December Buddhist Bookishness

I am just back from 5 weeks in Vietnam, where I always move in a distinctly Buddhist milieu, and where I was working on a book with a distinctly Buddhist theme. So it's not unusual that I should return with an intense interest in Buddhist books, and I have been working my way through a whole bundle.

First up is a booklet I picked up from a huge pile at the Ngoc Hoang Pagoda (these days more commonly called Chua Phuoc Hai) in Saigon. This temple has undergone something of a revival since it was visited by president Obama, and so there are crowds there every day. I have always kind of liked the place. In the very last shrine room I discovered this book, a reflection on the benefits of chanting the Great Compassion Mantra and the Om Mani Padme Hum, written by a local nun called Thich Nu Le Phat. Despite being in Vietnamese (I read VERY slowly in Vietnamese) it is a remarkably simple and interesting read, and I kept it with me the entire time I travelled. I actually went to visit the Venerable Nun, but she had the temple locked the day I turned up, and it was made even more tantalising by the fact that I could hear her chanting the Om Mani Padme Hum. So I sat outside on the stairs and listed to her instead. I would love to see this book in English - it is such an interesting and personal reflection.

Next we have a couple more books in Vietnamese, these ones specifically dealing with Quan The Am, more commonly known to English speakers as Kuan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. She is an immensely important figure in Vietnam's popular worship, and these books detail stories about her in a handy (easy to read!) comic-book format.

I am also reading some comic books detailing the life of Sakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha. these are great for the language student because they have the text in Vietnamese and, immediately beneath, English. I am learning so much reading these, and also learning some interesting stories from the Buddha's life.

Last year I visited Bhutan on a writer's tour with the wonderful Jan Cornall. While there we met a number of local writers, including Pema Gyaltshen, and she gave me a copy of her beautifully illustrated children's book Lamche Goes to Merak. It's a beautiful story with Bhutanese Buddhist themes.

Further along the Kuan Yin theme, I have enjoyed reflecting on Alana Fairchild's meditations on Kuan Yin in her book Wisdom of Kuan Yin. this divinely illustrated book accompanies her gorgeous Kuan Yin deck and her DVD and CD of Kuan Yin meditations. I love all of Alana's work, and she is the most blissful, beautiful soul you could hope to meet.

There is very little writing from Australia on Buddhist themes, which is part of what makes Michele Seminara's collection of poetry Engraft so unique and interesting. I say only part, because in fact her poetry is filled with many other engaging themes, and hers is one of the richest and most unique voices in Australian poetry. For quiet and reflective reading, a delicious poem at a time.

The good people at New Dawn Magazine sent me Rosalind C. Morris' fascinating academic study of popular religion in Northern Thailand, In the Place of Origins, some time ago. This is a very dense book, and difficult to sit down and read quickly. But it IS fascinating, and so much of what she is exploring and describing is unique in English. I hope to finish it very soon and produce a review, because I think it is an important book which deserves a wider audience.

Shinmon Aoki's Coffinman was a complete surprise. An incredibly engaging and readable spiritual autobiography by a mortician and Pure Land Buddhist practitioner who had once been a hip young poet. I recommend you run and get a copy of this book, because I loved every minute of it. Aoki's honest and deeply personal stories provoke responses because of our own fears of death. The marital and family discord which arise from his work all tell their own stories about how uncomfortable everyone is with the world of the dead.

Given the number of monks there are in Vietnam, and the large amount of Buddhist publishing that goes on there, I am sad that there is not more translation of this very interesting work into English. I was delighted to discover this series of Buddhist essays by Thich Chan Quang, a monk living on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City who is a prolific writer and a great believer in the power of books. They are in Vietnamese and English, so a great contribution to the literature of Buddhism around the world.

And finally, a lovely illustrated book by Vo Van Tuong called 108 Danh Lam Co Tu Vietnam (108 antique temples in Vietnam). This is a condensed version of a series of books which have been around for decades. A handsome hardcover in a slipcase, the text is in Vietnamese, English, French and Chinese. The photos haven't really been updated, so you will be shocked to see how much development has gone on in Vietnamese temples over the past twenty years or so. But this is a very handy book because it provides full addresses and telephone numbers of all of the most noteworthy temples in Vietnam. I actually have all of the older books, but I got this because it is condensed down to 108 temples, and I think to myself: "Hmmm, now that is a manageable project. Maybe a future book...." Why 108, I hear you ask? well, 108 is a significant number in Buddhism. Oh, and just a note - if you wanted to use the addresses, please take them from the Vietnamese-language section (they are all brief entries) - the "translated" addresses aren't very helpful.

Meeting Mrs. Mindfulness

Mrs. Mindfulness - Melli O'Brien

One of the great joys of working for the Festival of Dreams each year (I MC the remarkably varied and energetic Open Stage) is the amazing people I get to meet and work with. It is because of the Festival that I have managed to see first hand the beauty and wonder of such great teachers and artists as Alana Fairchild, Lia Scallon and Lou Van Stone. And this year is no different because I got to spend a fascinating evening with Mrs. Mindfulness herself, Melli O'Brien.

Melli is an Australian mindfulness teacher of some renown. She started her teaching career at the Mangrove Mountain yoga ashram near Sydney, but these days she is based in Byron Bay and her platform is the World. Melli has taken her mindfulness teaching virtual, and she has made many people enter into a renewed relationship with themselves and their awareness through her online courses and events. Her Mindfulness Summit has been a triumph, and Melli continues doing her valuable work in spreading the message of attention and inward journeying.

I had organised to meet Melli at a ridiculously busy place, and several times I had walked right by her, wondering: "Hmmm, is that her...?" There was something about the gentle face and placid eyes that made me think so. But it wasn't till my seventh lap around that I knew for certain. She had sat down at a table amidst all of the craziness and was journaling. "That's gotta be her..." I thought.

And it was.

Melli is one of those people with whom you feel an instant rapport, and soon we were chattering away like crazy about matters spiritual. We had people joining us soon, so I just had a few precious moments alone wit her and I was determined to ask her all I could before the conversation inevitably shifted.

I had to ask her about the journaling. I am a keen journaler myself, and I wanted to know if this was an intrinsic part of her own mindfulness practise:

"Of course," she answered, "it just keeps me so centered and so concentrated on the moment. If there is any craziness in my life I know I can just pull out my journal and I will soon be transported to a particular type of careful attention. The act of journaling itself is an exercise in mindfulness. It can't be otherwise."

Carefully closing the beautiful journal she had open, she continued: "Journaling always connects me to my mindfulness practise. It is also an excellent - and safe- space that helps me to vent my frustrations and get all the stuff down, all the junk it may not be valuable for me to give voice to."

"I've been keeping journals since I was 15. I find it therapeutic and creative." 

So what lead you to become, I asked her, a mindfulness teacher? It is not exactly the kind of thing you get pamphlets for at a career fair in high school. "Well I was teaching for a long time before I established a blog and moved into the online space," Melli answered. "Most of my training was at the Satyananda ashram in Mangrove Mountain. I was always giving my mindfulness teaching but through a specifically yoga context.   I went through my teacher training there and it was a beautiful atmosphere. I always placed a strong emphasis on mindfulness. I was given a lot of opportunities through my involvement with that community. I started teaching retreats, and I took every single opportunity I could get."

Mangrove Yoga, Mangrove Mountain, NSW

"I was so happy to at last find a way of expressing something I had always known to be true," she said. "I had felt alone in my spirituality since I was a young teenager. I just wanted people to be happy by experiencing what I was experiencing."

"I think when you put so much energy and love into something it just grows more and more. I have been offered so many opportunities to teach something that I believe is valuable. But it wasn't till 2014 that I realised I had to start standing on my own two feet and really establishing myself and making this journey a permanent and sustainable one."

"My passion is immersion retreats, multi-day retreats, mainly because that is how I have had so many amazing experiences in my own life. It's a creative expression, and each retreat is a microcosm, it's own self-established community. It's all about the sense of journey."

Melli O'Brien and Walter Mason talking happiness and mindfulness

Check out the Mrs. Mindfulness website and see Melli's upcoming events.

The 1924 Club

I really should be preparing my lesson on Barbara Pym for tomorrow, but it's mostly done and I wanted to take a brief moment out to tell you that I will be participating in Stuck-In-A-Book's 1924 Club.

This is a marvellous virtual read-in which takes place over a week or so in October.

I have decided to catch up on E. F. Benson and read David of King's.

I will also do Michael Arlen's The Green Hat, because it's a great excuse to finally read a book I constantly see referred to and which I own a copy of (I know it's somewhere in the house).

If I have spare time? I will go to Poirot Investigates, because the last time I read an Agatha Christie novel was 1986, and I'd like to see how I react to her as an adult.

See you in 1924!

Lecture on Cecil Beaton at Ashfield Library, Saturday September 3, 11 AM

Oh the glamour!

I am giving an illustrated lecture on one of my great idols, Cecil Beaton, next month at Ashfield Library:

Saturday September 3 11am at the Local Studies Room Level 2 Ashfield Civic Centre - Ashfield Library

Walter Mason will give an illustrated lecture on Cecil Beaton, beauty and My Fair Lady - a look at the life of the world's most glamorous photographer.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood and the Death of Dickens at Ashfield Library, Thursday 4th of August

The Mystery of Edwin Drood and the Death of Charles Dickens

        An illustrated lecture by Walter Mason

Ashfield Library, 11AM, Thursday the 4th of August

Charles Dickens’ final novel was never finished.

What did the world make of a half-finished book by the most famous author in the world?
He died on the 9th of June, 1870.
Who made his famous death sketch, and why did Dickens’ daughters hate it?
He had a premonition that he would never finish this novel.
How did he change his publishing contract in an uncharacteristic manner?
After he died an American Spiritualist began to channel his spirit and completed the novel.
Come and learn about the whole fascinating story.

Weekly Reading Report

Forgive me for missing last week. I was so bust reading and taking notes that I forgot to actually report on my literary activity. On a vaguely literary front, I went to see the Whit Stillman movie Love and Friendship (based on Jane Austen's novella Lady Susan) and it was superb. One of the best movies I have seen in a long time. I am planning on going a second time, and I recommend you rush out and see it now.
Now as for books:

I just finished Debbie Malone's Awaken Your Psychic Ability.  I have worked with Debbie a few times over the years, and she is one of the sweetest and kindest beings on the planet. This book was fantastic, very practical and filled with information, meditations and tidbits about the angels. I actually plan on reviewing it properly elsewhere, so keep your eyes out for that. In the meantime, if you have ever had an unusual encounter or seen something before it happened, grab a copy of this book.

I have picked up again Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones. I have just started teaching a creative writing course at Sydney WEA, and they are a beautiful little group of people. Natalie's words and her methods always inspire me, and I probably read through this wonderful collection of essays and reflections on writing a couple of times a year.

Have finally finished Doreen Virtue's The Courage to be Creative, and was constantly thrilled by it. This book is all things to all creatives, and I absolutely destroyed it by turning over corners, marking passages and filling the book with notes. Loved it from beginning to end, and it has energised me tremendously. I would recommend it to all writers, but I know that many writers are terribly cynical and would never allow themselves to be so excited by Doreen's eccentric vision of creativity. She does, after all, discuss the creative power of unicorns.

I loved The Courage to be Creative so much that I picked up another Doreen Virtue book: The Miracles of Archangel Michael. Actually, I have had this one since the beginning of the year, but it has languished on my "Must Read" pile till now. A very dear friend and advisor (alright, it's the divine Maggie Hamilton) told me that I should turn to Archangel Michael in facing a personal and professional block I faced. I am still facing that block (many of you know what it is) but maybe reading this book will be just what I need to shake my anxieties free.

Weekly Reading Report

Further research for my upcoming course on the English Comic Novel in the 20th Century has caused me to pick up a book from my shelves that I had never quite gotten around to: The Life of E. F. Benson by Brian Masters. And I am pleased to say that it's excellent - a beautifully written, constantly fascinating biography that tells me heaps of things I didn't know. An absolute must-read for Benson fans, I should think.

The same research has had me dipping in and out of Laura Thompson's Life in a Cold Climate, a truly excellent biography of Nancy Mitford which has been issued a couple of times, I think - I discovered that I had the original edition and the new edition from Head of Zeus. Jolly good, though and light and funny just like its subject. Would please any Mitford fan.

Finally, I've been getting all poetic with Aden Rolfe's Fake Nostalgia. Rolfe is a very young Sydney poet whose work I first heard rather than read. He invited me to a "listening" to a podcast he had written, and it was simply superb. Also made me think that people should do that kind of thing more often - 100 or so people sitting in a cocktail lounge intently listening to the wireless. Anyway, False Nostalgia is more brilliance from this youthful pen, and I wonder how anyone could be so clever at that age. Makes me wish I hadn't wasted my entire youth on drugs and sex. Oh well, too late now. But do check out Rolfe's work - I can only assume he will become a bigger and bigger name on the Australian literary scene. Incidentally, the book is published by Giramondo who are responsible for so much brave and interesting Australian writing.

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