Bill Vallicella, a former professor who runs a good philosophy blog called The Maverick Philosopher, has written an article called Buddhism on Suffering and One Reason I am Not a Buddhist.
He has every right to not be a Buddhist, of course, but I think his article expresses a misunderstanding of Buddhism. This is a misunderstanding I've also heard from others. Vallicella objects to the Buddhist teaching on desire, one of its core concepts, for its essential negativity:
For Buddhism, all is
dukkha, suffering. Allis unsatisfactory. This, the First Noble Truth, runs contrary to ordinary modes of thinking: doesn't life routinely offer us, besides pain and misery and disappointment, intense pleasures and deep satisfactions?
He describes what he sees as the Buddhist attitude towards desire in more detail here, and he captures the prevailing belief well enough:
Each satisfaction leaves us in the lurch, wanting more. A desire satisfied is a desire entrenched. Masturbate once, and you will do it a thousand times, with the need for repetition testifying to the unsatisfactoriness of the initial satisfaction. Each pleasure promises more that it can possibly deliver, and so refers you to the next and the next and the next, none of them finally satisfactory. It's a sort of Hegelian
schlechte Unendlichkeit. Desire satisfied becomes craving, and craving is an instance of dukkha. One becomes attached to the paltry and impermanent and one suffers when it cannot be had.
Yes, this is what Buddhists believe, but if this were the sum total of Buddhist teaching on desire then I would not be a Buddhist either. Taken in isolation, this is too stringent an attitude, too humorless, too inhumane. But is this utter rejection of desire what Siddhartha Guatama, the historical Buddha, actually taught, and what he represented to his own direct followers? Let's take a closer look.
It's easy to misunderstand a book about religion. My first impression of Stephen Prothero's God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run The World -- And Why Their Differences Matter was not good; I read a summary of the book he wrote for the Boston Globe that seemed to strain for Tea Party relevance by mocking the popular idea (attributed to the likes of the Dalai Lama) that all religions are the same, and hinting that this had something to do with national security:
... this lumping of the world’s religions into one megareligion is not just false and condescending, it is also a threat. How can we make sense of the ongoing conflict in Kashmir if we pretend that Hinduism and Islam are one and the same? Or of the impasse in the Middle East, if we pretend that there are no fundamental disagreements between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam?
I went to hear him speak two months ago in New York City, and happily found Stephen Prothero to be more subtle and moderate in person than his publicity department probably wants him to be. HarperCollins may be trying to ride God Is Not One on the coattails of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great. They even swung him an appearance on the Colbert Report, where, again, he came across as thoughtful and knowledgeable, and clearly no firebrand.
Ron Hogan -- media journalist (GalleyCat, Beatrice), marketing strategist and the only literary blogger I know who's been doing it as long as I have -- has just published an unusual book: Getting Right With Tao: A Contemporary Spin on the Tao Te Ching.
It happens I share Ron's fascination with the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese religious/philosophical text ascribed to a mysterious author named Lao Tzu, and with the set of ideas and traditions known as Taoism. The original Tao Te Ching is unquestionably a masterpiece, and the strong philosophy it presents has much in common with later movements like Buddhism, Transcendentalism and Existentialism. I still have my beloved, very beat-up Penguin Classic copy I bought in college; like Thoreau's Walden or Emerson's essays, this is a book you can pick up and return to often when you need inspiration or advice.
1. Author J. G. Ballard has died.
2. Pankaj Mishra is angry about the "Tandoori-Chickenisation of the literary palate in the west", or the "vastly increased preference for 'ethnic' literature among the primary consumers of literary fiction: the book-buying public of western Europe and North America." As an enthusiast for sites like Words Without Borders and festivals like PEN World Voices, I suppose I should feel chastened, but I don't. I seek out international literature because it's my own literature. Who is Pankaj Mishra to tell me that I might not have more in common with, say, Alain Mabanckou or Indra Sinha or Wen Zhu than I do with the guy who lives next door? He may as well tell me to stop eating Indian food (because I don't really understand it). A clever article, but in the end it's a familiar complaint and a cheap shot.
3, Don Gillmor investigates the history of Harlequin romances.
4. Jill Lepore on Edgar Allan Poe, whose work had "this virtuosic, showy, lilting, and slightly wilting quality, like a peony just past bloom".
5. A Japanese author invokes Poe with a pseudonym: Edogawa Rampo.
6. About Last Night locates a true record of a popular Louis Armstrong myth.
6. Updike on Africa.
7. William Patrick Wend on N. Katherine Hayles' Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary.
8. Emma Bovary, c'est online.
9. Alleged Internet-hater Andrew Keen is just a big softie. His latest article suggests that "blogs are dead" but then quickly devolves into a rundown of some exciting new WordPress real-time/social features. Even in this new mini-era of Twitter, the only thing blogs are dying of is popularity.
10. TechCrunch says web innovators should band together and stop the hype cycle. I agree, but we have a better chance of solving global warming.
11. LitKicks poet Mickey Z. will be participating in "Earth: A Wake up Call for Obama Nation" in Washington DC on April 25.
I don't know if this is the guiding philosophy for the New York Times Book Review in 2009, but they do seem to be making some good choices lately. For the second week in a row, foreign literature gets a lot of attention in today's issue. Natasha Wimmer urges us to discover Argentina's Cesar Aira, either by reading Ghosts or any of his other books, and I intend to follow her advice. This issue also covers four books dealing with China's modern history, including Pico Iyer's cover review of a novel called The Vagrants by Yiyun Li, a purgative tale about the violent excesses of Communist groupthink in a small town during the early post-Mao era. I can't think of many periods in history that cry out more for understanding than China in the last 50 years; by all credible historical accounts, Mao's horrific experimentation with social and economic engineering amounted to the cruelest mass murder of all time, claiming more victims than Hitler and Stalin combined, and yet these horrors typically present a blank face to the outside world, so blank that many outside China (and inside? I don't know) have no understanding at all of what took place during the Mao years.
An oral history by Xinran called China Witness: Voices From a Silent Generation also attempts to bridge this comprehension gap, though Joshua Hammer is not impressed by the author's approach. Jess Row, meanwhile, was impressed when he read Yu Hua's popular Chinese novel Brothers in its original language, but he fears that particulars of this story make it impossible to translate accurately. Anyone interested in the art and science of literary translation will want to weigh his arguments here. One more book about China shows up today, Postcards From Tomorrow Square by James Fallows, reviewed by Jonathan Spence. I doubt I'll find the time, but I'd like to read all four.
I've just been writing about all the reviews I've read of Jonathan Littell's long Nazi-era fable The Kindly Ones. I have little need for yet another take, though David Gates' ultimately negative appraisal is lively and informative enough to maintain my interest. Okay, now I'm done reading reviews of this book for real.
It's certainly my own flaw as a reader that I don't like long books, that I resent it when an author presumes that I have time to read 992 pages (Jonathan Littell) or even 581 pages of the latest installment in a longer cycle of books about a single character, which is what Eric Kraft's Flying amounts to. I begged out of Ed Champion's energetic roundtable about Kraft's latest Peter Leroy book for this reason, despite the fact that the few pages I read were extremely clever. I do feel guilty about not continuing with the novel (which Laura Miller likes in today's Book Review) but I still think it's a bad strategy for an author to write a long series of interlocking books that must be read together for a complete experience. Readers want to first-date our novelists these days -- we're not looking to marry them.
Today's impressive NYTBR also includes a moderately intriguing summary by Jill Abramson of Zoe Heller's The Believers, another novel I want to read and may or may not find time for.
Finally, Rebecca Barry wins big points for reviewing a second-person novel by Patrick deWitt called Ablutions: Notes for a Novel and not once mentioning Jay McInerney.
It took about two seconds for me to fall for De Eenzame Snelweg, a paperback chronicle of an American journey by two young Dutch Kerouac aficionados, writer Auke Hulst and artist Raoul Deleo. The book Hulst sent me has not been translated into English (the title apparently means The Lonely Highway), but it's enough to scan and enjoy the sensitive and funny continuous cartoon strip that runs across the entire text, following a journey from New York City to San Francisco by way of Nebraska and Denver and the other usual Keroauc stops from On The Road (though, unfortunately, Hulst and Deleo don't make it to New Orleans, an essential corner in On The Road). These tourists have fun with their Kerouac -- a "Bear Crossing" road sign inspires an artistic examination of God as Pooh Bear, and I bet Jack himself would have loved the jazzy drawing of the Lombard Street Shuffle ("the world's crookedest dance") in San Francisco, where they also visit the Beat Museum. The book smoothly captures and transmits the excitement Hulst and Deleo feel as they travel in Kerouac's path. And, as the photo of the artist's rig above shows, the artwork is a scroll.
I first read Jack Kerouac's Wake Up when it was serialized in the Buddhist magazine Tricycle over ten years ago. This is an earnest, almost artless biography of Siddhartha Guatama, the sheltered prince who left his comfortable palace and became the Buddha 2500 years ago. Buddhism clearly brought out Kerouac's most reverent instincts, as the prose appears to have been carefully written and bears few marks of his signature "spontaneous" style. It's clear that Jack Kerouac felt a strong personal connection to the story of the once-spoiled wandering prince who struggled so hard to understand the meaning of desire in human existence. Wake Up, unpublished during Kerouac's life, has finally been released in book form, and seems to be more valuable than many other recent releases of unpublished Kerouac work. The book may surprise or enlighten readers who are not familiar with the spiritual aspect of Kerouac's literary mission.
The sympathetic and peace-loving Buddhist religion was always essential to the Beat Generation mindset, and it was a strong influence in the life of the magnetic and eclectic New York City semi-Beat, semi-Warholian poet John Giorno. Subdoing Demons In America: Selected Poems 1962-2007 is one of the more appealing poetry books I've seen in a while. Giorno's very approachable and casual verses remind me of the best of the short poems that often show up here on LitKicks Action Poetry. Urbane, experimental and user-friendly, they are often grounded in day-to-day experience. One poem simply contains the lyrics to the chorus of the Rolling Stones song "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" (a Buddhist plea, of course) and others seem to transcribe subway signs or the directions on a tube of suntan lotion. Unlike much of what passes for poetry these days, these sensitive, crafty verses will never leave you mystified or bored.
Three new and worthwhile Beat Generation books! 2009 is shaping up well. I'm also looking forward to catching a rare East Coast appearance by poet Gary Snyder at the New York Public Library this Saturday, January 31 at 3 pm. Gary Snyder's career is celebrated in another new book, the Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, which I haven't yet had a chance to read.
It's a great relief to see the NYTBR finally paying attention to non-English literature, though they risk inducing a certain blur effect by introducing us to five writers from China in such fast succession within a single issue. Was it Mo Yan or Wang Anyi who wrote about Mongolia? No, it was Jiang Rong. The Book Review often runs author photos (they do so for several novelists this week) and I wish they had done so for the Chinese authors here so readers could more easily sink into this too vast and too undifferentiated landscape. Instead, each of the articles are illustrated with the usual diagrammatic cartoons, and the front cover features a bland, stereotypical mountain vista that resembles a menu cover for the Chinese restaurant down the street.
But the endpaper essay is fascinating, and I'm going to check out two of the books I've read about here. Jiang Rong's Wolf Totem, which I understand is currently very popular in China (though not as popular as Guo Jingming) expresses modern China's yearning for its own primitive roots, manifested in an obsession with the northern lands of Inner Mongolia. Just as the 19th Century English romanticized the Scottish Highlanders and 20th Century Americans romanticized Native Americans, it appears that suburban and urban readers of this book yearn to live like the wild nomads of Mongolia. This book takes place during the surreal years of Mao's "Cultural Revolution", and Mishra hints at Jiang Rong's own complicity in Mao's historic attempt to destroy all traces of native religion, native art and native culture throughout China, though the novelist (a former Red Guard, writing under a pseudonym) clearly ceased to believe in this culture-eradication program once he reached the northern lands.
Yan Lianke's Serve The People! sounds like a rollicking satire, also set during the Cultural Revolution, and featuring an obedient Maoist true believer who is forced into an impossible choice when the wife of his Division Commander orders him into bed. Liesl Schillinger's vivid explication makes this book sound great, and I hope I'll like it as much as this review suggests I will.
I had more trouble with Jonathan Spence's abstruse article on Mo Yan's Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out. There's a whole lot of activity here regarding pig carcasses (and an awful illustration of a flying, oozing pig carcass that looks like a rejected design for a Pink Floyd concert poster). I read the article twice and I still don't understand what this book is about. Spence's dry, academic delivery doesn't help. He tells us that the book's main character transforms himself into five different animals during the course of the narrative, then remarks that "Such a fictional procedure is, of course, fraught with difficulties of tone and narration". Indeed.
I also found myself struggling to absorb anything memorable from Francine Prose on The Song of Everlasting Sorrow. Again, reading about so many Chinese writers in such a compressed space induces dizziness, and I hope in future "international theme" issues the NYTBR editors will look for more innovative ways to help baffled readers differentiate between the choices. This difficulty in differentiation is the reader's problem, of course, but it would be good if the Book Review anticipated this problem and tried to find structural ways to solve it.
Stepping away from China, there is also a dry and unsatisfying review of Turtle Feet: The Making and Unmaking of a Buddhist Monk by Nikolai Grozni. Amy Finnerty spends an entire page describing the events and situations in this book but never once engages with the idea of Buddhism; in fact there is no evidence that the reviewer has the slightest idea what Buddhism is. A critic with greater personal connection to the subject at hand would have helped.
Roy Blount also turns out to be a disappointing choice to review the significant new posthumous Kurt Vonnegut volume, Armageddon in Retrospect. He adopts a condescending tone towards the controversial master satirist, and barely engages (similar to Finnerty on Buddhism, above) with the book's core idea, Vonnegut's bitter critique of our world's enduring love for war.
Keith Gessen does better with The Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn by Solomon Volkov, ending with a plea for greater public outrage at the continuing political oppressions of the Putin/Medvedev regime:
But the story does not have a happy ending -- because it is happening again. Opponents of the regime are being killed; art is again dragged into conformity and the service of the state.
Finally, I'm mystified by Slate entertainment critic Troy Patterson's nasty review of Mark Sarvas's Harry, Revised (a book I raved about here). I was sure this novel would get a favorable review in the NYTBR, and my instincts are usually pretty good.
Troy Patterson's reading is highly unsympathetic, and the critic does not seem to have made the necessary attempt to read the novel on its own terms. He hates the self-loathing scatalogical humor, but as I pointed it out in my article above, Harry, Revised appears to be an homage to a literary tradition of black humor -- Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, Bruce Jay Friedman -- that flourished in the 1960s and 70s. Scatalogy and self-loathing were hallmarks of this tradition, as they are to a lesser extent in a broader tradition of male self-loathing that ranges from John O'Hara to John Updike to Tom Perrotta.
A critic has every right to slam Mark Sarvas for failing to live up to this tradition, if a critic thinks he fails to do so, but a critic must let the reader know what type of book the author tried to write. Patterson does not do so here. To insult the book's obsession with bodily functions or infantile sexual humor without mentioning the obvious influence of, say, Philip Roth must leave readers wondering whether the critic even spotted the influence. In this case, something tells me Troy Patterson missed it by a mile, and this leads me to doubt that he is qualified to review this book.
Dan Wickett, commenting on this review, notes that Patterson appears in his article to be openly peeved at having to review a novel by "a blogger". I can only assume that any New York Times Book Review critic would rise above that kind of petty attitude, so I hope this wasn't part of the reason for this highly negative appraisal. But the sloppy, thoughtless book Troy Patterson describes is not the smart, carefully written book I read.
Despite a few sour notes, this is a very good New York Times Book Review. It'd be better if the Book Review could integrate translated and international titles into its regular flow, rather than throwing Mo Yan, Wang Anyi, Yan Lianke, Jiang Rong and Gao Xingjian at us all at once on a single Sunday and expecting us not to get dizzy. I have a hard time believing that this "China issue" will inspire many readers to rush out and buy these books, especially since after reading all these articles we feel like we've just read a book about China. Still, I've learned about some worthwhile writers I hadn't heard of before, and that's exactly the purpose the New York Times Book Review is meant to serve.
Mahesh's innovation was to translate the Hindu religious rite of Yogic meditation into a minimal format that could easily fit into the busy lives of 20th Century humans around the world. Transcendental Meditation, which became the brand name for his particular approach, involved no spiritual mysticism, and was compatible with any religious or even non-religious viewpoint. Each person was given a "mantra", a secret word, which they would focus their minds upon for 20 minutes at a time, approximately twice a day. This practice became popular around the world in the 1960's, especially in late 1967 and early 1968 when the Beatles briefly declared themselves members of the Mahirishi's movement.
Whether following the "TM" technique or not, meditation has become a part of American culture, and Mahirishi Mahesh Yogi is largely to thank for this undeniably positive development. People meditate in many different ways, but Mahesh's organization is still highly active. The great film director David Lynch wrote a book two years ago called Catching the Big Fish that explains how the practice of TM has made his career possible. Here he talks about his first experience with the technique:
So in July 1973 I went to the TM center in Los Angeles and met an instructor, and I liked her. She looked like Doris Day. And she taught me this technique. She gave me a mantra, which is a sound-vibration-thought. You don't meditate on he meaning of it, but it's a very specific sound-vibration-thought.
She took me into a little room to have my first meditation. I sat down, closed my eyes, started this mantra, and it was as if I were in an elevator and the cable had been cut. Boom! I fell into bliss -- pure bliss.
According to Jonathan Gould in Can't Buy Me Love, the Beatles had a more complex ongoing relationship with the Mahirishi's philosophy than is commonly known. John Lennon and George Harrison were the two who took it seriously, and according to Gould the song "Across the Universe" was originally written as a description of the experience of meditation:
restless wind inside a letter box
they tumble blindly as
they make their way across the universe
Jai guru deva om
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world
I am not a practitioner of Transcendental Meditation or any other specific approach, but I have been very influenced by this practice because I was introduced to it by my grandparents many years ago. My grandmother Jeannette Schwartz had attended one of the Mahirishi's introductions to meditation in the early 1970's, and became a lifelong convert. My grandfather Sidney enjoyed meditating too, and all of us grandchildren were given mantras and instructed to do our twenty minutes at a time together, twice a day, whenever we visited. I wrote some more about this when Grandma Jeannette died on Valentine's Day, 2002.
My grandparents never stopped meditating, and I have occasionally kept up the practice myself, though truly I'm a mediocre meditator at best. It seems to me that David Lynch or other enthusiastic followers of TM may alienate people with this "elevator drop pure bliss" stuff, since I've meditated a lot and find that it's usually nowhere near that exciting. Still, meditation does feel good, and it does help you expand the way you are thinking about the things in your life.
The Mahirishi has taken much criticism for his sometimes simplistic teachings, not to mention his often outrageous style. He giggles a lot and has been criticized for avoiding serious real-world politics and basking in luxury while the world suffers. He has generally worked as a peace activist, and as a sardonic, good-natured critic of Western materialism. Unlike other "modern mystics", there is nothing remotely cultish or megalomaniacal about the Mahirishi, or about his Transcendental Meditation movement.
It's too simple to be a cult. TM is all about this: 20 minutes at a time, twice a day. That's the whole thing. That's what the Mahirishi says you should do, and who thinks it's not worth a try?
Here are some other articles worth a look.
Paul Reps was born in Cedar City, Iowa on September 15, 1895. A man that always felt there were too many words used to describe anything he was a master of minimalist haiku, Zen Buddhism, and swift sumi-e brush painting. Reps can truly be called the father of Buddhism and haiku in America. He never was caught up in tradition, breaking all that are now considered the haiku rules and, although he respected his teachers, he forged new paths. Always, in his wide travels, Paul was accompanied by his humor, wit and independent spirit. As Paul would say, If not fun, leave undone.