Monday, March 31, 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 stands as the revealing presence of a reality - that, for example, 'water' is symbolic of the renewal of baptism. What is important here is the baptism of which the water is a convenient symbol. It may have been otherwise. There is another world to which this stands proximate witness.

I always felt that this was deeply mistaken! It was here, in this text, that I think I first found this mistake voiced (and critiqued). The world simply is a full expression of reality. Everything, seen aright, is both utterly itself and utterly holy. Differentiating 'holy symbols', heightening this over that, is only a concession to our weakness. It may be necessary but it is a concession nonetheless.

Later I discovered the same attitude in Orthodoxy. It is of the very nature of water to be baptismal (as it is to drink or to wash clothes). The sacred permeates all. An icon is not symbolising a saint, it is the real presence of the saint.

It was there in Buber too. Hallowed everything becomes presence, present. There is nowhere into which God cannot be let in. Nothing is especially sacred because everything is.

This brings us, naturally, back to Zen.

Gazing at the flowers
         Of the morning glory
                   I eat my breakfast

to quote Basho.

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow

to quote Jesus

Saturday, March 29, 2014

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 successful career as a television producer at the religious department of the BBC, into a good, whole marriage to the former Jesuit priest and writer, John Harriott and to becoming a writer herself of five excellent biographies of key Christian figures from St Teresa of Avila to Dom Bede Griffiths.

This quest has taken the author through a patterning of contemporary spirituality and religion that is both uniquely personal and an example of where we find ourselves in the contemporary West. She learnt to meditate through Transcendental Meditation in the 1960s (indeed orchestrated the Maharishi's famous interview with Malcolm Muggeridge). Deeply thankful as she was for this introduction to the way of interior silence, she had a hunger to belong to a wider, deeper community. She entered the Catholic Church, was deeply nourished by it, but ultimately left it for its failure to embrace its own mysticism seriously and for its failure to live out its own proclamation of love in sheltering those who would abuse that love and breach its trust. She explored contemporary Shamanism and beautifully describes some of her experience not least an encounter with a violin and a bow playing without a player: symbol of an ego that must disappear from view if the music is to be heard.

'Ultimately' (though can one ever use that word here), she finds herself unable to describe herself as a Christian yet utterly devoted to its core values and its pointing, as all authentic traditions do, towards Being in which we live and move and which creates the now in which we all truly live. Her practice has become Zen, learnt from a Roman Catholic Sister and Zen roshi, the remarkable Sr Elaine MacInnes. Here I can claim a walk on part as it was I who was jointly instrumental in bringing Sr Elaine to England and Oxford where she formed the zendo in which Shirley practices.

The value of the book is the way in which it honestly and candidly scrutinises the choices that she makes and relates them to contemporary questioning. What, for example, does it mean to 'doubly belong', inhabiting, apparently faithfully, as many do, more than one tradition. Is this a deepening of our progress towards embodying the one truth that sustains us all or simply a wallowing in the supermarket aisle of faith, picking and choosing as we go, without discipline or true faithfulness? In her exploration of such figures as Bede Griffiths and Swami Abhishiktananda, she has admirably demonstrated both the theological and spiritual legitimacy of such belonging.
What do we make of the oft drawn distinction between 'religion' and 'spirituality' (as if the two could be cleaved, as Shirley writes, as simply as a knife slipping through butter)? Spirituality does imply a certain freedom, the Spirit blows where it listeh, but is that a freedom simply to focus on the self? One of the merits of religion, at its best, is that it binds one to a community that draws you towards service. How is the balance to be struck and if one finds oneself more deeply drawn towards the former, as Shirley does, let it not be as a result of a simple reject of the merits of the latter? Those of community, shared, faithfully performed ritual and a tradition against which to test, correct and deepen one's own experience.

One of the finest chapters is an exploration of the biographer's art both as craft and as spiritual practice. It is seen as an object lesson in how to faithfully and honestly show forth the life of another and whilst always remaining in charge of the text, sound in your own judgement, remaining in the background, standing to one side. It reminds one of Shirley's shamanic experience - a bow plays a violin without the musician being apparently present.

This is a courageous, open and honest book, aware of both its virtues and its author's flaws. It deserves to be widely read as both a compelling account of one's person's  spiritual journey, an account of our present dilemmas and how we might explore them and of an inspiring hope that we can diligently fashion paths of our own, shared with others.

It ends with a paean to the values of stillness, solitude and silence found now in the practice of Zen, flowing into daily living, awakening opportunities to taste the Being that we are.

Friday, March 28, 2014

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 of the process of making couscous, knead and sift it by hand. This is a traditional skill that once every Senegalese woman would have had but no longer; hence, the demand for Mme Coulibaly's products. However, with rising demand and reducing skill, comes the demand to increase production and mechanise. Mme Coulibaly is off to Morocco to inspect a machine that supplants the women's handicraft. If she introduces it, the women will be unemployed. The most vulnerable will have been displaced.

The very process by which we have relentlessly monetarised our economy was vividly present in this simple example. The paradox is that at no stage can one say this move was wrong. For example, women should be empowered to enter the modern economy of a (slowly) developing city on an equal basis. Yet this moves takes away time to acquire a traditional skill, essential to feeding oneself, that is then outsourced to a commercial enterprise. And so on down the line.

It left me both pleased - by many measures this is a 'success story' - Mme Coulibaly is even exploring the use of solar power in her drying processes - but also touched with uneasiness. The interweaving of a modern economy is both an empowerment and a deskilling. We become necessarily more collaborative (though the balances of power in that collaboration are often dramatically skewed and dysfunctional) and yet less able to care for ourselves.

The displaced women will suffer even if and when the business grows and adds employment (more than likely of a more complex nature).

Thus, even in the simplest of stories, 'development' is complex. Every decision replete with unexpected consequence.

Friday, March 21, 2014

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 drive me deeper into it. Each person is called and deserves to live in the liberating presence of their own giftedness. To find their particular way that responds, is responsibility to the world and in finding it redeem the world. Every obstacle, within or without, to this hallowing liberation is a captivity, and in this and in our release from it, we are all equal.

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.

This is visualised as releasing the sparks of divine light that are enfolded in every part of the created order, beginning at the point of its creation, which is now.

How would it be if we saw each person we meet, each thing we use as an invitation to release the world into its holiness?

It reminds me of the Shaker expression of a carpenter who declared that every chair he made was such that an angel would come and sit on it!

Buber identifies, and Kramer elaborates on the key movements towards living a life with this orientation. Each is illustrated by a teaching story from the rich lore of Hasidism and reflection on that by Buber extended by Kramer to include questions for oneself and exercises at the end of each chapter.

My favourite chapter in both books remains the first. Here Buber tells a story of a rabbi who reminds his jailer of God's first question to Adam which was, "Where are you?" meaning 'Where are you along in the track of your life?" and,"What do you hide? Why?"

It is an ever penetrating question.

I remember being on retreat (in the Osage hills outside Tulsa) at a Benedictine contemplative community and  being invited, in active imagination, to go for a walk through the forest with Jesus. I remember the resistance to this idea, revolving around, the fact that I would be seen. Everything about me would be known. I wanted to run but stuck with it, asking and reflecting on what I was hoping to hide and finding the result vulnerability and openness liberating. How much energy do we expend not being ourselves in their fullness?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

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 - that enjoy a greater sense of self sufficiency, most urgently in Europe of energy. For as Thomas Jefferson noted genuine democracy can only be built within communities that are genuinely economic of themselves, and not dependent elsewhere.

It must rediscover not only that it has people who are dismissive (or disinterested in it) as not fit for their purposes (a category in which I would place China) but who are enemies of it. 

Foremost in that category is Mr Putin who believes that a 'strong Russia' requires not only an authoritarian state within (one that grows tighter by the day) but that must project itself abroad the better to protect itself (and which too is in post-imperialist spasms that a British person can have a certain reluctant sympathy with - been there, done that, but eventually, and slowly, you do grow up - though it is a maturity that is not yet finished in the UK, alas).

A re-set with Russia (to use an unfortunate phrase of an American President for whom, with deep regret, I have no time for whatsoever) needs both a robust handling of the state, modelled probably after relations with the Soviet Union (however depressing it is to write that), and yet with a wholly open attitude to its people.

I have been wracking my brain on the flight home from a quick trip to Moscow this weekend for my 'best' sanction and it would be to deny the crony elite all access to 'the West' - physically, financially, commercially - and to incorporate every ordinary Russian (and Belorussian and Ukrainian) citizen in the free movement of labour that is the EU. It would undoubtedly be a wild ride for a time (especially I imagine for the UK) but would be a 'live experiment' on which 'system' would people actually like to live in and help create! It would hopefully create binding and reciprocal ties (underneath the state) that would slowly bring about transformation...

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

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 a secluded beach. Neither, interestingly were gay, with only Mohammed willing to respond to Forster physically. Yet both loved him after their manner and both allowed him to open emotionally, to establish an identity. Himself an 'outsider' in his own culture, released by the 'other' - people disenfranchised by Empire, even if of very different status.

Forster emerges as always as the archetypal liberal, conscious of his class and position yet critical of it, open and tolerant and yet hedged in by his acquired values and upbringing, committed to people as individuals and wary of causes. Typically when the First World War broke out, he knew he could not fight yet could not call himself a 'conscientious objector' so had to find a way to contribute without destroying life. He found himself a 'searcher' for the Red Cross in Alexandria, piecing together, painful bits of information about the lives of soldiers to help locate the missing and what had happened to them. Thus he was exposed to searing accounts of the very thing he could not bring himself to do yet, in the process, helped so many.

It is a beautifully written book, acute about the nature and practice of Forster's writing, of the trials of Forster seeking love and lust in a world utterly unforgiving of his homosexuality; and, of his complex relationship with both men and with their countries.

It too has great vignettes of some of the famous people Forster knew - the Woolfs, especially Leonard, practically helpful over his writing; the inspiration that was Edward Carpenter defiantly and openly gay, in a long running relationship with George, who famously caressed Forster on a visit, awakening him; and, Cavafy, the great poet of Alexandria, with his subtle poems of love and loss, of history as utterly other yet parabolic.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

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 Economist and the Roman Catholic weekly, 'The Tablet') and within those limits have become 'an informed citizen' having a view about 'the situation' (shaped by the usual twins of knowledge and prejudice).

I was thinking about this when reading Richard Smoley's 'Conscious Love: Insights from Mystical Christianity' and especially the chapter on 'The Special Function' on our personal vocation in the world. The book, as a whole, is a beautifully 'tough minded' reflection on the complex topic of love that both reveals how much of 'love' is transactional and yet how in heightening one's conscious awareness of that you can begin to kneed and soften it so that a deeper disposition arises that allows one to love one's neighbour as oneself and to love things as they are in themselves (even only in moments).

However, in 'The Special Function', when reminding us that we cannot help everyone, Smoley quotes Gurdjieff's wonderful phrase "vainly-to-grow-sincerely-indignant" rather to focus attentively on what it is I can do, and what I might uniquely, be called to do. I will think of this phrase every time I am tempted to read the 'Comments' section on online media! As in the Bhagavad Gita, the task is not to solve everything but to work at one's unique duty without thought of consequences or reward. To light a candle and not debate whether it will banish the darkness (to quote Tagore).

How many people, including myself, I wonder, have this week been distracted from discerning and doing their especial duty by vainly growing indignant - whether it be about Ukraine, or climate change or ivory poaching in Kenya - any or all of which might be the place of our labour, but probably not all of them, and maybe none! It might be as 'humble' as being cheerful (and efficient) at the supermarket checkout and lightening the lives of shoppers as they trawl home after a day's work (as the remarkably continuously polite and upbeat man is at my local shop)! Every fully incarnated 'duty' is one more strand in weaving a renewed world.

As it happens, in Macedonia, I was striving to build an institution that would help people start or develop small enterprises to feed their families and create employment, none of whom were bankable, and try and do that fairly across an ethnically divided, conflicted community. Whether or not it was 'my duty', it was the best proximate I could find at the time, absorbing of all (and more) of the attention, hope and indeed prayer I was capable of!

Better to focus on what is before us than fantasize about what we (or, more usually, them) ought to put right (however, remarkably tempting that is)!

Friday, March 7, 2014

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.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

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. This might well be how just such a woman would relate her history, the boundaries of 'fiction' and 'fact' blur. Likewise it is a life that has been deeply loved but is reported with no illusions of its particular hardships of both environment and of living in such a tight, bound community.

What is also compelling is how it unfolds the woman's shamanic beliefs with what feels like a striking authenticity. What we might consider as the 'miraculous' (or, more skeptically, the improbable) simply unfolds as it was seen from her perspective. In that telling, a world utterly different from our own (or so we imagine) comes to life. Shamanism is not seen "from on high" (neither through the lens of anthropological musing nor neo-Romantic wistfulness) but from an, necessarily, imagined empathy. It is part and parcel of an ordinary life well lived: normal. It resonated with my own observations of a similar tradition in Tuva.

It is beautifully written, usually sparse and matter of fact yet breaking into that occasional poetry that captures us all, at times. It reminds you too of an important truth that life, in its domestic, social detail, carries on in spite of the patterns that 'political actors' might want to impose. Yes, at critical points they can interrupt, challenge, even, at the edge, destroy, but, somehow, life, in its mundane conviviality, with its own heights and depths, continues nonetheless. History may be made by great men but life is fashioned somewhere else, round a hearth, on a hunt, tending a vegetable plot.

The ideal, of course, will come when the two, finally, are aligned and the 'great men' recognise that nothing they do, however great their posturing, has the resilience or the attraction or the meaning of the hearth and its affections.

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...