Saturday, May 31, 2014

Summer flora

Still a lot going on at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden!

Friday, May 30, 2014

Legendary landscapes

At "American Legends," the Whitney's sample of American greats, a few landscapes really appealed to me: Edward Hopper's familiar Early Sunday Morning, 1930, which unfolds into three delighted dimensions on careful reading of its shadows; Georgia O'Keeffe, The Mountain, New Mexico, 1931, which was new to me (though of course I know that landscape palette), and seemed miraculously to be breathing, its colors shifting as sun might start to glow diffusely through thickly packed clouds passing slowly overhead; and William Eggleston, Untitled (Store Parking Lot), 1965-68, whose charm I find harder to articulate - something in the convergent lines, no doubt, but even more something about all the truncated messages, especially the oversize letters dwarfing an already oversize store, and something about day and night.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Light trick

A friend took me to two famous New York places I had not been to this arvo: Walter de Maria's "Earth Room" (1977) and "Broken Kilometer" (1979). They each fill a warehouse floor of a (different) building in SoHo and are maintained by the Dia Art Foundation. I'd heard of the first one (from a student presentation in "Religious Geography of New York" several years ago), but had not imagined it so weighty. Yet it was the second which captured my imagination. Not because its 500 solid brass rods "would measure to 3,280 feet if all the elements were laid end to end" (as the attendant description noted, breaking the kilometer up even more than the artist did). A little bit because the spaces between the bars widen by precise increments from 80 to 570mm. But mainly because it hit me that all the golden glow we were seeing in the far reaches of the room - which put me in mind of a Western sunset - was being reflected back from the illumination over our heads.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Traffic jam

More confusion in Chinese class today! Our textbook includes a sentence which begins


"Where's the verb?" asked A, one of my classmates, "all I see is our+school+vicinity+traffic+very+convenient." And indeed, there is no verb. I'm used to verbless sentences from Japanese, but it's true that in English you need a subject and a predicate for something to count as a sentence - to actually say something. Yet surely a copulative is implied, and isn't the meaning here clear enough: that our school is convenient to public transit? (Our textbook does not provide translations of dialogues, etc..) A, however, insisted on a word by word reckoning, at the end of which the teacher said in exasperation that 交通 doesn't even really mean traffic in this sentence (as our textbook said), while by itself "it doesn't mean anything at all"! A was not assuaged.

I suspect there are going to be a lot more sentences the translating of which is like startling a flock of pigeons who noisily fly off in all directions before regrouping again.

Monday, May 26, 2014

In flight

The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine is playing host to two remarkable guests - enormous 12-ton phoenixes from China. They are the work of Xu Bing 徐冰 (whom I know from the prodigious "Book from the Sky" in the Met's Ink Art exhibition), and are constituted entirely of the detritus from the construction site of the trade center in Beijing which originally commissioned the works (and then backed out). I am often put off by what seems to me the showy scale of the works of contemporary Chinese art which we get to see here. I appreciate (and will doubtless come to appreciate more fully) that one may need to shout to be heard in the clamor of Chinese change, but it still seems like shouting. Not this one, though, although it's clearly a crying out too - the stuff of these phoenixes is meant to materialize for us the poorly-paid migrant laborers building China's miracle cities.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Child's play

Imagine a
radio program for children - perhaps age twelve to fourteen - that lets them in on deep and life- changing truths like this one:

The more someone understands something, and the more he knows of a particular kind of beauty, whether it's flowers, books, clothing or toys, the more he can rejoice in everything that he knows and sees, and the less he's fixated on possessing it, buying it himself or receiving it as a gift. 

A wonderful and profound insight, the seed for a precious self-awareness and appreciation of the common good! Could a child have understood this? I know I would have loved this sort of seeming paradox at that age. And I know children of that age would be able to appreciate it... perhaps most could, if we gave them the chance! (I can't say more than that I'd like to think I was such a one.)

Well, there was such a radio program - broadcast about eighty-five years ago when the medium was new - and the broadcaster was none other than Walter Benjamin! (Suggestive in all sorts of dizzying ways.) I learned about it from a BBC 4 radio program which someone posted on Facebook. Can't wait to listen to the German scripts, available here!

Score and a half

Can it have been thirty years ago? On this day in 1984 I was jolted from my dorm bed by the opening guitar chords of Van Halen's "Jump" at top volume and - amazing but true - the sound was so clear I thought for a moment that it must be the Second Coming. In fact it was a check of the sound system for the graduation of the first class of the Armand Hammer United World College of the American West in Montezuma, NM, and our musical offering would be not Van Halen but (amazing again but true) the Beach Boys. It was hilarious. Their attempt to warm up our little crowd - "Anyone here from Czechoslovakia?" etc. - managed to miss the pretty impressive sixty-four nationalities represented in our student body of 200 for several gos. (The graduating class had but forty-six.) But we were feeling no pain, joy mixed with a sort of benumbed terror at having to say goodbye to each other forever. (No virtual reality to soften the blow in those days.) At reunions years later many of us still seemed to bear the scars of the ending of that utopian world - even as we were, after all, seeing each other again. Many of my classmates are going to the reunion in Montezuma later this summer but I think I maxed out at the 20th, though I may be in a different state of mind when the even more inconceivable next one comes!

Found kingdoms

Remarkable works on view in the Met's show on the long-forgotten 5th-8th century Buddhist-Hindu kingdoms of Southeast Asia. The whole exhibition is online, but abiding with these works is worth a trip!
Khin Ba Relic Chamber Cover (6th C., Central Myanmar)
Buddha in Meditation (late 6th-mid 7th C., Southern Thailand)
Stele of Twin Shravasti Miracles, in one of of which the Buddha multiplies himself (1st half of 8th C., Central Thailand)
Head of Meditating Buddha (9th C., Central Thailand)
Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (9th C., Western Indonesia)

Friday, May 23, 2014

New questions and old

Had a quite fascinating conversation with a colleague who studies education today. My head is still abuzz with the miracle that was "Buddhism and Modern Thought" so it was nice to have a chance to reflect on it, and to reconnect with broader questions of pedagogy and liberal arts - the objects of her work. It's always nice to have a conversation like this, though it also makes me realize how easily I lose the wood for the trees... we need friends to remind us of our broader commitments and questions! A few highlights from the conversation:

Was our course valuable as part of a liberal education? I've been thinking about Buddhism and liberal arts for a few years, as you know, but it wasn't a main concern of our project this semester. (In fact, I can't remember the last time I thought it about explicitly - d'oh!) But the answer came easy: yes. Why? Because, I extemporized, it was an occasion for developing a deeper, truer sense of agency - of the world and one's place in it, of its challenges and the things one might do in response to them. You don't need to buy into the Buddhist answers, but engaging its questions is valuable. Also: ours was an adventure in liberal education because it schooled us in respect for others' efforts to make sense of these things: the Buddhism we encountered was emphatically plural and appropriately so.

What does it feel like to encounter a new idea? My first thought (which I went with) was that it should feel at once bizarre and familiar. We encounter a lot of weird ideas all the time and don't pursue them. It should be "out there" enough, different enough from your usual way of making sense of things, as to strike you as odd; but at the same time it should resonate in some way, something you thought you knew will shine with a new clarity in its light. So you abide with it a while. I mentioned William James' idea of how knowledge grows, but might also have mentioned his idea of a "live option." One of the benefits of small seminar classes is that you can experience more things as potentially live options for you as you witness them resonating with others. But - another thing I'd forgotten (and forgot while talking to her) - this was one of the recurring questions of the first part of our course! Remember? It appeared as the question of (how) it is possible to really encounter anything new...

The hardest question to answer was actually the first one she asked me: How did I think the course went? I was surprised that I hesitated in responding, since I think - I know - we had an amazing seminar. But the very nature of its success made the question somehow tricky. As a truly collaborate venture, with a syllabus recalibrated as we went along, our course ended up in a truly different place than I thought we would. This was of course by design! But still, I was suddenly aware of a gap between the retrospective coherence of what we had done and any of the things I had imagined we might do when we started. What tripped me up was something I don't even think my friend meant as part of the question: how the actual course would measure up to its starting intention? In many cases that's just the right question to be asking but it seemed somehow too easy to say "it was an open-ended course." I'm still now sure why I was tripped up here... it may be because not just the syllabus but the instructor were changed by the experience!

We talked about other stuff than "Buddhism and Modern Thought," of course, as one does. But it was refreshing to be reconnected to these big questions about education which - I'd nearly forgotten this, too! - are among those which led me to decide to spend next year in China! What do we teach? Why do we learn? How do we live?

Thursday, May 22, 2014


We had our college Recognition Ceremony this morning in the big barn of Calvary and St. George Episcopal Church at Stuyvesant Park. The faculty got to process in and out before the students and to sit on the raised stage, but were more like a floral display - nothing for us to do but be there. I suppose our moment is past - sort of the point, maybe?

As ever it was a long parade of graduates I've never seen before, with just enough people I know sprinkled in to keep it interesting and perplexing. As in years past, I also knew a significantly larger proportion of the students who won departmental awards, we well as the student speaker, though as often through my work with Peer Advisers as through my courses. It remains vaguely disturbing to feel that the mainstream of Lang students doesn't flow anywhere near me - but other faculty report the same thing. Who are they? Who/what are we?

The faculty speaker this year had (like all of us when it comes our turn) not just crafted something very individual, communicating confidence in the graduates as well as concern for them as they enter an increasingly difficult economy, but invoked other commencement speeches, banal and visionary. The highlight for me were some lines from one given by Ivan Illich at the University of Puerto Rico in 1969, whose argument was that a commitment to true education mandates dismantling schools:

This plea to imagine a Puerto Rico without schools must, for many of you, come as a surprise. It is precisely for surprise that true education prepares us. The purpose of public education should be no less fundamental than the purpose of the Church, although the purpose of the latter is more explicit. The basic purpose of public education should be to create a situation in which society obliges each individual to take stock of himself and his poverty. Education implies a growth of an independent sense of life and a relatedness which go hand in hand with increased access to, and use of, memories stored in the human community. The educational institution provides the focus for this process. This presupposes a place within the society in which each one of us is awakened by surprise; a place of encounter in which others surprise me with their liberty and make me aware of my own. 

The speaker was dubious that an increasingly corporatized New School was such a place - a skepticism for which the students to whom I spoke after it was all over were grateful. They've had enough of the "legendary and progressive," "innovative," "student success" and "real and positive change"-incubating BS from our university 1%. As they move on, making the New School work is no longer their concern. It remains ours.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

10,136 words

My final reflection for the "Buddhism and Modern Thought" class. It came at the end of a series of reflections, each as distinctive as the person whose reflection it was, just before our final experience of mindful commensality.

You’ve been getting my reflections in the class follow-up e-mails throughout the semester (with this we should hit 10,000 words, not to mention all those links), so I won’t recap those… beyond noting how often I said “thanks.” I meant it then and I mean it now. Thanks for signing up at this god-awful or maybe bodhisattva-blessed time, and thanks for showing up week after week. Every seminar, but in some ways especially a seminar like this one, is an example of the generation of knowledge by a group, but that works only when people show up. You didn’t just show up, you amazed and sometimes alarmed me with your early morning alertness. I’ll come back to this group energy at the end.

I could give you the bigger story of this course again—
-- how it started as essentially a modern western thought class (the role of imagined and encountered eastern others in the history of western thought is an important story, rarely told, but this wasn’t the time for it)
-- how it was shaken up by bell hooks (beyond bourgeois Buddhisms!), and
-- how we’ve shaken it up in turn (ten syllabi almost make a flip-movie!).
I daren’t make predictions for what its next iteration will look like, but this feels alive to me in a very rare and special way.

I’m tempted to review some of the important Buddhist categories we’ve encountered, and make some final points about them:
-- the 4NT [Four Noble Truths], which I think we finally got after turning them three times (like the cup in Japanese tea ceremony), though I remain convinced that anyone who claims to be abiding with the truth of dukkha intellectually probably isn’t
-- upaya, which it’s become clearer to me presupposes the existence both of great ignorance and of beings who have broken through it: it can’t just mean appropriation or application in new circumstances, and it’s certainly not available for self-medication
-- interdependence, something both critical and distractingly vague: remember Thanissaro Bhikkhu vs. McMahan (and the distinction we perhaps never dwelt on long enough between those Buddhists who are really about breaking free of this world and those who are trying to make a home in it)
-- anatta, as Hsiao-Lan Hu argues, is another way of thinking about pratitya samputpada: awareness of the sedimentation that makes you you connects you/reveals you are connected profoundly to others who are embodied and humanized or dehumanized the way you are: it’s not just that the wall between self and other (or self and world) fades away but that we discover there never was something “inside” it distinct from the rest.

But final reflections are for trying to hold on to things we’re particularly keen not to lose, so here are some things I learned that I want to make sure I don’t lose sight of:
-- Buddhism is and isn’t about the individual: work on the “self” is central to it, and/but it’s the way not only to discover true interconnectedness but to ground agency which works around rather than into the hands of the dukkha-engines of “self” … our brief metta sprint gave the teensiest taste of that. And from Alice Walker and Thich Nhat Hanh I got that part of the interconnectedness discovered and owned here involves our ancestors
-- “Modern Buddhism” isn’t white and it’s not just western. (Resist the lure of the idea that Southern, Eastern and Northern Buddhisms have now been complemented and completed by a Western Buddhism with a face like mine). Marilyn Ivy’s “cooeval modernities” idea provides a template for a better approach—it’s what we did with our Buddhism in the Modern World presentations, and it took us (me!) places I hadn’t been before, a very different, complicated and productive way of thinking about the interdependence of Buddhism and modernity
-- Also from the Buddhism in the Modern World presentations (I had to do the reading for all regions, though you can too!) I’ve come to a deeper understanding of the question of Buddhism and politics. In a word: we won’t take Buddhism seriously until it becomes politically salient. Currently its lack of a political shadow in the West makes it seem the quintessential niche phenomenon—a celebration of nichiness—which corresponds all too well with the liberal western understanding of religion as something private, whether the private tending of wounds or the private cultivation of self. Buddhism is no more a private religion than any other, and we’ve only just begun to understand how its ways of structuring public life and engaging political power might unfold in our shared modern world
-- Buddhist-inspired art needs to be part of the picture. The nationalist context of the export of Zen aesthetics from Japan needs to be taken seriously (but again, we have to be as searching in our interrogation of western Buddhisms) but the effect of Suzuki’s and others’ ideas on artists isn’t just part of the story of modern culture but of the story of Buddhism too. In particular it may help us imagine and enact an ethics and a politics beyond the dukkha-engines of self and other (individual, tribal, national, species)
-- Finally, and this I learned from Thay [Thich Nhat Hanh], some parts of Buddhism’s work on/with the “self” work well, maybe even best, in groups. Think of how our 20-minute circumambulation of the block of 10th-11th/Fifth-Sixth was followed by one of our most intense engagements with the depth of the problem of dukkha. Don’t skimp on your jewels, you need all three: Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. The group project/experience may not be an accidental part of learning about all those things we’ve been exploring.

I have a tendency to relate everything back to the seminar experience… there, just did it.

Let’s finish with tangerines. But this time let’s marry our mindful tangerining with two other practices we saw in the film about Thich Nhat Hanh: the smile and the shared group experience. So eat it mindfully, but look at others as you’re doing it, savor this group we’ve had the pleasure of being part of. And smile.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


Have I mentioned I hate writing?

Setting a feminist table

Orozco's "Table of Universal Brotherhood" was given a run for its money today by a feminist "long table" discussion on the "Labors of Diversity" with visitor Sara Ahmed. (That's my friend T setting it up. ) The discussion was fluid, incisive and inclusive and involved many people in the room. (Most of the people who sat down to start later got up to clear spaces for audience members to join.) The format was described in a handout of "Long Table Etiquette." It was conceived by artist Lois Weaver and, I've learned, inspired by one of my favorite films, Marleen Gorris' feminist utopia "Antonia's Line" (1995)! A noble addition to the ongoing series of efforts trying to update the 1931 mural and jump-start its idealism.

Monday, May 19, 2014


On the last day of classes for the academic year, summer appears!
Back in Brooklyn, parsley tree's going from strength to strength, too!


"Religion and Modern Thought" came to a sweet end today. All of us - the students, me, and two researchers who've been observing our class from time to time - sat around our big table (the pleasures of a small class!) and shared some final reflections in various forms. (One of them was this big mandala, whose circles somehow refer to each of the fifteen weeks of our course; details of the others, including mine, atsome point in the next days.) We closed with a repeat of the Thich Nhat Hanh "Eating a Tangerine" exercise, with a difference. As we mindfully ate our California tangerines - five weeks ago it was Smiles; this time it was Halos - I invited people to smile at each other. (Smiling is an important practice for Nhat Hanh, too.) It was silly and profound: a sweet farewell. The circle we started with a dial ended with a halo!

Saturday, May 17, 2014


Brooklyn Botanic Garden stunners! Bluebells, Japanese tree peonies, cinnamon ferns, rhododendron, black hero tulips, wisteria and azaleas.
満開 (mankai), full bloom, is Japanese. I haven't learned anything suitable in Chinese yet - and am open to the possibility that those experiences that lead me to exclamations in Japanese will continue to.

Not quite so devout

A study with the cheeky name "I know what you did last Sunday" has confirmed what is widely known anecdotally - that Americans tend to overreport their religious activities. The Public Religion Research Institute asked two statistically similar samples of American the same questions about attendance at worship services - but one half responded to an internet poll and the other to a phone interview. There are doubtless questions about the reliability of either set of results, but PRRI seems to have decisively shown a disparity.

I can hear some students at my college (and some faculty) cry "hypocrites!" but I think there's more going on here.

Friday, May 16, 2014


"Buddhism and Modern Thought" is winding down - one last class on Monday and a stack of papers to read before then! - but there's plenty of other stuff going on. We need to return the copy-edited draft of "Queer Christianities" next week. The Offense & Dissent exhibition is gathering force - lots of contributions came in this week, and the work of our gallery designer and two commissioned artists, gallery staffers, archivists and us 3 co-curators is coming together, too. And then there's my AAR paper from half a year ago, a revised and expanded version of which I owe to a journal, like, yesterday. And, of course, 学习汉语!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Where there's a will there's a 会

Now I'm the one confused. Dawei goes to Shanben's room and says

I go to the library to borrow books, don't know how to use the computers there to seek out books. Do you know how?

Question: When did Dawei go to the library? Is he telling about a frustrated trip to the library in the past? Or on his way to the library, aware that he will have trouble using it? Is he speaking (or thinking) past tense or future? It's Chinese! But if David could figure it out, so can I!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Home to roost

Consumer capitalism confuses me. Example? The nearly thirty kinds/ brands of eggs available in my local supermarket. How is it possible?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Al/ma ma/ter

For a brief moment today it seemed that The New School might get rebranded out of existence. An article in the New York Post declared "The New School may be renamed Parsons"; a piece on a New York Times website made more cautious claims: "The New School has launched a comprehensive rebranding campaign that could rename the entire university by next year, a school source said Monday." By late afternoon the President sent out a hastily written clarification, which does no more than rebut a specific claim the Post piece didn't make.
So don't be surprised if we do get a new name within the year! The last President went through a big rebranding with which nobody was happy; his successor might be thinking it his right and duty to try again.

Two side notes:

1) both of the articles were written by Lang alums whom I knew!

2) I have a great name for us if anyone's looking, true to our past and open to the future: Progressive And Resilient Series Of New Schools

Monday, May 12, 2014

Where there never was a hat

The semi-serious soundtrack to "Buddhism and Modern Thought" got another number today. Better still, the song has actually featured in this blog before, not quite six years ago - when it would never have occurred to me that it might have affinities with Buddhism!

It happened quite accidentally (if there are accidents). A student was describing his final project, a rather technical exploration of the affinities between Nāgārjuna and Derridean deconstruction. To illustrate the key move, which he called the "demolition of causality" of noting that things are both entirely caused by conditions and distinct from them, he invited us to imagine a hat. The hat both is nothing but the cloth (or whatever) of which it's made, and not that cloth - just as the cloth is nothing but the threads of which it's woven and not those threads, and the thread... well, you get the idea.

The lumpy hat he ultimately drew was a reference to Le petit prince - really a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant. I didn't notice, as I was sure he was alluding to Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George, whose perhaps most lovely song is called "Finishing the Hat," but he claims never to have heard of it. (He's heard of it now - I sent him this link to Mandy Patinkin's singing it in the original Broadway production.) The song, like the musical, is about the glorious tragedy of the artist - in this case Georges Seurat as he was painting La Grande Jatte - whose attempts to capture the true nature of experience somehow prevent him from ever finding a home in human reality.

... Finishing the hat,
How you have to finish the hat.
How you watch the rest of the world
From a window
While you finish the hat...

At the end of the song, encountered in this accidentally Buddhist context, comes aa rather profoundly Buddhist sounding dénouement:

Finishing a hat...
Starting on a hat..
Finishing a hat...
Look, I made a hat...
Where there never was a hat.

And even before that, something that certainly could be about emptiness, the emptiness apprehended when one mindfully notices the arising and falling away of all apparently solid experience.

Mapping out a sky.
What you feel like, planning a sky.
What you feel when voices that come
Through the window
Until they distance and die,
Until there's nothing but sky...

I don't want to overdo it! ...

But I did do an internet search on Sondheim and Buddhism. Nada - but that established nothing. Derrida was, as far as anyone knows, as unaware of Nāgārjuna's work as Nāgārjuna's of his. Isn't the nature of truth that it can and will be discovered independently over and over again? I'm out on a limb with the particular case of this hat trick, I'm aware, though Merleau-Ponty might agree that the hat is the perfect representation of the world we feel comfortable enough in to take shelter in yet never see. (If we had to be able to see it all the time we wouldn't be able to take shelter under it, now would we?)

Enough of that! A few other searches did call up something interesting, though: an essay on La Grade Jatte by someone who's becoming a favorite Buddhist writer of mine, Cynthia Thatcher, "Disconnect the Dots." (The image at top is from the article.) She doesn't engage Seurat's quixotic attempt to disaggregate our sensations of color, but she might have. She's discussing her meditation teacher Achan Sobin Namto's promise that it's possible to have an unmediated experience of the world, in the split second between sensation and naming, though it takes much meditation. The experience is always fleeting, and can't be commanded, but it can change everything. As she recounts it, her first such experience involved what, that split second later, she realized was birdsong:

At first I didn’t even recognize the sensation as an auditory form as opposed to a sight or smell. The next moment, the mental dots connected and the word “bird” slid into the mind. But the label didn’t erase the experience. Some veil had slipped, if just for a second.
When Achan Sobin walked in, I could hardly wait to blurt out: “It’s just a sound! It has nothing to do with the bird.” The event had somehow shaken my world.
“Nothing to do with the bird?” he asked.
He laughed and nodded. “Very good!”
“But it’s not even a sound.”
“No,” he confirmed, “by the truth, not even a sound.”

"Nothing to do with the bird" -  she wouldn't say it, but I call that the song of emptiness! (Nāgārjuna's "emptiness" has recently been nicely described in another piece noticing affinities between Buddhist and ostensibly non-Buddhist knowledges, Graham Priest's "Beyond True and False": things are ‘empty’ (sunya). This does not mean that they are non-existent; only that they are what they are because of how they relate to other things.)

You may think I've completely lost it by now, having gone from a student's presentation on an uncaused correlation to something it wasn't inspired by, and pushing onward from that through a failed internet search to arrive triumphantly at nothing! (It turns out that things are what they are because of how they relate to all other things.) But who said there was a hat in the first place?  咱们在公园一块儿逛吧。