Wednesday, September 29, 2010

“Daring to Be Audacious”: A Review of Richard G. Geldard’s Emerson and the Dream of America

“Daring to Be Audacious”: A Review of Richard G. Geldard’s Emerson and the Dream of America (Larson Publications, 2010, www.larsonpublications.com; ISBN 978-1-936012-46-4)

As I write this review, the Republican party has just unveiled its new “Pledge to America,” similar to their 1994 Contract With America, which is an interesting and thought-provoking parallel to the title of this book, which, to me, is really two books in one, a notion I would like to explore up front and then move away from.
Richard Geldard, an internationally known expert on the writings of R.W. Emerson, shares his subject’s passion for the state of America, including what is wrong, ideas on how to fix it, and who is to blame. While I agree in theory with much of what Geldard says in chapters such as “A Call to a Nation,” “A New Great Awakening,” “America as Opportunity,” and “Wealth and Economy” I feel compelled to warn the reader that Geldard puts the blame squarely on the Right-Wingers and Republicans and paints what I feel is an overly optimistic portrait of what Barack Obama and his message of hope will do to change the trajectory of our country.
Just to be clear—I am in no way fond of or inclined to make excuses for the past policies of the Bush administration and their cronies, nor can I disagree with Geldard’s recent blogs on the Huffington Post about Glenn Beck and the Tea Party; by the same token, I have many reservations and questions about our current president (none of which have to do with his place of birth…) and I find the author’s level of faith in him and his policies to somewhat taint an otherwise thought-provoking and important book for our times.
Having warned the reader who might share my political concerns, I can move on to the real focus of this review—Geldard’s expert exploration of the most applicable of Emerson’s essays to these Modern Times.
Throughout the preface and the book’s 12 chapters and 2 appendices, I learned a great deal about Emerson and the era in which he was writing that helped put his essays in perspective. For instance, I did not know that, following his daughter’s marriage into the Forbes family of Boston, that Emerson was to become one of the ten wealthiest men in Massachusetts. As one of America’s most quoted and influential philosophers, Emerson is vital to our understanding of ourselves as individuals and as the collective known as “America.”
Whether he is explicating New England Transcendentalism or the Dream of America (as opposed to the American Dream), Geldard does a master’s job of selecting crucial passages from Emerson’s works and setting them in the context of currently pressing issues. He interprets and elaborates on the multi-layered threads in a way that will open these at times difficult to read essays to a much broader audience (hence the irony of his distinct political leanings).
The main essays from which Geldard draws are “Experience,” “Fate,” Nature, and “Self-Reliance.”
As Geldard states, “Emerson himself has been reduced to a purveyor of slogans and aphorisms empty of meaning outside their context” (50). Chapters that best remedy this and reconnect the man with his context are “Emerson and American Religion” and “Idealism and the Perennial Philosophy.” These chapters not only situate Emerson in his own time, but track his intellectual and spiritual connection to those who also went on to influence modern thought, such as Aldous Huxley and Ananda Comaraswamy. It was a surprise to me just how much Emerson was in tune with the nexus of Spirituality and Science—what is now called Quantum Mechanics (explored with increasing emphasis through chapters 5–7).
The two appendices contain passages from Emerson’s works with no commentary. These sections will hopefully serve as a bridge for readers who want to return to Emerson’s writings with a new perspective having read Geldard’s book or perhaps those who follow the recommendation of this reviewer and read Emerson and the Dream of America as their introduction to one of the most important philosopher-writers our country has ever known.

A Special Review for the Fifteenth Anniversary of the Publication of Lex Hixon’s Living Buddha Zen

(Larson Publications, 1995)


Lex Hixon was a fascinating individual. He studied five religions (he was an initiated Sufi Sheikh, a practicing member of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and was about to be inducted as a priest in the Soto Zen order when he died in 1995) and published seven books. He received his doctorate in world religions from Columbia University. For 13 years he hosted WBAI’s “In the Spirit” radio program, during which time he interviewed both Mother Theresa and the Dalai Lama.
Living Buddha Zen is a commentary on Zen Master Keizan’s Denkoroku: The Record of Transmitting the Light, written in the fourteenth century.
Like most Zen works, with their premise that “ultimately knowing nothing always eclipses knowing anything” (p. 13), this book, and no doubts its predecessor, can be a difficult and oftentimes frustrating read, considering as it does highly abstract concepts such as “nonduality,” “mind,” and “enlightenment,” but Hixon encourages the reader to stay with it with his exuberant and straightforward style of writing. As he says in the Foreword, “questioning… is integral to the practice… Living Buddha Zen is a book of questions” (p. 13).
Being a commentary and meditation on Keizan’s book, Hixon takes the koans (questions that in some sense have no answers, such as “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”) and lectures of the Master and adds his own understanding, including a concluding poem at the end of each of the 52 “transmissions” from one Living Buddha to the next in the Shakyamuni tradition.
The life stories in the Author Introduction of some of these Living Buddhas are truly fascinating. Many were attendants to their predecessors; one gave his eye to a blind beggar while another severed his own arm to cut the root of separate body and mind; yet another did not sleep for three years. At least one was married and had a child, while others lived in caves and monasteries. With each transmission, the understanding of the Living Buddha was thought to grow and deepen, as knowledge was continually accumulated and passed on.
The 52 transmissions are laid out the same, with a koan, a comment, and a closing poem. I used them as daily meditations, reading the koan in the morning, the comment in the afternoon, and the closing poem before sleeping. Although they run only a few pages each, there is much to consider and reading a transmission in a single sitting risks missing the multi-layered meanings and messages.
The following are some of the nuggets of wisdom to be gleaned (and meditated upon):

• “any attempt to exterminate personhood is a spiritual sickness, like anorexia” (p. 52)
• “To exercise any occult power or to immerse the mind in any finite doctrine is to be bound and dragged by a rope” (p. 58; emphasis in original)
• “Student and teacher are like intersecting cords in a fishing net—nodes, not separate strands” (p. 63)
• “Performing nothing is Buddha activity” (p. 121)
• “No one can realize Truth, which is utterly simple, without becoming utterly simple” (p. 157)
• “Even the most subtle sense of self-satisfaction must disappear into laughter” (p. 162)
• “I cannot become it/because it is already me” (p. 184)
• “Here is where you must arrive!” (p. 198)

There is one passage which must be related at length, containing as it does the wonderful mystery of which Hixon speaks so eloquently:

“The father of the young successor introduces his son, Sita, to the present Buddha, explaining that the boy was born with left fist clenched. This strange condition still persists. The Awakened One explains the hidden karmic cause. In a previous existence, Buddha Aryasinha, at that time a simple Buddhist monk, received a small crystal of Perfect Nondual Wisdom, offered to him by the Naga kings of the Western Ocean. The monk entrusted this priceless wisdom treasure to a certain young man named Basia, who guarded it with great loyalty. ‘Now give me back that original gem,’ the present Buddha calmly asks, and immediately Sita’s left hand opens, for the first time since birth, releasing a clear stone.” (p. 124)

Living Buddha Zen ends with a Lineage Chart of the 82 Buddha Ancestors, of which Lex Hixon [Jikai] is the last to be listed. The chart shows the migration from India, to China, Japan, and America.
Although my shelves are filled with many volumes that consider the Great Mystery under many names and disciplines, this is perhaps the most adept at showing that “It is an open secret, concealed only by its complete transparency” (p. 218).

Monday, September 20, 2010

“Walker Between the Worlds”: A Review of Timekeeper II

“Walker Between the Worlds”: A Review of Timekeeper II, by John Atkinson (September 2010, Fisher King Press, www.fisherkingpress.com) ISBN: 978-1-926715-11-7

Thirteen months ago I had the opportunity to read and review Timekeeper, the prequel to this new work from author John Atkinson.

In Timekeeper II, the protagonist, Johnnyboy/Timekeeper, continues the journey begun in the first book, although, because of his vision quest on the Sacred Mountain, he can now live up to his Native American–bestowed name and unfold his tale on multiple planes and through multiple blocks of time.

This extra angle adds much to the second book, as Timekeeper, through his first-person narration, takes the reader back in time to experience events only hinted at in the first book. His experience of prejudice and intolerance from both sides of the family as a half-blood Indian are revealed in poignant vignettes, called up as Timekeeper makes a second journey in an effort to better understand his heritage and embrace his role as storyteller (complicated by the fact that he is illiterate for most of the early part of his life).

His ability to seek information through dreams and visions breaks the bounds of traditional storytelling and brings the reader across nearly a century of U.S. history as it relates to the mistreatment of Native Americans by the military and the local townsfolk. Johnnyboy’s struggle to find common ground between the traditional beliefs of his mother and the Christianity of his father’s people provides a lesson for us all.

Readers interested in Native American (specifically Sioux) ceremonies such as sweat lodge and sun dance will find the narrative particularly appealing, as will students of shamanism.

Atkinson’s prose is in fine form, with plenty more of the colorful expressions (“worshippers spread out in pews like crushed red pepper on barbequed ribs”) that made the first book such a delight to read. Although the narrative operates on multiple planes and loops back on itself numerous times from present to past, to further past, there is always a clear indication of just where we are.

As Timekeeper’s sequel came to an end, I realized that Johnnyboy, still a teenager, has plenty of stories left to tell.

I look forward to following him wherever—and whenever—he may go.

“Walker Between the Worlds”: A Review of Timekeeper II

“Walker Between the Worlds”: A Review of Timekeeper II, by John Atkinson (September 2010, Fisher King Press, www.fisherkingpress.com) ISBN: 978-1-926715-11-7

By Joey Madia

Thirteen months ago I had the opportunity to read and review Timekeeper, the prequel to this new work from author John Atkinson.

In Timekeeper II, the protagonist, Johnnyboy/Timekeeper, continues the journey begun in the first book, although, because of his vision quest on the Sacred Mountain, he can now live up to his Native American–bestowed name and unfold his tale on multiple planes and through multiple blocks of time.

This extra angle adds much to the second book, as Timekeeper, through his first-person narration, takes the reader back in time to experience events only hinted at in the first book. His experience of prejudice and intolerance from both sides of the family as a half-blood Indian are revealed in poignant vignettes, called up as Timekeeper makes a second journey in an effort to better understand his heritage and embrace his role as storyteller (complicated by the fact that he is illiterate for most of the early part of his life).

His ability to seek information through dreams and visions breaks the bounds of traditional storytelling and brings the reader across nearly a century of U.S. history as it relates to the mistreatment of Native Americans by the military and the local townsfolk. Johnnyboy’s struggle to find common ground between the traditional beliefs of his mother and the Christianity of his father’s people provides a lesson for us all.

Readers interested in Native American (specifically Sioux) ceremonies such as sweat lodge and sun dance will find the narrative particularly appealing, as will students of shamanism.

Atkinson’s prose is in fine form, with plenty more of the colorful expressions (“worshippers spread out in pews like crushed red pepper on barbequed ribs”) that made the first book such a delight to read. Although the narrative operates on multiple planes and loops back on itself numerous times from present to past, to further past, there is always a clear indication of just where we are.

As Timekeeper’s sequel came to an end, I realized that Johnnyboy, still a teenager, has plenty of stories left to tell.

I look forward to following him wherever—and whenever—he may go.