Friday, February 28, 2014

Lego my ego

I don't usually write negative reviews of things - the Web's overflowing with them - but allow me to recommend that you not see "The Lego Movie." (For everthing that movie should have been but wasn't, go see the sublime "Wreck-It Ralph"!) I should have known better than to go - I know I'm too close to it! - but an alumna told me that it was a brief for Christian socialism and my curiosity was piqued. And then I found myself exhausted late of a Friday afternoon and the deed was done.

The nature of the exhaustion may be pertinent. Fashion Praxis, the series of interdisciplinary conversations on fashion and politics of which I, too, was a part, turned out to be an all-day affair. It began with a prophecy that fashion did not just "exemplify" Hannah Arendt's understanding of the vita activa (The Human Condition was recommended reading for participants), but "completes" it. Specifically, it somehow complements Arendt's understanding of labor (the maintenance of our biological existence) with spectacle, work (the world of made things) with aesthetics, and action (the truly human world of persuasion and human multiplicity) with ethics.

This manifesto came not from one of the fashion theorists or designers but from an enthusiastic professor of international affairs, but it got me thinking. What I, as a relatively unsympathetic outsider, tend to see as a dystopia of waste, elitism and conformity is clearly understood by many within it as a utopia. (Witness the way that the "is fashion a religion?" question once again elicited wide-eyed talk of transcendence, etc.) I understand that Parsons is the design school most committed to bringing critical awareness of the dystopian realities of fashion (sweatshops, anorexia, cultishness) and to releasing its utopian promise (recognition of the value of craft, celebration of the ways that "everyone dresses," communities of use and reuse, etc..)

I wasn't thinking about Parsons while trying to remain interested in the action movie at the center of "The Lego Movie," but in retrospect there's a parallel. The film has been getting plaudits from pundits for successfully selling a 90-minuted infomercial whose point seems to be that big companies like Lego are not to be trusted. The film celebrates everyone's capacity to be a "master builder," to create Lego concoctions nobody has ever dreamt of before - which might, heck, save the world! And there I find myself caught. Even as I note that you can buy new Lego sets to build stuff from this film about not following instructions (hello?!), I am reminded my own utopian attachment to Lego's infinite combinatorial miracle, which - yes, still - I think has shaped (in good ways) how I understand the very stuff of the world.

Maybe I should approach the world of fashion in the same way? In the meantime, there's one moment in "The Lego Movie" which I loved. As the ragtag bunch of lovable rebels are storming the headquarters of nefarious Lord Business, who wants to destroy all creativity, they hear someone approaching. The little yellow people hide. But the improvised robot-pirate-spaceship does even better, recombining its pieces in a blinding flurry to a perfect disguise: a copy machine!

(If only it had actually been the same pieces. Sigh.)

Thursday, February 27, 2014


I learned a new Chinese word today, 缘分 (yuanfen). It means something like "fateful coincidence, blessed by Heaven." This explanation is from Fan Lizhu, a Chinese sociologist of religion, who in a 2011 essay included 缘分 among the terms which a religious studies rooted in Chinese rather than Western tradition might build on. But Prof. Fan mentioned it in an e-mail to me today as a term "which is commonly used by Chinese people to describe things such as are happening between us."
What she's referring to is a string of serendipities which started with my looking up an American Sinologist in San Diego last month. He directed me to her, and she connected me to the director of the Religious Studies Program at Fudan University in Shanghai, where she teaches. Then things started to snowball in a 缘分y way. Within a day, I had emails from several Fudan people eager to host me next year; indeed, everyone seemed to assume that it was a fait accompli. 缘分!
Then I asked her if she might be passing through New York in the next months, and learned that she'd be giving a talk a few states away next month. I sent out an email to people at New School who might be interested, and within hours had got enthusiastic expressions of interest from several. With the help of the India China Institute, we are now officially hosting Fan Lizhu and her husband Chen Na (also a sociologist of religion) for a lunchtime roundtable in four weeks. 缘分!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014


I attended a roundtable discussion of the question "What is the Meaning of the University in Exile for the NSSR of the Future" today - and even got a souvenir mug! NSSR, "New School for Social Research," is a floaty signifier here: today it refers to what what was until recently known as the Graduate Faculty of Social and Political Science, which itself began as the University-in-Exile. The University-in-Exile, of course, was a 1933 offshoot and project of the original New School for Social Research, founded in 1919, which has been wandering increasingly wraithlike through our halls since losing its name - you know the story!

The current dean of NSSR framed the discussion with a more pointed question: is the University-in-Exile "useful as an organizing principle for the future" of the division. The answer I gathered from the ensuing discussion was: no. Faculty members talked of the paradox of "institutionalizing exile," of the way focus on exile generates nostalgia, sees time as loss and approaches the future in a modality of preservation. Graduate students lamented the institution's failures to live up to its ideals, one noting that The New School currently provides refuge to corporatizing trends in higher education, while sending into exile students crippled by debt and young faculty unable to find tenure-track positions. Difficult challenges!

J, my coconspirator in things New School history, spoke in our class last semester about the "trope of exile," tracing out several generations of protest movements within the school which helped themselves to the idea of exile even within an institution historically linked to refuge. Productive it may be in articulating alienation, but is it productive otherwise? I was struck by how a particular way of telling the 1933 story makes the division which started as the University-in-Exile permanently unassimilable to the school of which it's part. There are other ways of telling the story. What if we learned to see the University-in-Exile as a natural (if still epic) extension of the engagement with the international community of social scientists which produced the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences out of the office of The New School? If our greatest moment wasn't an exception but something more like business as usual in an exceptional place? Too easy? But probably also not "sticky" enough.


Just over a week away! Yours truly will moderate, channeling Rahula.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Helping professions

In last week's radio interview I was asked if it's really true that I learn something new from every conversation I have about Job, as I claim. It is. As fractal confirmation, here's a lovely email I got today from someone who heard the podcast. You might remember the policeman from Rockaway whose confession at "Job in Red Hook" that he was "ashamed" to feel like Job so stunned me (¶¶10-11 here). I answered the radio interviewer's question by recounting this again, stating that I still wasn't sure I understood - but had no doubt that there was a profound truth in what he said. I understand a little better now:

I just listened to your interview on RadioWest about the book of Job... very interesting. You were puzzled by the report of a Hurricane Sandy firefighter feeling ashamed to lose his home and identifying with Job. I have worked with healthcare providers dealing with a drug addicted population, and I think I understand this kind of thinking on the part of those in the helping professions. Like the addiction medicine doctor, the firefighter has undoubtedly seen many terrible things happen to many people, and such suffering is almost always "undeserved." I believe that the firefighter feels ashamed because he thinks it is self-indulgent for him to think that he has received a personal punishment from God because he has seen the suffering of so many others. He knows from experience that suffering is widespread, random, and generally undeserved, and he feels ashamed because he can't help but feel personally affronted by God when he himself is a victim. This type of thinking puts himself in a separate category (why me?) from others who have suffered and have every right to ask the same question.
Just a thought. Thanks for starting a rich and important dialogue.

Thanks for listening!


Understood some more overheard Chinese tonight!
(What is this place?), an unpoetic line in the Hangzhou Yue Opera's adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler." An all-female traditional Chinese opera company and Ibsen? It works better than you might expect. In the talkback (after Hedda is all danced out and stabs herself with this sword) a company director told us that Shakespeare and Ibsen are the most beloved western playwrights in China. "Ibsenism" was brought in by early 20th century modernizers, who wanted spoken theater to take the place of traditional Chinese arts like opera. In 2006, however, the anniversary both of Ibsen's death and the founding of Hangzhou Yue, it seemed entirely natural to adapt "Hedda Gabler." I think it was effective. Good thing: I'm seeing their "The Lady from the Sea" tomorrow, too!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Idol speculation

In "Buddhism and Modern Thought" today we finished our section on the early Western encounter with Buddhism. We read the second chapter of Donald Lopez' The Scientific Buddha: His Short and Happy Life (a bridge between his Buddhism and Science and From Stone to Flesh), which illustrates the emergence of an image of the Buddha as a rational human being out of preconceptions about polytheism, idolatry, superstition and Eastern decadence. Lopez thinks this "scientific Buddha" has no precedent in Buddhist history and, as his subtitle suggests, hopes to help bury him with a richer and more complex picture of Buddhist histories. The "scientific Buddha" is in any case doomed to irrelevance, since he is constructed as proposing nothing which cannot and will not ultimately be confirmed by "science."

Lopez' pleasure in informing us what Buddhist traditions actually report (42) is matched only by his delight in quoting from the Great Discourse on the Lion's Roar something like a preemptive denunciation of the "scientific Buddha":

Should anyone say of me, 'The recluse Gotama does not have any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones. The recluse Gotama teaches a dhamma [merely] hammered out by reasoning, following his own line of inquiry as it occurs to him' - unless he abandons that assertion and that state of mind and relinquishes that view, then [as surely as if he has been] carried off and put there, he will wind up in hell. (45-46)

(Of course, the very fact that this view had to be condemned suggests that it was around long before the modern West went out in search of a non-religion/religion like 'Buddhism'!) Lopez rules the roost of revisionist Buddhologists (well, Buddhologologolists), and left us with a helpful sense of exhaustion. However interesting it is (one student called it "fascinatingly depressing") to see how Western needs, blindnesses and methods shaped our images of Buddhism, it's not nourishing. It's time to move beyond the image of a proto-modern "primitive" Buddhism 19th century Western scholars concocted out of ancient texts and mute statues, and attend to what actual practitioners of the modern era have done and said in Buddhist lands.

All that was accomplished, I think, but we also had an awesome discussion about - of all things - idolatry. It wasn't entirely accidental, as Lopez' story starts when Europeans could imagine only four religious constellations: Christianity, Judaism, Islam and "idolatry." This last category includes everything else, from ancient Egypt to Mesoamerica to Asia by way of the Norse gods. All are decayed forms of the original monotheism. Their differences are insignificant - there can be nothing positive in them, just the fascinatingly depressing tedium of human beings sliming the sublime with our all-too-human vileness over and over again in new climes. Last week we tittered at 18th century etymological arguments (described in Philip Almond's The British Discovery of Buddhism) that Buda was one and the same as Thoth - and Wodin, too!

But today we lingered over "idolatry." What is it anyway, I was inspired to ask, and what's wrong with it? So we talked about the second commandment, and the travesty of the divine committed by human efforts to represent the unrepresentable. This is the mechanism which, for premodern Christians, covered the world with a tapestry of polytheisms. But is that all there is to say? I told of the unironic use of the word "idols" I saw in Hindu temples in India, and soon we (well, mainly yours truly) were exploring the ways in which visual representa- 
tions might be aids, even perhaps indispens- able aids, to a life of devotion - especially if known to be just repre- sentations. (Photo from last summer)

So, I asked finally, if you're looking at a statue of the Buddha, is the Buddha there? Trick question, of course: it depends what kind of Buddhist you are. If you think Gautama has entered final nirvana, there's no Buddha to be around; the statue is just a memorial. On the other hand, there might be a relic inside it, making the Buddha posthumously present in powerful ways Buddhologists have only recently started grappling with. If you think the Buddha omnipresent, on the other hand, then of course the Buddha is there, though probably not in the sense intended by the question. And if you think everyone already has the Buddha nature but wrongly supposes it resides outside them, then the statue can work as a representation of your truly enlightened state, though it may take this externalization (or related visualizations) to make you realize it: yes, the Buddha is there, but not the Buddha-as-opposed-to-you. It's more like a mirror! So many Buddhisms, and all of them more interesting than the "Scientific Buddha" - who turns out to be an "idol" in the bad all-too-human sense1

On Wednesday we turn to student presentations on Buddhism in modern Asian societies, starting with Sri Lanka and Japan. We'll have to confront the inconvenient fact that we first learned about the "Scientific Buddha" not from a Western scholar but from Sri Lankan Walpola Rahula. Oh my!

Sunday, February 23, 2014


Just discovered that my conversation with Doug Fabrizio at RadioWest was being tweeted as we spoke. Their tweeter does pretty well, I think!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Shanghai is the future

Saw a great movie today, Spike Jonze's "Her." You've probably heard about it - lonely guy falls in love with his artificially intelligent operating system, voluptuously voiced by Scarlett Johanson. It's about that, but about much more, brilliantly written, and sheds light on experiences and relationships we have with virtual technology, social media, and ever more human-like machines. It also does what great science fiction does - shows a possible future which makes such sense you feel it's already arrived. We may look back on it, as we do "Blade Runner" and "The Matrix," as not just prophetic but true.

Among its science fiction futures is a more developed Los Angeles which is full of skyscrapers - and even a functioning subway system. That some of these scenes - like the one above - are shot in China is given way not just by the shapes of the buildings but by the hazy white of the sky. In fact this is Shanghai, the city where, it happens, yours truly will be spending part of next year. Yes: I seem to have succeeded in making a connection in the Middle Kingdom, and it's with the Religious Studies Department at Fudan University in Shanghai. More soon!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Aiutavo il destino

Might look un- prepossessing, but this is the view an hour before the premiere of the fantastic production of Puccini's "La Bohème" by LoftOpera, the inspired project of one of our alums. We're in a converted warehouse in a desolate part of East Williams- burg. The musicians and singers are young, many still at the Mannes School of Music, and fabulously gifted. To really feel the world of the Rodolfos, Marcellos and Mimis of today, go see it yourself - there are two more performances, next weekend. Best $20 you'll ever spend.

The New School's own

Don't think all my time is taken up with Job, China and Buddhism these days! As a good citizen of a hybrid university, there are all sorts of opportunities to cameo in other programs. So tomorrow I'll bring some of J's and my understanding of New School history to a conference on the study of economics at The New School, and next week I'll be dialoguing with a design theorist about Hannah Arendt, politics and fashion! The week after that it'll be Religious Studies @ Lang's turn - details soon.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Arnhold Forum: A Library

The library in the new University Center is ever so much more than just a library. Read a book: it'll save the world!


My first essay in Chinese (with gentle corrections from my teacher)!
It is full of profundities like "This year I am a teacher and a student," "Kunming is south of Beijing," "I like to eat Chinese, Japanese and Indian food," and - more ambitiously - "I'd like to learn to cook Chinese food."

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

In confidence

In "Buddhism and Modern Thought" today we read three chapters of an old favorite of mine, Philip Almond's The British Discovery of Buddhism. Almond takes Edward Said's idea of "orientalism" and applies it to popular portrayals of the Buddha and his religion in Victorian England, and suggests that these portrayals have a lot more to do with Victorian England than they do with the Buddha. Was the Buddha like a Martin Luther, challenging the entrenched corruption and hypocrisy of a Catholic-like Hinduism? How convenient as Britain established its colonial rule over Hindus in India - and as a spasm of anti-Catholic protest roiled Britain. Or was the Buddha not a social reformer after all - a few years later the threat of socialism made a soteriologically oriented Buddha much more palatable. Almond lines up page after page of such convenient parallels, all in service of the claim that "Buddhism" was "created" in the West and for the West.

It is ultimately a little pat - not nearly as theoretically sophisticated as the comparable argument by William Pietz about the European invention of "fetishism," which I assign in Theorizing Religion - but it's an important argument for us to consider. "Religion" and "world religions" are categories emerging from a specific modern western matrix. To point this out isn't just to say the emperor has no clothes, though Almond comes close. "Buddhism" is a western concoction (I prefer that word, learned from Sam Gill, to discovery/invention/creation/construction, though these have their uses, too) but that doesn't mean there's no there there; rather is it an imperative to go beyond what the concoction claims, to seek out more, and more kinds, of sources of information, as well as more categories. The concoction can't be trusted to take us beyond our prejudices: that much is sure. That's why the next segment of our course takes us to the experiences of Buddhist modernisms in Sri Lanka, Japan, Southeast Asia, Tibet and China. The concocting didn't just happen with white guys in European capitals playing with the texts of long-dead Asians (Said's Orientalism), but affected and was affected by colonial encounters and responses in Asia, and the efforts and ideas of living Asians, some of whom - like Walpola Rahula - went to the colonial metropoles and talked back. They're moderns, too, but in a sense which doesn't make the European modern somehow more legitimate than the Ceylonese, or privilege an inaccessible "premodern" over efforts to keep living traditions alive.

This matters a lot to me. In a way this scrupulosity defines my generation of religious studies scholars - the ones who won't let you use words like "religion" or "belief" or "Buddhism" as if they had clear and objective meanings, as a matter as much of ethics as of methodology. So it was a little disconcerting to encounter this description of us:  

Is religion manufactured, invented, or constructed? And if it is constructed, is religion any different from other categories in social thought, such as society or economy? These are questions that engage the current generation of students of religion who have none of the epistemological confidence of previous generations. 
Peter van der Veer, The Modern Spirit of Asia: The Spiritual 
and the Secular in China and India (Princeton, 2014), 63

Lacking in confidence? In a way, I guess. Reluctant to claim universality or objectivity we are. Lacking in colonial bravado and missionary zeal, too, though we're fully capable of bluster and harangue. We abjure business-as-usual "objectivity." We're taking apart the master's house so that all may live. Van der Veer's sort of on our side, but he clearly finds our disciplinary navel-gazing tedious (his own discipline's debates matter to him more), and our scrupulosity about terms like "religion" and "Buddhism" evidently strikes him as exaggerated. I find the sloppiness of claims like these maddening:

The encounter of Western power with Asian religions in the modern period is one that has been preceded by precolonial missionary and political encounters, but also by a long history of the expansion and spread of religious formations within the Asian region. The presence of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in Asia long precedes European expansion. Moreover, there is a long history of expansion and spread of Asian religions, like Buddhism and Hinduism. In fact, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all originate in West-Asia and are Asian religions, but then we also have to ask from which period "Asia" is a meaningful category. (66)

Religious formations is still tolerable, but everything after it begs question after question, especially Asian religions, like Buddhism and Hinduism! Is the concoctedness of Asia the only problem here? Is it really unrelated to the concocting of Asian religions, like Buddhism and Hinduism? Van der Veer's whole book is about the fateful construct of the "spiritual East," so his flat-footedness here surprises me.

I know I'm being a little uncharitable. By "Buddhism" he surely doesn't really mean "Buddhism" but "phenomena which have been grouped under the name Buddhism by modern scholars in East and West," and it certainly would be unwieldy to have to spell that out at every turn! Almost every term in a book like his comes with invisible scare-quotes, dispensing with them in passages like the one just quoted so that he can make new arguments rather than always rehashing the old ones. His project is to take apart the syntagmatic chain of religion-magic-secularity-spirituality (9), not to mention "the nation" in general and "India" and "China" in particular. More power to him! Still, his language lets "religious formations" default to the world religions paradigm, which seems to me to risk undermining the critical force of all the rest! Lacking in epistemological confidence, did you say?

Monday, February 17, 2014


Exciting, exciting - my first experience overhearing people speaking in Mandarin, and understanding it! OK, maybe it was a little overdetermined. It was in the Japanese gallery at the Met (I was on my way to the stupendous contemporary art show Ink Art in the Chinese galleries - more anon). A Chinese nun in brown was explaining a Kamakura Kannon 観音 sculpture to a lay companion, pointing toward the head. I heard 三面 (sanmian) and 十一面 (shiyimian) - three-face and eleven-face - and knew what she was saying: though this one has only one, representations of Guanyin 观音 sometimes have three faces and, as this one does, more above adding up to eleven faces. Yes, yes, I supplied about 90% of that out of non-Mandarin knowledge but still... It felt a very auspicious start to vicarious listening comprehension. (In fact, as 观世音 this particular bodhisattva is a specialist in hearing.)

The photo, however, isn't Kannon/Guanyin but from the exhibition of Silla Korea: a 1400-year-old Mireuk (Maitreya), Buddha of the future.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

In the thick of it

In Chinese we're learning directions (starting, characteristically, with 东西南北 EWSN). I remember from my days learning Japanese and teaching English, as well as from studies I've read over the years, that directions - right, left, in front of, behind, etc. - are much more culturally specific, and much harder to explain. The expression of the guy in the middle of this picture - standing on a diagonal between two people pointing one way, looking the other and describing the directions relative to us viewing the picture rather than him - captures the adventure!

Friday, February 14, 2014

Parsifal experience

After a bit of a hiatus from the Gesamtkunstwerk, I heard a lot of opera this week, old and new. On Monday I attended the first performance of scenes from a New School colleague's opera based on Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities" at Dixon Place. Last night I caught the last performance of the revelatory Glyndebourne Opera production of Britten's "Billy Budd" at BAM. And tonight I saw James Levine (yes!!) conduct an evening of comic opera with stars of the Metropolitan Opera's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at Juilliard: Mozart, Stravinsky, Berlioz, Donizetti. Chinese soprana Ying Fang was the standout - expect to hear a lot from her in the future!

About "Billy Budd" I'm at a loss for words. I can say it was one of the most compelling performances I've ever attended - doing what only live performance, and opera most powerfully, can do: change the world. The production was seamless, powerfully sung (and acted). The brilliantly designed and lit set - a cutaway of an 18th century ship - gave an overpowering sense of the floating hell in which these sailors were caught: no escape. I went with two friends and before it started we compared our past experiences with the opera; depending on who was singing, we sometimes sided with the wicked Claggart, or just with the innocent purity of Budd. But tonight was Starry Vere's night, at least for me. A swooning review in the Times said Mark Padmore gave one of the most amazing performances in opera, but he was riding on a production which helped make it his story.

The best I can manage is say that I had a Parsifal experience - which isn't very well put as I have issues with Parsifal. I felt that between the dark first half and what happened in the second, something changed in the very chemistry of the world. More my experience with "Tristan und Isolde" than "Parsifal," to tell the truth, since the latter working for me more through attrition and exhaustion than magic, but I'll say Parsifal experience anyway as it was an experience of redemption, of redemption coming to a dark and fallen world. And of course the trigger is a pure young simpleton. I think it started to happen during the amazing series of weird chords, loud and soft and employing all of the orchestra's registers, after Billy in condemned, and before we see his form slowly emerge from the dark in just the place on the stage where we initially meet Vere - and will see him again at the end. And where both sing of having seen a sail in the distance, a promise of release from this dark world which spares noone, especially the good, and intone the transcendent words: "I am content."

I fell headlong for the Christ story: Vere was saved, or Billy would have died in vain! And if he's an ancient mariner figure at the opera's start, during the three hours we witnessed something changed, inexplicable in rational terms but  My friend B rejected it out of hand: "he'll say anything," she said, by tomorrow he'll be wandering again. Vere was a weak man, and condemned - rightly - to eternal regret for not having saved Billy, which he certainly could have done. Vere reminded her (she used to work as a lawyer) of judges who, Pilate-like, took the law's side against innocent young people caught in its maw.

When we met tonight at Juilliard, I was about to tell her I'd been second guessing my too quick assumption that the enforcer of an unjust law could still be a good person (have I become too comfortable with the power structure, unquestioning of authority?) when she told me she'd decided, in the subway home, that I was right. The opera only makes sense if he is, despite his own judgment and understanding, redeemed. We ruminated together over the achievement of a production which allowed such different understandings, the mystical nature of Billy's and Vere's contentment, and the capacity of a not-quite-believing composer to convey it.

Thursday, February 13, 2014


I was the first person out the door of 265 this morning, and was greeted by this scene of fluffy snow - a good 5-6 inches! Before the snowplows came through, with just a few people on the roads, it was lovely! This was the nicest part of the blizzard. Even the lions in front the China Institute seemed happy about it. Then came rain and vast slush puddles... More snow is forecast for this evening, with totals of 12-18 inches possible!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Memory lane

Time flows in curious ways. I just got an e-mail telling me that I had a jury duty summons from the Mercer County Superior Courthouse. It's been almost 13 years since I left New Jersey, but they've evidently not updated their rolls! The summons was sent to the little cottage where I spent my last several years in Princeton, 162 South Stanworth Drive. Judging from these recent (but not seaonal!) photos sent by its kind current inhabitant, not a thing has changed! But I learned also that everything's about to. Come summer, the whole complex (originally built by MetLife, I recall) will be razed to make way for more housing, though they'll try to keep the trees.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


We've entered the sixth week of our intensive Chinese class! And while we're still drilling on pronunciation and learning simple conversation about who's in your family and what you'd like to drink and when you start class (giving directions is next), our teacher marked the occasion by giving us a first poem!





It's by 李白 Li Bai (Li Po) and apparently appears in every class (like this one). Still, it's exciting to recognize more than half of the characters, and to be able to sort of imagine how they might say

In front of my bed, bright moonlight,
Can it be frost on the ground?
Lifting my head, I gaze upon the bright moon,
Lowering my head, I think of my hometown. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Five of one, half a dozen of the other

Most of today's class was about Schopenhauer, but we started with one last point about Buddhism and Walpola Rahula. The revised edition of What the Buddha Taught (1974) includes many of the suttas from which he quotes in the main text. Included is the "Advice to Sigala" (No. 31 of the Digha-nikaya), the main prooftext for showing "with what great respect the layman's life, his family and social relations are regarded by the Buddha" (78). Here the young son off a householder is told that worshipping the six directions is meaningless, unless he understand the directions as his parents; teachers; wife and children; friends, relatives, neighbors; servants, workers, emplotees; and finally religious men.

The Buddha then explains to Sigala what the right form of each of these relations consists in, always listing five things the junior party should do for the senior, and five things done by the senior for the junior. It's a beautiful image of a society sustained by clearly defined reciprocal relationships of love. Until, that is, we come to the sixth "direction."
Six ways! The steady state get a wobble here - a wobble meant (I think, though it's the opposite of Walpola Rahula's point) to destabilize the whole social world. It's not just that care of religious men turns out to be the best investment of the layperson's time as it pays back more than it costs. The stand-out sixth - given further resonance by the fact that this network of paired fives describes not five but six directions - is "reveal[ing] to them the way to heaven" (124). (As it happens, "friends" - not among the six relationships - can apparently show the way to heaven, too, 122.)

What to make of this? Where our Monday discussion read What the Buddha Taught against the grain at the author's own direction, this time we were reading against his grain. (He really plays down the separation between monastic sangha and society.) It is true that Buddhist societies are more pro-family and pro-civil society than a world-renouncing image of monastics (like the one British administrators brought to the colony of Ceylon) would suggest. And it seems that most people in contemporary Theravada societies, whether lay or "religious," are working toward propitious rebirth rather an end to rebirth in this life. Yet this isn't because of what the Buddha taught, but because it's been such a very long time since he taught it. In this age of the Decline of the Law the Dhamma is all but inaudible even to the most dedicated, so the best thing is to work toward rebirth in human form when Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, comes and teaches it again.

As a Buddhist modern, Walpola Rahula doesn't tell us about the Decline of the Law. What the Buddha taught, being verifiable, scientific truth (not religion, remember!), is accessible to any human being who commits himself to it. Getting out of here isn't really the goal, is it? That's for Pessimists like Schopenhauer, not Buddhists!

Our song of the day (I've been gathering pop-cultural references to things Buddhist - our second class was called "Getting to know you") was George and Ira Gershwin's "Isn't it a Pity," sung by Ella Fitzgerald. I chose it to gesture at the joy with which Europe's "Oriental Renaissance" rediscovered its apparently Indic roots - and because our philosopher is named in it! But it takes you to a this-worldly steady-state Buddhism like the one Walpola Rahula recommends, too.

My nights were sour
Spent with Schopenhauer
Let's forget the past
Let's both agree
That I'm for you
And you're for me
Isn't it a pity
We never never met before...

My journey's ended
Everything is splendid
Meeting you today
Has given me a wonderful idea 
Here I stay!

Sunday, February 09, 2014

But for the Grace

I gave a talk about the Book of Job and my own book at Grace Church (Episcopal) in Manhattan this morning. I planned to cover roughly the same terrain as my talk two weeks ago at St. Michael's, but of course it went its own way. Where the emphasis a fortnight ago was on the way the complicated congeries which is the biblical text forces us to "make a book of Job" even as it resists even our best efforts, this time I kept returning to the value of staging the story, which forces you to decide what words are addressed to whom and also reminds you that Job was perhaps never alone. Perhaps because of this stress on the social dimension, I spoke more eloquently about Job's friends - how they represented his earlier life, values and indeed self (which is why their failure to recognize him precipitated him into such an existential crisis), and how the restoration of the friendships is the frame and foundation for Job's renewed life at the book's end.

There was a nice discussion but at the end of it I was also asked one of the two questions I've been dreading. No, not the question about my qualifications as a Hebraist and Biblical scholar. The other one: what business I have writing this book. That's not quite how it was asked but close. Could I say something about my own view of the nature of suffering in the Book of Job and beyond and its relationship to suffering in my own life. I gave the only answer I could, which was that I do not come at this out of a deep experience of suffering or loss (see my way of making that point in the book at right). I have learned from the Book of Job not to pretend otherwise, certainly not to think that I have vicariously experienced the wrenching and perhaps exalting effects of affliction through working with this book and its interpreters. I have encountered people, past and present, who have learned powerful things from adversity, but I wasn't sure I wanted to learn those things. (Don't give me children and then take them away, I said, a bit maudlin.) In any case, we should perhaps be exploring if there are ways of learning those things without such pain. I'm not sure I like the way that sounded - a little glib, a little unserious - but I suppose that's the point. I wasn't pretending to an authority I don't think I have, or that I think doesn't matter. Did I sound callow? Perhaps it's because I am. I'm willing to face that, for what it's worth. The questioner didn't look satisfied and I felt exposed and a little deflated: a good thing.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Frustrating teachers

Had the unusual pleasure today of being interviewed about my teaching by a scholar of higher education. How I become interested in what I teach was a familiar question, and I often talk to friends about the why and wherefore of particular courses, but I can't recall the last time someone asked me about my own best experiences of being taught.
(Snowy rails at 125th St.)
Three teachers came to mind. One was Rose Sleigh, a legendary, perhaps infamous, English teacher at Torrey Pines High School. She gave the students in her freshman humanities course insanely long and advanced things to read (Walden II, Howard's End, The Gulag Archipelago, etc., in their entirety); parents complained bitterly each year, to no avail. She also taught us how to formulate a thesis, make an argument, write. Once, some years later, I had a moving conversation with her about becoming a teacher: you have to be willing to be like a train station, she said, accepting that all your students will move on to places you won't go, leaving you behind...

But what I recalled today was when she called us up individually halfway through the semester and asked us what grade we thought we deserved. Expecting her to protest I said with false modesty "a B or B+." She called my bluff: that sounded about right, she said. Why was this what I remembered? Was it the moment when a teacher shows you that you're capable of better than you imagined? (I cherish similar memories of students who - if not right away - thank me for giving them their first C.) I described it to the interviewer as the moment when the teacher's pet learned that the instructor's approbation was not the point, something bigger than both of them was at stake.

The second formative teacher I thought of was Sabina Lovibond, one of my tutors at Oxford, with whom I studied the later Wittgenstein. What I remembered was that I found her tutorials intensely frustrating. Every time I left not only with my questions unanswered but with more questions. On reflection this must be the case for any teaching of that material; I didn't realize how effectively she had in fact been teaching me until I read her book a few years later and found every one of its incisive arguments familiar and intuitive. But that's not what I dwelt on today. Rather, I thought - for the first time, in fact - of the lonely generosity of that teacher who won't give students a false sense of comfort or closure. Yes, she communicates to them the open-endedness of inquiry, but a tutorial is a very personal thing - one or two students at a time for an hour a week - and she must have known her students were grousing.

The third was (of course) Victor Preller at Princeton, whose advice when I started teaching was "never pander." He was a frustrating teacher too, like a language teacher who wouldn't simplify for a beginning student, and many of my classmates found it maddening, just couldn't understand what he was talking about in that Godlike voice of his. I must have been frustrated too, but can't remember that; what I remember is when it all made sense - all of it at once. (He called this "when the penny dropped.") I discovered, sooner than some of my classmates, that he was available for endless hours of one-on-one discussion which confirmed that, while no panderer, he was an expert reader of people and fascinated by how each of his students made her way to understanding - what he was teaching, ethics, hermeneutics and religion, connected deeply with our whole lives.

It was interesting to be asked about formative experiences of being taught, and interesting that these are the ones that come to mind. I usually understand and describe my pedagogy as "Weberian," offering "inconvenient truths" for every party position but scrupulously avoiding revealing my own views. (Do I even have a view? Question for another day!) But all of these teachers were sharing things they passionately believed in. On the other hand, none of them let me believe I had arrived when I hadn't - they never pandered. They were attentive and available (and doubtless very patient!), but our interactions were in the service of something bigger than us, like friends (to bring in Victor's beloved Aristotle) united in a love of justice.

I don't know if I measure up to these exemplars at all; you'd have to ask my students. My interviewer repeated from what I said "the frustrating teacher" as if it were a known category: that at least I know I have achieved! I may pander along the way, but most students finish my courses in frustration. "I don't even know what XYZ means anymore!" Am I deluded to think I sometimes hear some gratitude in that, a sense not so much lost and confused as empowered, even liberated? That they've learned that further questions, thought, inquiry, discovery are necessary - and possible? The way I described the aim of my current course to the interviewer was getting students to have a sense of the processes by which a thing called "Buddhism" has become available to people like us, and to appreciate that they can understand and even participate in these processes... a perhaps more democratic perspective I learned from a great teacher I've known only as a friend, Joan Tronto.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Another cold morning paints the sky!

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Buddhist trifecta

It's turned out to be a very good thing indeed for the "Buddhism and Modern Thought" to start with Walpola Rahula's What the Buddha Taught. (At left is an image of the penultimate cover; our edition strays even further from its Theravada content by replacing the hand lettering in the background with printed Sanskrit, and keeping the clearly East Asian Buddha.) For most of the class this was the first time reading anything of substance about Buddhism, and this is a classic introduction which continues to be used. It'll be useful again when we learn about Sri Lankan Buddhism modernism, and for our more general reflections on how "Buddhism" is concocted in the space of a global modernity. But the trifecta I refer to in the title of this post is something else, something we were able to do already this week. In class I called it "three books in one." The point of departure:

This is Walpola Rahula himself, in his Preface (viii). It allowed us, having once made our way through the book, to consider the implications of sequencing its content in these two ways. Try it yourself:

The Buddha
I. The Buddhist Attitude of Mind
II. The First Noble Truth: Dukkha
III. The Second Noble Truth: Samudaya: ‘The Arising of Dukkha
IV. The Third Noble Truth: Nirodha: ‘The Cessation of Dukkha
V. The Fourth Noble Truth: Magga: ‘The Path’
VI. The Doctrine of No-Soul: Anatta
VII. ‘Meditation’ or Mental Culture: Bhavana
VIII. What the Buddha Taught and the World Today

This presents Buddhism as most textbooks do, with the Four Noble Truths as foundational. After an account of the practical orientation of the Buddhist tradition (the parable of the raft, the parable of the poisoned arrow), Buddhism is presented as the solution to an almost philosophical problem. The problem is the unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) of life, which starts as a general statement comparable to the foundations of other world systems and then becomes practical. We discern intellectually that dukkha has a cause in tanha (thirst), and that this in turn is something over which we're told we have potential control. Only then do we turn to the Noble Eightfold Path which tell us how to actually do this. Quite different is the Buddhism presented this way:

The Buddha
I. The Buddhist Attitude of Mind
V. The Fourth Noble Truth: Magga: ‘The Path’
VII. ‘Meditation’ or Mental Culture: Bhavana
VIII. What the Buddha Taught and the World Today
II. The First Noble Truth: Dukkha
III. The Second Noble Truth: Samudaya: ‘The Arising of Dukkha
IV. The Third Noble Truth: Nirodha: ‘The Cessation of Dukkha
VI. The Doctrine of No-Soul: Anatta

Here the practical orientation of Buddhism takes you right to practice - the Noble Eightfold Path, the varieties of mental culture, and the service to others which Walpola Rahula thinks incumbent on Buddhists whether monastic or lay. Presumably these are not just to be considered intellectually but put into practice. Philosophical accounts of the nature of dukkha and of the self - are left for those who need them, "when the general sense is clearer and more vivid."

The difference between these two sequences is really enormous, and I have no doubt that the latter is truer to Buddhism as lived (not just thought about as a philosophical system or "religion"). It's certainly how you'd encounter it if you were raised in a Buddhist society. But it also suggests that the significance of the Four Noble Truths isn't really graspable cold turkey - nor, perhaps, so important, at least for some Buddhist practitioners. Perhaps we aren't able to face the overwhelming reality of dukkha before we know from experience, however elementary, that there is something we can do about it, however difficult. Likewise the doctrine of anatta, which is not only paradoxical but paralyzing if we don't already know from experience, however
limited, that and why and how we cling to the idea of a perduring soul - and that we don't have to.

Thinking our way through these two sequences helped us appreciate both why Buddhism, when presented as a religion or philosophy, tends to go the Four Noble Truth way and why the place of these Truths in ancient Buddhist texts is entirely different. They appear, for instance, as one of the latter parts of the fourth of the "Four Foundations of Mindfulness" outlined in the Satipatthana Sutta - and here they are contemplated as "mental objects" (118)! They are of practical use not as the frame and foundation of practice, but, rather, as one of the more advanced forms of a practice based in... what? The experience of the efficacy of practice, of how Right Understanding, Thought, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration (the Noble Eighfold Path) ease the frustrations and disappointments of living and and loosen the grip of delusional responses to this dukkha like the fantasy of an eternal Self (and other "religions"!). Beautiful! Thank you, Walpola Rahula, for both books.

But I mentioned three books in one, didn't I? The third is the unnamed structure of the Three Jewels: Buddha - Dhamma (I-VII) - Sangha (VIII). It's not his main message (well, it's complicated) but it's still there.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Lengthening daze

This is a semester of early rising for me. In order to be awake and alert (and present!) at my 8:00 class Mondays and Wednesdays at school and the 9:15 Chinese class Tuesdays and Thursdays on the unaccustomed Upper East Side, I'm getting up while it's still dark out. The city's lovely in first pink light - even when there's not sticky snow all over everything! Only problem: I can't get used to going to bed earlier... !

Monday, February 03, 2014

Snow again!

My colleagues I posted this gorgeous photo.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Coffee heaven

Ever notice what happens to a cappucino if you don't drink it right away?
Or maybe it's something metaphysical they do at Everyman Espresso.


Gave my first sermon today. Harder than you might think. Folks think religious studies is close kin to theology, but, at least as I've learned it, they're quite different orientations. (As Joseph Bulbulia put it once, "they study God, we study them.") And while I clearly have a point of view, organizing the interpretations of the Book of Job I present in my book, it is still an academic one: this is how we should study this, how we should understand it. A sermon speaks from within a faith position, and to a faith community.

So when I was asked if I wanted to preach last week at St. Michael's, where I was leading a discussion as part of their adult Christian education series afterward, I said no without hesitation. I don't know how to preach, don't know how to give the kind of reflection that begins with the words May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be always acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our sustainer. In the book discussion, somewhat to my surprise, I found myself focusing on my own understanding of the Book of Job, but when a parishioner started testifying to the necessity of reading the Book of Job through the figure of Jesus Christ I interjected that I'm a scholar, and that I don't tell people how to read the text but listen to the many ways they do, and to the evidence they give for their readings; I hear truth in many, from many different perspectives, and in my book share as many as I can. It was entirely appropriate, and impressive, for her to read it as many other Christians do; my concern could not privilege this or any other way of reading.

But today I was the giving the sermon, something I agreed to do because it's a little non-denominational congregation, and because I was invited by their part-time pastor, who happens to be a Lang alum, and on condition that he'd give me some pointers. We got together a few weeks ago and had a great conversation about preaching, and about the particular interests and concerns of his congregation. By the end of it I had a good idea of something I might talk about in and around Job. As the date approached, however, I found it harder and harder to finalize my remarks. What I'd planned wasn't in any way specifically Christian, though it noted, as I have done in radio interviews, places where a Christian might take a certain interpretative path. But was that enough, was that appropriate, even for a pretty free-form low-church non-denominational sermon?

In the end, I spoke (for precisely the 15 minutes allotted - I had my cell phone timer on) about the theology Calvin finds in Job, which it seemed I in part share. I got to choose the reading, Job 4:14-21, a terrifying one. At first I spoke about that, and about the theology which sees the gulf between creator and creation as unbridgeable even in thought; when we think of the view of God and look back, there's nothing left of us. But this is only half the point, for God does bridge that gulf, speaking to Job, acknowledging him, as Martin Buber emphasizes, as an individual. And yet, I said, the book doesn't leave us alone with God. The vision reported in 4:14-21 is in fact not Job's but that of one of his friends, Eliphaz. So I gave my usual shpiel (from the book) about how much more important the friends are, precisely as good friends who fail but are restored, than modern views of the "friends of Job" allow.

But then in the conclusion I found had to speak as a Christian, returning to the astonishment of God's concern for us, a concern which went so far as to take human form and live the terror and sorrow with us. (I didn't vocalize what I'd written in my notes: "as a human friend.") I concluded: "The Book of Job begins with one inventory of a good, full life – wealth, social standing, family – and these things are of course restored at the end; they’re important. But along the way the Book of Job also offers us another set of goods. A good, full life has a personal relationship with God, and surrounds us with friends to share the terror, and the astonishment, of being God’s beloved creatures."

So I guess Jesus peeked through for an instant, but only an instant. A start, I suppose! It'll be interesting to see how opportunities to speak to other kinds of groups and communities will shape or channel (or liberate?!) my thinking here.


In Japan - perhaps I'll find this is true in China too - there are places known as jigokudani, "hell valleys," usually uncanny places that smell of sulfur. This creepy picture of a reservoir in Nevada at 3.5% capacity, part of a frightening article about the drought in the American West - worst in five hundred years! - called that phrase to mind...

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Fleeting or contrived

Girls, at some point this semester we're going to have to discuss this.
The first two covers are from 2003, the last is the cover of the current issue, in whose article Buddhism gets really rather short shrift:

Mindfulness is rooted in Eastern philosophy, specifically Buddhism. But two factors set it apart and give it a practical veneer that is helping propel it into the mainstream. One might be thought of as smart marketing. [Jon] Kabat-Zinn and other proponents are careful to avoid any talk of spirituality when espousing mindfulness. Instead, they advocate a commonsense approach: think of your attention as a muscle. As with any muscle, it makes sense to exercise it (in this case, with meditation), and like any muscle, it will strengthen from that exercise.

A related and potentially more powerful factor in winning over skeptics is what science is earning about our brains' ability to adapt and rewire. This phenomenon, known as neuroplasticity, suggests there are concrete and provable benefits to exercising the brain. The science--particularly as it applies to mindfulness--is far from conclusive. But it's another reason it's difficult to dismiss mindfulness as fleeting or contrived.

What more is there to say? Oh but there is one other bit worth noting, a reminder of what a strange transnational thing Buddhist modernism is:

"It was always my intention that mindfulness move into the mainstream," says Kabat-Zinn .... Lately, the professor has also been spreading the gospel abroad. On a November trip to Beijing, he helped lead a mindfulness retreat for about 250 Chinese students, monks and scientists. "This is something that people are now finding compelling in many countries and many cultures, and the reason is the science," he says.