New Books for June


Aaah, a nice pile of exciting new books. I've recently read about a person who went on a year's new-book fast - they didn't purchase a single new volume for 12 months. I keep thinking I should do that, but really, I can't. It's an enjoyable addiction. So here is a run-down on the nice pile awaiting me. From the top down:

  • Thich Nhat Hanh Savor - A Buddhist diet book! This one satisfies a couple of my collecting habits: books by Thich Nhat Hanh and kooky diet books. I have an enormous collection of both. But really, this does have a serious intent: to make us more mindful of what we eat, why we eat and how. I think I'll get a lot out of it - let's hope it also helps me lose a few kilos.
  • Marsha Friedman Celebritize Yourself - I found out about this one on Facebook, and the title was so brilliant I simply had to get it. Wanna lift myself up that alphabetized celebrity list - need to make it to "F" by December, and should manage it with this book's help.
  • Ander Monson Vanishing Point - I am a big fan of David Shields' Reality Hunger, and I heard an interview with him and this guy, and I simply had to get the book. He sounds even more out-there than Shields.
  • Danny Wallace Yes Man - Why haven't I heard about this book before? It is the perfect conceit, and actually falls in line with the way I have been trying to live my life for the past couple of years. Want to read it before I see the movie.
  • May-lee Chai Glamorous Asians - May-lee is my overseas Twitter buddy, and an intriguing woman to boot. I'm very much inspired by her and her committment to the writing life. And this has a pic of the truly fabulous Anna May Wong on the cover!
  • May-lee Chai Hapa Girl - A memoir by the aforementioned May-lee, it's going to be a voyeuristic experience reading it, but probably all the more fascinating for it.
  • Wendy Craig-Purcell Ask Yourself This - The latest book being discussed on Unity FM's 'Hooked On Classics'. I'm addicted to this on-line radio show, and this virtual book-club is the first one I've ever been involved in. It's a deeply satisfying experience reading a book slowly and hearing it discussed in such depth. And very useful for my PhD thesis to boot.

Monday Blogcrawl



I am hoping to get around to some of the Sydney bookshops this week and sign some stock. If you'd like me to do that, so drop me a line - I will travel! It's been just freezing in Sydney, and I can't get my dog and cat away from teh heater. They are soaking up all the real heat, leaving me with just the residual warmth, clad in lots of unflattering layers. Here are the interesting blog posts for this week:

Buddhist Concepts: The Noble Eightfold Path



If the Four Noble Truths form the foundation of Buddhist philosophy, then the Noble Eightfold Path sets out the basics of Buddhist ethics and daily behaviour. Providing eight specific areas in which Buddhists should seek to live their religion, the Eightfold Path is usually enunciuated as follows:

1. right view
2. right intention
3. right speech
4. right action
5. right livelihood
6. right effort
7. right mindfulness
8. right concentration


Together they seem to form quite a sensible delineation of the different areas of life in which we need to exercise wisdom, caution and spirituality.
The Eightfold Path is, in fact, the Fourth of the Four Noble Truths - it sets out quite specifically the path that leads out of suffering. Similar to the Ten Commanments in their intense practicality, the Eight prescriptions were not only taught by the Buddha, but formed the foundation of his own practise, and that is a pretty good endorsement.
Like all things Buddhist, the path seems deceptively simple. When you start to really examine each of the steps, you can quickly find yourself in some deep moral quandaries - especially surrounding Right Livelihood!
Some translators suggest that all those "Right"s are better translated as "Harmonious," which would lend a distinctly more poetic air to this potentially terrifying list of must-dos.

Monday Blogcrawl



I have had a terrific couple of weeks teaching creative writing classes and doing talks. Left me feeling high, but also aware that I have to do a lot more exercise to keep my energy up - hence my presence at the swimming pool at 5.15 this morning doing laps. Not a pretty sight. I have registered for the Association for the Study of Australian Literature's conference next month, so keep an eye out for me if you are planning on coming along. I always feel so painfully shy at those things.
Anyhow, here is this week's blog roundup:

Mindfulness


I often wonder how mindfulness has become such a buzzword in popular culture.

It was probably Thich Nhat Hanh who popularised the idea in his books and teachings - that was certainly where I first encountered it, back in the early 90s.

Then later on it was suddenly popping up everywhere - mindulness meditation classes were in church halls, there were dozens of books on mindfulness and psychotherapy. Recently, Thich Nhat Hanh has even co-authored a book on mindfulness and eating, and it's not the first one.

It seems to be the one Buddhist idea that has really entered the mainstream, perhaps because it describes a quality that many in the contemporary Western world feel is lacking in their lives.

Simply explained, mindfulness is the act of careful attention to whatever is going on in the present moment.

Instead of day-dreaming as we do physical tasks, for example, we become mindful of the task at hand, recognising its value and trying to do it as well as we possibly can. In the broader consideration, it means existing contently in our lives exactly as they are now, without worrying about the future or regretting the past.

It seems like a simple idea, but the practise of it is very difficult. In our culture we always need to be doing something in addition to what we may be actually doing. So we listen to talk radio while we wash up. We listen to audio books while we drive. We meet with friends to go to the movies, or see a play, or try a new restaurant. We rarely allow ourselves to just simply be, and to enjoy whatever it is we are engaged in.

I'm not surprised that a Vietnamese Zen Master has been the one to really propagate the ideal of mindfulness in the West. In Vietnam I have noticed that many people are really capable of exercising mindfulness and glorying in the joy of the present moment. If you watch monks carefully, you can't help but notice the care they devote to each and every action: pouring tea, eating, sweeping, cutting herbs from the garden. And I also notice that in Vietnam people still seem to genuinely enjoy the presence and company of friends. They don't need an excuse to see people they like. Outings and activities are not necessary - it is enough to simply sit in each other's presence and delight in the sheer closeness of the one you love, much like that other great Master Winnie the Pooh.

My Winter Reading List

Yes, it's Winter in Sydney.
And quite a chilly one at that.
Though I'm booked solid till at least the end of November, I am hopeful about getting to some must-read books.
Here is my eclectic list:





Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller by Michael Korda - My doctoral thesis is on self-help books, and I am very interested in what makes them so popular, and such consistent bestsellers. I've seen this book referenced frequently, though it is long out of print. I got a copy from the States, and look forward to studying the lists of American bestsellers and how they have changed over the years.




Venerable Father: A Life With Ajahn Chah by Paul Breiter - Published in Thailand, this is an intimate look at one of the most legendary Thai meditation masters, Ajahn Chah. In the past I have spent a lot of time exploring the meditative traditions of Thailand, including periods on retreat in monasteries in Thailand. Ajahn Chah has long been one of my heroes, and I love the stories of his naughty humour and irascible common sense. And biographical books about Buddhist monks are really quite rare in English.




Tales My Father Taught Me: An Evocation of Extravagant Episodes by Osbert Sitwell - I adore the Sitwells, and often wonder if I'm not one of them reincarnated (it would definitely be Edith). All of them wrote beautifully, and I could easily spend my life in a locked room with the collected works of the Sitwells. Such elegant devotion to matters frivolous really strikes a chord deep within me. I discovered at Berkelouw's in Berrima an exquisite and pristine hardcover copy of this one, complete with dustjacket.




The Naked Buddha by Eric Harrison - Having recently read and enjoyed Stephen Batchelor's Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, I was interested in this much earlier Australian effort to de-mythologise the Buddha's life and teachings. I must state clearly and up-front that in general I find myself bewildered by this effort to remove all of the elements of religion that I actually find attractive (mystery, magic, ritual, wonder, faith and grace), but nonetheless I like to be challenged.




Focal Point by Brian Tracy - Now what would any list be without a good, solid self-help book to get you through the wintry days? Tracy is one of my favourites, with his simple prose and constant injunctions to return to your goals and always keep them in mind. I am going to be focused this Winter, dammit!

Teaser Tuesdays


Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
My Teasers:

"Plutarch sometimes bulleted his essays with as many as a hundred numbered sections, eschewing narrative completely and simply listing. His essay "Sayings by Spartan Women" itemizes quotations from unknown Spartan mothers, wives, daughters, and widows on a variety of topics without any transitional exposition or interpretation, or any suggestion whatsoever as to how we might read the text or even, for that matter, why."

~ Reality Hunger by David Shields

Monday Blogcrawl




Hmmm, I'm a little angry with myself lately. I seem to be specialising in procrastination, and I really do need to do a lot of very hard work. I've also found it impossible to stick to any fitness or diet regimen. But that's enough about me. Let's see what the more interesting blogs have been talking about:

Taoist Hall - Mingyue Lay Buddhist Temple



Mingue Temple in Bonnyrigg is one of my "places."
I go there when I need some inspiration. On weekdays the place is normally quite deserted, and there are plenty of benches to sit on and read or write - it is an excellent place in which to break through writers' block.
My favourite part of this multi-purpose worship complex is the forlorn little Taoist hall to the right of the main worship hall. It is always empty, even on the busiest festival days. I get the feeling there aren't all that many interested Taoists around these parts.
Maybe because of its lack of popularity it has become the resting place for all kinds of statues and images that aren't necessarily Taoist. I noticed last week that a number of statues of Bodhidharma - the great Patriarch of Zen Buddhism in China - have made their way onto the shrines there.



It seems to me that the hall is now doubling as a shrine to the Buddhist Patriarchs, who stand alongside images of the Taoist Immortals, Lao Tzu and Lu Dongbin.



But still no-one comes.
While no-one takes much interest in it, the Taoist Hall becomes more and more a storage area.



Cleaning implements and unused furniture are beginning to clutter the worship spaces.




The whole place could do with an injection of TLC, but in the meantime I will continue to frequent it because I love things forgotten.

Retreat at St. Benedict's


I used to go on retreats a lot when I was a youngster - Buddhist retreats, yoga retreats, stints at monasteries in Thailand. You name it, I was willing to give it a go. But now my list of retreat venues has pretty much dwindled down to one - St. Benedict's monastery in Arcadia, on the outskirts of Sydney.



I have just returned from a few days there, and though I can't say I am much refreshed (an enormous pile of work awaited me on my return), I can say that there felt like there was some purpose to the retreat.
You see, I think that retreats are about ideas for me at the moment. A few days in relative isolation, relative silence, and media-free really gets my creative juices flowing, and I find I write like mad. I become an ideas machine, and make enormous lists of things to do when I get back to the real world.
I like the Benedictine monastery because no-one tries to boss me around.



So long as I turn up to the daily prayers and meals my time is pretty much my own. I have grown tired of the feats of endurance expected of me at Buddhist retreats, and the over-organised exertions of yoga camp. The Benedictine monks quietly pursue their own spiritual lives and leave me to do whatever I please.



And they don't ask me to clean the toilets.
And I love the prayer times - four times a day I sauntered into the chilly chapel to hear the exquisite chant of the little group of monks. Though to be honest, I find it kind of tough to be up in time for the 5.15am prayers. My favourite is the final office just before bed. After the chanting of the Psalms the monks gather around this image of the Virgin Mary and sing a hymn to her in Latin.



The Abbott then blesses us with holy water, and we make our ways silently back to our rooms and to our beds. An exquisite way to end the day.
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