Tuesday, May 31, 2011

"Destination Saigon" author Walter Mason speaking on 24th June

Swedenborg and Self-Help: The Influence of Emanuel Swedenborg on the Modern Literature of Self Improvement

Speaker: Walter Mason

FRIDAY 24TH JUNE 2011 at 7.45pm
Swedenborg Centre, 1 Avon Road, North Ryde
Cost: $7; concession $5 (including refreshments)

While most imagine that self-help books are something new, emerging fully-formed at some mysterious point in the late 1960s, they are, in fact, a venerable literary form with their roots stretching back into the 18th century. Many of the earliest self-help writers were students of Swedenborg's writings, and his ideas have filtered into our culture via the medium of popular self-help, from "How to Win Friends and Influence People" to "The Secret."
In this talk Walter Mason, who is completing his doctoral dissertation on the history of self-help literature in Australia, will discuss the people and ideas that have connections to Swedenborg and that have gone on to make up part of the rich history of popular non-fiction in the West.

Swedenborg Association of Australia Inc.
North Ryde Group - Telephone: (02) 9888 1066
website: www.swedenborg.com.au

Friday, May 27, 2011

Commodifying the Buddha

The other day I came across quite a good post at Copyblogger called How the Buddha Solved His Marketing Problem.

It was all about using some of the principles of Buddhism to become a more effective marketer. Now, to me that's fine - in fact, kind of cool. But I know many among my Western Buddhist friends who would find such an approach reprehensible, and I got to thinking about the commodification of Buddhism in Western culture and the ways it may or may not be acceptable.
For a start the commodification of the Buddhist religion is not a recent phenomenon reflective of Western consumerist influence. Anyone who has visited functioning Buddhist temples in situ across Asia will realise that these are frequently commercial ventures relying on business practice to help them survive. Many temples charge tourists an entry fee, and many run all kinds of businesses, from bookstores and incense manufactories to vegetarian restaurants, farms and food distribution services. Monks frequently charge for their services, particularly when it comes to funeral celebrations and the blessing of new homes, enterprises and expensive objects.
In the West the principle example of Buddhist consumerism is the vast publishing industry that surrounds Buddhist teaching. It would seem that Western Buddhists are a remarkably literary bunch, and the flood of Buddhist-themed books and magazines, though decreasing in recent years, looks like it won't be ending anytime soon. And many of the most famous teachers are the most reliant on this publishing revenue. There is also the tricky issue of fees charged for teachings and retreats. These can often be considerable, particularly for the "big names" in Buddhism. Most of these activities are viewed askance by Asian Buddhists (and I am not going to enter the debate here about the terminology surrounding what you call people who are born Buddhists in a traditionally Buddhist culture).
Ten years or so ago in Australia there was quite a debate surrounding a mobile phone company that used the image of a Theravada Buddhist monk in its advertising. In this case people from all sides of Buddhism protested the gross insensitivity of using Buddhist imagery in the service of advertising and promotion. I remain silent on the issue.
And where does that leave me? The cover of my book Destination Saigon is a striking collage of popular Buddhist imagery found in temples all over Vietnam.

Assembled by a talented, non-Buddhist (I assume) designer, it could be interpreted by some as irreverent, even irreligious. And it certainly exists for no reason but to enrich me and my publishing house (though I have been known to throw the odd dollar into the donation box in temples across the globe). Am I a gross exploiter of an anti-materialist religion?
Perhaps, perhaps...

Monday, May 16, 2011

Top 5 Movies About Vietnam

When I first became passionately interested in Vietnam there was remarkably little film about Vietnam. There was, of course, a huge body of work about the war, but very little indeed about Vietnamese people and culture. There is more around these days, and, for what it's worth, here are my five favourite movies about Vietnam. It is certain to be an idiosyncratic list, and I am happy to hear about your suggestions - would love to know what you think should be on the list:

  1. The Scent of Green Papaya - It had to be first, didn't it? This is still THE quintessential Vietnam movie - the first time I ever saw a genuinely Vietnamese mood conveyed on the big screen. Spare, beautiful and utterly original, I could watch this lovely film over and over again. And it was all filmed in France!

2.Heaven and Earth - I don't actually know many people who like this film, but I think it is quite the best film about the Vietnam war ever made. Oliver Stone was convinced by Le Ly Haslip to make a movie about the Vietnamese people's suffering during the war, and together they created quite an odd but still very moving film. You may have overlooked it, or dismissed it as a war film. If you love Vietnam, check it out - I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

3. Three Seasons - Not much to say about this arthouse favourite. It screened for weeks here in Sydney when it first came out, and it really is very good.

4. Cyclo - Maybe it's a cop out to give Tran Anh Hung two mentions, but this is the ultimate Saigon movie, and the lead actor Le Van Loc is just so perfectly natural - to the extent that some critics didn't quite get his performance. For anyone who knows Vietnam, his performance is spot on, and he is possessed of an understated sexuality that is quite engrossing.

5. The Lover - Oh dear, this is a sexy one, be warned. Purists might be horrified that I list this, but it is a beautiful film, and the ultimate colonial fantasy. And the doomed sexual relationship is played out perfectly - capturing the mood of Duras' novel quite cleverly.
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