Book review: no-mind for the Minds of Winter

Not quite a zen book but zennish enough and more than bookish enough to warrant you knowing about it.

Minds of Winter by Ed O’Loughlin, shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, is a book best read with a dance card, playlist, genealogy, time tracker or any variety of two- or three-dimensional process that keeps the characters and events under some control. You may also choose to read it free-form, though that may require copious amounts caffeine and significant restraint against tossing it against the wall.

It’s a good book; it is likely a great book. It might take the Giller home – or not. But it takes a discipline that is belied by the back matter on the cover. A mystery across time and culture, it promises a riddle about the chronometer from the Franklin Expedition that one assumes will be solved; historical events uncovered and put in place; and, characters who risk all just for the enjoyment of doing so. O’Loughlin’s vision of the scope of this topic is formidable and where it lacks – frustratingly – in depth, it does console with terrific prose. What may be unforgivable, depending on the level of sustain attention training the reader has, is his compulsive need to throw in everything, and the kitchen sink.

I picked up the book because a kitchen sink played a role in my own connection with the Franklin Expedition. As an archeological chemist in a previous career incarnation, I was given a container filled with frozen tin cans, dripping across the lab floor. They were hypothesized to be from the Franklin Expedition and for months the excitement in the labs was electric. Franklin’s passage, disappearance, and the eventual (best possible) resolution is the stuff of many careers and romantic speculation.

O’Loughlin begins with a speculation and fantasy of his personal life and his ambitions. There is little to foretell the chronometer. In fact, there is little substantive thread to follow about this chronometer. Its appearance is ghostly and, moving across the words on the page, one might almost wonder if it was imagined. Many a sentence is re-read to verify these fleeting sightings. I suppose this would be exciting enough, to feel the search as an embodied experience, but a purely experiential flow makes for better meditation than fiction.

Thankfully, the characters enlisted by O’Loughlin are fascinating in themselves. Some are historic and therefore verifiable. Others are purely fictitious and therefore need some level of plausible accreditation. O’Loughlin doesn’t offer any of that for these latter creatures, leaving them to our imagination but also untethered in the minds of the narrative (there is more than one).

To fully engaged with Minds of Winter, it is necessary to approach it as a 20th century telling of the 1001 Arabian Nights. Set the intention to simply meet each character and event without any attachment to the storyline or its promised outcome. In fact, it’s more a koan about desire, aversion, stuckness, and surrender than a riddle about a timepiece. Renounce all pre-occupations to know the who, what, when, where, and why of this theme. Perhaps the only value to be found here is a love of powerful language (at times), evocative imagery (at times), and a chilling confrontation with our desperate need to know fully (always).

Will it take the Giller? Perhaps. I suspect however the other books with a closer-to-bone narrative might leave it still thawing in the permafrost.

Other readings

Book review: Watts still luminous after 46 years

84564Psychotherapy East & West, published in 1961, has been re-published by New World Library, looking refreshed and rather smart in an orange-is-the-new-seduction cover. Considering the social frame of The Sixties, one would expect Watts to have aged poorly into the 21st century with its dramatically different technology and psychological views. In fact, my aged and faded copy bought in the late ’60’s seems a strange throwback, though quite iconic.

However, like the eternal Dharma, Watts has not only aged well but also now serves as the “message in the bottle” from past wisdom, prescient and uncompromising. Of course, it’s hard to know if the impact of reading Watts today is an inevitable destination of being human or whether our journey was shaped by the thoughts and critiques of people like Watts and the Beat Generation he later influenced. In Psychotherapy East & West, Watts is clear that using this lens of duality only leads us astray and further into a socially-constructed blindness. The explicit theme throughout the book is the “inseparably interconnected patterns” of our bio-psycho-social-ecological systems. In effect, we do not and cannot be in any sense of the word outside this frame. The intention of the “East” is to make visible these interconnected patterns in the process of becoming liberated. The catch however, in Watts’s view, is that Eastern liberation as a shift in connectedness is different from Western “liberation” through psychotherapy – by which he mainly means Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis (and, ironically sets up a dualism).

Watts’s reliance on Freudian and Jungian psychology is consistent with his time. The cognitive therapies of Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis, which grew from their disillusionment with the psychodynamic therapies, were still in the early days of their methodologies and psychoanalysis was to hold sway for at least another decade. Still, the concept is familiar to us now: we are blinded to our inherent inseparability, not from, as part of the vast intricate pattern of nature by a social structure that is best served through our ignorance. We become “disturbed” when we fall into the social control of organizational “brainwashing”.

The role of both Eastern and Western liberation practices is to experience being “disturbed” and to see it as a point where contradictions in the social frame break through. Although sharing some commonalities of liberation theory, psychotherapy (read psychoanalysis), according to Watts, is incomplete liberation, filled with potential to be social criticism but limited by the blindness of its equally-seduced practitioners. The disturbed individual then is only brought back into line with the oppression in the culture. This seems to parallel the conversations and debates around spiritual and secular mindfulness.WWAWD – what would Alan Watts do? Equally, though I hesitate to read back into his writings through the privilege of hindsight, Watts’s argument that ignoring the context of our lives is the very seed of ignorance, and the arising of being separate, forecasts the work of Thich Nhat Hanh and the socially engaged Buddhism of the next decades.

Watts is cautious about the power of psychotherapy to liberate and I suspect this has much to do with his enchantment with Buddhism in general and zen in particular. At one moment he is forgiving of psychotherapy, allowing it to be a partner in the mutual clarification of itself and Eastern liberation practices; in another, psychotherapies are at risk of becoming another insipid compromising version of the middle way. A messed-up Mādhyamika. It’s in his attempts to critique yet line up psychoanalysis with Buddhist liberation practices that he tends to spiral out into expansive thoughts (and run on sentences). And, much like psychodynamic concepts, the arguments become somewhat self-gratifying. Of course, throw in his foray with Jay Haley’s “prescribing the symptom” and “strategic therapy” and one loses both figure and ground. It would be generous to say that is what Watts intends, a psychotherapeutic dokusan, but Haley’s concepts can be a mental labyrinth of “who’s on first in the prefrontal cortex.” (Personally, I love Haley’s work but it’s sneaky and one has to be really good at the pretence of going with the symptom.)

Despite all the meanders, Watts offers much to consider, not the least being whether we’ve come any further along this path than we were in 1960. He ends with an appeal we are all familiar with by now: if true liberation is the overthrowing of a self-serving authority that blinds us to who we are (reiterated in The Book: On the taboo against knowing who you are), then it must come through the challenges to the ethical constructs that authority places on us. It begins with seeing ethics as the language by which we get to know each other. It is not only code law that points to the oughts; it is, perhaps more crucial to our relationships, the organic process of common law, an intuitive felt sense of what is needed beyond self-interest.

Although Watts addresses the ethics of survival, he doesn’t take it to the next step of the ethic of care. Psychotherapies, mindfulness or otherwise, are meant to unblind ourselves to who we have been told we must be, more about who we are becoming than who we want to be. They are relational practices with a moral arc of caring for each other and the world we inhabit, not stages of achievements for self-promotion.

 

Book review: What’s wrong with mindfulness [or] Reflections on an open barn door

barndoor-small What’s Wrong with Mindfulness (and what isn’t): Zen perspectives (Wisdom Publications Inc., 2016; please purchase this book from the publisher to support their work) is edited by Robert Meikyo Rosenbaum and Barry Magrid. Contributors attempting to tease out the Zen rights and secular wrongs of mindfulness are a list of teachers who in the Zen world certainly are well-respected for their teachings and social engagement. The Epilogue is written by Robert Sharf and is best read before launching into the book itself.

I have been looking forward to reading this book, feeling a sense of trust in the editors and contributors simply because of their respectable training and, in cases of Magrid and Grace Shireson, being grounded in the secular world of psychology and psychotherapy.

The premise of the book is that there is much right with mindfulness and much wrong, the latter being of significant concern with regard to the safe-guarding the integrity of Buddhist teachings and practice. In principle, I doubt anyone would debate this as a general statement applicable to any conceptualization of mindfulness, either Buddhist, secular or Secular Buddhist. Magrid and fellow authors however seem to take an ambivalent stance. (Note bene: in this case “fellow” is sadly beyond accurate as the lead chapters are primarily written by men, with the exception of Sallie Jiko Teasdale; and, her chapter had less to do with the dialectic of religious and secular mindfulness than the zaniness of the hippy-like atmosphere at the Omega Institute.)

There is much right and much wrong in this book. In part, it seems an attempt (as are many criticisms of modern mindfulness) to shut the blasted-open barn door by hoping that these criticisms will bring prodigal ponies back home to their stalls.  But all is not totally lost, irreversibly. The writings on Zen found primarily in the first section of Critical Concerns are good (if you read around the criticisms) and what one would expect of such lauded teachers. The second section on Creative Engagement slides around with little to anchor it in mindfulness (the primary consideration here) and much less to give one confidence in what isn’t wrong with it. The sole exception in this section – and in fact in the whole book – is the chapter by Gil Frondsal and Max Erdstein; read this one with the intention of savouring every word!

Critical concerns when Buddhist teachers talk about critical concerns

As with most writings that attempt to resolve the phenomenon of secular mindfulness, authors become mired in the lack of clarity regarding whom they are referring to. Inevitably they fall into the pit of offering broad brush criticisms of secular mindfulness and I  think by that term they now mean the “wellness” focused programs. It would help if they were clear about the cachement of their critiques: secular meaning wellness, clinical applications, or some amalgam of a variety of spiritually-based programs that fuse mindfulness into their own teachings. It makes a difference because then the concerns about integrity of the programs, respect for training, and comprehension of what is being taught can be addressed with greater precision. And perhaps such a careful discernment may allow for honouring the use of secular mindfulness in the trenches of mental illness, not the least of which is the urgent need for care of our military, veterans, and first responders with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. In these cases, symptom relief is synonymous with hope for a future. To deride it as a superficial intention is to further stigmatize mental health challenges and to insist that those struggling with depression, anxiety and life-changing mental illness just work harder to get better.

The concerns expressed by the authors on this first section in the book also shuttled between heartfelt criticisms and adulation of the original mindfulness-based application. Over the last couple of years, the attitude has shifted from global undifferentiated censure of mindfulness programs to sounding like a detente has been reached between Buddhist teachings and at least one form of mindfulness, Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Here, the authors have elevated MBSR to “excellent” status  – despite the tendency of Kabat-Zinn and most MBSR teachers to evade the issue of including or speaking to ethics in the curriculum. While it is accepted in the general secular community that MBSR offers good training and has a caché of effectiveness, it does clang to see this sudden and high regard for a program whose philosophy has been a lightning rod for consistent criticism from the Buddhist community.

The inconsistency of the critical process is most apparent in references to Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness which in one part is offered seemingly as supported by Dogen (p 34 – though I can’t tell if it’s actually in counterpoint to Dogen) and in another chapter strongly criticized (p 74, Senauke). Sadly, Senauke attributes the definition to Elizabeth Stanley and Amisha Jha in the course of expressing concerns about their military mental fitness program. That may seem trivial however if we are to take seriously any deconstruction of what mindfulness is / is not / has become, it does not bode well for our arguments to praise the developer and his program, including his definition and then to take it apart (albeit through misattribution). The optics of this latter clouds whether the Senauke is challenging the definition (which I think is appropriate) or the people who published it in their independent article, people whose intentions Senauke feels is antithetical to the (Buddhist) intent of mindfulness.

What is not added and needs to be

The greatest concern to me in reading this book is that the elevation of MBSR as the program to follow (with the subtext of “well if you must and if Zen is too difficult for you”) disregards several programs which have developed in the last 30-some years that are grounded in ethics and values. Mindfulness-integrated Cognitive Therapy (MiCBT), developed by Dr. Bruno Cayoun who is a vipassana practitioner and student of Goenka, is notable for its inclusion of the five precepts. Our own program, Mindfulness-based Symptom Management includes the Five Mindfulness Trainings as values clarification practices. Programs for persons who are incarcerated (Fleet Maull’s Prison Mindfulness), military and first responders with PTSD who struggle with moral injuries, personnel in troubled organizations have all benefitted from examining the incongruence between their ethics and what they are called to do. And, in doing so they have found a way to navigate the unpredictable waters of their lives. Furthermore, while it isn’t in the purview of this book, the growth in compassion based teachings speaks to a world moving beyond the alleviation of individual to global suffering.

As I wrote above, read Frondsal’s chapter. It’s excellent. And let’s hope that, as Shireson writes of her teacher, Sojun Mel Weitsman roshi, as we continue to try to have a respectful, co-facilitated conversation on this critical application of Buddhist concepts already loosed on the world, “I’ll turn you and you turn me.”

the way that is the thread

 

enso-threadThe Way It Is

William Stafford

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

..

It’s been a fearfully hot summer approaching drought conditions and in many places surpassing them. We’ve been reeling back our garden work, planting only what we tend to harvest and not planting what ends up in the compost heap after harvesting is a delusion. There have been visits from the Grandestbaby and her entourage with threads of her genetic heritage gathering beautifully, emerging in what is the making of a dangerous woman. I am pleased.

At a recent family gathering, I noted there are four generations present. Complex threads of family stories interweaving cousins, converging in one place. Were this in 14th century Britain it would have all the makings of the War of the Roses, though here it would be the War of the Tastebuds.

Threads.

On Tricycle, I stumbled across this lovely film by Yoko Okumura (produced by Chris Ruiz): SIT. Okumura is the daughter of that other Okumura, Shohaku, author of my favourite book Zen teachings of Homeless Kodo which you can purchase through Wisdom Publications. Look at all these threads to take you into and hopefully back out delicious labyrinths. SIT is a poignant film exploring parenthood and its intended and unintended consequences. We want for our children what we believe we failed to get ourselves in our childhood. What they want we fail to see because the thread we follow is so tightly in our grasp, leading through one path. What Okumura the Zen priest sees as the core of parenting, Masaki, his son, sees as a vacuum. And yet, something emerges. Okumura, the writer/director, captures the chasm between father and son and adroitly flips it to show the tender, painful connections – the longing for form and the unease with emptiness. And this is the path of practice too – teachers and students, Buddha and Dharma, Dharma and Sangha, Buddha and Sangha. The tipitaka of all threads.

Speaking of books.

Somewhere between the topic of moral psychology and the War of the Roses, I fell into Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby. The Table of Contents is itself a winding thread, ending where it started – or more correctly ending where we entered because all our threads start back before the faces of our fathers and mothers were born.

She begins with her mother. Doesn’t everything. Her mother, strong. Her mother, deteriorating. Her mother, like the ripe smell of apricots entangled throughout the stories that bind them together. Solnit doesn’t stop there as she escapes to Iceland, explores what it means to feel and try to lift others from pain. Like Wu Daozi who painted such bold landscapes that one could fall into them, we do that – fall into the stories of what/who/where/how we came to be. Solnit evokes the pain we feel in our stories and, as did Okumura, flips them to feel their embrace. Pain serves a purpose as our protector; its “cousin touch” sets the boundary of form and self. Our practice like that of the Buddha is to “stay cool” in its presence, chilling out with Mara, not giving the thread of reactivity any fabric to sew.

The end of the journey through the labyrinth is not at the center, as is commonly supposed, but back at the threshold again: the beginning is also the real end. That is the home to which you return from the pilgrimage, the adventure. p. 188

Along the bottom of Solnit’s book is the actual thread that binds it together. A kind of horizontal sewing to keep the pages from drifting to and fro, leaving us with literary vertigo. It begins with “Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds” and ends “Who drinks your tears, who has your wings, who hears your story?”

And then Zen.

James Ford recently posted Thinking of Books That Helped Me on My Spiritual Path. He tells a story of a robber who in trying to flee ironically becomes captive to the projected stories of the people he tried to fleece.

Captive, as he was, gradually, his own heart turned, and he became wise.

This was a new way to think about spirituality. And, I just loved, loved that a thief could trap himself into becoming a saint.

I too love, love this. Not because I think I’ve trapped myself into becoming a saint. There are and could be tomes written to refute that particular conceit of mine! But I do believe we are trapped by our fears and often fail to see how that place of stuckedness holds the opportunity to let go of what has nailed us to the ground.

There’s a family story told by my mother about a time during the Japanese occupation of Burma. She was alone at home with my infant brother; my father was away finding work, such as he could in a war zone. A Japanese soldier walked into the house. Looking far more European than Asian, she was terrified because the stories told of European women being preferred target for rape were rife and likely real. The soldier sat down on her sofa (uninvited) and asked if he could spend time talking with her. Of course, she said yes but that her husband was returning soon with his cousins (them again!). He asked about the infant, did they have enough to eat, were they suffering in any way? Soon he left only to return the next day with bananas and milk; it was all he could find. They talked (I don’t know if my father was there). She asked him his name. “Monkey,” he laughed pointing to the bananas. He liked bananas so that made him “Monkey”, he explained. He never came back.

My parents, unlike others who were brutalized in worse ways during the war and understandably didn’t, held a respect for Japanese culture. I often wonder if that was the reason I fell into the stories of Zen rather than the Therigata. Or perhaps, the Therigata, by virtue of my grandmother’s Buddhism, is so deeply sewn into my stories that they are the signatures¹ and not the script of the book, the ground and not the weather that flows over. Or perhaps the horrid truth is that we rarely pay attention to the thread as we enter our labyrinth, seeing its use only when we need a quick exit. Thankfully, there is no single response to Ford’s post. I used to keep my Buddhism books segregated carefully as if the very contact of the Zen and Theravada texts would cause the universe to warp. Now they just fall where I’ve let go.

=========

¹In the context of book-binding, a signature refers to a section of paper. All the paper of a book are divided into several signatures and then sewn together. The number of paper in a signature varies, there might be one or more than one, depending on the thickness and size of the paper and the content of the book. From Joy Chen.

transitions, light & faith

from the dark

from the dark

“…or I can forgive and forget…Oh, but my treasure, it is so much less exhausting. You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day. You have to keep remembering all the bad things…we always have a choice.” Character in The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been shaken by a book. Stirred, certainly. Bored, frustrated, annoyed, informed, inspired – yes. But shaken? Not recently. And that’s saying a lot given the hellish six months of holding together body and soul. Or may be it’s just easier to be shaken when there’s no more resistance to what the universe decides to throw at you.

“Sometimes life turns out hard, Isabel. Sometimes it just bites right through you. And sometimes, just when you think it’s done its worst, it comes back and takes another chunk.” Tom, one of two principal characters in The Light Between Oceans.

The story takes place on Janus Rock playing on the trope of the Roman god Janus, who presides over transitions and can see both past and future. Janus Rock is home to the main character, Tom who is its lighthouse keeper and later to Isabel his wife. Their transitions, as with most beginnings and endings, are turbulent, riven with loss that leads to secrets, and decisions that can be argued from both sides of one’s moral face. It’s a slow read, evoking the meticulous cleaning of the lighthouse light, its record keeping, the passage of time on an island between the Indian Ocean and the Southern Sea half a day away from the coast of Australia. But that steady unwinding of the tale only makes the ending more breathtaking.

Many of our moral judgments are made sitting on Janus Rock, between here and there, what I want to say and what I say, what I believe and what I need to you believe. We craft our stories with threads we summon from past and future – often at will and if only to gather evidence to justify a decision already half-made. We tell stories and tell them so well that we often forget what is truth and what is needed to be heard by the inner and outer senses. Or more correctly, we forget there is no real truth and that what we hear (inner and outer) serves only as the chinking that holds together a rather wobbly lighthouse tower.

gold center

center light

And in our story-telling we are so convinced that our intention is noble, protective, caring. These are beacons we send out hoping that someone will be saved, alerted to our edges. Because for as much as we believe we are good, well-intentioned, loving and caring, we are also terrified that we can do harm by the structure of our very nature.

My dear friend, Carole, over at the dot (Zendotstudio) has written an eloquent post about stories. She does summon the devil in me though with a poke about Eckhart Tolle. What I think of Tolle is my well-worn story perpetrated on anyone I think needs to be saved from the shoals of Tolle’s teachings. In fact, there are a number of characters in the convoluted political states of mindfulness, psychology, and Buddhism who have sent me tearing up the lighthouse stairs to set the beacon afire.

Yet lately, I have begun to tire of that long climb up the lighthouse. I’ve learned that a lighthouse beam is set at night and turned off during the day. Once set, it needs no further tending; it functions with equanimity, sending out electromagnetic metta to anyone who wishes to attend to their state of being. It really only needs us to act our discipline by polishing the lens, oiling the nuts and bolts, and turning it on and off at its assigned time.

There’s an element of faith in this. All this to-ing and fro-ing trying to keep shipwrecks from happening simply stirs up resentment when we are disregarded and as the character quoted at the opening of this post, it can be burdensome to keep those fires burning. In the end, it is a choice to see the rose glistening as the rainfall pauses rather than the soaked, muddy ground. It is a choice to see the wonderful fruition of all our hard work rather than what didn’t flourish despite our care. And making those choices generates faith in our commitment. And faith is so much lighter to carry.

As for Tolle, I had the cheeky rejoinder though it is true of psychology and meditative practice: I have come to realize that if I hold true to the hope of my own transformation then that has to be rooted in the hope of all beings’ transformation. Ole Tolle included.

Book Review: In Search of Buddha’s Daughters by Christine Toomey

“The difference between a path and a road is not only the obvious one. A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity. As a form, it is a form of contact with a known landscape. It is not destructive. It is the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around.”
― Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays

Buddhism’s mainstay is a constant repetitive invitation to step onto the path, enter the practice by cultivating the skills of the Eightfold Path. It’s a familiar image and anyone having embarked on such a path would easily say it’s not a straight road from here to wherever. In her book In Search of Buddha’s Daughters*, Christine Toomey’s intimate portraits of the nuns in various traditions in Buddhism offer clear evidence that the path is neither simple nor easy, not only in their individuals paths that brought them to ordination but also in the over-arching path of the legitimacy of ordination for women. Toomey crafts a biography of each nun she meets with a balanced touch of both intimate details and their place in challenging the larger religious obstacles of ordination for women.

Christine Toomey comes to this topic with impressive credentials. A polyglot and twenty-year veteran covering foreign affairs for The Sunday Times Magazine, she has been shortlisted for a number of articles and won the Amnesty International Awards for two hard-hitting articles on the murder of young girls in Guatemala and a “school of assassins” in the US. (Toomey’s articles are available on her website here.) Her approach to these topics and writing style are uncompromising, making her softly even-handed approach in Buddha’s Daughters an interesting read.

As with most seekers who write of seeking, Toomey’s journey began with a growing awareness of her own suffering, both in her personal life and as a result of her exposure to world scale tragedies.

Buddhas-Daughters“After so much time spent shedding light on some of the darkest corners of humanity, the consequences of such tragedies have become frighteningly familiar….

…In the months before I embarked on this journey both of my parents died…. There had been painful losses before this, but the shock of losing both my parents so suddenly and within just a few months of each other brought my life to a standstill. I felt at a crossroads. After so much time spent bearing witness to the suffering of others, I realized I barely knew how to handle my own.”

– Christine Toomey, Preface, In Search of Buddha’s Daughters, pp. 9-11

Perhaps it is this rawness and deep sensitivity that make Buddha’s Daughters a process book rather than one that offers facts and details about the characters within. The authenticity of this book is not only that Toomey writes about the topic and people but that she actively takes part in their lives, brief though it may be. Certainly Toomey also doesn’t shrink from the facts of the unfairness and even misogyny of complete ordination that is withheld from women in some Buddhist traditions.

Toomey’s journey begins in Nepal with the nuns trained in kung fu at the Druk Gawa Khilwa nunnery near Kathmandu. I feel for her struggle with the 4AM wake-up call and the challenges of following an intense schedule. However, it gives a sense of an embodied approach to her perspective – part biographer, part historian, part social commentary. From Nepal (with a side trip to Lumbini), she proceeds to India and Dharamshala where she explores the deep suffering of Tibetan refugees, especially the nuns who have survived torture in Chinese prisons. I’m deeply affected by one interview with the nun, Dhamchoe who had been imprisoned in Drapchi jail, the largest prison in Tibet. The nun, no longer wearing her robes and working in a cafe in Dharamshala, speaks of her commitment to hold onto her life as a nun despite no longer having the outer form of robes and community. When asked if she wouldn’t prefer to live in sangha, Dhamchoe speaks of her feelings of impurity because she cannot say she holds “no hatred towards (her captors).” This stands in such stark contrast to the anecdote about the Dalai Lama’s astonishment that people would feel self-loathing (see here).

Toomey then goes to Burma, interviewing nuns in the Theravada tradition – in which resides the strongest resistance to full ordination of women. She weaves a solid history of the growth of Buddhism in Burma (with a description of Bagan that makes me want to avoid it were I to return). Interestingly, Toomey skims over the British occupation that galvanized Ledi Sayadaw’s laicization of Buddhist meditation in an effort to protect Buddhism against colonialism (see here) thereby missing out the source of the momentum of Buddhist practice that eventually gave rise to the mindfulness juggernaut (which she visits by coming home to Oxford and the Oxford Mindfulness Center at the end of the book).

It is here in the chapters about the nuns in Burma that the topic of ordination for women reaches it’s stride. The controversy of the nun Saccavadi and the ensuing political battles between monks and monasteries which saw Ajahn Brahm banned from speaking on the topic at the UN Vesak Day in Vietnam in 2009 and Bhikkhu Analayo writing an articulate argument on the legal status of ordination. At the micro level, it becomes clear from Toomey’s interviews that there is a grassroots movement alive that is supporting the education and support of women who wish their commitment to the Dharma is valued as more than housekeepers for monasteries. Toomey also makes an insightful comment that many male supporters of women being ordained have been affected by a personal history of an absence of significant women in their lives (loss of connection with mothers, sisters, etc.); this gives them an appreciation of the power of the feminine as part of healthy growth.

Toomey travels then to Japan (interestingly Korea with its long history of ordained women is not on the itinerary), winds back through North America, and then home to the UK & France. Perhaps the Western stories are impacted by a different cultural perspective but I had trouble feeling the same tension and dynamic between the characters and the storyline. Perhaps it is that these women are not as embedded in cultures that find it unimaginable to value women beyond the utilitarian. I don’t suggest that Western nuns have not had their own deeply wounding struggles with systemic bias and rejection; there is ample evidence of sexual and psychological abuse at the hands of teachers. Something has shifted in the tone of the book and I’m very willing to think that it may be more my own resistance to something in these women’s stories.

Chapter 19, however, is poignant. There is a palpable feeling of coming home in Toomey’s words. While I’m an “early-adopter” of MBCT (at least that’s what publishers keep telling me when they send me MBCT books to review), I did find the foray into Oxford’s MBCT center a bit off-center, having nothing to do with Buddha nor his “daughters”. Still, I’ll grant Toomey that detour simply for being one of the few journalists who actually took part in an 8-week program and completing it before she wrote about it.

All in all a powerful testament to the female spirit and the necessity for the feminine in Buddhism.


*Published in the UK as The Saffron Road: A journey with Buddha’s Daughters.

stillness of a river: book review of Sid by anita n. feng

Sid by Anita N. Feng is a surprisingly well crafted telling of the traditional story of the Buddha’s life alongside a contemporary version set a Western life.  It’s a risky undertaking: this attempt to demonstrate The Awakened One’s tale can be taken from the lofty allegories of becoming the Enobled One and make it applicable to the quotidian. The transformation from Siddhartha to Gautama Buddha is entrenched in details of its own, mythologies, and narratives that demand suspension of disbelief. And they have been re-written often, mostly with attempts to make the Enlightened Him more human – as if the very point of the root narrative wasn’t to showcase his deep humanity.

I avoided buying this book for those very reasons. After Chopra’s McPyschology attempt at interpreting the Buddha’s story, there seemed little need to wander back into that genre. But it arrived, unrequested, a solitary little package from what is likely my favourite publisher of Buddhist books, Wisdom Publications. (That’s full disclosure and then some!)

Feng enters into a lineage of authors who have tried to recast in modern terms this storyline of birth, loss, suffering, and death. But I think this is the only one that runs a parallel story to the main narrative. Hermann Hesse did so in the much beloved Siddhartha; however the characters were contemporaries and it ran more as an alternate universe: “what if the Buddha met himself across a time warp.” The writing in Sid, unlike Hesse’s romantic lyrics, has an unaffected tone that makes the slide from one stage to another easy and one goes along willingly. And stages there are. Like a Shakespearean play, we are carried from the stage with Suddhodana, Siddhartha, and Avalokitesvara to one with Professor Sudovsky, Sid, and Ava; from Yasodhara to Yasmin; from Siddhartha’s Rahula to Sid’s Rahula (this last a fascinating convergence of lineages). With a nod to the Jataka Tales, animals fill in narrative gaps like the Chorus of a Greek tragedy – observing, commenting, and imparting their wisdom. And with a deep bow to an honourable lineage, Feng offers homage to Hesse’s river that is the final teacher of Siddhartha and Sid in their last pages.

This isn’t an interweaving of two stories and perhaps those who attempt to do so fail because of the artifice of a forced relevance. These are life events that can unfold anywhere in any time. That, at its heart, is the intent of understanding the Buddha’s life. Of course, the book can be read as a sequence of the Buddha’s life in 4th c. B.C.E. followed by Sid’s life in the 21st c. C.E. – interesting and sufficient to feel reassured that nothing changes. It can also be, in some way that only physics can explain, contemporaneous stories whose details grip us for different reasons – a recognition that in stillness everything changes and in movement nothing changes.