Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Hearing voices

Have I told you that, as part of a new curriculum of "one text" courses, I'll be spending half of next semester reading William James' Varieties of Religious Experience - just the Varieties - with a small group of students? The model comes (unsurprisingly) from the Philosophy Department, but I'm looking forward to giving some undivided attention to Varieties, which, truth be told, I haven't given a thorough reread since graduate school.

Varieties was on the bill in "Theorizing Religion" today - first of two days, where we're reading two clumps of lectures. As I've been doing for rather longer than I realized (时间都去哪儿了?), today's class was centered on reading aloud some of the many testimonies James includes. He read them aloud when delivering the lectures (although all of them were written texts before he vocalized them...), and hearing these strange words, in his voice, must have been a significant part of the experience of the Varieties. So students chose a half dozen of the long quotations and read them aloud. I had them consider the generosity of James' lending his voice this way  - surely, his reading wasn't mocking or distancing but a demonstration of a will to hear if not to understand others' experiences, he was a sort of spirit medium for others.

Later in the class I performed one of his acts of possession, quite emotionally rendering the famous account of the person overwhelmed by a sense that the gauziest film kept him from the catatonic paralysis of an "Epileptic patient" he'd seen in an asylum, unable to function or even move. It's shattering, heart-breaking. (No small number of students at our school know comparable experiences of anxiety and depression.) We lingered in it for a while, then I let them know that this was in fact James' own experience, though he never says so. Varieties isn't a view from the mountaintop of religious consolation and empowerment, but from farther down, by someone who's never been to the summit and is, indeed, "constitutionally incapable" of getting there. (He doesn't claim legitimacy from a personal experience of the depths, either.) What a feat of generosity the Varieties now seems, acknowledging the value of experiences he himself had not had! The class was awed...

And I was not a little pleased to have done for James, lending my voice to him, what he did for so many others. What a pleasure it will be to give Varieties of Religious Experience even more time!

(And yes, that edition was blurbed by James' student Horace Kallen.)

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Inside the block between 12th and 13th Streets, Fifth and Sixth Aves.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Museum mile

Inspired by reports about the soon-to-open Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, and some of its conceptual challenges, I decided to ask the students in "Theorizing Religion" how they might lay out a museum devoted the scriptures they'd just learned about in the MOOCs. For fun (and because I'm part of a committee rethinking the college's uses of spaced) I gave them a cutaway of the original uses of our buildings as a model. So here are Israel: The People's Museum, The Museum of Dharma, The (...) Museum, and the Shakti-Bhakti Museum. It's a fun way to get at people's sense of what's important, how things should be introduced - and what the MOOCs included and weren't able to.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Step by step

Going through some old boxes of files from my Princeton days, I found this quite detailed account of how "Schleiermacher's romantic theology" emerged... not sure if this is a plan for a blackboard graffiti sprawl or a reconstruction of an inspired sprawl that happened. More likely the latter! Fun! Fun in a different way was discovering that these notes were written on the back of an old cover letter applying for a job I didn't get! (I've turned it right-side up for ease of bemused reading.)

Saturday, October 14, 2017


Shambling toward an essay on 'Anthropocene' and religious studies - which seems barely to have noticed the discussion - I was delighted today to happen on the interdisciplinary "Anthropocene Curriculum" which has been assembled through the Haus der Kulturen der Welt since 2013. Germans know more about theology than Americans, if less about religious studies, so I was hopeful. But what their cool visual search (the array is different each time) offered on the term "Religion" was just this.
It looks like religion is a player but it's not. Most links are circumstantial and there's no line of "relation" with "Anthropocene" at all! Is religion so obviously off the map? Are the religions dismissed without further ado as creatures of the now destabilized holocene (causes of anthropogenic effects but no use in understanding or combatting them), scholarship on religion as the study of sterile where not toxic fantasy? Are they human-all-too-human at a time where we need to rethink everything about what it does and doesn't mean to be human? Give us a chance!

Friday, October 13, 2017


A particularly destructive week, as the dotard of the adult day car center on Pennsylvanias Avenue destroys where we cannot build. The slimy half-measures on the Iran agreement and the Affordable Care Act are part of it, his reneging on a pledge to protect the DACA kids, his winks and nods on Puerto Rico, the gutting of clean power regulations, the ever shriller whining about the power of the free press, the idolatry of the flag. But particularly disturbing is his going all-in with the culture war of the increasingly marginal Evangelical right, with so broad a defense of the "paramount" right of religious freedom as to render all other civil rights conditional. (Indeed, you're able now to discriminate on sincerely held "moral" grounds, too, a shabby and unprecedented legal invention.) Beyond mortification that the worst pseudo-Christians should again have seized the public flag of religion, I sorrow at this further undermining of the moral imperative of our shared life, with its commitment to the work of tolerance and civility, its acceptance if not indeed celebration of a pluralistic society. Pray for us.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Season change

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Commodity fetishist in chief

Somewhat unexpected resonance between Marx, our first shared reading after the MOOC adventure in "Theorizing Religion," and something in Forbes magazine. On his way to decrying the "fetishism of commodities," Marx laments the eclipsing of meaningful "use value" by abstract and inhuman "exchange value." This economic shift alienates people from themselves by making their labor, which would otherwise be central to fully human lives interacting creatively and caringly with other humans and nature, an abstraction worth only as much or as little as some stranger is willing to pay for it. It's the economic base for the wan religiosity of modern Protestantism, with its disembodied souls in some sort of relation with an abstractly sublime deity, their religious lives so private they may be unknown even to themselves (I added that part).

Anyway, it reminds me of some interesting observations made by Forbes writer Randall Lane in framing an interview with the president, which help make clear just how his professional deformation as the kind of wheeler-dealer he is makes him incapable of serving the common good, or even imagining it.

Donald Trump didn't get rich building businesses, despite years of brand-burnishing via The Apprentice and millions of votes from people who craved exactly that experience. Instead, his forte lies in transactions—buying and selling and cutting deals that assure him a win regardless of the outcome for others. The nuance is essential. Entrepreneurs and businesspeople create and run entities that have any number of interested parties—shareholders and customers and employees and partners and hometowns—that in theory all share in success. ... Dealmakers rarely seek that kind of win-win-win-win-win. Whether it's a stock trade, a swap of middle relievers or optioning a real estate parcel, a deal tends to involve just two parties and generally results in one coming out ahead of the other (so much so that a "win-win" is considered a noteworthy aberration).

I'm less inclined to suppose business as usual is hunky dory than Forbes, but this helps explain the tormenter-in-chief's cavalier, when not aggressive, destruction of everything multilateral - he'd rather throw out everything collectively crafted and maintained and replace it with opportunistic short-term bilateral strong-armings called "deals." Nothing else is real for him. (I wonder if this sheds light on the spirituality of his Evangelical base in some way, somehow, too - topic for another day.) Our president is the inhumanity of exchange value personified. We are in deep, deep trouble. Lose-lose-lose-lose-lose.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017


We had a visitor in "Buddhist Modernism" today, a writer and poet who's visiting Lang this semester. She saw me copying Ambedkar's The Buddha and his Dhamma in the faculty resource room a few weeks ago and we got to talking. Turns out she's been a practitioner for decades, in a Tibetan tantric lineage. And she's a meditation teacher. Come visit my class? I asked, a little concerned she'd find our syllabus too academic, but she obliged. My course is academic, but I was inviting her as a practitioner.

And as a practitioner she came, gently suggesting that Buddhism is about practice - all the texts are pointing to practices - and about embodiment, not the mind. You can't think your way to enlightenment, and "mindfulness" is a McDonald's rip-off of Buddhism. Dukkha is mental anxiety, but it's found in the body - as the Buddha did, on his cushion under the bodhi tree - as is its cause.

She had the last 40 minutes of class and we'd informally planned for a briefish meditation and discussion of the Buddhist challenges of dealing with the particular suffering of inequality and oppression, but we never got there. Or maybe we did. She led us in a "somatic meditation," gauging the mood in the class, for what wound up being 25 minutes - she was more surprised than we were at how long it took! Sitting in our uncomfortable chairs, in our school clothes with shoes on, wasn't ideal but it mattered not. Feel the earth, she said, through the weight of your feet. And amazingly, with some more direction we did. Then we were directed to breathe in energy from the earth through our feet, breathe out relation of tension, and gradually moved our breath's object through ankle and calves. The it was the turn of our sic bones, whatever was in contact with our chair, and from there outward to hips and upward through the collarbone. Then our hands, which had been resting on our thighs - weight also - and from there up to our upper arms, which we were invited to feel were hollow tubes, filled with the breath of the earth. And then our heads - imagining you have no brain, filling your skull cavity with breath turns out to be remarkable satisfying. We moved to the backs of the eyes, and eventually down the neck, and then into the area inside the spine, where we sent breaths up and down, finally letting our torso breathe itself, all while noticing places of tension which miraculously let the tension drain away as she reminded us that meditation doesn't change anything, it just notices, with curiosity.

It was a very interesting experience for a lot of reasons. We were still together for a long time, and/but, as the students who spoke in the few remaining minutes recounted, had some quite powerful experiences. One spoke of a feeling of transcendence, one said she felt she'd fallen asleep and realized she hadn't, one said he'd been unable to concentrate until he leaned his back against the wall and then suddenly was in it, another said her head felt light - couldn't say more even when pressed. Our visitor responded to each skilfully - she'd been watching us and had noticed, for instance, the student who'd changed his posture, but also seemed able to discern just the right thing to say to that particular student. Good Buddhist teachers seem to have this gift.

I could have said that, though time ran out, that as the exercise ended I'd found a little ball of tension in the very spot, beneath my right shoulder blade, which a physical therapist a few months ago identified (to my great surprise) as the reason why I was suffering from neck aches. On being noticed, it obligingly subsided.

I haven't mentioned, nor did she mention it in class yesterday (though it's a subject she writes and talks about extensively), that our visitor is a transwoman, and that a Buddhist practice focused on embodiment like this one accompanied her through her transition. Who better to guide one to the body's truth?
It's feeling like the plagues of Egypt. Prayers for those in terror of fire.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Shadow world

A poet colleague who taught at our school for three decades before retiring to Mexico came back for a visit today, a year on. A bunch of us veterans gathered in a nearby bar to fête him, trade gossip, but mainly to reminisce. (Actually, like in the old days when we were an endless discussion about pedagogy, each of us who'd taught today also recounted what had happened in our class.) It was a bittersweet thing. From his perspective, living abroad, the school a not-quite but progressively distant memory, the difference between last year, five years ago, fifteen, even twenty-five is less important than it is to us. Especially we know who is still here, and who is here no longer. Some have left to other positions (or to none) but in particular we felt the presence of colleagues who have died, two in the last year. I don't think of myself as part of a generation which has started losing people, nor as so long at this school as to know some of its lamented dead. Think again.


Do you have to be from a desert to think the rain a wonder every time?

Friday, October 06, 2017

Christian/non-Christian Job

I'm 7/8 of the way through the five tradition MOOCs! The Book of Job has turned up, though not in the Judaism module. (It's mentioned in passing, and to be fair, that module assigns the fewest readings; Job is mentioned in the Islam module, too, also in passing.) It's in the Christianity module, in an omnibus of Biblical texts addressing "existential questions of violence and suffering, justice and love." Yet the recommended excerpts don't include the text central to so much Christian Job interpretation, 19:25-27's knowledge "that my redeemer lives" (though we get Zophar's retort to it in ch. 20!). Curious but not entirely surprising. The course is taught by a distinguished Biblical scholar who surely can't see the translation "redeemer" without wincing.

Thursday, October 05, 2017


In our weekly engagement calendar of New York City-related art from the Metropolitan Museum, this week is devoted to Stuart Davis' 1930 "Jefferson Market, New York." I've long known that the pretty Jefferson Market you see today, housing a library and abutting an opulent community garden, is different from its aspect in the past, when it was a police station and prison, and the current site of the garden was the fearsome Women's House of Detention. And Sixth Avenue was dominated by an elevated trainline! The Women's House of Detention was built a year after Davis' painting, but Jefferson Market already looks part of a much more crowded cityscape. All the pictures I've seen of the "El" are from above or the side; I hadn't considered that Sixth Avenue will have been at least partly covered by metal girders, a twilit tunnel even on a sunny day. And of course the Women's House of Detention wasn't the only new building going up near Jefferson Market in 1930...!

Wednesday, October 04, 2017


Happy Mid-Autumn Festival, 祝你中秋节快乐!

Evil again

Someone from one of the news sources the president fears contacted me yesterday, wondering if we might have a phone interview about what it means when public figures use the language of "evil." (He'd stumbled on my Problem of Evil anthology!) So today we had a great conversation. Not sure I was soundbitable enough to end up in anything he writes (I'll let you know if so), but it was a gratifyingly, impressively serious discussion. Here's some of what I think I said...

I wasn't surprised that the president described the Las Vegas shooting as "pure evil." Any other president would probably have used the term "evil" too (the meaningless "pure," which might point to the demonic for others in his camp, was just the vacuous hyperbole one expects from this unpresidented one), because so shocking a loss of innocent life demands the strongest terms we can find; using them in time's of national heartbreak is part of the president's job. In most other settings, Republican presidents' talk of "evil" is more than consoling - it's a declaration of war - but here "pure evil" just meant something so unthinkable, so incomprehensible, that all we can do in response is huddle together in sympathy.

Most use of the language of "evil" in public life is problematic - it refuses further thought and brooks no disagreement - but it was worth considering that "evil" appears also in phrases like "the evil of gun violence," where its valences are entirely different, identifying a common problem demanding a common response. (In common only are that the phenomenon transcends the particular case.) "Evil" here isn't something which comes incomprehensibly from beyond the world of human understanding (and so also slips beyond the reach of analysis and policy), but is unnecessary harm on a society-wide scale, harm which can at least be mitigated by analysis and policy.

Of course he also wanted to know if I though the shooter was evil. I did my best to sound uninterested. I didn't expect any satisfaction from whatever was found, I said; no account of his motives would make the destruction of even one of those lives less tragic. Besides, what made it an example of "the evil of gun violence" was that, whatever his motives were, the availability of massive lethal force made it possible for him to destroy the lives of hundreds, not just one or two. Trying to understand his motives is a distraction both from the irreplaceable lives of the victims, and from recognizing this as an instance of the broader "evil of gun violence."

Summarized like this, it all seems pretty obvious (except perhaps the studied lack of interest in the shooter's motive), but it felt like making useful connections, raising interesting questions, in unexpected places. I haven't had a chance to articulate my views about the perils of what I used to deride as "evil-talk" in a while; they've grown. And did I mention that my interlocutor identified as Buddhist? I hope he found it useful, too.

[Update, 10/8: his article just appeared, I get to be "the professor" but most of what I said isn't there, in some cases perhaps because others he spoke to mentioned it (Arendt, privation). He chose not to take up the "evil of gun violence"...]

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Brass respirator

The Faculty Senate meetings have been moved to a new room, in the University Center. During one of our sometimes circular discussions, my attention drifted to the mat brass tube along the ceiling, part of what I knew was an art installation created with the building. I looked it up. It's called "Bells and Whistles" and is by Rita McBride, who worked with 530 feet of the building's "egress stair pressurization duct," stretching through six stories of the building, encased in pentagonal brass casing. Bits of it are visible lots of places once you notice it, suggesting a mysterious and fascinating inner life - a breath - for the building.

Monday, October 02, 2017

stets die Stadt meine Träume?

By some coincidence, several people I know, have traveled to Vienna in recent months, and have posted snaps from their trips. Here are three pictures, by a Korean monk, a priest in New York, a Chinese historian in Vancouver, and Melbourne friend whose son is a classical musician. Others might be posted, but these will have to do - and do they do. The 19th century Burgtheater, where I standing roomed so many plays as a student, until Thomas Bernhardt's "Heldenplatz" changed the whole feel of the place for me. The trompe-l'oeuil cupola in the 18th century Universitäts- kirche, which from every angle but this one looks like the inside of a collapsed hot air balloon - not a problem when you're hearing sung masses there of a Sunday. A radial road like many others, with a tramline down the middle. And the Belvedere, built to thank Prince
Eugene of Savoy for saving Vienna from the Turks in 1683 in a style evocative of battlefield tents (and where the Staatsvertrag was signed in 1955, and where the famous Klimts and Schieles live), my favorite place in the city. It's been a while since last I was there, the city where I spent the crucial years of age 10 to 12, and the home base of our family for another 14 years from my second year in college. Vienna was my first city, and the Vienna of the 1970s was sooty and seamy in a conspiratorial mitteleuropäisch way I felt in Orson Welles' "Third Man," as well as in the lamented Bellariakino. It seems to have been scrubbed sparkly clean in recent years, a little off-putting, and I gather many of the Kaffeehäuser I used to frequent have closed. Still, worth a return visit sooner or later, see if it's still one of the Städte meiner Träume...

Saturday, September 30, 2017

The buzz

BBG at September's end: floppy Fall crocuses, and... a hummingbird!


I'm pulling out all the stops, trying to deal with a cough which has been bothering me for weeks. Antibiotics have been tried, numberless lozenges consumed, and buckwheat honey, too. I have higher hopes for this more pleasing natural remedy (buckwheat honey smells like a barnyard), a honey-filled black turnip.

Friday, September 29, 2017


Another tidbit from the Buddhism MOOC, whose instructor - a white guy, not explicitly connected to any Buddhist practice or tradition (...) - is free to be more pedagogically playful than the other instructors.

It's part of his argument that what religious texts do - and not just in Buddhist traditions - is "scripture" people and communities, shaping and forming them. He's not quite said that sutras are agents, but he's close.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017


The world religions MOOCs experiment seems to be working, filling our "Theorizing Religion" room with lots of fresh, specific knowledge about religious traditions in their complexity and diversity. But what about the theory part? To make room for the MOOCs, I've folded what would have been two weeks of reading early classic texts into two "lecturettes," where a mini-lecture from me and a single excerpt from each text distributed in class is supposed to make do as we glance at Hume's Natural History of Religion (1757), Schleiermacher's Speeches on Religion (1799) and Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity (1841) over two Wednesday classes interleaved with the students' MOOC reports. Did today's Hume-in-an-hour-plus-a-first-taste-of-Schleiermacher work? It might have, and might do so even better next time round. I left out a lot of what I usually try to cover, but will need to trim even more, I fear. In exchange, we get the clarity which caricature forces.
Hume, as I presented him today, shared with other empiricists the idea that the mind is an empty slate, filled only with contingent and finite experiences; we induce generalizations from these impressions, ideally drawn by sympathy to collate them with those of others, but never arrive at the certainty we think we need and are capable of. Come religion, we find that it's more varied and less universal than ideas of a religious sense require; in fact, it's a secondary effect as human nature - the same everywhere - ignorantly encounters an uncertain world, producing different religious formations in different times and places; all these formations seem to fit within an endless swinging back and forth between monotheism and polytheism, hard to choose among as the former seems more rational but the latter brings out humanity's better qualities; the growth of knowledge might seem to promise respite from religion but passional human nature isn't going to change; it's best to practice a sort of skepticism, weaning oneself and one's society from the fallacious idea that we need and are capable of religious knowledge - in part through a judiciously plotted "natural history" of "religion."
(Whew!) We only just got a taste of Schleiermacher's attempt to coopt and go beyond enlightenment critiques like Hume's. I had students read a few pages of the Speeches to give them a rest from me (we'd started with a cold read of the preface to Natural History of Religion, so they'd have a little sense of what actually reading an eighteenth century text might feel like), then boiled our German Romantic down to "chemistry" - the argument that "metaphysics" and "morals" have essences, as clarified by the enlightenment, but "religion" turns out to have one too, one contrasting but complementary. I'll start next week's theory class (which finishes Schleiermacher and turns to Feuerbach) by seeing if anyone can imagine how Hume could reply to Schleiermacher's essence argument (didn't we show it's not universal?), and how Hume-Schleiermacher parallels the contrast we started our class with between Jonathan Z. Smith and Caputo. Much more world religion will happen between now and then, though - let's hope it spills over!

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

America / democracy ?

The newest columnist for the New York Times comes out swinging in a hard-hitting piece on how the structure of US federal governance makes outcomes like a victorious president who lost the popular vote more and more likely. More than the Electoral College is a problem.

Our Constitution has always had a small-state bias, but the effects have become more pronounced as the population discrepancy between the smallest states and the largest states has grown. “Given contemporary demography, a little bit less than 50 percent of the country lives in 40 of the 50 states,” Sanford Levinson, a constitutional law scholar at the University of Texas, told me. “Roughly half the country gets 80 percent of the votes in the Senate, and the other half of the country gets 20 percent.” 

Goldberg articulates the confusion and consternation - likely in coming years to morph into rage - of the underrepresented majority. I've been trying to grapple with how the other side feels - not those who for bad and good reasons feel that their "America" is being displaced - but the politicians who take up their cause, people who have been working tirelessly to ensure that what they know to be a minority should nevertheless stay in power. The way we describe our democracy doesn't make individual voters think they should be voting with the whole nation in mind, as opposed to whatever party or faction or interest group they belong to (alas), but what about those elected to office by system-favored minorities? Have they no sense of responsibility to the common good? By what right do they think their minority should rule? How do they convince themselves a career committed to minority rule is worthy, not to mention worthy of being considered "public service"? I'm having a hard time coming up with anything that's not frightening.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Moses supposes

Our second MOOCfest happened today, teams of students giving presentations on "world religions" from the "Scriptures and Traditions" module they're following. Reporting on the second fourth of each course, they shared the discovery that these traditions are big, unwieldy, complicated, overwhelming. A theme going through this section of all of the modules was how these traditions had come to terms with their canons - whether "open" or "closed" or "dual" - and the inescapability of interpretation. Making things more complicated still were oral traditions (some of them later written down, go figure) found necessary to explicate the meaning of written scripture. How do we know which parts need interpretation? are different texts addressed to different audiences? are there passages nobody should hope or claim to understand? and how can one know which later interpreter or interpretive strategy is legitimate in the first place? What fun!

Here's a taste from the Judaism module. (FYI Akiva ben Yosef lived c. 50–135 CE. The course dates the Bavli/Babylonian Talmud to 500 CE.)

When Moses ascended [on Mount Sinai] he saw God attaching crownlets to the letters [of the Written Torah]. Moses said to God, “Master of the Universe, why are you bothering with this?” God replied, “There is a man who is destined to be born at the end of many generations, named Akiva ben Yosef, who will learn heaps and heaps of laws from each crownlet.” Moses said to God, “Master of the Universe, show him to me.” God replied, “Turn around.” Moses went and sat in the eighth row [of students in Rabbi Akiva’s academy] but he could not understand what they were saying. He became faint. But when they came to a certain topic and the students said to Rabbi Akiva, “Rabbi, how do you know this?” He answered them, “It is a law given to Moses at Sinai.” And Moses was comforted. 

Talmud Bavli, Tractate Menahot 29b

Sock it to 'em, olde New U!

It's official! We're celebrating our near-century of newness! The centennial campaign, being spearheaded by folks from Marketing & Communications and from Development, was announced at today's university town hall. I was more excited by the president's socks.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Trump's Katrina

While our feckless president rattles nuclear sabers, excludes refugees and brings his divisive racist bile to yet more American institutions, 3.5 million American citizens in Puerto Rico face unprecedented loss and months of hardship and danger. Has he noticed? (Pic)

Saturday, September 23, 2017

tyd tyy

A tasty morsel from the Buddhism MOOC, offered right after the famous "tolle, lege!" scene from Augustine's Confessions. It's from the autobiography of the famous Thai forest monk Phra Ajaan Lee (1907-61):

I was very ardent in my efforts to practice meditation that rainy season, but there were times I couldn’t help feeling a little discouraged because all my teachers had left me. Occasionally I’d think of disrobing [ie leaving the monastic order], but whenever I felt this way there’d always be something to bring me back to my senses. One day, for instance, at about five in the evening, I was doing walking meditation but my thoughts had strayed towards worldly matters. A woman happened to walk past the monastery, improvising a song—‘I’ve seen the heart of the tyd tyy bird: Its mouth is singing, tyd tyy, tyd tyy, but its heart is out looking for crabs’—so I memorized her song and repeated it over and over, telling myself, ‘It’s you she’s singing about. Here you are, a monk, trying to develop some virtue inside yourself, and yet you let your heart go looking for worldly matters.’ I felt ashamed of myself. I decided that I’d have to bring my heart in line with the fact that I was a monk if I didn’t want the woman’s song to apply to me. The whole incident thus turned into Dhamma.

The Autobiography of Phra Ajaan Lee, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 9-10

Friday, September 22, 2017

MOOCs day 3

Continuing to cram the Traditions and Scriptures MOOCs! I've now completed 3/8 of each of them, and my head is swimming with world religions. Did I ever know what Tatian's Diatesseron was, one of the first Bible harmonies? actually read from the Dharmashastras with their slightly conflicting accounts of gender relations? learn about the mevlud tradition in Turkey, where the Nativity of the Prophet is celebrated with song? encounter the argument against using the phrase "Hebrew Bible" since it glosses over vital differences between the Jewish and Christian textds? hear the Sutra of Golden Light's account of the expedient means of generating Buddha relics?

Truth to tell, all of this is new to me. I never had the chance to take a course in world religions, or even an "intro to" any of them. (Long long ago the redoubtable Mrs. Sleigh had me read Huston Smith's The Religions of Man.) I've picked up a sense of each of them in bits and pieces over the years from a diversity of contexts, many quite sophisticated and advanced, but haven't been through a concerted effort to make sense of them as traditions for new learners. Indeed I've probably spent more time reading and reproducing the arguments against the very idea of "world religions" than learning about them!

So this is refreshing and not a little humbling. Of course I'm still a card-carrying member of the guild of teachers of religious studies, so I'm also noticing what these five instructors are doing, often but not always with admiration. Where I'm tempted to object - as when Karen King includes Latter Day Saints, indeed giving them a longer description than Pentecostalism, in a survey of Christian communities - I stop and think that these instructors have presented this material many times before and know what works and what doesn't in laying out a "world religion" in a reflective way... then ask myself what they might be up to.

I have five more lessons to do before class on Monday... wish me luck!

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Monday, September 18, 2017

Truth of tears

Well, my "Theorizing Religion" students not only didn't object to enrolling in a MOOC but were excited to be learning about "world religions," groups of students vying to be the most enthusiastic in describing canons, creeds and interpretive strategies for the scripture traditions they were responsible for (Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism), hermeneutics of suspicion forgotten. Go figure!

And here's something even more surprising. More students listed Islam as the tradition they hoped to be working on than any other, and the four who presented on it today all were not only taken by the course's approach to the Q'uran as an aural text - heard in recitation (including perhaps your own) - but really wanted to share a particular video instructor Ali Asani included in the course. This is it: watch, listen.

Among the readings Asani assigns was al-Ghazali's directive that weeping is the appropriate response to q'uranic recitation, but reading about that is one thing; seeing and hearing it is quite another. I take the students' insistence on sharing it to be more than a report on being moved. I think it's more like the discovery that Islam is, as they have hoped but little in our media tells them, a religion of tenderness, a moving discovery they were sure their classmates would be grateful to make, too. I can say: I was moved.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Maxi the MOOCher

"Theorizing Religion" has entered its MOOC experiment, which means that the instructor is trying to make his way through all five Harvard "Traditions and Scriptures" modules at once. (I admit it: I skim a little.) So far it's eye-opening, teaching me lots of interesting things and angles on things. It's fascinating to approach the Q'uran first as an experience of transportingly beautiful sound, for instance, recited in carefully structured ways: tears are appropriate in reciter and listener, for instance, and one style requires improvisation. I appreciate the pedagogical work of the instructors, and their efforts to work within the constraints of a MOOC. (Since the courses are no longer live, one can't participate but is able see the discussions of the students who participated - differently self-selecting populations for different traditions, as one would expect, though likely none of these happy Andeans giggling as students in the Christianity course are asked to introduce themselves with a photo.) MOOCs have to provide all their teaching materials, so I'm accessing troves of pdfs, websites, videos, ranging from the very scholarly to popular music. My only complaint so far regards the "X in brief" videos produced as opening overviews for each tradition, evidently without consulting the course instructors. Besides questionable editing decisions (like including Persian miniatures of scenes from the Prophet's life, but with the face blurred) they include some misleading things, like this slime-like - and historically meaningless - representation of the global spread of Buddhism.

Saturday, September 16, 2017


My friend - erstwhile housemate - V made chiles en nogada that looked so much like the image from an article she showed us that I wondered if she'd snuck her own photo on the website. Oh ye of little faith! (This pic's doubled since the camera could focus only on one nogada.)

Friday, September 15, 2017

New arrival on the block

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Words words

Always learning new words - which doesn't mean I'll remember them!


"Negative entropy" - a term for order apparently used in psychoanalysis, originally coined and them, perhaps, dropped by Erwin Schrödinger.
According to Ward's ["Medea Hypothesis"], the history of life and mass extinctions on Earth demonstrates that vital processes have effects on the environment that are destabilizing rather than homeostatic. ... we should bear in mind ... that what led Lovelock to Gaia was precisely the incongruity and fragility of this niche of negentropy that is living Earth - which can of course cease to exist in its present form at any moment.
Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, The Ends of the World,
trans. Rodrigo Nunes (Cambridge & Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017), 39


An archaic legal term which seems to have gained a new following.
Agentic capacity is now seen as differentially expressed across a wider range of ontological types. This idea is also expressed in the notion of "deodand," a figure of English law from about 1200 until it was abolished in 1846. In case of accidental death or injury to a human, the nonhuman actant, for example, the carving knife that fell into human flesh or the carriage that trampled the leg of a pedestrian - became deodand (literally, "that which must be given to God"). In recognition of its peculiar efficacy (a power that is less masterful than agency but more active than recalcitrance), the deodand ... was surrendered to the crown to be used (or sold) to compensate the harm done.
Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things
(Durham, NC & London: Duke University Press, 2010), 9

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Magga (not MAGA)

In "Buddhist Modernism" we're making our way through Walpola Rahula's What the Buddha Taught. As I discovered the last time I used this text, it's great - not just for what it constructs, but for the way it also deconstructs it. And so the book has a conventional enough structure

I The Buddhist Attitude of Mind 
II The First Noble Truth: Dukkha 
III The Second Noble Truth: Samudaya: 'The Arising of Dukkha' 
IV The Third Noble Truth: Nirodha: 'The Cessation of Dukkha' 
V The Fourth Noble Truth: Magga: 'The Path' 
VI The Doctrine of No-Soul: Anatta 
VII Meditation or 'Mental Culture': Bhavana 
VIII What the Buddha Taught and the World Today

The "four noble truths" are where most outsiders starts (even the Buddha is said to have made them the subject of his first sermon), but Rahula knows the tradition better. And so, tucked into his Preface, there's this;

I would ask [the Western reader] ... to take up on his first reading the opening chapter, and then go on to chapters V, VII and VIII, returning to Chapters II, III, IV and VI when the general sense is clearer and more vivid. (xii)

I'd drawn the class' attention to this directive, but nobody had followed up on it. What difference could it really make what order one took things in? Well, all the difference... but none until you try.
So today we tried to make sense of the four noble truths, in sequence. I offered colloquial translations of dukkha, which Rahula insists should stay untranslated (I can't get no satisfaction, everything comes to an end, bummer), and asked annoying questions like "why do we need more than the first noble truth?" "what does the third one add that's not already in the second?" and "Aren't the third and fourth really the same?"

They're not, of course, and that was our segue to Rahula's other sequence, which leapfrogs over the first three noble truths, skips on to meditation and lands in Buddhism's role in modern society, with no urgency to return to the rest of the noble truths, let alone the fearsome doctrine of anatta. Do we perhaps not need to define dukkha then? Or perhaps the point is that we won't be able to grasp its significance until we're on the Noble Eightfold Path - until, that is, we have experienced our own capacity to structure and change our behavior and attitudes, however incrementally?

Monday, September 11, 2017

Questio mihi factus sum x 17

A new "Theorizing Religion" class become a question to themselves.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

DACA and cover

Beautiful day for a protest at the moral ugliness of the current regime.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Blank slate

I'd love to think that everyone in "Buddhist Modernism" got everything on this map - I'd given the class a blank map and asked them to locate a dozen Buddhist countries represented in Figures of Buddhist Modernity in Asia as well as three famous historic sites, Bodhgaya, Bamiyan and Borobodur. Confronted again with the way American education makes geographical ignoramuses of us - although one student knew everything, another pair of students were pretty sure only of where China was, and most others didn't do much better - I'd be happy if some of them got something. At least a sense that Buddhism has tangled with many cultures over a long time? And, once we placed our historic sites (in India, Afghanistan and Indonesia) that it hadn't just spread outward like a melting blob of butter but was no longer a significant presence in places where it had once been important, including the land of its birth.
But I'm afraid for some of the students the particulars of this story won't have stuck, because there was nothing for it to stick to - not just a map of Asia means nothing but maps tout court. Kant was right about this at least: without a knowledge of geography how could you have an understanding of the world and history and your place in it?

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Early adapter

One small branch out my office window seems to think summer's over.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Children of the stars

In Religion & Ecology circles one often comes across references to the thought of Thomas Berry, and to a project inspired by his ideas, Brian Thomas Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker's "Journey of the Universe." A cluster of courses, a book and a documentary film, "Journey of the Universe" tries to use recent scientific discoveries to fashion a new story, a myth comparable to those of world religions. It seeks to provide answers to the great questions like: Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? - and of death? and How are we to live?
The "epic story" offered is a sort of immanent Intelligent Design. The 14 billion year story which we see through the lens of life and awareness, in some sense was bound to produce life and awareness, since it is "intrinsic to matter" to generate patterns, to self-organize into more complex assemblages. There's no suggestion (as in ID) that the universe was set up this way for this purpose, though there's some ID-ish amazement that had the Big Bang been just a smidge faster or slower none of this would have arisen. There's no designer but wonder at the cosmic fact of self-organizing design. The documentary is filmed on the Greek island of Samos because Samos was the home of Pythagoras, who thought the principle of matter lay in numbers and patterns.

Stars, we learn, are our ancestors, our planet alive, and all life our kin... but we may be the only ones in this whole vast history to be able to bring "insight" into it all. Inspiring, humbling, galvanizing? Not for me. Like "Big History" it seemed like some kind of sleight of hand to go from the scale of the cosmos, in time and space, to human history, not to mention a familiar anthropocentrism to suppose we play some cosmic role. Might not every mote in this vastness look the wrong way down its telescope and tell a similar story - similar at least in slowing down and zooming in as it approaches its brief moment of existence?

I suppose "Journey of the Universe" doesn't disallow such other stories, just suggests that this one might work for us. Work, that is, anchor us in our world with truthful understanding of what's going on, and anchor an ethics in our membership of the reality of the "earth community." (I can dig that.) Should the constellation of materials and events which made us possible have made all manner of other things possible, too, inaccessible to our little Pythagorean minds, the more the merrier!

Fasten your seatbelts

Spirit of Transportation, 1895 and today...

Sunday, September 03, 2017


Quick little trip by MetaBus to our favorite nearby town, West Philly! Our fabulous Victorian B&B is under new management, but in good hands still. Tchotchkes are fewer (slightly) but the feeling of stepping out of time persists. You wouldn't want to live here but great for a visit!

Friday, September 01, 2017

Met matches

One of the pleasures of a great museum like the Met is that you can take in things from such very different times and climes. Today was no exception. We'd gone knowing we'd see Cristobal de Villalpando’s 1683 altar painting from Puebla, and take a peek at the Costume Institute's Rei Kawakubo show, already worlds apart in so many ways, but we didn't know we'd be most charmed by a little exhibit of treasures of the northern Renaissance.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Making up Buddhism

In "Buddhist Modernism" today we explored two resources which give a sense of the great diversity of modern Buddhist lives. One is the collection Figures of Buddhist Modernity in Asia, with sixty-six vignettes about 20th and early 21st century Buddhists clearing their own path in a changing world. The other, more US-focused, is the Buddhist magazine Tricyle, though it includes articles from around the world, too. One of the articles in it current print issue is an interview with a young Pure Land priest in Tokyo whose other job is as a make-up artist. An interesting story in its own right - he came out last year - but there's more. Before Kodo Nishimura returned to Japan to do his monastic training, he got a degree in Fine Arts right here, at Parsons!