Saturday, January 30, 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 would be Blofeld's encounters with genuine adepts, saints and sages and his scrupulous honesty in recounting what they said filtered through the acknowledged, limiting frame of his own developing understanding.

He writes well too and, reflecting on it, the only word I can use is 'endearingly'! You so want to be his traveling companion in and through a now vanished (or strikingly altered) world: taking tea in a mountain hermitage with a modest Taoist luminary or being woven into the celebration of a evening Buddhist rite at a lone island temple. He creates a lost world imaginatively and in luminous prose.

What too I love about the book is Blofeld's generosity towards all traditions (and not only Buddhist and Taoist ones). His account of Pure Land Buddhism with its emphasis on 'other power' and devotion is accurate and riveting and was one of the first to help to dispel its unfavourable image (as not properly Buddhist) in the West. He recognises that in following the Way, there are many ways and each person should diligently find one resonant with their own state. No way, however, apparently primitive or folksy is wrong if entered into in the spirit of compassionate engagement and wonder. He continuously prioritises experience and insight over intellectual accomplishment and recognises that a simple mind is too an uncluttered one though being Blofeld, he never devalues acquiring knowledge as such. The epitome of the book is judicious balance. Judicious too in reminding Western Buddhists of the importance of both ethics and reverence or devotion. It is too simple to strip a particular practice from the context of cultivated behaviour and ritual. Its efficacy can depend on it (so you wonder what he might have thought of 'mindfulness')!

Running through the whole text, however,  is a steely challenge towards discovering for yourself, beginning now, this right path towards your illumination that flows from and into compassion for all sentient beings; and, the last chapter is a wonderful primer (addressed to his youthful son) of the necessary steps towards such a life. An invitation to explore.


Wednesday, January 27, 2016

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 reasons unfathomable to human reasoning (or imagination) meanwhile damning the rest, there is little apparent room for perceiving the natural order as breaking open to a redeeming, lightening, indeed transfiguring reality. The world is here to be endured, worked in responsibly, and escaped from with the ever present anxiety of what comes next. This may be a caricature of Calvinism (and even at its height of influence it was, and can be, only one source of the multiple identities people inhabit, often with much cognitive dissonance between them), even so caricatures often have more life in them than the realities (or intentions) from which they were formed.

Pick always keeps this background in mind as he explores authors as diverse as George MacDonald and John Buchan and he notes that one emergent pattern is that a hatred of a tradition does not necessarily result in a counter balancing otherness of view but a mirroring. I come to despise the narrow life of communities, being inevitably human hypocritically bound to the narrow moral perfectionism of the kirk, by an equally narrowing act of despising in which people remain bound to nothing but their all too human hypocrisies!

Pick's best essays, however, concern authors where this background though present has fallen away either by dint of an overpowering countervailing vision or a mature act of balanced transformation. In the former case is David Lindsay, in the latter Neil M Gunn. Both are authors who ought to be better known - the first simply better known, the latter outside his native Scotland.

If I were ever asked to give a course on Gnosticism, Lindsay's 'A Voyage to Arcturus' would be my first set text. This is not because, as far as I know, Lindsay was ever influenced by Gnosticism as such, but because it is a brilliant vision of what it means to imagine that this world is ultimately a delusion, an imprisoning one, and that a person's true life is to be found embracing a reality beyond it; and, that getting there is a hard, spiritual struggle, that is only achieved through the acquiring of a certain kind of knowledge, peeling through layer on layer of deception.

Pick is absolutely right to say that if you read this extraordinary book trying to decipher it symbol by symbol or stage of consciousness after stage of consciousness, you will fail. It is a vision to be experienced whole, wondered in, and only then reflected upon. When Lindsay himself tries to explain himself, he becomes uncertain and his prose stodgy. The tragedy of his life is that none of his subsequent novels try as they might to accommodate his overbearing vision to a more familiar (and hoped for popular) perspective (and embodiment in this world) were any more 'successful' with a public than Arcturus. Yet it is a great piece of genuinely metaphysical literature - anyone, who even momentarily, found themselves wondering, 'Do I belong here?' ought to read it and ponder.

Meanwhile, Gunn was happily convinced that we both belong here, are obligated to here, and yet are invited to see here not only with the eye of ordinary perception, from our every day self, but with our seeing rinsed and cleansed, from a 'second self' that stands within us yet outside time, a detached yet compassionate observer, enabling us to 'remember our selves' and see with the eye of an objectifying love. This self, often glisteningly apparent in childhood, tends to get buried by the rational, calculating daily self that too, paradoxically, is swayed by emotions, hither and thither. Gunn was fascinated by this other self and how it might be cultivated. It was a self discovery subsequently confirmed by readings in Gurdjieff and Zen.

Pick makes the case that these considerations are present in all Gunn's works, though coming to the fore has he matured, and that his work can never simply be divided between 'socially realist' beginnings and 'mystical' ends. This is true, I think, not least because his concern for individual authenticity and liberation was always seen as the groundwork for any purposeful building of a genuine community. Communities are messy but they need an ultimate anchoring in people's underlying goodness, sometimes actualized and broadly acknowledged. This is a recognition for Gunn that was in the past threatened by Calvinism and then subsequently by more starkly uncomprimised versions of totalitarianism.

Gunn's novels are beautiful essays in enfolding the everyday mystical with the simply everyday.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

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, 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 that is always elsewhere, implying strain and a focus on the ego not the Other.

These are two conclusions with which the writer, William Anderson, and his friend, and photographer, Clive Hicks, would take exception. In two remarkable and beautiful books, 'The Rise of the Gothic' and 'The Green Man', they perceptively and intelligently in word and image explore the extraordinary phenomena that was the eruption of the Gothic in stone, glass and space in the Twelfth Century, beginning in central France.

For them, this was a remarkable concentration of creativity that gave new form to the archetypal potentials of human consciousness establishing a new dispensation for humanity's relationship to the created world, our own self-identity and a reconciliation with Europe's 'pagan' past. God's incarnation in Christ could now be truly celebrated, not as a descent into something mired in evil but as a descent into a reality open to the full possibility of a fulfilling redemption that recognises the creation as good. Both books are a tour de force in both coherently charting the remarkable gift to the world that is the art of the Gothic and exploring its wider implications for understanding the nature of creativity.

A Gothic cathedral was Christian Neoplatonism in stone where the light of the One unfathomed reality shaped an abiding order of a balancing beauty. What it means to create from that One through archetypal contemplation is one of the core teachings of both books.

They undoubtedly make an eloquent case for the dramatic nature of this eruption into the patterning of human consciousness. For example, a new humanity, and individuality, infuses the faces of the many sculptures that now adorn cathedrals, inside and out, and the haunting figure of the Green man (see above) critically appears as a sustaining, nurturing presence at all the critical moments of Christian salvation history- Incarnation, Crucifixion, Ascension; and, Last Judgement. No longer is nature and encircling terror but a reality to be met with, engaged, stewarded and transformed.

Can, however, these two perspectives be reconciled - nurturing Orthodoxy (and Romanesque) and aspirational Gothic?

The first imagines that there is a basic fault, a rupture, between eternity and time that can be healed and our distance from the truth is collapsed by an act of return to the primordial gift. We live ideally on the horizontal plane in presence.  The second imagines an evolutionary journey forward - the stage of the Gothic - the human being as a steward yet transformer of nature is an act of necessary separation that invites a stretching after a new unity - not a basic fault but a 'happy fault' that makes new structures of consciousness possible. We live ideally on the vertical plane, an ever-ascending spiral towards new possibilities.

Where you sit, betwixt these two possibilities, may be, I suspect determined by temperament beaten on the anvil of experience; but, I think, you can see ways in which they may be harmonised.

We live betwixt our natural home - the womb like nature of an Orthodox Church - and an aspiration to strive after its higher instantiation as an acquired yet transcendent gift - the spaciousness and coherent narrative of a Gothic cathedral. Perhaps the security of the one is a necessary precondition of successfully navigating the adventure of the other. We need to continually touch our embodying wholeness if we are to go seeking our transcendent invitation.



Sunday, January 10, 2016

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 significant Shakespeare was to many of my fellow retreatants whether springing as an early or later love and especially when people reminisced over particular performances and compared them - Olivier or McKellen, Holm or Hopkins - though nobody in my hearing mentioned Jacobi (depicted here). Thankfully others were as ignorant as I and the days worked because both innocence and experience, knowledge and the refreshing pairs of new eyes were valued.

I had seen the play precisely twice - Robert Stephens at Stratford and Peter Brook's film with Paul Scofield - (both of which the experts rated) - and read it, I think, twice, once years ago and once in preparation for the retreat.

There is nothing like spending four days with fifty people to make you realise how polyvalent are the possible meanings in a text (especially here when the author's voice and life [pace postmodern theorising] is not here to help you frame those possibilities).

This time the thing that emerged most strongly was the profound difficulties of ageing. Lear wanting to surrender all and yet not wanting it. His offer to divide his kingdom is not unconditional. It demands protestations of love, that with Cordelia's nuanced response goes awry, and even when undertaken, with the two 'remaining' sisters is not followed through in any heartfelt or indeed practical manner. You recognise in this the continuously difficult balancing act everyone must play as they age - what do I no longer need to do or be this or that and when is the apt time to let this or that go, recognising the diminishment yet also possibly a newer, unfamiliar freedom too?

You recognise too that 'cause' and 'explanation' are mismatched throughout. Why something happens as it does is never met by any obvious explanation in the text. Why, for example, King Lear does fly into such a rage when Cordelia, so beloved momentarily before, does not give Lear the answer he needs? Or why Edmund is so determined to displace his half brother, then his father, in such a calculatingly cold (and opportunistic) manner? It is as if Shakespeare is simultaneously saying (at least) two things - each and every one of us remains opaque to others (and possible to ourselves); and, second, the response to this opacity is dependent on our willingness to deepen the range of our awareness, a journey we can refuse; and, in refusing may find it thrust upon us in any case. The repressed returns (even prior to the sanction of Freud). Lear has madness break him into a renewed, if flickering, self-awareness, Edgar takes on the semblance of madness to meet a renewing obligation to his father, the Duke of Gloucester who, in turn, is literally blinded so that out of this trauma, he recovers sight. The world seems strangely determined that we should see at often an unremitting costliness.

Finally, I was reminded that Shakespeare is the most embodied of intellectuals by which I mean that none of his ideas are in search of a text. They come fully clothed in a precision of language and observation that continually invites and re-invites contemplation. They strike the depths in us repeatedly before coming to the surface; and, as they arise can take us in many fruitful directions. Most especially he is concerned to invite us to question everything, and live in the questioning, for only out of the awareness this gives rise to might we find answering responses.

Nothing except the play itself is a given.

Friday, January 8, 2016

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. This world is marching to the Stars as a producer-consumer state which it thinks is the epitome of modernity. The old culture, however, persists. It is 'The Telling' that is a complex patterning of understanding the body, society, nature that brings people into an abiding interconnection through repeated story telling. This enriches, embellishes the whole in such a way that it remains both faithful to memory and moves slowly into the future deepened and expanded. No story, no telling is ever fixed, all are open to development, new versions can emerge alongside the familiar. It is a society at once conservative yet vulnerable to receive the present.

It is Le Guin's version of a 'Taoist' society - organised but anarchical (in a positive sense) - where truths are embedded in processes. There is no place here for belief as fixity, as a possession of an elite, nor as singular, corralling experience into given ideological forms to which anyone, everyone ought to conform.

The story that concerns an observer from Earth and the possible saving of 'The Telling' is deftly and beautifully told.

But why did it leave such an impression on me? If I were to hazard a guess, it would be that it heightened within me a skepticism about desiring to 'represent' a narrative claiming to be true. What is a priest but a person who tells a story as if it were the story? That the story is not an experiment after truth subject to continuous deepening and revision but is in some sense exclusive. This is not to say that the story that he or she tells is not a beautiful framing, an essay after and embodying truths; but, this is different.

The 'maz' in Le Guin's tale - who are the guardians of the 'Telling' are so by virtue of their participation in the process - they tell and spend time and effort and resources learning the 'Telling' but their position confers no status beyond the processes of telling. I never wanted to assume for myself a status that is conferred by position rather than the process of offering, so priesthood was out of the question. Or so it appears to me now! Who knows what it appeared like then?

Le Guin's novel is a fable about a society that once and might again eschews belief as a virtue, that asks people to become immersed in seeing, tasting, experiencing and telling of what emerges, what in the repeating cycle of things can be trusted to bring harmony, presence and peace and what better avoided; and, suggests that one thing best avoided is the temptation to know for certain rather than live the wisdom of uncertainty. If there were a priesthood for that, I might join!

P.S. And one of its founders might have been Shakespeare - as we studied Lear in depth, I was continuously reminded of a man who likes 'telling' and deepening the questions, rather than supplying answers, but then life always emerges from living into the question(s).

   

Friday, January 1, 2016

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: http://ncolloff.blogspot.ch/2015/05/the-perennial-philosophy.html. 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 contemporary developments especially those of modern science and psychology.

Reading Arthur Versluis' beautifully crafted essay - 'Perennial Philosophy' today (that was, together with a long bicycle ride, a great way to start the year), I am pleased to discover that my friend is closer to the former than the latter party. This is not to say that a Traditionalist position does not carry a deep and abiding merit - an intellectual structure (and stricture) that helps us sift through much potential error but somehow always remaining too remote from the dynamics of actual spiritual life as if they had already bottled up the spirit and knew its directions! I remember a conversation with the poet, Kathleen Raine, and the painter, Thetis Blacker, where we tried to put our finger on our Traditionalist 'dis-ease' and recognised that akin to exoteric religion, it had an aversion to 'experience' - to any experience of the Spirit that does not conform to their set patterns of the permissible.

Arthur's essay is an accomplished account at helping us see the 'perennial philosophy' or alternatively 'contemplative science', as both embedded in a tradition - in this case Platonism - and a continuously present invitation to discover our deepest meaning, rooted in certain core features of the human (and cosmological) condition.

At core this is recognising that we are made for self-transcendence, a stepping out of our fragmented, confined reality and discovering a renewed self, transparent to the divine, able to navigate life with a renewing compassion. It is recognising that the world seen aright is one where everything that is 'below' speaks, as a symbol, of what is 'above', that the world we inhabit is as open to illumination as our own selves, we live in a sacred cosmos, and we recognise this every time something speaks to us in a way that ennobles and expands us - a walk in nature, a beautiful piece of architecture, a poem that speaks of more. And this is rooted in a tradition that invites us to practice, to come and see, which is a 'science' not an invitation to belief; and, one whose repeated experience of setting people free stretches back over millennia.

The great virtue of the book is not only to set out this way of seeing with great economy and clarity but also to show forth its implications for how we might live into a future of promise. The perennial philosophy does not only carry implications for a self transformation but, as Plato, knew suggests possibilities for the organisation of a state, a way of life and an appreciation of culture. Like Boehme's Key, Versluis' book is an invitation to explore a vast world that begins with the invitation to change yourself.


Wild Geese Overhead: Where does reform begin?

"Wild Geese Overhead" is an atypical novel for Neil Gunn. It is not set in the Highlands that were his home but in Glasgow. It is...