August 13, 2012

1. A Contemporary Jesus?

I discovered a Chinese guru named Jin Bodhi. His teaching is often called Puti Meditation, though it seems to resemble qi gong rather than meditation. He doesn’t teach his students to attend to their breathing, as meditation teachers often do. Rather, he teaches his students to visualize themselves healthy, filled with light, floating through air, etc. He also teaches his students to channel the energies of the universe, and their own energies. One might describe him as a healer. “Jin Bodhi” might be translated as Master Jin; one might call “Jin Bodhi” a title rather than a name.

Apparently his parents were sent to Tibet, or to a province near Tibet, during the relocations that accompanied the Cultural Revolution. When his mother was pregnant with him, she was malnourished, so he was born sickly and weak. While he was still a child, he used Tibetan qi gong and healing practices. He studied in Tibet until he was 19, then began teaching and preaching in China. Soon he attracted huge crowds in several Chinese cities. Now he’s about 43, and has started Puti centers in various places — Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Vancouver, Queens, etc. He’s no longer allowed in China, perhaps because the government fears large crowds. He doesn’t seem to have any connection to Falun Gong, the popular sect.

In earlier issues, we discussed the sexual and financial temptations to which popular gurus often succumb. Thus far, Jin Bodhi seems to have resisted these temptations. I’m told that he’s married and has two children. Admission to his centers and his retreats is free; he seems to depend entirely on donations. When I visited his center in Queens, I neither paid anything nor was asked to pay. He wasn’t there himself; his assistants often teach at his centers.

There were perhaps 60 people at the Flushing Center. I was probably the only Westerner in the group, and the teaching was in Chinese. But his centers attract some Westerners, and his teachings are translated into various languages. Jin Bodhi himself seems to speak only Chinese, and he seems especially popular in places like Vancouver and Flushing, where there are large Chinese populations. His brand of qi gong is difficult for a Westerner to become comfortable with — more difficult than basic yoga and meditation.

One might compare Jin Bodhi to Jesus. As I wrote in an earlier issue,

Jesus was part of a Jewish tradition of spiritualism, of mediating between the spirit world and the mundane world.... The Jewish spiritualists possessed real power. [As Huston Smith wrote] “The Spirit-filled personages of the Bible have power. To say that they were charismatic is to say they had power to attract people’s attention, but that is only the beginning of the matter. The reason they attracted notice was the exceptional power they possessed.” Jesus was part of this tradition, and he possessed this power, which often took the form of healing the sick. Smith quotes a New Testament scholar: “Despite the difficulty which miracles pose for the modern mind, on historical grounds it is virtually indisputable that Jesus was a healer and exorcist.” Jesus has even been called “the most extraordinary figure in... the stream of Jewish charismatic healers.” Jesus aspired to do more than heal individuals, he aspired to heal Jews in general, and then man in general.

Perhaps Jin Bodhi has a similar goal.

The modern Western mind is uncomfortable with Jin Bodhi and Jesus, uncomfortable with their quasi-magical methods, uncomfortable with their occult thinking. We ignore Jesus-the-healer, and prefer to focus on Jesus-the-ethical-teacher.1

Some videos about Jin Bodhi:

30-minute video of Jin Bodhi teaching qi gong
17-minute video about Jin Bodhi’s teachings
15-minute video about a Westerner learning Puti Meditation

In the 30-minute video, as often in qi gong, you move your hand around your navel in circles. The navel is a symbol of the center, of wholeness; the circle also suggests wholeness. I noted elsewhere “the religious significance of spiral motion... a ‘symbol for the process of individuation, which is a kind of circumambulation in ever smaller circles of the Self.’”

2. Romney and Ryan

Romney made a striking slip when he introduced his running-mate as “the next President of the United States, Paul Ryan.” Surely this isn’t just a matter of chance, a mischance. It must mean something, but what? The only thing it could mean, in my view, is that Romney doesn’t really want to be running for President, or doesn’t really want to be President, he wishes Ryan were bearing that burden. If Romney doesn’t really want to be President, that would help to explain the lackluster character of Romney’s campaign, and it would make Romney’s defeat likely. Perhaps, at 65, Romney has reached an age when a person wants to leave the arena, or he unconsciously wants to leave. Surely many Republicans would like to have the 42-year-old Ryan at the top of the ticket.

An article in the New York Times says that Ryan’s father died when Ryan was 16, and this loss seemed to mature him, to propel him toward adulthood. In my book of aphorisms, I noted how many American Presidents came from this kind of household, and I pointed out that, “Throughout history, eminent men have often come from father-less households; such a household seems to breed sturdy independence, precocious maturity, and a gregarious nature.” According to the Times article,

the death of his father when Mr. Ryan was only 16 punctured his life of math tests and bike riding, and in that fissure, the seeds of his worldview were planted. “Paul went to work at McDonald’s and began to pull his own weight, and becomes class president the same year,” said his brother Tobin. “It is remarkable that he chose a path of individual responsibility and maturity rather than letting grief take a different course.” He added: “Some of his political views did begin to coalesce around the time of my father’s passing.”

When he introduced Ryan as his running-mate, Romney spoke of how his father’s death “forced [Ryan] to grow up earlier than any young man should.”

3. Thomas Browne

I discovered a 17th-century English writer named Thomas Browne. A new volume of Browne’s writings, edited and annotated by Stephen Greenblatt and Ramie Targoff, was published recently.2 The volume consists of two books: Religio Medici (A Doctor’s Religion, perhaps Browne’s chief work), and Urn Burial (Browne was preoccupied with death, burial, etc.). In summarizing his life, Browne said, “Writ Religio Medici in English, which was since translated into Latin, French, Italian, High and Low Dutch.” His other books didn’t make as big a splash, and weren’t translated into as many foreign tongues.

Browne combines a scientific bent with a mystical bent. His scientific speculations won him the admiration of Stephen Jay Gould, while his mystical bent won him the admiration of Madame Blavatsky. Greenblatt and Targoff don’t seem to appreciate the mystical/occult side of Browne; “Browne’s voice is the voice of a vanished world,” they write in their introduction, “a world utterly routed by our own conceptions of rational inquiry, scientific proof and common sense.” Browne’s literary accomplishments won him the admiration of Virginia Woolf and Borges; Browne was especially popular with writers from the Romantic period — Coleridge, Lamb, etc.

Perhaps the best Browne website is at the University of Chicago.

4. Some Non-Fiction Writers

A. I discovered a modern historian and diplomat, Michael Oren. Oren was born and raised in the U.S., and he attended Columbia and Princeton, eventually earning a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies. Oren later emigrated to Israel, and joined the Israeli army. He’s now Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. Oren has written two popular historical works: a history of the Six Day War, and a history of American involvement in the Middle East. Click here to watch Brian Lamb’s interview with Oren. Oren is an impressive interviewee — articulate, knowledgeable, scholarly — so it isn’t surprising that he was tapped to be ambassador to the U.S. He has impressive credentials as a soldier, a scholar, and even an athlete.

B. Consider also the writings of Abba Eban, who has written about Jewish history both ancient and modern. In addition to writing books, Eban made several documentaries. Eban was an Israeli statesman and diplomat. Kissinger said of Eban,

I have never encountered anyone who matched his command of the English language. Sentences poured forth in mellifluous constructions complicated enough to test the listener’s intelligence and simultaneously leave him transfixed by the speaker's virtuosity.

Another Israeli statesman/diplomat who has written about modern Israel is Yehuda Avner, author of The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership.

Cecil Roth is a prominent writer on Jewish history. Roth wrote A Bird’s-Eye View of Jewish History (sometimes called A History of the Jews, or A Short History of the Jewish People). Roth also wrote The Jews in the Renaissance, Jews in England, and A Life of Menasseh Ben Israel.

C. I recently watched Brian Lamb’s interview with Antony Beevor. Beevor was discussing his book The Second World War. Beevor is English, and graduated from Sandhurst, where he studied under John Keegan. Beevor wrote a well-regarded book about the battle of Stalingrad, and books about the Battle of Berlin, D-Day, the Spanish Civil War, etc.

Beevor criticizes the German view that history is a science, and the historian should prove a thesis. He makes no apologies for writing narrative history. When I was a history student in high school, I was always uncomfortable with writing “thesis papers,” and when I was in college, I would take any class that didn’t require such papers, so Beevor’s remarks struck a sympathetic chord with me.

Beevor begins his book about World War II with an anecdote about a Korean who was captured by the Japanese, and forced to fight against the Russians; then he was captured by the Russians, and forced to fight against the Germans; then he was captured by the Germans and forced to fight against the Americans, then he was captured by the Americans and ended his days in Illinois. A world war indeed!

Beevor was roundly criticized by Russians for saying that the Red Army was guilty of rape on a broad scale. Beevor insisted that the evidence for this assertion was in the Russian archives, archives that were recently closed to foreign historians. (Solzhenitsyn, who was himself in the Red Army, discussed the Red Army’s rapes in his poem “Prussian Nights.”)

Beevor was earlier interviewed by Brian Lamb concerning his book about the Russian actress Olga Chekhova.

D. I discovered a blogger, Frank Jacobs, who specializes in geography. He calls his blog “Strange Maps: Cartographic Curiosities.” His comments on maps often lead him into comments on history. Excerpts from the Jacobs blog were published in book form by Penguin. Jacobs recommends a book called Borderlines and Borderlands, by Alexander Diener and Joshua Hagen.

Jacobs wrote a lucid summary of the Arab-Israeli dispute; this piece was part of a series of articles that Jacobs wrote for the New York Times (or rather, the New York Times website). Jacobs identifies a recurring pattern in the Arab-Israeli dispute: “out of high principle, the Arabs refuse to compromise, and subsequently are confronted with a fait accompli that’s worse than their previous position.” As Abba Eban put it, the Arabs “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”.

Another author who has written about maps is Jerry Brotton, who wrote A History of the World in 12 Maps. Brotton is both scholarly and popular. Among his other books are The Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction, and The Sultan and the Queen, about Elizabeth I’s attempt to deal with Muslims.

E. I discovered a Chinese historian named Ray Huang, best known as the author of 1587, A Year of No Significance, a classic in the field of Chinese history. Huang was born in China in 1918, and fought against the Japanese in World War II. Later he studied at the University of Michigan, and became an assistant to the famous Sinologists Joseph Needham and John K. Fairbank. Huang liked to take a broad view; one of his books is called China: A Macro History.3

F. For a quick look at old China, consider L. Carrington Goodrich’s Short History of the Chinese People, which was published in 1943 and reprinted in 2002. One reader said it’s “still a very useful book because of its concise and precise descriptions, great illustrations and excellent maps.... The best introduction I know to Chinese history.”

For a more detailed look at old China, consider a 1,000-page book called Imperial China: 900-1800, by Frederick W. Mote. Mote worked for years on the Cambridge History of China, then summarized his work in Imperial China: 900-1800.

G. I discovered an Australian historian named Geoffrey Blainey. In many respects, Blainey reminds me of the English historian Paul Johnson: they’re both popular, wide-ranging, prolific, active as journalists, and politically conservative. Like Johnson, Blainey wrote a history of Christianity, and a history of the 20th century. Blainey’s views on immigration and multiculturalism were so controversial that protesters interrupted his speeches, and police were stationed at his house. Blainey is perhaps best known for The Causes of War and A Short History of the World. Most of Blainey’s books deal with Australia — local histories, broad surveys, economic studies, etc.

H. If you’re interested in botany and plants, consider a German-English writer named Andrea Wulf, who wrote 3 books about the history of gardening. Wulf also wrote a book about the transit of Venus called Chasing Venus: The Race To Measure the Heavens. [Update 2020: In 2015, Wulf published a study of Alexander von Humboldt called The Invention of Nature. Wikipedia says, “Humboldt’s magnum opus Cosmos, where he talks of the interconnections of the natural world, is discussed.”]

5. Match Point

I saw a popular Woody Allen movie called Match Point (2005). Wikipedia describes it as a “dramatic thriller” and it is indeed filled with tension and suspense. But it doesn’t have much besides tension, and tension isn’t enjoyable, so I can’t recommend the movie. It’s contrived and mechanical, it has neither heart nor mind. The theme is that luck plays an important role in human affairs — a shallow idea. And the ending is unsatisfactory and unconvincing because the killer seems to escape not only the police but also his own conscience.

Wikipedia says that Allen is reversing Crime and Punishment, in which the killer can’t escape his conscience or the police. Wikipedia says that Allen’s killer is reading Crime and Punishment early in the movie, and that “both killers attempt to cover their crime by faking a robbery, both are almost caught by a painter’s unexpected appearance in the stairwell, and both sleuths play cat and mouse with the suspect. Allen argues, unlike Dostoevsky, that there is neither God, nor punishment, nor love to provide redemption.”

I also saw Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), which Wikipedia calls a “comedy murder mystery.” It has some of the tension and suspense of Match Point, but it’s also filled with Allen one-liners.

6. Faulkner

The local Great Books group recently read a Faulkner story called “All the Dead Pilots.” I didn’t like it much at first reading — it was puzzling, obscure. But I read some commentary that I found on the Internet, then went back to the story, and liked it more. Faulkner is often difficult at first reading. Perhaps the example of Joyce’s Ulysses made him think that great literature was obscure, that a serious writer shouldn’t be clear.

In 1929, the well-known English writer Arnold Bennett heard some buzz about the young Faulkner, read The Sound and The Fury, and said that Faulkner had “great and original talent,” but that, influenced by Joyce, Faulkner was “exasperatingly, unimaginably difficult to read. He seems to take malicious pleasure in mystifying the reader.”4 Bennett later read Faulkner’s first novel, Soldiers’ Pay, and said,

Faulkner is the coming man. He has an inexhaustible invention, powerful imagination, a wondrous gift of characterization, a finished skill in dialogue; and he writes, generally, like an angel. None of the arrived American stars can surpass him in style when he is at his best.... He has in him the elements of real greatness.5

But Bennett complained that, while not as obscure as The Sound and The Fury, Soldiers’ Pay was still “difficult to read.... To read it demands an effort.... There is no excuse for this. The great masters are not difficult to read.... A novel ought to be easy to read; it ought to please immediately. But too many young novelists seem to be actuated by a determination not to please.”

Bennett said that Faulkner was little appreciated in his own country. Bennett said that Dreiser was also little appreciated in the U.S. until Bennett’s review of Sister Carrie appeared in the U.S. In 1945, all of Faulkner’s 17 books were out of print in the U.S. except Sanctuary. In France, however, Faulkner was highly regarded. Writers are sometimes appreciated more in foreign countries than in their own countries. Schopenhauer, for example, was first appreciated in England, and Nietzsche was first appreciated in Denmark and other foreign countries.

“All the Dead Pilots” is about World War I pilots. Faulkner himself served in the Canadian Air Force during World War I, and he often wrote about this experience, especially in his early years (“All the Dead Pilots” was written in 1931, when Faulkner was 34). “All the Dead Pilots” has the pessimistic worldview that is characteristic of Faulkner. As one critic wrote,

Faulkner’s conspicuous melancholy seems to have been contributed to by two wars — not only the first World War, but the American Civil War [perhaps we should speak of “Faulkner’s double melancholy”]. His disillusionment was indicated in his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay, with its ghastly portrait of the disfigured flier’s return and his frivolous sweetheart’s revulsion and infidelity. Intensification of melancholy by World War experiences may be traced also in a short story, “Ad Astra.” Herein the concept attributed by Hemingway to Gertrude Stein — “You are all a lost generation” — recurs in a still more somber form; Faulkner’s character remarks, “All this generation which fought in the war are dead tonight. But we do not yet know it.”

In Faulkner’s novels the post-bellum South seems to stand like Lot’s wife, petrified in a morbid backward glance at the holocaust consuming a damned people.6

In Faulkner’s view, there’s no glory in war, or only a fleeting glory. In the story’s concluding paragraph, Faulkner writes,

The courage, the recklessness, call it what you will, is the flash, the instant of sublimation; then flick! the old darkness again.... It can be preserved and prolonged only on paper: a picture, a few written words that any match... can obliterate in an instant. A one-inch sliver of sulphur-tipped wood is longer than memory or grief.

So much for the immortality of literature.

According to the traditional view, war is glorious because it affords an opportunity to display courage. But Faulkner doesn’t believe in courage: “No man deserves praise for courage or opprobrium for cowardice, since there are situations in which any man will show either of them.”

“Faulkner” is a Scottish name meaning falconer; Faulkner’s family may have been Scots-Irish.

© L. James Hammond 2012
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1. Just as the healing practices of Jesus are part of a Jewish tradition, so too the ethical teachings of Jesus are comparable to those of contemporary Jewish teachers, as I argued in my book of aphorisms. back
2. It’s part of a series of obscure classics that’s being published by New York Review Books. back
3. Huang is sometimes classed as a writer of “big history.” back
4. See William Faulkner: The Critical Heritage, edited by John Bassett, published by Routledge. See also A Reader’s Guide to William Faulkner: The Short Stories, by Edmond Loris Volpe, and Reading Faulkner: Glossary and Commentary: Collected stories, by Theresa M. Towner and James B. Carother. There’s an excellent short biography of Faulkner in Critical Companion to William Faulkner: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work, by A. Nicholas Fargnoli, Robert W. Hamblin, and Michael Golay (previously published as William Faulkner A to Z). back
5. ibid back
6. “Faulkner and the South,” by Warren Beck, The Antioch Review, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring, 1941), pp. 82-94 back