Meditation for

Jack Kornfield
(Sounds True)
We've always been fond of Jack Kornfield and we suspect that he is fond of himself --- in the Buddhist sense of "forgiving the self." His take on meditation, loving-kindness, and the practice of Buddhism is complete, wise, sometimes funny, always worth listening to.

In a review of The Roots of Buddhist Psychology, this magazine highlighted his wry story of the Eskimo and the priest, the priest telling the man about sin and going to hell and the Eskimo asks, "Do those who don't know about what you are saying go to hell, too?" "Well, no..." "Then why did you tell me?"

Then there was his take on Jesus, "looking around heaven, seeing these drunks lying around, others gambling and carrying on. So he goes to St. Peter and says, 'Why are you permitting these people to come in?' And St. Peter says, 'Don't blame me. It's your mother. Every time I turn someone away she lets them in the back door.'"

In our review of The Inner Art of Meditation we wrote

    when I first started in on Tape #1, Kornfield's speech patterns came across not like some guru master but a juvenile delinquent from the Bronx. His voice reminded me of a radio program about a 50s teen-ager named Henry Aldrich. When his mother called --- or bellowed --- "Henry. Henry Aldrich!" his cracked-voice response, "Coming, Mother," was supposed to be very funny. And although I suspect that Kornfield is way past puberty, he speaks more Henry than (say) Alan Watts or Ram Dass.

"However," we concluded, "by the third session, when he told us from personal experience how to do fifteen minutes of meditation with a fly crawling around on your face, or when he delivered the story of his master telling him to meditate sitting on the edge of a well (he kept falling asleep in meditation; his master thought that being on the edge of a forty foot drop might cure that; he was right) or when he described getting pissed at his master ("You're supposed to be enlightened! Yet you constantly contradict yourself!") --- after these tales, he had won my heart, and now I find that I, too, am beginning to talk more and more like Henry Aldrich."

So we came filled with expectations, for Buddhist Meditation for Beginners. There are phrases, thoughts, and insights aplenty. He gives brief and cogent summaries of the different schools of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold path. He refers to the babble in our minds as "the bureaucracy of the ego." He wonders at Americans who dress up family corpses "as if they are going to a party." He tells of the two ex-prisoners, years after gaining their freedom. "Have you forgiven the guards yet?" asks none. "Never!" says the second. "Then," says the first, "You are still in prison."

§     §     §

We do have some reservations about this compilation. The first is that silly, ever-present Buddhist bugaboo: should we protect, let alone let live, all creatures great and small? I could agree with Kornfield on roaches (too gross when you squash them) or spiders (they eat other bugs). But when it comes to mosquitoes I draw the line. "Brush them off," he tells us. My foot.

I notice all these "line-and-let-live" advocates live in the northern frost-zone, where the worst you can get from a mosquito is an itchy welt. For those of us who spend some time nearer the equator, there are a few other things that comes along with the mosquito "bite."

Despite what people say, mosquitoes don't bite. They shoot you up with mosquito spit before they commence suckling your blood. The anesthetizing juice that they squirt in your capillaries contains various foreign beesties. Years ago it was yellow fever. Another, still present, is malaria. Another, one that is now beginning to plague those of us who live in the tropics with global warming, is dengue fever. Pronounce it "din-gay" to rhyme with Tokay. But not as merry. By a long shot. It used to be called "Breakbone Fever," and that's exactly what it feels like when it takes you over.

There are four types of dengue. #4, the most severe, is known to kill people, especially children and the viejos. Like me.

If Kornfield thinks I am going to spend the evening "brushing away" these carriers of death, he has another think coming. Squash the bastards, I say, and proffer the advice to their little flat spidery corpses that they might want to come back next time in a slightly more benign form. Like a Nabokovian butterfly.

Finally, there is something a little weird in this collection of six CDs. The whole is, apparently, a compilation drawn from Kornfield's many different presentations from over the years. Some are lively, with a very lively --- almost too lively --- audience. Other parts are presented solemnly, with a rather quiet audience. There are edits in which Kornfield's tone changes suddenly, as if he had changed his mind, or as if the editors are cutting from one recording to another.

There were also repetitions, as if the producer didn't listen carefully to earlier sessions, or was in a hurry. Since Kornfield is a careful presenter ... building to dramatic conclusions, pacing himself nicely ... we found these edits and juxtapositions to be somewhat jarring, if not out-of-character.

--- B. G. Woolworth

A Military History
G. E. Wood
Battles at Dien Bien Phu, Waterloo, Guadacanal, the Somme, El Alamein and Passenchendaele were won or lost (depending on whose side you were on) by mud. One of the worst military debacles occurred at the Third Battle of Ypres, August - November, 1917. It is guessed that casualties on both sides reached 800,000 men, almost 8,000 a day. According to The Encyclopedia of WWI, Sir Launcelot Kiggell, Haig's chief of staff, in viewing the mud-drenched wasteland of the battlefield "wept and exclaimed, 'Did we really send men to fight in this?'"

Possibly the worst of all --- if one can come up with "best" or "worst" when defining battles fought, or attempted to be fought, in a sea of sludge --- came with Operation Barbarossa, the four-year attempt of the German military to capture Russia. The Nazis ran into something the Russians knew quite well, rasputiza ("the time without roads.") It comes regularly to rural Russia in the spring and in the fall. Since there was only one paved road to Moscow, the Germans tried to drive their tanks, trucks, command cars, soldiers and horses on dirt roads. With the first fall storm in 1940, none could move. WWII tanks had a gas mileage even worse than present-day American SUVs; their supply trucks could not reach them to keep them fueled.

The spring thaw was even more boggy, because under all that black soup was an ice foundation, making advance and withdrawal exactly what that sour-puss upstate New Yorker called the Fest at Woodstock --- remember the movie? --- "A goddamn shitty mess."

Wood spends a few pages defining "mud," or at least giving cursing soldiers' versions of printables. "Porridge," is typical. "Dough for pie crust" was the way one described Flanders. A General Slim, en route to Tiddam in Burma, referred to a hillside of mud as "the chocolate staircase." Lt. Lamar Myers, in Vietnam, referred to it as "warmed chocolate syrup," which sounds to me altogether too benign, plus not being a very soldier-like choice of words.

Wood tells us that there are three types of mud, I, IIa, and IIb. I can't see that these three help the reader very much. In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said of pornography: "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced ... but I know it when I see it." I think you and I would know mud when we see it (or slip in it).

Mud is a monograph on a not-too-pleasant substance. It smells and tastes like a expanded PhD thesis that got stuck in goo of some sort and I am not so sure it deserves 190 pages. When we think of reasons for military defeats, mud may be guilty but it's hardly scintillating. Give me Mallophaga over porridge any day of the week. You'll find it in Hans Zinsser's Rats. Lice, and History. Now that's history with a bite!

--- C. W. Crawford


Jonathan Franzen
Our favorite book-review magazine, ALA/Booklist opined that The Discomfort Zone is a dilly. After all, Franzen got the 2001 NBA [National Book Award] for The Corrections, showing that he is a firm member of the New York Literary Pie.

Booklist opined that this new autobiography was a "gratifyingly unpredictable and finely crafted collection..." In our HighBridge CD version, Franzen reads his own words.

He tells of the death of his worry-wart, list-making, bourgeoise mother (he has returned after her funeral to sell the family home). In one of the few truly funny sections, he tells of dealing with three real-estate agents, women you and I have met many times in that profession.

He ruminates on his young passion for "Peanuts" and "BC" comics. He and his friends were proud that Missouri was in the center of America (more states touch that one state, he explains, than any other in the union).

Along with these mildly amusing adventures, Franzen indulges in a long excoriation of the Bush presidency --- Iraq, inequitable taxes, arrogance. Because of Bush, he tells us, all citizens of New York City carry a "bulls-eye on their backs."

§     §     §

Franzen's beefs are not very original nor very insightful. Most Americans now know that the administration is filled with rattlesnakes and nitwits. This country, however, has survived other nitwits. Such as that schizophrenic Abraham Lincoln with his War of Terror against the once-prosperous South, and the sententious Woodrow Wilson, a president who fell under the spell of the savage Georges Clemenceau and the devious Lloyd George. Between the three, they saddled the world with the Treaty of Versailles, which, in turn, set the wheels in motion for an equally preposterous war two decades after the fact.

We must confess to you, dear reader, that we threw in the towel after the first disk, and you might be tempted to do the same. Usually inertia carries us on into complete hearings of these books-on-disk, even when we are listening to a not-so-good reader. But Franzen doesn't know beans about what is needed to overcome his somewhat lorky style of writing, not to say his personal snits.

I am reminded of people who have an overweening love for the music of Stravinsky. They learned long ago never to buy the works he directed himself, such as Petrouchka or Le Sacre du Printemps. The composer was just that, a composer. He didn't know how to get the best sound out of an orchestra. Franzen doesn't know how to get the best sound, or rhythm, out of his own words.

If you need something entertaining to carry around in your ears this month, try the new recording of In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant (read by Stephen Hoye --- Books on Tape). It's a funny historical novel about bawdy Renaissance Italy. We thoroughly enjoyed the book and the reading is professional, not benighted.

--- B. R. Webber, MA
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