Monday, October 22, 2012

Universal Heart Book Club Episode 3, October 2012

 Welcome to the third video discussion from the Universal Heart Book Club.

This month we are discussing two books that deal with the topic of lived spirituality: Richard C. Morais' wonderfully quirky novel about a Japanese monk in America, Buddhaland Brooklyn, and spiritual activist Andrew Harvey's impassioned call to action, The Hope. You will also find our written reviews of these books below, as well as a range of other very fine articles.

As you read the books we feature, please share your views in our comments section. Those conversations are essential to this being the "book club" we envision. Many thanks to Peter Kirkwood for the marvellous job he has done filming this conversation and bringing it to you.

Walter Mason reads Richard C. Morais' Buddhaland Brooklyn

Richard C. Morais, the author of Buddhaland Brooklyn, is a magazine editor and film maker who has turned his hand to novel writing, and in this book he has created a quite unique world. It is the world of an introverted and intellectually stuffy Japanese Buddhist priest, a formalist and ritualist of the Nichiren school, who is sent by his masters to New York to establish a branch temple. This he manages to do, all the while dealing with the unexpected, and previously unknown, politics of a vociferous lay-committee and the emergence of feelings and emotions that had previously been kept in check. And yes, these feelings include love and lust, which is less scandalous than it sounds because monks of his particular order are allowed to marry, and even drink alcohol and eat meat. 

A gohonzon mandala of the Nichiren school of Japanese Buddhism

Morais has written a fascinating, and original, story about religion, loneliness and cross-cultural confusion, all the while employing a deftness of touch and a great eye for story. Buddhaland Brooklyn is a terrifically fun read all on its own, even if you are not interested in Japan or Buddhism. 

Author Richard C. Morais

I loved his excursions into the Japanese monastic world, lovingly recreated with a great depth of knowledge and an eye for detail, as well as for the surprisingly quotidian nature of such a seemingly transcendent way of life. In the Japanese head temple the monks pray and use their prayer beads, but they also fight, gossip, compete and complain.  The head temple was perfectly drawn for me, and I could see its souvenir stalls, its endless parade of chattering pilgrims and its “gently sloping hill, surrounded on both side by mountain cherry orchards.” And I so wanted to be there!

The quiet, artistic priest Oda, the novel’s protagonist, is far from being an ambitious opportunist keen for a cushy posting in the West. Instead he is an unwilling recruit, a worrier and fretter who would much prefer to stay in his Japanese mountain idyll. His journey to the West is a cause for consternation and regret, forcing him:

“...whenever possible, to the Great Hall of Worship, to fall on my knees and pray for courage and wisdom and the Buddha’s serene guidance during this extraordinary period of change.”

Anyone who has ever been involved with an Eastern spiritual tradition will find much that is familiar, funny and evocative in this book, particularly as monk and Western followers take turns to aggravate, expand and sometimes seduce each other. This is such an original and entertaining book – I really think that everyone will gain something from reading it. 

Kyoto, Japan
 You can purchase this book, or any others, through the bookstore links above right.

Stephanie Dowrick reads Andrew Harvey's The Hope

Writer and sacred activist, Andrew Harvey
Andrew Harvey is one of the leading sacred writers of our time. He is probably best known for his exceptional book on the Sufi poet, Rumi: The Way of Passion. I also very much like his spiritually practical The Direct Path. And the Harvey book I return to most often is his Essential Mystics.

So it was with a fair degree of familiarity with this writer that I came to his book, The Hope - also reviewed this month on video. Published in 2009, the book has brief moments when its enthusiasms felt dated, especially when Harvey discusses American politics, but those are fleeting asides and unimportant in relation to the book as a whole. This is a passionate, vigorous call to sacred activism, by which Harvey means: spend time in prayer, reflection, meditation and study, yes! But don't stop there. Engage with the world and the people and creatures in it. Take your countless opportunities to bring greater peace or social justice to the universe we share, and do it in a loving, committed, creative and healing way.

In many of his books, Harvey shows all the care of the Oxford-trained scholar he was and is. Not so in this one. It's patchy, erratic, rushed. I can't help feeling that we are reading a first draft with most of it. And yet that works here. (And I quite envy him the confidence that, "this will do!") Reading the book is very much like listening to a talk from Andrew - which I have also done on occasions - peppered and illuminated with wonderful stories that are as purposeful as parables.  I particularly treasured his reflections on the time he spent with the glorious soul, Dom Bede Griffiths, in the final year or so of Dom's life. It's also worth reminding you that, in the creation of this book and its message, Harvey is drawing on decades now of reflection as well as ever-increasing activism.

Andrew Harvey speaks with Dom Bede Griffiths in 1993
It's a very personal book, also. Harvey is nakedly honest about his own struggles to move from the relative comforts of "mystic" to the earthy challenges of "sacred activist".  He speaks frankly about the dangers of over-involvement, of being too hectic, too urgent, too demanding on oneself or others, or working with too much reliance on ego and mind rather than spirit and body. Just as directly, though, and as crucially, he speaks of the intense rewards of working alongside others in all kinds of positive capacities, and the inner rewards that flow from this. He quotes Rumi: "Wherever you find a lover on a bed of pain/You find the Beloved right by his bedside."

This quote resonates strongly with Harvey's evolved thinking that "transcendence" itself can be an avoidance of engagement in this embodied life. He suggests that an obsession with transcendence can create a dangerous imbalance, especially if we see God, to quote him, "only as Absolute Light and not as every detail of the Creation".  Harvey urges a different view which is also the view of countless other teachers, including Jesus: "The Light has embodied itself as the universe... and serves its immanent presence in compassionate action toward all beings."

As a book that calls seekers to activism, it appropriately starts with "Ten Things You Can Do Right Now".  (Indian-born, English-educated, USA-based Andrew may fleetingly have caught the American delight in numbers for causes, things to do, insights to share…shared also by his Buddhist brothers and sisters world-wide!) The first of these is delightfully simple - and powerful. "Write down one thing that has made you grateful to be alive today." Starting from a place of gratitude, our lives will quite naturally unfold in all their sacred depth. It's also a place of possibility. Above everything, it's a place that points to hope.

Reader activism? You can find out more about Andrew Harvey and his work at this link. You can purchase any of the books mentioned, or any others, through the bookstore links above right. The small % we receive from sales support the Universal Heart Network and Book Club. We also love to hear from you - on these pages or on Stephanie or Walter Mason's Facebook pages. This is YOUR book club! Participate!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Jane Goodall gazes into the hare's amber eyes

Netsuke hare

Writer Jane Goodall reads Edmund de Waal's The Hare With Amber Eyes,
making it clear how this book can change the way we "see" through our own eyes.

This is a very big story about some very small objects. The hare with amber eyes is a miniature ivory sculpture made to be held in the palm of the hand, one of a collection of 264 Japanese netsuke bequeathed to Edmund de Waal by his great uncle Iggie, who had been living in Tokyo. Knowing they were acquired by an ancestor in Paris over a century ago, de Waal decided to find out what had happened to them during the three generations they had been in the family.

His idea, he says, was to take leave from his work as a professional ceramic artist, go to Paris and Vienna, visit a favorite uncle in Tokyo, and wrap up the whole project in six months. But in a public lecture given a year ago, following the sudden and extraordinary success of his book [published in 2010], he made an admission. ‘The reality is that if I had realized six, seven years ago when I began this journey to understand what I had been given when I was given these little things, I would have run away.’ Unaware of what they might be getting him into, he was irresistibly lured by the strange little subjects of his narrative.
As he holds one of the netsuke in his hand, its ‘small, tough explosion of exactitude’ compels him to use the same exactness and determination in tracking its story. This involves so much more than tracing the events of the past; it means realizing the past as a succession of present moments, in which the way things are handled becomes the expression of a whole living world of sensations, reactions, imaginings.
The question of how objects are handled, he says, ‘is my question.’ It bears on his vocation as an artist who himself makes personal objects from the raw matter of clay and porcelein. And there is a strange and mysterious art at work in de Waal’s writing, just as there is in the netsuke, as if he is tapping into live currents of energy at every point of contact with those who have held the little things in other times and places.

In the early chapters of the book, the scene is Paris in the 1870s, one of those periods in history that seems to have been preternaturally alive with the energies of change and renewal. We are introduced to the twenty-three-year-old Charles Ephrussi, who visits salons where he meets Marcel Proust and encounters the paintings of Degas, Manet and Renoir while they are still on the easel as works in progress. A craze for all things Japanese is part of the sensory adventure, and Charles, with an increasingly expert eye and an almost unlimited supply of ready money from his wealthy family, buys the netsuke as a job lot from one of his more enterprising dealers.
So the little objects themselves become part of a resurgent cultural scene, an expression of the zeitgeist. I’ve always been fascinated by that word zeitgeist. ‘Spirit of the age’ is an accurate enough translation, but loses the effect of the single word coinage, which more directly suggests a kind of consciousness at work, something that stirs the energies of the moment and gives them a special edge of vitality. It’s something as subtle as breath. While reading the opening section of De Waal’s book, you can feel that you are also breathing the euphoria of the age.
Perhaps too, though, readers in our own time have an instinct that euphoria is not to be entirely trusted, especially when it arises from a sense of the glamour of times past. Woody Allen captures its absurdity with a wonderful light touch in Midnight in Paris (an excellent companion to The Hare with Amber Eyes), but cultural euphoria can be shadowed by more deeply troubling undercurrents. It is shocking to be reminded that anti-Semitism was already taking hold in Europe during the Belle Epoche, and that such figures as Renoir and Cezanne were caught up in it. The Ephrussi family were Russian Jews, and the wealth and style that had made them prominent citizens of Paris now also made them a target for a steady stream of racial abuse.
When the netsuke travel to Vienna at the turn of the century, as a wedding gift from Charles to his cousin, the shadow travels with them. Through the descriptions on the page, you can almost see the picture darkening. The family wealth, expressed in marble pillars, ornate hangings, solid silver table ware and the elaborate social costumes of his great grandmother Emmy, is becoming literally more cumbersome. Yet Emmy herself exudes ‘a sort of luminosity.’ She takes over from Charles as the compelling human presence in the lives of the netsuke, which are kept in her dressing room, where her children are allowed to play with them as she is outfitted for the several occasions a day for which dresses, gloves, hats, fans and shawls must be exactly selected.
As readers, we know that this way of life cannot last. It is, in our terminology, unsustainable. Political tensions rise, the outbreak of the first world war is imminent, food runs short in a terrible winter. None of this affects the netsuke, so compact and durable in themselves; but as family possessions, they are a target along with everything else associated with Jewish prosperity. Nazi flags are everywhere, and mobs gather in the streets. The visionary immediacy that Edmund de Waal has brought to the earlier, happier chapters of his chronicle here becomes frightening. ‘How can I write about this time?’ he asks.

In March 1938, the Ephrussi Palais is invaded by brownshirts. There follows an orgy of trashing and looting. Somehow, the intruders miss the netsuke and they are left behind when their owners make their escape across the border. Their smallness is their lifeline. I won’t tell here the story of how they are rescued, and returned to the possession of de Waal’s grandmother Elisabeth, because that needs to unfold as part of your own relationship with the book, but the fact of their survival is worth dwelling on.
On one level, this book is a family history, one that those of us interested in our own ancestral stories might only dream of: a grandmother who was a poet and corresponded with Rainer Maria Rilke; a great grandmother who cut a figure amongst the most elegant fashionistas of the early twentieth century; and a more distant forebear who was a gifted and influential art critic. On another level, it is a story of how the things that people create and own can be part of the living current of experience that passes through time.
At one point, the dealer who sold the netsuke to Charles Ephrussi tells him about meeting an old man sitting on a doorstep in Japan, working on a netsuke that appeared to be almost finished. The dealer offered to buy it, but the man said he might not be able to complete the work for another eighteen months because he could only work at on certain days, when the mood of things left him feeling ‘gay and refreshed.’ Perhaps what is at stake here is a sense of zeitgeist in miniature, as a passing moment of inspiration, made permanent through the exacting work of the human hand and eye.

Jane Goodall speaking at a celebration of the work of Rainer Maria Rilke.
Jane Goodall is a writer and literary critic with a special interest in theatre, aesthetics and the power of language. We are delighted that she has agreed to be a regular contributor to the Universal Heart Book Club.
Are you ready to read The Hare With Amber Eyes? This wonderful book - and any others - can be purchased through our on-line affiliate bookstores (top right). Those sales return a small % that supports the Universal Heart Network and Book Club.  We also welcome your comments and engagement!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Walter Mason on Books for Emerging Writers

In 2013 I am one of the Ambassadors for teh Emerging Writers Festival in Melbourne. So many people are confessing that they have indeed felt the urge to write, and are asking me what should they be doing about it.

Of course, being of a literary turn of mind I would suggest that you first read some books about writing. So I thought I’d share with you some of my favourites – those books that inspire me and that I turn to again and again whenever I feel like having my creativity tickled: 

Listen to Me: Writing Life into Meaning by Lynn Lauber – Whenever I teach creative writing to adults this is the book I find I draw on most. Lauber is a beautiful writer, and the book is filled with writerly anecdotes as well as reflections on her own autobiography. Ostensibly a guide to writing memoir, it is in fact an enchanting and absorbing read all on its own that should certainly inspire you to approach the writing of memoir with a sense of fun and a lightness of touch. 

Writing the Sacred Journey by Elizabeth J. Andrew – Andrew manages to find the most extraordinary examples of spiritual memoir and draw from them the essence of what all writers should be trying to describe. I have been lead to write so many astounding and original books because of the excerpts she includes in this book. A gentle and belletristic guide to writing a spiritual memoir, I love the prompts and exercises in this book and it is a constant resource for me. 

Writing Open the Mind by Andy Couturier – This is quite novel, a psychoanalytic approach to creative writing that approaches the writing process more as a tool for personal discovery than an actual craft. If ever I really want to challenge myself, or to throw some crazy stuff out there, this is the book I turn to. It is so quirky and draws on so many traditions and ideas that it would be impossible not to find something to like and inspire in this book. A personal favourite is the exhaustive and amusing list of genres the author provides. I want to write a book for each one. 

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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Mark S. Burrows reads Jane Hirshfield's new book

Poet Jane Hirshfield
Poet and Rilke scholar Mark S. Burrows reviews Jane Hirshfield's new poems, Come, Thief,
a book that invites us in to a new generosity of living, guarding against calamity having "the last word".

Some books of poetry open their arms to the reader with an immediate welcome. Others are just as hospitable, but need more time and greater attentiveness to invite our perhaps reluctant entrance.  Wisdom is like this, often so disarmingly simple that we fail to recognize it in our hurry to find “the important.”  I have come to expect such an opening with Jane Hirshfield’s poems, and her new collection, Come, Thief, does not disappoint.

These are poems shaped by the writer’s slow and persistent journey of looking long and hard at life, without firm demands or settled expectations, in order to find meaning emerging in the ordinary.  They embody in their way of seeing the posture of openness so central to the Buddhist practice of mindfulness. 

Such a stance invites us to let things be as they are, and not as we want them or need them to be.  It opens us to hear things speaking in their own language, to listen for their often startling grammar, their new and unexpected vocabulary, rather than prattling on with what we already knew. It asks us to turn from our hurried expectations and impatient certainties; to set aside our reluctance to embrace the difficult in our lives; to open ourselves to new findings beyond our habitual denial of loss. 

A line from one of these poems illustrates this posture with unsettling clarity: “Just so, calamity turns toward calmness.” Does it, though?

Most of us would argue against this some of the time, and many might find it incomprehensible much of the time.  But is it true as a possibility, as a subversive way of inhabiting our own lives as well as the world we share with others?  Perhaps, yes, perhaps. And living into this possibility, engaging this “perhaps", might be for us the beginning of wisdom.  Particularly when it seems to us that calamity has the last word. 

Of course, the poet is not trying to deny this point. What she is asking of us, though, is that we wonder with her whether the tragedies of our lives, the long list of dead-ends and disappointments, might not open us to another way of being— like a softening of our need for order; a lessening of our instinct for vengeance; a widening of our patience toward others, particularly those who have hurt us.  Could calamity turn toward calmness, and turn us toward calmness?  Yes, of course it could.  But everything depends on how we face such things, as those who practice mindfulness know.

The poem that offers this line, “All the Difficult Hours and Minutes,” is treasure enough to encourage us to take up this book and read it.  Slowly.  Deliberately.  And often. It is the kind of writing meant for a precious hour in the midst of a busy day, or an afternoon escape from the crowds when we find ourselves in an uninterrupted corner of a quiet cafĂ©.  But would such experiences be an escape, or finally something more like a homecoming? Again, everything depends—as Hirshfield’s poems persistently remind us—on the ways we choose to belong in and to this world with all its puzzles, incongruities and difficulties.

Jane Hirshfield's Come, Thief
Such a book calls us to take another look at our own lives. It asks us to consider what the poet here calls “small-sized” mysteries, the ones all about us which we so seldom see—precisely because we rarely look for them, lying in wait for us as they do in the ordinary stretches of our lives.  Such poems as these open a path for us to look—and look again—at the familiar, and find there the too often unnoticed wisdom of “yes” that is always sufficient for the day at hand.  As she notes in one of these poems, “How fragile we are, between the few good moments.”  Reading such poems as these reminds us both of this fragility and of this goodness, in our lives and in the lives of others.  And this is reason enough to turn to a collection like this, hoping to glimpse an enlargement of life and desiring to widen the circumference of generosity in our world.  And who among us is too important or hurried to pause for such discoveries as these?

Mark S. Burrows is a poet, literary critic and translator. His Prayers of a Young Poet (Rainer Maria Rilke, translated and introduced by Mark S. Burrows) is just out and will be reviewed here shortly. 

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Poet and Rilke scholar Mark S. Burrows

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Rosamund Burton on Letting Books Go

A lovely guest post from travel writer and journalist Rosamund Burton on a situation I think many book lovers will recognise. More about Rosamund at the end of the piece:

Two Sundays ago I realize the sight of the four piles of unread books in my work room is overwhelming me to such an extent that my reading has dwindled from about a book a week to little more than distracted dipping.

Here are books that I was sent two years ago, about which I had thought I could write an article. Still unread I realize that it’s time to let these ideas and books go. Then there are two beautiful little books about stillness and silence. Maybe in a still and silent moment I can have a look at those, I’d thought nearly a year ago. Somehow that moment never arrived.

I look at every book on my shelves. So many were purchased on a whim and now, hard as it is, they have to go so I can once again pick up a book without feeling burdened with guilt about these unread ones.

The following day I arrive at Bridgepoint Books with four enormous bags. As Sam Peregrine, the owner, sorts through them, I tentatively ask him if he ever feels overwhelmed by too many books.
“Look around me,” he responds. My eye has already been drawn to a couple of Thomas Keneally’s books, a Rudyard Kipling and James Joyce’s Dubliners. This is a wonderful, well organized second hand bookshop, packed with wonderful reading. I buy a lot of books from here and I know every shelf is filled with treasures. “These,” he says gloomily, pointing to a two foot high stack behind him, “are mine. I take them home and bring them back. I read a chapter of this and a paragraph in that.”

Relieved of my burdens, I feel light as air as I return home to space on the shelves and the yearning to read returns almost simultaneously. Of course I owe this epiphany to a book: Julia Cameron’s new one, The Prosperous Heart. Structured in a similar way to her bestseller, The Artist’s Way, it’s a 12-week program with exercises and tools for forging a health relationship with money along with a rich creative life. Full of wisdom, insights and honesty, it’s a gem. I have lacked clarity recently with regard to where I need to put my time, energy and commitment. And I’ve also lacked faith that my writing can provide enough financially. As I read one chapter a week (number four was ‘Clear the Clutter'), and do the exercises, I find myself being gently, but firmly nudged back on track.

I’ve also just re-read The Wisdom of Florence Scovel Shinn. It is four of her books in one volume, including The Game of Life, which was first published in 1925. Florence Scovel Shinn was a metaphysician, a Louise Hay of her time, as well as an artist and illustrator. Her lessons on the power of positive thinking remain as valuable today as when she wrote them. Her writing conjures up in my mind images of ladies in high heels tripping down New York streets in the 1920s constantly repeating the positive affirmations she has given them, until the words become their splendid new realities.

I’ve needed guidance and support recently and these books, like good friends, have given me that. But I have to admit now I’m flirting with a bit of fiction, or maybe even a touch of travel! And what a joy it is to visit the Universal Heart Book Club website and hear from Walter Mason and Stephanie Dowrick about which books have inspired them. 

Rosamund Burton is a freelance journalist and author of Castles, Follies andFour-Leaf Clovers: Adventures Along Ireland’s St Declan’s Way.