Tuesday, June 18, 2019

THE BAMIYAN BUDDHAS


The second time I wrote about the 1,500 year-old Bamiyan Buddhas was in 2007, here in The Buddha Dairies. The first time I wrote about them was in March, 2001, when the statues were wantonly destroyed by repeated attacks from the Taliban. I have no idea where to find that first piece, but the second refers to it. I noted that the destruction of these "twin towers" foreshadowed the 9/11 destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York--and that it was surely provoked by the same fundamentalist Muslim fanaticism.



I was reminded of this monumental act of vandalism by an article in today's New York Times about more recent, apparently rather futile discussions on the subject of restoration. A Japanese couple apparently funded a ghostly, 3-D holographic "reconstruction" of the larger Buddha in the space he once occupied, but it seemed to me more an act of nostalgia than restoration--or even reverence. Those magnificent acts of devotion--remote in both time and geographical location--are now lost to the history of prodigious human achievements. There is no way to restore them, or replace them. The giant niches in the cliff face where they once stood remain as monuments to the destructive fervor of religious intolerance.

Their absence is a monument, too, to one of the great teachings of the Buddha--that everything is in constant flux; that nothing, not even the seemingly solid presence of a giant figure carved in rock, can survive the changes wrought by time. Better, perhaps, to leave them standing there, unoccupied, until the time comes when they, too, will have surrendered to that one ineluctable law, that everything must change.

Monday, June 17, 2019

FROM SUFFERING TO PEACE: A Book Review

I have been reading a review copy of From Suffering to Peace: The True Promise of Mindfulness by Michael Coleman, a long-time teacher of Buddhist meditation practice who himself spent many years
in training with teachers in a variety of traditions and a host of different countries. That he writes with fluency, conviction and ease about his subject is a tribute to the breadth of his knowledge and experience.

There is by now an immense field of literature about mindfulness, some of it popular, some scholarly, some laic, some specific to the practice of religion. And mindfulness has become something of a cultural phenomenon, the in thing, practiced in one form or another everywhere from kindergarten to college campus, from prison to corporate boardroom. There's good reason to be happy that the 2,500 year-old teachings of the Buddha are reaching the ears of so many in a world that needs them more than ever before--a world in which suffering seems so widespread, so endemic to a contemporary environment in which despair abounds.

There is also reason for concern, a risk that the profundity and subtleties of Buddhist thought can easily drift off into a kind of bland New-Ageism that offers superficial comfort but no real path to the true happiness that the Buddha promises as the outcome of a rigorous practice of his principles. I think it is in part this danger that Coleman seeks to address, because his book is studious in avoiding the clichés and is, instead, a truly thorough and comprehensive introduction to the practice. It offers not only a practical and reliable manual for newcomers; it also serves as a useful refresher course for one who has been at it for a good number of years. I'll confess I started out thinking I knew it all, and was gradually reminded, gently, page by page, that we are all beginners.

While Coleman does not make light of the challenges of a meditation practice, his explains it all in readable, lucid prose, with ample illustrations from his own life experience and that of others he has learned from or taught along the way. Each chapter is followed with an easy-to-follow set of instructions for a practice specific to its theme, making it possible for the reader to realize a complex teaching in actual, lived experience--a teaching, say, about the ways in which we fabricate an illusory sense of "self"--that might otherwise seem merely theoretical and distant. Following the guidance along this path, the reader is led ever deeper into the compassionate heart of Buddhist practice, the exercise of generosity and kindness toward oneself and every other being.

A country boy at heart who has too long been a city-dweller, I found myself responding with particular resonance to Coleman's constant return to nature as a source of both inspiration and awe, reminding us of the infinitesimal place we humans occupy in the greater universe. As one who offers frequent silent wilderness retreats, the author shares his passion for the natural world and the sense of humility we inevitably experience in its context. In its grandeur as well as in its loveliest detail, it invites us to open ourselves to that heightened, undistracted, fully present sense of awareness in the moment--the only place in which we humans are able to find true happiness in the release from suffering of which he writes.

As the Buddha taught, there is a path from suffering to peace. Coleman invites us skillfully to join him on it.

Friday, June 14, 2019

ALMGHTY GOD?

One of our skylights has been leaking for years. Since the rains have been infrequent here in Southern California, we have been avoiding the expense of replacing it by patching and grouting on the roof (it hasn't worked) and putting out towels and buckets to catch the water when it rains. This year, we finally decided to bite the (expensive!) bullet and have the thing replaced. Once that was done, we were so pleased with the result that we've been considering replacing the second skylight, and our guy came to visit yesterday to give us a new estimate.

He's an ex-Marine. Served on active duty in Vietnam. Has seen war at first hand, on the battlefield. So we got to talking about war. Like many of the military people I have met, Patrick strikes me as man who has learned an inner sense of discipline and respect for those around him, along with a quiet focus on the mission at hand. I suspect that military training can teach these qualities, which are rare in today's slapdash, me-first, anything-goes world. I imagine--and this is something I do not know first hand--that a person comes to value life much more when threatened with its loss, or when seeing others lose it. Patrick reminded me of a study I once read, that many soldiers in battle cannot bring themselves to shoot to kill, but instead aim purposely away from the targets they are ordered to shoot. He himself feels blessed that he was never required to aim specifically at another human being, but only at shadows moving in the jungle. He thinks, and hopes, he never killed anyone.

We agreed, then, on the horrors of war--I as one who was never of an age to be called upon for combat, he who was a combatant. We agreed on our disgust at having been led into wars that were dubious at best, and on the current fear of being led into another conflict in the Mideast by a president who knows nothing of war and whose dishonesty is known not only in this country but throughout the world. Patrick said there's only one more devastating power than war, and that's God Almighty! Not a believer in that God myself, I recognize that power in the universe, whose explosive, infinite expanse and grandeur make our little human wars look puny.


Thursday, June 13, 2019

BACK AGAIN!

I have been thinking a lot about The Buddha Diaries. Which is obviously not the same as doing. I have been thinking that I need to get back to more regular entries; and first I need to set the intention and make the commitment.

Was a time when this blog was the first thing that came to mind when I woke up in the morning. Was a time when I rarely missed a day. The blog seemed to satisfy my writing jones as well as the commitment I made long ago to waking up and living in awareness, rather than allowing the precious time to slip by without my noticing. And, through awareness, to become the better person that I had chosen to become.

I have been distracted, clearly. I have been distracted, particularly, by events in my adoptive country that have been profoundly upsetting to my equanimity. The (good!) socialist instincts with which I was raised in my native country, England, have suffered a severe shock in the face of the rise of extreme right-wing power throughout the world, and particularly by its dominance of our national priorities.

In recent months I have been personally distracted from The Buddha Diaries by my commitment to a book about my boyhood. I saw the book, "What a Good Boy Am I", as an expression of my dedication to awareness; it was, has been, a way to learn more about who I am today and how I got to be that way. Some say that your entire life speeds through your consciousness at the moment of death and this has been a close-up review of my first years here on earth.

I am now done with it. The book went through four stages of revision, and a last minute full-length review. After that review, this past Tuesday, I took the book on a thumb drive to a print shop, all 286 pages, and had a couple of copies printed out. I packed up one of the copies and shipped it off to an agent who expressed interest, first, in seeing an outline and, now, the entire manuscript. I'm grateful for the interest and keeping my fingers crossed. It would be great to find a good agent and eventually a commercial publisher.

So it's out of my hands, at least for the time being, while the agent puts it through the review process at that end. Which leaves me thinking about The Buddha Diaries again.

The description line for the blog, sitting below the title for lo! these many years (the first entry dates from January 29, 2007) is this: "getting to the heart of the matter." I meant any matter, from what was going on in my life at the time to international politics. I wanted to use the blog as a diary in which I could reflect on my reactions to both interior and exterior events, to become aware of what was going on in the deepest part of my own being.

This was perhaps too lofty a goal for me to live up to, day-in, day-out! But it remains, for me, a worthy goal, and one that I'd like to continue to pursue. I hope to rebuild my base of readers who enjoyed reading what I wrote, and sometimes responding to it. I feel I have somehow let them down...

Saturday, June 1, 2019

GUESTHOUSE FOR GANESHA; A Book Review

As you'll discover on the first page of Judith Teitelman's novel, Guesthouse for Ganesha, the guesthouse in the title alludes to the lovely Rumi poem whose first line is "This being human is a guesthouse."
The poem is about our need to welcome all experience into our life, no matter whether good or bad, and to take what joy we can in the learning that it brings. Ganesha is, well... Ganesha, the every-popular Hindu god whose chief attribute--apart from a protruding belly--is his elephant nose. A protective deity of wisdom, success, and good luck, he is one of two narrator-protagonists of the novel, the other being Esther, a young Jewish woman surviving the Nazi years in Germany, who certainly needs all the good luck she can get.

Not hard to guess, then, that "Guesthouse" is part magical realism, part survival narrative. Our sympathy for Esther is hard-earned. Her heart is turned to stone while she is still virtually a girl by her abandonment, at the marriage chuppah, by the man to whom she has given her eternal love and trust, and she remains tormented by the memory of this indelible loss. She clings fiercely to her bitterness as she escapes her native Polish shtetl with nothing but her supernatural skill as a seamstress, which she parlays into a successful survival strategy. Teitelman allows this frozen woman a brief glimpse into her soul at an Indian food counter in Köln, where Ganesha appears to embrace her, unknowingly, in the warmth of his compassion.

Esther endures the early years of pre-war Nazi anti-Semitism in Köln, at first only vaguely, but increasingly aware of its poison spreading in the nation. Incapable of love, she enters into a loveless marriage. Has three children. Abandons them, dispatching two of them to safety via the well-known Kindertransport. Throughout, as war approaches and ensues, Teitelman compellingly evokes Esther's growing predicament, her isolation with a baby son, and her desperate, always quick-witted efforts to survive a hostile environment, where the slightest error means the certainty of arrest and dispatch to what she by now knows will be the death sentence in the camps. With help from a team of conscience-stricken Germans, she keeps managing to escape, moving to Wupperthal, to Paris... and finally to refuge in Switzerland. It's her grit and her impenetrable heart that save her. And Ganesha watches over constantly with concern, compassion, humor...

It's only after the war, alone in the world, that Esther's heart begins to melt. Drawn by the spiritual presence of what we know to be her protector, Ganesha, she heads for India and the possibility of redemption in a final scene where the tragedy of her compelling journey blossoms into full-blown magical realism. But this you'll need to read for yourself. No spoilers. Suffice it to say that Teitelman leads her character into the furthest depths of the heart and soul she never knew she had. In the end, it's all about being human.