Plum Village

Thich Nhat Hanh
Sister Jina van Hengel

(Sounds True,
Box 8010,
Boulder CO)
Thich Nhat Hanh has established a retreat center in Southern France with the delicious name of Plum Village. In this tape, he invites us to join him there on a guided meditation with his gong. Or, rather, in his elegant words,

    The bell is invited by me to sound for you to help you enjoy your breathing. Breathing is a miracle you touch deeply to let you know that you are alive.

It may sound rather ding-ey for you to be playing a tape of a bell going BONG every minute or so for a full forty-five minutes --- but after the initial strangeness of it wears off, it's rather soothing. This bell has a full, deep-throated resonance, and if you are like me, you find that this Laocoön we call the mind is constantly twisting itself off into diversions. So it's nice to have something to bong us back into our senses (or non-senses).

It's a sturdy reminder that when we are meditating, we don't have to be figuring out how we're going to cook that five-pound chicken for supper or how to pay the latest Visa bill that we rang up on that stupid vacation. Rather, it gives us a few minutes to merely watch our noisy thoughts dance by without doing anything about them. BONG.

On the other side of the tape is the equally charming Sister Jina who invites us to breathe in and breathe out --- with a slight smile on the face --- and, in the process, try to learn to forgive our mothers and fathers by (as we breathe) meditating on what it was like for them when they were five years old, thinking about all the geeky things (my words, certainly not hers) that happened to them when they were mere tads. Which may explain why they were such jerks when we were at our most needy.

Speaking of bells that go GONG in the night: thirty years ago, when I was running a rather disreputable radio station in Seattle, our music director, an ethnomusicologist by the name of Robert Garfias, brought up to the station a six-record album of Korean temple bells. It consisted of a somber man announcing, in Korean, the temple where the bells were located, followed by various BONGS.

We scheduled "Korean Temple Bells" to be on the air for an hour-and-a-half one Friday night. Garfias knew our volunteers, and their heavy hands on his all-too-rare records --- so we recorded the entire batch onto tape. Some boobie, probably me, forgot to rewind it, so when Friday night came along, our volunteer put it on the air, the whole thing, ass-backwards.

Given that our on-the-air man didn't know Korean, and that most temple bells backwards sound damn near like they do forwards, no one was the wiser, except for Garfias, who was listening at home. He never was able to get through to the station to tell us what was happening.

Which, if you think about it, is all very Zen.

--- Lorenzo W. Milam

The Riddle of
The Compass

The Invention that
Changed the World

Amir D. Aczel
Sometime towards the end of the 13th century, the compass began to be used in Western navigation by such nation-states as Venice, Spain, and Britain. It, says Aczel,

    opened up the world to maritime exploration. The earth would never be seen the same way again.

Before the compass, mariners used the stars, or the flight patterns of birds, or their own experience to guide them from port to port. Too, there were lighthouses, and, most important of them all --- the sounding line. "There is a myth, propagated by people with little understanding of the sea and no faith in human ingenuity, that ancient mariners navigated by hugging the coastline." Not so, says Aczel:

    The greatest danger a mariner faces is that of running aground...the depth of the sea varies widely and a navigator cannot always predict where the sea might not be deep enough for the ship's draft...With all these hazards along the coastline, a seafaring person is safest in open waters.

The theme of this slim volume revolves around Aczel's efforts to find the one person responsible for inventing the magnetic needle. Tradition has it that it was one Flavio Gioia of Amalfi but Aczel's researches prove to him that the documents claiming Gioia's responsibility might be misleading, and, the Chinese were making use of the magnetic needle centuries before Flavio --- not for navigation but for other, more exotic uses (metal detection, for one).

As we delve more deeply into The Riddle of the Compass, we find ourselves closer and closer to drowning. The reason: Aczel's writing style is, in a word, all wet. In fact, it's so water-logged as to make us want to cut loose. I hung in there up to page 114 --- and think I should be awarded the Purple Heart by the American Academy of Letters for Meritorious Service in the Brotherhood of Book Reviewers for getting that far without going under. For instance,

    Marco Polo never said anything about it in his writings. Still, the story of Marco Polo is relevant to the history of the magnetic compass. For the story of Marco Polo is a story of the relations that existed between East and West during the time navigation was expanding, and it sheds light of the state of these relations at the time the compass became important in shipping. Marco Polo's tale is also an example of how the compass might have traveled to Europe from China by the hand of some earlier, unknown traveler along the same routes, one who did not record his travels, much less publish an account of them in a famous book.

Hand me my bladder bag! What Aczel is saying is that in this book, a book about the origins of the compass, Marco Polo said nothing about the compass, but the compass was very important, and if Marco Polo didn't say anything, someone like Marco Polo might have done so, someone who followed the same routes, but he didn't, because he didn't write a famous book.

As my old English teacher Miss Wrangel would say, "What in God's name are you blithering on about, child?"

--- D. J. Whittier

C. D. Cherryh
Marak lives in the land of the Lahkt, but --- even though the son of a chief --- he is one of the mad. The mad see lights, hear voices. When they are wounded, their cuts heal without a scar. When tattooed with the mark of their tribe, it instantly fades.

As part of his madness Marak is haunted by visions of towers, and the voices calling, calling, Marak, Marak, Marak. Too, he finds himself leaning to the east, always to the east, and the voices say, To the east, to the east.

When his madness is discovered, he is sent from his father's house, joins an endless caravan of other mads who have been called to go to the Ila, the world dictators who inhabit the city of Oburan. Once there, the Ila send him and other mads on a journey, to the east, across the burning, windy deserts, on the backs of the giant besha, a four-legged dinosaur (with horns).

Their mission: to discover the purpose of their madness, the meaning of the voices.

§     §     §

It is a mildly interesting plot, seeded as it is with touches of primitivism, and power, and simple folk, and true: despite his leanings to the east, Marak turns out to be a brave and noble and honorable fighter. There is even, on windy nights, trapped in their tents, a dose of "overheated flesh,"

    He was through, then, but she found ways: she breathed into his sound-deafened ear and intruded a tongue, which drew his attention amazingly. Dutifully, he returned the effort with a languid hand, but meanwhile she found places to touch no woman had tried with him and found places to be that no woman ever had managed.

She intruded a tongue. It drew his attention amazingly. Despite his languid hand. That's love an'i Keran style. Which the author tells us is very special: "Did they not say it of the an'i Keran, that they could last the whole night?" "...the whole night..."

Ms. Cherryh, as you may have gathered, is fond of inversions, and repetition. Every page or so, voices will whisper to Marak, voices that refuse to leave Marak (or the reader) alone: East, east, east. Go faster. They also breathe (on Marak, and on the reader), Marak, Marak, Marak.

Even more alarming than the whispering voices are the echoes of the King James version of the Old Testament. This is Marak in late night conversation with his last-the-whole-night an'i Keran (and another lady the picked up on the side --- three-way shenanigans in the tent):

    "Do you suppose there is a tower?" Hati asked. "Or is it a spire of rock?"

    "If it is a tower, men built it," he said. "And the stars are clearly the stars we follow. And what shall we find?"

    "Great treasure," Hati said expansively, with the wave of a hand toward the dark, "and we won't go back to the Ila. We'll be rich, and have fifty white beshti and lie on dyed cloth, under tents with gold fittings. We'll have a hundred slaves to do the work, and we'll eat melons twice a day..."

    "We'll grow fat," he said, and asked Norit, who lay at his other side, "What would you have if you were rich?"

    "A house and a vineyard," Norit said, "and a fine bed with a mattress."

It's a veritable perfumed garden of dyed cloth, gold fittings, white beshti, fat and mattresses there in the desert tents, between the two ladies. But it's not all milk-and-honey. The next morning, stolid Marak finds himself turning philosopher:

    There was this to surviving the desert together, that life was worth celebrating, and those who had been wise could turn foolish and those who had been fools came out wise men...

"Those who were wise could turn foolish and those who had been fools came out wise men." How true, how true.

Booklist, the august book review magazine, liked Hammerfall so much they gave it a little black star and cited it as one of the best science fiction books of 2001. They must be heavily into hemi-semi-quasi-neo-Biblical tics over there in their offices in Chicago.

What with all the wise fools, and the foolish wise men, we, alas, had to fold up our tents around page 100.

--- L. L. Stephens

Go Up     Subscribe     Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH