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Donald Richie on Reading Noh Drama


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Noh Theatre

Each note, each word must be savored, weighed, calculated, and then put again into context; the context and never the word alone creating the image.

The Text

It is not impossible to read the Noh as literature, but it is difficult. It requires the kind of imagination essential to anyone who sits in complete silence and reads a score. It also requires a like amount of skill—whether the text is translated or not. Going to the Noh in Japan is very like going to a chamber music recital elsewhere. Many have the text open in their laps. Since the language is so obscure, the delivery so slow, the syllables so drawn-out, most Japanese could not otherwise understand a word. Even with the text, as with the score of a Schoenberg quartet, one must study it both before and after performance for the subtleties to become apparent. The pleasure lies in comprehending the form, in discovering the retrogrades, in uncovering the canons; or in tracing the allusion, in understanding the ambiguity, in finding the richness of the associations. The text of Noh is a collection of poems, some by the author of the play, some not; it is a repository of popular songs of the day; language and often action turn on the pun, the pillow-word, the invented portmanteau, pivot-words, conceits. Reading Noh is like reading late Joyce, like reading St. John Perse, like reading Webern. Each note, each word must be savored, weighed, calculated, and then put again into context; the context and never the word alone creating the image. Noh defies translation, as Chinese poetry, as Donne defy translation. Properly, Noh should include two pages of commentary for every two lines of text. When Hagoromo dances for her robe and sings of the heavens, she does much more than just this. What we are given is a created cosmography in which float bits of T’ang poetry, pieces of earlier Japanese, traditional refrains, and transient songs of the day. The language turns, convolutes, rears back upon itself. A near approach is Middleton, Webster, Ford; or, in Shakespeare, the echoing poetry of Measure for Measure, the subjective rant, all association, of Thersites in Troilus. The language of Noh is like music of the Elizabethan period, like the parade of reminiscences—controlled but seeming not—in the Cries of London; like the drinking-rounds and canons, cunning and lapidary. The Noh is mannerist drama.

From: Richie, Donald. “Notes on the Noh.” The Hudson Review 18, no. 1 (spring 1965)

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Japanese Doughnuts


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With their outrageous cuteness, Japanese doughnuts will fill the hole in your stomach and your heart.

From Floresta Nature Doughnuts, Kyoto, Japan.

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Pavaka in Japan


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Canadian musician and meditation-rocker Pavaka Ritchot recently toured Japan as a part of the Songs of the Soul concerts, performing in Tokyo, Kamakura and Kyoto.

Pavaka, a student of meditation teacher Sri Chinmoy, performs music composed by the late Indian spiritual master, and has released two albums of these melodies.

Learn more about Pavaka and listen to his music at pavaka.com.

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Songs of the Soul Concert, Tokyo


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Photos from the recent Songs of the Soul concert in Tokyo, Japan.

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Donald Richie’s The Japan Journals: 1947–2004


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Article first published as Book Review: The Japan Journals: 1947-2004 by Donald Richie on Blogcritics.

Donald Richie, The Japan Journals: 1947–2004This is what every memoir should be. Unhindered by any attempt to be self-serving, Donald Richie’s The Japan Journals: 1947-2004 is about the most unflinchingly honest opening of the tightly turned lid of self you’ll ever read. You can’t help but like an autobiographer willing to welcome you this deeply into his 510-page heart.

Not that there’s a paucity of things to like about Donald Richie. One of the most underrated writers of the last 50 years, Richie wields his pen with a depth of insight that more famous writers would swap Booker Prizes for, and his command of detail and emotion are on par with the best—even here in a ‘journal’.

Although journal in name, The Japan Journals is more than nighttime afterthought, for Richie realised early on that the detritus of his daily life was destined for the shelves of others, and therefore wrote accordingly—with concentration and abundant skill.

Richie isn’t just an interesting writer—he’s an interesting human being, a person who has lived a life filled with fascinating and often famous others—Yukio Mishima, Marguerite Yourcenar, Emperor Hirohito and Francis Ford Coppola to name a few. Included is perhaps the most insightful assessment of the internal life of the near impossible to comprehend Mishima, while it is highly likely that Richie is the inspiration for Bill Murray’s character in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, for he tells of spending time with the teenaged director-to-be in Tokyo.

Better known as the leading Western authority on Japanese film, the beyond erudite Donald Richie could also be subtitled the ‘Gore Vidal who chose to live in Japan’. Equally talented and insightful as the American polemicist, Richie is more heartfelt to Vidal’s glib, and therefore on final reckoning, even more rewarding.

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Wave of Beautiful Humanity


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Article first published as Bullet-Train TV Commercial Lifts Spirits in Japan on Blogcritics.

Initially withdrawn because of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, a television commercial for a new bullet-train line helps a grieving nation dare to smile once more.

mundaneusername: tearing up. Thank you.
koy1: why did i cry when i saw this?
mundaneusername: Because it shows you what we can be like.
ioduae: As silly as it is, it makes me feel a little better about humanity right now.
Comments from Reddit.com

When Japan Rail filmed a commercial for their new Kyushu Skinkansen—a bullet train linking the southern-most island of Japan for the first time—all the marketing savvy in the world could not have predicted that it would first air the very day after the greatest earthquake and tsunami in Japanese history.

With the entire nation reeling in disbelief, and out of sympathy for the victims, the bubbly, rainbow-filled 180-seconds-of-celebration was immediately pulled from the air. There can be nobody in the world who by now does not know why.

The earthquake and resulting tsunami left an unimaginably devastating toll: 15,057 people dead, 5,282 injured, 9,121 missing, and its force was enough to move not only the island of Honshu 2.4 metres, but the axis of the entire planet. With the eventual cost estimated to exceed $300 billion, it will be the most expensive natural disaster on record.

But what price to put on happiness?

After a month of near endless, unbearable news, not the least of which was the full-blown nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan Rail choose to quietly return its Southern Line commercial to air. Beyond all expectation, it became an immediate, nationwide phenomenon. Viewers all across Japan literally shed tears of joy at the sight of an island-long, 15,000-person human-wave, and the advertisement quickly achieved something priceless—it made a grieving nation happy.

With possibly the catchiest, Björk-esque J-Pop soundtrack ever by Japanese-Swedish artist Maia Hirasawa, a rainbow-clothed cast of thousands is shown staging spontaneous, unscripted acts of joy as the rainbow-painted train passes with film-crew on board. Far from being inappropriate, the unabashedly happy commercial proved to be unerringly appropriate, uplifting spirits and warming hearts the length of Japan.

Wrote one grateful viewer from Fukushima itself, “I heard this commercial has been pulled off air after the earthquake. They shouldn’t have! It’s good to see so many smiling people, and the united power of a great country like Japan working together for a common purpose. This is a huge encouragement to people working for the reconstruction. Thank you!”

That day,
Thank you for your waving,
Thank you for your smiles,
Thank you for your cooperation.
Kyushu-Shinkansen starts now.
In Kyushu, we are full of new power.
From Kyushu, we should deliver happiness to all over Japan.
With you all, Kyushu-Shinkansen starts now.
Narrator, Japan Rail Kyushu Skinkansen Commercial

Spoken at the end of the commercial by a narrator, seldom have truer words been uttered in an advertisement, for with its island-crossing human-wave of rainbow-coloured joy, Japan Rail indeed did deliver happiness all over Japan.

Related Elsewhere

Kyushu Shinkansen commercial lifts Japan spirits
Kyushu Shinkansen by Japan Probe

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A Daughter’s Last Goodbye


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Wakana Kumagai, 6, waits for her mother Yoshiko after visiting the grave of her father, who was killed by the March 11 tsunami

In the face of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, words fail me. And fail me they should, for it is good to be speechless at the indescribable and the inconsolable, to be silent in the face of the inconceivable made real. Any words one could offer would mean little, be sounds empty and hollow unless matched by heart, matched or even better multiplied by feelings of sincerity and sympathy. Multiplied by a wave of empathy.

Reuters’ Toru Hanai expresses my response to the tsunami perfectly. His short, unbearably poignant photo essay is an affecting visit to the aching heart of grieving Japan.

Six-year-old Wakana Kumagai began to run from the car when she arrived at a temporary mass grave site in Higashi-Matsushima, Miyagi prefecture.

She had come to meet her father.

On that day Wakana attended an entrance ceremony for her elementary school. Afterward she went with her mother and older brother to the grave site. She showed off her dress and bright red school satchel as she described the entrance ceremony to her father. But her father, Kazuyuki, slept in the soil.

Continue reading: A daughter’s last goodbye by Toru Hanai.

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My Japanese Brother


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A visit to a Zen monastery in Japan, meeting with a monk, more similarities than meet the eye.

Mr Nagai San, Zen monkHotel Mets, Ofuna, Japan. On the outskirts of Tokyo, a city that begins and then never seems to end. I am here on a whirlwind, week long visit with Sri Chinmoy and students, sharing a room with a friend already awake before dawn, his the unusual habit of beginning the day with a coffee. And I do mean beginning—before hitting the shower and immediately after hitting the bedside floor. Thoughtfully, hotels in Japan cater for the most extreme caffeine addiction, machines vending blackest gold located conveniently on every floor. And pretty much everywhere else for that matter.

In other places you might call this commercial opportunism. Like in my country, where ATMs are more prevalent on street corners than police officers; the cynic would reply that they are more profitable to run. I will happily admit that my glasses are green-tea tinted, but will argue from more than just a position of Nihon-bias that not everything in Japan runs to a profit motive; like the incense imbued atmosphere of a Shinto shrine, the air here is thick with a culture of sacrifice and service.

And sincerity too. Try asking someone for directions at any train station. Often unable to speak English, a person may not be able to help you, but certainly will want to help you. I was personally guided through three stations and multiple connecting trains to the very door of the Shinkasen bullet train by a local who did know English and was going my way. We exchanged business cards afterwards, but I value much more the sincerity of heart he offered me that day.

Examples of what could be termed the Japanese quality of thoughtfulness abound, like here at Ofuna Station, starting point for my journey this day, track-side platform pre-marked with lines approaching trains will sure as the rising of the sun come to a halt alongside, each and every sliding door precisely aligned. Perhaps more accurately one could call this trait “mindfulness;” it is as though the practise of Zen Buddhism has entered the national bloodstream.

Do I have time for a coffee from a station vending machine only feet away? Where there is a lack of will it seems there is always a caffeinated way, Suntory Boss: World Executive Blend, served ice cold this humid, mid-summer morn, can bearing moustached emblem not unlike a youthful Fidel Castro. The boss in question perhaps, or was something ‘lost in translation?’

As in all countries civilised enough to believe in the value of society over the primacy of individuality, the Japanese Rail system is a pleasure to use. Clean, swift and punctual. But as I may have already intimated, it would be hard to imagine Japan any other way.

The train journey to Kamakura from Ofuna is two stops and barely five minutes. A short distance in truth, but uncomfortable humidity and sense of urgency have already declared it too far to walk. Swift and punctual is my express aim; an appointment with friend and Swiss-German cameraman, fellow contributor to online podcast my must-not-miss imperative. Said cameraman has made one point more than clear to this occasionally absent-minded presenter: lateness is a cultural no-no here in Japan as well as Switzerland, where trains to even the most remote alpine villages are said to run on time. Being dilatory is not a usual quality for me, but sensitivity to being lectured just may be, so I took the diatribe in typically Japanese fashion—polite, silent stoicism.

United outside Kamakura Station in full morning rush hour, we embark on foot to Kenchoji Temple, first Zen temple in Kamakura and founded in 1253, later pioneer of Zen Buddhism throughout the whole of Japan, with intent to film an episode of Inspiration News, permission gained by phone to interview a monk about his practise.

The road from the station to temple is lined with vending machines, glass enclosed temptation so prevalent you could navigate at night by confectionery-lit glow. The road is passage for tourist pilgrimage rather than devoted darshan these days—one million tourists a year and obviously thirsty; but seven hundred years ago the entire nation orbited around this site, the Japanese Shogunate centred in Kamakura, Kenchoji its most important temple. The Rinzai Zen sect with some 500 branch temples was here overseen; seven main buildings, 49 sub-temples and at least one thousand people.

Kenchoji Zen Temple, Kamakura, JapanThe first priest of Kenchoji was Chinese, not Japanese, Zen master Priest Doryu Rankei (1213-1278) of Zhejiang Province near Shanghai, invited as founding priest by Zen devotee and fifth Hojo Regent Tokiyo Hojo (1227-1263), patron and founder of a temple no local at the time was sufficiently qualified to officiate. Of the entire complex, only the Bonsho or temple bell stands from the year of founding, numerous fires and an earthquake in 1293 having damaged or destroyed every other structure. Designated a national treasure, it weighs 2,700 kilograms, and is too fragile to be tolled except on New Year’s Eve, when it is rung only 18 times instead of the traditional 108.

Entrance to the Hojo or Chief Priest’s quarters begins with a large foyer lined with shelves for shoes. The interior proper begins past this point, floor raised about six inches, obvious differentiation between areas where shoes should and should not be worn. All aspects of the interior bespeak of perfection; of the stillness and clarity of the states of concentration and meditation. Lines are perfectly straight, lacquered black beams to finely sanded and then polished wooden floors.

The meditation room is to the left, entry forbidden to visitors except between 5.00pm and 6.00pm on weekends, an hour long zazen or sit-in meditation open to laity, but the sliding doors are open, temptation to disappear into nothingness inside. Everything is still and perfect here, and familiar in a way I can’t place in memories living. I am quite disinclined to continue with the official reason for our visit—the reason for mine has already been met.

We are led along a spotless, paper lined wooden framed hallway to a small room, offered seats on a contemporary style sofa in front of a traditional style Japanese low table. Although my companion did phone the day before to arrange our visit it transpires that no one here is familiar with our purpose—the filming of a monk and his practise, and there is ten minutes of polite consternation as a succession of people enter and leave the room with questions, whispered conversations apparent outside.

In the end we are told that filming will be possible, but only for a ¥30,000 fee, a fee unable to be waived no matter how pure non-profit motive. Talking however is without charge, and seeing as paying for a filmed interview is beyond our non-existent budget as well as beliefs, we settle for this, questions to be asked by myself and translated by friend brought especially for the purpose, cameraman now largely redundant. The interviewee monk’s minder, an officious young man of powerful build, obviously the senior, although not in apparent spirituality, leaves the room without payment, signal for the interview to begin.

Mr Nagai-san, as the adept opposite us introduces himself, is a Zen monk of ten year’s practise and almost thirty years old, virtually the same as myself on both accounts. His father was a priest but gave his son the opportunity to choose a career life; like his father, he chose the spirituality and discipline of the monastic life instead.

I ask as to whether he has aspirations, whether in time his duties will change, position or responsibilities raise, the unspoken question whether he might one day achieve a position of responsibility like his father, but he appears slightly offended at implications unintended.

“Mr Nagai-san only does what he is told to do. Mr Nagai-san eats when he is told to eat, and what he is told to eat. Sleeps when he is told to sleep. He does not perform any action with intent or desire for self-reward.”

I laugh and apologise, “I certainly did not mean any offence!”

He tells us of the typical daily practise here in the monastery, an existence of simple chores and spiritual activities. Practise, in the widest sense of the word—for all activities undertaken in the monastery have a purported spiritual purpose, begins at 3am and finishes at midnight , and consists of cleaning, gardening and cooking, meditation in between. We are all amazed at the austerity and intensity of such an existence—I for one barely function on six hours a night.

“Does Mr Nagai-san only sleep for three hours a night?”

“When Mr Nagai-san is ready for this, then yes” is his reply. We are unable to get a more direct answer on this topic, returning again and again to variations of “One who follows the teachings of the Buddha will live in this manner.” It appears that three hours of sleep a night is his ultimate goal, but progress towards and readiness for such a level of discipline is judged by others; it is probably dishonourable for him to pass further comment on his own status in this respect.

We continue talking for a while, telling him of our own meditation practise as members of the Sri Chinmoy Centre, like tradesmen swapping notes, all the while sipping green tea provided and nibbling discreetly on sweetened rice crackers, trying our utmost not to lose a single crumb on the spotless floor.

It is somewhat uncomfortable to be asking questions of him so directly, even though such a practise is standard and in fact required of the form of journalism we are engaged in; for me at least, keenly felt Japanese sensibilities dictate a discussion of polite pleasantries and shared affinities, a circling of the outer edges of but never crossing boundaries unspoken of acceptability. You could say, as we sit asking questions of this monk, that I am indulging a personal affinity with his lifestyle quite unnecessary of words.

Many years ago at age six I was allowed to choose for myself a book on an occasional outing to town. I choose a picture book on Japan, a children’s travel book full of descriptions and photos, a kind of A-Z of the land and it’s culture. I would read this book over and over, staring for hours at the photographs of a people and land strangely dear to my heart, pictures of bath houses, bullet trains and samurai warriors jostling with stories of seppuku and juken jigoku (examination-hell) for centre stage in a lively imagination.

At age seven I began karate lessons, at my own insistence and pacifist Mother’s reluctance, and was soon counting from one to ten over and over in Japanese while performing endless exercises and very occasional martial arts; “praying to the Lord Jesus” as instructed by fearful Mother during the several minutes of silent meditation at the beginning, ostensibly for my own spiritual protection but in truth welcome distraction from the impossibly hard task of wrestling to stillness writhing thoughts. Seeing the same robes I used to wear on these temple bound monks brought all this back to me, and something more, a deeper familiarity that was the originator of my Nihon interest, then and now. Only rice-paper thin proof of reincarnation perhaps, but were I to have more it would be very un-Japanese to share…

Interview over, we depart with smiles and bows. We all have planes home to catch this day, but for me at least it is a farewell without sadness—I have found a second home, as much inside me as beneath red, rising sun.

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Close the Window


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Sun over Pacific Ocean by Jaitra GillespieOut of the corner of my eye someone is waving to me. Out of corner of hearing, headphones on and music playing, someone is speaking to me.

“Excuse me…”

Seat 23A, right next to the window, United Airlines flight 870 from Sydney to San Francisco, several hours in and several thousand kilometres into journey, I’m in a world of my own high above this world, listening to music while the Pacific Ocean shines, sparkles below.

“Excuse me, can you close the window?”

The man in same aisle, opposite row has caught my attention, silenced music’s refrain, redirected reverie’s wander with gesticulating hands and insistent tone.

I am perfectly happy with the window open, pleasantly lost in clouds passing and distant ocean’s flow, but I am a veteran of these cross-Pacific, daytime into nighttime and back again flights, time and significant money spent practising meditation twice-yearly with Sri Chinmoy in New York for more than a decade, and closing the shutter at start of movies or onset of nighttime is as routine as jetlag upon landing. So, on the off-chance I have missed an official announcement, and the by-chance that I am by nature an accommodating person, I draw the blind as requested, close eyes to a peaceful world below to keep the peace up above.

In Japan, “wa” or harmony, is considered important above all. What may be seen as lack of individuality or assertiveness from a Western perspective, in Japan is a long-studied, always conscious effort to keep the orchestra of society playing in tune. To a Japanese perspective, one’s individuality should not impact upon, should not detract from the freedoms and needs of others, and when it does, one breaks not only a social contract, but what is seen as the very law and fabric of the universe. In feudal Japan, sticking your head out so could on a bad day be enough to lose it.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are sorry to interrupt, but could you please close the window next to you as we are about to start the in-flight entertainment service.”

Barbara the stewardess, with timing more perfect than drawling Californian delivery, enforces with public announcement what moments before I delivered unenforced. I don’t need to be instructed how to keep harmony; as though raised Japanese, despite being born over 5000 miles away, it is a private announcement I must always follow.

Blinds closed, lights dimmed, attention dims, movies follow movies but are not followed as I drift in and out of the comfort of a sleep that is never comfortable. Check watch, read a book, stretch legs and shift weight, don’t check watch and read a book again, force my mind into passing time as cabin night—no stars above, few stars on B-grade screens—less than willingly passes into day. What should be a first resort is my last; at last I meditate the time away.

Someone is tapping on my shoulder…

Strangely, in the extreme lack of personal space that is modern coach travel—air, leg room and body heat all one and shared—it is still a shock to be deliberately touched by the person shoulder to shoulder, knee to knee with for over half a day, and my eyes jerk open as though woken straight from a dream.

“Someone wants you to close the window”, owner of arms and legs says.

“What, why?” …first words to mind and then mouth as I scramble to remove headphones, leave stillness of meditation, gain my bearings. The lady sitting next to me shrugs, points to the aisle beyond.

“Can you close the window please?”

The same man as before, four seats across but not nearly far enough away, is gesticulating, motioning with up and down gesture to once more close the blind I had opened, movies now watched and half-forgotten, just a short while before.

Something within me disagrees. Something about the man disagrees. I will not be complying or accommodating him this time.

Two hours into flight, point of departure’s night yet to be flown through and movies yet to start, sure I’ll close the window. Two hours to go, breakfast about to be served and movies closed, no way, not a chance.

“Why?” I retort, not merely a question but forceful, deliberate challenge. ‘I’m happy with it unclosed,’ my unspoken, implied justification, ’and who are you enforce your will on all of row 23?’ Trapped between open window and wide open pride, I will not be backing down.

“I can’t see the film!”

His face is turning red, and his voice, climbing above dull drone of aircraft engines, has reached a pitch approaching a whine.

You can tell a lot from a person the first time you see them—first impressions do not lie as the saying goes; first thought, best thought same adage by another name. This is what I trusted in challenging Mr 23E’s request—I followed my heart, acted upon what felt right at the time.

Woken from quiet reverie two times, face to indignant face a second time, with near blank mind and meditative calm, the part of my being that reacted so strongly was the right part, the trustworthy part: the plain, dependable truth of my heart.

‘His request is selfish and unreasonable,’ my heart spoke, ‘more about him getting his own way,’ its clear explanation. ‘He does this sort of thing all the time, do not give in to him’ the inner instruction, and in a flash, less than a single second, action right and response appropriate were decided, chosen without a moment for pause or consideration.

“I can see it just fine” I reply, calmly, strongly, a statement of truth, fact to take or leave rather than apology or excuse.

Trapped in his seat by more than buckle and belt, he squirms, searches to and fro, looks as if for Barbara the stewardess the come to his aid, but like his manners, she is nowhere to be seen.

Humpf!”, 23E mutters in disgust, muted, half-beneath his breath. He turns away, defeated, harmony not I the victor over his inconsiderate demand.

I have put a bully in his rightful place, and I have put harmony back in her place, visible like the through window open, strolling freely up and down the aisle.

Sri Chinmoy taught that in today’s world it is no longer appropriate to turn the other cheek when wronged, keep the peace at any cost at all. Rather we must illumine ignorance when we cross it, and put wrongs right where we can, not as in an eye for eye and tooth for tooth, but by defending ourselves, staying the hand of one who would give us a slap. In turning not our cheeks, we prevent another from doing wrong, and slowly, action by right action, make the world a better place.

So we have to be very careful when somebody does something wrong to us. It is not that we are threatening them. Far from it. Only we have to feel that by allowing him to do the same thing again, or indulge in the same wrong action, we are taking him away from his own divinity.

At each moment, just as we should always try not to do anything wrong ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, we should also not allow another person to do anything wrong. We know that our encouragement of his mistake is in no way serving as kind of compassion. No. If we encourage him to do the wrong thing again and again, then this is not compassion. This is our self-imposed weakness in the name of compassion.
Sri Chinmoy, Earth’s Cry Meets Heaven’s Smile, Part 3

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Long White Cloud by Alan Spence


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My stories often have their origin in something that actually happened – an incident, a memory, something heard. (In this case it was the leap out of a plane at 12000 feet – one of the scariest things I’ve ever done). It’s then a case of finding a voice, letting characters take shape, coalesce round the incident. Then I see how they deal with it, where it leads, and in the process I figure out what the story’s really about. (Usually it’s mortality, that great resounding bass note that’s always present in our lives).

So writes Alan Spence, award winning poet, playwright and author about his short story Long White Cloud, and what a story it is, a sketch descending at terminal velocity from personal experience, a death-defying, fear-facing leap from a plane evoking cloud covered memories of other lives lived, lake surface below reflections on mortality and what may lie beyond.

Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Aberdeen, Spence clearly knows from cover to cover the topic he teaches. He takes the stuff of personal experience—a trip to New Zealand, a leap from a moving plane—and gives it voice, clothing, personality; characters and narrative germinated from the seeds of emotion and memory, a flower beautiful to behold, story compelling to read the final, blossoming result.

“The kind of thing that had happened to him before. Memories that were not his own. Once in Japan, he’d looked at himself in the mirror, seen someone else entirely looking back at him,  a Japanese man with the intense gaze of a warrior.  Someone else, and yet.”

Reincarnation, memories of past lives, visions of samurai warriors encountered in a 12,000 foot plunge into nothingness and empty space? Not so far-fetched when your next life is getting closer at 200 kph, and not so far-fetched when the airbourne author runs a meditation centre—the Sri Chinmoy Centre in Edinburgh—where presumably he practises daily the cross-legged, back upright and breath relaxed equivalent of descending from the heavens at a rate of knots. “All paths lead to Rome”, as Sri Chinmoy himself once said, “but one may get us there a little quicker or easier.”

In his mid 50s, Spence writes as if he is the same age as the students he teaches every day, as if 50 is the new 30 as his opening lines muse, energetically merging lyrics from a song by Blur and prostrate checks with meditations on mortality and the vapid thrill-seeking of youth, as if the author’s practise of meditation has infused his writing then spilled beyond, branched out from the meditation cushion and taken root in every life and situation met.

His most recent long player, The Pure Land, “a modern epic, at once a rattling good adventure, a heart-wrenching love story and a journey of the spirit”, was translated into 19 languages and his most successful book, but if this recently written short story is any indication, Spence is warming up, building momentum for an even greater work.

Read the short story: Long White Cloud by Alan Spence.

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