The Book of Jane English

Jane EnglishAs I have mentioned elsewhere, I am often intrigued at the universe’s sense of humour. So, for example, I am English, I go into an English book store, W.H. Smith & Sons, and find myself looking at a book, translated by two people one of whom is Jane English.  The rest of that story is told in two other places here: The Book of Toinette Lippe, their editor, and The Book of Lao Tsu, because what Jane did with her husband Gia-fu Feng (see Wikipedia for an excellent article on his life) was to translate the Tao Te Ching into, naturally, English!

But that overlooks her key role in adding her photographs to the translation because it is those pictures that made their book the top-selling English translation of all time. I purchased a copy of that 1972 book.

So, in that sense, Jane has been a part of my life for over forty years. Especially since I later purchased the 25th Anniversary edition and, very recently, acquired the 2011 one.  And, being me, I compared the unchanged photographs from those first two editions with the later one, in which she had changed over a hundred images. And if I thought that the earlier pictures were great, the newer ones are even better. And there was only one change she had made that I didn’t agree with. So if that isn’t the equivalent of a gold medal performance, I don’t know what is.

But the only other thing I knew about her back in 1995 was that she was living in Mount Shasta.. However, thanks to the internet, which doesn’t say much, and a remarkably candid biography of Gia-fu-Feng (Still Point of the Turning world, Carol Ann Wilson, (Amber Lotus Publishing, Portland, OR, 2009), I now know a lot more which I can share with you to honour her.

First, she has an older brother and was born in 1942 in Boston and lived her early years on farm land among the woods some thirty miles north of the city. Twenty- two years later she will graduate from Mount Holyoke College with a BA in Psychics.

That college was founded in 1837 ~ a hundred years before women in the US got the right to vote ~ as The Mount Holyoke Female Seminary by chemist and educator Mary Lyon, whose famous words, “Go where no one will go, do what no one else will do,” their web-site tells us, continue to inspire MH students. 

Interestingly, the college which was the first of what came to be known as The Seven Sisters (after the stars in The Pleiades) ~ and the female equivalent of the male Ivy League ~ has as its motto: That our daughters may be as corner stones, polished after the similitude of a palace.

The next thing I know is that in 1970 Jane was granted a Ph. D , by the University of Wisconsin-Madison for her work in high energy particle physics. But all along it seems to me, and under the surface, is the notion that she is continually playing with a camera. She then accepts a Post-doctoral Fellowship in sunny California at the prestigious Lawrence Laboratory in Berkeley.

She moves in with a woman named Katie Marks, who, one day, will suggest to Jane that she accompany her to a meditation place called Stillpoint about which Carol Ann Wilson will then write:

Here in the Los Gatos hills, Jane discovers a different and very uninhibited lifestyle which she takes in her stride despite her New England upbringing…

Availing themselves of the hot tub, Jane and Katie join in the easy camaraderie and peacefulness n the final rays of an ending day. As a few Stillpointers prepare dinner, Jane notes their ability to work unharmed, sans clothing, around the hot stove…. Jane is a little surprised when Gia-fu comes up behind her and strikes up a conversation. 

They talk for a bit, Jane thinking Gia-fu quite worldly with his ability to discuss a wide range of subjects –physics, photography, literature and current events. She also thinks he emanates an “ancient-guru quality” There’s quietness to him, depth, and a sense of vitality and humour. 

And then, all of a sudden and out of nowhere, Fate intervenes. In Joseph Campbell’s ~ that magnificent mythologist who taught for so many years at Sarah Lawrence College ~ felicitous phrase about “following your Bliss/ Answering the Call,” Jane is confronted with a life-changing decision.  She receives a phone call from Rutgers University in not so sunny New Jersey offering her a position and, more importantly, she becomes aware that her love of photography is equal to her love of physics. So she declines the offer and then moves to Stillpoint and begins working with Gia-fu, who is twenty-five years her senior, which will lead to those wonderful Vintage editions of the Tao Te Ching. And a later companion volume, Chuang Tsu, Inner Chapters, translated by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English (Vintage Books, New York, 1974), which will also be reprinted twice more, but by different publishers.

But their relationship will go deeper than that, even though twenty-five years later, Jane apparently can’t remember how it happened.

Anyway … On Christmas Day, 1970, they are visiting one of Gia Fu’s friends in Mill Valley. The latter, having heard that the two of them had had an informal private wedding ceremony of their own a couple of months earlier in Yosemite National Park, suggests that they should go up the hill and have a more formal ceremony.

And so it comes to pass that a former Anglican priest, who couldn’t make Christianity work for him, and instead became a world renowned Western interpreter of both Buddhism and Taoism, does just that: The Englishman, Alan Watts marries a former Chinese banker, and long-time Taoist, to a former American scientist in a Buddhist ceremony! What a great sense of humour the universe has.

As an interesting aside, it seems that two years earlier in an even more informal way, Gia-fu had sent a note to a bunch of people announcing his “marriage” to a twenty-six year old that lasted for about six months before she disappeared into oblivion.

So, one of the challenges, it seems to me, for younger women who marry older Gurus, is that as the former start to mature they tend to see the latter through new eyes. Moreover, the role of hand-maiden may become less attractive as they feel the need for more independence and equality.

In any event, and this came as a complete surprise, after four years of intense interaction at two different Stillpoint locations; at teaching workshops together, and creating those two books, their relationship comes to an end in the summer of 1974.

Carol Ann again:

… Gia-fu leaves alone … Jane stays on at Essalen, intent on following her own path, beginning with a deep exploration of what it means to be Cesarean born. She will stay there, exploring, examining, taking workshops and trainings for the next couple of years after which she will devote herself to writing, photography and publishing. 

From 1976-1978 she will be at the Human Potential School, in Mendocino, CA and then in San Francisco until the end of the decade. At some point she moves to Mount Shasta.

The next thing I know is that she establishes a still continuing publication business in 1985. that contains “Books, calendars, note-cards and more, including vintage photos by her grandfather, William H. James.” But the Taoist calendars don’t begin until 1991. 

Her interests, the web-site says, include gardening, skiing, amateur radio and hot-air ballooning around Mount Shasta. But that was then, not now. So like her friend Toinette, she is now following a different kind of bliss: canoeing on a local pond near her home; helping with children’s outdoors activities, and visiting Greenland where the picture  was taken ~ no snow!! 

So I was going to end this by saying that if Mary Lyon was alive today she would be very proud of what one of her “daughters” has accomplished in this life-time: I still gift her books to special friends. But then I realized it would be much more appropriate to let Jane have the last words, which, in this case, come from Toinette’s Foreword to the 2011 Vintage edition of the Tao Te Ching:

I find it hard to remember “life before Tao.” Both its wisdom and its mystery have seeped into my being. Or maybe more accurately, it has given me more access to my own innate wisdom and sense of mystery. 

And so it is.