Thursday, November 16, 2017

Proves the rule

The poster for our event featured a detail of the Tomb of Hafez in Shiraz, a wonder in many ways. I was struck that, in its details, it's full of variations (at first I though inconsistencies) you don't at first notice. The trapezoids surrounding the central area, for instance, have mosaic tiles of all different colors, in many different constellations - though, again, it's not something the eye at first notices; nor is the larger harmony diminished by it once you have noticed it. I immediately remembered John Ruskin's celebration of the Gothic for just such diversity in unity - surely irrelevant here. (Though this mosaic was made only in the 1930s under french supervision.) A helpful friend reminded me of the deliberate "errors" included in Navajo sand paintings, and hand-knit sweaters - errors that betoken truth. But as I was looking through the powerpoints from Tuesday's roundtable again today, I noticed another variation which can only have been deliberate, this in the image with which my Islamist colleague Z began her talk. Can you find it? (Hint: there's just one, and it's the most perfect of colors.)

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

LREL Fall Roundtable

Great turnout for our Fall Roundtable last night - forty people in all! And all were nourished: by fascinating presentations on Islamic aesthetics, the mathematics of symmetry and tiling, and the Sufi spirituality of geometric design; by ample snacks; and by the chance to make one's own patterns, using colored pencils and grids and templates from masterpieces of Islamic geometric design. Doing and being!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Birth of a new religion

I think we turned a corner in "Buddhist Modernism" today. I've been trying, not entirely successfully, to get the students excited about the questions raised in David McMahan's Ris of Buddhist Modernism: how are the Buddhisms we encounter in places like the US related to the traditions of Asian Buddhism of the past (and present)? McMahan argues that much of "Buddhist modernism" is specifically of this time and place, continuing concerns western folks had before ever they encountered Buddhist texts or teachers - though it's being "of this time and place" doesn't automatically delegitimate it: more than most traditions, Buddhism has a history of hybridizing itself with different cultures. The question "Is it Buddhist?" isn't quite the right one, but it's an important one too. Much of what Buddhism has been in other times and places is absent from Buddhist modernism.

The class discussion has been about a version of that question a student put two weeks ago: 'is it OK to ignore the guidelines?" - to adapt Buddhist practices and ideas to your own purposes? The discussions have oscillated between reflections on respect and appropriation of a foreign tradition on the one hand, and questions about personal commitment to Buddhism on the other. The rather safe consensus seemed to be that if you respect that others (=Asians) have traditions and don't claim to speak for them, and your own engagement is serious and not just trendy, everything is OK.

In vain did I proffer a third question; whether our self-medication with Buddhist medicines is likely to be effective, given that we are unenlightened. (I posted that line from McMahan about how most Asian Buddhists would see the self to which the self-medicator defers as deluded on this blog in partt because the class didn't want to go there.) But today we'd read McMahan's fascinating account of how trends in modern western literature take you to a place very close to mindfulness - to the point where writers in the 1950s described stream of consciousness writers James Joyce and Virginia Woolf as Buddhist!

(McMahan starts his chapter with this epigraph from Mrs. Dalloway:) 

So we had a new question: can one be Buddhist and not know it? The class was excited at the idea. It turned out to be the way into the discussion I've been trying to have - pedigree and intention may be secondary questions compared to the question if something is actually working. I didn't spell out the further implication - that one could think oneself Buddhist and be mistaken - but it's within reach.

Monday, November 13, 2017


That record-breaking cold snap snap more than a few leaves...

Sunday, November 12, 2017


I find myself very moved by these words from "Manifesto for Living in the Anthropocene"

We want to engage in life and the living world in an unconstrained and expansive way. Our thinking needs to be in the service of life—and so does our language. This means giving up preconceptions, and instead listening to the world. This means giving up delusions of mastery and control, and instead seeing the world as uncertain and yet unfolding. So our thinking needs to be— 
     • Curious; 
     • Experimental; 
     • Open; 
     • Adaptive; 
     • Imaginative; 
     • Responsive; and 
     • Responsible.
We are committed to thinking with the community of life and contributing to healing. 

Stories are important for understanding and communicating the significance of our times. We aim to tell stories that—
     • Enact connectivity, entangling us in the lives of others;
     • Have the capacity to reach beyond abstractions and move us to concern and action;
     • Are rich sources of reflection; and 
     • Enliven moral imagination, drawing us into deeper understandings of responsibilities, reparative possibilities, and alternative futures. 

While we continue our traditions of critical analysis, we are forging new research practices to excavate, encounter and extend reparative possibilities for alternative futures. We look and listen for life-giving potentialities (past and present) by charting connections, re-mapping the familiar and open- ing ourselves to what can be learned from what already is happening in the world. As participants in a changing world, we advocate—
     • Developing new languages for our changing world; 
     • Stepping into the unknown; 
     • Making risky attachments; and 
     • Joining and supporting concerned others. 


This is the greater part of a manifesto signed by "key thinkers from the fields of Anthropology, Education, Human Geography, Philosophy, Science and Technology Studies, Sociology, Political Theory, Communications and Film" on a riverbank near the University of Western Sydney in 2010 (including Deborah Bird Rose).

I don't think it's a coincidence that Australians (and people who've made Australia their home, like Rose) are particularly perceptive on the reality and challenges of the Anthropocene. (The New Schools great Anthropocene theorist is from Australia, too.) I'm not sure quite how to explain why I feel this, but it's something like this. These folks - all (so far as I can judge from their names) settler-descendants - have grown up in a society which feels like a mismatch with the land it occupies. Remember that the formative settler Australian myth isn't pioneers who take civilization further and further across an accommodating continent, but explorers who try to cross the continent and vanish, consumed by it. Further, settler Australians (some of them at least) are aware that the continent in question was already settled and well tended by its traditional owners before - an order disrupted to the point of extinction by the depredations of settler society, and for many traditional inhabitants, human and other, damaged beyond the point of no return.

It's Anthropocene in miniature. You feel in your bones that the civilization you have grown up with is unsustainable, out of place, illegitimate. An American might then cry that our civilization is already dead, but this kind of settler descendant Australian has no time for such drama: our civilization also nearly destroyed others, and to their memory and their descendants we have responsibilities.

This motivates efforts to learn to appreciate 'country' the way Aboriginal peoples have, listening to the wisdom of those who knew how to flourish in and with this land (and who manage, if they can, to keep going on in the face of the decimation of their world), and to recognize and where possible revitalize fragile networks through which species have helped each other thrive. From this, along with a deep sense of grief and responsibility, can come - I sense it in this Manifesto - a remarkable commitment to life, celebrating it, learning from it, letting it be, joining it. Deborah Bird Rose describes this paradoxical commitment in terms of "love on the edge of extinction." It's not optimism, certainly not the technofuturism which sees Anthropocene as an initial stumble in what will be the glorious history of humanity remaking the world in its image. It's hope born of near-despair, joy at the marvel of being part of the community of living things born of responsibility to the dead, and to the not yet dead.


Fall colors out our window, framed by the flowers in our window box!

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Gink go

The first freeze of the season caught some more prepared than others...

Friday, November 10, 2017


I'm still dithering over this essay I'm writing on philosophy of religion and the Anthropocene. The premise for the essay is clear. The growing literature on the Anthropocene shows little to no awareness of or interest in religion, its study or its philosophy, and religious studies, by and large, has returned the favor. It's early days, of course. Anthropocene is a contested category (even among stratigraphers) and much work of religious studies scholars that now seems relevant to the Anthropocene uses instead the language of climate change.

(So what makes Anthropocene discussion different from climate change? Anthropocene theorists take as established what is merely a grim possibility in earlier discussions - that human beings are "planetary agents," whose actions over time (especially recent time) have decisively and irreparably altered the conditions of life on earth. As Dipesh Chakrabarty put it (before the ascent of the Anthropocene language), the distinction between natural history and human history has been destabilized for good. Meanwhile the natural historical pretensions of the category of Anthropocene - that future geologists would find traces of our species in the geological record - invite a different perspective on human doing and being. Such future geologists, if any there are, will likely not be human; even if they are, assuming their perspective means seeing ourselves as fossils.

My challenge is that I can't just point to conversations that aren't happening. I need to suggest conversations that could or should happen. And since the volume for which I'm writing is about the future of the philosophy of religion, I have to speculate a little about what the fruits of such conversations might be.

The way I'm structuring the essay (for now) is like this. After an introductory reflection on the retrospective character of philosophy of religion - we work on religious ideas that have already arisen, even where we are being constructive - I suggest the risks of futurology are unavoidable. The future is here already, at the same time an uncanny expression of a past which has taken on a new aspect, too, as we see it as a cause of our present dissonance. As for the futures earlier thinkers assumed would be "conformable to the present" (as Hume said), they're over. That was the Holocene, this is now. All bets are off.

The main part of the essay is an engagement with four theorists of the Anthropocene, selected somewhat capriciously if not of course randomly. (None is a straw man, all make compelling arguments.) One is a philosopher, one a novelist, one a Marxist cultural theorist, one an anthropologist. What I do in each case is note that although religion is largely absent from their arguments, there are openings. The philosopher thinks of great religious texts as among the heritage of humanity, useful for interrupting the ideologies of the age, even as he disdains religion (except perhaps Zen Buddhism) as an irresponsible flight from death. The novelist thinks religion better positioned than literature or politics to address the challenges of human limits in a world no longer continuous, though he himself doesn't go there (he's appreciative in ways he can't quite fathom of Laudato Si'). The cultural theorist praises the world-imagining work of science fiction, and of religious thinking about "totality," as necessary tools even as we have to recognize much of our theory as obsolete "carbon humanities." And the anthropologist, finally, turns to indigenous Australian ways of living with and beyond "cascades of extinction," and not just human ways (as we if we could be human on our own). Openings for religious studies, perhaps, though caveats also for the holocenic imagination of most of our work.

So far so good, I guess. But to get some meat on the bones of this argument, I need to do some actual speculation myself, so I finish the essay with some reflections on the future of the problem of evil - and of the Book of Job. What will become of evil as the natural/moral evil distinction ceases to ring true? Will the "free will defense" experience a revival, even as our agency confronts us more as a ghostly spectre than a potentiality? Will a "weak" God who suffers with us as we despoil ourselves and our worlds become a companion in the trenches? Will folks rather become millennarian, or - as is happening already - denialist about the situation, and will philosophers of religion dignify these views with analysis? Will God appear one of, and kin with, other companion species?

Come Job, will anyone take the restoration of Job's family and goods at the end seriously? (Anthropocene means, at the very least, that it's no longer plausible that "everything works out in the end.") Will the equivocations of Job's friends be read as images of climate change denial? Will Behemoth and Leviathan rear their heads once more? Will God ask Job "where were you when people upset the natural balance?" even as Job wonders why God allows such thoughtlessness? Will the satan become important in a new way?

I'm thinking of ending with the anthropologist - it's Deborah Bird Rose, author of Dingo makes us human - who amends the Book of Job to observe that, even as Job is abandoned by all his human relations, it doesn't ring true that he should be abandoned by his dogs. Dog aren't like that. Her image of Job comforted by his dogs is where I'd like to end the essay.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Conditioned arising

In "Buddhist Modernism" today, I asked the students to diagram the argument of the central chapter of David L. McMahan's The Making of Buddhist Modernism, "A Brief History of Interdependence." A sort of microcosm of the book, the chapter argues that contemporary Buddhist conceptions of interdependence have as much to do with western romantic ideas and scientific ideas of ecology and systems as with the ancient idea of pratitya samutpada, though they do tap into later Mahayana and especially Chinese ideas about emptiness and nature. I didn't quite get what I was looking for (something like the below) but some enjoyable depictions of a nuanced argument which traces resonances and affinities in the entangled history of modern Buddhism...

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Someone put up one of our Roundtable flyers in the 4th floor skybridge!

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Eastern wisdom

Some awkward truths from classes this week...

The meaning of ritual is deep indeed. He who tries to enter it with the kind of perception that distinguishes hard and white, same and different, will drown there. The meaning of ritual is great indeed. He who tries to enter it with the uncouth and inane theories of the system-makers will perish there. The meaning of ritual is lofty indeed. He who tries to enter with the violent and arrogant ways of those who despise common customs and consider themselves to be above other men will meet his downfall there. ...
He who dwells in ritual and can ponder it well may be said to know how to think; he who dwells in ritual and does not change his ways may be said to be steadfast. He who knows how to think and be steadfast, and in a addition has a true love for ritual - he is a sage. Heaven is the acme of loftiness, earth the acme of depth, the boundless the acme of breadth, and the sage the acme of the Way. Therefore the scholar studies how to become a sage; he does not study merely to become one of the people without direction. 
trans. Burton Watson (Columbia 2003), 98-99

The many recommendations in contemporary popular western Buddhist literature to trust your deepest experiences, your inner nature, your internal vision have more to do with this legacy of Romanticism than with traditional Buddhism. One seldom hears such counsel from traditional Buddhist texts and teachers; for them, until one is an advanced practitioner, one's inner experiences are likely to be considered just another form of delusion.
David L. McMahan,
The Making of Buddhist Modernism (Oxford 2008), 85