Friday, December 30, 2011

On Hurqalya and Zen

A previous post about the imaginal world made reference to the concept of Hurqalya, and in case anyone found that interesting ("Hello, is this thing on?"), we briefly return with a little more on that subject.

First, some more definition:

Suhrawardi ("the Martyr," 1153-91)...took the pagan teachings known to him -- those of the real Zoroaster, Hermes Trismegistus, and Plato -- and combined them with Shi'ite Islam. At the center of Suhrawardi's theosophy is the same concept of a spiritual body that is developed by prayer and meditation. In this body, the adept can explore an inner world of supreme variety and wonder. Suhrawardi calls it Hurqalya. His French translator and interpreter, Henry Corbin, uses the term mundus imaginalis (the Imaginal World), urging his readers never to confuse it with the "imaginary" world of fantasy and fiction. Hurqalya is a real world, only it does not have a material substratum. It answers to the requirements of the scientific method, namely that anyone with the right equipment will discover its objective existence. However, unlike the radio telescope or particle collider, which inform the scientist of invisible and almost unimaginable realities, the exploration of Hurqalya requires the special tool of a highly refined astral or spiritual body: something as rare and hard to obtain as any piece of expensive hardware.*

As I commented in the post linked above, the ontological essence (whether this is a "real" place or not) is not a compelling issue for me. Suhrawarti's idea is that intensive prayer and meditation prepare one to enter an imaginal world. Zen training, on the other hand, reveals the so-called "ordinary" world as imaginal, too. No special preparation is required to enter it -- we are creating "the world" moment after moment as we grope about this planet. Indeed, even our understanding of self, this "I" that we carry around with us day after day, even that is an imaginal work: an aggregate of perceptions and impulses.

Zen Master Dae Kwang used to tell us there are universes everywhere -- "and they are all created by you." On the other hand, he also used to refer to our plans, desires, assumptions, and so on as "dreams." Here I would parse his words. "I" is not a dream: I could prove it by slamming my hand on this letter opener on my desk right now. Something is here that is not imaginary; but it is imaginal. Our plans, assumptions, desires, and even "I" are all imaginal: created by mind, yet very compelling and "real" to us.

The story of Zen is that all of this is an imaginal world, created by unprepared minds. The preparation, in this story, is for seeing the essence of this imaginal world and its boundaries.

Then what?

* Joscelyn Godwin, The Golden Thread: The Ageless Wisdom of the Western Mystery Traditions. Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books, 2007.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Quality Time

Pete is a Sicilian guy who frequently shows up at the International Delights Cafe in Las Cruces with a portable chess set. He rolls his board out across a table, leaving just enough room for coffee cups, cell phones, and perhaps an ash tray to the sides. He sets up his white and red pieces and waits, if he must; often enough, challengers are eager for a chance to vanquish Pete.
This is not blitz chess, played out in a few minutes over a cash bet. He's not a hustler. These games last half an hour, forty minutes, an hour. Pete plays position chess, considering all of the ramifications and possibilities carefully before making each move. Nonostante, Pete is not averse to a little competitive banter from time to time.
It becomes a spectator event, with strangers or coffee-shop-acquaintances looking up from their electronic devices to watch. Conversations unfold. Cigarettes are fired up. People duck inside for refills and come back. The scene is mostly but not exclusively male.
In a world that is ever more loud and impatient, there are still people who gather around a slow-paced battle of wits, speaking softly, watching, waiting. One man watched an entire game with scarcely a comment, occasionally checking his phone (it frequently beeped at him, like a nagging robot assistant), yet timelessly watching the situation change as he savored a black cigarette that smelled like toasting herbs. Not a word, just witnessing and nodding when he approved of the move.

Human beings speak of "quality time," a concept I find fascinating. "Quality time" as opposed to other kinds of time, thought of as a kind of time where we are not pressured to be productive or perform or meet deadlines. Perhaps that would constitute a vacation from "time" itself.
Strangely, we posit the idea of a special time that allows human beings to connect socially, as if something held us back from doing that the rest of the time. It's the familiar nausea of modern life: loud, fast, hard to focus on the person sitting right in front of us, much less our own selves. There is no "app" for that.
Last night, I had a peculiar urge to bring my own chessboard -- actually, my father's chess set, dating back to his high school days -- to the Mimbres Valley Brewing Company here in Deming. Filled my glass mug with their Pancho Villa stout, set up the board, and thumbed through a book waiting to see if anyone would sit down. A half hour or so went by before a young man named Jeremy sat down, a sweet guy one year out of college, passing through town on a long, meandering road trip throughout the United States, heading to Utah to earn some money so he can keep going, not even knowing yet what he's looking for, just looking around. Over the board and some friendly competition, we exchanged stories and information.
This morning, I imagine Jeremy is heading north in his beat-up van, with a notion of spending New Year's Eve in Silver City. I hope he is still savoring the roads and the mountains on his journey, going forward yet taking his time.

[Photos: Pete (top) and Johnny (below) playing chess at International Delights]

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Digging out from under Christmas

As this photograph, taken earlier today, shall document: we are still digging out from under Christmas, but will resume publishing our boring and inconsequential thoughts, reflections, and whimsies very soon. Be patient, though: it's hard to see what I'm typing with this tiger mask on.

[Photo: your humble correspondent and his first-born, post Christmas. Click on it for a larger view.]

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas Music Around the House

My wife is a woman who decks the halls the day after Thanksgiving. One day I wake up and on my way to the coffee maker I stumble through boughs of fake evergreen and I know the dread season has arrived.

It would be unfair to conclude that your correspondent is "grinchy." Christmas was always a very special day in my childhood, a time when family and friends gathered for food and wine and raucous laughter. I enjoy finding or making unique gifts for people I care about. It is not a religious day for me, of course, though I sometimes think about initiating a holiday tradition of reading the Q gospel out loud on Christmas morning.

Sometimes the ubiquity of Christmas-oriented music gets to be a bit much. After all, I don't go blasting Korean Buddhist chanting all day long, not even on Buddha's Birthday. Having performed in enough productions of A Christmas Carol, the familiar chestnuts (roasting on a fire or otherwise) no longer elevate my holiday spirit much, and some of my wife's more pop-oriented selection of Christmas originals occasionally tempts me to insert lit sticks of incense into my ears. Enough, already.

A solution to this problem has been found in combining our musical tastes with Sarah's religion. Voila, this year, the Prophetiae Sibyllarum, sometimes known as the "Christmas motets," of Orlando di Lasso. This lovely performance by Weser-Renaissance under Manfred Cordes now fills Sarah's house with rich chromatics and premonitions of the savior's birth -- actual Christmas music. A beautiful performance of a beautiful work.

And if it gets played over and over again, I can live with it.

The sample below is sung by different singers. Enjoy, if you like this sort of thing. Christmas is coming.

[Image: From a nativity painting by Lorenzo Lotto]

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Checking the Performance

It breaks my heart a little bit when actors speak disdainfully of live theatrical performance, complaining of its repetition. When we apply the craft for film, the camera and the editor record our performance forever, while live theatre is ephemeral, immediate, and less subject to our control. The live spectator may glance anywhere and react unexpectedly to the events they are witnessing. Its presence cannot be figured out and managed in the same way that an actor learns the camera, or senses how the camera perceives him.

It is natural to prefer the controllable and predictable, but it is also an adventure denied.

It breaks my heart a little bit to remember professional actors saying, "Nine shows a week" as if resigning themselves to repeating something canned, going through the motions, instead of coming alive within the structure of the rehearsed scene.

Performing Private Fears in Public Places suddenly became a drastically different experience when spectators began coming and they surprised us with their reactions -- and this is so often the case. The first performance or even the first few performances are usually vivid times, when what has been rehearsed suddenly crackles with fresh spontaneity and meaning.

It doesn't need to go away, but actors often lose that sense and begin checking the performance in a self-conscious way. "It feels flat tonight." That sort of thing. The comments reveal a changed attitude about the audience as well: suddenly they've become intruders, a hostile witness. Actors say things like, "They're not with us." "They hate it." "Why aren't they laughing?" "What a bunch!"

Zen Master Seung Sahn called this "checking mind." Evaluating what's going on from an alienated and insecure position, instead of immersing oneself wholeheartedly in the situation and acting. This is not just a problem for actors on a stage, it is how human beings often position themselves during their day, and end up missing out on their lives.

So it is with actors, missing out on the opportunity to fully embody their scene. Even worse, actors can infect each other with these comments, making backstage an incubator for increasing self-consciousness and alienation from the work. Once it starts, it can feel like the show is slowing down, shambling haltingly towards its grim conclusion, consigned to the locked vault of embarrassing memories.

It is self-sabotage and deeply sad to watch unfold, for one who loves and has always loved the live theatre -- and has seen what effect it can have on a room full of human beings.

[Photo: Edwin Soto and me, in a scene from Private Fears in Public Places, currently playing in Las Cruces, New Mexico]

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Stay In There

Many years ago, at a time when I felt my entire life was an Irish jig in a minefield, I had an opportunity to meet with Zen Master Wu Bong for a private interview at Brown University's Zen group.

"What can I do for you?" he asked. I remember his impish smile. We sat on cushions, facing each other, mere inches between us.

"You practice martial arts, don't you?" I asked. He nodded. I continued. "I feel as though I'm blind and might be attacked at any moment. What would you do?"

He said, "Please shut your eyes."

I did. I sat there with my eyes closed wondering what he would do. And...

...after a very long moment he said, "Thank you."

In the creative process (and in koan practice for that matter), the limitations contribute to a crisis: stay in there, and let the joriki grow and grow, and eventually something exuberant and true will explode.

What makes the rest of life any different?

On Censorship: Mama Mule Responds

On November 29, this blog addressed an online petition asking the dominant online bookseller Amazon to quit selling certain books about parenting that advocate spanking. The author of the petition is Milli Hill, who blogs from the UK as "Mama Mule." In the post, we expressed concerns about censorship, and Mama Mule took a moment to respond as follows:

First of all thank you for reading my blog and taking time to write about it.

I've thought carefully about this post and as a result I have changed the sentence in my post that you describe as 'chilling', (it was pretty chilling for me to read you saying you found my words chilling!) It now reads: "It may well then be that the question of whether the books should be banned becomes part of that debate, but this is not the aim of the petition."

I am not in favour of book banning, and I would stress that the petition is to ask Amazon not to stock titles that advocate the physical abuse of children. If the petition succeeds, and Amazon agree to this, these books will still be published. However they will be less readily available and hopefully this will cause people to question why this is and rethink this parenting approach.

Amazon themselves DO have a content policy, they say they do not stock 'offensive' material, they DO draw lines. I don't think drawing such a line - which you might call censorship - is a negative thing. Regardless of your views on freedom of speech there are some books I assume you would expect them not to stock, for example child pornography, or books that incite racial hatred.

The attitude to children and the treatment recommended in these books is utterly unacceptable and I felt I wanted to find some way to make a stand about this. The petition to Amazon was the best idea I could think of to raise awareness of the books and send a message that this was wrong. I love your idea of writing another book and I would love to do this one day, perhaps when my children are a little older and less time consuming!

Thank you for raising the interesting questions in this post and for making me think. I welcome your further thoughts.

Thank you and welcome! My further thoughts follow:

Marketplace censorship

It is quite true, let us acknowledge, that your petition is not an attempt to stop the publication of these books. It targets the distribution of these books after publication through the dominant seller of books on the internet. And granted, Amazon opens the door to this because it does, in fact, have a policy about "offensive material."

Though you pursue the distribution rather than the publication of the books you do not like, the end is similar: the books will be "less readily available," as you say. It is an attempt at censorship via the marketplace.

In fairness, you state very clearly that your intention is to raise awareness of an issue, and not to eradicate these books. (And I assume you are prepared for the possibility that publicity would increase the sales of these very books.) Let us suppose the petition is successful and Amazon refuses to list these books. Would you feel inspired to make a similar case, based on Amazon's capitulation, to Barnes & Noble, Booksamillion, Alibris, Abebooks, and so on and so on? Have you thought about where you would stop?

I don't want to be too hard on you: Amazon does have a policy about offensive content, you do find these particular books offensive, and so the rest follows honestly. You are playing by Amazon's rules and they are a private company. My objection arises to the suggestion that this is not censorship. Sure it is.

In theory, if you succeed it will be more difficult for a person to read the offending books and consider what those authors are presenting in comparison to your own case. Although you and I are agreed about the subject matter, I am not comfortable silencing those who are not yet convinced, or inhibiting them from communicating their view.

Which is what led to my suggestion that you use this time and energy to write a book instead, or edit one comprising material from parents, educators, and psychologists.

On Offensive Material

"Regardless of your views on freedom of speech there are some books I assume you would expect [Amazon] not to stock, for example child pornography, or books that incite racial hatred."

In general, my impulse is not to stop people reading things I find offensive or disturbing. There is nothing in my country's constitution, nor in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, suggesting I have a right not to be offended.

I'm open to the possibility that there may be information that should be suppressed. I prefer judicious redaction to outright suppression. For instance, I was fully supportive of WikiLeaks publishing leaked diplomatic memos that exposed various activities of my government, but I was equally concerned that certain individuals named in the documents be redacted for their personal safety. And I can imagine a book or magazine depicting murder, rape, mutilation of animals, things like that, being out of bounds.

But we must be careful and rigorous, because the definition of what is "out of bounds" tends to broaden.

Despite my country's greatly vaunted "first amendment" right to freedom of speech, we have a long history of curtailing that right with sedition and obscenity laws. There are persistent conflicts to this day about the difference between "pornography" and art, the difference between journalism and espionage (as with WikiLeaks, The Guardian, and the New York Times), and balancing freedom of information with national security.

Child pornography seems like an obvious "no!" and yet in my lifetime the definition of child pornography has broadened under U.S. law. I recall a beautiful book that once was stocked by the Providence Public Library, reproducing photographs taken by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland). There was a fashion in Victorian-era photography of using children as models, sometimes partly-naked. Dodgson frequently used such models in his photographs: clothed, partly clothed, or nude. The photographs did not depict sexual conduct, nor were they alluring in any prurient way to my eye, but the children were indeed nude and depicted as objects of beauty and innocence. If a photographer did such a series today, Anderson Cooper would be hounding them on television and they could be prosecuted for taking the pictures, mailing them anywhere, posting them on the internet, or publishing them. And a publisher would at least think twice about publishing that old book today; and a book collector would think twice about owning it.

This is my problem with the idea of censoring "offensive content." A book advocating spanking a child with a switch or a belt would likely offend me and I'd be moved to refute the book's claims, but the idea of stopping someone from selling or reading that book also offends me.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Mundus Imaginalis

Terry Gilliam's wonderful 2009 film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, introduces us to a traveling theatre troupe that invites people to take a walk into the mirror seen in this picture. When you walk through this fake mirror, you emerge into the world of your imagination. A place fewer and fewer people choose to visit in the modern world where the film takes place. For those who walk through (or stumble through inadvertently, as the case may be), there are many surprises, valuable lessons, and dangerous temptations.

The idea of an imaginal world, a mundus imaginalis, is old and has been taken quite seriously in times past. This is not the "collective unconscious" of Carl Jung, and not simply a world of fantasy made concrete; it is not even the personal cognitive realm Zen Master Seung Sahn placed at 270 degrees on his circle of awakening and enlightenment (an intriguing notion in itself, as it was thought possible for those sufficiently prepared to bend some of the rules of the material world), but an actual place. In Persian theosophy it was called hurqâlya, as Henri Corbin described: intermediate world, which our authors designate as 'alam al-mithal, the world of the Image, mundus imaginalis: a world as ontologically real as the world of the senses and the world of the intellect, a world that requires a faculty of perception belonging to it, a faculty that is a cognitive function, a noetic value, as fully real as the faculties of sensory perception or intellectual intuition. This faculty is the imaginative power, the one we must avoid confusing with the imagination that modern man identifies with "fantasy" and that, according to him, produces only the "imaginary."

A realm that is accessible through preparation, not to walk through a mirror or some other material gateway, but through the senses, past the particular personality and into an imaginal world that can be accessed by those whose faculties are prepared. Here, there is perennial inspiration, a riot of mythologies and images that speak in whispers intelligible to ears that are attuned, though they be fewer in number now than in other ages...

...especially in a world of men and women bent over personal electronic devices. In the dressing room of the theatre where I am currently performing in Alan Ayckbourn's Private Fears in Public Places, I'm damned if I did not witness the bewildering spectacle of two actors thumbing away at their little telephone computers simultaneously. One said, "I'm trying to find you on Facebook. Where are you?" The other spelled her name and the first said, "Nope, still can't find you." Were they seeking each other in some mundus electronicus, perhaps? Where would this be, in relation to the hierarchy of the material world, spiritual world, and the intermediary mundus imaginalis? It was a little bitchy of me, but I said out loud, "You know, she's right here in the room with you."

Yet minutes later, we were at play in a space shared by a playwright we have not met, we (a bunch of American artists), and those who occupy the audience. Fourth wall or none, what is the space that is viewed through the prism of a performance area?

Personally, I am not much interested in the ontology of these worlds. I don't literally believe much of anything about the world. I don't literally believe the ideas of Buddhism or acting or magic, tarot, or even ego. So much of my self is created by thinking, what would be the ontological basis of "I?" Much less a character I would play on a stage, a story, an image.

More important is our relationship to these things and how they affect us. Because in this world, regardless of its ontological "existence" as an independent place or a "collective unconscious" or whatever, there is ancient shared wisdom. There are also traps.

This is a beautiful, strange universe. There are also dangers. Make good friends, listen to old stories, and pay attention. And sing.

[Photo: Heath Ledger in "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus." He was working on this film when he died in January of 2008.]

Sunday, December 04, 2011


"Hi," a sort of half whisper, falling gently as a snowflake. Hi. Like the blanket against the skin of a sleeping child. Hi. That's all it is, hi.

Hi. Here you are, and in my sight you are excellent. On your messiest day, I'll take you all over again. Hi.

Such a plain greeting, but from Regina's breath I dearly wish this could be the last word I hear on this earth. "Hi."

[Artist: Agnolo Bronzino.]

Friday, December 02, 2011

Donatello and Gabriel

Gabriel dashes through the house in his favorite slippers, slippers that come up above his ankles and flare out ever so slightly. He wears no pants, to facilitate potty training. He runs about as an olympian force, much to the terror of the furniture and the delight of his baby brother. Occasionally he pauses, and in an instant as he stands languidly collecting himself or merely surveying his environment, or simply being like a magnificent cat, I catch glimpses of Donatello's David.

Donatello's David may actually be Mercury -- look at that hat and that pose. And Goliath was not slain with a sword. No, this looks like Mercury, perhaps just after slaying Argos as a favor to Zeus.

The natural sensuality that Donatello brought out of this bronze is truly a wonder -- it has been provoking diverse reactions in viewers for just about six centuries.

I would write more about this, but Mercury has just approached me and asked me to hang him upside down. You know how it is.