Demigods, Swastikas, and Bookstores

“I’m all right now, but you should have seen me last week,” began many a monologue by comedian Rodney Dangerfield. A week after chemotherapy, I am starting to feel human again. The point to having these treatments is to keep the size of the cancerous tumors on my liver small.  If they get too big, a transplant is out of the question. I hope this one does some good. I sure don’t look forward to any more.

But, enough of my gloomy stuff.

EARLIER THIS WEEK I received two emails asking for information and/or advice about the Soka Gakkai International. I thought this was a bit strange, but in the off chance they were legit . . . Dude, if your girlfriend has been in the SGI all her life, my advice is either become a fanatic yourself or find another girlfriend.  You can’t change her. You won’t be able to save her. It sounds to me like you are not that into Buddhism yourself, so I say go find a nice yoga girl  . . .  Now, as to the current state of health of the SGI fearless leader, Daisaku Ikeda – I haven’t a clue. There are rumors that he has been secluded in a hospital for some time, and that he is in a coma, etc. I am sure that no one, outside a small circle of people in Japan knows the truth. There are also rumors that he will be mummified after he passes away. Well, I have heard of crazier things . . .

YOU MAY HAVE HEARD about the controversy stirred up by the sale of Buddhist jewelry at a New York store. Jewish groups and some politicians were outraged and, as the New York Daily News reports, “The apologetic owner of a Brooklyn jewelry store blasted for hawking earrings that look like swastikas said Wednesday that she will stop selling the controversial baubles.”

The swastika is a traditional Buddhist symbol and it is not unusual to see them displayed in temples and on Buddha statues. Although this latest controversy is a different situation, I have long felt that ethnic Buddhists should cultivate more sensitivity about this issue. Regardless of which way it is facing (the Nazi’s turned it around), to many people it is odious symbol, representing hate and mass murder, particularly for those Buddhists with Jewish origins. I, who am not Jewish, know the difference between a swastika and the Nazi emblem. My elementary school in Wichita Kansas had swastikas carved at each corner. I thought that was kind of cool, then. Now that I am an adult and have met a few holocaust survivors, when I walk into a Buddhist temple and see swastikas about, I feel uncomfortable.

The swastika just carries too much emotional baggage and bad karma with it to be useful. Traditional or not, it serves no purpose to continue using the swastika as a Buddhist symbol. Ditch it, or use it with more sensitivity. And you definitely have to wonder what is in the mind of someone who would walk around in New York city wearing swastika earrings . . .

FINALLY, some very sad news . . . After 40 years, Bodhi Tree Bookstore has closed. Yes, that great smelling, cozy little institution on Melrose Ave in Los Angeles is a thing of the past . . . As Teresa Watanabe wrote in the LA Times, the store had served “as a world-renowned spiritual mecca for seekers of all persuasions — including Gov. Jerry Brown, Beatle Ringo Starr and actress Shirley MacLaine, whose memoir chronicled how her metaphysical journey began at the Bodhi Tree in 1983.”

I spent many an hour perusing the titles in the Buddhism corner, and listened to many great talks there as well. Of course, this is part of a growing trend but I have to say that there is just something wrong about a world without bookstores . . .

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A Story of Three Women Who Crossed Many Mountains

She’s a model and an actress and she’s written a book. Not a string of words that tends to stir thoughts in my mind about great literature. But, today I’d like to tell you about a possible exception. I want to tell you about a new book. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve just put it on my list. The author’s name is Yangzom Brauen. I’d never heard of her before. It seems that she is a Swiss actress and model who’s been in a number of Swiss films and on a Swiss television series.  Maybe you’ve seen her in the handful of Hollywood films she’s made: Pandorum, Cargo, Movin’ In, Aeon Flux. I haven’t.

Yangzom Brauen is no Alpine Paris Hilton, though. Not even a Swiss Snooki. This model and actress is also a political activist, and a courageous one at that. On the left is a photo of her in 2001 being arrested in Moscow for protesting the choice of China to host Olympics in 2008. Moscow is one of the last places in the world I would want to get arrested. At the time, Brauen was serv­ing as pres­i­dent of Tibetan Youth Congress in Europe. Her father is a Swiss anthropologist and her mother, a Tibetan artist.

In 2009 she published a autobiography, Eisenvogel. Apparently, it’s more than just a biography, it’s the story of three generations of Tibetan woman: Brauen’s Tibetan grandmother, her Tibetan mother, and herself. By the way, her grandmother, who’s in her 90s, is a Buddhist nun.

The book was a bestseller in Germany and Switzerland and St. Martin’s Press is publishing it here in the U.S. on September 27, 2011. Across Many Mountains: A Tibetan Family’s Epic Journey from Oppression to Freedom (translated by Katy Darbyshire) is described as “A powerful, emotional memoir and an extraordinary portrait of three generations of Tibetan women whose lives are forever changed when Chairman Mao’s Red Army crushes Tibetan independence, sending a young mother and her six-year-old daughter on a treacherous journey across the snowy Himalayas toward freedom.”

If you go the Amazon page for the book, you’ll see she’s gotten some rave reviews from the likes of the Dalai Lama, Oliver Stone, Robert Thurman and others. I ran across an excerpt of Across Many Mountains and I liked what I read. Here’s the first paragraph:

It is late autumn and the wind whistles across the dry, rocky fields and meadows. As I step out of the house a fierce gust pushes me aside, so strong that I have to tilt my body into its force. Mola stands with her legs planted wide, buttressing herself against the gale.  Mola means grandmother in Tibetan. My grandmother is a ninety-one-year-old Buddhist nun. In the tradition of all Buddhist nuns, her now snow-white hair is cropped close to her scalp, and she wears only red, orange, and yellow. Her floor-length Tibetan chupa billows out like a sail, and it takes all her concentration to keep her balance. My grandmother wants to perform kora.  For Tibetans, kora means walking around a sacred place absorbed in prayer, a kind of pilgrimage that can encompass hundreds of miles or only a few yards.”

You can read the entire except here. And learn more about Yangzom Brauen at her website.

I like simple, evocative writing and that’s what I got from the except. Across Many Rivers has been out in the UK for several months and the comments on Amazon along with several advance reviews here have been somewhat negative about the writing. But you never know. I once judged a book by its cover and it turned out to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century (Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany).

In any case, some 30 years ago I read In Exile From The Land of The Snows, John F. Avedon’s compelling, and I suspect still definitive, account of the Tibet story. I feel like its time for another one and Across Many Rivers looks promising to me. I thought I’d tell you about it, and about Yangzom Brauen. You know, just in case you’re interested . . .

2001 photo: Blick.ch/Keystone

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Eat Pray Love, Pray Love Eat, or Love Eat Pray?

I haven’t read Eat Pray Love, and probably won’t. I only heard about it this week because of the Julia Roberts movie. I usually stay away from the spiritual-journey-memoir genre. I suspect that a lot of them are actually fiction. I haven’t had much luck with spiritual fiction either. I remember being very disappointed with The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham. I thought it was mostly about gossip. Very little spirituality. Both movies, the original 1946 version with Tyrone Power and Bill Murray’s remake, sucked, too.

I don’t mean to cast any aspersions on Eat Pray Love or its author, Ms. Gilbert. I am sure she is a fine writer, a nice person, and that every word in her book is true. Checking out her Wikipedia page, I see that one of her articles, “The Ghost”, a profile of Hank Williams III published by GQ in 2000, was included in Best American Magazine Writing 2001. Now that, I wouldn’t mind reading. What I would really like to read, though, would be an article by a psychologist on the Williams family. If there was ever some people deserving of in-depth psycho-analytical study it’s the Hank Williams brood. Don’t get me wrong, I love Hank I, II, and III.  Let’s just say the word haunted does come to mind.

What I wonder about, in relation to Ms. Gilbert’s book, is why Eat Pray Love? Why is love always the be-all, the end-all, the summit, the apex, the final solution? Why is love last? Is it supposed to be better than the other two? Why couldn’t it have been Love Eat Pray or Eat Love Pray or better yet Pray Love Eat. I have a suspicion that a lot of people would rather eat than either pray or make love.

Lest you think I’m very cynical, let me tell you that I’m an idealist, a hopeless romantic. I believe in love, the romantic kind. All my heroes have been romantics at heart. I love romantic movies. I love to fall in love with the leading lady. I love movies that make me cry. So, if  a book like Eat Pray Love were a fictional romance/spiritual journey, that would be one thing. But it’s supposed to be a real life account and in real life, love doesn’t always triumph and you don’t always live happily ever after. I know, tell you something you don’t already know.

Of course, this is Ms. Gilbert’s story, and her life, and that must be the way it played out. I thought that I might be prejudging her; after all, I haven’t read the book. So I looked up the synopsis on her Wikipedia page to see just exactly what love is in Eat Pray Love, and it says, “She ended the year in Bali, Indonesia, looking for “balance” of the two and found love (Love); in the form of a dashing Brazilian factory owner.” So I was right. True love wins in the end. Not only that, but I swear I remember a Love Boat episode just like this. The dashing Brazilian factory owner was played by Fernando Lamas (or was it Alejandro Rey?).

In Buddhism, romantic love is called pema (Pali). It’s considered a form of craving, along with kama (sensual pleasure), chanda (desire), kamachanda (desire for sexual pleasure), raga (lust), even companionship (samsagga) and fondness (sineha).

Now this may make you stop and ponder. It’s all bad? We can’t feel, have friends, have sex? There’s only Eat and Pray? No love? Wait, eating is bad also, so it’s just pray? Krishnamurti wondered about the same thing, only he put the questions differently:

Why is it that whatever we touch we turn into a problem? We have made love a problem, we have made relationship, living, a problem, and we have made sex a problem. Why? Why is everything we do a problem, a horror? Why are we suffering? Why has sex become a problem? Why do we submit to living with problems; why do we not put an end to them? Why do we not die to our problems instead of carrying them day after day, year after year?

The problem isn’t really with love or desire or sex, the problem is us. It’s how we deal with these things. Our obsession with idealized love and romance is clinging. Looking at love as the ultimate state of being or a highly desirable state of being is looking for something outside of ourselves for satisfaction and happiness. But we know that. And we keep on loving.

Love makes us feel good. And why shouldn’t we feel good? We are not here to suffer life but to enjoy it. When we do suffer then we need to examine what it is inside us that’s suffering. It’s not love. Love doesn’t make us suffer.

Anyway, I still wonder about the title of the book. Apparently Gilbert used an advance she received on a book she planned to write to pay for her trip in “Search for Everything,” as her subtitle reads. So maybe she knew all along it would be Eat Pray Love.

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