Saturday, February 18, 2017


Wow, the new leaf has brought a friend!

Friday, February 17, 2017


Reading Mencius (well, Tsai Chih Chung's Mencius Speaks: The Cure for Chaos), I'm feeling more of the vertigo I've had reading Confucius in theage of trumpery. This exchange (pp 12-13, cf.  梁惠王上1) sounds a warning as we start to see the spirit of "America first" trickle down. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017


Am I child of the mountains? Especially because my "Sacred Mountains" class follows in the footsteps of a course taught by a Sherpa, I've been acutely aware of my distance from mountains. I tell people - and have been telling myself - that mountains are for me things that you need to go out of your way to encounter or even see. I grew up facing the ocean, I say, sometimes adding that there are two islands one can very occasionally see bobbing on the horizon from the place I grew up, the mountain "hierophanies" of my youth - and to the strains of "Bali Ha'i." Since learning about Evans- Wentz' California Kailash I sometimes add that there was perhaps a sacred mountain behind my back, as it were, as I gazed out to sea. Maybe it was radiating mountain mana?

But this is all not quite true. While certainly not a mountain child, they have been part of my life from the start. I was born in Switzerland, after all, and one of the first trips my parents took me on was to meet favorite relations who live in the Wallis/Valais, the Alpine valley where the Rhône begins. We returned to that valley many times for hikes, some overlooking the magnificent, now shrinking, Aletschgletscher. Adalbert Stifter still moves me to tears. Once we moved to California, the Sierras were regular destinations, both for hiking and skiing. At fourteen I even made it to the top of Mt. Whitney, highest peak of the contiguous US. At later points in my life, I've been (part way) up Mount Fuji several times, circumambulated Uluru and, of course, twice circumambulated Kailash. I spent a few weeks in Flims and Interlaken not long ago. Mont Blanc, Kangchenjunga and Annapurna revealed themselves to me. In China I got to Wutai, Hengshan and Laoshan. And did you know that New York City itself sits atop an ancient mountain range, ground down by the ages?

Still, I had to go all those places. I was never living in the mountains, in the not insignificant part of the world where everything is mountain, so the language of mountain is too broad. I never had the experience one of my students says her mother grew up with in Colombia, where "mountains and people weren't separate" even in thought, and every day began with checking the mood of the mountain. From the flatlander perspective I've too quickly assumed, mountains are exceptions, jutting from - breaking hierophanically through! - a presumably flat world. They're paradigmatically solitary. It even makes sense to think of them as having come from above, from the sky, from outer space. It's easy to think that mountains fly, walk, go over water, flow. My favorite mountain line, from Elisée Reclus

A l’esprit qui contemple la montagne pendant la durée des âges, elle apparait flottante, aussi incertaine que l’onde de la mer chassée par la tempète: c’est un flot, une vapeur; quand elle aura disparu, ce ne sera plus qu’un rève. 
 Histoire d’une montagne (1875-6)

imagines the world as a surface ruffled - fleetingly - by mountains. They only seem solid if you take the human view of them, but the whole point of mountains is to challenge us to transcend that limited view!

These thoughts are coalescing now because I've asked students to write a paper about studying mountains from a distance, and we've started wrestling with the variously mystifying and clarifying accounts of sacred mountains of Edwin Bernbaum and Veronica della Dora. But it's also because I got together this afternoon with my old friend L, one of the most spiritually open people I know, and she asked me not if I was qualified to be teaching a course on sacred mountains, but rather how mountains had prepared me for this task. Do I, perhaps, protest too much? The first part of the course has been all about phenomenology, which I've described as helping us becoming cognizant of experiences we're already having without fully realizing it. Talking to L, I suddenly felt that there's been a cloud of mountain witnesses attending me all my life, content to let me think they were at my beck and call. Not a mountain child, no. But not just a beach bum either. The time of mountains is one I've sensed...

Finger in the wind

It's been forever since this plant risked putting out a new leaf!

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Multiple exposure

Returning to "Sacred Mountains" class after the Snow Day there was a lot of material waiting to be discussed and digested. We hadn't debriefed after my colleague's class visit and the particularities of sound as a medium. They'd read the main theoretical chapters of Edwin Bernbaum's Sacred Mountains of the World. And I'd asked students to go to the Roerich Museum. And they should be at work on an essay reflecting on the paradox, if it is one, of studying mountains without a mountain to help us. I can't describe all the directions our swooping diving climbing discussion took, but here are two moments.

One came from rereading John Muir's dismissal of words' capacity to replicate the experience of mountains, which I hadn't before noticed flows right into an appreciation of "exposure" modeled on photography! (See above.) The "human soul" is more sensitive than any "earthly chemicals," yes, but Nature, far from playing hard to get, "willingly ... poses herself on photographers' plates." We'll get to the gendering at work here, but for now I let Muir's words undermine the overstated dismissal of the power of reproduction and transmission. It set the stage for a useful discussion of how Roerich's paintings (like "Himalayas," 1933, below), and even the way they are displayed at the Museum, work.
A related 19th century visual technology came into play as we discussed Bernbaum's view that sacred mountains offer a depth experience of a universal reality because they are experienced "stereoscopically," both as natural and supernatural at the same time. Students had no idea what a stereoscope was, of course, so I brought in a card I found in an antiques barn upstate a dozen years ago. (It's St. George's church on Stuyvesant Park after a fire in 1865!) I think seeing it helped students get what Bernbaum was trying to say, perhaps because the image of a stereoscope I pulled up looked like today's VR goggles.

Excited discussion followed about the ways one might use images, sounds, words to characterize experiences of mystery and sacredness... It wasn't the moment to call in question Bernbaum's easy assumption that the double vision assures a symphony of spiritual depth rather than just the dispiriting noise of cognitive dissonance; there'll be time for that. That may indeed be our superstition about mountains.
Sacred Summits: John Muir’s Greatest Climbs, ed. Graham White
(Edinburgh: Canongate, 1999), 83; Edwin Bernbaum, Sacred Mountains
of the World (San Fransisco: Sierra Club Books, 1992), 152 [Yosemite photo], 213

Monday, February 13, 2017

Service announcement

It's true. The New York subway has gotten qualitatively worse, a lot worse. From 28,000 delays per month to 70,000 in five years? Golly.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Freezing rain garlanded the branches of trees this morning.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Ancient medicine

Like most important ancient texts, Confucius' Analects 论语 confronts readers today in an entirely unprecedented form: as a stand-alone and self-interpreting book (not too mention translated). In the West, it joins the ranks of other "world classics" or "scriptures of world religions" wrested from thickets of commentary to blink obscurely at casual readers who wouldn't have made it past the threshold in days gone by. Even in its own tradition it wasn't thought to be discreet, but part of overlapping canons of other valued texts. (You've heard me make similar claims about the Book of Job's only "becoming a book" in our time.) Until the Song Dynasty Neoconfucians, as Daniel Gardner reminds us, Analects wouldn't have been in a top-five list of classics. It was more of a classic reader's guide - an indispensable how-to-read guide, which could neither displace the real classics nor stand alone without them.

I've just finished reading a serious effort to rectify the situation, Edward Slingerland's annotated translation, which offers for each vignette background and excerpts from some of the hundreds of commentaries written over the centuries - including those of recent Western scholars. It expands the length of the text by about a factor of ten, but what a world it opens up, of scores of characters (historical, as well as Confucius' contemporaries and students) and parsings of characters by each other - even before you get to the later parsings. Read with care!

Indeed, Confucius and his disciples turn out already to be part of a commentarial tradition. It's well known that Confucius claimed not to be an innovator, just a man who loved learning - studying the classics; in other words he was a commentator, and hoped in his life to show how a virtuous and ritually correct commentator might make his times more like the virtuous classical past.

Daniel K. Gardner, intro to The Four Books (Indianapolis: Hackett 2007), xvff
Confucius: Analects with Selections from Traditional Commentaries, trans Edward Slingerland (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003), 106

Friday, February 10, 2017


 Fresh snow in all its splendor, Prospect Park.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Mountain stroll: 青山常運歩

A snow day meant the Sacred Mountains class didn't meet today, so I had a chance to go down a rabbit hole. Near the end of Edwin Bernbaum's Sacred Mountains of the World comes a brief quotation from the 13th century Japanese Zen master Dogen:

As for mountains, there are mountains hidden in jewels; there are mountains hidden in marshes, mountains hidden in the sky; there are mountains hidden in mountains. There is a study of mountains hidden in hiddenness. (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1992, 257)

It comes a page after another well-chosen quotation, from the Skanda Purana:

He who thinks of Himachal, even if he does not see it, is greater than he who accomplishes all his devotions at Benares. He who thinks of Himachal will be freed from all his sins.... (256)

At this point in his gorgeously illustrated account of holy peaks around the world, Bernbaum is addressing readers who cannot but be filled with a mix of Wanderlust and envy. Just thinking about sacred mountains can be salutary for us who live in cities and on the plains, he concedes. Indeed, mountains by themselves - even ones held sacred by various peoples - can't reliably do the work for us, since their devotés are liable to mistake the symbol for what is symbolized: the holy mystery of life itself, disclosed through the double-take of things experienced as natural at the same time as holy. This ultimate depth experience is more accessible on mountains than elsewhere, given their optics, but the reality revealed is everywhere. Thus: Dogen.

Knowing we wouldn't have class, I veered away from Bernbaum prep to Dogen quest. Where does 道元 Dogen (1200-1253) say this, and what could it mean? It turns out to be near the end of the "山水経 Mountains and Waters Sutra," one of the earliest parts of the 正法眼蔵 Shobogenzo. The translation can be found here; the original, which I can half-pretend to be able to read, goes like this:


But to know what it might mean you need to know that Dogen's heading toward a complicated denouement, where words melt and recongeal, even as mountains are understood as the embodied insights of enlightened beings. (As a modern-language explanation I found puts it, 山はただ山であるというのではなく、解脱者の見た山であるということである.) Good also to know that the whole work is framed by the enigmatic pronouncements of two Chinese sages, 芙蓉道楷 Furong Daokai (1043-1118) and 雲門文偃 Yunmen Wenyan (864-949)



the blue [green] mountains walk and the Eastern mountains move over water. There's all sorts of cool stuff about the nonduality of water and mountains, about water going upward and experienced as a solid palace by fish in the sea, while mountains, too, 流 flow (and don't flow; it's complicated, and isn't). But the upshot - an upshot - is:


Those who would know their own walking must also know the walking of the blue [green] mountains. This has something to do with how we become one with what we perceive, so the mountains walk as we walk them, and as we study them mountains study themselves. But this is just the surface of what's going on, since, long before we came to the mountains, whether in thought or in stride, they were seen by the buddhas, and in some way we could with effort realize as well, are manifestations of these seeings. 山水が仏の教えを説 "Mountains and waters preach the Buddha's teaching," the modern Japanese page explains.

They are sutras - a claim not entirely unlike John Muir's stone sermons:

It seems strange that visitors to Yosemite should be so little influenced by its novel grandeur, as if their eyes were bandaged and their ears stopped. Most of those I saw yesterday were looking down as if wholly unconscious of anything going on about them, while the sublime rocks were trembling with the tones of the mighty chanting congregation of waters gathered from all the mountains round about, making music that might draw angels out of heaven. Yet respectable-looking, even wise-looking people were fixing bits of worms on bent pieces of wire to catch trout. Sport they called it. Should church-goers try to pass the time fishing in baptismal fonts while dull sermons were being preached, the so-called sport might not be so bad; but to play in the Yosemite temple, seeking pleasure in the pain of fishes struggling for their lives, while God himself is preaching his sublimest water and stone sermons! (My First Summer in the Sierra)

Okay, so maybe the resemblance is just superficial. But both views dissolve the solidity of mountains in a way Bernbaum might question. Or was the Dogen reference at the end an invitation to just such a detour?

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Hide yourself

We started our reading of Confucius' Analects today, my first time teaching this hoary text. I asked the students to identify passages that struck them as representative or curious and, as expected, these took us quickly to the heart of the matter. XI.6 (middle way, and disciples' personalities), IV.15 (the one thread, empathy and dutifulness),  XIII.13 (rectification of names). I directed attention to V.12 (golden rule, beyond many), III.20 (importance of the Odes - I had us read the first, cited here) and XI.12 (Confucius' supposed agnosticism). More next week, including filial piety, etc. And the one below, VIII.13, a passage which has been stuck in my craw these last days and weeks. Among the most disheartening developments in our failing democracy is the number of people willing to work with and for a lawless fraud. Gorsuch?

Multi media

My sound artist colleague N came to the Sacred Mountains class today. I was expecting to contrast the fresh raw recordings he made along our Kailas trip with the highly composed soundscape we experienced last week - but that just shows how naive I am about sound! Replication, N said, is an unfruitful ideal; better to recognize that every act of listening or recording is an act transformation! We each hear different things, differently, understand them in different ways because of our experience, identity, concerns. Soundwalks like those he conducted in the Kathmandu Valley are inseparable not just from the moment and space but from the person making the recording. N accompanies his recordings (like the one above of a 3-hour hike up and back down a mountain) with other kinds of data: not just snapshots but a map (GPS linked to time), his altitude, speed of motion and heart rate. He's not sure what they show, he laughed, but they're sort of interesting anyway, aren't they? I see the open-ended data-collection as consonant with the commitment of the soundwalker to try to attend to everything you don't customarily notice. The not quite assimilable jumble of "data" reminds us how remarkable a thing is the synthaesthesia of our experience.