Tuesday, October 28, 2008

DIARY 78 - Taking your eye off the gravy

When you're making gravy, you finely cut onions, slowly fry them, and gradually add flour, flavourings and water. Once the ingredients are all mixed its very easy to think nothing is happening for quite some time. But don't ever go away and do something else. If you take your eye off the gravy for even a few seconds it will thicken too much, form a skin, or worse still burn on the bottom of the pan. To make a good gravy you need to keep stirring, keep adding water, you need to give it your full attention. As with gravy, so it is with practicing the spiritual life. If you don't give it the right degree of attention, keep stirring it, keep adding water, it will solidify forming a wrinkled old looking skin, or at worst the light of inspiration will burn itself out.

I've been away on retreat, for a fortnight at Padmaloka. The retreat, called The Heart of Ordination, was based around the four ordination vows that I took when I became a member of the Western Buddhist Order. You accept the ordination on the basis that you will - be loyal to your teachers - remain in harmony with friends and brethren - do so in order to attain enlightenment - and for the benefit of all beings. I took these vows eight years ago. The day before the Public Ordinations we were told to note them, as they were very important commitments we were to recite. However, that was the first I'd heard of them. These days the four vows have developed a much higher profile in the WBO, to the extent of having an entire retreat constructed around them.

I was supporting Padmavajra in his study group, so I'd prepared well, and dutifully read all the background material and made notes. I knew this retreat would challenge my rather distant stance towards the institutions of the Order, and sure enough it did so. One by one, within the first few days they all popped up- being in good contact with my Private Preceptor, attending Order weekends, being in a Chapter, writing in to Shabda, doing my sadhana. What quickly became clear was that my original decisions to withdraw from close association with these things was entirely emotionally reactive. These undoubtedly had there purpose at the time, and were encouraged, if not inflamed, by the climate of liberalisation and permissiveness then current in the Order,which I was strongly resistant to. As I have changed my lifestyle considerable since then, these views were in serious need of an update. They'd settled into sentimental habits very entrenched against change. Once again my strong tendency to respond to disillusion / dissatisfaction, by dropping whatever causes it like a hot potato, was being highlighted. This had been particularly the case with my feelings about Order Chapter - based entirely upon my uncomfortable dispiriting experiences in my first Chapter. After some reflection and reconsideration I am now up for joining a Chapter again.

The retreat had four ordinations taking place during it which were very wonderful and pleasing events to be a part of. I couldn't help but remember my own. I realised on the retreat how important it is to keep the connections with my ordination alive. So it was a good atmosphere, good study, some excellent walks, talks and pujas - we did two Confession pujas which I'm particularly like, as it is based on a chapter from The Sutra of Golden Light - one of the few Mahayana Sutras I genuinely have time and fondness for. So I've returned back to Cambridge with renewed sense of spiritual purpose, as if some great impediment has been removed, and I'm sort of back on track. I've a list of six things I need to address over the next six to twelve months, I'm confident I will be able to significantly move these on. I have great resolve within me than I've had for a number of years. I'm feeling easier within myself, and more content.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

FEATURE 14 - Complicite

This gives you perhaps a bit of a better flavour of what A Disappearing Number was like. Sorry most of it is not in English.

THEATRE REVIEW - A Disappearing Number

It's been quite a few years since I've seen a theatre work created by Theatre de Complicite, the company name now thankfully shortened to Complicite. The last time was The Street of Crocodiles revival at the Queens Theate in 1999, a production based on the life and stories of Bruno Shultz. Over the decades I believe I've seen five productions by them. I've taken many a friend to see them, confident they'll never let me down, producing each time entertaining, fascinating, experimental theatre of great beauty. This production centres on the work and creative relationship between a Cambridge Mathematics Don - G.H. Hardy, and an Indian Clark - Shrinivasa Ramanujan in the early decades of the Twentieth Century. Hardy was the first Westerner to recognise Ramanujan as the unconventional genius of pure mathematics that he was. Interwoven into this is the contemporary love affair between a university lecturer in Mathematics, and Hardy/Ramanujan enthusiast and an Indian American futures salesman. A play about pioneering theoretical mathematics doesn't sound exactly like compulsive theatre, but Complicite bring their usual visual relish to it, finding visual ways to demonstrate Ramanujan's ideas, and make them imaginatively comprehensible.

productions frequently break new theatrical ground, with A Disappearing Number they explore what digital technology can bring to the theatrical experience. There are so many creative layers to this production, so many ways it engages us, not just intellectually, but also with the eye and the ear. They never become so self conscious of its art that their productions become cold, alienated and emotionally barren places. They seem to embrace the impossibility of their mission with an almost evangelical passion. Attempting to capture by clever cross cutting of time and sequence, via the simultaneous overlaying of different periods of experience, the brilliant essence of Ramanujan's ideas. Sometimes, as you see a scene acted out down stage, up stage you're also seeing the same scene played out in the background in a time delay, like a fuzzy memory. Through this inventive interplay, it becomes so much more than the telling of the tale of Hardy & Ramanujan's lives, It spins outward on the axis of its own universe to become a meditation on the possibilities of mathematics as art. The intrinsic beauty of its patterning and philosophy. Gives us a felt sense of what a numerical relationship can tell us about infinity, reality, human existence and our search for meaning through our virtual conceptual worlds and real relationships, all before death overcomes us.

Seeing the one performance only scratches the surface of what this hugely ambitious production has to offer. It so vividly captures how the world of pure mathematics, like that of pure physics, inevitable trespasses onto existential territory, to bridge the gap between the temporal sciences and those ineffable aspects of reality that we carelessly group under 'spiritual.' The closing lines of the play spoken by the character Aninda Rao to the recently bereaved Al Cooper, explain that Ramanujan's ideas about infinity mean that if time is continuous, and space is continuous then your never truly separated from anyone, or anything. All the main characters of the play are scattered across the stage, as though across human history,and are seen to be slowly tipping ash from the books they hold in their hands. This was such a melancholic image for a shared sense of impermanence, its beauty profoundly moved me. Brilliantly realised theatre, that rare mix of the heart and mind entranced, comes no better than this production.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

DIARY 77 - The Search for a Wish Fulfilling Jewel

David Foster Wallace expressed it well in the extract I published a few weeks ago ( Feature No 11) when he said there was no way of avoiding the act of worship. It's an inbuilt part of a natural human response to reality that we end up worshipping and putting our faith in something, whether it be secular,sensual, scientific or spiritual experiences. In Buddhism the nearest equivalent term for faith is the word sraddha, which at best could be described as - that which we place our heart upon. It's in this sense that the term worship could be helpfully viewed - as an expression of what we emotionally or spiritually most depend on. Worship then is an act of devotion and supplication, emerging out of a feeling of sraddha towards something. At this point we are symbolically making conscious what appears to have already happened unconsciously. We cannot help but offer ourselves completely up - even to our darkest moods of nihilism, or atheist indifference we surrender ourselves. The feeling for sraddha has to be there in some form, as a tangible, latent or unconscious feeling, otherwise the act of worshipping becomes emptied of significance. You cannot retrospectively create a feeling of sraddha via the act of worship, it has to be there in the first place.

Yet sraddha can be is such an amorphous and elusive thing to keep a permanent grasp of. We often look to those visible acts of worship to give shape and form to what our sraddha is placed upon. But you cannot always deduce the cause from looking at the result. We can be so easily mislead by our own imaginative misconceptions of what expressions of faith and devotion are - it can all get too elevated and other worldly in tone. The remarkable thing in David Foster Wallace's speech was how he brought elevated things down to the very ordinary circumstances of modern existence. In this sense sraddha can be seen as an ever present quality as constant as our breath. Like our breath, it isn't always present in our conscious awareness, until it stops, or we bring our attention to it. Sraddha is an incorporeal thread connecting us to the True Nature of Reality, which Buddhism would call Buddha Nature. Any act of worship stimulated by sraddha, connects us to the True Nature of Reality, or as Dogen would say - is an actual manifestation of it. Even actions based on a imaginative misconception, if stimulated by a feeling of sraddha are not wasted. Dogen indicates that every action we take, however mundane or spiritual they are, are, from the perspective of Realising the True Nature of Reality, seen as manifestations of sraddha, of Buddha Nature. All is conjoined as if the rhythm of a heart beat was playing upon a drum..

It might be hard to conceive this in our day-to-day experience. If this assertion from Dogen is true, then our every action becomes an act of sraddha, the work of Buddha Nature. When I get up in the morning, as I wash. make myself breakfast, when I shit, shave or sharpen a pencil, when I cycle to work, get irritated by motorists, am bored at the prospect of work, feel lackluster energy wise, be inspired, joyful or content with my life. What stops us seeing all these things as an expression of the True Nature of Reality? Perhaps its that we imagine something altogether more elevated and other worldly as our ticket to liberation. We experience craving or aversion to experience, and its this resistance that causes our suffering, and the pain of it blinds us to ever seeing daily life as an expression of the True Reality of Buddha Nature. We're wishing our liberation can be found somewhere else, anywhere other than in what we already have. What we have is a problem, not a solution.

We can all appear sometimes to be searching for what Buddhism calls a Wish Fulfilling Jewel. In old fairy stories if wish fulfilling jewels are used purely for worldly pleasure and gain, they seriously backfire upon the owner whose misused them. Everyone who discovers them wants to use the jewels to change reality, to change their external reality to some thing they'd much prefer - healthier, richer, sexier, happier. The true purpose of the jewel is rarely consciously revealed, because in the end its owner realises that what they really want has been right before their eyes all along. True wealth and happiness then naturally flows out from this realisation. In Buddhist parables the Wish Fulfilling Jewel is always hard to find. When it is found, it is hidden in some entirely unexpected place - in a dung heap - or most tellingly, secretly sown into the hem of a robe someone is wearing. They already had it within their possession, but didn't realise it. Once they accepted that it was themselves and not external reality that needed to change, at that point they discover the whereabouts of the Wish Fulfilling Jewel. All of which indicates that our richest experience, the source of true wealth and real liberation, is always to be found much closer to home, often overlooked, and right before our eyes. Sraddha and Buddha Nature seem also to be like this.

I always seem to be wrestling with the fabric of my life. I want either myself, or reality, to change to something I can truly be happy and contented with. The tussles can go on for weeks, months or even years. This week I got the first sense, after seemingly months and months of this sort of internal wrangling, that at least for the time being I'm done with it. I've had enough of giving too much unwise attention to my difficulties, and the finding of a miraculous cure for my ills. Sometimes we worship fruitlessly at the altar of our own suffering for far too long. Living in such a crucible of intense feelings and yet not finding them diminished or transformed, only makes them become more tender and sensitive. I've been wishing for a jewel to transform either me, or my circumstances. I'm coming to appreciate that the life I already have, the one right before my eyes, is going to be a lot more satisfying if I can just let it be.

FEATURE No 13 - Elbow

In my teens and twenties I kept my finger keenly on the popular music pulse. Avidly pursuing and following up lines of enquiry, listening out all the time for new bands and directions that seemed worth chasing up. Sometimes I was in pursuit of what turned out to be a passing novelty, or a band that issued one great album then disappeared into obscurity i.e. Deaf School or Young Marble Giants. Some bands were so eccentric they'd never be hugely popular i.e. James Chance & the Contortions, or The Native Hipsters. The amount of money I've thrown away on duff albums over the years, in the pursuit of that rare, but beautiful gem, doesn't bare thinking about. But I've been immensely more enriched by this than having the money languishing in my bank account. I can't afford to be so profligate with my money these days, and anyway I am a good deal choosier. The majority of contemporary rock is either plastic, pastiche or a parody of talent - but then, whenever has it not been so? Even the truly vacuous has its own appeal, and consequently its own market. I can slum it, and boogie down with the rest of them. For me music has never been solely a form of escapism, its also been something that energised, enhanced and engaged me with life in a joyful way.

Most 'noughties' guitar bands have a knowing plagiarism, they add nothing new to the lexicon, and merely revamp other peoples past glories - usually U2's. With the advent of You Tube, you can save yourself so much money by hearing and seeing the band first. You can decide for yourself whether you like what they do, and whether they are worth buying or not. I researched the Ting Tings, Hot Chip and Vampire Weekend this way..... and now Elbow. I have to acknowledge that I knew very little about Elbow, until I saw them recently on Jonathan Ross. Then of course they went on to win the Mercury Prize 2008. Already on their fourth album 'The Seldom Seen Kid' I obviously had a bit of catching up to do. Their appeal lies in their melding of beautifully crafted melodies, delivered by the supremely gifted vocals of Guy Garvey, with a willingness to boldly experiment with musical textures. The rest of the band provide a really solid level of musicianship, which is at times quite awesome in the breadth of its accomplishments. The real clincher for me has been the videos, for which I believe they've usually engage a group called The Soup Collective. The example posted here, to the song 'Switching Off' is simply knock out, and so cool. Constructed around the largely unadorned idea of a lighthouse flashing, yet it adds to and embellishes the Elbow song immensely. Its visual strength is in the image being allowed to develop its own depth of connection, with some subtle adjustments and evolving changes, but mostly by just letting it be.

I'm going down to Fopp this weekend to see if I can pick up their back catalogue cheap. If I have any reservations about Elbow its that their predominantly mournful tone might not bear excessive repetition. Even I - Melancholy Man - can have too much of wallowing in despondency - especially if belongs to someone else.

FEATURE No 12 - Rick & Steve - The Vital Statistics

Thursday, October 02, 2008

FEATURE No 11 - Rick & Steve - Happy & Gay like you wouldn't believe

At first, David and I just couldn't believe anyone would want to be so tacky, but give it time guys 'n 'gals. Using Lego dolls and a style borrowed from children's animation as start, it drags these through the gutter into an altogether 'adult' direction. Stereotypes are simultaneously indulged in and then punctured. Sometimes dangerously mixing positive representation and scenarios guaranteed to offend every ones sensibilities - gay or straight - it takes some pretty big risks in its efforts to parody and amuse.

These are some of the best clips available just to give you a little taster. The best line comes in the second part of this episode - you can't miss it - its a sort of rallying cry for all lesbian kind! 'Rick and Steve - the happiest gay couple in all the world' is being broadcast on Channel 4 on Wednesday nights 10.30pm, if you are allowed to stay up and boogie that late. This is going to go down very big in the glamour boot camp and make Lego trendy.