Thursday, October 04, 2012

Good karma

Our roundtable on Buddhism and the Liberal Arts went swimmingly. More than swimmingly, it was inspiring, a deliciously varied set of reflections, one more stimulating than the next, and all by people with meaningful connections to our program. Our brief:

The study of Buddhist traditions is one of the strengths of Lang's Religious Studies program. Our courses have introduced students to the interdisciplinary engagements of Buddhism with such fields as cognitive science, gender studies and ethics. This roundtable discussion builds on these curricular experiences to explore the role Buddhism and Buddhist studies might play more broadly in the liberal arts. How might Buddhist practices and insights enrich pedagogy? Can Buddhist perspectives help us reimagine disciplines and interdisciplinarities? And might Buddhist studies offer new responses to old questions about the value of a liberal arts education?

A little ambitious, but that was the point. At a time when liberal arts is being attacked on all sides for irrelevance, unaffordability and Eurocentrism, engagement with Buddhist studies can help not only on these three levels but in reminding us of their interconnection.

The first speaker was Chris Kelley, who's taught for us for several years. A gifted organizer of major international conferences in consciousness studies and Buddhist ethics, he's completing a dissertation on Buddhism and human rights. Here he introduced Martha Nussbaum's arguments for the value of liberal arts education and took them to the next level. Nussbaum argues that cosmopolitan citizens need to be capable of critical thinking, transcending local loyalties, and sympathetically imagining the predicament of others. For Nussbaum the second is all about the study of other cultures, but what about the first and the third? Chris introduced Buddhist resources and pedagogical traditions which might contribute to the other two as well, notably two Tibetan Buddhist practices: debates which combine memorization and spontaneity, reason and creativity (above) and the remarkable and powerful "exchanging self for other" meditation practice, both of which would, I dare say, blow the mind of many a smug cosmopolitan!

Next came Laura Lombard, who coordinates educational outreach for the Rubin Museum and has also taught classes for us. She described the museum's Deweyan philosophy of education, and told us of two classes which made unusual use of the Rubin's collections, a math class which studied mandalas as part of a study of symmetry, and a communication studies class which became entranced by the gestural language of Buddhist figures, studied their use in over 100 films of Gelugpa debates, and discovered a whole world of gestures, along with studies of their remarkable pedagogical power. Especially in the former case, however, she said she was a little concerned if the works - religious works
designed for a specific religious use - were being abused in some way, and asked a Lama, who reassured her that if they were helping people it was fine. This question continues to engage the curators and educators at RMA, she told us. They were helped in their thinking by a powerful work of art, an ice Buddha assembled by artist Atta Kim (above and here), which melted as people touched it (the water poured into jars viewers were encouraged to take home and pour into their plants). She started and ended her presentation with images of this work which, first describing how it touched viewers to the museum, and then describing how it helped the curators negotiate their work sharing largely religious work in a secular setting. For Atta Kim is not a Buddhist.

The next speaker, Ryan Bongseok Joo, teaches Buddhist studies at Hampshire College - but he tuaght his first course ("Introduction to Buddhist Meditation Traditions") for us. A monk as well as a scholar, he talked about how the liberal arts setting of Hampshire had freed him from the academic study of Buddhism's anxieties about mixing practice and study. When he was interviewing for jobs, he said, potential employers were excited that he was Asian and a Buddhist, and also worried by it: did he really appreciate the difference between teaching religion and teaching about religion? He did, of course. But his students don't! What to do? The breakthrough came from the interdisciplinary co-teaching which Hampshire encourages and celebrates. In a course taught with a professor of environmental studies, and in another in development with a professor of counseling and psychotherapy, religious studies' anxieties about practice/study lose their force.

After a break, our fashion studies collaborator from the Parsons School of Design Otto von Busch discussed some of his work trying to imagine forms of "fashion-ability" which are more ethical and sustainable, and his new project to explore the possibilities of "Buddhist fashion," a term inspired by the "Buddhist economics" of E. F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful. He amused us with a project he and some students undertook to take the rhetoric from the UNIQLO catalog and imagine making it real: instead of just "Fashion for all," how about thinking about "Fashion by all"? If fashion should be affordable, how about making it free! Then he entranced us with images of the "Taking Refuge in Restoration"
project he conducted with California College of the Arts and the Grren Gulch Zen Center in San Francisco. Inspired by the Zen rakusu tradition of sewing pieces of other (perhaps distinguished dead) monks' robes into one's robes, they invited people to bring clothes needing repair, but big enough that they might also yield material for patching others'. And so everyone came, cut and sewed, and left with clothes repaired, patched with cloth from someone else who had also come in need of repair and left restored. One mantra of Otto's program at Parsons is that since "everyone dresses," changing our experience of fashion might lead to profound personal and social transformations. Buddhist ones, even!

Finally Joseph Roccasalvo, a retired professor of Theravada Studies and novelist who frequents the Lang Cafe, gave an impassioned account of Siddhartha Gotama's discovery that the illusion of self was the cause of all suffering. It was a story everyone present knew, but it was bracingly presented in a way which challenged us to look beyond anodyne therapeutic appropriations of Buddhist meditation promising to make us more calm, happy, productive people. Gotama's enlightenment was a big deal, of cosmic significance, his call to abandon narcissism for attention still one of the most radical challenges one can make. Can liberal arts be liberation arts?

There wasn't much time for the promised roundtable discussion, but I'm not sure anyone much minded. Each of the presentations had been splendid, beautifully presented and full of food for thought. And has there ever been this kind of exchange, so wide-ranging, on these questions? One thing which did become clear, though, was that we were only able to do this together tonight because we've been doing it severally for years. When the panelists gathered around a table for the discussion one said he felt like they were "inside Mark Larrimore's head" but I trust this discussion made clear to all how much Mark Larrimore's head has been shaped and filled by the opportunities of his interdisciplinary home at Lang and the remarkable resources available all around. Buddhism and the liberal arts have an exciting future, happening already at The New School!

We hope that "Buddhism and the Future of the Liberal Arts" continues, perhaps as a monthly discussion series - though I suspect we won't just talk, but will debate and gesture and patch and even, betimes, meditate. Let me know if you'd like to be involved!

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