10/16/14

Cold Mountain Poems


Han Shan and Shih TeI first became aware of the Tang dynasty poet, Han Shan, in the late 1960s, when I was engrossed in reading the poets of the earlier Beat generation. It was at that time that, through them, I started to discover and explore Western Buddhism – as it was adapted and represented through their experiences and words. I eagerly read everything by Alan Watts and Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg and others from the era.

Sometime around then, I discovered a few of Han Shan’s poems. Beat poet Gary Snyder had translated 24 poems for the Evergreen Review in 1958, and later included them with a collection of his own poems in his 1959 book, Rip Rap and Cold Mountain Poems. My copy of that book, in its 1966 reprint, has long since vanished from my shelves. But I remember the effect they had on me: their austere simplicity, their sincerity, their unfeigned naturalness.

I found Snyder through Kerouac’s portrayal of him in his novel, The Dharma Bums (which I also still have on my shelves). Around the same time I discovered haiku, Kenneth Rexroth’s translations, and translations of other T’ang poets: Li Po, Wang Wei and Tu Fu in particular… books which I still have. Snyder’s translations were crisp, clear and poignant.

Han Shan means “Cold Mountain” in Chinese. It’s not simply a place: in the poetry it’s a metaphor for both a state of being and a spiritual destination. The reader is not simply looking at a person: he or she is looking at a mirror: Han Shan is telling us to look within. The poems are important in the literature of Ch’an Buddhism, which later migrated to become Zen in Japan.

Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist-blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there’s been no rain
The pine sings, but there’s no wind.
Who can leap the world’s ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?
translated by Gary Snyder.*

His original name has been lost in the ages between us. He has been dated to a wide range of years in the T’ang dynasty, between about 577 and 901 CE. He has also been identified as different individuals during that period, as well as a collective of poets. He travelled and wrote with a companion, Shih-te, although some authorities suggest they were the same person. No one knows for sure. All we know is that he wrote his poems on rocks (and maybe on bamboo and the wood or the walls of houses).

His only contemporary biographer, Lu Ch’iu-yin, Governor of T’ai Prefecture, wrote this of Han Shan:

He looked like a tramp. His body and face were old and beat. Yet in every word he breathed was a meaning in line with the subtle principles of things, if only you thought of it deeply. Everything he said had a feeling of Tao in it, profound and arcane secrets. His hat was made of birch bark, his clothes were ragged and worn out, and his shoes were wood. Thus men who have made it hide their tracks: unifying categories and interpenetrating things. On that long veranda calling and singing, in his words of reply Ha Ha! – the three worlds revolve. Sometimes at the villages and farms he laughed and sang with cowherds. Sometimes intractable, sometimes agreeable, his nature was happy of itself. But how could a person without wisdom recognize him?

You can read other biographical accounts online, including this one at Hermitary.

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09/21/14

Some Latin Quotes to Ponder


Pinterest (fake Latin quote)Here are some translations from Latin quotations I took from a few books of mine, notably The Anchor Book of Latin Quotations, compiled by Norbert Guterman (Anchor-Doubleday, New York, 1966 and reprinted 1990) and Cave Canem: A Miscellany of Latin Words & Phrases, by Lorna Robinson (Walker & Co., New York, 2008).

Some of these have resonance in today’s politics, even local politics. Others have resonance in events, issues and thoughts about the world. Some are simply words that have resonance to me and my own choices in life.

Terence:

People who are unsuccessful are all somehow inclined to be suspicious: they are prompt to take offence. Because of their poverty, they are always sure you are slighting them. Omnes quibus res sunt minus seondae, magis sunt nescio quo modo suspiciosi: ad contumeliam omnia accipunt magis: propter suam inpotentiam se semper credunt ludier.
From Adelphoe, 605.

Who do those words make you think of? The people who post angry messages on social media just to get a response? People perennially suspicious of the intent and motives of others? Bitter bloggers?

But as Appius Claudius Caecus wrote, “Quisque faber suae fortunae:” each is the architect of his own fortune. We can each choose to be positive, or we can choose to be negative, and from those choices our fortunes and futures spring. I choose the positive.

Accius:

One must always be on one’s guard: there are many snares for the good. Vigilandum est semper: multae insidiae sunt bonis.
From Atreus

Words that our incumbent members of council – and indeed all candidates for council – should heed. No matter how much good you think you do, someone will always find fault. They set snares for you, blame you for failing, even as you do good. Someone will always attempt to make your best efforts seem bad. Someone will always belittle and denigrate what you sincerely believed was in the best interests of all.

Rise above it. As Horace wrote in Carmina, “Aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem:” Remember when life’s path is steep to keep your mind even.

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09/9/14

Our gawker culture


Gizmodo imageSuddenly the Net lit up with headlines news: celebrity nude photos leaked! Videos too! Facebook timelines were replete with media stories. Shock. Horror. Voyeurism. Click, click, click the viewers racked up the view count as they raced to the sites just in case they actually showed something. A little flesh to feed our insatiable desire to gawk.

Meanwhile psychopaths in ISIS continue to harvest human lives and slaughter journalists, Syria continues its brutal civil war, drought threatens the American southwest, climate change ravages the planet, Russia sends soldiers to undermine Ukraine and shoot down civilian airliners, pesticides continue to wipe out bee populations, Scotland’s referendum on separation looms, Ebola claims more lives in Africa, Al Queda expands its terror network in Asia, the Taliban continue their murder spree in Afghanistan…

All ignored while we look for photos of naked “celebrities.” Who needs to worry about terrorism, poverty, hunger, disease, who needs to ponder solutions to the world’s ills when we can look at tits and ass. And famous tits and ass at that.

Many web sites scrambled to share them as quickly as possible before threats of legal action forced their removal. And if not posting them, they posted links to the sites that did. The (recently updated) headline on Gawker reads, “J-Law, Kate Upton Nudes Leak: Web Explodes Over Hacked Celeb Pics.” and continues:

The list of celebrities whose nudes are supposedly in this cache includes Jennifer Lawrence, Avril Lavigne, Kate Upton, Lea Michele, and McKayla Maroney, and several of them—the photos, not the celebs—have begun to show up on various message boards across the internet.

What does this say about the society we’re created, that we are more drawn to a cheesecake than big, important, world-changing issues? (another Gawker story notes these photos have been circulating for a while in file-sharing sites…)

Our brave new online culture allows us to become a nation of anonymous peepers and stalkers. Gawkers who pursue the titillating, the trivial and the salacious; we consume the gossip and rumour eagerly. We revel in conspiracies and wild allegations, while rejecting facts, data and common sense. The highly-popular Gawker site, with its salacious gossip and celebrity trivia, is the perfect embodiment of our shallowness: it is the supermarket tabloid on steroids.

Who needs truth when you can have rumour and innuendo? Ah, haven’t we learned that in local politics already…

But why isn’t anyone asking: what were there nude pictures doing online in the first place?

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09/8/14

Classical music matters even more today


JS Bach cartoonThe official launch of the new Classical FM 102.9 radio station in Collingwood this past weekend reminded me of my own past history with classical music, but also why it matters so much to have classical music in our lives. And why we need to keep that cultural lifeline to our musical past alive and active.

Classical music binds us to our past, to our civilization and our culture. Music reflects the styles and tastes of the era in which it was composed, as do art and literature. And while some people may think it stuffy, much of it was actually the pop music of its day.

I was brought up in the 1950s and early 60s listening to light classical fare at home, but without any specific interest or focus on musical style. My parents liked the music, but I can’t recall any particular era or style they liked more than any other. They listened to a smorgasbord of what we’d call “easy listening” music and it was hard for a young boy to distinguish between a piece by Mantovani, Mitch Miller or a classical quartet.

(I, of course, was plugged into my crystal radio at night listening to rock and roll music, and later on my two-transistor portable radio… my parents’ music seemed old-fashioned compared to Dion, Elvis and the Beatles.)

We didn’t discuss classical music at home: it just was there, part of the aural landscape. We had a few of those “popular hits of classical music” albums on vinyl for the 33 rpm stereo player, and a collection of pieces on 78 rpm on old record player (I think it had been my grandparents’). The latter was in the basement where I would sit and play the music for hours, running through the 78s while I read books and comic books.

We had a lot of operetta, too, in the 78s, mostly Gilbert & Sullivan. I learned some of it by osmosis. I can still sing the words of some of the songs I heard then, too. My father used to sing many of the songs in the car when we drove to the cottage or to visit my grandparents. When I was a a lad, I served a term…. still makes me smile.

But I never really appreciated classical music per se until many years later. In the late 1960s, my then-girlfriend and her friends at university were all cultural snobs; at least they seemed that way to a hippie-ish youth playing guitar pop-blues-rock-folk music. But they taught me to like – and soon love – a wide range of classical composers and pieces.

I learned from them; I learned to like the music because that’s what my girlfriend liked. It’s amazing and amusing what love does for a young man.

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08/31/14

Sex, violence and TV shows


We just finished watching the third season of Game of Thrones on DVD this past weekend. Before that, we watched The White Queen, another DVD series (one season only, although it deserved more).

As we watched both, I found myself wondering why directors and producers felt the need to insert gratuitous – but apparently obligatory – explicit scenes of sex and violence that really had little to do with either plot or character development.

The same questions arose when I watched Deadwood, The Sopranos, First Blood and Boardwalk Empire. Personally, I found these explicit bits distracting, like commercials, because they drew attention away from the story and characters.

I had a notion that the writers ran out of ideas at these points and instead threw in a bit of sex or violence, hoping the audience wouldn’t notice the paucity of the writing.

Why do both need to be so graphic? Can’t the same effect be accomplished by suggestion, by clever camera indirection? Do we need spurting blood and genital closeups to make a scene seem real or effective? Can’t a good director or cinematographer convey these emotions through suggestion, shadow and impression?

Do we need to have full-frontal nudity to convey a sense of the erotic? Or has pornography dulled our senses to the point where anything less doesn’t capture our attention? Why do we need sex and violence instead of story? Because we, collectively, haven’t got the attention span of gnats and our emotions are reduced to biological urges?

Or is it a generational thing? Am I just being old fashioned and curmudgeonly? Maybe, but I’ll keep my reserve, thank you.

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08/21/14

Great books: the academic view


Great BooksIn the mid-1990s, journalist David Denby took on a personal challenge to return to Columbia University for a year to take two courses, both focused on reading the “great books” of the Western canon. The results and his observations – along with an entertaining bit of biography about his journey – is told in Great Books (Simon & Schuster, 1996).

I was interested in Denby’s narrative primarily because, in looking through the table of contents, I noticed he commented on Machiavelli and Montaigne – two of my favourite writers. That made me want to read what he says about them, and about others, so of course I purchased the book.

But of course, the book is about a lot more than those two: it covers a wide range of Western writing from Homer to Virginia Woolf. The actual reading list covers almost four full pages at the beginning of the book. It is not a collection of great English writing – the original languages include ancient Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, German, Spanish and one sample of Russian (an essay by Lenin). All, of course, in an English translation.

Surprisingly, there are no works by or excerpts from the great Russian novelists like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. No Latin American, Chinese or African writers, either. But there is a significant difference between a list compiled for reading during a single academic year and a comprehensive list of great books meant to convey the breadth of culture, learning and civilization.

Also, the list is specifically a Western canon, not a world canon.

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