Bangkok Hilton

I was lucky enough to grow up in the age of the mini-series.
It's easy to forget what mega-events the newly invented mini-series were in the 1980s. The advertising for them would begin months in advance, and people could talk of nothing else. We all longed for the next mini-series spectacular, invariably "over three big nights."
I think it was The Thorn Birds that started it all, establishing the benchmark for the sweeping saga, the high camp and the resurrected movie stars that would come to characterise the mini-series as an artform.
Oddly enough, Australia was one of the countries that embraced the mini-series and made it her own. Naturally, the very acme of 80s Australian mini-series kitsch is Return to Eden, one of my favourite filmic events of all time. But I also really loved Bangkok Hilton, and it was the start of my lifelong devotion to Nicole Kidman.
I was at the Powerhouse Museum's 80s exhibition the other day, and they happened to feature Bangkok Hilton, along with some other wonderful 80s masterpieces like Starstruck, Sweet & Sour and Dogs in Space. I was overjoyed to discover that the museum gift shop was selling copies of the DVD of Bangkok Hilton, and I couldn't wait to get home and start watching it. I can honestly say that I hadn't seen it since I was 18 or 19.
And it was wonderful! Very overdone, very cinematic, and now the plot seems hopelessly implausible, but it was so extravagantly well done that it is impossible not to get caught up in the story. Denholm Elliott does a fine job as the alcoholic neer-do-well father, and Nicole is simply superb as a pre-Hollywood frump, still with wiry hair (what did they do to that?). And of course, in these days one can't help but draw parallels with the Schapelle Corby case, and wouldn't comparing the two make a fine academic paper?
It's funny because back when I saw it I knew nothing about Thai culture, but now I know enough to be sure that the whole thing must be deeply offensive to Thai people, and this DVD is probably illegal in Thailand, along with other such dangerous and treasonous fare as The King and I.
I doubt something so costly and so ambitious could be made for Australian television now. So find a copy of the DVD and give it a go. As you watch it, reflect on the final, glorious days of the Australian mini-series.

The Ordination of Theravadin Nuns

Oh dear, I'm about to stick my neck out and be controversial.
You see, I'm sick of all this nonsense surrounding the full ordination of women into Theravadin Buddhist orders.
This is the 21st Century for heaven's sake. Buddhist nuns exist in large numbers all over the world. Yes, even in Thailand, where thousands of women live as nuns in everything but name. They wear robes - albeit white ones - they shave their heads, they follow the rules, they are treated by the lay community as religious women. All they lack is official ordination.
So let's just accept reality, and acknowledge that, just maybe, the obscure passages in the Pali Canon that the conservative Thai monastic hierarchy clings to may not be holy writ.
Women and men are equal in Buddhism, and have equal access to enlightenment.
The Buddha himself ordained women.
Monastic orders have existed for women within Mahayana Buddhism for more than a thousand years.
The reactionary chauvinists in Thailand who seek to block women from ordination and seek to punish those monks who ordain them represent all that is ugly and wrong in Buddhist tradition.
There, I've said it.

What I Do

Jon Ronson is one of my favourite authors, and I was delighted when I discovered that a film has been made of one of his most fascinating books, Men Who Stare at Goats.
I've just finished the latest collection of pieces he's written for The Guardian, and was absolutely absorbed from the very first essay. I read the whole book in just a couple of hours.
His latest conceit is to record the most embarrassing and humiliating things to happen to him each day, and this makes up the content of his newspaper column. Now, in lesser hands this could become annoying very quickly, and there is a kind of inverted Erma Bombeck-ish quality about his observations on family and social encounters. But there is something so sympathetic about the character of Jon Ronson, something so instantly recognisable, that it is hard not to get involved. His desire to be recognised and acclaimed, his pathetic anxieties, his inability to perform social obligations in a successful manner - all are shared by many in the modern world, particularly by men who are slowly waking up to the fact that they are no longer as young or as hip as they once imagined themselves to be.
There is a running gag about wanting a neighbour to acknowledge Ronson's own minor celebrity which will be painfully familiar to any writer, and his rather devastating piece about being inordinately proud of the technology he possesses made me cringe, more from recognition than anything else.
It's also worth pointing out that Ronson is a smart guy, with an interesting take on most things, and What I Do is filled with bits of information I simply didn't know. I was intrigued by the whole Richard Bandler thing (especially as someone who spent years of his life selling his books), and he t alks about a voluntary code of ethics for bloggers drawn up by Jimmy Wales that I plan on pinning to my wall.
I guess that Ronson is so sympathetic simply because he struggles to be a good person in a modern, urban society where all of us are tempted to be difficult, priggish and vain - indeed, we are often rewarded for such behaviours. In a heart-breaking section he explores the ethics behind contemporary bank lending and credit practices (timely, what?), and interestingly he invents a whole cast of characters based on him to see who will attract the most junk mail. But what he is really doing is fracturing himself into a series of unattractive, two-dimensional parts that each expresses his own fears about the kind of person he might actually be.
In this book, Ronson captures some of the schizophrenic nature of contemporary existence. And he manages to be very entertaining in the process.

iTunes - I hate you

I have just got a wonderful new computer, my old one having slowed down to the speed of lead. I am now cruising along the information superhighway (remember that?) at incredible speeds. Except for one, rather huge, problems.
F*****g iTunes.
I spent, weeks, months - no, years - uploading my vast CD collection onto iTunes. How I adore my iPod, with it's precious collection of podcasts as well as my eccentric music library to accompany me on my daily travels.
But a new computer means that it is almost impossible to get my old playlist transferred. We spent an entire day doing the transfer, only to discover that my new version of iTunes refuses to synch with my trusty iPod. The heartache! The torment.
It looks as though I will have to buy a new iPod just to make the whole thing work again, and until then I have to fire up my old computer every day in order to update and re-synch my iPod. Which I may not do - other people I have spoken to who have had the same traumatic experience simply changed systems and banished iTunes forever from their lives.
Damn you Apple - I have officially joined the vast legions of Apple haters. Have they done a search on this subject on Google lately. I really hope those guys don't believe in Voodoo, because they are attracting some serious negative vibes.
I mean honestly, updating one's computer is not an unusual event. Can you please make it easier?

The Temples of Sydney: Evergreen Taoist Temple, Redfern

I've always wanted to visit Sydney's only purely Taoist temple, but because it's kind of out of the way (for me) in Bourke St, Redfern, I never really seemed to get around to it.

I finally got to visit it, and of course I was intrigued.
The temple is a wonderful place, brash and colourful in the way of all Chinese popular Taoist temples.
While we were there there was a memorial service going on in the hall of the ancestors, so we had the main hall entirely to ourselves.
I'm not very familiar with popular Taoist iconography, so I can't really explain much about the shrines you see in these pics. But the temple had some very helpful signs below the shrines explaining who the deities were, so soon I am going to do some homework and look them all up. Taoist statuary is fascinating, and I can't believe I've gone this long without learning more about it.


Some of you may know that I started life as something of a sinophile. From a young age I was obsessed with things Chinese, and my second (aborted) academic career was in the study of Chinese language and culture. To that end I abandoned my formal studies and ran away to Taiwan to learn from the source. It was a fascinating time, but oh how I wish I'd stuck to actually earning my degree way back then....oh well, live and learn.
So I have, for a very long time, been interested in Chinese religion, particularly in the folk religion of Chinese communities overseas. I once had a few dozen different versions of the Tao Te Ching, but somewhere along the way I must have decided that I no longer needed them, and dispersed them who knows where. Which is a shame because I have found myself increasingly drawn to the enigmatic wisdom of Lao Tzu in the past few weeks, and now have very little in my library.
It's interesting how particular ideas come in and out of fashion, but I have noticed that the Tao Te Ching has experienced something of a resurgence in popular interest recently. Both Wayne Dyer and Byron Katie have written books on it, and I've even seen young people clutching copies of it on the train.
While I was in the wonderful Kinokuniya in the Siam Paragon in Bangkok (surely Asia's best and most reasonably priced bookstore?) I picked up a couple of books on Taoism and I have been immersed in them ever since. The one that has really grabbed me is James Miller's Daoism - though why he insists on the awkward pinyin romanisation is beyond me. I'm normally a champion of pinyin, but I would suggest that a word like "Taoism" is by now well and truly a part of the English language (as is Lao Tzu), and a precious insistence on "standard" romanisation serves only to confuse the lay reader.
That small criticism aside, Miller's book is fascinating and clearly set out, and I have found it invaluable to my deepening understanding of the Taoist tradition.
Taoism is, of course, just about as obscure and enigmatic a spiritual tradition as you could imagine, and throughout East Asia Taoists generally receive a bum rap, characterised as exploitative magicians and charlatans.
But I think that it is the extremely ambiguous nature of the Tao Te Ching itself that is the secret of its popularity in the West, particularly now. People are looking, I would suggest for a more profound understanding of life, nature and the universe, but aren't looking to be preached at. The more mystical Taoist tradition proves enormously attractive, with it's wonderfully impenetrable message and its total lack of proscription.

Bangkok Tattoo

I'm just back from Bangkok, and I distracted myself on the flight by reading John Burdett's wonderfully distracting crime novel Bangkok Tattoo.
I was a huge fan of Mr. Burdett's first ever Bangkok-based potboiler Bangkok 8, a book I raved about to anyone who would listen. He just manages to capture Bangkok so perfectly, and Bangkok Tattoo is no different - a page-turning thriller that involves lots of prostitution, transsexualism, Thai Buddhist mysticism and deep-fried spiders.
Burdett is skilled at balancing all the elements that make Bangkok such a tantalising place - the sin, the religion, the corruption and the sheer unbridled energy. Anyone who has ever spent any time in the City of Angels will recognise at once its smells and aggravations in the pages of Burdett's books. He has a real understanding of the complex workings of Thai culture, and the multi-layered networks of relationship and obligation which lend themselves so easily to corruption when applied on a grander scale.
I don't really read much crime, but when I do I often cringe at the clumsy writing and the painful insertion of "information" which is meant to show up the author's "painstaking research." But Burdett is a joy to read - his insights into, and reflections on, Thai society are always voiced by the novels' hero, the Eurasian cop Sonchai. Sure, it's not Tolstoy, but it is wildly entertaining and, I would suggest, genuinely helpful in gaining a greater understanding of Bangkok, one of the great metropolises of the world.

Kwan Yin with jewels

It's common in Asia to offer costume jewellery and other forms of decoration to statues of Kwan Yin - I found a few nice examples in the Vietnamese Mahayana temple in Yaowarat, Bangkok's Chinatown.

Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang

One of my favourite parts of temples in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia is the inevitable dusty hall filled with abandoned gifts. They are normally treasure houses filled with precious antiques and relics, and they are always neglected and decaying in the heat.
At Wat Xieng Thong this morning I found a particulary beautiful example, the walls lined with dozens of carved Buddha images that had been donated and forgotten over the years. They were chipped and fading, and some had begun to collapse, falling back on the statues behind them.

Buddha statues, Luang Prabang

monks' robes drying, Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang

I am in Luang Prabang at the moment, a place that has mystified me for years. I have been trying to get here since 1996, and at last I have had my chance.
It is every bit as enchanting as I knew it would be.
The monasteries are numerous, and the whole place sleepy and hot.
I am fascinated by the everyday objects one encounters at Buddhist monasteries, and have collected hundreds of such images over the years. Here is a pic of the crockery cupboard at the Vietnamese monastery in Luang Prabang.
I have long admired the naive Buddhist art and statuary of Laos (someone should really do a book on it). Some lovely examples here.

I'm staying at a rather plush place called the Mekong Estate, with beautiful villas situated on the Mekong river, just outside of town. It is something of a tropical paradise, and we spend a lot of our time out on our balcony right on the riverbank.

Luang Prabang market is noted for its amazing fabrics and I bought this beautiful handwoven cotton bag last night - quite stylish, and beautifully coloured and finished.

Meeting Fairies

Meeting fairies
Living Now Magazine, Thursday, 01 October 2009
If there’s one thing those who love fairies wish for, it’s to see a fairy, or to hear from someone who has. Almost 45 years ago something rather special happened. R. Ogilvie Crombie, or Roc as he was affectionately known by friends, went for a walk in the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, and had an experience there that proved life-changing. ‘It was a glorious day’, Roc recollects. ‘I wandered about for a while enjoying the beauty and peace of the rock garden and other favourite spots. Eventually I began walking along a path skirting the north side of Inverleith House, which is situated on rising ground in the centre of the Gardens and houses the Modern Art Gallery.’
‘Leaving the path I crossed an expanse of grass, dotted with trees and bushes, to a seat under a tall beech tree. When I sat down I leant my shoulders and the back of my head against the tree. I became, in some way, identified with this tree, became aware of the movement of the sap in the trunk and even of the infinitely slow growth of the roots. There was a decided heightening of awareness and a sense of expectation. I felt completely awake and full of energy. There was a tension in the air, almost as if the air itself were beginning to shimmer. I sat there in utter contentment.’
‘Suddenly I saw a figure dancing round a tree about twenty yards away from me—a beautiful little figure about three feet tall. I saw with astonishment that it was a faun, the Greek mythological being, half human, half animal. He had a pointed chin and ears and two little horns on his forehead. His shaggy legs ended in cloven hooves and his skin was honey-coloured. I looked at him in amazement, and even did the obvious: I pinched myself. I was awake.’

‘I wondered for a moment if perhaps he was a boy made up for a school show. Yet he could not be—something about him was decidedly not human. Was he an hallucination? There were one or two other people walking about in the Gardens. I looked at them and then back at this beautiful little being. He was still there and seemed to be as solid and real as they were. I tried hard to analyse this experience and explain him away. Suddenly I was brought up sharp—what was I trying to do? Here was a strange and wonderful experience. Why should I not accept it, see what happened and analyse it later? I watched the little being with delight as he circled around another tree. He danced over to where I was sitting, stood looking at me for a moment and then sat cross-legged in front of me. I looked at him. He was very real. I bent forward and said: ‘Hallo’. He leapt to his feet, startled, and stared at me. ‘Can you see me?’
‘I don’t believe it’, he said. ‘Humans can’t see us.’
‘Oh, yes,’ I assured him. ‘Some of us can.’ As Roc began to converse with this small being, called Kurmos, he began to learn about the extraordinary world of nature spirits – what their role is, and how they view humans. ‘He told me that many of the nature spirits have lost interest in the human race, since they have been made to feel that they are neither believed in nor wanted. ‘If you humans think you can get along without us, just try!’ said Kurmos.
‘Some of us do believe in you and want your help. I do, for one.’ replied Roc, who went on to reflect, ‘The wonderful thing about this meeting was the sense of companionship, I felt an amazing harmony with this wonderful little being sitting beside me. A communication was taking place between us that did not need to be put in words. We sat for some time without speaking. Eventually I rose and said I must return home. ‘Call me when you return here and I will come to you’, he said.
From this unexpected meeting Roc went on to have a series of extraordinary encounters with nature spirits. During these meetings Roc was shown how fairies live, their purpose in tending nature, and how life is for them here on earth.
Roc was also shown what it was like for a tree to be rooted deep in the earth, and just how alive plants and trees are, by experiencing their lives from the inside.
Not all meetings were happy ones. Visiting a forgotten childhood haunt, he experienced in graphic detail how the neglect of nature reflects our own loss of spirit, and how much hurt we cause when we do not care for the natural world.
So who was Roc? Born into an artistic family just over a hundred years ago, he excelled at maths and science, and was fascinated by parapsychology. In quiet moments he enjoyed rambling in the hills close to home. When he was nine he was diagnosed with heart problems, for which there was no treatment. Though Roc didn’t know this at the time, it was the combination of these very experiences that would make possible the extraordinary experiences that lay ahead.
When he left school Roc joined the Marconi radio company, then served as a radio operator in the First World War. At war’s end he went to EdinburghUniversity, studying physics, chemistry and maths, but had to leave due to illness. In his early thirties, he suffered a serious heart attack and was unable to work. This left Roc free to indulge his lifelong love of hill walks, fresh air and bathing in the sea. He also wrote and directed plays, and later on regularly appeared on Scottish television playing small character parts.
Alongside these passions, Roc was interested in the deeper mysteries of life. His connection with the natural world deepened during the ten years he spent living in an isolated rural cottage. Here there was no electricity. He had to fetch his water from a nearby spring. Without modern comforts to fall back on, he became increasingly aware of the powerful presence of nature, as he immersed himself in the deeper rhythms of life. He returned to Edinburgh in 1949 and lived in a flat close to the city centre. It was here also he would have several otherworldly encounters with the fairy realm, which helped him realise just how close nature spirits are to our human world.
Most of Roc’s experiences with nature spirits occurred during the last decade of his life. It was during this period the fledgling Findhorn community was established, which was to experience its own miracles, thanks to the nature spirits. Though he never lived at Findhorn, Roc was central to some of these miracles. One day while at home in Edinburgh he got a clear sense all was not well with the fairies at Findhorn. Roc rang to see what was going on. It transpired that a flowering gorse bush had been cut back without consultation, and so a number of elves who lived in the flowers had lost their homes. Yet again the fairies were far from impressed.
Towards the end of his remarkable life the fairies showed Roc how his passions, ill health and need to withdraw from life made their communications possible, and Roc in turn reminds us that, if he could see fairies, then so too can we.
Meeting Fairies: My Remarkable Encounters with Nature Spirits, R. Ogilvie Crombie, Inspired Living, $29.95 hardcover, available now from bookshops.

The Person Whose Phone Rings

Yesterday, for only the second time in my life, I was that pariah, the person who didn't turn his phone off.
A crowded university seminar, a friend reading her paper, and suddenly my phone starts chirping merrily. Of course, it takes at least 20 seconds to actually register that it is YOUR phone that is ringing. Then I had to grab my bag and go hunting for it, hidden away as it was in an obscure corner. And all the while it was ringing, louder and louder.
To make matters worse, I have my phone set to the loudest possible ring setting, because I can never hear the damn thing normally. AND, more embarrassing still, my ring-tone is a segment of that great 80s Italo-house hit Numero Uno.
People turned in their seats, some tutted, the ghastly woman running the seminar glared at me for a full minute, and made a pointed - and entirely redundant - mention of "Please turn all phones off," after the seminar was over. May something socially awkward happen to her in the near future so that she might have the opportunity to encounter someone as ungracious as she.
As I said, this is only the second time this has happened in my life - I am normally scrupulous about setting my phone to silent. The first time it ever happened was about 10 years ago when my sister and I were at a launch for one of Donna Hay's many cookbooks. We were merrily standing in the very front row as Ms. Hay was getting into her long list of people she wanted to thank when my phone started trilling chirpily. Ms. Hay paused ostentatiously, people murmured.
After it was all over my sister, who had kept a brave face throughout, said, "I can't believe you were that person - the one whose phone goes off!"
I was sufficiently shamed to avoid it happening again for a full 10 years. Let's hope it's at least another 10 before it happens again.
But really, the whole thing taught me a valuable lesson in manners - don't glare or tsk when some poor person makes a technological error. There but for the grace of God goes you.

Statue of Maitreya

A carved wooden statue of Di Lac Phat - Maitreya Buddha.
At Minh Quang Monastery, Canley Vale, Sydney.

The Pursuit of Love

Inspired by Morning Coach, I recently noted down my Top 5 Favourite Books, and made a resolve to read them every year. Of course, I don't really need to re-read any of them - each of them has been so important in shaping my life that their contents have become a part of my personality.
Nonetheless, I think it's a good idea to constantly re-connect to what has inspired and formed you.
So it is that I am re-reading, for the fifth or sixth time, Nancy Mitford's exquisite autobiographical novel The Pursuit of Love. It's officially my favourite book of all time.
Now, I hear some of you gasp. How could he rate something so slight as his favourite book? But many of you will be familiar with my contention that the breezy and most easily read books are normally the hardest to write. In my humble opinion, Ms. Mitford is one of the great geniuses of the English Novel, and should figure prominently on every writer's bookshelf.
She is much, much funnier than Waugh or Wodehouse, though I think she probably rates equally with E. F. Benson, whose books she admired to the point of obsession. She is also a brilliant chronicler of upper-class Britain - probably the best. Her characters, mostly drawn from life, are always briliantly sketched, and the jokes are relentless.
Nancy said that it was growing up in a big family that caused all the Mitford sisters to cultivate humour, character and a great sense of fun. And indeed, its interesting to note that two of her sisters, Jessica Mitford and the controversial Diana Mosley, were also accomplished writers.
The Mitfords, of course, are these days something of an industry in their own right - there are countless biographies, collections of letters etc., and I understand that a Mitford obsession is de rigeur amongst certain classes of American.
My own fascination dates back to when I was a child and saw the first ever BBC adaptation of her two novels of childhood - The Pursuit of Love and the wonderfully named Love in a Cold Climate. I was instantly drawn into the peculiar Mitfordian world. The character Cedric, a flamboyant queen, I found particularly intriguing. One didn't see many overt homosexuals on Australian television in the early 80s. As far as I know this series remains criminally unavailable on DVD, and I still wait for the day when I can see it again.
Along with her lifelong friend, Evelyn Waugh (the bulky collection of the letters between the two is another favourite book of mine), Mitford saw that the only really great sin was being dull. Everything else was forgiveable if you were fun. It's a sentiment I can't help sharing, and its one that informs her delightful fiction.

Halifax Uniting Church

I've just been home to North Queensland to celebrate my granddad's 80th birthday, and while I was there I took the opportunity to visit the Halifax Uniting Church.
This tiny little church was once the local Methodist chapel, and it has a long association with my family.
It was here that my beloved late grandmother, Ethel Mary Barrett, played the organ, and ran at various times the Sunday School and the Methodist Youth League.
It was re-built in the early 60s, and is an almost perfect example of 1960s Australian Protestant Church architecture, with its clean lines, its retro touches referencing the by-then deeply unfashionable art deco, and its utter simplicity.

The church was constructed with side doors that could open up onto the wrap-around veranda, thereby taking advantage of any passing breeze.

My mother recalls many hot mornings sweating away in the little church. It still remains resolutely un-airconditioned, thus perfectly embodying the Methodist spirit of its original builders.
The interior decor is extremely low-key, with simple polished wood pews and rails and a couple of banners that change with the liturgical season.

Being in that little church gave me such an amazing feeling - a feeling of continuity, of deep connection with my history.

And of course, wonderful memories of my beautiful Grandmother, who I miss so very much.

Maggie Hamilton and the Fairies - Friday December 11

My wonderful friend and colleague Maggie Hamilton has brought out the most remarkable book on a most interesting topic - Fairies.
Maggie will be speaking at the New Church in Roseville on Friday the 11th of December at 7.30pm about the fascinating story behind the book, and I hope you'll all come! The evening is free, though donations will be accepted for the Loving Arms orphanage in Nepal.
The new book, Meeting Fairies, is a collection of writing about fairies made by R. Ogilvie Crombie (or ROC, as he was affectionately known), a modern-day mystic and one of the founders of the Findhorn community. He was convinced of the reality of Fairies, and in fact had many encounters with them.
Maggie had access to ROC's archives and private papers, and has assembled a magical book that explores the message of the nature spirits, and their importance in Western mythology.

Meeting Fairies - an Evening with Maggie Hamilton
The New Church
4 Shirley Rd
7.30pm Friday December 11
All welcome!
Entry by donation - all proceeds go to the Loving Arms Children's Home in Nepal


One of the Buddhist Bodhisattvas that is constantly represented in temples is Ksitigarbha. Commonly known as Dia Tang (Viet), Di Zhang (Ch.) or Jizo (Jap.), Ksitigarbha is an important figure in the popular religious life of Mahayana Buddhists.
Ostensibly the protector of the Underworld, Ksitigarbha serves as the point of prayer and worship for those seeking to memorialise their dead relatives, particularly those who were closest to them. Prayers and offerings to Ksitigarbha are considered particularly powerful because he is capable of interceding with the Buddha on behalf of those prayed for. Much of the mythology surrounding Ksitigarbha is mixed up with the stories of Maha Moggallana from the Pali Canon, in which one of the Buddha's most gifted disciples is given a vision of Hell, and there he sees his own mother. He subsequently appeals to the Buddha to help his mother, and the Buddha finally agrees.
Mahayana Buddhists use this story as evidence that prayers and offerings made in Ksitigarbha's name are important to the spiritual welfare of deceased family members, and especially so during the Feast of Ullambana (Vu Lan), normally held around August, and the second most important celebration on the Buddhist calendar.
In his Japanese form as Jizo, Ksitigarbha has transformed into a sweet little child. Some suggest that this infantilisation of the Boddhisattva's form is connected to the modern practice of purchasing and installing a Jizo statue at a Buddhist temple in memory of an aborted child. On memorial days women visit the temples and offer toys and candy to the statues of the Bodhisattva, and he has slowly come to represent the spirit of childhood itself.
In more traditional statues Ksitigarbha is represented carrying a staff, the top of which has six rings attached. Each ring represents one of the Buddhist Perfections - kindness, morality, patience, persistence, attention and insight. The six rings jingle as he travels, thereby sending the sounds of the Perfections throughout the universe. And the staff itself can be used to open the gates of hell, ultimately liberating the poor souls he is charged with protecting.
A shrine to Ksitigarbha is present in most Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhist temples. IN a small temple it will normally be to the left of the main shrine, but in larger temples it is normally situated in a separate room or building, which serves as a memorial hall for the dead.


What is this row of bizarre objects, I hear you ask? No, not a collection of sex toys, nor a shelf full of ritual implements. This is the range of neti jars available at Sydney's Adyar Bookshop.
I have been an enthusiast of the ancient Indian cleansing ritual known as neti ever since I was a small boy. My mother and I learned how to do it at the hands of a master, a real live Indian swami from the Satyananda Ashram in Bihar. Other children attached to the yoga school would regularly perform neti as an eternally popular party trick, to the horrified fascination of more normal children and parents.
For those of you who might be out of the loop, neti is a simple but effective form of cleansing the nasal passages by running a stream of warm, salty water in through one nostril, and letting it trickle out the other. It does happen, believe me - all it takes is a little forward bending and, sometimes, some patience.
It is an ancient yogic practice, and said to cure you of all kinds of ills. There are other, more extreme forms of neti that can be done with a thin rubber hose and even a piece of rag, but I am a little too sensitive for that.
Within the yogic cleansing repertoire there exists a range of traditional cleansing methods, including lagoo and kunjal, which involves drinking large amounts of salty water and vomiting it all back up again. I once took my long-suffering partner to a yoga weekend devoted to this task, and the poor thing was rather taken aback by it all. He hasn't had a very high opinion of yoga ever since.
But we neti enthusiasts, though small in number, are among good company. Even Oprah Winfrey is reputed to do neti every morning.
I have a really beautiful neti pot which I bought over 10 years ago at the Satyananda ashram in Mangrove Mountain. It is a real treasure, hand-made pottery that describes the shape of the Om symbol. It is also a great rarity now, as I believe the potter has passed away and you can no longer buy them.
For those interested in researching the health benefits of neti, there is a fascinating book on the subject by David Frawley which I thoroughly recommend.

St. Patrick's Cathedral, Parramatta

I have been at a wonderful conference on Art and Theology for most of this week, and have done and heard some really amazing things.
Late yesterday afternoon we went on a guided tour of St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Parramatta, and it was really an amazing time. I had heard much about the church and the beauty of its restoration after it was gutted by fire some years ago. But I wasn't prepared to be so dazzled by the place. Generally I am a critic of church renovation and contemporary worship spaces. But this really is a transcendent religious space, and it inspired in me a prayerful, reverent attitude. It is also a place I plan on returning to again and again and taking my friends. Almost enough to make you convert to Catholicism.
So much of the building and its artwork is incredible, but I was taken by the piece of sculpture that hangs above the altar in the new part of the church. This remarkable piece is not a crown of thorns (though it looks like one). Instead it is meant to be the halo that surrounds Christ - certain points of the sculpture are solid gold.
The crucifix is wonderful, naturally.
The altar in the old part of the church was also quite breathtaking. This whole area is lit very dimly, and always seemed to be filled with people praying quietly. The tabernacle is quite fascinating, and very modern. Without being irreligious, I thought the great silver egg looked vaguely like something from Dr. Seuss. It worked, though.
Being the dyed-in-the-wool ritualist that I am, I was much taken with the display of the sacramental oils in a special lit cabinet. I thought it was a stroke of genius to bring the business of the church right to the very forefront, indeed, to highlight it, quite literally.
But without a doubt the real highlight of the place was the exquisite 500 year-old statue of the Madonna and Child. This statue is enough to bring anyone to their knees, and is without a doubt the most beautiful statue of the Virgin in all of Australia.
I understand that the cathedral hosts a Taize service once a month, so I must see if I can get along. I'd love to be singing and praying in that space.

Staying Spiritual - Travel

A couple of weeks ago I was on a panel at the Swedenborg Association discussing ways of staying spiritual in a sometimes challenging world.
I had a great response from the talk, so I thought that over the coming weeks I would present some of the material we discussed on this blog, in a little more detail.
So here is the first instalment in my practical little guide to staying in touch with your spirit.

Travel – Someone (I actually think it was Siimon Reynolds) once said that a holiday starts the day you book it. Travel offers us an opportunity to extend our horizons and listen to different stories. Travel need not involve expensive trips to foreign shores. We can travel even within our own cities. Spend a day in your own town as a tourist and see how exhilarating it can be.

Resources:, Change Your Life Through Travel by Jillian Robinson, The Way of the Traveler by Joseph Dispenza, The Art of Pilgrimage by Phil Cousineau

Brahma Kumaris

I went to a talk at the Brahma Kumaris centre in Ashfield on Saturday. I hadn't been there in many years, but for some reason I felt called to go and listen to this particular talk, and I'm glad that I did.
The Brahma Kumaris are in a gorgeous old Victorian mansion in Alt St. in Ashfield. It's an imposing place, and the main lecture room is up a series of narrow staircases culminating in a kind of observatory at the top of a tower. It has great atmosphere.
The talk was given by a quiet, unassuming Australian man called Charlie, who I believe is the leader of the Brahma Kumaris here in Australia. I had a headache that afternoon, and was feeling drowsy and grumpy, but Charlie's talk turned out to be amazing. Challenging and insightful, I was impressed by his honesty, and many of the things that he said have remained with me since.
He was talking about how we can cope with the pressures of modern living. He said that we are always seking out pain - whenever we can we will hone in on hurtful emotions, almost as though we want to be depressed, offended and generally unhappy. Charlie said that this was simply a manifestation of ego, or what he called "body consciousness."
There weren't many of us there, and he closed the talk with a lovely meditation (ok, I will admit I dozed off during it) and then some delicious sweets, prasadam I suppose.
After the talk I wandered up to the gorgeous old churchyard in Alt St and spent some time in the cool early evening among the graves. Altogether it was a lovely way to spend an afternoon, and I plan on doing it again soon.

Stopping my headaches

I get headaches a lot. I've suffered from them since I was about 10 years old, and they have grown progressively more painful and regular over the years.
I get bad ones, ones that consume my day and leave me morose, angry and depressed by evening.
The usual pattern is that by 11am or so the headache has begun in full, and doesn't end till I tumble into bed. I actually prefer the days I wake up with a headache, because then I admit to myself that I cannot function. In that case I'll normally shuffle about in the morning, take some medication and then go back to bed around 1 o'clock or so. Then I wake up in the early evening and the headache is mostly gone, or at least so sufficiently muted that I can feel good about life again.
I don't know what to do about this. It's a problem I've had for many years, and it gets worse and worse as I get older. The fact is that most days I am in considerable pain, and doing anything in the evenings is difficult for me. It wreaks havoc on my life, particularly my social life, and because I don't like to sound pathetic or like a hypochondriacal broken record, I often simply cancel engagements with no explanation. This makes people think I am unreliable and/or unfriendly.
I take way too much medication, which in itself contributes to the chronic nature of my problem. But those people who have never experienced severe and chronic pain are rather quick to recommend that I stop using painkillers, as though I have never tried any other methods of pain control. I've tried them all - meditation, yoga, chiropracty, cranio-sacral, massage, reflexology, aromatherapy, Chinese medicine, hypnosis, naturopathy, homeopathy, dietary changes.....and the only thing that really works, and really gives me any sort of relief, is good old-fashioned pharmaceuticals.
I subscribe to a set of spiritual beliefs that claims that pain and illness are not really real, merely accidents of thought and a reflection of negative belief patterns. I believe that, I really do - I am utterly convinced that my headaches are entirely psychosomatic in nature. But horribly, agonisingly real for all that.
You might have guessed that I am in the midst of a terrible headache right now, hence my rather depressive tone. This is the second day, and before this I had a four day long headache, with only a day's break in between. And of course, I need to go out tonight, though my head pounds and I feel nauseous.
So I will go to bed in a minute and pop on a little CD I have which promises to cure headaches.
It never does, but I live in hope.

Daikon Kimchi

I love Kimchi.
Indeed, during certain periods of my life I have been obsessed with it.
When I was young I was much taken with the novels of Edmund White, and in one of them (The Beautiful Room is Empty?) I read with fascination a passage where the narrator has a Korean lover who always smells vaguely of kimchi. Now, I was just a know-nothing schoolboy in North Queensland, and had no idea what kimchi was, but then and there I knew I had to taste it.
Years later I was living in Darlinghurst, and Korean restaurants were only just beginning to spring up. Most of them were hideously expensive, but there was a little place in Kings Cross that was absolutely wonderful, and very reasonably priced. That's where my love affair with kimchi began in earnest. I would eat everything on the menu that contained kimchi, and the middle-aged Korean housewives who staffed the place would endlessly replace the little bowls of it that came with every meal. They became so amused by my love of kimchi that they would prepare a special little kimchi pancake for me every time I came in, and serve it up for free.
I love all types of kimchi (cucumber kimchi and bellflower kimchi are my top 2), but my partner, who shares my passion, is a big fan of daikon kimchi.
Much as I love the stuff, I've never really been very good at making it. It always comes out bland, or too salty.
But I have tried again, preparing a big batch of daikon kimchi because the daikons down at the local shops in Cabramatta looked so big and delicious.
I like my kimchi garlicy.
And with ginger - I think that is a Vietnamese aberration. But it's kinda nice.
And the cookbook I consulted also listed ginger as an ingredient.
I saved some of the daikon to make soup with tonight.
Cut it up.
Mixed the ingredients.
And here is one container of the finished result.
Should be ready in a day or two, so I will let you know how it goes.
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