Book review: The Art of Purring

  Dalai Lama’s cat takes up the quest to define happiness

Dalai-lamas-cat-art-of-purring-michieRating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

In “The Art of Purring,” David Michie once again takes us on a delightful journey to reveal what only His Holiness’s Cat can discover in a Buddhist temple in this charming sequel to “The Dalai Lama’s Cat.” This time, the goal is no less than the pursuit of happiness.

Story: “What makes you purr? Of all the questions in the world, this is the most important. It is also the great leveler. Because no matter whether you are a playful kitten or a sedentary senior, a scrawny alley Tom or a sleek-coated uptown girl, whatever your circumstances, you just want to be happy. Not the kind of happy that comes and goes like a can of flaked tuna but an enduring happiness. The deep-down happiness that makes you purr from the heart.”

Before leaving for a teaching tour to America, the Dalai Lama poses a challenge to his beloved feline, HHC (His Holiness’s Cat): to discover the true cause of happiness. Little does she know what adventures this task will bring! (from Amazon.com)

Spiritual/metaphysical content: High. HHC ventures into new territory to discover the answer to the Dalai Lama’s challenge. While exploring yoga, an encounter with the mystical Yogi Tarchen leads to a discovery about her past with far-reaching implications. However, she learns that happiness doesn’t dwell in the past but only in the here and now.

The book explores both Eastern philosophy and Western science to describe a “happiness formula” and much more. It makes the point that everything is possible, even beyond events like clairvoyance, telepathy, and animal sentience.

My take: Michie takes his second Dalai Lama’s Cat novel into the realms of the magical with his lush and detailed descriptions of life among the Namgyal monks,particularly the inner workings of the temple and of Buddhist funeral rites. However, he keeps his philosophy firmly planted on all four paws. Although lyrical, The Art of Purring is a practical book written from the pragmatic perspective of this special cat who simply wants to know, what makes us purr? What makes us happy?

By hanging out at the Himalaya Book Café, HHC benefits from overheard conversations with famous writers, high-ranking lamas, and eminent psychologists discussing the relationship between happiness and success and the many facts of happiness, including its paradoxical nature. In many ways, this metaphysical novel is the perfect complement to the Dalai Lama’s The Art of Happiness.

What is the true cause of purring? The answer unfolds for both the cat and her reading companions with HHC’s trademark charm and a hint of mischeviousness that delights and entertains in equal doses.

Details:
The Dalai Lama’s Cat and the Art of Purring, by David Michie
Hay House, 2013
Paperback, 208 pages
Buy at Amazon

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Movie Review: Dean Spanley

  Charming film depicts “novel” reincarnation

Dean Spanley filmRating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

I recently discovered Dean Spanley, a 2008 British film that is my second favorite metaphysical movie in recent years (after What Dreams May Come). This delightful gem of a film moved me in ways reminiscent of Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain

Story: Dean Spanley is the very archetype of a bland churchman: affable, conventional, prudent without being a prig. Only his keen interest in the transmigration of souls and almost excessive enthusiasm for dogs betray any shadow of eccentricity. And then, richly primed with a few glasses of Imperial Tokay, he slips over the threshold between past and present and remembers an unusual reincarnation. Or are his memories no more than fancy? (from Amazon)

My take: Starring Sam Neill as the Dean, this adaptation of Irish author Lord Dunsany’s short novel My Talks with Dean Spanley illustrates with great clarity and joy the inner life of the Dean’s previous incarnation as a dog. The lush yet restrained camera work of Fiji/New Zealand director Toa Fraser paint his rich memories vividly and poignantly, set to New Zealand composer Don McGlashan’s stirring score.

Through the character played with wide-eyed brilliance by Peter O’Toole, we learn that, despite decades of grief and sorrow, one is capable of change; one can again experience joy. And that’s a message worth watching.

Although longlisted for the 2009 Orange British Film Academy Awards for Adapted Screenplay (Alan Sharp) and Supporting Actor (Peter O’Toole), the film went straight to cable in the U.S. (thank gods for Netflix).

Sweeping vistas, dotted with sheep that pop straight up like panicked cats, immerse you in the sense of what it may have been like to roam free across the woods and fields of turn-of-the-century England. In dignified, stately language appropriate for a Dean of Divinity, Mr. Stanley recounts his memories of those magical days, his grasp of time loosened by a glass of Tokay: “ . . . And then we slept, that most divine of states. The dream dreams you, rather than the other way round.”

Gentle motifs wend through the story, such as “’It’s the little things that try us,’ said the man of the pygmy judge,” along with Zen—and yet thoroughly British—observations: “There’s no point to regretting things that have gone to the trouble of happening.” These asides thread the story with dry humor and wisdom that viewers greet with both a smile and a nod of affirmation.

Just when you think the story has reached a most illuminating and satisfying conclusion, it continues on for a few more beats, culminating with an unexpected twist and a sentiment that I agree with most heartily: “As to the question of reincarnation, I resolved to wait and see, albeit with more anticipation than hitherto.”

Details:

Dean Spanley, an adaptation of Lord Dunsany’s short novel My Talks with Dean Spanley
Miramax Films, Atlantic Film Group (UK) and General Film Corporation (NZ), 2008
Running time: 100 minutes

Book review: The Dalai Lama’s Cat

  Quirky spiritual novel is short on tale, long on charm

The Dalai Lama's Cat metaphysical novel Buddhist fictionRating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Charming and life affirming, “The Dalai Lama’s Cat” is perfect for a sunny afternoon when you want a quick read that reminds you of what’s truly important.  Written from the cat’s perspective, this spiritual/metaphysical novel explores how the simplest of actions–even a cat’s–can lead to spiritual growth.

Story: Starving and pitiful, a mud-smeared kitten is rescued from the slums of New Delhi and transported to a life she could have never imagined. In a beautiful sanctuary overlooking the snow-capped Himalayas, she begins her new life as the Dalai Lama’s cat.

Warmhearted, irreverent, and wise, this cat of many names opens a window to the inner sanctum of life in Dharamsala. A tiny spy observing the constant flow of private meetings between His Holiness and everyone from Hollywood celebrities to philanthropists to self-help authors, the Dalai Lama’s cat provides us with insights on how to find happiness and meaning in a busy, materialistic world. Her story will put a smile on the face of anyone who has been blessed by the kneading paws and bountiful purring of a cat. (from Amazon.com)

Spiritual/metaphysical content: High. Because she belongs to the Dalai Lama, this cat of many names decides she should reflect the spiritual nature of the Jokhang Buddhist temple. The novel revolves around the teachings from the Dalai Lama and other household members, which apply to both visitors and the observant cat. We learn along with “His Holiness’s Cat” the value in very life (even cockroaches), compassion for mice, mindfulness in all things, how self-development can lead to self-absorption (and hairballs), the perils of attachment (gluttony, in her case), how karma works, how to meditate and more on her way to becoming a “bodhicatva.”

The cat comes to understand that ” . . . it is not so much the circumstances of our lives that make us happy or unhappy but the way we see them,” and the wonderful paradox that “. . . the best way to achieve happiness for oneself is to give happiness to others.”

The lessons are simple, typically taught to a visitor which the cat then applies to her own life; it is an effective way to learn the basic precepts of Buddhism. Michie incorporates a bit of neuroscience research that validates the benefits of mindfulness and meditation and the science behind Buddhism to make the principles more palatable to the western reader.

My take: Michie’s approach to this novel was clever. Many readers are entranced by the day-to-day experiences of famous people and their pets, even though the experiences themselves are quite mundane. But you won’t need bombs and car chases to keep turning the pages; the combination of cute cat, a world-renowned holy man, and a liberal dose of spiritual wisdom is quite enjoyable.

The theme-driven plot is thin; events happen mostly to illustrate a spiritual lesson. However, several characters in town are developed to show their growth over time, which makes for a satisfying ending. The conflicts are minor, and the triumphs are small steps for both the human characters and the cat. But isn’t life like that? We experience one small hurt at a time and grow–or retreat–depending on the story we create about that event. The sometimes-quirky story reminds us that every thought and action matters. Michie’s Buddhist novel will not keep you on the edge of your seat, but you will close the book with a satisfied smile.

Details:
The Dalai Lama’s Cat, by David Michie
Hay House Visions, 2012
Paperback, 240 pages
Buy at Amazon

The “pied piper” of the modern yoga movement

Vivekananda: The monk who inspired Americans from J.D. Salinger to Nikola Tesla

Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda, courtesy of Vedanta Society

Although J.D. Salinger of “The Catcher in the Rye” fame published his last story in 1965, he did not stop writing. From the early 1950s until his death in 2010, he corresponded with monks and fellow devotees of Swami Vivekananda of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center in New York. Vivekananda’s amazing century-long influence on Salinger and other prominent writers, thinkers, and artists is splendidly chronicled by A. L. Bardach in The Wall Street Journal.

The central, guiding light of Salinger’s spiritual quest was the teachings of Vivekananda, the Calcutta-born monk who popularized Vedanta and yoga in the West at the end of the 19th century. “Franny and Zooey” is saturated in Vedantic thought and references. Salinger confided . . . that he intentionally left a trail of Vedantic clues throughout his work from “Franny and Zooey” onward, hoping to entice readers into deeper study.

Although he experimented with Zen Buddhism in the late 1940s, Salinger settled on Vedanta. “Unlike Zen,” Salinger’s biographer, Kenneth Slawenski, points out, “Vedanta offered a path to a personal relationship with God . . . [and] a promise that he could obtain a cure for his depression . . . and find God, and through God, peace.” Salinger’s “ferocious literary ambition” was completely replaced by his spiritual quest, led by Vivekananda.

Vivekananda, a Bengali monk, introduced the word “yoga” to the West. In 1893 he spoke at the Parliament of Religions, convened in Chicago as a spiritual complement to the World’s Fair. His impact was huge, wrote Annie Besant, a British Theosophist and a conference delegate. She described Vivekananda’s impact, writing that he was “a striking figure, clad in yellow and orange, shining like the sun of India in the midst of the heavy atmosphere of Chicago.” The Parliament, she said, was “enraptured; the huge multitude hung upon his words.” When he was done, the convocation cheered him thunderously.

“No doubt the vast majority of those present hardly knew why they had been so powerfully moved,” Christopher Isherwood wrote a half century later, surmising that a “strange kind of subconscious telepathy” had infected the hall, beginning with Vivekananda’s first words, which have resonated, for some, long after.

When asked about the origins of “My Sweet Lord,” George Harrison said that “the song really came from Swami Vivekananda, who said, ‘If there is a God, we must see him. And if there is a soul, we must perceive it.’ ”

Vedanta teachings are rooted in the Vedas, ancient scriptures going back several thousand years that also inform Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. The Vedic texts present the idea that God is everywhere, in all things. Vivekananda’s genius was to simplify Vedantic thought to a few accessible teachings that Westerners found irresistible.

‘He is the most brilliant wise man,’ Leo Tolstoy gushed. ‘It is doubtful another man has ever risen above this selfless, spiritual meditation.’

Vivekananda’s teaching had profound influences on Harvard professor William James, his brother Henry, and a plethora of contemporary intellectuals from Gertrude Stein to John D. Rockefeller. The great actress Sarah Bernhardt became lifelong friends with him and introduced him to the electromagnetic scientist Nikola Tesla, who was struck by Vivekananda’s knowledge of physics. Both recognized they shared the same ideas on energy but used different languages to describe it. Tesla would cite the monk’s contributions in his pioneering research of electricity.

Vivekananda’s influence broadened well into the mid-20th century, shaping the work of Mahatma Gandhi, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Henry Miller, among others. Then he fell out of favor.

He seemed to go into eclipse in the West. American baby boomers—more disposed to “doing” than “being”—have opted for “hot yoga” classes over meditation. At some point, perhaps in the 1980s, an ancient, profoundly antimaterialist teaching had morphed into a fitness cult with expensive accessories.

To read more about Vivekananda’s profound influence on America, read Bardach’s full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303404704577305581227233656.html#ixzz2Oaj3dSxz

Book review: The Prince of Soul and the Lighthouse

Metaphysical twist broadens appeal of clever YA thrillerPrince of Soul and Lighthouse Fredrik Brouneus spiritual novel metaphysical fiction

Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Fredrik Brouneus’ new young adult novel is short on preaching and long on sassy dialog and rollicking action.  Built on a framework of Buddhist reincarnation principles, the book is both simple and profound. Throw in zombies, romance,  and a smart-mouth hero with a wicked wit, and you’ve got a metaphysical thriller that both delights and inspires.

Story: What happens when we die? I know what happens. Believe me, I’d rather not. But I do. There is a lighthouse, and it guides our souls along the narrow path to being reborn as humans. It’s the light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, as my undead granddad and the Tibetan special mission monk in my kitchen have kindly told me, there’s a problem with the lighthouse. And if the world is to be saved, someone needs to fix it. Which is where I come in: George Larson, eighteen years old. Who could possibly be better suited to save the world? (Condensed from book jacket.)

Spiritual/metaphysical content: Medium. In New Zealand, 18-year-old George meets a Tibetan monk named Tenzin who helps him “stretch his brain” to contain the spiritual truths he must rediscover in order to succeed at his mission. Brouneus employs concrete, accessible metaphors to clarify complex concepts such as reincarnation, suffering, and impermanence: Existence is a long, bumpy road trip in which your soul drives its car into the ground and then moves to the next, aeon after aeon.  Death is merely a pit-stop to refuel and switch cars before hitting the road again. When we die,  “we will be recycled as atoms and molecules — immortal parts of the big LEGO box Mother Nature has to play with.” The concepts are basic, but the metaphors are a perfect introduction to metaphysics for the  novice seeker or zombie-obsessed teenager.

My take: Nonstop action drives The Prince of Soul and the Lighthouse. However, George’s guide, Tenzin, provides welcome pacing and colorful characterization as he teaches George how to make decisions based on spiritual principles.  Some plot twists may ask readers to stretch their brains a synapse too far, such as connecting jingoism, prayer and the Internet. But the way Brouneus weaves character and action into a cohesive story that spans centuries makes such missteps merely a pothole that you speed past. Zombies, romance, hilarious asides, a little bloodlust, and plenty of relevant cultural references appeal to younger readers, while the spiritual and metaphysical theme satisfies those seeking a more profound experience. Read it as a YA thriller or a short spiritual novel; either way, you’ll be glad you did.

Details:
The Prince of Soul and the Lighthouse, by Fredrik Brouneus
Published by Steampress, 2012
Paperback, 292 pages
Buy at Amazon

Book review: Enlightenment for Idiots

Spiritual novel is part chicklit, part exposé, and always fun

Enlightenment For Idiots Cushman new age fiction spiritual novel metaphysical fiction

Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Want to see what a spiritual journey to India is really like? Forget “Eat, Pray, Love” and pick up this gem of a novel: “Enlightenment for Idiots” by Anne Cushman. Published in 2009, the book exposes India’s spiritual warts with a humorous touch, packaged in an engaging tale of self-discovery. This fun, fast-paced story reaches emotional and spiritual depths beyond standard chicklit fare.

Story: Nearing age thirty, Amanda thought she’d be someone else by now. Instead, she’s just herself: an ex-nanny yogini-wannabe who cranks out “For Idiots” travel guides just to scrape by. Yes, she has her sexy photographer boyfriend, but he’s usually gone—shooting a dogsled race in Alaska or a vision quest in Peru—or just hooking up with other girls. However, she’s sure her new assignment, “Enlightenment for Idiots,” will change everything; now she’ll become the serene, centered woman she was meant to be. After some breakup sex, she’s off to India to find a new, more spiritual life. (From amazon.com)

Spiritual/metaphysical content: High. The story charts Amanda’s path through a slew of ashrams, temples, and hermitages as she desperately searches for spiritual enlightenment. In addition to the many details about various yoga practices and meditation traditions, Cushman threads the story with Zen philosophy and metaphysical principles that infuse Amanda’s personable character with nuance and heart.

My take: In addition to offering an amusing and insightful story of personal transformation, the novel presents a biting examination of how the American spiritual journey has become a very profitable industry in parts of India. Cushman reminds us that an ashram is also a business with salaries, overhead, marketing costs, and human quirks and failings that all contribute to a seeker’s experience. Enlightenment for Idiots is a brisk, engaging tour of India’s enlightenment industry and an excellent example of spiritual fiction.

Details:
Enlightenment for Idiots, by Anne Cushman
Published by Crown, 2008
Paperback, 372 pages
Buy at Amazon