Saturday, June 30, 2012

Tolle lego

As I was building the derelict Mission de San Juan de Lego Retrofito, my talented nephew T built the megachurch of the Smiling Trinity.

Back from China

I'm still sifting through photos from my trip to China (1400; target after sifting; 600-700), but here are a few. It seems like a very long trip, though I was only in China for 13 days, and Hong Kong for another 5. I think it's not just because of the forced blogging and Facebook fast! Perhaps because it was many different kinds of trips and destinations?
There was the trip to the Tibetan Plateau with the "Everyday Religion and Sustainable Environments in the Himalaya" project, complement to earlier trips to Nepal and northern India - these above are alpine flowers I pressed after a hike in the environs of the ethnic Tibetan town of Shangrila, altitude 3200m. (Before 2001 it was called རྒྱལ་ཐང་རྫོང་ or 中甸.) And here is our Indian-Nepali-Chinese Tibetan-American-Australian research group, amplified by women from the village of Daba, and the view of Daba seen the following morning from the yurt where I slept. We did good work, and also turned a monster prayer wheel (3 rotations = 2.4 billion om mani padme hum), visited a tangka painting school, the recently rebuilt Tibetan Buddhist monastery of Songzanlin, and the wildly powerful churning waters of the Yangtse at Tiger Leaping Gorge. The whole area has become a major tourist destination for domestic Chinese tourists escaping the heat and uniformity of Han Chinese cities. The tours usually start in the picturesque 17th century town of Lijiang,

a success story of the Naxi people who rose from a devastating earth- quake in 1996 to become China's first UNESCO World Heritage site and premier tourist destination. I spent 2 nights there before our meeting. Not everyone likes Lijiang, though; an American scholar we met lamented its "Disenyfication" and the "zombification" of its culture.
He felt the same happening to Shangrila - behold the Chinese stone bridges and metal-trussed Tibetan temples being built around its main square. It is an interesting question what's going on here. China is proud of being a multi-ethnic land, and Yunnan is home to more minority peoples than any other province... And its ethnic Tibetans aren't like those rowdy combustible types in Tibet. They're even allowed to post pictures of the Dalai Lama - as among the assembled holy figures in the minibus which drove us around; next to him is the Chinese-appointed reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. As a reward for good behavior lots of money flows in, many temples razed during the Cultural Revolution(by Tibetan Maoists, glad to be freed of monastic feudalism!) are being rebuilt. But, our source told us, Songzanlin is but "a shell," with few monks and no Tantric initiations. In these parts, he said provocatively, "religion is dead." Everyday religion may survive but its vitality depends on the institutions whose backs have been broken by communism.

I'll doubtless have reflections on that topic to share eventually - the Himalayan region does certainly offer a wealth of research topics! - but the order of the day is "Mark's first trip to China," so I'll keep moving outward from the trip at its center. I made my way slowly to Shangrila, stopping first in Lijiang, and the 3 nights before that in Kunming, which I explored quite comprehensively on foot. A small city of 7 million, Kunming lies at 2000m and is known as the city of eternal Spring for its clement weather. Historically and again today it's a hub of peoples from the Tibetan Plateau to Southeast Asia. It was my first China experience, quickly overcoming any scruples I'd brought with me.
Lily pads and morning tai chi dancers in Green Lake Park, a billboard with a homeless person, a Tang dynasty pagoda, the new city center. And below: a street overlooked by the city planners, a street sutra, immortals at Zhenqing Daoist temples, incense at Yuantong temple and Tibetan dances in the ethnic dance spectacular "Dynamic Yunnan."There's definitely a bias to my touring! There's plenty I didn't see (or photograph: I peeked into the giant Carrefour and the international luxury brand malls), and of course, walking from the city center, I didn't get to the unthinkably vast standardized housing projects I saw from the plane where most Kunmingers evidently live. The closest I came were
some towers under construction from the taxi window on my way to Quiongzhu temple in the hills to the city's west, where I snuck some photos of the near life-sized 500 Luohan (arhats) which somehow managed to survive the Cultural Revolution - perhaps because the caricaturing sculptor was disciplined by his abbot for impertinence!
And that wraps up the Yunnan part of my trip; I'll save Hong Kong- Shenzhen-Guangzhou for tomorrow. But I trust you get a sense of some of the historical, geographical, cultural questions raised... What's up with the gleaming new temples among the gleaming new towers and shops of the new China? Zombie or immortal? A new age of the arhat?

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Back in the USA

At the San Diego County Fair.

Friday, June 08, 2012


The China trip has arrived! I head off tomorrow for Hong Kong, and from there to Yunnan. I'm not taking my computer, but will doubtless find internet cafes wherever I go. I don't know how often I'll be able to update this blog, though, let alone post pictures. At the latest in the days after my return to San Diego, June 27th, I'll have a full report!

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

God's eye view

Another cross-country flight, but a new trajectory since I went direct from the AAC&U Institute near Ellicott City, MD. Baltimore-Houston-San Diego takes you from Navy to Navy by way of NASA, allowing for some unfamiliar knicknacks in stores ("1.21.2013: The end of an error") but with fascinating scenery pretty much the whole way, in grids, veins and whorls new to me, with the human interventions tapering off as we headed west. (The Klee-like second photo shows oil derricks, I think.)

But about the time of the Middle Earth-like landscape above (those velvet hills!) I was put in the space of airplane window epiphanies where I've seen the face of God in crosshatched ocean swells or leaf-like mountains dusted with snow. Interesting that this happens when I'm on a new course. The deserts I traverse on the JFK-SAN route are familiar, and feel like, well, home; but this terrain was new, and wondrous.
I wrote in my little pocket diary: Seeing the dry, rivuleted expanse below me, most of its patterns the kind you would not notice if walking them, and in the distance fractal doilies, loops and wrinkles and armadas of polka dots, all very dry and desolate yet somehow linked in a seamless tableau completely local and particular but also coursing with universality, I realize this desert world is how I understand reality to be. Was my understanding of the world formed by flyovers?

I pondered what this would mean. I considered my perpetual surprise and delight at seasons, at woods, even at flowers. I recalled my intuitive grasp of the idea of paysage, of the celebration of irreducibly particular "place" instead of the generic "space," and of Aboriginal Australian ideas of "country." I recalled my fascination at statistical patterns, patterns and alignments even in human events which nobody intends or even is aware of, and with Stuart Kauffman's idea that the splendid complexity of life is just the iteration of simple algorithms.I like the idea - a lonely desert idea, granted - that there are patterns in our lives of which we are not even aware: we stand in relation to all things, though we might never know how, or even that. And the presentiment that these patterns are to be found also in non-human and inanimate nature thrills me. These patterns seem to me deep and meaningful, mysterious and consoling. Like Matthew 10:29, Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father, without the sequel, Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows - there's no space for the comparison of value here, as everything is particular, irreplaceable.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The sound of GenEd

A friend of mine told me that the highlight of the AAC&U Gen Ed Boot Camp was a talent show and I didn't believe her. Worse, I recoiled in horror. Now I'm a believer! It's a hard-working few days as teams pull together action plans in consultation with experts and conversation with people from other colleges and universities. As we go back to our home institutions we are primed to expect every variety of resistance and indifference, but have been persuaded that what might carry us through is our own enthusiasm, and the esprit de corps of this meeting, where, for a brief transcendent moment, the broader aims of education take center stage. There is something surreal about it - the last being first and all that - so a knowingly dorky talent show is a fitting end.

Each team either recites some limericks or performs some custom-made piece. The highlights were adaptations of "The night before Christmas" and "To be or not to be" - two of each, and filled with the jargon and acronyms of teaching, learning and assessment discussions! - and updates of two songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein. The evening ended with our institute faculty leading us in the anthem above. What I'll remember was "How do you solve a problem called assessment?" with its tender ending (sing it!): How do you hold an outcome in your hand?