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I just got a prize for one of my flash stories (news).

Recently, I published a volume with all my awarded short stories translated into English: Laurels Galore.

Happy Winter Solstice!

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LG Book Cover

2012 was the year I wanted to prove myself as a storyteller. Up until then I had written, apart from a few dozen scientific articles and even a handful of a religious nature, a history book disclosing my discovery of Atlantis. Well, difficult as it was to discover Atlantis, writing fiction was even harder.

After Sailors of Stonehenge—that’s the title I gave that historical book—my writings sought to go beyond the mere transmission of information, they wanted to trigger a reaction, a smile, a snort, anything… “to spin the wheel of emotions.” But in my centripetal approach to literature I ended up being absurdly centrifuged.

All the stories collected in this compilation received some distinction: some received laurels, others brushed them with the tips of their titles, and the majority barely poked their heads above the parapet to see them on others’.

That the 25 stories presented here were selected by juries means that some people with sufficient interest in literature to organize contests have taken the trouble to read a lot of stories before deciding that yours is the best or is among the best. And what parameters do they evaluate to make such a decision? Very simple, just one: I like it or I don’t. Trying to go beyond this truism is an impossible task—not even critics and experts have the final word in this regard—because, as the saying warns us, there is no accounting for taste.

Yesterday was a special day because I could experience those five minutes of fame we all eventually get in life.

As I said in a previous post, sometimes I submit my writings to literary contests. The council of a town at the north of Madrid (Moralzarzal) had organized one to which I sent one of my stories. It turned out I was called because my story was among the finalists. The eight authors had to go on a stage set up inside of a bull ring (!). Then, with the tension of the Oscar’s ceremony (relatively speaking), a woman began to open the envelope that had written inside my name! (she said it wrong so for a moment nobody knew whether she was referring to me).

Then came the applause, the envelope with the money, a little speech, an interview for the local television (picture), even signing the book! (they had already published it in advance).

I titled the story “A Tale of Children for Adults,” and in it the characters speak metaphorically about the importance of controlling the five desires that can never be satisfied (money, sex, fame, food and sleep). Fame seems the most innocuous of the list, but that is why it may be the most dangerous.

Next week I’ll pick up another award in Valencia, for a story that deals with the importance of not attaching to material things…  A message to the author? There you are to correct me…

I update this blog with a weekly periodicity, usually on Saturdays. The reason this post comes late is because this past weekend I was traveling in a region of Spain, Extremadura, I had never visited before. I went to a town called Ibahernando (also to Aldeacentenera), in the province of Cáceres, to receive the winning award of a literature contest (short stories) in the national category. The jury liked my story. We should focus on a character born in Extremadura and I took some of my chess knowledge to weave a story around Ruy Lopez, a sixteenth-century cleric who revolutionized chess tactics.

I sometimes send some of my stories to literary contests. This is the first time I win, which is always good for the beginner’s self-esteem. Don’t worry, in this I have my feet on the ground, and my ego will not grow dangerously fat. In Spain there are plenty of prizes, and this is one of the most humble.

The best experience was meeting the people of Extremadura (a region mostly rural) and some of those who came from other parts of Spain to participate in a workshop on literature. Personally, I learned a lot from each of the people I had the opportunity to speak.

Also, they lodged me in a truly beautiful and quiet hotel in Trujillo, and I didn’t miss the chance to do some sightseeing in a town proud to be the birthplace of Pizarro (I don’t go into judging the moral dimension of the conquistadors), as well as Caceres, the capital, with a large medieval old town perfectly preserved.

The funny thing was that the prize consisted of cold meat and cheese (Extremadura is well known for these items)… and I am vegan! Life has a peculiar (samsaric) sense of humor… at least I am still trying to see it in this way.

After a year and a half in Japan, I went to a rental agency and asked for a cheap apartment (in Nagoya), and I puzzled the clerk when I specified that I was looking for rentals below thirty thousand yen. With a characteristic Japanese gesture (cocked head and an aspiration sound through the teeth which comes to mean “difficult, if not impossible”) he turned around and headed for the files placed at his back. After rummaging through the drawers for a while, he put a gesture of surprise and turned toward me waving a paper in his hand indicating that there was actually an apartment that met my tough requirement. He started spinning in circles his finger and when he finally landed it on a map of the city I had a hunch that would be my new home, since it was in the block next to the temple I stopped by every day in my way by bike to the university campus, and in front of whose Daibutsu (a colossal statue of Buddha sitting in meditation), I often did a slight bow.

The apartment, located on the second and top floor of a building that survived the Second World War, was what could be expected for such a price. It consisted of a sixteen-square-yards cube with dislocated walls of mud and bamboo, windows without glasses, soft tatami, a single tap on a single sink, and a toilet shared with the neighbor across the corridor. I loved that simplicity!

With a lot of silicone, paint and work, I left the apartment, not only habitable but even welcoming. I installed a folding shower over the sink where every morning I took a shower, cool in summer and freezing in winter. With that and a camping gas, I had covered the minimal comforts. At the upper part of the in-built closet I would keep my clothes, and at the lower the foam mat and the sleeping bag. In the remaining space on that wall (not occupied by the closet), I placed a low shelf with some Sutras (with commentaries by Master Hua), and an altar on top of it. On that wall I hung a triptych of Amitabha Buddha flanked by Bodhisattvas Guan Yin and Great Strength, who were sent to me (by surprise) by my brother from the monastery of Berkeley where he had gone to do a retreat of a couple of months, and which fit perfectly into the available space. Also, the day before the Sutras arrived (I had bought them by mail), I found an abandoned shelf on the street, with just the fitting size and capacity. How comfortable I felt in there!

During those years, I went to bed early, and got up also early to meditate and to read slowly the Sutras. Moreover, given the proximity of the apartment to the campus, I could also come home to eat lunch, which became my only meal of the day. A pot of boiling water with a lot of mixed vegetables that tasted glorious with no other flavor than their own. I discovered the subtle tastes of potatoes, carrots, cabbage, pumpkins or rice, previously always coated with oils, salts an onion-garlic-loaded admixtures.

There came a time when I did not even produced garbage because I learnt to buy the fruit and vegetables in a little market with local products, avoiding the incredibly sophisticated, excessive, unnecessary and wasteful packaging with which all, even single pieces of fruit, are wrapped in the Japanese supermarkets. Moreover, with the few remaining organic debris, I prepared an excellent compost in a pot placed on a platform that extended under my window (by the way, that platform also served as a makeshift solarium!).

I have spent a few days in a Mediterranean town of Spain called Oropesa del Mar. I enjoyed buying the fruits and vegetables directly from the farmers at a nearby village (Cabanes), because they are more fresh, tasty and cheap than those in the supermarkets. The peaches are as sweet and juicy as large. I always take one apart and, after washing it in the central fountain, I relish on it while walking up to the church of St John Baptists, on the upper part of the town. I also like to visit the Roman Arch, on whose surroundings one can still find remains of Roman pottery.

In the way back to Oropesa, I stop in the middle of the so called Desert of Palms, of deceiving name because it’s covered with abundant vegetation (Mediterranean scrub and palmetto). In the Fountain of Miravet, which takes its name from a nearby castle that belonged to the famous medieval knight El Cid, I fill a big bottle with the sweet and fresh water of this fountain (and wash and eat another peach).

Thanks to the existence of an endemic mosquito, the bulldozers have not been allowed to get in this desert to widen the road. Although it has some difficult curves, the inconvenience is well worth it, even and especially for the locals who have in this natural landscape their greatest treasure, although they mostly ignore it. Talking to the fruit-seller, she mentioned that she cannot understand how a mosquito can stop a bulldozer… yet this is the case.

Several times I hiked across this desert. I especially remember the day I walked out from Oropesa towards the nearest mountain, the so called Hill of the Lord. I crossed under the highway through a tunnel-drain and I climbed laboriously its steep slopes. When I was about to reach the top I stumbled upon a wild pig and her babies. At the base of the mountain I had previously met a menacing black dog. In both encounters I began to recite the mantra of great compassion and the animals turned away. The view from one thousand feet above the sea level, overlooking all the coastal line was magnificent, well worth the effort.

I sat down to meditate for a few minutes on the highest point, and then went down undoing the same path. As I approached the highway, the traffic noise was becoming more intense and uncomfortable, but it was when I got back into downtown Oropesa, being surrounded by its vacation terraces, amusements, people wearing swimsuits and bikinis, that I realized that all around me had a quality very different from what it had just a few hours ago. Upon my return I saw everyone inside of a dream, and I’m not speaking metaphorically but absolutely in such way. The mountain somehow had altered my consciousness so I could see and feel life differently, as a huge pantomime full of actors moving around like flies inside of a flask.

After that experience, I understood why the monastic order of the Discalced Carmelites built in this desert one of their monasteries, and why all its topography is dotted with chapels, canyons and small caves where, for centuries, those inclined to introspection have sought refuge (from the dream). Nobody does it anymore (perhaps that’s why it’s dubbed as a desert). We modern people have chosen the soft sands of the beach inside the dream than the rough path that leads out of it. It’s understandable… yet sad.

My parents have an apartment on the Mediterranean coast where we spend a few days every summer. In addition to swim and the games of petanque or tennis, we usually walk to the old town, wrapped around a hill topped by a castle of Arab origin. We also like to visit an ancient nearby tower built in the fifteenth century to protect the coast from Berber incursions.

Another typical walk is to visit the nearby urbanization Marina D’or. The most frightening thing of this walk is checking the excessive construction of the Spanish Mediterranean coasts and the pharaonic plans for the future. A kind of Spanish Las Vegas is pending to be built as a continuation of Marina D’or. It is planned to include an amusement park called Mundo Ilusión (World Illusion), or we should call it World Delusion, a speculative movement that will aggravate the state of an already over-constructed area to benefit only the few involved in the real state business. There may be not Berber incursions any more but the thieves still hover around these beautiful coasts.

This can be a good opportunity to remember my only visit to Las Vegas, where I stopped on my way to Death Valley. On a closer look, their names seem to have been exchanged by one of those magicians Don Quixote mentions, because the valley is alive and the city is dead (in Spanish, Vega means a fertile land). Despite its name, Death Valley is teeming with plant and animal life, humble but well adapted, and in its rocks, gorges and dunes one can feel the telluric energy of such a singular place.

The city of Las Vegas, on the contrary, is a mirage, the trick of an illusionist only credible at night under the neon lights. And even then, if one is able to look elsewhere than the infinite artificial stimuli, one can watch people wander around with lifeless faces, especially intense in the case of waitresses and croupiers. Most clients are retired people to whom Las Vegas was sold as a well-deserved rest after retirement, but all they find is a delusion of colossal proportions willing to withdraw with care every dollar from their wallets. During the day, when the electric fantasy cannot compete with the sunlight, the artifice appears in all its size, but at that time the clients sleep in their air-conditioned rooms, trying to dream that they are happy.

Another project in the Spanish Las Vegas (besides Mundo Ilusión) is planned to be called Disco Buddha (curiously, in Buddhism the evil is considered the personification of the illusion of the world, so World Illusion could actually be qualified as evil). Disco Buddha consists of a colossal statue of a Buddha surrounded by drinking bars, dance floors and terraces. Buddha, nirvana, karma and the occasional Buddhist word sound exotic. Imagine traveling somewhere in Asia and encountering the Disco Jesus-Christ, with a large statue of Christ surrounded by people dancing and drinking. Wouldn’t you find such thing disrespectful?

I took the picture above a couple of days ago in the streets of Leon (Spanish city). Buddha and Elvis Presley have the same iconographic power of what is distant and exotic. It’s not really evil but ignorance.

During the three years I lived in Japan, the main activity of the weekends was geared towards meeting two of my great passions: traveling and sacred art. To combine both is not a complicated issue in Japan given the number of Buddhist monasteries and Shinto shrines that populate these islands. Moreover, the shinkansen (bullet train) and Nagoya’s central location allowed me to reach in a few hours almost anywhere at Japan.

Because of the fertile cross-pollination occurred between the Dharma that arrived from India via China and Korea in the sixth century and the indigenous animism, the distinction between Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines is not clear at all, in fact, most Japanese feel comfortable identifying themselves with both traditions.

The assimilative capacity of this people is reflected, for example, in the not uncommon occurrence of the three major anniversaries of life, i.e. birth, marriage and death being held by Shinto, Buddhist and Christian rites respectively. The association between birth and fertility goddesses justify the choice of Shinto rituals to celebrate the birth, and the association between death and rebirth the choice of Buddhist rituals, but what justification could there be for the election of Christian weddings? The answer is, sadly, the glamour of the bride’s white dress.

From the architectural point of view, the capital’s ancient seats of Kyoto and Nara are the cities with the most monumental and ornate temples, gardens and pagodas across the country, scattered like precious stones embedded in a medallion in the first, and focused as a brilliant in the second.

The times I acted as Cicerone to foreign visitors, I always took them to Kyoto and I chose the temple Sanjusangendo as the main attraction. If thirty two cans of Campbell’s soup can cause great aesthetic impact, what will not get a thousand statues at human scale of almost identical bodhisattvas? I enjoyed glancing my party accessing the temple;  likewise me the first time, they all  inevitably drop their jaws and arched greatly their eyebrows.

Fortunately, Kyoto and Nara were respected by American bombs, and humanity can still count with these unrepeatable gems among its assets.

A well-trained mind develops ethical behavior, not out of imposition, indoctrination or superstitious fear, but as a natural consequence of seeing things for what they are, i.e. as profound insights into causal mechanisms operating in the totality of the structures of life. The ethos derived from such wisdom steers life in a way that is conducive to the elimination of suffering.

The importance of cultivating the ethical dimension of our personality to make sound progress in our spiritual path cannot be emphasized enough. Any action of body, speech and mind volitionally introduced into the fabric of the universe will bring back an equivalent response when the conditions make it possible.

This simple rule of cause and effect -popularly known as karma- must be observed with fine attention if we do not want to be overwhelmed by all kind of difficulties, both external and internal, that affect our physical and mental health. The path is already difficult enough without the extra problems caused by unskillfully dealing with karma. Awakening does not mean complete elimination of karma, but thoroughly understanding its functioning.

Our recent history on the teaching of meditation for westerners has already left us with very revealing aspects to how this should be, or at least how it should not be, conducted. In the 60s and 70s, many westerners used the writings of D. T. Suzuki to justify a way of life diametrically opposed to the one envisaged by him. In talking about how to ‘uninstall’ the ego, Suzuki took for granted that the Dao would manifest, whereas it was the uninhibited assertion of self-willed instincts that occurred.

Zen expects that one must be rooted in virtue. This assumption might have been present in the social elite of some eastern societies, but not necessarily in western ones. Therefore, any responsible teaching about meditation must include virtue as an integral aspect of the practice.

Positive thinking is a subject that has gained popularity recently, yet it is an old and well-known spiritual technique. The emphasis in the embracing and holistic intention of traditional forms marks the main difference between a genuine spiritual approach and the more self-centered one of modern motivational methods.

The typical modern objective of positive thinking could be formulated in terms of boosting one’s attitude and of promoting self growth. This promotion and reinforcement of the self is also the main goal of modern psychotherapy. There is nothing wrong with this approach when it is targeted to the mentally disturbed, who may be lacking self esteem or be prone to apathy, but it should be noted that, for real growth, such approach is limited since it lacks a genuine spiritual dimension.

Therefore, an authentic positive mind must be imbued with wholesome thoughts that anticipate happiness, joy, health and a successful outcome of every situation and action, not only for the sake of oneself but for all living beings.

Vegetarianism was a blessing even more important and liberating than throwing my TV out of the window (symbolically), or the daily body stretchings.

I always loved nature and tried to be respectful to animals, especially after living with such characters as cats. Their joys, fears, invitations to play, when they are short with people, and the myriad of their own way of showing love, made them excellent friends.

But, I didn’t know it was possible to survive without eating animals. The book “Diet for a New America” written by John Robbins was a revelation. After reading it, I became vegetarian, and vegan shortly after (no dairy or eggs or any product derived from animals). I took those steps out of love and respect for animals, with the bonus of a very pleasant surprise: since then, I never again had to undergo through any of those mysterious problems of digestion that, every month and for many years, had upset my life. The cause of the mystery, my dear doctors, was the meat, but we couldn’t realize it.

I do not flag my condition of vegan, because I’m too identified with my humanity to feel superior to anyone based on what goes into my mouth – let alone by what comes out. Compassion for the defenseless, the unnecessary suffering of those on both sides of the fork, and the impact of our diet on this delicate planet, have been, however, enough reasons to have tried to explain -when I was required so- the benefits that brings along at all these levels a redirection of our diet towards veganism.

Furthermore, although I cannot prove this, I am convinced that we humans still kill each other in wars and acts of terrorism, not so much because of very important sociopolitical justifications, but because of the silent holocaust we are inflicting to our fellow travelers on this space capsule called Earth.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll see in this lifetime the day when the rights of the voiceless: my beloved animals, mountains, rivers and seas, will be declared inviolable.

Respecting our mother Earth, how could this not be at the core of the teachings on filial respect given by Confucius? Can we really call progress the selfish exploitation of the mother of all of us?

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"Manuel Vega has written an extraordinary book. He has turned history upside down. I strongly recommend this book."
–Gavin Menzies, author of 1421 and The Lost Empire of Atlantis

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Sailors of Stonehenge