Sunday, November 30, 2014


I've arrived in Hong Kong, though it took the whole day to get here. Departure was an hour too early since Baidu opined it might take two and a half hours on the subway - and then the flight was delayed by almost four hours! But still, here I am, on the 25th floor of the somewhat boutiquey Cosmo hotel in Wan Chai on the island of Hong Kong, somewhat incredulous that I'm blogging without having to use VPN! Facebook, my New School email, google, too, there just like that. Delicious I expect there will be other moments where I realize a pressure I've come to take for granted in Shanghai has been lifted.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Longhua Shuilu Rite one last time

Went back to Longhua one more time this afternoon to see one of the consummations of the 水陆法会 Shuilu festival, which I now know is to be translated "Land and Sea Dharma Assembly." Just inside the main gate lots of things were being burnt by the paper bag and box.
The place was packed with people of all ages (tho' few children)
Volunteers wait for the monks to start the main procession
Here they come, fresh from liturgy in the upper room, bearing offerings
Each monk is preceded by a lantern and a banner-bearer, the whole group preceded by gongs and larger lanterns and followed by the main officiants, in crowns and under parasols, and a squeaky band, and a long line of lay devotés in black gowns with scarlet stoles, each bearing an incense holder - I have no pics because I shot a nice little video of it.
Many people join the bowing at the monks' first stop in the main hall
The procession circumambulates the pagoda outside the temple gate
The first of the paper offerings borne by the monks in procession, what looks to be a large red book, is burnt; the monks and lay devotés watch from inside the temple, while the volunteers make a grand avenue
Then it's back out the main gate to the pagoda, where a tissue paper boat full of yellow spirit money waits to be set afire.
This was pretty tame compared to others I've heard of. At the place Longhua volunteers helped at (the slide show in the volunteers' room), the boat was surrounded by a sea of paper bags stuffed with offerings. Recently at Baoshan Temple the ship was apparently joined by horses and riders, and even houses! Even at Longhua there were other paper sculptures aplenty; I wonder when they go up in merit-making flame?

As the boat burnt the monks and lay devotés returned to the temple, and I headed home. But I need to show you one more thing. What I've been calling the dimly lit hall, where lay folk were folding offerings the other two times I came, had been cleared out. Not just their offerings but the yellow cards with the names of the dead are in another place.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Wittgenstein to the rescue!

Had another lovely conversation with a young Fudan student, this time one who's just finished his masters in Chinese philosophy and is hoping to pursue a PhD in Switzerland. We'd met briefly through a mutual friend a few weeks ago, but really spoke for the first time after a talk Wednesday afternoon, and continued our discussion today.

Wednesday's subject was, among other things, 缘分 yuanfen. This term (one of those which my host has suggested might be part of an indigenous Chinese sociology of religion) had found its way back to my consciousness because its cousin 随缘 suiyuan had found me earlier in the day. Nobody I've asked defines this new term in quite the same way but I think I like it. The person who introduced the term to me, a quite religious Taiwanese woman, described it as following where one's destiny leads - something she felt described both of our stumbling on Fudan for somewhat unstraightforward but ultimately compelling reasons. Another friend said it meant "happy-go-lucky." Someone else spoke of happenstance. As the MA student explained, 随缘 suiyuan builds on Buddhist ideas of karmic connection (缘) but in colloquial conversation can mean much lighter things - a carefree, playful spirit. I was happy to own all of these, since, as my first stint in Shanghai winds to a close, I feel reconnected with the Mark who's lived lots of places and gets cold feet if in the same place for too long, or even the same language...

Religious studies as I understand it hasn't happened here yet, constrained as it is by its place within departments of philosophy (especially departments anchored in Marxist philosophy), so it was fun to discuss the interdisciplinary venture of a field that attends to the complexities and charms of religion in all its guises. I suggested a philosophical bridge could be Wittgenstein's famous claim that in most cases "the meaning of a word is its use in the language." How are religious words actually used? (We discussed 缘分 as an example and I said, rather 随缘ly, that here in China I am trying to understand it as possibly real.) While we're at it, how about religious stories, images, narratives, rituals? The way religion does its thing may not be the way philosophy thinks it does (or should). But then, as Wittgenstein suggests, philosophy may not do its thing that way, either! Specious contrasts of religion and philosophical "rationality" mislead us about both.

He was intrigued by this, as an email he subsequently sent me attests:

It is just amazing yuanfen (缘分) that we meet in Fudan and share a lot of common interests! ... Although I have been studying medieval Chinese philosophy for three years, I am still struggling to find the best way of conceptualized it in a philosophically interesting way. ... The problem that medieval western philosophy faces is exactly that if we want to access it, we first have to invent it. The same goes also for Chinese philosophy. It's often the case that in reconstructing we bring with ourselves our hindsight and pre- occupation into the ancient thinkers and hence what we read out of the texts is exactly what we read into them. And it is also argued that if we study Chinese intellectual tradition "as philosophy", then we lose our indigenous understanding since philosophy is western. This kind of mind-set has plagued the study of Chinese philosophy for years, so I am trying to figure out in what sense can we have Chinese philosophy at all. 

Thoughtful guy, and eloquent too (not to mention in English)! These are the sorts of concerns I love - well, love reframing and moving beyond. So the worry that "what we read out of texts is exactly what we read into them" was the focus of today's conversation, along with the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't bellyaching about "Chinese philosophy." I had a great time introducing him to Gadamer's critique of the Enlightenment's "prejudice against prejudice" (in fact we can't get anywhere if we don't ask some questions), and his idea that in order for an engagement with a text to be fruitful it has to be dialogic, allowing it to question us too. This led to discussion of dialogue more generally (I told him it seemed to me a miraculous thing, and he seemed to get what I meant), and eventually to the dialogue between religions. But the funnest moment involved another chestnut from Wittgenstein which he, putting me to shame, quoted in German:  

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen
 Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent

(What Wittgenstein has in mind is religion, ethics and aesthetics.) This is early Wittgenstein, not the Wittgenstein who taught us to describe language games since "Words have meaning only in the stream of life" (RPP II, §687), but instead of dismissing it I asked what it meant to be silent. He's not saying that we should only go where we can speak, surely! But being silent is a doing (this is clearer in other languages than in English), and there's not a single or obvious way to do it.

And suddenly we were back in the world of religious rituals! And of dialogue, which can't happen unless I stay silent to allow the other to speak. We'd started out talking about the problem of evil and the possibility that responses to it might be concerned to abide in the difficult question rather than to presume to answer it. Now we had a working understanding of philosophy not just open to religion but dialogically engaged in silence as well as speech, in listening and speaking - and perhaps also in forms of notspeaking. Medieval and Chinese philosophy seem quite legit approached this way.

It was kind of a wonderful conversation! And a pleasing recurrence of old Ludwig for me. Only a few days ago, with our French visitor, I'd been part of a conversation about what one can learn from a scholar's first publication, which s/he will often think of as a youthful indiscretion. Mine was on, tiens!, Wittgenstein.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

More Longhua

The incredible picture above showed up on my WeChat this morning from my undergraduate friend: this is happening at Longhua today, he wrote. Are the statues and offerings still out, I wrote back? If so, I'll find time to go see them. Happily he was in class (at Fudan) so didn't get to tell me that these were in fact stock images distributed on the volunteers' WeChat list this morning - he wasn't at the temple - until I was most of the way to the temple myself. (I was already part way there buying some Christmas presents at the Shanghai Museum Gift Shop.) At Longhua was no trace of this splendid liturgy when I got there, but what was there made me doubly glad to have gone. There were no monks in sight but the place was full of people, abuzz with their conversations as, seated in every available space, they rolled and folded paper and silver foil - the activity I'd seen in the big dim room on Tuesday. (That room was fuller, too - see right.) This is their place, too. A reminder of where it was all headed came in the first gate, where larger tissue paper structures I'd seen in the making attended an elaborate paper boat - the very thing we'd seen torched in the ritual Longhua volunteers helped out at in the photos we saw. The conflagration is Saturday afternoon; I'm going to try to attend.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Shuilu rite at Longhua Temple

As promised, more photos from Longhua's 水陆法会 (short, we learned, for 法界圣凡水陆普度大斋胜会), in the order in which I came to them.

The great drum - no longer used - inside one of the entrance towers.
Monks chant to Amida as some lay people prostrate themselves and volunteers, in orange vests, keep an eye on things.
Turns out the monks were surrounded by a vast crowd of mostly very old ladies chanting with them.
Two scenes from the upper room where the most important chanting apparently happens; offerings to a bodhisattva particularly good with yin and yang, and the setting for one of the chant leaders. Gilt incense holder is from Australia. Hand mirror confirms hat is on straight.
The dim hall with ordinary practitioners fashion paper offerings.

A volunteer inscribes an offering for some lay people.
Where the offerings are taken to be burnt.
Slides in the volunteers' room show Longhua volunteers helping out at a nearby temple; the monk in charge demonstrates cooking tricks.
Some larger offerings on their way to completion.
The evening ritual 放焰口 fangyankou; five rows of black-clad lay devotés amplify the efforts of the monks with frequent prostrations.
Everyone crowds into the hall for some vigorous sutra singing.
Back outside, the lay devotés offer incense to initiator of the ritual 面然 Mianran/ 焰口 Yankou as the monks chant.
The monks fill more stations before the Buddhas.
People disperse as the monks' singing goes on...

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


Spent a remarkable afternoon and evening at Longhua Temple, courtesy of my undergraduate friend J. We were there because this week is the 水陆法会 shuilufahui festival but I got to see so much more of the temple and its life that it feels like I've spent a much longer time there. The key was the fact that J volunteers there, and so I got to see Shanghai's biggest and oldest Buddhist temple from the "volunteer's eye view" - though we also got to see things that it takes a foreign visitor to Fudan University to see, too. We were shown around by one of the volunteer leaders, and later met the monk who, in just six or seven years, has built a vibrant world of 150 volunteers (who mingle on WeChat!). The former showed us places young volunteers like J usually don't see - the inside of the bell and drum towers at the temple entrance, and the hall, festooned in red, where the monks do their most important chanting for the occasion. The monk, whom we met in the room where volunteers come to relax after their duties, gave us the remote for a big flat screen where we could see pictures of volunteer activities... it was a lot of pictures (if there was a procession of thirty monks, each with two volunteer attendants bearing banners and lamps, there were sixty pictures) but they showed the variety of volunteer activities (including several how-to sequences). By the time we attended part of the ritual I was aware of the many overlapping communities working together to make it all happen. Photos soon! For now, our vegetarian noodles; monks with a volunteer.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Memory lane

Rain's made the Fudan ginkgos splash the streets yellow... first time I've thought back to the street I live on in Brooklyn. Funny what triggers memories.


Went with our visitor to the Shanghai Museum's paintings collection today. (Who knew my French would get such a workout en Chine!) I'd gone too quickly through it last time. Some delights: Zhu Derun 朱德润, Hun Lun (1349), 钱谷, Gazing at the distance from a boat (1578), Tang Yin 唐寅 (1470- 1523), Lonely wild duck in sunset glow (details).

Sunday, November 23, 2014

QC at AAR!

While I'm enjoying the Shanghai life, all my friends have converged on San Diego for the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting. Just in time our book is out - doesn't it look nice in such good company?

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Wheels turn

Just when I was running out of juice a little flatbed truck full of mandarin oranges pulled into my neighborhood! 4 kilos for 10 renminbi!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Republic of letters

Had a really wonderful conver- sation this afternoon with one of the students from the Intro to Religious Studies class I guest lectured in on Monday. It was in a Miyazaki Hayao-themed coffee shop on Daxuelu 大学路 whose ground floor had what appeared to be a vast selection of postcards for sale. We talked for two and a half hours - from rational choice theory to Buddhist merit-making to Nietzsche to whether people can live without hope in something supernatural, and a good many points in between.

I think it was a bit of what Jeff Stout calls an experience of "the adolescent sublime" for both of us. He's never had a conversation in which a professor asks after his view of things, or talks about philosophy and Buddhism and sociology - not to mention the Church of Elvis and the
films of Miyazaki. Or admits there are things he doesn't know. And I've gone without the sustenance of intense conversation with young minds (that sounds creepy, I don't mean it that way) for a long time. We're going to organize a reading/discussion group in the Spring!

On the way out we noticed that the ground floor display was actually a calendar - 365 slots - and the contents were cards that people had written, together and to each other, for future delivery. Cheesy but charming, especially in the Miyazaki ambience. Giddy with having abided together in the big questions we decided to do it too. On 21 Nov 2015 a card will be sent to him from me (about 缘分), and another to me from him... I wonder what it will say! (I told him to write part of in Chinese.)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Seasonal touches

As snow falls back home I went in search of Fall colors in the Li Family Garden attached to a nearby hospital today. Not a lot but enough...

Fudan's campus had some nice things to offer, too!