Monday, 29 December 2014

Darkness and light — A series of Advent and Christmas photos

Apart from what, with hindsight, may have been a foolhardy hour-long walk with Susanna on Boxing Day, a bad cold and chest infection has kept me inside since the 20th December. I was able to nip outside for the minute it takes me to get to church next door in order to take the services on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Sunday 28th but, other than my foolish foray on Boxing Day, the physical landscape through which I have been able to roam was either the manse or the church. Under normal conditions this might have offered me little in the way of "landscape" to photograph but, as I mentioned a couple of posts ago, I have just discovered John Hornbeck's wonderful app called "Contrast". It genuinely helped a previously unseen, and very beautiful, landscape to emerge before me, one filled with darkness and light which is, surely, a perfect metaphor for the season.

It seems worth sharing with you a few of the best and to take the opportunity to wish you all a very Happy New Year.

My Christmas bed-side reading

The Advent Wreath in the church on Christmas morning
The nativity scene in the church on Christmas morning

The church on Christmas Eve just before the service

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Love the hell out of this world — "Make someone happy, make just one, someone happy"

An old but still highly relevant Universalist hope
Readings: Mark 12:28-34


Fa Tsang and the Hall of Mirrors

In Frederick Franck's book of translations of the poet and mystic Angelus Silesius, he tells the story of how the Empress Wu decided to ask one of the founders of the Hwa Yen or Kegon School, Fa Tsang (632-712 CE) if he could possibly give her a practical and simple demonstration of the cosmic interrelatedness, of the relationship of the One and the Many, of God and his creatures, and of the creatures one to another.

Fa Tsang went to work and appointed one of the palace rooms so that eight large mirrors stood at the eight points of the compass. Then he placed two more mirrors, one on the ceiling and one on the floor. A candle was suspended from the ceiling in the centre of the room, when the Empress entered, Fa Tsang lit the candle. The Empress cried: “How marvellous! How beautiful!”
  Fa Tsang pointed at the reflection of the flame in each one of the ten mirrors and said: “See, Your Majesty: this demonstrates the relationship of the One and the Many, of God to each one of his Creatures.”
  The Empress said: “Yes indeed, Master! And what is the relationship of each creature to the others?”
  Fa Tsang answered: “Just watch, Your Majesty, how each mirror not only reflects the one flame in the centre. Each mirror also reflects the reflections of the flame in all the other mirrors, until an infinite number of flames fills them all. All these reflections are mutually identical; in a sense they are interchangeable, in another sense each one exists individually. This shows the true relationship of each being to its neighbour, to all that is! . . . Of course I must point out, Your Majesty,” Fa Tsang went on, “that this is only a rough approximate, and static parable of the real state of affairs in the universe. For the universe is limitless and in it all is in perpetual, multidimensional motion.”
  Then the Master covered one of the infinite numbers of reflections of the flame and showed what we are now, perhaps too late, to realise in ecology—how each apparently insignificant interference affects the whole organism of our world.
  [. . .]
Then Fa Tsang, in order to conclude his command performance, held up a small crystal ball and said: “Now watch, Your Majesty, how all these large mirrors and all the myriad forms they reflect are mirrored in this little sphere. See, how in the Ultimate Reality the infinitely small contains the infinitely large, and the infinitely large the infinitely small, without obstruction! Oh, if only I could demonstrate to you the unimpeded mutual interpenetration of Time and Eternity, of past, present and future! But alas, this is a dynamic process that must be grasped on a different level . . .” (The Book of Angelus Silesius, Bear & Company, Santa Fe, 1985, pp. 36-37)


What I Have Learned So Far by Mary Oliver

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world? Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.

All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
Thought buds toward radiance. The gospel of
light is the crossroads of — indolence, or action.

Be ignited, or be gone.

(New and Selected Poems. Vol. 2 p. 57)


Make Someone Happy
Music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green,

Make someone happy
Make just one, someone happy
Make just one heart, the heart you sing to

One smile that cheers you
One face that lights when it nears you
One man (girl) you’re everything to

Fame, if you win it
Comes and goes in a minute
Where’s the real stuff in life to cling to?

Love is the answer
Someone to love is the answer
Once you’ve found him (her)
Build your world around him (her)
And make someone happy
Make just one, someone happy
And you will be happy too


Jesus memorably taught that the greatest commandment was that there is One God and that we should love God with all our soul, mind and strength and our neighbour as ourselves.

Though this is a very familiar and, apparently, very simple teaching there have been and still are, in fact, many ways to interpret it, each one of which may, or may not, be close to what Jesus was actually trying communicate to us.

Of course, we now have no way of truly knowing what Jesus fully meant by uttering them but, in any case, in our own circles his proclamation of the oneness of God was taken to mean that the Trinitarian idea that Jesus and the Holy Spirit were also God was, to put it as gently as possible, not at all echt, not pukka, just not quite right.

In the sixteenth-cetury, when this Unitarian claim was just beginning to take hold within certain influential sections of European culture, it was still (for all its heretical qualities) understood to be taking the standard, theistic line that God was a supernatural supreme being above, beyond and distinct from the natural world. But, there was always in play amongst us a mystical strand that strongly felt this dualistic world view (whether proclaimed by Unitarians, Trinitarians or other orthodox monotheists) was, again to put it as gently as possible, not at all echt, not pukka, just not right.

These mystics, if they may be called this, generally held that either everything was God (pan-theism) or that everything was in God (pan-en-theism). This had a massive impact on how they began to understand the second part of Jesus’ commandment concerning the need to love our neighbour as ourselves because, if God was the world, or even if everything was in God, then God was always our neigbour and our neighbour was always God or in God as we, too, were always God or in God. This understanding of reality has never gone-away and in fact, if anything, it has in us only deepened and strengthened.

As some of you will know, a couple of days ago on Christmas Day, through the image of a manger that is both always full and always empty, I myself tried to gesture towards some underlying, all-encompassing non-dual reality that allows the full and the empty, being and not being always-already to be arising together and which allows the divine and the sacred to be seen and experienced not just in the “Christ-child” of Christmas Day but everywhere and in everything.

But I’m not so naive as to think that this will easily, or wholly, be understood and embraced by everyone because there has always been a strong resistance to this kind of non-dualistic insight in Western European culture.

Despite this, drawing on some words that Robert B. Burch used to use to introduce his lectures on mysticism, Robert E. Carter reminds us that there exist for our culture three types of experience:

“. . . empirical, rational, and mystical. An example of an empirical experience would be the seeing of a house. An example of a rational experience would be recognizing the truth of the Pythagorean theorem in geometry. An example of a mystical experience is the realisation of the oneness of all things. This may be stated differently in various traditions, such as union with God or with the absolute, but the experience of the oneness of all things remains the simple core of mysticism. 
One who cannot see a house is blind. One who cannot grasp the truth of the Pythagorean theorem is mathematically challenged. One who does not experience the fundamental oneness of all things, is normal” (The Kyoto School: An Introduction, SUNY Presss, 2013, p. 54).

As Carter notes this account suggests "that mystical experience is available only to those who, in some way, move beyond normal everyday experience, even though the experience is potentially open to all. However, the vast majority remain unaware even of the possibility” (ibid. p. 54).

So, how are we to become aware of this possibility, to move beyond normal everyday experience? Well, one thing is for sure, we have no choice but to start with normal everyday experience and individual things. We have to find ways to let the things of the world speak to us, firstly, about how intimately intertwined with each other they are and then, secondly, to trust that this is capable of suddenly igniting the flame of enlightenment so that we can see that there is no separation between things and that "emptiness is form form is emptiness."

I started today with the twelve every-day objects you heard about in Frederick Franck’s retelling of the the story, “Fa Tsang and the Hall of Mirrors”, namely the room filled with ten mirrors, one candle and a crystal ball.

Fa Tsang’s genius is found here in his ability to take these otherwise everyday objects and yet, with all their differences, allow them to speak about and startlingly show the fundamental oneness of all things.

I do not know whether you experienced something of this on hearing the story this morning but, just supposing you did suddenly catch a glimpse of this possibility and felt the need to exclaim, as did the Empress Wu, “How marvellous! How beautiful!”, there will nearly always quickly follow the question, “OK, but now what? What, on earth, are we supposed to do with this realisation of non-duality?” We experience the truth expressed by the American Unitarian minister, Frederick Lucian Hosmer (1840–1929) in his hymn we sung this morning, “Not always on the mount may we/rapt in the heav’nly vision be.”

The truth is that we are always going to come back from any  such realisation of the fundamental oneness of all things to the everyday world of individual, differentiated things and that can be difficult and painful. Again, there is a Zen story which amusingly illustrates just how difficult and painful this can and, perhaps at first, must always be.

It concerns a Zen master who asks a novice monk to tell him about the his understanding of the Heart Sutra — a sutra which famously tries to gesture towards and even speak of this oneness. The novice replies that he has, for example, understood that there are no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body or mind and that there are no forms, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings, or objects of mind. When he had finished talking the Zen master asked him whether he believed what the sutra said? The novice replied that, yes, he truly did believe it. The Zen master beckoned the novice monk to come closer to him and, suddenly and without warning, he grabbed hold of the novice’s nose and twisted it very hard. The novice yelled out in pain and protested loudly. The Zen master looked at the novice and said, “Just a moment ago you told me that your nose doesn’t exist. But if it doesn’t exist then what’s hurting?”

As the master reveals it’s important to be clear that any experience of the fundamental oneness of all things will not get rid of individual things but rather, instead, allows us to see and begin properly to live by the insight of the fundamental oneness of all things.

No. 3—Perceiving the Bull 
In the light of our vision (even if we have had only the merest and fleeting glimpse of it [like the ox disappearing in the third of the ox-herding pictures]), we cannot now but sense the world in a completely new way and be irresistibly drawn into exploring this ever more deeply. More than that, we can no longer behave towards the separate, individual things (whether inanimate or animate) of the world in the way we used to because we have glimpsed that, somehow, they are also us and we are also them. Each of our acts towards each individual thing are going to be reflected in everything else just as Fa Tsang’s candle was reflected in every mirror and every reflection in every mirror was also reflected in every other mirror and reflection of the mirror.

Again, I realise that all this will not easily be understood or embraced by everyone because it can sound all impossibly esoteric and ungrounded. I might easily be taken as being nothing more than the cliched, spaced-out hippy who sits around all-day meditating upon the oneness of everything doing nothing except, now and then, making the sign of peace and saying to anyone who might be listening, “Chill out, relax man, it’s all one, it’s all one” only to return to a detached, blissed-out state.

But please don’t be seduced by this “normal” view of the matter because, properly understood, the experience of the fundamental oneness of all things is to be helped to re-ground, re-activate, re-animate and re-enable ourselves and to re-enter the world of things with a new sense of wonder, meaning and purpose. I know of no better expression of this than that found in Mary Oliver’s poem “What I Have Learned So Far”:

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside, looking into the shining world? Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
 Can one be passionate about the just, the
 ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.

All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
Thought buds toward radiance. The gospel of
light is the crossroads of — indolence, or action.

Be ignited, or be gone.

Oliver’s shining words bring me, finally, to the song, “Make Someone Happy”. Understood one way, one normal way, it might be taken merely to be just another sentimental love song. But, with all that you’ve heard today in your hearts and minds, might not the ignition of love in our hearts, a love that calls us selflessly to make just one, someone happy, be to light a light that is, like Fa Tsang’s candle, also somehow going to be reflected endlessly in everything else? Might it not be a song we can understand to mean that, when we properly love that one someone, we are also somehow expressing that love to the whole of reality? Is this not also simultaneously to love God and your neighbour who is also the sea and the sky, the moss and the lichen, the unimaginably distant star and planet and the very near lilies of the field and birds of the air?

One of the great hopes of our eighteenth Universalist forebears (and still alive in places today) was that we could somehow love the hell out of our world (click here to read a splendid post by the Unitarian minister, the Rev. Joanna Fontaine Crawford on this subject). There are many days when we feel this to be an impossible task and, God knows, this last year has been one in which I, and I know many of you, have felt this acutely. But, if Fa Tsang is right about the fundamental oneness of all things — and even on my bad days I feel he is — then all is not lost.

The New Year beckons so why don’t I, why don't we all,  try again to find again ways to let go of the despair, of the pain in our hearts (and noses!), and allow ourselves be enlightened by Fa Tsang’s candle. And then in its light, at the very least, try to make just one, someone happy, risking everything on the hope that “Love is the answer” and around that love we can build a better world for all beings, sentient or not.

Go out into the highways and by-ways.
Give the people something of your new vision.
You may possess a small light,
but uncover it, let it shine,
use it in order to bring more light and understanding
to the hearts and minds of men and women.
Give them not hell, but hope and courage;
preach the kindness and
everlasting love of God.

Attributed to John Murray (1741-1815)


Before the address we listened to Barbara Streisand's version of "Make Someone Happy" (see the video at the top of this post). Immediately after the address we listened to an instrumental version by Bill Evans and then, at the end, Jimmy "Schnozzle" Durante's cheering interpretation. I paste them below for your enjoyment.


Saturday, 27 December 2014

Contrast — In praise of John Hornbeck's new photography app

Over the past two years I've almost completely switched from using my camera to using either my iPad or iPhone. Clearly it would be possible to get into all the pro and cons of this as well my competence or otherwise as a(n amateur) photographer to say one thing rather than another about this, but I'm not going to do any of that here and simply follow the rather Wittgensteinian advice to show rather than tell.

The first thing I'd like to show you is a free iPhone app called Contrast developed by the excellent photographer John Hornbeck — just click on this link to take a look at his own page about it.

The second thing I'd like to show you are just a few photos I took on a Boxing Day walk with my wife Susanna by the River Cam and then back nearby Jesus College. The photos below are just as they have "come out" of the camera app, there's been no post-processing of any kind.

Hornbeck's high-contrast app truly helps you to see the world show up and shine in beautiful ways that one might not otherwise have been able to see before, and for that he deserves high praise indeed. Why not give it a go yourself?

Thursday, 25 December 2014

How can we let the manger be both empty and full, respecting them both, being still in their presence, and letting them speak in their own ways?

Christs Pieces opposite the Church
Throughout Advent I have been suggesting to you that we may take John the Baptist to have been encouraging his hearers to prepare and develop in the wilderness some kind of patient, disciplined practice of letting-go that, in an actively receptive way could create a clearing so that something new could enter the world.

In the Christian tradition this something new — this new being, or better, new way of being — that comes into our world came to celebrated in the myth of “the Christ-child”.

READING: Luke 2:1-20

As I said last week we feel today no pressing need to take this myth literally because we have come to feel the gift of the “Christ-child” — this new way of being — may come to us in many forms, both sacred and secular, Christian and non-Christian, and though, at times, it may come in the form of a new-born boy or girl, it may also come to us in the form of a new and creative idea, insight or, as you heard last week, in the silvery form of a fish.

I have been trying to explore the idea that this kind of gift can only come unto us in so far as we learn from an insight of the philosopher Henry Bugbee found in his “Inward Morning: A Philosophical Exploration in Journal Form” where he writes:

“Philosophy is not a making of a home for the mind out of reality. It is more like learning to leave things be: restoration in the wilderness, here and now” (Inward Morning, p. 155).

It is important to understand that “By ‘leaving things be’” Bugbee did “not mean inaction”, rather he meant, as he clearly states, “respecting things, being still in the presence of things, letting them speak” (ibid. p. 155).

With these thoughts in mind today I’d like, gently, to round-off this Advent train of thought with a Christmas Day related one. But please remember that, as always, here, following Herbert Fingarette's example, I’m only offering you footprints to follow up if you are so minded, I am not offering any blueprints!

Over the years I’ve explored many expressions of the gift of the “Christ-child” in our culture and, today, I want to return to two of them, to take them together to see what they might say to us.

The first expression is R. S. Thomas’ poem of 1972 “Lost Christmas” in which he feels we should feel pity for the man who, travelling with his mind before him, finds the manger empty.

READING: Lost Christmas

He is alone, it is Christmas.
Up the hill go three trees, the three kings.
There is a star also
Over the dark manger. But where is the Child?

Pity him. He has come far
Like the trees, matching their patience
With his. But the mind was before
Him on the long road. The manger is empty.

The second expression is "The Nativity at Night”, an Early Netherlandish painting of about 1490 by Geertgen tot Sint Jans. (See picture on right, click on it to enlarge). Geertgen shows us the manger filled with a very present and shining “Christ-child”. Geertgen painted this with an empty space in the foreground so we, too, can join the assembled throng.

Through them both I want to ask a question:

How can we let the manger be both empty and full, respecting them both, being still in their presence, and letting them speak in their own ways?


The important scientific and historical critical studies of the nineteenth, twentieth and now early twenty-first centuries have, through careful, thoughtful, mind-led research, been able to show us that it is vanishingly unlikely the Christmas stories are historically true accounts. In Bethlehem there almost certainly were no shepherds, no angels, no Magi, there was no star nor a manger in a cattle shed, and the human child we know as Jesus was not born in either that place or manner. R. S. Thomas, an Anglican priest, perhaps reacting to this state of affairs, pities the man whose mind went before him and who, thus, finds the manger empty. But I strongly suggest, as I did last year, that letting all these things go and, in so doing, emptying the manger is good, valuable and very necessary because truth is important. We know deep in our bones that “the truth shall make us free” — something as we know Jesus felt too.

From where I stand it seems clear that good scholarship helps us respect the events of history and the facts and laws of the natural world, it allows us to stand still in their presence and let them speak. Good scholarship  has helped free us from many unhelpful illusions and so, consequently, I think the empty manger should not be mourned but celebrated and savoured.

As for Geertgen tot Sint Jans, well, he lived in a pre-critical age that had little or no doubt the nativity stories were true and, because of this, he was able to gift us his wonder-full and powerful devotional painting. As someone who, as I have already intimated, has no choice but to view his painting as an imaginative fiction I find that, every year, I am drawn to it and cannot but help look upon it with glad wonder. I know I would be sad beyond measure were I to lose from my world the nativity stories and depictions inspired by it like that of Geertgen’s. I want to respect the nativity stories and this painting, to be still in their presence and to let them speak too. It seems to me that the fact that we can stand before a full manger on Christmas morn like this should also be celebrated and savoured.

So is the manger empty or full?

Well, today, I want to answer that, when properly understood, I think we can understand that the manger is always empty; the manger is never empty.

Now, I realise that this might sound as if I want to have my Christmas cake and to eat it but I am reminded here of something my friend who died earlier this year, the philosopher Jonathan Harrison, once said that wanting this . . .

“. . . is not an unintelligent thing to do. . . . And the trouble with wanting to have one’s cake and eat it is not so much that it is wrong as that it looks impossible. If a way could be found of having both, what sensible man would refuse to take it?” (God, Freedom and Immortality, Ashgate, 1999, p.687).

I think a non-grasping way can be found of having both and, being at least intermittently a sensible man, I want to show how one might have one’s Christmas cake and eat it, not so much by “taking it” but rather by “letting it” or “allowing it” to become possible.

We may let this paradoxical possibility emerge through the help of a well-known story about a Buddhist scholar and a Zen Master.

The scholar was exceptionally well-versed in all aspects of Buddhist thought but, for whatever reasons, he had concluded that he must study with a particular Master. When he arrived at the Master’s house, he bowed and asked him if he would teach him Zen. To make his request more persuasive the scholar immediately began to talk about his own very extensive knowledge of the Sutras and the Buddhist tradition.

The Master listened patiently whilst the scholar talked on and on but, after a while, began to make some tea. When it was ready the Master started to pour the tea into the scholar's cup. However, he did not stop when it was full but simply carried on, allowing the tea to overflow and spread rapidly across the floor towards the scholar. Seeing this the scholar leapt up and called out, "Stop! The cup’s full, you can't get anymore in!”

The master stopped pouring, looked up at the scholar, and said, “You are just like this cup, full of ideas about Buddha’s Way. You have come to me to ask if I will teach you, but your cup is full, I cannot put anything in. Before I can teach you, you must empty your cup.”

The message we may take from this today is simple, obvious and every-day. Unless the cup is emptied of old tea it cannot be filled up with new tea. It’s not that, per se, one state is bad and the other is good but, to draw on Bugbee’s image, we must learn to let full cups, empty cups, and the whole act of making and drinking tea be the kinds of things they are, respecting them, being in their presence and letting them speak, now as full, now as empty.

I hope it is relatively easy to see and understand that, perhaps, just as an empty tea cup is necessary and good so, too, is an empty manger. I hope, too, you can see that a full tea cup is necessary and good and so, too, is a full manger.

It suggests to us that full and empty tea cups with and without tea, full and empty mangers with and without Christ-childs are continually intertwining with each other in our life and culture in a veritable yin and yang dance of black and white, being and not being, full and empty. From this perspective it seems to me that Christmas is only truly lost to those who dogmatically attempt to stop this continuing dance by trying forever either to fill, or to empty, the manger.

But even this perspective doesn’t quite yet bring us to the point of being able "to have our Christmas cake and eat it." Though important, simply acknowledging the movement of the full to the empty, the full to the empty, ad infinitum, is not enough for this is to remain in the world of distinctions. Truly to have and eat our Christmas cake we need to intuit and continually live, that is to say directly experience, that there is always-already present something (though it is not, of course, a thing at all) that allows the dance of black and white, being and not being, birth and death, full and empty to occur in the first place.

In our culture we have generally given this “something” the name “God”. The late ninetieth, early twentieth-century Japanese philosopher, Nishida Kitaro (1870-1945) was also prepared to call this “God” but by this word he meant something different to that meant by the monotheistic traditions. He understood “God” to be “absolute nothingness”, “a reality that, while without characteristics, could serve as the foundation for everything else” (Robert E. Carter: “The Kyoto School: An Introduction, SUNY Press, 2013, p. 36). A fellow Japanese philosopher, Hishitani Keiji (1900-1990) called this "emptiness" (sūnyātā).

As Robert E. Carter, writing about Nishida, observes “in one sense, both God and (absolute) nothingness can be used interchangeably, for both refer to the highest and most encompassing reality. Yet, in a deeper sense, God may be left behind.” The reason for this is that the “God” of monotheism always has qualities and has nearly always been understood to be a kind of supreme being. “Absolute nothingness” on the other hand is “prior to all qualities and distinctions” and is that undivided something out of which even God arises (ibid. pp. 36-37). Although this is very obviously an East-Asian idea it is clear that the thirteenth-century Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) came to pretty much the same conclusion when he exclaimed:

I beg of God that he makes me rid of God” and that, “as long as the soul has God, knows God and is aware of God, she is far from God” (quoted in ibid. p. 56).

It is only when through direct experience we intuit this absolute nothingness or emptiness that is always-already creatively letting cups, mangers and our whole world be and not be, be filled and emptied, that we can truly be said, at least in the way I think my friend Jonathan always hoped it might be possible to say it, to be having our cake and eating it.

This is because absolute nothingness is forever empty and forever full. As the Buddhist tradition teaches, especially in the Heart Sutra, “The world of things (the many) is also nothingness (the One), and nothingness is the world of things: Form is emptiness, emptiness is form” (quoted in ibid. p. 107). We may say that emptiness appears at one with being.

I think the manger can be for us a profound symbol of this deep reality —whether we call it God, absolute nothingness or emptiness — this is only so when we have learnt to live this insight daily in our own lives, forever experiencing it and all reality as always-already full and empty.

I’ll admit that this is, perhaps, the strangest Christmas address you've ever heard and, figuratively speaking, the strangest Christmas cake you’ll ever have been offered but, nevertheless, in time I hope you may come to enjoy eating it and, yes, having it too.

And if what I have said is a way of having both, of standing meaningful before a full and yet empty manger, what sensible modern man or woman would refuse to take it?

Happy Christmas to you all.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

"And now, in the leaping of this fish, how wonderfully, laughingly clear everything becomes!" — Exploring Advent with Henry Bugbee (3)

Winslow Homer, "Leaping Trout" (1889

When Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) met Henry Bugbee (1915-1999) in August 1955 Heidegger asked him ,“What occasion prompts philosophical reflection?” Bugbee replied: “Could the sound of a fish leaping at a fly at dawn suffice?” (recounted in Ed Mooney's Introduction to The Inward Morning).


From “The Inward Morning” by Henry Bugbee (University of Georgia Press, 1999, p. 86-87)

Saturday July 11 (1953)

I recall mornings, at the crack of dawn, on the Gualala River when we would walk up along one or another of the long gravel bars. As we approached the water in the gathering light, we sometimes perceived all up and down the length of a pool, such as Miner’s Bend, the breaking and swirling of a fresh run of steelhead trout. The day before there may have been only occasional fish showing, the vestigial fish, darkened from having already spent some days in fresh water. But on this morning the lower river is alive with new, silvery trout, fresh from the sea. On such a morning as this there is a temptation to dissipate one's attention over too many fish and too much water; one makes a cast above where a broad back has just shown. But even as the drift begins there is a resounding smack on the smooth surface twenty feet upstream. Then two swirls appear forty feet below. Meanwhile your partner clear down at the tail of the slick is backing out of the river, his rod nodding in sweeping arcs, and a gleaming ten-pounder ascends from the water almost into the branches of that overhanging pine on the bank opposite him. It is a glorious thing to know the pool is alive with these glancing, diving, finning fish. But at such moments it is well to make an offering in one's heart to the still hour in the redwoods ascending into the sky; and to fish in one place, for one fish at a time. On such mornings, too, one may even catch nothing at all. It takes many, many days to learn of what may and may not be in the river, Let us wade right in and keep fishing where we are, with our fingertips touching the trembling line. It is just in the moment of the leap we both feel and see, when the trout is instantly born, entire, from the flowing river, that reality is knowingly defined.
          Now the river is the unborn, and the sudden fish is just the newborn — whole, entire, complete, individual, and universal, The fisherman may learn that each instant is pregnant with the miracle of the new-born fish, and fishing in the river may become a knowing of each fish even before it is born. As he fishes the ever-flowing current, it teaches him of the fish even before it is born, just in so far as this alert fishing involves *“abiding in no-abode”, or  the “unattached mind”. If one is steeped in the flowing river and sensitized through the trembling line, one anticipates the new-born fish at every moment. The line tautens and with all swiftness, the fish is there, sure enough! And now, in the leaping of this fish, how wonderfully, laughingly clear everything becomes! If eventually one lands it, and kneels beside its silvery form at the water’s edge, on the fringe of the gravel bar, if one receives this fish as purely as the river flows, everything is momently given, and the very trees become eloquent where they stand.

* For the use of these phrases see e.g. Suzuki, D. T., Living by Zen, London, Rider and Co., 1950, pp. 66-67

And from Paul's First Epistle to the Thessalonians (4:11)

“. . . study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you.” 



One way of interpreting what Advent is all about is to say that John the Baptist seems to have been encouraging his hearers to prepare and develop in the wilderness some kind of patient, disciplined practice so as to open themselves up, in an actively receptive way, to the creative possibility that something new was soon to enter the world. In the Christian tradition this something new came, of course, to celebrated on Christmas Day in the myth of “the Christ-child”.

But today, of course, we need not take this myth literally because we have come to feel the gift of the “Christ-child” may come in many forms both sacred and secular, Christian and non-Christian, and though, at times, it may come in the form of a new-born boy or girl, it may also come to us in the form of a new and creative idea, insight or, as you have already heard today, in the silvery form of a fish. In each case, we know that it is this gift when brings about in us a change of heart which transforms in positive and creative ways the manner in which we look at the things of life and, therefore, how we live and move and have our being-in-the-world.

Over the past three weeks I have been trying to suggest that this gift is only going to be come unto us in so far as we can learn from an insight of the philosopher Henry Bugbee found in his Inward Morning: A Philosophical Exploration in Journal Form that:

“Philosophy is not a making of a home for the mind out of reality. It is more like learning to leave things be: restoration in the wilderness, here and now” (Inward Morning, p. 155).

To which he immediately adds on the following day,

“By ‘leaving things be’ I do not mean inaction. I mean respecting things, being still in the presence of things, letting them speak” (ibid. p. 155).

This insight allowed me to introduce to you the idea of “patiency”, something which we develop through what Bugbee calls “a meditation of place” that is an immersion in, and reconnection with, wilderness and the wild. Patiency, remember, is not simply an “act of being patient” that a person may (or may not) display, but rather an ongoing, inner disposition which continually comes to guide their way of being-in-the-world.

I also introduced you to the associated idea of “Gelassenheit”, a word valued by both the thirteenth-century mystic Meister Eckhart (1260-1327) and the twentieth-century philosopher, Martin Heidegger (1889–1976). As Bret W. Davis notes, this word, in its traditional usage anyway, “conveys a sense of ‘calm composure’, especially and originally that which accompanies an existential or religious experience of letting-go, being-let, and letting-be” (in “Country Path Conversations” p. xi).

The River Granta on the way to Grantchester last week
Now, all these thoughts and themes were in play last week when I took myself off for a lovely, long walk over to Grantchester and Byron’s Pool along the course of the river Granta through the meadows. Along the way I passed a couple of people out fishing and, on the way back, I took myself into the Green Man to drink a lovely pint of porter before a warming open fire and engage in conversation with the hospitable landlord, Josh.  

The mix of these thoughts and themes along with the walking, fishing and the pint in a warm hostelry, put me in mind of Izaak Walton’s (c.1594-1683) book, “The Compleat Angler”, first published in 1653 and which, astonishing to relate, is still the most frequently reprinted book in the English language after the Bible. I discovered and fell in love with this book very early on in my life. Here’s how and why.

I was born in 1965 at home in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire and, at the age of five, we moved just five miles further north to Ware both of which lie on the River Lea. I loved this river for many reasons. One was the brief refreshing pause we made every weekday on the bridge across the river as we walked to and from school; the sight always seemed to me to be splendid and well worth a small boy’s attention. There were often many boats and swans to see and I was endlessly fascinated by the flash of sunlight as it suddenly caught the underside of a turning fish. It was just like looking down into a night sky and the experienced mirrored the wonder I felt when seeing an unexpected shooting star.

I’m sure this early “upside-down” experience (with the river becoming as-if the sky) was one of the reasons I so readily connected just a few years later with the author Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) who wrote the following memorable words (in his book Walden):

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one.”

Thoreau’s mention of “time” and “eternity” brings me to another important reason why I loved the River Lea. It was so obviously a place of rest and calm repose where one could spend a quiet moment contemplating both “time” and “eternity” in the midst of a very busy town and in the pressured hustle and bustle that came with going to new and much bigger school. I remember at times desperately wanting to be down there walking meditatively by the slow moving waters in the presence of the patient, waiting fishermen who never seemed in any rush to do anything other than “respecting things” and “being still in the presence of things, letting them speak.” I felt much as did Izaak Walton who says of the Fishermen Apostles in his book “The Compleat Angler“:

Izaak Walton window in
Winchester Cathedral
“. . . that the hearts of such men by nature were fitted for contemplation and quietnesse; men of mild, and sweet, and peaceable spirits, as indeed most Angler’s are” ("The Compleat Angler", ed. Marjorie Swann, p, 37).

Observing all this helped me see for the first time something that Heidegger movingly speaks of in his “Memorial Address” for the composer Conradin Kreutzer, namely, that man’s own special, essential nature is “that he is a meditative being” and that one of the greatest tasks we have in our fast-moving technological age is that of “keeping meditative thinking alive” (Discourse on Thinking p. 56).

Just before we left Ware in 1975 for the creeks and marshes of coastal Essex I remember discovering Walton’s book on my parents’ shelves. I immediately fell in love with it for two simple reasons.

The first was that it contained some lovely engravings of the fish I could seeing from the bridge. Even as a precocious ten-year old reader I clearly could not properly comprehend what this book was “all about” and so the pictures were very important. This reason for loving the book should not be wholly dismissed for even Walton himself says in his preface to the reader:

The trout (p. 63)
“. . . let me add . . ., that he that likes not the book should like the excellent picture of the Trout, and some of the other fish” (ibid. p. 5)

The second reason was that the book itself begins on the self-same stretch of river over which I walked and paused by every day. On it’s opening page the fisherman, “Piscator”, tells two men he has just met walking by the river that he has stretched his legs up Tottenham Hill to overtake them, “hoping your business may occasion you towards Ware whether I am going this fine, fresh May morning.” One of them, a hunter, “Venator”, replies, “Sir, I for my part shall almost answer your hopes, for my purpose is to drink my mornings draught at the Thatcht House in Hodsden” (ibid. p. 17).

Because of this living, local connection, the book, from the first, felt to me to be somehow an integral part of who I was and would become. Again, this was the first time something that Heidegger movingly speaks about in his “Memorial Address” impacted upon me. There he says: “It is enough if we dwell on what lies close and meditate on what is closest; upon which concerns us, each one of us, here and now; here on this patch of home ground; now, in the present hour of history”. He goes on to express the thought that this helps us to “grow thoughtful and ask: does not the flourishing of any genuine work depend upon its roots in a native soil?” (Discourse on Thinking, p. 47). For “native soil” here we may also read “native river”.

I would not, of course, been able properly to articulate any of this at the time but it is significant, I think, that the book stayed on my shelf and never made it back downstairs into the living room. I have it with me still and, looking back upon all this, it seems not unreasonable to say that “The Compleat Angler” was the entry point for me into thinking about the importance of patiency, letting-go (gellasenheit) and local place. Naturally, it also helped me shape my own walking “meditations of place” and my eventual practise of both philosophy and theology.

But the question remains here, what is the chief lesson I have learnt both from fishing myself or, as has most often been the case, learning from those who fish?

Of course, one learns many obvious practical things along the way, things about rods, reels lines and flies; one learns about the best (or worst) place, season and time to catch this (or that) fish. These are important things and should not be dismissed or forgotten.

But in addition to these technical matters one can also learn something about how to live. As Marjorie Swann says, in her excellent introduction to Oxford University Press’ most recent edition of “The Compleat Angler”, the book presents

“. . . Walton’s deeply felt response to a universal question: How should we live? As a survivor of [the English Civil] war and heartbreak, Walton turned to the natural world for his answer to this question and in the process created one of the most important, formative environmental texts in the English language” ("The Compleat Angler", OUP, 2014, p. x).

For this extraordinary achievement I love, and imagine I will probably always love, Walton. But, as I have walked quietly and thoughtfully by the river he walked and, by now, many others, I have found that his underlying view of God and nature is one I can no longer share with him. When Walton looked at nature, and no matter how beautifully and movingly he writes about what he saw, he felt this revealed the supernatural all-powerful, all-seeing and all-good creator God of Christianity.

Over the years I’ve explored with you many of the reasons why the existence of such a supernatural being has become less and less persuasive to our own age which is increasingly understanding the interconnection, interpenetration and interdependency of all things. We find it hard to live any longer with the old idea of that God and creation are separate things (or realms).

But, as I think our reading eloquently reveals, Bugbee sees in the river something that is much more akin to that seen by Buddhist or Taoist thinkers, something that gestures towards non-dualist ways of understanding the world. I know that for many of us here today (including myself) this more East Asian way of thinking about the divine and the sacred is, today, more congenial and is helping us to envision very different ways of living than were available to our forebears.

Now, here, I’m not going to try and interpret the reading from Bugbee's book we heard at the beginning because I think it is better simply to let it stand before you as it is and for you to form your own response to it. But I hope you agree that, with it's themes of patient, actively receptive waiting and sudden birth of something new, the silvery fish beside which Bugbee kneels in gratitude and wonder, this reading seems highly appropriate for the season of Advent and Christmas. All I ask of you is to consider how Bugbee's story helps us to ask ourselves, "How should we live?"

But what I will do is conclude with a few words from Bugbee that he wrote towards the end of his book which in which he begins to answer this for himself:

"Is it not more accurate to say that we participate in creation than that we create? Is not creation as it touches us in what we do an interlocking of the resources with which we act, an interlocking of them with that which firms and claims them as a province assimilated to incarnation? To participate in creation is to be relieved of undue emphasis or accent placed upon ourselves" (Inward Morning p. 222. Also quoted by Andrew Feenberg in an excellent essay entitled, "Zen Existentialism: Bugbee's Japanese Influence" in Wilderness and the Heart: Henry Bugbee's Philosophy of Place, Presence and Memory, University of Georgia Press, 1999, p. 89).

Bugbee’s fishing story stands for me as a perfect case-study of what patiency is and how, on certain days like Christmas Day, it can deliver up to us extraordinary, incarnational gifts of wonder and gratitude — and that, in the leaping of this fish, or in the birth of a child, the blooming of a flower, the squeaking of a door or the plop of a frog, how wonderfully, laughingly clear everything becomes!

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

The Hoagy CD makes the Sunday Times top 10 Jazz CDs of the year!

One of the great joys of this year has not only been the release of the Chris Ingham Quartet's Hoagy CD (which, much to our surprise and delight, garnered many good reviews) but also experiencing the delight of many appreciative audiences as we've taken Hoagy Carmichael's wonderful music around jazz clubs and theatres.

Well, this Sunday, Clive Davis very kindly included us in the list of the 10 top Jazz CDs of the year (see photo on right).

Chris began this project with no intention for us to record it but simply to put together a good one-off show for the Bury St Edmunds Festival last year. We had such a good time on that date that we all felt it was worth putting the time and effort in to getting it recorded.

Along the way we were all, once again, captivated by Hoagy's truly great songwriting skills. How lucky we are to have people like him show up every now and then in our world.

If you'd like to hear a few samples from the CD and, perhaps, even get a copy yourself just click on the link below. And below that link I've posted a few photos from the soundcheck before our recent appearance at the Bulls Head, Barnes.

Chris Ingham — piano and vocals
Chris Ingham (l.) and Paul Higgs on iPhone (r.)
Chris Ingham
Paul Higgs, now on trumpet!
George Double (our current drummer) and myself on bass

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

"The present day — that is the dwelling of meditative thought" — Henry Bugbee

This Advent I've been exploring how some of Henry Bugbee's thinking might help us move more meaningfully through the season of Advent and Christmas than we might otherwise. My first address can be found HERE and my second HERE. Next week there will be a third and, on Christmas Day, a fourth. (The fourth Sunday of Advent — the week after next — will be a Sunday off for me as the Cambridge congregation will be taking that service themselves.)

Given this, as I was out walking this Monday out to Grantchester, Byron's Pool and back, it was natural that Bugbee's words were very much with me. On the return walk to Cambridge I stopped at the Green Man, Grantchester, to warm up in front of an open fire and to drink a pint of warming porter. Splendid. As I sat there I took great pleasure in re-reading Bugbee's Preface to his book "The Inward Morning". The following two paragraphs come from that and, in my meditative mood, they very much resonated with me:

"As I would put it now, the guidance of meditation, of the themes received in meditation, is the fundamental feature of the work [i.e. The Inward Morning]; and the themes of meditation live a life of their own, perhaps wiser than one knows in their advent and departure, in the things they gather to themselves as relevant to their formation, in the memories with which they visit one and establish their own concrete meaning. It was my work to attend upon such themes, in the very rhythm of daily life; to follow them where they might lead; not to put them off when they came to me, not to bid them stay beyond their actual departure and not to try to make more of them than I presently could.
          The present day — that is the dwelling of meditative thought. Consequently this work is in journal form. Not because it is a philosophical notebook or diary; it is neither of these. It is basically a work which required to be done within the day, from the actual human stance which the day might afford, whatever the day might bring" (The Inward Morning, p. 10).

Something of what the day brought me can be glimpsed in the following photos from Monday's walk . . .

The garden at the Orchard Tea Rooms sans tea drinkers too cold!
In the Green Man with a pint of porter and Henry Bugbee's book