The Way Things Are: Conversations with Huston Smith on the Spiritual Life
edited by Phil Cousineau
University of California Press 2003

Among the most sought after religious writers of this century, author of The World’s Religions and Why Religion Matters, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Huston Smith is a reference library of the rites, rituals and beliefs of world religions.

In The Way Things Are Conversations with Huston Smith, author and editor Phil Cousineau records twenty three interviews in which Smith debates his thoughts and theories with renowned scholars, theologians and journalists. This new compilation encapsulates both his personal contemplation, and public conversations, regarding religion and spirituality in contemporary society.

Brought up in China by Christian missionary parents, Smith describes his first contact with religion as one of simple trust. “We are in good hands and in gratitude of that fact it would be good if we bore one another’s burdens.”

A frequent reference of Smith’s is to his concept of a primordial tradition. By forming a list of the common elements within all religions, he has uncovered what he calls the spine of religion. Informing our similarities, while warning us to “Beware of the differences that blind us to the unity that binds us”, he encourages readers to see beyond personal beliefs and acknowledge others relationship to divinity.

This unity, or single religious root, should not be confused with the modern trend of religious pluralism. He banks on the integrity of individual traditions, rather than the scotch-taped spiritual beliefs of pluralism, which have left people alienated from their traditional roots. “The moral is to find some tradition and to steep one’s soul in it. To me it is immaterial which tradition; it is of maximum materiality that it be a tradition.”

An area of concern for Smith is the ever-encroaching “Newtonian view.”, in which all reality is relative. A reality of relativity provides no room for the existence of an Absolute, the foundational element of religion. Without an Absolute we are left floundering with what Smith describes as an unlivable philosophy, based on the technically competent but metaphysically impoverished methods of science. “Scientism”, the religion of science, or oracle we now look to establish truth, leads us further into isolation, cynicism and despair.

Conversations with Huston Smith guide the reader, using both religious traditions and scientific discovery as signposts, on the quest toward the greater mysteries. Revered for his insight and wisdom, this book is a tribute to Smith’s life work and a challenging read for any curious seeker. Though cynics may be adverse to the constant reverence and faith Huston Smith places in God, reading The Way Things Are may result in a basic trust that things are as they should be.
–Anne Read

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The Pagan Christ
Tom Harpur
Thomas Allen 2004

In his tenth book, The Pagan Christ, former Anglican priest and religious scholar, Tom Harpur, investigates the shadowy and distorted history of the Christian world in an attempt to illuminate what really lies at the heart of Christian belief. He presents a new image of Christian faith that begins with the assertion that Jesus of Nazareth was not born to a virgin, did not perform miracles, and did not die on the cross only to rise again in three days. The flesh and blood Jesus never really lived.

The historical veracity of the person of Jesus Christ is integral to the doctrine of every established Christian church. It is only by God becoming man, and dying that human beings can be forgiven of our sins, and our souls be saved. If Jesus never existed then it is all bunk. Harpur, however, argues that it is only by recognizing the metaphorical and ahistorical nature of the Jesus myths that one can understand what the Bible is all about.

The Pagan Christ was inspired by the work of three Egyptologists, most significantly Alvin Boyd Kuhn (1880-1963). After the Rosetta Stone was used to decipher the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphics these scholars argued that before Jesus was Jesus he was the Egyptian god Horus. Harpur draws out the likenesses between the images, characters, and events in the lives of Jesus and Horus. His argument for the mythological origins of Jesus is a strong blow to belief in a historical Jesus. He also examines the history of Christian thought to show that our contemporary ideas of Christianity were arrived at through editing, censorship, and accusations of heresy that were aimed at the expansion of Church control.

In the midst of this theological chaos what then is the true meaning of the Christ story? According to Harpur the story of Jesus is the story of the human soul; that the god-man is not a historical person, but the true nature of all beings. I do not appreciate overblown spiritual jibber-jabber, and the direct simplicity of this message was welcome.

The information that Harpur presents is powerful, and the new vision of Christianity that he offers has the potential to speak deeply to those who are disillusioned by the closed mindedness, believe-this-or-see-you-in-hell nature of mainstream Christianity. He can be repetitive, and sometimes seems to only be skimming the surface. He aims for accessibility, but he could still afford to raise the intellectual standard without the risk of alienating any readers. He writes with enthusiasm, but he comes too close to an evangelical zeal that gives me the willies, because it is precisely the kind of thing that has kept people like myself out of church since the age of twelve. These are elements of Harpur’s book that are not to my taste, but the historical and textual analysis of the Bible in The Pagan Christ is still an exciting new vision of the world’s most influential figure of the past two thousand years. – Ian Cant

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True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart
Thich Nhat Hanh
Shambhala 2004

Love is an action verb. This is the basic tenet of Thich Nhat Hanh’s True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart. It is recommended reading for anyone who loves.

True Love addresses the importance of seeing deeply our loved ones and ourselves. Through simple meditation, deep looking, and deep listening. Thich offers ways to be conscious of the love in our life and to appreciate it.

True Love the first question I asked was, “What does a monk know about love? ” Anyone who’s been in love knows the passion, peace, strength and pain it can engender. I was skeptical that someone who may not have experienced it first hand would have any insight. I was wrong. Thich’s teachings in True Love are sometimes obviously directed to a Western audience, which can detract from the pure style of his writing, but this is ultimately appropriate and allows the truth that resonates through the book to come through.

Thich’s simple tome is as it’s subtitle suggests, a guide to the practice of awakening the heart. In sixteen fairly short chapters, Thich looks at various aspects of love and teaches us to make the act of loving a conscious part of our lives. Using Buddhist thought as a basis, Thich looks at four aspects of love: loving kindness, compassion, joy and freedom.

Thich’s reflections in True Love are not exclusive to romantic love but certainly include it. Thich focuses on the connection between two people and looks at many of the issues that arise when we share our hearts with another person. Thich goes from the ideal: the joy and peace we feel when we are with the object of our love, to the real: dealing with the inevitable ups and downs of life that test our way to love.

It is easy to lose sight of another and ourselves and allow ourselves to be bogged down by difficulty. Using powerful parables, Thich looks at all the emotions involved with love and ways of untying the knots which we can inadvertently cause in the ones we love.

Thich avoids many of the expected pitfalls of works on love. Without being overly-sentimental, True Love offers simple and realistic techniques to enable us to reconnect with our loved one and ourselves. With a few simple words in about a hundred pages, Thich shows us how to cherish the power and joy in love.

The most powerful books find us when we need them. They are the ones that fall off the shelves, are picked up almost unconsciously at garage sales, are given to us by friends, answer questions we hadn’t fully formed and feed us before we realize we’re hungry. True Love is such a book in my life, and I believe will have a positive impact on all who read it. – Craig Webster

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The Arcade Fire
Merge Records

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Family. Community. Interconnectedness. The Arcade Fire’s Funeral insistently explores these themes while showcasing some of the motivating forces that have sired the band’s first full-length album. Whether through our everyday interactions with the people from our neighborhoods, through our personal struggles with our friends and families, or as in the case of Funeral through the communal sharing of musical experience, this album suggests that there is a constant web of connections binding us all together that isn’t always without conflict, but whose bonds are nevertheless consistently dynamic.

As I listen to the four songs on Funeral entitled “Neighborhood” (numbered one through four) I can’t help but think of my community in northern Montreal, which up till last spring was also home to the Arcade Fire. Watching them develop from the local musicians whose loft I would frequent during intimate performances, to the burgeoning success machine they have become, I’ve been witness to and passive participant in the various moral and relational quandaries which have centered around the band over the last four years. Among those who call this community their own, few remain who have not been touched by the reverberations from these charged debates.

Having surmounted a variety of interpersonal divisions among the band’s members, The Arcade Fire has emerged from creative and personal challenges to produce what can only be described as a great upbeat pop album. Inspired and dedicated to the memories of the family members who passed on during the recording of the album and also to former members of the band who contributed to AF’s first EP but who are no longer involved in the project, Funeral hints at the hope that lies at the heart of the active and constantly fluid nature of relationship with others.

The band’s fascination with family and consanguineous living is clear from the outset of the album. “Neighborhood #1 (tunnels) ” opens pensively with quiet and repetitious pizzicato violin strokes betraying the building tension, as the sound of a distantly sweet and scattered piano melody litters the soundscape of the snow submerged city. A high ethereal accordion drone ushers in the beat-driven bass as the lead singer Win Butler tells the emotionally ambivalent story of a lover’s escape from his weeping parents’ home into a world of snow tunnels and subterranean trysts. The expectant tension gives way to a driving high-hat heavy pop beat which is bewilderingly catchy, making me wonder whether I ought to cry over the loves I’ve lost or to get up and dance. Displaying the plaintive but insistent lyrical wails AF has developed a reputation for, Butler reminisces about the long-since buried bedrooms of friends and loved ones as a unison chorus of soaring female vocals closes out the song with a flourish. Left trying to sort out a musical experience which seems to be torn between loss and salvation, I’m only absolutely certain of one sensation– a feeling of intense satisfaction, one which is as puzzling as it is pleasurable. –Mike Wray

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Terres Turquoises
L’Ensemble Constantinople
Atmaclassique Records 2004

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I’ve been on a journey courtesy of Constantinople. I’ve traveled to distant lands and distant times, while sitting in the comfort of my living room. Such is the power of music when we make ourselves available to it.

Under the artistic direction of Kiya Tabassian, an Iranian setar player living in Montreal, l’Ensemble Constantinople offers us a collection of rich, warm and soul stirring melodies stemming from the cultural spheres of the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods. Respectful of the traditions it is exploring, blending the written form with well coordinated improvisation, Constantinople looks onward by constantly developing its own unique and renewed approach to a musical language of the past.

Terres Turquoises (Turquoise Lands), are lands rich in tradition and art that stretch from the western mediterranean, through Central Asia and to as far as India. Metaphysically understood, the lands symbolize man’s inner creative spaces; free of frontiers, creed and religion. A common ground recognized through vision, imagination, and a shared destiny. The musicians in Constantinople are seasoned players, and the listener can feel the symbiosis of ‘hearts’ sharing music. With guest Françoise Atlan, a gifted and enchanting singer, Tabassian, ‘ud and harp player Guy Ross, multi wind instrumentalist Matthew Jennejohn, viola de gamba and fiddle player Isabelle Marchand and percusionnist Ziya Tabassian, invite us to join their timeless sound caravanserail. With them we travel the roads of sweet melancholy. –Richard Mercier

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Sacred Movement: White Swan Yoga Masters, vol. 1 Music for Flow Yoga
compiled by Max Strom
White Swan Records 2004

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I’ve engaged in a few discussions recently about the merits and drawbacks of playing music during hatha yoga practice.

As a former dancer, music has always played an integral role in creating both boundaries and vibrational space to which I tune my body and mind.

For many years I practiced in a loft, moving quietly to the rhythms of my own ujjayi breaths in the wee auspicious hours of the morning with my beloved sleeping nearby. To practice with music was a rare treat.

These days I use music more often to set the tone of my hatha practice, but my collection is small and repetitive. Since I discovered Sacred Movement, my practice has been strong, deep and adventurous.

Of compiling this disc, Max Strom says, “I find it best to use tracks with no sudden rhythmical or volume changes because it’s crucial that the music does not distract. I don’t want the music to draw people out of their practice; I want it to help to lead people into their practice. ”

This disc helps me to do all I want to do in a focused practice: regulate my breath to the heartbeat grooves, open my heart to the Divine name and enter into the depths of my potential.

Sacred Movement is arranged so that the first 40 minutes accompany the heat generation of surya namaskar and the vigor of standing postures or backbends, while the rest of the album softly descends with us to, hip openers, twists and forward bends. It’s the perfect length for a one-hour practice.

If you are moved by music during your practice or use music to accompany your teaching, find this album. Whether the day calls for reverent restoratives or the tapas of ashtanga you’ll enjoy these good vibrations to accompany the journey.

Sacred Movement even passed my ultimate CD test: a cozy dinner party with good wine and critical friends. –Tracey Peever

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Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life