Monday, January 28, 2008

BOOK REVIEW - Haruki Murakami - Underground


One ordinary Monday morning, people in Tokyo left their homes at the usual time. Thousands took their habitual routes via the subway system to their places of work. As they travelled, they read their books, observed other passengers,and waited for their stop to appear. At first, it was just the odd individual who started coughing badly, nothing remarkable about that. There was a funny smell slightly sweet, but quite unpleasant. More and more people started coughing, an old men falls off his seat and slumps to the floor, they suddenly find their eyes sting and their sight gradually dims. The train pulls up in a station, some people get off and manage to get to work before they feel ill, others can hardly put one step in front of the other, and collapse onto the platform. The station staff do what they can, but it is a while before anyone notices the packages wrapped in newspapers that are leaking a sticky yellowish substances onto the floor of the subway train. When the staff do remove the package, they haven't a clue what they are handling or how to respond. As a consequence, and due to prolonged contact, some of them will eventually die. Hospitals are overrun with patients, vital moments, sometimes hours, are lost in trying to decide what sort of gas attack they are dealing with. Over 5,000 people were affected by this sarin attack, a dozen or so die, many hundreds are in some way maimed for life. Who could have done such a treacherous and cruel thing, and why?

Murakami's book, is really two books, two thirds consists of interviews with the survivors and relatives of the dead, and a final third interviews members of the Aum Shinryko cult that perpetrated the atrocity. The interviews with the survivors can sometimes be disconcerting, particularly in how distant and reserved they are, whilst an obvious tragedy is taking place all around them. There are records of great heroism and compassion too, and a pain filled glimpse into one beautiful young woman's condition, who has lost the ability to speak in anything other than huffs or grunts. The physical and mental cost to peoples lives was immense. But there was also a social and spiritual cost, a loss of a sense of purpose, of life's meaning, or simply diminished confidence and optimism. Some hate the members of Aum, others feign indifference, or just don't want to know any more.

Has Japan collectively faced up to why this incident happened? Murakami thinks not. That was why he later chose to interview the Aum members, to try and tease out further what went wrong. These are the most shocking interviews. As a Buddhist, it is disturbing to see how blatantly Asahara reinterprets, bends and distorts the most basic of teachings, such as the Four Noble Truths. The fact that all people suffer, ends up making the Aum followers an enlightened elite, that justified looking down on 'ordinary people', 'ordinary people' who are worthy of being massacred. Tantric Vajryana in his hands becomes a spiritual fast track which justifies any means, skilful or otherwise, including gassing thousands of innocent people. Aum had a rigid, yet unfathomable hierarchical structure, completely dictated by the word of the Guru, or his most senior disciples. As a doomsday cult, Aum exploited the 'end of the world' scenario to create a sense of spiritual urgency – 'do you want liberation before it all goes pear shaped or not? - if you do, do what the Guru says.'

Before the sarin attacks the levels of coercion reached appalling heights. People were hung upside down for hours and forcible tortured. Members were force fed mind altering drugs to accelerate their 'spiritual' development. If you resisted or questioned, you might be given electric-shock treatment, to 'break your ego.' In this climate of unquestioning obedience to the Guru, and the explicit background of intimidation, you start to understand how quite intelligent people could pierce bags of liquid sarin with the points of umbrellas on the subway trains and walk away. All as part of a process of spiritual salvation. Yet even the Aum followers who have now left it, cannot find it in themselves to dismiss Aum completely, they got something useful from their involvement, it was not easy for them to denounce it completely.

Perhaps it was just a sense of wanting to belong to something meaningful, an alternative to an inadequate secular world, to want something more or better from life. Not entirely inhuman aspirations. This book has no underlying message, it lets you read the testimonies and make your own judgements. For me it demonstrated that idealism, if not adequately grounded in reality and compassionate understanding of human failings, can become a very cruel insensitive weapon to use against yourself, or upon others.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

DIARY 51 - ' YATAA ! ' ( I did it ! )

The time since Christmas has been a curious mix of satisfaction and its direct polar opposite. I took thirteen days off between Christmas Eve and New Year, perhaps that was an unfortunate number. David and I celebrated Christmas day together, in our usual style, perhaps with a slightly reduced 'pig-out' quotient. David got the entire first series of 'Heroes' as a Christmas present. So we spent most evenings addictively watching an episode or three. The character Hiro Nakamura is my latest role model, mainly for his enthusiastic optimism, the uninhibited, if not reckless, confidence with which he tackles life,and his delighted exclamation of 'YATAA ! ( I did it ! in Japanese ), which has joined the lexicon of my favorite phrases.

My days, I largely devoted to writing, aiming to get the first draft completed of a newish Dogen piece I'm currently writing, called 'Firewood becomes Ash.' All went well for a week, but just as I found my creativity ploughing into the snowdrift of how to conclude it, I got a phone call. The one person I'd arranged to work the quiet period between Christmas and New Year had fallen ill - could I organise new cover? It wasn't so bad as I'd initially thought, it was one day of cover by me, and two days from another member of staff. Though, nothing could make it anything less than an unwelcome interruption, for both of us, of our holiday breaks. I did mentally step, briefly, into the quicksand of despondency. I can see, in retrospect, that this situation bore more than a passing resemblance to some of those dismal days in the 'nineties', when I ran my own business. The emotional discomfort and fidgeting I can feel whilst in a position of responsibility, appears also to date back to this time. This mixture of aversion, increased levels of anxiety, and diminished confidence in my decision making, can, at times, wind me up good and proper. Sometimes, I yearn for the quiet obscurity and contentment I associate with a background supporting role, whilst at the same time realising how short lived that contentment can sometimes be. As I do so easily get bored and restless with creatively undemanding positions.

Getting consistent amounts of sleep would be a help, but it is still a struggle. I resorted to herbal sleep tablets over the holiday to help me relax and unwind. I'm still using them at the moment, but I don't want to come to rely on them. They're not always consistent in there effect, sometimes, I end up being physically relaxed, whilst simultaneously being suffused by an aura of anxiety - a sensation which can feel distinctly alienating. That said I don't feel quite as mentally ragged and on edge now, as I did in 2007, which is a boon. I hope 2008 will continue to improve on this front.

At work, the protracted process of revamping Customer Services has begun. I don't have some huge overarching vision for it, more a sense for what will help move it towards a healthier state .i e. one with clearer boundaries and a more shared sense of responsibility for tasks. This is my starter for ten. I imagine this process will not be without its tensions, disappointments, set backs and challenges, both on a personal and a collective level. However, there is too much history of illness and burnout connected with the Team, for it's current set-up and mode of operation to remain unchanged. Old habits and ways will die hard I expect. I will also need to raise the level of my on personal practice too; managing anxiety better, keeping my nerve, and facing up to some of my oldest and most entrenched habits. Watch out ! this could be a bumpy ride for all concerned, including me. Perhaps by the end of 2008 I too will be able to exclaim 'YATAA ! ( I did it ! ).

Last Saturday, 19th of January, was the 807 anniversary of Dogen's birth. On the Friday before, Paco and I performed The Shobogenzo Puja, that I compiled towards the end of last year, (You'll find it somewhere else on this blog). It went fine, and I thought flowed smoothly. There was only two of us, so we did a lot of it in unison rather than call and response. I imagine the 1hr and twenty minutes running time (which included 20 minutes meditation) would be more 1hr and forty, if we had done it as I'd originally conceived it. I might adapt it further and produce an abbreviated version, if I thought it would work. Anyway, it has had its first public performance, one which I felt more than satisfied with. I can't imagine how Dogen would have felt about it.