Monday, December 05, 2016

Delayed action

My advising tutorial "Buddhism as a Liberal Art" ended today as sweetly as it began. Because of interruptions from holidays and the crater of the election it's a little hard to believe we met ten times: that many? On the other hand, it feels like we've been meeting much longer: only ten?

Perhaps sweet isn't the word. Gathered as a group for the last time, our minds turned to ultimate things. The theme for our final discussion, I'd told the class, was how one might get whatever we've been getting out of our time together in settings other than this. I primed things with a question from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's essay "Pedagogy of Buddhism":

Is it true that we can learn only when
we are aware we are being taught? 

(I found it in Donovan Schaefer's Religious Affects, a book I picked up at AAR; another work of Sedgwick's - the chapter "Pedagogy" from Critical Terms for Buddhist Studies - was actually my suggestion for this final class, before we put the syllabus aside!)

I thought we'd talk about how we learn to put ourselves in the way of new experiences, discoveries, knowledge - but also how hard it is to do. (I was thinking of Dewey's sense that education usually closes down people's curiosity, though in a more buddhologically-informed space I might have referred to bodhicitta.) But the sense in the room was that the idea Sedgwick was floating is not only not true, but backwards. We learn best when we are not aware of it, one student protested, let alone aware of being taught! From this it was a short distance to how one learns better outside of school. Suddenly the classroom came to seem the least promising place for learning to happen! Another student admitted that she'd figured out a few years ago that she could fake her way through the requirements of classes, and hadn't really been learning since. By "learning" she meant something more than performing well in class, including making good marks. Weary of playing the good student she had come to our advising tutorial is search of liberating arts she wasn't finding at our liberal arts school.


I inquired what learning felt like, and we agreed that it was the falling into place of something you'd encountered before but hadn't got, what my lamented teacher Victor Preller called "the penny drops." We might have concluded that liberal arts plants seeds which sprout as your life unfolds ("you'll thank me later") but that seemed a little pat. The student's sense of faking it in classes raised a deeper worry, closer to Dewey's concerns but raised here about a pedagogy which claims to be Deweyan. (Her department, Interdisciplinary Science major, is energetic in its commitment to "discovery science" and social justice-inflected pedagogy.) To what extent can the very intentionality of a well-constructed learning experience neuter its capacity to be truly transformative, permitting - even perhaps promoting - faking it? Is engaged, problem-solving pedagogy perhaps too earnest for the playful openness learning sometimes inhabits? Or is any "school" setting too contrived to connect deeply enough with a student to occasion genuine growth?

Tough questions, but there was a palpable pleasure in being able to name them here. And, folks reflected, that only happens in settings like this one! This wasn't quite what I was after, but of course it was gratifying. And I trust seeds were sown which will ripen in unexpected times and ways later. Although in many ways different than I expected (and very different from the last time), I dare say "Buddhism as a Liberal Art" was successful. I know I learned a lot...! I'll miss our gatherings.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Standing with Standing Rock

Some good news finally! The Lakota Sioux and their supporters (including over 200 other native American nations) have succeeded in convincing the Army Corps of Engineers not to permit construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline under the Missouri River (at least for now).
These are pictures I took at a teach-in at The New School on Friday around the work of the "water protectors." (The young man below, Jaque Fragua from Jemez Pueblo, designed the logo, marrying a famous image from the American revolution with a Lakota prophecy about a black snake.) It didn't seem then that victory might be so close at hand.

Advent 2

One of the perks of membership in the Metropolitan Museum is a periodic review of recent acquisitions. The latest such includes a 400 year old nativity scene attributed to the Mughal artist Manohar.


The catalog description evokes out the amazingly cosmopolitan world of Mughal India: The Virgin Mary and infant Jesus, seated on a floral carpet, are honored with an offering of a plate of fruit, visible in the foreground, consistent with the Hindu devotional practice of prasad (offering). They are attended by three angels, one bearing a gold censer and another with a Chinese-style blue-and-white porcelain bowl decorated with geese. Their feathery bodies and faces resemble those of the peris, or fairies, of Indo-Islamic painting. 

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Feel good school

My spring course "Exploring Religious Ethics" has very few students signed up for it. That might be because it's focusing on Confucianism this time, but the trend of the last few iterations (on hipper traditions Buddhism and Christianity) suggests "religious ethics" itself fails to draw student interest. On Thursday I asked the students in "Theorizing Religion" if "ethics" was an off-putting word in a Lang context, and several agreed - especially when compounded with "religious!" People don't like to be pushed on their values, one said. It's just assumed that everyone agrees, said another, and that just by being here one is a good person. A quick scan of our course catalog shows very few courses in the ethics area across the whole university.

This is curious. Our institutional "Mission" is full of value words.

The New School prepares students to understand, contribute to, and succeed in a rapidly changing society, thus making the world a better and more just place. We will ensure that our students develop both the skills a sound education provides and the competencies essential for success and leadership in the emerging creative economy. We will also lead in generating practical and theoretical knowledge that enables people to better understand our world and improve conditions for local and global communities.

That's a little vague, actually, rather like our claim to be "progressive," and our commitment to "social justice." I'm committed to all those things, but they seem to me, well, a little undertheorized. To put it another way, "better"  and "more just" and "improved" are not self-explanatory: each presupposes a theory of the good. People have very different ideas of what is good, as of what justice is and demands. Even where people share a vision of the good, there are differences of emphasis and priority, difficult decisions and complicated interrelations of individual, interpersonal and political scales. And negotiating differences among views of the good is as hard as it is important at each of those scales. Any ethics class will tell you that - or would, if we offered them.

Most other universities have something like "ethical reasoning" as one of their general education goals for all students. Not us, but then we have rethought the whole idea of general education goals, which we prefer to call "Shared Capacities." (I was part of the earliest discussions around this; it's come a long way since I left the conversation in 2014.) The working list is interesting:

Capacities of excellent undergraduate

education across the country

Critical Analysis 

Multi-modal Communication 

Quantitative Reasoning 

Research Literacy 

Scientific Method 


Additional capacities provided by a 

New School undergraduate education

Authorship 

Creative Making 

Cross-Disciplinary Thinking

Flexibility and Resiliency 

Working in Complex Systems


Interesting, but there's nothing like ethics here, even as the process claims to be "guided" by the work on "Essential Learning Outcomes" of the Association of American Colleges & Universities' LEAP project. That list of outcomes includes four kinds of thing:

Knowledge of Human Cultures and the Physical and Natural World 
Intellectual and Practical Skills
Personal and Social Responsibility
Integrative and Applied Learning 

The third, described as including civic knowledge and engagement - local and global, intercultural knowledge and competence, ethical reasoning and action, and foundations and skills for lifelong learning, is absent from our list. (When I was part of the discussions, "social justice" was on our list. Some thought that since it pervades all our work - making the world a better place!! - it didn't need to be articulated as a separate capacity. I wasn't convinced either of those things was true - or that "social justice" adequately covered LEAP's ideas of "personal responsibility." In any case it was culled by the Provost.)

I don't want to be drawn back into the Shared Capacities discussions (I was actually offered the opportunity to lead the committee, and declined as politely as I could) but I wonder how we became so ethically smug. It has something to do with the sense that we are different from other schools and aways have been. We rest on the laurels of the heroic University in Exile, and fanciful ideas that we have always been not just "progressive" but "leftist," "pacifist," even "radical." The very word "new" seems to assure good karma. Even if we had been those things (we haven't), that wouldn't settle the ethics question for students today.

Actually, the university Mission and Vision is introduced by a reference and commitment to the "core values" of our venerable past:

THE NEW SCHOOL'S FUTURE WILL BE SHAPED BY THE CORE VALUES THAT HAVE DEFINED OUR PAST: ACADEMIC FREEDOM, TOLERANCE, AND EXPERIMENTATION

These are not lefty, radical or even particular progressive values, of course. They're liberal values. I don't have a problem with that, and think that New School tradition is better understood as liberal, too. (Liberal values will need all the defence they can get in the next years.) But there's something missing here, too, and not just as a characterization of the values of the school. (Where's democracy, for instance?) Freedom, tolerance and experimentation are for and by individuals doing their own thing in splendid unchecked isolation. There's no sense of the importance (and the hard reflective work) of Personal and Social Responsibility, no ethics to explore.

Friday, December 02, 2016

A whole lot of Kailas going on

Maybe the question whether or not the mountain we circumambulated is the real, true Kailas is misplaced. At least from an Indian perspective, real and true doesn't mean singular or unique. Diana L. Eck makes this clear in her book India: A Sacred Geography, a work, she explains, which emerged from her discovery that Banāras/Vārānasī/ Kāshī, the "holy city of Hinduism," was not as singular as all that. There are other Kāshīs across India. Further,

The very names of the temples, the ghāts, and the bathing tanks of the city are derived from this broader landscape. ... I began to realize that the entire land of India is a great network of pilgrimage places - referential, inter-referential, ancient and modern, complex and ever-changing. As a whole, it constitutes what would have to be called a "sacred geography," as vast and complex as the whole of the subcontinent. (2)

The expectation that Hinduism should have a fixed holiest place comes from western religions. A better view comes from following the pilgrims who have, for centuries, connected the land.

The pilgrim's India is a vividly imagined landscape that has been created not by homing in on the singular importance of one place, but by the linking, duplication, and multiplication of places so as to constitute an entire world. The critical rule of thumb is this: Those things that are deeply important are to be widely repeated. (5)

What then, of the Abode of Shiva, Kailash (Eck calls it Kailāsa)? There are, of course, many of them. Shiva, the yogi of the mountains, is associated especially with the mountain now venerated in Western Tibet. But Shiva's presence as a mountain god is repeated all over India. There are many mountains where Shiva dwells, some of them understood to be parts of the Himalayas that have been transported to other places. (199) And here the fun begins! Let Eck tell us two stories, or, well, a story twice. Actually there are stories upon stories...

One involves Rāmeshvara, the one of the four dhāms (cardinal points of the Indian subcontinent) dedicated to Shiva, on an island off the southern tip of India facing Sri Lanka. At its center is a linga Lord Rāma established, in which Shiva agreed to remain. This helped Rāma attain victory when he crossed the ocean to defeat Rāvana. Or maybe the linga was established after the victory? [Rāma] wanted to establish a linga to worship Shiva in expiation for the sin of killing Rāvana. After all, Rāvana was a brahmin, even though he was a demon-king. ... and also, we recall, a great devotee of Shiva. (235) It's complicated! In any case,

Procuring the stone for the Rāmeshvara linga generates another set of stories. According to one, Rāma sent Hanumān, swift as the wind, to the far Himalaya to bring an appropriate stone from Mount Kailāsa. ... However, as the astrologically determined auspicious hour for establishing the linga approached, Hanumān had not yet returned with the stone. So Sītā [Rāma's wife] fashioned a makeshift linga of sand and Rāma consecrated it at the sacred hour. In their worship, Shiva became fully present to them there. ...  (235)

Before I go on, hear tell of another jyotirlinga (when Shiva's pure light takes the form of stone) in a place called Vaidyanātha, in Bihar in the northeast of India. This one was established by the Shiva-venerating demon-king Rāvana, though he didn't mean to.

The ten-headed Rāvana had gone to Kailāsa and had put in many years of severe penance, hoping to gain Shiva's favor and to procure a powerful linga to take with him to his island home of Lanka. Eventually, his religious discipline was so firm that Shiva gave him one of the twelve jyotirlingas as a boon, but with the proviso that he could not put it down until he got back to Lanka. Seeing their enemy Rāvana in possession of such a powerful jhotirlinga made the gods uneasy. Scheming to make him put it down along the way, Varuna, the Lord of Waters, entered into Rāvana's body so that he had to relieve himself. Rāvana gave the linga to a cowherd to hold while he went to do so, but as the cowherd stood holding the linga, it became immensely heavy. He had to put it down. When Rāvana returned from relieving himself, he could not lift it again, try as he did with his enormous strength. In his ardent devotion, Rāvana cut off nine of his ten heads as offerings to Shiva. Even so, the jhotirlinga would not move. Shiva miraculously restored Rāvana's heads, thus giving this place the name Vaidyanātha, the "Lord of Physicians." (249)

So a piece of Kailash finds its way to Bihar, not Lanka, by a process it would be hard to construe as intended by anyone. (Eck calls it "sanctification by adhesion" [23].) Who cares? What's done is done, and a jhotirlinga is a good thing to have around, however it finds its way to you. But, speaking of jhotirlingas, what's been going on in Rāmeshvara?

... When Hanumān returned from the Himalayas, they thought they would replace the temporary sand linga with the special Himalayan stone. But Sītā's sand linga could not be moved, no matter how hard they tried. Even when Hanumān tried to pull the sand linga up with the strength of his tail, it would not budge. The linga of sand had become hard as rock. Thus at Rāmeshvara there are really two lingas: the Himalayan stone, called the Vishvanātha linga, brought from the north by Hanumān, and the pile of sand established by Sītā, called the Rāmanātha linga. In keeping with the traditions of natural hierophany associated with jhotirlingas, the latter has pride of place in the temple of Rāmeshvara. (235)

The "sacred geography" which is India, Eck suggests, isn't just one that's knitted together by the movements of pilgrims across the ages. Gods move, too. And so do mountains, in fitfully opaque ways worthy of their massiveness! And maybe the best mountains aren't mountains at all, but piles of sand rendered mountains by piety and divine presence. Even Kailas, I'm tempted to say, in its many iterations across the landscape, is made as much as found. In truth, though Shiva dwells in Kailäsa and in Vārānasī, he also dwells everywhere. (200)

Diana L. Eck, India: A Sacred Geography (NY: Three Rivers Press, 2012)

A tree grows in Brooklyn

Wow, there's an online NYC Street Tree Map and it's super-detailed.
The young tree in front of our building, for instance, which was just planted after the tornado tore through our neighborhood six years ago, is named (though they don't indicate that the Japanese Pagod Tree is also known as a Chinese Scholar Tree) and even has a number!

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Live arts binge

My Japanese friend H just passed through for a whirlwind week of culture, most of which I joined her for. So on Friday we walked across Central Park to the Met Breuer to see the remarkable Mastry and then to Met for Max Beckmann in New York and chamber music at the balcony bar. After the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket on Saturday morning we went to a matinee of the New York Philharmonic, which started with Dvorak's American quartet and concluded with his 8th symphony, Iván Fischer conducting. On Sunday we saw a somewhat overdone production of Goldoni's commedia del'arte "Servant of Two Masters" at Theater for a New Audience, after peeking in to the Brooklyn Flea. Monday I took a day off (well, schoolwork) but Tuesday we were at it again, on Broadway for "The Color Purple" with the spectacular Cynthia Erivo, and on H's last night we went to the Metropolitan Opera (only tickets for which we paid full price) for Richard Eyre's rather clunky production of Puccini's "Manon Lescaut," where tenor Marcello Alvarez swept us away. Whew! So busy were we that we didn't know where the week had gone. Over already?!

H returned to Japan this morning (the arts center she runs needs her) but my performing arts binge had one more item: the premiere of the Met's production of my pal Kaija Saariaho's opera "L'Amour de Loin." I hadn't planned to go tonight - I had a ticket for next week - but my friend T's friend's wife wasn't able to go so I joined him. The gratuitous busyness of tuneful "Manon Lescaut" still in my memory from last night, Saariaho's minimalist story of love and death with a shimmering LED set by Robert LePage was in some ways the complete antithesis... but continuities there were, too. Saariaho's opera isn't yet two decades old but it has some of the satisfactions of romantic opera (love and death? of course! just like Puccini!). T, whose very first opera this was, thought the story (a Troubadour becomes enamored of a distant beauty and is distressed when she hears about the love poems he's written about her, the purity of his love based on their never having met, etc., etc.) seemed like something people write in high school, but the music, as for those other medieval high school lovers Tristan and Isolde, does sublime things...

 Time for me to take a breather, though!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Ginkgo snow

All education is local

Some people think our interest in the history of The New School is mere navel gazing, can you believe it? How can you be here now if you don't know where here is, and how it came to be the way it is? And if you're from an interesting place like The New School, which professes to think outside the box, wouldn't it be foolish not to learn from its extensive and varied experience in and out of boxes? Still, one might yet wonder if any of this has valence beyond The New School itself. Could our history, however inspiring or chastening it is for those of us whose destinies are linked to it, be of use to anyone else?

Our class (and we) had a chance to explore this question today. We invited two young student activists from our neighbor the Cooper Union to talk about their work calling their institution to task for abandoning its commitment to free tuition in 2013. Free Cooper is an inspiring story of successful student protest, if also of the way an institution with a distinctive and unconventional mission can lose its moorings. Cooper is 50 years older than The New School and from the start was meant to be more than a school. The Great Hall at the core of its dedicated building, a famous site of public events, helped define its civic role.

The Free Cooper leaders anchored the story of their organizing in a history of Cooper and its buildings. A slide of the inside of the signature building, hollowed out beyond its landmarked façade for renovation, illustrated better than mere words could what can happen when an institution moves beyond its original mission. Left standing inside was only the multi-story cylindrical shaft Cooper's inventor-founder had set aside for future use as yet unimagined (perhaps an elevator?), a lovely symbol, too. It was exciting to see a history put to such effective work.

We learned about the 65-day sit-in in the office of the president who had taken Cooper into such debt to build a stylish new building that they could pay for it only by introducing tuition, a sit-in which helped topple the president and his board. Part of how it worked was through the organizers' savvy use of social media, performances, parties and other public events, and it was exciting to be shown them by the very people who masterminded them. It was fascinating to learn how they collaborated with and learned from Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring and tuition hike protests in Québec. It was moving also to hear them reflect on how hard it is to convey what it was really like, three years on, both as history and as continuing impetus for student activism.

I'm not sure what our students made of it but I'd be happy if they took from the talk some stories and strategies, a sense of the power of student organizing, and a renewed sense that the history of a place is a resource for present engagement and future hopes. All politics is local! New School isn't Cooper, nor should it be. But even in our lapses queer old birds like us can encourage each other in the struggle to resist the homogenizing of higher education. Our quixotic origins might make the lapses easier to see and to learn from. And who knows to what uses our future-focused founders' hidden shafts might yet be put!

Religion of love

Got to sit in on a class by one of my colleagues today. The subject was a novela by Sudanese writer Tayeb Saleh, which my colleague explained was replete with references to Islamic literary traditions. One was the the archetypal love story of Layla and Majnun, beloved of Sufis, which was introduced through images. Two of these were so striking I asked for the links. In the Timmurid illustration above the young lovers meet while studying the Quran in a mosque the viewer enters piously through the door at lower left; they are placed visually in the niqab, a sign that their love is a divine thing. In the Persian miniature below, Majnun in orange at top right spies on his love in the tent below, while life goes on around them in a riot of oblivious color. Divine love is like this, too.
In a time of growing ignorance and islamophobia I'm so glad our students have a chance to encounter Islamic civilization in this way.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Inclusive

As the last leaves of 2016 fade, Lang's courtyard has found new colors.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Mini-Kailash

I usually tell people I've been fortunate enough to circumambulate Mount Kailash twice, but that's not really true. I've actually been around fifteen times. Two were around the mountain in Western Tibet which has, for some time if not forever, been associated with the holy mount. The other thirteen (auspicious number) are around this Kailash, which presides in the middle of the courtyard of a Newar building I visited in Patan, part of Kathmandu, in August. Don't tell me they don't count!

Advent 1

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Clouded

Here's a way of trying to homogenize, or at least bridge, the experiences of grandeur which supposedly greet every supplicant to a mountain and the experiences of sacrality which devotés of particular traditions might draw from it. The characterization goes beyond the idea that the latter project sacrality on to a shared experience, which is a plus.

Each of these themes or views brings together different ideas, images, and associations to evoke the experience of a deeper reality. Tibetan pilgrims, for example, view the peak of Mount Kailas as the pagoda palace of Demchog. The two images fuse in their minds so that the mountain becomes the palace. This fusion of images awakens the experience of something that imbues Mount Kailas with an aura of sanctity. The pilgrim becomes aware of a divine presence emanating from the mountain. 

The process works a little like the fusion of two slightly different photographs of a scene in a stereoscopic viewer to trigger a vivid perception of the third dimension inherent in each two-dimensional picture. The scene that looked flat suddenly seems to pop open with depth – in the case of a mountain like Kailas, a luminous depth full of meaning and significance for the pilgrim who reveres it as sacred. 

The juxtaposition of images and associations also acts like the resonance of notes in a chord of music. Hearing the different tones resonate together creates a harmony, a sound with a quality that no note can produce by itself. In a similar way, a sense of the sacred issues from the resonance of images and associations in a view of a mountain, not from any single one of them. For followers of religious traditions, however, the fusion or resonance of cultural and spiritual associations in a view of a sacred mountain does not just create an effect: rather, it reveals an underlying reality present but hidden from usual awareness.
Edwin Bernbaum, "Sacred Mountains,"
in Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, ed. Bron Taylor (2006)

This is clever and hermeneutically generous - what to the secular observer might seem a mere "effect" to the believer "reveals an underlying reality" - but I'm troubled by it. Is it because Bernbaum implicitly asserts that the experience is in fact the same: an experience of depth? (The trekker's experience is already an experience of depth.) His language is full of the sublime - heights and depths, mists and mysteries, vastness and vistas infinite and hidden - but I wonder if that is indeed how a mountain like Kailas is understood by a pilgrim. Intuitively I imagine a reality one needs a trained eye and a prepared consciousness to observe might seem hidden at first but, once attained, reverses figure and ground: if it still slips from view, this is not because it is deep and far away but because the mind - not the mountain - is clouded.

I have no basis whatever for this counterclaim, just a perhaps perverse resistance to the idea that different travelers of course encounter the same mountain. (Well, I have one rather corny piece of evidence: years ago, I was in Hakone, a famous Mount Fuji viewing site, on a day of near complete fog. This didn't stop a class of high school students, their easels facing into the murk where Fuji was, from painting the mountain in its pristineness.) At the very least, I'm compelled to try to relativize the supposedly shared experience of natural splendor the way in which this narrative relativizes religious "associations." For now, at least, I think one of the methodological claims of my Spring course "Not to scale: On sacred mountains" will be that sacred mountains are not mountains. (Recall my brief for religious studies: the discipline that recognizes there is no consensus on the real. We don't experience the same human nature, the same future, the same world.)

But here as in so many things (the list goes on) the impending trumpocalypse ruins things. My effort at pluralism and humility could provide comfort to obscurantism and ignorance! At least some of the climate deniers who have taken over our ruling party believe what they say. They don't see what I think everyone must be able to see - record droughts! deadlier storms! melting icecaps! warming seas! vanishing glaciers! - and in at least some cases this is for religious reasons. I'm thinking not of those for whom the phenomena are there but dismissed as unimportant, but those for whom something else entirely is going on. They don't experience the same nature! Aware that my terms are janglingly inconsistent here, I don't want to represent a position from which there is no possibility of their eyes being opened.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Daily bread

Looking for a bag of things my Japanese friend H left in our storage room last year I happened on something I thought was lost forever: a beloved wooden plate from Italy which I used to use for bread all the time! (Her bag was found, too.) I had thought the people who'd contracted to sublet the apartment while I was in China but then left me hanging after two months had done away with it... but maybe I hid it away! In any case it's good timing, as my partner returns from China in a fortnight, and we've taken to saying grace before meals.