Friday, August 18, 2017

Rain tapestries

 My office windows aren't the soundest, but rain can be very pretty.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Wednesday, August 16, 2017


As our prez continues to undermine  the moral fabric of our culture and government, I found respite in doing something constructive: the double pleasure not just of making something tasty but of successfully recreating something you enjoyed in a restaurant! (The internet helped too, of course.)

Chop and sauté: onion, celery; red pepper, garlic; tomato paste; tomato; eggplant; let cool with capers, golden raisins, olives, vinegar.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Lerner's permit

It was back to familiar turf today, the first of three talks I'm giving on New School history as orientation activities for the new school year begin. Today was super early: I was presenting as part of training for the student fellows who will help with orientation of new students, the first of whom (some international students) arrive Thursday. Academic year 2017-2018 itself doesn't start for another thirteen days!

Of course I can't give the same talk twice (it's hard enough giving it once) so today's was a turbo-charged version of the talk I've given over the years to the first year fellows - also peers who assist incoming students in the transition to college - at Lang. But this was different. Lang students are only a part, not even the biggest part, of the incoming class. Most of the new students - and conceivably most of the Orientation Fellows - are Parsons students. So I couldn't just tell the usual story, where the New School starts up in 1919, has mishaps and adventures of various kinds with adults, artists and refugees before eventually being jolted into its final form by the body blow of the merger with Parsons from 1970! So I told a messier, truer story, where what makes us new now, what (ideally) makes our newness more than mere novelty-seeking, is the fact that we bring together quite disparate legacies which have only recently begun cross-pollinating. The progenitor to Parsons started in 1896! The New School, I extemporized, is the "umbrella," the framework for pedagogical exploration and innovation, but the family is bigger and more complicated than that.
Since these were students I was talking to, I also wound up emphasizing the contributions students have always made to this experiment. Before showing the always popular student updatings of the Orozco mural's now stodgy-seeming "Table of Universal Brotherhood" I talked about Gerda Lerner, whom we celebrate for having taught the first college course on women in American history in 1962. Our promotional story makes it seem like we reliably generate pathbreaking courses decade after decade from some central inspiration but the real story's more complicated, and more inspiring. Lerner's course was a trial balloon, and cancelled for low enrollment the first year it was offered - but The New School was willing to give it a second try, and then it flew. No central vision here, but an infrastructure for experimentation, and an awareness that change takes time. As important was knowing that Lerner was at the time a student here, completing her BA!

Monday, August 14, 2017

If the best is the enemy of the good, evil is the enemy of the wrong

A president shouldn't have to say "racism is evil." Indeed, saying it - not to mention two days after a racist rally set out to produce terror and mayhem, and generated the nation's first vehicular terrorist attack on a crowd of innocents - suggests he doesn't believe it. That's a word we reserve for the worst things, and this president clearly doesn't think racial thinking is one of the worst things.

"Evil" (as you know, this is something I've thought a lot about for a long time) names an outside threat, claiming for the namer a higher ground by fiat, an absolute purity. It arrests thought, silences opposition and undermes the possibility of engaging the vilified by anything but violent means.

Besides, this nano-president (I quite like that phrase used on "Morning Joe") depletes language by only ever using superlatives. He doesn't engage the middling world where we, and our moral reasoning, live. Reaching for hyperbole is what he does where others think.

Do you think he could just say "racism is wrong" - bringing it within the range of things that people like us might be implicated in, wittingly or unwittingly beholden to, might need to examine our hearts and lives for, might need to change our lives to address - and mean it? Make it a moral question, nor something safely metaphysical? Rejecting such moral reflection and self-awareness seems central to his political brand, and is central to his threat to our democratic culture.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Confronting white supremacy

It shouldn't need saying but it clearly does. White supremacy is America's besetting sin. It doesn't go away when denied but only goes deeper. It's deepened by suggesting parity between people bearing torches and Confederate and Nazi flags and those who show up to pray and protest in response. It's strengthened by the moral failure of a White House which normalizes domestic terrorism as part of some sort of long-term culture war, one where the white guys in polo shirts with tiki torches and Nazi slogans are just standing their ground... Shame. And sorrow. And resolve. We people who think we are white made this monster, as it has made us; it's our moral task to confront it. 

Friday, August 11, 2017

More kora

Perhaps I'm the only new yatri willing to supplement, perhaps supplant, my own Kailas kora experience with those of others. But how beautiful to keep discovering more, like this view, taken from the point, on the first day of the (three-day clockwise) kora, where you're closest to Kailas itself, shot by a non-PRC Chinese guy - his photo essay, "Kailash kora: washing away a lifetime's bad karma," is written in traditional characters: 岡仁波齊 轉山 . 洗盡一生的罪業 . Nice to be reminded that the part of the kora's sense of epic significance is the great variety of mountain formations you encounter on your way, including some that are so strangely shaped as to pretty much force you to tell some sort of story about them. This traveler has a good eye for these, and had great luck with weather and light. His 4.5 minute kora is worth a try.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

New yatris

My latest piece on Kailas (so far there have been a few talks, one five minutes long, and another soon to appear in a volume of photographs one of our party took last year) is going to be rather playfully structured. Its subject is people (including me) for whom Kailash, and the trip there and around it, don't have a set, given meaning, as arguably they do for those Tibetans who come circumambulate, and those Saivites who come seek darshan of the god. The experiences of these people - new yatris, I might call us - are worth considering, I argue, because there are more and more of us, and because negotiating between the needs and desires of the more fixed and the more exploratory visitors will be an increasing challenge as Kailash becomes a more accessible world religions tourist site.

This point is a little different from that of Alex McKay, who laments the 20th century framing of Kailas by "world-religions" discourse. It functioned before, as most sites in the Himalaya did, in much more local ways, defined by idiosyncratic "renunciates" and existing well beyond the reach of organized systems of ritual and scripture. The idea that Hindus and Buddhists have since time immemorial been making their way there is itself part of this modern framing, McKay argues. (It seems some think his argument exaggerated and wilfully ignorant of local-language literatures. I found my way to the new yatris - I originally called them "yatris of the future" - in part as a way of referring to McKay's historicizing without pretending to be able to assess it.)

Whoever the yatris of the past were, and of more distant pasts, more and more of the yatris of the future will be different from them. Even those who hail from the Hindu and Tibetan world will be engaged in something new, and understood in new terms (perhaps including heritage, nature, spirituality). But those from farther afield, from China, Russia, the West... we are the most uncontroversially new yatris. While some of us may be devotés of one of the historic traditions for which Kailash is important, most will be coming to a place known to have great spiritual significance for many other people. "You are trekkers," I will never forget a South Indian man in a red duffle coat passing me at Dolma La saying as he looked down from his pony, "we are pilgrims."

The "mountain sacred to four religions" description names the trekker's awareness, and I'm coming to think that only really means something for the new yatris. Old yatris encountered people from other traditions, sure; that's common enough across Asia. A few of them might have triangulated from this (the way Bernbaum thinks encountering different religious accounts of a place refreshes our depth experience of its "sacred mystery") but most were presumably some kind of uninterested inclusivist: others rightly sensed there was something going on here but didn't get the whole picture. There was nothing to learn from their misconception. (You wouldn't make the arduous trip just to find out if something was really going on there, if Shiva really had his abode there, if it really was the crystal palace of Denchog!) (On the other hand, this didn't mean the misconceptions of others were dangerous and needed rooting out, just uninteresting.)

The new yatri is a pluralist - which in many cases (as Tomoko Masuzawa forcefully argued) is universalism under another name, but might (also) include all manner of seeker openness. Each of the different takes on the mountain seems potentially significant, even if none of them can be taken as final. (The closest to final might be what each person gets from their encounter with the mountain.) The experiences of other yatris, new and old, are an object of fascination. Old yatris arrived with manuals telling them what a properly primed mind and heart would be permitted to perceive. The new yatri knows there are many manuals. She might think minds and hearts can be primed to perceive different realities, but hasn't come in search of only one of these realities.

Now have I any evidence for my claims, and especially for the gross generalization that all these "new yatris" have structurally similar experiences? Not a lot. But also not just nothing (or nothing but my own inchoate gut feelings). Since returning from my second kora last year I've watched more than my share of videos and read more than my share of accounts of other new yatris. With faux modesty I'll say I'm just discussing those which I found most interesting, but they should add up - as they have for me - to a vivid sketch of this emerging breed.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Eyes on the street

The flowers in our window box are comparing notes with the blooming Japanese pagoda/Chinese scholar trees down the street. Let's hope all beings keep watch over errant humanity in this frightening moment.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Rainy day

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Kailas again

(Photo from here)

I've recently read the account of a very special circumambulation of Kailash in 2006, the first (perhaps only) one performed by a western person doing full body prostrations. (The idea came not from her US teachers but from dakinis, she tells us.) It took her twenty-eight arduous but not lonely days, poignantly recorded in her diary. This is from Day 4, an expression of her hunger for the cosmic love which she ultimately finds everywhere - even in herself:

Two young women from Taiwan stopped, one in particular had so many questions, and the other one was quiet but attentive and kind. The one with questions asked if I was a Buddhist. I paused and said, "I'm everything." "That's a good sentence," she said.

Tracey Alysson, Dying & Living in the Arms of Love:
One Woman's Journey Around Mount Kailash (XLibris, 2012), 113

Saturday, August 05, 2017

City on a hill

What's this city? Why, it's the United States of America, in a "3-D" representation of our recent presidential election. Pretty cool, huh! I've been exercised over the way two-dimensional maps misrepresent electoral results (including the simplification of red/blue) for years, and this effort does a pretty good job of addressing the problems. By coding color to the margin of victory it adds some subtlety, but I still prefer maps which try to represent all voters, with a scale of purples. But that might be nostalgia nowadays, as the paucity of pinks and light blues here shows. In the absence of proportional representation (but the presence of gerrymandering), we can only expect less purple.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Ease on down

With a little teamwork, some of us local friends put on our own "rooftop cinema" tonight - one providing the rooftop, another the film, and me the projector. The movie, appropriately enough, was "The Wiz"!

Sound world

The Rubin Museum's "The World is Sound" exhibit makes the whole place into a wondrous sensorium. The central glass and steel staircase, whose six levels recalled the realms of rebirth to Donald Rubin, now resonates with sounds arising and sbsiding, coiling, pooling, ascending:

The centerpiece of the exhibition is Le Corps Sonore (Sound Body), an immersive, site-specific installation composed for the Rubin Museum’s iconic spiral staircase by the pioneering electronic sound artists Éliane Radigue, Laetitia Sonami, and Bob Bielecki. Ambient drone sounds inspired by Buddhist philosophy are “tuned” to the building, and will ascend and descend as visitors wind their way up the staircase. The subtlety and ephemerality of the sounds prepare the listener for understanding a core tenet of Buddhist philosophy, where music is a metaphor for change and impermanence.

The top floor, presided over by an exquisite statue of Milarepa listening, offers an immersive experience of the collective Om synthesizing the chanting of ten thousand visitors (yours truly included) earlier this year. Most captivating are Tibetan Buddhist objects whose lives involve sound which are brought to life - or at least to sound - by visitors' touching the wall next to them (for various sutras and mantras) or standing near them (for musical instruments used in ritual). And then there is this astonishing 19th century musical notation for a Kagyu propitiation ritual.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Buddhism for the times

My other Fall semester class, a first year seminar, covers some familiar territory and some new. It's called "Buddhist Modernism" and promises to explore the ways in which our time may be one of significant innovation among Buddhists - and not just "western Buddhists." One of our key texts will be the wonderful anthology Figures of Buddhist Modernity in Asia, which explodes the idea - not too far beneath the surface of many a western Buddhist innovator - that Asian Buddhism is hidebound and out of date. The "figures" profiled have revived, repositioned and reimagined local and transnational Buddhisms in fascinating ways within the contexts of Asian societies working out their own modernities.

The figure rather cheesily depicted above (pic from here) isn't in the book but he might be in my class: an old friend, who even once taught a course at Lang, now director of a path-breaking center marrying Buddhism and group therapy in Seoul, and the author of best-selling books in Korea and, increasingly, internationally. I hope he can Skype in!

Tuesday, August 01, 2017


I think it's happening - MOOC-enhanced "Theorizing Religion." I've mapped out a way we can spend four weeks (starting week 3) building a class knowledge of actual world religions and presenting our findings, all in a counterpoint with four classes I'll lead about classic theories, each culminating in a close reading of a passage in class. The historical sequence will go Hume (with early comparative religion and its politics), Schleiermacher (with the gendering of the invention of religion and the private sphere) and Feuerbach (a chance to talk about theology, anthropology and the "atheism" of religious experience). The texts discussed will be available to students, but their assigned work for these weeks will be the MOOCs, on which they'll give a report each of the four weeks, before a broader discussion of what religious literacy is, what "world religions" are, and how one extrapolates from knowledge of one tradition to others. I imagine the two threads - growing knowledge of Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity and of the "invention of religion' by modern theorists - might braid nicely as we go.

The first "classic text" students have to prepare for class will be Marx!