Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Valley Spirit

Lindsey Wei is a young woman of mixed race who embarks, at eighteen, on a traditional Daoist training with her master, Li Shi Fu, at Wudung Mountain in China.

What unfolds is a moving account of graced honesty as she seeks to balance the draw of becoming a renunciant, wholly dedicated to the practices of the Way and a woman balanced (and often imbalanced) between this and the life of the householder - filled with desire - for a man, for children, for a validating career.

What does a path of Daoist cultivation look like for a contemporary woman and does it differ, in any essential, from that which faces a man? What does a path of Daoist cultivation look like when poised between two worlds - a China in which Daoist tradition is slowly emerging from under the approbation and assault of the Cultural Revolution into a modernising maelstrom that may prove differently indifferent and the America of your birthplace - a place of equal, if different, restlessness?

All of this is navigated through the lens of Lindsey's enquiry and practice, the all important presence of the all too human, but fiercely and compassionately real Li Shu Fu and the other key people, she meets on the way, other seekers, her lover, Hosea, visitors to the temple at which she lives and the ambiguous and corrupt authorities with which the temple must deal.

Running through the book is the thread of desire - what is it, in truth, this powerful animator of our existence and is it a question of seeking its renunciation or of purifying and navigating it? And the beauty of the book is in her probing questioning and the provisional nature of her answering. Each answer may be a station on the way to discovery - we are tested, over and over, in the hoped for refinement of life. She tells the story of a old woman grinding a big piece of metal with a stone. "What are you doing, mother?" she is asked. "Making a needle," she replies and carries on grinding.

This might be dispiriting, rather like the monk who was asked what he did in his monastery all day, replying that he fell down and got up again, fell down and got up again, but the book is shot through with glimpses of what such transforming practice leads to, not 'happiness' but wisdom serving compassion, seen not so much in 'teachings' but in tone, the book sings with grace.

It reminded this fitful practitioner of a contemplative Christianity of the neglected importance of the body in upholding prayer and that, when seen aright, the world is full of an answering activity, of signs upholding your hoped for discernment in what to do next, how to act. It reminded me of a saying of one of my own teachers in prayer, that God is in the facts and the facts are kind, even if it requires a certain detachment to recognise this, amongst their hurly burly!

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