ON WHAT WE’RE NOT ALLOWED TO SAY

Dear Bill,
I never forget your final comment at the very end of one of our most fruitful collaborations, “Kim, Kipling and Kakamura:”

Christopher,……………………………… ……………… July 4th, 2011
Have enjoyed our adventure with Kim. To quote the holy man:
“‘Go in hope, little brother,’ he said. ‘It is a long road to the feet of the One; but thither do we all travel.’”
………………………………………..
Bill.. (W.F.Kammann)

And yes, that is the great adventure, but it’s also the great conundrum, at least for me it is. For you can never stop on that road, it’s so steep and narrow, indeed, any attempt to turn round and head back is curtains. Why, even just pausing to catch your breath can trigger an avalanche!

Which is why I’m still trying to be here, to move on anyway, to trouble the world with my precarious, unstable words and images. And I don’t always like the words that I write either, but I have to live with myself, and they’re there. On the other hand, if I keep at the words long enough, and I mean for years and years, what emerges sometimes speaks to me in an independent voice, telling me important things I never knew or even guessed at before.

For me the process feels like I look in the photo below — because it’s obvious I hadn’t a clue what all those signs were saying when the photograph was taken in Yangon. Yet three years later I dare to write about what they mean today, and yes, I hear what I’m saying.

INDISCRETION 2

Indiscretion #1.

It’s now October 6th, 2017, and I have just finished rewriting an old post that’s been haunting me ever since it went up on our East is East and West is West thread on May 22nd, 2011 . You can click on the old date to read the new version. And if you do, please be sure to include the accompaniment as the post makes no sense without it, or at least it doesn’t for me.

You can also click here  to read what Kipling actually said in his poem called “The White Man’s Burden.” (I still like what I say about the poem, and have left the notes alone. See what you think.)

Although the May 22nd, 2011 essay has been extensively revised, the gist of the argument remains the same,  and that’s very important to say as I’m not trying to cover up anything or to apologize. On the other hand, because the writing is better, more fluent, more attentive, less self-serving, the essay says more of what I was trying to say 6 years ago but couldn’t. The whole thing is still very borderline, I know, but in such musings it’s the risk that occasions the rising, isn’t it? Isn’t that what makes whatever it is happen, because you can’t just say certain things, that you’re simply not allowed to?

Here’s another “not allowed to.”

A few days ago in The Guardian, the British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, was scolded for reciting Kipling’s famous poem, “Mandalay”  “live” and “on mic,” —  a situation that was deemed “not appropriate” by the British Ambassador to Burma. For of course the recitation was in Yangon, right in front of the Schwedagon Pagoda no less.

I do understand the discomfort of the Ambassador, given his position, but to conclude that Boris Johnson’s recitation is “not appropriate” in Burma today is to misunderstand the whole poem, and in particular its very moving invocation of  Burma, love, nostalgia and worship as experienced by a common soldier in 1890. The narrator is  just a bloke,  after all, a Cockney “10 year man” without any social, imperial or so-called “British” pretensions. Furthermore he’s ‘back home’ in London feeling lonely and displaced, and missing what he almost worships as a heaven on earth. Indeed, to be ashamed of the poem is to misunderstand entirely what’s being expressed in it and, even more importantly, to demean the very people whom the British Ambassador thinks are going to be offended by hearing the poem recited in their country. For those Burmese who are literate, and there are many, know and admire Rudyard Kipling — yes, and in some ways they understand him a whole lot better than the self-conscious Ambassador does. Because the Burmese actually read English poetry thanks to the British education they still receive, and are very proud of too, and they not only know the poem personally but can recite it as fluently as Boris Johnson can, and indeed in much the same ‘I’m-not-just-a-bloke’ accent, which is a subject in itself.*  Because you simply can’t take away that Britishness from the Burmese, however politically correct you think you are or they ought to be — indeed, not even the brutal social and economic scorched-earth-regime imposed by the Junta on the whole region could do that, even after 60 years of trying really hard.**

And another parallel indiscretion — a much harder one that you can only talk about in a whisper:

The modern history of Myanmar is terrible, and the Rohingya nightmare just the worst of a great many ethnic entanglements the region faces. And here’s the rough part that very few understand. Just as we have to try hard to understand why it’s not actually offensive for the British Foreign Secretary to recite Kipling’s “Mandalay,” even in the shadow of the Shwedagon Pagoda, we westerners have got to try to understand Aung San Suu Kyi’s mind-boggling silence on the subject of the Rohingya. For the issue is not a national problem that can be settled by any Burmese  leader, however loved and charismatic he or she may be, but rather the expression of the profound anxiety of a huge, displaced, muddled region that isn’t a coherent nation at all, and in many ways still doesn’t want to be. And most of that we’re not allowed to say.

To put that in another, no less shocking but more familiar context, Rakhine State is subject to an ethnic blight as sore and as septic as that which plagues Charlottesville, Virginia in the U.S.A. Because America is infected by exactly the same ethnic malaise, and has lived with it for an almost identical time-frame too.

So here’s the big question. Which is less destructive, a genocide that inches its way along like a glacier, demeaning, thwarting, imprisoning and snuffing-out the lives of generation after generation of individuals in the same family, or one which scorches the earth like a forest fire, consuming a whole community of families in just one day? Yes, and which one in the end will prove to be more destructive to human dignity and potential?

And here’s another very hard thought for me personally. Though I try to be sensitive to Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence, to hear what she is saying by not saying anything,  I have to admit how disappointed I am that such a great, strong, courageous, near perfect heroine has emerged with such dull feet of clay. Indeed,  I’m writing this in part to have the opportunity to say that Aung San Suu Kyi can still count on my trust, love and respect for her as a person, because my own feet are so parochial, so low, colonial and clayish too — as revealed in my May 22nd, 2011 imperial-sized, blotched-copy text on Privilege and Service.

Which was and still is very hard to say, yet is even harder not to say, at least right now as I sit at my desk in Chiang Mai.

Christopher Woodman

* In another article the day after the one above, The Guardian referred to the Foreign Minister’s “schtick:” “Etonian accent, Latin tags, supposedly lovable Wodehousian eccentricity, sub-Churchillian evocation of the glorious past of this island race.” And of course there’s the orange hair and the smirk, as if we hadn’t seen that before!

** And yet another Guardian article today (Oct. 7th, 2017),  ditching both the Ambassador and the Foreign Secretary but redeeming “Mandalay.” “Kipling saw a road that led to romance rather than to slaughter,” Ian Jack writes, and then quotes the famous opening lines:

,……    By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,
,……    There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
,……    For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say
,……    Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”

KIM, KIPLING & KAMAKURA

………..“He lived in a life wild as that of the Arabian Nights, but
………..missionaries and secretaries of charitable societies could
………..not see the beauty of it.” ………..

Each of the first three chapters of Kim (1901-2) is introduced by a stanza from Kipling’s poem, “The Buddha at Kamakura,” which he wrote after a visit to Japan in 1892. It’s by no means his best poem, but it’s certainly one of the most detailed and challenging ones he ever wrote on the subject of East and West from a religious point of view. Needless to say, the poem must have interested Kipling a lot for him to have selected stanzas from it for such a crucial introduction.

And they’re not easy ones either, so Kipling must have wanted readers to spend some time figuring out what they meant. Most importantly, they’re not about exotic adventure in India, or even about India, for that matter, but rather move toward the quieter, deeper, more universal themes in Kim, many of which would be new to readers even today.

Kamakura is the 44 foot high, 800 year old bronze Amitaba Buddha near Tokyo so much loved by the people of Japan — ‘Amitaba’ is  the Japanese Buddha of love, a ‘Savior Buddha,’ really, and closely related in his origins to the female goddess Kwan Im in China. Kipling makes sure the reader knows it is precisely this Buddha and this place he is referring to by introducing Chapter I with the phrase, “And there is a Japanese idol at Kamakura“–  and of course the word “idol” was intended to provoke a negative response. The verses, on the other hand, succeed in doing just the opposite — which, I would argue, is precisely why they are there.…………………………………

…………………………………………..Kim,  Chapter I:
………………………………….O ye who tread the Narrow Way
………………………………….By Tophet -flare to Judgment Day,
………………………………….Be gentle when the ‘heathen’ pray
………………………………….To Buddha at Kamakura!

………………………………………….Kim,  Chapter II:
………………………………….And whoso will, from Pride released,
………………………………….Contemning neither creed nor priest,
………………………………….May feel the Soul of all the East
………………………………….About him at Kamakura.

………………………………………….Kim,  Chapter III:
………………………………….Yea, voice of every Soul that clung
………………………………….To life that strove from rung to rung
………………………………….When Devadatta’s rule was young,
………………………………….The warm wind brings Kamakura.

The first stanza tries to soften Christian distaste for other religions by appealing to the warm atmosphere at Kamakura.  Both “Tophet-flare” and “Judgement Day” are harsh Biblical allusions that contrast strongly with the gentle peace embodied in the place, Kamakura, and of course in the last line of every stanza in the poem. Chapter Two’s stanza, on the other hand,  praises Western, non-orthodox free-thinkers who take pride in their open-mindedness to “other creeds” (this is the age of “Spritualism,” don’t forget, Theosophy, Anthroposophy, and there were big personalities involved  in those movements too, needless to say).  The appeal to these two, diametrically opposed groups of people at the beginning of the novel shows the degree to which Kipling’s own heart was engaged in quite a different spriritual dimension in Kim.

The third introductory stanza is much more ambiguous. Devadatta was a very close disciple of the Buddha who actually rejected the Master’s “Middle Way,” preferring to stay behind in the old elitist spiritual life as an ascetic in the forest. Devadatta did not join the Buddha in his later, more gentle, holistic phase, and there is even a legend that he tried to kill the Buddha to prevent him from attaining Enlightenment. The stanza seems to suggest that whoever such people are, they are conservative and therefore unwilling, or not yet ready, in any case,  to move on. They belong to an earlier world order.

In fact, Kipling did not include this 3rd stanza in the full version of “The Buddha at Kamakura,” which he first published in 1892 in an article in the Times called “The Edge of the East,” an article specifically about Japan. The poem as a whole was eventually added to the collection called The Five Nations in 1903,  two years after the publication of Kim. In that version he included the following, much easier, more straightforward stanza, part of which is also quoted in the body of the first chapter of Kim, so we’re in the same place:

…………………………………Yea, every tale Ananda heard,
…………………………………Of birth as fish or beast or bird,
…………………………………While yet in lives the Master stirred,
…………………………………The warm wind brings Kamakura.

Ananda was the closest friend of the Buddha, if one would dare to say that about the Buddha, implying as it does some attachment on his part as well. In any case, this stanza would seem to celebrate the supportive presence of the Buddha in the pre-conscious mind,  so to speak, i.e. in those beings who have not yet had the chance to experience life as a fully conscious human being.

This is mainly just a hunch, but my feeling is that Kipling was addressing in both these last two stanzas the vast majority of Westerners, busy people too set in their ways to understand Eastern spiritual practices in their hearts. He seems to be saying that with a little help they could still come to respect and even be inspired by devotion like that shown to Amitaba Buddha at Kamakura, which has certainly proven to be true in our times.

The overall message in the introductory stanzas is one of love and respect for all people who worship out of the heart, whatever their creed or the form of their worship. It is indeed a blessing to find yourself among such devoted people, the poem says, so “be gentle” and respect them. “Feel the Soul of all the East
,” open yourselves up to “the warm wind of Kamakura.”

An extraordinary message for 1892, or anytime!

Christopher Woodman

…………………………………………… “Kamakura
…………Great Buddha, with an enlarged detail of a man standing on the hands.”
……………….Photo published in Brinkley’s Japan, a Guide Book (ca. 1890).
…………………………………The Buddha at Kamakura
………………………….“And there is a Japanese idol at Kamakura”

…………………………………O ye who tread the Narrow Way
…………………………………By Tophet -flare to Judgment Day,
…………………………………Be gentle when the ‘heathen’ pray
…………………………………To Buddha at Kamakura!

…………………………………To him the Way, the Law, apart,
…………………………………Whom Maya held beneath her heart,
…………………………………Ananda’s Lord, the Bodhisat,
…………………………………The Buddha of Kamakura.

…………………………………For though he neither burns nor sees,
…………………………………Nor hears ye thank your Deities,
…………………………………Ye have not sinned with such as these,
…………………………………His children at Kamakura.

…………………………………Yet spare us still the Western joke
…………………………………When joss-sticks turn to scented smoke
…………………………………The little sins of little folk
…………………………………That worship at Kamakura.

…………………………………The grey-robed, gay-sashed butterflies
…………………………………That flit beneath the Master’s eyes.
…………………………………He is beyond the Mysteries
…………………………………But loves them at Kamakura.

…………………………………And whoso will, from Pride released,
…………………………………Contemning neither creed nor priest,
…………………………………May feel the Soul of all the East
…………………………………About him at Kamakura.

…………………………………Yea, every tale Ananda heard,
…………………………………Of birth as fish or beast or bird,
…………………………………While yet in lives the Master stirred,
…………………………………The warm wind brings Kamakura.

…………………………………Till drowsy eyelids seem to see
…………………………………A-flower ‘neath her golden htee
…………………………………The Shwe-Dagon flare easterly
…………………………………From Burmah to Kamakura,

…………………………………And down the loaded air there comes
…………………………………The thunder of Thibetan drums,
…………………………………And droned — “Om mane padme hums ” —
…………………………………A world’s-width from Kamakura.

…………………………………Yet Brahmans rule Benares still,
…………………………………Buddh-Gaya’s ruins pit the hill,
…………………………………And beef-fed zealots threaten ill
…………………………………To Buddha and Kamakura.

…………………………………A tourist-show, a legend told,
…………………………………A rusting bulk of bronze and gold,
…………………………………So much, and scarce so much, ye hold
…………………………………The meaning of Kamakura?

…………………………………But when the morning prayer is prayed,
…………………………………Think, ere ye pass to strife and trade,
…………………………………Is God in human image made
…………………………………No nearer than Kamakura?

……………………………………………………………………..Rudyard Kipling, 1892

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