Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Way of the White Clouds




Completed 'Journeys East: 20th Century Western Encounters with Eastern Religious Traditions': it is an excellent survey - balanced, intelligent and absorbing. It is written from a particular perspective - that of the 'Traditionalists', defenders of the perennial philosophy.

Reading it has been a journey of nostalgia and recovery. He touches on a number of writers, explorers in the Spirit, that have been important to me and whose work has shaped me; and, would appear now to be in a process of return and recovery.

In addition to the Catholic monks: Griffiths, Le Saux and Merton and the ever-present Jung is the German Buddhist convert, Lama Anagarika Govinda. He began as a Theravada monk in Ceylon and set out for the Himalayas one day to a conference to defend this older, austerer tradition from the apparent superstitious accretions of Tibetan Buddhism only to be 'converted' for a second time.

He was one of the early expositors of the Vajrayana in beautifully lucid prose and like John Blofeld creatively mixes personal anecdote and intelligent description of the tradition. He was ordained in a tradition that allowed for marriage and he and his wife (a Parsee convert from India) traveled extensively in Tibet and the surrounding kingdoms.

I am re-reading his spiritual autobiography, 'The Way of the White Clouds' which is a model of its kind. Travel in the land of snows is inter-woven with reflections on all aspects of Buddhism - popular and metaphysical - captured beautifully in Govinda's second language.

He was also a painter - and I would love to see examples - and his early interest in and continued practice of art colours both his interests and his descriptive capacity.

It is also a book saturated with magic - there is a striking account of a waking vision of Maitreya (the Buddha to come to whom his guru was devoted) emerging from the wall of his cell, before sleep, a cell (unbeknown to him) that had not been slept in (until then) because dedicated to the Buddha to come!

He continually draws our attention back to the importance of 'experience' and the discipline required to transform consciousness towards the practice of compassion; that the task of any person is to move, however slowly, towards the realization of the Buddha-hood that is our inheritance, the ground of our, all being. His description of the meaning of those disciplines and their practice is exemplary, as are his comparative references to Christianity (though not always to Hinduism - an example of sibling rivalry)?

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