Thomas Merton, during his Asian pilgrimage, waited for days to see and photograph Mount Kanchenjunga, but it was covered by clouds. His visual sense was acute. In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, he wrote: “Nothing resembles substance less than its shadow [words, drawings…]. To convey the meaning of something substantial you have to use not a shadow but a sign, not the imitation but the image. The image is a new and different reality, and of course it does not convey an impression of some object, but the mind of the subject: and that is something else again.” I discuss his pilgrimage and his photography in an essay under “On the Record,” which is listed in the column on the right. Merton died in Bangkok in December 1968.
Here’s a tender recollection of Jack Kerouac by Gary Snyder. It’s included in The Allen Ginsberg Project website, here, along with a video of the interview. The date and source of the interview was not given:
“I only knew Jack (Kerouac) personally, in an intimate way, for those few months from the Fall of (19)55 to May of 1956 when I set sail for Japan. I never saw him again, and it was like a brief camp-out together when we shared that cabin in Marin County through the Spring of that year, practiced meditation together, talked Buddhists texts, wrote poetry and drank a lot of Tokaj – and then I left. At that time, all that Jack and I were doing together were practicing mountains, practicing wood-cutting, practicing flowers and birds and practicing Buddhist studies.
Interviewer: Does The Dharma Bums…Is that a really accurate story or is a lot of it made up?
GS: Some of it’s a novel, some of it reflects things that happened, but even the reflection is novel too, like (William) Burroughs would say.
Interviewer: Did you know he was going to write a book about you?
GS: Yeah, he told me, towards the end. He said, “I’m going to write a book about you, Gary, you’re going to be really famous!” – “Really?”
Interviewer: Do you think he had a sense of himself as being a major novelist. I mean as like a..
GS: Yes. I do, at that time even.
Interviewer: In what sense..?
GS: The clear sense of his skill, his power, his vocation, and his energy, and that there was something that he was going to be saying
Interviewer: In a way, there’s a funny kind of worship, you know, of what you represented.
GS: Well, he does that in the novel. He plays that in some of the other novels too, where he makes his first person singular into kind of a naive character that elicits information from people by pretending not to know (and he didn’t do that much with me in person, although, it’s true, he was real naive about some things.
Interviewer: What was.. what was..
GS: He didn’t really know what was involved in going back-packing and hiking and climbing. It was all new to him, but he was a quick learner. And he didn’t know much about nature, or that you could know about nature really, in its specific way. And so, spending some time on the Spring bird migrations and the many species that were coming through Marin County that year – five hundred a year come through Marin County on a Pacific fly-way – so we were checking off species as they came through that little shack and Jack really appreciated all that information.
…Like we were cutting some eucalyptus and splitting eucalyptus for fire-wood the stove and he was like a kid – learning how to start a chain-saw, how to handle a maul – same way as when we went back-packing. Oh, I was going to say, we did another trip too (besides to the High Sierra). We did a.. two-night maybe? camping trip, hiking right from Homestead Valley over Mount Tam. and camping out on the drainages on the north side of Mount Tamalpais..local places..and swinging around and coming back…
Interviewer: Was Kerouac really as frightened… there’s a thing where he..
GS: (shaking his head): Mm-mm
Interviewer: Oh, interesting.
GS: Well, that’s part of his story-telling.
Interviewer: Because he says, “I was a coward” – He says “I was the Buddha known as the coward. At least I have joy”, or something like that [editorial note – Kerouac’s actual line –“I realized I have no guts anyway, which I’ve long known. But I have joy.”]
GS: He likes to play with that. He’s an athlete.
Interviewer: Did you think of him as an intellectual?
GS: No. But well-read, to make the distinction. A very well-read person and a very sharp person with a critical acuity when he wished to employ it, but not like a practicing intellectual, which is a style, (that) is all it is…
GS: The Buddhist metaphor?
GS: Suffering, impermanence, the First Noble Truth – everything is impermanent and we must find our joy and our freedom in suffering – finally. He swung around through that, to the Buddhist understanding of that – and it’s all through his writing – and then settled back into, maybe, the more familiar comfort of Catholic metaphors…
Now you asked me “Did he seem very American?” and I said “Yes”, and you said “Why?”, and I was ruminating on how to answer that. He was in his physical health and strength, in his unconscious grace, in his child-like-ness, (which was real a lot of the time), in his openness to experiencing new things and learning new things, his paradoxical joy in a kind of freshness in the world (paradoxical, because at the same time he was aware of suffering and impermanence), and maybe all of that is sort of American – And a total absence in Jack of anything elite, or yuppie, or academic, or intellectual, or any of that posturing at all that we associate with learned people, middle-class white people. He was more like your aunt, you know, sitting at a table in the kitchen, or your grandma, sitting at a table in the kitchen, speaking in common-sense truths about orderliness and kindness, basic instructions, and so, very much like my old aunt from Texas, and easy to be with.
“The world of dew
is the world of dew.
And yet, and yet –”
– Kobayashi Issa, 1763-1827
Mosquito at my ear –
does it think
This is an excerpt from an unpublished travel book. copyright@roy hamric
“The guy has a chicken neck, soft rolls of fat under his chin, wispy white hair. He’s like a little boy in front of the most beautiful girl in the village. His eyes never leave me. He says go out, go to room. I think: Go out with this old animal or not?
“I tell myself again – Pai, if pay enough, never say no. I decide to test his money. A little bar-fly girl in a black and white school uniform flits by in her white sneakers, bouncing up and down like this to Proud Mary on the jukebox.
“I see that little girl likes you, I say, using my best smile. I help you. You want her? Only $60 dollar.
“He said the name of Jesus, the God. ‘No, honey. I like you. Don’t you want to go with me?’
“I want to go, I said, but I have to ask for a lot of money. I have to pay rent. I have two children.”
“My head was a broken plate from tequila the night before. After work all the dancers went to Mr. Spicy’s. The men went crazy buying us drinks. We had a lot of fun. Now I feel like dry shit.
“He says again, ‘Don’t you like me, darlin’? I need another tequila.’
“‘Me, too, I said. I start to feel better because that was my 74th drink this month. I make 65 drinks before the first twelve days of the month. Now the mamasan knows I work hard to make money. $1 a drink for me, and $3 for the bar.
“Then the old animal says he needs more tequilla to make his carrot grow. When I don’t understand what they say, I smile and laugh. ‘Me too,’ I said. One more dollar. He smiles and nods his head. Then Little Sue dropped her bikini top and waved it around the stage. Big cheers. Everybody clapped. I can’t do that. Embarrassed too much. Momasan walks around the dance floor, laughing: ‘Tomorrow, everything is 50 percent off,’ she says. ‘Not me,’ said Blue.
“Tomorrow night Blue and I go to the temple for Makha Bucha, about the Buddha talking to people. I will pray to take care of my mother and live to be old with my children.
“The old animal said, ‘Ok, put up or shut up.’ I know what shut up means so I stopped talking. Maybe he will buy me another drink.
“I told him, ‘You give me $100, Ok? We go now.’ That’s how I got the $30 to send to my mother this month. My mom’s in Burma in jail. Two more years. I need her with me. I’m a baby too, really. I need her close. I want to cry all the time.”
And the next night the temples filled with people. The moon was big and red like tens of millions of nights before on the full moon of the third lunar month. Pai and her two children prayed for her mother in Burma, and she prayed to have a good heart and be a good mother.
When sitting in meditation, say, “That’s not my business” with every thought that appears. – From No Ajahn Chah
My friend Lary Wallace tackles why stoicism is largely misunderstood and not viewed as an early, elegant philosophy, a view I’ve come to share and ponder. The whereof probably stems from the early coupling of stoicism with Sparta and the fearsome emergence of the single-minded, nearly unconquerable Greeks of that era, who encouraged endurance in the face of physical hardship. Endurance translates to a honing of the will, or a view of the mind, of what Wallace calls “indifference.” That’s a really tricky term with shades akin to the Buddhist idea of “letting go,” a way to encourage non-attachment – again a tricky term.
When we’re in this area of Truths, deep understanding, words blur and it brings us to a place where truths slide around and through each other, a philosophical fusion. Anyway, Lary is, as usual, on target in his essay, which can be found here in Aeon, a new online cultural journal that’s one of the best serious websites going now. Look at it…
Thomas McGuane has never received anything less than the highest praise as a novelist, short story writer and essayist. I’ve read him since his first novel, picked up at a remainder bin. For me, his essays shine brightest. With an essay, you can’t leave the writer’s side. In a novel or story, you trail along with the characters with an ear cocked for the pyrotechnics of the writer’s voice. The essays spotlight McGuane’s unique voice, his sensibility, in a way fiction cannot allow. A Sporting Chance, his first collection, and his other nonfiction books The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing and Some Horses are examples of the most personal art. My hand reaches out for them often.
An essay in Some Horses, titled On The Road Again, takes on one of the most anti-intuitive subjects imaginable for a first-class writer who has been called an heir to Hemingway. The topic? A long drive with his wife in a pickup truck, pulling a just-bought 38-foot horse trailer with special built-in, mini-living quarters, around a great circle of the West. In this quintessential American home-on-wheels, christened a “Horseabago,” he writes, “We simply pictured ourselves at one end, and Delta, Sassy, Zip and Lena, in the other, and wheels underneath.” After a few pages, you’re assured of his mastery to take on this tale, and carry it to sublime heights. His sensibility, or whatever it is that frees words to rise above themselves into something approximating quotidian reality, is on full display.
A Girl In Winter is British poet Philip Larkin’s second novel. The book is the story of a 16-year-old European girl, her country is never named, who is prematurely mature and intellectual. She accepts an invitation to visit a young English boy and his family. She falls in love with the boy, but they lose touch. Six years later, she returns to Britain as a war refugee.
It’s a remarkable psychological portrait, in the vein of Larkin’s poetry, which is nihilistic, in almost stoic celebration of the ordinary, unexceptional, ultimately disappointing bits that give life its bitter taste.
What’s most interesting to me is Larkin’s very deep minutia describing the meeting of Katherine and Robin, in which he uses the sort of details that belie someone – meaning Larkin – who runs away from life, from the desire to understand others’ in hope to better understand themselves. Larkin’s austere poetry, even in its most gorgeous sensibility, keeps life at bay, at a safe distance that cannot disappoint, while this novel shows Katherine as a person who is probing and open to understanding, or trying to understand, the complexities of other souls. That she and Robin are ultimately unable to capture any of the romantic shavings that surround all lives, even if ungrasped, is all the more tragic. Larkin’s poems couldn’t display such depth of tragedy because he wrapped them in a polished shell of art, singular gems that, no matter their content, bespoke excellence even in the face of tragedy. The novel shows whereof the poems arose.
Bangkok Days by Lawrence Osborne is the best novel about Bangkok ever written. But, for clarification, it’s written and marketed as a nonfiction account of the author’s life in the city. The book reeks of novelization with the first-person author surrounded by a cast of fiction-like foils (and at least one real person) who capture the spirit and ambiance of the most sensuous, textured, layered city in the world.
Osborn, the author of the recent Ballad of a Small Player, which is set in the casinos of Macau, excels at romantic, slightly desperate characters and settings full of people who recognize each other for their individual élan in the face of life’s fragility. They are people who are unwilling to give up the fight for life and feeling. That such people in unusual numbers are drawn to Bangkok is no accident. Osborn’s tale of living in Bangkok displays a colorful subset of people of the city who refuse to forsake the quixotic in return for sleek, cosmetic urban wallpaper. The book serves equally well as a novel or one man’s guide to Bangkok, suggesting how to absorb and live within its refreshing disparities.
The Buddhist Conquest of China: The Spread and Early Adaptation of Buddhism in Early Medieval China by E. Zurcher.
This work of high scholarship looks at the social and cultural factors that led to the eventual adoption of Buddhist principles and practice in Chinese culture. It brilliantly captures the chaotic nature of how Buddhist principles were scattered piecemeal over two centuries by Buddhist monks and lay parties that included foreigners, the Chinese gentry, the court, and the intelligentsia. The beauty is the thousands of details it shares about monks and others from late 300AD through the fourth century. It was a perilous time of ferment, and it would be 200 years, in the Tang Dynasty, before Buddhism took on a more recognisable, coherent form eventually leading to the distinct Chinese Buddhist doctrine that we know today. It underscores the cultural fragmentation and difficulties a foreign doctrine of religion has in finding a place in a totally separate and distinct culture, with a different language and already established theories of religion, cosmology and metaphysics. Not surprisingly, the difficulty of transplanting a “foreign” religion, even one with obvious parallels in Chinese religious writings, is manifest throughout this work. It helps put in context the subsequent official elimination of Buddhist temples and practice in revolutionary China, when viewed from the rocky path that Buddhism walked in medieval times.
For a PDF copy of Zurcher’s book, go here.
March 23, 1989
Poet Bob Trammel, his girlfriend, Allison, and I are in a house that extends over a riverbank on a swiftly flowing river. Through a window, I see a larger-than-life water buffalo swimming against the current toward the house. My first thought is that the buffalo is so big it will crash into the house and sweep it into the river. I watch in amazement as the water buffalo clambers up the almost vertical riverbank, defying gravity. Before I can tell Trammel what’s happening, the buffalo is walking on the roof of the house. Each step is loud, and I think it’s trying to crush the house. I ask Bob if he knows what’s happening. He seems unconcerned, and I think: He doesn’t hear me or the buffalo – I may be dreaming.
I look out the window again, and more water buffalo are swimming toward the house. I must confront the largest buffalo. She exudes great power, but I feel I can tame her. I jump into the river, swim over, and scramble onto her back. Then she turns and begins swimming to the other side of the river. On the riverbank, she turns into a normal, calm water buffalo, and I slide off onto the ground.