Sunday, September 24, 2017

Trump's Katrina

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

Saturday, September 23, 2017

tyd tyy

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

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

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

Friday, September 22, 2017

MOOCs day 3

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Monday, September 18, 2017

Truth of tears

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

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

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

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Maxi the MOOCher

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

Saturday, September 16, 2017


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

Friday, September 15, 2017

New arrival on the block

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Words words

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


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


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

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Magga (not MAGA)

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

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

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

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

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

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