Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Declan Kiberd's "Ulysses & Us": Book Review

A critic strives to reconnnect ordinary readers with a book meant for, and about, the rest of us. His colleagues strangle "Ulysses" in theoretical nets; average folks often fear, mock or abandon it. Unfairly, Kiberd insists; Joyce teaches us how to understand his narrative.

Kiberd rues: "A book which set out to celebrate the common man and woman endured the sad fate of never being read by most of them. Was this a case of bad faith or bohemian hypocrisy in a work which idealised just the sort of simple souls who could never hope to read it?" (7) This guide and commentary-- unlike his own handy Penguin 1992 Student's Annotated Student's Edition (never available in the US and enmeshed in the copyright battles over the Joyce estate abroad; based on the Bodley Head 1960 printing)-- does not seek a line-by-line commentary. However, it'd be a welcome primer. As with David Pierce's similarly themed, recent "Reading Joyce" (see my Amazon review), Kiberd blows away dust. Neither book might be the very first to consult when taking up this novel, but they'd come early on in one's supplemental instruction. Both scholars show us how a century ago readers came to face this work, and how, after nearly another century, aided by scholarship, we can restore the wonder of this dazzling narrative.

Bohemia may have inspired early Joyce, but "Ulysses" determines to be less Stephen Dedalus and more Leopold & Molly Bloom: it's a bourgeois setting. It celebrates the mundane and tells how to recapture the awe in the everyday moment "In that context, Ulysses exists like a blasted road sign in a war zone, pointing at a future that is exhilarating to precisely the extent that it is uncertain and open." (21)

This work promotes an engaged Everyman, but the failure of the 20th century it heralded shows that its "world so lost turns out to have been far better than that which replaced it." We lack middle-class culture that modernism, social democracy, and the text sought to place within our grasp. Instead, "mass entertainment" reduces "all the oppositional forces of modernism" to supplant them with "only the identikit shopping mall, the ubiquitous security camera and the celebrity biography." Our train conductor will not regale us with a quote from Shakespeare as we alight in Limerick; "overpaid experts and underpaid service providers" replaced the sidewalk flaneur and public character on the street with us, scurrying towards our locked cars "from one private moment to another." (24)

The next chapter on the novel's ties back to the Irish past and its revival promises an emphasis, for once, on Irish-language predecessors. This subject could display Kiberd's bilingual expertise. Yet, beyond typically provocative asides such as how the novel might be reconfigured as "a central text of the Gaelic revival," this theme languishes in far too brief a section. (36)

Eighteen chapters follow. It would have helped to have a preface to this book explaining Kiberd's overall aims. Kiberd gives over the bulk of his necessarily brisk explication; by titling each of his chapter commentaries on "Ulysses" with a verb he neatly remind us of its predominant action: "Waking; Learning; Thinking; Walking; Praying; Dying; Reporting; Eating; Reading; Wandering; Singing; Drinking; Ogling; Birthing; Dreaming; Parenting; Teaching; Loving."

Stephen keeps the British confused; his rebellion's neither as lackey nor terrorist. "He refuses to be easily decoded. So in truth does Joyce's book." (49) The novel rescues one day from dullness. On 16 July 1904 when not much happened historically, a lot gets recorded imaginatively. This frees its Irish characters.

Shifting from Stephen with Deasy's conversation, via Sandymount strand, then to Bloom's monologue, Kiberd links them with an easily overlooked motif. His observant eye assists experienced readers to recall images and associations rewarding repeated visits to the text. While "Deasy valued shells" for what they were as objects, "and not for the life which they contained," young Dedalus "seeks their inner meaning, the soul which animates their exterior form." (64) Bloom will soon praise the first man bold enough to eat an oyster; later Kiberd muses about Bloom's attraction for Molly as "Sirens" ends: "The rhythm of sex, like the rise and fall of the sea-tides, produces desire and then forgiveness, a sound to be heard in the seashell thrown up on the beach (though what is heard is really the pulsing of the listener's own blood)." (177-78)

Like "Ulysses," Kiberd's focus rapidly may alter. The chapters move quickly as their source-text does. The pace of both author and critic demands attention to details. A Latin Quarter hat, Plumtree's Potted Meat, the "U.P." postcard message, Bloom's defecation all earn scrutiny. The first three episodes present "a version of the problem to which Bloom might be the answer." (80-81) Styles alter every chapter, Kiberd suggests, to further the reader's education as much as Stephen's, as the bohemian pose of the student with the hat weakens under the force of the bourgeois life examined scrupulously-- by a newspaper ad, a rumor, the body's demands-- so as to release wonder from daily routine.

A critic may, after immersion, adapt the text so long cited into his or her own prose. Kiberd begins "Dying": "At funerals people formally mourn the dead person, while privately experiencing an even deeper sadness for those who remain in the world." (100) The chapter on another theme starts: "Reading was often the last thing on Joyce's mind when he visited the National Library. Like many Dublin libraries, it was used more for talk than study." (157) Kiberd remarks about the city he shares with Joyce: "In Dublin there are only two kinds of joke-- those that were once funny, and those that were never funny." (104) The avuncularity of these comments shadows their sharpness, in true civic register.

The difficulty of keeping a tone, for author, emerges for this critic early on in the interior monologues. Even by the newspaper visit, the insertion of headlines shows the dangers of misleading a reader, as a sub-editor often has not studied the articles themselves under pressure of deadlines. Kiberd uses this example to illustrate Joyce's risk-taking. Unsure of his own tonal perfection, Joyce warns of language churned out mechanically, formulaically "Joycean." So, the author as a clever modernist keeps updating his art, with no version staying "final" or "official." Similarly, as this editor knows, he and his colleagues add to the textual indeterminacy of never one "authorized" text of "Ulysses."

Instability in "Cyclops" widens the gaps as the narrative continues. Bloom's monologue goes missing. Interior richness fades at Barney Kiernan's. The Gaelic literary tradition's oral culture's "shreds and radiant fragments" break the chapter's juxtapositions into banal barstool dialogue. Not even Joyce, Kiberd holds, could sustain the "density" of earlier chapters, and gaps open up to allow other voices to enter the novel.

Similarly, as Bloom's watch stops at the time of the assignation of Blazes Boylan with Molly at 4 p.m., so the narrative skips and hastens. What in "Nausikaa" alternated between Bloom and Gerty and then merged briefly increases in "Oxen of the Sun" as Joyce takes on all of English literature (with as Kiberd notes the exceptions of Chaucer and Shakespeare) as the author determines to escape any system able to hold him down. Kiberd emphasizes the novelty of "Ulysses": "its strategies changed as it was written, by way of the writer's reaction to the reception of earlier episodes, and with no clear sense of the total conception until the final phase was written." (225) The pace quickens and the prose often thickens, until, in Nighttown, it leaves chronology behind for "the timeless zones of the unconscious."

We learn in "Ithaca" much about Stephen and Bloom that monologues could not tell us. Their conversations in "Eumaeus" remained wayward, warm if tentative. These sections, often discouraging readers, regain their worth in Kiberd's interpretation. A combination of the parental role of Bloom in the former and the catechetical mode of the latter chapter shows how the intellectual may reclaim the ordinary. After Stephen leaves, thoughts of a psalm of liberation accompany him. Left behind, Bloom goes to bed. There the novel was supposed to have ended.

Yet, "as Molly counter-signed her husband's passport to eternity," surprises await. (259) Masturbation, uniting solitary spouses that day, found both Blooms soon thinking of each other. This subversive action, Kiberd holds, represents a satisfaction that neither the glimpse of Gerty or the embrace of Blazes could. As for the often contradictory sections of Molly's revelations, Kiberd proposes that she be treated not "as a definite person," but "'the voice of the book,' a voice that breaks out of gender confines and individual identity." (272) As for her husband, so for Molly; they can be seen "moving out of time and into the infinite."

Five chapters of this study close with literary antecedents. The influence of the "Odyssey" moves Kiberd to regard Homer's epic as anticipating "many features of the lives of the civic bourgeoisie," while Joyce's response laments "bourgeois virtues that were fast disappearing." (282) Prophetic modes in the Old Testament fulfilled in the New play off of latent powers unleashed in "Ulysses." Lacking any quotation marks within, this novel encompasses all voices that predicted it.

Dante and "Hamlet" offer two examples of how masters may guide followers through danger, on pilgrimage and in coming-of-age. These essays recall Erich Auerbach's comparative perspectives, and roam as widely. Throughout, Kiberd grounds most of "Ulysses" in its quotidian, even modest, assertions of the mundane as magical. The interpreter of the past strives to recover a fidelity that the present can never match. Yet, in this dismantling of the original, a new text responds and renews it.

Response and renewal, by ingesting earlier texts and cannibalizing his own, characterize Joyce's process to resist incorporation and parody by his literary heirs. Kiberd reiterates the contents of "Ulysses" that emerge once its scaffolding falls away, its veils drop. As wisdom literature no less than the Torah: "Everything was in the holy book, including all that had been known to predecessors." (301) The Irish epic binds the sacred to the mundane. Bloom's humility corrects Stephen's aestheticism. The body, as both Blooms show, can soothe the overexcited mind. Intellect need not be divorced from experience, as the sacramental transformation in "Ulysses" emerges by "an almost tantric sense of delayed gratification." (353) In a world far busier than Joyce's, Kiberd urges readers-- in this helpful guide by another textual master-- to reclaim the magic within not only this great story's telling, but in our own relationships, objects, thoughts, and words.

P.S. I caught three minor slips in this work that relies on a wealth of knowledge as vast as its inspiration. "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill the Buddha" Kiberd attributes on pg. 191 to the Buddha, but this koan conventionally has been credited to the founder of the Zen Rinzai sect, Linji. "St. Theresa" should be Teresa, as "of Avila"-- not Therese of Lisieux-- part of one of "saintly couples" on pg. 275, here aligned with St. John of the Cross. The "famous NASA photograph of the earth" was not "taken from the moon in 1969." (327) It was sent as "Earthrise" from the lunar orbiter Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve 1968.

(P.P.S. Again in the transatlantic publishing battle, those Brits beat us Yanks. So, is copyright [as with so much in the Joyce industry] to blame? Why Eve Arnold's ca. 1952 snap of Marilyn Monroe graces the Faber cover while we're peddled Norton's duller shot of the early edition of this big fat tome by duller comparison beats me.) (A somewhat briefer review appeared on Amazon US 12-15-09.)

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Tony Bailie's "The Lost Chord": Book Review

Phil Lynott's swagger combined with Rory Gallagher's blues: while Gino Morgan's story's filed under fiction, it reads like fact. Not a novel so much as one of those rock-star biographies penned not by the star, but by one who knew him or her back when. And now, when the money's low and the fame's dimmed for the groupie, the sidekick, or in this case the rhythm guitarist, it's time to cash in what memories can be resurrected from the drug-addled informant. This novel reads as if such a true-- taken with the proverbial grains of coke-- story of life on the road with one more famous than one's self, often penned by a ghostwriter if not written entirely by a journalist or a hack, out of the taped transcripts and the press kit clippings and the bleary pub crawls.

An Irish journalist, Bailie provides an intriguing framework for this milieu. Manus Brennan alternates, as the novel begins, his current fate, literally washed-up on the shore, looking for wrack to light the fire that keeps his boozy body warm. He had joined Duil, a hard-rock Irish band who reminds me of Thin Lizzy's hard rock with a dash of Horslips' progressive folk. Seven years after the band's dissolution, Manus begins to narrate his tale, blended with his reply to what the few who bother with asking him anything really want to know: where's Gino?

This attendant status, Manus admits, makes him "a second-rate guitarist in a first-rate rock band." Nobody cares much about him, actually. Anyone interviewing him wants to know what he knew about Gino, six-foot-five, swarthy, sexy, and shapeshifting. While eager biographers already have published books on what might have happened to Gino-- who at the peak of debauchery vanished on tour in Germany-- the mystery of his disappearance fuels only improbable rumors that remain uncorroborated.

Into this miasma, Martina Lucas, a Californian with an "expensive" accent (as a less-affluent native of the Golden State myself I'm still pondering this adjective), enters Manus' aimless existence. His wife's left him, he's practically a recluse, and any music he tries to make with a band after Gino comes with an inevitable tag: "Manus Brennan (ex-Duil) on lead guitar." Even when he tries to establish his own talent, he's only hired for his past brush with fame, in the figure of Gino. Gino's fate fuels gossip among fans and tabloids. Martina's own interest in Manus appears only another manipulation of the servant who once waited on the fabled lord.

Speculation draws Manus towards Martina, who in turn seeks to use Manus to draw out the other members of Duil. She's keen on promoting her own tale to peddle to the press about Gino. Perhaps Martina's scamming the band, as her appearance's timed with Duil releasing old tapes and passing them off with their manager's connivance as Gino's contributions mailed in after his vanishing act seven years before. The mythmaking process enchants not only fans but the press and Duil's other members, who silently collude in their own desperate attempts to pay their debts and live off of their only meal ticket, Gino, after he goes missing. If he's not there, his mystique must do. Bills need to be paid. Complicating this state of Duil's predicament after Gino left them with their creditors calling, Martina suspects that Gino arranged his own departure, and that his junkie chic comedown was more a pose than an affliction. Her theory of monastic intrigue impels a doubting Manus to follow. He wonders if her search will be better substantiated than the earlier reports purporting to solve Gino's fate.

Bailie explores the experiences of a type of protagonist little attended to in fiction. Adding to its interest, the novel enters a place once and long relegated to the margins of British popular music. There's no overt time period to betray the immediacy of the action, but Bailie, by keeping the plot clean of any real-life band comparisons, wisely allows us to think of this quest occurring within a time less linked to a particular trend or era, pixellating magnification capabilities aside.

The island's rock scene itself gains little overt attention, although the clash of Irish trad with arena power provides quite an appealing subplot. It's an Irish novel more in its matter-of-fact presentation of traditional musicians, brief snatches of scenery, or the passing observation.
"The evening is heavy with rain as we leave the sodium lit distortion of Belfast behind us and climb up to where the city peters out in the foothills of the Black Mountain. Bundles of houses appear now and again, separate from the suburban sprawl but with no real identity of their own. The road I drive is narrow and twisting and made dangerous by the floods of rain that pound it." (171)
The precision of the detail, sparely given, echoes Bailie's poetry. He's a local, who gives us what we need, and moves on.

A non-Irish writer would have likely ladled in more garish color. Mercifully free of whimsy, light on the emotions, and efficiently paced, the story moves with more direction if as much economy as its feckless teller. We get the backstory of Gino and his bandmates through the straightforward, more serviceable than striking prose style that fits its speaker, an observant but not unconvincingly eloquent man down on his luck whose only way back into fortune is his link to his former semi-celebrity days.

I'm not sure if this was Bailie's intention, but reading this I found a tonal harmony. Parts of Manus' narrative fall into that rather stolid evocation of one who recollects in tranquility one's barnburning days. Less as a prime mover and more as a rolling stone, Manus found himself with an offer he could not refuse. He joined Duil when they were already famous, and he after a concert of theirs.

The dutiful details emerge parallel here in fiction to how many rock-star stories are told in fact. It blurs and bores a bit at times, as Manus seeks to align his wavering existence against the energy of the magnetic personality, Gino. Manus was recruited by him at 19; now 33, he already feels as if he'll be living in the past, the few years with Gino will be Manus' only success in the decades to come. This verisimilitude makes sense. Manus lacks the charisma of the lead singer. It's always Gino's tale the hearer wants; Manus must endure as a means to this end.

The supporting character to the star never grabs, of course, the spotlight. Yet, Bailie's oblique strategy allows us to witness fame at this slight but persistent remove. Gnosticism, the appeal of the resurrected hero, and the veneration of idols all enter this book lightly, but offer a thoughtful gloss on the rock-star milieu that perceives its legends emerging, if we entered another dark age, via oral transmission. Two thousand years from now, what saints might elicit our prayers? We invent deities no less than the early Christians, seeking to recover the light that Sufis, rabbis, and lamas saw. This meditated perspective, at a half-turn from one who first worshiped the band as a fan before joining Duil, gives us a Gino less mundane than Manus witnessed in his first incarnation. "His gaunt craggy face could twist into the grimaces of a thousand agonies before settling into the smile of benign sainthood." (15)

Therefore, in Gino's after-life or half-life as attested to by those who were his eyewitness apostles and those who report on the messiah second-hand, the novel gently shifts gears into in an energy more mysterious. Perhaps Gino's appeal lay not only in his riffs or his songs, but in his aura? How, exactly, can one explain a celebrity's charisma-- perhaps in the root meaning of that word? In this evangelical register, unlike its earlier emulation of the many rock-star biographies written by others who knew so-and-so, "loyal acolyte" Manus' tale betters so many half-awed, half-jaded accounts of gods made flesh on stage. Duil, which is a word never defined (perhaps as this home-grown novel comes from Belfast's Lagan Press), means "desire," that strong lure that pulls you along. You may not realize you're hooked.

Available directly from: The Lagan Press, Belfast
. Posted belatedly to British Amazon 11-8-09 and cross-posted 6-6-08 to "Blogtrotter".

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Malachi O'Doherty's "Empty Pulpits": Book Review

Why has Ireland secularized so suddenly? Can we learn from Catholicism's institutional erosion how entrenched religions may erode elsewhere? Will the Irish evolve into belongers rather than believers?

O'Doherty fills a short book with deep questions. An astute observer of the corroding of another iconic Irish symbol, republicanism ("The Telling Year: Belfast 1972" & "The Trouble with Guns"), his West Belfast upbringing and (unmentioned here but see his memoir "I Was a Teenaged Catholic") hippie-era stint in India under a Hindu guru's tutelage inform his thoughtful investigation. This account leaves out his own story, but it's covered elsewhere. Here, he surveys liberal forces which, since the 1990s most visibly, undermined a supposedly monolithic theocracy.

Not quite: modernization drew many Irish away from agriculturally centered lives where a priest at Mass enforced not so much dogmatic dictate as support, socializing, and stability. My review will delve into detail, for O'Doherty's thesis to my knowledge challenges the standard Usual Suspects: sex abuses by the clergy, immorality transmitted by Dublin 4 media, and Anglo-American hedonism. He argues that the habit of trusting in a priest for advice on one's relationships, one's prospects, and one's soul had weakened as the Irish began listening to talk shows. Audiences applied pop-psychology to handling their own dilemmas as the post-Vatican II Church ignored the problem of evil, dismissed Purgatory and Hell as likely destinations, and downplayed sin. The clergy conservative and liberal often left a less rather than more relevant Church as the enormous outcry over Humanae Vitae weakened any authority of that celibate clergy over a married congregation. All this occured decades before the sex scandals`and clerical abuse reported at century's end.

The subtitle's off. Irish majorities retreat not from "Religion" but its organized, "white ethnic Christian mainstream" manifestations. Britain ebbed, now Ireland. O'Doherty offers the Irish as exhibit A of how quickly a people can abandon organized religion. Although Islam and evangelical Christians claim many, he wonders if their own domination may wither as quickly as the mainstream Western European churches. Yet, how do we measure rates of retreat from verities? O'Doherty compares prayer to masturbation: we'd be perplexed to verify who does it and who doesn't.

Practically, catching up with Europe, Irish use of the local church seems only for rituals. People ignore it but for baptisms, weddings, and funerals; as regular attendance plummets, those churches will close. Converted to cafés, discos, or libraries, Protestant edifices portend the fate of many parishes as vocations vanish, an aging priesthood dies off, and a remnant of clergy obeying conservative (or else they will not be appointed) bishops recite the formulaic dictates from a frustrated papacy bent on enforcing doctrine rejected by "a la carte" Catholics.

These turn away from the "mesmerisation" that compelled their ancestors to act as if they believed, for fear of ostracization. Claire Keegan's novel's cited: "God is an invention created by one man to keep another at a safe distance from his wife and land." (16) But, who could admit this aloud? The thinker of that line still attends Mass. "He knows the power of his neighbour's opinion and will not have it said that he's ever missed a Sunday."

That man's grandchildren sleep in. Not Mass but mass media speaks for them. Not that many articulate their drift from the Church so clearly, but by the rise in out-of-wedlock births, unmarried couples, and divorce, the restraints that compelled rural Irish to hold family together to stay on the land have disappeared along with that way of life when the priest seemed to govern the ritual way of life as if natural.

Pilgrims still climb Croagh Patrick in ancient ritual. Still, "everyone who goes before you damages the path and makes your own way harder." (53) It's more "spiritual than religious" for most faithful now, O'Doherty avers. The Irish convert what was social pressure to into individual options. They exercise along with a longing for transcendence up a rocky sharded path that nobody makes easier on their ascent for any following them. Seems an stubbornly Irish metaphor, somehow.

Collective emotion, O'Doherty knows as a journalist, can substitute for professed fidelity. The media replace the Church for public trust. But, they peddle ambition and avarice alongside sexual liberation and unconventional lifestyles. O'Doherty recognizes the lure of other spiritual messages for a people who may lack deeper awareness of their own abandonment of Catholic piety. How long can such a society endure? He wonders if-- like the British monarchy-- the Church will survive "on nothing but the occasional derision of the same people if it is to survive at all." (74) That is, the potency of space and time once dominated by a ruler over a people in one kingdom or the Church in its subjugated neighbor island can rouse the masses-- as in Pope John Paul II's visit or the death of Princess Diana-- but most of the time it will linger on as a quaint relic.

But, the monarchy dimmed over centuries; why has the Church collapsed so quickly? He touches on a novel insight: the media moralizes now over what the clergy warned us about once: "diet, smoking, alcohol and safe sex". Thrift = recycling; abstinence = safe driving; care for creatures = animal rights. This book's full of these reflections, even if some chapters halt suddenly a few pages on. While I agree with O'Doherty's perspective, the book underplays coverage of many fascinating topics. They appear too sporadic or fitful in their articulation. Editing may be to blame.

For instance, O'Doherty touches on the difficulty Catholics have in switching to Protestantism, rather than vice-versa. The evangelicals attract new Irish migrants as well as those tired of Methodist or Anglican (C of I) models. For Catholics, their congregations, for lack of a worship alternative, stagnate as the parishioners practice a variety of non-Catholic spiritual pursuits separately. O'Doherty for my money in buying this missed his round. Why not interview the abbot of San Francisco's Zen Center, Paul Haller born on the Falls Road, to exemplify a journey away from tradition into ecumenism? Haller's mentioned but in passing and the Black Mountain Belfast Zen center's not at all: a curious oversight given its potential.

Similarly, O'Doherty suggests objections to the late (Fr.) John O'Donoghue's popular "Anam Cara" book and Mary Kenny's "Goodbye to Catholic Ireland" (see my Amazon US review of her revised edition) but fails to elaborate. He refers to Roger Scruton's intriguing comparison of love with religion to counter the New Atheists but this only piques one's interest beyond the single paragraph summary. A predecessor with interests intersecting with O'Doherty's, Desmond Fennell, might have enriched this study. To elucidate a debate between Christopher Hitchens and "lapsed atheist" commentator John Waters (not the outré US filmmaker for you non-Irish readers), Hitchens' rather facile put-downs earn many pages. Nevertheless, Daniel Dennett's evolutionary psychology in "Breaking the Spell" fits perfectly O'Doherty's own speculations. An expert who could have bolstered the book's thesis, Dennett's only named once.

However, quick nods remain to Stephen Pinker and John Grey. They consider moral evolution as a sign of hope-- or at least a way we cope with mystery-- without belittling why many of us, post-Darwin, cling to an irrational yearning for the divine or the metaphysical. Richard Dawkins in a more nuanced manner publicly than Hitchens denigrates believers even if as "moderns" they dismiss fundamentalist tenets. O'Doherty counters this condescension. The last third of his book takes on the New Atheists. He wonders if today's religion isn't measured by declining church attendance, but a "still almost universal" belief in God. "Is it a sense of there being some indefinable spiritual context to our existence which feels stronger and clearer when you are listening to Beethoven or having an orgasm?" (123) This defines religion as provocatively post-denominational. I'm sure many welcome such analogies.

John Waters' weakness, O'Doherty holds, is that one cannot equate the Church with religion. "If the church was not the embodiment of religious sentiment in Ireland, then the collapse of that church cannot be read as the death of such sentiment." (126) Believers agree with naysayers: the Church was dysfunctional. What will replace that stubbornly inculcated "faith of our fathers"? Fatalism grounded in the seasons and the crops, as with religious propitiation of the powers held once to be, cannot serve a suburbanized seeker. A stable congregation sat in a country pew; their grandchildren live apart from stars and cows yet wander on interior journeys.

Ireland encountered secularization later, but when it came the last part of last century, it accelerated. It left many of our generation with memories of hegemony by priests and nuns over psychically fragile people, many uprooted from rural life by its mechanization. As for O'Doherty, those who managed to blaze their own inner path away from Catholicism post-Vatican II had to fend for themselves amidst an outwardly conforming culture where the family enforced fidelity, at least in a superstitious or superficial devotion. For those younger, raised in cities and housing estates, lacking an upbringing when the Church ruled, a maturer model may supplant habit.

While this aspect again deserved more attention, O'Doherty briefly mulls over Rabbi Julia Neuberger's contrast with a Judaism where defining God and demanding obedience is not the norm. Rather, practicing ritual and service "within a community" defines one's religion. "Belief in God was fluid. It came and went." (199) Family and continuity matter more than episcopal dicta or papal encylicals. Of course, Catholicism's vertically enforced rather than laterally interpreted as with Judaism. But, post-Catholic Ireland may blossom if in a more flexible, less fearful direction. New Atheists assume wrongly how a contemporary "religious" follower cannot deviate from the proclamations set down in scripture or pronounced from a pulpit. The rationalists become as fundamentalist in their set-up of a straw man believer as those they chastise for "Iron Age"-codified stupidities as obesiance.

Finally, glancing at how Polish immigrants to Ireland demonstrate in their tentative assimilation the power or lack of from a nation as "Catholic" as was once Ireland, O'Doherty raises a thoughtful case study for comparison. Nigerian arrivals enliven evangelical sects, but these often divide, sectarianism if along newer divisions. O'Doherty strives for fair-minded judgments that respect all who believe and all who confront faith. For the Irish, unpredictably, prophets now emerge as "singer-songwriters, poets and novelists" who summon us "into our bedrooms and down country lanes," he concludes, rather than preaching encyclicals from emptying sanctuaries. (P.S. See my reviews of O'Doherty's "Telling Year" & "I Was a Teenaged Catholic.": posted as this on British Amazon [no U.S. listing] 9-20-09. Crossposted "Teenaged" and "Empty" reviews to my regular blog, "Blogtrotter.")

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Malachi O'Doherty's "I Was a Teenage Catholic": Book Review

Theology vs. decency? During the Troubles, this Belfast journalist mulls over how Irish Catholicism and Ulster evangelicalism tangled his generation. Long an astute observer of republicanism, he proves here a diligent seeker into belief. Stubbornly skeptic, he concludes that in a sectarian North both sides may be groping, along with increasingly secular or agnostic counterparts, towards a simple human need: to test tradition that we're born into against our hard-won experience.

Like the republican and loyalist movements, Catholicism and Protestantism have operated in the North of Ireland upon fundamentalist tenets; their adherents generally claim allegiance not after mature choice, but by habitual upbringing. "I fostered fantasies of my own martyrdom, perhaps because that was all I could ever imagine my teachers would approve in me." (22) Early on, O'Doherty chafes against a 1950s childhood among the Christian Brothers. He insists upon testing what he's told to avow against his own bold life, and he finds wanting the faith of his fathers.

Yet, such a fantasized martyrdom "became more tangible against the background of Northern Irish sectarianism." (28) Circa 1968, "I was deciding that I wasn't a Catholic when others were deciding I had no say in the matter." (53) Losing his commitment before his convictions, his faith withers. He leaves a career in journalism after three years covering Irish strife, and after three aimless years in England he snags a vague job offer to compile a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita for a Hindu sage. He's off in the mid-'70s down the countercultural trail to an Indian ashram outside Delhi.

Swamiji looks like a mop of black hair, whether back or front. Loneliness consumes O'Doherty, and he tells movingly of the despair that kindles desperate trust in a stronger man than what one perceives as oneself. Beaten down by the Brothers as a boy, he struggles as a man nearing thirty to recognize how the soul's longing can or cannot be separated from devotion to a cause. Those who resisted the Christian Brothers, he notes, belatedly became Provos in the IRA, bowing to an Irish need for old conservative ways drummed in by parents and teachers. Threatened early on by the British Army in an home invasion, O'Doherty covers the Troubles for three years, while figuring out how far he can go down the path to belief as a secularized Irish man, schooled in the tenets of a creed and a cause both of which he has disavowed. After England, in India his need for uplift returns. He's attracted to an even more idolatrous manifestation in the utter obesiance a guru demands from a disciple.

He drifts, it seems, into lengthy meditation, mind-expanding to the point he envisions his head swelling like a ball, until he sees a white disc hover before his eyes, after years of relentless practice. Yet, he shrinks from Swamiji's Brahmin disdain for everyone else. O'Doherty, of no caste, is as untouchable as the Hindu tradition he cannot defend for his own adaptation or appropriation. Compared to Catholicism, at least its worst priest, he reflects, would have to care for a beggar he publicly met on the street; gurus like Swamiji loftily disdain any such charity. He grows impatient with O'Doherty's humanism, while Swamiji tries to impel his Irish charge to bend to traditional ways. But, as in Ireland, O'Doherty cannot kneel.

No surrender brings eventually his epiphany: "I cannot die to the world to save my soul." (134) Religion, he reflects, seems in the Irish to be divided between magic and fatalism; neither can soothe his innate rebelliousness. After a year apart from Swamiji wandering India and resuming his writing career, he goes back to the North as a religious affairs correspondent, whose specialty becomes the soundbite from the field, or the parade route, without profanity but with enough naivete or hatred from his earnest or fiery interviewees in the field that will get the best bits aired.

The first part of this narrative began as he braved a protest while working for the BBC in the Protestant enclave of Harryville; as his name reveals O'Doherty's counted among the enemy. After the central Indian portion, the story pivots back to his continued immersion in the North, where religion battles with politics. It's where one standing on the sidelines with a BBC microphone in hand must jump into the fray again, still marked by friend or it seems more often by foe by the faith he left behind. He's a wise interviewer; he stays detached. His discovery: God keeps out of our affairs, entreaties by gurus and claims by visionaries to the contrary. "Our language about God is like the language which in our dreams describes the world. In both we are insulated by metaphor from what we cannot know or must not know." (169)

As expected by readers of "The Trouble With Guns: Republican Strategy and the Provisional IRA" (1998), O'Doherty can be prescient about the dangers of rigid fidelity to irrational ideals and rabid trust in destructive ideologies. He's at home with Irish end-games of all pursuits. I note that he has since written more about republicanism as "The Telling Year: Belfast 1972" and continued decline in Irish religion as "Empty Pulpits." I look forward to these; unlike other analysts of the Troubles and Irish culture, he's able to link the rise and fall of monolithic republicanism and inescapable Catholicism to the maturation of his fellow citizens.

He proposes that the peace process and the collapse of clerical authority came about when "literal minded and obedient religion" dissolved, and when the republican cause found itself concurrently unable to command once unswerving ranks of those who learned that for contraception or decommissioning, "truth itself became negotiable." (137) O'Doherty lacks fellow commentator Eamonn McCann's radical stance, in his similar blends of autobiography and analysis "War and an Irish Town" and "Dear God"; the two authors share an ability to move between the personal and the political nimbly, although McCann's harsher on these twin fallen idols than O'Doherty, whose faith led him not to Marx but to India along the way, expanding his perspective in metaphorical and practical ways neither lad raised in postwar Northern Ireland might have imagined. O'Doherty's tenure in these twin fields of wartime dissension and religious agitation provides many anecdotes, at first appearing perhaps as casually as this short but densely packed and philosophically challenging book's title.

That is, it seems a throwaway line. But, "teenaged Catholic," existing in the past tense for this first-person subject, stands for a whole world-view, one that younger folks like myself (exactly a decade younger), cannot truly remember. O'Doherty's exploration takes familiar topics such as priestly scandal, poverty, hypocrisy, Ian Paisley, theodicy, and the impossibility of proving God's existence. "And if God is a myth, he is the patch we cover ourselves with." But, he's too smart now to deny God. "I take God to be the mirror in space of the whole self, to which nothing need ever to be said, which acknowledged, can be taken wholly for granted." (169-70) Facing death in his family, he accepts it as "Nature's rebuttal of tradition." (166)

This 2003 memoir stands beside his peer's eloquent 1995 defense of a similar agnostic balance that measures an adult's distance from pre-conciliar Catholicism, by the late Waterford-born, Cork-based journalist-poet Seán Dunne. "The Road to Silence" tracked an interior journey paralleling O'Doherty's, if removed from the Troubles in the relative calm of the South and the Continent. Younger journalist-memoirist, Manchán Magan, in his "Manchán's Travels" in early '90s India, provides another skeptic's testimony, another republican-raised Irishman's more recent reaction to Hindu fanaticism and the predicament of outcasts and India's poor. All three writers share respect for their Irish culture, and objectivity about their own loyalties as men who've outgrown their childhood pieties, political or spiritual, while becoming cautious and patient enough to listen to the yearnings and to record the longings of those at home or abroad who hold dogged beliefs or generous decency within themselves as believers.

Enriched by his probably unique comparison of a Belfast boyhood with a Hindu exposure, plus a journalist's objectivity with a cradle Catholic's scrutiny, O'Doherty combines disparate threads and casual scenarios. Upon reflection, for this reader he reveals a carefully arranged pilgrim's progression through the byways and highways that all of us, whatever our denomination or lack thereof-- or muddle between-- can recognize as an modern man's honest tale of how he tried to look God in the eye, and what happened when he faced that moment and decided to turn away.

(I've reviewed Dunne & Magan on my "Blogtrotter" blog and on British & US Amazon; also see my review of "The Miracle Detective" by Randall Sullivan on Amazon US about the Marian apparitions at Medjugorje that O'Doherty also recounts in a vignette here; Posted to Amazon US and Britain 7-25-09.)

Friday, July 24, 2009

Stephen Batchelor's "The Awakening of the West": Book Review

"The Encounter of Buddhism & Western Culture" examines two millennia of Europe's vexed and visionary experiences when meeting what's not quite an Asian religion, but more than an exotic philosophy. Batchelor, a Scot who was both a Korean Zen and Indo-Tibetan monk before espousing an agnostic dharma interpretation, proves ideal for introducing the characters and meetings that confounded Jesuits and friars, excited explorers and mystics, and unsettled despots and dictators.

He begins by listing five "attitudes" in the "long, uncertain relationship of the West with Buddhism." Blind indifference, self-righteous rejection, rational knowledge, romantic fantasy, and existential engagement. Outside of a few ancient Greek contacts, Europeans lacked knowledge until the 13th c. when Catholic clergy ventured far enough east. From then until the end of the 1800s, the West tended to denigrate or at least dismiss Eastern teachings. The Romantic movement broke with the Enlightenment by exaggerating the Oriental Other. Others in the 19th c. strove by reason to bring science to study the East, accompanying the colonial expansion.
Finally, in the last century, a few Westerners started to practice Buddhism; until nearly 1970, however, most of those in Europe practically knew each other, so small were the numbers before the Tibetan diaspora and the counterculture built upon an earlier interest in Zen among the Beats and intellectuals to bring in the flourishing of Buddhism among many disaffected with traditional beliefs, alongside others blending the dharma with conventional faiths-- or psychotherapies-- today.

Batchelor notes how in the 13th century of change, when Asia and Europe were roiled by political and military conflict, three traditions took root in Asia that in contemporary Europe now number the most adherents. Karma Kagyu became Chogyam Trungpa's Shambhala school; Soto Zen shifted with D.T. Suzuki's books and Shunryu Suzuki's San Francisco Zen Center & Tassajara emerged from this California 1960s epicenter; Nichiren's insistent renewal allied with Japanese lay evangelism turned into Soka Gakkai worldwide.

The Japanese and Chinese, faced with missionizing Jesuits, found their Asian tolerance strained by European claims that the truth lay only in the Catholic way. Batchelor fairly sets out the horrific tortures inflicted by the Tokugawa Shogunate upon the recalcitrant martyrs, but he also shows how rare a Buddhist-affiliated state has generated violence against its ideological foes, as opposed to the colonial and contemporary norms. Korea, Japan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and India: the list of places where Buddhism has fallen before tyrants lengthens in our own times. In Thailand and Southeast Asia, the movement for an engaged Buddhism tackling injustice and advocating pacificism takes up an eloquent chapter that shows how the "interbeing" of Thich Nhat Hanh and the "universal responsiblity" of the Dalai Lama connect to overthrow the notion of Buddhism as a self-involved, nihilistic, dreary, and moribund religion. This notion, spread by Western philosophers, scholars, missionaries, and early translators, served to taint Buddhism for centuries, and still lingers in many prejudiced accounts we find now.

Sir William Jones, who figured out in 1786 that Sanskrit was the root from which Indo-European languages sprouted, as with many British in India, ignored Buddhism. It had been wiped out by the Moghul invaders centuries before; it lingered in a few Himalayan redoubts beyond real contact with all but a few intrepid travellers. Hinduism regarded it with as much disdain as the West. "Jones believed that Buddha was the teutonic god Wotan or Odin." (233) This level of ignorance took many years to overcome.

Eugene Burnouf (1801-52) stands out midway through the book as a diligent Sanskrit-adept investigator; his philological and Orientalist lessons would rub off on his student Ernest Renan who famously tried to historicize the life of Jesus. Extreme rationalism brought extreme prejudice; the hostility to a declining Catholicism exacerbated among Enlightenment-inspired intellectuals a dismissal of any elaborate rituals within the Buddhism imperial reports discussed. A Protestant-like Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Thailand became favored in the later 19th c. by Theosophists, colonial translators, and native reformers.

Unknowingly, the search for an "Aryan" homeland to which Jesus retreated in his "lost years" for Indian wisdom, free from Jewish influence, provides a detour that Batchelor notes in passing. Antisemitism was fostered by European scholars bent on prying Judeo-Christian origins away from even the Gospels. Romantic Orientalism cast a long shadow over Indo-European studies. 19th c. German contributions that tried to push aside Latin Renaissance biases themselves have since then suffered by reputation. The barbarians were celebrated rather than Romans, via this search for Eastern origins for a purified "race" generated by Hindu and Buddhist distortions.

Buddhism as such misreadings show is often misunderstood by us. It was misused to train kamikaze pilots; but it also inspired Soviet "samidzat" tracts and learning was preserved even in the gulags. Although many have tried to crush it, as we see in Asian totalitarian states today, many try to save it at the cost of their lives.

Philology for rationalists, fantasy for romantics, but neither IE-professors or New Age dabblers pin the tail on this varied elephant, to adopt a Buddhist analogy! "To fix the elephant in space or time is to kill her. The elephant breathes and moves-- in ways one cannot foresee." (274) It's not an ethical system, psychology, philosophy, faith, mysticism, devotion, meditation, or therapy. But it can use all of these aspects. Batchelor, anticipating his 1997 book "Buddhism Without Beliefs," tells us that its "attitude towards life is neither rational nor non-rational; based neither on feeling, intuition nor sensation. Yet it includes them all."

Finally, as Batchelor's own young monastic quest demonstrates, the counterculture allowed contact with real Buddhist practice for more than a few European scholars, officials, missionaries, or explorers. It's still in a "transitional" phase, and the book alternates often between historical accounts and recent adaptations of the various schools and movements as they journey westward, often brought by Europeans training in Asian monasteries before going back home, but as often Asian monks and experts travelling to the West to start or assist at new centers across Europe and the Americas. "It required two World Wars, Hitler and Stalin, the threat of nuclear war and environmental destruction and, in many cases, a hefty dose of LSD to render Europeans sufficiently humble to seek their lost spiritual centre elsewhere." (275)

Breaking the "grid of reason" and twisting the "dreams of romanticism," the dharma manages today to transcend, in Batchelor's view, a heretical Buddhist practice in Europe now. Protestant revolt had earlier broken Catholicism's "stranglehold" but also "ruptured the cohesion of the European soul." He finds Buddhist heresy a positive force; moving "outside the Judaeo-Christian-Hellenic tradition" forces adherents to choose the dharma in the same way that Asians do traditionally. Intriguingly, he finds: "It makes little sense to regard oneself as a Buddhist by birth." (276) The choice to practice, not one's birth culture or the bought décor, makes one a Buddhist.

While some of the chapters drag with recitals of names and dates that any history may find inescapable, especially one that pioneers study of its subject, as with the American counterpart, Rick Fields' "How the Swans Came to the Lake," (1992), Batchelor weaves many disparate strands into an intelligent narrative. He adds a short glossary, endnotes, a bibliography, and index that assist our comprehension of a saga stretching over two thousand years, and across half the earth in its quest.

The middle of the volume, which takes on "Everyman" in his attempt to make Buddhism matter, provides the sharpest insights, as perhaps these energize from their author's own formation at this period of what's been labelled subsequently "methodological agnosticism" applied to the dharma's Western adoption and modernizing representation. In the heart of his book, Batchelor grapples with the force of culture and tradition for a European determined to become a Buddhist. He finds the salvific Christ a "consoling fiction," as he opens his book quoting Voltaire's estimate of history as a "convenient fiction." Buddhism, as its teachers show, depends on "transmission" from expert to learner; this chain can be tracked back in documented lineages to the historical Buddha. One cannot "grow up" in the practice, but must take it on actively. He cites an Hasidic tale of a rabbinical student going far to see how his chosen master ties his shoelaces. This sort of unexpected meeting, Batchelor explains, shows the type of unplanned teaching that characterizes true encounters.

People want to pin down their version, their part of the elephant that they touch and see and smell. They miss the rest of the great beast beyond their grasp. Reification presents a danger. Attributing permanence, substance, and condition to that inherently changeable, evanescent, and dependent upon its components is the basic dharma that defining Buddhism resists. Batchelor stresses adaptation for the West, and for the East as its westernized; he reminds readers that any form of the dharma must be transformative, forced to change to a new enviroment for it to survive among its practitioners. This evolution happens in the culture as well as within the practitioner. "As long as the practitioner remains unaffected, the Dharma can be no more than a consolation, a diversion, a fascination or an obsession." (279)

Later sections take us through various contemporary expounders of teachings. With "engaged" Buddhism, Batchelor finds an antidote for the pablum often "soft-peddled" as dharma that panders to romantic, nihilistic, consumerist, or passive fads. Delving into the recently popular "interdependence" concept, he finds that Thich Nhat Hanh's "interbeing," developed out of the peaceful opposition that brought down the Catholic despot Diem in 1963, can topple oppressors. (Of course, I add, military might as wielded by the U.S. and its Vietnamese puppet regime insured that the non-violent alternative did not last long.)

Globalization reminds us of interbeing in another context. The "'poisons' of the mind (delusion, greed and hatred) to be uprooted through Buddhist practice have become institutionalized in the forms of the multinational corporations, consumerism, and the arms industry that increasingly dominate life on earth." (361-2) If one acts with true compassion, one cannot sit on a cushion all day. One must get out and take time to make changes to trouble the complacent and comfort the weak.

Batchelor ends this book as he began, with the Dalai Lama being recognized by Vaclav Havel after the fall of Communism. Nearly twenty years on, reading his accounts, I wondered if any hope was left for Tibet, Burma, Vietnam, North Korea, or Laos where the "sangha" has been terrorized but where perhaps in a few redoubts monks, nuns, and laity try to rally opposition peacefully. He concludes with an telling and haunting anecdote from oral history conveyed firsthand that's missing from "convenient fictions" of the historical record. The Dalai Lama in his official autobiography "Freedom in Exile" omits his real encounter at the Wall of another East-West divide now broken by capitalism, migration, and global diaspora. He was on the East side, not the West as he writes.

On that side, the GDR's Communist Party had fallen earlier that same day. The Stasi, the secret police, escorted him and his entourage into then-Soviet Zone at Checkpoint Charlie. A Citizen's Action Movement had rallied, wishing to take over East Germany to make it non-aligned, demilitarized, nuclear-free, and "environmentally aware." (376) This CAM told the Dalai Lama he'd be their "first official guest," and that Tibetan independence would be recognized. But, his handlers were nervous and got him back to the western side of the Wall. West Germans intervened, and reunification under the consumer oligarchy that epitomizes Western democracy in Europe followed for the GDR.

Petra Kelly, Green Party leader, and her companion Gert Bastian told him this story. They were in the crowd that saw the Dalai Lama light his candle on the other side of the Berlin Wall. Petra had illicitly arranged the car that took the Tibetans to their clandestine (and heretofore unknown to Batchelor) roundtable. Four days after Kelly told this story, Gert fatally shot her and then himself. No suicide note, no explanation, at least of the New Year's Eve, 1992 completion of this book's manuscript. Out of such stories, multiplied in unpredictable, inspiring, and depressing fashion, history emerges into written form, and out of the scraps gleaned from past notes and testimonies, Batchelor has created an engrossing story himself.

(P.S. Readers wanting more about Shunryu Suzuki: see my review of David Chadwick's "Crooked Cucumber." Also, see my review of "Buddhism Without Beliefs"-- both on my "Blogtrotter" blog and on Amazon US recently, where this review was posted 7-24-09. His newest book, "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist," awaits my reading and reviewing. Author's website: "StephenBatchelor.org".)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Donald Lopez' "A Modern Buddhist Bible": Book Review

>"Tired of listening to eulogistical messages with empty contents," a Thai activist castigates Buddhist leaders for smugly promoting their tolerance, scientific compatibility, and downright goodness while his people starve under dictatorship. The selections compiled show a Buddhism that turns from worship and ritual towards meditation, but also towards social justice. Many books on Buddhism tend to be slim, full of platitudes, and self-congratulatory. This one strives for a truer depiction of how, from 1873-1990, Buddhist leaders and popularizers have engaged contemporary problems, and also have perpetuated modern fantasies, about the truth of the dharma.

Jack Kerouac claimed to have stolen a copy from San José, California's public library of an earlier assembly of Buddhist scriptures arranged by Dwight Goddard as "The Buddhist Bible." The incongruity and the compatibility of such a juxtaposition reveals Western and modern attempts to package dharma for a popular audience schooled in Holy Writ, and then, like Kerouac, wanting to step beyond it or integrate it into a modern encounter between East and West, mystic and mass-market, venerable and hip. Out of such conventional dichotomies, such authors as included here seek also to bridge cultural gaps, correct (or in earlier decades continue or distort) misunderstandings, and to realign Buddha's instructions as operating manuals in an age of faster transport, bolder power, and quicker communication.

The editor introduces modern Buddhism that "rejects many of the ritual and magical elements of previous forms." Instead, "it stresses equality over hierarchy, the universal over the local, and often exalts the individual above the community." (ix)
It does not improve earlier Buddhism so much as-- and the Protestant and/or secular, New Age, and/or rational qualities of many who started the effort from both Eastern and Western backgrounds must be emphasized-- seeking a return to a truer, more primitive, simpler practice. The ancient form is argued to be the most modern.

Lopez, a Tibetan expert, does insert practically verbatim parts from his 1998 debunking "Prisoners of Shangri-La" as he introduces Evans-Wentz' "Tibetan Book of the Dead," for example. Some earlier excerpts such as the historically important Madame Blavatsky with her Theosophical flights of fancy, Evans-Wentz' rather lugubrious interpretations, and Sir Edwin Arnold's once popular "The Light of Asia" will probably bore today's reader. But, they are necessary to show the start of the dialogue between Eastern reformers and Western explorers who discovered Buddhism and wished to present it as an alternative to imperialism, Christianity, and Darwin; or, perhaps rather compatible with at least the last two.

I found my own favorites. Shunryu Suzuki (see my review of David Chadwick's "Crooked Cucumber" biography) sensibly sums up Soto Zen's stress on simplicity. "It is like studying a foreign language; you cannot do it all of a sudden, but by repeating it over and over you will master it. This is the Soto way of practice. We may say either that we make progress little by little, or that we do not even expect to make progress. Just to be sincere and make our full effort in each moment is enough. There is no Nirvana outside our practice." (135)

Alan Watts seems to have fallen out of favor among current audiences, but he prepared the way for Shunryu Suzuki's impact in the San Francisco counterculture. Unlike the Beats (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Snyder) here featured, in his 1959 essay "Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen," Watts appears to have outlasted the Beats when it comes to a prescient observation of the permanence of true insight vs. the fads of a passing trend-- an aspect that continues to color how Buddhism gets marketed globally more than ever. Watts starts by nodding to the Japanese twist. Zen historically attracted the samurai class for its power to get rid of their self-conscious youthful education. But, this plays into the "Japanese compulsion to compete with oneself-- a compulsion which turns every craft and skill into a marathon of self-discipline." I thought of the bizarre game shows that try to humiliate or reward contestants with death-defying or at least stomach-churning feats. Watts finds that Japan's version of Zen "fought fire with fire, overcoming the 'self observing the self' by bringing it to an intensity with which it exploded." (161)
For Westerners raised within a Jewish-Christian culture, whether or not adhering to its beliefs outright, Watts understands the appeal of a Buddhism that the Beats enjoyed, one that did not preach or moralize. Yet, Watts knows the dangers of distorting dharma into existential folly. He insists that anyone from the West must get beyond being "swayed by its promises unconsciously." One must be able to take or leave "the Lord God Jehovah with his Hebrew-Christian conscience" but "without fear or rebellion." A comparison may be Rodger Kamenetz' studies (reviewed by me) in "The Jew in the Lotus" and "Stalking Elijah" about how Jewish and/or Buddhist seekers try to balance their psychic inheritance with their practical search.

Watts finds that unless one is freed from the "itch to justify" one's self, one's
"Zen will be either 'beat' or 'square', either a revolt from the culture and social order of a new form of stuffiness and respectability. For Zen is above all the liberation of the mind from conventional thought, and this is something utterly different from rebellion against convention, on the one hand, or adapting foreign conventions, on the other." (165)
He contrasts the "underlying protestant lawlessness of beat Zen" as calculated to annoy the squares, who seriously try to pursue the "satori" or breakthrough by gaining official stamps of calligraphed approval. Their own spiritual tourism, their rush to wander Asia to find what they can obtain in their own garden, also presents dangers, when such "fuss" gets "mixed up with Bohemian affectations." (168; 171)

Chogyam Trungpa in the last selection, after the next dozen years of the Beats turned hippies found many Americans unable to handle true wisdom, also finds that without a "spiritual friend who is a doctor with a sharp knife," seekers will fail to free themselves from "spiritual materialism" and "shopping" for one layer after another to put on and discard as they wander the bazaar of the next hip spirituality.

Thich Nhat Hanh offers another alternative to such restlessness within the modern heart. "A human being is like a television set with millions of channels. If we turn the Buddha on, we are the Buddha. If we turn sorrow on, we are sorrow. If we turn a smile on, we really are the smile. We cannot let just one channel dominate us. We have the seed of everything in us, and we have to seize the situation in our hand, to recover our own sovereignty." (205)

Allying individual renewal to social transformation, Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, and Taiwanese activist Cheng Yen urge smiles to accompany little shifts in personal behavior that start to ripple out to those around us. While B. R. Ambedkar's Indian manifesto shown earlier tying Karl Marx to a revolutionary dharma may have never come to fruition, nor the Thai Buddhadesa's call for "dictatorial socialism" to overcome the dictators in his homeland, the gentler calls for reform dominate later appeals to apply the dharma to change the world, rather than play into stereotypes of a navel-gazing Buddhism concerned only with monastic ritual, inner exploration, or exotic mantras.

Arranged chronologically by the birth of their authors, the thirty-one selections do not follow any logical pattern otherwise. As with "Prisoners of Shangri-La," this anthology will prove difficult to plow straight through; a glossary does help somewhat, but not a book I'd recommend to beginners. Try Rick Fields' narrative history of Buddhism in America, "How the Swans Came to the Lake," first. Lopez can be less than helpful in some of his too-compressed introductions; I am not sure where a "Calvinist convent" is for Alexandra David-Neel's early education. Some excerpts are astonishingly dull, predictable, or obtuse. Still, this forces the reader like it or not into hearing a diverse array of voices demanding renewal and rebirth of Buddhism. I shared a few of my favorite passages above.

Lopez views the modern Buddhist movements as their own sect. Not mutually exclusive of earlier forms, but often compatible if with "its own lineage, its own doctrines, its own practices." Here, from "a cosmopolitan network of intellectuals," he attempts to present "its own canon of sacred scriptures." (xxxix)

While William Burroughs' rejoinder "Show me a good Buddhist novelist" (155) remains to be proven, given the lack of fiction and not much poetry of any worth within these pages, I do hope a century later readers of a "21st Century Buddhist Bible" may find much to celebrate in the genres not only of polemic, sermon, address, scientific speculation, and inspiration, but in the realms of the creative arts. (Posted to Amazon US today, and also on my shorter blog where many other reviews appear, "Blogtrotter.")

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Donald Lopez' "Prisoners of Shangri-La": Book Review

How we idealize Tibet as the white man's spiritual treasury, protected by monks within frozen lairs, links seven essays. Acerbic, dispassionate, and unromantic, Lopez demystifies what much coverage of the Dalai Lama and centuries of fables have obscured: Tibet's reality. This book talks little of politics, but much about the predicament that the West has placed Tibet within: we cannot allow it to escape our own fanciful prison, within which levitating lamas, carefree peasants, and many monks pursue beneath rarified skies the mysteries of a higher realm.

This emphasis, despite Lopez's knack for deadpan dismissal of tall tales, can be dispiriting. While I admire his efforts to dismantle the Orientalist construct that freezes Tibet, I wondered why he remained so dispassionate about its current plight. The final chapter, "The Prison," appears to castigate the Dalai Lama for his difficult balancing act between political leader and spiritual director, but it's hard to see why Lopez ignores the destruction of so much of the learning and culture that he, as a professional Tibet expert, would surely lament.

Perhaps the "surely" betrays my own prejudice, however. In professorial mode rather than as gulled tale-teller, he seeks to distance himself from Western stereotypes of Eastern wisdom. He studies how Western reception makes "things Tibetan become not particular to a time and a place, but universal, and in the process Tibet is everywhere and hence nowhere, functioning as an element of difference in which everything is possible." And in this non-historical, non-geographical, nonsensical depiction, Westerners form their own deluded knowledge of what they claim to know.

Chapter One examines at great length the term Lamaism as a definition for what Tibetans believe. Often Protestant or rationalist interpreters sought to taint Tibetan practice and belief as "papist," and while Lopez does not cite Ram Dass' later summation of Tibetan Buddhism as "Roman Catholicism on LSD," this later, and perhaps approving, tie of the Vatican to the lamasary may be a rare instance of a positive spin on the topic. Even early friars visiting Lhasa despaired at finding an eerie funhouse mirror of Catholic ritual seemingly repeated by the panoply they found. It later became justification for the fears of the West that the Church and Tibet both represented, to be conquered by either reforming Christians and/or rational imperialists. He concludes: "The very use of the term Lamaism is a gesture of control over the unincorporated and the unassimilated, used first by the Qing over Tibet, then as a code word for 'Papism' by the British over Catholic Ireland and Europe, and finally by European Buddhology over the uncolonized and unread." (44)

Chapter Two extends the reach of the West through Jung's commentary and the various editors and renderers of the mislabelled (to allude to the 1920s King Tut craze, a point Lopez does not mention) "Tibetan Book of the Dead." Lopez repeats a minor error in recounting the tale of its earliest popularizer, Walter Y. Evans-Wentz. Lopez notes that Evans-Wentz "enrolled at Stanford, where he studied with William James and William Butler Yeats." (52) While W.Y. Evans-Wentz pursued Yeats to his Irish home at Coole in the summer of 1908, and dedicated his 1911 "Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries" (originally his Rennes thesis, published by Oxford) to WBY, I can find no record in the standard biography by R.F. Foster that Yeats himself taught at Stanford, only that his lecture tour from 27 Jan.-3 Feb. 1904 covered the Bay Area, with a lecture on 29 Jan. at Stanford. ("W.B. Yeats: A Life" 1:305; Foster makes his own minor slip, indexing "William" rather than "Walter.")

Lopez, here and in his edition of the life of Milarepa, appears to borrow the last phrase of the blurb (repeated on Wikipedia) in "Fairy Faith" that's "about the author." This claims: "He received both his B.A. and M.A. from Stanford University, where he studied with William James and William Butler Yeats." In "Fairy-Faith," Evans-Wentz dedicates it to AE (George Russell) and Yeats, "who brought to me at my own alma mater in California the first message from fairyland and who afterward in his own country led me through the haunts of fairy kings and queens." This seems more accurate. The earlier claim repeated by Lopez about the "where" is the point in question; Evans-Wentz came in 1908 to learn from Yeats; Yeats did not come to teach Evans-Wentz per se-- unless a few conversations with WYE-W by WBY during California speaking engagements count as such.

Returning to the main text, I disagree with Lopez' assumption that Sogyal Rinpoche's "Tibetan Book of Living and Dying" too heedlessly sidesteps the idea of the "six realms of rebirth" by avoiding a "literal rendering." (80) As a Californian, I liked Sogyal's analogy of my state as, for "the demigod realm," reified by deluded, "high on meditation," surfers and lounging, affluent layabouts. He, as Lopez glances at only, simply gives us a comparison Westerners can relate to. He later shows in his book much more about traditional depiction of the bardos, but his purpose is not the straight translation (or as Francesca Fremantle later in "Luminous Emptiness" strove to do, the applicability of it to life and not only the afterlife) or commentary that Thurman may have favored--admittedly with his own very contemporary slant. After all, Fremantle & Chogyam Trungpa, Thurman, and Sogyal Rinpoche tried to shift the text from Evans-Wentz's esoteric eclecticism and Jung's archetypes so as to position it for post-hippie, post-lysergic readers today. This mission in the Penguin complete edition (by Gyurme Dorje, Graham Coleman, Thupten Jinpa, with the inevitable if certainly welcome prefaces and comments by the Dalai Lama) continues to strive to overcome Evans-Wentz's Theosophical & New Age bias. And, as Lopez deadpans, if E-W had found in the 1919 detritus of a returning British officer instead a Buddhist logic tract, we'd be telling a far different tale of the dharma in the West today.

Lopez raises an excellent question. Perhaps New Age devotees of Evans-Wentz's Theosophical and willfully eclectic "California Cosmology" (see Ronald Hutton's "The Triumph of the Moon" history of modern paganism and witchcraft) and eager Tibetophiles such as Tim Leary, Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), and Robert Thurman might agree: early Buddhism anticipates later Western physics, regarding deeper levels of consciousness accessible by psychedelics, meditation, tantra, or combinations thereof. Yet, Lopez interrupts, why do we believe Buddhists and their sympathizers? "When we read the claims of Hindu fundamentalists that locomotives and rocket travel are described in the Vedas or that the beam of light emitted from S[h]iva's brow is really a laser, we smile indulgently." Compare to Buddhist claims from the same time and culture for "a universe that moves through periods of cosmic evolution and devolution," for which many may "assume that this is simply something that physicists have not yet discovered." (76)

Such claims permeate those who, as with Lama Govinda, may not even know Tibetan, yet speak as purveyors of hidden wisdom from "treasure texts" long preserved in Shangri-La. By contrast, Lopez is almost gentle in Chapter Three with Lobsang Rampa, the "mystifier" in a double sense, born Cyril Hoskin in Devonshire. He handles the persistently popular New Age assertions that this British man had his "body actually taken over by the spirit of an Easterner"-- to quote him-- and so he "became" a lama, although unable to speak any Tibetan in his Anglicized manifestation, although he could communicate with cats. His many pulp paperbacks recount his adventures in Tibetan and spiritualist realms, and while shelved among "occult" titles today, Lopez notes with a touch of sympathy how many of his professional colleagues first learned about Tibet in the pages of such as 1956's début by Rampa, "The Third Eye."

Chapter Four takes on "om mani padme hum" at much length, equalling that of "lamaism." Again, he delves into how interpretations-- eventually by Tibetans themselves in their explanations-- turn into a rote recital of "the jewel in the heart of the lotus" to sum up this endlessly recited formula as speaking for Tibet.
I found its most evocative, if provocative, exposure near the end of a rather exhausting chapter. It may be that early missionaries quailed at its meaning, if they dared to penetrate its mystery. If the "feminine form of the Sanskrit vocative" for "mani padme" apparently as "O Jewel Lotus" appeals to Avalokiteshvara, who holds both items, why would this masculine figure receive a feminine form? Lopez quotes June Campbell's "Traveller in Space"-- it's unlikely that "mani" means phallus, as "vajra" [often "thunderbolt" in common translations] is "more common." Campbell posits "mani" as clitoris and so the mantra invokes "the deity of the clitoris-vagina," an indigenous deity before the coming of the dharma, who underwent a sex-change by those Campbell deems "the zealous missionaries of Tibetan Buddhism." (133)

The tendency to misinterpret art in Western exhibitions and catalogues takes up Chapter Five; Chapter Six presents a fascinating topic that I have never seen raised in a popular account of Tibetan Buddhism. Jeffrey Hopkins, along with Thurman the pioneer of Western transmission of Tibetan dharma into academia, is also a practitioner. Many of his American Ph.D.'s-- as with Lopez, I gather-- in the field turn "scholar-adepts." Unlike Continental scholars emerging out of Oriental Studies programs, for the U.S., the seminary model influenced the Religious Studies set-up for colleges here. Tibetan Studies Ph.D's often link their study to their practice.

Perhaps, one cannot easily sever study from inculcation, as one seeks "salvation by scholarship" in by collegial tenure rather than as a celibate monk. This intrigued me, for how many other departments may boast this psychic identification by professors? Can one teach communism or Freud or Islam without avowing its tenets? Certainly. Given the transmission that Buddhism relies upon of the teaching in a one-on-one chain over 2500 years, I wonder if this can be adapted to academia, or if the monastic pattern will be substituted in universities. What he does not explore is whether a non-believer in the dharma can truly comprehend Tibetan texts, that need-- if Lopez and Hopkins are correct-- to be taken in by those encountering them by methods defying mere translation or equivalents.

Lopez shows how Hopkins at the U. of Virginia took his students into in-depth re-thinking so they could learn the syllogisms and rationales upon which non-Western philosophy as taught by the lamas rested for their students. This re-orientation of the mindset necessary for understanding Tibetan teaching, due to its difficulty, means that a UVA dissertation may still aspire to the level that, among Tibetans, may be reached by a twelve-year-old schoolchild in a monastery. It's that arcane. Just comparing the Tibetan transliterations to their Western compression shows the challenge of crossing what I imagine may loom as a considerable barrier for those not fluent in Sanskrit and Chinese before tackling Tibetan and its cousin languages.

The final chapter raises how we construct prisons around fantasies. Pico Iyer in "The Open Road" (reviewed by me last year on "Blogtrotter" and on Amazon US) raises the same example as Lopez. How many who revere in stadiums or seminars the Dalai Lama know of the "Shugden affair"? Westerners tend to respond to a secularized, ethical, and non-theistic, non-ritualistic, ecumenical style of Buddhism as packaged for wide audiences. "The Tibetan Buddhism practiced by Western adherents was generally of the Buddhist modernist variety, with an emphasis on meditation on emptiness and on compassion, and did not include ritual offerings of fire from a lamp made of human fat with a wick made of human hair." While Tibetan teachers themselves propitiate this controversial "demon" deity, such veneration to say the least does not constitute the retailed version of what gurus offer to their students abroad.

And, on such contrasts, Lopez ends his uneven but worthwhile 1998 study. This book feels as if he wrote separate essays on aspects of how Westerners interpret Tibetan Buddhism, and then he later linked them, often loosely, and widened them for a broader readership. Unlike Jeffery Paine's popularized "Re-Enchantment," Lopez includes substantial scholarship with complete references; many of the endnotes are essential for complete appreciation of what can be advanced academic discourse. Despite the apparent outreach to a wide readership, this book tells almost nothing about the basics; I'd recommend it after Paine, who while he eschews the learning appended and permeating Lopez, would be more accessible for newcomers. Thomas Laird's "History of Tibet" compiled with interviews with the Dalai Lama would also be a good start for those craving more background. (I reviewed Fremantle, Thurman, the TBoD editions by Dorje et al., Laird and Paine on Amazon US and my regular blog "Blogtrotter"; I also recommend and reviewed Richard Gere's reading of the Fremantle-Trungpa TBoD ed., and Patrick French's disillusioning "Tibet, Tibet" about the aftermath of Western activist enthusiasm for what seems increasingly the lost cause of Tibetan freedom.)

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Jeffery Paine's "Re-enchantment: Tibetan Buddhism Comes to the West"

"When the story is told in these pages began, had most Americans tried to locate Tibet on a map, they would have pockmarked half the globe with bad-guess pinpricks. By the time the story ends, some Hollywood stars know more about Tibetan Buddhism than the Dalai Lama does-- or at least they act that way." Paine's wry sideswipe at Steven Seagal shows the wit and tone of this thoughtful-- if erratically edited-- introduction to a subject that will likely leave you craving more insight.

Paine takes us through not so much the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism, described by Alan Watts as "Roman Catholicism on acid"; the appeal in the West of what's surpassed Zen since Watts & the Beats lies in its panoply of approaches towards wisdom, its exotic teachings, and its colorful characters. As Paine in his best chapter, on the Dalai Lama's appeal to live with utmost conviction yet astonishing flexibility, shows us, most Tibetans despite their escape from the horrors of decimation seem-- unlike so many presenters of religious doctrine-- to be enjoying themselves amidst their substitution of dogma or dictate with philosophical ambiguity, non-theistic contemplation, unpredictable practices, and creative props that both represent and deny the ultimate existence of gods. Not taking themselves seriously, the Tibetan lamas teach us, he displays in case studies of teachers and students, how to approach our life with the sense it's a game, played that comes and goes perpetually beyond the brief brackets of our birth and death in our present form.

"With its compact emphasis on individual meditation, Buddhism may fit the overpopulated" century as "it can accomodate itself and take up less space." (136-7) He wonders if more people sought diminishment of goods, more people might "possess an 'overabundance' of food and housing." Many in these pages dream of a transformed world through ethical principles based in Buddhism that others may incorporate, if free of the panoply that surrounds Tibetan versions of its teachings. Paine defines universality, individual responsibility, and heightened capabilities for personal growth turned social improvement as three civilizing features the dharma can share with other religions and moral systems.

Certainly, the appeal of a self-generated, yet outwardly directed, way of life that avoids fruitless fretting about salvation, eternity, and sin may be timed for our times better than Vedanta was for Christopher Isherwood's Hollywood, or even Zen, Paine hints, for its countercultural adoption. This issue deserved far more depth, but Paine does touch on essential points. He wonders if religions would improve by being more contradictory, communal vs. individual, mystical vs. practical, angelic or unadorned, "flinty" or "firm," as they adapt to a human nature more akin to Buddhist notions of impermanence, the unknowable, and the evanescent that underlies the illusion of relative, conventional "reality" as a transcendent, perpetual state.

These ideas burrow into the text, more in its latter chapters. He begins with Thomas Merton's in retrospect still-naive pilgrimage, when the Dalai Lama was little known by most in 1968. Harold Talbott, whose own journey from Fifth Avenue scion to Buddhist scholar gains attention later on as one of three case studies, served as Merton's go-between. Paine gives a solid overview of what in the anthology "Merton & Buddhism" more recently has gained needed scrutiny by scholars. Tibet's context within Western imperialism follows, with French explorer and writer Alexandra David-Neel's long life (1868-1969) spanning the cultural shift from fabled Shangri-La to hippie destination, if one no less exotic in the eyes of typical Westerners.

The romanticization, decried later by Patrick French in "Tibet, Tibet," and the adulation of the Dalai Lama, have long been present in the West. The difference is now, unlike when Diane Perry grew up in the 1950s in London, millions know now what few knew only in fragments, as Merton did, given the lack of communication with the West by lamas who had not yet gained Western followings until around 1970. Thubten Geshe and then notoriously Chögyam Trungpa spearheaded the British and American popularity of Tibetan lore. Paine's ability to get inside the minds of both teachers and students shows him at his best as a writer and interpreter throughout the book.

Trungpa, he suggests, soon figured out that Westerners could be jumpstarted into higher-level teaching than customary in Tibetan monasteries. Inspired by Shunryu Suzuki's similar shifts when he brought Zen to San Francisco earlier, Trungpa decided to shift into higher gear. Paine explains: "Meditation is so empty of content that it's hard to turn it into spiritual materialism or appropriate it for egotistical purposes." (93) For newcomers, who had lost "the principles of sacredness," Trungpa reduced the dharma to a secular-friendly core; for those who wanted to restore the Tibetan brocades, visualizations and enthronements commenced.

Therefore (as the uncredited Fields narrates in his history), Tibetan monastic practices began to be transferred outside their origins. By the 1990s as the process advanced, Alyce Neoli/ Catherine Burroughs emerged as a "tulku" of a reincarnated female "lama" chosen by the same Penor Rinpoche who later "recognized" Seagal-- after a few donations were made. The uncredited Kamenetz records that when the rabbis found out about how a "tulku" was found, they wondered: what if the lama makes a mistake? I wondered this too, when reading Martha Sherrill's "The Buddha from Brooklyn" about Alyce who became Jetsunma; Paine takes a sympathetic tone towards her, noting Tenzin Palmo's conclusion after reading Sherrill: "her follies are such the way such a being would behave," as recounted by Sherrill, "if he or she lacked the proper training." (158) Tenzin should know, as a girl attracted to a teaching she could not even define as Buddhist, so little being known then about Tibetan dharma by all but a few scholars from a few glimpses such as David-Neel's.

Tenzin Palmo's transformation's amazing; born a Cockney fishmonger's daughter Diane Perry when nobody born humble in postwar Britain knew of such teachings, ordained in 1964 as one of the first Western nuns, she later spent twelve years as a hermit in a cave 13,200 feet high in Ladakh, and then returning from her harrowing yet inspiring story to found a nunnery. David-Neel saw Buddhism from the outside; Perry became Tenzin to enter it.

The widening attraction of hitherto inaccessible teachings from a remote land rippled out from the hippies to the celebrities and by films. Not only explicitly about Tibet as in the 1990s, but filtered through "The Matrix" and "Jacob's Ladder," the bardo dramatized for everyday folks. The fact I don't explain that term speaks for the rapid spread over a generation of a thousand-year-old, isolated, esoteric science of the mind into popular culture, as if a medieval monk found himself lauded in Manhattan.

This may be a fad, or it may be a genuine sign of shift: Robert Thurman argues the latter, while Jean-Francois Revel & Matthieu Ricard ("The Monk & The Philosopher" 1996) James William Coleman in "The New Buddhists" (2001, neither work cited here) examines the appeal of Buddhism for many intellectual elites in the West; the teachings he finds have not trickled down yet. Pankraj Mishra from the Indian p-o-v also wonders about Buddha vs. Nietzsche at length in "An End to Suffering" (2004). Paine favors Shakespeare, Henry and William James as his references, well-employed if hard for an eager reader to track back-- more later about this shortcoming.

Paine, considering music and film, seems to feel the dharma's widening, but I wonder about the permanence of its impacts. De Tocqueville noted the American withdrawal from "delineation of the soul to fix exclusively on that of the body, and they substitute the representation of motion and sensation with that of sentiment and thought."

Daringly, Paine then links this prescient observation to Buddhism, which as with film uses projection to record sensory experiences and motion while leaving the soul's mysteries intangible. "Hollywood calls the illusions it makes from bodies, sensation, and motion 'cinema.' Buddhism calls the illusions made from them 'conventional reality.'" Paine provides a novel image when recounting how cinema and Tibetan Buddhism are both roughly a century old in their Western transmissions: "In both a movie and Buddhism, 'reality' is palpably, sensuously before us, making us laugh one moment and cry the next, but then vanishing insubstantially when the projectionist (or, in Buddhism, our projection) flicks off the switch." (179)

Paine again excites the reader by his ability to convey the wonder: he juxtaposes Talbott's Gatsby-esque tale of reinvention. Here, as with "tonglin" and "ngondro" and "chöd" Paine illustrates Tibetan terms deftly. "Our usual mental states are like the audience in a theater that gets caught up in the drama that unfolds." Contrast this with the emptiness and luminosity registered by Tibetans at this high stage. The state of play demanded as in quantum physics demands Talbott as a "dzogchen" practitioner abandon "reality" as it seems solid to our senses, for a mind so trained "resembles the playwright who exults in the creative play with which he maneuvers his imaginary puppets."(221)

His next case: a (psuedonymous to protect her reputation) Princeton deconstructionist feminist mid-life wonders about the appeal her tentative forays into Tibetan practice and reading reveal. A literary critic such as herself, Paine relates, follows a long path of scholarship most of her career, with "few genuine knock-you-off-your-chair discoveries left to be made." Tibetan Buddhism provides "Christine" with "her ticket into the unknown," after idly finding used at the Strand Bookstore Sogyal Rinpoche's influential "Tibetan Book of Living and Dying." Yet, her colleagues, disdainful of any belief, may belittle her quest, so she pursues it in the morning at home, gingerly but with increasing fascination.

San Quentin's death row houses the final American turned Tibetan student, if at a distance behind bars. Jarvis Masters contemplates karma, impermanence, and mindfulness as translated into taking responsibility for one's actions, accepting how reality itself changes during one's sentence as faced with honesty, and how one must faced with one's term should cultivate an awareness to embrace not endure the present situation. As with Alyce Zeoli or Diane Perry in their ignorance of Buddhism constructed before their exposure to it a homespun notion of its dharma independently and even intuitively, so in prison, Paine considers, such stories "from both the sickbed and prison cell, indirectly support Buddhism's claim that it is not a religion but something that occurs 'in life'-- not a man-made, synthetic medicine but a plant with healing properties that grows of itself." (251)

The narrative concludes on such graceful notes. Still, the story needed more unfolding, given that Paine admits seven years' labor on its contents. Intended for the general reader, so lacking by his design footnotes or works cited, this superficially but persistently disappoints in its scattershot mention of many who've preceded Paine; Paine assures their books can be readily found, but his decision to eschew documentation makes this an uneven book, riddled with typos. W.Y. Evans-"Wenz" repeats, "Llasa" alternates with "Lhasa." "Arbie's" and "Guiness" appear; Stephen and Martine separately are surnamed "Bachelor" while "Into the Wild" is attributed to "John" Krakauer. The lack of credit given such as Rodger Kamenetz' "The Jew in the Lotus," the 1994 account of the 1990 visit by rabbis to Dharamsala, proves odd; Rick Fields' pioneering 1992 "How the Swans Came to the Lake" may also be familiar to readers already, but why not mention these popular and enduring predecessors that showed many Americans (as they did me) perhaps their first glimpses into Tibetan Buddhism?

These persistent shortcomings noted, the strength in Paine's narrative lies in his metaphorical mind. As he struggles, for instance, to match the mansion yearned for in Christian mentalities of the afterlife with the adding on of another room in a modern mind making room for hitherto unknown Tibetan dharma, he falters. But, he more often succeeds.

(P.S. I've reviewed Coleman, French, "Merton and Buddhism," Kamenetz, Mishra, Revel & Ricard, and Sherrill on Amazon U.S. and my "Blogtrotter" daily-ish blog; Sherrill's review's also in May on NTLATBR blog where longer reviews are cross-posted.)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Martha Sherrill's "The Buddha from Brooklyn": Book Review

From the title, I figured an Allen Ginsberg-goes-to-Katmandu spiel. Far from it. This deserves wide attention for its insights into how a cult of personality may evolve into a sincere religion. A half-Italian (quarter-Jewish) gal from Brooklyn, although she moved to Florida at 14 and spent her time since in the South, Midwest, and now Maryland, the soon-to-be four (or five) times-divorced mother of many defies expectations of whom a "tulku," or reincarnated holy one in the Tibetan tradition, would be.

Is she genuine? The question perhaps lies beyond Western ways of verification. Gurus have been notorious before. Sherrill constructs a story about this sometimes sleek, sometimes frumpy, Lee Press-On Nails and black leather-clad mother that spirals downward and inward as hints early on expand, halfway through this brisk, intelligent book. As if for dazzled children, the lady in question exerts considerable appeal for adults as she exhibits the wonder of the spirit. The aura she creates energizes the channeller-healer and her New Age followers into Buddhism after a lama visits their center. He recognizes Catharine Burroughs (already changed from Alyce Zeoli) as the return of a 17th c. Tibetan holy woman. She will take the name Jetsunma Akhon Lhamo and command an increasingly devoted, in the full sense, congregation. It includes her friends and family, who now venerate her as a guru in Tibetan fashion, prostrating before her.

Meanwhile, while the monks and mostly nuns at what becomes America's largest and most stable Tibetan Buddhist monastery work themselves ragged to build the temple and then the forty-foot stupa (sacred monument; if they said prayers for the bugs killed in the construction, why did they have to cut so many trees down for it, and why destroy a sixty-five acre grove across the road for their temple?), Jetsunma takes on a combination of consumerism and confrontation that unsettles a few of her charges. Two nuns were her lovers; so were two monks, both of whom marry her more or less sequentially. She loves and leaves them in quick time; she also tells members to divorce their spouses, and takes on one member's child as her own adopted one while coveting another couple's child. The community winds up giving half its income to her, tax-free $10k monthly, even as the monastics live spartan lives full of sacrifice and unending toil to serve her and her plan to build the stupa and expand the monastery. They also help fund her hair-care product scheme and its infomercials, which fail to capture the public.

Jetsunma claims the stupa's building trumps finding a cancer cure or running a soup kitchen. The romantic love that attaches so many to join her monastery and temple proves her charismatic power over often professionals and well-educated folks seeking her insights, from around the DC area. Sherrill, as a Washington insider used to profiling celebrities, struggles to understand her charm. The vowed members of the temple must obey her, as a guru's commands cannot be denied, under "samaya" that instills in Tibetan practice a total obligation to a lama as part of the demanding and punishing way a follower finds enlightenment by endless abnegation.

The followers fear losing karma and creating bad energy among other "sentient beings" if they disobey her. A visiting monk warns that such a system distorts the dharma teaching just as the Tibetan forms have warped the original dharma of the Buddha's message, but he doubts if reform can come in their lifetimes. The Asian models instill obedience, and by "any means necessary," Jetsunma will even use seduction if it lands her followers who will then be open to dharma, in her logic, and the way of the Buddha.

Such reasoning lures Sherrill to relate stories she tells from within the circle-- Jetsunma's third husband, her attendant, male and female consorts, and a nun who wavers in her commitment. The children appear less vividly. Sherrill seems to have been prevented in talking to the earlier two-exes and Alyce's mother so as to have access to Jetsunma. (I note that my hardcover book lacked the small picture of the guru on the paperback cover; surprisingly or not, no photos of the KPC temple or its members are shown.) Sherrill appears, late in her quest, to veer away from the increasingly complex imbroglio into tangents, talking with Deepak Chopra, Tammy Faye Bakker, Dr. Laura Schlessinger in her attempt to comprehend how charisma and money combine for certain purveyors of self-help coupled with spirituality. She's on to a great topic, but this distracts her from the Tibetan Buddhist adaptation to the West that needs elucidation.

This lack of follow-through examination of Tibetan practices in one instance left the narrative less than complete. I sensed that the lamas allied with the one who "recognized" Jetsunma were about to rescind that judgment when a lawsuit threatened; the sudden withdrawal of the case left me wondering if indeed a guru's "recognition" could ever be in error. The trouble, or the blessing, for those truly convinced of "guru devotion" is that "Correct View" allegiance allows one even to lie if a guru's involved, from what Sherrill tells us, and this whole predicament seemed less than clear in her treatment of the attempt to get Jetsunma's bonafides withdrawn by the lamas in charge. The dangers for a Westerner of explaining, or following, absolute conviction that a guru will guide one to enlightenment no matter how bizarre or extravagant their behavior, as in the case of Chogyam Trungpa's "crazy wisdom" alluded to in this book, complicates the matter considerably.

The temple increasingly takes on an aura familiar to those who know of religious domination by powerful leaders, and certainly Jetsunma embodies such magnetism, turned towards confusing and contradictory directions. She seems to retreat from Tibetan fidelity after the mid-90s, and in her mid-forties may have tired from such intense scrutiny, moving her core group again-- to the New Age bastion of Sedona, Arizona.

Yet, Sherrill does not end her story with a pat moral. I leave out the latter episodes, but the last seventy-five pages marvelously increase the suspense that this author creates out of this subject. One time, she fears that "there was no emptiness," that all around Jetsunma betrays only desperation, not aspiration. Then, she reconsiders, in the tradition of earlier cults turned respectable faiths.

I leave the relevance of the dog's tooth as the decoy Tibetan tale and her interpretation for you to find out. Sherrill takes on a great challenge personally and journalistically, and I admire her tale-telling skills in her intricately arranged construction of the facts, and her own exploration of spiritual appeal amidst material temptation. The lesson she learns may elude our rational expectation, but "the lotus has its roots in the mud" proves an relevant and appropriate phrase.

(See my related review of Jeffery Paine's 2004 "Re-Enchantment: Tibetan Buddhism Comes to the West" posted 6-28-09, here, on "Blogtrotter," and on Amazon U.S. He has a chapter on Jetsunma. My regular blog, "Blogtrotter," has many reviews related to this wider topic as well.)