Must We Remain A Nation of Small Ideas?

Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929-2018

Ursula Le Guin died on January 23, at the age of 88. I first encountered her writing in the seventies. After multiple readings of The Lord of the Rings, I was hungry for more heroic-quest fantasy novels. There were plenty of them, but the only one I remember is Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy (1968-1972).

At a time when science fiction and fantasy were viewed as escapist genres, decades before YA become a lucrative fad, and before we knew about Jedi, Ursula Le Guin gave us the coming of age tale of Ged, who becomes a powerful wizard only after learning that his most powerful enemy is himself.

Many of this week’s online tributes and memorials have included excerpts from her acceptance speech at the 2014 National Book Awards Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. It is worth emphasizing this passage from her six minute address:

URSULA LE GUIN: I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom: poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality. …

Le Guin’s call for creative artists, and by extension, all of us, to imagine more life affirming ways to live on this planet underlines the poverty of our current public discourse, which confines our national imagination to ever more narrow ruts. We suffer not from fake news but from trivial news.

The last three administrations have spent $5.6 trillion on warfare since 9/11. We’ve killed more than 200,000 civilians (as of 2015) and lost more than 5,000 of our own troops (as of 2016), but none of us feel any safer. Where is our national debate on what we hope to accomplish and the nature of our exit strategy? It is non-existent. Instead, we argue on Twitter about whether football players taking a knee is disrespectful to troops…

The day Ursula Le Guin died, Amazon opened the prototype of an automated grocery store that doesn’t require cashiers. Two days later I saw the picture of Norway’s prototype, zero emissions, automated container ship, that will be entirely crewless by 2020. Panera and McDonalds are trying out order kiosks that could eliminate cashiers and – the list goes on and on. Where is the national debate on strategies for the near term, when automation eliminates millions of jobs before new technologies open up ways to replace them? That, conversation too, is non-existent. It’s more politically expedient to blame foreign nations and foreign nationals for “stealing” our jobs…

We can think of many more essential debates that are not taking place because of the cowardice of our leaders. Le Guin, of course, would shake her head at the notion that today’s politicians or CEO’s are remotely capable of being “the realists of a larger reality.”

Her legacy is a lifetime of visioning other worlds and other ways of living in this one. It’s up to people who care to move that vision forward. Sadly, it seems increasingly certain that the world we would wish to live in is one more thing that will not be “Made in America…”

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Winter Feast for the Soul, 2018

The Winter Feast for the Soul, now in it’s 11th year, is a 40 day, worldwide online meditation intensive that encourages people to begin or deepen a spiritual practice. Instructors from all spiritual traditions suggest simple practices that fit into the schedules of busy people.

I am delighted to see that Anam Thubten, the Tibetan master who inspired me to explore this tradition a dozen years ago, continues to be an active participant. On his page, you can listen to simple but profound guided meditations he recorded for the Feast in 2016 and 2017.

Anam Thubten

I encourage everyone who is interested to explore this rich practice opportunity!

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The White Snake – An Enigmatic Tale from the Brothers Grimm

Illustration for “The White Snake” by Walter Crane, ca. 1886, Public Domain

I once had a professor who made an extensive study of world folklore and said the greatest predictor of success for a fairytale hero is winning the help of an animal guide. Most often, the helpful animals are mammals, like Puss-in-Boots or talking horses.

“The White Snake,” a story from the Brothers Grimm, alters this pattern in startling ways. The helpful creatures are far more primitive, and the hero actually kills his horse – yet things come out right. The story has stayed with me since I first encountered it, as a wisdom tale centered on the theme of knowing the right thing to do at the right time, even when it violates norms and expectations.

Commentary on myth and folktales is a recent tradition that arose after the old ways of absorbing these stories, around hearth and campfire, disappeared. We can imagine earlier listeners holding the stories in imagination, letting the magic sink in over time, as we do with favorite novels and movies. This is a great way to experience a story, and we’re fortunate to have a good eight minute recording of The White Snake, accompanied by the text from the Brothers Grimm.

I suggest you read and listen to the story if you don’t know it, for the rest of this post will simply be my reflections on a few of the key questions The White Snake raises. Continue reading

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Mystic Mountain

Tsering Dhondup, born in Lhasa, Tibet, was 10 when he and his father walked over Himalayan passes to exile in India. Recalling the experience, he says, “In order to take my mind off the dangers that lurked beneath each step of the formidable Himalayan passes, my father told me a story so terrifying and riveting that it haunts me to this day!  Mystic Mountain is the story, it is also the rope that held me to life and helped me cross the Himalayas as a child.”

Dhondup now lives in San Jose, CA, where he translates Tibetan Buddhist teachings into English. He wrote and directed Mystic Mountain, a film version of the story his father told him, both because it’s a compelling psychological thriller, and “to help preserve the Tibetan language and enrich Tibetan oral storytelling.” Mystic Mountain was filmed in Nepal, close to the Tibetan border, where the often brooding landscape itself is a powerful presence.

After Kunga, the chief of a remote village is killed by sorcery and his body is stolen, his son, Tsewang, sets out to find the corpse. Everyone suspects Migmar, a sorcerer, who has gained black magic powers through worshipping Yama, the Lord of Death.

Everyone fears Migmar except a young girl, who understands how lonely he is, for she has the same feelings. The nature of the bond between the girl and the sorcerer is one of the core issues that unfolds as the movie progresses. You can watch the trailer here:

Mystic Mountain, produced by Snow Lion Films can be rented on Vimeo.

Additional information on the film and the filmmaker is available also. An 11 minute interview with Tsering Dhondup was broadcast in San Jose in 2015.

Anyone fascinated by the lore, the legends, and landscape of Tibet, as I am will enjoy this intimate glimpse into a land of mystery, legend, stark beauty, and people who live from the  heart.

 

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Silence, Stillness

Wawona, Ca, Nov., 2017

If we have a bit of quiet time and pay attention at the turning of the year, we can feel a pause in the world and rest there.

It’s easier to experience this in the natural world, but what we truly long is a place of rest that is always available, unconditionally, a place we can visit any time, that won’t let us down. We only find this kind of refuge within.

Wawona, CA, Nov. 2017

Anam Thubten, a Tibetan Buddhist master insists that the simplest ways of meditation, though not easy, are are among the most profound:

“Try this. Pay attention to your breath in silence. Look at your mind. Immediately we see that thoughts are popping up. Don’t react to them. Just keep watching your mind. Notice that there is a gap between each thought. Notice that there is a space between the place where the last thought came to an end and the next one hasn’t yet arrived. In this space there is no ‘I’ or ‘me.’ That’s it.” (No Self, No Problem, 2009).

The “it” he refers to is the true nature of awareness – what we really are. The image given is the clear sky, unaffected by anything passing through it, just as clear, open awareness is not affected by any of the passing contents of consciousness.

Wawona, CA, Nov, 2017

Elsewhere, Anam Thubten gives this instruction: “Rest and let everything be as it is.”

Few of us can follow guidance like that without prior practice and the guidance of an experienced teacher. So what are we to do?

Wawona, CA, Nov., 2017

Chögyam Trungpa (1939 – 1987) was one of the first Tibetan Buddhist teacher to settle and teach in this country. A master in the same lineage as Anam Thubten, he left us a practice for working with the breath as a focus for meditation that is both simple and profound.

We place our attention on the outgoing breath, letting any tension flow out with it. At the end of the out breath, we let go and rest. We rest without effort in the gap between out breaths, knowing that the in breath takes care of itself. This cycle of focus and rest, effort and letting go, will lead our thoughts and distractions to settle sufficiently to be able to follow Anam Thubten’s instruction and simply “rest and let everything be as it is.”

Wawona, CA, Nov, 2017

There are other ways to find the place of clarity and stillness within – this is one that works for me.

Wawona, CA, Nov. 2017

I wish you all a Happy New Year!

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John Believer’s Prophecy

The Fool in the Tarot de Marseilles

When I was a college freshman in Oregon, a bearded fellow in a long black coat would sometimes harangue the crowds in the quad at lunch time. He’d bring a box to stand on and a Bible to wave. He called himself John Believer.

This was the late 60’s and though he tried for hell and brimstone, I think he’d done too much acid to pull it off. Out of his sometimes interesting theological mishmash, one of his ideas stuck with me and resonated with teachings I would hear later from two spiritual masters.

John Believer said the spiritual center of earth was right there in Oregon, (that’s why he’d moved north from Berkeley), but we should expect trouble. The spiritual center is always on the move, he explained, and it was about to head back to the orient. During it’s long Pacific crossing, humanity would experience an age of darkness.

In May, 1940, the Hindu master, Paramahansa Yogananda, gave one of several lectures predicting a coming time of travail for humanity.  The transcript of the May talk  is available as a pamphlet, World Crisis, published by Self-Realization Fellowship. Seventy-seven years ago, Yogananda said:

“A great crisis is going to come, a crisis such as never before has hit this country…There is a world revolution going on. It will change the financial system. In the karmic firmament of America, I see one beautiful sign; that no mater what the world goes through, she will be better off than most other countries. But America will experience widespread misery, suffering, and changes just the same. You are used to the better things of life, and when you are obliged to live simply, you won’t like it. It’s not easy to be poor after being rich. You have no idea how this change is going to affect you through the years. Never before in the history of this land has there been so deep a contrast in living standards as will visit this country – the contrast between riches and poverty.” (emphasis added)

Yogananda predicted that though the darkness would last several centuries and even threaten the future of life on the planet, it would likely pass and usher in a time of spiritual growth for humanity. Continue reading

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A Fake World

“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.” – Edgar Allen Poe

The world’s spiritual traditions tend to agree with these words Poe wrote in 1849, the year of his death. To Hindus, this world is “maya,” meaning “a magic show, an illusion where things appear to be present but are not what they seem.” (1)

Buddhists call it “samsara,” a Sanskrit word for “wandering through, flowing on, aimless and directionless wandering,” signifying the involuntary cycle of death and rebirth that continues until we grasp the true nature of appearances (2).

Jesus warned his followers that this is not the place to store up riches. In 1999, the Matrix reframed the appearance/reality question for the twenty-first century.

Being spiritual, doesn’t give anyone a pass on consensus reality. As Ram Dass put it, “We have to remember our Buddha nature and our social security number.” 

Navigating samsara has never been easy. Truth is hard enough to discover when we are sincere, let alone when we are not. That’s one reason why Buddha placed a special emphasis on truth as a core value. Not lying was one of his Five Precepts. He said, “When anyone feels no shame in telling a deliberate lie, there is no evil, I tell you, they will not do” (3). Continue reading

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Origin by Dan Brown: an audiobook review

After a murder in an art museum, Harvard symbolist, Robert Langdon, and a younger woman find themselves on the run from the police, who consider them persons of interest. They are also pursued by members of a shadowy organization who think they know too much. Langdon and his companion must decipher arcane clues to solve a puzzle which will prove their innocence and reveal important truths to the world.

No, I’m not having a flashback to Brown’s breakout novel, The DaVinci Code (2003), a riveting mystery-thriller that had me up until 2:00am on work nights until it was finished. Brown’s recently published Origin uses the same structure to reasonably good effect, though I never stayed up late to finish it.

Somewhere along the line, probably after The Lost Symbol (2009), I stopped reading Brown, finding his “thrills of the chase” could not overcome such glaring liabilities as two-dimensional villains, interminable data-dumps, and his seeming attempts to fuse the genres of thriller and travel guidebook.

For this venture back into Brown’s work, I chose an audiobook (a good move) which Mary and I listened to on a sojourn to Yosemite. Origin was a good listen while driving and during the cold and sometimes rainy evenings. It also posed intriguing questions about this point in history and emerging trends.

(Spoiler Alert)

Continue reading

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