Acedia & Me

I am a huge fan of Kathleen Norris. Along with Thich Nhat Hanh, she has helped me to re-shape my spiritual landscape over the years, and opened my eyes up to contemplative riches. Her books also helped me to get over my blockages surrounding Christianity.
Norris's humility, her unpretentious good humour and wonderfully clear and simply expressed writing make her something absolutely extraordinary in the field of spiritual writing. Very few can match her for wisdom, insight and craftsmanship.
I shamefacedly confess that in the years since her last book, The Virgin of Bennington, I have grumbled a little, saying "Why doesn't Kathleen Norris bring out a new book? Plenty of other crap people pump out a book or two a year - what's holding her up?" In this wonderful new book, she explains just exactly what she was doing in that long interval - nursing her dying husband and then coming to terms with the grief that comes after his passing.
She takes as her theme the delightfully archaic sin of acedia and explores its influence on her own life. Norris's thesis is that the contemporary world is quick to diagnose ill-feeling as depression, when in fact many suffer from acedia, which is both less serious and more insidiously destructive than clinical depression.
Acedia has always been the special weakness of intellectuals, artists, the religious and the otherwise sensitive. Indeed, over the years I have been conscious of its effect on my own life - great swathes of which have been lost to this all-consuming and tremendously wasteful sin.
Kathleen Norris could write a brilliant book about almost any subject, and she is a truly original thinker and writer. Her book Dakota is one of the most strikingly original pieces of writing I've ever encountered. But in Acedia & Me she has created a masterpiece, and a must-read for anyone who has had to deal with grief and loss and the frittering away of their own God-given talents and opportunities. This is a book I will turn to again and again, and already many of its themes have preoccupied me and caused me to pause and reflect.

Harold Acton

You may know that I am overwhelmingly interested in the figures at the margins of life. The successful I find dull - their stories are so standardised and oft repeated, and their work is frequently over-praised. If someone is too regularly acclaimed, all of my warning bells start ringing. If the world is at one in agreeing a person a genius, I am invariably at odds.
I admire the careers and stories of those who struggled for success, but never quite made it, for whatever reason. So often the books of the moderately famous are SO much more interesting.
One of those people who have fascinated me since I first heard of them is Harold Acton.
Acton was an extraordinary person. Born to an immensely wealthy American woman and an impoverished, but upper class, English father, Acton grew up in Florence and went to study at Eton and Oxford. He knew absolutely everybody, and was a socially gifted raconteur whose legendary charm (and ample allowance) made him a popular figure in "between-the-wars" England. Clever and entirely over-cultured, Acton developed a reputation as a lounge lizard and dilettante, and being wealthy proved to be his curse. Never forced to earn a living, Acton never really applied himself to anything much, and so a really quite brilliant talent was frittered away in a lifetime of moderately amusing interests and diversions.
For many years he was supposed to be the model for Evelyn Waugh's foppish character Anthony Blanch in Brideshead Revisited, but Waugh always denied this, and it is much more likely that the real-life model was Acton's Oxford pal, Brian Howard - the most phenomenally wonderful failure ever to have existed (with the possible exception of Stephen Tennant).
Acton became something of a sinophile, and spent some years living in Beijing, where he set a wonderful comic novel called Peonies and Ponies, which no-one ever reads any more, but which is really quite lovely.
He was a lifelong friend of Nancy Mitford, and wrote the first biography of her.
Acton's most famous book was probably his autobiography, Memoirs of an Aesthete, which I am currently re-reading for the umpteenth time. He had the good fortune to outlive most of his contemporaries, and so when he released the autobiography he was enough of an historical oddity to excite the interests of a nostalgic reading public.
All his life Acton was more or less openly gay, and there are some stinging passages in Memoirs when he reflects on the respectable middle-aged scions of British society who were once his lovers during the salad days at Oxford. His reputation as an art connoisseur grew and grew, and when he died he left his sizeable fortune and collections to New York University. This estate is still the subject of court challenges, as it was one of the finest and wealthiest in Italy.
Acton's miniscule literary output belies his skill as a writer. The books are really very charming, well-crafted in an old-fashioned way, and well worth reading.

The Medicine Buddha

One of the more intriguing figures in the Mahayana Buddhist pantheon is the Medicine Buddha.
This particular Buddha (Duoc Su in Vietnamese) is credited with special properties of healing, but images of him are reasonably rare in most Mahayana temples.

Within the Tibetan tradition there is a much greater representation of him, in his exquisite Blue form, his skin exuding the very soothing properties of health and wellbeing. These blue Buddhas are among my favourite images. In the Vajrayana there are any number of Medicine Buddha practices, and there is a special mantra attributed to him. At the Khuong Viet Vajrayana Temple in Ho Chi Minh City the focus of practise is entirely on reciting the Medicine Buddha Sutra and chanting his mantra.

There is really very little written on the Medicine Buddha in English, though he is such a popular figure in Buddhist folklore and practise. There is an excellent book by Raoul Birnbaum, and at the moment I am reading quite a fascinating book called In Search of the Medicine Buddha by David Crow, which sets out the system of traditional Tibetan medicine, which of course traces its roots back to the Medicine Buddha.
This is the Medicine Buddha Mantra. I hope that it helps you if you're feeling a little under the weather:

Om namo bhagawate Bhaishjaye guru

vaidurya prabha rajaya tathagataya

arhate samyaksam buddhaya teyatha

om bekhajye bekhajye maha bekhajye

bekhajye rajaya samungate svaha

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