Sunday Book Reviews and Living with “Ultimate Concerns”

Ultimate Concerns? Ultimate Concerns…

I was listening to an interesting series of podcasts by writer, teacher and scholar Stephen Batchelor recently, and in the course of discussion Batchelor mentioned 20th Century theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich’s description of religion and faith as being focused on “ultimate concerns” or concerns that move and compel a person so powerfully that no conditions or limitations can be placed upon the seriousness of the concern.  Books here, analysis of Tillich’s thinking here.

On a very high, abstract level, what an interesting question and concept – what is your “ultimate concern?”  What is that thing that took hold of you and drives you, and it is SO consuming that it cannot be bargained away?  Is it something you are proud of, or ashamed to own?

I’m continuing to successfully acclimate to happy owner of my own business after about 12 years of being a uncomfortable, dissident small wheel cog (not one who was there due to any intrinsic motivation) in institutions that didn’t share my goals and values (or I didn’t share theirs, whatever, in either case, poor fits causing great work-life dissatisfaction occurred).

One thing that I’ve learned about myself is that when my ultimate concerns involve self-expression, honesty, individuation, each of us creating our lives and worlds, celebrating differences, searching for the meaning of life, learning and exploring, and questioning common assumptions, I cannot find peace in (or tolerate well) institutions with ultimate concerns leaning more towards conforming, maximizing partner profits, and molding the next generation of the like-minded.  I heard many years of “you can have any friends that you want as long as they send you business” or “you can do whatever you want with your limited free time as long as you meet business owners who send you work.”  A professional colleague recently tell me that many unhappy law firm lawyers never make any change in their work at all because of the “stigma” of leaving a big firm.  Really?  Who gets to decide that there is a “stigma?”  Who gets to decide whether they accept or reject it?

In my opinion, other people’s’ fears of being different, not constantly meeting high net worth business owners, or risking and losing are not answers to my Ultimate Question of “how do I spend this life?”  These are not reasons to live, or to remain in a setting, or remain trusting of or loyal to the speakers (who are going to have rather sad, stunted lives with values like that).  They are reasons to get very angry at inappropriate boundary violations or leave the company, or both.  They are very much un-ultimate, or sub-ultimate.

Books!  Good Books!  Everyone Needs a Good Book (or 100 or 500 or 2,500).

Which brings us to the next portion of today’s blog – Book Reviews, or Things I Care About.  I have two for today.  First, Bill Porter/Red Pine’s latest Yellow River Odyssey and second, an interlibrary loan gem so good I will likely buy a copy, Stephen Addiss’s 2012 The Art of Haiku.

Bill Porter/Red Pine – Yellow River Odyssey.  Bill Porter is my hero.  A student of Anthropology and Chinese, he is doing exactly what I wanted to do with my life (travel, translate, write, speak, travel, write and translate more) before I did what I actually did.  If you don’t know him, he’s a terrific translator (from sutras to poetry) and travel writer.  If you do know him, just get Yellow River Odyssey.  Personally, I’m not sure I enjoyed it as much as Road to Heaven and Zen Baggage, Porter’s two accounts of seeking out hermits and early sacred sites in China, perhaps because Porter’s search for the source of the Yellow River is interesting, but less full of interesting characters than the his search for humans in the mountains and monasteries.  But it’s still a satisfying read.

Stephen Addiss’s marvelous The Art of Haiku, history, analysis, poetry and art, is currently hardcover only and, in my opinion after having the interlibrary loan copy at home for 2 weeks, well worth the $20 on Amazon for the quality of poems, translations, commentary and history and Shodo.

Here are two from the great Basho:

one whimsical

to have stayed green – 
the pepper

and one monumental (Basho’s last poem or death poem)

ill from journeying
but my dreams circle
over withered fields

A poem by Buson that reminds me of the trees and greens lot at Detroit’s Eastern Market at year-end

when the axe strikes
a surprising fragrance – 
winter trees

And one humorous haiku from a more modern great, Issa

swat, swat -
the escaping laughter
of the fly

That’s all, back to billing, as they say.

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