Thursday, April 16, 2015

HOW TO CHANGE YOUR MIND

Meet Carm Goode.  Or Miles Forthwrighte.  Or should I say "and," since they appear to be one and the same?  Here they are:

Image courtesy of Future Studio, reprinted with permission

You'll note that Carm seems a jovial enough fellow, Miles a bit of a curmudgeon; Carm a free spirit, Miles clearly academic.  Which seems to be how they work, not so much in collaboration as in friendly (?) contention with each other.  They make their appearance at art openings and receptions--these are sometimes called "performances"--but, despite promises for public debate, never both at the same time.

Carm seems the more active and creative of the pair, Miles more the critic.  Carm specializes in the design and creation of covers for found books, which are the objects on display on the walls at Future Studio, the offbeat gallery in Highland Park where Stuart Rapeport and Amy Inouye hold court with a pair of rather oddly assorted dogs and a plethora of also oddly assorted collectibles.  (Disclosure: Amy, a book designer by craft, designed my own two most recent books.)  Their current show is "Thirty-Nine Books, Part II."  Was there a Part I?  I don't know.  It's possible.  Is there a sly reference in the title to John Buchan's "Thirty-Nine Steps"? I don't know, but given the bibliophile bent of Goode/Forthwrighte, that too is possible.

For Goode, books are clearly a source of creative joy.  He plays with the relationship between the content of old volumes--picked up, I can only imagine, in some esoteric bookstore--and the covers he creates.  Of particular appeal to The Buddha Diaries, for example, is "Buddhabux: The Currency of Spiritual Wealth"--a spoof not only on the spread of popular "spiritual" fads but also on the power of money in today's political and social culture.  The front cover offers the display of two elaborately-designed Buddhabux banknotes, while the back cover blurb (as is the case with all Goode's covers), is an elegantly-written satirical passage about the relationship between said spirituality and cold hard cash.  

And... "How To Change Your Mind" is a spoof on pop psychology, specifically the Gestalt variety that blossomed in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  "The Seven Lost Muses" lists the inspirational (but hitherto neglected) Inne-Briana, Errora, Mortislina and others...  Philosophical and psychological studies blend the serious with the hilariously absurd.  Fiction blends cheerfully with fact, and actual "literature" with pure invention--and we never know quite where we stand between the two.  The ground shifts constantly.  And Miles is sure to poke his nose in here and there with a wry, acerbic comment on Carm's work, or a book of his own ("The Third Person, In the Shadow Of..."--presumably Carm Goode).

As always, satire has a serious purpose.  We are asked to consider the injustices of our society, the absurdity of a good deal of popular belief, the pretensions of science and religion.  What's astonishing is the encyclopedic nature of Goode's reach.  His "Official Catalogue of The Aperion  (look it up!) Bibilotheque" is a "Library of Actual, Theoretical, and Partial Books (...) devoted to exploring the prior conditions for understanding The Human Condition."  It's the product of a rich and infinitely curious imagination, as is the collection of samples offered on the Future Studio shelves.  Go see for yourself.  You might even change your mind.  though I'm not sure about what.





RECORD OF MIRACULOUS EVENTS... Book Review

Record of Miraculous Events in Japan: the Nihon ryoiki, translated by Burton Watson, Columbia University Press

Writes Haruo Shirane in his "Introduction" to Burton Watson's translation of this Record of Miraculous Events..., it was "compiled in the early Heian period (794-1192) and is "Japan's first anecdotal (setsuwa) literature."  It therefore occupies an important and influential place in Japanese literary history--and, since these are Buddhist stories, intended to be instructive of the dharma, in the history of Buddhism as it came to be practiced in Japan in later centuries. As such, its place in the canon of Japanese literary and religious studies is assured.

That said, let's look at it from the point of view of the lay reader--one who is not principally a student of either of those areas of scholarship.  In this light, my first observation is that this is not a book to be read from cover to cover.  Its many parables--teaching stories--risk losing their charm and become repetitive if you read too many of them in succession.  They were passed on in an oral tradition, and eventually written down (by the monk, Kyokai) for the edification of people at a time, and in a culture, very different from our own.  Much of their charm, to the contemporary reader, lies precisely in their evocation of so foreign and formal a cultural environment.  They read, in a sense, like fairy tales.  To read of gods and devils, of magical powers and the casting of spells is for us a very different experience than for those for whom the stories were intended.  We read them without fear and trembling, but rather for their literary charm, for their metaphorical delights, their seductive quaintness, and no longer to be instructed in the Buddhist values they embody.

The lesson of these tales is a simple and repeated one: it is the law of karma.  No good deed goes unrewarded, no bad deed unpunished.  The good deeds most frequently include filial duty and acts of kindness, as well as the more conventional recitation or copying of the sutras, fasting, and sacrifice; the bad ones, acts of violence and cruelty, disrespect for parents, adultery, theft and murder.  Visions of paradise alternate with visions of hell--the familiar fires, for the most part, and the burning of the flesh.  Souls, upon death, transmigrate into new and different life forms--animals, plants, and existence in different social status.  Some for the better, others... not so much.  Class hierarchy is strictly observed, and the rehearsal of heritage and family associations an important part of each story.

For the lay reader, then, these stories amuse, enchant, sometimes delight, but eventually, even in their drama, there is a sameness to them.  The book is a wonderful addition to the bedside table, to be picked up from time to time to indulge in the pleasure of a couple of stories, picked at random, to be transported into a magical world far from our own, but a world that operates according to its own laws, its own social mores, its own logic.  It also reminds us, importantly, to renew our awareness of the way that karma operates in our own lives and our contemporary world, though perhaps generally with less dramatic distinctions between good and evil than we find here.  The simple lesson that what we prefer, these days, to call "skillful" actions lead to results that bring greater happiness into our lives, and that unskillful ones invariably land us in trouble, is a truth that bears repeating.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

THINKING/NOT-THINKING

Pursuant to yesterday's entry, I've been thinking about not-thinking and not thinking, and the distinction between the two.  Not-thinking is purposeful, mindful.  It's a mind-opening process, focused and non-judgmental.  Not thinking is merely irresponsible, inattentive.  It leads to broken dishes, spilled glasses and various other stumbles.  At its worst, it leads to car crashes and other disasters.

I try to do as much not-thinking as I can.  Instead, I catch myself doing a lot of not thinking.

Thinking is not so bad.  I do a lot of that, too.  I try to do it, especially, in full consciousness.  When I'm not conscious of the process, my thinking goes off in directions of its own, and often off the path. I call that "distraction."  A nice word, when you think about it.  "Dis", and "traction"...

The mind is a wonderful thing to watch.  What just popped into mine is that memorable saying of Dan Quayle's.  Remember? "What a terrible thing to have lost one's mind.  Or not to have a mind at all.  How true that is."  He was trying to remember the slogan of the United Negro College Fund: "A Mind is a terrible thing to waste."  How true that is.

Which is on my mind this morning.  I think.




Monday, April 13, 2015

BOKETTO

It was a pleasure to reunite with an old friend, the artist Sam Erenberg, over dinner at a mutual friend's home the other night.  He spent some time bringing me up to date with his work as a painter, and introduced me to a Japanese term I had never before encountered: boketto.  It's one of those words that resists attempts at translation, but the nearest English equivalent is something like "gazing into the sky without thinking."

What a wonderful word!  Not-thinking, of course--to my mind at least--does not mean mindlessness, but rather mindfulness.  Boketto (my computer's annoying auto-correct system, thinking it knows better, keeps wanting me to write "bucket"!) suggests a complete, non-judgmental openness to the experience of looking, opening the mind to the ability to see what's there without the intervention of the always-busy brain.  It's a blissful experience, but the point is not to experience bliss, but simply to experience.

I was particularly enchanted by the term on Saturday, because I had just that morning hosted one of the "One Hour/One Painting" sessions I have been offering in museums and galleries for many years now.  As readers of The Buddha Diaries may already know, these sessions are a blend of the ancient skills of meditation and contemplation.  They're simply about the art of looking.  I make it a point, at the start, to explain that this is not about "thinking."  Indeed, I encourage participants, in so far as they are able, to quiet all brain activity save for its function to receive and store visual information.  Contemplation, with eyes open, requires the mind to gaze steadily at the object without thought or judgment.  Meditation, with eyes closed, allows the mind to practice purely visual memory.

It's a great way to look at art.  Most of us wander through museums and galleries with, honestly, barely a glance at what is on the walls.  We pause here and there, often largely to consult the label and find out who the artist is.  I know.  I'm guilty of this myself.   "One Hour/One Painting" affords us the opportunity to slow down, look, and see what's actually there, rather than what we "think" is there.

So you'll understand why the concept of boketto is an attractive one to me.  We're not actually looking at the sky--though, why not?  We could.  Come to think of it, I have done this, with one of James Turrell's wonderful works that create a room that opens up, above, to a vision of the sky.  Was he thinking of boketto? (At the linked site, scroll down to "Skylight Series" for a very imperfect view of these magical installations.)  But no, in "One Hour/One Painting" we're gazing not at the sky but at a work of art in the same spirit of "not-thinking."  It's a beautiful challenge.  One of these days, I should bring "One Hour/One Painting" to a work of Sam Erenberg's.





Sunday, April 12, 2015

A STRANGE EVENT

I woke last night in the middle of the night, unsure exactly what the time was, and padded off to the bathroom to fulfill the familiar demand of the aging bladder.  Returning to the bedroom, I was surprised to find it filled with sparkling white light.  I glanced out through the window, which looks down over the vast stretch of Hollywood and the Los Angeles Basin below, and was startled to see a brilliant beam of light shooting back at me.  It seemed to be aimed directly into our bedroom window, and came from a source that hovered motionless a few hundred feet above the city...

I supposed it had to be a helicopter.  I have watched them many times before, beaming spotlights down into the city streets in pursuit of criminal suspects.  But I have never before seen a helicopter direct its spotlight horizontally, as this one did, and especially not purposefully in the direction of our hillside home.  I watched for a while, until the light source veered away slowly, as though reluctantly, toward the south, and moved off, out of sight behind the trees, totally soundless in its flight.  A red light glowed briefly as it made its turn, then it was gone.

I lay awake for a long time after this spectacle, wanting to believe that what I had seen was a common sight in Los Angeles, a police helicopter working over Hollywood in the night sky.  But I could not bring myself to quite believe it.  Its behavior was unlike that of the familiar helicopter.  I found myself pondering the possibility that my eyes had deceived me, that I had been dreaming, or that I had seen something stranger and more disturbing than my rational mind could accept...

Some part of me would have liked to believe it to be some celestial, extraterrestrial apparition.  But of course it had to have been a helicopter.  No?