Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Buddhism: One Teacher; Many Traditions / Bhiksu Tenzin Gyatso and Bhiksuni Thubten Chodron -- Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2014

Over the course of the last year in connection with my sabbatical, I have read numerous books on Buddhism, both recent works and seminal works in the Buddhist canon.  Many have provided valuable and sometimes unique insights into the history and philosophy of Buddhism, but none have managed to encapsulate the most important ideas in that history and philosophy as Buddhism: One Teacher; Many Traditions by the Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso) and Thubten Chodron.  The work is deep and amazingly comprehensive.  For me, it is unquestionably the best book of 2014.

In just 290 pages, the authors cover the following topics:
  1. The Origin and Spread of the Buddha's Doctrine
  2. Refuge in the Three Jewels (the Buddha, the dharma, and the samgha)
  3. The Four Noble Truths
  4. Training in Ethical Conduct
  5. Training in Concentration
  6. Training in Wisdom
  7. Selflessness and Emptiness
  8. Dependent Arising
  9. Meditation Uniting Serenity and Insight
  10. Progress on the Path to Enlightenment
  11. The Four Immeasurables (love, compassion, joy, and equanimity)
  12. Bodhicitta (the aspiration for enlightenment for the benefit of all)
  13. Training in the Path of the Bodhisattvas (including the Six Perfections)
  14. The Possibility of Awakening
  15. Tantrism
What is most astonishing about the work is that it is both eminently readable -- even for the novice -- and deeply insightful.  Not only does it cover the seminal doctrines of the Buddha, it traces the development of those doctrines in all of the major Buddhist traditions; hence, the subtitle: "One Teacher; Many Traditions."  Many works are said to be of value to both the novice and the expert, but never has that been so true as of this work.

In his prologue to the work, the Dalai Lama writes that he has spent a great deal of time seeking to build connections between different religious traditions; however, he notes that there is too little mutual understanding within the traditions of Buddhism and he points out specific misconceptions held by Buddhist about different Buddhist traditions.  A primary purpose of the work, then, is to help dispel these misconceptions and create a deeper understanding of world Buddhism among Buddhists themselves, without insisting on a single orthodox interpretation of the dharma.

While the title page lists the Dalai Lama as the first author, the nature of Thubten Chodron's preface would suggest that the great bulk of the writing is hers.  Indeed, it appears that she wrote the work under the direction of the Dalai Lama and that her understanding of Buddhism is profoundly shaped by the views of the Dalai Lama with whom she has studied.  A search in WorldCat indicates that her numerous published books reach back to the 1980s, many of which have been translated into numerous languages.  She began studying meditation in 1975, was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 in Dharamsala and was fully ordained in 1986 in Taiwan.  She also maintains a web site at, where many of her lectures have been archived.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions / Edwin A. Abbott -- N.Y.: Dover Publications, 1992

First published in 1884, Abbott's Flatland is a whimsical story about a square (or Mr. A. Square) living in a two dimensional world who is visited by a sphere from a three dimensional world.  Eventually, Mr. A. Square is transported by the sphere into the three dimensional world so that he might understand the limitations of his own experience.  Flatland is at once a lesson in geometry and an allegory on two levels.  The geometry lesson is quite simple.  Abbott provides the reader with a reasonably plausible account of how a two dimensional world might appear to a two dimensional being.  At one point he also provides us with an account of how a one dimensional world might appear to a one dimensional being.  However, it is the allegories that are the most interesting aspects of the book.  One the most obvious level, Mr. A. Square's world is rife with the social and political hierarchies of the late 19th century.  Class is represented by the number of sides the resident polygons have.  Near circles are the highest, nearly priestly class, while on the other end of the hierarchy, women are nearly simple straight lines.  On a less obvious level, the allegory is about how we are limited by the metaphysical contours of our world and our faculties of mind.

Abbott does not explicitly write of this, but his work clearly suggests that our ordinary manner of thinking about the world as being laid out in four dimensions might be a product of our faculties of mind.  Indeed, theories in contemporary physics suggest that we in fact live in a world best described by numerous more dimensions than the four we commonly accept.  For someone not acquainted with these theories, one feels like Mr. A. Square wrestling with the arguments of the sphere that assert unimaginable ideas.

Flatland is utterly charming.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Raft Is Not the Shore: Conversations toward a Buddhist/Christian Awareness / Daniel Berrigan and Thich Nhat Hanh -- Boston: Beacon Press, 1975

Daniel Berrigan and Thich Nhat Hanh are among the most important peace activists working during the Vietnam War.  Daniel Berrigan is a Catholic priest who was often at odds with the Catholic Church.  Among Berrigan's most influential actions were his reception of three American airmen released by the North Vietnamese and his destruction of draft files using homemade napalm.  For the latter action, he and eight other peace activists were jailed.  Thich Nhat Hanh is a Buddhist monk who worked to bring peace to Vietnam, particularly during the American phase of the war.  He was refused re-entry into Vietnam by the South Vietnamese government in 1973 after the Paris Peace Accord was signed.  

The Raft Is Not the Shore is the transcript of conversations between Berrigan and Nhat Hanh that took place in France at the close of the Vietnam War.  The topics of conversation include the role of religion in the world, the responsibilities of priests and monks, the relationships between government, economics, and religion and the importance of forming "communities of resistance" that will work against forces of violence and in favor of human rights and the dignity of all people.  There is a healthy dose of comparative religion in their conversations -- comparing, of course, Christianity and Buddhism, but not as much as one might have thought.  It is, by and large, a discussion between two peace activists about their experiences, their attempts to deal with the obstacles they faced, and their strategies for effective actions for peace.  In the course of their conversation, one can clearly distinguish their different dispositions.  Berrigan appears to be more strident and angry, while Nhat Hanh appears more patient and forgiving.  One might speculate about the reason for these different attitudes.  Are they a function of the religious background of the two men or are they simply a reflection of their individual temperaments?  In any case, it is clear that both men have a profound and sincere sense of justice and a commitment to peace that transcends their self-interests.

The work is worth reading whether you are looking for insight into these two important historical figures, insight into the Vietnam War, or insight into peace activism.  

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

After Sustainability: Denial, Hope, Retrieval / John Foster -- London: Routledge, 2015

After Sustainability is a frightening book.  Not only because it is based on the premise that climate change poses an apocalyptic future, but for the attitude that its author, John Foster, takes to that future.  Foster is of the mind that we have passed the point of no return and that nothing that we can do as a society will significantly mitigate the harms that a changing climate will create.  He is dismissive of environmentalist and activists that suggest we might achieve some kind of sustainable,  low carbon, global society that will be remotely livable.  Hence, "after sustainability" essentially suggests how we should think about our future once we have given up the false hope of sustainability.

His prescription calls for embracing our "dark self" which seems to be primarily committed to "existential resilience."  At times, Foster appears to suggest that this is a welcome return to a pre-moral attitude that is an expression of our primitive animality.  Less philosophically, Foster appears to suggest that societies that are rich enough should prepare to erect barriers to immigration from less fortunate societies and defend those barriers at all costs.  Whether he is or is not advocating this, he certainly seems to suggest that this will be a consequence of the apocalypse of climate change and that those who will survive will be those who are able to create something akin to the "transition towns" recently created to prepare for the economic disruptions following peak oil.

In all, Foster's attitude is needlessly pessimistic and assumes the coming of worst-case scenarios for climate change.  His response is quite in line with the amoral attitudes of American survivalists.  A more grounded assessment of our situation would indicate that there is a high chance, perhaps even likelihood, that we will not be able to preserve a functioning global society and that the repercussions of this will be disastrous for most of the world's population; however, there is also a non-negligible chance that what we do today will significantly mitigate the damage that climate change might otherwise do.  The worst-case scenarios result from "business as usual" characterizing the world's energy future and there indeed are power forces that will seek to continue with business as usual; however, just as the physics of the planet might be subject to dangerous tipping points, so too are our political, social, and economic institutions subject to tipping points.  Indeed these institutions might be far more subject to tipping points.  Abandoning the pressure to mitigate changes in our climate (as Foster seems to recommend) surrenders any chance that we might reach those positive tipping points.  If Foster is right, then nothing we do will avoid an apocalyptic future, but abandoning our moral responsibilities in favor of self-preservation based on his pessimistic assessment is premature and certainly morally indecent.  

Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle Earth / J.R.R. Tolkien -- Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1980

After the publication of The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien's son, Christopher, released Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle Earth.  It was a testament to his confidence in the importance of his father's work as The Silmarillion did not meet the expectations of Tolkien's fans.  As it happened, Unfinished Tales fared no better.  That's a shame as both posthumous works are great achievements despite being unfinished by the author.  Unfinished Tales contains stories from each of the three ages of Middle Earth.  The First Age is primarily the history of the elves.  In Unfinished Tales we can read about Tuor, a human raised by elves and his coming to the hidden elf kingdom of Gondolin.  We also can read about the fate of the children of Hurin, Turin and Nienor, both ill-fated by a curse placed on their father.  From the Second Age, we have stories of the men of Numenor, blessed by the god-like Valar, but virtually destroyed by the seduction of Sauron.  We also find a history of Galadriel and her husband Celeborn, elves of the noblest rank.  Told of the Third Age, the age in which the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings take place, are accounts of the loss of the Ring of Power, relations between Gondor and Rohan, and stories filling in a few gaps in the account given in The Lord of the Rings. Finally, there are three short accounts of the Wild Men of the Druedain, the five wizards, and the palantiri.

By and large the prose of Unfinished Tales is out of keeping with the novelistic form of Tolkien's more popular works and more akin to The Silmarillion, but there is enough connection to the popular works to make it somewhat more engaging to the casual Tolkien fan than was The Silmarillion.  Most certainly, the stories chosen by Christopher Tolkien to include in this volume are among the most important for gaining a deep understanding of Tolkien's larger vision of Middle Earth.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Silmarillion / J.R.R. Tolkien -- Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1977

The Silmarillion has a bad reputation.  After a spike in the popularity on American college campuses of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, his readers were eager for a similar work.  When they discovered that Tolkien's unpublished stories were consciously not in a traditional novelistic form, they largely turned their backs on them -- not just The Silmarillion, but all of his remaining unpublished works.  In the years following the publication of The Silmarillion, one could easily find copies of it in used bookstores.  This is all too bad, since there is much to appreciate in The Silmarillion, if one does not expect it to be like The Lord of the Rings.

The volume is composed of five works: "Ainulindale," "Valaquenta," Quenta Silmarillion, "Akallabeth," and "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age." "Ainulindale" is and account of the work of Eru, the One, called "Iluvatar" by the Elves.  Eru created everything. First among his creations were the Ainur (or more specifically, the Valar), god-like beings that remind one of the Olympian gods.  Tolkien describes their primary activity as the making of music, which is disrupted by the dissonance of one of the Ainur, Melkor, because of his pride.  Later, the music of the Valar takes on a new ontological form as Ea, the material universe and Arda, the world in which all of Tolkien's stories are set.  Included as a region of Arda is Middle Earth.  The tone of all of this is rather like The Book of Genesis. Never does Tolkien establish what one might consider a novelistic plot or characters of any substance.  What story line that can be found, is based on the rebellion of Melkor.  Upon my first reading, I was thrilled by the depth and majesty of the work and fascinated by its theological undertones, but like so many other readers, I was hoping that the remainder of the work would be more like The Lord of the Rings.

The second work in the volume, "Valaquenta," seems more like a snippet from an encyclopedia, providing entries on the Ainur: the Valar mentioned above and the Maia a demi-god like being.  Ther is also an entry on "the Enemies," including Melkor and Sauron, a Maia of The Lord of the Rings.  There is no doubt value here, but because the roles of the Valar and the Maia are not great in the remainder of the volume, the detail we find here is rather unnecessary for the whole.  We do get, however, a deeper understanding of the powers of the world that the Valar represent and so have a better sense of the cosmology within which the stories of the "Childern of Iluvatar" (elves and men) unfold.  Those stories are told in the three subsequent works in the volume.

The Quenta Silmarillion is the longest and most complex work in the volume.  It is a history of the First Age of the world in which the actions of the elves are of greatest import.  Elves are the "first born" of the Children of Iluvatar, discovered first by Melkor who had taken refuge in Middle Earth. Their fate was decided by a war between Melkor and the other Ainur, the outcome of which was the defeat of Melkor and his imprisonment for three ages.  Following the war, the Ainur invited the elves to come to Aman, "the Undying Lands" to live forever in peace and under the protection of the Ainur.  Three ambassadors were chose from the elves to receive the summons, Ingwe, Finwe, Elwe.  Each became a king of a portion of the elves and each encouraged their subjects to travel across the sea to the join the Ainur.  However, not all of them made the journey.

Perhaps the most gripping story in the Quenta Silmarillion is that of the "Flight of the Elves."  While in the Undying Lands, one elf, Feanor, son of Finwe, made three precious jewels that contained a sacred light.  He called the jewels "the silmarils."  They were, however, stolen from him and taken to Middle Earth by Melkor who had finished his time in prison.  In his pride and lust for the silmarils, Feanor and all his sons made a vow to recover them and treat anyone who withheld the silmarils from them as an enemy.  His decision to return to Middle Earth was opposed by the Valar, who declared that Feanor and any elf that left the Undying Lands with him could not return.  Feanor's pride led him to disregard the decree and he journeyed to Middle Earth.  Shockingly, his departure involved a civil war among the elves in which elves killed elves, forever staining their history.  In the end, Feanor and his followers made it to Middle Earth.  The remainder of the Quenta Silmarillion is the story of their struggle against Melkor to regain the silmarils.

Many of the stories told of that struggle contain thrilling details, but by and large they are schematic, outlining the broad history of the elves in Middle Earth.  The most well developed stories have been published in other works by Tolkien's son Christopher as part of the series of volumes entitled The History of Middle Earth and in one instance as a separate book, The Children of Hurin.  In all, the Quenta Silmarillion truly demonstrates Tolkien's expansive imagination.  If one is fascinated by the complexity and extent of his vision in The Lord of the Rings, one should be absolutely overawed by what he has given us in the Quenta Silmarillion.  Unfortunately, the idiom in which he has chose to write has not attracted the audience it deserves.  To truly appreciate the value of the work, one must give it more than a single reading.  I'm sure very few people have been so committed to understanding Tolkien's vision as to do this.

As if the Quenta Silmarillion were not enough to establish the majesty of his vision, Tolkien provides us with accounts of the Second and Third Ages of Middle Earth in The Silmarillion.  The Second Age is an account of the history of men, particularly the race of men called the Numenoreans, following the defeat of Melkor which ends the First Age.  During the Second Age, the evil of Melkor is carried on by his surviving vassal, Sauron.  Deceived by Sauron, men are induced to attack the Valar in the Undying Lands, which unsurprisingly brings about their destruction, with the exception of a dissident group, loyal to the Valar.

The final work in The Silmarillion is "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age."  This tells the story of the creation of the rings of power by Sauron and ultimate the War of the Last Alliance in which men and elves defeated Sauron and in which the prince of the Numenoreans, Isildur acquired the one ring of power, only to lose it when ambushed by orcs.  It is with the end of this last work that we are finally brought up to the time of Tolkien's more popular works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Undoubtedly, The Silmarillion is not everyone's cup of tea, but for anyone who loves The Lord of the Rings, the stories and history it holds give depth and meaning to that world.  It may take two or more readings to become clear about the various events and numerous figures in the legendarium, but once one has this, Frodo, Samwise, Gandalf, Aragorn, and all the rest of Tolkien's familiar characters can be seen in the supremely heroic light that the author envisioned for them.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary together with Sellic Spell / J.R.R. Tolkien, trans. -- Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014

Several years ago, I heard a rumor that a translation by Tolkien of Beowulf was found in his papers and that an eminent Tolkien scholar was working on editing it for publication.  Later, I heard that the scholar had abandoned the task.  So I was very pleasantly surprised to find Tolkien's translation of Beowulf on sale at my campus bookstore, edited by Tolkien's son, Christopher.  Tolkien's relationship to Beowulf and Beowulf scholarship is legendary.  In 1936, he published an influential study of the entitled, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics."  More than anything, that study elevated the reputation of Beowulf to the preeminent literary status that it has today.  Prior to that, Beowulf was seen mostly as a hotch-potch of story fragments which W.P. Ker described as putting peripheral matters at the center and central matters at the periphery.  According to Tolkien, the tangential narratives and allusions to other histories and legends lent depth and context to the story and that the centrality of the monsters (Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon) and how they were treated by the author offered an important insight into the poem and its telling.  For example, the reference to Grendel as being of the race of Cain and the connection between the dragon and Satan showed that Beowulf was neither fully a pagan epic nor a Christian homily.  Instead, it was a retelling of an earlier pagan legend by a Christian author.  The author's Christian world view could not help but make him (or her?) include a Christian slant on the drama.

It is clear that Tolkien's understanding of Beowulf is first rate if not second to none and so his edition of the poem can not be ignored.  Tolkien was also the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University and so his mastery of Old English verse is also of the first order.  At one time in his life he wrote a poem entitled The Fall of Arthur in the alliterative verse form of Old English.  This form is composed of verses made up of two phrases each usually made up of two stressed and two unstressed units of the form:  x / x / | x / x /.   The alliteration occurs when the third stressed unit is the same sound as the sound of the fist stressed unit and sometimes also the second unit.  For example: "the Geat prince went / for Grendel's mother" or "funeral fires / fumes of wood smoke."  Of course, every line in Old English meter is not slavishly fitted to these forms, but any attempt to capture the sound of the Old English poetry would tend to follow these patterns.  Tolkien, however, chose not to write his edition of Beowulf in verse.  Instead, the narrative is presented in prose.  This permits him to more easily capture the meaning of the poem since he is able to choose Modern English expressions that do not alliterate, but what is lost in poetry is gained in semantic accuracy.  At the same time Tolkien's rendition of the story is colored by his sense of drama.  His diction and word order make the work suitably archaic and often quite stirring.  Anyone with an appreciation for his prose will thoroughly enjoy his rendition.

In addition to the rendition of the poem itself, Christopher Tolkien has included a commentary on the text that was taken from Tolkien's lecture notes.  The commentary is nearly twice the length of the poem and this more than anything will provide the reader with deep insight into the poem and to the pagan times about which the poem is written.  For example, Tolkien explains the passage, "Leave here our warlike shields" with the annotation: "Note the prohibition of weapons or accoutrements of battle in the hall.  to walk in with spear and shield was like walking in nowadays with your hat on.  The basis of these rules was of course fear and prudence amid the ever-present dangers of an heroic age, but they were made part of the ritual, of good manners."  The annotation goes on further to point out that this custom was appropriate to a king's hall and that "It was death in Scandinavia to cause a brawl in a king's hall."

The presence of the commentary in the same volume as the rendition gives a reader three extremely attractive options:  (1)  Read the narrative strait through without reference to the commentary.  This allows you to best appreciate Tolkien's own literary techniques.  (2) Read the the commentary along with the narrative.  This provides you with a deep understanding of the story with Tolkien as your guide.  (3) Read the commentary alone.  This provides you with a fascinating study of Old English and the customs of pagan Northern Europe.  It's hard to decide which of these approaches is best.  Perhaps three readings of the work would be ideal.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Hobbit / J.R.R. Tolkien -- Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1976

A few weeks ago, I watched the concluding film of Peter Jackson's three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.  I was not disappointed, but only because I had seen the prior two films and had low expectations.  Jackson appears to have decided to make a set of films for an audience that loved his adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, but has not read The Hobbit.   In order not to allow the movies to confuse my recollections of the book, I decided to re-read The Hobbit for what was probably the fifth or sixth time.  Mind you, those readings were spread over a period of 44 years, though my last reading of it was only a few years ago, prior to Jackson's first Hobbit film.  Over the course of those decades, my experience of the book has changed little. 

For me, The Hobbit ranks first among light, "escapist" reading.  It's my literary "comfort food."  In contrast, The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien's other works provide us with more weighty themes.  Three characters are well-developed in The Hobbit: Bilbo Baggins, Thorin Oakenshield, and to a lesser extent Gandalf the Grey, but character development is not really the central virtue of the book.  Instead, The Hobbit takes us on a journey through a mysterious world which has horizons that are mainly limited to the scene of its action.  Certainly, there are hints of a wider world.  Much has been made of these hints by literary critics who ascribe the attraction of the novel to those hints.  Tolkien himself thought this, but in truth the hints are quite few.  Instead, the intimation of a wider, imaginary world is mostly a consequence of the non-human cast of characters.  If the characters are so different from us, then surely their world must be different.  No hints are really required for that.  What really makes the story endearing is that the reader understands Middle Earth's horizons to be much wider than what we see, but this world is one which is revealed to us only slowly and in the course of the journey.  This is analogous to a child's experience of his or her development to adulthood.

Following the story of The Hobbit along the journey to the Lonely Mountain, one begins in Bilbo's house.  Despite being built into the side of hill, Bilbo's house is familiar enough.  One can imagine the cozy fire, comfortable chairs, and of course plenty of food.  Soon enough, Bilbo's world is disturbed by a company of dwarves.  As a child, this intrusion from the outside was not terribly different from the appearance (in real life and on television and radio) of people from the world outside of my family and immediate friends.  They produced both interest and anxiety.  Eventually, Bilbo sets out with the Dwarves and plunges into a world that he knows little about.  In the course of his "adventure," his horizons become wider and wider, encounter challenging environments, trolls, goblins, wolves, a shape-shifting bear-man, a dismal forest, elves, men, and finally the Lonely Mountain and its dragon.  Along the way, Bilbo progressively rises to the challenges he faces.

His first real challenge comes with his encounter with the trolls.  Here Bilbo succeeds only in the sense that he musters the courage to attempt to pick the pocket of one of the trolls.  His (and the dwarves') escape is arranged by the intervention of Gandalf.  Bilbo's second challenge comes with his game of riddles with Gollum.  Again his escape is less of his own doing than, luck.  By finding a ring that makes him invisible and accidently uttering a riddle that stumps Gollum, Bilbo manages to escape the caverns beneath the Misty Mountains.  It is really not until the travelers make it into Mirkwood (a dismal forest) that Bilbo really begins to discover his capabilities.  His defeat of the spiders that have captured the dwarves is mostly a product of his invisibility, but by now, the powers of the ring can be thought of as indistinguishable from Bilbo's own evolving resources.

Bilbo's maturity as an agent in the story really begins in full when he formulates a successful plan to free the dwarves from imprisonment in the caverns of the wood elves.  It is an elegant escape, but not without sacrifice to the dwarves.  The culmination of Bilbo's progress comes at the Lonely Mountain, when he rather willingly confronts the dragon Smaug.  Bilbo is now most certainly a formidable actor in the wild and dangerous world that had been far outside his horizons at the start of his journey, but his development is more than one of adult confidence.  In the final acts of the novel, Bilbo steps out of his role as someone having an adventure when he truly acts to shape the course of events by delivering the Arkenstone (a gem prized by Thorin Oakenshield) to the armies arrayed against the dwarves.  Far from betraying his friends, Bilbo's action creates the possibility of their salvation and indeed, results in the moral salvation of Thorin Oakenshield.

What we see in The Hobbit is Bilbo's development from a childish existence to a mature adult actor.  At the same time, his maturity does not completely lose touch with his simple persona.  When the War of the Five Armies breaks out at the very end of the action, Bilbo is struck on the head with a rock and misses the greater part of the battle.  Some things remain too large for the hobbit. 

Reading the story as a child, I was fascinated, indeed enchanted, by the unfolding mysterious world and thrilled by Biblo's capacity to rise to meet its challenges.  I found strength in the idea that someone so small and unheroic might succeed in his foray into the wider world. 

The two other characters that stand out in the novel are Thorin Oakenshield and Gandalf.  Gandalf clearly serves as a parental figure, wiser than Bilbo, watching out for his safety, and guiding his steps.  Still, his failure to save Bilbo, the dwarves, and even himself from the wolves and goblins east of the Misty Mountains reveals both the dangers of the wider world and the limitations of those we must rely upon.  It is noteworthy that Biblo's developing maturity only becomes manifest when Gandalf leaves the adventure. 

Thorin's character development stands as a cautionary tale.  At first Thorin is a reasonably admirable, if flawed, adult character; but he is overcome by his greed and he leads the people for whom he is responsible into needless danger.  It is Bilbo's recognition of Thorin's failing that leads him to take the final step in his own development.   Bilbo's relationship with Thorin reminds us that in the end, one must be responsible for one's own actions and know when to depart from ostensible authority. 

Again, these character developments are not really the magic in the story -- at least not for me.  Instead, it is Tolkien's ability to posit a world unlike our own and show us only what a developing character can see along his journey.   The hints of the grand stories of Middle Earth told in The Silmarillion are not what makes The Hobbit exciting.  What gives the novel its power is the slow, but progressive revelation of a mysterious world that provides a model for one's own actual coming of age.  Reading it much later in life reminds me of those days when the wide, actual world (or should I say the "unimaginary world") seemed dark and mysterious, and where all that was familiar was closely bound in space, time, and culture.  Like no other book The Hobbit allows me to recapture that exciting sense of pending discovery.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

U.S. Support for Israeli Aggression

The news media (well, NPR, at least) has been covering the recent Israeli war crimes in the Gaza Strip, making me more and more unsettled.  Years ago, I was closely monitoring the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors.  I even compiled a 200 page chronology of violence and its numerous resultant deaths.    I also served as the faculty advisor to a group of Palestinian students at State Cloud State University.  In 1990, following the invasion of Kuwait by the Iraqi army, the U.S. moved troops into Saudi Arabia and launched an invasion of Kuwait and then southern Iraq.  My pacifist principles motivated me to engage in an act of civil resistance by blocking entrance to a federal building the morning after the U.S. invasion.   My arrest (with about 30 other people) led to judicial proceedings that were eventually dropped “in the interest of justice,” according to the district attorney.  Nonetheless, the war, my arrest, and activities involved in mounting a defense, took an emotional toll on me, and I ended up scaling back the anti-imperialism, anti-war activism that had motivated me in years past.  Perhaps it is merely due to my current exposure to news reports, but Israel’s recent bombardment of the Gaza Strip has re-awakened my indignity over Israel’s violence or more to the point, U.S. support for Israeli violence.  It is ironic that the U.S. is considering greater sanctions against Russia for manufacturing the equipment that shot down a Malaysian passenger jet, while it manufactures the fighter planes that are killing Palestinian civilians and provides other military, intelligence, and diplomatic assistance to Israel.
The latest data I can find regarding the death toll in the conflict indicates that nearly 700 Palestinians have been killed.  A list of the names and ages indicate that those killed represent a broad swath of Palestinian society, men, women, infants, children, and the very aged. (See Thirty Israelis have been killed.  Two of the Israelis were civilians, most of the remainder were soldiers likely killed in the ground invasion.  At least one was killed by friendly fire. The hostility between these peoples is certainly driven by many factors, but surely the most potent factor is the death of friends and family members killed by the opposition.  In this instance, the responsibility for death falls overwhelmingly with the Israelis.  It does not take subtle analysis to understand that the main drivers of this animosity are the actions by the Israeli government in launching air strikes that they know full well will result in the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians. 

The justifications coming from Israel are that they are responding to threats to their people as any nation would and that they must degrade the Palestinian capacity to inflict harm on Israel.  Three things should be noted here.  First, the capacity of Palestinians to inflict harm on Israel is minimal, indeed, pathetic.  After weeks of rockets launched against Israel, there has been very little property damage and nearly no one killed by those rockets. Second, Israel’s claim to respond to threats as any other nation would ignores the fact that the Gaza Strip is occupied by Israel, and consequently, Israel has a legal responsibility to maintain normal life there.  I’m certain that if Israelis were expected to live under the conditions in the Gaza Strip they would not find this “normal life.”  Resistance to the occupation is of a very different moral character than cross-border aggression between independent states.  Third, Just War Theory requires that belligerents refrain from killing non-combatants and that retaliation be proportional to an assault.  The list of people killed by Israeli air strikes reveals that non-combatants make up a majority of the people killed by Israel and of course a ratio of more than 20-1 is hardly proportional.  It begs the question: “How many innocent people is Israel willing to kill in order to “protect” its population from Palestinian rockets that pose such a relatively weak threat?” Apparently hundreds are acceptable.  Are 1,000 innocent deaths acceptable?  Are 4,000 innocent deaths acceptable.  Is there no limit to the number of innocent people that Israel may kill to "protect" its citizens -- not from actual killings, but from the threat of killings?  As this number gets larger and larger, it becomes clear how little regard the Israeli government has for human life and how inflated its regard is for its own citizens’ lives.  Nationalism (if you buy into that) might justify a greater regard for the lives of one’s compatriots, but human decency sets limits.  Today, Israel’s government is devoid of human decency.

And now for the real reason I’m writing this:  U.S. support for Israel makes us complicit in the war crimes that are currently unfolding.  It is ironic that the U.S. is considering greater sanction against Russia for having manufactured the rocket which destroyed a Malaysian airliner when Israel is employing jets made in the U.S. that are killing a much greater number of people.  We must call upon our government to end its historic support for the Israeli government and recognize that it – as having the most powerful military in the region – bears the primary responsibility for the situation within its borders and the territories it occupies (the West Bank and the Gaza Strip).  We must call upon our government to stop supporting the purveyors of violence and insist that they reach an agreement with the Palestinians that recognizes the basic human rights of the Palestinians.

Having written all this, I must acknowledge that U.S. complicity in the war crimes currently being committed by Israel is but one of many acts of complicity – along with acts for which the U.S. is directly responsible – that are causing great suffering and death around the world.  By singling out the war crimes that are being committed by Israel, I do not mean to diminish our responsibilities for the events and conditions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, and elsewhere, where our political, economic, and military aid is causing suffering and supporting oppressive governments. 
Once upon a time, U.S. support for Israel was the point of the spear of U.S. imperialism.  With the invasion and occupation of numerous states in the Middle East in the past two decades, Israel’s unique role changed, but as the U.S. presence is declining in the Middle East, its relationship with Israel is returning to its past condition, and we are called upon to raise our voices to try to reverse our country’s reprehensible influence in the region.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Why the Silence?

It has been quite some time since I posted an entry to this blog.  So I thought I'd provide an explanation to the curious.  I have been on professional leave (a.k.a. sabbatical) for a few months working on a book on Indian Buddhism.  It has meant that I have not spent time reviewing the books I am reading, since what I am drawing from them presumably will appear in the book.  For fuller disclosure, I'm appending below the draft preface for the book.

About a year ago, I was having lunch with a co-worker and the topic of Buddhism came up.  She told me that she really didn’t know much about Buddhism, just that is was a very peaceful religion.  I was tempted to give her a quick tutorial on some of Buddhism’s main ideas, but decided it would be too pedantic for a lunch conversation.  I simply agreed with her and mentioned that I had a long standing interest in Buddhism.  She seemed to want me to say at least something about Buddhism, but by then I had made my decision not to say anything of substance.  In retrospect, I think I was a little worried that by speaking extemporaneously, I wouldn’t give her a very clear or even sufficiently accurate account of Buddhism.  In any case, I subsequently began thinking about what I might say had I had time to formulate my thoughts. 

A few weeks later, I started sketching an outline of Buddhism’s main ideas and thinking about writing a short essay for people like my co-worker.  The sketch of the “short essay” soon began looking like several short essays and maybe even a book.  I doubt that my co-worker really would want to read such a thing, but the idea of putting my understanding of Buddhism in writing began to take over my thoughts.  Finding time to do this would be difficult.  Thankfully, with the support of my immediate supervisors and the Dean of Libraries at my university, I was awarded a professional leave of absence to take on the project. 

It has been more than forty years since I first read a book on Buddhism.  It was Buddhism by Christmas Humphreys.  I was about 15 years old and had recently been confirmed into my mother’s Lutheran Church, but within less than a year of my confirmation, my scientific frame of mind had led me to reject the empirical claims in the Old Testament and to recognize the untestability of Christianity’s theological claims.  Only Christian morality seemed attractive anymore.  Nonetheless, my rather philosophical disposition brought me to wonder about other religions.  By chance, Christmas Humphreys’s book was available on my father’s bookshelf.  Reading it was a most rewarding experience.  Here was a “religion” that seemed to rely on neither speculative theology nor dubious empirical claims, and most of all, it addressed in a clear and rational way two questions that were important to me:  what is the world ultimately like and how can I live a virtuous life?  Perhaps more importantly, it provided me with a prescription on how to reduce the normal adolescent discontent that I was experiencing. 
Since then I have read widely on the topic, and Buddhism’s insights have helped me navigate some rather difficult times.  During college and graduate school, I began picking up books on Buddhism at used bookstores, selecting ones that seemed reasonably scholarly and which had some clear connection to my developing understanding of Buddhism.  Consequently, the foundation of my understanding lies in works published in the latter half of the twentieth century, particularly 1960-1980. The authors that had the greatest influence on me were Edward Conze and D.T. Suzuki who ignited in me a strong interest in Zen.  Around 1990, I came across T.R.V. Murti’s The Central Philosophy of Buddhism.  I was mightily impressed, mainly because of its effort to connect Buddhism to Western philosophy, especially Immanuel Kant for whom I had and still have a strong affinity.  Murti’s book redirected my interest away from East Asian Buddhism.  Indian Buddhism now had become my primary interest.  With this grounding, I went on to read English translations of a number of sūtras and abhidharma texts that turned up in used bookstores.  The Prajñāpāramitā literature was of special interest.  

Off and on, I have called myself a Buddhist, but as I have had no formal training in Buddhism and never belonged to a Buddhist community, calling myself a Buddhist always seemed a little pretentious.   Nonetheless, I now find that I know more about Buddhism than I know about the Christianity.  Furthermore, I find that the central insights of Buddhism have become deeply ingrained in how I think and behave in the world.  In that sense, I guess I am a self-taught Buddhist or perhaps more accurately, my teachers have been the authors I have read, and my Buddhist community has been people with Buddhist dispositions, whether they knew these dispositions were Buddhist or not.

At the same time, I am a philosopher in the Anglo-American, analytic tradition.  My Ph.D. dissertation dealt with contemporary Western political philosophy, and over the course of twelve years, I taught philosophy at one college and two universities, specializing in Moral Theory, the Philosophy of Law, and, of course, Political Philosophy.  I also had an abiding interest in Epistemology and Metaphysics, particularly the justification of moral claims and the concept of personhood – admittedly a rather wide ranging set of interests; too many to be much of an expert on anything.

Often, I found the ideas that I encountered and taught were similar to ideas that appear in the Buddhist tradition, but I never made any serious attempt to describe those similarities nor did I ever bring them into my classrooms.  My hope, with this work, is that I will be able to show how several important Buddhist ideas are akin to venerable ideas of the Western philosophical tradition.  Too often I hear Western philosophers dismiss Eastern philosophy as wooly-minded speculation.  Too often I hear devotees of Eastern philosophies dismiss Western philosophy as vain, irrelevant, and superficial.  I suspect that both are speaking mainly out of ignorance.  If I my work can undermine those prejudices, even a little, I will consider it a success.

This work will attempt to reach an educated general audience.  It will also restrict the number of footnotes to the sources upon which it is based.  I do this both to facilitate a more fluid reading experience and because it is not always clear to me what should be considered the generally accepted facts about Buddhism and what is controversial enough to deserve citation.  Instead, I will provide an annotated bibliography of the works that have been important to the writing of this work and I encourage the reader to explore these works in their own way.  I trust that after decades of reading, what has stuck in my brain is likely to be those views that I have encountered on numerous occasions and therefore are established reasonably well, at least in the English language literature.  My lack of ability to read Sanskrit, Pāli, Chinese, Japanese, or Tibetan is, of course, a great weakness in my ability to sort out the truth in any other way than this regrettably casual method.  I will, however, make use of a number of foreign language terms throughout the text.  After all, they are commonly imbedded in the English language texts and translations that form the basis of this work.  English works on Buddhism often make use of Sanskrit and Pāli terminology, and the use of diacritical marks is not always consistent from one author to another.  So for the sake of consistency, I will employ Sanskrit terms whenever they are available and I will use The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism edited by Robert E. Buswell, Jr. and Donald S. Lopez, Jr. as my authority on spelling, capitalization, and diacritics with The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion edited by Stephan Schuhmacher and Gert Woerner as a secondary resource.  There will, of course, be instances when I fail to follow this practice, but hopefully, they will be limited.