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. http://www.allenandunwin.com/

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.
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