Tuesday, August 30, 2016

A Northern Buddha

D. T. Suzuki, the scholar of Japanese religion, key early promoter of Zen to the West, was attending an Eranos conference in Switzerland in the 1950s, when in conversation with the Islamic scholar, Henri Corbin, he referred to Swedenborg, the eighteenth century scientist and visionary of Heaven and Hell, as the "Buddha of the North".

In an earlier phase of his life, Suzuki had devoted a five year period to the intensive study of Swedenborg from which had come both translations of some of Swedenborg's key works (from the English to the Japanese) and two studies - a biographical introduction and a comparative essay on Swedenborg and Buddhism.

These two latter texts were reproduced in the mid 90s, in an English translation, courtesy of the Swedenborg Foundation together with introductory apparatus and a fabulous afterword by the Buddhist and comparative scholar, David Loy, as 'Swedenborg: the Buddha of the North'.

In the space of less than 120 pages, collectively the book makes an excellent case for taking the visionary Swede seriously, most notably in Loy's concluding essay.

This essay opens by pondering why Swedenborg is not more prominent in dialogues between Christians and Buddhists. The reply might be that Swedenborg occupies a marginal (and contested) place in the history of Christianity (however undeservedly) yet counterbalanced by a remarkable (if hidden) space in the cultural history of the West.

Loy's essay beautifully explores a set of resonant relationships between Buddhism and Swedenborg. These range from exploring the doctrine of no self and how both see 'me' as a composite of processes rather than a fixed self to comparing and contrasting Swedenborg's after death views with those of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Here both see the after death state as deeply instructive for the possibilities now - what must I do 'now' to achieve heavenly life - and see that focused on a deepening scrutiny and awareness of different states of mind. But Buddhism is potentially more optimistic for the after death state. Seeing it as transitional and transformative one, whereas Swedenborg, much coloured by his Protestant Christianity, apparently offers only a this life chance to secure one's given place in the next. Though this given place is purely a reflection of your orientating state of mind not a judgement of an 'external' God. It was on this permanency that Blake criticised Swedenborg. Blake, like Buddhism, imagined heaven and hell as states you passed through to a deeper liberation, not as a permanent condition.

Interestingly it is in this re-visioning of God that Swedenborg also touches close to Buddhism. In Mahayana Buddhism, you have the perspective of the three bodies of the Buddha that everything is, that contains all reality. Swedenborg talks of God (in Cabalistic terms) as the 'great man', the universe is a body, a shaping and shaped reality of consciousness, in which every particular person finds their place through right exercise of their usefulness and the uses they find before them. God is both beyond 'us' and is 'us', not an objective something 'out there', but the subjective reality of all that is (or is potentially). Like the fundamental 'emptiness' at the heart of the Buddhist vision of things that Loy reminds us can also be translated as a fruitful potentiality.

Swedenborg thought that God is that fruitful potential in which and by which the kingdom of Heaven would become established by each person ever more closely identifying with and using creatively that potentiality continually gifted them by the divine. Or as a Buddhist might say by achieving nirvana in losing one's identity in the flowing nature of reality through navigating the potentiality of that reality with wisdom and compassion, so that every 'use' of it accords with its true nature.

Swedenborg continues, for me, to feel like that thinker, saintly practitioner, whose time is yet to come, rather than a quaint intriguing relic! A thought he himself held - the New Jerusalem is an evolving process, dependent on willing minds and hands, not an external imposition of a capricious God, towards which we must, to quote the Buddha, strive on with diligence.





Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Natural Depth In Being Human




"The Natural Depth in Man" is the clinical psychologist and (self-confessed) mystic's, Wilson Van Dusen's phenomenological account of aspects of human experience, suggesting that though the unexamined life, according to Socrates, is not worth living, most of us, much of the time settle for worthlessness (my words not his)!

He sets out quietly, but with glowing conviction,  to convince us otherwise. He begins with the simplest of experiences - sitting in his office chair thinking about what to write (and how mysterious this is) through to the equally simple, but profounder, experience of satori (or enlightenment). On the way, we consider what it might look like to genuinely consider another person, engage in periodic self-reflection, understand the hypnagogic and our dreams and grapple with the complex phenomena of hallucination. Quietly too, we are invited to pay attention to that great Western student of human experience, Emmanuel Swedenborg, as a suggestive companion, prodding us always to understand more deeply and necessarily put our experience to work, making it work for ourselves and especially for others. Nothing, for Swedenborg, should be without use.

The book delightfully balances accounts of experience with theoretical speculation and practical application. Van Dusen has an underlying wager that everything we call 'unconscious' - whether disruptive, constructive or revelatory - is fundamentally for our good. The world is us, made with us, and rests in a deep communion. All disturbance and failure arise out of our insufficiency to recognise this and in our artlessness in making of it right use.

I especially liked the chapter on hallucinations - on which, as a clinical psychologist, Van Dusen had much experience. He estimated that the ratio of lower to higher hallucinations was four to one. The lower knew less than the recipient of their attentions and the higher knew more. Both reflected aspects of the person that were being evaded, ignored, neglected or repressed. We not only impart our perceived weaknesses to the shadowlands but also our feared strengths, gifts, potentials. Finding a root to stilling (or integrating) our visions or voices is in understanding what they carry of our imbalanced selves' usefulness; and, finding a new accommodation with our failings and hopes.

In passing, but importantly, this chapter reminds us of how the boundary between normality and eccentricity is thin, socially constructed, and can catch us all potentially on the wrong side of acceptability. It, also, deconstructs the polite language of mental illness, preferring the direct language of madness recognising that this is both how the mad see themselves (to which I can attest) and how that language's earthy, concreteness is directly valuable.

The book also carries a compelling account of the balance between 'outer' and 'inner'. The outer can effectively give rise to the right container for inner experience. The best approach to addressing madness is restoring a felt sense and practiced usefulness to the one deemed mad - sweep the floor, water the plants, serve the other patients' meals. The best test of the inner's authenticity and direction is in external fruitfulness. A mystical experience grounds you in humility and opens you, in acceptance, to the other. What issue is being addressed  will determine the starting point but inner and outer must always meet in a conducive harmony. There must always be a correspondence (to quote Swedenborg) betwixt outer, inner and higher, lower.

Only in openness and communion is there truth, never in the enclosed or separate.




Sunday, August 14, 2016

Visionary religious or ghostly dreamer?



Swedenborg is often feted by his followers as a scientific genius whose findings anticipated any number of new discoveries in the many areas of his interest. Turning visionary, it is implied, he carried this genius with him and, thus, must be taken equally seriously as a prophet of a New Jerusalem.

Lars Bergquist patient, clearly constructed, if a touch pedestrian, biography is a sobering response to such breathlessness that, however, does not leave Swedenborg anything less than a remarkable figure.

As a scientist, Swedenborg was a highly gifted synthesiser of current knowledge always with a speculative twist towards questions as yet unanswered. He was a highly practical man who became, from his position on the Swedish Board of Mines, an expert in mining and mineralogy to valued effect. But, for example, his suggested solution to the problem of how to fix longitude (on which dangled a fat £25,000 prize) was never accepted for it being too complicated and depending on measurement of the phases of the moon only truly possible until much later. This was not so much a brilliant anticipation of future possibility as, frankly, a dead end! He was too, after his family's ennoblement, a valued politician of eminently sensible and peaceable views - though his political career, possibly beneficially, was stymied by his speech defect (that also kept him from any teaching post).

None of this would he be remembered, however, except in the dustier annuals of eighteenth century Swedish or scientific history, if he had not undergone his crisis of 1743/44 that culminated in his vision in Amsterdam on the night of the 27/28 October commissioning his vocation, following a prior one at Easter of that year, when he had met Christ. His vocation was nothing less than to provide a 'true interpretation of the Bible' so that a New Jerusalem could be initiated (beginning in 1757) and unfold over time's course. This he set out to do over the remaining twenty seven years of his life with calm, controlled, diligent energy, embodying it in a remarkable series of texts, accompanied by an equally remarkable private set of diaries. In spite of his modesty, his public works he published anonymously, his reputation slowly built and divided opinion. Was he genuine or a charlatan and if the former was he sane or was he mad? Even as notable a figure as Immanuel Kant was drawn in, fascinated and repelled in equal measure, who wrote a book, 'Dreams of the Ghost Seer', acknowledging yet refuting the possibility of Swedenborg's visionary journeys.

For not content with patient Biblical exegesis, Swedenborg liberally illustrated his texts, with his accounts of visionary journeys to the afterlife and his encounters there with everyone from Old Testament patriarchs, ancient and recently deceased philosophers and his contemporaries in Swedish political and social life. Like Dante but with multiple guides (some of disreputable destination) and with all the acute observation and pedestrian detail of a scientist and engineer rather than a poet.

Nonetheless those that thought him either a charlatan or mad have is wholly blameless, calm, cheerful life to contend with in which he functioned with an exceptional normality touched with a quiet saintliness and that all of his claims (whatever their status) put his own reputation at risk. He had a name and position already why risk it?

But why pay it any serious attention either?

First because you would be in good and interesting company - not especially amongst scientists but certainly amongst artists - Blake most notably was an acute reader of Swedenborg, agreeing and disagreeing in equal measure, but then too there is Balzac, Baudelaire, Borges, Strindberg and Yeats to name but a few.

Second because, as Bergquist makes clear, his Biblical exegesis is radically focused on the transformation of a person's quality of life, here and now, as well as hereafter, and are psychologically and spiritually acute. They too can be read separately from the more occult happenings that may or may not have informed their acuity.

Third you might be attracted to occult happenings and you can see where Swedenborg sits within the unfolding traditions of Western esotericism (though you will not get much help from Bergquist in this as it is a subject that mostly passes him by, wanting to align Swedenborg with more familiar intellectual trends - in science, philosophy and theology notably pietism).

Fourth you will be reminded of the power of the imagination (whatever its ontological status) either as a way of knowing that genuinely complements, even exceeds reason, or as a remarkable tool of exploring our interior states of mind. And further reasons could be happily multiplied.

This time round I was struck by Swedenborg's sense that everything must be of 'use'. This, at first sight, repels as too utilitarian but grows on you as you see it at depth. Every moment Swedenborg sees as a moment of decision. Each and every action can be turned outwards as it were to the good (exemplified in love of God and of neighbour) or can be turned inwards as it were to evil (exemplified in our capacity for manipulation, power, disregard for neighbour). Every moment whether these be major moments of decision or action or minor, say, how to act at the supermarket checkout - so that life needs to be lived with open yet rigorous attention suffused with intention after the good.  There is in Swedenborg no shades of grey (that can be a bit daunting) either good or evil and now, here this moment, your whole life weighs in the balance (though, of course, each next moment offers an opportunity for a different, renewing decision). And not only your life because each decision for the good is, as it were, assembling the kingdom of God in which every person potentially has not only a place but a particular, unique place that is their's. It strikes you as a call to remembrance and to action - and strikingly Swedenborg experimented with techniques - of breathing, hypnagogic awareness, dream interpretation - to help deepen this capacity of awareness to live graciously into each moment.

Meanwhile, Swedenborg did not offer the New Jerusalem as something that was simply going to happen to us because he believed that God never violates our freedom. His renewing kingdom was fashioned only by each person choosing to summon it forth out of their own goodly acts responding to the graceful invitation. It would take a significant animosity out of the practice of religion if that was always seen as the essential deal (however otherwise constructed), a recognition that Swedenborg too had, carrying it with him, into a hoped for future (yet to come).


Friday, August 12, 2016

The Complaint of Nature

There is a deep irony on reading the latest volume of Sabbath poems by Wendell Berry on an airplane given the author's reservation to any technology that alienates us from place or consumes unnecessary resources (though this does not result in a complete ban for certainly the two occasions on which I have met Wendell have required him to utilize flight).

The poems, as their name suggests, are written on Sundays, days that for a working farmer (as Berry is) are one's of relative rest and potential contemplation. They cover ground familiar to his readers - what does it require of us to live contentedly and productively in our places, what does this mean if you are farmer, what is the relationship between the craft of farming and the care of nature, what is the relationship between small scale farming and living within a workable community and a living culture (and what sustains all three and what are the threats to all three). There are poems too of simple wonder at what has or is being seen and poems of gratitude for what life has given most notably Berry's wife, Tanya, relations, friends and mentors. You do not become a gifted celebrator of life and practitioner of care filled farming except within a cultivating, nurturing community (and in the arduous, demands that nature and community places on us to improve that celebration, that practice).

The poems are, as usual, succinct, crystalline and accessible explorations of these themes that resonate in the mind, giving it to think, reflect and feel anew.

It is, however, the long essay that accompanies the poems that most arrested my attention: ‘The Presence of Nature in the Natural World: A Long Conversation’. It begins with Alain of Lille’s medieval text: ‘The Complaint of Nature’ and moves through significant moments in English poetry – Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Pope – where the personification of Nature has been used as a device to explore Nature as a category in which we live, in whose health we abide and are complicit and which provides the exacting standards through which, hopefully, we might continue to abide and flourish. He notes, compellingly in my view, that a shift takes place at the time of the Romantics, when nature is no longer a presence in which we dwell, but something ‘’out there’’ which we admire and to which we go to recover from a life ‘’here” (increasingly presumably a city). Thus is the ‘’environment”  (and wilderness) born from a split in consciousness and thought (and accompanying practice) with all the consequences that unfold now. He follows this thread through to noting that whereas poets have tended to abandon the theme, with honourable exception and Berry singles out Gary Snyder for mention, it has been taken up by a core number of scientists/ecologists such that, for example, Aldo Leopard has us considering, in his most famous essay, what it might be like to think as a mountain, to think out from an unfolding ecology, to be part of, to use Berry’s phrase a wider ‘membership’.

For membership implies for Berry a shared set of values and practices learnt over time and subjected to standards in this case those of Nature from which we cannot easily absent ourselves except temporarily. Our ecological abandonment, of course, might be measured in centuries but these in Nature’s eye are merely a provincial blink in scope. It is a membership we cannot, being born, opt out of only try strenuously to ignore or overlay. It is a membership whose real dues are becoming ever more demanding and like Mr Micawber faced with the bills, we struggle ever more inventively to ignore them. One hopes like Mr Micawber we rediscover our membership and begin to fulfil it sooner rather than too late.


From Sabbaths 2005 VII

"I know I am getting old and I say so,

but I don’t think of myself as an old man.

I think of myself as a young man
with unforeseen debilities.  Time is neither
young nor old, but simply new, always
counting, the only apocalypse.  And the clouds
— no mere measure or geometry, no cubism,
can account for clouds or, satisfactorily, for bodies.
There is no science for this, or art either.
Even the old body is new — who has known it
before? — and no sooner new than gone, to be
replaced by a body yet older and again new.
The clouds are rarely absent from our sky
over this humid valley, and there is a sycamore
that I watch as, growing on the river bank,
it forecloses the horizon, like the years
of an old man.  And you, who are as old
almost as I am, I love as I loved you
young, except that, old, I am astonished
at such a possibility, and am duly grateful."

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Giving away an island



It is a romantic thought - having an island - though what precisely makes an island especially romantic is a complex notion - a defined space, bounded yet open to the sea, a getaway into seclusion yet within your control, with a community shared both human and natural, present carrying histories.

Islands, however, are real places and though they can and do have romance to them, their real stories carry a great deal more complexity - after the romance, the hard, patient work of marriage comes, and, like marriage, can often fail.

John Lorne Campbell's possession of (and by) the Scottish island's of Canna in the Inner Hebrides, purchased in the 1930s and surrendered into the hands of the National Trust for Scotland in the 1980s, was such a complex affair.

I heard of the Lorne Campbell's first through the poet, Kathleen Raine, a regular guest at Canna House, of whom several of her poems are dedicated to the place and the couple. The House was obviously a place of considerable, sometimes eccentric, hospitality. Then via a school friend (who had introduced me to Raine's work), who spent all his holidays on neighbouring Eigg and Rhum (and whose father had written the Shell Guide to the Inner Hebrides). Seeing Ray Perman's biography of John, 'The Man who gave away His Island' in Waterstone's in Oban recently gave me an opportunity of reacquaintance.

John and his wife, Margaret Fay Shaw, became distinguished scholars of Gaelic culture and pioneers of recording, preserving and nurturing its oral traditions (against much academic resistance to perceiving the oral as valuable - a circumstance that seems hauntingly strange now - though reminds us to think of what are its contemporary equivalents).

When they arrived, John had a theoretical knowledge of farming, a scholarly, warm appreciation of the island's culture and history but was wanting in practical sense, hampered too by a sometimes crippling shyness; and, mired in debt, which made making much needed investments a far slower process than ideally needed. He was also hampered by the broad external indifference he found to the economy, welfare and culture of the islands themselves. In a world devoted to 'progress' small farms in 'out of the way places' are of little consequence neither being 'modern' nor 'efficient' and 'culture' is not an inhabitant of specific places as much as a virtue of an elite which always belongs, fundamentally, elsewhere, usually in a city.

Margaret more outgoing and with a practical exposure to crofting (on the isle of Barra) carried a significant early burden, especially when John's health (and confidence) broke down. But slowly, they made a go of it though never a go that did not want for the subsidy provident on John's inheritance from his wealthy maternal American family. His 'wealthy' Scottish family, he discovered on his father's death, had been effectively bankrupted by his grandfather's venture into high class printing machines that turned out, possibly fraudulently, not to have been, a happenstance that might have stepped out of a Dickens' novel!

The story as it unfolds (and as brought up to date (2011) in a postscript) is an object lesson both in if at first you do n't succeed try, try again and in recognising the flip side of this that in whatever imperfections continuously remain, remember the weather tomorrow will change. Even in its ownership by an institution (as distinct from an individual), continuity is wholly uninsured as institutions themselves change personnel and lack memory.

It is, also, reminds you that even if the culture at present is exceeding fragile, hidden within is resilience, and new possibilities are always, potentially, emerging; for example, now in the opportunities of communities (as on neighbouring Eigg) to buy their own places and set, collaboratively, their own futures.

But most movingly is a testament to how much can be achieved with dogged love seasoned with lashings of forbearance whilst anything utopian belongs nowhere except in the ideal pursued.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Old Man Goya

Witches Sabbath by Goya


"Old Man Goya" is a book, judging from its Amazon reviews, that divides opinion. You can see why. If you approach it imagining a detailed, well argued art historical text that expands or supplements your existing knowledge of the second half of Goya's life, when illness rendered him completely deaf, you will be (and have been) sorely disappointed. Julia Blackburn's task is not to inform (though it does) but to help you imagine what it is like to see as Goya saw, recognising both the possibilities and difficulties of this task. She rather brilliantly brings to life Goya's seeing, weaving his paintings back into speculative but realistic portraits of his daily living.

She explores what does it mean to suddenly find yourself completely deaf and does the loss of one sense heighten the others; and, for Goya, most especially, his visual sense? What does it genuinely mean to confront the horrors of war, to paint suffering, to apparently pour compassion into paint, and yet have no reliable record, other than the art, of what Goya truly felt? Does it matter for does not the paint speak for itself? What does it mean to be a court painter, faithfully and with acclaim portraying its life, and yet, when in private, consistently undermines that life in every stroke of paint or etched plate? What does it mean to amass a fortune and yet request to be buried in the brown robes of the hermit saint, Peter? Or for that matter to fail to ensure that a portion of that fortune flowed to your loved mistress and illegitimate daughter rather than have it all fall (and be squandered) in the hands of your mercenary son and grandson?

A very real, complex, compromised man emerges from her portrait as does his genius and you taste the true compulsion of art - it is here in the canvas or plate that Goya finds his way to showing forth his world - a world of dispassionate, searing insight that often breaks down or into a forthright compassion for the least or the most broken or most ravaged. In daily life, he might have been indifferent, incompetent or simply unaware (though no more so than most and often slipping into care and concern for and with others) but this probably matters little now in the face of the work, extraordinarily vivid and (in his depictions of marginalisation and violence) sadly as deeply topical now as when they were painted.

The books only principal failing is that it is all feeling but what does it mean to look this way for to portray these realities is not only a matter of how do I feel but also what do I as an artist (and a person) think? This goes unexplored (and admittedly reconstructing it is complex and speculative) but worth the effort - ideas matter (even to artists) and Goya is not simply a painter of outraged feeling. He chose to go into exile in France but why? He chose to be buried in a hermit's robe but refused extreme unction? He was a prophet against violence (of certain kinds, bull fighting appears in a different light) but why?

And so on and so forth nevertheless as a depiction of the connection between feeling and seeing, seeing and feeling, it is a poetic and engaging account. It is enriched rather than diminished by the author's own experience and by her following Goya's physical trail; however, unconventional as a work of art historical appreciation, this makes it , unlike a significant amount of art history, never boring!


Monday, August 1, 2016

Returning to the Source

Emmanuel Swedenborg: The prophet of concrete enlightenment

One of the key signs of being touched with the mystical life according to Wilson Van Dusen is humility.

This is deeply appropriate because Van Dusen's own quiet practice of the mystical life has passed by, little noticed indeed only his focus on Swedenborg (pictured above) has meant that some of his books remain in print courtesy of Swedenborg's contemporary followers. This relative obscurity is not for want of living a very full life - a friend of his once suggested, at least, seven lives that ranged from a fully licensed sea captain to a clinical psychologist treating people both severely in the grip of their malady and in that grip inflicting, criminally, pain on others.

His 'Returning to the Source: The Way to the Experience of God' is simply a masterpiece of exposition and an invitation to all to begin reflecting on their experience, including the most everyday, and what it might point towards (and say) of the divine search. It is Van Dusen's conviction that the 'mystic' is not a special kind of person but that each person is their own special kind of (potential) mystic.

The mystical life is the essential life, the one that undergirds everything, and which is always inviting us to go deeper.

Van Dusen utilises many traditions in unfolding his descriptions of the mystical life but two resonate most deeply - the first is Zen and the second is the tradition of Emmanuel Swedenborg, the eighteenth century Swedish seer of Heaven and of Hell. Before one imagines that these two traditions are wholly alien, it must be remembered that one of the best books on Swedenborg was penned by D.T. Suzuki, the archetypal interpreter of Zen to the West.

What they both have deeply in common is their emphasis on the concrete, the just so, as it is now. Swedenborg describes heaven and hell with the minute attention of a practised scientist, the Zen master invites illumination through seeing the here and now with searing, insightful practicality. For Swedenborg, heaven and hell are not somewhere else, but are being fashioned, right now, out of the particular choices we make, the desires we honour (or fail to), the right now is the only place out of which enlightenment can spring.

Van Dusen's descriptions (and discussion) are beautifully rooted in this here and now and see the development of our seeing and being as grounded in the just so - of sitting on a porch at night contemplating the stars and learning wonder, of considering what is my deepest desire and honouring it because through its practice the good will be born; and, of imagining that because the divine is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, everything that is given us is for the good and that seeing this is a gesture of relaxing into such seeing, like a pool that always comes back to rest, whatever its disturbance, creating a transparent mirror to whatever presents itself.

From this space, one is propelled to consider what it is to be of tendering, caring use. Heaven, to quote Swedenborg, is built from our uses - our actions aligned with the deepest desiring - and anything can be a contribution, with the right intention.

Van Dusen continually asks us to come back to a phenomenology of our experience and recognise that, in every person, there are moments of breakthrough into peace and he asks, and recounts, what it might be for each of us to cultivate such moments such that we garden our way into that reception of upholding, transfiguring grace that is enlightenment and love.

Time is strangely wonderful

Time is a River without Banks by Marc Chagall In Edwin Muir's poem, 'Adam's Dream', Adam beholds a vision of 'ti...