Tuesday, May 31, 2016

It unfolds

Got us a map (Michelin!). Big country we're enterprising to cross...

Monday, May 30, 2016

Sunday, May 29, 2016


In preparation for this summer's Kailas trip I've been tasked with reading up on pilgrimage and sacred mountains and writing a short guide for the other members of our research team. I thought I'd get a leg up from Ian Reader's just published volume Pilgrimage in the "Very Brief Introduction" series (a series I have profited from before). It's got me far enough up to see there's a lot farther to go.

Reader's an expert on the 88-stop Shikoku pilgrimage in Japan, and has also evidently been to Hardwar, Santiago de Compostela, Glastonbury and many other sites of pilgrimage. Over his thirty years studying them he has seen pilgrimage traditions evolve with new forms of transportation, tension and symbiosis with other forms of tourism, and reframing of old sites by political, commercial and New Age types. He's seen pilgrimage site priests scope out the competition at other sites, and souvenir stall owners respond to repeat pilgrims' demand for new products. He's spoken to countless pilgrims, walking and on package tours, from one-off holiday-goers to dedicated devotés who find themselves returning every year. They come for healing, in tribute, for transformation, on vows, for the loot.

The journey is important for some, the destination important for others (especially those who fly or bus in) - but Reader cautions that neither is necessarily more "authentic." Walkers disapprove of bus pilgrims, seeing the sacrifice and effort of the journey as essential.

Not everyone is of that view. Priests in Shikoku sometimes have commented to me that those on foot are often more interested in hiking than devotion - arguing that those on buses spend much longer in prayer at the temples than walkers. ... A young man doing the Shikoku pilgrimage by car made the point clearly to us [Reader and his wife] when we met him near the end of the route. Perhaps rather smugly we said that we had walked for over five weeks and were just a couple of days from completing the route. Rather than being impressed, he simply said that in the time it took us to walk it once he could do the pilgrimage six times, thus gaining far more merit than us walkers. (67-68)

Reader is commendably non-judgmental, balancing different understandings and practices, "high" and "low," and finds these differences in traditions everywhere. With some approval he quotes from the website of an English society for would-be pilgrims on the Camino:

Remember that there are no rules,
that it's your pilgrimage. (70)

I'm usually a fan of non-judgmental religious studies, especially when it juxtaposes practices and practitioners who disapprove of each other. As a lived religion afficionado I should be all over "it's your pilgrimage." But Reader's book is, in the end, not academic enough for me. What I mean by that is that it isn't reflective about its categories. You see this in the final section, 'Secular sites and contemporary developments," whose opening discussion includes the book's only reference to academics.

If pilgrimage is found almost universally cross religious traditions, it has also, in modern contexts, become widely associated with places that have no specific religious affiliations or links to formal religious traditions. Many of the themes associated with pilgrimage may be visible in a variety of settings that include visits to the graves and homes of deceased celebrities, war memorials, places associated with seminal political figures, and itineraries relating to the search for cultural roots, identity and heritage. Moreover, those who participate in such visits may refer to their activities as pilgrimages and to themselves as pilgrims. ... Academics, too, have applied the term 'pilgrimage' to activities that occur outside of formal religious contexts but that incorporate modes of behaviour and phenomena similar to more traditional forms of pilgrimage. (100)

Reader's one of those academics, surely, and yet... If visitors to Graceland or Robben Island call themselves pilgrims, doesn't "it's your pilgrimage" oblige us to take them at their word? Why should "formal religious traditions" (whatever they are) distinguish the true pilgrim from the pilgrim-like? Reader's description of pilgrims to Nelson Mandela's cell at Robben Island stumbles over political religion:

While some come to honour a political leader, many demonstrate religious levels of devotion, burning incense at the grave and praying to him for help in their personal lives. Many, viewing him as a unifying national figure, also invoke his help in solving the nation's problems. (107)

The phrase "demonstrate religious levels of devotion" is a masterpiece of equivocation. Isn't it religious devotion? Doesn't Reader's own evidence make that clear? In the next paragraph, he describes Lenin's tomb in Moscow as a de facto pilgrimage shrine (107). Um, "de facto"? Once again, his own account entitles him to say more - and many a theory of religion would be happy to back him up. This final section of the book is all about distinguishing more traditional forms of pilgrimage from modes of behaviour and phenomena similar to them, but it's not clear why.

Here's a guess why. Reader has a salutary skepticism when it comes to "traditional religion" - why shouldn't people pray for this-worldly things, buy trinkets or gold watches, stop by the beach on the way back from their pilgrimage? - but there's something about these "secular sites" he finds unpalatable. It's not the prerogative of formal religious traditions to determine what's authentic, any more than the scholar of religion. But perhaps the scholar of religion can help distinguish religion from its abuse and cooptation by politics. The history of Japanese religion (Reader's area of specialization) is full of the sorts of prayers for the nation which people made at Robben Island (and who does he think paid for the 88 temples of the Shikoku pilgrimage?), so what's the problem with politics being part of the pilgrimage mix?

Reader's fidgety language seems connected to the (rather modern western) view that religion is and ought to be an individual thing, driven by individual needs. Here's how he wraps up the book:

What is certainly recurrent and seemingly unchanging [in the world of pilgrimages] is the desire of people to get away, even if temporarily, from their everyday circumstances, to look for new meanings and reaffirmations of personal identities, and to go to places that they feel can help them in such quests. ... As such, pilgrimage has been a recurrent theme in religious contexts, and nowadays increasingly in more clearly nonreligious ones, that offers scope for self-development, escape, faith, and hope, as well as play and entertainment. (120)

The apolitical individualistic bent of his argument isn't what initially troubled me about Reader's account. What I sought and didn't find was something else: the suggestion that pilgrimage works in a dynamogenic way (to use Durkheim's Jamesian word) - pilgrims are actually transformed, they don't just think or feel or say so. Without that piece, you can't seriously engage the work done by places of power, by the communitas of being on the the same path with strangers, or even by the social death of shedding your regular identity for that of the pilgrim. (He breezily mentions each of these things but doesn't engage them.) I'll have to think more about whether Reader's worries about state cooptation of individual experiences are in the background of his care not to suggest that pilgrimage is ever more, ultimately, than an experience sought out by a knowing consumer.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Crowdsourced sacred

At the Rubin Museum of Art (which I've not had a chance to visit in a while), Genesis Breyer P-Orridge invited visitors to leave something for use in h/er growing, changing exhibit "Try to Altar Everything." Here are 
some of the objects. A complement, in a way, to the exhibition on Sacred Spaces, where visitors were encouraged to write down their sacred spaces and an animator turned them into a cute little movie.

Friday, May 27, 2016


The Trump phenomenon has left me, as so many others, speechless. I've felt an almost demonic power in his ability to get people to talk about him talk about him talk about him him despite themselves - and have tried to resist the manic meme. But this article, by New York Times journalist Jonathan Weisman, forces me to put words to my speechless horror. In it he describes a few of the responses he received after retweeting an Op-Ed piece on Trump enthusiasts in the Washington Post by Robert Kagan called "This Is How Fascism Comes to America."
These Americans aren't affronted but excited at that idea, and it inspires them to send Holocaust-themed death-threats to Weisman. Like an image of the gates of Auschwitz, the famous words “Arbeit Macht Frei” replaced without irony with “Machen Amerika Great” or an image of a smiling Mr. Trump in Nazi uniform flicking the switch on a gas chamber containing my Photoshopped face. I don't care who Trump is or isn't. If he enables such as these, if he even encourages them by not condemning them, as he does white supremacist racists and Islamophobes, then demonic he is, and Kagan's worries are real.

Peanuts does Job

Worth posting again (I've found a sharper image); from September 2014.

Thursday, May 26, 2016


The peonies are just about to pop at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
These snaggle-toothed onions have popped already...

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Road trip!

So if you were taking 10 days or so to drive from CA to NY, 
which route would you take? What - and whom - would you visit?

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Fruits of meditation

Finally watched Pixar's "Inside Out," and loved it, as I knew I would. The Pixar folks are just really smart about every detail... but there's something interesting going on in this depiction of a new popular psychology. The five basic emotion model of the psychologist in question, Paul Ekman, has been in the news again recently, this time in reports that his "Atlas of Emotions" (whose characters and even colors you'll recognize from "Inside Out") was sponsored, and funded, by the Dalai Lama! We read that Dr. Ekman emphasized that the Atlas was not a scientific work intended for peer review while The Dalai Lama wants to keep religion out of it. But future historians may well point to this fivesome as a turning point of the buddhicization of American culture.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The invention of Kailas?

I'm not sure what it says about me, but I was thrilled to discover at the library today a new book which argues that Kailas has only been fêted as the world's most sacred mountain for a century or so. Alex McKay's Kailas Histories: Renunciate traditions and the construction of Himalayan sacred geography (Brill, 2015) doesn't just argue that our Kailas was only recently connected to ancient Indic traditions of a cosmic mountain, but that there are several Kailas in the Western Himalayan, one of which has a stronger claim to be the earthly manifestation of the supernatural Kailas. To me this has the ring of
truth. But why, and why should it make me tingle with delight? Is it just what a few decades of "the invention of tradition," including the "world religions," would lead one to expect? Or is there a hidden desecratory agenda to religious studies as I practice it after all, a principled raining on the picnics of those who claim to be able to transcend, or bypass, human-all-too-human history? I'm not proud of my delight here. While it's surely in part a joy at being able to engage with Kailas in the most serious way I know - historically, critically, with data, argument and contingency, getting beyond the level of ahistorical wish to the messy reality of life in time - it does also seem a little schadenfroh.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Creeper sprawl

I suppose few plants afford sharp right angles, but our nasturtium seems unusually curvy and wavey, all disks and swoops! But as it's spilled over the edge of the flowerpot and begun to colonize the wooden floor, generating a multi-tier network like a futuristic space city, it's giving us rounded perpendiculars, too...

Friday, May 20, 2016


Let friends take you to karaoke in Koreatown and anything can happen!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Alter call

College commencement! (My colleague L took this picture from the stage, where we faculty were seated.) Each time I find that I don't recognize most of the graduating seniors but this year took the cake. (I was on leave for a year, of course, and haven't directed the First Year Program - through which I got to know troupes of student peer advisers - in two years.) Out of about 380 graduating students, I knew 12! I asked my faculty friends and they had comparable tallies. Bizarre and not a little disconcerting... who are these students and what did they study?!

R I P Robin Mookerjee

One of my long-time colleagues, Robin Mookerjee, passed away on Tuesday. A great shock (he was only fifty-four), a great loss. A gifted scholar and writer, a dedicated teacher and even adminstrator, he was also the consummate college citizen, for students and colleagues alike. Always there, always there, with words wise and kind and yet always surprising and often funny. His words, which inevitably deepened and changed the conversation, were gently delivered, perfectly chosen. Always the fruit of reflection, his thoughts felt gathered. He took the time to gather them. Since I heard of his death I've felt myself waiting to hear insights I felt certain he was already gathering toward speech.

At a memorial today a poet colleague read one of Robin's poems:

Roundabout to tumbleweed to rose, yes. Robin, may you rest in peace.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016


My next Kailash adventure starts in about 7 weeks, but I got a taste of what this iteration will offer in conversation today with a Nepali postdoc who has been leading preliminary research in the field. Among the places she recently visited was Kailash - a different one, this one in Far Western Nepal. It's at the lower left of this image, and resides in a small white temple on a hillside near giant trees. (We swooped in with Google Earth to retrace her journey there! You can too - start at Kolti, in Far West Nepal, and then seek out 29˚32’09.24” N / 81˚38’53.51” E.) The temple, like all temples in this area, is empty - no statue or ornamentation; the god possesses some of the pilgrims who bring it sacrifices. (This, incidentally, is apparently the only Kailash in Nepal who accepts blood sacrifices.) Tallikoti's Kailash mandu is surrounded by other gods, "ministers" nearer by and others at greater distance, each in their own small, ancient site, and has been a place of power for Nepalis for a long time - government leaders come here for blessing, and before them the kings and queens who led Nepal. A nearby spring offers Mansarovar water. When asked if he'd like to go to the more famous Mount Kailash in Western Tibet, the priest apparently replied: why?

Monday, May 16, 2016

Root vegetables; after roasting they'll be a scrumptious sepia.

Sunday, May 15, 2016


Is it early summer already?

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Processing the semester

The semester, and the academic year, are over! Last bits of work are straggling in, but my classes have met for the last time - "Performing the Problem of Suffering" on Wednesday, "Exploring Religious Ethics" and "Lived Religion in New York" on Thursday. All three ended with final reflections, an ungraded synthesis which I encourage students to do in any genre which matters to them, so I'm awash with reports and visualizations of learning and arrival. These range from the slightly ridiculous - like the hand-drawn booklet from which the image above hails - to the sublime, like this Rothkoish muslin for the ethics class.
The student first dyed the whole thing yellow, then the lower portion purple (twice), to represent the struggle of ethical awareness and action - the yellow is saintly, the purple (my camera didn't capture the depth of it) human weakness and evil. It was part of the plan that eye level should be grey. Serendipitous was that the limit of the purple took on the shape of misty mountains - there's even a haze of green. Profound was the way it represented both the difficulty of ethics (it appears mostly purple, the yellow unattainable) and the underlying goodness of human nature (it's all yellow)... To know that you need to know how it was made. That's fitting, too, for process-intentional seminar pedagogy. 

Friday, May 13, 2016


Went to the Met for Pergamon, Turner's Whaling paintings and Manus+Machina, the big new fashion blockbuster, but what charmed me was an exhibition I hadn't even heard about, "Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs." This Bowl with Courtly and Astrological Motifs (late 12th-early 13th C) is actually quite deep (almost a cylinder), its dynamic center surrounded by a parade of figures, a humanized cosmos!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Slice of life

"Lived Religion in New York City" ended with some creative syntheses, and then with various ways of relating the four key terms we came up with Tuesday (public, choice, in-between/journey, neighborhoods). At one o'clock, as per plan, we arrived at the upper right hand corner: in the in-between of public spaces and neighborhoods, choices feed journeys, which make further choices possible, in turn reshaping both neighborhoods and public life. It's not rocket science! I declared that the spiral looked like pizza - and we headed outside for a farewell slice.

Illustrations of the Book of Job

Six panels from another inspired final project, twenty-two amazing illustrations in the blue of a Medicine Buddha the student grew up with.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016


Scenes from the penultimate day of classes! Each contains a story.
Second one first: this is how "Lived Religion in New York" worked out its response to the project on religion in Shanghai with which we began. The Shanghai team had found four categories helpful for telling the story of religion in a city presumed secular: landmarks, compounds, privacy, waterways. As we started the semester we expected something similar for New York. What we've come up with instead is an interestingly contrasting story. We start in once relatively homogeneous ethnic neighborhoods, whose ways and means spill over into the public (to the surprise and consternation of those who think New York paradigmatically secular), which everyone passes through as they journey in-between places... all of which provides a context, materials and acceptance of individual religious/spiritual choice. This literally came together in the last 5 minutes of class! I'm excited to see how it plays out in our sharing of final reflections on Thursday. The lead-up to our choice of four terms will have given them a lot of material to work with.

The former needs a little more explanation. Our final class text is Hsiao-Lan Hu's This-worldly Nibbana (a text you've heard about before). Hu provides an ingenious, and profound, reading of non-Self by way of dependent co-arising, cannily using Judith Butler's ideas of "performativity" and "sedimentation" to suggest that what we take to be our Selves are in fact the congealing of contingent cultural practices of body, language and values which constitute - and are constituted by - us. People find their way to identifying with a gender because they have been taught to perform, and continue to perform, culturally specific ways of being gendered. As an example, Hu mentions the different ways little boys and little girls are taught to move their bodies in space, the former encouraged to stretch their limbs about, the latter to keep them close, with all manner of implications for how they understand and comport themselves in the future. Becoming aware of this allows one to start resisting it, but unlearning the very way we inhabit our bodies is an uphill task.

I decided to illustrate Hu's point about culturally-mediated gender embodiment by reference to my penchant for crossing my legs. This is something I've become more aware of recently as a friend I ride the subway with has pointed out I do this when sitting, blocking the passage of other riders (even as I think I'm moving my leg in anticipation of their movements). It seemed a timely example as the way men take up space in the subway has been enough of a theme in the last year to have been memorialized in the New Yorker's annual "Eustace" cover, and the subway has also kept cropping up in our Ethics Diaries discussions as an arena for ethical questions: I'd promised my friend I'd try not to do it in the subway anymore. You can probably guess what happened. Despite my intent not to do it during the rest of class, it kept happening, like Dr. Strangelove's Nazi arm salute! But I suppose the point was made.

Today's class ended unusually, too - with a prayer. Indeed, with two. Our last two course readings, Hu and, just before it, Pope Francis' encyclical letter on the environment Laudato Si', both end with prayers (Hu's is from Sulak Sivaraksa), so I thought it offered a nice sort of closure to read both of them together, especially as the scope of these readings might make the effort to lead a good life seem too great for us.

A prayer for our earth

All-powerful God,

you are present in the whole universe

and in the smallest of your creatures.

You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,

that we may protect life and beauty.

Fill us with peace, that we may live

as brothers and sisters, harming no one.

O God of the poor,

help us to rescue the abandoned

and forgotten of this earth,

so precious in your eyes.

Bring healing to our lives,

that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty,

not pollution and destruction.

Touch the hearts

of those who look only for gain

at the expense of the poor and the earth.

Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,

to be filled with awe and contemplation,

to recognize that we are profoundly united

with every creature

as we journey towards your infinite light.

We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
for justice, love and peace.

Let us pray for world peace, social justice and environmental balance, which begin with our own breathing.
I breathe in calmly and breathe out mindfully.
Once I have seeds of peace and happiness within me, I try to reduce my selfish desire and reconstitute my consciousness.
With less attachment to myself, I try to understand the structural violence in the world.
Linking my heart with my head, I perceive the world holistically, a sphere full of living beings who are all related to me.
I try to expand my understanding with love to help build a more nonviolent world.
I vow to live simply and offer myself to the oppressed.
By the grace of the Compassionate Ones and with the help of good friends, may I be a partner in lessening the suffering of the world so that it may be a proper habitat for all sentient beings to live in harmony during this millennium.

(Laudato Si’, 178-79; This-Worldly Nibbana, 178)

Monday, May 09, 2016

Job's ladder

And here's another of my students' brilliant final projects for "Performing the Problem of Suffering: The Book of Job and the Arts." This student designed a jacob's ladder, a book whose panels cascade and invert as you turn the top. She explains: "The imagery of the ouroboros at the top of the panels, along with the disorienting, flipping structure of the book is meant to represent the cyclical and changing experience of the Book of Job. God is the equivalent of the unending, unrelenting cycle of nature, while man tries painstakingly to stop the cycle." It's a really beautiful way of representing the narrative power and push of the book. She's chosen a passage from her favorite novel, Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, about the impossibility of a full life without shadow, and painted scenes of light and dark between them.
The words are spoken by Woland (Satan) to a follower of Jesus, but she thinks it functions much the way God's speeches to Job do in the Bible: No sooner do you appear on the roof than you blab nonsense, and I’ll tell you what it is – it’s your intonation. You pronounced your words as if you refuse to acknowledge the existence of either shadows or evil. But would you kindly ponder this question: What would your good do if evil did not exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared? After all, shadows are cast by things and people. Here is the shadow of my sword. But shadows also come from trees and from living things. Do you want to strip the earth of all trees and living things just because of your fantasy of enjoying naked light? You’re stupid. Up and down, light and dark, God and Satan - amazing!

God's eye view

Another amazing final project for "Performing the Problem of Suffering." (I've only the write-up, since the student isn't in my discussion section.) A student asked several pastors why God permits the suffering of the innocent, and found each answer an evasion. This made him wonder about a system in which God has absolute authority and can choose when and when not to address questioning sufferers... so he set up a mock-religion, modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous, where someone named Colin (played by himself) promised to give people the "answer for your suffering."

People (presumably friends of his?) came to the meeting, "Colin" addressing each one intimately, often hugging and looking deep in people's eyes. "You've come to the right place," he told them, "I have the answer to your suffering." Then he withdrew behind a translucent glass door where people could see him... but for 20 minutes he did not respond to calls, knocks, phone calls. At the end, he came out and explained the project and what he had learned: the answer to the question of suffering must be found in yourself. I'm getting together with him to learn more about it - I know he has religious questions but also vocational ones, as someone interested in art therapy for trauma survivors. In his report he writes:

I did this performance because I wanted to experience and maybe feel God’s perspective in the power structure that I see. I wanted to know what it would be like to play with people’s hope and belief. I wanted to know if I feel any guilt for leaving people behind unanswered while they are calling out my name. 

I've said this before, but I'll say it again. The greatest reward of teaching, and the most humbling, is when you somehow create the conditions for things to happen you could never yourself have imagined.

Saturday, May 07, 2016


Brooklyn Botanic Garden, a little rain-sodden but splendid as ever!