Monday, January 23, 2017

A distant view of hills

"Not to scale: On sacred mountains" starts tomorrow! I've been dithering with the syllabus, especially once I decided that syllabus ought to have illustrations! I haven't felt the need to illustrate since "Aboriginal Australia and the Idea of Religion" six years ago. That's not the only similarity I'm noticing with that earlier class. Then, too, I was aware of the oddity (to put it mildly) of a course on a territory so remote and, from where we are, inaccessible except in imagination - not to mention taught by me! But there's a difference, too, which you can see in the choice of images. Where those sought to give the word to Aboriginal people, this one is shaped by my experience as a visitor to Kailash. Some of the images are religious, but almost all are images constructed by people far from the mountains (like the photoshopped Mount Fuji); some are not even mountains, like that by Yang Yongliang below.). When it comes to sacred mountains, you might not have to be there to know them. In any case, the only knowledge we'll be having access to is that which isn't tied to direct experience of the mountaineering sort.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Make lemonade

What to get someone whose birthday comes right after the inauguration of that man? My partner figured it out: a new pressure cooker!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Signs of the times

I was among the many who came for the Women's March in Manhattan today. There were so many of us, however, that my little knot of people took two hours just get to the official march, which was gridlocked! Not that I'm complaining. It felt glorious. A very scary autocrat is in the White House but we're onto him.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Oath of office

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

LREL trumps hate!

"You didn't ignore tomorrow!" said one of my colleagues. I guess not! The occasion was a forum for incoming transfer students, where each of our college's programs had 5 minutes to introduce itself. In my five I guess I referred to the incoming regime three times!

First, in my opening, a description of my visit to the Islam class last semester where I was so enchanted by the art, spirituality and humor of traditions around the lovers Layla and Majnun. Would that those coming into power in Washington tomorrow, who will cause the deaths of many Muslims, knew about this, I said.

Second, in an aside about how New School has been asking questions about religion throughout its history, I showed the flyer for the "Religion - Why?" lectures of 1932, noting that at another time when the expected shape of history was being bent out of shape by rising fascism, we explored the potential of progressive religion to be a resource in responding.

And finally in plugging my friend M's course "Medieval Church and State," which I promised was not just the sort of course you should take in college (what will you never have a chance to study outside college?) but would help students understand both sides in the coming discussions about religion and the state.

My own courses, will they be of use? Indirectly, maybe. I teach complexity, humility before historical contingency, the inescapability and multiplicity of interpretations and the necessity and value of exploring them. That's not just the navel-gazing of "cosmopolitan elites" but something more like what democracy (Christianity, too) requires.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Lateral assault

My bedtime book these days is another "lessons of plants" book, great fun but entirely different from the last, the revelatory Braiding Sweetgrass. If Kimmerer shows us how to recognize plants as people with whom we make a world together, Mabey's about worlds of extraordinary plant personalities in which people hardly figure. Yet at a time when human hopes seems saggy it's satisfying to see him toss apples at Newton. The Second Law explained why apples fall down.

To an eighteenth-century botanist, an equally perplexing question was how an apple could, as it were, be raised perpendicularly from the ground, how biological growth could defy gravity. What was the vital force that made life able to challenge the Second Law's vision of an ever descending spiral of energy? The peculiarity of Newton's apple - it's now recognized as a scarce variety called Beauty of Kent - added a kind of lateral assault on the Law, contradicting the gravitas of Linnaean certainties and the idea of 'species fixity'. By the eighteenth century there were tens of thousands of apple varieties in existence, all the Old World varieties at least now known to have descended from a single species in Central Asia in a glorious pan-continental proliferation. The generation of biological forms (what we call biodiversity today) and the tendency of all living systems to become progressively more diverse and complex fly against the cosmic gloom of the Second Law.

Richard Mabey, The Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life
and the Human Imagination (New York: W. W. Norton, 2016 [2015]), 168

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Sacred mountain of San Diego?

My course on sacred mountains follows on another Sacred Himalaya Initiative-linked course, taught last semester by an anthropologist from Nepal who described herself as a "mountain girl." No mountain girl I, child of the coastal desert of Southern California, facing the ocean. But wait. There's a place not far from where I grew up. No, not the Sierras.

Having been ideally placed, by primeval creative forces, like a mighty sentinel meditatively on guard over that southwesterly region of the North American Continent, midway between Asia and Europe, its summit affords an unimpeded panoramic view of unique grandeur in every direction, limited only by the immense circle of the world's horizon. (Cuchama and Sacred Mountains [Athens: Swallow Press/Ohio UP, 1981], 10)


Thus W. Y. Evans-Wentz - the man who gave the Tibetan Book of the Dead to the world without even knowing Tibetan - about the mountain the Kumeyaay called Kuuchamaa (he calls it Cuchama), also now known as Tecate. Turns out this Jersey boy gravitated to San Diego to be with the Theosophists at Loma Land, and settled in a San Diego hotel after his travels in India and the Himalayas. Someone who claimed to sense energies, he felt the mountain's power and, er, bought it. Convinced it had once been home to a race of giants, as well as housing a magic cave, he spent the last years of his life researching it at the San Diego Public Library and developing an account of the superiority of the civilization of the "Red Men" over that of white interlopers. Oy vey.

His book includes a section on other sacred mountains of the world

So long as mankind inhabits this planet, its holy mountains will continue to be symbolical of human regeneration and triumph and of spiritual elevation to the altruistic heights of Freedom, above the lowly valleys of worldliness wherein men dwell self-enfettered to the idols of their own making. (41)

and, as one would expect from a work with a Foreword by Anagarika Govinda, Kailas features prominently. Can mountains be idols too?

Monday, January 16, 2017

Confucian ethics seeking dialogue!

I've finished my syllabus for "Exploring Religious Ethics: Confucianism in Dialogue." I'm quite excited by the structure, which centers on the Four Books and Five Classics, considering while sampling the ethical formation offered by a canon which includes philosophy, history, rites, poetry and augury, while also constantly referencing contemporary applications and debates. (I even use the work of two people I met at Fudan!) Now let's just hope the students show up...

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Still small voice

 (evidently from Janet Morley, All Desires Known, 3rd ed., 14)

Push and pull

Demonstration of comsogonic processes on the frozen surface of the Japanese Garden lake at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Cucina della Villa Brasca

By way of Nebraska, a secret Sicilian recipe for making canolli,
alive and well in Brooklyn thanks to my friend M.