The Red Thread: A Love Story by Nicholas Jose
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
That’s the Spirit
"The Red Thread" is set in Communist Shanghai in the year 2000.
It starts with "Old Wen" disembarking from a ferry and visiting Shanghai Art Auctions International, where he offers to "Young Shen", a thirty year old US-educated art appraiser, some objet d’art he wishes to sell at auction.
Wrapped in sheets of the People’s Daily, Shen finds the manuscript of an eighteenth century book called "Six Chapters of a Floating Life":
On inspection, Shen detects that there are only four chapters, the other two missing, believed lost for eternity. Still, Shen realises it has considerable value.
At the auction, Shen meets and falls in love with Ruth Garrett, an Australian artist who specialises in Contemporary Traditional Chinese Painting, after he suddenly withdraws the manuscript from sale.
So begins a tale that weaves together a real life traditional masterpiece, ancient Buddhist wisdom and a post-modern love story, in a work that is paced like spiritual detective fiction.
A River Flows In You
The manuscript relates the life of Shen Fu (Young Shen’s full name is Shen Fuling) and his "charming, idiosyncratic" wife, Yun.
Shen and Ruth read about "the joy they made with no one but themselves, discovering the beauty in things, living by no rules but their own."
They soon discover parallels with their own world and fledgling romance.
By the time they get to the end of the fourth chapter, Shen and Ruth wonder whether their life together holds the secret of the lost chapters.
Jose’s novel, which up until that point has had the same chapter titles, ceases to imitate and almost becomes "Six Chapters of a Floating Life".
The two stories merge, the one flowing into the other, like a river.
A Heart-Felt Caveat
Superficially, the novel takes the form of a post-modern meta-fiction and proves that it is possible for meta-fiction to contain realistic characters and plot devices as well as a link to the past.
However, it actually owes a lot to the teachings of Buddhism (and to some extent, the shared tradition of Hinduism).
I am an atheist and not yet a formal student of either religion. In trying to describe my reactions to this novel, I might therefore misunderstand some of the nuances and significance of the concepts I deal with. I hope others can improve on my efforts to construct a more accurate analysis.
Artist: Margaret Bremmer
"The Red Thread"
At its most superficial level, the "Red Thread" is the personal connection or bond of passion, love and sex that joins two people. It is the "red thread between our legs".
The thread might exist without us even knowing about it. It might exist before we even meet each other.
Like the more Western concept of "soul mates", it could symbolise the fact that we two are pre-destined to meet each other and become lovers.
In Jose’s words, it is "the red thread of ever-renewing love" or "the thread of restless craving" that binds two lovers together:
"He thought of the red thread of passion wound tightly around the fingers of the Old Man of the Moon, the protector of couples. It was a cord that bound one heart to another, like one flow of blood through two bodies.
"Yet it was also a tie across space and time, as the wheel of life turned, bringing souls back to their bodies...It was a longing that never ceased until it found its object."
At a second level, there is a bond between different couples over time, who might in fact be reincarnations of the same couple:
"The needle that drew the thread, moving beneath the membrane of our hearts, red as blood, red as fire, was sewing sex into eternity - which is what all lovers want."
"The embroidered shoes were proof of a double destiny...the familiarity they felt with each other, the intimacy of feeling, the meaning of a glance, the touch of skin, the reverberation of presence with memory.
"In this they seemed to merge into one, so that Shen might feel sensations that Yun had felt and Ruth feel what Shen Fu had known."
At the second level, we die, but we return as a different couple. Our souls recur or continue in different lovers, who are spiritually the same and form one self-perpetuating love story:
"Granting the power of those still unbroken attachments, the bodhisattva breaks the rules of life and death for a far longer time than humans dare to ask, and still the story is uncompleted. Still our love for each other brings us back again...
"Our pleasures are the same. A life of little pleasures...make all the difference, those stray threads, imbued with all our passions, that bind us, heart and soul, to the physical world and to one another. My longings were tied to a particular person, a face and a shape, a time and a place, but that red thread of passion also bound us to something larger than ourselves."
Breaking the Attachment
At a third level, as long as we remain bound to each other, we remain "attached" to the physical world and fail to truly enter the spiritual world.
There is a hierarchy that separates the passions, the body, the flesh, the sensual, the sexual (on the one hand) from the spiritual and the divine (on the other hand).
Many religions, not just Buddhism, teach us that we have to transcend the body in order to achieve the spiritual.
We have to escape the love for and physical attachment to another individual in order to attain a perfect state of spirituality.
In Jose’s words:
"The only way to end the tie was to follow the thread until the passion of attachment reached its final resolution."
In effect, attachment must end in non-attachment.
Understanding Attachment and Non-Attachment
I first encountered the term “non-attachment” in the Van Morrison song, "Enlightenment":
"Enlightenment, don't know what it is
It says it's non-attachment."
In the song, Van Morrison didn’t know what non-attachment was, and I’ve never known either, at least until I’ve done some research for this review. Maybe I still don’t get it.
I think that, in the West, this is because I and we tend to approach the issue from an individualistic and self-ish perspective.
We look at things from the point of view of our own self, which we are tempted to describe as the Self (as well as the Ego, in Freudian terms).
If I understand it correctly, Buddhism suggests that we individuals are impermanent, "separative egos" that lack continuous form or unchanging substance.
Collectively, we are simply minds or consciousnesses that form part of the One or Reality:
"The One is all things and is incomplete without the least of them. Yet the parts are parts within the whole, not merged in it; they are interfused with reality while retaining the full identity of the part, and the One is no less the One for the fact that it is a million-million parts." (the Jijimuge Doctrine of the Kegon School of Japanese Buddhism)
Within this context, Enlightenment (or Life itself) is not the property of humanity or any one individual. To the extent that it is part of an individual, one of their faculties, it is not immortal. To the extent that it is immortal, it is not the property of any one individual.
We are part of an evolving consciousness that attains successive states of spiritual achievement, until our sense of individual self is extinguished, a higher more collective Self is released from its fetters and merged “as a Dewdrop in the Shining Sea”.
"The flowing river is lost in the sea;
The illumined sage is lost in the Self.
The flowing river has become the sea;
The illumined sage has become the Self.
Those who know the Self become the Self.
None in their family forgets the Self.
Freed from the fetters of separateness,
They attain to immortality."
The Western sense of self and ego perpetuates a sense of separateness (hence, the "separative ego"), the self and others, the self and an other.
In Buddhism, the love of another therefore goes against the flow toward the Enlightenment of One or Oneness.
This doesn’t mean that love is prohibited in Buddhism (or Hinduism).
The Third Precept prohibits "sexual misconduct" or "wrong-doing in respect of sensuality", not sexuality or sensuality in their own right.
However, the formation of a two-person relationship requires the recognition of and attachment to a separate person.
Ultimately, an individual must eventually move beyond this attachment to a spiritual non-attachment within the One or Enlightenment.
The Sublimation of Desire
In the meantime, individuals must control and sublimate sexual desire.
Physically, desire manifests itself as sex.
Emotionally, it is enthusiasm and emotional force.
Intellectually, it is creativity.
The Third Precept therefore encourages the sublimation of sex into a higher form.
Judging the Novel
To the extent that the novel takes these ideas for granted, it is beautifully and economically written.
It manages the post-modern intersection of past, present and future skillfully.
It allows a river from the past ("Six Chapters of a Floating Life") to flow through a second story ("The Red Thread") and then ultimately to and through us the readers.
It is a needle that sews us into an exquisite tapestry and a larger story of love.
An Atheist Response
Buddhism is a profound religion and philosophy.
It does not believe in a creator, a deity or a God figure, and is therefore non-theist.
Nevertheless, it posits a spiritual hierarchy that I can’t relate to.
I believe in a life force or an energy that is biological or physical. I don’t believe in a spiritual dimension that transcends the mind.
However, I believe in sex and love as acts done considerately and generously (not to mention enthusiastically) between individuals.
We are on this Earth for only a short time.
I do not believe in any philosophy that discourages romantic or sexual love while we are here or denigrates it in favour of a higher love.
If a theist died and discovered that they were wrong about the existence of a God or an afterlife (a logical impossibility, I realise), they would probably regret that they hadn’t loved more while they were alive.
Not that I would be particularly different.
As an atheist, one thing I will regret on my deathbed will be the fact that I wasn’t able to love more and better during my lifetime.
While I remain alive, I have an opportunity to do something about it.
I have relied on some of the analysis in Christmas Humphreys’ "Buddhism" to understand and describe Buddhist concepts in this review.
If I have correctly understood the concepts, it reflects the quality of this analysis. If I have misunderstood or poorly explained any concepts, only I am to blame.
Yiruma – "River Flows In You"
I like the way this song flows and then, amazingly for a song, ends in silence, the silence of Enlightenment.
Van Morrison – "Enlightenment"
Cynthia Kear – "The Red Thread of Passion - Part 1 of 5"
A talk by Cynthia Kear, priest at the San Francisco Zen Center, at the Gay Buddhist Sangha on June 20, 2010, on the theme of "Is There a Place for Desire in the Buddhadharma?"
View all my reviews