March Miscellany

Back from two weeks of relative Internet exile. Only 20 minutes a day online some days, none most days. Betcha didn’t even know I was gone. One of the advantages of blogging on WordPress is being able to schedule posts for any time in the future. So I keep a long queue of almost finished posts, some of them have been sitting there for a year,  and when it’s time for a break I polish up a few, set them to robo-post and walk away.

Just got a huge pile of new books.

In Literature and Culture:

Lapham’s Quarterly spring 2010 Arts and Letters-tons of great writing

2 volumes of essays by David Foster Wallace

The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya (Literature in translation is something I’m very fond of-finished another Russian to English book- Today I Wrote Nothing by Daniil Kharms recently-brilliant-I may make a review of it since it’s so Zen-like. I just scared myself using that term.)

You are Not a Gadget by the great Jaron Lanier His manifesto on remaining human in a digital world.

Bright Sided:How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich (finally-have only been reading excerpts and reviews thus far)

In Buddhism:

Momentary Buddhahood by Anyen Rinpoche (about mindfulness and Dzogchen teachings)

Wild Awakening by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche (am real excited to receive this one on Dzogchen and Mahamudra)

From the Foundation of Buddhist Thought series, Relative Truth, Ultimate Truth by Geshe Tashi Tsering (this is a good series. Am hoping to get the third volume on Buddhist Psychology in my next book order-in 5 or 6 months maybe-they are actually part of a study program run by the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition which can be taken in person or by correspondence-course info)

A great anthology called Women Practicing Buddhism:American Experiences  with contributions by such great women as Bell Hooks, Jane Hirshfield, Pat Enkyo O’Hara, Thubten Chodron, Carolyn Chen and many others. Includes interviews, panel discussions and articles. A good panel discussion on Race, Ethnicity and Class (you can be sure it will be mentioned here once I’ve read it and let it digest a little)

And the gigantic volume of Visuddhimagga by Buddhaghosa. This is going to be some real heavy lifting intellectually but am looking forward to the challenge. I’ll be reading it for the next couple of years at least. Got the one with all the notes, index, glossary, tables and stuff from the Buddhist Publication Society. Over 900 pages of deliciousness.

From my last batch I still haven’t finished Bernard Faure’s Unmasking Buddhism. It’s like eating mashed up stale dry crackers you’ve had in your pocket for a week as you trudge through the desert without any water. There’s not much in it that isn’t available on the Internet, journals and elsewhere regarding misunderstandings and controversies-although on the Internet we are without the word soteriological (it has to do with salvation in a religious sense) in every second paragraph which is a relief. It doesn’t unmask much really. There are a few good points here and there.  I’ll try to go back and make note of them. And it’s not a book for Buddhist beginners as some have suggested. If you don’t know what these apparent controversies are a lot of the discussion will be irrelevant. And many of the controversies are in the field of academic Buddhist Studies as opposed to practice. The chapter titles sound like they’d be relevant-ie Buddhism is a philosophy not a religion-but then there’s a lot of intellectual bafflegab and no conclusions or even pretense of tying the arguments up.  Few of them are even clarified by this book. And a lot of the “debunking” reads like snide comments aimed at other scholars. His generalizations are ridiculous (like in the chapter on Buddhism and Neo-Buddhism) both about immigrant populations and converts. Do some frigging field work man! (but that’s my anthropological training talking) Here’s an example where he’s talking about and for Asian populations:

Various recent studies have shown that Asians who have recently immigrated into Europe and the United States, while emphasizing their cultural differences, tend to universalize their Buddhism, making it compatible with their Western values by focusing on its modernity, rationality, and spirituality. This voluntary acculturation seems to be motivated, in part by a desire to succeed in the world of capitalism, and involves abandonment of certain devotional and magical practices.(p. 140-1)

There is so much that sets my teeth on edge in this paragraph alone.

What studies? I can’t think of any kind of study that would encompass all of attitudes, cultural differences, religious faith and change, values, acculturation and economics in any sort of way that could be validly measured. Too many variables. If it is a combination of studies (nearly a dozen on different topics to support the contentions by my calculation) the conclusions drawn are purely in the imagination of the author.

Emphasizing cultural differences yet holding Western values? Does this mean some sort of warping of culture of identity into inflated proportions while subjugating the value system of that same culture in favor of adopted cultural values?  I have a hard time understanding how this is possible on any sort of consistent basis. Values are too core to cultural identity.

Universalize their Buddhism? Does this mean water it down?

Western values focused on modernity, rationality and spirituality? As opposed to Eastern values which would focus on what…backwardness, irrationality and  irreverence? I’ve talked about the perils of this sort of Great Divide theory before. Faure’s insistence on locating people into discrete camps permeates this book. You’ve got your Asians here and your Westerns there and everything is either/or. It’s not sociologically valid. But then he talks about Buddhisms-as in variety. On most topics it seems he holds several different, even contradictory, viewpoints simultaneously.

Voluntary acculturation? There’s a difference between immigration and acculturation. Simply showing some deference for local customs does not negate one’s own initial enculturation. Nor does finding some points of agreement between birth and adopted cultures. Acculturation takes at least a generation and often more.

No capitalism in Asia? Been to Hong Kong or Singapore or Bangkok or Tokyo or Shanghai in this century?

Capitalism incompatible with magical practices? Been to a North American Chinese Buddhist temple recently for example? Plenty of people making prayers and burning incense while having thoughts of business success. (I have Chinese relatives by marriage in Canada who go for this purpose)

There’s a lot of paragraphs like this. The preceding and subsequent paragraphs go off into completely different directions. It’s a real mishmash.

I’m about 85% finished it so I’ll finish forcing it down (gulp-done) as I had planned to review it here. (Ooops maybe I just did!) No instead of a review maybe I’ll take up some of these “controversies” in posts here if I run out of other blog fodder.

Haven’t got any Zen books on the agenda for a while. I finished Heinrich Dumoulin’s Zen Enlightenment:Origins and Meaning a while back. Similar problem to Faure’s book. The European scholars are so fond of examining the products of “the Oriental mind” from their little pedestals. Disdain for one’s subject matter seems to be what passes for objectivity in some European universities. But Dumoulin was born in 1905 and his book is from the 70’s. It’s a product of the times it was produced as well as the author’s background. He was a Jesuit priest. But I don’t know what Faure’s excuse is. One good thing about this book is the historical treatment of the subject matter. That is he goes into the history of Zen right from the Indian roots and touches upon most of the major figures and concepts. He’s especially heavy on Dogen. So maybe I’ll review this one too.

I seem to be on a bit of a ramble here so here’s some more miscellany.

Big heavy books. I like them.

Long blog posts. I like them.

Complicated stuff. I like it.

Getting in way over my head. Excellent predicament.

Speaking of rambling there’s something enjoyable about trekking through a lot of ideas and stirring them up to see what come of it. Examining this and that, seeing if and how it fits together, just taking in the sights in mind. It’s like walking through the mountains for days on end which I also like.

Sometimes you’ve got to scramble, climb, stretch, reach for the next footing. Try not to fall on your ass too much.  Then at the end of the day just to sit down and breathe is enough.

Somebody else said something bad about Buddhism but I don’t know who or what. Probably a good thing.

About Internet breaks. I take one nearly every month. Sometimes for 4-5 days and sometimes for as much as a couple of weeks. It’s too easy to over focus on some little corner of the on-line world and lose perspective. 

Twitter really isn’t all that. I find I skip reading more of it than I read. After the 15th RT of some lame out of context quote (with OK or great added behind it) or silly platitude (with Please RT behind it) it’s hard to sift the interesting stuff out. I guess that’s why lists were invented. But if one is into marketing or gaining unknown follow-bots then it has it’s uses-like those commercials that play 15 times an hour on TV.

Facebook is marginally better. At least you don’t have to spend all that time trying to trace conversations and replies. Am not even going to bother with Buzz. I looked at it and don’t need another profile or all my info that connected.

Maybe it’s time for a digital diet. Cut out all that binary sugar.

Now I want to go and indulge in my new books for a while.  I know that’s so old school. Where’s my parchment and quill?

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