Western Buddhist Review

Searching for the Sublime

Posted by dhivan thomas jones on Sun, 22 April, 2018 - 19:46
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dhivan thomas jones

Here is a review by Ben Atmer of Vajragupta’s new book from Windhorse Publications:

VajraguptaWild Awake: Alone, Offline & Aware in Nature

Windhorse, Cambridge, 2018, £10 pb

review by Ben Atmer

Vajragupta, a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and writer, has had published a new book based on his long and deep immersion in the practice of solitary retreat. He attempts, for the most part remarkably successfully, to convey his sense of intimacy with the natural world, and tries to suggest just what it is about solitary retreat which is so valuable and rewarding, and why we, as Buddhists, might consider following in his footsteps. It is to be hoped that through books like this, the practice of thinking about and being with nature will once more come to occupy the same important place in the spiritual life as poetry and music and the other arts, making explicit the profound connections between religious practice and other forms of contemplative experience. 

A strong tradition of nature writing, distinct from but not completely unrelated to travelogue or memoir, has been developing in the English speaking world in the last few decades, and in this review I would like to reflect on how Vajragupta’s book, as a literary work, could be placed in this tradition. This recent tradition of nature writing can be seen as a reflection of more distant precedents, particularly in the American tradition – the works of Thoreau or John Muir, both rooted in a kind of proto-environmentalism, being obvious exemplars. In the European tradition too, the Enlightenment fascination with the ‘sublime’ generated a renewed interest in the natural world, in both visual and literary arts, which have had echoes into the 20th and 21st centuries, with poets such as Edward Thomas, and writers such as W.G. Sebald, being pre-eminent examples of a certain kind of muscular and complex appreciation of nature. 

In the last few years, perhaps the most prominent of writers in this tradition in English has been Robert Macfarlane,[1] following directly the precedents set by naturalists such as Roger Deakin and J.A. Baker, and heavily influenced by a previous generation of writers including, most significantly, Nan Shepherd, whose work The Living Mountain Macfarlane acknowledges as seminal. His focus has been on the phenomenology of landscape and nature, and the intimacy and sense of particularity which certain spaces might evoke in the observer. This is far removed from the grand narratives of some previous travel writing, and Macfarlane’s tradition is a gentler, more mindful immersion in small landscapes, accompanied by an acute sense of literary context and of the cultural and historical relativity of our gaze. 

Vajragupta’s book is situated at the intersection between personal memoir, spiritual guide-book and natural history, in the sense we have just been discussing. In its essentials it is a description of a number of solitary retreats the author has taken, over a period of many years, in the British (and in one case Spanish) countryside. What is immediately apparent from his writing is his deep affinity with the natural world, and the richness of his descriptions of landscape and nature are obviously the fruit of long contemplation. For example, here he describes the behaviour of waves on Chesil Beach in Dorset:

The beach near where I was staying is formed of a series of steps, or steep banks, where the shingle suddenly drops away for a metre or two. I observed how the shape of the shore worked with the waves. Sometimes a wave would thump up against the vertical face of a step, throwing shingle into the air. Other times the wave would come over the ledge, and then there would be a huge hissing, sucking and sizzling as sea water drew back through the gaps between the stones. Since the shingle was so fine and small, the gaps were numerous and intricate, and this created an especially loud hiss.

Or he observes and describes the appearance of a swallow which has landed on his window ledge:

It was tiny and delicate looking, just a couple of ounces of throbbing life. On top it was night-blue, nearly black. The feathers were fine, downy, almost like mole fur. Underneath it was off-white, looking rather scuffed and smudged. There was a chestnut-orange blur on its throat. The wings were huge relative to the rest of it, two dark crescents curving past the side of its body, pressing down into the concrete ledge. It quivered with quick, short breaths, and looked much smaller, more flimsy, on the window ledge, than a swallow looks in the air.    

Descriptions such as these are the great joys of this book, and Vajragupta’s lovingly attentive gaze shines out from almost every page. To this extent he conforms closely to, and compares well with the deep vein of nature writing we have been discussing. He is at his most compelling when he is minutely observing the nature around him, his observations obviously the consequence of a profound and gentle receptivity. He exudes a sense of narrative honesty, and this extends to the more difficult times, the boredom or frustration which is an inevitable part of solitary retreat. As he puts it:

Sometimes I encountered loneliness, sometimes I felt happy. One minute I would be craving, the next moment I found contentment. Fidgety, restless boredom, then a surprising stillness, sadness, then joy.

Where, perhaps surprisingly, his book differs from the best writers in this genre is in its lack of a sense of structural unity or purpose. For example, J.A. Baker focusses on a particular time and place (Essex, 1960s), and a particular preoccupation, his famous peregrine falcons, whose life-cycles and location are lovingly evoked; similarly, Nan Shepherd is bewitched by the Cairngorms of Eastern Scotland, which provide a backdrop for her life’s immersion in nature. Vajragupta’s work lacks this satisfying sense of purpose, despite the ostensibly unifying theme of ‘retreat’, and sometimes I felt his work was a collection of beautifully described, but nonetheless somehow incomplete vignettes.

One aspect of Wild Awake which is a candidate for unifying the whole, and which is characteristic of another kind of nature writing, is that of memoir, or the account of a personal journey, physical and, in this case, perhaps, spiritual. There are many precedents to this kind of writing too, and indeed it might be argued that an element of the personal is inevitable in such a work. Whereas Nan Shepherd tries to write in a largely impersonal tone, so that her works become like descriptive poems in prose, paeans to the landscape she loves, other writers, less preoccupied with the accurate depiction of landscape, have focussed on personal experience, in which, through the particularity of their prose, the landscape is itself, as it were, created by the observer’s gaze. In such cases the writer’s emotional journey is often reflected in a form of expression which gives life directly to the emotion, rather than simply telling the reader that it was present. Writers such as Jack Kerouac immerse the reader in their experience of solitude, in all its joy and boredom and beauty, its ecstasy and its banality. Kerouac writes, in thinly disguised fiction, of his time on Desolation Peak in the Washington Cascades, with a characteristic stream-of-consciousness poetry:

I wake up and I’m on Desolation Peak and the fires are motionless in the blue morning – Two butterflies comport – My clock ticks the slow day – While I slept and travelled in dreams all night, the mountains didn’t move at all and I doubt they dreamed.

Other writers also take a personal, confessional approach to their writings about nature, even if they omit Kerouac’s extremities of affect. Edward Thomas, famous mostly for his poetry, but also the author of beautiful prose collections such as The Heart of England, and John Muir, one of the inspirations for the national parks movement in the United States, and the author of My First Summer in the Sierra, Travels in Alaska and other prose works, give biographical accounts of nature, but in a manner more focussed and immersive, less episodic, than that of Vajragupta, situating the reader, and reassuring him, with their profound acquaintance with a particular place, rather than using a landscape essentially as a backdrop to their personal struggle.

Another way in which this biographical style has been incorporated into travel writing is in the manner of W.G. Sebald, especially in The Rings of Saturn, in which explorations of the stark landscapes of East Anglia are described in passages of unexpected beauty and incorporated into inimitable works of historical and philosophical story-telling and allusiveness. His works are presented in the manner of confessional accounts, leaving an indelible, eerie sense of times and spaces intersecting and co-existing, in which veracity is itself moulded and weathered, but which nonetheless point, somehow, to a wider and deeper kind of truth. 

The problem, to my mind, with Vajragupta’s biographical approach, and which the above writers have, in their own way, managed to avoid, is not, then, with the power of his descriptions of nature, or indeed with the presence of the personal (he speaks most movingly of his memory of his deceased father, for example), but rather with his lack of full commitment to either the personal or the objective. Of course, the personal quest, the vividly expressed, immediate phenomenal experience, which occupies a prominent place in many such narratives (Sebald and Kerouac included) is also in a sense what Vajragupta is trying to escape from, and it must be remembered that this is, at heart, a book about Buddhist experience. Vajragupta tries to make this explicit, albeit towards the end of his account:

In nature… I lose myself in my surroundings. I can become so absorbed that I forget the old world; the ambitions and ego projects, and the roles and self-identities bound up with them, fade and fall like autumn leaves shaken from a tree. The defensive barrier of “self” lowers, and then, there, is the world.

This is, of course, a valid and perceptive point in a work whose purpose is perhaps, at heart, to describe a process of self-transcendence through solitary contemplation. The problem is that Vajragupta’s account is strongly pervaded by the personal, filled with descriptions of how nature affects him, and so he ends up never truly ‘getting out of the way’ of his narrative, but neither does he, like Kerouac, plunge whole-heartedly into the personal. There is, ultimately, little sense of the nature of spiritual practice – in other words there is little indication of what makes solitary retreat such a uniquely special experience, and sometimes the work can read like a much more conventional piece of travel writing. For hundreds, perhaps for thousands of years, retreat in this sense has been the source of great inspiration and revelation for spiritual seekers, and it would have been instructive to hear more of this from Vajragupta, in particular to hear more of his personal experience of the transcendent sensations of which we have been speaking, which used to be known as the sublime.

If it is, perhaps, too much to expect of Vajragupta that he has achieved a degree of spiritual revelation comparable to the Desert Fathers or the Indian ascetics, it is perhaps not so unreasonable to expect at least an echo of the transcendent, which is at the very heart of solitude. Again, listen to the luminous voice of Kerouac, still on his lonely mountaintop, obsessed by the sheer ecstasy and awe of his position:

I used to sit, or lie down, on Desolation Peak… [and] every time I thought of the void I’d be looking at Mt Hozomeen… stark naked rock, pinnacles and thousand feet high protruding from hunchmuscles another thousand feet high protruding from immense timbered shoulders…the very top tittermost peak abominables of Hozomeen made of black rock and only when storms blow I don’t see them and all they do is return tooth for tooth to storm an imperturbable surl for cloudburst mist…

One can feel the exhilaration of the high mountains, the poetry of the sublime, in this description, however overblown it may feel to modern sensibilities, and it is this which I miss most in Vajragupta’s ever-measured tones. It is this sense of exhilaration which has always seemed to me the key to the solitary retreat in the wilderness, and my own experiences of the sublime, the sight of the great pyramid of the Weisshorn towering above the Matter valley, the play of light on the moors, have, at their most transformative, seemed closest to Kerouac’s cry of joy and terror. In normal life, perhaps, the closest one can come to such a sense of being shocked out of oneself by beauty, is in the experience of great art, and it is no accident that the most successful communicators of great, solitary experience, have often been great artists. ‘Oh the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall, frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed’: I think most people who have a sensitivity to natural wonder have probably experienced something of Hopkins’ sense, perhaps akin to the sense of exhilaration or terror which can sometimes accompany meditation, but which is also linked, I sense, to insight, to a deeper understanding of our place in the cosmos, and which is perhaps at the heart of our solitary communion with forces larger than ourselves.

This isn’t to say that there is no value in quiet contemplation, in new shoots of personality ‘struggling, growing and longing for sunlight’, but rather that this kind of slow dawning of consciousness is not necessarily the most persuasive advocacy for solitary retreat. Nonetheless it is in the most intimate chapter of his book, ‘Green Fire’, from which these words are quoted, that Vajragupta comes closest to a sense of the sublime. He speaks of the wonder that is Spring:

…a green fire that never stops burning, consuming all that goes before it, but then brilliantly growing with new light.

…this gift of spring was so generous, so abundant that my heart flowed full of gratitude, it brimmed with wonder, even a sense of reverence.

I found myself wishing that we might have heard more of this side of his experience, this kind of affective insight, which is accompanied by a shimmering prose which seems to mirror the sentiments he describes. 

The other side of the sublime, of course, alluded to already above, is the sensation of terror. As the philosopher Schopenhauer vividly describes:

When we are abroad in the storm of tempestuous seas; mountainous waves rise and fall, are dashed violently against steep cliffs, and shoot their spray high into the air… then… simultaneously, he [the beholder] feels himself as individual, as the feeble phenomenon of will, which the slightest touch of these forces can annihilate… and he also feels himself as the eternal, serene subject of knowing…

This aspect of the sublime, which becomes immeasurably more powerful when experienced in solitude, is represented for Vajragupta by his experiences at a retreat centre in Spain. He describes a walk up onto a high ridge, and his dawning sensation of fear as the rocky spine narrows and crumbles, and his awareness of the precariousness of his position:

What had begun as a feeling of caution suddenly escalated. Starting low in the lurching stomach, clawing its way up into the thudding heart, creeping all over my shuddering body, triggering my thinking mind into overdrive: panic, panic, panic, panic. I watched thoughts invading my being like alien intruders…

Again, there is a curious detachment in this account of his experience, which the very best writing of its kind would immerse you in. Even Nan Shepherd, normally so austere and elegant, is occasionally roused to a kind of rhetorical fury, though note the lack of personal intrusion into the narrative:

I watched, from the shoulder of Morrone, the Cairngorm mass eddy and sink and rise (as it seemed) like a tossed wreck on a yellow sea. Sky and the wrack of precipice and overhang were confounded together. Now a spar, now a mast, just recognisable as buttress or cornice, tossed for a moment in the boiling sea of cloud. Then the sea closed on it, to open again with another glimpse of mounting spars- a shape drove its way for a moment through the smother, and was drawn under by the vicious swirl. Ashen and yellow, the sky kicked convulsively.

       

It is this intensity of engagement, whether personalised, as in the torments of Jack Kerouac, or metaphorical and objectified, as in Shepherd, that I would have liked to witness more of in Vajragupta’s account. In comparison I found his descriptions rather constrained, particularly as I sensed, and occasionally glimpsed in his prose, an intimate connection with and feeling for the landscapes and, in particular the fauna, of the places he came to know so well.   

I thoroughly enjoyed Vajragupta’s powerful new book, close as it is to my own heart. His relationship with the natural world, closely observed and beautifully described, is the product of long, patient absorption, and his narrative clarity is reflective of a deep mindfulness and wise practice. My only wish would have been to have seen something more of the energy of transformation, by means of a more immediate immersion in his experience – what it is, precisely, about nature, about ‘wilderness’, in its broadest sense, which has such a powerful effect, which, experienced in the intensity of solitude, exerts such a spell, pulling one out of oneself, quieting the clamour of the everyday. It is this, I think, which lies at the heart of the solitary retreat – the quieting of self in the moment, the ideal of immersion which is characteristic of the greatest achievements of art and spiritual practice, but which also lies at the core of what was once known as the sublime. It is perhaps the great works of nature writing which have brought us closest to comprehending this, and which ultimately motivate us to seek such experiences for ourselves. 

Ben Atmer is a Mitra living in Bristol, who is irresistibly drawn to wild places and to the arts, and who tries to combine these in his love of landscape photography. Samples of his work can be seen at www.benatmer.com.   

​Please consider buying Wild Awake direct from Windhorse Publications.

[1] Ed’s note: Robert Macfarlane was interviewed by Ratnagarbha in Urthona: Journal of Buddhism and the Arts, issue 28. 

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