Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Seeds of judgment

In the Confucian ethics class today, we arrived at Mencius. Western moral philosophers like the Mencius, as Confucius' ideas have here become more systematic, and, in argument against rival views, philosophical arguments are made. Mencius charms also because of his confidence that all human beings are innately good, with "sprouts" or "seeds" of goodness. And yet, as in the East Asian Religions class I sat in on before going to China, the students weren't having it. Mencius seems argumentative, self-certain and too systematic, especially compared to the more Zenlike, self-critical and open-ended practice of Confucius as reported in the Analects. We spent some time on this passage (4B28).
We decided that Confucius would have stopped at the tenth line, with humble self-scrutiny instead of judgment of others; he would most surely not have gone on to find himself so impressive that the disregard of others could be accounted for only by their brutishness! Of course, this is a limit case; Mencius isn't really claiming to be so good, is he? And yet the sense of being treated unfairly haunts Mencius, even as it's wrapped in a Stoic equanimity. Thus the superior man has perpetual anxiety, but he has no unexpected troubles, 4B28 continues (in Gardner, The Four Books, 80), as though the junzi is prepared for the worst and only for this reason isn't perpetually disappointed in others. Wasn't this supposed to be an optimistic view?

In fact, the Mencius describes not only that and how one's sprouts can be cultivated but that and how most people do nothing of the sort. This might be the source of a terrible sadness at wasted human potential, worked through to stop the junzi from giving up and giving in; who else but the junzi, armed with the insights and practices of Confucius, has a hope of solving this problem - if kings were wise enough to employ their services? But to the students it seems just judgmental. He doesn't seem to them sorry to find that with many of his fellow humans what is there to choose between him and a beast?

Sunday, February 26, 2017


I'm on the Vestry of the Church of the Holy Apostles again. It's a great honor and respon- sibility as the church searches for a new Rector, and at a time when the witness of the churches, especially those who put the care of the vulnerable and celebration of the divine gift of diversity front and center, needs to be heard more than ever in this land.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Forest floor

Forgot to post these photos on Wednesday... 
snowdrops and crocuses in the almost-wild of Prospect Park!

Friday, February 24, 2017

Pruitt's world

In class Thursday we looked a little at this image, too, also in New York - well, at the Brooklyn Museum: Alfred Bierstadt's Storm over the Rocky Mountains, Mt, Rosalie. I told the class it was far grander in reality than any projected image could be, and that there was another reason to see it in situ: in the same room is a new work taking apart its grandeur. ("Fallen Bierstadt" by Jennifer Hagerty.) Students were intrigued. Let's see if anyone goes to check them out!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Resisting the temptation of distance

The sacred mountains class became an extended infomercial for museums today. From the Met to the Rubin, Roerich Museum to Brooklyn Museum, I kept find myself telling students to go look at artworks on display around us. I even commended an exhibition I didn't find particularly inspiring when I saw it, the Met's new show "The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers," where I saw the print above. I put the image up as students discussed their first papers, in which I'd asked them to reflect on a claim taken (out of context) from Lama Anagarika Govinda, "To see the greatness of a mountain, one must be at a distance from it" - provocative in a course condemned to distance!

The papers were creative and resourceful, really impressive. While several protested that the toil of the trek or the vastness of a summig view are irreplaceable, many students found ways to agree with the assertion, considering temporal and emotional as well as physical distance. Isn't the greatness apprehended after the encounter? Does it perhaps prove itself only in the effect it has on someone's life? Some went so far as to say that it's better not to be in the presence of a mountain, let alone slogging up its tiring paths, seeing only what's right in front of you; to appreciate it as a mountain it's better to be coolly absorbing the reports and images of others' mountain experiences. Segers' landscapes are fascinating in part because he never left his flat Dutch home, faithfully reproduced at the center of his craggy capriccio.

Our reading for today was chapters 4 and 5 of Veronica della Dora's entirely wonderful Mountain: Nature and Culture, "Mountains and Vision" and "Mountains and Time." The latter helps historicize our sense of mountains as ancient ruins, formed over geological deep time, rather than as, say, the rubble produced by the Flood, temporary until "every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low" (Isa. 40:4). The former occupied most of our discussion, though, as it offers instruction in "premodern topographic ways of seeing."

We had an amazing discussion of her two representations of the temptation of Christ (above), painted 500 years apart. In the former, by Duccio, organized like an icon, sizes and relations aren't "realistic" but true; Christ is bigger than the mountain to which Satan takes him, and bigger than the cities seen from it. Everything is seen from his vantage point, including the viewer. In the latter, by a William Raphael Smith, all the figures - including Christ's - are dwarfed by a broad landscape; more, the vantage is that of the viewer surveying all, including Christ.

Talk about temptation!

And then it was time for Chinese landscape. della Dora includes a reproduction of Guo Xi's "Early Spring," but the book is small and the picture even smaller, so I brought my poster of Wang Meng's "East Morning Thatched Cottage View" and we spread it out on the table between us. (Images of both, above.) It wasn't ideal, but it worked. Students quickly found themselves drawn into details, discovering tiny figures in various places, paths, streams and peaks appearing and disappearing. Without any relevant experience nobody'd remarked what della Dora said. Now, when I read it aloud, everyone got it: Chinese landscape painting offers a different way of seeing. While Western perspectival painting (and later mechanized photography) requires a fixed viewer gazing down from an elevated vantage point, Chinese landscape painting emphasizes the necessity of moving through the landscape, of wandering through the mountains. (134) Not "wandering through the painted mountains."

As we wandered Wang Meng's mountains in our classroom the question of distance collapsed under its own airless weight. Bernbaum's triangulations seemed empty, while Dogen came back with the force of the obvious: There are mountains hidden in marshes, mountains hidden in the sky; there are mountains hidden in mountains. There is a study of mountains hidden in hiddenness.

To end I read the whole passage by Govinda from which I'd poached the essay prompt. (It's easy to find online, and I'm a little disappointed only one student did, though several found the same clipping on websites of "great quotes.")

To see the greatness of a mountain, one must be at a distance from it; to understand its form, one must move around it; to experience its moods, one must see it at sunrise and sunset, at noon and at midnight, in sun and in rain, in snow and in storm, in summer and winter, and in spring and autumn. He who can see the mountain in this manner comes near to the life of the mountain, which is as intense as that of a human being. Mountains grow and decay, they breathe and pulsate with life, They attract and collect invisible energies from their surroundings: the energies of the air, of the water, of electricity and magnetism; they create winds, clouds, thunder-storms, rains, waterfalls, and rivers. They fill their surroundings with life and give shelter and food to innumerable living things. Such is the greatness of a mountain.
Lama Anagarika Govinda, “Foreword: Sacred Mountains,” in W. Y. Evans-Wentz,
Cuchama and Sacred Mountains (Athens: Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 1981), xxx

We're in a good place to continue our wandering. We've named the problems - and the temptations - of distance. We've also tasted the ways in which, even in the absence of mountains, we can yet acknowledge and even sense their life.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Immigrants are welcome here

Grim moment as our society becomes a zone of terror for 11 million undocumented people, and as the Standing Rock water protectors are being arrested. European Americans pulling up the ladder after taking over Turtle Island from its traditional owners... as if by criminalizing all who didn't go through our official channels our own occupation of the land is vindicated! Immigration's not an easy question, especially for a settler society which claims a special global significance. My own thinking on it is incomplete, I readily confess, but at least I'm thinking. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

With Zengxi

In the Confucian ethics tutorial, we pivoted out of an initial focus on the Analects in a pretty fun way. We had three assigned readings, and a delightful interlude with a passage from Confucius.

The first was a denunciation of "Chinese ethics" by a philosopher who thinks its apparently pleasing openness to complexity and the spontaneous insight of the sage is really a recipe for authoritarianism, an empty center which philosophers and emperors vie to fill, neither brooking dissent. The most pressing concern of Chinese scholars today would be to formulate an ethics that, unlike the traditional ethics, is not inextricably bound to the notion of a transcendent (sacred) state power. 

Next was a sociologist's reflection on why Confucianism has not made inroads beyond East Asia, as Buddhism and Confucianism have. He pointed to its use as political ideology, from the KMT to Singapore to the CCP, and incompatibility with Western individualism. If Confucianism does indeed become globalized, its major carriers ... may indeed be Asian artists and storytellers rather than scholars and politicians, he concludes, along with humanistic Buddhist and Daoist associations which meld a Confucian social ethic with religious benevolence and ritual. This embedded Confucianism may have a better chance of spreading than a separated, purified version. (110)

These arguments shone a light on the interpretations and appropriations of the Analects we've been looking at these past weeks, Herbert Fingarette's Confucius: The Secular as Sacred, Yu Dan's Confucius from the Heart and Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh's The Path, all of which offer an appealingly pragmatic virtue ethics of everyday life disconnected from politics or even family structure. This may be a "Confucian ethics" without Chinese characteristic, but is it fair to Confucius? Confucius (as described in the Analects) was a good teacher but would really have liked a chance to influence rulers, preparing his followers to be good scholar officials should they be fortunate enough to have the opportunity. (He was chagrined at not finding a buyer for his wares, Analects 9.13.) Public service was key, even if the way to do that well was constant moral self-cultivation. Reading Analects as an ethics divorced and divorceable from politics is as anachronistic as reading Aristotle's Ethics without his Politics, as incomplete as supposing Analects a stand-alone text rather a guide to (and entirely dependent on) the Classics of Poetry, Rites, History and Music.

Our third reading was the Great Learning, the brief text from the Liji which Song Neoconfucian Zhu Xi used - with suitable commentary - to anchor the Four Books. It recasts the Analects (the second of the four books) as skilfully as John's "In the beginning was the Word" does Genesis. The commentary-amplified Great Learning assures us that everyone is endowed with "luminous inner virtue," and that public benefit ripples outward from its cultivation through study of the principle of things (li). Read in this frame, the Four Books seem focused on individual cultivation, and metaphysics rather than politics - but of course the Four Books were also the examination material and lingua franca of all public officials!

Going back to the Analects, which doesn't touch on human nature, inner luminous virtue or li, we found a passage which sets out the problematic relationship of moral self-cultivation and public service. Confucius asks four of his followers what they would do if someone employed them. One describes how he'd make a state prosperous in three years. Another has more modest ambitions to be an effective official. A third would assist in proper performance of ceremonies.

The Master then turned to Zengxi. "You, Zengxi! What would you do?" 
Zengzi stopped strumming his zither, and as the last notes faded away he set the instrument aside and rose to his feet. "I would choose to do something quite different from any of the other three." 
"What harm is there in that?" the Master said. "We are all just talking about our aspirations." 
Zenzgi then said, "In the third month of Spring, once the Spring garments have been completed, I should like to assemble a company of five or six young men and six or seven boys to go bathe in the Yi River and enjoy the breeze upon the Rain Dance Altar, and then return singing to the Master's house." 
The Master sighed deeply, saying, "I am with Zengxi!" (11.26)

The point here is not an Epicurean one about the joy of seasonal pleasures with friends at the expense of society at large, nor is it likely an expression of world-weary despondency at the end of a political career which never had a chance to flower. It seems to be something more like one of those "no A without B, no B without C, no C without D..." formulations. One's aspiration, it seems, mustn't be political influence, service or even ritual propriety. Though these are things the junzi embodies too, they will not be fully embodied if they are the aim!

The aim should be something like living fully, humanly, in time and society. Philip Ivanhoe argued that Confucianism is a "character consequentialism" - an endorsement of individual self-cultivation because it has the best consequences for society as a whole. Should the individual then think of their self-cultivation as public service? Confucius' appreciation of Zengzi suggests otherwise. Perhaps the point is that the Confucian way, once embarked on, provides reasons enough for its continuation - reasons not accessible from the outside, even untranslatable into the language of external values (what Alasdair Macintyre called "goods internal to a practice").

The Master said, “One who knows it [the Way] is not the equal of one who loves it, and one who loves it is not the equal of one who takes joy in it. (6.20)

Well and good, but can this help us answer questions about the authoritarian political consequences of Confucianism? Stay tuned!

Eske Möllgaard, "Chinese Ethics?" The Blackwell Companion to Religious Ethics, ed. William Schweiker (Blackwell, 2008); Richard Madsen, "Obstacles to the Globalization of Confucianism," in Confucianism, a Habit of the Heart: Bellah, Civil Religion, and East Asia, ed. Philip J. Ivanhoe and Sungmoon Kim (SUNY, 2016), 99-111, 110; Philip J. Ivanhoe, "Character Consequentialism: An Early Confucian Contribution to Contemporary Ethical Theory," Journal of Religious Ethics 19/1 (1991): 55-70; Confucius: Analects with Selections from Traditional Commentaries, trans. Slingerland (Hackett, 2003), 123, 59 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Sunday, February 19, 2017

In vino veritas

Funny how when you start to think about something, you find it everywhere. We picked up this wine for some friends but didn't notice it's a sacred mountain wine until later! (The sacred is slippery. The eponymous chemical corporation Monsanto apparently bears the founder's wife's maiden name.)

Saturday, February 18, 2017


Wow, the new leaf has brought a friend!

Friday, February 17, 2017


Reading Mencius (well, Tsai Chih Chung's Mencius Speaks: The Cure for Chaos), I'm feeling more of the vertigo I've had reading Confucius in theage of trumpery. This exchange (pp 12-13, cf.  梁惠王上1) sounds a warning as we start to see the spirit of "America first" trickle down. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017


Am I child of the mountains? Especially because my "Sacred Mountains" class follows in the footsteps of a course taught by a Sherpa, I've been acutely aware of my distance from mountains. I tell people - and have been telling myself - that mountains are for me things that you need to go out of your way to encounter or even see. I grew up facing the ocean, I say, sometimes adding that there are two islands one can very occasionally see bobbing on the horizon from the place I grew up, the mountain "hierophanies" of my youth - and to the strains of "Bali Ha'i." Since learning about Evans- Wentz' California Kailash I sometimes add that there was perhaps a sacred mountain behind my back, as it were, as I gazed out to sea. Maybe it was radiating mountain mana?

But this is all not quite true. While certainly not a mountain child, they have been part of my life from the start. I was born in Switzerland, after all, and one of the first trips my parents took me on was to meet favorite relations who live in the Wallis/Valais, the Alpine valley where the Rhône begins. We returned to that valley many times for hikes, some overlooking the magnificent, now shrinking, Aletschgletscher. Adalbert Stifter still moves me to tears. Once we moved to California, the Sierras were regular destinations, both for hiking and skiing. At fourteen I even made it to the top of Mt. Whitney, highest peak of the contiguous US. At later points in my life, I've been (part way) up Mount Fuji several times, circumambulated Uluru and, of course, twice circumambulated Kailash. I spent a few weeks in Flims and Interlaken not long ago. Mont Blanc, Kangchenjunga and Annapurna revealed themselves to me. In China I got to Wutai, Hengshan and Laoshan. And did you know that New York City itself sits atop an ancient mountain range, ground down by the ages?

Still, I had to go all those places. I was never living in the mountains, in the not insignificant part of the world where everything is mountain, so the language of mountain is too broad. I never had the experience one of my students says her mother grew up with in Colombia, where "mountains and people weren't separate" even in thought, and every day began with checking the mood of the mountain. From the flatlander perspective I've too quickly assumed, mountains are exceptions, jutting from - breaking hierophanically through! - a presumably flat world. They're paradigmatically solitary. It even makes sense to think of them as having come from above, from the sky, from outer space. It's easy to think that mountains fly, walk, go over water, flow. My favorite mountain line, from Elisée Reclus

A l’esprit qui contemple la montagne pendant la durée des âges, elle apparait flottante, aussi incertaine que l’onde de la mer chassée par la tempète: c’est un flot, une vapeur; quand elle aura disparu, ce ne sera plus qu’un rève. 
 Histoire d’une montagne (1875-6)

imagines the world as a surface ruffled - fleetingly - by mountains. They only seem solid if you take the human view of them, but the whole point of mountains is to challenge us to transcend that limited view!

These thoughts are coalescing now because I've asked students to write a paper about studying mountains from a distance, and we've started wrestling with the variously mystifying and clarifying accounts of sacred mountains of Edwin Bernbaum and Veronica della Dora. But it's also because I got together this afternoon with my old friend L, one of the most spiritually open people I know, and she asked me not if I was qualified to be teaching a course on sacred mountains, but rather how mountains had prepared me for this task. Do I, perhaps, protest too much? The first part of the course has been all about phenomenology, which I've described as helping us becoming cognizant of experiences we're already having without fully realizing it. Talking to L, I suddenly felt that there's been a cloud of mountain witnesses attending me all my life, content to let me think they were at my beck and call. Not a mountain child, no. But not just a beach bum either. The time of mountains is one I've sensed...

Finger in the wind

It's been forever since this plant risked putting out a new leaf!

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Multiple exposure

Returning to "Sacred Mountains" class after the Snow Day there was a lot of material waiting to be discussed and digested. We hadn't debriefed after my colleague's class visit and the particularities of sound as a medium. They'd read the main theoretical chapters of Edwin Bernbaum's Sacred Mountains of the World. And I'd asked students to go to the Roerich Museum. And they should be at work on an essay reflecting on the paradox, if it is one, of studying mountains without a mountain to help us. I can't describe all the directions our swooping diving climbing discussion took, but here are two moments.

One came from rereading John Muir's dismissal of words' capacity to replicate the experience of mountains, which I hadn't before noticed flows right into an appreciation of "exposure" modeled on photography! (See above.) The "human soul" is more sensitive than any "earthly chemicals," yes, but Nature, far from playing hard to get, "willingly ... poses herself on photographers' plates." We'll get to the gendering at work here, but for now I let Muir's words undermine the overstated dismissal of the power of reproduction and transmission. It set the stage for a useful discussion of how Roerich's paintings (like "Himalayas," 1933, below), and even the way they are displayed at the Museum, work.
A related 19th century visual technology came into play as we discussed Bernbaum's view that sacred mountains offer a depth experience of a universal reality because they are experienced "stereoscopically," both as natural and supernatural at the same time. Students had no idea what a stereoscope was, of course, so I brought in a card I found in an antiques barn upstate a dozen years ago. (It's St. George's church on Stuyvesant Park after a fire in 1865!) I think seeing it helped students get what Bernbaum was trying to say, perhaps because the image of a stereoscope I pulled up looked like today's VR goggles.

Excited discussion followed about the ways one might use images, sounds, words to characterize experiences of mystery and sacredness... It wasn't the moment to call in question Bernbaum's easy assumption that the double vision assures a symphony of spiritual depth rather than just the dispiriting noise of cognitive dissonance; there'll be time for that. That may indeed be our superstition about mountains.
Sacred Summits: John Muir’s Greatest Climbs, ed. Graham White
(Edinburgh: Canongate, 1999), 83; Edwin Bernbaum, Sacred Mountains
of the World (San Fransisco: Sierra Club Books, 1992), 152 [Yosemite photo], 213

Monday, February 13, 2017

Service announcement

It's true. The New York subway has gotten qualitatively worse, a lot worse. From 28,000 delays per month to 70,000 in five years? Golly.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Freezing rain garlanded the branches of trees this morning.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Ancient medicine

Like most important ancient texts, Confucius' Analects 论语 confronts readers today in an entirely unprecedented form: as a stand-alone and self-interpreting book (not too mention translated). In the West, it joins the ranks of other "world classics" or "scriptures of world religions" wrested from thickets of commentary to blink obscurely at casual readers who wouldn't have made it past the threshold in days gone by. Even in its own tradition it wasn't thought to be discreet, but part of overlapping canons of other valued texts. (You've heard me make similar claims about the Book of Job's only "becoming a book" in our time.) Until the Song Dynasty Neoconfucians, as Daniel Gardner reminds us, Analects wouldn't have been in a top-five list of classics. It was more of a classic reader's guide - an indispensable how-to-read guide, which could neither displace the real classics nor stand alone without them.

I've just finished reading a serious effort to rectify the situation, Edward Slingerland's annotated translation, which offers for each vignette background and excerpts from some of the hundreds of commentaries written over the centuries - including those of recent Western scholars. It expands the length of the text by about a factor of ten, but what a world it opens up, of scores of characters (historical, as well as Confucius' contemporaries and students) and parsings of characters by each other - even before you get to the later parsings. Read with care!

Indeed, Confucius and his disciples turn out already to be part of a commentarial tradition. It's well known that Confucius claimed not to be an innovator, just a man who loved learning - studying the classics; in other words he was a commentator, and hoped in his life to show how a virtuous and ritually correct commentator might make his times more like the virtuous classical past.

Daniel K. Gardner, intro to The Four Books (Indianapolis: Hackett 2007), xvff
Confucius: Analects with Selections from Traditional Commentaries, trans Edward Slingerland (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003), 106

Friday, February 10, 2017


 Fresh snow in all its splendor, Prospect Park.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Mountain stroll: 青山常運歩

A snow day meant the Sacred Mountains class didn't meet today, so I had a chance to go down a rabbit hole. Near the end of Edwin Bernbaum's Sacred Mountains of the World comes a brief quotation from the 13th century Japanese Zen master Dogen:

As for mountains, there are mountains hidden in jewels; there are mountains hidden in marshes, mountains hidden in the sky; there are mountains hidden in mountains. There is a study of mountains hidden in hiddenness. (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1992, 257)

It comes a page after another well-chosen quotation, from the Skanda Purana:

He who thinks of Himachal, even if he does not see it, is greater than he who accomplishes all his devotions at Benares. He who thinks of Himachal will be freed from all his sins.... (256)

At this point in his gorgeously illustrated account of holy peaks around the world, Bernbaum is addressing readers who cannot but be filled with a mix of Wanderlust and envy. Just thinking about sacred mountains can be salutary for us who live in cities and on the plains, he concedes. Indeed, mountains by themselves - even ones held sacred by various peoples - can't reliably do the work for us, since their devotés are liable to mistake the symbol for what is symbolized: the holy mystery of life itself, disclosed through the double-take of things experienced as natural at the same time as holy. This ultimate depth experience is more accessible on mountains than elsewhere, given their optics, but the reality revealed is everywhere. Thus: Dogen.

Knowing we wouldn't have class, I veered away from Bernbaum prep to Dogen quest. Where does 道元 Dogen (1200-1253) say this, and what could it mean? It turns out to be near the end of the "山水経 Mountains and Waters Sutra," one of the earliest parts of the 正法眼蔵 Shobogenzo. The translation can be found here; the original, which I can half-pretend to be able to read, goes like this:


But to know what it might mean you need to know that Dogen's heading toward a complicated denouement, where words melt and recongeal, even as mountains are understood as the embodied insights of enlightened beings. (As a modern-language explanation I found puts it, 山はただ山であるというのではなく、解脱者の見た山であるということである.) Good also to know that the whole work is framed by the enigmatic pronouncements of two Chinese sages, 芙蓉道楷 Furong Daokai (1043-1118) and 雲門文偃 Yunmen Wenyan (864-949)



the blue [green] mountains walk and the Eastern mountains move over water. There's all sorts of cool stuff about the nonduality of water and mountains, about water going upward and experienced as a solid palace by fish in the sea, while mountains, too, 流 flow (and don't flow; it's complicated, and isn't). But the upshot - an upshot - is:


Those who would know their own walking must also know the walking of the blue [green] mountains. This has something to do with how we become one with what we perceive, so the mountains walk as we walk them, and as we study them mountains study themselves. But this is just the surface of what's going on, since, long before we came to the mountains, whether in thought or in stride, they were seen by the buddhas, and in some way we could with effort realize as well, are manifestations of these seeings. 山水が仏の教えを説 "Mountains and waters preach the Buddha's teaching," the modern Japanese page explains.

They are sutras - a claim not entirely unlike John Muir's stone sermons:

It seems strange that visitors to Yosemite should be so little influenced by its novel grandeur, as if their eyes were bandaged and their ears stopped. Most of those I saw yesterday were looking down as if wholly unconscious of anything going on about them, while the sublime rocks were trembling with the tones of the mighty chanting congregation of waters gathered from all the mountains round about, making music that might draw angels out of heaven. Yet respectable-looking, even wise-looking people were fixing bits of worms on bent pieces of wire to catch trout. Sport they called it. Should church-goers try to pass the time fishing in baptismal fonts while dull sermons were being preached, the so-called sport might not be so bad; but to play in the Yosemite temple, seeking pleasure in the pain of fishes struggling for their lives, while God himself is preaching his sublimest water and stone sermons! (My First Summer in the Sierra)

Okay, so maybe the resemblance is just superficial. But both views dissolve the solidity of mountains in a way Bernbaum might question. Or was the Dogen reference at the end an invitation to just such a detour?

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Hide yourself

We started our reading of Confucius' Analects today, my first time teaching this hoary text. I asked the students to identify passages that struck them as representative or curious and, as expected, these took us quickly to the heart of the matter. XI.6 (middle way, and disciples' personalities), IV.15 (the one thread, empathy and dutifulness),  XIII.13 (rectification of names). I directed attention to V.12 (golden rule, beyond many), III.20 (importance of the Odes - I had us read the first, cited here) and XI.12 (Confucius' supposed agnosticism). More next week, including filial piety, etc. And the one below, VIII.13, a passage which has been stuck in my craw these last days and weeks. Among the most disheartening developments in our failing democracy is the number of people willing to work with and for a lawless fraud. Gorsuch?

Multi media

My sound artist colleague N came to the Sacred Mountains class today. I was expecting to contrast the fresh raw recordings he made along our Kailas trip with the highly composed soundscape we experienced last week - but that just shows how naive I am about sound! Replication, N said, is an unfruitful ideal; better to recognize that every act of listening or recording is an act transformation! We each hear different things, differently, understand them in different ways because of our experience, identity, concerns. Soundwalks like those he conducted in the Kathmandu Valley are inseparable not just from the moment and space but from the person making the recording. N accompanies his recordings (like the one above of a 3-hour hike up and back down a mountain) with other kinds of data: not just snapshots but a map (GPS linked to time), his altitude, speed of motion and heart rate. He's not sure what they show, he laughed, but they're sort of interesting anyway, aren't they? I see the open-ended data-collection as consonant with the commitment of the soundwalker to try to attend to everything you don't customarily notice. The not quite assimilable jumble of "data" reminds us how remarkable a thing is the synthaesthesia of our experience. 

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Upstairs downstairs

It's been a little over two months since I went to the Catholic Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph's. Imagine my surprise when there was a new priest! (Another old white guy, I couldn't help thinking.) Turns out this is is first Sunday, and he introduced himself as a life-long Brooklyner, listing quite the series of Catholic schools, colleges, parishes, etc. and thirty-nine years in the priesthood. You can hear he's from Brooklyn he said, and it's true. His sermon was about how we must be the salt and light of the world (today's Gospel, never more pertinent) even though, for all our different gifts, we have one thing in common: we're floored. It's through our floors that we're to witness God's love for the world.

Saturday, February 04, 2017


The "Sacred Mountains" class continues Tuesday with more on sound - mountain sounds, but also how sound can be used as a form of expression, and indeed of research. A colleague will be coming to class to share his work with sound as a form of ethnographic research, and sent us a link to some "sound walks" he did around Kathmandu last year. Unlike the composition of sounds we heard at the Rubin on Thursday - 120 hours of sound, recorded in 200 places, concentrated into 20 minutes -  these invite you to a specific place and time. I recognized the voices of several people I know, not to mention familiar sounds like bells, chanting monks, tooting motorbike horns - and, in one which involves the ascent of a hill (the picture above is one of those accompanying it), crunching leaves and labored breaths.

An article my colleague sent about soundwalks explains the practice's roots (many familiar to me, such as Thich Nhat Hanh, Michel de Certeau and John Cage!) and development into forms of art and civic engagement, always commited to locality, to slowness, to listening.

A walking pace (andante, 75 beats per minute, like that of a relaxed and active heartbeat) is slow in musical terms, slower than the pace of the sound-cyclist, the sound tourist, the sound safari; it is a reflective pace. While recording, even slower movement – andante grazioso, 60 bpm – is often necessary to reduce wind on the mic. The walk is slow movement, where stillness is only temporary and motion is more or less audible. In many soundwalk recordings, it is possible to hear sounds of the recordist, traces of breath, gait, touch and presence that are more often effaced in still recordings. This emphasis on slowness, human movement and a focus on particular places brings attention to the presence of the soundwalkers and their ways of interaction in that place ...

Soundwalks seem designed to get us to attend more to the soundscape of our own worlds, rather than as invitations to worlds we don't know. Let's see how this reminder of human locatedness plays with the class!

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Mountain sounds?

My sacred mountains class went to the Rubin Museum of Art today to experience "Khandroma: Himalayan Wind," a sound installation on their "Sacred Spaces" floor. (This picture is of the soundproofing, sideways.) "Himalayan Wind" stitches together samples from 120 hours of wind gusts recorded in 200 high-elevation monasteries and villages in Mustang last year, and is intended to give visitors (who sit on beanbags surrounded by speakers) an experience of transport. It was my third visit, and I still don't know what to make of it. The first time I found it noisy; the second time meditative. This time, surrounded by the supine forms of my students, I wondered just what this collage of different gusts was supposed to convey - not one particular place but something more general, and, in the absence of any human sounds (except some drone added later), something non- or inhuman. Why is that worth doing - feeling like you can hear what no human ear has heard? Next week we'll see what the class made of it, as we get a different kind of sonic experience of mountains: the sound ethnographer who was part of our Kailash trip will bring some of the sounds he recorded, which include the sound of feet, of belled pack animals, of rushing streams, etc.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017


At a gathering in support of refugees and immigrants at Foley Square (I was part of a group of Episcopalians who gathered on short notice at St Paul's Chapel and walked over) I made my peace with the "not my president" slogan. It's not my favorite, but I get it. It's not that I think the President illegitimate because of the electoral vote imbalance, or because our poisonous media environment included toxins sent from Russia with love. It's because his actions since taking office have made clear he has no interest in being the president of all Americans. He's had chances to recognize the legitimacy of those who love America in different ways than he does but hasn't taken any of them. Shame.

Are we doing better when we say "you will not divide us"? Let's try.