A Meditation In Three Parts

1. Glasgow Zen

At the end of Monday’s post, I wondered why it was that the generosity of spirit that Sandy McCall Smith demonstrated at his recent Book Festival appearance . . .

It gave [Bertie] a warm feeling to be protecting his friend from whatever it was that frightened him – whether it was Campbells, or the dark, or things that had no name. And it was not surprising, perhaps, that he should feel it – this little boy who felt things so deeply; for we all feel that about our friends; we all feel that about those around whom we might put an arm.

… before stealthily sliding the claw hammer from his rucksack….

. . . did not clash at all with the gleeful figure I remember relating absurd tales of criminal horror in lectures so many years ago. I suspect that it’s got something to do with an intellectual curiosity that delights in all aspects of the human experience. Not that I’m trying to claim any reflected glory here. I watch most of my favourite tv shows through my fingers. They’re not scary, you understand. I’m just horrified by various parts of the human experience.

We went to see another Scottish writer at the Book Festival a few days later.

Arguably Scotland’s greatest living writer, Alan Spence

Alan Spence is a follower of the late Sri Chinmoy and is a long time practitioner of meditation. www.alanspence.co.uk tells us that he “has recently been exploring the work of the Zen Master Hakuin, (1685 – 1786), who was one of the most influential figures in Japanese Zen Buddhism.” This produced his latest work, the Zen novel Night Boat. Spence explained during a discussion of historical novels that the title originated from a story Hakuin told in which the night boat is an embellishment that betrays a tale as a fiction. Such an error, he noted, is just as much a risk in memoir as it is in the historical novel. His freedom in writing Night Boat was wide, in that not a great deal is known of the historical details of Hakuin’s life. Nevertheless, Alan Massie writes in The Scotsman that “[i]t is as if the author has merged himself thoroughly in [Hakuin] by an act of creative imagination or, if you prefer, empathy.” Spence might take this as a great complement, given that Hakuin is a legendary Zen master whose practices are prevalent even today. Or maybe he simply would note the comment as it rose in the stream of his thoughts before allowing it to pass through without interference.

The monkey is reaching
For the moon in the water.
Until death overtakes him
He’ll never give up.
If he’d let go the branch and
Disappear in the deep pool,
The whole world would shine
With dazzling pureness.
Hakuin Ekaku

Appropriately, while Spence is unassuming, he radiates calm and mindfulness as he reads from Night Boat. As his voice quietly fills the room, it fills me with a deep sense of peace.

2. Punjabi Junction

Staying in the east, or more precisely, Leith, Beth and I took part in a somewhat spiritual journey last Saturday at the Punjabi Junction (and the food was great). Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief, a “Scottish Alliance of organisations and individuals”, was hosting a death cafe as part of its aim to encourage greater openness about death, dying and bereavement in Scotland. Before we tucked into our menu of talking points, the owner of the restaurant shared with us some thoughts regarding the place of death in Sikhism.

Sikhs believe in a form of reincarnation whereby the soul may be born many times as a human or animal, travelling through a number of the 8,400,000 forms of life before being released to rejoin Waheguru, or god. And since only humans know the difference between right and wrong, it is only through human death that we can achieve freedom from the cycle of rebirth when karma dictates whether a soul is ready for mukti.

Haggis pakora. Is haggis one of the 8,400,000 forms?

After learning this, we sat in small, rotating groups, and considered various set questions. Like, “Many women have a ‘birth plan’. Should people make a ‘death plan’, and what should be in yours?” I think that my old psychotherapist in recovery would approve of these contemplations. She certainly had absorbed — whether through a meditation practice or otherwise, I have no idea — the Zen emphasis on dropping illusion and seeing things without the distortion created by one’s own thoughts.

3. Trash Cuisine

Of course, it’s Festival time, and we can find distraction all through the town. But when I went to see Belarus Free Theatre’s Trash Cuisine at The Pleasance Grand,  the troupe used all the tools of theatre to bring their audience face to face with the real world. In Belarus, in the United States, and here in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in too many ways, a real world all too evocative of the absurd, frightening world that one reads of in Kundera’s best work.

In Trash Cuisine, strawberries and cream are things over which executioners can compare war stories. A thread count of 375 indicates the optimal density of towel to be used in waterboarding, as recommended by special forces. Haute cuisine means the succulent torture of tiny birds for our pleasure, in an echo of the torture of a young, innocent, Irish chef in Belfast.

The result of this mixture of art and brutal truth is a poetic, provocative, powerful — important — piece of theatre. If you’re in Scotland and can get to The Pleasance Grand at 3:30pm before the run ends on 26 August, I guarantee you’ll be profoundly affected. If you’re an American reader, or can’t otherwise make the show, I’ve learned through the PR for the show that:

On 25 August Trash Cuisine will be streamed live through www.liftfestival.com, making the performance accessible to international audiences, in particular those in Belarus, opposing censorship and supporting freedom of expression and human rights.  This is the first time Belarus Free Theatre will live stream a show as an act of political defiance.

Belarus Free Theatre are coming to Edinburgh to make a statement.  Theatre is the company’s only voice against the horrific dictatorship of Belarus.  Don’t miss this important and courageous moment in their history.

The show starts at 3:30pm (BST)/10:30am (EDT) on Sunday.

Finally, if you can’t catch the stream, please sign Belarus Free Theatre’s #giveabodyback petition. It’s only a minute of your time, and you’d feel compelled to sign if you saw the show. And, American friends, note that the petition blurb starts by noting that:

Belarus is the last country in Europe that has not yet abandoned the death penalty.

Next time you’re voting, discussing politics, or contemplating a cause to support, consider that the USA is joined on the list of eight most persistent world executioners (2007-12) by the following countries: China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, North Korea and Sudan (source). Let’s not encourage our fellow humans to achieve mukti too soon, eh?

In like a bullet at #5.
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