Sunday, August 17, 2014

In Media Vita

I've just returned to Oxford after two blissful weeks in Devon with my friend and her two collies and new cat. Didn't do much but eat, sleep, walk dogs, play with cat and read novels—comfort reading. One day we went to Dartmoor: it was a brilliantly clear Northwest Day with a gusty wind blowing—we are still feeling the effects of Bertha's remnants in the form of a low pressure centre that refuses to leave our Northeast coast. One of the collies has very long hair, and as we walked up to one of the moor's weird rock formations, Kestor (each has a name), the wind blew his coat into fans so that he looked like a collie in a painting or a calendar photograph. It was late in the day and the light was nearly horizontal. Breathtaking.

The Northwest winds continue and the temperatures have really dropped: the weathermen and women forecast snow on the tops of the Scottish mountains: Snow! In August! Gives me fair warning, for I have signed up to undertake a ten-week Tibetan Buddhist retreat on a remote Scottish island starting in January. At my age—I must be crazy! But finishing volume one of Silence: A User's Guide (pub date in the USA is October 1 and in Europe October 29) has left me drained and exhausted, and I feel the need for something completely different before I embark on volume two. The version of Christianity we have today (which has little relation to the first five hundred years of its history) seems to have little to inspire me in the wake of finishing the first volume of the book. A friend who is a professor of theology here has urged me to keep a journal of the retreat, and to note how it changes my perspectives on Christianity. It took some doing to persuade the Tibetans to accept me; now I hope I don't wash out!

As I consider the various religions to be a multiverse with the heart as a nexus, there is no conflict: each tradition should be practiced in its own integrity. Anyway, in my view there is no conflict between Buddhism and Christianity: the former is a philosophy in search of a religion, and the latter a religion in search of a philosophy, as a late mentor used to note. And as I read in preparation for this retreat, I am finding the same mistakes in Buddhist texts and translations coming out of the West as I have found in Christianity: a lack of understanding how the mind works, and a concomitant misuse of the word 'experience'. 'Emptiness', for example, is not nihilism, but a non-objectifying 'beholding'. This is not perennial philosophy, but rather a perennial psychology. Similarly, there is not 'nothing' but rather a 'luminous ground', perhaps similar to what I am calling deep mind. I am eager but also a little apprehensive, which is probably a good thing.

During my two weeks' absence the garden changed dramatically. Kind friends and timely rain took care of it while I was away. Before I left it didn't seem to be doing much, but on my return I found pumpkins turning orange, tomato plants groaning with ripening fruit, enormous cucumbers and courgettes, and quantities of beans—a cornucopia. Everything is crawling over everything else, with little explosions of colour in the form of nasturtium blossoms and dahlias. My landlady is a bit askance that I grow more than we can possibly eat, but to me the garden speaks of the abundance of the love of God. And its fruits make wonderful gifts to kind friends.

With so much going on in the world that is painful, the garden gives hope; otherwise the pain would be unbearable. 

Friday, August 01, 2014

Heavy with Summer

The past few weeks have been heavy with summer. There has been no rain in the middle and south of England except for a few isolated thunderstorms; the rain proper has skirmished along both coasts but inland we are very dry. The air is heavy with humidity, but that hasn't been enough to ease the stress of the plants in people's gardens or the orchards of Devon, laden with fruit, where I arrived yesterday.

The train was packed with holiday makers headed mostly for Cornwall. All along the track the fields on either side had been hayed, and the enormous rolls were scattered about the fields like glacial erratics. The air was saturated with the fragrance of it, and with the scent of the wheat harvest.

In one field which you can see from my friend's upper pasture, the wheat was grown for thatch. Wheat thatch is typical for Devon, and it's a special kind of wheat that has to be harvested in a special kind of way. Part of the field was gathered into old-fashioned stooks; the rest of the straw lay in braided rows like the twist used to make a corn dolly.

All these events, along with a real chill on the wind and cooler nights, and now clouds threatening a prolonged wet spell have farmers looking over their shoulders as they scramble to get the rest of the harvest in. The spring and summer seasons pass so quickly this far north; sometimes we have a lingering golden September, but by October we are already thinking of wood fires and warm tights under fleece-lined trousers, as the rain pounds against the windows.

The willow-herb—what in America is called fireweed—is in full bloom; in Alaska we used to say that when the fireweed blooms hit the top of the stalk, winter was only six weeks away.

We're not quite as far north as Juneau, and we have the Gulf Stream, which Juneau doesn't, so we may have a few weeks' more grace. But all the signs—and a raven calling outside as I write—are warning us to make ready for what is to come.


The publication dates for my new book, Silence: A User's Guide have now been set: in the UK the book will be released by DLT on October 29. In the USA the book will be released by Cascade (Wipf and Stock) on October 1.