Monday, January 27, 2014

The Dial

Well, I thought the first session of "Buddhism and Modern Thought" was fascinating - not sure how it will have played with the class, whose interests and degrees of experience with Buddhist and religious studies I have yet to gauge. But I'd like to think there was something tantalizing for everyone, and a web of unexpected effects and resonances across times, places and genres interesting enough to make them want to come back for more! (Unfortunately there were no markers for the board so I had to send them this drawing of the dial suggesting an order to all the connections after class.) The room in the new building (we're moving next class) was indeed windowless and a little grim, but there was a bonding experience in being among the first students to meet in the new building - and I was able to invite everyone to the cafe on the same floor after, leading them from the dark cave through a long corridor to the light-filled seating area overlooking 14th Street.

The class has wound up with some very ambitious "learning objectives."
Today's forceful tour was trying to get at the 4th, 5th and 6th of these.

Brecht's poem about the Buddha's parable of the burning house (read in an overpoweringly terrific way by the 80-year-old Käthe Reichel here) tells a story Brecht scholars seem to think was invented by Danish novelist Karl Gjellerup (Brecht was in Danish exile when he wrote the poem).* It really refers to one of the most famous stories in the Lotus Sutra, which I think Brecht will have known and expected his readers to know. (It would be nice to be able to demonstrate this...!) If so it's more than the cry of despair of a revolutionary artist who can't get through to people:

"... One of them,
While the heat was already scorching his eyebrows,
Asked me what it was like outside, whether there was
Another house for them, and more of this kind. Without answering
I went out again. These people here, I thought,
Must burn to death before they stop asking questions.
And truly friends,
Whoever does not yet feel such heat in the floor that he’ll gladly
Exchange it for any other, rather than stay, to that man
I have nothing to say.” So Gautama the Buddha. ...

It's a manifesto for more skilful art: realism, knowledge, truth are insufficient for getting people to see that the mouldering house around them is on fire. The father in the original Buddhist parable doesn't give up but gets his kids out, though not in a very Brechtian way (he doesn't talk about fire - they don't know even know the meaning of fire, of houses, of losing things - but tells them he has gifts of their favorite things for them outside the house). Pretty cool way to introduce upāya, huh - a communist artist, epic theater!

After reading them the parable as recounted in the Lotus Sutra itself, and mentioning its importance for explaining upāya and the mahāyāna, we turned to the year 1844, when it turns out, no less a figure than Henry David Thoreau published a translation of a part of the Lotus Sutra in his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson's journal The Dial: the first English translation of a Buddhist text! (He'd translated it from a Sanskrit edition based on a cache of Buddhist texts sent to Paris from Nepal by British colonial agent Brian Houghton Hodgson in 1837.) 1844 is an important year for western Buddhist studies, as it's also the year Eugène Burnouf - recipient of Hodgson's cache - published his  Introduction à l'histoire du Bouddhisme indien, coining the word "Buddhism" in the process. (Burnouf translated the full Lotus Sutra himself in 1852.)

A little foretaste of learning outcome 3! And a chance to name the orientalist worry (I dropped Edward Said's name). Europeans constructed an image of Buddhism out of texts, rendering it a system of ideas. (Actual practitioners in decadent Asia were not consulted.) But that's not how Buddhism (or any other religion) works. Sutras are recited, transcribed, copied, used as talismans, stuffed in statues, consumed. (Remember Bielefeldt!) And some of them - the Lotus Sutra prominently - are themselves agents. As a Japanese Buddhist intones its name, 南無妙法蓮華経 namu myōhō renge kyō, it's not that you recite the sutra, you lend your lips to the sutra, the sutra is on your lips, the sutra uses your lips, the sutra recites you. Intense stuff - and a little taste of the really mind-bending learning outcome 6.

So next we watched Theaster Gates and the Blind Monks of Mississippi singing "Blood in my veins," a work song composed to honor Dave the Potter, an African American slave potter (at work in 1844, for what it's worth), which resolves into a free jazz-like recitation of the name of the Lotus Sutra: namu myōhō renge kyō. (It starts at 22:30 here.) This was, I grant, a little hard to listen to so early in the morning! And just what was Gates (a masterful upāya user, as the story of Shoji Yamaguchi below right makes clear) up to? Slavery, ceramics and Buddhism? But I'm hoping it makes clear from the start that our inquiry can't confine itself to scholars, and to white Buddhists, and to those forms of Buddhism
which white folks like - first Pali, then Zen, then vipassanā, now Tibetan. For Gates almost certainly learned of the Lotus Sutra through Soka Gakkai, a lay Nichiren movement which has many Americans of color among its members.

And to close the circle, it turns out that Soka Gakkai was founded in Japan in 1930. Placing this up alongside Brecht in 1931 is just sneaky, as, indeed, is arraying all these disparate things around a dial. I'm not suggesting causality here, am I? Or am I? The really mind-bending part of "Buddhist ways of understanding influence" is the suggestion that the world may work in a Buddhist way - there may be bodhisattvas at work, and agencies like the Lotus Sutra. Or at least, as the Soka Gakkai International explanation of the significance of namu myōhō renge kyō makes clear, that we're going to need to push at the usual understandings of causality. The lotus blooms and produces seeds at the same time, and thus represents the simultaneity of cause and effect.

Will they come back for more? We'll see!

*In the 1999 translation of Gjellerup's novel The Pilgrim Kamanita, available here, a brief story of a burning house appears at 163-64, not much like Brecht's; the editors note that nothing like it is known in the Pali canon, and with evident distaste (and inaccuracy) refer to the Lotus Sutra as the likeliest source (415).

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