Monday, September 21, 2009

A book, a miracle, and fate

Been reading The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols these past weeks. Read it once before. Or, more accurately, started reading it and stopped somewhere in the middle. A few characters’ names still sounded familiar, like those of Joe Mondragon, Amarante Cordova, and Ruby Archuleta. Though quite distant by now. This was the only trilogy that I read from the third volume down to the first. And not because I still haven’t bought the other books in the series. Already had the complete set of pocket-sized editions from my favorite secondhand bookshop before I began poring over The Nirvana Blues. And for no apparent reason. It’s just that intuitive side telling me that I should start there, at the end of this hilarious tale about common folks struggling against the rich and powerful.

Couldn’t recall anything now from The Nirvana Blues and The Magic Journey except that there were enough materials there to keep me going until the middle of the first book. The Milagro Beanfield War shared the same propensity for wild story-telling. The main plot started with Joe Mondragon’s revolutionary act of illegally tapping into the old Indian Creek and diverting it to his puny bean field in the small town of Milagro. But sprinkled along this main storyline are quite a load of interesting small town tales that could make up several episodes in a television series. There’s this mini-tale on the insane Cleofes Apodaca who drowned in the pit he kept digging to free his lost dog that he believed was trapped somewhere under the earth. There’s the story of old Amarante Cordova who for several years kept on calling his children for those final family gatherings before his supposed demise, but who just wouldn’t die.

Then there was young Herbie Goldfarb, draft-evader and community development volunteer, and his misadventures in that tension-filled season in Milagro. Couldn’t help recalling my own undergraduate fieldwork among poor rural folks here in Pinas. Those nights of finding our way through banana fields, soaking wet from the rain, dead drunk from all those shots of lambanog that the local farmers kept on offering to us. Got this new Owl Book edition of The Milagro Beanfield War, printed in 2000. Was in my room one day at my parents’ house. Saw my old copy of the book, with the black cover and the smiling skeleton figure of a Mexican revolutionary in front. Picked it up and thought of starting again with John Nichols’ trilogy. This time, with the first volume in the series. Days later, found the Owl Book edition with the author’s afterword written in 1993.

It was only during my third visit to the bookshop that I finally thought of buying my new copy of the first book in the New Mexico trilogy. Almost halfway through the book now. Been planning to go through that John Nichols autobiography after this, before I go through the next titles in the trilogy. It’s like being addicted to watching this television series called Northern Exposure back in the 90s (but that should be the topic for another blog entry). Now I’m finally starting to write some blog entries about the whole experience of reading the trilogy. And something at the back of this head tells me it’s destiny at work all over again.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Back to Zen

Reading Jiyu Kennett’s Selling Water by the River for about a week now. Thought it would be nice to have some break from Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series. Especially after those really protracted battles and tragic denouement in the second book, The Illearth War. So back to sitting, counting breaths, shikantaza (just sitting and being aware of the breaths) and all those terse Zen riddles. But Kennett’s book has its own peculiarities from the other Zen manuals in the past. For one thing, the book is really old. The pages are all brownish yellow and have that familiar musty smell. Some would probably have just crumbled to the touch at the time of purchase. Recalling this natural treatment from somewhere, placed Kennett’s book inside a resealable plastic bag and mixed it with baking soda. Sealed the bag with the book inside for about a month or two. The powder was supposed to absorb some moisture from the pages. Taking the book out recently, noticed that most of the pages were softer and felt more like new paper again. Not so much change though with the smell and the color.

In terms of the content, some things also stood out in Kennett’s book. There’s the usual story of Shakyamuni Buddha and his enlightenment. But this is followed immediately with a brief chapter on the essential “doctrines” or ideas in zen, including no-soul, karma, rebirth, the four noble truths, and impermanence. With the next chapter that traced the roots of Zen practice in Theravadic Buddhism, thought this explanation helped a lot in grounding Zen for the new trainees and lay practitioners. Somehow, the instructions on sitting and breathing, including the pointers on what to avoid and what to be careful of in practice, were less mechanical and more practical. Perhaps the fact that the author was a woman had a lot to do with this. Joko Beck’s teaching on Zen and Buddhism had a similar air of practicality about them and intimate links with everyday life. Master Kennett’s chapters on the hearts of compassion, love and wisdom, and how to nurture these in practice, form the core of Selling Water by the River and deepen readers' understanding of Zen’s relevance in the journey towards truth and enlightenment.

Of course, there’s the puzzling title of the book that puts one into a thinking mode from day one. Like all those wonderful Zen riddles, this one taunts the mind to come and try to unravel a hidden meaning. But the meaning always seems to elude one like a wild bull. One would have to struggle first with the fear and anxiety of coming near the bull. Then there’s the almost unbearable task of holding the bull by the horns (in all its great bulk and strength), looking at it straight in the eyes, and forcing out the one truth from its own mouth. Only to realize that everything was just an illusion. There was no bull in the first place. Well, there’s still half of Master Kennett’s book to finish.

A quote from the book (explanation in parentheses mine):
The motive for coming to a Zen temple is all-important. It was Shakyamuni Buddha’s love for the world that made him go in search of the cause of suffering, old age, decay and death; and at a later date he trained simply for training’s sake, albeit in the service of mankind. Those who wish to study Zen should consider this point carefully. The purpose of Zazen is not to think about gaining anything; this will become clearer as I progress. Shakyamuni Buddha had already found the heart of Kanzeon (heart of compassion) prior to setting out on his journey. He was, in fact, already half-enlightened.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The dismal science

Almost through with Eric A. Davidson’s You Can’t Eat GNP, Economics As If Ecology Mattered (2000). Remembered a classmate’s iconoclastic question in a master's course on Upland Environmental Economics a few years ago: why do we need to study economics if we want to save the environment? Then came her notorious comment on the nature of the subject. I can’t remember her exact words now, but it went something like: economics is probably one of the most anti-ecological body of knowledge, teaching people to use up all natural resources instead of conserving it and leaving some for the future. The question, together with the unflinching remarks, earned her a failing grade in the homework on computing discounted values of forest stands and timber products. It also marked her in the eyes of the professor, who from that point on didn’t have second thoughts in branding her views as downright wrong. My classmate eventually dropped out from that course on economics and the masters program. Which was really unfortunate because she was a licensed forester by then and I knew that she could have passed with flying colors had her opinion about economics did not get in the way of her relationship with the teacher.

I had a similar view of economics then. But I wasn’t that vocal about it as my classmate. I simply had this unspoken presumption that economic thinking took the natural resource base for granted. Talk to me of economics, and I immediately form in my head a picture of Marx explaining how value was created by labor from the production process, or of a present-day nongovernment campaigner talking about the implications of international and regional trade agreements on local production and the country’s policy options. Both are silent about the state of the environment on which the continued viability of any economy would depend. Eric A. Davidson’s book confirmed both my preconceived notions and my classmates fearless observations. You Can’t Eat GNP takes apart some common economic decision-making tools, like cost-benefit assessments, marginal valuation and discount rates, and explains why these fail to give a realistic value to natural resources or the environmental services of the world’s remaining ecosystems. In many cases, it’s a case of undervaluing resources like soil and forest lands, or not giving any value at all to processes like the sequestration of atmospheric carbon by forests or the trapping of marine wastes by mangrove areas.

No wonder that the costs of clearing such habitats to give way to farms or fishponds do not enter cost-benefit equations. And one shouldn’t be surprised if the costs of polluting the environment are not included in a country’s economic accounts. Economics is blind to ecological concepts and principles. The economic assumption about the scarcity of resources should lead one to the problem of the most efficient use of such resources now. The question of leaving some resources intact for future generations however is hardly a problem for economics. If they do enter economic decision-making, future natural resources and ecological services are valued and assessed based on present-day costs. And that simply means they are valued less. It is really no wonder then that people like Malthus and Hardin who pursued this kind of economic thinking to its logical conclusion, ended up with such gloomy scenarios for the future. Malthus had his runaway human population growth, while Hardin added his “tragedy of the commons”. Did the term “dismal science” that was used to refer to economics come from such doomsday predisposition?

Davidson’s book indicates some hope in current efforts toward what he calls “ecological economics” that attempts precisely to take into account environmental and sustainability considerations in current economic analyses. I was particularly intrigued for instance at how economic thinking is now being brought to bear upon such questions as how much forest land need to be preserved for the continued viability of the economic system. Or with attempts by ecologically oriented economists to come out with realistic values for a clean atmosphere. Still, I probably have to finish the book before I am fully convinced of the usefulness of this body of knowledge in addressing the current ecological crisis.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Last year's backlog

Overall, 2006 was not a very bad year for my reading life. Posted five (5) titles in the lectiograph. Actually finished reading more than that. Just had no time or will to write something about the other books. I still plan to do so before the current quarter ends. And, just for the record, I was able to start with a few other books sometime during the last quarter of 2006. But, guess I'm not reading them regularly. So, they're still beside my mattress, just waiting for me to pick them up again. Been making some plans to revive my self-discipline and allot blocks of time each day just for reading. I've also resolved to read more slowly after reading this article from Jessica Zafra's blog. Plus, I've lifted my self-imposed moratorium on buying new books.

So, here's my bedside stockpile at the moment:
  1. Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. This is supposed to be a secular book. Perhaps inspired by the author's vision of promoting Buddhist thought without the limitations posed by sectarianism. Shambhala is supposed to be a legendary kingdom in Tibet whose inhabitants lived up to the highest ideals of enlightened warriorship: being courageous, heroic, fearless, and selfless at all times. For more on Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Shambhala has this page on him.
  2. Dune: The Machine Crusade by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. First book by Brian Herbert that I'm reading. Good to know that somebody has been putting historical flesh to the universe that Frank Herbert has left behind. Interesting story so far. But not as tight as the original Dune novels. Let me see, there's a Priestess of the human jihad against the machines, a scheming Grand Patriarch of the jihad, Atreides and Harkonnen Primeros (some sort of generals), a class of Sorceresses who could blow up machines with their minds, the inventor of the space-folding engine who discovered her power to reconstitute every cell in her body after being reduced to a pulp by the machines, brains of wise people (Cogitors) floating in fluid inside containers, etc. Problem is, I'm almost halfway through the book and I still don't have any idea how all these strands are going to weave together. And, the opening quotes don't come anywhere near those of Frank's novels in terms of philosophical substance and depth.
  3. Living in Truth by Vaclav Havel. Haven't been into my socialist and communist bashing modes lately. But what the heck. Just thought of reading this book that I acquired years ago -- when the Eastern bloc's disintegration was fresh in the minds of those who still care -- before all of its pages turn yellow and start to crumble. Besides, as one review puts it, Vaclav Havel's critique goes down to society's fundamentals, be it communist or Western democracy.
  4. The Seduction of Silence by Bem Le Hunte. Finished about three-fourths of this book. Still have to muster enough interest and will to finish the remaining one-fourth.
  5. Are You Somebody?: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman by Nuala O'Faolain. Interesting views and anecdotes on other famous writers. Am not sure if this is the first memoir that I've bought and actually started reading. Liked that line in the introduction about her problems being trivial only because they are shared by many people. Lot of sincerity and courage in that. Enjoyed the stories about her adolescent escapades. I've seen her recent novel in one of my book hunting trips. Am now thinking of buying a copy.
  6. Jakarta Jive by Jeremy Allen. This book was lent to me by an Indonesian friend. Thought for some time that it was a gift. There's a certain fascination with the viewpoint and stories of a foreigner writing about such a diverse society and culture. And at a very interesting point in its history (during the 1997 economic crisis).
  7. Spanish in Three Months by Isabel Cisneros. Borrowed this from my partner who went to Peru last year. Thought I should be learning at least one European language. Temporarily gave up Russian. Think it was German before that. Hope I'll have more patience and luck with Spanish.
  8. Seeking the Heart of Wisdom: The Path of Insight Meditation by Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield. Comes with a Foreword by the Dalai Lama. Been browsing through chapters or portions of this book before I decided to start reading it from page one.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The many faces of silence

No, I’m not through reading D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow. At one point, reading about the Brangwens, and Ursula and Skrebensky’s extended love affair, became a drag. But I’m plodding on. Have less than fifty pages (and a few appendices) to go. Think I’ll take some break from Lawrence’s works after this. Though I’m considering reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) soon. Meanwhile, I’ve started reading a couple of books over the past few weeks. One of these is Bem Le Hunte’s The Seduction of Silence. So far, so good. Okay, I’ll admit it, it was the title (and the cover) that first attracted me to Le Hunte’s first work. Plus the fact that I was able to buy a copy for only 75 piso. I would have brought Dorris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City, or this work by a journalist who documented his experiences working on environmental issues in the Amazon. Lessing’s book was thicker but had the same price. The Amazon book was more expensive (as it was printed on acid-free paper). But Le Hunte’s book seemed more exotic. Leafing through the first few pages, one is immediately engrossed in the epic tale of Aakash and his spiritually enchanted existence at the Himalayan mountainsides.

But even more interesting are the scattered references in the novel about Silence (yes, with a capital “S”) and what it means. Le Hunte, true to her background as a lecturer in Cambridge, even provided some guide questions at the end of the book. Reminded me of Bob Ong’s study guides in Stainless Longganisa. So, here are some of these interesting passages (the ones I’ve read):

“Go into the Silence and find the Reality that informs your existence. Then you will see everything as sacred. Your eyes will fill with tears for this life that you have been given. You will look at the blue skies above and know that there is more – much, much more to life.”

“So Aakash continued his life with his accidental wife, his earthly existence that is, while his spirit took on a life of its own. He allowed himself to slip further into Silence, because it was only in Silence that he felt fulfilled.

“Until Tulsi Devi arrived, Ram was an only child for many years. Alone, not just because he had no siblings for that period of time, but because there was nobody around but his father who could understand the world as he knew it. Unlike his sister in later years, he would never take to the fields and discover freedom away from the confines of his house. Instead, he built up a relationship with Silence and learnt how to enjoy its poise, like still water in a tub.”

“It occurred to Bahadur that to be nowhere was actually the same as being everywhere. In this reverberating space he felt himself being called to move forward and take his first steps toward eternity. The calling was so loud it could have filled the entire night sky and the galaxies beyond with its wide-open invitation to explore further. Yet all that noise was contained in a shell of Silence.”

“In the face of death Ram tried to find Silence in his mind so that he could hear his father’s words. What would Aakash have done in this place? What would his advice be now? He thought about his home. The Silence that sealed the hills of Prakriti from the rest of the world. He remembered how the rain clouds used to hover close to his father’s farm when the plants needed to be watered. How much trust his father had in the forces of nature. How his father always repeated that “God will provide”. It was then Ram knew that what they were searching for was the power and potential of Silence. It was the bliss of Silence and the prospect of a great and soulful adventure that had lured them from the help of Prakriti, and it was Silence that now evaded them in this orgy of spirituality.”

“It wasn’t as if Aakash had done something dishonorable. Taking up sannyas was a respectable sequel to a life of dynamic activity, if he had only waited just a few more years. No, the shame came from the fact that everyone around her suspected that she had driven him to it. That the loudness of her discontent had driven him into the arms of Silence.”

Monday, August 28, 2006

Hunting your shadow

Not exactly sure why they are marketing Le Guin's Earthsea series as books for teenagers. The text may be quite simple and the plot modestly linear as any great fantasy work could be. But Le Guin's novels definitely pack a lot of meaning and mythos behind each scene and line. In A Wizard of Earthsea for instance, one finds the main character being pursued by a shadowy being accidentally released from the underworld by a previous spell of necromancy, spoken in a wave of juvenile pride and hate. The young but wiser Ged finds his wizard's skills suddenly useless against the dark force that has spoken his true name and thus has bound his magical powers during each encounter. Fear seems to overwhelm him completely, until Ged finds new strength in the words of his old master from his native island of Gont and began to realize that the thing that pursues him feeds on his fear of it:

"If you go ahead, if you keep running, wherever you run you will meet danger and evil, for it drives you, it chooses the way you go. You must choose. You must seek what seeks you. You must hunt the hunter."

Then comes the exciting part, where Ged goes through the final face-off with his shadow and fulfills his masters' prophecies about his destiny: to become the greatest wizard of Earthsea. But one really has to read the book for that. Anyway, the hero theme should be familiar to any Joseph Campbell or Star Wars fan. That is, about facing your dark side and going on a quest for that. For all their 21st century inventiveness and panache, the Wachowski brothers also ended up weaving the same old mythic thread in their Matrix series. (In fact, there's that uncanny resemblance between the final scene in Matrix Revolutions when Agent Smith "transforms" Neo into his own image, and the one in Le Guin's novel when Ged and his shadow clashed in a final burst of light.) But all of these don't make Le Guin's Earthsea novels a run of the mill series.

This is my first time to read her work. Still have to buy myself copies of the other three books in the Earthsea series (by the way, bought A Wizard of Earthsea, the first book in the series, for only 40 piso at Booksale; National Bookstore sells the same edition for close to 300 piso). Hope to find and read them soon. For Ursula K. Le Guin's official website, click here.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Embracing feminism

If I would be asked to arrange all the isms that I know and care about, perhaps feminism would fall somewhere at the edges. I haven't gone through a lot of feminist authors, except maybe some that I've encountered in my forays into green thought and practice. Perhaps it has also something to do with all these contradictions that I've been grappling with since my early involvements in gender work. But if there's one book that has kept feminism in orbit around my reflective being, it has to be this one by Anne Roiphe. Weaving her feminist and pro-family positions into meditations on her personal experiences as a daughter, wife, mother, stepmom, grandmother, stepgrandmom and activist, Roiphe has come out with an honest and persuasive work on feminism. "Fruitful" highlights the various contradictions that run through the recent history of feminist positions and practice. But it makes a clear stand on things which to her should be the concern of women and men anywhere on the planet: quality childcare, men as full partners in parenting, fathers' rights, individual growth in the family, etc.

Favorite quote: "Pregnancy and labor are indeed a woman's part and the male is not as active a participant in the pure biology of birth, but the baby is not an animal that survives without a social context and this social context does make the father an equal participant in all the nurturing of the infant. The psychological development of the child is not divinely given to a parent of one sex or the other."