We think these days a lot about Buddhist ethics, which often involves some thought about Buddhist politics. We tend to think a lot less about Buddhist aesthetics.
Now there’s an obvious explanation that could be given for this: the Buddhist dhamma teaches that worldly pleasures mire us in suffering. So aesthetics, insofar as it deals with pleasurable phenomena like art, is something Buddhists should avoid. In response I give you this:
While I was working in Thailand as a young man, my closest friend there was a pious Christian who had recently converted, as an undergraduate. He took a short vacation in Malaysia and came back deeply admiring the (Muslim) Malay people he met, saying: “They’re so religious!”
I noted, “The Thais are very religious too.” He exclaimed – “But that’s just – superstition!”
I was nonplussed by that reaction and didn’t answer it, because it left my secular self a bit confused: I hadn’t really thought there was a difference between religion and superstition. That seemed a potentially inflammatory point to make, so I left it silent. But I certainly didn’t agree with him. I was already admiring the Thai Buddhists I met, and would soon come to learn my most important life lesson from the Buddhism I found in Thailand. I would never want to dismiss it as mere superstition.
This post will be a little less philosophical, strictly speaking at least, than is usual here. Readers have found my autobiographical explorations interesting in the past, and I hope this will be similarly so.
I recently returned from India, to have a traditional Indian wedding ceremony. (I’ve been married for two and a half years, but my Indian friends and relatives could not attend that ceremony, nor did it have Indian gods presiding over it.) It’s an unfortunate irony that I have been able to get to India much less frequently ever since I started studying it. My previous trip was at the beginning of 2005; it had been eight years between that trip and the one I just returned from, whereas in my childhood the years between trips were no more than three. And I’m very glad to have had this trip, for it made quite a different impression on me from the previous ones. Continue reading
A few months ago I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who is particularly given to pithy epigrams. We were discussing the Stata Center: a brightly colourful building on the MIT campus, designed by architect Frank Gehry, which is designed deliberately to look chaotic, unfinished, random. It’s not a building that leaves many people feeling neutral. My friend disliked its artifice, disjoint from the things around it. I said I thought it would be terribly inappropriate in the middle of a historic neighbourhood, but that it’s just right for a school like MIT, so focused on progress and the future. She didn’t think it was appropriate anywhere, and added: “Frank Gehry hates the real world.”
I’ve been thinking about that quote while reading articles by Patrick Deneen and others at Front Porch Republic, who would probably agree with my friend about Gehry’s architecture (though not about much else). Continue reading
One of the most common slams made against modernist (Yavanayāna) Buddhism is that it is “Protestant.” I’ve previously written about how there’s more to Buddhist modernism than this, and about the curious quasi-theological assumption that having Protestant influence is seen as a bad thing. At the same time, I’ve been realizing that there are close links between Protestantism and modernism. Not too surprising, perhaps, since the two emerge out of the same historical context, the Europe of the past 500 years – but I think their similarities may go deeper than that. Continue reading
Skholiast has an interesting riff on my recent post about happiness, and I’d like to riff right back. Skholiast quotes from Alain Finkielkraut‘s La défaite de la pensée – a book I read long ago while backpacking through France, in the hope of beefing up my philosophical French. And Skholiast’s quote from Finkielkraut got me thinking of a much more recent trip, my honeymoon in Zanzibar two months ago.
As well as spectacular beaches, Zanzibar has a tremendously atmospheric old Stone Town, and crumbling palaces built in the nineteenth century by Sultan Said. On a tour of these palace ruins, our guide spoke mournfully about how the government had destroyed and misused these palaces after independence and revolution in 1964. It is surely worth mourning when a beautiful object from the past is lost forever. In addition to this destruction, the revolutionary government built most of Ng’ambo, the “other side” of Zanzibar town – the part that is completely non-atmospheric, full of concrete blocks designed by East German engineers. It is in Ng’ambo that the majority of urban Zanzibaris live. The tourist guidebooks tend to scoff at Ng’ambo if they mention it at all, which they rarely do – and no surprise, since it is utterly charmless to look at, a generic site that could be anywhere.
And yet driving through Ng’ambo, I could also see what motivated the revolutionary government to build it that way; more than that, I was quite pleased to see it. Continue reading
Sunday’s post, on modernism and the change in values from “old-fashioned” to “old-school,” might help explain a question that I and others have pondered here: why do human beings so often prefer what is old? Stephen Walker noted the point in his comment on Yavanayāna Buddhism: people often seem unwilling to credit themselves with innovations, to accept that their ideas are new. Rather they present themselves as defending old ideas when they come up with new ones. (In his The Sociology of Philosophies, Randall Collins suggests that this is a typical pattern in human thought (especially in Japan, but elsewhere as well): “innovation through conservatism.” A while back I asked a similar question about authenticity: why do we privilege authenticity so much, when its distinguishing feature would seem to be the absence of choice?
Maybe we can start to see an answer now that we’ve had a chance to look back on the alternative. The twentieth century, in many ways, was the century of modernism – the rejection of the past as a guide to living. As I noted last time, modernism brought us Pruitt-Igoe, the grand and innovative housing project that was dynamited as unlivable. But more than that, I think, it brought us Communism, the form of government practised in the Soviet Union, China and their allies in the mid-twentieth century. Continue reading
Among my peers in their twenties and thirties, the word “old-fashioned” seems, well, old-fashioned (unless, tellingly, it’s referring to the cocktail). I rarely hear it anymore. More commonly, to describe something that seems to belong to an earlier time – a rotary-dial telephone, a tabletop Ms. Pac-Man game, a handlebar moustache – the word of choice is “old-school.” As far as I know, this term has its current provenance from hip-hop music, referring to older works from the 1980s, before the genre became completely mainstream. Urban Dictionary, the anarchic oracle of contemporary slang, identifies “old school” as “Anything that is from an earlier era and looked upon with high regard or respect…. Typically, they are highly regarded and sometimes the very thing that started it all.” Compare a definition of “old-fashioned” from Apple’s dictionary widget: “(of a person or their views) favoring traditional and usually restrictive styles, ideas or customs: she’s stuffy and old-fashioned.”
This change in usage can’t be a coincidence. I think of a twentysomething friend of mine whose father is a modernist architect, a devotee of the International Style. He builds the kind of buildings that only architects can love, eminently functional buildings that appear to most people (including his daughter) as merely ugly: what Jane Jacobs famously called a Great Blight of Dullness. When I visit their house, I see at a picture of him on the wall from the 1970s: a dashing, handsome young man, decked out resplendently in the fashions of the age. Once upon a time, it was the trend to be modern. Continue reading