Showing posts from March, 2014


Published when its author was interned (in 1942 Japan) as an enemy alien, R.H. Blyth's 'Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics' is an eccentric masterpiece. It sees 'Zen' not as a religious tradition but as a way of seeing, of concretely beholding the real, and traces this way through not only classics of Oriental literature, many directly inspired by the tradition of Zen but, more compellingly, through threads of English literature.

The book not only wants to reveal such threads but to use them as a criteria of criticism. Poetry (and prose) are more effective and exalted the closer they reveal 'Zen'.

I read the book first when I was at university, finding a copy in our library, and re-reading it now, after a hiatus of nearly three decades, I am struck by how influential it proved to be. An influence I would be incapable of acknowledging, indeed recognising, until now.

For here, I first encountered a critique of 'symbolism' - that one sign…

A Silent Melody

It began, in so far as beginnings have any meaning here, with a teenager walking to music practice, passing a beech tree, probably passed many times before. Only this time, now, the moment was different, she encountered the beech tree, meeting it and it meeting her, and she knowing that she and it were one. Each was their own particular being - the looker and the beholder - and yet they were the dance of an overarching, underpinning One that is all in all. It was an indelible experience the recovery of which, in new modes, is the girl's life long quest. It is a journey of an exploration into 'God' and of being found by that 'God' who is better known as simply Being, the origin and fulfilment of all that is.
The girl was Shirley du Boulay and her "A Silent Melody" is this exemplary religious biographer's own spiritual autobiography. Its outer trajectory takes the author from a familiar Anglican upbringing (in the middle of the last century), through a s…

A success story?

The photograph was taken yesterday in Dakar at the 'La Vivriere' food plant. Its founder started with $70 and an idea and slowly has built up a substantial business. Her couscous is the leading brand in the local market and is exported to the diaspora especially in France and the Netherlands. She is expanding production and, to a lesser degree, product lines. She has been invested in by Root Capital, the US based impact investor focusing on agricultural value chains, one of our partners in West Africa.

It is an undoubted success story - Mme Coulibaly, the owner, is a successful entrepreneur, the business has sixty full time employees and by promoting a local product, using local grains, supports rural livelihoods and strengthens food security. This is certainly, and not unfairly, how it will be told in Root Capital's brochures!

However, you cannot advance without casting a shadow and in this case it revolves around the woman who, in one stage o…

Glancing at gratefulness

It was a late summer's evening in Oxford. I had had dinner with a friend and was unlocking my bicycle, deposited behind the Orthodox Church, in the last light of day. A saying that I had read recently of St Maximus the Confessor was rolling, resonating through my head to the effect that true humility is rooted in recognising that your being is being created, birthed, by God, right now, every now. All existence, your existence is gift, gift meeting gift.

As I rode home, suddenly, everyone was present, as they rolled by, cycling past, captured in their utter, particular, uniqueness. All created anew, right now, at every moment, and given to one another. Gratefulness flowed. My existence was gift, everything was gift, everything was mercy (whose root origin points to the exchange of gifts).

It is the closest that I have come to a 'mystical' experience, and its realness lingered for days afterwards, and now in memory. The truth of it was not to lead me out of the world but dr…

Hallowing the everyday

"The Way of Man" is a series of talks given by Martin Buber on human spirituality seen through a Hasidic lens. It is short, beautifully written and compelling text. Kenneth Paul Kramer's book, "Martin Buber's Spirituality: Hasidic Wisdom for Everyday Life" is an illuminating commentary on this text drawing out its implications for our daily life.

Daily life is a critical phrase. For Buber because 'all real life is meeting' any genuine spirituality must take you more deeply into a relational participation in and with the world where everything and everyone that you encounter is seen as an end in themselves, however, legitimately, they may be too be a means used to achieve a particular end. A person's wholeness is revealed by how that attitude is constantly renewed in each new encounter. Life at its heart is about this 'hallowing' of the every day.

In Hasidism everything is waiting to be utilised aright within the pattern of redeeming.


Obsolete Blake Scholars

I came home today from Moscow to discover a parcel awaiting me at the post office containing the two volumes of Kathleen Raine's 'Blake and Tradition'. I cannot think why it has taken me so long to acquire a copy of this, her seminal study, of her 'master'. My copy is an ex-library copy (from the US) in beautiful condition. It is a text that C.S. Lewis described as rendering all previous Blake scholarship as 'obsolete'!

Kathleen read, over eight years, all that Blake is known to have read (mainly in the Reading Room of the British Library) discovering that Blake was not, as he had appeared, simply an 'eccentric' but as a representative of an unfolding tradition of sacred wisdom; and, like any such, both an inheritor and a transformer of insight.

I greatly look forward to reading it, holding it is a joy.

Learning a new world

"The rectification of government begins in the rectification of names," wrote Confucius. 
The first 'name' that must be rectified in response to today's annexation of the Crimea is that of democracy. A pattern of living and government that is always aspirational, rather than simply given, and which in its 'home' in 'the West' needs a thorough overhaul. 
It is not something that can be imposed from above (following violent intervention) nor manipulated from below. Its results may sometimes (fairly) bring to power, people we do not like. But it is a long game and we must learn again to play it well - for ourselves first and then as a hope for others.
It must be reconnected, once again, with a political economy that generates a felt fairness. Inequality of both opportunity and outcome must be reduced so that everyone feels that there is a binding social contract that is shared by all. It must be lived out in economies - both regional and national - …

Artic Summer

Famously after the long, nine year gestation of 'A Passage to India', Forster abandoned the novel form after its publication in 1924 (and indeed his output past this date was minimal - a travel book, an opera libretto and a short film script until his death in 1970).

 'Artic Summer' was the title of a novel that E.M. Forster did not write and the title of a new novel by the South African novelist, Damon Galgut, whose central character is Forster and whose central focus is the impact of 'the East' on Forster's life and work.

The "East" was both working in Egypt and two extended visits to India and the two people he met there around which his love flowed. The first was Masood, an Muslim Indian from the upper classes, who he first met as a seventeen year old coming to his house in England for improbable Latin lessons. The second was Mohammed, the young tram conductor, he met in Alexandra, shortly after losing his virginity to an English soldier on …

Out of it

"Is n't it terrible what's happened?" asked my American acquaintance as we sat down to dinner in Skopje, Macedonia.

"What?" I asked, thinking of the many things that might happen in this fragile new state in the mid-90s.

"In Israel!" he replied., "Rabin's assassination"!

My quizzical look elicited from him a surprised look and the 'reprimand', "You are really out of it"! (Rabin had been assassinated two days before).

As I walked home, I pondered as to what it was that I was 'out of'? I was sorry he had been assassinated (a sorrow deepened in retrospect) but I neither had any personal or professional connection with Israel/Palestine (I was only to visit it for the first time six years later) nor conceivably (outside of the boundaries of prayer) have any influence on the unfolding events whatsoever. I would have read about it on the arrival of one (or possibly in both) of my subscribed magazines (The Economis…

The first poem I learnt by heart

The Wilderness I came too late to the hills: they were swept bare
Winters before I was born of song and story,
Of spell or speech with power of oracle or invocation,

The great ash long dead by a roofless house, its branches rotten,
The voice of the crows an inarticulate cry,
And from the wells and springs the holy water ebbed away.

A child I ran in the wind on a withered moor
Crying out after those great presences who were not there,
Long lost in the forgetfulness of the forgotten.

Only the archaic forms themselves could tell!
In sacred speech of hoodie on gray stone, or hawk in air,
Of Eden where the lonely rowan bends over the dark pool.

Yet I have glimpsed the bright mountain behind the mountain,
Knowledge under the leaves, tasted the bitter berries red,
Drunk water cold and clear from an inexhaustible hidden fountain. By Kathleen Raine, poet and friend.

The Last Quarter of the Moon

In Geneva recently, I found an English language bookshop and keen to elude my kindle, helpful though it is as I wait my books on their transition from England to my new home, I browsed and bought, ''The Last Quartet of the Moon' by Chi Zijian, a leading contemporary novelist in China (as I subsequently discovered).

The book is cast as the memoir of a ninety year old Evenki woman whose life has transited the twentieth century, though it is only when the Japanese arrive in the 1930s that this historical reference takes on any real meaning.

The Evenki are a reindeer herding people, here, living on the borders of Russia and China and our anonymous narrator vividly paints a picture of their lives both as indigenous people with a mainly self-sufficient culture and as a people in the grips of a challenging transition to a modern world that has little comprehension of their way of life. What is so beautiful about the novel is that it reads in such a compelling, life like way. Thi…