Saturday, November 29, 2008

"For greed all nature is too little."

Three violent deaths in two stores marks the opening of the American Christmas shopping season. Read the details here.

So much death this week related to the divine.

The title quote is from Seneca.


Friday, November 28, 2008

New specs

This week I picked up my new glasses.

Lens grinding being a technology that is about 400 years old, I assumed glasses could be made effectively and a bit cheaper here in Nepal. Last time I was at the clinic for a stomach infection I asked about glasses and was referred to what I was told is Nepal's top optometrist, who gave me a complete eye exam for US$20.00. The good news was that my current glasses were still good; that is, my eyes hadn't gotten worse. My glasses had, though, after three years of daily use, so I decided to order a pair of progressive lenses for everyday use and my first pair of reading glasses.

The progressive lenses were ordered from Singapore and I am after three days still getting used to them. The idea with these lenses, if you haven't heard of them, is to allow the user to see clearly at far, middle and close distances by building a lens that gets progressively stronger from top to bottom. In use, this means that you have to get used to looking out of the top, middle, or bottom part of the lens for objects at progressively closer distances to your eye.

The first day using them gave me a headache. The last two days have been fine and I find it is easier to get used to using them while stationary than while moving. Walking is particularly challenging, particularly when you want to look at the area around your feet; the bottom part of the lens is for reading and doesn't provide clear focus on the curb, which requires a little extra bending at the neck.

Haven't yet much used the reading glasses but look forward to the opportunity to put them to use. I should get a chance to do that next Sunday, when I take a 7-hour bus ride to the Nepal/India border.

Oh, and the cost. Both pair, including frames, was 10,750NRS, or US$137.00.


Thursday, November 27, 2008

Music: Kutumba (Nepali folk)

There are across Nepal hundreds of unsung folk musicians living and playing in towns and villages. Perhaps the most high-profile group is a 7-member outfit known as Kutumba, who describe themselves thus:

Kutumba is a folk instrumental ensemble, group of seven professionals from Kathmandu. Having come together for the preservation of their culture and art, Kutumba wishes to spread love and joy of Nepali folk music throughout the world. Self motivated and self driven, Kutumba is a group with their own unique sound and vision.The seven members have different roots and backgrounds in music. Kutumba is the harmony of traditional roots, culture and new sounds.
Their music may not be so easy to find outside Nepal, though there are a couple of online sources. For those of you interested in sampling their sound, here's one track you can download from their latest release, which is already a couple of years old. The group is still active and will be playing a free concert next Saturday as part of the celebrations of the anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.


Kutumba official website.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Movie Review: We're No Monks; Pema Dhondup, dir; 2004

We're No Monks is a 128 minute feature film about the making of a Tibetan terrorist. The debut project from a Tibetan writer/director staring a mostly amateur Tibetan cast, it is at best a watchable movie. The main character is well drawn and acted and generates some interest and empathy, but the remainder of the cast is rather one-dimensional, the film is overlong and drags in the middle, and except for the last 20 minutes there is very little sense of drama or suspense, just four lads, exile Tibetan slackers trying to find their way in the world of the Tibetan exile capital of Dharamsala, India.

Writer/director Pema Dhondup produced a multi-layered script featuring a writer/actor rehearsing a play about an act of terrorism against a Chinese diplomat, a mute who lives through his video camera and whose footage is intercut with the main story, and a final mission in New Dehli with a clever misdirect. It's too bad he left in all the silly stuff in the middle, with the kids getting drunk and stoned, chasing after white girls, and being harassed by the Indian cop who seems to never sleep and to be on any street corner where the boys show up.

Party delek (and don't forget to invite the white girls)

Tell me when I'm nice. I don't like me when I'm angry.

Give Dhondup credit for the effort that went into making a film about the modern life of secular NRCs, Non Resident Chinese, in the Himalayan Indian hill town of Dharamsala. It's easy these days to make money off the Dalai Lama or Tibetan Buddhism, maybe not so easy to tell the story of how a young man could be turned into a suicide bomber for Tibetan independence.

For a tauter film with similar themes, see Paradise Now.


Sunday, November 23, 2008

Audio Postcard: Shoveling Gravel

Captured at a construction site between the Dragon Guest House and Shechen Monastery. The microphone was placed five meters from 2 two-man-teams shoveling gravel into baskets carried by porters. 22 November 08, approximately 15:00.

Click here to download the MP3 to your computer.


Book Review: Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste; Gail Omvedt, 2003

Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste is an exploration of the historical roots of Navayana, or New Buddhism, an Eastern Liberation Theology launched seemingly single-handedly by the father of modern India's constitution, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. The first of India's untouchables to rise to not only national but international prominence, Ambedkar was a double PhD from Columbia and the London School of Economics.

A tireless champion of civil liberties who began his political career as a labor activist, Ambedkar later came to stress the primacy of social, rather than economic, revolution. He believed untouchables would never claim their full rights until Hinduism, a system built on caste and the moral justification of oppression, was repudiated and replaced. It was precisely for this reason that Ambedkar tussled with Ghandi, who dismissed casteism as an unpleasant accretion that could be cut away while maintaining the romantic (and, according to Omvedt, historically suspect) idea of India as a Hindu nation.

In Buddhism Ambedkar discovered the perfect vehicle for reformation, a home-grown religion in which individuals practice rather than believe, in which individual inquiry is held in higher regard than devotion to gurus or sacred texts, a religion based on ethics rather than metaphysics. After several years of careful study, he came to the conclusion that contemporary Buddhism had become cut off, distant, and unresponsive to the common man and was unsuited for the purpose of liberating the underclass. What was most needed was a new school of Buddhism, a Buddhism for the modern world, a socially engaged Buddhism that worked for enlightenment and nirvana for all people in this lifetime on this world. And so he composed a Buddhist catechism that rewrote some of the fundamental ideas of the religion as it has been passed down over 25 centuries.

Scholars and clergy have questioned whether this is a real form of Buddhism, or something entirely different posing as Buddhism. It is just this question that frames Gail Omvedt's study, a survey of the history of Indian Buddhism in search of antecedents of Ambekar's most controversial reinterpretations. These include shifting karma from the individual to society, setting nirvana as the earthly goal of stilling the passions, and reimagining the purpose of the monastic as a social worker rather than a self-absorbed recluse.

A naturalized Indian scholar in Dalit studies, Omvedt's sympathies clearly lay with the oppressed, - with untouchables, laborers, the peasantry, women - as well as with those forces associated with their empowerment - with Buddhism over Brahmanism, with Ambedkar over Ghandi, rationalism over romanticism, modernization over traditionalization. She presents her case concisely in clear prose, demonstrating through her survey that Ambedkar's ideas are nothing new in the history of Indian Buddhism. Observing that millions of Indians today practice Navayana, Omvedt concludes there is “no way that any true Buddhist of any school can deny that this is a form of Buddhism.”

Read the publisher's book description here.


Saturday, November 22, 2008

The earth in 1966

You may have heard about the lost, recovered and restored photos of Earth taken from a lunar orbiter in 1966. It's quite an amazing story, about a NASA employee who warehoused old data processing machinery the space agency was going to dispose of. She later got her hands on the data files from 1966 and with private money refurbished the equipment and the data in an abandoned McDonalds. You can read more about the project and view the results at Moon Views.


Movie Review: Thus I Have Heard: Teachings of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, 2001

In even the most cursory account of Tibetan Buddhism's journey to the West, one name sure to be included is that of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. One of the first wave of refugees from the 1959 Chinese invasion of Tibet, Chogyam studied at Oxford before making his mark in America. He remains a controversial character for having so thoroughly westernized himself, including taking a sixteen year old British wife, disrobing and practicing as a lay teacher, and developing a huge appetite for food, alcohol and women. Some called him a crazy sage, some called him just plain crazy. His legacy, though, makes him difficult to dismiss. His presence as he toured led to the appearance of hundreds of Buddhist centers in cities and towns across North America, his publishing outfit is now one the West's biggest, and Colorado's Naropa University was the first accredited Buddhist university in the United States.

Thus I Have Heard is a 60-minute collection of video clips - one television interview and four speeches - given to North American audiences in the 70's and 80's. It was issued in conjunction with an 8-volume set of his Collected Works, plus a 9-volume video set, published in 2001. The five selections in sequence are:
  • Practicing the Lineage 1980 – an interview in which Chogyam discusses his early life and training
  • Mediation Instruction 1974 – instructions for an introductory meditation course
  • Sitting Practice is Your Breakfast 1976 – meditation as food to nourish the mind
  • Surrendering Your Aggression 1975 – learning to let go of ego
  • Creating an Enlightened Society 1982 – a call to work not only for personal enlightenment, but also for building enlightened societies
Having never seen video of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, this collection was a revelation. There are moments when his humor shines through, most often in his playfulness with language, or in a clever conceptualization, such as clinging to self as a kind of aggression. But he makes you work to get to those moments. His speech is slow and deliberate and his enunciation not always clear. And in at least one of these clips ("Sitting Practice is Your Breakfast") he appears inebriated. By the 1980's, when his lifestyle was having visible effects on body and mind, his “Creating an Enlightened Society” speech is almost embarrassing for its long, searching pauses.

From these clips it's hard to see today what made Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche so appealing. Certainly so throughly adopting the manners of his students and presenting his teachings in their own idiom won over large numbers. It also didn't hurt being one of the first generation of teachers. Having no one against which he could be compared put him in a league all his own.

For anyone wanting to sample the voice and manner of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche at various points in his career, there probably isn't a better place to start than Thus I Have Heard.


Movie Review: The Rainbow Body of the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism; Dudjom Buddhist Association, 2001


Lineage charts (in Tibetan/Chinese; English follow)

More lineage charts

Still more

Enough already

This hour-length documentary is a promotional film substantiating the lineage claims and educational work of Hong Kong lama Yeshe Thaye (Chan Kin-keung, David) of the Dudjom Buddhist Association. It begins at the beginning, with the birth, renunciation and enlightenment of the Buddha and continues on through to the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet and an account of the great masters of the Nyingma school, right down to Tibetan Rinpoche Kyabje Chadral Sangye Dorje, his Hong Kong disciple Guru Lao Yui Che, and Lao's student, Yeshe Thaye. This is followed by a summary of lama Yeshe Thaye's dharma activities in Hong Kong, and a 17 minute teaching by Kyabje Chadral Sangye Dorje Rinpoche (covering some of the most basic Buddhist formulas, such as cultivating virtuous actions and avoiding unvirtuous ones; that is, do good, don't do bad).

With the exception of the lecture, much of the film is made up of lama Yeshe Thaye's personal photographs from trips to India and Nepal, as well as video of seminars and meditation practice at his Hong Kong center. Surprisingly we never hear the voice of the film's subject, lama Yeshe Thaye. His image is there in photograph after photograph with his teachers or with his students, but we never hear from him directly. The film ends on a note of bad taste, a kitschy montage of Buddhist homilies (life is fleeting, we don't know when death will come, etc, etc.) in a garish melange of fonts and colors superimposed on flowers, waterfalls, clouds, and other scenes from nature and accompanied by anemic midi-melodies. Lama Yeshe Thaye is most certainly a sincere and well-meaning person. Unfortunately, his film is not so good. In fact, it's one you most definitely want to miss.

Copies of The Rainbow Body of the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism (2001) can be found at various sites across the internet, as well as the website of the Dudjom Buddhist Association International Limited.


Friday, November 21, 2008

Movie Review: The Sacred Sites of the Dalai Lamas: A Pilgrimage to The Oracle Lake, 2007

The Sacred Sites of the Dalai Lamas: A Pilgrimage to The Oracle Lake is a 70 minute collection of home movies of a 2007 trip to Tibet dressed up as a feature documentary. There is some wonderful footage of the Tibetan countryside and numerous sacred sites, including temples, mountains, caves, and lakes. If you've never been to Tibet and know nothing about it, this film might serve as a good visual introduction to the culture and the landscape. The rest of us are left to wonder if the project was simply a clever means for recovering the expenses of what looks to be a rather financially substantial pilgrimage.

The film is narrated in flat, almost dispassionate tones by Steve Dancz, an American music professor, who along with a group of what appears to be around 15 other middle-aged Americans is led across Tibet by American Buddhist teacher Glenn Mullin and Bhutanese religious scholar Khenpo Tashi. Along the way Dancz relates the rather typical tourist reaction of wonder and surprise at being in Tibet, as well as reporting historical and contemporary spiritual claims of supernatural events. Most anyone who has traveled in the region has had similar reactions, and who when visiting a place for only a few hours, or even a few moments, is going to risk insulting the locals by asking if they really believe that walking around a pile of rock reciting a mantra has the power to affect meteorological conditions? Most of us just try to soak up the experience.

But if you are inclined to produce a commercial document of your visit, one that you want to share with the world, one that has the potential to inform and help people understand the relevance of your pilgrimage, it seems such a document is the appropriate occasion for questioning, for examining your experience, for evaluating the meaning of your journey. Perhaps for Dancz there was no need to question, in which case The Sacred Sites of the Dalai Lamas is an example of what you see is what you get. I'd like to think there's more going on, that Dancz was on deadline to finish the film, that perhaps producer Michael Wiese forced him to excise the more interesting observations, and that a more introspective book or film may be forthcoming

For anyone who might be looking for a video document of Tibetan landscapes and scared sites, this is a film worth checking out. For anyone hoping to learn about the Dalai Lamas, about Buddhism, about the meaning of pilgrimage, about the experience of ambition fulfilled, you would do better to look elsewhere.


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Movie Review: Tantra of Gyuto (1974)

Tantra of Gyuto is a 50-minute feature documenting the 1974 London public performance of tantric rituals by a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks from Gyuto monastery. Produced by Snow Lion, one of the world's leading publishers of English texts on Tibetan Buddhism, the film maintains an air of objectivity and respect for the viewer, allotting ample to time to simply showing the monks doing their rites. The filmmakers follow the monks from their monastery in India as they prepare, and on through to their flight, arrival and performance in London. Unfortunately, we never have a chance to hear the monks speak for themselves, though we are treated to a short interview with a very young Dalai Lama, who appears to have been in London for the performance and discusses the propriety of public displays of tantric rituals. These are, it turns out, commonly conducted in public in their native context, ceremonies for blessing statues, paintings, sand mandalas and other sacred objects. In between the set-up and the performances, a brief overview of Tibetan history and Buddhism is presented, including some wonderful archival footage of the Tibetan countryside, Lhasa, and the Dalai Lama as he is examined on completion of his formal academic studies. This is a film worth adding to add to a Tibetan video collection, if you can find it. Though currently out of print, copies can be found circulating on the internet.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Six Heads

Better than one? Not when you have a cold.

I was sunning myself on the roof yesterday, drying up my sinuses and warming myself when I noticed my shadow. I got my camera and a few moments with Photoshop and - voila!


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Audio Postcard: The Bells of Shechen Monastery, Kathmandu

Captured with the microphone placed outside my bedroom window, 18 November 08, approximately 05:00.

Shechen Monastery is where I study thangka, located a stone's throw from the Dragon Guest House.

Click here to download the MP3 to your computer.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

1st Tara in Full Robes

Took a couple of days, but came out pretty good (I thought) for a first effort.

And here's my neighbor on the floor, Tsering, conferring with our teacher.


Something pissy at the PO

Last Sunday I got a call from the post office informing me that a package had arrived and that I needed to bring a copy of my passport in order to pick it up. Why do they need a copy of my passport? And why don't they deliver?

The package was a small box of personal items – cookies, chocolate, some small gifts for a couple of my classmates – accompanying the main item, an updated credit card. Imagining I might need it next month in India, I had asked Mustsumi to forward it, and sweet person that she is she sent along an assortment of goodies via EMS, a kind-of courier service through cooperating international postal systems requiring signature on delivery. I had received a similar package last year, though it had been addressed to me at the art school and not my guest house. Since then Nepal has had a change of governments, so I suppose the rules for EMS may have changed as well.

I got there around 14:00 and after finding the EMS office was asked to step into a back room that must have been right next to the toilets and reeked of urine. While I was trying to imagine having to work in a such a place, the guy at the computer checking to verify I had received a package said I had not, then went back to munching on his apple, not at all concerned with me (or the smell of piss). When I reminded him that someone had called to tell me I had in fact received a package, a fellow in a topi said “come” and led me into a store room stacked with EMS packages, boxes and envelopes piled on shelves, on the floor, and on top of each other, in no discernible order (except perhaps that big, heavy ones went on the floor and not on the shelves). Topi asked where my package had been shipped from and made a desultory effort looking through the upper-most boxes before shrugging his shoulders and telling me that the package was not to be found. The computer guy came in looking for a package and pushed a box onto the floor to have a look at the one underneath. This seemed to be the one he wanted, which he proceeded with his feet to kick out the door. I started looking on a shelf on the opposite side of the room and Topi came and joined me and no less than half a minute later Mutsumi's package was in hand. But not for long.

I was sent to the EMS counter where a bored-looking young man in a baseball cap took my package and the copy of my passport and sent me to Room 31, just around the corner and smelling quite better than the back room of the EMS office. This was the customs office, staffed by six guys sitting around enjoying their afternoon tea. They didn't appear to be doing any work. In fact, they weren't. When I asked for their assistance, one middle-aged mustachioed guy pointed to the sign on the door, on which were posted office hours. Before I had a good look at it I thought I was being told it was now lunch break, or tea break. To my great dismay, however, I found that on Fridays work stops at 13:00.

I put on a face of dismay and kindly pleaded for help. The mustache didn't appear at all sympathetic, but the pro-wrestler with the red goatee was tilting his head (as Nepalis and Indians do to indicate something is ok, alright, acceptable) and telling him to go ahead and take care of me. A long form in triplicate with carbon paper in between was produced for which I had to pay 25 rupees. It was all in Nepali, so another guy at the desk told me which boxes to fill-in. After I signed it, I was sent back to 32, the EMS room.

Baseball Cap was still looking bored when I presented my paper from the customs office. He indicated I needed to wait. A few minutes later a guy showed up and indicated I should open my package for inspection. He had a quick look and didn't bother to ask about opening any of the envelopes inside. He started scribbling on my customs form, then took out a calculator, at which point I understood that I would be paying duty. I also understood why the Nepali PO doesn't deliver EMS packages.

Once he had signed off on the form, he gave one copy to me and sent me back to the customs office. There they took the form and recorded the relevant data, hand copying it to a large ledger book, before collecting 225 rupees. A copy of the customs form was returned to me, and I returned with it to the EMS office to at last collect my package, and to swear that anything else delivered to me here be sent by private courier, which in fact delivers straight to your door.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Cloudy Days

The last two days I've stayed home to nurse mild cold symptoms, spending the days reading, painting, and watching a movie or two. Today it turned cloudy for the first time in weeks. Appropriately enough, I've been practicing my clouds. Next up is the Dharmachakra.


Sunday, November 9, 2008

Saturday in Thamel

I've been investigating post-graduate Buddhist Studies programs, not so much because I need another degree, but I thought as long as I'm doing all this reading in Buddhism anyway, and if it doesn't cost me too much, I might as well acquire social sanction for my studies. There's also the more practical purpose in Nepal of obtaining more permanent visa status.

The head of Tribhuvan University's Buddhist Studies department requested by email I meet him Saturday morning at Chhusyabaha, an old Newari temple in the center of Kathmandu. When I arrived just before 7:00 I was greeted by a man who was not Dr Vajracharya, but who pointed him out to me as the priest preparing to lead the morning puja.

I sat for a little more than an hour through chanting and a sermon, all in Nepali or Newari, I can't say which. Most of the chanting seemed fairly typical of what I've heard in other Buddhist traditions, though the 10-minute Om Mane Padme Hum mantra was unique, starting very low and building almost to a shout before returning to a quiet hum.

The professor/priest and I had a nice chat after the service about options for studying at TU, which I need now to follow up with more specific information on curriculum and instructors. In the meantime, my Italian housemate continues his efforts to convince me that the only program worth my consideration is the one he is currently enrolled in at KU.

After I left the temple I wandered around Thamel for a couple of hours, browsing in the bookstores, checking email, and walking alleys I'd never been down. I came across a street of butchers, who seemed at least for Saturday to be selling only boar. Or maybe that was the boar butcher's street.

Just beyond was a frame shop, which doubles as a merchant of religious iconography. Here we have quite an assortment of gods and gurus – Shiva, Pavarti and Ganesh, Kali, Buddha, Jesus, and Sai Baba.

I then wandered over to my favorite Nepali diner in Thamel, passing a Japanese restaurant along the way.

The walking about was largely to occupy time waiting for the noon start of the final day of the International Folk Music Festival. Several groups from different regions of Nepal, as well as artists from the Middle East and Europe were performing for four days in venues across the valley. Saturday was to see the artists together for a grand finale on the busiest street in the city's tourist quarter. The planners seemed to have envisioned the musicians and audience taking over the street, but that seemed not to have been planned and did not happen. Everyone was squeezed onto one side of the street, only a meter from passing traffic. One of the volunteers I spoke with said they were planning to shift to a nearby location that was better suited to the event. By then we'd already been standing in the street for an hour. It might take another to get things sorted. So I left happy to have heard a little and to have captured a few images.


Electoral dysfunction 3

One night this week it came to me that what I had been experiencing was a sense of loneliness, isolation, alienation from my society. I say “my” because that is where my cultural roots lie, ones that I could never entirely uproot even though I no longer think of myself as American. The feelings are much the same I experienced after the plane attacks on the New York Twin Towers. At that time many of the Americans I knew behaved stunned or shocked, like extra-terrestrial life had arrived on earth with intentions of restructuring human society. Some were even unable to go to work the next day. For myself I felt sorry that so many people died, but the fact that America's political enemies struck back at American targets was not so terribly surprising nor upsetting. What goes around, comes around.

Seven years ago I couldn't work myself up into a state of panic and grief and I began to feel irritated, even angry that people were allowing themselves to get so worked up. By watching the same scenes of death and destruction again and again, by talking about it day and night, they allowed themselves to be consumed with fear, despair, and hatred, all of which eventually fed into support, explicit and tacit, for the tragedy of the Iraq invasion. This time I can't get myself worked up to celebrate Obama's victory. The emotional states being fed and nurtured will perhaps lead to better outcomes, to opening instead of closing, to compassion rather than hate. But there is sure to be disappointment. And that's because the change is superficial.

I've lived through 8 years of Reagan, 12 of Bushes, and 8 of Clinton. 12 of those years I lived in the US, 16 outside. And except for a rebate check now and then, I can't say that my life has been affected by the change in presidents or parties. My life has been no better or worse under Clinton than Reagan or the Bushes. None made me richer, nor wiser, nor happier. They may on occasion have caused some distress, but that I see as my own fault, the fault of having expectations.

Of course like many Americans I have felt embarrassed by the know-nothing Reagan and Bush regimes, but I learned to put away the idea that the president represents me any more than other cultural artifact such Kleenex, Hershey's chocolate, Corn Flakes, or Tom Cruise. I didn't vote for Tom Cruise anymore than I voted for Bush (or any other Republican or Democrat). He is what he is and has nothing to do with me. Sometimes, though, because I might be feeling insecure and want other people to feel good about me, I have to assure them that I don't think Bush is a swell guy doing his best to preserve moral order in the world.

In this sense, the sense of wanting to make favorable impressions, I understand why many feel so strongly about Obama. He's a guy they can feel good about, a guy who seems more like them. A guy like me, in fact - urban, educated, from a mixed family, lived overseas, rides a bicycle to work. But that's just cosmetic. It's an image people can feel good about. Like owning an iPod or a Louis Vuitton handbag. I would guess most voters don't know what Obama's policy positions are. In fact the voters that made the difference, the swing voters, were I suspect those exasperated by the last eight years (or four years) of mismanagement and bad news and willing to vote for anything or anyone not connected with the current administration or political party.*

So, yeah, he's different. He is a Democrat instead of Republican. Of mixed race, rather than white. Young, not old. Intelligent and erudite. And so now for those for whom it matters they can feel good about being American again. They can say, yeah, that's my president.

4 years from now - 8 years from now - will you be a better person? A happier person? Will Barack Obama have had any impact on your personal well being?

All things are possible. But if history is any guide, your life will be better (or worse) because of you, not the president of the US. (Unless, of course, you happen to live near areas targeted by the US military.)


*Three-quarters of those polled said the country was on the wrong track, more than 9 in 10 rated the economy in bad shape and 7 in 10 disapproved of the job Mr. Bush is doing; those voters overwhelmingly supported Mr. Obama.

Nearly half of all voters said they expected Mr. McCain to continue the Bush policies, and 9 in 10 of them voted for Mr. Obama. Similarly, the big share of voters who disapprove of Mr. Bush went overwhelmingly for Mr. Obama.

Voter Polls Find Obama Built a Broad Coalition

04 Nov 08


Saturday, November 8, 2008

Electoral dysfunction 2

Even Americans who consider themselves progressive are terribly conservative.

McCain and Palin played up American exceptionalism, but their electoral counterparts - and their supporters - seem every bit as fond of the idea. One told me this past week, with great sincerely, that in America people at least have the right to vote, as if having the right to choose between Pepsi and Coke is choice enough, or as if the rest of humanity were living in autocracies. I heard more than once on television from “celebrities” such as Spike Lee and Oprah Winfrey (and alluded to by Obama himself) that only in America can a member of a formerly oppressed or disenfranchised class rise to the country's highest political office. Tell it to the South Africans, who elected a former political prisoner as president. Tell that to the Indians, whose constitution was written by an untouchable and who elected an untouchable to the presidency. In fact the Indians have also had a female prime minster, as have the Israelis, the Germans, the English, the Indonesians, the Filipinos, the Pakistanis, and the Bangladeshis. But not yet the Americans.

In America you still have to maintain the pretense of being a church-going Christian, to supporting the military, to pretending that America is somehow special among nations, to super-patriotism. To openly waver on any makes one immediately unelectable.


Friday, November 7, 2008

Electoral dysfunction

Wednesday was a bad day.

After lunch I stopped by the Flavor's Cafe, Boudha's hangout for the students in Kathmandu University's Buddhist Studies program. Most are white, middle-class Europeans and North Americans, young men and women in their 20's and 30's who image themselves, I imagine, as somewhat more progressive, open and tolerant than average, the kind of people who express their individuality through consumerism, the kind of people who make statements with goatees, malas, and Macintosh computers and iPods.

I'm sure most of them are quite nice on a one-to-one basis and over a coffee or beer we could find more than a few common interests and opinions. But Wednesday they were a herd, an obnoxiously loud gaggle barking and baying about the election results, making lunch miserable for any other customer not a part of their circle. For people who study Buddhism, they displayed a disappointing lack of concern for others or any sign of personal restraint. It seemed to me, too, that in their enthusiasm for Mr Obama they missed one of the important lessons of their faith, detachment from views or outcomes.

I was at the cafe for the internet service. For those with laptops it offers an office away from home, a comfortable place to spend a couple of hours doing computer work. But as yesterday was anything but comfortable, I packed up and headed over to the competition, Little Britain. The American owner of the shop had set up a TV and was broadcasting live news feeds for his customers. When I arrived the television was off and he asked if I was there to view the election returns. I said, no, just to use the internet. But shortly afterwards others arrived and the television was turned on and I was then subjected to the inanities of the talking heads on American news programs, as well as clips of Obama and McCain's speeches.

I fled to the patio to escape the noise and some of the ridiculous statements being made by “celebrities” and even by Obama himself. A European woman in her 60's came out to the patio and asked me if that - pointing to the crowd in front of the television - is exciting. Apparently to some it is, I said.


What India's got

I'll be going to India beginning of next month and am investigating overland routes. This description of a retired American couple's first visit to an Indian train station made me laugh out loud. Maybe it will do the same for you.

We reached the Gorakhpur train station about 9:30 PM. We have read lots of accounts of travelers in India and their descriptions of the horrors of the train stations. So, on the abstract level, we were prepared. But on the physical visceral level the only thing that could prepare one for this experience is perhaps being dropped into a brimming septic tank. The train station is a large affair with people sleeping with their possessions on just about every available space. What isn't covered with bodies is covered with feces and urine. Then there are the beggars. Our noses burn, our stomachs tighten and we grit our teeth as we steel our senses to make our way through this real life Dante's Inferno. This is the quintessential Indian train station. This is a nation that has nuclear weapons!
You can read more of their adventures here.


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Week 6: Tara and the Conch

Last week was partly interrupted by Tihar, but still I managed to finish a slate-full of Tara's and the conch.

This week I've started working on Tara with all her robes (which because of the detail is very slow going) and practicing on some clouds, with which I've been having particular trouble.


More Kathmandu Road Work

The Boudha area has been undergoing a spate of sewer work, which has left us in the neighborhood with torn up streets. And at least for the English speakers, a momentary chuckle.

If you look closely in the photo above, you'll see in the background a flower cart and on the wall a line of clothing.


Sunday, November 2, 2008

Preserving the Truth

Attentive readers will recall that I am presently working my through the Majjhima Nikaya. Yesterday I came across a discourse that seems like it might have been written only recently and that resonates quite clearly in a world surfeit with ideologues and demagogues.

In the sutta, a wise young man of 16 asks of the Buddha, “How does one preserve truth?”

The Buddha replies:

If a person has faith, Bharadvaja, he preserves the truth when he says: 'My faith is thus'; but he does not yet come to the definite conclusion: 'Only this is true, anything else is wrong.”

If a person receives an oral tradition, he preserves the truth when he says: 'My oral tradition is thus'; but he does not yet come to the definite conclusion: 'Only this is true, anything else is wrong.'

If a person reaches a conclusion based on reasoned cogitation, he preserves the truth when he says: 'My reasoned cogitation of a view is thus'; but he does not yet come to the definite conclusion: 'Only this is true, anything else is wrong.”

If a person gains a reflective acceptance of a view, he preserves the truth when he says: 'My reflective acceptance of a view is thus'; but he does not yet come to the definite conclusion: 'Only this is true, anything else is wrong.”

In this way, Bharadvaja, there is preservation of the truth; in this way he preserves truth; in this way we describe the preservation of truth. But as yet there is no discovery of truth.

Majjhima Nikaya
Sutta 95, Canki Sutta

Movie Review: Dispatches: Undercover in Tibet

Tashi is a young Tibetan who escaped his Chinese-occupied country by walking across the Himalayas into Nepal. Hundreds make this arduous trek every year. Most never get the chance Tashi did, to settle in the UK. Eleven years later, Tashi has hooked up with the English investigative news unit, Dispatches, to return to Tibet to document human rights abuses. This is risky work, not only for Tashi, but for the Tibetans who agree to talk before the cameras.

Undercover in Tibet is not an easy film to watch. There are no scenes of blood and only a few of bodily brutality. But the stories average Tibetans tell are heartbreaking – torture in return for non-approved political or religious expression, forced sterilization, marginalization of the native language, the herding of nomads into reservations far from any source of economic self-sufficiency. It is the same program carried out on Native Americans, on Inuits, Ainu and Aborigines. The Dalai Lama is not a person given to exaggeration or overstatement. He speaks today of of cultural genocide.

Mr McCain promises to shake things up in Washington; Mr Obama promises to deliver change. Will either do anything to alleviate this great suffering? Will American, European or Japanese firms be prepared to take an economic hit for the people of Tibet?