Tuesday, August 20, 2019

LABYRINTH: A Book Review

We start at the height of the Spanish Civil War, a brutal period described by some as the dress rehearsal for the apocalypse of World War II. The story of the attack on Guernica by Adolf Hitler's German bombers is well known, thanks in part to Picasso's great elegiac painting memorializing the atrocity. Less well known is the brutal 1939 Italian bombing attack on defenseless Barcelona--which is the point of departure for the epic novel by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, "The Labyrinth of the Spirits."

The labyrinth of Ruiz Zarón's compelling saga of mystery, intrigue, dynasty and romance is a vast spiral library of forgotten books that reminds this reader, in its realm of mysterious, mythical surreality, of Borges' memorable "Library of Babel." At a deeper level, it is a powerful metaphor for the dark inner conflict in the shattered soul of post-war Barcelona, and post-war Spain.

In the opening scenes his protagonist, a young woman called, appropriately, Alicia, barely escapes the Barcelona bombing as a child, surviving a dreadful fall down the rabbit hole of the story's "labyrinth" armed only with a copy of Alice in Wonderland. She is left an orphan, with injuries that cause the dreadful, chronic pain that accompany her through the dark years of survival through the city's post-war years of traumatic recovery from the festering wounds of war. She is smart, resilient, ruthless, even vindictive in pursuit of what she sees as right. (She reminds me quite a bit of that other broken crime-fighting girl, the one with the dragon tattoo...)

A blend of magical and raw realism, of history, literary thriller and family saga, "Labyrinth" is a compelling read, a page-turner even at it 800-page length. It is also, given the specter of fascist authoritarianism that seems to be reviving throughout the world today, a valuable and timely reminder of the dire consequences of submitting to the forces of oppression. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2019


Once, long ago, when I was still a young man, I had the good fortune to study with one of this country's most distinguished literary critics. He taught that farce was the only true expression of tragedy in a world abandoned by the gods--and by the gods he meant any absolute and ultimate truth by which would could explain, even justify, our human predicament to ourselves. We have grown, he argued, even beyond the Enlightenment's belief in reason (and therefore, too, science) as a substitute for God, and the fulcrum of that ultimate truth; and have reached a place where absurdity--I should capitalize that word, Absurdity--is the only force that reigns supreme.

I have myself come to believe otherwise, that we humans can make sense of impermanence, even chaos, by an embrace of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths instead of the search for a final authority in the form of a god; that we can find within ourselves a path to the end of suffering without the need for some ultimate power to provide it for us.

Still, looking around at the culture we have created for ourselves in the contemporary world, particularly, perhaps, in contemporary America, I conclude that my old teacher's theories can provide some insight into our predicament. Chaos seems to have run amok, to be in control everywhere we look. We have, some would argue, a clown for president--a man unmoored from the restraints that temper civilized society. His actions are characterized by spontaneous reaction ("We'll see what happens") and he drives a clown car crowded with others like himself and ready, at any moment, to explode.

The hero of conventional literary tragedy is a leader in authority over others, who through some "fatal flaw"--often raw ambition--brings chaos into a previously stable world. The action of the tragic plot moves toward the removal of that troublesome scourge, that "something rotten in the state of Denmark," and the restoration of peace and order in the realm. All of which is possible, demanded even, in the larger framework of an ultimate order that the gods provide, a world whose stability is guaranteed by their presence.

We are, in this view, living in the grip of farce--of, unfortunately, the nightmarish rather than the funny variety of Absurdity. Useless to apply the usual standards of reasonable expectation to what we are experiencing. It defies reason. I'm just hoping that this current circus act will come to a peaceful end before the clown car explodes.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019


Received in a newsletter from Ken McLeod, these thoughts on the practice of taking and sending (see my recent book review in The Buddha Diaries) and its relevance to the exercise of compassion. In his essay, McLeod analyses a paragraph from a fictional speech by John LeCarré's character, George Smiley, in which the master spy makes a plea for "the man"--individual humanity--over the group, the belief system, the organization, the political party. Taking and sending, McLeod suggests, is a way we can be a part of the solution, not the problem--what we can DO in a cultural and political climate in which we can easily feel helpless:

"In taking and sending, we take in (italics mine) not only the pain and suffering others experience, we take in their whole world view, the way they think and feel, the way they understand the world, and how they react to what they see and hear. This requires an active imagination on our part, and the willingness to open, understand and experience behaviors and ideas that may be completely contrary to our own values. In the process, we will come to the understanding that, whatever our values, the way others experience pain and suffering is exactly the same as the way we experience pain and suffering. 

"When we send (again, italics are mine) our own joy and well-being, we have to do the same. What would it take for them to experience joy and well-being? How can we send that to them? Again, a creative imagination is called for, and through that creative process, we come to understand that they experience joy and well-being in exactly the same way that we experience joy and well-being. We are not different.

"In short, taking and sending, at least for me, brings me in touch with the essential humanity in each of us in a way that I feel viscerally and cannot ignore for the sake of policies, systems or structures."

I recommend reading the entire essay, at a time when a resurgence of suffering, anger, hatred and confusion tempts us to compound all this by retreating into our own belief systems and condemning others for theirs. 

Friday, August 2, 2019


Can a lay person like myself learn the ancient Tibetan practice of tonglen? Sometimes called “taking and sending”, it teaches the practitioner to breathe in the suffering of self and others—eventually of the entire world—envisioned usually as a stream of black smoke, converting it with a “brilliant lightning strike” into pure love, and sending it out again in the form of healing compassion.

Even this oversimplified nutshell version suggests the depth, perhaps even the danger of this challenge. You’d think that it requires years of immersion in the study of Buddhist teachings (the dharma) and more years of retreat with distinguished gurus and of personal meditation practice. But Lama Palden Drolma (who, not incidentally, brings all this experience to her book on the subject) is persuasive in suggesting that even a lay person can be taught. In Love on Every Breath: Tonglen Meditation for Transforming Pain into Joy she walks the reader through eight progressive steps to learn the practice.

Those steps lead us through “Resting in Open Awareness”—what I think of as the “big sky” mind—and “Seeking Refuge in the Awakened Sanctuary” of the Triple Gem—the Buddha, the dharma and the noble sangha—to “Cultivating Awakened Mind” and “Stepping into Love.” These carefully detailed initial steps are critical preparation in making the essential connection with the heart and opening it for the real work ahead: the “Taking and Sending” first, importantly, for oneself, and only then for others. The practice concludes with “Dissolving”—a necessary letting go after the intensity of the experience—and “Dedicating” its benefits “to the happiness and liberation of all beings.”

Readers should make no mistake: tonglen is no easy path, as I can attest, as one who has made the effort to follow it in the past. It is serious business for both mind and heart to consciously breathe in, with intention, so much suffering. So it’s important to note that Lama Palden writes with the love, the depth of seriousness and the respect that both her subject and her reader require. To read her deeply caring, patient and thorough instruction manual requires every ounce of the rapt attention she so lovingly describes in her early pages. To read the book as it demands to be read also requires the exercise of each “complete meditation” practice the author outlines at the conclusion of her discussion of each step along the way. (The “on-the-spot” meditation she offers as an alternative in the stress of quotidian events is useful, but is practicable only, in my view, after the reader has experienced the complete version).

This is a rewarding book for the attentive and committed reader who wants to heal the world as well as him- or herself. With so much suffering everywhere we look, it is also a timely one. Would that this depth of compassion which, as Lama Palden is at pains to point out, can be found in every human heart, were more common currency. This world would be a better place indeed.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019


(The thoughts that follow were prompted by my current reading of "Love on Every Breath: Tonglen Meditation for Transforming Pain into Joy" by Lama Palden Drolma. This is not a "review", but rather a log of the thoughts and practices I have tried out for myself as I read the review copy I received from the publisher, New World Library).

I do not sit cross-legged. I came to meditation relatively late in life, at a time when my joints were already somewhat set in their Western ways! Nevertheless, I struggled with the zafu for several years at first, before concluding that too much of my meditation energy was being channelled into the struggle and decided on the chair instead. I have done my meditation sitting in the chair for many years now and have made my peace with the compromise.

That said, I do make the conscious effort to establish a straight spine from the start and to maintain it constantly throughout my sit, correcting it if (when!) I find myself beginning to slouch. Long-time teachers and practitioners agree that this is essential to optimize the breath energy in the body and my experience confirms this to be true. Also, I meditate with eyes gently closed--Lama Palden Drolma recommends meditating with eyes open, but I decided not to complicate things further by attempting to change this long-standing habit.

The Lama describes Step 1 in the eight-step practice of "Love in Every Breath" as "Resting in Open Awareness"--a term I learned a while ago and have come to love as a reminder to myself when the edge of my practice begins to dull, as it sometimes does. I wrote about this in The Buddha Diaries just a couple of days ago as the combination of complete relaxation of the body and the sharpened attention of the mind.

So I am working on Step 1, bringing my attention to the breath and allowing the breath to become one with the breathing body as I at once relax and expand the awareness, slowly, to include every sensation in the body. Once settled in this intimate awareness of what I think of as my self, I invite the mind's attention to expand outward to include everything outside of and around me, continuing to expand ever outward until it becomes a space of unrestricted openness where, as the Lama says, "Perceptions and thoughts, like birds, do not disturb the sky. The sky does not chase after them or judge them. They are simply there, and then they are gone."

The metaphor of the "big sky" is a pleasing and, in my experience, an accurately descriptive one; and the metaphor itself is a useful visual aid that can guide me, when distractions intervene, to the goal I'm striving for. It's a matter, as the Lama writes, of "keeping your mind at ease, open, and resting in the vividness of your experience." A good place to be.