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Posts Tagged ‘Buddhism’

This amazing novel, recommended by a friend, is about an author named Ruth who lives on an island off the west coast of Canada with her husband, Oliver. Ruth Ozeki, the author of this amazing novel, is an author named Ruth who lives on an island off the west coast of Canada with her husband, Oliver. Trippy? You ain’t seen nothing yet.

The book opens with a diary entry: “Hi! My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you. A time being  is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is or was, or ever will be.”

We soon learn that Nao is a teenager in Japan, and that her diary washed up on the beach near Ruth’s and Oliver’s home, in a plastic bag, wrapped up with a watch, a parcel of letters, and another diary, written in French. As the novel unfolds, we learn about Ruth’s life and Nao’s. It’s a tough read, full of deeply important questions of human decency, purpose, belief, and meaning. Ozeki touches on an array of subjects as she tells her story —  First Peoples mythology, botany & ecology, meteorology & geography, Western philosophy, Zen Buddhism, quantum physics, computing and technology, consumerism, contemporary education, pop culture, and the relationship between people and cats, to name several.

Nao is terribly unhappy, but her father introduces her to her great-grandmother, who is 104 and lives at a temple where she is a Buddhist nun. From the start, Ruth is concerned about Nao’s well being, not only because she is troubled, but also because the diary appears on the beach after the 2011 Tsunami. Ruth wonders if Nao and her family are still alive. She becomes so wrapped up in determining what became of them that her own work suffers. Her interest teeters on obsession and possibly even madness, when she swears that Nao’s diary is missing words. Separately, she pursues tracking down Nao and her father, and finds out just enough to leave readers intrigued to the last pages.

Oliver, is sort of a modern Renaissance man, part artist, part scientist, part philosopher, and fully capable of wrestling the tricky generator they rely on when storms ravage the island, digging clams and oysters, and chopping firewood. He’s also Ruth’s counterbalance, a partner who supports her curiosity but also challenges it at times. The rest of the island gets involved too, once word gets out about their find. Much of what is in the two diaries is had to read — Ozeki captures man’s inhumanity to man pretty vividly. But it’s worth reading because A Tale for the Time Being is both a good story with a mystery at its heart and an incredible amalgamation of Eastern and Western culture and ideas. It’s a trip, full of heart, and a good read, and did I mention?  There’s a cat (and Schrödinger’s cat as well).

 

 

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I’ve written before here at bookconscious about my longtime effort to practice mindfulness and my frustrations therein. Over the years I’ve realized I am mindful in my everyday life in many ways. I’m much better at being in the present moment, and at recognizing that emotions, both good and bad, will pass. I’m still not very good about meditating regularly and I’m really bad at being mindful in the face of strong emotions or stress. Which I guess isn’t so unusual, but that doesn’t make it any less aggravating.

Recently I wanted to try to reintroduce the idea of meditating to Teen the Younger (I’ve tried to interest both her and her older brother several times), and get myself back into a regular practice. I found Sit Like A Buddha: a Pocket Guide to Meditation by Lodro Rinzler very helpful. It’s a compact book, easy to slip into a purse or pocket, but it’s packed with helpful information. I’ve read a number of meditation and mindfulness books, many of which are long and go into a great deal of explanation. That’s fine and even interesting, but for someone starting or re-starting a meditation practice, basic may be better.

Sit Like a Buddha is pleasantly brief and straightforward. Rinzler covers the why and how of meditation as well as the obstacles and benefits in short chapters outlining what he identifies as ten steps to becoming a regular meditation practitioner. The steps are sensible, from figuring out why you want to do this (intention) to relaxing. The instruction is light rather than pedantic, and sets achievable goals for readers.

Rinzler is in his early 30’s, lives in New York, wears bow ties and stylish glasses, and includes situations like going to bars and fantasizing about attractive people in his writing about Buddhism and mindfulness. He also doesn’t try to separate meditation and mindfulness from Buddhist teachings, as some writers do. So I got what he was saying but as a middle-aged non-Buddhist some of the book felt like it wasn’t addressed to me.

However, near the end of Sit Like a Buddha Rinzler notes, “When I ask you to relax with who you already are, I am asking you to be you. . . . That is the point here. Meditation is just a tool to let you be you: to bring a sense that you are actually good enough, worthy enough, and kind, strong, and smart enough to handle whatever arises.” Which anyone of any age or background could benefit from. I am hopeful that this book will help me make meditation a more established habit and that it will appeal to my family.

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Last weekend I finished an advance copy of Matthew Quick‘s The Good Luck of Right Now, out next week. If the name sounds familiar, he’s the author of several other books, including The Silver Linings Playbook. If that book is about “love, madness, and Kenny G.” as Quick’s website says, the new one is about love, difference, and Richard Gere. As I read the new book I could picture it — Quick has a very cinematic way of setting a scene — and I’m happy to hear that the directors of Little Miss Sunshine are already lined up for the film version.

Quick has a knack for getting inside the lives of people we see all the time and don’t bother to know. In this case, a thirty-eight year old man, Bartholomew, who’s always lived with his mom, who recently died of cancer. And his messed up grief counselor, Wendy, who needs help herself. And his neighborhood priest, Father McNamee, who defrocks himself and moves in with Bartholomew.

And a guy Bartholomew meets in “group” therapy, Max. Who turns out to be the brother of the woman Bartholomew has admired from afar, who he knows only as The Girlbrarian. Her real name is Elizabeth. Max is mourning his cat Alice, believes Elizabeth was abducted by aliens who are still after them, and dreams of going to Cat Parliament in Ottawa (which we’ve visited — “call it synchronicity,” as Bartholomew might say). Max is a ticket taker at a movie theater and works “what the fuck, hey” into nearly every sentence.

Bartholomew narrates the book in letters he’s writing to Richard Gere. After his mother’s death, he found a form letter in her dresser from the actor, calling for a boycott of the 2008 Olympics because of China’s treatment of Tibet. Bartholomew assumes that is why she kept calling him Richard as her cancer worsened. He played along, so he sets out to explain things to Richard Gere, and himself, as he faces the scary prospect of living alone when he’s not even sure how his bills are paid.

Bartholomew spends a lot of time at his library, where he reads about Richard Gere and Tibet. He also reads the Dalai Lama’s A Profound Mind. His letters to Richard Gere make it clear that Bartholomew is developmentally disabled. The “little angry man” inside him calls him moron, retard, idiot, “miserable failure,” slow, stupid; he’s never held a job, he’s never really had a friend or gone out with a woman.

But he’s very observant, empathetic, and capable of learning — he writes to Richard Gere about Buddhism, Jung, Tibet-China relations. He explains how he senses suffering in others, what he admires about the Girlbrarian, how he’s dealing with the loss of his mother. And he explains her theory of “the good luck of right now,” that brings good for every bad. And how she was good at “pretending” — for him, but perhaps for herself as well.

If you are looking for a quick read (no pun intended), a movie-like story with teary moments but a feel-good vibe, this book is for you. It’s not as lightweight as that sounds — Quick addresses some big questions, like how society treats people who are different, and what family is. It’s not a hard read, until you look around, say at the library, and see people like Bartholomew. And wonder if they’ve been working up the courage, but not quite managing, to speak to someone they see day after day.

And then it’s a hard book in the best sense, because it worms its way into your heart. And makes you see the Bartholomews, Maxes, Elizabeths, Wendys, and Father McNamees in your own life.

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I was looking for recent nonfiction to review for my library’s “beyond the bestsellers” guide when I picked up The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. I really enjoyed Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, and the Computer Scientist and I have had many conversations with our teenagers over the past couple of years about happiness — how to define it, whether it’s possible to pursue it, whether it comes and goes, whether we can choose to be happy, why some people seem to be happier than others, what external and internal factors make happiness possible, etc.

I wish instead I’d had this book to hand them or quote from.  Here’s what I wrote for the library, adapted slightly:

Oliver Burkeman has written a handbook for what the English Romantic poet John Keats called “negative capability,” or living with “uncertainties, mysteries, (and) doubts” without feeling miserable. Burkeman neatly explains why positive psychology often backfires and what philosophy and psychology have to say about the “negative path to happiness.” From Stoicism to Eckhart Tolle, Buddhist non-attachment to the Museum of Failure, Burkeman explores a range of ideas and practices. In the tradition of other recent “immersion journalists” (like A. J. Jacobs) Burkeman actually visits his subjects when possible and tries the practices he writes about. For example, he takes a week long silent retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts, recreates psychologist Albert Ellis’s “subway-station exercise” on the London Underground, and visits a cemetery in a Mexican village to experience The Day of the Dead. In the final chapter he offers “an interim status report” to explain how these experiences and approaches worked in his own life.

One of the reasons this book is so delightful is that Burkeman reveals his own doubts, and then admits when something works or makes more sense than he’d first suspected. Unsurprising for a reporter for The Guardian with a weekly column (This Column Will Save Change Life) he’s also an excellent writer, clear and smart and spot on. I think a cynical teenager would probably identify with his very modern, slightly skeptical point of view. It lends Burkeman’s conclusions a greater authority, because if someone bright and observant like him has been won over by Echkart Tolle’s “palpable stillness, which seeped into the corners of the small Vancouver apartment and by the end of an afternoon’s conversation, into me” than perhaps Tolle’s not just some Oprah-anointed guru nutter.

Burkeman has convinced me to work on my negative capability. Read this book and you’ll probably want to as well.

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I didn’t read Teen the Elder’s summer required reading, The Shallows. The Computer Scientist read a bit aloud to me about libraries’ computer & internet service and that was enough (I blogged about that at Nocturnal Librarian). But when Teen the Elder was home for mid-term break he mentioned how much he’s enjoying his first-year seminar, and suggested I might enjoy one of the books for that class, A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants by Jaed Coffin.

He was right. Coffin’s mother is Thai, and he decided to go to her village in Thailand before his senior year in college to become a Buddhist monk. He’s very honest about not being sure of his own motives, of being a little confused about what he got out of the experience, and of being unsure how to apply what he did learn. Towards the end of the book he lets readers in on his re-entry into American life, his final year of college and what came next. But his memoir doesn’t tie up all the loose ends, which is nice. He leaves us wondering about some of the things he experienced and how they might impact his life, just as he wondered.

I like Coffin’s unvarnished voice — he doesn’t shy away from critical self-reflection. He has a good eye for small details that made the book vibrant and interesting. I wondered about some of the dialogue, given the distance he had when he wrote the book, but I know there is a theory that memoirs are meant to be representative of remembered experience, not journalist renderings of absolute detail. And maybe he had good notes, or just a better (younger) memory than I have.

A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants is a young man’s story, a story about a person on the edge of adulthood, undergoing a rite of passage (in Thailand, it’s common for young men to spend time in a monastery), and trying to understand his role in life. Coffin captures the essence of that feeling beautifully. When he and one of his fellow monks, Narong, travel into the forest to visit another temple, Coffin tries to convince him that the Buddha is everywhere, in everything around them. They travel up the river seeking Buddha and meeting villagers, and when they return to the forest temple, the Luang Pa (sort of like the abbot of a western monastery) speaks with them.

He asks what they’ve been doing. Here’s a lovely passage that captures their exchange:

“I looked for an answer in the spaces between the trees and in the distant valley. It began to rain in heavy, cumbersome drops that looked like snow. A light wind came up too, pushing at the trunks of several bamboo trees and making a hollow clicking sound.  ‘The Buddha is everywhere,’ I told the Luang Pa.”

The Luang Pa tells him he is wrong:

“‘The Buddha is in the heart. He is in your mind. He is in the heart that is always mai nae jai.’ The Luang Pa’s face softened and became more gentle and sympathetic. I held the phrase in my mind until it made sense. Mai nae jai: not sure heart.”

That’s what this book is about. A boy, nearly a man, with a not sure heart. He goes to Thailand looking for half his life, half his being, he reacquaints himself with his mother’s family and the world she grew up in, and then he takes his mai nae jai heart back to America, which he realizes is more his home (in no small part because it’s become his mother’s home as well). And fortunately for the rest of us, he decides that the way to live with a not sure heart is to write.

I didn’t come to know my own not sure heart until later in life, and reading and writing, rather than a physical retreat, have taken me on a seeker’s journey that may never be complete. I’m grateful to people like Coffin for sharing their stories. I look forward to talking more about the book with Teen the Elder and comparing our responses to it. I’m also grateful that in a time when the most opinionated, self-assured voices seem to take up most of the public oxygen, my son’s college assigns books about the not sure.

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