Sunday, March 31, 2013

Dont forget us

So Pope Francis took the ceremonial foot-washing of Maundy Thursday offsite, to a juvenile prison, and washed the feet of inmates there, including two young women, one of whom was a Bosnian Muslim. (I gather the Pope traditionally washes the feet only of priests, certainly only men.) This feels like a big deal. It came reflected back to me today at St. Luke and St. Matthew, my neighborhood Episcopal church here. The young rector (raised Methodist and not someone accustomed to seeing prophetic work done in Rome) devoted most of his Easter sermon to reading aloud letters which inmates of a juvenile prison in California sent Francis on hearing about it. Here are three of those he read:

Dear Pope Francis, 
Thank you for washing the feet of youth like us in Italy. 
We also are young and made mistakes. 
Society has given up on us, thank you 
that you have not given up on us. 

 Dear Pope Francis, 
I don't know if you have ever been to where I live. 
I have grown up in a jungle of gangs and drugs and violence. 
I have seen people killed. I have been hurt. 
We have been victims of violence. 
It is hard to be young and surrounded by darkness. 
Pray for me that one day I will be free 
and be able to help other youth like you do.

Dear Pope Francis, 
I think you are a humble man. 
When you read this letter you will have washed the feet of other kids like. 
I am writing this letter because you give me hope. 
I know one day with people like you us kids 
won't be given sentences that will keep us in prison for the rest of our lives. 
I pray for you. Dont forget us. 

The priest's somewhat smarmy point was something like "if an old man with one lung can do something in Italy which touches the lives of young people in Los Angeles, think what we could do," but clearly he was touched by Pope Francis' outreach to those on the margins of society. I'm wondering how many other people have been moved by this around the world - women and men, young people and old, Christians and non-Christians - and in what ways. It is a heartening thought for Easter.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Lent Madness

Ever heard of Lent Madness? It's an Episcopal spin-off of March Madness, and invites participants to vote as scores of Episcopal saints go head to head. This year's winner: Francis Perkins, Labor Secretary under FDR and a devoted Anglo-Catholic. You can follow each heat, and learn a lot about these Christian heroes (and people's reasons for preferring one over another) here. To whet your appetite, here's how we got here.
If and when I ever teach my "Preposterous Saints" course again, I think we might do a version of this ourselves!

Friday, March 29, 2013

Tulip trees!

... or so my late friend V called magnolias, like this one, in Princeton.

Thursday, March 28, 2013


One of the things about an academic career is the jangling temporality of things, since projects circle back at different stages of completion, and even sometimes continue circling back after that! I suppose those folks with the good fortune or lack of imagination to be working only on a single project don't experience it that much, but an academic scatterbrain like me is often concurrently in several time zones. I mentioned this last when Leibniz strode back into my life last semester, as if he'd just stepped out for a quick smoke: "where were we?" We?It's happening again. Just as we're putting together the full draft of the book we hope comes out of last year's "Queer Christianities" conference, the copy-edited draft of the Job book shows up for my approval. (Good thing i's Spring Break - and I do my real breaking between semesters!) But that's nothing compared to what tomorrow has in store: I've been invited to participate in a discussion about the Japanese ethicist Watsuji Tetsuro 和辻哲郎- remember him? We became best buds during my year in Tokyo 1992-3 and he was my ticket to Paris in 2001; I even published two essays on his ethics in 1999 (in Japanese!) and 2005 and organized a forum on him in 2004... but I haven't actively worked on him since.

(I took the above photo at the Watsuji Museum in Himeji in 2004. The post title - meaning something like "before you know it" - is a play on Watsuji's most famous concept, aida 間, tho' here it's pronounced ma.)

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

All in the family

Today might turn out to have been the beginning of the end for DOMA. I'm not usually a joiner on internet memes but I had to be part of the HRC's campaign to "paint the town red," replacing my facebook profile photo with the red equals sign. (The only other time I've done that was for Trayvon Martin last year.) See what fun people are having with it!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


Here we go!

Monday, March 25, 2013


This seems to be my lucky year professionally! For the November Annual Meeting, the American Academy of Religion's Comparative Religious Ethics and Teaching Religion Groups are co-sponsoring a session - and mine is one of the proposed papers they've selected. "Exploring Religious Ethics" gets its fifteen minutes of fame! I won't tire you with the detailed proposal, here's the abstract.

Wider moral communities: A framework
for teaching comparative religious ethics 

A course in religious ethics has to be a course about religion too, otherwise it risks reproducing secular western understandings of ethics which render much of religious practice unintelligible or merely symbolic. Especially in courses for non-majors we face students who think that all religions are flavors of “compassion” or iterations of moralistic therapeutic deism - or, if not, are dangerously (or perhaps excitingly) irrational. This paper describes a way of exploring religious ethics which challenges the idea that ethics is preeminently about what living adult human beings owe each other. A focus on the bounds of the moral community in different religious traditions – we are part of larger communities including the dead, spirits, God(s), animals, etc. – allows a richer appreciation of the nature and norms of religious action (including ritual) across traditions and a deeper understanding of human participation in religious worlds.

It takes my thinking in "Exploring Religious Ethics" to a further level, considering the different forms of agency of non-human members of our moral communities. This, I propose to explore, will make clearer the specific obligations and opportunities of human existence, but also broaden our sense of agency in such a way as to reassess the different sorts of things different sorts of human beings do. Are some of our actions more like the actions of ancestors or mountains or God? I'm excited: a chance for me to bring to reflection (and pedagogy) some of what I have learned from trying to teach about Australian Aboriginal traditions, as well as from Everyday Religion and Sustainable Environments in the Himalaya; I think there's things from work with Parsons colleagues to be explored here, too.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Passion Sunday

Learned today that it's a relatively new thing for Palm Sunday also to be Passion Sunday - that is, for us not just to celebrate Jesus' triumphant entry in to Jerusalem but to enter into the brutal rest of the story, with a reading of one of the passion narratives, the turning point marked by the terrible hymn "The King's majesty." Not so long ago, our rector reminded us in his homily, Sunday churchgoers could do a "shortcut" going straight from the joy of Palm Sunday to the joy of Easter.

It's our Spring Break, which falls only occasionally on Holy Week. I'll have a chance to enter more fully into this culmination of the Christian year.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Slowly Springing

Up in Ossining, about an hour's train ride north of the City, for a working weekend with the rest of the Queer Christianities editors. Even a few hours spent out of town change one's sense of possibilities - in the woods here there's still snow on the ground, but there are snowdrops, too!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Centers of economic gravity

I suppose one advantage of having high school classmates who've gone into quite different sectors than you have (and Facebook) is that you learn about projects like this one, of the McKinsey Global Institute. I'm a bit skeptical about the 1000-1500 bit, and, since they work from a globe, wonder how Latin America economic activity would register against Chinese. Still, it's sort of fascinating...

Thursday, March 21, 2013


I really didn't think one could top Shangri La, but this most sacred of Himalayan mountains may be on my horizon. Details when I get them!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Pass the matzah

Facebook ads have me pegged for Jewish! I'm flattered but a little confused. What's happened - what have I done - to get rid of that scarily dim looking coed in the "Meet Christian Singles" ad that used to pop up? Now I get recipes for matzah and an ad for a Passover Seder karaoke app. (That last one is so intriguingly awful I'm tempted to check it out - but who knows what other things that would bring on?)

I remember that one of the characters in M. T. Anderson's fantastic young adult sci-fi novel Feed made an art of messing up the programs trying to typecast her buyer profile by deliberately going to the most random shops and feigning interest in products of radically contrasting lifestyles. In the end, she's hunted down as an anarchist threat, but Facebook's just for fun, right?

Muzak dance

Went last night to see Paul Taylor Dance Company at Lincoln Center. Taylor used to thrill me, but the thrill has worn off, and the last few times I've gone I've been underwhelmed. (Even when I took my friend H from Japan, who had claimed she didn't "get" modern dance, and after the performance finally did.) I had a chance of some cheap tickets, so I felt I should give them another chance. I'm sorry to say the verdict was, again, "meh."

Except for the middle piece, "Lost, found and lost" from 1982, which is about, I think, boredom. It's choreographed to "elevator music" and mines the gestures of ordinary life, including postures you see in elevators, when people are waiting in line, bored, impatient, making something delightful out of them, witty and even beautiful. (Apparently the movements are from a piece choreographed a quarter century before, which scandalized all but a few critics.)

Or was it the muzak, with it soaring strings, its improbable solos of harmonica, accordion, solo violin or guitar, its ethereal timelessness? (You can listen to a snatch of the music here.) I was transported back to 1982, when Lawrence Welk and Liberace were still current, and - this is the key - when background music didn't always have a beat. Even as we floated along chintzy versions of "Laura" and "As time goes by" (missing was only "Moon River"), I found I missed that gauzy tempoless world.

Monday, March 18, 2013


In "Exploring Religious Ethics" we've started reading Wayne Meeks' Origins of Christian Morality, which tries to find what united the disparate communities of the early Christian movement. It's not the New Testament, he reminds us, because in the first two centuries of the common era, his subject, there was no such. Different communities had quite different, if overlapping, libraries of texts, and different theologies and metaphysics, too. (His argument will be that what they had in common was a moral culture.) It was fun to be able to pass around A New New Testament, the arrival in churches (perhaps) of the discoveries discussed in a more scholarly way in Meeks.

We had fun also with a text Meeks cites, the Epistle to Diognetus (c. 130-200 CE), which lays out Meeks' problem - who did Christians think they were, and how did they explain it, live it? - and then moves into Pauline paradoxes, before moving into not yet non-canonical ideas about souls imprisoned in bodies. It's not one of the 20th century discoveries A New New Testament is concerned with, having been reprinted already in the 16th century. (The original manuscript was apparently destroyed during the Franco-Prussian War.)

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.

To sum up all in one word--what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world. The invisible soul is guarded by the visible body, and Christians are known indeed to be in the world, but their godliness remains invisible. The flesh hates the soul, and wars against it, though itself suffering no injury, because it is prevented from enjoying pleasures; the world also hates the Christians, though in nowise injured, because they abjure pleasures. The soul loves the flesh that hates it, and [loves also] the members; Christians likewise love those that hate them. The soul is imprisoned in the body, yet preserves that very body; and Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, and yet they are the preservers of the world. The immortal soul dwells in a mortal tabernacle; and Christians dwell as sojourners in corruptible [bodies], looking for an incorruptible dwelling in the heavens. The soul, when but ill-provided with food and drink, becomes better; in like manner, the Christians, though subjected day by day to punishment, increase the more in number. God has assigned them this illustrious position, which it were unlawful for them to forsake.

Trans. James Donaldson and Alexander Roberts in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1

Sunday, March 17, 2013


Most ambitious thing I've ever cooked - most ingredients, too (and this isn't all of them - squash, apricots, chickpeas, preserved lemon, harissa and cilantro are yet to come). Blame Yotam Ottolenghi, or rather, thank him! The final product is orange but the flavors are a riot of color. These roasted eggplant with buttermilk sauce, za'atar and pomegranates are Ottolenghi, too, and, unlike the "Ultimate winter couscous" above, not seasonal at all. I usually try too cook seasonal but made an exception because we were celebrating - one of our number is heading off in a few months for a new life in Australia, where it is late summer!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

A week's gleanings

There's not really a method to my cultural wanderings, so it's just a coincidence that I saw two fascinating documentary projects back to back in the middle of the past week, and two pieces about the redemption of downtrodden women yesterday and today. Happy coincidence, though! Contrasts, too.

The first documentary was "Jai Bhim Comrade," actually a 2-hour version of the 3-hour original, presented by its maker Anand Patwardhan. Patwardham, India's most distinguished documentarist, spent fourteen years filming Dalit political organizations in Maharashtra and, especially, the singers and artistic performers in their movements. The amazingly resonant result is - even in the shorter version - often devastating but also full of moments of joy and resolve. In Q&A he said he was optimistic about Dalit rights for the long term, not the short term.

The other documentary was "The Empire Project," an ongoing work of one of our alums Kai O'Neill and his partner Eline Jongsma, tracing the "unintended consequences of Dutch colonialism" across four continents. They introduced their project as part of a new Lang Religious Studies series inviting alums to reflect on how their experiences in our classes have helped and shaped them. In his senior work, Kel developed a method he now calls "exploded feature" - materials are offered in a form which lets/forces the reader to make her way through them without a prescribed sequence - which underlies their transmedia project, which uses multiple screens, parallel storytelling, etc. A very promising body of work!

The first piece about downtrodden women was Astor Piazzolla's tango opera "Maria de Buenos Aires" of 1968, performed by Opera Hispanica at Le Poisson Rouge, a bizarre poetic piece about a a poor orphan girl who is drawn into and destroyed by the underworld of BA but lives on as a ghost impregnated by the words of a somewhat demonic poet and is now the saintly protrectress of baby girls. I have not seen a purer version of the myth of the "madonna/whore," nor do I hope ever to. Can you even believe anyone could write this in 2013: Who is this woman of the night that wanders the streets without fear or reason? Is she a mother, a child, or a ghost? Saint or harlot? She is María, the most common name, and the name of the Most Exalted. She will not be confined by categorizations, she absorbs all assumptions. Ugh. Piazzolla's wonderful music doesn't really lend itself to narrative anyway.

The second piece, was the play "Wine in the Wilderness" by Alice Childress, a masterpiece of African American drama I confess I had not known about before. It was composed a year later than Piazzolla's, and seems to take on just the male romanticization of female ruin at its heart. An artist is painting a triptych about black womanhood, comprising a painting of a hopeful girl, of a splendid queen, and of a ruined woman "ignorant, unfeminine, coarse, rude, vulgar, poor, and dumb." Some friends bring a young woman they met in a riot for the third canvas, nobody telling her what the triptych is about. When she finds out, she gives them a talking-to like nothing I've ever heard, but would love to hear again. (There's one more performance, tomorrow 2pm: go if you can!) Actress Ayomide Akinsanya takes her character through a revelatory transformation from apparently silly and conventional to proud and commanding, provoked by the condescension of the artist and his educated friends, who like their heroes and images not to be able to talk back to them. It's a transformation you might not credit in any other medium than live theater, and it's positively thrilling!

Not bad for a four-day stretch! (I won't tire you with details of the rarely performed opera "Francesca da Rimini" which I saw at the Met on Tuesday, an often expertly derivative opera about nothing much.)

Friday, March 15, 2013

Here it comes again

Spring buds on the trees out my office window.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Tea time

Direct from Darjeeling!

Southward ho!

Helpful map of the changing demographics of the Catholic Church from the Times.

News from Rome

Habemus papam! And a surprise choice, too.

A new face but an old guy who looks like Popes of the past.

Vatican II and conservative.

From the global south (here we're saying "from the Americas"!) and an Italian, too.

Even a Jesuit and a Francis!

Bergoglio-Francis comes in as the both-and Pope. Let's hope it's a reconciling papacy.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A lot of Buddhism in one place

Our Kangchenjunga

Took one of our ERSEH partners, my host when I was in Darjeeling last year, on the Staten Island Ferry this afternoon. (It's his first trip to the US.) There's no better way to get a sense of New York in place and time. And, as I'd guessed, for a hill-dweller the open water is a great rarity.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Fast and slow

In "Exploring Religious Ethics" today, movement and stillness. (A paper was due so there was no assigned reading to discuss.)
The movement I called "Ethics Diary Speed Dating." Students are supposed to be keeping a diary of ethically interesting or troubling situations they experience or hear or read about. This time each got a chance to ask five classmates about a case of their choosing. The catch was that there were only five minutes for each conversation (which had to address both participants' questions) and then, after 20 seconds to jot things down - everyone had to stand up and find someone else.
I think it worked. (Since there was an even number of students in attendance I didn't get to be more than timekeeper.) Questions included what to do when undercharged in a restaurant, how to react if an old lady cuts in front of you in a line, whether it's OK to refer to a pair of identical twins by a single name, the ethics of skipping class (yes!), whether to donate to a Buddhist monk who presents you with a shiny Kuanyin amulet and then thrusts a book in your face of others who have donated $20, $50, $100, $200, and asks how much you're in for.
The students noticed how differently their various classmates framed and justified a view - and how they themselves subtly changed the situation they were asking about. In comparison with other students' ways into topics they began to notice a consistency in their own responses to the others' questions. It's just a start, but I think this thing has legs. It's certainly a great way to get everyone engaged and talking in not very much time. Next time I think I'll allow time between rounds for them to sharpen or otherwise tweak their questions.
After discussing the speed dating (I suppose I could just call it "round robin" but speed dating is sexier), it was time for something completely different: a 27-minute guided metta ("loving kindness") meditation by Sharon Salzberg, one of the founders of Insight Meditation Society. (Much better than the 7-minute version last time round.) If you're unfamiliar with this practice: metta repeats a series of intentions - that X be safe and protected, that X be healthy, that X be happy, that X live with ease (not always in that sequence) - starting with yourself and then expanding the circle of care progressively to a benefactor or friend, then to a "neutral" person you neither like nor dislike, then to a "difficult" person, and finally to all beings everywhere.
There's much to remark on in an ethics context, starting with the way metta simply bypasses the modern fancy that you could or should abandon self-care in order to care for others. (We're really taught that care for self and others are radically opposed, even fundamentally different, as different as "selfishness" and "ethics"!) It's also powerful as an experience of how self-concern can transcend itself, overflowing, and eventually I'll refer back to it when we focus on the overwhelming importance of intention (not action, not result) in Buddhist ethics... But our brief discussion today confirmed that what is hardest for us today is care for the self. One student, experienced with this meditation, said he still couldn't do the first step. A philosophy major said he "didn't want to want to be happy." Interesting discussions await!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

In a strange land

I didn't go to New Haven in search of America, but America found me: an early St. Patrick's Day parade marched through central New Haven for the better part of the several hours I spent in the newly expanded Yale Art Collection (best teaching museum in America). What a lot of groups of bagpipers, marching bands, fife and drum corps, etc.!

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Himalayan connections

Our ERSEH conference was planned to overlap with a conference of the Yale Himalaya Initiative called "Himalayan Connections: Disciplines, Geographies, Trajectories," so all of us piled into a bus after our gig ended yesterday and headed up to New Haven. (Us was perhaps twenty participants in our conference, from India, Nepal, China, Germany, France, Britain, US.) This made it a true India China Institute trip, with all the disarming conviviality of traveling together to picturesque spots, eating together in restaurants at long tables... At the Indian restaurant where we dined last night I ended up with all the Nepalis (including my friends from Darjeeling, who are ethnic Nepalis), who've decided to adopt me. A Nepali name is in the works! I newar expected...
And at the Yale event I met an ex-student whom I haven't seen in perhaps sixteen years (although we're Facebook friends... go figure!), a freshly tenured professor of anthropology at a liberal arts college upstate. His contribution to the discussion (the most thought-provoking, at least for me) was to focus on movements of people - a characteristic of Himalayan life for a long time - and to ask how far, in consequence, the Himalaya can be said to reach. (The nascent field of Himalayan studies seems to build on existing communities of scholars of Nepal and of Tibet, but tends to focus on the steep and dramatic "south slope," the Indian side; from the "north slope," the Tibetan Plateau, it's much harder to say where the Himalaya begins.) He is interested not only in Himalayan diasporas but also in the movements of people into the Himalayan areas, notably the growing number of Chinese religious tourists to Tibet. When one of them hangs a tankga bought on his travels in his apartment Beijing, isn't that Himalaya, too?

Update: the Nepali name is Mark Bahadur Shrestha. 

Friday, March 08, 2013


Goodness but Yale is full of wonders small and large!
Just look closely at the wildly witty glasswork on these windows.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

ERSEH can you see!

The Everyday Religion and Sustainable Environments in the Himalaya (ERSEH) project's final conference is off to a good start - though half the audience (myself included) goes all wistful each time someone puts up a slide of mountains or colorful Himalayan customs.

I was the first speaker in the second panel, coming after reports from our five case studies in India, Nepal, and Tibetan regions of China. Since I'd been introduced as someone who had never been to the Himalaya before this project began, I was happy to admit that I've been as stretched by what I've seen and learned as our local researchers have been by the rather nebulous charge to explore "everyday religion." My presentation was on "resource use decisions," and seems to have gone over well enough. There's something obvious about "lived religion," as about pragmatism, which can be either liberating, reassuring or a bit dull: my deliberately unglamorous (and non-"religious") mantra won't have changed that! But I think it was appreciated that I was trying to be helpful... and maybe I succeeded!

The next speaker offered a flashy Latour-de-force with clever powerpoint slides suggesting a parallel between the faux religion of Shangrila and New Yorkers' fixation on ugly and inefficient window box air conditioners. I dare say my three word message, delivered without slides, is more likely to be remembered.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The start of something?

Went with my friends M and N to Union Theological Seminary for the launch of a book not quite like other books, A New New Testament: A Bible for the 21st Century. A "Council" of nineteen spiritual leaders met in New Orleans last year to "reinvent" the New Testament, amplifying the canonical books by ten out of the seventy-five early Christian texts which have been discovered in the last century. Editor Hal Taussig then reordered all the books in a way designed not only to integrate the "newly discovered" material but to open the "traditional" texts be new readings through fresh juxtapositions and contrasts. So, for instance, the first section (after a "Prayer of Thanksgiving") is called "Gospels featuring Jesus' teachings" and offers the Gospels of Thomas, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts. (Thomas first, and Matthew through Thomas!) The Gospel of John appears in the next section, "Gospels, poems, and songs between heaven and earth," after "The First Book of the Odes of Solomon" and "The Thunder: Perfect Mind" and before the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Truth. Not your Father's Bible, this!

I assembled our little crew to attend the launch out of skeptical curiosity as much as anything, but after hearing discussion by several members of the "Council of New Orleans," notably Margaret Aymer, at least two of us were impressed at the seriousness of the undertaking. (The third asked: what new good news is there?) We're all one or other kind of Catholic, though, so revelation isn't as all-or-nothing a thing as it is for Protestants, whose Bible doesn't include what they call the Apocrypha, and who don't see the teachings of the early Fathers, Councils, etc., as a kind of continued unfolding of Christian truth.

Taussig's book, with the "newly discovered" texts divided into chapter and verse, is designed for church use (although one questioner wondered why they had chosen not to print it on "Bible paper," an interesting question). Many readers of the newly discovered texts, we were told, were overjoyed as if they had rediscovered a long-lost sister or brother. It is weird that way. I can certainly see how the inclusion, or return, of several important women disciples (Mary Magdalene, Thecla) and the feminine (indeed genderqueer) language of the Jesus of "Thunder" are new good news for many.

The Council of New Orleans

(In the interests of full disclosure, one of my alums works at the press so I have had a chance to look through the book for a few days. My first reaction was not that of discovering a long-lost sibling, more like stumbling on the lecture notes and doodles of mediocre and distracted students. It seemed to cheapen the whole corpus - but I now think part of that was a reflection of the unpoetic language the translators used to align it with the equally flat Open English Bible - you think you're reading A Course in Miracles. And the fact it wasn't Bible paper! The inclusion of non-Christians and specialists on yoga in the Council continues to bother me. But that was then. Now the project seems to me more humble and, in its way, faithful. "Heretical" in the sense of choosing? No doubt. But we're all heretics now.)

The early church was not monolithic, and managed for many centuries without a fixed collection of books. That is an important, challenging, potentially liberating fact (and a bulwark against know-nothing Biblical fundamentalism): can we have one faith without one scripture? The compilers think this awareness of the early church's diversity is an empowering model for the contemporary church, and hope it will be the first of many new New Testaments. I can't imagine this particular collection will survive long, though I guess you never know. The genre might. It seems possible that we will one day date the proliferation of new New Testaments to this project. And we were there!

Tuesday, March 05, 2013


We had a master in our classroom today. For the fourth meeting of our advising tutorial on "Buddhism and liberal arts" I invited P, an acquaintance who's devoted almost thirty years to the translation and analysis of Sanskrit and Tibetan epistemological and grammatical texts and happens also to be one of the most free and original people I know. What I didn't know - not that I'm surprised - is that he's also amazingly skilful.

Here are two examples, expertly targeted at common misconceptions about Buddhist meditation - that it's primarily about clearing the mind, and that it makes you more compassionate as well as happier.

One of the readings I'd distributed was a slick little essay by Robert Wright called "Should Buddhist meditation make you happy?" which tells of his attending a meditation retreat in Barre, MA (where I had mine a few years ago). He finds that, while mindfulness lets him detach from positive as well as negative feelings, when he heads home he's enjoying the beauty of nature more and feeling more empathy with people: he's happier and nicer! P said Wright's story reminded him of a friend of his who had recently found an adorable little house in North Berkeley. She attended a retreat like the one Wright did and blissed out as he did. But when she came home she found that there was garbage on the street corner, and that the paint was peeling on her really very small place. Buddhism doesn't teach you to filter out all but the positive, it opens you to what is, whatever it is. It might not be beautiful.

Later, a student asked what P thought of studies that allegedly show that meditation changes your brain to make you more compassionate. P had a two-part response. First, he told of a Tibetan lama who lived a long time with a heart disease. When he died, an autopsy was conducted, and it was discovered that he had developed two fat extra arteries around his heart, that had compensated for his weakened heart. P's cupped hands modeling the amplified heart quivered. The class was excited by this but also disturbed. This was not an all but imperceptible tweak to your parietal lobe we were talking about. Do we want Buddhism messing with our heart as well as our mind?

Then P told of a study of the effects of meditation conducted in the US. Research subjects from all walks of life were shown pictures meant to determine how compassionate their responses were, and most people scored 30-50 on some scale. The experimenters had wanted some Buddhist meditators, though, and asked the Dalai Lama to help them. He furnished them with an old monk. The old monk maxed out the experiment, scoring something like 200. When he was asked how many years he had been meditating he said he had no time to meditate. He was the abbot of a monastery and spent most of his time doing accounting. All he could manage was a brief prayer for the well-being of the monks each morning. Meditate on that!

Monday, March 04, 2013

Religiously situated ethics

Noticed at the last minute that the AAR's Comparative Religious Ethics Group and Teaching Religion Section are co-sponsoring a panel on, well, the teaching of comparative religious ethics. I don't do as much of that as I might but I do love it when I do. So I pulled out my Exploring Religious Ethics files and ramped it all up a notch. "Widening moral communities: A Framework for teaching comparative religious ethics" proposes that one might plot a trajectory from (1) moral communities beyond the human to (2) rethinking relationships and agency to (3) human ethics reframed, winding up with (4) challenges of pluralism.

You're familiar with most of it, I think. What's new is the idea that, once you've recognized non-human (strictly speaking: not living adult human) members of the moral community, you have opened yourself to radically non-reciprocal forms of relationship, and, in so doing, have expanded the category of agency well beyond the quirks and norms of human agency. Spirits, animals, totems, the dead, the unborn, rocks and trees, saints, deities, God cannot and do not act as we do, and are only poorly understood on analogy with our forms of agency. But once you acknowledge this, you're able to understand distinctively human agency as our part in a larger system of participation, enactment and care (and, in some cases I suppose, conflict).

And then, returning to the community of living human beings, you can see non-reciprocal relationships, and the existence of qualitatively different forms of human agency: think monks, but also shamans, reincarnated lamas, sacred kings, and, if you're looking for trouble, women and men. A merely interhuman ethics, especially one which applies equally to all, is seen as a subset of larger relationships and an island of precious parity. My current course engages several of these questions (not the non-human agency one), but it might be fun sometime to design a course that does this more ambitious and subversive thing - even if AAR turns out not to be interested!

Is it Buddhist?

"It's just like Aboriginal Australia!" groaned one student in "Exploring Religious Ethics" today, to the confusion of his classmates. What J meant was that, as in the course I taught on Aboriginal Australia last year, I had just lured the class down the garden path with an appealing image of what a foreign tradition was and then raised serious questions about its veracity. He was thinking of the rude shock of seeing the making-of documentary around "Ten Canoes" - this was the student so shocked and even affronted to discover that the people of Ramingining went to supermarkets and worse basketball jerseys that he accused me of killing Santa.

In the current class it was my revealing that the "Japanese Buddhist ritual" of mizuko kuyô, an inspiration to people on all sides of abortion discussions in the US, is in fact not very widespread in Japan and barely Buddhist. We spent last week with William LaFleur's influential Liquid Life: Abortion and Buddhism in Japan and I did the hard sell for a "Buddhist" appreciation of the fluidity and transience of life, for the sorrow which inevitably attends life in the world of samsara, and for LaFleur's argument that ritual may be a more mature and healing response to this than the quest for the final perfect definitions. But for today we read a chapter from Helen Hardacre's take-down of LaFleur, Marketing the Menacing Fetus in Japan, and a chapter from Jeff Wilson's account of the spread of stateside LaFleur-inspired discussion and practice, Mourning the Unborn Dead: A Buddhist Ritual Comes to America - all works I've described here before. (Yes, when a shoe fits, I wear it, and sometimes also when it doesn't fit.)

I knew the class wouldn't be satisfied with my laconic observation that, whatever it was or was not in Japan, mizuko kuyô became Buddhist in America! But it did plant some good hard questions. What should count as Buddhist, and why should it matter? Who gets to decide? Should or could there be only one conception of Buddhism? And why can't there be a made-in-America Buddhism? Japan, as I've stressed, is a Johnny-come-lately to most Asian traditions, and found ways of turning this into an advantage: by the time traditions showed up in the Land of the Rising Sun, they were ready to reveal their full meaning, and the Japanese were alone ready to hear it. Similar arguments could be made for Tibetans, but here I was suggesting that this pretty accurately describes "Western Buddhism" too.

And one of these days we'll ask ourselves how "Buddhist" it is to expect Buddhism to have an essence...

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Scarred Buddhas

In anticipation of New York's Season of Cambodia, the Met is showing recent works by Sopheap Pich in rattan. Two are integrated into the standing collection, one of them this "Buddha 2" from 2009. The work recalls a ruined temple Pich knew as a child, whose floor, walls and ceiling were splattered with blood.
In the corner of the gallery of Southeast Asian art where this is hung (Pich's 8-foot "Buddha 2" hovers spectrally at its center) is a late 12th century Khmer style Avalokitesvara, who once had eight arms. I don't think I'd ever been in these northeastmost rooms of the museum; glad to have had the occasion.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Palm autopilot

Isn't the human body amazing? A little cut on my right palm, healing.