From ‘In Search of Duende’ by Federico Garcia Lorca

Why bother writing anything at all when you can read Maestro Lorca? Here translated into bright words scooped from the searing wind of shared and bloody pain by Christoper Maurer.

The great artists of the south of Spain, whether Gypsy or flamenco, whether they sing, dance, or play, know that no emotion is possible unless the duende comes. They may be able to fool people into thinking the have duende—authors and painters and literary fashionmongers do so every day—but we have only to pay a little attention and surrender to indifference in order to discover the fraud and chase away their clumsy artifice.

The Andalusian singer Pastora Pavón, La Nina de los Peines, dark Hispanic genius whose powers of fantasy are equal to those of Goya or Rafael el Gallo, was once singing in a little tavern in Cádiz. For a while she played with her voice of shadow, of beaten tin, her moss-covered voice, braiding it into her hair or soaking it in wine or letting it wander away to the farthest, darkest bramble patches. No use. Nothing. The audience remained silent.

In the same room was Ignacio Espeleta, handsome as a Roman turtle, who had once been asked, “How come you don’t work?” and had answered, with a smile worthy of Argantonius, “Work? Why? I’m from Cádiz!” And there was Hot Elvira, aristocratic Sevillian whore, direct descendant of Soledad Vargas who in 1930 refused to marry a Rothschild because he was not of equal blood. And the Floridas, whom the people take to be ranchers, but who are really millennial priests who still sacrific bulls to Geryon. And in one corner sat the formidable bull rancher Don Pablo Murube, with the air of a Cretan mask. When Pastora Pavón finished singing there was total silence, until a tiny man, one of those dancing manikins that rise suddenly out of brandy bottles, sarcastically murmured “Long live Paris!” As if to say: “Here we care nothing about ability, technique, skill. Here we are after something else.”

As though crazy, torn like a medieval mourner, La Nina de los Peines leapt to her feet, tossed off a big glass of burning liquor, and began to sing with a scorched throat: without voice, without breath or colour, but with duende. She was able to kill all the scaffolding of the song and leave way for a furious, enslaving duende, friend of sand winds, who made the listeners rip their clothes with the same rhythm as do the blacks of the Antilles when, in the ‘lucumí’ rite, they huddle in heaps before the statue of Santa Barbara.

La Nina de los Peines had to tear her voice because she knew she had an exquisite audience, one which demanded not forms but the marrow of forms, pure music, with a body lean enough to stay in the air. She had to rob herself of skill and security, send away her muse and become helpless, that her duende might come and deign to fight her hand-to-hand. And how she sang! Her voice was no longer playing. It was a jet of blood worthy of her pain and her sincerity, and it opened like a ten-fingered hand around the nailed but stormy feet of a Christ by Juan de Juni.

Sonam Chöpel’s Chicken Story

Although I can’t remember exactly why, Ron asked me a few years ago if I’d write up Sonam Chöpel’s chicken story. (It was something to do with producing a text to read out loud to test a recording device—Ron will remember.) I agreed because I’m a bit of pushover, but as Sonam Chöpel never tells a story the same way twice, I had to take notes for a couple of weeks (Rinpoche was asking for it every other night) before putting fingers to keyboard. The result was the following, which, as you can see, is a pastiche of the Heart Sutra. Looking at it now I can see it doesn’t really work, certainly not as well as the Football Sutra, but I’ve decided to swallow my pride and post it nonetheless, as it’s topical.

Homage to the Master of all Chicken Stories!

Thus have I heard. Once when Sonam Chöpel was serving supper at Khyentse Labrang, together with a great gathering of the Sangha from Vancouver, Hong Kong and Taiwan, he entered the samadhi that expressed the paranoia of the Chicken Farmer from Bhutan.

And at the same time, noble Ron Stewart, the bodhisattva raconteur, whilst eating his food, saw in this way: he saw a vision of the story of the paranoid Bhutanese Chicken Farmer.

Then, through the power of Sonam Chöpel, he-who-must-be-obeyed Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche asked noble Ron Stewart, the bodhisattva raconteur, “Tell us a story, Ron.”

Addressed in this way, noble Ron Stewart, the bodhisattva raconteur, said to he-who-must-be-obeyed Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, “Oh Rinpoche, there once was a Chicken Farmer in Bhutan who hated his nasty neighbour and felt sure that one day he would do him wrong. And sure enough there dawned a day when one of the Farmer’s chickens was gone! ‘Oh, Oh, cried the Chicken Farmer as he jumped up and down with glee, ‘My neighbour’s robbed me! I must go to town and seek justice from a court of law!’ And off he went to court.

At the law court, a lawyer told the Chicken Farmer, “Oh Chicken Farmer, you cannot press a suit against your nasty neighbour for theft unless you have a witness to the crime!” And so the Chicken Farmer hurried to the local bar where he asked a poor Nepali immigrant, “Oh poor Nepali immigrant, my nasty neighbour stole from me, but I can’t take him to court without a witness to the crime. Here, take the handsome sum of fifty rupees and come to court. Tell the judge you saw the crime, and justice will be done!”

Bent and brown, the poor Nepali immigrant thought over the Chicken Farmer’s proposition, then replied, “Honorable Chicken Farmer, I really need the handsome sum of fifty rupees, so kindly offered, but if my lie is found out I will be ejected from Bhutan before you can say ‘Bob’s your uncle’, so please find yourself another stooge.”

“No, no,” cried the determined Chicken Farmer, “my poor Nepali immigrant, that is not how things will transpire. You will not be found out! And I will give you the princely sum of one hundred rupees, and justice will be done!”

Again the bent and brown, poor Nepali immigrant thought over the Chicken Farmer’s proposition, then replied, “Honorable Chicken Farmer, I really need the princely sum of one hundred rupees, so kindly offered, but if my lie is found out I will be ejected from Bhutan before you can say, ‘Where is Ali!’, so please find yourself another stooge.”

“No, no, no, no, no!” bawled the frantic Chicken Farmer, “you infuriating poor Nepali immigrant, that is not how things will transpire. You will not be found out! Just say two words, “I saw”, when the judge questions you and I will give you the kingly sum of two hundred rupees, and justice will be done!”

Once more the bent and  brown, poor Nepali immigrant thought over the Chicken Farmer’s proposition, then replied, “Honorable Chicken Farmer, you have won my help. I really need the kingly sum of two hundred rupees, so kindly offered, and will say the two words you require.” And off they went to court.

Beady-eyed, the judge stared hard at the poor Nepali immigrant and asked, “Did you, poor Nepali immigrant, see the Chicken Farmer’s nasty neighbour stealing something from his farm?”

“I saw!” replied the poor Nepali immigrant, much to the relief of the Chicken Farmer who clapped his hands with joy.

“How big was it?” continued the judge, beady-eyed and staring hard.

Shocked and confused, the poor Nepali immigrant raised his bony hand up as high as his shoulder—he had no idea what it was the nasty neighbour stole! The judge’s beady eyes bulged bigger and he exclaimed, “Can a chicken be so big?” And the poor Nepali immigrant raised his other hand in graceful mudra to indicate the height of an ordinary chicken.

Thus concludes the story of the paranoid Bhutanese Chicken Farmer.


How perceptions change. I thought of one of John Keats poems yesterday, as I listened, breathlessly nostalgic, to one of Joni Mitchell’s songs. (Khyentse Rinpoche reminded me of her when he discovered Both Sides Now a couple of years ago, but that was not the song I was listening to.)

Both the poem and the song are about parties: one the aftermath, the other the experience itself; one carved from 19th century romantic sensibilities, the other from 20th century judgements and confusions. Keats appears to have enjoyed his party as it inspired within him some kind of spiritual rapture—or at least that’s how I interpret his words. Joni Mitchell, on the other hand, only sees deceit and trumpery at her probably more glamorous party, and is upset and disturbed by it.

Has education and overdeveloped perspicacity helped us as we stumble through our lives, I wonder? Or has it simply confused us and made us more fearful. Less truly romantic. More desperate.

OK, I agree! I’m writing with far too broad a penstroke here, making mental leaps without dangling a thread to lead you through the labaryinth of complications with which I awoke. And, characteristically, I haven’t the will to poke around and analyze all this nonsense, or a strong enough back to be able to sit for hours, whittling it down into something comprehensible. (Are you sighing with relief?)

So today’s compromise is that I offer you both bags of words to juggle over breakfast or brunch or whatever, with my love. If you make any sense of any of it, do let me know.

(By the way, I remember the Keats poem because I assumed the poet called for a golden pen because he thought it would make the poem somehow better. I was horrified because at the time I valued grey drudgery and poverty above gold and leisure. How perceptions change.)

A Sonnet by John Keats
GIVE me a golden pen, and let me lean
On heap’d up flowers, in regions clear, and far;
Bring me a tablet whiter than a star,
Or hand of hymning angel, when ’tis seen
The silver strings of heavenly harp atween:
And let there glide by many a pearly car,
Pink robes, and wavy hair, and diamond jar,
And half discovered wings, and glances keen.
The while let music wander round my ears,
And as it reaches each delicious ending,
Let me write down a line of glorious tone,
And full of many wonders of the spheres:
For what a height my spirit is contending!
’Tis not content so soon to be alone.

People’s Parties by Joni Mitchell
All the people at this party
They’ve got a lot of style
They’ve got stamps of many countries
They’ve got passport smiles
Some are friendly
Some are cutting
Some are watching it from the wings
Some are standing in the centre
Giving to get something

Photo Beauty gets attention
Then her eye paint’s running down
She’s got a rose in her teeth
And a lampshade crown
One minute she’s so happy
Then she’s crying on someone’s knee
Saying laughing and crying
You know it’s the same release

I told you when I met you
I was crazy
Cry for us all Beauty
Cry for Eddie in the corner
Thinking he’s nobody
And Jack behind his joker
And stone-cold Grace behind her fan
And me in my frightened silence
Thinking I don’t understand

I feel like I’m sleeping
Can you wake me
You seem to have a broader sensibility
I’m just living on nerves and feelings
With a weak and a lazy mind
And coming to peoples parties
Fumbling deaf dumb and blind

I wish I had more sense ot humor
Keeping the sadness at bay
Throwing the lightness on these things
Laughing it all away
Laughing it alI away
Laughing it all away

Friendly Irish Cats and a Japanese Novel

Throughout our time in Ireland, we found ourselves in the presence of keenly communicative cats. And being catless cat people, each encounter was a joy.

The first cat to find us was at Errisbeg b&b. It’s a 20 minute walk from MacCarthy’s Bar and one of the prettiest houses I’ve seen in Ireland. (We stayed there for one night at the beginning of our holiday because Dzogchen Beara didn’t have room.)

Actually, there were two cats at Errisbeg, one of whom we met at about 2am when she jumped through the very slightly open window, (English people need to breathe at night, unlike most Europeans. Andreas has now been thoroughly trained, so whatever the weather, we open a window) padded around for a bit, then having located the most comfortable (from her point of view) and inconvenient spot (from our point of view), curled up between us on the bed. A comfortable bed, as it happens, but about a foot and a half narrower than we’re used to (Andreas is 6’5″) and therefore a little less spacious than strictly necessary. But the cat found her place and settled in. Until about 4am, when she wanted to go out. Naturally.

The other Errisbeg cat came in as we were dressing and, as you can see in the photo, distracted Andreas for a while. Then at breakfast (a particularly delicious breakfast, I remember) we caught another glimpse of our nighttime visitor. She looked rather forlorn out in the rain, but turned her nose up at the open conservatory door when we tried to invite her to join us. Cats!

At Dzogchen Beara there are many cats, but we only really became friendly with two. The big ginger and white, Marlon Brando’s Vito Corrleone in the furry flesh, remained aloof, but kept his eye on us to make sure we didn’t overstep any cat-set marks. We were tolerated, nothing more. The white fighter and the little ginger and white were friends, and as you can see, the little ginger and white became very attached to Andreas, slept with him, sat on him, and searched for him diligently on the few occasions she lost sight of him.

There were others, of course, but I’ve run out of steam now, mostly because I want to tell you about a character in Haruki Murakami’s wonderful book Kafka on the Shore. Have you read it? One of Khyentse Rinpoche ‘s recommendations, but I must confess it didn’t appeal at all me and so I approached it with some trepidation—I was on holiday after all, and Asian metaphysical mindbending wasn’t, initially, my idea of relaxing reading. But the dutiful student in me kicked in and, sighing a little wistfully perhaps, I turned on my kindle the day before we left and began to read. (I can’t start a book at an airport or in a plane, so unless I’m well into something before I travel, I just space out or reread Hello! magazine until my brain turns off altogether.)

In three pages I was hooked and am now eager to evangelize. It’s a marvellous book. My only quibble (there has to be one) is that it was translated into American not English, and somehow American slang doesn’t, for me at least, sit well with what little I know of the Japanese character and culture. American publishing is wiping out English at a rate of knots, and I don’t think anyone these days really cares. What to do?

Anyway, one of the main characters, who had his mind wiped during a mysterious incident involving flashes of light in a forest as he picked mushrooms with his schoolmates (very X-Files, but no Scully or Mulder), found subsequently that he was able to talk to cats. Of all the super-powers I’ve ever come across (and these days, that’s more than a handful), talking to cats sounds has to be the best. I think Andreas can already. And his mother can talk to birds. So I’m the odd-one out, because I can only communicate through a computer keyboard—a realization I’ve only recently allowed myself to accept. And which, I suppose, is another very good reason for regularly removing myself from my computer by taking more holidays.


If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

Far or forgot to me is near,
Shadow and sunlight are the same,
The vanished gods to me appear,
And one to me are shame and fame.

They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
And I the hymn the Brahmin sings.

The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

Ralph Waldo Emerson
November 1857

Stranger than the rest…

“Words, words, words!” Not the first time have I quoted Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond in Sunshine Boulevard, and it won’t be the last.

Bloody exhausting things, words. Especially when they won’t line up as they ought. I took a photo the other day of brightly coloured draw knobs that the Turk at the Mehringdamm end of Bergmannstrasse has been peddling for the past month. It hurts to look at this snap because they remind me of the jumble of vivid and brilliant words and phrases that pile up in this bleeding yet rusty mind of mine, for which I strain muscle and sinew to breaking point in the effort to screw into place, but always find that the end result is at best odd, or worse, painfully affected and downright awkward. Bugger it!

I think the root of the trouble may lie in sad fact that the wave of memories of music I’ve been drowning you under this week, indulgent reader, has also loosened and washed up faded but determined reminders of various poems I was exposed to as a child. I can’t say I ever learnt any of them properly, but scraps have been screwed up and lodge, painlessly, in the deeper recesses of my memory—all produced by the truly great and talented writers of the past. John Clare, for example, the farmer, rescued from obscurity in the 20th century and, we are told by them that know, is now loved as much as Keats and Shelley. (Does anyone truly read Keats and Shelley these days, except for exams?)

There’s an ode or a sonnet he wrote to some bird or other that schoolchildren of my generation in Buckinghamshire, where I grew up, were given to read—a generation earlier they would have commited it to memory, but all I can dig up  are the phrases ‘thick and spreading hawthorn bush’ and ‘sing hymns to sunrise’. A cursory google didn’t instantly splat the poem across my screen, so I’ve settled for posting perhaps his most famous poem, which I like better and which, given my current mood (be grateful I don’t elucidate), seems far more apt.

My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes;
They rise and vanish in oblivion’s host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes:
And yet I am, and live — like vapours toss’t

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise —
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest, that I love the best
Are strange — nay, rather, stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling, and untroubled where I lie,
The grass below — above the vaulted sky.

Britzer Garten 2012

We visited Britzer Garten a couple of weekends ago to see the tulips, but had left it too late in the season and they were almost dead by the time we got there. Last year we were too early, so next year we’ll go in the 3rd week of April which is, I believe, peak season, and be there just in time.

I spent the whole day fiddling fussily with my camera, trying to adjust the settings to get better snaps, but missed the fact that I’d selected, by mistake (can’t see close up any more), a macro setting on the lens. Typical. A pre-senior moment, I think. So, even though nothing is right about any of these photos, I still feel moved to add them as a record of that day to help oil the rusty cogs of my desiccated memory during future browsings—my own, of course, I wouldn’t want you to put yourselves through any of this waffle a second time. It was such a lovely, if chilly, May day.

On the way to Britzer Garten, which is about 20 minutes from our house if the bus comes on time, we saw an ad painted on the wall that reminded me of Indian ads I’d seen in Varanasi. This one’s for a master painter—but I’m sure that’s not the right English translation of Malermeister. My tragedy is that I never learnt to speak German properly, and now I can no longer summon ordinary English to my quivering tongue… ach ja!

Anyway, the master painter is the first picture you’ll see. Then there are a couple of assorted ‘views’, and the last photo is of a deckchair with a verse from the collection of anonymous German Folk Songs called ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’ printed on the back. All the deckchairs had some verse or other plastered on them, so each, from the point of view many who pursue contemporary art with some seriousness, is a work of art. And noone sat on them. But that may have been because it was so cold.

Throughout the day Andreas quietly sang through his now extensive repertoire of traditional Irish songs, so the most appropriate sound track to this posting would be of him doing his Irish thing. But as I don’t have a new recording of him yet and can’t access his voice right now as he’s currently snoring and farting his way through the morning after a very late night ‘session’ in Kreuzberg (36, I think, not 60), I thought I’d substitute another exquisitely great voice.

My first choice of song was to have been from Mahler’s settings of Des Knabe Wunderhorn, but the Harvest Song I photographed isn’t part of that selection. So instead I’m offering a rather crackly recording (obviously a badly made video that I found on youtube) of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, a musician and singer of such magnitude I’m not even going to try to describe his greatness, who died last week at the age of 86—a lifelong 60 a day smoker, but don’t tell Andreas. We will not see his like again in our lifetimes.

Here he is singing ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ from Mahler’s setting of five songs by Frederich Rückert. It’s worth including the translation of this poem, I think, even though the artistry of the poet doesn’t come through in English.

I am lost to the world
on which I used to waste so much time,
It has heard nothing of me for so long
that it may well think me dead.

I do not care at all
whether it thinks me dead.
Nor can I deny it:
for I have really died to the world.

I have died to the world’s tumult
and rest in a realm of quiet:
I live alone in my own heaven,
in my love, in my song.

To Dispel the Misery of the World

I’ve never really studied Lojong thoroughly—which won’t come as a surprise to most of you reading this post. You’ve all seen me breaking such commitments as, “Don’t ponder others’ flaws,” or “Don’t strike a vulnerable point,” or especially, “Don’t be irritable,” and “Don’t be temperamental”. Actually, as I read the list, I can’t see one commitment that I have managed to keep. Ach ja. That’s what comes from being one of the generation so-called Buddhist practitioners who jumped in at the deep end in the 80s and have been flailing around in a quagmire of misunderstanding ever since. I’m definitely “difficult to train”; in fact, the very idea of “training” is anathema to me. Which is why putting Lojong teachings into practice would do me quite a lot of good.

This is one of the reasons I’ve recently read—and enjoyed enormously—To Dispel the Misery of the World written by the great 15th century master Ga Rabjampa, and translated by Adam Pearcey for Rigpa Translations. True, I probably wouldn’t have opened it at all had Adam not been a friend and very kind answerer-of-stupid-questions, or had I not been to his 21st birthday party (a homemade cake and a couple of cups of an unidentifiable French alcoholic beverage—it was the last time I smoked a cigarette, come to think of it) at Lerab Ling a lifetime or so ago. But I did, and he does, so I have, and am glad.

It’s a very beautiful looking book, I must say, but one of the disadvantages of such a gorgeous cover is that it is so easy simply to gaze at the photo in wonder and forget about opening the thing up—a strong temptation in this case, which I guess future book makers should take into consideration. On the other hand, or should I say page in this context, there are an awful lot of really beautifully designed books these days, but this is one of the few whose content merit the designer’s effort.

The first thing to point out, I suppose, is that it is a book of pith instructions. Not hard to work out, given the “Whispered Teachings” part of the subtitle. And true to the spirit of pith instructions, the teachings presented here, while completely authentic and true to their tradition, follow their own logic most elegantly. But for those whose bible is Trungpa Rinpoche’s Training the Mind and Cultivating Loving-Kindness, there are one or two surprises in store. For example, Trungpa Rinpoche’s “point one” covers Guru Yoga and the ‘four thoughts’ or ‘four reminders’ (or whatever your favourite translation for these profoundly transformative contemplations), in a couple of hundred words. In To Dispel the Misery of the World it takes up around 70 pages!

Then, instead of leaping into absolute bodhicitta, Ga Rabjampa reinstates a line that he says has often been omitted from the root text, “Once stability is reached, teach the secret” which means, he tells us, “Once stability in relative bodhichitta has been reached, then absolute bodhichitta, which is kept secret from those not yet ready to receive it, can be taught.” The upshot being that the order here is reversed and we find ourselves instantly propelled into the midst of one of the most detailed descriptions of tonglen and ‘exchanging self for others’ I think I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. And so, if your reason for reading this text is to learn how, practically speaking, to go about developing love, compassion and bodhichitta, you’ll find everything you need right here.

The text is, as Tibetan tradition demands, peppered liberally with quotations from great and familiar texts—Nagarjuna’s Letter to a Friend, for example, and of course The Way of the Bodhisattva—as well a number I hadn’t come across before (not being much of scholar). One of these is repeated a couple of times and is from the sutras. It is included to encourage us to feel grateful to our mothers in the section about how to meditate on love. See if it works for you:

All the breast milk that we drank
when each sentient being was our mother
is greater in volume than all the water
contained within the four great oceans.

Sadly, my black sense of humour and general lack of appreciation of mothers find it hard to read these words without reference to a number of disturbing images that flicker, unwanted, through my degenerate mind, so clearly, I have a very limited capacity. But this is certainly no reflection on the excellent teachings on developing love through contemplating the love of our mother that appear here in a very moving practice that’s combined with Guru Yoga, and also includes a meditation on compassion. It’s just an instance of how a modern, sick mind unravels itself.

Having completed the ‘holy secret’ of how to arouse relative bodhichitta, we discover, again in a very detailed way, how to practise shamatha and vipashyana meditations—absolute bodhichitta. In this section Ga Rabjampa relies heavily on teachings by Kamalashila from his Stages of Meditation II, which are clear and extremely pragmatic. Then come what I think Trungpa described as the ‘slogans’, and finally a conclusion.

For a five hundred year old text, it’s surprisingly pertinent, at least to this aging modern mind, and has been translated with meticulous care and grace. Let me know what you think. It’s an auspicious first from Adam, though, and I pray it will be followed by many, many more translations of texts from that glorious golden era.

An Almost Dancer

I’m having one of my poetry binges. I found this one on the TLS website, it was one of their poems of the week, and, for reasons that will be obvious to those who read the Skylarks blog, I instantly copied it to paste into this post. Ha ha! It’s by Robert Nye and he wrote it in 2010. I think I’ll read some more of his stuff as I lie on Tempelhofer Feld this weekend—that is, if I am ever able to prise myself away from the computer screen.

Once, on a hill in Wales, one summer’s day

I almost danced for what I thought was joy.

An hour or more I’d lain there on my back
Watching the clouds as I gazed dreaming up.

As I lay there I heard a skylark sing
A song so sweet it touched the edge of pain.

I dreamt my hair was one with all the leaves
And that my legs sent shoots into the earth.

Laughing awake, I lay there in the sun
And knew that there was nothing to be known.

Small wonder then that when I stood upright
I felt like dancing. Oh, I almost danced,

I almost danced for joy, I almost did.
But some do not, and there’s an end of it.

One night no doubt I shall lie down for good
And when I do perhaps I’ll dance at last.

Meanwhile I keep this memory of that day
I was an almost dancer, once, in Wales.

A Memorable Fancy

The BBC has on its invaluable iPlayer a truly dreadful documentary about the making of the Doors’ LA Woman. We didn’t stay with it for long, and I only mention it because it reminded me of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which I haven’t even opened in more than 35 years.

Worse, I realized, as I tried to bring some memory of that book to mind, that all I could find amongst so many millions of little grey cells, both alive and more commonly dead, was a mush of complicated… well, mush. I even asked myself the question, where had William inserted the now rather over-exposed line ‘the doors of perception…’? I clawed around a bit, failed to locate even a thumbnail, and after a few self-indulgent moments of almost abject despair, resorted to looking it up, because I could.

That was an hour ago. What I was supposed to be doing was working on an edit of the ‘notion of self’ in the context of the five skandhas. And I’m sure that piece of information in itself will explain to you why I allowed myself to leap so gratefully after this particular distraction.

The Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel dined with me, and I asked them how they dared so roundly to assert, that God spoke to them; and whether they did not think at the time, that they would be misunderstood, & so be the cause of imposition.

Isaiah answer’d, I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover’d the infinite in every thing, and as I was then perswaded, & remain confirm’d; that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences but wrote.

Then I asked: does a firm perswasion that a thing is so, make it so?

He replied, All poets that it does, & in ages of imagination this firm perswasion removed mountains; but many are not capable of a firm perswasion of any thing.

Then Ezekiel said, The philosophy of the east taught the first principles of human perception: some nations held one principle for the origin & some another; we of Israel taught that the Poetic Genius (as you now call it) was the first principle and all other others merely derivative, which was the cause of our despising the priests & Philosophers of other countries, and prophecying that all Gods would at last be proved to originate in ours & to be the tributaries of the Poetic Genius; it was this that our great poet King David desired so fervently & invokes so patheticly, saying by this he conquers enemies & governs kingdoms; and we so loved our God, that we cursed in his name all deities of surrounding nations, and asserted that they had rebelled; from these opinions the vulgar came to think that all nations would at last be subject to the jews.

This said he, like all firm perswasions, is come to pass, for all nations believe the jews code and worship the jews god, and what greater subjection can be?
I heard this with some wonder, & must confess my own conviction. After dinner I ask’d Isaiah to favour the world with his lost works, he said none of equal value was lost. Ezekiel said the same of his.

I also asked Isaiah what made him go naked and barefoot three years? he answer’d, the same that made our friend Diogenes the Grecian.

I then asked Ezekiel, why he eat dung, & lay so long on his right & left side? he answer’d, the desire of raising other men into a perception of the infinite; this the North American tribes practise, & is he honest who resists his genius or conscience only for the sake of present ease or gratification?

The ancient tradition that the world will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand years is true, as I have heard from Hell.

For the cherub with his flaming sword is hereby commanded to leave his guard at tree of life, and when he does, the whole creation will be consumed, and appear infinite, and holy whereas it now appears finite & corrupt.

This will come to pass by an improvement of sensual enjoyment.

But first the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul, is to be expunged: this I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

Death hath ten thousand several doors…

I’ve never seen the Duchess of Malfi on stage, but I feel as though I know the play quite well from all the references to it that I’ve come across over the years—even in Hollywood movies. Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, for example, which is one of my all-time favourites. Reggie is in love with Pandora (Ava Gardner) and because she won’t marry him, takes some poison and dies with the words of the Duchess on his lips. It’s marvellous stuff—both Reggies OTT death and the original scene in what must be one of the bloodiest and most violent of all plays. Not to mention the incest.

But it’s because I’ve seen Pandora so often that the “death hath ten thousand several doors” bit sticks in my memory. Here’s the original text from the play, followed by a clip from the Pandora movie.  Reggie actually dies about 3 mins 45 seconds in, so don’t let the fact this bit is ten minutes long put you off.

DUCHESS. What death?
BOSOLA.       Strangling; here are your executioners.
DUCHESS.  I forgive them:
The apoplexy, catarrh, or cough o’ th’ lungs,
Would do as much as they do.
BOSOLA.  Doth not death fright you?
DUCHESS.                             Who would be afraid on ‘t,
Knowing to meet such excellent company
In th’ other world?
BOSOLA.  Yet, methinks,
The manner of your death should much afflict you:
This cord should terrify you.
DUCHESS.                       Not a whit:
What would it pleasure me to have my throat cut
With diamonds? or to be smothered
With cassia? or to be shot to death with pearls?
I know death hath ten thousand several doors
For men to take their exits; and ’tis found
They go on such strange geometrical hinges,
You may open them both ways:  any way, for heaven-sake,
So I were out of your whispering.  Tell my brothers
That I perceive death, now I am well awake,
Best gift is they can give or I can take.
I would fain put off my last woman’s-fault,
I ‘d not be tedious to you.
FIRST EXECUTIONER.           We are ready.
DUCHESS.  Dispose my breath how please you; but my body
Bestow upon my women, will you?
FIRST EXECUTIONER.               Yes.
DUCHESS.  Pull, and pull strongly, for your able strength
Must pull down heaven upon me:—
Yet stay; heaven-gates are not so highly arch’d
As princes’ palaces; they that enter there
Must go upon their knees [Kneels].—Come, violent death,
Serve for mandragora to make me sleep!—
Go tell my brothers, when I am laid out,
They then may feed in quiet.


I remember reading an article by Anthony Burgess, or was it in the interview he gave to Antonia Byatt? I can’t remember. What stuck in my mind was his story about being told he had an inoperable brain tumour. Obviously, he recovered, but for a while he thought he was going to die, and made a conscious decision to spend what time he had left making money for his family. So, he started writing novels. Naturally, he had no choice but to work quickly and in this interview/article announced quite coolly that he found it quite easy to knock off 2,000 words before breakfast. I don’t think I’ve ever recovered from the shock of that statement, and ‘2,000 words before breakfast’ has become the unattainable bar of productivity that I never have and never am likely to attain this lifetime. I can barely manage a 300 word daily blog entry…

So, Anthony Burgess has a great deal to answer for, yet until now, I’ve avoided reading his novels. His translation of Cyrano de Bergerac, though, is a great favourite of mine. It was commissioned for a production by the RSC in the early 80s and Derek Jacobi was cast as Cyrano. I went 5 times, and as the RSC tended to decamp to the restaurant I worked at after the performance, I served Derek and his boyfriend, Pete Postlethwaite, Alice Krige and Sinead Cusak, plus many other members of the cast, throughout the play’s run. Gerard Depardieu’s very popular version was in the cinema’s at the same time, but I didn’t like it. I much preferred this theatre piece.

Sadly, one or two prominent critics of the day lambasted the RSC for wasting the talents of their company on such unutterable rubbish. It made me sad at the time because there was so much to enjoy in this extremely rich, albeit extremely romantic play, not least the marvellously vivid language Burgess had conjured from the French original. Personally, I feel it was the end of one of the RSC’s richer periods—especially when you remember that their next big hit was the inexorable ‘Glums’.

Anyway, all the above was inspired by the discovery that some kind soul had videoed the BBC TV presentation of this production that was aired in 1985, and posted it on youtube. I vividly remember sitting on the floor in a friend’s tiny Alma Square apartment (I was crashing on the sofa for a couple of months between ‘jobs’) to watch the show, and both loving and hating it at the same time: ‘loving’ to hear the words again, especially as spoken by the wonderful Derek Jacobi, and ‘hating’ the sad lack of excitement and atmosphere that I always felt in the theatre.

And now, after more than twenty years, we can see it again. True, it’s been broken it up into 17 parts, so if you’re interested, you’ll have to endure a fuzzy picture and ten minute mouthsful, but if it lives up to my memory of it, you’re in for a treat. I feel I can’t wait, but am determined to discipline myself to save it for the weekend.

In the meantime, here’s a good bit— the humour and vibrancy of language deserves the description ‘good’, not the quality of the video. Here’s Cyrano’s first appearance on the stage and his masterclass in wit to the pom-pom wearing men of fashion he despises so roundly. Sadly, this clip lacks the final stanza of the speech, so if you have time, do find the next bit and let Cyrano finish.

My eyes grow dim…

Spiritual people, whichever tradition they follow, tend to be quite emotional types. I’ve always felt a certain kinship with some of early Christian writers. The authors of the Psalms, for example, whoever they may be. Here’s the beginning of Psalm 69, which seems to me to describe remarkably accurately, how it feels to flail around on a spiritual path.

Ofcourse, I’m not waiting for God. As a follower of the Buddhadharma I don’t believe that the will of an independent, external deity rules my life. But substitute ‘enlightenment’ for ‘God’, or even ‘realization’, and the verse becomes surprisingly relevant. For me, at least.

Save me, O God!
For the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying out; my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.

A memory of this verse popped into my mind as I was making my breakfast this morning. Banana porridge. And as a result, I burnt it. Perhaps I should convert to Christianity. A quarter of a century of Buddhist practice doesn’t seem to have brought me one ounce of mindfulness.

Sensual pleasures more than a rhino…

Languages are a mystery to me. My own native language, English, remains as mysterious to me today as it was when I first chanted A, B, C in nursery school. Then came French, which I loved the idea of, but hated its finiky reality (and still do.) So why I then took German as my third language I will never know. I have never really learnt a language thoroughly. I just grab at the odd verb and noun and repeat them loudly until someone asks, “Would you rather speak English?” Hard to believe, I know, but after more than eighteen years living in Germany, my German is only slightly more advanced than that of an 18 month old native baby. Sad, no?

All of which made my foray into the world of Tibetan-English translation such an un-get-overable shock. Throughout my career as a Buddhist student, I never once considered learning Tibetan. I can barely bring to mind the most basic terms that have been repeated to me ad nauseam for more than a quarter of a century, and the idea of having to string them together inspires cold sweats and palpitations! Nevertheless, a frisky demon with a highly developed sense of the ridiculous entered the minds of the great and the good who assign me projects, and, for better or for worse, I am now connected with a couple of accomplished Buddhist scholars whose priorities include the translation of Tibetan texts into contemporary English. And it was through them that I came across the rhino.

I mean, what would you have done with a rough translation of the sentence, “I have now experienced sensual pleasures more than a rhino?”

My first thought—although as it turned out, not my best—was that it was a comment on the sex life of a rhinoceros. (A bit obvious, though.) But given that the context was the nam tar of a beloved Tibetan teacher who lived in Kham and who would have been hard pressed to distinguish a rhino from a yak, it seemed unlikely. No other thoughts followed that first stab, so instead of wracking my already throbbing brains, I requested clarification.

The first thing I learnt was that rhinos are not Tibetan natives—which I’d sort fo guessed. That a rhino has never, and probably will never set foot on the plateau did not surprize me in any way. Yet, somewhere back in the mists of time, a Tibetan translator came across a description of a beast with a single horn, and now, god knows how many centuries later, the most recent English equivalent of the metaphor he originated seems to be ‘rhino’. Why not a unicorn, I wondered? Or a narwhal? Then I pulled myself up quite sharply and vowed to stop thinking. Thinking really isn’t much help in the Tibetan Buddhist world.

Then I twigged that it isn’t the rhino that’s the big deal here, it’s his horn (do ‘her’ rhinos also have horns, I wonder?) The single horn. Of course, my clever-dick mind immediately conjured any number of videos and photos of I’ve seen of rhinos and told me, in no uncertain terms, that many rhinos have two horns. But that’s an irrelevant detail from the Tibetan point of view. As far as they are concerned, the rhino has just one horn, and therefore is the perfect candidate to represent the number ‘one.’ A conclusion I don’t think any other nationality would have reached, but which makes perfect sense to a Tibetan mind. Let’s move on…

My next question was, does ‘sensual pleasures’ refer to sex? And again, my modern mind was in entirely the wrong arena. Here ‘sensual pleasures’ means ‘life.’ And as the writer was a great master who had developed absolute renunciation for samsara and nirvana, ‘life’ doesn’t refer to sex, drugs, rock’n’roll and all our modern ideas about living life to the full, but his spiritual life. Which makes the whole phrase mean something like, “I have lived a full life.” One might even extrapolate ‘satisfying.’

So that’s the rhino sorted. On one level at least. There are, as always, outer, inner and secret meanings to be considered, and so if the final draft doesn’t convey any of the above, don’t be surprised. Or I might have misunderstood everything I’ve been told and find I have to start again. Again.

Laying Waste Our Powers

I always thought the first poem I ever learned was by William Wordsworth, but it turns out it was by Kenneth Grahame (who wrote The Wind in the Willows). I’ve often stumbled as I’ve tried to recall it because my seven-year old self learned “Through the rushes green” instead of “Through the rushes tall.” Easy mistake to make, no? But it buggers up the rhyme completely.

Anyway, it’s the season during which many people suspend their disbelief and submit to the celebration of conspicuous consumption and the elevation os ‘family’ to a kind of hyperbolic spiritual absolute. Both make me feel a little sick. So, my antidote is something as unlikely to generate material gain as it is for most families to sit together and discuss the nature of ultimate reality rather than watch the Dr. Who Christmas Special: read a poem or two.

First the Kenneth Grahame, then one of Wordsworth’s most famous sonnets.

All along the backwater,
Through the rushes tall,
Ducks are a-dabbling,
Up tails all!

Ducks’ tails, drakes’ tails,
Yellow feet a-quiver,
Yellow bills all out of sight
Busy in the river!

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.—Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.


It’s a funny thing, reading. I try to get excited about contemporary literature, but there’s not that much out there that really grabs me. There’s Alan Hollinghurst, of course, but Ishiguro’s last offering was such a disappointment I’m not sure I’ll be able to summon the enthusiasm to make an attempt at his next. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall was right up my street, but the descriptions of her earlier books leave me cold. I must steel myself…

Anyway, the point is that for now I’ve resorted to rereading old favourites. At the moment, ‘Ayesha, the Further History of She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed’ by Rider Haggard. It’s fabulous. Such a great adventure and some dexterous comments on Tibetan Buddhism that will I’m sure, bring a smile to those of you whose feet “are in the Path”  of Buddhadharma. For example, this is how the Abbot of the ‘Lamasery’ described the lives of the lamas who lived there.

“We have acquired much merit, we have been blest with many revelations, and, after the repose we have earned in Devachan, our lots in future existences will be easier. What more can we ask or desire, removed as we are from all the temptations of the world?”

And the narrator of the book adds, “Thus they wore away their blameless lives until at last they died of old age, and, as they believed—and who shall say that they were wrong—the eternal round repeated itself elsewhere.”

Later, Leo, the gold-haired hero obsessed by Ayesha, shares his interpretation of the Abbot’s words.

“A cheerful faith, truly,” said Leo, looking after him, “to dwell through aeons in monotonous misery in order that consciousness may be swallowed up at last in some void and formless abstraction called the “Utter Peace.” I would rather take my share of a bad world and keep my hope of a better. Also, I do not think that he knows anything of Ayesha and her destiny.”

A man of wax, that H. Rider Haggard, or should I say a writer of wax.


This was supposed to be a poem by Auden, but I wasn’t in the mood for his gayness, which in my youth I used to love. So here, instead, is Yeats. A poem so famous that you probably already know it by heart (wasn’t it used in some movie or other?), but so tender it never fails to move my wooden heart.

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.

William Butler Yeats


I found a list of things Virginia Woolf wrote this morning that I must have collected decades ago. It’s thirty years since I devoured every word she wrote, but for no reason at all, she’s been on my mind over the past few weeks.

Even before I read one of her books I loved her because she was beautiful and famous for being mad. I’ve always had a penchant for mad people. Or at least, for people who don’t join herds or clubs or, I suppose, sanghas—another of those English foibles I’ve already owned up to.

The kind of Englishness I recognize doesn’t seem to live anywhere but in my imagination these days. Perhaps it’s only ever existed there? But weren’t the English famous, at one point, for producing brilliant eccentrics and original thinkers? Now those squashed onto that tiny island seem merely to worship at the shrine of global banalities. At least, that’s how the English look from an ex-pat’s perspective. I sincerely hope I’m wrong.

Anyway, back to my list of quotations from books by Virginia Woolf. Sadly, I didn’t note down the books they came from, so cock-sure was I of my ability to recall at will virtually every syllable I read (those were the days…). Still, why not try this trio on for size and see if they fit.

“The older one grows, the more one likes indecency.”

“Rigid, the skeleton of habit alone upholds the human frame.”

“Really I don’t like human nature unless all candied over with art.”

Auden (1)

George Osbourne wrote a biography of W.H. Auden that came out in 1980. In those days Auden’s reputation had diminished somewhat and his work was considered ‘second-rate.’ Then in the 90s Four Weddings and a Funeral used ‘Stop all the clocks’ and he became ‘popular’. But back in 1980, as I studied Benjamin Britten’s songs set to words by Auden, his writing entranced me. I think I’ll post some of it over the next weeks, but in the meantime, here’s a bit of the biography that, more than thirty years ago, wedged a splinter in the thumb of the material world I was being groomed for.

In the early summer of 1933, Auden experienced one of those rare moments of visionary or mystical insight which, fleeting though they are, can strangely persist as a lifelong influence. A feeling of intense, unearthly serenity, a moment of enlightenment which passes, but which leaves behind it the knowledge that, if only for a moment, the universe has made sense. These experiences do not translate easily to words, not even to the words of so skilful a manipulator of language as Auden, and verbal accounts of such occasions require to be read with a special sympathy. Auden’s account of his vision was written, or at any rate first published, a good thirty years later:

“On fine summer night in June 1933 I was sitting on a lawn after dinner with three colleagues, two women and one man. We liked each other well enough but we were certainly not intimate friends, nor had any one of us a sexual interest in another. Incidentally, we had not drunk any alcohol. We were talking casually about everyday matters when, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened. I felt myself invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly—because, thanks to the power, I was doing it—what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself. I was also certain, though the conversation continued to be perfectly ordinary, that my three colleagues were having the same experience. (In the case of one of them, I was able later to confirm this.) My personal feelings towards them were unchanged‚they were still colleagues, not intimate friends—but I felt their existence as themselves to be of infinite value and rejoiced in it.

“I recalled with shame the many occasions on which I had been spiteful, snobbish, selfish, but the immediate joy was greater than the shame, for I knew that, so long as I was possessed by this spirit, it would be literally impossible for me deliberately to injure another human being. I also knew that the power would, of course, be withdrawn sooner or later and that, when it did, my greeds and self-regard would return. The experience lasted at its full intensity for about two hours when we said good-night to each other and went to bed. When I awoke the next morning, it was still present, though weaker, and it did not vanish completely for two days or so. The memory of the experience has not prevented me from making use of others, grossly and often, but it has made it much more difficult for me to deceive myself about what I am up to when I do. And among the various factors which several years later brought me back to the Christian faith in which I had been brought up, the memory of this experience and asking myself what it could mean was one of the most crucial, though, at the time it occurred, I thought I had done with Christianity for good.”

Paris, December 1993

1993 was a very, very long time ago, but what a time! On and off for about a year I slept on the floor of the shrine room at the apartment in rue Burq that Babette lent to Sogyal Rinpoche as centre and home. It was a very old apartment, as run down and dilapidated as many I’ve seen in India in more recent times. And the public parts (the kitchen, the bathroom) were positively medieval. Yet, it was a magical place. Bang smack in the middle of Montmatre, we had on our doorstep: the gourmand’s paradise, Rue Lepic; the marvellous, if architecturally confused, Sacre Coeur Cathedral; the tourist trap that is the Moulin Rouge; and the brazenly outrageous transvestites of Pigalle. Something for everyone…

Sogyal Rinpoche had published the original English version of  The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying  the previous year, and it was time for the European editions to be launched. A team had been assembled to facilitate Rinpoche’s French tour and as a result some nights I slept with twenty human beings, snoring and farting their way to an early call, or just a phone and the shrine mice.

Patrick Gaffney was around quite a lot in those days, supporting Rinpoche as what, post The West Wing, we might now call his ‘speech writer’. Can you imagine him as Toby Ziegler to Rinpoche’s Jed Bartlett? Perhaps not. I found this photo of him the other day. A bit fuzzy, but it serves to oil those cogs that I’m so desperate to get moving again.

Anyway, as you know Patrick is a wonderful writer, translator and poet, and someone whose advice and opinion I wish I could seek more often. But he sets the bar very high indeed, and as part of some wonderful solicited advice he sent recently, he included the following quotation.

“Ariel and Chana Boch say in their The Song of Songs, A New Translation, New York: Random House, 1995, p. 41: ‘One of the major challenges facing a translator today is to find the proper register in English, neither too formal and stylized nor too breezy and colloquial—language that is fresh and urgent and passionate, and at the same time dignified.’ ”

It’s good, don’t you think? After the first, second and third readings I felt giddy with enthusiastic determination, inspiration surged through my previously atrophied creative channels and I knew I was the equal of this and any other challenge life threw at me. But once that initial light-headedness began to clear I started seriously thinking about how such advice might be put into practice. And now, some months later, the reality of the task ahead is so vivid and its horrors so tightly riveted to my already hyperbolic imagination that I am daily racked and terrorized by the mere thought of it. If ever a girl needed a ‘muse of fire’…