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Mahatma Gandhi
Vintage Press 2002
There are some world figures whose life stories must be read and reread, especially in times of uncertainty and instability, so that we never forget who those figures were and how they once shaped the world we live in today. Certainly, Mahatma Gandhi of India is one such figure, and this book is a perfect way for getting reacquainted with his ideas, his work and his life.

Originally published in 1962 and edited by the late American journalist Louis Fischer, The Essential Gandhi takes the reader on a journey through the life phases of Mohandas K. Gandhi, in chronological order from the late 1860s to the late 1940s. It is culled from the rich autobiographical writings of Gandhi himself and supplemented by Fischer’s third-person narrative from start to finish.

Thus, in the first part of the book we learn of Gandhi’s childhood days in India, and his later travels to England and South Africa as a student and budding attorney. The latter country served as a fertile breeding ground for his developing method of satyagraha (“devotion to the truth”), or nonviolent protest, in facing down discrimination long before the brutal system of segregation known as apartheid ever came into effect there. It was in South Africa where Gandhi earned the honorific title of Mahatma, or Great Soul.

The second, longer part of the book deals with Gandhi and his return to his native India, where British rule over the country was being uprooted and challenged openly. Gandhi took his place at the head of that Indian independence movement, emphasizing the use of soul-force and nonviolent action to confront the European oppressors in a fight for liberation, even when it meant imprisonment or worse.

He was, to millions of Indians, the beloved father of the nation. Upon independence, Gandhi also stood up for the most wretched, despised castes of Indian society and later served as a peacemaker when Muslims and Hindus in the country turned violently against each other.

The last few chapters of the book are devoted to various aspects of Gandhi’s personal philosophy. Many readers will no doubt be surprised to know that Gandhi was often as critical of communism and socialism as he was of western capitalism. He saw them all as merely philosophical “-isms” with weak mental foundations holding them up. He was even against himself being recreated as some kind of “ism”.

“There is no such thing as Gandhism,” he is quoted in the book as saying, “and I do not want to leave any sect after me. I do not claim to have originated any principle or doctrine. I have simply tried in my own way to apply the eternal truths to our daily life and problems.”

It was a right-wing Indian nationalist who snuffed out the life of this great soul in 1948, with three bullets to the chest at point-blank range. Gandhi was 78 years old when he died. His legacy, far from grower weaker and forgotten over time, has only strengthened and grown, and he has been the source of inspiration for nonviolent change in countries around the world ever since then.

As good as this book is, there is one drawback within its pages: excessive editing. The brackets and ellipses […] found in nearly every paragraph of the book often get in the way of a smooth reading experience. Editor Fischer was no doubt drawing on his journalistic approach to being factually correct, but he did so at a price stylistically.

The preface to this book by Eknath Easwaran (1910-1999), Indian-born spiritual teacher and founder of a meditation center in northern California in the United States, is especially inspiring. He had a chance in his younger years to learn directly under Gandhi at an ashram in India. Easwaran reminds us of the responsibility we all have in carrying on the Gandhian nonviolent legacy in these turbulent times of our own.

“If I can say so without arrogance and with due humility,” Gandhi is quoted as saying toward the end of The Essential Gandhi, “my message and methods are, indeed, in their essentials for the whole world and it gives me keen satisfaction to know they have already received a wonderful response in the hearts of a large and daily growing number of men and women in the West.”

Those essentials are to be found here, between the covers of this humble-looking, 300-page book — a true spiritual classic. Read an excerpt from the book here and see for yourself. In these violent, chaotic times, we can find much solace in the living example of Mahatma Gandhi to get us through the rough waters ahead, and much practical guidance to help us apply a loving, active sense of nonviolence wherever and whenever it is called for in the world today.
音楽 music
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This latest studio recording by the New York-based collective Antibalas finds the band still staying true to its primary musical inspiration — the late great Fela Kuti, creator of the Nigerian afrobeat style — in both spirit and sound.

Considering that few other mainstream bands outside of the African continent play this kind of original music for a living and play it well, anything released by Antibalas is always something to look forward to.

Led by baritone saxophonist Martín Perna since the late 1990s, Antibalas (the Spanish word for “bulletproof”) still centers around a dozen or so rotating members responsible for the group’s percussion- and brass-heavy sound. The band is credibly rooted in the griot tradition by British-Nigerian vocalist/lyricist and percussionist Duke Amayo.

That said, Where the Gods are in Peace is one of Antibalas’s shorter and less adventurous albums in recent years, clocking in at about 35 minutes and featuring just three tunes.

The longest of them, a 15-minute jam titled “Tombstown,” is divided into three movements, the lyrics of which give the CD its title. Members of Zap Mama, the all-female a cappella quintet with their own roots on the Mother Continent, appear as guests on this cut.

Amayo’s lyrics on this new release take a swipe at American history and the vulture of capitalism, an especially timely topic these days. This, from the track “Hook & Crook”, my favorite on this CD:

The fear you spinning in me
No go last oh
The hook you sticking in me
No go last
The crookery you breeding
No go last
…We got the power
To unhook from your life’s grip
& love power
To detach from hook & crook…

Then there is the track “Gold Rush,” with its one-two punch against the genocide of First Nations peoples in the USA and invoking the spirituality of the Sioux sundancers of the Lakota nation. Check out a radio-edit version of the song in the above audio clip.

Overall on Where the Gods are in Peace, Antibalas stays close to the playbook of Fela Kuti and the way he did afrobeat back in the day, recording long songs and fewer numbers of them on a given album. Sound-wise, too, Antibalas seems to have opted this time for a subdued kind of “1970s retro” sound mix that is reminiscent of the analog LP records Fela released back in the day instead of the crystal-clear, digital sound quality available these days.

Compare and contrast this new CD with others by Antibalas in recent years, such as Security (2007) with its jazzier tones and the overtly political, funked-up Who is This America? (2004) — my favorite CD by them. The latest outing by Antibalas, Where the Gods are in Peace, sounds to me almost tame by comparison with the group’s past releases.

That includes the Broadway musical Fela!, for which Antibalas was the house band. It was a big hit with American audiences in 2010; the band’s performance on that soundtrack album is nothing short of electrifying. I only wish they had brought that stage production to Japan, which has its own loyal following and fans of afrobeat music.

Where the Gods are in Peace was released on a Japanese music label last year, though, with Antibalas also playing the Blue Note jazz club in Tokyo. That’s a hopeful sign that more international recognition is to come for this New York big band, which has kept the afrobeat fires burning since just after Fela Kuti’s premature death at age 58 in 1997 in Nigeria.

The newest CD by Antibalas may not be the group’s best endeavor so far, but the band does deserve much credit for sticking to its musical inspiration at a time when few other mainstream artists in North America (outside of, say, the Canada-based Souljazz Orchestra) are bothering to continually play this kind of music originating from Africa.

Long live Fela!
映画 film
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Marc J. Francis & Max Pugh, directors
2017 90 min.
This documentary film may well be the only cinematic work ever made in which the main character happens to appear in only a few of the scenes.

Even so, the spirit of renowned Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh can still be felt in an unspoken way throughout this movie, even when he is nowhere to be seen. His strength of presence is always there in the background somewhere, even as other characters occupy the foreground spaces of the film.

Walk with Me, a British-made work about the monastic community led by Nhat Hanh, has a quiet dignity all its own, setting it apart from just about any other film out there. What would doom most commercial mainstream flicks to failure — no clear plot or storyline, a reluctant and absentee “star”, long passages with little or no dialogue — makes this movie succeed magnificently.

The filmmakers apparently intended the viewing of the film in itself to be a kind of visual meditation. That is, just by the act of watching it, the viewer receives a subtle teaching in what Nhat Hanh calls “mindfulness” or being fully aware in the present moment.

Most of the film’s action does takes place in the Plum Village meditation center in rural France, co-founded by Nhat Hanh in 1982 following his exile from his native Vietnam in the 1960s during the American war there. Nhat Hanh was an unofficial party to the peace negotiations early on in seeking an end to the war, and was nominated to receive the Nobel Peace Prize by no less than Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. about a year before King died.

But Nhat Hanh was seen as something as a heretic at the time by the pro-USA authorities in South Vietnam and was banished from his homeland. Vietnam’s loss has been the world’s gain ever since then, with Nhat going on to become one of the most internationally respected spiritual leaders and teachers of our time.

The filmmakers gained unprecedented access into Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village monastery, allowing us a rare glimpse into the lives of Buddhist monks and nuns who live there. Every scene is fascinating in its mundaneness: the nuns and monks of various nationalities preparing their meals and eating mindfully (using no words to converse), taking silent mindful walks with Thich Nhat Hanh, participating in the daily Buddhist rituals, shaving their heads — even getting their very first head-shave as newly ordained monastics.

Nhat Hanh was one of the early founders of the school of Buddhism known as “engaged Buddhism,” in which monks and nuns regularly engage and interact with society rather than shut themselves off from the world. Visitors’ day at Plum Village is captured wonderfully on film, especially the way children from the outside society react to this sacred environment.

Some of the more poignant parts of the film come when nuns and monks leave their home base at Plum Village in France and visit their families in the United States while on a speaking tour with Thich Nhat Hanh. We get to see the lives they had left behind versus the lives they now lead as part of Nhat Hanh’s loyal ministry. They left one family far behind and, in the process, gained another: the much larger family of humanity, the spiritual family. It’s a beautiful trade-off, no matter which way you look at it.

On the other hand, there were a few things that would have been nice to see (or not hear) in the film. Naturally, a film promoting itself as a “journey into mindfulness featuring Thich Nhat Hanh” would lead the audience to expect more scenes with him in it. It was a bit of a disappointment not to see Nhat Hanh at all, for instance, talking to large concert hall audiences as part of his U.S. tour, which the filmmakers had joined.

The one constant in the movie that helps to carry it along from start to finish is an audio narration of some of Nhat Hanh’s early personal writings on Buddhism. The text sounds great, but the directors’ choice of voice narrator — popular British actor Benedict Cumberbatch — seems a bit out of place. This is not a film about Shakespeare, after all. Couldn’t they have found another famous Buddhist somewhere to do that narrating?

Then there is the over-reliance on audio dubbing, which the directors recorded in the studio afterward and later mixed into the film. Some of it blends well into the movie; other parts just irritate. I mean, do we really need to hear the fake, dubbed-in sounds of insects crawling in some scenes, which we wouldn’t normally hear? Overdoing it on the audio effects, no matter how pristine the sound quality, can take away from a film’s visual side.

The English version of this DVD comes with some wonderful extras, including the making of the film and interviews with the directors and some of the Plum Village monks and nuns (unfortunately not found in the Japanese edition). The directors talk about how they got into the spirit of mindfulness that Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, and their “mindful filmmaking” in this case may well be a first in cinematic history.

The timing of their filming was critical, to be sure. Not long after they had wrapped up the actual shooting and were editing the footage in the studio, Nhat Hanh had a severe stroke in 2014 and was lucky to survive. At age 92, he is still recovering from the stroke and seems to be progressing steadily but slowly in rehabilitation. (An update on his health can be found here.)

And so, this film also serves the role of offering insight into the last few years of this renowned Buddhist monk and true man of peace while he was still able to function in daily life. In his place, some of the monks and nuns from Plum Village came to Japan earlier this year to help promote the Japanese screening of this film and to lead mindfulness-training events. I greatly regret that I missed the chance to join them then.

But watching Walk with Me is the next best thing to being there. It is one of the few films I’ve ever seen in which an hour and half goes by without even noticing it. Call it “mindful film-viewing” in the spirit of Thich Nhat Hanh. If you are ready to experience something new in a documentary film, then you too will want to view this one. It is truly an audio-visual treasure, no matter which spiritual tradition you follow.