Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Race Card

No title

Race is back on the agenda. It's been a while since I've heard anyone bleating about the post-racial society. That's a good thing, because there's no better way to shut down discussion of something unpleasant than to get "everyone"—that is, a majority big enough to make it conventional wisdom—to believe that it's no longer a problem.

Unfortunately, race talk itself isn't much fun. It's charged, and often slides into fighting that only deepens divides rather than helps bridge them. Usually this happens when a discussion about race gets derailed into a discussion of 'the race card.'

Monday, August 22, 2011

Well, it worked

Tripoli has fallen to the Libyan Transitional National Council. I'm pretty sure this wouldn't have happened without the NATO intervention that I was feeling so ambivalent about. There are no significant foreign ground forces in the country either; the Libyans did all of the face to face fighting. That is good.

Libya now is a very fragile polity. It's entirely possible that it'll fragment along tribal, ethnic, or geographic lines. That would be tragic, as such wars drag on for a very long time.

But if it doesn't, and what emerges is something resembling a decent state, then the intervention will have been worth it. North Africa from Egypt to Tunisia will no longer be in the hand of corrupt authoritarian dictators. That is good news for Algeria and Morocco as well, although perhaps not their leaders. It also ought to hearten the Syrians, who have nothing to give their revolution but their bodies.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Face to Face

Tourist Want A Cracker?
Tourist Want A Cracker? Sydney, 2010

One of the most enduring features of Buddhist training is the face-to-face encounter with a teacher. This is especially strongly emphasized in Zen, with its founding myth of special transmission outside the scriptures, from Mahakasyapa's smile on down through the centuries. In the group where I practice, there are two flavors of face-to-face encounter: dokusan and daisan. Dokusan is an encounter with a teacher, and daisan is with a senior student; someone who's not a teacher but has been authorized by one to do that.

These encounters have been immensely helpful to me. Indeed, if there is any one thing that makes me feel part of a tradition, it has to be dokusan. It's a simple, strange, and ancient ritual, and there is a real feel of continuity there. That teachers and students have been facing each other through the centuries. That even if the chain of Dharma transmission has broken here and there, the chain of sitting face-to-face has not. There might be the odd incompletely credentialed ancestor here and there, but even they have surely sat face to face with a teacher, and while some of the names chanted in the line of ancestors might be entirely mythological, someone has been there, right down to December nights in northern India.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Zen Master Corto

I've been thinking about right action lately a good deal. The stuff that's usually filed under 'ethics' or 'morality.' When I was somewhat younger, I did a bit of study of systems of ethics; conceptual constructs that can be used to determine whether an action is 'right' or not. Intentionalism and consequentialism. Absolutism and relativism. Imperatives and intuition. That sort of thing. At one point, I defined my ethical stance as that of policy utilitarianism.

Lately, though, I've come to think that none of that really works all that well. One underlying assumption with all these systems of ethics is that people know what they're doing. That they're working with enough information about the situation to be able to draw meaningful ethical conclusions from them. This is very similar to the fundamental assumptions underlying free market economics—that there are no information asymmetries, that all economic actors are rational utility-maximizers, and so on.