Turning About Once Again

I only have one more day in Bodhgaya, after which I fly back to Kolkata for the book fair; and it’s been absolutely delightful to be here. I’ve just been pedalling around, making the most of the local food, meditating when I feel like it, sleeping when the mood takes me, making new friends, sitting and thinking, reading things that come my way, and feeling pleasurably purposeless.

There is, however, one problem: in theory, I am in Bodhgaya do research. Before coming here, I filled in research proposals and even managed to get a modest amount of funding for this trip. These proposals were tied to a couple of book projects that I’m working on at the moment, both of which have some kinds of interesting connections with Buddhist themes, ideas and history. But as the days have passed, I have begun to realise that it doesn’t particularly look or feel as if what I am doing is research. Not only am I spending more time at tea stalls and in temple meditation halls than in libraries, but I also have to confess that I’m not even thinking about these books very hard.
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Thunk, thunk, thunk…

Bicycles are my favourite mode of transport. They are less grouchy than camels, they don’t have minds of their own the way horses do, they are cheaper than cars, and they are speedier than going on foot. So it was a pleasure today to borrow a bike from my guest-house here in Bodhgaya, and to set out to explore the outer reaches of the town.

I started out with some trepidation, as it’s a long time since I’ve cycled anywhere like India. Back in the day, when I was living in Pakistan, I used to regularly cycle across Lahore to my job as a school teacher. After miles of cycling through the choking fumes, jostling horse-carts, rickshaws, motorbikes, buses and cars, I developed style of cycling that combined fearlessness, justified caution, and a degree of panache. Today as I got on my bike on Bodhgaya, I found that old knowledge coming flooding back.
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India!

The last few days have been pretty busy, as I’ve been putting everything in order for my forthcoming trip to India. I’m going to be doing an event at the Kolkata Book Fair, where I’ll be launching the paperback of my novel, The Descent of the Lyre. Kolkata Book Fair is an interesting event, in particular because of the strong emphasis that it puts on the relationship between readers and writers. But I’m also taking advantage of being in India to head up to Santiniketan, where I’ll pay my respects to the memory of Rabindranath Tagore, and to do a bit of research for a couple of forthcoming projects in Bodh Gaya, Rajgir, and around the Buddhist pilgrimage sites.

I was last in India — and Bodh Gaya — in 1998, and so I’m expecting that things will have changed quite a lot. But I’m looking forward to being back, and to getting to grips with India again (and to spending a bit more time than usual writing and meditating).

I’ll be posting updates on this blog whilst I’m away — I generally write more when I’m on the move. In the mean-time, there are bags to pack, things to organise, and classes to be taught…

Unmapped: Flesh and Stones

I’m very pleased to have another article in Unmapped Magazine. This time the subject of the magazine is books, and the piece is a short story about corpses, cherries, perilous roads in the north of Pakistan, and one of my early encounters with Buddhism, by means of an old and mildewed book that I picked up in a second-hand bookshop. You can read the article here, and if you like it, I recommend you subscribe to support Unmapped’s fantastic work.

A Poem by Han Shan

I’ve been entertaining myself over the last few days translating some poems by Han Shan; and just for the hell of it, I thought I’d post one translation here. I don’t write much poetry of my own (although I used to), so I’m enjoying the experience of taking a break from writing prose, and tinkering with translations.

If you want a bit more background to this fabulous poet, to this particular poem, and to the challenges of translation, you can read Tony Barnstone’s excellent article here. But this poem will probably appeal to Buddhish visitors to this blog.

 

Self and No-self

There is a self,
       there is no self;

this is me,
       or then again not me.

This is how
       I turn it over in my mind,

dragging out the hours
       sat by the cliff.

Between my feet
       the green grass sprouts,

above my head
       the red dust falls,

and seeing me there,
       the common folk

surround my bed
       with funeral wine and flowers.

 

The article linked to above has three alternative translations, as well as the original, so you can have fun comparing, and finding objections to my version. That last line is a bit tricky, incidentally…

Two Tales of Horse-Training

Lately, I’ve been thinking about training horses. Admittedly, this has been more of an abstract and philosophical concern than a practical one: generally I don’t have much to do with horses, and horses don’t have much to do with me, even though I sometimes go down to the meadows out of town and admire the beasts from afar. So whilst I haven’t been planning to pack in all the writing and the academic stuff and so on, to take up the mantle of a horse trainer, I have been thinking about is the notion of horse-training as a metaphor for training more broadly.

It was a long time ago now that I first came across the Pāli text, the Bhaddāli sutta, and was charmed—or perhaps taken in—by its account of the virtues of horse training. Bhaddāli, according to the text, is a monk who is unwilling to subject himself to the monastic discipline, on account—the text tells us usefully—of being “like a fool, confused and blundering.” The Buddha then turns to him and asks the confused monk if he remembers a parable that he once told him about horse-training; and because Bhaddāli is a blundering fool (the kind of blundering fool for whom I have a natural sympathy), he has forgotten the parable, so the Buddha repeats it. Here’s an extract, in the translation by [amazon_link id=”086171072X” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Bhikkhu Bodhi[/amazon_link]. Read more

The Rhetoric of Urgency

Back in the days when I was a more assiduous Buddhist meditator than I am today, I frequently came across the old, and well-known, Zen saying that you should meditate as if your hair was on fire. As with many such sayings, it is not really clear where this piece of curious advice comes from (although I’d be happy if any readers of this blog, more knowledgable than I, could let me know); but at the time, the saying rather appealed to me. However, as time has gone on, I have become less sure about it.

More recently, I’ve been thinking a bit about the rhetoric of urgency that appears in Buddhism. So, for example, the traditional Buddhist retreat is often infused throughout with this burning sense of urgency. You get up at some unholy hour (three o’clock for the hard-core, six for the spiritually lax), wash (in cold water for the truly serious) and dress, then you sit for an hour or two on your meditation cushions, before you’ve even had a chance to have breakfast. Read more

Therapeutic Philosophy and the Pharmacopoeia of Humankind

Some time ago, I attended a conference — I won’t say where the conference was — at which a certain speaker was talking about what he called the “fundamental conditions of human existence”. The speaker was a tall, rather distinguished looking Norwegian academic; and as he spoke, he laid out what he believed these conditions to be. “Existential loneliness,” he said. “Consciousness of impending mortality. Exposure to the terror of existence…” At the end of the paper, there was a chance for questions. I raised my hand. But unfortunately, time being limited, and I didn’t get a chance to ask my question; and what with one thing and another, I didn’t get round to asking the speaker in person. The question, however, has stayed with me; and so I’ll raise is here instead. The question is this: are these things — existential loneliness, consciousness of impending mortality, terror, exposure, etc. — the fundamental conditions of human existence, or are they instead the fundamental conditions of Norwegian existence? Read more

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