A Poem and a Lost Scottish Classic

As we approach the end of this unprecedented year it seems appropriate to post this short poem.

2020

That was the year when

everything shut down

and all we could hear

were the birds.

That was the year when

we hid from each other

and couldn’t say goodbye

to the dying.

That was the year when

the masked looked

askance at the unmasked.

That was the year when

we found out what

was essential and what

was inessential.

That was the year when

I found out there was more

to life than life.

That was the year when

I found out there is more

to death than death.

That was the year when

I unstitched a few

malevolent masks.

That was the year when

I found out there was a

a human need to reach

out and touch others.

* * *

Addendum

I am reading a novel at the moment which is pertinent to our present pandemic. It is titled The Silver Darlings, by a Scottish author, Neil M Gunn. It was first published in 1941, perhaps that date is significant in itself. The ‘silver darlings’ of the title are in fact herrings as the novel traces the Highland fishermen and their families in various situations. (They are silver not only because of their colour but because they provide sustenance and profit for the population.) Each chapter (26 in total) has a title and chapter 10 is The Coming of the Plague. The plague turns out to by dysentery but the effects on the population are the same; the need to isolate those infected and many deaths. With our present pandemic I’ve heard people reference Albert Camus; The Plague and other novels or plays but I’d be surprised if many people have heard of this Scottish novel. The historical setting is around the highland clearances when many were moved off the land and hence found employment in the fishing industries. There is an underlying political dimension to the novel. (Neil Gunn was a Scottish Nationalist.)

As some of you may know my father was a Scot and I may even have heard him mention Neil Gunn. It is a pity I will never know if he read this book. There are salmon fishermen in our ancestry so that is another reason for connecting with the characters.

So, what is it about the novel which makes it other than just a ripping old adventure story? In a word, its humanity. The characters are all believable and three-dimensional. But above that, I have been moved by the honest down to earth evocations of situations involving suffering and joy, for example when he describes compassion in action and the love between the characters. There are many poetic descriptions of the countryside and sea. Many commentators today talk of the loss of community: in this novel there is a strong sense of community. It is easy to feel nostalgia for the past and over-romanticise it, but Neil Gunn writes without sentimentality of a way of life which has vanished from the so called developed world.

The plague chapters are very moving and are impossible to read without comparison to our present situation. Again, he doesn’t exaggerate the suffering and writes with much empathy. (I do wonder how the war affected him and how involved he was. Some research for a rainy day! I had a quick look online and there is no mention of the war although he was living in Scotland in the 40s.)

I am only half way through the novel so I have not made my mind up as to how satisfying it is in the end as a work of art. From what I have read so far, I would recommend it as a novel which provides insights into a way of life of the past and how natural forces (disease and the elements) affect us all.

January 2021

I have now finished reading the novel and can say it is one of the most life-enhancing novels I’ve read. The relationship between Catrine and her son is very well developed. The overall tone of vitality and optimism is refreshing; there is none of the angst associated with mid twentieth century literature. Some may conclude that this is because it is a naturalistic ‘escapist’ narrative, but I found depths of insight here which would contradict this assessment.

Shushogi & Blake

buddha-image

I am, as previously mentioned, writing a book about Blake and Buddhism, attempting to find correspondences between the two. The writings and teaching of Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) are studied by Soto Zen schools of Buddhism. His teaching is very forthright and sometimes challenging and puzzling because he writes in a metaphorical, non-literalist style and it comes from his deepest spiritual realisation.

Like Blake his writings are always fresh as if written yesterday; in other words the truths he writes about are timeless. I have, and continue to find, them helpful in my spiritual practice. Zazen (meditation) is the central practice of Soto Zen and is said to contain everything else. (Preceptual daily living, ceremony, study of teachings etc. etc.) The other feature in this tradition is the emphasis on training and enlightenment not being separate.

The following is a translation of part of Shushogi by Rev. Master Jiyu Kennett.

* * * *

The comparison I see with Blake is from his Proverbs of Hell. One line only!

The most sublime act is to set another before you.

Okay – as I’m in a generous mood, here is a quatrain:

But vain the sword & vain the bow,

They never can work war’s overthrow.

The Hermit’s prayer & the widow’s tear

Alone can free the world from fear.

* * * *

Shushogi – From What is Truly Meant by Training and Enlightenment

Great Master Dogen.

The Four Wisdoms, charity, tenderness, benevolence and sympathy, are the means we have of helping others and represent the Bodhisattva’s aspirations. Charity is the opposite of covetousness; we make offerings although we ourselves get nothing whatsoever. There is no need to be concerned about how small the gift may be so long as it brings True results for, even if it is only a single phrase or verse of teaching, it may be a seed to bring forth good fruit both now and hereafter.

Similarly, the offering of only one coin or a blade of grass can cause the arising of good, for the teaching itself is the True Treasure and the True Treasure is the very teaching: we must never desire any reward and we must always share everything we have with others. It is an act of charity to build a ferry or a bridge and all forms of industry are charity if they benefit others.

To behold all beings with the eye of compassion, and to speak kindly to them, is the meaning of tenderness. If one would understand tenderness, one must speak to others whilst thinking that one loves all living things as if they were one’s own children. By praising those who exhibit virtue, and feeling sorry for those who do not, our enemies become our friends and they who are our friends have their friendship strengthened: this is all through the power of tenderness. Whenever one speaks kindly to another his face brightens and his heart is warmed; if a kind word be spoken in his absence the impression will be a deep one: tenderness can have a revolutionary impact upon the mind of man.

If one creates wise ways of helping beings, whether they be in high places or lowly stations, one exhibits benevolence: no reward was sought by those who rescued the helpless tortoise and the sick sparrow, these acts being utterly benevolent. The stupid believe that they will lose something if they give help to others, but this is completely untrue for benevolence helps everyone, including oneself, being a law of the universe.

If one can identify oneself with that which is not oneself, one can understand the true meaning of sympathy: take, for example, the fact that the Buddha appeared in the human world in the form of a human being; sympathy does not distinguish between oneself and others. There are times when the self is infinite and times when this is true of others: sympathy is as the sea in that it never refuses water from whatsoever source it may come; all waters may gather and form only one sea.

Oh you seekers of enlightenment, meditate deeply upon these teachings and do not make light of them: give respect and reverence to their merit which brings blessing to all living things; help all beings to cross over to the other shore.

The Death Of Ivan Ilyich

Ivan Ilyich

It is difficult to do justice to this masterpiece. It is a book of profound spiritual teaching about mortality and values. Poor Ivan has an existential crisis which would do justice to Jean Paul Sartre! He asks of his life, “What is it all about? It can’t be that life is so senseless and loathsome.” His crisis is triggered by illness, which – along with loss or other traumatic experiences – is an all too common factor in forcing us to question our lives. As we get older and, if we have the courage, we start to review our lives honestly without flinching from the ‘mistakes’ we have inevitably made. It takes a long time for Ivan to face himself in this story but eventually he says: “What if in reality my whole life has been wrong?” Once he asks this question he struggles to suppress it but it gradually becomes more insistent in his thoughts until he has to accept it. He wonders if all his career moves, ambition and marriage have been a sham and perhaps qualities such as compassion and kindness ‘might have been the real thing.’ He reviews his early life and recognises that childhood had something which he lost as he grew older – innocence and honesty perhaps!? His peasant servant, Gerassim, epitomises simple, honest kindness. There are many moving passages where he simply helps poor Ivan in his distress. The ending is far from depressing too; I won’t spoil it if you haven’t read it but just to say it is a perfect resolution to all that has gone before.
I can’t imagine many young readers understanding the deeper aspects of this story as when you are in your twenties your energies go into strengthening your ego and pursuing material and emotional security at the expense of more universal, lasting contentment. It was living his life in the light of everyone else’s opinion which created the sham of Ivan’s life.
This is a novella that bears repeated readings. If you haven’t read this masterpiece you simply MUST! Surely it counts as one of world literature’s timeless jewels.

Ten Secrets Kept from Children

buddhist-symbols-8

 

Secrets kept from children
1. that hidden inside us is a collection of bones
2. that hidden inside us is a collection of organs
3. that hidden inside us is a heaven and a hell
4. that hidden inside us is our own date with death
5. that hidden inside us is our own inner space
6. that hidden inside us is our capacity for compassion
7. that hidden inside us is our capacity to harm
8. that hidden inside us is our ideal of perfection
9. that hidden inside us is the universe
10. that hidden inside us is a capacity for wonder.