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Monday, May 18, 2015

The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness / Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche -- N.Y.: Harmony Books, 2007

In 2002, Yongey Mingyur was among a small number of Buddhist monks who came to the University of Wisconsin to become the subjects of a psychological study of long-term meditation adepts.  This study was among the groundbreaking research that has made the interaction between Western psychology and Buddhism so fruitful in recent years.  Subsequently, Yongey Mingyur has written a number of books on Buddhism, particularly Buddhist meditation.  The Joy of Living is among these books.

The Joy of Living is an endearing combination of personal stories, advice on meditation, Buddhist doctrine, and explanations of scientific discoveries that are important to the Buddhist worldview.  For example, Yongey Mingyur describes how neuroplasticity is related to the Buddhist practice of training one's mind and he lays out the similarities between contemporary theories in physics and the Buddhist conceptions of impermanence and emptiness.

Most significant, however, is his advice on meditation.  In a nut shell, Yongey Migyur demystifies meditation, explaining that it is not something that requires great effort.  Instead, one can begin a meditation practice simply by taking the time to passively observe the feelings, experiences, and thoughts that come to one's mind.  Furthermore, meditation need not involve retiring to a quiet secluded place, but can be done anywhere and for even very short periods of time.  Distractions that are normally thought to be impediments to meditation are, for Yongey Mingyur, simply objects upon which one might meditate.

One suspects, however, that this description of meditation is merely preliminary to a more advanced practice.  Beginning by observing one's feelings, experiences, and thoughts certainly allows one to distance oneself from the activity of "the monkey brain" that normally drives us from one mental phenomenon to the next.  With that distance, one is then in a position to control (or at least nuance) one's mental phenomena and bend it toward the non-attachment that characterizes enlightenment.  Yongey Mingyur's preliminary practice is certainly a necessary step toward the more advance, practice that is less casual what he encourages.

Most of all, Yongey Mingyur's literary style is conversation and extremely accessible, even while he explains extremely difficult ideas in Buddhist doctrine.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen / Christopher McDougall -- N.Y.: Vantage Books, 2011

Christopher McDougall has given us an amazing and charming book in Born to Run.  McDougall, a runner himself, has been a war correspondent, an editor for Men's Health, and a writer for numerous magazines. On assignment in Mexico, he came upon a magazine article about the Tarahumara Indians, who have made running the centerpiece of their culture.  Members of their tribe routinely run scores, even hundreds of miles at a time over the rough landscape of the Copper Canyons in Mexico.  As a writer for Runner's World, McDougall set out to meet the Tarahumara runners along with a mysterious American runner, Caballo Blanco, who was said to live among them.  After a difficult journey through territory controlled by drug lords, McDougall makes contact with the Tarahumara and Caballo.  From there he begins to explore the history of the Tarahumara's encounters with American ultra-runners, athletes who also run grueling 100 mile races over forbidding cross-country trails.  In this early section of the book, we read about amazing athletes and their dedication to a sport that resides on the periphery of the sports world.

Born to Run is his account of the people and races that he encountered in his research.  In this early section of the book, we read about amazing athletes and their dedication to a sport that resides on the periphery of the sports world.  It is easy to simply dismiss these athletes as lunatics.  Who in their right mind, after all, would run 100 miles non-stop?  But as we read about them, one gains a sincere respect for people who have developed the discipline to accomplish such a task without major injury and in a manner that they clearly find rewarding and even spiritually uplifting.  Along the way McDougall tells us not only of the remarkable spirit of these long distance runners, but of how we humans have lost touch with an ability that, according to McDougall, gave us the evolutionary edge to survive in an otherwise deadly environment:  the ability to run great distances.  While slower and weaker than other animals, our ability to patiently track prey, allowed our ancestors to chase them for great distances until they collapsed from exhaustion.  McDougall also presents the case that our feet have been well-adapted to run these great distances without causing injury.  Ironically, the sports running shoes that are designed to protect feet are causing more injuries than would occur to barefoot runners.  His book is part anthropology and part evolutionary biology.

The most interesting aspect of the book is, however, his account of the race that is organized by Caballo, bringing several American ultra-runners to the Copper Canyons to race against the Tarahumara.  In this final portion of the narrative, we get engaging accounts of the various and free-spirited personalities of the ultra-runners as they make their way to the Copper Canyons and interact with the Tarahumara and it is the Tarahumara who are the real stars of the story, even while we learn less of them than we learn of the American runners.  This is due undoubtedly to the access McDougall had to the characters and to the cultural reticence of the Tarahumara.

The tale is eminently exciting and entertaining.  Whether or not you are a runner, you are bound to find the protagonists in McDougall's story admirable and inspiring.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Buddhism / Christmas Humphreys -- [n.l.]: Penguin Books, 1951

Buddhism by Christmas Humphreys was the first book I read about Buddhism.  I was perhaps 15 years old, newly exploring religions other than the Christianity.  I was immediately taken by Buddhism's approach to life.  It seemed simultaneously rational and compassionate.  It offered a perspective on the world that did not rely on speculation and unsupported faith and the personality traits that it prescribed seem eminently virtuous.  I did not read much more about Buddhism until many years later, but Humphreys's book made a strong enough impression on me that I was always tempted to describe myself as a Buddhist.

This is the third (perhaps fourth) time I have read the book and with this reading I now more clearly understand how it shaped my thinking about Buddhism.  Buddhism is a general introduction to the religion.  It presents chapters on the life of the Buddha and his ministry.  It then goes on to describe the essential doctrines of early Buddhism in five chapters, followed by a chapter on the Sangha, three chapters on Mahayana Buddhism, chapters on Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, and finally two chapters on "the fruits" of Buddhism and contemporary Buddhism.

Humphreys does a good job in nearly all of these chapters.  His accounts are generally clear and accurate.  He does, however, present some ideas in a rather sectarian fashion.  His treatment of Tibetan Buddhism over emphasizes the magical and ritualistic trappings of the tradition, making it seem a poor degeneration of a noble tradition.  His characterization of Zen, on the other hand, describes it not only as the consummation of Buddhist thought and practice, but the highest achievement of human spiritual and philosophical thought.  His treatment of the concept of the self appears to be most consistent with Yogachara thinking in which the self is a kind of world consciousness (what is sometimes elsewhere described as a "storehouse" consciousness).  At times Humphreys even appears to verge into agreement with Pudgalavada Buddhism which accepts an "inexpressible" self or the Advaita Vedanta that posits an eternal, universal soul.  Humphreys asserts that the earlier doctrines which accepted anatta or the doctrine of no-self misunderstood the true views of the Buddha.  Perhaps the largest missing piece in his account is an clear and detailed explanation of the doctrine of sunyata or emptiness which was the critical concept in the Madhyamaka school.

As a result of these more or less evaluative treatments, my own impression of Buddhism failed to appreciate the importance of anatta and sunyata, and it led me to explore and embrace Zen for perhaps longer than was good for my progress through understanding the whole of Buddhism.  It was nearly twenty years later that I finally picked up T.R.V. Murti's The Central Philosophy of Buddhism in which a gained a good understanding of anatta and sunyata and recognized the importance of their place in Buddhist thought.  I don't mean to denigrate the ideas and perspectives of Zen or the Yogacara tradition.  I merely hope to point out that a best understanding of Buddhist thought is not achieved by reading its history in reverse.  To appreciate Zen and the Yogacara Buddhism,  one should first understand and appreciate the early schools of Buddhism and the orthodox view of the self that they propose.  With that (and with an understanding of Advaita Vedantism) one can appreciate the remarkable perspective of the Madhyamaka and the natural reaction to it that resulted in Zen and the Yogacara tradition.

I  am forever thankful that I encounter Christmas Humphreys's book at an early age.  It no doubt made a significant and very beneficial contribution to my intellectual growth and perspective on life.  I only wish that before going on to read about Zen, I was directed to the earlier phases of Buddhist thought, particularly the doctrine of no-self.  It may have been too much to expect a teenager to understand and appreciate the concept of emptiness, but with the doctrine of no-self under my belt, I would likely have come to it sooner than I did.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

What the Buddha Taught / Walpola Rahula -- Revised Edition -- N.Y.: Grove Weidenfeld, 1959, 1974

Walpola Rahula's short book What the Buddha Taught is among the best introductions to the essential doctrines of early Buddhism that I have read.  His introductory chapter admirably lays out the basic "attitude of mind" that characterizes Buddhism.  This is followed by four chapters, each on one of the Four Noble Truths:  the fact of suffering or dissatisfaction (dukkha), cause of dukkha, the cessation of dukkha, and the actions by which one brings about the cessation of dukkha.  Rahula then devotes a two chapters on topics that are critical for the appreciation of Buddhist enlightenment.  The first of these chapters deals with what is possibly the most important concept unique to Buddhism among the world's venerable religions:  the doctrine of the non-existence of the self (anatta).  The second chapter is devoted to the cultivation of the mind through meditation.

In the chapter on anatta, Rahula appears to be responding to a work that had been recently published by Christmas Humphreys.  Humphreys translates a passage in the Dhammapada as asserting "The Self is the Lord of the Self."  From this, Humphreys goes on to reject the Theravada interpretation of the doctrine of anatta, claiming that their are two selves:  one that is the composition of psycho-physical attributes and another that is "a reservoir of character brought over from life to life" which while not immortal, endures long enough to "control the lower self" and in a long process of self-purification, become liberated from the suffering world.  Against this, Rahula argues that the translation that Humphreys accepts is faulty.  Instead, Atta hi attano natho should be translated "One is one's own refuge" or "One is one's own support."  The passage does not suggest a bifurcation of the self.  On this score and on others, Rahula's interpretation of Buddhism is in accord with the doctrines of Early Buddhism, i.e., the Buddhism that pre-existed the Mahayana reformation.

In the final chapter, Rahula discusses how this ancient practice can be made relevant to the modern world.  Though written more than 50 years ago, his account is still quite relevant.  A significant portion of it refers to the Sigala Sutta and is devoted to recognizing the importance of loving and respecting ("worshiping" the people in one's life in place of the six directions that were traditionally worshiped in the ancient Indian practice, but Rahula also discusses what is a lay Buddhist's proper relationship to economics and politics.

Finally, Rahula includes translations of five important suttas and excerpts from five more.  These are generally the suttas that he has referred to in the course of his book.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball / John Feinstein -- N.Y.: Doubleday, 2014

Beneath the tip of the iceberg of Major League Baseball lies the minor leagues.  For every major league team there are at least six professional teams in a hierarchy of minor leagues:  Triple-A, Double-A, three A-level leagues (high, low, and short season), and Rookie.  Additionally, there are leagues outside the U.S. that feed the major league teams, most significantly the Mexican League.  John Feinstein's book, Where Nobody Knows Your Name, relates the experiences of a number of players (six in particular) who have spent years -- even decades -- in these leagues.  Their stories are engaging and revealing.

The pay is not good.  Only in the Triple-A could it be said to compete with what a player might get in another profession and the rigors of travel make life in the minors even less appealing.  Instead of flying from game to game, minor league players travel by bus, sometimes several hours after a night game, arriving at the town hosting their next game just after sunrise.  Clearly, the players are looking (and working) for something better -- at very least, just a shot at a short stint in the majors where the minimum pay is an order of magnitude better along with everything else: the stadiums, the locker rooms, the hotel rooms, the transportation, the medical and coaching support, and even the food; but though all of this is certainly an attraction, Feinstein's interviews with the players clearly show that their ambition is driven mostly by a desire to excel in the sport they love.

The players that Feinstein focuses on have seen both the majors and the minors, spending most of their careers in the minors, but periodically getting called up to play on a major league team, sometimes for a season or two, sometimes for a handful of days.  Nearly all of them have been traded from one team to another a dizzying number of times.  Usually too often to establish any strong connection to the team or its players.  Indeed, they appear to be playing entirely for themselves, constantly trying to prove their worth to their major league sponsor or to another major league team that might choose to buy their contract or pick them up on waivers.

Feinstein relates story after story of players being invited to a major league team's spring training, sparking hopes that they will be signed for the season.  Those who do not are of course disappointed, but often take consolation that they might be selected to join the major league team after the roster is expanded in August.  Still, the likelihood of this happening is only high for a few players -- "prospects" as they are termed.  The remainder of the players seem mostly there to fill out a roster to make games possible that will keep the prospects sharp.

Along with stories of the players, Feinstein tells us about the coaches, the managers, the umpires, and even the grounds keepers.  All of them are laboring in the purgatory of the minor leagues in hopes of "going up" to the majors.  The life of umpires is especially poignant.  Unlike the players who can play for a major league team, get sent back to the minors, and then later return to the majors, the umpire is promoted through the minor league ranks, until they are finally selected for major league games.  Their opportunities are generally limited to replacing umpires who have decided to retire, often in their sixties.  If a minor league umpire is deemed not to be major league-caliber, he is likely to be let go to make room for the umpiring equivalent of a player "prospect."  It's "up or out" for umpires.

While Feinstein's writing is indeed engaging, it is sometimes repetitious.  This in part is due to the similarity of the players' experiences, but the reader frequently encounters sentences that are all-but identical to ones read before.  The similarity in the stories makes it difficult -- dare I say impossible -- to keep the particular career of the players straight.  This is complicated by the structure of the narrative.  Six people are the subjects of the book and their stories are not told complete and in sequence.  Instead, a player's career is told in vignettes interspersed with other players' vignettes.  It's not clear if this was Feinstein's intent, but the resultant impression is of an archetypal minor leaguer, precariously living on the cusp of success.  While the stories of the nearly-successful are certainly engrossing, one is struck by what must be the great majority of minor league players who don't find even the modicum of success of Feinstein's subjects.  Surely, many of them, particularly those in Double-A leagues or less must understand that they are never destined to play in the majors.  Feinstein's book would have benefited from their stories as well.

In the end, though, one feels a great appreciation for the minor league player.  Despite laboring outside the spotlight, these players are among the very best players on the planet, working hard to prove to the world and themselves that they are such and hoping to stay in the game as long as possible.  Toward the end of the book, Feinstein describes two players, John Suomi and Scott Elarton, sitting alone in a dugout watching the rain fall.  Elarton is hoping that the game will not be cancelled because he is scheduled to pitch.  It is the last game of the season and it is that season that he will play.  He wants to end his decade-long career on a high note.  "John and I had a long talk about what your last day in baseball might feel like," Elarton said.  "We agreed we didn't want it to feel like this, but maybe this was just reality."  Reality is was: the game was called, the season was over as was Elarton's career.



 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Verses from the Center: A Buddhist Vision of the Sublime / Stephen Batchelor -- N.Y.: Riverhead Books, 2000

Among the most important concepts that Buddhism has contributed to the world's history of ideas is the concept of śūnyatā which is often translated as "emptiness."  Commonly, we understand things in the world as falling into two ontological categories: being and nothingness.  Given this duality, emptiness is often misunderstood as simply another way of referring to nothingness.  It is, however, better understood as marking a third ontological category that is neither being nor nothingness.  At the same time, emptiness has important relations to these two standard ontological categories.  To understand emptiness, consider a chess set.  It is composed of eight white pawn, eight white pieces, eight black pawns, eight black pieces, and a board.  If we imagine a chess set sitting before us on a table we might say that there are 33 objects on the table; however, we might also say that there is a chess set on the table.  Could this really mean there are 34 objects on the table?  Not if by an object we mean something that exists independently of all other things, since the chess set exists only dependently on its 33 independently existing objects.  The chess set, while certainly existing, has an ontological status that is different from its component elements.  Buddhists call this form of existence "dependent existence" and say of dependently existing objects that they are "empty."  Among the most striking observations that has come out of the Buddhist tradition is the view that all things in the phenomenal world are empty.  This is not a doctrine that all Buddhist embrace, but it is one which was clearly articulated by the second century Indian philosopher Nagarjuna.  

Dependent existence might also come about not by a mereological relation, but by a causal dependency.  States of affairs that that currently exist only exist as a product of the prior conditions which brought them about.  They exist dependent upon their causes.  Buddhists refer to this relationship as "dependent origination."  Again, as with mereological dependence, all things in the phenomenal world originate dependently.  More simply put: all things have a cause.  All things are a result of prior conditions.  

The idea of dependent origination and emptiness appear in some of the earliest Buddhist texts, but as mentioned above, it did not take center stage in Buddhist thinking until it was highlighted by Nagarjuna.  Nagarjuna's most significant work is the Mulamadhyamikakarika which Stephen Batchelor translates as Verses from the Center.  There are several translations of the Mulamadhyamikakarika, most recently, Mark Siderits and Shoryu Katsura translated it in their work Nagarjuna's Middle Way.  Another important translation appears in Jay Garfield's The Fundamental Wisdom off the Middle Way which Batchelor recommends as "a more literal, academic translation."  Nagarjuna's work is composed of 27 chapters.  The shortest chapter is made up of six, four-line verses, while the longest chapter is made up of 40, four-line verses (at least this is how Garfield parses the text within the chapters). To illuminate the concept of emptiness, Nagarjuna discusses a variety of metaphysical topics, including time, motion, causation, actions, and the self as well as specifically Buddhist concepts like nirvana, the Buddha nature, and the Four Noble Truths.  The basic strategy of the work is to demonstrate through close logical analysis that all theories about the metaphysical concepts under scrutiny cannot be correct.  Through reductio ad absurdum arguments, Nagarjuna shows that the tools of reason cannot lead to an adequate understanding of of ultimate truth. Ultimate truth is accessible to us only after we understand this and open ourselves to a direct understanding through an intuition of the emptiness of all things in our experience.

Nagarjuna's doctrine of emptiness is a monumental achievement in the history of ideas.  From it, the numerous schools of Mahayana Buddhism emerged, particularly the Madhyamaka schools present in Tibet today and the Chinese and Japanese schools of Ch'an and Zen Buddhism.  These later school have, of course, additional important influences besides Nagarjuna. We are particularly fortunate that Stephen Batchelor took up the task of translating and commenting on the Mulamadhyamakakarika in that he brings a thorough understanding of the Tibetan tradition (particularly the Dge lugs) as well as Zen.  Furthermore,  Batchelor brings a critical Western perspective to his interpretations.  Batchelor became steeped in the scholarly study of Buddhism while studying under the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala.  He eventually felt a need to go beyond scholarship and seek out a more direct understanding of Buddhism.  Traveling to South Korea, Batchelor joined a Zen monastery, where he pursued a path of meditation.  Ultimately, he left the monastery to marry, move to England, and become a lay Buddhist.  Nonetheless, he has continued to write and lecture on Buddhism.  He has become well-known as a "secular Buddhist," seeking to preserve the practical, rational elements of Buddhism while discarding the religious, speculative, and magic elements.  Batchelor believes that only by doing this will Buddhism find wider acceptance in the West.

His translation of the Mulamadhyamakakarika is clear, crisp, and poetic.  It seems to reflect the sensibility of the Japanese haiku.  For example, he translates a verse in chapter on the self as follows:

When the Buddhas don't appear
And their followers are gone,
The wisdom of awakening
Bursts forth by itself.

Compare this to Garfield's more "literal, academic translation:"

When the fully enlighten ones do not appear,
And when the disciples have disappeared,
The wisdom of the self-enlightened ones
Will arise completely without a teacher.

Or compare it to the Siderits-Katsura translation:

Though the completely enlightened ones do not arise and the sravakas disappear,
The knowledge of the pratyekabuddhas arise independently.

Or compare the translations of another verse in a chapter on the body.  First, Batchelor:

I have no body apart
From the parts which form it;
I have no parts
Apart from a "body."

Next, Garfield:

Apart form the cause of form,
Form cannot be conceived.
Apart from form,
The cause of form is not seen.

Finally, Siderits-Katsura:

Rupa is not found separate from the cause of rupa.
Nor is the cause of rupa seen without rupa.

One is immediately attracted to Batchelor's verses.  In most instances, they have the capacity to capture the imagination of the reader and prompt deep reflection, when the other translations seem flat or simply puzzling; however, the Garfield and Siderits-Katsura are certainly more faithful translations of the original work.  While someone not well acquainted with the concepts that Nagarjuna is explicating will certainly find Garfield and Siderits-Katsura puzzling, both translations are accompanied with helpful commentary.  So the reader is left with two options:  reading Batchelor for the pleasure of his style or reading Garfield or Siderits-Katsura to deepen one's understanding of Nagarjuna.  In defense of Batchelor, though, one might justly argue that he has done a fine job of conveying the spirit of the original and that for the most part one does not need a strong background in the Madhyamaka tradition to get a passable understanding of the force of the root text.  Still, reading Batchelor's translation alone will not leave one with a full understanding.

It should be noted, though, that Verses from the Center also contains Batchelor's very fine introduction, entitled "Intuitions of the Sublime."  The title clearly conveys Batchelor's approach to Nagarjuna.  While Nagarjuna is well-known for the incisiveness of his arguments, his final goal is to demonstrate that argumentation cannot lead us to a true understanding of the world.  This can be achieved only through intuition.  Batchelor appears to use the Mulamadhyamakakarika as an inspiration to write poetry that is often only loosely based on the root text, but which may have the ability to ignite the reader's intuitions and lead one to an understanding that a "more literal, academic translation" cannot.

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 thubtenchodron.org, 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.