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Nyanasobhano, an American actor/playwright turned Theravadin Buddhist, writes essays and reflections on the Buddhist path that stand well apart from the general run of writing on Buddhism for their sheer literary quality. His first book, Landscapes of Wonder was a triumph of lyrical meditation and close observation of nature. Then came Longing for Certainty, and Available Truth is his third collection. Here he is, at the start of this book, displaying his gifts in evoking the experience of waking up and feeling refreshed:
“In the kitchen a spoon rings faintly against a dish like a notice of some imminent music, and even the familiar smells of breakfast float up to us as if they carry a meaning worth contemplating. Cool air surrounds us as we sit beside a sunlit window and eat, and when we move our hands the air moves, too, in rolling, silent currents. We feel strangely expectant and alive — not restless but simply poised to apprehend whatever wonders may appear.”
Nyanasobhano’s sentences are long but carefully modulated to match the sinews and rhythms of thinking. He has a gift for observing and describing both what he sees and what goes on in his mind as he sees it. But there are also indications, even in this simple passage, that Nyanasobhano intends to do more than simply observe and describe. The peculiar convention of writing from the point of view of “we,” which he does in each of his books and all of the essays in this volume, is a clue to what Nyanasobhano is up to.
Try replacing “we” in that passage with “I” and it becomes a diary; read it with “he” and it is fiction; “you” makes it either colloquial or else a kind of teaching voice. “We” suggests that he is taking the reader along with him as he contemplates his experience, confident that this is most likely ours as well. He is drawing us into a way of thinking that may start with the beauties of nature, but leads quickly to moral and spiritual challenges.
I have mixed feelings about this way of writing, and I suspect that Available Truth will draw mixed responses. Mostly I am an admirer, but when Nyanasobhano’s method does not work it is grating. When his experience and mine diverge the repeated insistence that “we” think this, or “we” do that is patronizing, as when he uses it to extol the life of the monk (him) against the layperson (the rest of us): “Even though we may be laypeople … it is yet uplifting to have something to do with good monks or nuns.” (p.25) That “we” has become a way of is pretending that our experience is the same and drawing us into his views.
But when it does work, as in the chapter on love and compassion, Nyanasobhano’s writing eloquently evoking what he calls “the weather of our life.” “A cool and distant sadness touches us”; “we become aware of a grave and gentle feeling that we might fairly call compassion”; “are we just indulging in a sentimental sadness in the gray, lonely afternoon?” (pp. 34-36). The clear and candid descriptions of his experience offer an entrance into the perspective of someone who is deeply steeped in Buddhist teachings and honestly trying to put them into practice.
Nyanasobhano describes not just his perceptions and the feelings they evoke, but the responses to them that are prompted by his Buddhist practice. That isn’t always an easy combination. What, for example, do you make of this passage?
“A plaintive voice from the window seems now to signify and embody universal sorrow, and a brief rustling in a flower bespeaks unlimited fear and danger. Mosquitoes whining round our ears illustrate the nearness of affliction, and yet remain mosquitoes still — facts and beings of a sensed moment. So symbols and realities mingle, reflecting back and forth the truth of things and making the Dhamma real for us.” (p.178)
I appreciate the subtle mingling of perception and response, but I also want to murmur that Nyanasobhano might do better to just enjoy the evening and stop using it as source material for his reflection. Or else I want him to get past his ponderous circling around experience and speak his conclusions with a bold and confident prophetic “I” like his precursor in American essays, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
But Theravadin monks contemplate nature with the Buddha’s directive ringing in their ears that they must not become attached to what they see. There’s an unavoidable strain in that stance, which fills Available Truth. It’s an inspiring, irritating and bracing read and I heartily recommend that you decide for yourself what you think of it.
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Vishvapani is writing a biography of the Buddha, to be published in August, 2010 by Quercus. For nine years he edited Dharma Life, (where this article was originally published) a highly-praised Buddhist magazine exploring the encounter of Buddhism and the modern world.
He is now a freelance writer based in Manchester, UK, and he is also the founder of Mindfulness in Action, which offers Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction workshops, as well as mindfulness training and workshops for individuals and organizations. Challenging Times: Stories of Buddhist Practice When Things Get Tough, edited by Vishvapani, was published in 2006.
See more writing by Vishvapani at Wise Attention