Saturday, September 24, 2011

Identity, Doctrine, and Consensus Buddhism

The Universe

I've recently stumbled into some discussions that have gotten me thinking about identity and doctrine, specifically Buddhist identity and Buddhist doctrine. There's a debate ongoing for roughly two and a half millennia about what, exactly, is Buddhism, and who should be considered Buddhist and who shouldn't. Currently, one division in the debate goes between a group I'll dub the 'non-sectarians,' and another one that I'll dub the 'fundamentalists.' I can't think of any better terms, although these ones are a bit loaded. Let it be stated up-front that I fall pretty clearly into the 'fundamentalist' camp, despite not identifying as a Buddhist and not having formally taken refuge as one.

The 'non-sectarians' feel that we shouldn't attempt to define what Buddhism is or isn't. They believe that such an attempt is not merely futile but actually harmful, since it causes division between people who would otherwise share values and goals, and, equally importantly, distracts from the practice of Buddhism, which is best left to each individual Buddhist to define for himself. The Buddhist traditions, in their intellectual, religious, ritualistic, and 'spiritual' dimensions, are something to be drawn from, not something to be codified or analyzed.

The 'fundamentalists,' conversely, feel that despite the broad variety of traditions it consists of, Buddhism can and should also be treated as a coherent philosophy with identifiable core features, that this philosophy forms a doctrinal structure that is indispensable in grounding and guiding the practice, and that movements and teachers that materially deviate from these core features should no longer be regarded as properly Buddhist.

Saturday, September 17, 2011


Shooting the Frog Prince
Shooting the Frog Prince, Marburg, 2011

I had an interesting discussion the other day with two of my fellow bloggers, Nathan and Nella Lou, over at her blog, Madhushala. They were trying on the descriptor "genderqueer" for themselves, despite being heterosexual. Turns out the term means something like "non-conforming. Not comfortable with behaving or thinking in those gender programmed ways," as Nella Lou describes it.

The discussion felt a bit odd. The reason for that is that from where I'm at, there's nothing particularly strange about either Nella Lou's or Nathan's views or actions regarding gender issues that I can see. On the contrary, both are eminently sensible and level-headed about these issues. And by "sensible," I mean they think like any right-thinking person should, namely, me.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Man and Superman

Joan of Arc

I just saw Richard Wagner's Ring of the Nibelungs at the Finnish National Opera. That's four operas totaling nearly nineteen hours, one every other day for a week. I had seen all of the individual operas before, some live, some on TV, but never in a row, as a single, coherent cycle. It was a bit overwhelming. On Thursday, between Die Walküre and Siegfried, I tottered home from work around six and crashed straight to bed. Missed my regular Thursday zazen, and Sunday's zazenkai too.

Boy howdy was it worth the effort. There really is nothing quite like the Ring. Wagner is utterly uncompromising. Doesn't apologize. Doesn't talk down to you. Doesn't court you. Doesn't try to entertain, amuse, or edify. He is utterly free of sentimentality or conceit. He just grabs you, sits you down, and throws you in the middle of a storm of art, music, philosophy, verse, and stagecraft, and then lets you make of it what you will.

Which is kind of ironic, since by all accounts in real life he was a real bastard. Never forgot, or forgave, a slight, and held a grudge like the worst of his villains.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Twilight of the Gods

Something burned down. Something else was built. It opened on September 2.

Karl Marx described history as a series of stable states punctuated by revolutionary crises. A stable state is one where the social and political order reflects and supports the relations of production. A crisis occurs when internal contradictions in the system cause a shift in the relations of production, making the social and political order no longer compatible with its economic basis. This causes a revolution, out of which emerges a new social and political order, more suited to the changed relations of production. So we go from the slave states of the ancient world to medieval feudalism, and from there to capitalism.

The big picture behind the ongoing economic, political, and social crises is a Marxist one. There has been a fundamental shift in relations of production, and the social and political order we currently have isn't compatible with the new state of affairs.

Until now, the capitalist economy has been constrained by the availability and productivity of labor. More labor and more productive labor -> more production -> more wealth. The redistributive system that emerged in the rich part of the world after the Second World War did a pretty good job of balancing out the market's tendency to concentrate wealth at the top, resulting in an enormous and enormously rapid and broad-based rise in living conditions for everyone lucky enough to be born in one of these rich countries. Several formerly poor countries have managed to reproduce this same take-off.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Why I Didn't Like Human Revolution

Golden Sunset

Deus Ex is something of a cult classic computer game. It's eleven years old, and still being replayed and fondly remembered. That's because it's one of the few games that has real meat on its cyberpunk-stealth-shooter gameplay bones.

Deus Ex is about the collapse of the post-war social and political system, which had already started when it came out eleven years ago. In some ways, it was eerily prescient: terrorists had blown up a major New York landmark triggering a global war on terror, governmental power had been sidelined or co-opted by corporate power, the divide between rich and poor had grown ever deeper, and technology was on the skin, and under it. If Deus Ex was a novel or a movie, it would be somewhere up there with Neuromancer or Blade Runner. It had a sequel which sort of flopped, critically and in the marketplace. For good reason.

Another sequel just came out, called Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It's been very well received. I think the critics are wrong. Human Revolution is as badly flawed as Invisible War was. This time, not because of the gameplay, but because of the content. Deus Ex, the original, was a radical, subversive, thought-provoking game. Human Revolution is a profoundly conservative one.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Fear and Silence


There was a post on Memeo today, about "complacency advocacy" -- people vehemently arguing that you should STFU and not rock the boat. It got me thinking, because I've noticed that phenomenon too. Memeo says:
Complacency enforcement in the form of policing activists is to be expected from those in advantageous power positions, yet it appears too often among those who are on the losing end of that scale.

Perhaps it is due to fear. That’s the only insight I have into it at the moment after having read a lot of these kinds of comments and having been on the receiving end of them more times than I like to remember.
Yeah, I think it's fear. I know a quite a few "normal people" (as the Russian expression has it) who grew up in police states or civil wars. Most of them have this as a built-in reflex: keep your head down, don't rock the boat, and don't go near anyone who doesn't keep her head down. Express strong opinions at odds with the consensus only among close family, if that. Don't even go see a remotely controversial movie because someone might be watching, or you might bump into someone, or there might be trouble.