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Walt Whitman: Make no puns

Make no puns funny remarks Double entendres "witty" remarks ironies Sarcasms Only that which is simply earnest meant, —harmless to anyone's feelings —unadorned unvarnished nothing to excite a laugh silence silence silence silence laconic taciturn. –Walt Whitman instructs himself in an 1855-56 notebook…
Donald Richie, The Japan Journals: 1947–2004

Donald Richie’s The Japan Journals: 1947–2004

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

This 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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Long White Cloud by Alan Spence

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.

Inspiring letters and no few words

Strangely and very much disconcertingly absent from pen and desk, writing paper blank now curling at the edges these past few months, I've finished and submitted a story nay epic 4000 word behemoth to the soon to be published Episode 17 of Inspiration-Letters at the Sri Chinmoy Centre. Here is a sneak peak, teaser and few opening words from a wagon-load of writing which I near shed tears and lost sleep over—it's no joke trying to write after several months not, not to mention write with significant quantity and hoped for quality...
Across the Ocean to Swim or Sink Sri Advaita AcaryaHe was a bear of a man, with a bear-like, straggly grey beard, the last vestige and visage of the Rabbinical life-path his Hebrew parents had probably intended, in a preacher-like occupation—Religious Studies professor and faculty head—secular Rabbi to the hundreds of truth-seeking youth who passed through his lecture theatres and tutorial rooms each year. Post lecture, sermon from the mount of Intellectualism, dozens would congregate around him for curriculum advice or, just as likely, words of learned wisdom. For a while, those many years ago while I was under his tutelage, I felt it my mission in life to tread the knowledge-paved road of academia, climb the spiral staircase of learning’s ivory tower, one heaped stack of books at a time. Thus I found myself in his office one afternoon discussing a post-graduate pathway, when a throw-away comment made more of an impression than all the academic advice combined. Like a missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle only I was building, something about this comment fit into place, rang true within the broader tapestry of my life’s finely woven experiences. “I left home and went to India when I was a teenager, convinced that the world was an illusion. I soon found out that it was very real...” I was far more interested in this apparently banished, near-forgotten youthful self than the mature one behind the desk before me—the version of my Religious Studies professor that could be ambitious, audacious enough to believe that everything around him, everything he knew might be wrong, than the version convinced that everything he knew was right. You see, I too used to think the world was an illusion, and I too found out that it is real, or at least not to be lightly, easily denied.

Inspiration-Letters: Destiny Edition

sri-chinmoy-authorThrift stores, cheap chocolates and masterpieces by Van Gogh and Cezanne—so begins the 16th edition of Inspiration-Letters, magazine style forum for inspired writers of the Sri Chinmoy Centre. A fitting beginning it is too, for all the authors are koan-carrying members of a meditation group espousing a philosophy of merging the heights of spirituality with the here and everyday, and what could be more lofty and lowly than the two masters of post-impressionism rubbing shoulders in a one dollar shop? All the world may well be a stage, and we the players therein, but some of the sets are truth be told, less than top-drawer. The Inspiration-Letters editor, in possession of red pen and hugely discounted bargains, proceeds to the check-out, continues his introduction:
“As the cashier was checking me out, I happened to glance at her name tag: ‘Karamvir’ it said. I knew ‘vir’ means hero in many Indian languages. I asked her what ‘karam’ meant. She told me that ‘karam’ means fate. So ‘Karamvir’ means ‘she who is the master of her destiny, the one who is victorious over her fate!’ Apparently she had never thought about the meaning of her name before, so she just nodded, smiled shyly and handed me my merchandise.”
checkout-operatorI am reminded of a supermarket closer to home, where checkout operators are likely as not to be Indian, lowly in station but sweeter in nature than the most expensive chocolates, and names hand-picked from the loftiest spiritual literature. While shopping for bread and milk I have been charmed and served by the entire pantheon of Indian goddesses—Saraswati, Lakshmi and Durga included. The topic for this latest issue of Inspiration-Letters is “Destiny”, and it was the destiny of seven writers and myself to contribute, stories all of the moving and workings of nature’s most mysterious force—fate, and its invisible hold on our lives.

Home Is Where The Heart Is

Inspiration-Letters opens with top-drawer writer Sumangali Morhall’s Home Is Where The Heart Is, a tale of time spent in Thailand and the titular lesson learned: home is where the heart is, no matter where mind or body may roam. Sumangali is a master of poetry and lyricism—her gentle evocation of landscapes inner and outer sing a tale of destiny as sweetly as a nightingale’s call, and moved one reader to comment “no one describes nature better than her. Her description of monsoon rains will rise like steam in your memory every time you get caught in heavy rain ever again.”
“I arrived at the start of monsoon. From a veranda I would watch the sky as it jealously gathered navy blue cloud with long grey fingers, until its arms could hold no more, and the whole hoard was spilt on the earth at once. The traffic thickened and curdled, borders between road and path were eaten away by hungry torrents, where sandalled feet sloshed towards any cover they could find. It was at those times I liked to go for a walk.”

It Is Written

Alaskan Palyati Fouse weaves in It Is Written the working of destiny with film of the moment Slumdog Millionaire, and recounts a recent discussion with someone described only as a genius:
“I had a lengthy discussion with a genius recently about destiny. I asked many questions because, at first, I did not agree with what he had to say.”
I for one am highly curious to discover the name of the genius, for it is not written. Perhaps he is unnamed deliberately by the author, lest lost sheep like myself beat a grassy path to his isolated mountain top. Telling of living alone like a beacon in the dark, just her and destiny on the uppermost edge of the American continent, Palyati talks and inspires with her account of swimming against the spiritual tide, and deserves more than just the respect of some distant shaper of destiny in doing so.

There Was A Child Went Forth

A reader of my own story, There Was A Child Went Forth—title lifted directly from Whitman—commented that he found me to be a good writer, but my stories somewhat depressing. While not ego-shattering, his feedback was certainly unexpected, and from far enough left field to make me pause and reflect. Am I a depressing person; is there less joy in my writing than there should be; in my life as well?
“The journey from child to man is said to be a passage, but for me childhood and adulthood were separated not by distance but a straight line, worlds cleaved apart as if by sharpest knife.”
There is a simple answer to both question and self-doubt—the true story of my life is a tale far more intense than any written. The experiences I went through before joining the spiritual life were more harrowing than any yet related, and while as prone to exaggeration as any writer, in the case of my own backstory, I am not writing larger than reality. With admirable honesty, Palyati Fouse in It Is Written follows the very same thread:
“Recalling life experiences and my reactions to them before joining this path makes my stomach knot up. There is nothing for me there in the deepest sense. It is the continual inner urge to progress spiritually that keeps me alive.”
Destiny may at times be a blunt instrument, but none can deny the necessity of its scalpel-like role, its work and operation, through trial and tribulation, needed for our ultimate good. Yes this is an intimidating truth, but it is one anything but depressing, for it speaks of perfection, promises a happiness never-ending.

Magical Mystery Tour

In Magical Mystery Tour, professional writer and published author Noivedya Juddery tells of his new preoccupation as film screenwriter, and how the casting of a young aspiring actress really is an act of destiny. At times a treatise on the millennia old debate on determinism, Noivedya writes and winds to the conclusion that life is the greatest mystery tour of them all.
“Occasionally, airlines and tour organisers speak of mystery tours, for which adventurous travellers pay for a tour to a place unknown. It might not be where you wanted or expected to go, but you will hopefully enjoy the destination. Life, of course, is the greatest mystery tour of them all – and however much you might influence your pilot, you never know where he will take you.”

How I Came To The Spiritual Life

In How I Came To The Spiritual Life, Abhinabha Tangerman relates with a Zen-like directness how he came to the spiritual life. To approximate an old Zen saying, if you see the Buddha on the road, you see the Buddha on the road, and in getting lost on a dark Dutch road Abhinabha found his own path to enlightenment—a lecture that would change his life forever.
“The speaker was a Belgian man of about forty years, exuding a marked inner poise. As soon as he started speaking my disappointment vanished. He talked about a spiritual life, a life of peace, love and happiness and the ways to bring these qualities to the fore through meditation. The man was very nice, humble and likeable. And his words were like music to my ears.”
Courageously, Abhinabha shares two dreams of Sri Chinmoy which convinced him to become a full time student of meditation, and concludes that he guesses it was destiny. For me there is no guesswork in this convincing, inspiring story.

Some Thoughts On The Way Forward

In Some Thoughts On The Way Forward, Jogyata Dallas waves the banner and writes a ringing call to arms on karma yoga—the yoga of action and work, and his forceful words are like an Emersonian edict for a new spiritual age. Jogyata is at his best writing of nature inner and outer, poetically intertwining the idyllic landscape of Bali with the sometimes smooth, sometimes rocky contours of the human soul:
“Horizoned and other-worldly, magnified by haze, the grey pencil sketch of Mt. Agung soars up to improbable altitudes, its ragged bulk cloud-garlanded, mysterious and remote from the far-below, scrambling destinies of man. Beyond the shoreline grey skeins of wrinkled seas crest and break—long ocean rollers at their journey’s end. Away from our usual melodramas, Bali’s peace and languor and the heavy gravity of the afternoon conspire, press you down supine.”

Overcoming Destiny

Mahiruha Klein writes in Overcoming Destiny of his first personal message from Sri Chinmoy, and of the message received the very eve of his Guru’s passing: “Hope is sweeter than the sweetest. Sweeter than ambrosia.” Chasing hope like a bee to nectar, Mahiruha is all parts sincere and heart-felt, and his words possess the silent width and weight of the best, other-world inspired writing.
“That was the last time I ever saw Sri Chinmoy. He passed away the following morning, quite early. But his last words to us, that hope is sweeter than ambrosia, touched me deeply. My Master told me in that phrase to keep a positive attitude, to stay happy and well, and to remain hopeful. Sri Chinmoy’s first message to me was to forswear anxiety about what people think of me or how I am judged in the eyes of society. His last message to me was to keep hope alive forever.”
In my case, it is tempting to dwell upon the fact that I had few personal messages from Sri Chinmoy, but like doubt itself this is the path and fiat of a false, never profitable coin. I was one of Sri Chinmoy’s students who had very little outer contact with him—I can count literally on fingertips the times he spoke to me—but to flail now for what will never be would be to miss totally an inner contact that has always been. I can write books of all the messages that have come in quiet moments and dreams, and it this inner communication that is the true currency of spirituality, a wealth of heart and soul that can never be spent, now or when the flickering flame of human life finally burns out. Again where doubt is concerned, memory is without doubt the quickest, easiest to reach for antidote, and I need look no further than my own submission to Inspiration-Letters to be reunited with Destiny’s eternal, inner communion:
“I remember a vivid dream not long after I returned to New Zealand, of a most beautiful young woman who took me to house where many people were meeting, and above the head of each a small, shining speck of light. The woman, whom I instantly felt a deep, wordless love for, explained this point of light as the soul. Her name may well have been Destiny, for that was what I found upon joining Sri Chinmoy’s path.”
There is a sense now that we students of Sri Chinmoy are swimming in lonely seas, all coming to terms with a sudden, unexpected change of course. But how much and what has changed, and what exactly has been lost? In vanishing from sight it can be said that the boatman has merely charged garments, shed his human appearance to become the ocean and sea itself. In staying the course and continuing to sail, even though upon seas uncharted, are we not in the heart of where we have always been? In the Master’s boat. On board an immortal journey of the soul.