Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Stalin's Ghost: Arkady Renko #6 by Martin Cruz Smith




In reading a recent article about Russia and the Ukraine, the author noted that about one-half of those who support Putin do so because his strong leadership mimics that of Stalin. The other half support him because he doesn’t act like Stalin. Such is the enigma of Russia. It is this type of enigma in this culture that gives us Dostoevsky and Chekov’s characters, the nightmare of Soviet politics, and the Martin Cruz Smith novels about Russian detective Arkady Renko. 

In this novel, late-night riders going through a Moscow subway stop report a seeing Stalin. Superiors, eager to get Renko out of their way, assign him to the ludicrous matter. But as Renko digs deeper, we learn that more than an apparition of Stalin looms in a late night subway stop. The leader-butcher looms over Renko’s personal and family history as well as over elements in contemporary politics. Indeed, the digging in this novel becomes more than metaphorical when Renko is assigned out of Moscow to work in a town with old WWII battlefield nearby that locals search for military memorabilia. What they find is not what they want, but that’s often the way the past works. It is what it is, not what we want it to be, try as me may (and as Stalin tried) to re-write it.  

Renko’s work as a detective is set against the two persons in his life he seems to genuinely care about: the enigmatic Eva, the Ukrainian physician whom he met during his investigation around Chernobyl (Wolves Eat Dogs) and Zhenya, the mute boy whom he “adopted” (in a very loose sense) that runs his own course and who has become a chess prodigy (how Russian!). 

These novels work for me because they do what detective fiction can do better than any other genre: look at the underside of a society as well as its public face. One gets a sense of what it might be like to live in contemporary Russia (which was a part of the Soviet Union at the time that Smith wrote his first book in the series, Gorky Park). Smith is an American, and who knows if he’s accurate in his perceptions of contemporary Russian society, but he certainly gives a sense of verisimilitude that makes the story hum. 

Stalin’s ghost in the Moscow station is an apparition that only portends a much larger presence that looms over the story and that makes this another intriguing time spent following detective Renko along his dogged path. 

Published in 2007, this installment immediately follows Wolves Eat Dogs.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Fourth Turning: Imagining the Evolution of an Integral Buddhism by Ken Wilber



In this most recent (2014) publication by Ken Wilber, he explores the possibilities of Buddhism within his Integral framework. Neither Buddhism nor Integral are new to Wilber or those familiar with his work. While living and working in Omaha, Nebraska in the 1970's, he practiced Zen Buddhist meditation. Since the 1970’s, he’s become the framer of the Integral perspective in the contemporary world. (Sri Aurobindo, early in the 20th century, used the term, but no one in the contemporary world has done as much to gather and synthesize so wide a body of knowledge and practice as Wilber has.) Thus, for those familiar with his work will find nothing startlingly new here, but what he argues, because he's teaching and reaching for a new community, bears repeating. Sometimes I tend to skip over some of what I've learned before, but then I realize that his architecture and vocabulary, which becomes repetitious at times or reaches too far attempting to synthesize so many perspectives, is the best game in town and shouldn't be missed. What he says bears repeating, and in fairness, he's always refining and expanding his viewpoints, so what often seems repetitious is really a newer, finer view, or one that is now incorporating the work of another thinker to give the perspective new depth or breadth. Likewise, when his attempts to model and map a messy world seem too neat, I remember that we value models and maps because they clean-up messy reality in an attempt to allow us to deal with the reality more successfully. 

The term "The Fourth Turning" comes from the history of Buddhism, which is the subject of the first chapter. The First Turning is the teaching of the historical Gautama Buddha, who lived around 500 B.C. in what is now Nepal and northern India. His direct teachings and early legacy are preserved and practiced in the most direct way in the Theravada tradition found in south Asia (Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand). But during the time that Buddhism continued to thrive in India, new perspectives arose from these first teachings to add new perspectives to the Buddhist tradition. Thus, the Second Turning arose from the thought of Nagarjuna, the philosopher of the Madhyamika tradition. This line of thought led to the Mahayana tradition, or greater vehicle, which began to see samsara and nirvana as flip sides of the same coin. This is the tradition of Buddhism that traveled to China and blossomed most notably in the Chan tradition of China and then became Zen in Japan. It also traveled north into Korea and south into Viet Nam. Some refer to it as "eastern Buddhism". Finally, the half-brothers Asanga and Vashubandhu developed the Yogachara or "mind-only' school of Buddhism that traveled north into Tibet and Mongolia (and now into the West along with other Buddhist traditions) as the Vajrayana (Diamond Path) tradition or northern Buddhism. This tradition began in the 4th century CE and reached a climax around 1100 CE. Thus, the Buddhist traditions that we know today, all of which have active representatives in the West, hasn't changed in any significant way in almost 1,500 years. Wilber thinks that a new Turning is due. 

Wilber has argued his entire career (beginning with his first publication, The Spectrum of Consciousness published in 1977) that the great spiritual traditions have value, but with an ABD in biochemistry, he also understands and appreciates modern science. Thus, he's sought to preserve and incorporate that which is viable and valuable in the great spiritual traditions, and he discards elements that represent ways of knowing and perceiving that no longer work (for instance, belief in magic). I won't go into the details—you should go to Wilber's works for his great synthesis—but humanity has grown in knowledge. While humans have known for eons how we might WAKE UP (his term—that is, how to reach higher stages of consciousness), cultural change has allowed us new ways to GROW UP, that is, to move beyond the magic, mythical, and rationalistic perspectives in the history of human culture that ground our consciousness. This is where he argues that Buddhism—and all of the world's great spiritual traditions—must make a “turning”. Buddhism has an advantage, he argues—and I agree—because it began with a strong streak of rationality in the original teachings of the Buddha. 

Thus, when I read this book, having a sense of what he would say and argue, I still came away with a new appreciation of his Integral project and perspective. My only qualm is that within his grand vision he sees humanity moving onwards and upwards, and I'm more cautious about the future of humanity. Yes, we could evolve into a rather nice species despite our abysmal past (and present). But rather than evolving into higher realms of culture and consciousness, we might just send ourselves to hell in a hand basket. For the first 40 years of my life, I lived in fear of what a nuclear Armageddon would bring. And while that fear has subsided (but not disappeared), new fears, such as massive problems arising from global climate change, economic,/ecological system collapse, or some like calamity might create a Cormac McCarthy world instead of the Promised Land of integral harmony. (I think that Wilber would acknowledge this and has done so in other works, but here it seems all too rosy.) I hope he's right, but we should work as if it's all hanging in the balance. He argues that even thinking integral helps bring about such a world, and in a sense, I think he's right, but I'm not sure that we'll get to the critical mass in time. Living in India and now in China, we have a whole lot of humanity that is desperately poor, terribly ignorant, or wanting most of all to enjoy the good material life. We humans can get very nasty when we're denied what we think should be ours or when we fear for our well-being. 

So read Wilber's latest and help in your own way to bring about the great turning that we all need.