Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Madame Blavatsky, the Mahatmas and fields of religious exploration

Madame Blavatsky was a difficult woman. She was impetuous, given to exaggeration and emotional; and, often, possibly too trusting or a poor judge of character. Even her Masters acknowledged this. Yet they needed a gifted clairvoyant and one who was undoubtedly, sometimes recklessly, kind, both of which, by all accounts, Blavatsky was. She once sold her first class berth ticket, thus going steerage, to ensure a family, sold counterfeit tickets, could board ship - a family she had never met before. And though people have tried very hard to discredit her clairvoyance (indeed her in total), something yet remains, irreducibly offering pause for thought at least.

Edward Abdill is a 'believer' - a long time Theosophist and speaker and lecturer for the society - but his attention in 'Masters of Wisdom: The Mahatmas, Their letters and the Path'  is not on her but on her teachers.

Did they exist or were they figments of Blavatsky et al's overheated and collusive imaginations? If they existed, who were they and, most importantly, what did or do they teach?

Abdill is convinced they did exist, that their letters are genuine, and that their combined teaching, never infallible, a claim they would never make, is an important contribution to understanding the unfolding of the spiritual life - both individually and as a whole.

One might think, well, he would say that but he marshals his case with care, intelligence and with a minimum show of credulity. His two best arguments are: what did Blavatsky et all have to gain by their claims except notoriety (which in my opinion they did not court) and what is the actual quality of the proffered wisdom?

In this latter case, I was expecting to be disappointed - hidden masters channeled, precipitated etc - tend often to come across as platitudinous and remarkably conventional. They wreak of conscious or unconscious invention and speak from exactly the same level as their creators. Here, however, I was pleasantly surprised.

The letters feel like a genuine approach to 'spiritual accompaniment' anchored in a meaningful world view and self-correcting in that they are offered both with humor and the acknowledgement that the Masters (Teachers might be a better word) lack complete mastery. They are developed yet fallible.

Most especially compelling was Abdill's account of a brief summary given to Blavatsky of what path one should take to arrive at 'The Temple of Divine Wisdom'. It is called the Golden Stairs and is an apt a summary of what is required of us that I can imagine, starting from the importance of a clean life, through open minded exploration guided by an overwhelming imperative for truth seeking and arriving at a willingness to nurture brotherly love and speak for the unjustly accused, maltreated or marginalized. 'Let thy Soul lend its ear to every cry of pain like as the lotus bares its heart to drink the morning sun' is a challenging prescription and, as St Issac of Nineveh would note, the sine qua non of recognizing the demands of the commonwealth of God.

Theosophy does present a problem, however, and that is of its relationship to religious traditions. Anyone can become a theosophist (as a member of the society) who signs up to its three core principles and since this does not require any acceptance of beliefs (but values), you can be a theosophist and a Christian (or Buddhist etc) except as you go deeper into theosophical thought as such, this becomes freighted with difficulty. The Christ is not to be identified with Jesus of Nazareth and though the Mahatmas claimed to be Buddhists this 'esoteric Buddhism' is not to be confused with actual Buddhism (!) indeed the terms it is expressed in are much closer to Hindu forms.

Now this is not to deny that a higher order of truth, a sophia perennis, may not exist, at an esoteric level, that unifies any genuine tradition, but its principal protagonists would maintain that it cannot devalue the exoteric aspects of any particular tradition, and theosophy does this. The Perennialists are of a different party and undoubtedly think that theosophists are hopelessly muddled.

Theosophy does prioritize its truth claims (however tentatively and generously expressed). In doing so, better to admit it and see it as a new, emergent religious-philosophical tradition (and assess it as such) rather than an underlying substrate to other traditions. As such it offers real traction, most especially in its empirical approach and (when best practiced) its openness to learning from other competing and complementary patterns of belief. It is a contribution to a genuine universalism as seeing that no one tradition is a complete and self-sufficient answer and the religious quest remains a open space of enquiry and discovery.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Is Christianity (or Hinduism) a Prada handbag?

Walking to work this morning, I was thinking about Dom Bede Griffiths, the English Benedictine monk, who, in his forties, went to India and founded (or refounded) two monastic ashrams that sought to bring elements of Christianity and elements of Hinduism (and other religious traditions) into fruitful experiential dialogue. He was a Patron of the Prison Phoenix Trust, that I helped found, and often wrote encouraging and insightful letters both to prisoners and myself! We finally met on his last visit to England before his death - a man of gentle calm and depth (though often a scourging critic of patterns in his own Catholic tradition).

Over lunch I casually looked up his Wikipedia entry and saw a reference to a critique of his writings (from a traditionalist Catholic website) http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?id=3427 that I found fascinating.

It starts well with a brief synopsis of the Catholic Church developing approach to inculturation in its encounter with new cultures and religious traditions but when it turns to examine Bede Griffiths in the light of this, the article, written by two professors at Catholic institutions, goes seriously awry.

They ask: "In light of the popularity of Bede Griffiths as a type of Christian Oriental guru, we need to ask whether he represents either authentic Hinduism or authentic Christianity." I am afraid the problem with this is that it's a wholly implausible question. Both traditions are polyvalent, houses of many mansions, you may presume (as this article does) that the Catholic magisterium is the voice of 'authentic Christianity' by which all Christianities might be judged but I am afraid this will not do for the Catholic tradition is, itself, a polyphony (for all attempts to reduce it to a monotone), and do we, as Catholics, truly want to enter a beauty contest for who is the most radiant Catholic? I vote for me!

You might ask a more restricted question namely was Fr Bede an 'authentic Catholic' to which the only possible answer must be yes - he was a monk, an ordained priest, was never disciplined for any doctrinal error, and died in the bosom of his ashram (an ashram sanctioned by the local bishop) and member of the Camoldi congregation.

Incidentally, the question presumes that Fr Bede thought of himself as a 'guru' which, as far as I could tell, he did not. He was a monk, a confessor and a guide but his key concern was always to point the person back towards their own search and practice, whilst sharing his own discoveries and thoughts, with a quiet humility as experiments after truth.

However, the whole notion of 'authentic' is deeply flawed. A Prada handbag can be authentic -it was designed by people working for Prada, made at a factory licensed by Prada and sold in a Prada shop. A Christian or a Catholic can be a practising one, more or less, but authentic? Who can tell? One presumes God alone (and He is not telling and if He were we might be surprised by the answer). Indeed Christ enjoins us not to judge others worth; and, the disciples are criticized precisely for one claiming to be 'more authentic' than the other.

The article is right to presume that Father Bede was not a theologian (nor did he claim to be), you can criticise him, as they do, for using certain Hindu terminology inaccurately (against the canons of certain schools of Hindu traditional thought) and applying this to Christian thinking inappropriately (by the accepted canons of certain traditions of Christian thought) but this is hunting out of the 'authentic' is best left to the protagonists of fundamentalism. Nor does it occur to the authors that he may have being using this terminology creatively, by manner of analogy rather than identity. He was after all a writer steeped in poetry and is more given to the poetic leap than the theological plod.

A better question to ask is whether what Father Bede has to say true - and by what standards of conversation and life would that truth be tested - of this the authors have precisely nothing to say. The model of such an assessment might be found, for example, in Harry Oldmeadow's excellent account of Fr Bede's contemporary, Swami Abhisiktananda (or Fr Henri Le Saux): 'A Christian Pilgrim in India'. This has a sophistication and a generosity about both the traditions concerned and the person involved that the article sadly wants.

Meanwhile, their quest for 'authentic Hinduism' is, if anything, even a worse caricature than their assertion of a Christian variety. Hinduism is, we are told, an hierarchical faith -  well in the minds (and hopes) of some practitioners possibly but this is hardly the sociological or religious description that best comes to mind (thankfully yet). Apparently 'authentic' Hinduism excludes anyone who may have been influenced by Western philosophy - Swami Vivekananda is mentioned by name - though why being influenced by other strands of thought renders you inauthentic is a mystery. Christianity, by this standard and by the authors' argument on inculturation, would have been rendered impotent at the outset - if the Semitic Oriental religion of Christianity had not encountered Platonism, it would not have taken on its present form. Etc etc...

The article highlights a deeply sad tradition in religion namely a greater interest not in the truthfulness of what is said and lived, in the light of our best experience, but in whether or not what is said is aligned with what one group or other 'thinks' is true (or ought to be).

It is a miserable way of proceeding not least because our truths, this side of enlightenment, are provisional and better judged as such.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Saintly hiking

When I was staying at the Forest of Peace Benedictine ashram in the Osage hills near Tulsa, Oklahoma, at the behest of the community's founder, the wonderful, Sr Pascaline, I once took Jesus walking with me, into the forest, to a bluff overlooking the Arkansas river. It was an exercise in Ignatian imagination. What would it feel like to be in Christ's presence in a place that was so deeply real, wholly itself, forest being forest? Could I be really myself, faced with the one member of the Trinity with whom I had the most difficulty?

God the Father and God the Holy Spirit - these I could sense as presence - the anchoring reality and the creating gift - but Jesus had always remained intimidating. He was an embodied person and a person who could see through me in my bodily self as probably a fake and a fraud.

We sat together, on a bench, looking down at the glistening river, and I had a deep sense, to quote Julian of Norwich, that in Christ there was no forgiveness because there was in Christ's loving gaze nothing to forgive. You get up and fall down, get up and fall down, enwrapped in a friend's arms.

Belden C. Lane's 'Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Experience' beautifully describes the spiritual potential of bringing a saint (and their writings) into play with a wilderness place and how the experience of stepping into wildness, and its revealing stages, is mirrored in the stages of spiritual life as first described by the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the early Christian tradition. Each chapter is a different physical journey, accompanied deftly by an appropriate spiritual writer - Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Sufi - each illuminating an aspect of the journey from embracing solitude through to being propelled back into the world, renewed, and embracing justice.

There are beautiful quotations from these masters of the spiritual life and all their teachings are earthed in the practical struggles of everyday - Lane's own biography and the teaching of places.

I especially loved the chapter on Holly Folly: Aravaipa Canyon and Thomas Merton  where is juxtaposed the unexpectedness of a hike in a particular place, up ending Lane's expectations and Merton's life of unpicking his own stereotype, forged in his bestselling 'The Seven Storey Mountain' as a perfecting monk into a portrait of a fallible, funny, wounded, wonderful, wholly human being.

I wish, however, the book did not quite strain so much after the ordinary. Lane admits that he is not given to extraordinary nor ecstatic experience, and indeed every moment, seen aright, is wonderful. But not being gifted with the more than ordinary should never be a reason for downplaying it, some see further than others and should be acknowledged as such. The distinguished scholar and theologian, Denys Turner, once wrote, in a book on Julian of Norwich, that theologians nowadays did not see visions. It was said with acceptance. It is a sad acceptance and one to be resisted for the world seen aright is vision and as the namesake painter, WilliamTurner, remarked when challenged over his own, naturalistic vision, with 'I do not see the world that way', he replied, 'Do n't you wish you did?' Indeed...  

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Eyeless in Gaza

'Eyeless in Gaza' is often seen as Aldous Huxley's most important novel, written shortly after his great success with 'Brave New World'. It got him into trouble.

First because some of its characters were seen as too thinly disguised being based on people Huxley knew (or had known). This was a familiar, perceived failing. 

Second because in it, for the first time, his conversion was clear. If he had not 'got religion', he had overthrown his satirical self for a hoped for spirituality, focused on the cultivation of love and compassion (though being Huxley, he had not lost a sharp eye for human failings [and foibles], not least, in his central character, Anthony, who was closely modelled on himself).

Third because in it he avowed pacifism, undiluted and unapologetic, just at the moment, in 1936, when many of his peers were discovering Communism and the need to resist fascism by force in the nascent battle lines of Spain. 

This being a novel of ideas, many of the ideas that would become familiar, found their first trialed outing here.

At heart is the call to the individual to recognise that though they mostly do that which they do not wish too, this need not be so. There exists processes of self-examination - physical-mental-spiritual - that carefully and conscientiously applied can lead to transformation - not simply of belief but of being and practice. They form an empirical science of the soul that is open to all - even if many are called and few choose! But without this individual application of effort, and through it a disposal to grace (or the laws of spirit), little hope can be attached to wider social or economic reforms. The latter are necessary, indeed urgent, but need to be grounded in a different pattern of attitudes if they are to take root and live. They must be rooted in realized experience of our essential unity.

Needless to say, this antagonised the 'Communists' - such as C Day Lewis and Stephen Spender - and Huxley confronts them head on in the text. Communism, as then practiced, is organised violence (as was Fascism) and the idea that you transform society from outside in and that by simply moving forward, to quote Simone Weil, you step into the air is a falsity. It appeals to a strange admixture of misplaced idealism and spiritual opportunism. How satisfying for change to emerge out of an elation that requires little or no personal effort to change. It is strange how revolution has this effect on us - a high (like, most recently, the Arab Spring) from which we look out and proclaim that everything will be different, followed by the stone rolling back into its place, with conditions often worse than before - the rearranged tyrannies of our collective egotisms.

The book is a work in progress - and retains many sharp edges - no conversion is ever overnight and much of the discussion of unity (towards the end) has the feel of a wished for realization rather than an actual one - but that, in itself, is, I feel, all to the good because it carries the texture of reality - a real life struggle to remake and be remade - of an intelligent, very self-conscious man - in which, no doubt, I see myself faintly mirrored!

The book was a costly effort to write - Huxley almost gave up in despairing block - but having passed through found a renewing freedom on which his legacy was to be based.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Braiding Sweetgrass

I was thankful reading 'Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants' that, in fact, I have planted a tree or two - in Devon on the land of a friend - amongst the three thousand or so he planted in the last decade of his life. I could tell myself that, at least, I had made one act of reciprocity towards the non-human world that sustains and cares for us, as we, more often than not, ignore or even disdain it (if not always in our thoughts, often in our actions, conscious and unconscious).

It is to raising our awareness of the responsibilities we owe that Robin Wall Kimmerer turns her considerable gifts - as a poetic writer, an indigenous Native American and a distinguished botanist - in this marvelous series of essays.

In the way that sweetgrass to be braided requires reciprocity -one to braid and one to hold - so to all our actions, in the world, need to be conducted into and out of a web of holding relationships, of a wider community, ever particular, that contains human and non-human members. We can chose always to ignore (or repress) the reality of those relationships but to do so is an abiding impoverishment, one whose shadow grows ever darker.

Like a braid too, in order to see the world aright requires acts that enfold body, emotion, mind and spirit, and that draws on cumulative wisdom as well as the understandings of science.

There is a wonderful essay about a young woman's master's thesis. She wants to see whether there is any difference in care of sweetgrass depending on the techniques of its harvesting. Why, ask her examiners? We all know that harvesting, whatever the method, causes disturbance, where is the science in confirming what we already know? The woman persists - the basket weavers who use the sweetgrass are concerned about its depletion and want to know whether adopting a different harvesting technique will make a difference. The examiners shrug their shoulders and the young woman proceeds. What they find in the end, after careful study, is that neither of the techniques is causing depletion, indeed, pace the examiners, it is where the sweetgrass is not being used that precipitates its decline. Human and plant have a reciprocal, mutually informing relationship, not all disturbance is depleting (or indeed disturbing). A portion of ecological science is nudged forward (which the examiners, finally, gracefully agree). We, humans, are young members of the same created order that makes and sustains all things - still very much working it out but, at our best, as necessary and fruitful as any other creature.

It is to the possibilities of this best that Wall Kimmerer keeps focused on, mostly, recognizing that what we do not need is another book of ecological despair. Here is a collection of resources - myth, story, poem, plants and scientific insight - that are grounds for abiding hope.

She must be a gifted teacher - certainly her scientific descriptions are beautifully lucid - I know how a tree gets its rings and understand the subtle interaction of fungi and algae that go to make lichen etc - and, most importantly, have been encouraged, once more, to fall in love with the more than human world. It is in that loving being deepened that our hope lies.


Saturday, June 6, 2015

I Heard the Owl Call My Name

I found myself reading this beautiful, short novel by Margaret Craven, "I Heard the Owl Call My Name" in a week when, sadly, once again, a commission calls for reparation for the cultural genocide inflicted on the First Nations in Canada through the long running policy of enforced education that removed First Nation children from their homes and imprisoned them in residential schools that were unrelenting hostile to their origins and culture http://www.economist.com/news/americas/21653631-making-amends-cultural-genocide-truth-and-consequences

The book has the quality of a fable but many of the questions and issues it touches on are familiar, all too familiar to indigenous people as they seek an uneasy accommodation with the world. They watch as their traditions unravel as their children are increasingly pulled towards the outside world. They watch as their children hold that world as a standard against which to judge their behaviours. They all, elders and children, find themselves in a loving perplexity as the different worlds offer different attractions forcing real (and apparent) choices upon them.

The story is told poignantly through the eyes of the newly arrived vicar-Mark, a young man, unknowingly to him (and the community) but not to his bishop, under a slow sentence of death through an (unnamed) illness. We watch as slowly, cautiously, he finds his way into the life of the Kwakwala (of whom today there are only a few hundred native speakers, a small fraction of the actual tribe).

It is a tale of growing acceptance, of insight rounded with a deeper unknowing for how can a 'white man', however sympathetic, step over the threshold into a community so different from the white man's norms and knowledge? That he is accepted is beautifully shown as he is gently, but incrementally, tested. There is a wonderful moment when the elders come to him, seeking to restore and renew their ancient burial site, fallen to disrepair. They do not announce what they want - that would be too direct and how would they know that the vicar was not simply agreeing with them rather than being in sympathy with them? It is Mark's move to intuit what they seek and in responding suggest it. This he does and another barrier dissolves. He becomes the man who has helped the ancestors find peace.

We follow this unfolding life - in its quiet unfolding and its dramas - until one day Mark hears an owl call his name. It is a signal for his coming death and rather than return to 'his' world, the community asks the Bishop to let him stay. To die where he is known and so it comes to pass but not, as it happens through illness, but by one of those accidents on the water that so press in on their lives when the vicar is on one of his many errands in support of the life of the community.

It is a tale of clarity and insight, touched throughout by wisdom, a wisdom both familiar and strange where you genuinely taste two different worlds struggle with each other and the principal gifting comes from the world marginalized. But we know, or ought to know, that the cornerstone that is rejected is the one from where our help comes. 

Thursday, June 4, 2015

A helpful nun

Once attending the annual Eckhart conference in Oxford, I listened to a compelling talk by Ayya Khema - a German Jewish woman who at the age of forty eight had been ordained as a Buddhist nun in Sri Lanka. It was compelling, firstly, because of her presence - calm, poised, kindly with an edge of appropriate detachment and discipline; and, secondly, because she imparted simply the most useful advice on meditation I have ever received (to date) - on how to deal with distraction.

This was to compile a simple vocabulary that provided a classifying order for your distractions and when you found yourself distracted, as I often do, simply draw on the word list for the most appropriate one, gently name the distraction, and return to your point of focus. It works, mostly beautifully, and I have been grateful ever since.

In reading her autobiography this week, mostly on an aeroplane, I realized the remarkable life that had given birth to her presence. Remarkable both for the diversity of its experience and, at another level, it's touching of all our ordinariness (for good and ill). A refugee from Nazi Germany, who have been evacuated to Scotland on a 'kinder train', she rejoins her parents in Shanghai just in time for it to fall into the hands of the Japanese. Her skills as a typist are what keeps her, and her parents, afloat. Emigrating to America, she passes through a suburban life of marriage and children, a divorce, a second husband, a life of  adventurous travel that includes engagement on a project to build a power station in Pakistan, that comes to 'rest' in Australia and the ownership of a farm.

But all through this is a slow, steady tugging of Blake's golden string, pulling her towards yet something other, deeper, more meaningful. She takes up meditation (initially taught her by the Mother at Sri Aurobindo's ashram in Pondicherry) before (in Australia) being drawn into Buddhism (in the Theravada tradition). Another separation from her second husband leads to the freedom necessary to pursue a monastic vocation (in Sri Lanka and, finally, to spreading the dhamma in the West from her native Germany).

It is all told with a simplicity and insight that is moving, most especially because nothing is felt to be hidden and it is enfolded in a growing sense of loving non-attachment and freedom. It was narrated, as it happens, as she approached her own death, and in knowing the reality of the cancer that would finally kill her, and you sense throughout the presence of a good death coming to greet her. I am left wishing that my encounter had not been the only one; and, yet reminded that even once we can be touched or touch in a way that is lasting; and, in each and every encounter, we have that choice. Making the most of that choice needs a continual practice and deepening of awareness - a making that Ayya Khema dwelt in abundance. 

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...