March 30, 2009

The Buddha's Dressing Room

A bit of a controversy is steaming away in the Buddhoblogosphere, and it has to do with what was really going on in Buddha's life.

About-dot-com's Barbara O'Brien started it with her Mar 21 post, "More Adventures in Mis-education." In it, she references a UCLA newsletter that reports on a lecture given by iconoclastic Buddhism scholar Gregory Schopen. [The newsletter article was picked up by Buddha Channel, btw; it's called "The Buddha as astute businessman, economist, lawyer."]

Schopen's lecture was called “The Buddha as Businessman: Economics and Law in an Old Indian Religion,” given on the UCLA campus at Freud Playhouse to, mostly, other faculty. Schopen is chair of the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the university. He's expert in Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Buddhism studies, generally.

The UCLA article tells us that Schopen's lecture was hilarious — delivered with "iconoclastic wit, verve and vitality, prompting frequent bursts of enthusiastic laughter" — and that it punctured Buddha's other-worldly image as an always-serene sage, above the tumult of the ordinary.

The nub of Barbara's complaint, if that's the right word, is here,

I take it that Schopen is something of a renegade scholar whose ideas are widely out of step with other Buddhist scholarship. That in itself doesn't make him wrong. But when Schopen discusses the historical Buddha's tax evasion strategies ... well, the word crackpot does come to mind.

My understanding is that there is no contemporary documentation of the Buddha's life, in the 6th century BCE, whatsoever. I believe there are artifacts that date to the 4th century BCE, but not much, if any, before that. The main body of scriptures were not written down until the 1st century BCE. There are other scriptures that exist in fragmented fashion, but none that go back to the time of the original sangha.
Here, Barbara needs to be thumped. The allusion to "tax evasion strategies" was a part of Schopen's jesting, saying what Buddha was not up to. While Schopen's research is serious, the man has a sense of humor, and it appears he went for jabs and jokes in front of a friendly audience of colleagues and kinsmen.

As for the second paragraph, quoted above, I would certainly have supposed that Barbara is right. But when you look into Schopen's writing -- e.g., detail re his books at amazon, we can see that Schopen has gathered what scraps of evidence there are to construct a vision of what life was like for those carrying on Buddha's teachings in the early centuries following The Enlightened One's death.

Per amazon, Schopen's books have these titles:
  • From Benares to Beijing Essays on Buddhism and Chinese Religion by Koichi Shinohara and Gregory Schopen
  • Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India by Gregory Schopen
  • Buddhist Monks and Business Matters: Still More Papers on Monastic Buddhism in India by Gregory Schopen
  • Figments and Fragments of Mahāyāna Buddhism in India: More Collected Papers by Gregory Schopen
Using "Academic Online," a service my public library subscribes to, I find these articles by Schopen:

  • "Monastic law meets the real world: a monk's continuing right to inherit family property in classical India." in The Journal of the American Oriental Society 114.n4 (Oct-Dec 1994): pp527(28) and in History of Religions 35.n2 (Nov 1995); pp101(23)
  • "Archaeology and Protestant presuppositions in the study of Indian Buddhism." in History of Religions 31.n1 (August 1991): pp1(23).
  • "The learned monk as a comic figure: on reading a Buddhist Vinaya as Indian literature." (Author abstract)(Report). in Journal of Indian Philosophy 35.3 (June 2007): p201(26).
  • "The Buddhist 'monastery' and the Indian garden: aesthetics, assimilations, and the siting of monastic establishments." (Essay). in The Journal of the American Oriental Society 126.4 (Oct-Dec 2006): p487
  • "Buddhist Monks and Business Matters: Still More Papers on Monastic Buddhism in India - By Gregory Schopen.(Author abstract) in Religious Studies Review 32.1 (Jan 2006): p65(1).

You get the idea. Delving into what early Buddhists were like is Schopen's focused field of interest. But is Barbara, really, quite right: that knowing what Buddha and his gang were up to in his off-hours (if I can call those hours that) is forever obscured? Is Schopen unjustifiably extrapolating; using evidence from a much later time, and falsely supposing that Buddha's activities are likened to what early Buddhism became like?

But wait! The great Rev. Danny waded in to weight in weightily on the topic in his eponymous blog, three days ago. In his post, "Gregory Schopen Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother," Danno hoped to be very careful. He wrote that his "sincerest hope [is] that this response will be constructive rather than critical. My intention in responding at length here is to be helpful, and what I don't want to do is embarrass, offend, or be snarky. If, in spite of my aims, I do any of those latter things, it's due to a lack of skill on my part."

Oh, c'mon, Danny. For crying out loud, tell us what you REALLY THINK!

Happily, Danny finally blurted out the truth of his feelings, writing in defense of Schopen,

Schopen's work has prompted [quoting U. of Chicago's Dan Allen] "significant revision in thought regarding the development of Mahāyāna and regarding the role of the monastic religious in Buddhist cultic life." ...

In addition to offering vital new facts to the field, Schopen has underscored the importance of including findings from archaeologists, art historians, and others in a discipline that has been heavily text-oriented. His work has also forced Buddhologists to ask important questions about the history drawn from the texts they have leaned on. Put THAT in your pipe and smoke it, BARBARA!!!

Oh, all right. Danny didn't really write that last sentence. But he did crush Barbara with fact piled up on other fact, creating a mound.

And then Jeff Wilson joined the discussion with comments in both Danny's blog and in Barbara's.

Not meaning to be snarky, I need to tell ya that Jeff and I have a history. In my Zen Unbound days, I found that an article that Jeff wrote for Tricycle had, I thought, errors of fact.

In comment to Danny's blogpost, Jeff wrote, meekly, "A very useful post, Danny, thank you for offering it. Barbara really missed the boat on that one. I can't think of any Buddhologists that I know who don't consider Schopen's work to be extremely important."

But in his comment in Barbara's blog, Jeff loaded for bear, citing his toity credentials and then writing: " Rather than a crackpot, Schopen’s works are required texts for passing comprehensive exams in Buddhist Studies, and his ideas are taken seriously by people throughout the field ... Schopen’s work is meticulously researched and referenced, and rather than cherry-pick sources, he does the EXACT opposite ... To some extent, your resistance to his findings is our fault, the fault of previous Buddhist Studies scholars, who mischaracterized the allegedly ascetic nature of Buddhism. ... Schopen has taught us much, and his evidence is undeniable. He will carry the day eventually ... . It is unfortunate that, based on one media (not academic) article rather than a familiarity with the scope of Schopen’s decades of amazing scholarship, you’ve descended into character assassination of one of the most widely respected Buddhist researchers. Also, I don’t think you’ve understood his point clearly ... Put THAT in your pipe and smoke it, BARBARA!!"

Oh, all right. Jeff didn't really write that last sentence.

Back in the comment thread to Danny's blogpost, Danny, himself, posted this: "I also wanted to point readers to the comment Jeff left in Barbara's post recently. Unlike my longwinded work ... what Jeff wrote is very pithy and clear. ... And you can just take everything Jeff wrote and put THAT in your pipe and smoke it, BARBARA!!"

OK. Yep. That last sentence is something I added.

FORTUNATELY, I then came upon the scene to STRAIGHTEN EVERYBODY OUT. Yes, I took this boatload of Angulimalas and wagged my finger at them.

Gregory Schopen is a jokester and his lecture was a bit of fun! He knows what early Buddhism [a pair of milennia before anyone called it Buddhism] was like, but does he really have keen insight into what Buddha was like that adds mightily to our knowledge (from the sutras) of what Buddha was like? Like, I don't think so!

I mean, sure, The Big B's sangha existed as an organization. And it is sure to have had shockingly ordinary aspects. Somebody had to pull tubers up out of the ground. Someone had to settle disputes over who slept nearest to the campfire. Or, nearest to The Great Man, himself. It was like that. It might, likely, not have been that different from Sacramento's Tent City.

I mean, we already know about the attempted assassinations of Buddha by the leader of the very conservative wing of his pre-nascent religion [Devadatta!], and the cut foot, and all.

Behind the scenes, things were not all meditation and vistas of bliss. We already knew this, right? Didn't we?

And I'm sure when it ALL LEAKS OUT, centuries from now, using fantastic imaging satillites that move backwards in time, Buddha and his gang will be disappointing in many ways.

For reasons obscure to me, I'm reminded of Jonathan Swift's poem, called "The Lady's Dressing Room," written in 1732. It tells of a fellow named Strephon who secretly surveys the dressing room of his beloved, the gorgeous Celia, and is shocked! Shocked, I tell you.

Here a snip from Swift's speedy pome [note that rhyming that rhymed then, doesn't now],

But oh! it turn'd poor Strephon's Bowels,
When he beheld and smelt the Towels,
Begumm'd, bematter'd, and beslim'd
With Dirt, and Sweat, and Ear-Wax grim'd.
No Object Strephon's Eye escapes,
Here Pettycoats in frowzy Heaps;
Nor be the Handkerchiefs forgot
All varnish'd o'er with Snuff and Snot.
The Stockings, why shou'd I expose,
Stain'd with the Marks of stinking Toes;
Or greasy Coifs and Pinners reeking,
Which Celia slept at least a Week in?
Sigh. Buddha in real life might be like that. Yes, a slob in the dressingroom!

But Swift's poem ends with wisdom and compassion, as if coming directly from a buddha:

When Celia in her Glory shows,
If Strephon would but stop his Nose;
(Who now so impiously blasphemes
Her Ointments, Daubs, and Paints and Creams,
Her Washes, Slops, and every Clout,
With which he makes so foul a Rout;)
He soon would learn to think like me,
And bless his ravisht Sight to see
Such Order from Confusion sprung,
Such gaudy Tulips rais'd from Dung
.

    March 28, 2009

    Burning Down the House - Talking Heads



    Buddhist!? Maybe. YOU make the call.

    Lyrics:

    Watch out
    You might get what you're after
    Cool babies
    Strange but not a stranger
    I'm an ordinary guy
    Burning down the house

    Hold tight wait till the party's over
    Hold tight were in for nasty weather
    There has got to be a way
    Burning down the house

    Here's your ticket pack your bag: time for jumping overboard
    The transportation is here
    Close enough but not too far, maybe you know where you are
    Fightin fire with fire

    All wet
    Hey you might need a raincoat
    Shakedown
    Dreams walking in broad daylight
    Three hun-dred six-ty five de-grees
    Burning down the house

    It was once upon a place sometimes I listen to myself
    Gonna come in first place
    People on their way to work baby what do you except
    Gonna burst into flame

    Burning down the house

    My house
    S'out of the ordinary
    That's right
    Don't want to hurt nobody
    Some things sure can sweep me off my feet
    Burning down the house

    No visible means of support and you have not seen nothing yet
    Everything's stuck together
    I don't know what you expect staring into the TV set
    Fighting fire with fire

    March 21, 2009

    Compassion, in Born to Be Good, #2

    This is from the book Born to Be Good, in the chapter titled "Touch":
    On the stage in Vancouver before [our Buddhist-Science panel], His Holiness the Dalai Lama entered stage left and proceeded to greet the four panelists with his customary bow and clasped hands. The sighs, tears, appreciative head nods, goose bumps, and embraces of the 2,500 people in the audience produced a crackling ether that filled the art deco auditorium. I was the last panelist for HHDL to approach. From eighteen inches away I came into contact with HHDL. Partially stooped in a bow, he made eye contact with me and clasped my hands. His eyebrows were raised. His eyes gleamed. His modest smile was poised near a laugh. Emerging out of the bow and clasped hands, he embraced my shoulders and shook them slightly with warm hands.

    As he turned to the audience, I had a Darwinian spiritual experience. Goose bumps spread across my back like wind on water, staring at the base of my spine and rolling up to my scalp. A flush of humility moved up my face from my cheeks to my forehead and dissipated near the crown of my head. Tears welled up, along with a smile. I recalled a saying of HHDL's:
    At the most fundamental level our nature is compassionate, and that cooperation, not conflict, lies at the heart of the basic principles that govern our human existence.
    For several weeks after I lived in a new realm. My suitcase was missing at the carousel following the plane flight home -- not a problem. I didn't need those clothes anyway. Squabbles between my two daughters about the ownership of a Polly Pocket or about whose back-bending walkover best matched the platonic ideal -- no bristling reaction on my part, just an inclination to step into the fray and to lay out a softer discourse and sense of common ground. The frustrated person behind me in the line in the bank, groaning in exasperation -- no reciprocal frustration, no self-righteous sense of how to comport oneself in more dignified fashion in public; instead, an appreciation of what deeper causes might have produced such apparent malaise. The poeple I saw, the undergrads in my classroom, parents at my daughters' school, preschool teachers walking little groups of three-year-olds in hand holding chains around the streets of Berkeley, those parallel parking their cars, recyclers picking up cans and bottles, the homeless shaking their heads and cursing the skies, people in business suits reading the morning paper waiting for a carpool ride, all seemed guided by remarkably good intentions.

    Compassion, in Born to Be Good, #1

    This from Dasher Keltner's new book Born to Be Good, in the chapter titled "Compassion":
    When Richie Davidson scanned the brain of a Tibetan monk, he found it to be off the charts in term of its resting activation in the left frontal lobes. This region of the brain supports compassion-related action, feeling, and ideation. After years of devotion and discipline, his was a different brain, humming with compassion-related neural communication.

    Okay, you're rightfully critiquing, whose resting brain state wouldn't shift to the left if you had the time and steadfastness to meditate for four to five hours a day upon lovingkindness, as Tibetan Buddhists do? Fair enough. When Richie and Jon Kabat-Zim and colleagues had software engineers train in the techniques of minfulness meditation -- an accepting awareness of the mind, lovingkindness toward others -- six weeks later these individuals showed increased activation in the left frontal lobes. They also showed enhanced immune function. They may not have been donning the saffron robes of the monk, but at least their minds were moving in that kind direction.

    Recent scientific studies are identifying the kinds of environments that cultivate compassion. This moral emotion is cultivated in environments where parents are responsive, and play, and touch their children. So does an empathic style that prompts the child to reason about harm. So do chores, as well as the presence of grandparents. Making compassion a motif in dinnertime converstions and bedtime stories cultivates this all-important emotion. Even visually presented concepts like "hug" and "love" at speeds so fast participants couldn't report what they had seen increase compassion and generosity.

    Compassion is that powerful an idea. It is a strong emotion, attuned to those in need. it is a progenitor of courageous acts. It is wired into our nervous systems and encoded in our genes. It is good for your children, your health, and, recent studies suggest, it is vital to your marriage. In the words of the Dalai Lama: "If you want to be happy, practice compassion; if you want others to be happy, pratice compassion."

    March 19, 2009

    Homeless Tom in Sacramento News & Review

    Cover of the March 19 issue of SN&R. In the top righthand corner, just beneath FREE, it reads "It's True! Oprah Stole My Story! see Race to the Bottom, page 11
    Yowza. There's a piece in today's Sacramento News & Review, in a column called Race to the Bottom that R.V. Scheide writes, titled "The Oprah inside me," where I play a role.

    The article begins with this august paragraph:
    Tom the homeless Buddhist guy is angry, or as angry as a homeless Buddhist guy can be, which, to be honest, really isn’t all that angry. Bemused might be a better description. At any rate, Tom insists things haven’t been the same since Oprah Winfrey blew through Tent Town. I’m inclined to agree, but for an entirely different reason than his: Oprah stole my story, and I can prove it.

    What happened was I had written the alternative weekly newspaper's tip line to pitch a story I thought they should write and things turned out a bit differently than what I had originally hoped.

    Actually, I had several ideas for investigative news stories I hoped SN&R would pursue. The Sacramento News & Review is the second most-important hardcopy news source in the metropolis and it hadn't weighed in recently with a boffo story on homelessness, which for bizarre reasons, ignited by Oprah, has quite suddenly become a big local, national and international news-topic extravaganza.

    Anyway, R.V. met me in his office last week and we chatted about issues and topics related to Sacramento homelessness generally, and what I hoped the weekly would pursue. My broadest idea for a story was one correcting the conception, that Oprah and others had presented, of a booming illicit tent community emerging in midtown Sacramento, filled with couples and families sleeping in tents after abandoning their foreclosed homes.

    Just about everyone in the broad Sacramento homeless community, including homeless-aid agency workers, know that it is a myth that women and families are overwhelming the count of solo men who are homeless. Solo men [single men or men who are separated from their families] continue to constitute the great majority of homeless people and they continue to be the major source of new homeless folk in our metropolis.

    There certainly are couples whom have lost a house due to foreclosure in Sacramento's Tent City, but that is rare. And there are families and parts of broken families in shelters, now, but there is not an epidemic of family homeless - yet, anyway.

    Most of the news reports follow the Oprah lead and give near-tearful reports of devastated families. Today, for example, at close to 7AM, when Friendship Park was about to open, a film crew was interviewing a couple at the park gate. There was perhaps only that one couple on the scene, in the cul-de-sac, in the midst of a hundred solo men and, maybe, ten women.

    Now, both R.V. and I are torn between how this homeless Sac'to story is evolving and what works in the best interest of helping homeless folk getting to where they can have happier, healthier, more-productive lives. Based on his Race to the Bottom piece, you can see that R.V.'s heart is with us homeless and that he would sacrifice a little in-your-face ugliness of the whole truth, all of it, for the narrower story that comes with benefits.

    A bit of an aside: A couple short SN&R editorial-board editorials in this-week's edition were on-board with R.V.'s view of things. One, "Six Degrees," talks about the idea of "six degrees of separation" and how, whether we are ourselves suffering in the difficult economic climate or not, someone close to us surely is. That editorial ends with this thought:

    It seems the wracked economy is just another reminder that we exist in a web
    of humanity that has us all indelibly linked, approaching zero separation.

    What to do about it? We'd better take care of each other.

    In a sidebar next to the piece it says, "Go to these Web sites to find out how to donate to community members who have been the hardest hit by the economic downturn." Then, the web addresses of Loaves & Fishes, the Salvation Army, and St. John's Shelter are provided.

    The second short SN&R editorial, "Tent truths," talks about how all the media hoopla presents Sacramento's tent encampment as a "national symbol of the human results of our failing economy." Here, a central snip from the piece:

    If there’s a bright side to all this attention, it’s that it might help push city leaders into doing what’s right for its growing homeless population. We’ve urged the city before in this space to sanction a campground where homeless people can live without fear of being constantly rousted by police and have access to running water, bathrooms and trash collection.

    We hereby repeat the request.

    In the sidebar next to this editorial it says, "A Safe Ground rally to support a legal campsite for area homeless will be held on Tuesday, April 21, 2 p.m., at the Sacramento state Capitol." The rally is sponsored by Loaves & Fishes.

    MY view of things differs from R.V.'s, a bit, maybe. I greatly worry that in this welling up of concern for people whose lives are undermined by the faltering economy, we risk being steared solely by our emotions without benefit of cold, hard, inconvenient facts. I also worry when general-news sources start giving the people what they might want to hear, or what may touch them most directly, instead of giving them unadulterated truths.

    I would argue that because of the post-Oprah phenomena re Sac'to homelessness, the public has a skewed idea of what is going on. From international sources [ITN; (UK) Times Online; BBC; BBC radio; Germany, Japan, Australian TV; et al], national sources [NY Times; ABC News; Inside Edition; NPR; the Today Show; et al] and local sources [KCRA; News10; et al], the public is being fed a false overarching conception of what homelessness in Sacramento is like. [I'll fill in the URLs to the 'sources' later, but you readers can find where the news is coming from from this google search, in the meantime.]

    I think that general-news sources should strive to give their readers a sense of what the truth out there is. That doesn't mean that general news should not sometimes be "up-close and personal," telling a specific story that might not give an overview of what is happening in a topic area, generally. But, now, because of what general news stories have been presented, the public has an absolutely wrong impression of what homelessness is like in Sacramento. They have been mislead.

    The unmitigated truth is almost always - if not always - best in the longrun. Today, there is nothing much that motivates homeless-aid providers to be efficient and to provide fully-compassionate service to the people they are meant to help. Why? Because there is little risk that a prominent news provider will hold their feet to the fire and let the public in on management problems and possible financial shenanigans. And homeless people are, most all of them, so damn grateful for absolutely anything they get, they don't complain. Besides, if you get on the wrong side of homeless-aid providers you may be subjected to getting stinted help, or to be more likely than others of being 86ed from the facility.

    Today, homeless-aid providers are getting an "advance to 'Go'; collect $200" card from the press, when, truly, these aid providers are way overdue for scrutiny. Maybe now is not the time for scrutiny, due to the fragility of things in light of the economic tailspin and it still being winter. But, someday, eventually ...

    March 18, 2009

    Homeless Lit.: The Tenants of Moonbloom

    Bite the windy blackness and gasp: "I never was."

    Cover of the 2003 re-issue edition of Edward Lewis Wallant's 1963 novel.

    The Tenants of Moonbloom is an amazing, almost-forgotten novel from the early Sixties, set in the early Sixties, about a thirty-three-year-old who had left being a perpetual college student to take up his first job, collecting weekly rent from the tenants of his slumlord brother's four buildings.

    When Michaelann Bewsee, blogger of Michaelann Land, an excellent homeless-advocacy blog, recommended the book to me, she told me its homeless connection was weak. She wrote of Moonbloom's tenants, "No, they're not homeless, but they live in incredibly dilapidated apartment buildings in a poverty-stricken section of New York. [Yes, righto. An impoverished section of Manhattan. How New York has changed!]

    "All of the characters are vivid and alive, but the real story is Moonbloom ... [who] is gradually awakened and transformed."

    Indeed!

    The tenant characters are impoverished, at the edge of homelessness. Like homeless people in real life — in Homeless World Sacramento, or in Homeless World Anywhere — they each have distinct personalities, ways of being, and realms of genius or insight. Some are astonishingly selfish; others, sainted and selfless. Some have gathered a concrete crust around them, to keep from being hurt; others are fragile. They span the spectrum: They are all of us; we, all of them.

    Of overabundant importance to the tenant characters is Norman Moonbloom, who collects the rent [giving each renter a receipt for less than the cash that he receives], and who potentially may be able to improve conditions in the hovel where each tenant lives.

    When Norman reports the enormity of the deluge of long-standing problems in the four buildings it only frustrates the detached landlord brother, Irwin, who instructs Norman to take control of things and spend a few hundred dollars here and there to shut the tenants up.

    In the early part of the book, we follow as Norman Moonbloom collects rent with great reluctance. He hates doing so, in part because the tenants are chatty, eating up a lot of time, and because they complain — as well they should — and Moonbloom's excuse for never doing anything much to help them is that he is "just the agent," and not a decision maker.

    But by the eighth page, the book gives us a first inkling of Moonbloom's transformation into a flesh-and-blood human being: "There had been no horrors in his life – only a slow widening of sensitivity. But he anticipated reaching the threshold of pain one of these days. It was like the fear of death; he could ignore it most of the time, although it was implacably there, to touch him with the very tip of its claw in moments of frustration, to bring dread to him during the 4:00 A.M. bladder call."

    [By the way, a quick aside: In the quote above you can see how splendidly Wallant writes. Wallant writes with a flair all his own and is deeply penetrating. His observations seep into everything. While the book can seem to have a narrow topic and straightforward plot, truly it's a philosophical thunderstorm, about The Great All, no less.]

    The first chapter ends with these words describing Moonbloom as we see him first going out to collect rent:

    He locked the door, went up the steps, and headed for the subway that would take him to the upper West Side of town. He walked lightly and his face showed no awareness of all the thousands of people around him because he traveled in an eggshell through which came only subdued light and muffled sound.

    I think that Moonbloom, at this point in the story, is the model of the majority of Sacramento-area homeless-aid workers, people utterly unaffected by the lives of the people they are supposedly there for (even though more than a few are former homeless folk themselves). For us in Sacramento, Moonbloom is just like the mental-health counselors who never step out of their officeplace, the bed-snatchers at the shelters, the dyspeptic crew at Overflow, and the bubbly volunteers who treat homeless people as if they are all slightly-retarded children. And Moonbloom is like absolutely every one of the feeble excuses for human beings who work [using the term "work," loosely] at the welfare office at 28th & Q.

    In chapter 4, Norman and a tenant named Wade confront each other. Wade tells Norman, "I feel pain, I'm full of sensation. I've got an idea that you could watch a murder committed and smile your goofy little shit-eating smile. You're like a body under water you know that? Yeah, Moonbloom, that's the image, a god-damned Hebrew body wrapped in water. When you talk — glub, glub, bubble, bubble.

    Later, before Norman gets away, Wade adds, "Do not go gently into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at the end of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light ..."

    It's a call for Norman to use a crowbar and open up his spectrum of emotions, from those that are curlish and ugly to those that are compassionate and divine.

    Of importance, something readers would have been keenly aware of when the novel was published in 1963, but which gets lost reading it now, is that Norman is a Jew in New York a scant 17 years after the end of WWII. Also, in 1963, antisemitism was rampant like it isn't today. Norman is too young to have served during the war, and there's much to suggest he had nothing to do with the military. His brother, Irvin, three years older than Norman, the same age as the Jewish author of this novel, might have served in the war, as Wallant did, valiantly. Some of the tenants are Jewish. One old man has a string of numbers tattooed on his arm, indicating he spent time in a concentration camp.

    Norman and Irvin's jobs feed into the stereotype of Jewish moneygrubbing. A significant element of the novel is that Wallent faces Jewish stereotypes, and other stereotypes, head-on.

    At the end of chapter 10 [just past the middle of the book], Moonbloom says something with the fragrant aroma of Zen: "I am no longer Norman Moonbloom," he said aloud in the great privacy of the city night. And then, seeing the floral brilliance of windows and distant sign lights, he was suddenly confronted with a more terrible possibility, which made him bite the windy blackness and gasp, "Or I never was."

    ENOUGH of me giving away plot points in the book. READ The Tenants of Moonbloom, y'all!!

    ---

    Find out more about The Tenants of Moonbloom and its author Edward Lewis Wallant:

    Info re the book at Amazon.
    Info re the book at wikipedia.
    Info re Edward Lewis Wallant at wikipedia.

    March 11, 2009

    Communist China Version of Tibet History

    Chinese TV propagandistic version of the story of Tibet since the 1959 uprising.



    ... And here a radically different view of things from a The (London) Times video editorial. [Thanks go to the great Rev. Danny Fisher for this viddy find.]

    March 10, 2009

    Dalai Lama featured on Today Show today

    Today is the 50th Anniversary of the violent 1959 uprising in response to the China takeover of Tibet. Thousands of Chinese troops are on alert for any “disturbances.” An NBC report, an Ann Curry interview with the Dalai Lama, will appear on the NBC Nightly News tonight. A part of the report appeared as an item on the Today Show this morning.

    In the Today report, the Dalai Lama says that indeed China’s actions toward Tibet amount to cultural genocide. And, he says, that his effort during the past fifty years to negotiate with China has been an utter failure.


    At his official webspace, His Holiness the Dalai Lama issued a long statement [thanks, Danny] commemorating the fifty years in exile. Here, just a snippet of what was written:
    [A]s I have repeatedly appealed before, I would like once again to urge our Chinese brothers and sisters ... to try to discover the facts about Tibet impartially, so as to prevent divisions among us. Tibetans should also continue to work for friendship with the Chinese people.

    Looking back on 50 years in exile, we have witnessed many ups and downs. However, the fact that the Tibet issue is alive and the international community is taking growing interest in it is indeed an achievement. Seen from this perspective, I have no doubt that the justice of Tibet's cause will prevail, if we continue to tread the path of truth and non-violence.


    UPDATE: Here the Ann Curry piece as editted for the NBC Nightly News. The report, here, using much of the same footage as the Today report, is darker, showing the Dalai Lama speaking more sharply about the Chinese.

    March 9, 2009

    Sac'to Homeless featured on today's Today Show

    Here, the vid:


    And, here my piece in Sacramento Homeless about the wave of stories about the Sacramento homeless in Big Media and beyond.

    UPDATE: And here, another Today Show segment, a follow-up the next day, an objectivity-be-gone love smooch to Sacramento Loaves & Fishes. Sister Libby Fernandez, CEO of L&F, can be heard, as can the city's major, Kevin Johnson. My good friend T-Bone [aka, New York], as nice a fellow as there is in the world, has a cameo role; he's in the food line, asked by Libby (off camera) what he's doing today. "Going to work, today" he says.

    The Snow Man

    Recently the most-excellent Paul Griffin, who writes as miliman for the amazing blog One City, put up a couple of posts relating to Wallace Stevens's poem "The Snow Man" that grabbed my interest.

    In the first post, on 2/27, "Emptiness and Wallace Stevens" Paul presents the poem and then walks us through it, splendidly showing how it relates to Buddhism's take on emptiness and how it mostly doesn't relate to existential nothingness. The nil/nothing/emptiness concepts are rather difficult for we Westerners who are completely wrapped in modernity [mostly a good thing], rather full of our self, and filled with ideas of filling our lives with stuff and accomplishment while fleeing boredom and fleeing being quiet or alone with ourself.

    I don't have any great argument with Paul's understanding of the poem and his insights, but I'm inspired to walk through the poem, myself, sharing an understanding I come away from it with, completely ignorant of the voracious study of this famous poem I had never before heard of.

    Here, first, the short poem and, then, Wallace Stevens reading it in a viddy:

    The Snow Man
    by Wallace Stevens

    One must have a mind of winter
    To regard the frost and the boughs
    Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

    And have been cold a long time
    To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
    The spruces rough in the distant glitter

    Of the January sun; and not to think
    Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
    In the sound of a few leaves,

    Which is the sound of the land
    Full of the same wind
    That is blowing in the same bare place

    For the listener, who listens in the snow,
    And, nothing himself, beholds
    Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.




    I, likely, have gone totally fruit loops, but from my listening, Wallace is talking about crossing the bridge of pantheism.

    Perhaps foundational is whatever a reader makes of the idea of winter [or cold], so prominent in the poem.

    Paul writes, quoting essayist Pat Righelato, "One must have a cold, precise, disciplined mind: this imperative is the poem’s subject."

    I think the central idea in the poem is not about "the cold," per se, or even mind, and certainly not one that is precise and disciplined, but being open and available to whatever is there -- even if it is, on first encounter, something alien and harsh.

    The poem is about traveling the bridge to what's other. One must have a mind of winter to regard winter, to understand winter, to be winter. If this had been a poem of summer, then a mind of summer would have been what was necessary. It's not about the cold, except that surmounting the challenge of being the other can seem difficult.

    We must lose our self to conjoin an other's experience. The seeming irony is that that other is likely to be only fully us! So, the nothing, if we fully lose our self, is the self-same nothing that we encounter in an other. Eureka!

    Thus, in the end, I fully agree with Paul (I think.). Here, Nishitani from Religion and Nothingness:
    It has often been pointed out that the subjectivity of the ego resolutely refuses to be viewed objectively. And yet, the self shows a constant tendency to comprehend itself representationally as some “thing” that is called “I.” This tendency is inherent in the very essence of the ego as self-consciousness. Therefore it marks a great step forward when the standpoint of Existenz-in-ecstasy, held suspended in nothingness, appears as a standpoint of truly subjective self-existence. Nonetheless, traces of the representation of nothingness as the positing of some “thing” that is nothingness are still to be seen here. The standpoint of sunyata, however, is absolutely nonobjectifiable, since it transcends this subjectivistic nihility to a point more on the near side than the subjectivity of existential nihilism.

    As a valley unfathomably deep may be imagined set within an endless expanse of sky, so it is with nihility and emptiness. But the sky we have in mind here is more than the vault above that spreads out far and wide over the valley below. It is a cosmic sky enveloping the earth and man and the countless legions of stars that move and have their being within it. It lies beneath the ground we tread, its bottom reaching beneath the valley’s bottom. If the place where the omnipresent God resides be called heaven, then heaven would also have to reach beneath the bottomless pit of hell: heaven would be an abyss for hell. This is the sense in which emptiness is an abyss for the abyss of nihility.

    … even in Buddhism, where we find the standpoint of emptiness expounded, a transcendence to the far side, or the “yonder shore,” is spoken of. But this yonder shore may be called an absolute near side in the sense that it has gone beyond the usual opposition of the near and the far. Indeed, the distinguishing feature of Buddhism consists in its being the religion of the absolute near side.

    March 7, 2009

    Restoring the American Economy...

    This, for me, is the most-right, pithiest statement I've read about how to get the American economy on-course. [And note that I'm not saying "back on course." America has been off-course for a long, long time.] It's from an article in Truth is Contageous called "Kiss the Banks Goodbye," posted yesterday:
    Restoring the American economy is not going to be a matter of simply jump-starting consumer spending, or even business investment. It’s going to take a long, hard, focused effort to move away from a parasitic consumer economy in which profits are largely made through speculation, and towards a real economy that actually makes things that people both here and around the world need.
    The article was originally in Counterpunch.

    March 3, 2009

    The Not-So-Good Good Book

    David Plotz, an editor at Slate, blogged about the whole of the Old Testament for his online magazine in 2006 and 2007. Today, over at Slate, they announced that Plotz has put out a book about his experience, titled "Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible."

    In the Slate article about the book about the blog, Plotz tells us a bit about his amazing experience: "After spending a year with the good book, I've become a full-on Bible thumper. Everyone should read it—all of it! In fact, the less you believe, the more you should read." A pretty keen, if not wildeyed, endorsement, eh? Probably should stamp those words on the cover of the Good Book to assure that heathens like me pick it up and give it a careful, judicious read.

    But Plotz isn't all-out enthusiastic as his words above imply. Indeed, he doesn't really come away thinking all that much of God by the time he finishes the Old Testament. The viddie, below gives you four minutes of Plotz talking about the Bible -- most specifically, about the story of Dinah [pronounced Deena] from the book of Genesis.





    Further, here is Plotz's conclusion about his reading experience,
    I began the Bible as a hopeful, but indifferent, agnostic. I wished for a God, but I didn't really care. I leave the Bible as a hopeless and angry agnostic. I'm brokenhearted about God.

    After reading about the genocides, the plagues, the murders, the mass enslavements, the ruthless vengeance for minor sins (or none at all), and all that smiting—every bit of it directly performed, authorized, or approved by God—I can only conclude that the God of the Hebrew Bible, if He existed, was awful, cruel, and capricious. He gives us moments of beauty—such sublime beauty and grace!—but taken as a whole, He is no God I want to obey and no God I can love.

    When I complain to religious friends about how much He dismays me, I usually get one of two responses. Christians say: Well, yes, but this is all setup for the New Testament. Reading only the Old Testament is like leaving halfway through the movie. I'm missing all the redemption. If I want to find the grace and forgiveness and wonder, I have to read and believe in the story of Jesus Christ, which explains and redeems all.

    But that doesn't work for me. I'm a Jew. I don't, and can't, believe that Christ died for my sins. And even if he did, I still don't think that would wash away God's crimes in the Old Testament.

    The second response tends to come from Jews, who razz me for missing the chief lesson of the Hebrew Bible, which is that we can't hope to understand the ways of God. If He seems cruel or petty, that's because we can't fathom His plan for us. But I'm not buying that, either.

    If God made me, He made me rational and quizzical. He has given me the tools to think about Him. So I must submit Him to rational and moral inquiry. And He fails that examination. Why would anyone want to be ruled by a God who's so unmerciful, unjust, unforgiving, and unloving?