Thursday, May 30, 2013

Monday, May 27, 2013

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Seven hours of oleander

The original

400 miles of road travel today, from Del Mar to Yosemite! We're celebrating my mother's birthday in California's most famous national park - one none of us has seen since my sister (who's just flown in from Australia for the occasion) or I were children. Very excited!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Bird's eye

Peregrine falcons and pelicans above Torrey Pines State Beach today ...

Friday, May 24, 2013


And so it begins!

My housemate took this picture of me stepping into my airport limo. (You can tell it's me from the backpack and the pate.) I usually brave the subways to go to JFK, but rain and lingering loginess led me to make an exception.

In just a few hours I was logy no longer. Landscape had made its irresistible claim of relevance again.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Just for you!

Someone in the Lang Civic Engagement and Social Justice office has a thing for hand-written signs. Here are some of her notes of encouragement for students struggling with finals. I was laughing
about them with my friend L yesterday, but I think that's how they work! (And the last yellow one had been torn off when I saw it again this afternoon.) I even took some encouragement from them myself today, dragging myself through my first bout of food poisoning in a very long time. Not fun - one's achy and creaky, grumpy and groggy. It finally broke not quite 24 hours after it started. Just in time for packing!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


Do I need 20x optical zoom for the Kailash trip? It won't hurt! Even on a dreary upper East Side street, look what it brings into focus!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


The academic year is over, but the visit of our friend O from Sweden necessitated an encore meeting of Religion Live, our Tuesday lunchtime religious studies gathering in the Lang Café. The absence of
refreshment proved no impediment to liveliest banter. It's not likely we'll again see O, heading back to Sweden in a month, or G, heading in a month to a new job in Australia, together at a Lang Café table...

Monday, May 20, 2013

The wood for the trees

Exploring Religious Ethics 2013, which finished this afternoon, ended with some serious fun. In lieu of a final paper, I'd set up a piratepad (a website I learned about during the Religion-Fashion workshop last year), a wiki which marks each contributor's work in a different color. I listed several questions from the syllabus; each student was charged with adding a question, and pitching in to the answering of at least a dozen.
The students were as surprised at I at how seriously they took it, many, it emerged, agonizing over finding a perfect question; the nine students contributed over 9000 words in all! The piratepad functioned as the conclusion and coda to our "Ethics Diaries" discussions, in which students had posed questions to each other on anything they found ethically interesting or troubling, in a variety of formats (including speed dating). We agreed that it captured the feel of our live discussions.

The remainder of the last class was given over to Final Reflections, each student sharing some or all of what they had written. I always do a Final Reflection, too, but this time mine took the form of these bonzais, which I drew on the board while the class was filling in an evaluation.
(The labels actually came later.) I wanted them to understand that there is no neutral way of representing the history of a religious tradition, and so offered these. Can you see what's going on? In the Vajrayana tree, first in the top row, Buddhism produces two big branches, Theravada and Mahayana, which converge again around the Vajrayana. Next to it, a Hindu view of Buddhism - only one of many outcroppings of a larger tree. Next, a Theravada picture, with Buddhism a tree with a swelling trunk, and insignificant twigs representing Mahayana and other schools on the top. Similar, the Roman Catholic tree, which shows Christianity as a single strong trunk, with a few insignificant branches deviating along the way - Monophysites, Orthodox, Protestants... The Zen tree, finally, dispenses with the tree - through the mist one can almost make out a branch, which might connect the root to the single flower appearing at top, all that matters.

Bottom row: A banyan tree, a better model of the kind of tree traditions might actually resemble, with new branches putting out new roots to support themselves. Next to it the supremely gnarled Protestant tree, a tree which won't ever grow straight, but some offshoots of which eventually if only for a time recapture the vertical. Next is the tree of American interreligious comity, all religions equal and entwined, producing a single canopy of religious options. The Jewish tree is a burning bush, surrounded and nearly overshadowed by monstrous trees which have grown from its branches - but which are not themselves on fire. And the last one: do you recognize it? It's the planet of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Little Prince, alone in the vastness of space.

It may be easier to swing around among the branches of great traditions like the Buddhist and Christian than to represent them as wholes. To some extent each branch invents or imagines its own tree. As scholars, this is part of what we must understand and, as teachers, convey. But, especially in a course on ethics, we are also the monkeys swinging in the trees, each of us coming from somewhere, and perhaps in search of something different. We don't seek a natural historical depiction of the tree as seen from a distance, but a branch or branches to support us, connecting us to the earth and to the sky, as we move through our lives. The "Ethics Diaries" have made clear that an opportunity to discuss ethics in connection to their own lives, struggles and questions is something at least these students sought.

My somewhat maudlin ending, evoking Hamann's epigraph to Fear and Trembling: As a teacher I may be like the messenger in the story of Tarquin the Proud, who reported that he had received no answer to his question, just noticed that Tarquin was cutting off the tall poppies. Sometimes one is the carrier of a message one doesn't know one is carrying. The reason we do what we do as teachers is that students take what we give them and go places we wouldn't or can't go. Go well!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

A new song

I'm going to miss the Church of the Holy Apostles during my 3 months of vagrancy! Because of a subway delay I arrived a little late today, and sat on the side - a new view of things. How's do you like my panorama? A bit fuzzy on the detail, but everyone's there. I know almost everyone at least by name, which is kind of remarkable - it is my church family.
It was a special day, too. Yes, it's Pentecost, "the birthday of the church," hence all the celebratory red. It was also the last day of our organist and choir director, the esteemed David Hurd, after 15 years, and the professional choir he's directed. (Austerity has taken its toll on CHA, too.) We sent them off with thanks and blessings.

What will our music be like from now on? A search is on for a new music director, who will have to make do with the (not inconsiderable) gifts of our singing congregation... The message of this part of the liturgical year - stop looking at the sky, go out there and make some noise! - is somehow reassuring at this uncertain time.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Double take

When that British theologian (and her theologian husband) came to stay for Queer Christianities 2, people I had never met before, I had a look around the dining room to see what someone might think it told about me religiously. To my surprise, it told I was a Buddhist! There certainly is a lot of Buddhist stuff there, though there is Christian stuff too, harder to see, and in the other rooms the Christian stuff rules the roost. Here's an inventory, with stories of how things got here.

This is calligraphy from 仁和寺 Ninnaji, a Shingon temple in Kyoto. I think it's by someone quite important. 大道, the great way.
Next you might notice this goddess Saraswati, in her Himalayan Buddhist garb. It was my thank you gift from the proprietor of Gangtok's coolest bookshop, where I gave one of my everyday religion talks last January. (The flower you'll recognize as more recent.) Nearly on the floor beneath the Japanese calligraphy you might notice this tankga of the medicine Buddha, which I picked up in Shangrila last summer. I bought it because I wanted a tangka, and was looking for one without a Buddha - but I'm the only who sees the greens here!
In another corner you might see this Tibetan incense holder, a gift from a past colleague He picked it up on one of his annual pilgrimage/ tours.

And then of course, in the middle of the table, there's this candle, which has become the official candle of Sunday dinners! Though it looked like dragonflies to my flatmate, it in fact evokes the cubes of Buddha eyes atop great stupas like the one at Boudha in Kathmandu.

A lot of Buddhism going on here, it must be said! A lot of it is souvenirs of my recent trips to the Himalaya, and the calligraphy was a gift from our oldest family friend in Japan, who grew up in a temple in the tradition centered at Ninnaji. The Christian stuff is harder to find...

Photos of my dear ones are jammed higgledy-piggledy atop a CD rack. That postcard of Jesus reaching from the cross is from Halle.

And a little farther down in the CD rack you might notice this, a Russian icon of the Trinity, blessed by my late friend V, an Episcopal priest.

The wooden thing in the window - an eye knocked out of a block of wood, with the word PEACE burnt in - is from the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in Abiquiu, NM, where I've twice gone on retreat. (It looked happier before the landlady put bars on the window!) I have to admit that I, too, don't pay these Christian things much heed - except for the postcard from Halle, which is there precisely as a reproach for my religious fluffiness!

The room I sleep in is more clearly marked. A poster of the Verduner Altar, a 12th century enamel altar in Kloster- neuburg, just outside Vienna, gets the whole big wall to itself. Like the Georgia O'Keeffe Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival poster it's traveled with me for years.

And behind the cookbooks (and more incense) is Christ of Maryknoll, an icon by Robert Lentz, a queer Christian, another reproach.

So what does it all add up to? The digs of a double belonger - or just of a dilettante? This has been an interesting exercise as I come to the end of my most Buddhism-heavy semester in many years, perhaps ever. What is Buddhism for me - or, for that matter, Christianity? I confess I'm glad I'll have access to these things - all of them - remotely as I set off for another summer of peregrination. (I read the blog, too!)

I leave you with a picture of the fridge, recalling telling students in classes on "Lived Religion" that you could learn a ton about people by looking just at what they put on their refrigerators. It's dominated by art by various children in my life, and creatures of a "design your own religion" set from another colleague. Oh, and at the top, a tiny little Buddha I picked up in Boulder, Colorado five years ago. Oops.

PS Oh and guess what else I forgot: the palms from Palm Sunday...!