Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Forgetting to be worried

First real meeting of my tiny comparative ethics class, focusing on Confucianism. I guess I could call it an Oxbridge-style tutorial: two students and a professor meeting in the professor's office. But I'm amused by what one of my friends call it: my "book club"!

Today's book was The Path, meant as an accessible overview of the material ahead and a way to pose more general questions about the why, the what and the how of "doing" Confucian ethics here and now. I think it worked!

The Path's answer is that an engagement with ancient Chinese ideas "will change your life" - not quite the same promise as an ethics class but close enough to allow for some interesting discussion. The Path has been derided by some as a self-help book, and defended as the antithesis, a non-self-help book, since it suggests we will live more fulfilled and useful lives if we stop trying to find our "real selves" and instead work on making ourselves more aware, more flexible, more responsive, more open to change, starting right where we are. Well and good, one of my students - a philosophy major - said, but why is that good? There's no account here of the good, let alone acknowledgment that there might be disagreements about it. The Path directs us to work on real everyday relationships rather than big theories. You'd have to know more about Chinese ethical traditions than The Path tells you to know that the answer to these questions comes through the study of history. Which takes us to...

The Path is for American readers today, so its Chinese examples are few and far between, including quotations from the classic texts at issue. (In the course the book is based on students are expected to read a few of these texts.) But there is a free Kindle book with quotations from the Chinese sources being discussed. Here are some from The Analects.
We spent a long time on the fourth one here, 7.19. Is Confucius describing his strengths, his aspirations or his weaknesses? My students weren't impressed at forgetting to eat and to be worried. In any case, forgetfulness doesn't sound like a virtue, does it, not like a sign of self-awareness! Maybe he's being humble or ironic, I suggested, after arguing unsuccessfully for the value of "flow" experiences. (In fact we had a fascinating discussion about the value of awareness and sincerity in our acts, including rituals, which will surely continue in coming weeks.) Perhaps we need to know about the context, I suggested. Who was the Duke of She? Who was Zilu? What if - as many commentaries say - he was an unjust ruler trying to conscript Confucius in his service? What if it's really about people like Zilu? Confucius' teachings are usually not delivered into a vacuum but in specific interpersonal situations, engaging with particular people with particular characters. Maybe the reason Confucius (moving to the next line) "loves the past and is diligent in seeking it" is because it is from history that we learn to recognize and deal with such characters - including our own?

Confucius didn't write the Analects, and wouldn't have recommended anyone read just them even if he had. So how can we, sitting in my office in Greenwich Village in 2017, get anything out of an engagement with the Analects? I've assigned students an edition which includes commentary from Zhuxi, a much later figure (if decisive for the Confucian canon which came to define Chinese culture), and am reading other commentaries myself. After a preliminary discussion of the Analects next week, we'll turn to commentaries and interpretations (including looking back at the selections in The Path)... but we'll also read some of the Classic of History, to get a better sense of how ethics was taught. One of the students mentioned Plutarch's Lives as an analog, so I might bring that in. Maybe also something like the Episcopal Church's lives of saints, including recent ones.

I'm no 君子 junzi or 儒 ru myself, of course, so this will be a more rhetorical exercise than even I appreciate. But it might get us thinking in interesting new ways about the questions of ethics: what is it? what is it for? how is it articulated? how is it learned and taught?

Monday, January 30, 2017

Against self-serving effrontery

Reading about Confucius in these times is sobering. Not just about the alas universal experience of living under unjust rulers - what does the 君子 gentleman-scholar do, since fleeing public responsibility (what Daoists encourage) is not an option? But it's sobering also thinking about what can make a chaotic disrupter seem appealing, a force of creativity rather than destruction. Above is an excerpt from David Hall and Roger Ames' 1987 Thinking Through Confucius (p23), a contrast - avowedly overdrawn - between western ethical culture and China's.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Against the barbarian nativists

(I signed.) And this from the President of our University came today:

The threat of Trumpism to our institutions and values is existential. 

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Sweet hereafter

A Muslim American friend joined us for dinner tonight. I didn't know what I could say to her, as our government seems in the hands of crazies who want a world war between our religions. I'm sorry doesn't go far enough. I'm horrified seems belated. I'm heartbroken seems self-absorbed. As it happens, she brought this cake and some good news -
the judicial stay on the president's refugee ban. It's a reminder that the system might yet work in stopping this apocalyptic folly; a first bump in the road for a regime which will run roughshod over all our values and commitments, violating norm after norm in its gleeful seizure of arbitrary power, until it encounters resistance. Time for the party of Lincoln to defend the constitution he fought for. And God help us all.

Friday, January 27, 2017


Happy Chinese New Year from New York!


Google kindly explained an unfamiliar term I've noticed popping up:
"Gaslighting" is what people, usually powerful ones, do to break down others, usually less powerful, by getting the latter to question their own sanity. It's one of a number of terms cropping up in accounts of how authoritarian regimes dominate their populaces. Disinformation isn't just falsehood masquerading as truth, but an attack on the people's confidence in truth itself - and our capacity to know it. You can lead people away from reality to a fake world of certainties and authorities by stealth, but "gaslighting" works in a different way, since it seeks to undermine rather than anaesthetize. It works with lies that are egregious, easily falsifiable, and gratuitous, like the ones issuing from the new occupants of the White House. There are results only baldly big lies can achieve.

Or am I just imagining it? Is the president mentally unstable or am I, for believing reports suggesting as much from sources it's irrational to believe ("intelligence," "the media," "climate science") - at least when they describe such grotesqueries?

On my new phone there's a widget called "News" which offers a regularly changing set of headlines - four at a time. When I first got the phone, I selected familiar names from the media sources on offer, but more recently I've let it default, since it includes links to articles from sources I don't already consult. One of these sources is Fox, and from it I've learned about the alternate reality of which the sources I've so long thought trustworthy are in full denial. In any case there's no overlap with the New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian, Time, CNN or even Wall Street Journal - other regular sources in Apple's default mode.

In this foxy world, it's not the president who's unhinged but people like the hysterical woman in Florida - originally from Oakland - who was arrested for slashing a Trump sign (at a sign store!) because it was "ruining her chili"! Likewise it's not the president but the media who are obsessed with comparative inauguration turnouts. Loony celebrities at the Women's March (the big news about which was the hypocritical exclusion of pro-life women) were applauded for treasonous outbursts! Ill-bred children at that march confessed to setting fires! Meanwhile a black waitress at a Washington restaurant named Langston Hughes was delighted and astonished to find that three white guys from West Texas who'd come to town for the inauguration left her a $450 tip (on a meal of $72) since we're on our 45th president, with a note explaining that patriotism knows no color. In the face of such a swell of nationalist love, how to explain that my home state of California is contemplating seceding, having established that its values are incompatible with those of the rest of the USA, a "Calexit"?

My insanity takes the form of a nervous self-questioning. Are my usual sources as unbalanced? Have they not only failed to report on the happy harmony of America but made me unable to believe it when confronted with it? Can anyone be trusted who claims so insistently to be trustworthy, who keeps wanting to show you their evidence, and see yours, who accuses everyone of having an agenda but themselves? Who claim to take things literally when nobody else does, I mean really?

I don't want to close off access to this alternate world, because I believe that democracy works by constructing a shared world, and I need to know what others are being told is happening. It's not easy to bridge non-overlapping data sets with their inevitable relative distortions, but it's possible. People don't want to be misinformed. Well, they shouldn't want to be. It cuts me to the quick to see the quest for shared truth - that is, for truth - trivialized.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017


New Yorkers gather to show their support for their immigrant and Muslim fellow citizens, defying encroaching darkness with our light. No hate, no fear, we chant, immigrants are welcome here. To the distractor-disrupter in chief we say, you will not divide us. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Wise words from down under

One of my Australian nephews asked if I'd heard that Donald Trump was banning sliced cheese, and if I knew why. I hadn't and didn't. But I am enlightened now: it's to make America grate again. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

A distant view of hills

"Not to scale: On sacred mountains" starts tomorrow! I've been dithering with the syllabus, especially once I decided that syllabus ought to have illustrations! I haven't felt the need to illustrate since "Aboriginal Australia and the Idea of Religion" six years ago. That's not the only similarity I'm noticing with that earlier class. Then, too, I was aware of the oddity (to put it mildly) of a course on a territory so remote and, from where we are, inaccessible except in imagination - not to mention taught by me! But there's a difference, too, which you can see in the choice of images. Where those sought to give the word to Aboriginal people, this one is shaped by my experience as a visitor to Kailash. Some of the images are religious, but almost all are images constructed by people far from the mountains (like the photoshopped Mount Fuji); some are not even mountains, like that by Yang Yongliang below.). When it comes to sacred mountains, you might not have to be there to know them. In any case, the only knowledge we'll be having access to is that which isn't tied to direct experience of the mountaineering sort.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Make lemonade

What to get someone whose birthday comes right after the inauguration of that man? My partner figured it out: a new pressure cooker!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Signs of the times

I was among the many who came for the Women's March in Manhattan today. There were so many of us, however, that my little knot of people took two hours just get to the official march, which was gridlocked! Not that I'm complaining. It felt glorious. A very scary autocrat is in the White House but we're onto him.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Oath of office

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

LREL trumps hate!

"You didn't ignore tomorrow!" said one of my colleagues. I guess not! The occasion was a forum for incoming transfer students, where each of our college's programs had 5 minutes to introduce itself. In my five I guess I referred to the incoming regime three times!

First, in my opening, a description of my visit to the Islam class last semester where I was so enchanted by the art, spirituality and humor of traditions around the lovers Layla and Majnun. Would that those coming into power in Washington tomorrow, who will cause the deaths of many Muslims, knew about this, I said.

Second, in an aside about how New School has been asking questions about religion throughout its history, I showed the flyer for the "Religion - Why?" lectures of 1932, noting that at another time when the expected shape of history was being bent out of shape by rising fascism, we explored the potential of progressive religion to be a resource in responding.

And finally in plugging my friend M's course "Medieval Church and State," which I promised was not just the sort of course you should take in college (what will you never have a chance to study outside college?) but would help students understand both sides in the coming discussions about religion and the state.

My own courses, will they be of use? Indirectly, maybe. I teach complexity, humility before historical contingency, the inescapability and multiplicity of interpretations and the necessity and value of exploring them. That's not just the navel-gazing of "cosmopolitan elites" but something more like what democracy (Christianity, too) requires.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Lateral assault

My bedtime book these days is another "lessons of plants" book, great fun but entirely different from the last, the revelatory Braiding Sweetgrass. If Kimmerer shows us how to recognize plants as people with whom we make a world together, Mabey's about worlds of extraordinary plant personalities in which people hardly figure. Yet at a time when human hopes seems saggy it's satisfying to see him toss apples at Newton. The Second Law explained why apples fall down.

To an eighteenth-century botanist, an equally perplexing question was how an apple could, as it were, be raised perpendicularly from the ground, how biological growth could defy gravity. What was the vital force that made life able to challenge the Second Law's vision of an ever descending spiral of energy? The peculiarity of Newton's apple - it's now recognized as a scarce variety called Beauty of Kent - added a kind of lateral assault on the Law, contradicting the gravitas of Linnaean certainties and the idea of 'species fixity'. By the eighteenth century there were tens of thousands of apple varieties in existence, all the Old World varieties at least now known to have descended from a single species in Central Asia in a glorious pan-continental proliferation. The generation of biological forms (what we call biodiversity today) and the tendency of all living systems to become progressively more diverse and complex fly against the cosmic gloom of the Second Law.

Richard Mabey, The Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life
and the Human Imagination (New York: W. W. Norton, 2016 [2015]), 168

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Sacred mountain of San Diego?

My course on sacred mountains follows on another Sacred Himalaya Initiative-linked course, taught last semester by an anthropologist from Nepal who described herself as a "mountain girl." No mountain girl I, child of the coastal desert of Southern California, facing the ocean. But wait. There's a place not far from where I grew up. No, not the Sierras.

Having been ideally placed, by primeval creative forces, like a mighty sentinel meditatively on guard over that southwesterly region of the North American Continent, midway between Asia and Europe, its summit affords an unimpeded panoramic view of unique grandeur in every direction, limited only by the immense circle of the world's horizon. (Cuchama and Sacred Mountains [Athens: Swallow Press/Ohio UP, 1981], 10)


Thus W. Y. Evans-Wentz - the man who gave the Tibetan Book of the Dead to the world without even knowing Tibetan - about the mountain the Kumeyaay called Kuuchamaa (he calls it Cuchama), also now known as Tecate. Turns out this Jersey boy gravitated to San Diego to be with the Theosophists at Loma Land, and settled in a San Diego hotel after his travels in India and the Himalayas. Someone who claimed to sense energies, he felt the mountain's power and, er, bought it. Convinced it had once been home to a race of giants, as well as housing a magic cave, he spent the last years of his life researching it at the San Diego Public Library and developing an account of the superiority of the civilization of the "Red Men" over that of white interlopers. Oy vey.

His book includes a section on other sacred mountains of the world

So long as mankind inhabits this planet, its holy mountains will continue to be symbolical of human regeneration and triumph and of spiritual elevation to the altruistic heights of Freedom, above the lowly valleys of worldliness wherein men dwell self-enfettered to the idols of their own making. (41)

and, as one would expect from a work with a Foreword by Anagarika Govinda, Kailas features prominently. Can mountains be idols too?

Monday, January 16, 2017

Confucian ethics seeking dialogue!

I've finished my syllabus for "Exploring Religious Ethics: Confucianism in Dialogue." I'm quite excited by the structure, which centers on the Four Books and Five Classics, considering while sampling the ethical formation offered by a canon which includes philosophy, history, rites, poetry and augury, while also constantly referencing contemporary applications and debates. (I even use the work of two people I met at Fudan!) Now let's just hope the students show up...

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Still small voice

 (evidently from Janet Morley, All Desires Known, 3rd ed., 14)

Push and pull

Demonstration of comsogonic processes on the frozen surface of the Japanese Garden lake at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Cucina della Villa Brasca

By way of Nebraska, a secret Sicilian recipe for making canolli,
alive and well in Brooklyn thanks to my friend M.

Friday, January 13, 2017


你比上次见面的时候帅多了! One of my new year's resolutions was to get back to Mandarin, and so far I'm keeping it! 应为想你了,所以我来找你. I'm nearing the end of the trial period for an online course which I'm pretty impressed by. 学外语不能害羞. With the help of dorky but well-designed dialogues, video clips of all sorts and an effective algorithm for drilling everything from tones to characters to word order, my Chinese is bouncing back after a year and a half lying mostly fallow. 不会用筷子,不就饿死了吗. It feels good to be back at it: I've done 28 intermediate lessons already! 我们也很久没运动了,今天一定会流很多汗. (It may also be I've been throwing myself into it as a way of distracting myself from the approaching iceberg. 他越说越我不想听他.)

Thursday, January 12, 2017


A familiar poem of Li Bai/Li Po (701-62), in a different translation:

Sunlight on Incense-Burner kindles violet smoke.
Watching the distant falls hanging there, river

headwaters plummeting three thousand feet in flight
I see the Star River falling through nine heavens.

That's David Hinton. Here's his rendition of the longer poem of which the shorter poem is a sort of epitome.

Gazing at the Thatch-Hut Mountain Waterfall

Climbing west toward Incense-Burner Peak,
I look south and see a falls of water, a cascade

hanging there, three thousand feet high,
then seething dozens of miles down canyons.

Sudden as lightning breaking into flight,
its white rainbow of mystery appears. Afraid

at first the celestial Star River is falling,
splitting and dissolving into cloud heavens,

I look up into force churning in strength,
all power, the very workings of Change-Maker.

It keeps ocean winds blowing ceaselessly,
shines a mountain moon back into empty space,

empty space it tumbles and sprays through,
rinsing green cliffs clean on both sides,

sending pearls in flight scattering into mist
and whitewater seething down towering rock.

Here, after wandering among these renowned
mountains, the heart grows rich with idleness.

Why talk of the cleansing elixirs of immortality?
Here, the world's dust rinsed from my face,

I'll stay close to what I've always loved ,
content to leave that peopled world forever.

David Hinton
Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China
(New York: New Direction, 2005), 76-77

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

A turn in the country

On something of a whim, we're taking a little tour of the mid-week off-season Berkshires. The whim, arriving with the recent blizzard, was all about snow-draped trees, but it's been balmy, which is nice, too. We practically have the area to ourselves - though we espied some other people at the Normal Rockwell Museum.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Pictures of flame

Early in my class on sacred mountains, we'll look at this caveat:

I have a low opinion of books; they are but piles of stones set up to show coming travelers where other minds have been, or at best signal smokes to call attention. … No amount of word-making will ever make a single soul to know these mountains. As well seek to warm the naked and frost-bitten by lectures on caloric and pictures of flame. One day’s exposure to mountains is better than cartloads of books.    

Mountains need to be experienced! What can we hope to accomplish, piling up books in a classroom in Manhattan? It's a legitimate concern, and best owned at the outset. But the project of the class - a little different from that of John Muir, who wrote those words in his first year in Yosemite - is not thereby doomed. Our subject is sacred mountains (easily conflated, from this distance, with "the sacredness of mountains") and I'll be suggesting that most of those are experienced in different ways. Inaccessibility is built into many of them, and even if you could set foot there, truly encountering them is not guaranteed.

But the classroom isn't a temple either, or a cell for the tortured ascent of Mount Carmel. So Muir's worry is a real one: that imagined mountains, mountains constructed of words and fantasies, can blind us to the actual wonder of actual mountains. But even here all is not lost. Those cairns of books are more than piles of stumbling blocks. Have a look at another passage by Muir, from the same set of notes:

What wonders lie in every mountain day!
Crystals of snow, plash of small raindrops, hum of small insets, booming beetles, the jolly rattle of grasshoppers, chirping crickets, the screaming of hawks, jays, and Clark crows, the coo-r-r-r of cranes, the honking of geese, partridges drumming, trumpeting swans, frogs croaking, the whirring rattle of snakes, the awful enthusiasm of booming falls, the roar of cataracts, the crash and roll of thunder, earthquake shocks, the whisper of rills soothing to slumber, the piping of marmots, the bark of squirrels, the laugh of a wolf, the snorting of deer, the explosive roaring of bears, the squeak of mice, the cry of the loon, loneliest, wildest of sounds. 

Muir was a wonderful writer, and, through his words, the voices of the mountain are audible - voices I wouldn't know to hear myself - just as its colors glow through the words (and the eyes) of Ruskin. We won't be able to breathe mountain air, feel the climb in our legs and lungs, savor danger and shade and light, sense vistas furl and unfurl behind and around and beyond us, as flowers twinkle and stones crumble and tumble below... But, with Muir's caveat in hand, we might just be OK.

“Mountain Thoughts,” in Sacred Summits: John Muir’s Greatest Climbs,
ed. Graham White (Edinburgh: Canongate, 1999), 82-83, 80-81

Sunday, January 08, 2017

and so are you

At the Church of the Holy Apostles today, I heard a wonderful sermon. We were celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany (which actually fell on Friday), the day of the Magi. The preacher did two things beyond the usual reflections on giving and adoring. First, she reminded us that the Massacre of the Innocents was part of the story, too. It's how Herod responds to what the Magi tell him of a newborn king; we ought not to assume we are ourselves all Magus and no part Herod, able to take in the Christmas message with joy and not fear. Then she told us a story, from a children's book she'd recently learned of, named The old turtle and the broken truth. (It's by Douglas Wood, appeared in 2003.)
You can hear the story here (I found the images, by Jon J. Muth, here.) The upshot is that a truth which fell from the sky but broke in two, caused much strife until the two parts were reunited. The part that caused the strife, paradoxically, was inscribed with the words You are loved. It made its bearers feel warm and happy, and keen to share it with those they knew - but not with others, who, in turn, coveted it themselves. The missing piece bore the words and they are too, and the preacher found a way to tell the story where it was clear even from her delivery that you are loved is incomplete, if true and wonderful, and completed as you are loved and they are too. That's how love is.
I'm sure I wasn't the only one moved nearly to tears by this. It fits Epiphany's promise that the savior comes for all, and the preacher's encouragement that we live out God's love widely. It resonates with my conviction, learned from being loved and loving, that we are all made for love. But, like so much else these days, it also names the ache of our moment. That love must be universal, that you are loved isn't undermined but mysteriously completed by and so are they, is something the advocates of the impending new regime don't see, or won't. Have they themselves never known love? It breaks my heart.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Apple cheeks

A snow day distracted a little from the storm brewing in Washington.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Ridge above ridge

Tao Qian 陶潜 (365-427)

David Hinton, Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China
(New York: New Direction, 2005), 15

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Mountain flight

My Sacred Mountains class is starting to come together, slowly. This will be my first time teaching about landscape in a while. Country was important in the Aboriginal Australia course, but the focus of that course was on culture, kinship, stories, etc. We'll obviously be engaging sacred mountains through culture this time, but since the brief is broader - sacred mountains, not particular traditions (or particular peaks) - it's a little different. One thing there is in common with the Australia course, though: on our flat little island miles and miles from mountains, we have no choice but to engage landscape virtually, in mediated ways. To name our positionality (but not only for that reason), I'm thinking one of our first topics will be flying mountains, perhaps through the story of Mount Omine, which flew from India to Japan.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017


At the foot of the big wintry trees a foretaste of distant Spring...

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

My Confucianism-focused religious ethics course may be saved! There are still only four students signed up, but I proposed to our Associate Dean that I might convert it into an independent study/reading course, and she seems amenable. So course planning for it, which had been
somewhat stalled, has kicked back into high gear. I've not even ordered course texts ... but that's also because we're going to make extensive use of the online Chinese Text Project, from whose extensive collection "Confucianism" the word cloud above hails. Now ... where to begin?!

Vista di Monta(g)na

Look what the mailman brought! John Ruskin, whose extended discussion of mountain scenery I found so inspiring (and with which I plan to start my course) has long been out of print. The google books version - all I could find - was grainy, so I looked to see if there were any used volume 4s available online. This seemed too good be true - a pristine complete 1865 set for $25! - and may yet be. If they were stolen from the Rare Books room of the Montana college library where they've spent the last century and a half I'll need to return them.

Sunday, January 01, 2017


Here's a good way to start a new year - especially one like this one: with good friends and good food home-cooked in many kitchens. Come dessert time a serendipity of gifts might bring you a herd of cute little yaks, too, huddling together for warmth as they face an uncertain future!