Showing posts from January, 2016

An inviting Buddhist and Taoist primer

If anyone were to ask me for a primer in Taoism or Buddhism, I would be tempted to recommend John Blofeld's "Beyond the Gods: Buddhist and Taoist Mysticism". This would not be because you would emerge with a coverage of the basics nor a concise summary of the two traditions' history and development. You too would be inconvenienced by the fact that the book has been long, and sadly, out of print.

I would recommend it because it is a resonant and beautiful account of what a sincere Buddhist (and sympathetic observer of Taoism) takes as the essence of the traditions and how he first encountered them on long journeys through China (and its Mongolian and Tibetan hinterlands) in the 1930s and 40s and subsequently reflected on them through the lens of both careful scholarship (worn exceptionally lightly) and long, careful and diligent practice.

Scholars of both religions might take multiple exceptions, how could they not in a book of a mere 161 pages? But shining through w…

The Great Shadow House

Kenn with Salmon: Memorial to Neil M Gunn at Dunbeath Harbour

'The Great Shadow House: Essays on the Metaphysical Tradition in Scottish Literature' is more easily, and delightfully, digestible than its title. The novelist, biographer and critic, J.B. Pick, deftly surveys from the Carmina Gadelica's nineteenth century recreation of folk tradition through to the twentieth century novels of Neil M. Gunn how certain, primarily prose writers, have wrestled with intimations of 'another world', present and accessible to this one, that gives to our ordinary, habitual world, depth, light and a renewing harmony.

In seeking this world, and to talk of it truthfully, since the sixteenth century, Scottish writers have had to navigate through the omnipresent atmosphere of Calvinism that most have seen as inimical to vision and indeed imagination. If the world is mired, bound in 'sin', alienated from God and God is an arbitrary judge allotting election on whom He may for …

Rising Gothic and Green Men

One day in Skopje searching for an apartment to rent, I passed the new(ish) Orthodox Cathedral and asked my realtor (who had a background in architecture I had discovered) what she thought of it. "Too Catholic," she replied. When I asked her what she meant she told me that it was too large and light a space, not the nurturing, womb-like embrace of a traditional Orthodox Church but something impressive only in its impersonality.

Jacob Needleman in his remarkable book, "Lost Christianity" has a similar experience. He is interviewing the remarkable and holy, Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, a long time Russian Orthodox bishop in London and the man who taught me how to pray. ''I have always been revolted by the Gothic," Anthony remarks, implying that in its aspirational, vaulting towards the sky, it represents not the quiet reception of grace from a present (or absent) God with whom one enjoys genuine relationship, but a restless seeking after something t…

Retreating with King Lear

Not perhaps the most obvious way to start the year studying King Lear though in convivial surroundings, plenished with good food and wine and in excellent company.

King Lear is Shakespeare's most unremitting play - family dysfunction, graphic violence, madness, mystery and no easily redeeming end. Indeed, as I learnt, from the 1680s to the 1840s, an adaption was made, borrowing from the earlier play from which Shakespeare himself had borrowed, to restore a 'happy' ending with Cordelia alive caring for a rejuvenated, renewed Lear. It would be an exploration in reception theory itself to understand precisely why those changes happened and why we reverted to Shakespeare's original when we did.

Meanwhile, the play was examined by universally excellent speakers, in watching Olivier's performance (televised by Granada), in study groups and in informal conversation (and no doubt in ruminative walks in the greyness of Windsor Great Park)!

I was very struck by how signific…

Why did it have that effect?

One of the conversations I had this week whilst on a reading retreat (on King Lear) was on trying to remember why a particular book had the impact it did on re-reading it?

As a counterpoint to Lear I was reading Ursula Le Guin's 'The Telling', I had last read this on a very different kind of retreat, over ten years ago, whilst pondering a vocation to the priesthood (and a religious community). It was a reading that was instrumental in not making me a Dominican friar. As I read, however, I had to ask myself in precisely what way had it done this. Memory is inevitably creative, so what is its present truth (never a perfect reconstruction of what unfolded)?

The book tells of a society in the process of traumatic change. It describes a world that has seized all that is possibly the least attractive of what Earth has to offer, certainly it has pulled it out of context, erasing its own history in the process, indeed forbidden all manner of old ways of seeing, knowing and being.…

Perennial Philosophy

When Huxley wrote his Perennial Philosophy (in 1945), he wanted us to recognise that there is a core transformative experience at the heart of each and every authentic religious tradition and that pursuing this was at the heart of being human: It was a pursuit which the 'exoteric', faith based patterns of any religious life might well obscure as illuminate; and, to which the contemporary discoveries of science might conceivably contribute if they could see past a reductionist materialism.

When the Traditionalist school (Rene Guenon et al) refer to it, they saw it as the esoteric core of any authentic religious tradition but, unlike Huxley, saw the exoteric dimension of any authentic religion as a necessary entry point; and, indeed the corrosion of modernity of those exoteric dimensions was an impediment to seeing into and living out the esoteric core. Thus, unlike Huxley, they remained hostile to virtually all…