The Geri Larkin Interview: Cooking up enlightenment in 7 steps

Many people only follow their thinking, their desire, anger and ignorance. So they get suffering in situation after situation.
But if you wake up—right now—you get happiness.

Which one do you like?
Zen Master Seung Sahn

Geri Larkin is one of America’s most popular Buddhist writers, releasing her 11th book and ranking now with such prolific American Buddhist authors as Jack Kornfield and Robert Thurman. Are you questioning this claim? Consider: The best-selling Dalai Lama, of course, has written much more, but he is Tibetan, and Thich Nhat Hanh is Vietnamese. There are only a few American-born-and-grown Buddhist writers of this stature. And, as you may already have noted: Geri is the only female in this list. She is distinctive in other ways, as well.

The real-life stories in her books sometimes are heart-breaking, but more often than not, they’re full of inspiring twists and sometimes downright funny. On that scale, only the quirky American Buddhist writer Brad Warner is more likely to amuse readers with the surprising turns in his true tales. However, for most of us, Geri is the perfectly brewed and carefully steeped cup of tea. While Brad Warner tends to surprise with chapters such as his interview with a porn star in one of his memoirs—Geri makes us smile unexpectedly in her new book with stories like the day her young grandson encountered a ladybug that landed on his hand in a park. That’s a pretty stark contrast: Discovering enlightenment with a porn star vs. a ladybug. As Seung Sahn asks: Which one do you like?

Plus, to our knowledge, Geri is unique among these writers in sprinkling recipes into her books. To be fair, there are many Buddhist-themed cookbooks on the market, and Geri has published only a precious few of her recipes over the years. Still, Geri’s notion that cooking can be a gateway to mindfulness is a lesson we don’t hear so much from the Buddhist guys.

WANT TO TRY ONE OF GERI’S RECIPES? That’s the subject of this week’s Feed the Spirit column by Bobbie Lewis.

WANT HER BOOK? Geri’s newest book is called Close to the Ground: Reflections on the Seven Factors of Enlightenment. Click on this link or the book cover, above.

This week, Read The Spirit Editor David Crumm talked with Geri via telephone from her modest home in Oregon.


DAVID CRUMM: Let’s start with food. Among the many Buddhist books I’ve got in my home library, I don’t see other leading Buddhist writers paying this much attention to recipes. You clearly enjoy food! Your one children’s book—Drink Juice, Stay Loose—is all about the place of food and meal times in the course of a happy day for children and their parents. Then, in this new book, Close to the Ground, you share a couple of wonderful recipes.

Why do you write about food?

GERI LARKIN: Yes, I have put in one or two recipes per book. In The Chocolate Cake Sutra: Ingredients for a Sweet Life, of course, I give my chocolate cake recipe. And in Plant Seed, Pull Weed: Nurturing the Garden of Your Life, I give a recipe for stir-fried dandelions, which I like to serve over buckwheat noodles. So, yes, I’ve given out a number of my recipes over the years.

In this new book, I write about the mindfulness in cooking a meal. If you give yourself permission to really focus on the process of cooking a meal for others, as I describe it in the book, then cooking can become a great introduction to mindfulness. Cooking for others also is related to generosity. Really, cooking a meal for guests can wind up touching on all the seven factors I describe in the book: Mindfulness, Investigation of Phenomena, Energetic Effort, Ease, Joy, Concentration and Equanimity.

DAVID: In a moment, we’ll talk about that list of seven factors, which come from early Buddhist writings, but first: Explain more about why you chose to write about something as apparently simple as making a home-cooked meal in a book about these ancient principles.

GERI: In this book, I was determined not to get too Buddhist-y. Many Buddhist teachings and practices take years to appreciate and develop. It takes a long time in life to approach what might be called mature spirituality, but we have to start somewhere. And we all can start, every day, with small things we experience and choose to do. One way to begin to come close to mindfulness is through really focusing on the preparation of a meal. Mindfulness often involves a focused activity and cooking is a great activity to choose.

You know, over the years, I’ve eaten food at so many retreats and I’ve been served so many meals as a guest. And I can always tell when things were prepared mindfully, when the cooking itself was a spiritual practice.

DAVID: So, how is a recipe like a ladybug? Readers of this interview are probably wondering about the substance of this book, since they’ll first see the ladybug and now we’re talking about food.

GERI: These seven factors can be difficult to understand and to practice. I’m trying to give readers a lot of different triggers that can help us to begin feeling what I’m writing about. So, in the first part of the book, I write about my grandson discovering that ladybug in the park.


DAVID: That’s the first of the seven sections in this book: Mindfulness. And, I suspect, that’s such a well-known part of Buddhism that a lot of readers will be tempted to skip over the first chapter. What do we “all know” about Buddhism? Mindfulness. You write, “every dharma teacher I have ever known has emphasized mindfulness over just about anything else.”

GERI: You’re right. The problem is that people don’t really understand what we’re saying, at first. I think most people when they think about mindfulness, they hear us saying: Pay attention. And that’s not a bad first cut at the meaning—but it’s only the first cut. What most people miss is the “fire of attention.” There’s a huge difference between just paying attention and being truly mindful. So, in the story of my grandson finding the ladybug on his hand—we both became completely involved with that ladybug. An asteroid could have struck behind us and we wouldn’t have noticed! Mindfulness is the portal into all the rest of these seven factors.

DAVID: You just mentioned a phrase I was going to ask about—”fire of attention.” Partway through the chapter on mindfulness, you describe the achievement of deeper mindfulness with that phrase.

GERI: The Buddha used that: “fire of attention.” When you do your meditation and you sit, you should be putting so much energy into your mindfulness that it’s like your head is on fire. Think about how different that idea is than just trying to pay attention. But you can’t get to the fire of attention without starting at paying attention. The next step up from that is: What’s your body feeling like? What’s your mind feeling like? So many things go into this practice. You move along this whole process until you can reach a point where there is nothing else left out of your attention. When you get there, so much else drops away. You don’t have energy left for anxiety. You don’t have energy left for all this other stuff that keeps us from truly living our lives.

And, this fire of attention is available to everybody. Oh my God, I can’t give you enough fabulous words to describe this! But, you really don’t have to believe anything to do this. You don’t have to trust Buddha or anything—you can just practice putting this kind of energy into what you’re doing. You start to feel how this stuff really works. For me, it’s almost like—well, it’s almost like burning up all the negative gunk that accumulates in your heart and mind. There’s a cleansing that happens. I’ve heard Catholic monks who go deep into contemplative prayer describe this. When I talk to them about these experiences, it sounds very much like we are talking about the same kind of energy.

DAVID: A lot of our readers know something about monastic practices of prayer. Most people recall the name Thomas Merton, who was making connections between contemplative prayer and Buddhist practice toward the end of his life. ReadTheSpirit has featured an interview with Father Thomas Keating and, last year, we published an interview with Keating’s friend and disciple David Frenette.

In writing this book, you didn’t simply draw on interfaith insights, or your walks with your grandson, or your recipe box. You’re reaching way, way back to the Pali Canon. So, explain that context.

GERI: Right. The Buddha lived more than 2,000 years ago, and the Pali Canon surfaced some hundreds of years of years after he lived.

DAVID: For Christian readers, we can say: These teachings were handed down through an oral tradition in Buddhism that eventually was written down before the time of Jesus. It’s ancient and it’s considered authentic, right?

GERI: Yes, you’ve got it. Another way to say it—this is from the horse’s mouth. This is real teaching—fundamental Buddhist teaching—that many people have no idea exists. Specifically, this comes out of the Digha Nikaya within the Pali Canon. Most Americans probably have never hard of it, but it’s a portion of the Buddha’s teachings that are really practical advice. It doesn’t occur to many people to think of Buddha as giving out practical advice. But he did! All kinds of people came to him with questions about how to be good people and he gave them advice. I wish people knew more about this.

DAVID: Well, in this book, they’ll learn a lot about these seven factors from that body of teaching.


DAVID: We’ve talked about mindfulness. I want to conclude this interview by asking you to try to summarize—in just a few words—a couple of the other sections in your book. But first, let me ask a practical question. It’s possible that readers will misunderstand your list of seven factors: Mindfulness, Investigation of Phenomena, Energetic Effort, Ease, Joy, Concentration and Equanimity. Readers might think this list sounds like “prosperity preaching.” But, I’ve known you for years, Geri, and I know how you live your life. You live on next to nothing, right?

GERI: Well, you know, David, that most authors can’t support themselves by writing books. Most authors don’t make much at all. I decided to write this new book, first, to help support Rodmell Press and, second, if I ever see any royalties from book sales, I plan to give the money away. You know how we describe some people as having eyes too big for their stomachs? You know what my problem is? I keep thinking I can give away more than I can! (she laughs) Seriously, I’m always giving away as much as I can. I am living, right now, at what we call the poverty level. I call it living truly close to the ground.

DAVID: And we’re back to the title of the book.

GERI: What I’m trying to tell people is: If we follow these practices, it’s about letting things go in our lives. In the end, how happy we are doesn’t have anything to do with how much stuff we have or how much money we’re earning—period. You might think of this book as lots of baby steps we can take to help us let go of things that are gunking up our lives.

DAVID: And, that’s a great set up to let me ask about a couple of your individual sections in the book. Let’s start with: Joy. Christian readers hear a lot about joy as a spiritual virtue. I recommend that our readers buy your book and read the whole thing to understand your message on joy. But, give us a few words, here, about joy.

GERI: Oh, what can I say in a few words? First, the word joy is so overused that it almost loses its meaning. I’m talking about the kind of joy that we can discover in the great wonderfulness of simple daily life. I’m talking about the joy you can discover in picking your own vegetables from your own little garden. You know, just the other day, I got home and I found these two little neighbor kids standing in the driveway. One of them had pulled a carrot. Another one had an onion from the garden. And they were just standing there, so pleased with these vegetables they had pulled! I had time—so I talked to them. I said, “Well, you’re all ready for supper tonight!” The kids and their wonderment at the vegetables—it was a beautiful little moment so full of joy! It’s the kind of thing you’d miss entirely if you were rushing around all day trying to make a lot of money and didn’t have the time to enjoy such tings right there in your neighborhood.

DAVID: Those are a few words about joy. Then, please, talk about another section in your book: Ease.

GERI: The bottom line in Buddhist teaching on ease is that it’s about being OK with what is. Now, “what is” includes the fact that we’re all going to die. And learning how to have ease in our lives includes being OK with whatever is. This can be a difficult teaching, but if we begin to experience the kind of ease I’m describing in the book, then something happens.  Some readers may describe that “something” as realizing God—or, in my world, we would say that we are realizing Buddha nature. We realize we’re held up by this great loving energy that is generous and joyful and always there, no matter what. But we must have the courage to fall into that pillow.

DAVID: And, there’s much more in the book! Before we end, though, I want to share the book’s final line: “Take good care of yourself.” If you’ve read the whole thing, those words really resonate. That’s what you hope people will do as they close your back cover, right?

GERI: I hope that people will close the cover and walk away trusting themselves more as possibilities—trusting that they really deserve to live a life that’s full of joy and ease. That’s what I wish for. I really do wish that people would take good care of themselves.

If people only knew how precious they are!


WANT GERI LARKIN’S NEW BOOK? You can order Close to the Ground: Reflections on the Seven Factors of Enlightenment by clicking here or on the book cover, at top.

WANT TO TRY ONE OF GERI’S RECIPES? That’s the subject of this week’s Feed the Spirit column by Bobbie Lewis.

BE KIND & GENEROUS—SHARE THIS WITH FRIENDS: Please, share this column with friends by clicking on the blue-”f” Facebook icon or the envelope-shaped email icon. You also can email us at [email protected] with questions.

Madame H.P. Blavatsky: Dawn of interfaith exploration

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.MILLIONS OF AMERICANS are celebrating the lives of visionary anti-slavery activists who dared to cross religious and cultural boundaries to build a nationwide coalition that finally led to freedom. We have published lots of stories about the 150-year milestones this year. See our interview with scholar Stephen Prothero as well as our overview of PBS Abolitionists series running all month. For nearly two centuries, prophetic American activists like Angelina Grimke were crisscrossing the religious landscape in pursuit of human rights. 

FLASH FORWARD A CENTURY and we celebrate interfaith pioneers like Huston Smith (public TV personality and author of major books), Jacob Needleman (scholar-philosopher charting new paths into religious diversity), Bill Moyers (bringing these themes to PBS), Karen Armstrong (historian and peace activist), the Dalai Lama and Pope John Paul II (hosts of global gatherings).

THIS WEEK, thanks to Gary Lachman—a talented author and historian—we invite readers to rediscover a giant from the dawn of interfaith relations: “Madame” H.P. (or Helena) Blavatsky.

TODAY, we recommend that you enjoy Lachman’s newest biography, Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality. If this is your first encounter with this larger-than-life woman, you are in for a treat! What’s more, you are learning about a true pillar in worldwide religious history. At first glance, she can appear to be an outrageously mysterious P.T. Barnum of spirituality! But historians and scholars of religion agree: Blavatsky’s promotion of non-Christian religions in the 1800s led directly to a wider American discovery of these huge religious groups. And, long after her death, the movement she founded played a role in helping Gandhi achieve freedom in India. Intrigued?

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Gary Lachman and here are …


DAVID: At first glance, Madame Blavatsky’s life seems more like an over-the-top novel than a serious matter for readers concerned about international peacemaking today. I’ve often described her as a kind of P.T. Barnum of world religions. She and her movement stacked up some amazing achievements—but she also cultivated this air of international mystery, didn’t she?

GARY: She was this kind of wild child who emerged out of Russia in the mid 19th century. She grew up in an aristocratic Russian family. Her grandmother was a princess, so she had a noble pedigree. Her father was a captain, and later a colonel, in the horse guards in the Russian Army. But, early in her life, she developed this appetite for the unknown. She had this strong sense that truth was out there in the world—answers to religious and metaphysical and spiritual questions. This desire to find those answers came to her at a very early age.

When she was 17 or so, she wed this Mr. Blavatsky who was older. He was in his 40s. The marriage was unconsummated and, after just a few weeks, she ran off and went on her quest into the unknown. Depending on how much you believe of the story she told, she went around the world a few times. Then, she landed in New York in 1873 and that’s when she surfaces on the public record. She goes to Chittenden, Vermont, to a place where a series of spiritual manifestations were reported.

Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott later in their lives. Photo from 1888. Learn more about the online archive of Blavatsky photos at the end of this article.DAVID: We’re talking here about the Eddy Brothers, who were hosting some séances that had received attention from around the world. One person attracted to the town was Colonel Henry Olcott, who had been a longtime journalist and was famous as a Civil War veteran and a member of the team that investigated the assassination of President Lincoln. We’ll be doing a lot of coverage of Lincoln this year. But, back in the 1870s, Olcott moves on to investigate the occult movement sweeping through parts of the American heartland and he winds up in Chittenden. Then, Madame Blavatsky shows up—and there is this historic convergence of these two major figures.

GARY: She had read articles by Col. Olcott, who was considered an American war hero. But, he also was a businessman, an insurance agent and he had a deep interest in spiritualism and what we would call today the paranormal. He was covering the story of the Eddy Brothers, who lived in Chittenden.

Madame Blavatsky sought out Olcott and their lives connected in a way we see happening in other important relationships related to religion and spirituality. A few decades later, the Russian esoteric master Gurdjieff would connect with P.D. Ouspensky, a well-known journalist and writer in their era, and their resulting relationship would become important to both of them in the early 20th century.

In the 1870s, Blavatsky met Olcott in Vermont and that changed both of their lives. In New York, she became this powerful figure in the occult community and the Theosophical Society was founded in 1875. But Blavatsky rarely stayed in one place. She stayed in New York for a while. Then, she had to leave for India by the mid 1880s because of scandal surrounding claims that she was a fraud. She spent the last years of her life, before her death in 1891, as a refugee in Europe.

She moves around so much in such a fascinating era that in my book about her, I try to help readers get a feel for the era and the places she traveled. For example, she was in London at the same era as the Jack the Ripper case and the gas-lit Sherlock Holmes stories were starting to appear in print.


DAVID: It’s easy today to make fun of some of the more bizarre twists and turns in early interfaith history. But, I tend to regard a lot of these early figures as good, intelligent people with a noble desire to expand humanity’s appreciation of religion. We have to remember that the typical junk Americans were reading about other world cultures was served up in pulp novels and penny newspapers and tended to regard other religions as savage and, by default, dangerous if not downright evil.

GARY: One way to describe Madame Blavatsky is: She’s the person who kick started modern spirituality.

DAVID: Yes, from what I know about her, I agree. But let’s talk about her own religious faith. She comes out of Orthodox Christian Russia, at least the aristocratic version of that church. But she left that affiliation far behind. How do you describe her personal faith?

GARY: She called herself Buddhist but she had her own particular meaning for that. This led to a complicated misunderstanding within the movement. She liked A.P. Sinnett’s book Esoteric Buddhism. But the truth is that his version is so esoteric that no Buddhist scholars had heard of it—and haven’t to this day. The author claims that he was writing about a primal teaching that Buddhism came out of. Blavatsky herself says that Buddhism was the kind of teaching that she found on tablets in a monastery. So, a lot of what they were talking and writing about was this esoteric version of Buddhism. However, we also can say that Blavatsky was the one who introduced Mahayana Buddhism to American culture in a popular way. Many of the figures we consider to be early popularizers of Buddhism in the West, like Christmas Humphreys, were part of the Theosophist movement at some point.

DAVID: She was rejecting a lot of aspects of mainstream Christianity in her era, right? She wanted to blow open the potential of spiritual exploration to include other world faiths.

GARY: I think she adopted her particular form of Buddhism militantly against the mainstream Christianity of the time. Think of her as banging her hammer against the citadel of bourgeouis Christianity in her day. She wanted to free people, in her view. She wanted to chip away at the kind of established Judeo-Christian view of the world in the West. There were some negative and even nasty theories that connected with the Theosophist movement, after her death. But, Madame Blavatsky was strongly into progressive movements, what we would call left-wing issues today.


Madame Blavatsky in 1877.DAVID: What was her appeal? Whatever else we may think about her, she had an intense appeal to many people. By the 20th century, a lot of the women who became very popular as evangelists were regarded as beautiful. I’m thinking of Aimee Semple McPherson, who appeared on stage in various costumes and cultivated her exotic beauty. Blavatsky wasn’t a beauty.

GARY: I think her appeal relates to her gravitas. You felt that she was for real—even when she was pulling your leg. Theosophy did have quite a few women in leadership. There was Anna Kingsford, another strong woman who had a less-dominant man attached to her as a colleague—like Blavatsky and Olcott. Another strong woman leader in the movement was Annie Besant. There also were strong men who emerged in Theosophy: Rudolph Steiner and then, of course, Krishnamurti.

Overall, I think we can say it was the strength of their ideas and their chutzpah or charisma that drew people to them. No, Blavatsky did not have any sexual allure. She described herself as having a volcano in her brain but ice in the lower sexual regions in her life. The rumors about her having illegitimate children were untrue. She felt that sex was a beastly trait in humanity and that we should wipe it out. Steiner was another famous celibate. This movement was very different than, for example, the esoteric ideas from someone like an Aleister Crowley who was, I would say, polymorphously perverse and wanted to take spirituality in a completely different direction.

DAVID: OK, so you’ve touched on something we should clarify for readers. When people encounter words like “occult” or “esoteric,” and they begin to scratch the surface of this whole movement—it’s not long before they bump into someone like Crowley with his silly-looking hat that he designed for his so-called Order of the Golden Dawn. In the lives of figures like Crowley there is, indeed, all the kind of wild behavior, including wild sex, that turns out to be the flaw in some of these movements. Crowley consciously tried to use what we would call today dark magic. That’s quite distinct from the Theosophists, as you’ve pointed out. But there were cross-over figures, too, weren’t there? W.B. Yeats for example?

GARY: Yates joined the Theosophist society. He became interested in it when he was living in Dublin and, when he was living in London, we know that he went to the meetings while Blavatsky was living there. Later, though, he wanted to experiment with what we could call practical magic. Blavatsky herself was against things like ceremonial magic. Yates was asked to leave and later he went on to join the Golden Dawn, the most famous occult society of the late 19th century. If you know all of this about Yates and you read his poetry, you can find many references to different ideas from Theosophy. Blavatsky sparked the imagination of many creative people. Wassily Kandinsky, who is considered to be the first painter to create purely abstract paintings, was deep into Theosophy and a lot of his theories about nonrepresentational art come out of ideas he found there.


DAVID: There’s a very long and fascinating history involving Gandhi and the movement toward Indian independence just after World War II. Blavatsky herself lived and worked in India. After her death, Theosophist gatherings were one place that Indians of all classes could gather and seriously talk about the importance of their culture—and their hopes for the future.

GARY: Yes, that’s right. In a fundamental sense, Blavatsky and the Theosophists re-introduced people in India to their own native traditions. They took Indian religious traditions seriously and they actually said: This is better than Western traditions. For Indians, it was startling to meet these influential Westerners coming to them and saying that the Hindu tradition was better then their own in the West. All the other Westerners were coming to tell them that they had to learn about Jesus and become Christians. Here were these eloquent Theosophists praising their traditions to the skies! This was an amazing boost to the self esteem of Indians and, yes, eventually this fed into the Indian indepdence movement.


DAVID: Another easy mistake to make, I think, is to read about some of Blavatsky’s own bizarre parlor tricks, we might call them, and to assume she was a fraud for profit. In your book, you describe a few of these things she did to amaze her followers. But, the truth is, she emerges as an amazing feminist pioneer. She was supremely self sufficient even though her thick spiritual books were close to financial flops. She had to work hard her whole life just to keep going.

GARY: This is absolutely true! She didn’t do this to make money! She worked hard her whole life to make a living. She had to fend for herself and, at one point, she developed an ink factory. She developed an artificial-flower factory. She found these trees with a certain kind of fungus that could be cut and sold to help people in starting fires. She was a very practical, resourceful character. And, she wrote an enormous amount—reams and reams and reams. She wrote her big books on spirituality. She wrote journalism. She even wrote some ripping tales about her world travels.

Blavatsky is a catalyst who comes into people’s lives and stirs up things. Olcott probably woundn’t have gone to india on his own, for example, but Blavatsky gets him to go to India and the Theosophist movement goes to India with them. Blavatsky’s message is this very positive forward-looking view of the progression of humanity out of slavery in the past into freedom. Even people like Thomas Edison took some ideas from Theosophy. People like Edison weren’t signed up to the full Theosophist creed, but they were attracted to some of the new ideas.

If you peel away all of the layers in Blavatsky’s life, you discover this real-life character who was influential in building our multifaith sensibility today and who promoted this whole idea of a universal pursuit of truth that should be open to everyone. She really was a liberationist. She’s was on the barricades fighting for what she saw as the best in the modern world.

Many other photographs of Blavatsky and early Theosophist meetings are collected at an online archive. Photos include some scenes of Blavatsky at gatherings in India.

Want more from Gary Lachman & esoteric realms?

Gary Lachman has a talent for combining historical research and an enjoyable narrative so general readers can begin to explore religious figures often considered esoteric or, in many cases, simply too difficult to understand. Lachman’s books are wonderful introductory readers—but these biographies also have substantial research behind each subject and real depth in the chapters. We recommend Lachman’s books as the first choice for exploring figures like Emanuel Swedenborg—we recommended Lachman’s biography of the Swedish scientist and philosopher last year. ALSO AVAILABLE NOW for the first time in a paperback edition is Lachman’s Jung the Mystic: The Esoteric Dimensions of Carl Jung’s Life and Teachings

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

Brian McLaren: Why did Jesus, Moses, Mohammed …

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.Brian McLaren
marks 9/11
with a plea
for a new

In his 19th book, the prophetic evangelical author Brian McLaren is publishing his first interfaith book. It’s timed to appear on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that opened and still define this turbulent new century.

As you will read in our interview with McLaren later this week, the best-selling writer argues that this new book is far from the typical appeal for interfaith understanding that other writers are producing these days. While many of those books are noble, he has a different purpose in Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World. While smiling over the old joke in the main title—don’t miss that the book’s real focus lies in the sub-title about “Christian Identity.” This book is a passionate appeal to enrich Christian appreciation of cross-cultural relationships by doing some thorough house cleaning within Christianity itself. In this book, Brian is primarily writing to the Christians who comprise a majority of the American population.

FROM OUR INTERVIEW WITH BRIAN (coming later this week in ReadTheSpirit): Brian says, in answer to a question in the interview …
One of the biggest insights that came to me, as I was researching this book, is the realization that it’s not our differences that are keeping us apart. What’s keeping us apart is something we actually have in common: The way we often try to build our own identity through hostility. Leaders build loyalty among “us” by building hostility toward “them.” It won’t work to simply rush off into interfaith dialogue until we deal with some of the deep work within our own identity. We won’t get far in our relationships with others until we deal with some of the often hidden ways we have defined ourselves through our hostility.

Perhaps we can see this problem more easily in the political campaign going on right now. If you took away hostility toward Democrats, I’m not sure how much substance is left in the Republican Party. And, if you took away hostility toward Republicans, I don’t know how much substance there is in the Democratic Party. The same problem exists in our religious communities.

Read the entire interview with Brian McLaren, later this week.

A Return to Brian McLaren’s ‘Generous Orthodoxy’

Reviewing Brian McLaren’s new book as Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I was struck immediately by the return this book represents to themes that he raised in his 2004 cross-over book: A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a missional, evangelical, post-Protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian.

In addition to setting a record for longest sub-title on the cover of a spiritual book, Brian staked out the term “Generous” for what he also has described since 2004 as “harmony,” “unity” and “civility.” McLaren urges people to sit down together across a table, to eat together and to begin forming a good-spirited community—rather than flashing doctrinal swords. Such words of wisdom echo what we are hearing from bright young Christian writers like Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, these days.

It was McLaren’s “Generous” book that turned heads nationally among non-evangelicals. As a religion newswriter, at that time based at the Detroit Free Press, “Generous” was the first Brian McLaren book that I actually read cover to cover. It was the first McLaren book that I found my newspaper readers asking me about and telling me that they were reading themselves. McLaren was deliberately making a provocative play on words in selecting “Generous” as his mantra. Evangelicals always have set the high mark among Christians for giving money and sweat equity to missions—they always excel (and even boast) about that kind of “generosity.” But, Brian was calling for us to focus on a distinctly different meaning of that word. He also was chiding his fellow evangelicals to become truly generous.

In continuing to use the term “generous,” McLaren is not talking about drumming up dollars for the collection plate. He’s talking about what other writers today are begining to call “kindness” and “hospitality.” In his new book, he passionately describes a great “Reformulation” he sees possibly unfolding within Christianity—neither a rejection of orthodoxy nor a rejection of the Protestant Reformation—but a rethinking and a renewed appreciation of what core Christian beliefs truly mean in light of God’s diverse world.

McLaren: ‘Could doctrines become healing teachings?’

McLaren writes in the new book: Could it be that our core doctrines are even more wonderful and challenging than we previously imagined, asking us not simply to assent to them in the presence of our fellow assenters, but to practice them in relationships with those who don’t hold them? Could our core doctrines in this way become “healing teachings” intended to diagnose and heal our distorted and hostile identities—restoring a strong and benevolent identity, and unleashing in us a joyful desire to converse and eat with the other? Could our core teachings be shared, not as ultimata (Believe or die!) but as gifts (Here’s how we see things, and here’s what that does for us— )?

McLaren: ‘We must provide lots of support’

This is not an easy task, McLaren argues in the new book. He writes that, if Christians take his challenge seriously, they must face up to problems in traditional forms of liturgy, preaching and missional outreach. Late in the book he writes: Because the cost of embracing a strong and benevolent Christian identity is so high, we must provide lots of support for those who respond—support through fellowship, support through teaching (knowledge) and training (know-how), support through ritual and symbol, support through guided practice and mentoring. But since we are still young and inexperienced in this new identity, we have a long way to go in learning how to provide this support, and each of us must take whatever little we have learned and pass it on to others, even as we look for others who can pass more on to us.

McLaren: ‘What will we discover in that crossing?’

In the final pages, McLaren writes: So, imagine then, Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed crossing the road to encounter one another. Imagine us following them. What will we discover together in that crossing? Surely, it will be holy and humbling in that sacred space. Surely there will be joy, grace, and peace. Surely justice, truth and love. We will find hospitality there, not hostility, and friendship, not fear, and it will be good—good for our own well-being, good for the poor and forgotten, good for our grandchildren’s grandchildren, and good even for the birds of the air and the flowers in the meadow and the fish out at sea. “This is very good,” God will say. And we will say, “Amen.”

Read the entire interview with Brian McLaren, later this week.

Please help us to reach a wider audience

We welcome your Emails at [email protected]
We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. 
You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed.
Plus, there’s a free Monday morning Planner newsletter you may enjoy.

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

ONE & Oprah converge! (We’ve got free movie extras)

Sit back! Grab a cup of coffee.
If you don’t have time now, then bookmark this page for a moment of pleasure and inspiration later in your day. (And please tell a friend? Perhaps click the Facebook button below?)

THE NEWS TODAY: Finally, ONE and Oprah are converging. Over the years, Oprah individually welcomed many of the religious sages who appear in this feature-length documentary film about the world’s diverse spiritual pathways. Now, Oprah has announced that she will broadcast ONE to the world on her OWN channel this year. Later this week, we welcome filmmaker Ward Powers to share the startling story of ONE’s creation and expansion as a message of peace.
Even before ReadTheSpirit was founded in 2007, Editor David Crumm was reporting nationally on this remarkable independent film production, which was created by first-time filmmakers and now has circled the globe in festivals and theaters.

TODAY’S FREE MOVIE EXTRAS: We’re giving you an All Access Pass, today, to dozens of inspiring extras from ONE that you won’t see on Oprah.
So, grab a cup of tea to sip. And, if you don’t have a moment now, then save this page for later!


Let’s start with the basic Movie Trailer, so you’ll have an idea of this project’s origins and scope. Click on the video screen below to watch this short clip. (NOTE: If you don’t see a video screen in your version of this story, click here to reload the story in your browser.)


On June 1, ReadTheSpirit featured our first in-depth interview with Sufi master Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, a major voice for peace and religious unity in the world. Llewellyn also appears in the ONE movie, but of course the original Powers interviews with him were far longer than the final length of ONE could hold. So, Ward Powers is releasing additional clips, this summer, including this one on the problem of suffering.


We also have featured Father Thomas Keating in the pages of ReadTheSpirit. Now, a world-famous spiritual figure for his innovative teaching on contemplative prayer, Keating is rare among spiritual sages for his depth of learning in science as well as religion. In this 4-minute clip about the natue of suffering in the world, Keating ranges widely from theology to contemporary science.


We also have welcomed Father Richard Rohr to ReadTheSpirit, recommending his ongoing work on a variety of spiritual themes. Here, Rohr talks about the nature of “true love” and provides a definition that you may find very helpful to share with friends, yourself.


In preparation for the upcoming Oprah broadcast of ONE, Ward Powers has uploaded dozens of movie extras into a special new channel on YouTube. Use this link to the ONE Channel in YouTube to find links to a long list of these “extras” clips. The clips draw on spiritual wisdom far and wide, including Buddhist scholar and teacher Robert Thurman (yes, he’s Uma Thurman’s father), the Hindu-influenced writer Ram Dass, the Vietnamese-Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh—and many more.

You also can visit the ONE Project website, the home base for news about the movie, plus links to other showings, video clips and much more. There’s news on the ONE site, as well, about getting a copy of the movie for home viewing.

Please help us to reach a wider audience

We welcome your Emails at [email protected]
We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. 
You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed.
Plus, there’s a free Monday morning Planner newsletter you may enjoy.

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

Peacemakers will want to see ‘Enemies of the People’

“BROTHER NUMBER TWO” (left) admits he was a co-architect of mass murder during the Khmer Rouge regime. After years of investigative work by Cambodian investigative journalist Thet Sambath (right), he talks about his motives in Enemies of the People. Photo courtesy of the film production company.Leaders around the world still are sorting out the aftermath of the vast crimes against humanity that swept through Cambodia in the 1970s. Simply look at today’s New York Times front-page story headlined ‘Mythic Warrior Is Held Captive in an International Art Conflict.’ At the core of the dispute is a sandstone masterwork with a Sotheby’s catalog estimate of $2 million to $3 million that likely was stolen from Cambodia in the lawless mid-1970s. Investigators have found the 5-foot-tall statue’s stone base, including the figure’s original feet, at a temple 60 miles northeast of the world-famous Angkor Wat temple complex.

Even more important than sorting out reparations from art thefts in that era, the first of the Khmer Rouge war criminals was not convicted until 2010 and human-rights investigations continue in Cambodia to this day. Many investigators and journalists—like those you will meet in the historic video record in ‘Enemies of the People’—are still working to pierce the veil of secrecy about what happened during the bloody reign of Khmer Rouge terror. In that era, countless Cambodians who are alive today were brutally tortured—and 2 million Cambodians were murdered. (Some estimates place the death toll slightly higher or lower.)

The fact that few perpetrators have been brought to justice is shocking.

Why do we care? Why should you care?Blessed Are the Peacemakers’ is a major project through ReadTheSpirit to encourage reconciliation efforts around the world. Headed by Daniel Buttry, an international peace activist who works extensively across Asia, we regularly report in our pages on a wide range of global peacemaking efforts. Buttry was not involved himself in the ‘Enemies of the People’ documentation project—that was British filmmaker Rob Lemkin and Cambodian journalist Thet Sambath—but the release of collected ‘Enemies’ materials in an extensive new DVD set is exactly the kind of global peacemaking effort we all want to encourage at ReadTheSpirit.


In keeping with this important mission, in the summer of 2011, we published ‘4 Reasons We Must Watch PBS’s Enemies of the People.’ That 2011 article featured an interview with Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath, the filmmakers who produced this daring documentary.

Thet Sambath risked his life over many years to find and interview Khmer Rouge killers. His body of work paved the way for the creation of this full-scale documentary film along with Rob Lemkin. Sambath has been a leading investigative journalist for a Cambodian English-language newspaper, the Phnom Penh Post. In 2011, he won the prestigious Knight International Journalism Award. The Sambath-Lemkin documentary, now, has racked up a whole shelf of additional awards and honors. Now, Sambath and Lemkin are working on a second film, as well. Your purchasing and spreading the news about their first project will help them in their ongoing efforts.

What are their motives? In our 2011 interview, Thet Sambath clearly explained why this film differs from many other movies about crimes against humanity. Truth be told, many movies focus more on the horrors, gore and suspense of such crimes throughout world history. The focus in ‘Enemies of the People’ is squarely on reconciliation and peacemaking. Here is part of our Q-and-A exchange between ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm and Thet Sambath in 2011 …

DAVID: Thet, you’ve risked your life to tell the truth about the Khmer Rouge era and its legacy. Now, what do you hope your film will achieve?

THET: We would like there to be people-to-people reconciliation between victims and perpetrators. There are thousands of Khmer Rouge perpetrators in Cambodia and abroad including the U.S. We want it to be possible they can all come forward and confess.

DAVID: Why is that so important?

THET: So the new generation can understand what happened and why. We must never repeat the mistakes of the past. We need to move forward to a brighter future.

DAVID: What do you want Americans to do?

THET: I want them to learn more about the history. If it were not for Nixon and Kissinger’s secret and illegal bombing of my country it is unlikely the Khmer Rouge would have been as harsh as they were. For 10 years after the downfall of Pol Pot, Americans continued to support the Khmer Rouge. That’s because America supported China against the Soviet Union. The same kind of China/Soviet Union split existed inside the Khmer Rouge. And that’s what caused the incredible violence. So I want Americans to understand their government’s role in our tragedy.


One of the unfortunate truths about today’s media market, as ReadTheSpirit has extensively reported, is the fact that the delivery of movies to American viewers is changing dramatically right now. That means DVD sales in the U.S. are declining and many important DVD titles come and go—and potentially may vanish from the market without warning. We hope that Lemkin’s and Sambath’s supplement-stuffed DVD edition will continue to be on sale indefinitely. We hope so, but word of warning: If this film intrigues you, get over to Amazon now and order your own copy of Enemies of the People (2 Disc Special Edition) while it’s still on the market. This particular edition of the film includes lots of supplemental material that will help orient you to the Khmer Rouge era—and also to the aftermath for survivors of this massive crime against humanity. There’s even a booklet in this current edition that is quite helpful to those who want to understand this tragic era—and the potential road ahead that we all may encourage in seeking peace.

REVIEW by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm

Please help us to reach a wider audience

We welcome your Emails at [email protected]
We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. 
You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed.
Plus, there’s a free Monday morning Planner newsletter you may enjoy.

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

At home, with friends, at church: ‘Awaken Your Senses’

Whose Woods These Are … Photograph by Rodney Curtis.Are you awake?

Strawberry, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Buddhists famously call it mindfulness. Christians have many names for it. This week, we are introducing two nationally known retreat leaders who are offering readers a bounty of fresh ideas for making 2012 an eye-opening, tastebud-tingling, ear-soothing year of meditation, prayer and worship. The new book (which contains a lively toolbox of ideas between its covers) is called, Awaken Your Senses: Exercises for Exploring the Wonder of God.

Later this week, you’ll meet J. Brent Bill and Beth Booram in our weekly author interview. Make a note of that, because we also will tell you in that interview how to reach them and how to find their websites, as well. When you get to know more about their work with Awaken Your Senses you may want to make arrangements to bring these two popular retreat leaders to your part of the country for a day or a weekend. (Special note to regular ReadTheSpirit readers: These folks draw their own inspiration from a number of talented people who already are popular with our readers, including Parker Palmer, Carrie Newcomer and J. Philip Newell. So, even if you are encountering Brent and Beth for the first time, this week, you’re meeting a team with ties to other trusted friends you’ve enjoyed in the past.)

TODAY, we want to open your eyes to these ideas! We’re doing that in three ways:
1.) With an excerpt of their new book, below.
2.) A short video of Brent and Beth, below.
3.) AND, our regular columnist Rodney Curtis, a.k.a. The Spiritual Wanderer, is writing on this theme, too.


Imagine awakening to the sound of the coffeemaker as it strains its final percolations and you smell the earthy aroma of its brew. You see dim light peeking from the edges of the shades at your bedroom windows. The feel of warm, soft blankets makes it hard to get out of bed. Once up, you look out the kitchen window, focusing your eyes on the early morning light, and feel greeted with hope, reminded that God is in new beginnings.

As you drive into work, you hear a siren behind you. The sound causes you to search in your rearview mirror for the lights. The alarm prompts you to pray—to pray for whoever might be hurt and for the safety of those you love. You feel your tightened grip on the steering wheel and think to relax, to concentrate on simply being and on trusting God with your life and your day.

During work, you notice things: the tone of stress in your boss’s response to a question, the sparkle in your coworker’s eyes as she describes her new romance, the firm handshake of a customer, the cool taste of water from a drinking fountain and the scent of a woman’s perfume in the elevator. Life has so much depth and texture. You are alive to yourself and the world—curious and open to God’ subtle invitations to pray, to love, to be. With each sensory prompt, you are learning to respond the way Jesus leads you.

Dinnertime and evening hours brim with sensual greetings. You prepare a meal with your family. The sounds of chopping vegetables and sizzling meat remind you that food is a gift. Everything you see, hear, touch, smell and taste turns your meal into an occasion—not only for your stomach but also for your heart. Scrubbing greasy pots, rinsing soapy dishes and feeling the scald of hot water awaken you to the unending life cycle of soiling and cleansing, mess and order. Your thoughts turn to your own jumbled soul, to Christ, to his restoring work.

CLICK THE BOOK COVER to jump to Amazon.As you lie down to sleep, you notice your cold feet under the blankets, the taste of toothpaste in your mouth, the smell of dinner lingering in the air, the quiet of the house and the streak of moonlight beaming through a window. You feel thoughtful, grateful and pensive. Your heart turns to God, and you express your feelings of smallness and inadequacy. “What are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?” You entrust yourself to sleep and to God who does not slumber or sleep. Another day lived, hopefully more fully alive to God and yourself, alive to the beauty and suffering in life, to all its possibilities and cries for healing.

Have you ever longed to live this way—present to life, to God, throughout an entire day? It is possible. We each desire authentic spiritual experiences with God: real, moving, transforming engagements. The trouble is that’s not how we have been taught to live our faith. Most of our teaching comes by way of sermons, books, Bible studies and other spiritual resources that instruct our thinking. Often, though, these resources miss our souls, the prime place of divine encounter. This new book takes a different tack. Its purpose, simply put, is to help more of you experience more of God. How will we accomplish that? We’re going to introduce you to spiritual practices that engage your whole person: both sides of your brain, all five senses and your body. In this way, you’ll learn how to cultivate an experiential faith—one that trains you to be attentive to a self-disclosing God who reveals himself in each daily round of beauty.


You should see a video screen, below, that you can click to watch a short video with Brent and Beth. If you do not see a video screen here, you also can jump directly to YouTube to watch the clip.


Meet J. Brent Bill and Beth Booram in our weekly author interview, which includes links to their own websites and information on how to reach them if you care to inquire about a visit or a retreat. Of course, their new book stands alone for individual reading or small-group study. AND: You can order Awaken Your Senses: Exercises for Exploring the Wonder of God from Amazon.

Don’t Miss: Our columnist Rodney Curtis, a.k.a. The Spiritual Wanderer, is writing on this theme, too.

Please help us to reach a wider audience

We welcome your Emails at [email protected]
We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. 
You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed.
Plus, there’s a free Monday morning Planner newsletter you may enjoy.

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

Peacemaker news: Comic Zargana Zarganar is freed

ReadTheSpirit cheers with millions in Burma/Myanmar—and countless advocates of free speech around the world—that Burma’s most famous comic was released from prison! Zargana (or Zarganar, spellings vary) is profiled in our new book by Daniel Buttry: Blessed Are the Peacemakers. The author is an international peace negotiator for American Baptist Churches, who has worked in Burma and other hot spots around the world. The new book contains more than 80 profiles of peacemakers. Already, the book is being distributed in countries around the world and, over time, will help equip peace movements with inspiring profiles—and summaries of practical strategy for nonviolent peacemaking campaigns.

How newsworthy is the material in this new book? We just celebrated the Nobel Peace Prize given to another person in the new book: Leymah Gbowee, who is well known in countless U.S. congregations for her courageous work in Liberia.

Zarganar release!


In a widely distributed video clip, Zargana tells this politically pointed joke: “One day, an American, an Englishman and a Burmese get together to see who can brag the most. The American goes first. He says, “An American with one leg (and Zargana chops his hand across one knee) has climbed Mt. Everest—twice!” That’s the American. Then, the Englishman says, “That’s nothing. An Englishman with no arms (Zargana chops at his biceps) has just swum the Atlantic—twice! Beat that!” Finally, the Burmese man smiles. He says, “I feel sorry for you English and Americans. That’s nothing compared to what we’ve got. Our leader has ruled the country for 18 years—without a head!” (And, as Zargana grins, his hand swipes across his neck.)


The Free Zarganar Campaign is sponsored by Equity in the UK, the organization for professional performers. The campaign has been waging a postcard campaign to Burma’s leaders, urging them to free the comic. The website has been reporting the situation this way:
Burma’s most famous comedian, Zarganar, is currently serving a 35-year prison sentence, after criticising the Burmese government’s handling of Cyclone Nargis in 2008. The cyclone devastated the country—more than 140,000 people died and millions were made homeless. Zarganar organised relief for many villages which had received no official help. He was convicted of “public order offences.” You can help Zarganar by letting the Burmese ruling Generals know people are concerned about him.


Index on Censorship now reports in part:
Index on Censorship welcomes the release of Burmese comic Zarganar along with thousands of other prisoners. Htein Lin, close friend of Zarganar and member of the Free Zarganar Campaign along with Index on Censorship and other supporters, said he was delighted at the news of the popular comedian’s release. “It’s great news, we really appreciate it and it is a very positive sign. Hopefully the new government will release more political prisoners very soon. Zarganar came out with jokes making everybody laugh and very happy.”


Straits Times, a well-respected newspaper covering southeast Asia, reports in part:
Myanmar’s most famous comedian made a career out of poking fun at the country’s military junta and his decades-long prison sentence was a testament to their lack of a sense of humour. Mr Zarganar, a poet, filmmaker and performer, has been a prominent voice of dissent in military-dominated Myanmar and his latest prison sentence, from which he was released on Wednesday, was by no means his first.
According to his supporters, the 50-year-old did not let jail dull his wit—deprived of pens and paper, he memorized jokes and regaled the wardens.


Time reports, in part:
(Rangoon, Burma)—Burma freed comedian and government critic Zarganar as it began releasing 6,300 convicts in a liberalizing move Wednesday, but kept several key political detainees behind bars, dampening hopes for a broader amnesty. … “The freedom of each individual is invaluable, but I wish that all political prisoners would be released,” said Burma’s most prominent pro-democracy campaigner and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. A major release of political detainees has been eagerly awaited by Burma’s opposition, as well as foreign governments and the UN, as a gesture toward liberalization by the elected government after decades of harsh military rule. A failure to release a significant portion of Burma’s estimated 2,000 political prisoners could hamper the country’s efforts to burnish its human rights record and win a lifting of Western economic and political sanctions.

Mizzima News
(Burmese journalists in exile)

Mizzima correspondent Kyaw Kha talked by telephone with Burmese comedian Zarganar and reported, in part, on the Mizzima website this Q and A:
Q: What do you think about the new government?
A: Earlier, it satisfied me a little. But according to today’s conditions regarding the amnesty, I am not satisfied. As you see, they are releasing political prisoners little by little; so we are like the victims in the hands of Somali pirates. What is their ransom demands? The situation is like that.
Q: What other political prisoners were in Myitkyina Prison?
A: With me were Myo Aung Thant, who was also released. He was imprisoned 14 years ago. Zin Min Tun was also released. He was arrested in the “Saffron Revolution” and imprisoned four years ago. And many political prisoners are still in [Myitkyina] prison. There are four monks: Thiha Thet Zin from Bogale; Zayyar Aung from Pegu; Myo Min Than from Bagan; and Kyi Soe from Taungtha.
Q: What would you like to say about the political prisoners still in the prison?
A: If all [political prisoners] are released that will be the best moment. Then it will be an opportunity to do activities and express our feelings. I’ll wait for that that time. We will work in order that all are released.

Remember: Read more about Blessed Are the Peacemakers—and order a copy today!

Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.