Saturday, September 20, 2014

Walter Mason reads Gary Lachman's superb biography of Madame Blavatsky

“While questions about whether or not HPB [Helena Petrovna Blavatsky] was ever in Tibet, ever met the “real” Masters, ever learned Senzar, and dozens of others will no doubt trouble all who take her seriously, in the end what is important now are the writings she left behind, and what we can understand about her life.” 

One of the greatest characters of the Nineteenth Century was Madame Blavatsky. Not only that, I will
always assert that she was one of the most influential. Derided in her time as a fraud and a crank, her interests, enthusiasms and visions of the world went on to shape generations of religious seekers. She was a hippy, a New Ager and a self-help freak long before those things existed. She is one of my great heroines, and Gary Lachman’s excellent biography of her is one I think everyone would enjoy reading.

The problem with writing about Blavatsky is that you will, almost from the first page, be insulting someone. She remains a polarising figure, and Lachman (also known as Gary Valentine, bassist from the legendary pop band Blondie) does his level best to tread a kind of middle ground. His admiration for Blavatsky is palpable, but he also records fairly those parts of her story that are more open to criticism. On balance I think he is probably a little too reverent, and plays down some of the outrageous campery of Blavatsky’s Victorian mysticism. But Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality is still a fun read, and will be a revelation to anyone who has yet to discover more of Blavatsky’s life.

H. P. Blavatsky was, of course, the founder of the Theosophical Society and the author of two tremendous compendiums of esoterica: the enormous Isis Unveiled and the even more enormous The Secret Doctrine. Both books are almost unreadable now (though Lachman is enthusiastic about them, while still conceding that they are best read in short bites for inspiration and stimulation), but in their day they were literary sensations, engaging the criticism and comment of some of the greatest intellectuals and thinkers of the time.

Blavatsky was herself a mysterious Russian émigré, a chain-smoking, world-travelling prophetess who exerted a tremendous charisma and eventually attracted into her orbit an American journalist and Civil War hero, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott. Together they formed the Theosophical Society, which would go on to become one of the most influential and energetic religious movements of the late nineteenth century (and, incidentally, a very important and powerful group in Sydney up until the late 1930s).

Madame Blavatsky

Lachman tells us of the problems with Blavatsky’s “Buddhism” in a globalised age in which we now have a very real understanding of Tibetan Buddhism and can see little of it in Blavatsky’s work. And while the early Theosophists posited themselves as Buddhists, Blavatsky herself was too much of a spiritual tourist to linger for too long with this appellation. Though she and Olcott took refuge as Buddhists in a formal ceremony in Ceylon, Blavatsky always saw her teachings as wider-ranging and more mystical. Olcott, however, became quite a serious Buddhist, designed the Buddhist flag that is used today and is still revered in Sri Lanka as one of the great revivers of the Sri Lankan Buddhist tradition.

Lachman writes:
“Although HPB’s “Buddhism” was sui generis, the Gelugpa school, which demands strict celibacy, is the form of Tibetan Buddhism with which her own practice is most often related, and one occasion a Buddhist scholar is said to have remarked that HPB was a reincarnation of Tsong Khapa himself.”
Blavatsky’s personal magnetism was never in doubt, and throughout her life she attracted fervent followers and disciples, in spite of her eccentric appearance and habits and her inclination to bossiness and impatience. The book describes how she would make fun of less-than-intelligent visitors in their hearing, and would dismiss voluble acolytes as “flapdoodles.” She didn’t suffer fools gladly and was wounded when the popular press cast her as a fraud and intriguer – sometimes even a Russian spy. Her magical powers, aided and abetted by the mysterious Masters she spoke of, became legendary:
“…once, while camping in the desert, she expressed the wish for a café au lait, made in the fashion of the Café de la Paix in Paris. Serapis Bey (or possibly his “son,” Tuitit Bey, another Master) drew some water from their supply and handed the cup to HPB. It was steaming hot café, just as she ordered it.”
She also managed to materialise letters, cups, telegrams and all manner of things. Such phenomena attracted the wrong sort of attention, and eventually the Theosophical Society – and Blavatsky in particular – were investigated and found fraudulent. This caused Blavatsky a great deal of heartache, and still remains a controversial fact to this day. Some have claimed to have resurrected her and her reputation by examining the original investigation and found it wanting. Others don’t accept this revision.

Lachman reminds us that, although she is forever associated with the great mania for Spiritualism in the Victorian era and is often mistakenly referred to as a Spiritualist, Blavatsky was in fact hostile to mediumship and spirit channelling and condemned the Spiritualist movement. Lachman says that HPB saw the practise of working with spirit guides as unsophisticated and even dangerous:

“For Blavatsky, who had learned to master her own powers in Tibet, this was an abdication of one’s own freedom and responsibility, a kind of psychic slavery, especially as the spirits involved were often of a low type, the “larvae” of the astral realm, as she called them, borrowing from Bulwer-Lytton.” 

Madame Blavatsky with her friend and collaborator Col. Olcott

Nonetheless, Blavatsky’s claimed occult capacities were impressive, and her followers were all in awe of her superior powers in this regard. Almost nothing that she did – be it dressing, eating or engaging socially – was normal, and she seemed blessed with an innate theatricality that would turn anyone into a legend. In the course of composing her own enormous books, thick as they were with references, quotations and throwaway asides and citations of important literary works, she was often completely un-troubled by any kind of reference library. All she needed was her pencil, her paper and her psychic powers:
“Yet if her sheer volume of words was impressive, even more so was Blavatsky’s apparent ability to quote long passages from works neither she nor the professor possessed, and which Corson suspected were not even available in America at the time. Blavatsky explained that she saw the passages “on another plane of objective existence” and simply wrote them down – if need be, translating them from whatever language they were in into English” 
This biography is superb, and immense fun from beginning to end. Reading it, you are constantly reminded how hugely influential Blavatsky has been on our own time, and pleased at her sheer outrageousness and joie de vivre. Reading Gary Lachman’s book left me aching for more lives lived with such daring, such drama and such pleasure.

Read Gary Lachman in the Huffington Post writing about why Jung is important.
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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

P. M. Newton on writing, Buddhism and trauma

This is an edited version of the talk Australian crime novelist P. M. Newton gave at the Association for the Study of Australian Literature conference in 2014. The theme of the conference was Worlds Within, and Newton was one of four novelist invited to respond to the theme. P. M. Newton is an award-winning novelist whose novels set in South-Western Sydney have been widely acclaimed. More about her after the essay:

To talk about the Worlds Within in respect of your writing is one of those invitations that probably should come with the warning, ‘beyond here there be dragons’ – because the more I thought about it, the stranger and more layered those worlds seemed to become.

Snippets of other people’s words about their worlds started pinging around, hints at their worlds within were lodged in my brain, their sources and their contexts long forgotten. Phrases like “My name is Legion: for we are many” eventually sent me scrambling to nail down its source, only to find it was a new testament description of a exorcism, and this was how the afflicted one – probably someone with multiple personality disorder – had introduced himself.

The idea of writing (and re-writing and re-drafting and editing and re-editing) is probably not a bad analogy to a lengthy exorcism of the multiple personalities one creates, nurtures and introduces to the world in the course of writing a novel.

Then my brain, flipped through its random access memory and came up with, “I am large, I contain multitudes” which flickered back into my consciousness – confused somewhat with the first quote – I’d imagined them to be from the same source, to be different expressions of the same thing. But this was Walt Whitman’s conception of the self and identity in all its rich and varied contradictions.

It was starting to get a bit noisy – because almost simultaneously as I was re-hearing the bible and mixing it up with Whitman, a Crowded House earworm from 'Four Seasons in One Day', took root - which I now share with you and defy you to shake loose ….

Worlds above and worlds below

Along – importantly - with the line that follows it

The sun shines on the black clouds hanging over the domain

And it’s those black clouds that I recognised. Because belatedly I realise that they have been hanging very much over my writing, particularly the process of writing my last book, Beams Falling, and I think they’re still out there, hovering on the horizon, ready to roll on over me, and over the next one, whatever it may be.

It would be easy to imagine that this sense of imminent darkness is because of the genre I write in – crime fiction. It’s a genre that’s produced and consumed for the most part as entertainment – but for me, it’s a serious topic. I’m actually more confused when it isn’t dealt with as such.

After all, the subject mater is usually violent death, murder. The ultimate exercise of power over another – the power of taking a life; power which is often deeply rooted in other forms of power and powerlessness that are historical, cultural, social, political in nature.

And each murder, each one, is a unique tragedy. And the ripples of grief extend out from the victim, changing lives forever. A grief that is, at its heart, insoluble – because as American crime author George Pelecanos so beautifully put it -

‘There is no solving murders, you know. Not unless the dead are going to rise up out of the earth. Once somebody is killed, it's forever for their loved ones and their family and the community. “

I did not set out to be a fiction writer. When I left the police it was to find a better life, a happier life, a new world in fact: to travel, to take photos, to write about music, to study Buddhism.

When I did start to write fiction it was in a kind of mad catharsis triggered by a triple murder when I was living in Dharamsala – three Tibetan monks were stabbed to death one night about 100 yards away from where I was living; their murderers - five other monks who were engaged in an internecine war over esoteric questions about deity worship. 

A world within Tibetan Buddhism that I hadn’t known existed suddenly ruptured into my world and it felt somehow that all the darkness I’d experienced in 13 years in the police world - and thought I had quietly sealed up while I wrote about West African music and studied Buddhist philosophy – that world was back and felt real and I can’t tell you why, but it felt like the only way to try and understand this world of violent murderous monks was to fictionalise it and relocate it back to Australia – to build a new world and to create a character who would come and investigate it on my behalf.

The story I wrote as a result of that was unfinished, I didn’t know what I was doing, but the character I created, my Detective Nhu ‘Ned’ Kelly, remains with me today and is the central figure in my two novels. It was, I suppose, unavoidable that I ended up bringing to my writing my own experience as a copper, most of it spent as a detective.

Crime novels are generally about the world of cops - and I bring to it my personal understanding of that world. And that is, that it’s not just one world, it’s worlds within worlds, the cops – the longer you stay in, the further you go, the more those worlds, the layers between those worlds unpeel and you penetrate deeper. You join the cops and you join a new world. At first it’s the world of the uniform cop, but then, like me, there’s another world, the world of the detectives, then if you are good at that there’s another layer, the world of the squads – and within each of the worlds there are layers and layers of secrets.

P.M. Newton as a police officer
As a cop, I always felt like an insider /outsider. To the world you’re a cop. End of story. But within that world, you’re a woman, and in the 80s and early 90s, that made you somewhat suspect – there were layers of the world you could not penetrate. And that’s the core aspect of my character, Ned, an Australian Vietnamese young woman, starting out in the cops in the early 1990s, a new detective, slowly moving through the worlds within, but always slightly outside them as well, doubly suspicious to her colleagues as a woman and a non-Anglo Australian.

She comes out of the first book, The Old School, wounded, emotionally, physically and mentally. The second book, Beams Falling, picks up immediately after those events and deals with her movement through new worlds – physically it’s a new place, Cabramatta, early 1993. The world of the ra choi, Vietnamese kids who went out to play joined street gangs to sell drugs, the kids of refugees, leaving homes and families scarred by war.

But emotionally this book was about the world of trauma, the world of the traumatised, those damaged by violence – Ned by the violence of her work, the community by the refugee experience, by conflict, by war, by drugs.

It meant researching and wading into the reality of PTSD, the symptoms of which include hyper- vigilance, emotional numbing, paranoia, inability to form new relationships or maintain old ones, hair trigger anger, fear, panic attacks, blackouts, flashbacks – it meant creating something described by therapists as “trauma world” because that’s where my characters were living.

People suffering from trauma are caught between trauma world – where being suspicious of everyone makes perfect sense because everyone is a threat, where being hyper vigilant is the only way to survive - and the “real world” where you exhaust yourself with mood swings, you alienate everyone around you, you don’t trust others or yourself, you’re incapable of love or being loved, and you pose a risk to yourself and others.

Which brings me back to those opening lines that I remembered when I saw the title of this conference

“My name is Legion: for we are many.”

“I am large, I contain multitudes”

When it’s going well a book is like a kind of madness – the voices in your head, of characters, imaginary friends, foes, threats, enemies, victims, betrayers, all those worlds within that you create and that before you even put them on the page begin to colonise you and as they become more convincing, you live there, in their world, with them.

Trauma world was for me the world within Beams Falling. It was hard to create it, to get it to a liveable stage, and then when it was, it became hard to live in it, and almost impossible to live outside it. During my research into trauma world I discovered that patients suffering PTSD are asked to write or read their trauma narratives, and then to re-write, re-read, and re-listen to it again and again in the hope that the re-exposure will eventually give them distance, so that they no longer live in trauma world. It struck me how very like novel writing this is. We all know what that last pass at page proof stage feels like, yeah?

According to behavioural therapy experts, “traumatized individuals crave metaphor and imagery . . . to make sense of their worlds.”

Is this not what we are trying to do when we write novels?

I’ll finish with a quote from the poet Alicia Ostriker that for me encapsulates why we pursue this special madness of creating a world within, living in it, and trying to write it down so that others may also experience it -

A metaphor gives us at least a fighting chance of saying something real.
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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh on Mindfulness and its essence for non-violent living

With this article we continue our efforts to bring you the life-saving choices offered by a non-violent view and commitment. This is, indeed, the essential work of a "universal heart". Thich Nhat Hanh is known to many of you as a profound spiritual teacher of "Engaged Buddhism" that extends its broad, generous vision to include all. I (Stephanie Dowrick) believe him to be a vital teacher for these times. Below, we include some words from Thich Nhat Hanh, first shared by Trevor Carolan, of Shambhala Sun, and then some more recent words from this beautiful peacemaker himself. We cannot urge you strongly enough also to find his books, and follow - literally - in his footsteps of mindful, peace-giving living.  Could anything matter more?

"Non-violence does not mean non-action. It means we act with love and compassion, living in such a way that a future will be possible for our children and their children."

A small man garbed in the drab brown robes of his Order, Thich Nhat Hanh spoke quietly, plaintively, in good English with occasional French inflections. His words and speech were restful, like a balm to the ears and conscience. Most everything about Thich Nhat Hanh was marked by calmness, a soft yin-ness that goes beyond simple stillness. When he spoke, it was with great mindfulness—a word, an action to which he is especially devoted.

Thich Nhat Hanh began with a story. "One day I was practising mindful movement in a wood with the people of our community," he said softly. "Everyday we practice this, walking slowly, mindfully, to enjoy every step; then we sit down.

"One day, I suddenly realized that the tree standing in front of me allowed my movement to be possible. I saw very clearly that I was able to breathe in because of its presence in front of me. It was standing there for me, and I was breathing in and out for the tree. I saw this connection very profoundly.

"In my tradition we speak of 'interbeing.' We cannot 'be' by ourself alone; we must be with everything else," he continued. "So, for example, we 'inter-are' with a tree: if it is not there, we are not there either.

"In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha advises us to consider four notions: the notions of self, of humanity, of living beings, and of life span. He also advises that the practice of removing these notions from mind is not difficult; anyone can do it."

And later:

"Intellect alone is not enough to guide us. To shape the future of the twenty-first century, we need something else. 

Without peace and happiness we cannot take care of ourselves; we cannot take care of other species and we cannot take care of the world.

"That is why it is important for us to live in such a way that every moment we are there deeply with our true presence, always alive and nourishing the insight of Interbeing.

"To me, mindfulness is very much like the Holy Spirit. All of us have the seed of the Holy Spirit in us; the capacity of healing, transforming and loving. Where there is suffering, mindfulness responds with the energy of compassion and understanding. Compassion is where the rivers of Christianity and Buddhism meet.

"In the Christian and Jewish traditions, we learn to live in the presence of God," he affirmed. "Our Buddhist equivalent is the practice of cultivating mindfulness, of living deeply every moment with the energy of the Holy Spirit. If we change our daily lives—the way we think, speak and act—we begin to change the world.

"This is what I discussed with Dr. Martin Luther King many years ago; that the practice of mindfulness is not just for hours of silent meditation, but for every moment of the day. Other teachers, like St. Basil, have said it is possible to pray as we work, and in Vietnam, we invented 'Engaged Buddhism' so we could continue our contemplative life in the midst of helping the victims of war. We worked to relieve the suffering while trying to maintain our own mindfulness.

The young Thich Nhat Hanh with Dr Martin Luther King

"So to conclude, the practice of looking deeply does not mean being inactive. We become very active with our understanding. Non-violence does not mean non-action. It means we act with love and compassion, living in such a way that a future will be possible for our children and their children. "

And now, more words from Thich Nhat Hanh

"Many years ago when I visited Italy, I met a Catholic priest who organized a
public talk for me. We had time to talk with each other, and I asked him this
question: 'My friend, what is the Holy Spirit to you?' And he said that the Holy
Spirit is the energy of God, sent by God to us. I thought that expression is
beautiful, and as a Buddhist practitioner I can accept it very easily.

 "The Holy Spirit is the kind of energy that helps you to be compassionate, to
be healed of your ill being. I think Catholics and Protestants would agree about
that: the Holy Spirit is the agent of healing, of transformation, of joy, of
being there.

"In Buddhist circles, we say very much the same thing to describe mindfulness.
To us, mindfulness is the energy that can help us to be there, in the here and
the now. Mindfulness helps us to be alive, and since we are there, we are
capable of touching life deeply, of understanding, of accepting, of loving. If
we continue to develop that energy of understanding and loving, then we will get
the healing and transformation that we need. That is why the Holy Spirit is
exactly what we call the energy of mindfulness.

"I can say that a Buddha or a bodhisattva is someone who is made of the energy
of mindfulness. Each of us has a seed of mindfulness within ourselves. If we
practice walking, sitting, smiling, breathing, eating, doing things every day
with mindfulness, we help that seed of mindfulness in us to grow, and it will
generate that energy of mindfulness that helps us to be alive, fully present in
the here and the now, helping us to understand, to accept, forgive, and to love,
to be healed. That is why it is correct to say that the energy of mindfulness is
the energy of a Buddha, of a bodhisattva.

 "We have that energy in ourselves, and if we know how to practice, we can
generate that energy from within. To me, the expressions 'Holy Spirit' and
'Mindfulness' both point to the same thing—something that is very concrete, that
is available us in the here and the now, and not just an idea, a notion."

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Madeleine's flower, blooming in the sweet air of deep appreciation.