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:
2016 has taken many great musicians from us. Early in the year we lost Prince and David Bowie. Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip is still with us for now, but the band played its last concert. And then there was Leonard Cohen.
Cohen began his career as one of the long parade of 1960s singer-songwriters who temporarily changed the phrase “folk music” so that it now referred to the music of educated urban élites. He earned a place alongside Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan – many of whom he played with. In that context he developed his talent for enigmatic, evocative lyrics. But as far as I’m concerned, none of his real greatness comes from that period. If he had died as young as Janis Joplin (or Amy Winehouse), I wouldn’t be writing this tribute, and a few decades from now I’m not sure that he would be remembered.
Cohen’s real brilliance came out in the 1980s and early 1990s, when decades of whisky and cigarettes had lowered his sensitive folkie voice into a gravelly growl, and his music took a darker turn to match. Continue reading
I will be taking a break from blogging over the next few weeks’ holiday. When new posts return in January, they will be on a biweekly (or fortnightly, if you wish) schedule: every alternate Sunday rather than every Sunday. I continue to enjoy writing Love of All Wisdom and intend to keep doing so, but as I have tried publishing more conventional papers, studying computer science and teaching a course on top of my day job, the weekly schedule has been too hard to sustain. I hope that alternating weeks will make it easier for me to continue engaging in the wonderful exchanges of ideas that have taken place here.
In Canada and the US today, the Christian aspect of Christmas is likely most noticeable in the music. There are of course a great number of English-language Christmas songs with little or no Christmas element (“Jingle Bells”, “Deck The Halls”, “Frosty The Snowman” and so on). It is increasingly common to hear only these songs played in public places. But one may quickly feel something missing here. Certainly some of these songs are grander than others; it would be a difficult task indeed to argue that “Deck The Halls” is no better a work than “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”. But even so, there is a certain depth that is missing from them.
By contrast, many Christian carols engage with some weighty theological questions, especially that most significant of all questions for monotheistic believers: theodicy, the problem of bad. If there is a God – specifically, a being both omnipotent and omnibenevolent – how can the world be so full of terrible things? Continue reading
In previous years I’ve insisted that Christmas has a significance and value to North American life well beyond Christianity. It is a ritual that brings families together – something Confucius would say is among the most important things in the world, irrespective of anything such rituals might mean. And its meaning is not limited to Christian stories; it is also a seasonal festival of light and darkness, of the winter solstice.
I stand by all of that. But having said it, I think that for secular North Americans (and likely Europeans as well) there is also considerable value in the specifically Christian meaning of the festival. Continue reading
I cannot think very long about aesthetics without encountering the concept of kitsch. Perhaps doubly so now in the Christmas season (on which more in coming weeks), but in the rest of the year at all. One of the reasons I haven’t thought that much about aesthetics, I realize, is that I suspect most modern thinkers on the subject would consider many of my favourite artistic creations bad art – if they would consider them art at all. And the concept which would typically be used to describe them is kitsch: works with a lower-class popular appeal.
Among my favourite works of music are several power ballads of the late ’80s and early ’90s, which I enjoy non-ironically. In visual art, I love the bright Indian aesthetic in its popular manifestations: poster art of deities, temples covered in “Christmas” lights. Continue reading
“Freedom” is among the most central concepts in our political vocabulary. I think it is deservedly so. But it’s also a concept with a notoriously large number of meanings. Libertarians identify freedom simply with the absence of state coercion; by contrast, the most widely used Sanskrit term with an equivalence to freedom is probably mokṣa, liberation from the suffering of worldly existence. And the most common use of “freedom” today is something different again: the ability to make unrestricted choices, to decide for oneself what one will do.
Freedom in this sense of choice played a fairly limited role in premodern political thought, and I think this is because the ancients understood its limitations. 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
A week ago today, the talented young British R&B/pop singer Amy Winehouse died. I think I can sum up the popular reaction thus: everybody was sad; nobody was surprised. The chorus to Winehouse’s most popular and famous song went: “They tried to make me go to rehab; I said no, no, no.” The lifestyle she lived matched her lyrics exactly – as when she was hospitalized for an overdose of heroin, ecstasy, cocaine, ketamine and alcohol.
It’s a shame that the world lost such a great singer so early. And yet, the same louche excess that killed Winehouse was part of the appeal of her songs. Nobody wants to hear a soulful voice sing “I ate all my vegetables and flossed daily,” even if this idea is put in more poetic cadences.
In Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project – an attempt to learn as many ideas about happiness as possible and try them all out to see what worked – she found that the first commandment of happiness was to “Be Gretchen.” That is, even (or especially) while striving for constant self-improvement, she needed to accept her own tastes, recognize what genuinely gave her pleasure and what didn’t, rather than what she wished would give her pleasure. For example, she needed to realize that the pleasures of good food and music mostly did nothing for her, but she adored children’s literature of all kinds.
The example intrigues me because I’m the exact opposite. Continue reading