A Buddhist’s Bookshelf

MaitreyabandhuMaitreyabandhu shares with us his recent reading, from the novels of Penelope Fitzgerald to Sangharakshita’s seminars. Interview by Maitreyaraja

Maitreyaraja: Could you start off by telling us what you’re reading at the moment?

Maitreyabandhu: I’m reading a new biography of Philip Larkin called Larkin – Life and Art, and Larkin’s complete poems. I’m having a bit of a Larkin time. I’m reading, re-reading all the poems including his unpublished poems. I’m reading the new biography and I’m also reading his prose.

So why Larkin?

I think Larkin and Elizabeth Bishop have got every right to be thought of as the greatest poets of the late 20th century. I don’t mean poets like Eliot and Auden and Frost – later than that. Larkin is extraordinary in that none of his poems need explication. He’s always talking about the primary issues of life, and he’s very concerned with death, like his great mentor, his great influence, Thomas Hardy. He’s concerned with love, death, nature; with life, really. And every poem is a stand-alone poem. I just find him so absolutely honest – rigorously honest about his experiences – and I find the work itself beautiful. Not sweet, not sentimental but very beautiful. He’s actually much more than a slightly sour, curmudgeonly figure. Much more than that. He has got that side – sardonic and so on – but he’s much more than that. He’s got a real vision of life. Like Hardy – Hardy is quite miserable in a way, but he’s got a real vision of life.

What else are you reading?

Well, novels I read less frequently now but my current novelist of choice is Penelope Fitzgerald. I’ve just finished the last of all of the novels that she wrote. She only published her first novel when she was sixty, when she won the Booker prize with Offshore. Apparently journalists were so sure that V S Niapaul had won it that they’d all written their articles about it and gone off to the pub, and everyone was completely amazed that this little old lady, as they saw her, had won the Booker prize. I think she’ll become a major modern novelist. I’m constantly trying to persuade my friends to read her books and see the value of them. She’s got a sort of eagle eye for things, so they’re very accurate. They’re incredibly well researched – she’s renowned for her research – although they never feel well-researched, they feel very light. They’re poignant and they’re often very tragic. She’s a bit like Austen – less ironic but just as intelligent. You feel in the company of someone who’s amused, gentle, highly intelligent and slightly distanced.

Quite a recommendation then. Are there any other books that have particularly inspired you this year?

Well it’s not really a book, but the other thing that has inspired me this year is re-reading the early seminars of Bhante Sangharakshita, the founder of our Order and movement. Bhante would gather his disciples around him, and there weren’t that many back then. And he would be looking at the Pali Canon suttas. The seminars are unedited, so you get Bhante talking in gorgeously phrased paragraphs and everybody else saying ‘um’ and ‘ah’ a lot, often asking terrible questions! Bhante makes wonderful use of them, so what you get from the seminars is his peculiar spiritual genius. We cut the seminars down into little books and tried to make it look like they all stick together. But the seminars don’t stick together, they’re not supposed to. They’re Bhante’s, they jump off from Bhante’s incredible vision of what life is about, what Buddhism is about, what the Buddha’s trying to teach, how he’s trying to teach us now. Bhante just will not behave himself. He wants to do much more than be a good, pious Buddhist. So his approach to the Pali Canon is exactly what you want. Someone who’s completely with the Buddha but who’s not relating to Buddhism as a kind of heritage site. He wanted to ask, what is the Buddha trying to say in this mode that we may or may not like? But he’s trying to get at what’s really essential universal value to us.

Was there a particular teaching or perspective that Bhante gave in that seminar which you found particularly illuminating, or useful to you personally?

Well, one of the bits I remember I when he was talking about the Buddha’s early followers, called Bhikkhus, and asking, what was a Bhikkhu? In my mind a Bhikkhu was someone who was celibate – you know, with a shaved head and robes. I sometimes feel attracted to that – I think I definitely have an inner monk – but it doesn’t excite me deeply. But when Bhante talks about the Bhikkhu that it’s someone with this Ancient Greek attitude to life. He calls it an ‘Ancient Greek seriousness’, ‘a philosophical, emotional seriousness’, one that asks, What’s life about, and what should we do about it? How do we live? That kind of seriousness about those primary questions. And when I hear that I get excited, and I think, well yes, I want to be like that – yes it’s my life’s aim to live at that kind of pitch, with a real seriousness. Not a portentous seriousness but a genuine human seriousness. Bhante uncovers that again and again and liberates you from a sort of cartoon of what you think a Buddhist should be like. I get a sense of uplift from the seminars, a sense of pleasure which, as it deepens, unifies with a sense of meaning. But anything genuinely pleasurable is also meaningful. Things that are pleasurable but aren’t meaningful are only titillating, really. Real pleasure in reading is where you feel a natural sense of the two things coming together, the pleasure and the meaning, and I get that in bucketloads from reading Penelope Fitzgerald, I get it from reading Larkin and I get it very much from reading Bhante.

If you were on a desert island and you could only have three books with you, which would you choose and why?

(Laughs) Well I’d have Bhante’s Survey of Buddhism probably. When I first read the Survey, it was one of the strongest experiences I’ve ever had of reading, of feeling my mind being opened up. I was probably 28, something like that. I was on retreat, and I literally wanted to run around the retreat centre holding it above my head like it was the FA Cup. At times I was ecstatic with a kind of religious reading. So I’d definitely want that. I would take the Norton Anthology of Poetry, which is probably the great anthology of poetry. It goes from the earliest poetry to contemporary poetry. I took it on my four-month Ordination retreat. I’d choose that book because it’s got a very good selection of poetry in the English language. I’d actually take one of Bhante’s memoirs as well: I’d need Bhante’s company. When Mahananda, a friend of mine, was dying, I was sitting by his bed. In the Tibetan tradition you would guide someone who was dying through the bardo, and you’d talk to them about what happens when they die. But really I’ve no idea what happens to you when you die and I can’t guide anybody through a bardo, so I was trying to think of what to suggest as he died. Of course he was unconscious by then, but hearing is the last sense to go. So I said, Think about Bhante, think about your teacher – because I know that my teacher represents my direct apprehension of spiritual life. Bhante’s been centrally important to my life as a human being. So if I was on a desert island I’d want his company, and I wouldn’t be able to have it, and the best way round that would be to read the memoirs I think. There’s something about the rhythm of his speech in those books of somebody emotionally in touch with something undefinable, something un-pin-downable – it’s not an idea. It’s not a theory and it’s not something that’s ‘good for you’.

Is there anything else that you’d like to say about your reading life?

I wish I were reading more, I’m getting too sucked into the computer and I need to be more disciplined with that. I want to say that there’s so much to enjoy – and let’s remember that reading is for pleasure. My diet of pleasure has got steadily healthier, and if I don’t have that healthy diet I get unhappy. So I want to just remind myself, and anybody else, to read – and to read for no good reason.

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