Wednesday, April 30, 2014


Mountain ranges

As we near the end of Buddhism and Modern Thought, we finally have a syllabus! Well, we've reached the point where no further updatings are necessary, because no more are possible. More than any other course I've taught, this class really has reshaped the course in its own image, with all the riddles about rivers and riverbeds applying.

Our program of readings ends with a bunch of readings on Zen, a little ironic since there is no tradition in Buddhism as suspicious of words. But it's (sorry Vajrayana) the Buddhist tradition to have engaged most interestingly with the unfolding of modern sensibilities and cultural production. That's why it was at the heart of our very first reading, which explored an elective affinity between modernity's claim to transcend history and similar aspirations in "Buddhism," both as western construct and as Asian tradition. Words beyond words: I'm hoping this will help us come to some useful insights about acts, contemplative as well as ethical as well as aesthetic: our readings are about the nexus of Zen (through the charismatic D. T. Suzuki) and modern arts: John Cage, and improvisational dance.

By way of preparation, we read some Suzuki today, too, along with part of David Loy's The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory, and building on Monday's discussion of Keiji Nishitani's "What is Religion?" It's a discussion of what he calls "Affirmation-in-Negation" (a translation of 即非, sokuhi) and argues is the central logic of Zen Buddhism - and what makes Zen masters sound so irrational. Drawing on examples from the Diamond Sutra Suzuki identifies the structure

For A to be affirmed as A, A has to be non-A; therefore it is A

and argues that this is the central insight of Zen and of Japanese spirituality and also - as these turn out to be in his generation's understanding of world history - of human nature at its truest.
We spent a large chunk of class trying to puzzle this out, much of it focused on mountains. In what way could it be true that "The mountain is not a mountain, therefore it is a mountain"? For Suzuki and the tradition he claims to speak for, this is not epistemology or psychology (though it might be those, too) but ontology. To accept the suchness of the mountain, we need to understand that it is not a mountain.
In effort to shed light on this I conjured up all sorts of mountains, from the mythical Mount Meru, so tall you cannot see it, to the Ochtruper Berg, the little bump celebrated as the closest thing to a mountain in the town where my mother grew up, from the ancient Alabama Hills subsiding near Mount Whitney to the perfect Mount Fuji I saw emerging one day on twenty student easels set up on the shore of Lake Hakone facing where, on a less foggy day, Fuji would have been seen. But I was really thinking of a line I fell in love with the year I studied phenomenological geography in Paris, and another I found once in a book of literary aphorisms. (I'm amazed neither has found its way into this blog before today.)

A l’esprit qui contemple la montagne pendant la durée des âges, elle apparait flottante, aussi incertaine que l’onde de la mer chassée par la tempète: c’est un flot, une vapeur; quand elle aura disparu, ce ne sera plus qu’un rève. 
Élisée Reclus, Histoire d’une montagne (1875-6)

All stones are broken stones.
James Richardson, Vectors: 47 Aphorisms and Ten-Second Essays (2004)

Students were better on the negation than the affirmation part - better at seeing how words come between us and the things whose nature they are thought to disclose, how they substitute abstractions and memories and projects for the thing there facing us - but that's par for the course. If there is anything to this form of non-thinking, it involves actual experiences of the irreducible thisness of every this, irreducible even though evanescent, suspended like Saint Francis' inverted Assisi but as real as real can be.

I'm not sure it helped when I suggested that a mountain, a contingent aggregation of stuff which rose and fell as all things do, was like our supposed "selves," too. When I asked, rhetorically, "Can you get from the acceptance of thisness to ethics? Isn't Buddhism supposed to be about compassion?" I had to answer myself, rhetorically, "Didn't you hear the compassion in my description of the arising and subsiding of the mountain?"

Perhaps this will put us in the right frame of mind to sit through Cage's 4' 33". It certainly puts me right in the zone of my Wider Moral Communities project. Agency is blown wide beyond the human, decoupled from the toxic fantasy of a self. But there are still things you have to be human to do, or to be engaging another person.

Inset quote from Suzuki Daisetz, "The Loic of Affirmation-in-Negation" (1940),
trans. in Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook, ed. James W. Heisig, Thomas P. Kasulis
and John C. Maraldo (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2012), 214-18, 217

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Popomo face

A student I've gotten to know quite well over several courses is a Dance major, and a work she choreographed was shown at the recent showing of seniors' work. In the midst of generally serious and opaque pieces, hers was startlingly accessible. Her piece last year was among the most serious and opaque, but this time we were treated to five hula hoops (one of them with rippling lights) and four dancers, all of them smiling infectiously. Hula hoops on a postmodern dance stage?

Just bringing them would have been shocking enough, she told me today - their very presence clearly made several people in our so sophisticated Dance program uneasy. This just made her smile even more broadly. She'd danced with hoops while in high school; they're apparently very common in music festivals, too. Decidedly not "high art." But that's what made a hula hoop dance so interesting in this context. Transgressive!

The smiles, too. I asked her about them, and she confirmed that the broad smiles were - while spontaneous - part of the choreography. Most dancers are supposed to have blank faces ("neutral" since it's a fiction to believe in "natural" expression) which they sometimes refer to as "pomo face." She thinks that's as contrived and elitist as the "modernism" the postmodernists are trying to call in question. ;)

Queer Christianities: The Book!

The cover art for our forthcoming book is lovely, wouldn't you agree?
Someone at NYU Press designed it, but all three of us co-editors love it.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Philosophers' network

A most wondrous mapping of the networks of philosophers, as presented through their Wikipedia pages. Go to the interactive page and you can trace out the connections around each philosopher.. though you can't yet search for one. Finding them isn't that easy!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Diversity in unity

At dinner with two friends from graduate school, both now at Yale Divinity School, I learned about the results of the latest study by the Pew Center. The US thinks itself very religiously pluralistic and diverse - it's a big part of arguments about the distinctive, even prophetic, nature of American religion. But this supposed diversity melts away almost entirely if we treat all Christians as belonging to the same religion (as, by and large, folks do with every other religious tradition in surveys). We come in 68th out of 232 countries and territories studied. One can quibble with the methodology (why separate Judaism out from under "Other Religions," for instance?) but the result is in any case instructive. As I've heard folks from Netherlands (rated high) and India (rated moderate) say, the US hasn't really had to grapple with deep religious diversity. Pew is quick to point out that religious diversity and religious freedom are different things and on latter we do OK. Still!

Earlier in the day I was delighted by a Sol LeWitt wall at the Yale University Art Gallery, filling a wall with the spontaneous-seeming "All two-part combinations of arcs from corners and sides."

Friday, April 25, 2014

Life after DOMA?

I was invited up to Yale for an interesting symposium of historians and queer theorists. It seems to have been planned in a moment somewhat like the one in which we concocted Queer Christianities (the reason I was invited): same-sex marriage having, with almost unthinkable speed, become a legal reality (in New York, or nationally), one wanted to make sure other concerns and commitments, including ones which did not foreground marriage, weren't left behind. Somehow ours managed to be much more upbeat, though. I'm trying to figure out way. Where ours featured talks by and about people who were queer and Christian and whose lived experience offered resources for imagining better futures (look! look!), this one offered talks by folks many of whom were queer and married and uneasy if not conflicted about it (keep moving, folks, nothing to see here!).

This connected in more poignant ways with questions of the future than ours did. It's not just that our folks wanted to be members of the church (often more than the church wanted them as members) while today's folks didn't really want to be recognized by the state. Participation in the church is compatible with a continued sense of oppositional, even prophetic identity (call it "queer" if you wish!) in ways in which involvement with the state can't be - certainly not the neoliberal state which, one presenter argued, promotes marriage as a way of reducing its commitment to care for its citizens in other ways. Only one panelist (a theological ethicist) even mentioned that queer folks might affect the institution of marriage in positive ways. Does that go without saying, or are we afraid to say it - afraid it might not be true?

The question haunting the whole discussion: can gay and lesbian couples, now able to enjoy the comforts of state-supported domesticity, be counted on to continue being on the vanguard of vigilance and care for the still marginalized? That's the question, for queer Christians, too.

Scenes of Spring in New Haven!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Hu's on First

What does non-self looks like? Today we learned it looks like this:

Hsiao-Lan Hu brought "Buddhism and Modern Thought" to this profound insight. Hu's This-Worldly Nibbana offers a compelling alternative to the common Four Noble Truth-centered depiction of Buddhism. Together with her new project on Avalokitesvara (above), it gave us an exciting new vision of what Buddhism offers - and demands.

I called our session "Hu's on First" for more reasons than the irresistibility of the pun. In their famous baseball routine Abbott and Costello may prove to have been bodhisattvas - a lesson in anattā and social kamma! But it was also only with Hu's description of the persistent failure of Buddhism to combat gender and class hierarchy in Asian history (in the reading for Monday's class) that we really faced the First Noble Truth, the truth of dukkha. Doctor, heal thyself?!

Can it really have taken us until our twenty-second class to arrive at square one? Most presentations of Buddhism start with the First Noble Truth! We encountered the Four Noble Truths early on, too (though our first Buddhist category was upāya). But you'll recall that I ensured they came with a wobble. Walpola Rahula recommends that those new to Buddhism start with the Fourth Noble Truth (Noble Eightfold Path) and proceed to discussions of meditation and engaged lay practice, before looping back (as needed and if necessary) to the first three Noble Truths and the puzzles of anattā. You don't start with suffering but with practice. Hu puts the point plainly: the Buddha may have shared the Four Noble Truths in his first speech, but it was to seasoned ascetics. Most people aren't ready. They'll misunderstand it or be laid low by it.

(As I suggested when we read Rahula, 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 anattā, 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.)

In Hu's account, the central concept is pratītya samutpāda, which she translates as "interdependent co-arising." This is something you might begin to understand through meditation - or through reflection on ways in which your subjectivity and sense of self have been shaped by your culture, things well observed in reflection on what we actually do. She deftly braids classic Buddhist analysis of the "five aggregates" with constructivist feminist accounts of the non-naturalness of gender. What had seemed given, even predestined, is now revealed as the performed artifact of a culture and of your socialization in it - a socialization which, you realize in seeing it, leaves you some options in contributing to or disrupting the "sedimentation" (a concept from Judith Butler) which gives things the appearance of a perduring identity (self).

There isn't always much space for agency, but there is always some space - and this is enough to turn kamma from fate into freedom. Tracing the ways things you had taken for your "self" in fact reside in contingent cultural practices, discourses and structures beyond you, you are at once dislodged from them and brought to the realization that they are shared with others, who may suffer from them just as you do. Your participation in norms and patterns such as gender strengthens their seeming solidity not only in your life but in that of others; refusing to participate weakens their hold not only on you but on others. "The twin central teachings of Buddhism, non-Self and interdependent co-arising, are actually the same concept stated from two different angles" (65). Your freedom from a fated "self" and your responsibility in compassion for others are experienced together.

It's a truly wonderful interpretation - I hope many more people discover it! And I can't wait for Hu's new project to come to fruition. In it she explores the story of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guanyin in Chinese, Kannon in Japanese), whose boundless compassion leads him (her in China and India) to assume whatever form is needed to get through to a suffering being. Thirty-three such forms are enumerated in chapter 24 of the Lotus Sutra, that important locus of upāya. Scholars have analyzed the gender switch as Akvalokitesvara moves from the Indian to the East Asian cultural sphere - another fascinating story. But Hu's analysis takes us a crucial step farther, finding in Avalokitesvara's facility with appearing in whatever form or gender is required a model for all of us.

When I first heard Hu present this material at AAR two years ago, it seemed ingenious, a revelation. Today I appreciated that it provides an answer to a crucial question arising from the understanding of pratītya samutpāda, anattā and kamma. If I have no "self" to be true to, how shall I decide which of my available selves to perform in any given situation? A queer theorist might speak of the exploration of new pleasures here; Hu speaks of ethics. Like the bodhisattva many a Buddhist vows to become, Hu suggests we allow compassion to guide us. Not who am I? but whom does the other need me to be?

Beautiful! And a strong enough sense of agency, and responsibility, in the concrete situations of our lives that we might be able to contemplate the First Noble Truth without looking away. As Rahula suggested, you can get there - when you are ready for it - only if you first enter the Noble Eightfold Path, which comprises not just wisdom but ethics, and thirst-weakening and compassion-strengthening meditation. We can't take down the system of dukkha (or leave it, and all other sufferers, behind) but, once started in responding in our own engaged way, we might as well continue!

Costello: Well then who's on first?
Abbott: Yes.
Costello: I mean the fellow's name.
Abbott: Hu.
Costello: The guy on first.
Abbott: Hu.
Costello: The first baseman.
Abbott: Hu.
Costello: The guy playing...
Abbott: Hu is on first!
Costello: I'm asking YOU who's on first.
Abbott: That's the man's name.
Costello: That's who's name?
Abbott: Yes.
Costello: Well go ahead and tell me.
Abbott: That's it.
Costello: That's Hu?
Abbott: Yes.
(watch the whole abhidhammic exchange here)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Offense and Dissent

My big project at The New School before I head off for China is an exhibition my New School history co-conspirator J, the university gallery's curator R and I are pulling together around "image, conflict and belonging" over our history. The heart of the exhibition will be displays on three episodes J and I discussed in our course last semester - the 1950s curtaining of part of the Orozco mural, an anti-war show Parsons seniors produced instead of their senior shows in 1970, and controversy around a racist image in a 1989 showing of the work of Japanese graphic designer Shin Matsunaga and the reaction of an offended African American faculty member. Several dozen current university citizens will be contributing brief essays on art or design elements of the school which they find confronting, too.

I've been encouraging students to think about academic work as analogous to curating an exhibition for a few years now, but I had no idea! To my astonished delight I'm finding that putting on an exhibit like this involves an immense labor, and a lot of people doing a lot of very creative and rigorous thinking. A research assistant has been helping us fill in the gaps of our stories, working closely with the University Archives. To make what would otherwise be a visually dull exhibit of old memos and articles vibrant, R has commissioned new work from two artists, an illustrator to do a graphic novel-like rendition of the Orozco story and an animator to play with the Matsunaga episode - each of them gets a whole big wall to fill if they choose.

And today R and I met the actual exhibition designer, whose job it will be not just to plan and build the displays, etc., but to find ways to make things cohere in clear and memorable ways. What fun to watch his mind working as we described the project and its aims...

I have no idea how all these moving pieces will come together, but it's going to be grand!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Around the block

"Buddhism and Modern Thought" began with a walk today. More specifically a group walking meditation, inspired by those led by Thich Nhat Hanh. (He extols the "healing energy" of group meditation practices.) I'd proposed it as a fancy but students wanted it. It fell to me to be the leader, setting the slow pace. I led us around the block framed by 11th and 10th Streets, Fifth and Sixth Avenues, moving clockwise. It took 20 minutes. At first the pace was hard to maintain, then it glid on by itself. The first encounters with other people I was self-conscious, but this soon passed. I was grateful to be in New York, where strange things are met with a bemused shrug, and found myself pleased at the spectacle we must have presented - pleased to look like its insouciant leader. But on noisier Sixth Avenue, my arches ached.
I'm no meditation leader, but I can walk resolutely ahead, never looking to the sides or back. I've no idea what went on behind me, except that two joggers needed to ask to pass through the group in the first minutes, but later ones didn't need to ask. I'd told the class it wasn't the point to be more observant of our surroundings, but of course we were. In the early morning light colors and edges were crisp; the occasional patch of direct sun embraced us and let us go as we moved on. We were walking contrary to car traffic, which soon came to seem mere flickers of yellow at the left edge of our visual field. More on our wavelength were dogs and their faithful owners. The reunion with a garbage truck we'd first passed on 11th Street - another slow mover - was happy.The Church of the Ascension's magnolias danced above our heads in stately arcs as we passed. A crowd of miniature daffodils smiled cheerily at us, as if knowing we were a few steps from seeing others already wilting, stiff and awkward with perplexity. (All the photos you're seeing were taken hours later; the daffodils had been in shadow.) But a chain saw we heard screeching from an approaching doorway soon after that was a distant echo before I noticed we'd passed it. I'm making all this sound very significant; it wasn't. I tried to think of a walker in the Thich Nhat Hanh film who said "I slow down for my mother, who never had the chance," but mine was a Jane Jacobs idyll; landmarked gentrified Greenwich Village is already a fantasy enclave of a slower world.
When we returned to class, it was predictably difficult to get back into discussion mode. Once we did, though, it wasn't about the beauty of the world but it's abysses. We'd read some of Hsiao-Lan Hu's This-Worldly Nibbana, which describes the disproportionate vulnerability of women to every kind of social suffering, and the way Buddhism for most of its history has thought this karmically justified. Greed, hatred and delusion produce vast suffering, but it seems not to happen to those responsible for it. My old friend the problem of evil rearing its ugly head! Could it be that even Buddhism was part of the problem, a problem deeper than any proposed solution? The discussion was very intense, even raw. I wonder if our silent and almost too beautiful walk together against the grain of the harried city made this intensity possible, even necessary.

Saturday, April 19, 2014


It's probably because I know I'll be far away this time next year, but I'm all over the Spring this year. Here's the view out my window in Brooklyn.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Motion sickness

I was the lone faculty member at a "teach-in" this evening on social justice and The New School; the organizer asked me because she's heard me go on about New School history. The turn-out wasn't great, the "Social Justice Hub" on the fifth floor of the new University Center turns out to be a difficult place to do things (ambient noise, people passing through, etc.), and I had to leave early (to see the Dance students' senior show). But what I saw was extremely thought-provoking.

Three examples:

-- A Psychology PhD candidate described his disillusionment with the school's failure to live up to the diverse and engaged image it projects in a powerful image of his own: students come in expecting the school to function as a kind of trampoline, allowing them to be more effective activists in the larger world as a result of what they learn, but it turns out to be more like quicksand. I'm sure most institutions disappoint in one way or another but something in the particular promise The New School makes (the promise, among other things, not to be like most institutions) makes its failures worse.

-- an MFA Drama student criticized "method acting" workshops, in which students are expected to delve into very personal and traumatic experiences, for not being "safe spaces." No structures exist to help people respond to what was shared, individually or collectively; her own experiences as a lesbian of color were not welcomed, and produced poisonous "microaggressions" in response. This raises fascinating and disturbing questions about much modern performance practice, which asks participants to take personal risks but doesn't really take into account the different levels of risk different participants already take just to be, and to be in a space in which they are already feel unsafe.

-- in response to the organizer's plaint that she'd spent four years without "doing anything" beyond organizing at New School, an NSPE student asked what we all thought counted as "doing." The discussion (which I had to leave halfway through) was all about whether the university itself is an appropriate venue for doing- something a Health Educator said was clear in most other universities but, because of The New School's strange self-understanding, not so much here...

I wish more people had been there to hear this; these are profound questions, worth wrestling with at every level.

Thursday, April 17, 2014


The intensive language course at China Institute resumed again this week, after a three-week hiatus. We've finished Threshold and Volume 1 of Lower Elementary so it's into Volume 2!

Not everyone from the first trimester was able to stay on. Honduran Nelson and Chinese Indonesian Christian have conflicts with their emerging work schedules, and Mexican Enrique has disappeared too, presumably for the same reason. (9:15-12:15 Tuesday and Thursday would mix poorly with most work schedules; I'm lucky my teaching and service this semester is Mondays, Wednesdays, and the afternoons of Tuesdays and Thursdays!) With Euro-American Andrew and Korean Juhee staying on and a new student (Matthew, a Cantonese Australian) we might just be four. No complaints from me: Even more intensive - and still strikingly international!

Spring explosion

My friend M posted this picture of the trees blooming on his street in Park Slope. Sometimes Spring looks and feels like a chain of fireworks!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Treetop experience

I'm having such a good time this year watching the treetops in the Lang courtyard step into Spring - wonders you'd never imagine from below.Behold the red bundles which recently exploded like fireworks! Now they are giving birth to the little green seed paddles with which they'll soon helicopter to the ground. Almost as if an afterthought, the actual leaves emerge from the top as from a flower bud - leaves which will fill the courtyard with cooling green for the next half year and then go out in a sustained blaze of color, a return to red. Red-in-green-in-red!

Incidentally, today's session of "Buddhism and Modern Thought" was devoted to Thich Nhat Hanh. Students read his poem "Please call me by my true names" and the elaboration of the Precepts he calls the Five Mindfulnesses, and watched most of the documentary "Colors of Compassion." We also ate a tangerine - something we did last class, as well. On Monday I read aloud his description, and distributed it to students to reread again before class today, but this time we mindfully ate our tangerines in silence. In part, Thich Nhat Hanh observes:

A person who practices mindfulness can see things in the tangerine that others are unable to see. An aware person can see the tangerine tree, the tangerine blossom in the spring, the sunlight and rain which nourished the tangerine. Looking deeply, one can see ten thousand things which have made the tangerine possible. Looking at a tangerine, a person who practices awareness can see all the wonders of the universe and how all things interact with one another. 

I can't report on the fruit of others' tangerining. I didn't get the ten thousand things but - having noticed that the Sunkist Smiles© clementines were from California - I did get the inland California sun, the migrant farm workers who work in the orchards, the water almost certainly from the Colorado, and the desert areas where the Colorado also, though ever more weakly, flows. And then, with the final section, a final burst of sweetness, interwoven with all this difficulty, which recalled lines from the poem:

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Theory of religion

I had the great pleasure (and honor) of being invited to an orthodox family Passover Seder last night. Twenty-one people, ranging from two to well over eighty years of age, along a long narrow table which cut diagonally through an Upper West Side apartment. At one end was the family matriarch, with a sister at one side and her husband at the other. In the middle was the eldest son (a friend of a friend, who invited me), who was leading his first Seder. The true stars, however, were the girl and boy, perhaps eleven and ten respectively, sitting next to him, who did all the things studious children should do at a Seder - not just reading but commenting, asking questions, venturing answers, etc.

I was particularly struck by an exchange between the leader and his nephew about the essence of the Seder. Rabbi Gamaliel, we read, said that if one did not discuss the meaning of the elements - pesah (a lamb shank bone), matzoh and maror (bitter herbs) - it was not a true Seder. What did the children think, asked their uncle. The boy thought that the elements weren't that important - you could substitute something else for them, or even nothing, so long as the story of Passover was told. The uncle took the contrary position, perhaps tongue in cheek: the elements were the key. It didn't matter what story people told about it, so long as people gathered around them.

Theory of religion! I'd seen descriptions about the Haggadah, and its role as a teaching script for a tradition which actively encourages discussion, multiple interpretation and even challenge, but now my ears heard it. The boy will have his Bar Mitzvah within the year, but has already held his own with his elders on questions of great moment. (Both his and his sister's Torah portions came up.) And it wasn't all child's play. The children were asked what the difference between the four kinds of children might be, and a grown up even stood up for the "rebellious" child for developmental reasons. But they also participated in a spirited debate about the meaning of freedom. And they heard the adults in deadly earnest discuss if it was still appropriate to say "Next year in Jerusalem" in the context of the Israeli Occupation of Palestine.

Imagine growing up in a tradition as splendidly alive, as vigilant of past and present, and as conspicuously dependent on the contributions of each succeeding generation, as this! What a joy to witness (I got to hold up the shank bone as its symbolic significance was being discussed).

Monday, April 14, 2014

Sunday, April 13, 2014


I'm not going to say too much about being Jesus in our church's reading of the Passion according to Saint Matthew today, beyond that it was harder than I expected. Not that I expected it to be easy.

When I first read through our script I found Jesus' lines hard to scan. He seems always to have an eye on a pre-written script which only he knows that events are following. I wasn't sure how one would say something like "You say so" without sarcasm, but happily the need to project (we had no microphones) made that impossible. It also made impossible speaking the gentle sadness that other lines, like the repeated confirmation of human frailty, seemed to express. I don't have a big voice to begin with, and here I needed to make sure people could hear every syllable, including the final syllables of phrases, which I tend to swallow.

I went through the script (as I do with the reading when I'm a lector too) many times, trying out different stresses, marking what seemed to work best. These judgments had as much to do with theology as psychology, if not more. But there's psychology, here, too, as I found.

In performance during the service this morning, I surprised myself (and everyone else) by practically bellowing the final line Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani? - My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? I don't think I've made a noise like that since I was a child. It wasn't entirely unpremeditated, and the narrator does introduce it "Jesus cried out with a loud voice," but its rawness took even me aback. What had happened was that Jesus, who knew - cowrote, you could say - the script, felt himself more and more trapped in it. His flesh was weak, too, and his heart grieved unto death. This wasn't just prophecies being fulfilled in unexpected ways, this was his life being extinguished.

The five of us reading the Passion were wearing black cassocks. For the final part I was standing dead center on the steps up to the altar, facing the congregation, the focal point, the still center, of all that was going on in our performance and in the space of the church. The other readers were behind me. I couldn't see them, but looked out expressionlessly as Jesus was mocked, nailed to a cross between two criminals, as gall and vinegar were offered to him, as soldiers cast lots for his clothes.

It was a reading with minimal stylized movements, not a dramatic performance. We weren't supposed to be "in character" between lines, but standing there with the black 3-ring binder in my hands I found I was - in character as the all-knowing Jesus who knew what people were going to say before they said it, the mastermind at the center of things. I didn't have to see them to know what they were going to say. I knew what would happen before it happened, because it had to happen. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him. As I'd said to Judas, Friend, do what you are here to do. Each of us playing his part in a grand spectacle, the greatest story ever foretold.

Then that became unbearable - it wasn't a spectacle, it was my life! - and I cried out.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

American religious pluralism

At an exhibition on Frank Lloyd Wright's anti-urbanist city imaginings at MoMA which features the detailed model of his Broadacre City from the mid-1930s, I discovered this rather unusual geometrical structure today. It's described in the key as: Universal worship, columbarium, cemetery, nine sectarian temples surrounding a central edifice. Is there a distinctively American theory of religion at work here?

无为 (無為) (Wuwei)

Who knew - there's a website soliciting drawings of professors. I think I know who's responsible for this rather blissed out version of yours truly. A veteran of one of my classes, she's taking the East Asian religions course I'm sitting in on this semester. That's me enjoying learning without having to teach, too...

Friday, April 11, 2014

In the pink

Here are the blossoming treetops of our courtyard from another angle - that's my office window in the background.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Metta for the dead

As you may know, my life was changed by a Japanese Buddhist priest friend's quip, many years ago, that religion in Japan could perhaps best be described as "ethics for the dead" (死者に対する倫理). That's the grain of sand around which my oyster brain has been polishing the pearl of my "Exploring Religious Ethics" course; the "Wider Moral Communities" project grows out of it, too.

The phrase came to mind after "Buddhism and Modern Thought" today as I reflected on our discussion of a beautiful talk Alice Walker gave at the first African-American Buddhist Retreat in 1997, "Suffering too insignificant for the majority to see" (shared with the wider world here). Walker frames her talk with the account of the murder of George Slaughter, a young African American man in the Antebellum South, by a posse led by his own (white) father, incensed, it was reported, that his horse was too fine. After an eloquent account of Buddhist responses to oppression - she references the Dalits we read about Monday, and is sure young Gautama rejected caste distinctions - and of what Buddhist practice offers oppressed peoples, she returns to the people who participated in Slaughter's murder. She returns, however, in a mode of meditation, building on and building out the familiar formulas of metta meditation.

In metta meditation you start by sending loving-kindness (metta) to yourself. The wishes are versions of this:

May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I be free from danger.
May I live with ease.

The circle of metta expands by steps, first to a benefactor, then to a friend, then to a neutral person, then to a difficult person, and finally to all beings.
May he/she/they/we be happy.
May he/she/they/we be healthy.
May he/she/they/we be free from danger.
May he/she/they/we live with ease.

As you know I find this psychologically as well as ethically profound. But today (after doing the guided metta meditation with Sharon Salzberg from last year) we were discussing Walker, who writes:

Let us bring our attention to the life of our young brother, our murdered ancestor, George Slaughter. We know he was a beautiful young man, and that it was this beauty and his freedom expressing it that caused his father, himself unfree, to seek his death. We can see George sitting on his stunning saddle horse. We do not know if his half-sister, white, confused by her liking for her darker brother, gave it to him. We do not know if his mother, dark and irresistible, as so many black women are, gave it to him. We do not know if he bought it himself. All we know is that he is sitting there, happy. And the horse, too, is happy.

George Slaughter, an English name. We might think of Bob Marley, half-English, with his English name; perhaps George had a similar spirit. A kindred look and attitude.

 May you be free
May you be happy
May you be at peace
May you be at rest
May you know we remember you 

The circle widens:

Let us bring our attention to George’s mother. She who came, weeping, and picked up the shattered pieces of her child, as black mothers have done for so long.
May you be free
May you be happy
May you be at peace
May you be at rest
May you know we remember you

Let us bring our attention to George’s father. He who trails the murder of his lovely boy throughout what remains of time.

May you be free
May you be happy
May you be at peace
May you be at rest
May you know we remember you

Let us bring our attention to those who rode with the father, whose silence and whose violence caused so much suffering that continues in the world today.

May you be free
May you be happy
May you be at peace
May you be at rest
May you know we remember you

And now let us bring our attention to George’s horse. With its big dark eyes. Who drank George’s blood in grief after the horror of his companion’s bitter death. We know by now that the other animals on the planet watch us and know us and sometimes love us. How they express that love is often mysterious.

May you be free
May you be happy
May you be at peace
May you be at rest
May you know we remember you

What Walker does here is an extraordinary thing, supporting her claim that the study and practice of Buddhism ... is good medicine for healing us so that we may engage the work of healing our ancestorsHealing our ancestors? It's perhaps an appropriation of Buddhism (Walker claims not to be a Buddhist, and draws explicitly from indigenous, Womanist and other traditions), but it's one that has happened in many places before, perhaps all of them. Are not the dead, our dead, the moral community par excellence? Expanding the circle of our metta to them is, for some, no stretch at all. (The ancestors were very present also at the first retreat for Buddhists of color held at Thich Nhat Hanh's Deer Park Monastery near Escondido, CA in 2004, "Colors of Compassion.")

Metta for the dead. Of course.

Perhaps, indeed, it is widening the circle to the dead which grounds a practice in space as well as time. One of my most thoughtful students (white, a bit of a bodhisattva) saw in Walker's reflection the way towards a true and truly American Buddhism:

as far as America is concerned, Buddhism begins not in 1844 in the European scholar’s office (where surely Buddhism cannot happen at all) but rather only after the European decides it is more profitable to leave his office, to bring dukkha to the New World by ships with sugar and slaves, and to let the slaves really live it.  

May I say: Amen?

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

On call

Lang Religious Studies supplied the missing women to Orozco's "Table of Universal Brotherhood" at our last official event of the semester, a fabulous panel discussion of ex-students my colleague K put together under the name Calling, Career, Commitment. The alums all work in caring professions, and had enormously insightful accounts of how they found their way, how they understand their work, and how they care of in very emotional demanding work. They spoke of the importance of "lineages," support networks, humility, and how to keep enough distance between your own life and that of those you are working with to be effective - and take of your own needs, desires and relationships.

I have all sorts of reservations about monolithic ways of thinking about calling. In my experience categories like "calling" often make students panic. If only they could all have been there for this discussion which showed much more multi-pronged, open-ended and clear-eyed approaches. The great discussion continued over dinner. How does one, as an idealistic young person at a liberal arts college like Lang, make one's way in the world? All three stressed that they have many interests and no intention to give all the rest up for the one they were currently pursuing. One thought many young people might resist "being defined" by a specific goal since they'd be ashamed if unable to achieve it. Another noted that many social workers don't speak of their work as a "calling" and consider those who do self-important. All three acknowledged that decisions and even dreams are heavily shadowed by economic factors - one can forget that getting a degree also usually means taking on a considerable debt. Living out a chosen calling is something not everyone has the privilege to be able to do, and there is wisdom in the experience also of those who find meaning in lives they have not chosen.

The oldest of the alumnae was particularly full of wisdom. When someone asked how she related to people who had experiences she had not had, she said that those were the times she was most effective; when the experience was too close to her own, her own unresolved feelings could get in the way.When someone asked what to do if you felt someone with your background didn't have the right to do some kind of work you managed to get hired to do, she said: think of it as a privilege, an honor. And in some connection she said that people should think of their first few jobs as teaching them what they didn't want to do.

The picture that emerged from all the discussion was enormously helpful for me. It confirmed, and deepened, my sense - vicarious, since I got into the one-profession-for-life game just in time - that the contemporary economy, and culture, demand a more experimental and pluralist, less focused and high-stakes way of navigating questions of calling and career. And during dinner it became clear to me that we should be telling students that their experience as students at a college like ours - taking courses in several areas at the same time, some familiar and some new, and choosing a new slate each semester in consultation with friends and advisers - prepares them well for precisely this. Liberal arts provides valuable "vocational training" after all!

Just out my office window

Monday, April 07, 2014

She works hard for the money

Realized as I got off the subway at 7:03 this evening that it was exactly twelve hours to the minute after I'd got on the subway this morning. That's a long day's work for The New School! A fun day, though, starting with an energetic discussion of Ambedkar, whose take on the Buddha and his Dhamma addressed all our concerns that the standard view of "Buddhist modernism" is altogether too white and too middle class. Followed meetings with students, fielding e-mails from others, making a pitch to our Arts and Civic Engagement program about the wonders of Outside the Wire's Job performances, and a little reading of the Platform Sutra in preparation for the East Asian Religions class. This class, encountering Chan for the first time, was explosive fun, too, as instructor N let it feel its way to realizing just how radical this tradition is (or seems to be on paper...). Then two hours of Shared Capacities, our university's quixotic effort to do Gen Ed without doing Gen Ed, which started with a most encouraging meeting with the group reviewing the university for our accrediting body and concluded with the first moving draft of the animated logo we've commissioned for it... and, giddy with exhaustion, home. Still, a good day.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Bodhisatta Ambedkar

I'm preparing for tomorrow's "Buddhism and Modern Thought" class, our one session on Ambedkar's The Buddha and his Dhamma. Ambedkar is discussed in the "engaged Buddhism" literature but rather less in the "Buddhist modernism" discourse, although he's certainly part of it. I hope students will be (as, I guess, I am) both attracted by the idea and somewhat put off by the reality of a revival of Buddhism in India in the context of Dalit liberation. Attracted because it shows the Dharma to be politically powerful. But also put off somewhat since the Buddhism Ambedkar describes is so different from the one which has emerged in the West - political and secular rather than psychological and vaguely mystical... which is precisely the point of our reading him!
Ambedkar's take on the Four Noble Truths, holy of holies of western Buddhism, is a case in point. Nobody could be attracted to Buddhism by the "Four Aryan Truths," he writes, since they make suffering an individual thing when everyone - not least the Buddha - knew that it was caused by social strife, and should be addressed that way, too. Indeed, the First Truth should be understood as a rhetorical exaggeration in service of the second - if not, Nibbana risks becoming a fantasy of an afterlife, when the true point is to live righteously in this life. How tellingly different from  the individualized spirituality of the modern West into which our new Buddhisms so conveniently fit!

And while we're at it, Ambedkar asserts that it strains credulity to think that Gautama went twenty-nine years without seeing sicking, old age and death. Following a Marathi play by the doyen of Indian Marxist historians, Dharmanand Kosambi's Bodhisatta, Ambedkar describes Gautama's home-leaving as the result of a political debacle. Most of his clan, the Sakyas, decide to wage war on their enemies, and are at a loss what to do with pacifists iike Gaurama; his leaving solves the problem. But the great epiphany comes when the Sakyas make peace with the Koliyas. Should Gautama return?

He had left his home because he was opposed to war. "Now that the war is over, is there any problem left to me? Does my problem end because war has ended?" On a deep reflection, he thought not. "The problem of war is essentially a problem of conflict. It is only a part of a larger problem. This conflict is going on not only between kings and nations, but between nobles and Brahmins, between householders, between mother and son, between son and mother, between father and son, between sister and brother, between companion and companion. The conflict between nations is occasional. But the conflict between classes is constant and perpetual. It is this which is the root of all sorrow and suffering in the world. True, I left home on account of war. But I cannot go back home, although the war between the Sakyas and Koliyas has ended. I see now that my problem has become wider. I have to find a solution for this problem of social conflict. How far do the old-established philosophies offer a solution of this problem?" Could he accept any one of the social philosophies? He was determined to examine everything for himself. (41) (1.II.6. 4-12)

I'll have more for you after tomorrow's discussion, I'm sure. But here is something which is unlikely to come up but very interesting. It's an articulation of the theistic problem of evil very (suspiciously) close to the theodicy "trilemma" I focused on a few projects ago.

For if the moral law has originated from God, and if God is the beginning and end of the moral order, and if man cannot escape from obeying God, why is there so much moral disorder in the world? What is the authority of the Divine Law? What is the hold of the Divine Law over the individual? These are pertinent questions. But to none of them is there any satisfactory answer from those who rely on Divine Dispensation as the basis for the moral order. (131) (3.III.6:11-12)

If there is a supreme creator who is just and merciful, why then does so much injustice prevail in the world?" asked the Blessed Lord. "He who has eyes can see the sickening sight; why does not Brahma set his creatures right? If his power is so wide that no limits can restrain [it], why is his hand so rarely spread to bless? Why are his creatures all condemned to suffering? Why does he not give happiness to all? Why do fraud, lies, and ignorance prevail? Why does falsehood triumph over truth? Why does [=do] truth and justice fail? I count your Brahma as one of the most unjust, who made a world only to shelter wrong. If there exists some Lord all-powerful to fulfil in every creature, bliss or woe, and action good or ill, then that Lord is stained with sin. Either man does not work his will, or God is not just and good, or God is blind. (133) (3.IV.2:43-44)

Page references to B. R. Ambedkar, The Buddha and his Dhamma: Critical Edition, ed. Aakash Sing Rathore and Ajay Verma (Oxford, 2011) and this online source. Image source.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

New York state of mind

I didn't, in the end, use the New York State Tax E-File system - too many chances for mistyping numbers - but it was sobering to realize I don't have answer for most of their proposed security questions either!

Early Spring at Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Friday, April 04, 2014


I love it when things converge in unexpected and unplanned ways. It's especially delicious when past projects find new partners in the present. The "Religion and Theater" course I co-taught with my colleague C in 2007 and 2010 is experiencing just such renewed attention as we speak.

One such way is pretty obvious: when I encourage people to think about how one might "stage" the Book of Job, I am building on experiences in that class. I'd been interested in theater before, but it was only in the context of a course co-taught with a director that I really saw the parallels with textual interpretation, as well as the illuminating differences. So the course was on my mind last night in Princeton when I was extolling the ways in which my approach to Job has been affected by the interdisciplinary environment of The New School.

"Religion and Theater" has come back in another way, too. You'll recall the performances of the Book of Job for communities dealing with trauma which I've been telling people about on every available occasion (last night, too). Well, the director has recently been to Japan to help a local company do similar work for those affected by the earthquake/tsunami/radiation in Tohoku. I know a few people in Japanese theater, and am delighted to report that one of them has helped them find actors for their project. The story they wound up choosing, the Noh drama "Sumidagawa," is familiar to me, too. We taught it in "Religion and Theater"! It's a perfect story for the project, too. (And there's more: the Japanese opera director who made the connection turns out to have directed "Curlew River," Benjamin Britten's adaptation of "Sumidagawa" and my pash when we did Noh in 2010!)

And here's another thing. I raved to the "Religion and Theater" students that the community performance of the passion story on Palm Sunday was a striking point of intersection of religion and theater - in fact, they had to witness it for themselves (along with Purim). Well, guess who's in the Palm Sunday reading at my church next Sunday? And guess what part he's been given? Clue: he's been asking himself for the first time: WWJD?

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Staging Job

Not a huge number of people showed up for my rescheduled talk at the Princeton Public Library tonight (this picture was taken before they showed up), but it's always fun to have a chance to share ideas with people. And since I'm incapable of giving the same talk twice, it's always an opportunity to hone language, deepen an argument, or, more likely, stumble into a new insight. Tonight I worked the big insight from the talk at Monmouth College last week (whose structure and slides I used again tonight) - that imagining (or actually) staging the Book of Job changes how each speech is understood as we need to determine who's being addressed and who's hearing it: a speech needs an audience.
I used some more images from different iterations of Blake's "Illustrations of the Book of Job" (Blake's a sure hit when you're showing images) to set up the question, and I found this new one - an early sketch (c. 1785!) now at the Tate, which frames the story of Job's friends interestingly: they are clearly friends, part of a community of care. This scene doesn't make it into the final engravings 40 years later, but clearly Blake was attentive to the real and tested relationship of Job and his friends. They are on the scene throughout Blake's retelling - included/excluded in different ways. These scenes are familiar.
Here the friends aren't in the same mindspace as Job. But look at these:
There's a story here - one I think I can connect to the really important question: where are we in this? When and how are we being addressed?

Fun, fun! And there's always an unexpected question at any of these presentations. Tonight's came from one of the young people manning the desk for Labyrinth Books. Had I come across anyone who regarded Job's scraping himself with a potsherd as a form of self-harm? Um... not before tonight!