Showing posts from November, 2014

Buck in China

When the distinguished scholar of Buddhism and Taoism, John Blofeld, was a small boy in England, he saw a Chinese Buddha in an antique shop and applied pester power to his accompanying aunt to secure it. It fascinated, haunted him and as a young man, with only a few pounds in his pocket, he went to China in the 1920s and forged a life for himself. He was in love with a China that was rapidly changing, dying, that he records lovingly in his revealing memoirs - a China of both sensuous delights, cultivated charm and spiritual depths.

I find his experience with the Buddha, that convinced him to take notions of reincarnation seriously for whence had come this strong attraction to something apparently so unfamiliar and out of place, strangely resonant. In my case, it is the period - China from the Boxer rebellion through to Communist arrival - that is especially alluring. Every time I read of it (or see it depicted on the screen), a tingle of recognition traces up and down but only if it …

Zen in the art of Neil Gunn

The Scottish novelist, Neil Gunn, came late to a discovery of Taoism and Zen (as wonderfully described in John Burns' study, 'A Celebration of the Light: Zen in the Novels of Neil Gunn'). It was only in later life when he read 'Zen in the Art of Archery' that he noticed that there was a deep, underlying similarity between Zen's account of sudden breakthroughs in illuminating experience, ones that moved you closer to an abiding union with the unfolding reality of things and Gunn's own experience that he wove into his novels, especially as he grew older, as he turned from 'social realism' towards a deeper interest in 'inner experience' and a connectivity with nature.

It was a 'turn' that perplexed many of his readers as this defender of 'community' and the political realities of a down trodden, yet to be reborn, Scotland (Gunn was a lifelong nationalist), began to explore the inner dynamics of the person. An exploration to whi…

Time must have a stop

Having read Van Lommel on 'death and an afterlife', I pack my bags for a week in Central America and pick up a copy of Aldous Huxley's novel, 'Time must have a stop', to read on the plane, not realising that one of its core themes is precisely this, death and the afterlife. It has a character whose post mortem journey is beautifully traced with an indebtedness to the Tibetan Book of the Dead. We watch as the epicurean 'Uncle Eustace' expires in the bathroom, thinking heartburn, experiencing heart attack, and we follow him on his journey of refusal of the transfiguring light of communion and forgiveness and see him lured to his next incarnation. It is a transition told with great skill, weaving high seriousness with satiric humour.

The former manages to compellingly convey what it might be like to refuse the offer of liberation: the slinking away from losing one's pivotal ego. The latte…

Is there life after death?

You have been blind or deaf since birth. The physical reason for this is known, recorded and accepted. You have a traumatic health crisis - a cardiac arrest, a coma - where you find yourself, for the first time, having veridical perceptions of the world through senses you 'cannot' use. You see, you hear. You are resuscitated or recover and you are back with your blindness or deafness in tact. So not only were you having a heightened consciousness event when everything we think we know about the brain says, in all likelihood, you cannot be, you are having a heightened consciousness event, sensorily structured, that you have never had (in you body) before!

These are two of the most arresting examples of 'Near Death Experience' that Dr Pim van Lommel gives in his quiet, sober and yet provocative book, 'Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near Death Experience'. Van Lommel, with colleagues, was the first researcher to make a prospective (as distinct from…

Now All Roads Lead to France

I remember being lent a copy of W. H. Auden's selected poems by a school friend as we cruised through the Mediterranean at the age of sixteen. They were the first poems I read voluntarily. 'This is poetry,' I thought ambivalently. However, I was sufficiently drawn to persevere in a world, that before, had merely been suffered in the classroom under the all withering tutelage of my English teacher.

Off to the bookshop on my return home and, in browsing, I decided on two volumes, one of poetry and prose by Gerard Manley Hopkins, who had the virtue of being a priest so something in his content might be salvageable; and, the 'Collected Poems of Edward Thomas' who struck me by his apparent accessibility and his writing of places familiar (in the English countryside) if not precisely known.

They were good choices, as it turned out, for both slowly entranced me. They approach a natural world with precise observation and loving care and with a contrasting presence and abs…

Revolutionaries of the Soul

It was the Enlightenment that put the final touch (in the West) on the division between our state of being or consciousness and our state of knowing. The latter, knowing, was now a function of one part of the mind, namely reason. This one dimensionality was matched in mainstream philosophic reactions with an emphasis on a contrasting sub-mind - 'the imagination' or 'feeling' or 'the will'! It was left to certain poets - Blake or Goethe - or the esotericists such as Swedenborg to defend traditional modes of knowing that linked what you beheld as the 'state of reality' with who you were - on the quality or state of your consciousness. Transforming consciousness through embodied practice was at the core of this view.

Gary Lachman's 'Revolutionaries of the Soul' is a series of essays on the defenders (and reanimators) of this traditional view in the West, through Yeats' 'three provincial centuries', down to our own time.

They range …

The Edge of Extinction

The Anglo-Welsh painter and poet, David Jones, knew that a landscape only becomes real to us when it is, "actually loved and known", when we inhabit it not only physically but in the histories and stories that it carries as part of a living community and tradition.

It is a lesson that Jules Pretty, Professor of Environment and Society at the University of Essex, exemplifies in this fine book, "The Edges of Extinction" that takes us on a journey through twelve particular places from New Zealand to the desert landscape of the United States and allows those places, and their people, to speak of what they 'actually love and know'.

In doing so, he invites us to consider how these communities, many fragile, embattled yet always courageous in the face of the march of 'progress', have deeply valuable stories to tell of how we might re-envision our own relationship to place, and the place that is our earthly home.

The stories, beautifully unfolded, slowly a…