Thursday, July 09, 2015

Buddhisty stuff

Come the Fall, I'll be teaching three courses. One will be a new take on New School history. The other two, repeats/updates, will be where I process my China experience. For "Theorizing Religion" this will obviously be so. But I'm also repeating the "advising tutorial" I piloted in Spring 2013, "Buddhism and Liberal Arts" (B&LA) a not-quite-course designed to help a small group of students reflect on and take ownership of their educations and vocations. How might my China year affect it? I had few discussions of "liberal arts" there. And except for tourism, as during Longhua's shuilu rite in November or the Datong expedition last month Buddhism pretty much fell off the radar screen entirely. 

I think it's good for me to admit this. Buddhism in contemporary China is associated with wealth, with old temples being rebuilt and big opulent new temples being built throughout the land. An article I found about shuilu described a contemporary Buddhism which caters to lay people's desire for showy rituals rather than dharma talks, and one whose priests are less likely to be meditators than to choose that line of business to become wealthy (perhaps leaving after a few years to get married). I know that's not the whole story, but it's the one I heard from non-Buddhists, and somehow I never found my way beyond them. 

To some extent, I'm sorry to say, I reacted the way many a western Buddhophile reacts to the lived Buddhism of Asia - distaste and shock at what seems a samsaric comfort with wealth and power, and an encouragement of karmic calculations and superstitious devotions. I'm sorry to say it because I recognized it but did nothing about it. I reminded myself that the western image of Buddhist otherworldliness is an accident, an artifact of its peripheral position in our societies; that lay meditation is a modern departure from practically all historic religious traditions (not to mention a bourgeois self-indulgence); and that western religious traditions past and present, too, are waist-deep in the demands of real people's real lives. Buddhism in China, as everywhere it's been important, has been many things to many people.

B&LA was going to need an overhaul anyway. My "Buddhism and Modern Thought" course of Spring 2014 made me reflect on and take ownership of Buddhism's involvement with political power along with the legitimacy and inevitability of what's known as Buddhist modernism. The original B&LA was a Zennish rumination on getting beyond "dualities" which bedevil thinking about education and vocation: school/life, study/practice, contemplation/activism, personal/political,
spontaneity/discipline, self/nonself, and path/destination. That still seems helpful... we'll see.

In the meantime, I've been reconnecting with my Buddhist modernist self - you know, the one with all the Buddhist stuff in his apartment, who gives himself little dharma talks from time to time. (Perhaps I should just call myself a 文化佛教徒, a cultural Buddhist.) Consider, for instance, that I had forgotten what most of the stuff in my apartment is, and that over the past year that stuff has been used, moved around and sometimes broken by people I've never met; I was apprehensive about returning to survey the damage... A great opportunity for non-attachment, not to mention cleaning house!

Or so I thought. But the minute I rediscovered things, from forgotten clothes to not so attractive dishes I brought back from Japan ages ago, clinging snapped right back in place. (The apprehension was just the clinging coiled for return.) Indeed they've been insisting on being restored to their old places. I sometimes think about objects having lives of their own, but here it's clear that this is all about me. I'm working on it, a little. I'm pushing back at the neurotic recreation of what was, after all, a largely accidental array... or at least appreciating it as a largely accidental array, which might, accidentally, endure for a bit longer (or a lot longer) until some new accident happens. I want the new accidents, and the openness to them.

I'm not sure that makes any sense at all. There's probably nothing "Buddhist" about the predictable ambivalence accompanying any return from travel, especially a long sojourn like the one I've just completed. One wants to be the same person who left and also to be a new, different person, wants to come to some sort of terms with how (shockingly!) easily one left the old and with how (shockingly!) easily one now slides back into it...

I leave you with some pictures I took on the N Train crossing the Manhattan Bridge back to Brooklyn this afternoon. I was trying to get the view of Brooklyn Bridge, East River and Southern Manhattan - including the new tower where WTC once stood, but the Manhattan Bridge wasn't having it, though I snapped away with abandon. When looking for the least obstructed view in iPhoto I realized that the obstructions are interesting, too - notice how they're torqued by the camera! - and that the obstructedness was part of the view.

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