Watching life from the stoep

2008-12-16 00:00

Stoep Zen by Antony Osler is one of those books that defies categorisation; any attempt to try simply ends up sounding trite. Bosman meets Buddhism in the Karoo? See what I mean.

Stoep Zen. The word “zen” is Japanese for meditation and has also become the name of a particular Buddhist tradition, Zen Buddhism, literally “meditation Buddhism”, which emphasises the nature of the practice that is a hallmark of the tradition. The practice is referred to as “zazen”. “Za” means sit. In other words sitting meditation. What better place for it than a stoep?

This particular stoep is on a farmhouse in the Karoo where Osler lives with his wife Margie and their two daughters, Emma and Sarah. “The stoep is where we like to sit,” he writes. “The space between home and the world, between the inside and the outside. Where we watch the days change into night, where we listen to the flies in summer and feel the seasons pass.”

Divided into four seasonal sections, Stoep Zen serves up a magical blend of short essays, haiku-style poems and atmospheric photographs mirroring life in a small community set down amid one of the world’s most distinctive landscapes. But this is no idyll of rural escape with a dash of philosophising. Over the past few decades Osler’s work as a human rights lawyer has seen him, like the rest of us, riding the waves of “one of the most riveting, frightening and inspiring political revolutions in history. Real radical change is in our face every day. How do we dance with this?”

That question is what Osler’s life — and his book — illuminates, as well as investigating how an ancient tradition “sits in a new setting — in an African, South African, Karoo setting, right here where I sit outside my house on the dusty Oorlogspoort road. To see how it works when, instead of a story about the Buddha giving a sermon under a fig tree, it is about something my neighbour says to me at the dam as we pull up a windmill pipe.” Stoep zen. Simple.

• Stoep Zen by Antony Osler is published by Jacana.

About Antony Osler

Antony Osler has been practising, studying and teaching Buddhism since the early seventies.

He was the first meditation teacher at the Buddhist Retreat Centre in Ixopo and thereafter spent some years as a Zen monk with Joshua Sasaki Roshi at the Mount Baldy Zen Centre in the United States. He also lectured part-time on Buddhism at Rhodes university.

Osler now lives with his family on Poplar Grove, a small farm near Colesberg in the Karoo where he sits on the stoep, meditates in an old shearing shed converted into a Zendo or meditation hall (it doubles as church for farm workers at Christmas and Easter) and runs occasional “traditional Zen Retreats under a wide blue sky”.

In his professional life, Osler is an advocate, while his wife, Margie, runs the farm and trains rural school teachers.

extract: Christmas

“Today is Christmas day. When the girls were small we used to count the sleeps to Christmas day and sing carols around the piano. Sometimes the farm workers from the district would hold their church in the Zendo and after the service we delivered pots of stew to the people living in carts along the Oorlogspoort road. Then the girls started going to church in town so we went with them.

“Somebody once said to Margie, ‘Oh but you can’t do that, you don’t believe Jesus is the only son of God.’

“ ‘Happy Christmas,’ said Margie.

“Christmas is not an argument. God is born on Earth every day — every moment. If you want to see it then you must open your eyes. If you want to open your eyes you must put down your opinions, prejudices and ideas. Then whatever you see is clear and whatever you hear is clear — just as it is. Hendrik sits at the side of the road with his head in his hands; when we stop to pick him up he is singing to himself, ‘Wie kan die esel vergeet, die esel wat die Here gedra het op sy rug?’ (Who can forget the donkey that carried the Lord on his back?).”

extract: Rugby on the radio

“I sit on the stoep with peanuts and beer, listening to a rugby test on the Afrikaans radio. We once thought of having a television but we’d need a satellite dish to get reception and we’d rather read to the children in front of the fire at night; anyway, radio is great company and the Afrikaans commentators make even boring rugby exciting.

“Today the commentator is so cross about the way the South Africans are playing that he tells us we are lucky we can turn the radio off — ‘if I were you that’s what I’d do’, he says. I am wrapped against the cold but it is still wonderful to sit in the late afternoon sunshine like this, even if the rugby’s rubbish.

“The final whistle blows and then it’s time for the boeremusiek programme. I dance on the stoep to the squashed concertina and the banjo. ‘Come jive with me,’ I call to the girls. They just shake their heads.”

Q&A with Antony Osler

Age: 60.

Occupation: Advocate (doing mostly human rights work and labour arbitrations). At home: stoepsitter, fiddling in the woodshed with wood, watching stars, watching birds, watching horizons and mucking about.

Childhood ambition: To find out what to make of this puzzling universe. I am told that I loved to write until boarding school removed the quiet moments.

Fondest memory: The smell of new rain on dry Karoo dust.

Current song: Diana Krall singing Joni Mitchell’s I could drink a case of you, baby, and still be on my feet.

Indulgence: Good Irish whiskey (actually, from anywhere will do).

Proudest moment: Pulling two babies from their mother’s stomach; the book in my hands.

Favourite movie: Don’t remember, well … Cider House Rules, Smoke, As it is in Heaven and The Mission …

Favourite book: All the Pretty Horses and Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy, The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje and One Hundred Days of Solitude by Jane Dobisz.

Biggest challenge: Living in South Africa with tenderness, generosity and enthusiasm.

First job: Singing folk songs in a Cape Town bar.

Last purchase: A Waterman pencil that I promised myself when the book came out.

Biggest disappointment: When one of my children was sad.

Most precious possession: My double bass, closely followed by my new pencil.

Advice for tourists: Come to the Karoo and sit down.

Greatest irritation: I find it difficult to keep my balance among people who are negative — of course the irritation is with myself for not being clear enough but it is sometimes hard work … good friends are becoming very important to me; otherwise I would rather be on my own.

Life philosophy: Grab it.

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