latter was a realised Zen master as it is often forgotten that D. T. Suzuki, for all his consumate scholarship and practice of Zen, was a philosopher and never a qualified teacher). But another exemplary Zen teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, described Watts, when some of his own students criticised Watts for peddling inauthentic Zen, as a 'very great Bodhisattva'!

He was ordained as an Episcopal priest (from which he faded out rather than resigned) but also drank rather too much, took drugs and was married three times!

I am re-reading his last book: "Tao: The Watercourse Way" and it is remarkably good: clear, lucid, entertaining and thoughtful and it gives you a way of looking at the key notions of philosophical Taoism that enables you to look at your own world, and your place in it, afresh. It is, also, with Al Chung-liang Huang's calligraphy, a beautiful book.

Like his older contemporary, Aldous Huxley, you have a sense of a man of high intellect and graceful imagination having seen something radically important in 'Eastern philosophy' and applying it to the needs of their age in a way that does not date, that is, on each encounter, refreshing.

Both can be criticised because they lift what they want out of complex living traditions and reinterpret it, often in radical ways. As interpreters of a tradition(s), they are fakes but as interpreters through a tradition (s) to a untied, clear vision of possibilities, they are genuine.

Watts described 'genius' as an 'intelligent questioning of the rules' - and in this case he fits his own definition. He is nothing but respectful of spiritual traditions but recognised they are there to be used as paths to enlightenment, not to be respected as rest homes (or refuges) on the way. Refuges that we often sadly come to stasis in, never actually continuing on the way.

As he famously said of Jesus, Jesus did not become the realised divine son that He was by taking Jesus Christ as His personal saviour! What interested Watts was the religion of Jesus, not the Jesus of religion.

I read him first when I was at university - which from a narrow perspective was a mistake - as he was far more interesting than the people I was meant to be reading and gave me an image of what a religious person ought to be doing: putting to proof in their own experience the realities they studied and treated of (and indeed ultimately that was the only way you could verify their truthfulness - in being so, and not other) and having fun (which I definitely was not)!

Re-reading him now is a deep pleasure re-discovered.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Speaking ill of the dead

When my uncle died, coming out of his funeral, his wife, my aunt, wryly observed that she had not known that she had been married to such a good man (much as she had loved him)!

On the day after Baroness Thatcher's death, predictably, the right wing press are both outraged at the hostility that her death has reawakened in many (and its expression) and suggeting that one should not speak ill of the dead out of respect for private grief (though embarrassing hagiography is all too permissible).

Personally, I think, the one thing death requires of us is honesty. Let our yea be yea and our no be no. Last week watching from afar the funeral ghat in Kathmandu where a woman dissolved into an utterly physical embodiment of her grief, I was reminded of this. Death, whatever it brings, is, in itself, brutal, we stand exposed, so we ought to respond to it nakedly, with all that we have.

Thus, even in private, ideally what matters is the honouring of the completest of pictures that you can allow yourself, in that is compassion. In some traditions, the departed soul is proceeding through a similar process - of being addressed or confronted by a complete picture of their life - and in those traditions the sooner we learn to do this, do this now, the more likely we are to successfully navigate into the future. Like the poet, Kathleen Raine, who I most fear to find beyond death's veil is a face too merciful for my own devil peopled soul to bear - and not having my myriad faults witnessed to at my death would be depressing!

However if we cannot manage the compassionate ideal, better I expect to express the reality of our emotion than pretending respect. I recall a Desert Island discs when the writer Anthony Horowitz, I believe, recalled himself and his two siblings literally dancing on their mother's grave at her death. In their eyes, rightly or wrongly, she was a monster, better to accept the authenticity of that and see it on its way in suitable ritual than bottling it up in pretended grief (and respect).

Mrs Thatcher was an astonishingly divisive figure and pretending otherwise is no way of debating (or realising) her legacy. It neither honours her nor, more importantly, the truth.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Iron Lady has rusted away...

...rather literally and sadly given the multiple health challenges of her last decade. Lady Thatcher, possibly the most influential (for good or ill) British Prime Minister of the Twentieth century, has died today at the age of 87.

Looking at the comment streams in varied places, we can rest assured that she remains to the end, and beyond, a highly divisive figure about whom it will take a long time to come to settled conclusions (if ever).

The first election campaign in which I took an active part (though did not vote, as I was too young) was the 1979 election that brought the then Mrs Thatcher to power. I was a gopher for the Liberal Party campaign in the safe Conservative constituency in which I was born. I addressed a great many envelopes in my Easter holiday and was much too timid to go out on the stump. We came a creditable but distant second!

Needless to say I was not an admirer but I cannot bring myself to the level of visceral vitriol that some of my friends preserve for her.

There was something peculiarly hidebound and sclerotic about late 70s Britain that needed reform and re-energising but Mrs Thatcher form of renewed confrontation (from the right, replacing that from the left) was not the apposite medicine.

Some things that were done domestically were necessary (and even admirable) and led to significant improvements, not least, for example, the privatisation of the telecom industry and possibly the extension of home ownership (though the failure to use the receipts to build more social housing was a grave mistake). Some things that were done globally were equally admirable not least the confrontation with a disintegrating Soviet Union and the co-operation with its mostly peaceful disassembly in Eastern Europe; others were the shadow side of this - the support for Pinochet and the hostility to the African National Congress and support for apartheid South Africa.

But oddly maybe her most paradoxical legacy is in the City of London. She abhorred the idea of a national lottery (introduced by her successor, John Major) because it fostered an attitude of getting something for nothing and yet through the 'Big Bang' reforms of the City laid the foundations for a financial system that is remarkably akin to a casino where getting something for nothing is every bit a modus operandi!

She often behaved as an economic liberal, sometimes she would have been helped by being more, not less, conservative.

For the failure of her legacy was precisely this inability to help establish a national consensus - a sense of identity that has shared economic and social roots. She found a country divided against itself, class bound and uncomfortable, and she left it in a similar state - and that sense of not being 'one nation' is with us still. Mr Blair pretended it did n't matter, Mr Cameron unconvincingly pretends 'we are all in it together'.

We are not - we are now one of the most unequal societies in Europe and there is a great prize for a political leadership that addresses this.

P.S. In passing I note (on the day after) the right wing press being scandalised by the hostility accorded her passing by some as if in death a public figure should only be treated to hagiography, anything less is being disrespectful to private grief. Frankly death should be met only by honesty - whatever form that takes - and in the case of Baroness Thatcher that will take myriad forms!

China Court

It would be a misnomer to call this novel of Rumer Godden's 'experimental'.

She is a gifted novelist whose closely wrought tales have beginnings, middles and ends and never deviate from a charming and psychological acute realism. As here, she can create scenes of striking truthfulness - when two of the protagonists, both caught in their own grief for the same person, meet casually in China Court's kitchen for the first time and want to reach out, but fail, to comfort each other and yet make a hidden, real connection that must wait before it can be expressed.

Yet, she plays with time in a remarkable way, moving from period to period in the house's and its inhabitants' history over four generations, sometimes within the same paragraph, creating both a remarkable sense of continuity and yet showing how times do change, possibilities arise and fall away. She is beautifully astute on the practices of the English class system and on the licence and fragility to be found in a servant's position.

As usual, she is especially acute dealing with young people on the threshold of development and the agonies of being yet a child but also a burgeoning adolescent or young adult. The awkwardness of the transition of seeing but not being included, of being included but not understanding or, at least, only through a glass darkly.

Virago Modern Classics have re-introduced many of Godden's novels, rightly placing her as a significant twentieth century novelist, who is wholly accessible and yet acute and wise.

I expect we are meant to imagine her as 'middle brow' but if so, it is a memorable and delightful place to be.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

At the airport bookstore

"I have changed my mind. I have seen a better one at another store. Can you give me my money back?"

"I am afraid that is not possible. I have put it through the till."

"Yes, you can. You just do n't want to"

A few moments later...

"My wife wants to return this. She has seen a better one"

"I am sorry. If I do this, I will have to pay for it"

"You can. I will sign any paper you want"

The girl at the desk out of exasperation gives the man his money and takes back the item and disconsolately records the transaction. She may well have to pay for it.

The item is a fridge magnet! The girl at the counter is Nepali, the couple are English and in their late twenties.

I am kicking myself for not intervening so I buy a book (a collection of short stories) and as I pay tell the girl that I will not be changing my mind.

She smiles.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Eternal saints in caves, Living gods on balconies and the dead on pyres

A day of being a purposeful tourist in Kathmandu.

First to Swayambhunath and a remembrance of the Shrine at Guadeloupe. Here too you stand on a hill above a city that was once a lake, the cities themselves now enshrined in, slowly improving, smog, and find a foundational shrine. Here it is to the Bodhisattva Manjushri - bearer of the sword of wisdom. Like Our Lady of Guadeloupe in Mexico, the shrine is a complex admixture of devotion, both actual and mechanical, and commerce.

It was beautiful watching an elderly woman slowly process, clockwise, around the stupa, turning each prayer wheel thoughtfully, incense sticks anointing the end of each row of wheels; and, the young girls, three in a row, being smeared with sacred paste, in their red ceremonial best, all smiles and anticipation of the mysterious ritual to come.

Manjushri is said to still live in a cave beneath the hill, meditating and radiating wisdom. In his temple is an ever-closed door that leads down to his cave and were you to pass through it, you would never return.Tempting...

All this woven and wrapped with people simply looking on, with wonder or indifference, or people praying with such swift mechanical gestures it radiated the feeling of protective routine or simply the practitioners of commerce from the prayer wheel salesmen to the felt inappropriateness of a seller of finches, bound in a tight cage and, as Blake would say, sending heaven into a rage.

Then it was down into the city to see the seventeenth century royal palace, and accompanying temples, mostly dedicated to Shiva in varied guises but with appearances from Vishnu and Ganesha and Hanuman. The latter so offering soaked that only the dimmest outline of his form could be made out from the smeared paste and hardening oil.

But among the god and goddesses, depicted in stone and wood, was a Living God. She lives on the upper level of a beautifully intricate seventeenth century house/temple. You pass into the courtyard, bowing low, and if you are fortunate, she will honor you with an appearance. She did. The current incarnation of the goddess Durga is seven years old, is intricately made up, and as she looked down at the audience (of mainly tourists) the only vibe she emanated was the profoundly understandable one of complete boredom. She is chosen from a particular community through an elaborate and testing ceremony and will be there until her blood flows (or she accidentally spills blood). I had a feeling she could not wait for liberation!

Finally, I went to Pashupatinath- one of the most sacred precincts in Hinduism dedicated to Lord Shiva.

Here you are confronted by death for it is here you can come to be either cremated or floated off down the sacred river Bagmati. You immediately notice that being a scared river does not protect you from physical degradation: a more unwelcoming stretch of water can barely be imagined! Several corpses were being burnt and one being prepared, wrapped in orange cloth, a naked withered head protruding, a priest in attendance liberally anointing with oil.

Once again a striking combination of ritual and theatre (with photographing onlookers) - each an enclosed world to the other. I immediately wanted to draw away (indeed shoo away the other onlookers - a Jesus in the temple moment) but also recognized how gifted it is to be a society that does not disguise death. It is both brutally present and a threshold moment and both are true. There was a woman, at one of the burning ghats, who collapsed into the brutality of it and vented her grief without inhibition, doubled with sobs, trying to beat her forehead, cared away by two male relatives to a quieter, more intimate place.

I left past the cannabis fueled sadhus - all twisted beards, white make up and yellow/orange dhotis - posing for photographs with a visitor from Singapore and chanting the country's name as if it were a celestial mantra!

Learning to meditate

A piece I wrote recently for the next edition of the Prison Phoenix Trust newsletter  http://www.theppt.org.uk  and resonant with this rece...