Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Sunday, March 29, 2009
Saturday, March 28, 2009
Friday, March 27, 2009
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
But texts like these are not meant to be read. Given a chance to speak, the Pratimoksa Sutra proves utterly fascinating in content, form and performance. It's a community constituting and reconstituting itself in synch with the cycles of nature. It's a work of casuistry as well as of law. Like a lump of amber if contains particular cases of ethical infraction from the distant past enough to supply a historical ethnography of the early sangha; when you think of them recited over the centuries you need to switch to the metaphor of a pearl. But I also wanted students to feel what it is to recite such a text - to feel the words on your lips, resonating in your chest - and to recite them together with your fellows. For the Pratimoksa Sutra names (so you, the reciter, name) all manner of proscribed activities, and even things you should never ever say; usually they are repeated, too, in a formula both mnemonic and therapeutic. An example:
If a bhiksuni [nun], agitated by anger, becomes enraged and says, "I forsake the Buddha, I forsake the Dharma, I forsake the Sangha. The Buddhist renunciants are not the only ones who keep moral discipline, have qualities, are chaste and virtuous. The brahmins and other renunciants also keep moral discipline, have qualities, are chaste and virtuous. I can practice celibacy among them." Then the bhiksunis should say, "Noble Sister, you should not become agitated with anger, enraged and discontent, saying 'I forsake the Buddha, I forsake the Dharma, I forsake the Sangha. The Buddhist renunciants are not the only ones who keep moral discipline, have qualities, are chaste and virtuous. The brahmins and other renunciants also keep moral discipline, have qualities, are chaste and virtuous. I can practice celibacy among them.' Noble Sister, we admonish you to give up such a nonvirtuous view." If the bhiksuni gives up her misconduct when admonished thus by the bhiksunis, good. If she does not, she should be admonished and instructed properly two or even three times so that she may give up her misconduct. If, after being admonished and instructed peroperly two or even three times, she gives it up, good. If she does not, then the bhiksuni commits a sanghavasesa on the third declaration. (Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Sisters in Solitude: Two Traditions of Buddhist Monastic Ethics for Women [Albany: SUNY Press, 1996], 86-7)
Now, what does it do to you to utter the words renouncing the Three Jewels every fortnight, even in this setting? (Significantly it's only twice; some other proscribed utterances are repeated three times.) Won't it give you ideas, plant seeds? It is hard not to think of Foucault's analysis of the baneful influence of the confessional, with your confessor teaching you a whole vocabulary of vices you might never have thought of on your own. And yet this makes for a fruitful contrast. The iteration of vices (others we read were assorted flavors of lust and flirtation, covetousness, suicide, and indignation at being treated unfairly by your fellow nuns) in this setting is a kind of preventive medicine. Since the whole Sutra was memorized, the words and indeed the community regularly performing it would spring to mind the instant one of these thoughts or feelings arose in an individual nun's life - as, it seems to acknowledge, they almost inevitably will. In the short run it might set your mind racing at new possibilities of folly, but ultimately - with the help of the Sutra and of your sister nuns - it will let you master them.
... it is difficult to tame the wild horse of the mind.
This bridle of the Pratimoksa
Drives in the appropriate sharp spikes. (79)
Does it really? Even if it doesn't give you new ideas for vice, does not its formulaic character mean reciters will only go through the motions of reflection and repentance, making them less likely to take the wild horse of the mind than before? Might it not make people morbidly obsessed with infractions and overlook the positive new form of life the life of the renunciant is supposed to make possible? It's a gamble, sure. But the Pratimoksa Sutra knows all that. Recite with me:
If a bhiksuni, at the bimonthly recitation of the Pratimoksa Sutra, belittles the precepts saying, "Bhiksunis, what is the use of our reciting these very trivial, petty precepts of the Pratimoksa Sutra every half-month, when it just causes remorse, weighs on our minds, and makes us negative," she commits a payantika. (99)
Monday, March 23, 2009
The first was the Meditation on the Stages of Decomposition of a Corpse, often conducted in cemeteries. I showed images from a famous medieval Japanese scroll; you can look at them too, here, but be advised they're not for the faint of heart. The pretext was a scene in Kon Ichikawa's film "The Burmese Harp," where private Mizushima, a Japanese soldier caught behind enemy lines in Burma at the end of WW2, encounters a pile of decomposing Japanese soldiers along a riverbank. His first reaction (above) is horror and flight, and a Buddhist monk arrives in a boat and lets Mizushima flee across the river. But eventually Mizushima realizes he must return to give these corpses a proper burial, and returns from the other shore just as bodhisattvas do.
The gentler meditation was a brief loving-kindness (metta) meditation posted on Beliefnet, led by Sharon Salzberg (one of the founders of Insight Mediation Society, where I encountered metta meditation last summer). It starts like this:
Take a few deep breaths, relax your body. Feel your energy settle into your body and into the moment. See if certain phrases emerge from your heart that express what you wish most deeply for yourself, not just for today, but in an enduring way. Phrases that are big enough and general enough that you can ultimately wish them for all of life, for all beings everywhere.
Classical phrases are things like, "May I live in safety. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease."
and ends, after you have expanded the circle of your concerns from yourself to a friend, a someone in trouble, a co-worker and ultimately to all beings, like this:
May all beings live in safety, be happy, be healthy, live with ease.
All people, all animals, all creatures, all those in existence, near and far, known to us and unknown to us. All beings on the earth, in the air, in the water. Those being born, those dying.
May all beings everywhere live in safety, be happy, be healthy, live with ease.
You feel the energy of this aspiration extending infinitely in front of you, to either side, behind you, above and below. As the heart extends in a boundless way, leaving no one out, may all beings live in safety, be happy, be healthy, live with ease.
If the first kind of meditation shocks you into an awareness of impermanence and the evanesence of "self," the second shows self to be self-transcending if you give it a chance. Ethics isn't the opposite of self-regard but its extension. As one experiences how naturally the metta applies to others one realizes it was never just self-regard in the first place (and not just because there is no self).
I waxed rather purple about it, quite forgetting my academic self...
Sunday, March 22, 2009
Saturday, March 21, 2009
There was another Buddhisty perk to seeing "Howl" in this setting. The screening was introduced by Emily Mortimer, the English actress who provides the voice for the young Sophie in the English version. (Sophie is 18 but is cursed by a witch to become a 90-year-old woman and spends the rest of the film looking now younger now older on the way to becoming ageless, free and powerful - and getting the boy.) But Mortimer was sought out, we learned, because they'd already cast Jean Simmons as the old Sophie and needed someone whose voice sounded like the young Simmons. So her casting in "Howl" was for Mortimer an analog to the experience Sophie has in the movie of confronting her own future as an old woman. If an animated film from Asia can flash out this way in the live action West, why not tangka paintings of Tara, too?
Friday, March 20, 2009
Thursday, March 19, 2009
That’s because there’s pretty good evidence that we generally don’t truly want good information — but rather information that confirms our prejudices. We may believe intellectually in the clash of opinions, but in practice we like to embed ourselves in the reassuring womb of an echo chamber.
One classic study sent mailings to Republicans and Democrats, offering them various kinds of political research, ostensibly from a neutral source. Both groups were most eager to receive intelligent arguments that strongly corroborated their pre-existing views.
... The effect of The Daily Me would be to insulate us further in our own hermetically sealed political chambers. One of last year’s more fascinating books was Bill Bishop’s “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.” He argues that Americans increasingly are segregating themselves into communities, clubs and churches where they are surrounded by people who think the way they do.
Almost half of Americans now live in counties that vote in landslides either for Democrats or for Republicans, he said. In the 1960s and 1970s, in similarly competitive national elections, only about one-third lived in landslide counties.
“The nation grows more politically segregated — and the benefit that ought to come with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogeneous groups,” Mr. Bishop writes.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Monday, March 16, 2009
A ritual is a series of focused actions taken with a specific goal in mind. In this case the goal is to let go and forgive. While the term is often used in a spiritual setting, many communities and individuals from therapists to business consultants now use mindful action as a tool to break through tightly-held patterns of thought and behavior. Use this process to analyze, specify and release a hurt, thought, injury or issue in your life.
Whatever you may think of the efficacy of such a ritual (again I invite you to try it - it won't take but a minute), it's hard not to wonder who the Fetzer Institute are and why they care. One can understand an insurance company's sponsoring a public "Responsibility Project." But forgiveness? And why are they so solicitous as to offer assistance not only in forgiving things which others have done to you but also forgiving yourself for things you've done to others? Here's their mission statement:
Our mission, to foster awareness of the power of love and forgiveness in the emerging global community, rests on our conviction that efforts to address the world's critical issues must go beyond political, social, and economic strategies to their psychological and spiritual roots.
Say what? I'm not doubting the power of forgiveness, and of examples of forgiveness. Forgiveness is definitely one of the miracles of our lives. But who are these folks and why are they encouraging us to be forgiving? What "critical issues" of the "emerging global community" can only be addressed by means of "love and forgiveness," resisting "political, social, and economic strategies"? They don't seem to be a religious organization keen to make us aware that we are sinners but forgiven, or that the "roots" of greed, hatred and delusion are "spiritual." Some light is shed by the biography of their founder and namesake, John Fetzer (1901-91):
The interests that shaped John Fetzer's life can be seen as the seedbed for the questions that define the work of the Fetzer Institute: How can the secular and sacred elements of life be better integrated? How can the insights of science and the powers of technological innovation be utilized to explore the capacities of the mind and spirit? How can the wisdom and insight gained through inner exploration be used to better our individual and collective health? And how can the entrepreneurial spirit and financial resources gained from the American business sector be used in the service of creating a better world?
"Secular" and "sacred"! But even more interesting, "the entrepreneurial spirit and financial resources gained from the American business sector." What have that spirit and those resources got to do with love and, especially, forgiveness? Money can't buy you love. But forgiveness?
There's probably something deep going on here, and the Fetzer Institute seems to sponsor things that might provide genuinely helpful and transformative experiences for people, but what I'm reminded of is a scene in "Beyond our differences," that cloying documentary on religion for the World Economic Forum which Bill Moyers showed last December. A rickshaw driver in some Indian city looks across a busy road at motorized rickshaws and says they've put him out of business - he hasn't the resources to to buy one of those. But, he adds with a bright smile, he has to admit that it's better for passengers, who can get to their destinations more quickly now.
Is this the kind of forgiveness Fetzer wants more of? As capitalism spreads, many will inevitably feel aggrieved, and many others might feel they have done wrong. But this is the price of progress, and we mustn't let people stop progress because of it. So let's recognize it as a "critical" problem which must be understood not in "political, social, [or] economic" terms but in terms of its "psychological and spiritual roots." Systematic analyses would be misleading, it's an individual thing, the existential situation of the individual in this difficult world of pain whose halo is the wonder of forgiveness!
Instead of unrest or revolution or even reform... forgiveness on a global scale! (Maybe even the hermeneutics of suspicion might be forgiven.) Online ritual for letting go, anyone?
Saturday, March 14, 2009
Friday, March 13, 2009
The article, "Exiles' University Hails Its Charter," appeared April 25, 1941, as the New School's Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science, popularly known as the University in Exile, celebrated receipt of a permanent charter and the right to award doctorates with a banquet for 500 guests at the Plaza Hotel. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter sent rousing words - the school "represents the trusteeship of civilization and embodies the solid hope for its maintenance and renewed conquest" - but the telling detail, the one that makes the value and significance of the University in Exile clear, is this:
We've all heard the lore of the "rescue" of Europe's "endangered intellectuals," but conjuring up in imagination these books - some of them copies of other books which perished in the bonfire on Bebelplatz in Berlin - makes the meaning of the school's "trusteeship of civilization" palpable. We now know, as they perhaps only sensed then, that The New School had saved not only books from burning, but their writers.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
I am slightly unnerved in a strange city when I go out to buy the morning's newspaper. The vendor or dispenser has a paper waiting just for me. When I return home I ask at the kiosk if there was a spare unsold paper a couple of days ago. There never was. Someone else was there to buy mine.
Actually, it happens to me in familiar cities, too. Not being a creature of habit in every respect, I go through phases (for instance) of buying Japanese ingredients, Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Indian... Every time I look for akamiso at Sunrise Mart or coriander chutney at Little India Stores or camembert at Fairway or dried dates at Manhattan Fruit Exchange or whatever moves my fancy at my local supermarkets, there it is on the shelf, though I come only a few times a year and irregularly. (Only at Trader Joe's, where I always look for the same things, do I often find someone else has beat me to what I'm looking for.)
There's a deeper point to this, and it's not that food markets actually throw away a lot of unsold food, though I'm sure that's true too. It has something to do with the incredibly complicated balancing act which is the modern economy, and helps account for my sense that it can unravel in no time flat (and is, of course). But it's something deeper than that, too, or broader - it has something to do with the rhythms of the larger reality in which we participate. Last summer I fumblingly called it the regular irregularity of the world. I'm not quite sure what it all is, but I'm hopeful Ian Hacking, in whose The Taming of Chance (p. 117) I found the aperçu above, will account for it. His study is about the discovery of statistical laws in the 19th century, and - believe it or not - thrillingly interesting.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Look at the second picture. It's from 1700 and shows New York (still remembered by the old name as well) as it probably looked. What rings false here are the noble savages, and the palm trees. Palm trees? Hadn't the artist seen New York? Of course not. Like printmakers before him, he was working from descriptions, including sketches, from people who had - but it was his task and his specialty to fill them out credibly. Presumably none of his sources had bothered to note what kinds of trees covered the island of Manahato, or how the natives looked, so he inserted stock savages and palm trees he surmised might belong from similar places (or rather: images of other places). (You might still wonder why Mme Savage is holding so tight to that tree; perhaps she senses that her people will be plucked from the picture along with it.)
The arist behind the top picture was doing the same - but starting with even less. He didn't just fill in people and flora from other pictures - he imported, wholesale, a city: Lisbon. The printmaker Jollain's Parisian customers, eager to know what the new city looked like, wouldn't know any better!
My point was not that you have to take historical representations with a grain of salt. It was, rather, that artists - like historians, anthropologists, journalists - fill in the gaps of their sources to make their representations seem complete and credible. In some cases, like the top picture, they knew they were fabulating; in others, they were venturing their best guesses. A pretty standard point about reading historical materials (nay, any materials by human beings), but rather a neat way of making it, no?
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
I ask this both because the turboshrinkage of the Arctic ice has been on my mind, and because something similar seems to be going on in the world economy. Does each new unexpected rise in unemployment or fall in exports (etc., etc.) report essentially the same downturn, as it were from a different angle, or is each the sign of a further, deeper downturn? I mean if something - water levels, savings rates, whatever - were constant for each month of year x at 100 and then, in year x + 1, were constant for each month at 80 although forecasts had been for a constant 90, wouldn't we be reading reports each month that levels were down by 10 more than expected over the year before, which might lead one to conclude, falsely, that the levels were progressively worsening? Or to put it another way, if ten people tell us their town is flooded, one after another, it's still possible it was just one town which inundated, no? And if ten different researchers tell us they had not thought the town would be flooded, one after another, it's still just one town... right?
Don't mean to be pollyanish here - clearly both climatic and economic problems affect all towns by now - just clear...
Monday, March 09, 2009
But discussing it (thank goodness we still have 100-minute classes at Lang) allowed us to see and see through many common misunderstandings. Such as that karma is a like a point-system, a system you can and should learn to play. Of course you shouldn't do things known (however that is) to be fruitful in a bad karmic way, like causing suffering. Yet the solution to the problem of karma - all acts are ultimately fruitful of dukkha (suffering, unsatisfactoriness) - is not to play the system skilfully, but not to play, or, more subtly, to play without playing. You need to understand karmic causality in order not to get ensnared in it. (Pic's unrelated but irresistible.)
That's still relatively easy (in theory - not in practice!). It gets even more complicated when you consider that what makes actions karmically fruitful in one way or the other isn't the act itself or its outcome, but the intention. In the lingo of contemporary western moral philosophy, this is just deontology. In its theistic forebears, deontology recalled that God knew the secrets of our hearts and rewarded or punished accordingly. But in Theravada Buddhism, there is no God to do this. Instead, there's something in the intentions themselves which triggers karmic consequences. To put it in crude and deliberately misleading terms, "mental" or "spiritual" causes generate sometimes "physical" or "material" effects. In the grand scheme of things these consequences seem to be of far greater moment than the mere "consequences" of our acts themselves (like if we actually succeed in carrying out the intended act, or if it has the intended result). And this is because objective, "physical" or "material" reality is an illusion, is in fact more like what we take the "mental" or "spiritual" to be.
Karma is a "law of cause and effect" which must, in some way, subsume "physical" laws of nature, but is really not a physical law. It accounts for how physical-seeming phenomena arise in the variously clouded consciousnesses of physical-seeming agents, but the causality in question is other than the "physical" causality of our familiar "laws of nature." (Forgive all the scare-quotes, but they may be necessary here.)
What's this got to do with ethics? Good question!
Sunday, March 08, 2009
Saturday, March 07, 2009
"The American way to be secular is to be religious." - Winnifred Sullivan
"In the United States, freedom of religion is the freedom to act Protestant even when you're not." - Janet Jakobsen, quoted by Ann Pellegrini
Friday, March 06, 2009
But as she told me about it, the secularist Harding seems to get a particular thrill from it's being a "witnessing-free zone." You can be reading Nietzsche but the person at the next table (perhaps reading the Bible) won't witness to you, even though they know you're going to hell. "Such self-restraint!" she said, not without admiration.
I was impressed too, since this "witnessing-free zone" clearly functions as a form of witness after all. How ingenious, how postmodern. Susan Harding may or may not be going to hell later, but for now she's going to The Abbey. Is "such self-restraint!" the postmodern update of "see how these Christians love each other"?
"Witnessing-free zone" is a suggestive term (coming from Harding, who delights in polysemy and revoicing, I don't know it isn't also a term Kimball uses) and helped me name something I experienced on Wednesday at a forum at the New York Times Building sponsored by the Templeton Foundation. Kick-off for their yearlong "Darwin 200" series, it was a discussion on "Evolution and the Ethical Brain," featuring three important writers on the subject - Michael Gazzaniga, Jonathan Haidt, and Steven Quartz - and moderated by Times columnist David Brooks. All four are, so far as you can tell, entirely naturalistic in their under- standing of things.
The Templeton Foundation isn't into naturalism, at least not exclusively. Although it's refined its image in recent years to deemphasize the language of the spiritual (still part of the Templeton Prize description), it's definitely about "The Big Questions" which religions explore, and has been using its considerable resources to generate visible dialogue between the natural sciences and religion. It even sponsors seminars for scientists and others called the "Humble Approach Initiative." This panel had not even a whiff of humility about it, but this struck me in a way comparable to the way The Abbey struck Susan Harding. Providing a platform for variously naturalist accounts of human nature, entirely uncontested... What self-restraint!
Thursday, March 05, 2009
Wednesday, March 04, 2009
Tuesday, March 03, 2009
But then there was tonight's "New Music, New City, New Hall," a performance by three generations of New York new music ensembles as part of the opening festival of the new Alice Tully. Inspiredly performing in reverse chronological order, we heard Alarm Will Sound, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, and then Steve Reich & Musicians (for his iconic 1974 "Music for 18 Musicians"). By the luck of the draw, my friend D and I were in the first row, which, while rendering Alice Tully's gorgeous new accoustics moot, meant that we were practically in the musicians' laps. "Music for 18" is already mesmerizing in recordings, but live it was a vision of heaven: twenty musicians (the marimbists needed a periodic change of the guard) totally in tune with each other for nearly an hour, passing phrases and pulses back and forth and helping each other out - sometimes lost in concentration, often with expressions of joy or even rapture. I imagine I was looking pretty blissed out myself.