Sunday, March 31, 2013

Exploring the Yogasutra: Philosophy and Translation / Daniel Raveh -- London: Continuum, 2012

Exploring the Yogasutra is not for the novice.  Daniel Raveh's exploration mainly addresses the psychology and epistemology underlying Pantanjali's Yogasutra; but he also discusses the difficulties of translation, particularly translating an ancient text in a dead language of a foreign culture into a modern idiom.  One can hardly expect that the original meanings of the words will be replicated simply and concisely in a modern language; however, one might hope that if the ideas under discussion are eternal and universal truths that any relatively well-developed language would provide some way of expressing those ideas.  Since there clearly are difficulties in translating the Yogasutra, one is led to conclude either that it does not reach what is eternal and universal in human experience or that our manner of understanding human experience is variable and requires a more or less significant reframing of how we understand experience.  Anyone remotely sympathetic to comparative religion will opt for the latter explanation and seek help in reframing experience.  Raveh's book attempts to illuminate the assumptions about the structure of mind that are required for this reframing in order to appreciate yogic processes and yogic knowledge.

The most significant assumption is that mental activity is associated with two concepts: prakriti and purusa.  Raveh defines prakriti as "the manifest and nonmanifest dimensions of the world and worldly existence."  In contrast, purusa is the metaphysical core of the self.  Typically, Western psychology would associate mental activity with the latter and see the former as the external cause of mental phenomena; however, the Yogasutra and likely the entire yogic tradition, understands mental activity to be part of, or operating within, prakriti.  Consequently, a higher yogic truth (or "truth-bearing yogic insight") can only be revealed when the yogi brings about a cessation of mental activity. 

Raveh makes an important contribution to the epistemology of yoga when he compares two sutras of the Yogasutra.  His observation helps us understand the nature of yogic knowledge that is made possible when mental activity ceases.  Raveh translates Yoga Sutra 1.7 as "valid knowledge is based on sense perception, inference and reliable testimony."  Here, Raveh notes that "valid knowledge" is based on mental activity that lies within prakriti.  It is conventional knowledge.  He then translates Yoga Sutra 1.49 as "(ritam-bhara prajna or truth-bearing yogic insight) is essentially different from knowledge based on reliable testimony and inference as it touches on particulars."  Notably, truth-bearing yogic insight is not said to be essentially different from sense perception.  Raveh concludes that truth-bearing yogic insight is like sense perception as they both "touch on particulars," but it is different in that it does not operate within the realm of prakriti.  Together, these two sutras provide us with an understanding of the form of knowledge that the yogi seeks: a direct perception of particulars that are not of the manifest or nonmanifest dimensions of the world or worldly existence.

To achieve yogic knowledge, Pantanjali recommends a path composed of "eight limbs."  The eight limbs are yama (ethical restraints), niyama (personal discipline), asana (yogic postures), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (withdrawal from the sense world), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (total meditative absorption).  According to Pantanjali, by following this path -- particularly by practicing the final three stages of meditation -- the yogi can achieve a final and irreversible escape from the delusion and suffering that is this world. 

The final chapter of Exploring the Yogasutra is not written by Raveh, but by Daya Krishna (1924-2007), author of Indian Philosophy: A Counter Perspective.  Raveh is deeply impressed with Daya Krishna's treatment of Pantanjali's Yogasutra.  It is Daya Krishna's approach to the Yogasutra which motivates Raveh's work.  The most important insight that Daya Krishna provides is that samadhi cannot be the ultimate goal of the yogi.  Samadhi is commonly understood as an ultimate, unworldly state that is irreversible.  Following Daya Krishna, Raveh points out that entering a state in which one cannot return is a limitation on the freedom of the yogi, and that perfect freedom requires that the yogi be capable of both entering and returning from samadhi (or the meditative state that is samadhi, save its irreversibility.)

This view prompts two observations, the first of which Raveh does not seem to take seriously.  First, samadhi should be understood as a meditative state which cannot be achieved perfectly in practice; second, the motivation to return from samadhi appears to be similar to the motivations of the Buddhist bodhisattva.  The first two states of meditation, dharana and dhyana, clearly seem to admit of degrees of achievement.  One can concentrate on external objects more or less effectively and one can more or less focus on one's mental processes.  If one accepts that samadhi is a state in which one becomes more or less unaware of the distinction between the subject and the object of meditation, then irreversible samadhi is merely the limit that the yogi may approach, but not fully achieve, in the final stage of  meditation (samadhi).  On this account, samadhi is both an irreversible state that one does not achieve and a meditative state beyond dhyana that yogis can experience.  The goal remains irreversible samadhi or total meditative absorption, but pursuing this goal does not preclude the return of actual yogis from the state of samadhi.

The second obvious observation is that Daya Krishna (and Raveh) appear to be reprising the reformation that took place in the Buddhist tradition when Mahayana Buddhism broke from Buddhism's early form.  The yogi who exercises freedom by returning from the state of samadhi is like the bodhisattva, who renounces perfect enlightenment to bring salvation to all sentient beings.  Raveh recognizes that the Yogasutra stands as evidence that Patanjali himself must have recognized the value of returning to enlighten others.  The Yogasutra is, after all, a guidebook to yogic knowledge.

Exploring the Yogasutra is not easy reading.  This is due mostly to Raveh's frequent use of Sanskrit terms without providing the necessary context for understanding them.  It is a curious feature in that Raveh is acutely aware of the difficulties in translation.  It is almost as though he is writing for an extremely erudite audience or he has simply given up on the difficult work of translation.  Perhaps a little of both is true.

Finally, Raveh provide us with a highly readable translation of the Yogasutra, presented without interpolated commentary.  Despite its textual difficulties, Exploring the Yogasutra is a work well worth reading.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans / Mark Lynas -- London: Fourth Estate, 2011.

In 2007, Mark Lynas published a brilliant book entitled Six Degrees (reviewed in this blog).  In it, he presented in a clear and readable format, the consequences of a warming planet.  Each chapter described the scientific research that predicted the effects of an additional centigrade degree of global warming, up to a six degree warming.  Currently, there is a debate in the scientific community about whether we can prevent the planet from warming more than two degrees centigrade.  It is likely that we will not be able to keep the increase below two degrees and four degrees is frighteningly possible.  Lynas's book provides a clear picture of what is at stake.  While we may have to suffer a two degree increase, a concerted effort to curb our greenhouse gas emissions can prevent a four degree increase which will make a huge difference to the well-being of future generations.

Based on the strength of Lynas's Six Degrees, I had high hopes for his 2011 book, The God Species.  I also understood that he had joined a faction of environmentalists that has parted ways with the mainstream opinion among environmentalists.  So I hoped his work would offer constructive challenges to how I thought about the strategies for mitigating our unfolding environmental crises.  To a limited extent, I was not disappointed, but Lynas's main thesis is not generally well-established.  Lynas attempts to argue that because our species has fundamentally changed the planet's ecology, we must now accept responsibility for "our new task of consciously managing the planet."  This involves a number of traditional conservation measures, but more to his point, it involves embracing a number of technological solutions to environmental threats or "geo-engineering."  It also endorses a strategy of continued economic growth which Lynas believes is important both to developing the necessary mitigating technologies and to persuading a growth-hungry public to support mitigating efforts.

The work is organized around nine "planetary boundaries," a term coined by Johan Rockstrom, director of the Stockholm Resilience Center.  The boundaries are natural limits which we must not cross, lest we push the planet into a state which will not support life.  Specifically, they are (1) the biodiversity boundary, (2) the climate change boundary, (3) the nitrogen boundary, (4) the land use boundary, (5) the fresh water boundary, (6) the toxics boundary, (7) the aerosols boundary, (8) the ocean acidification boundary, and (9) the ozone layer boundary.  According to Lynas's research, we have already passed the first three boundaries and must find ways to quickly return to within these boundaries.  Two of the boundaries -- the toxics boundary and the aerosols boundary -- cannot be sufficiently quantified at this point to know whether we have crossed them.  Encouragingly, Lynas believes that we have not yet crossed the others, but that we are in danger of doing so. 

To better understand the notion of a planetary boundary, consider the accumulation of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.  Currently there are approximately 390 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere.  It is now well-understood that we must reduce this figure to at least 350 parts per million if we are to avoid a change to the ecosystem that will spell disaster for human civilization and possibly life on the planet.  350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere is the planetary climate change boundary.

Each of Lynas's descriptions of the nine boundaries are replete with sobering scientific research, emphasizing what is at stake.  In that respect, The God Species is a lot like Six Degrees, but Lynas's main purpose in writing this book is not so much to alert us to these dangers, but to suggest what we might do to remain on the safe side of the boundaries, and as I a mentioned earlier, the solutions involve embracing technological advances.  He discusses four at some length:  nuclear power, genetically modifying crops, injecting sulfates into the upper stratosphere, and pouring alkaline substances into the ocean.  

Lynas stongly and repeatedly promotes making a quick transition to nuclear power.  He argues that the "Greens" opposition to nuclear power is unjustified and is as misguided and anti-scientific as the attitudes of climate change deniers.  This is perhaps the most useful contribution he makes in The God Species.  While his arguments may not be completely convincing, they are strong enough to unsettle settled opinion on the topic of nuclear energy.  Given the enormous and growing threat of carbon pollution, it may be wise to re-examine the role of nuclear power in the planet's energy future.  Certainly many responsible scientists and environmentalists are coming around to this opinion, most notably James Hansen and George Monbiot, but also James Lovelock, Barry Brook, Gwyneth Cravens, and Patrick Moore.

His advocacy of genetically modified crops (and genetic engineering generally) is less persuasive.  Lynas believes genetic engineering will help solve the problem of feeding our growing human population, while not contaminating the planet's water with excess nitrogen.  Unfortunately, the track record of genetically modified crops is not long enough to really understand its dangers, and while significant dangers might not have become apparent yet, the very notion of making drastic and quick changes in the genes of long-evolved organisms (or creating new organisms from scratch) invites disaster from the law of unintended consequences.    The same is true for Lynas's two other geo-engineering fixes.  Lynas is correct in noting that we have already been engaged in accidental geo-engineering with the massive release of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.  Indeed, the unintended consequences of the industrial revolution threaten to ruin us, but it borders on the reckless to suggest that we understand the complexities of Earth systems sufficiently to avoid equally or even more disastrous unintended consequences that might result from an intentional and concerted effort to change Earth systems.

To a large extent, Lynas's prescription for mitigation is in line with the views of Bjorn Lomborg who has advocated continued, even accelerated, economic growth on the theory that a richer future society will be better equipped to solve environmental (particularly climate change) problems.  His argument depends on the claims that economic growth will increase faster than our emerging environmental problems.  This seems highly dubious.  First, it disregards the likely phenomenon of "tipping points" that would quickly launch the Earth into a new and drastically different physical state -- one to which we or our civilization will not be adapted.  Second, it relies upon continuing economic growth that is similar to what we have seen in the past.  Given that we are reaching the limits of our natural resources and given that we will be seeing increased economic disruption due to resource scarcity and climate change, the likelihood that economic growth will continue as it has is doubtful.  All that is necessary is for the climate change to slightly out pace economic growth for our current crisis to become soon unsolvable.  Lomborg misunderstands that "growth" must be replaced by "sustainability" as the supreme economic value as we approach planetary boundaries.

Lynas appears to follow Lomborg on this score.  He is an unapologetic booster of expensive technological fixes and he emphasizes the importance of economic growth in finding solutions.  Lynas is a critic of socialism and endorses "market solutions."  Most of all, he believes that pretty much any mitigation strategy that requires social or cultural transformations will fail.  He appears to believe that certain market forces act, in effect, like laws of nature, and that we must recognize this in our mitigation plans. 

So for example, to remain on the safe side of the water boundary, Lynas recommends privatizing water resources.  He claims that public water systems are corrupt and inefficient, and that private systems provide water to populations more effectively.  He provides little support for these claims.  Corruption in the public sector is, of course, problematic.  Many public officials will use their position for personal gain, but the use of resources for private gain is the very essence of the private sector.  Simply because the legal system accords private actors the license to personally gain from the distribution of resources does not make it morally legitimate, particularly when these resources are essential for human survival.  Private sector business as usual is effectively the legitimization of public corruption.  See post-soviet Russia as an undisguised exmple of this. 

Regarding the inefficiency of public utilities, one must look into the goals of the utility.  Fred Pearce reiterates a well-established point in his excellent book When Rivers Run Dry (reviewed in this blog), when he notes that "water flows uphill to money."  That is, in an unregulated market, water resources will be trucked, flown, sailed, and piped to the whatever wealthy market will purchase them, leaving the poor without.  If the point of the water utility is to deliver water resources to those who can best cover the cost of delivery, then a private system is more efficient.  If the point is to ensure water-sufficiency to all sectors of a population, then a regulated system is necessary.

Lynas's enthusiasm for technological fixes is born of his appreciation for science.  His desire to make sure that mitigation strategies are firmly rooted in the best science available is extremely laudable.  Indeed sound science is essential to successful mitigation strategies.  No serious observer would disagree.  Where Lynas goes astray is in limiting the options for mitigation strategies to those which he believes the public will accept.  Once he has done that -- once he has assumed that cultural and social norms are like laws of nature -- he is driven to seek drastic and potentially very dangerous technological solutions.  To make his case, he must downplay their risks

Nothing makes this point more clearly than his dismissal of vegetarianism.  In a ten page section entitled, "Meat and Energy," Lynas devotes less than a single paragraph to reducing our meat consumption.  He writes, "campaigners are on to a loser if they try to convince convert en masse to vegetarianism....People's desire to eat more meat as they grow more wealthy is so deeply embedded in most cultures...that it is not something that is amendable to outside influence."  Lynas's appreciation for science doesn't seem to extend to the social sciences.  Changes to cultural and social norms and to social, political, and economic institutions are commonplace.  Lynas is perhaps too young to remember the days when vegetarianism was so unheard of in the U.S. and Europe that virtually no restaurant offered a vegetarian entree.  Today, it is rare to find such restaurants and many wholly vegetarian restaurants are flourishing.  Just a couple decades ago, catered business lunches and conferences would not include a vegetarian entree and airlines would offer only meat on their flights.  Now, vegetarians are accommodated.  These changes have taken place despite significant government subsides for the meat industry and vigorous marketing efforts by that industry.  No similar support has ever existed for vegetarianism and yet vegetarianism is becoming more and more common in the U.S. and Europe.

Just as there are tipping points in the progress of natural phenomena, there are tipping points in social, economic, and political phenomena -- perhaps even more so.  Consider, for example, the French and Russian revolutions, the Arab Spring, the reaction to the Tet Offensive in the U.S. during the Vietnam War, and fads and fashions of all sorts. If the 100 most prominent environmentalist (including Lynas) came out forcefully in favor of vegetarianism and made clear the extent to which meat consumption is pushing us toward trespassing the biodiversity, climate change, nitrogen, water, land use, and toxics boundaries, it could easily make vegetarianism a de rigueur practice among environmentalists.  This might well push us over a cultural tipping point that would dramatically reduce meat consumption; but given the significant impact that meat eating has on the environment, it would not take an "en masse" conversion of the population to yield important benefits.  Furthermore, our diet is central to our daily lives.  So becoming vegetarian for the sake of environmental concerns will transform many people's self-image and the importance they place on othr environmentally beneficial actions.

Government support for vegetarianism would also be made easier to institute.  For many years (particularly beginning with policy put in place by Richard Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz), the federal Farm Bill has privileged big agribusiness.  Butz's mantra was "get big or get out."  The result of this was a huge expansion of land devoted to animal feed crop, making meat production artificially inexpensive.  Increased recognition of the damage that meat eating does will make removing these feed production subsidies and instituting financial disincentives much easier, resulting in rising meat prices and a further shift toward vegetarianism.  Given what's at stake, it's hard to understand why Lynas does not advocate this.  In contrast, he does advocate a law banning palm oil biofuels that are produced on Malaysian and Indonesian plantations that wer formerly rain forests.  Why such laws should protect Malaysia and Indonesia and not Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska is left unexplained.

Vegetarianism is not the only opportunity that Lynas misses.  He is surprisingly dismissive of efforts to control our population, claiming that the only measures that have successfully curbed population growth are economic progress and authoritarian prohibitions.  None of this is clear.  There is certainly a correlation between economic progress and birth rate reductions in Europe and North America, but many other factors might be involved in the trend.  Ready availability to birth control, the presence of a social safety net, and the education and liberation of women come immediately to mind.  Only the social safety net depends in part on economic development, but even there, with a more egalitarian, less plutocratic society, a basic social safety net can be established.  Lynas asserts that the number of children that one chooses to have is "an intensely personal" matter.  This may well be true, but so too is the habitability of one's planet intensely personal. 

Lynas's The God Species is an important work in that it publicizes important "planetary boundaries" that we have either crossed or appear to be about to cross.  While each of these boundaries has been describe in greater detail in other works, bringing them all together in a single volume ensures that we do not get too fixated on one and neglect the others.  Furthermore, it highlights the importance of understanding their interrelationships.  Lynas's advocacy of mitigating strategies that have been more or less taboo among environmentalists is also a welcome addition to the debate.  Unfortunately, his views are much too limited.  He fails to recognize the flexibility of cultural and social norms and the role that they can and must play in addressing the our environmental challenges.  Consequently, he reaches for a number of potentially dangerous technical "solutions" to our crises.  Geo-engineering programs may well be something we will need to implement, but we need to understand that some are certainly harmless, while others are desparate throws of the dice.  Much can and must be done before we toss those dice. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Meaning in Life and Why It Matters / Susan Wolf with commentary by John Koethe, Robert M. Adams, Nomy Arpaly, and Jonathan Haidt -- Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010

"What is the meaning of life" is one of the most cliched philosophical questions, but upon reflection it seems to be rather ill-formed. Picking out a single word and inquiring into its meaning would, of course, be intelligible, as in "what is the meaning of 'life?'" but to suggest that something so broad as living could have a meaning is more troublesome.  At very least, it suggests that one might be able to gain a transcendent perspective on life -- to know "why we are here" or "what God's plan is for us." Despite popular impressions, serious philosophical inquiry tends to reject this sort of speculation; however, Susan Wolf's book, Meaning in Life and Why It Matters, brings meaning to the question by examining what it is to live a life that is worthwhile.  In essence, she asks, "what is it to live a meaningful life?"

The answer she gives is not, in the main, prescriptive.  Instead she sketches the form in which a life might be judged meaningful.  Perhaps the most interesting contribution she makes to the question is identifying a reason for action that is almost always missed by philosophers when we ask about human motivations.  Typically, philosophers have understood people to act either purely out of self-interest (or self-gratification) or out of both self-interest and moral impulses.  This has led  philosophers to conclude that a meaningful life is either one that makes the individual happy or one which fulfills our  moral obligations or perhaps some combination of the two.  Wolf points out that many of our actions do not neatly fit into one or the other of these categories.  Many of our actions are done "out of love."  She presents a perfect example of this by describing the night in which she stayed up late to sew the wings onto her daughter's butterfly costume.  She very much would have preferred to be in bed and she did not feel a moral obligation to make the costume, but because of her love for her daughter she sewed the costume. 

For Wolf, a meaningful life is one that must include acting out of love.  She writes, "meaning arises from loving objects worthy of love and engaging with them in a positive way."  Upon analysing this formula, Wolf observes that it contains a subjective element and an objective element.  The subjective element is relatively unproblematic.  Living a meaningful life will generate a sense of satisfaction.  It is the objective element that presents questions.  Wolf illustrates this by considering the life of a woman who is so attached to her goldfish that she spends all of her time and energy caring for it and interacting with it.  She claims that the fish is the only being that understands her.  While she gains genuine satisfaction from her goldfish, Wolf judges her life not to be meaningful, because a goldfish is not the sort of thing that is worthy of this sort of attention.  Wolf recognizes that she is in danger of advancing an elitist conception of meaning, but believes that we have a sufficient understanding of what is and what is not objectively worthy to recognize the attribute.

Wolf's initial presentation of her views encompasses the first 63 pages of the volume.  It is then followed by brief comments from four writers: John Koethe, Robert M. Adams, Nomy Arpaly, and Jonathan Haidt.  Koethe and Adams largely accept Wolf's account.  Koethe probes details related to the objective portion of Wolf's view.  He asks, however, if it is necessary that a meaningful life objectively succeed in its endeavors.  Is a valiant failure a meaningful life?  Conversely, Adams probes the details related to the subjective aspect, suggesting that feelings of satisfaction may be irrelevant to a meaningful life.  In contrast to these more friendly questions, Arpaly and Haidt find her treatment of objectivity wanting.  They suggest that objectivity may not be necessary.  Arpaly argues that if an individual finds subjective fulfillment in his or her life, that is enough to call it meaningful.  She points out that Wolf's examples of people who find their lives satisfied by trivial pursuits are in fact non-existent and if there are such people, they in all likelihood have cognitive or emotional limitations that preclude them from being bored by trivial pursuits.  Finally, Haidt emphasizes the idea of vital engagement, characterized by the experience of "flow."  According to Haidt, vital engagement is what is essential to living a meaningful life and any requirement that the activity be "objectively worthy" opens the door to elitism much too wide.

Wolf's exposition of her views are interesting.  More importantly, they open up a topic that very much deserves attention.  Furthermore, they are founded on a significant, though often overlooked, insight about human behavior.  The initial exposition, however, does not develop her ideas very far.  Fortunately, the volume concludes with her twenty page response to her critics.  This is philosophical dialog at its best.  Wolf takes her critics seriously.  Most of all, she gives the idea of objective value a thoughtful and sophisticated analysis. While she insists that we can be wrong about what is or is not objectively valuable, Wolf rejects the views of G.E. More and Plato that objective value is simply a natural property.  Instead, it can arise out of human interest.  "The value of an activity or object in an individual life will vary depending on the relationship that the individual has to it and role it plays in her life."  This treatment embeds objective value, in part, in the subject without allowing it to be completely subsumed by the subject.  Wolf hopes this clarification will satisfy Arpaly and Haidt.

Over the course of the work, the discussion of meaningfulness in life becomes increasingly, though slowly, deeper.  By the end one must wrestle with the nature of objectivity, subjectivity, human motivation, and social context to really come to any reasonable perspective on meaningfulness in life.  For my part, I was driven to consider meaningfulness not simply as an attribution of value, but in a semantic sense, while recognizing that this may employ a spurious connotation of the term.  Words have meaning not simply and in and of themselves, but have meaning for the speaker, for the hearer, in a context social context, and as part of an evolving language.  What I  might mean by an utterance may not be what you understand it to mean and neither of us is a final authority of the meaning of the words I use.  Meaning in life is similarly complicated.  I might find meaning in my life which you do not, or conversely you find meaning in my life which I do not; however, that there are a variety of individual judgements that might be made about a life's meaningfulness, does not establish that there is not a broader fact of the matter about the meaningfulness of a life within a social context.  That fact will depend, of course, on the social context and the values that are extant in the society. 

The lesson here, is that asking simply if a life is meaningful is too ill-defined. It is nearly as ill-defined as asking, "what is the meaning of life?" We must make clear what we are asking.  In some instances we might want to know if the person finds his or her own life meaningful.  In other instances we might want to know if their family thinks so or if the person's life is meaningful by our standard.  We may even be asking if the life has contributed to the preservation or advancement of objectively identifiable social values or cultural development.  Wolf is correct in that meaningfulness is essentially dependent upon both subjectivities and objectivity.  What seems unclear from her exposition is that subjectivity and objectivity are also interdependent.  Consequently, dividing them for the purpose of explaining the concept of meaningfulness leads us astray.  Her reply to Arpaly and Haidt opens the way to seeing this, but it threatens the analytical distinction that she makes which might require she assume an entirely different approach to answering the question.

The White House: An Historical Guide / Mrs. John N. Pearce [a.k.a. Lorraine Waxman Pearce] and William V. Elder III -- Washington, D.C.: White House Historical Association, 1963

Over the years, the White House has undergone numerous changes.  Perhaps most dramatically was the complete gutting of the interior and subsequent steel reinforcement of the structure that took place duringTruman's administration.  It has also accumulated a significant collection of furnishings, some of which are unquestionably outstanding historical pieces.  The portrait of George Washington, painted by Gilbert Stuart and the President's desk, built from the timber of the H.M.S. Resolute come immediately to mind; but there are numerous more interesting and beautiful objects in the White House's collection.  At the direction of Jacqueline Kennedy, the White House Historical Association took on the task of creating a guide to the history of the White House and its furnishings.  Originally intended for children, it was quickly understood that the treasury of artifacts was too important not to address the work to adults.  The result was a clear introduction to the history of the White House, illustrated by photographs of some of its most important possessions.

The extent to which the building's interior was remodelled is somewhat surprising.  One might,  however, justify the expense by claiming that the President's house should, for the benefit of visitors and foreign dignitaries, remain relatively stylish and contemporary.  On the other hand, a degree of classical dignity might also be appropriate.  Upon reading The White House, one is left with a sense that a reasonably good balance has been met over the years up to 1963.  Many of the features of the original structure remain, of course, but with any building that sees regular use, repairs and replacements are required now and then.  These present opportunities to update the interior decorating styles.  At the same time, pieces art and furniture have been retained and can be brought out of storage according to the taste of the current occupant.  What is among the more satisfying consequences of these additions and changes, is that each occupant will leave behind something of their taste and time,  making the building and its contents a reflection of the history of the country and the presidency.


Saturday, March 2, 2013

Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma / Leon Hurvitz, tr. -- N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1976

The Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma, also known simply as The Lotus Sutra is among the most important mahayana Buddhist sutras.  It is particularly important to Buddhism as it is practiced in East Asia.  This may have something to do with the fact that the original Sanskrit version of the sutra has been lost and that the versions that have been in existence for the longest are Chinese translations.  This particular English translation was based on the Chinese translation attributed to Kumarajiva, a fourth century Indo-Iranian figure who was responsible for managing a school of translators who were in turn responsible for the translation of many sutras into Chinese.

Like many mahayana sutras, The Lotus Sutra asserts the superiority of the path of the bodhisattva over other paths to enlightenment.  What is most interesting about The Lotus Sutra is that it does so in parables.  It also presents parables that explain how the bodhisattva tailors his (or her) message to the requirements of the listener -- as might any good teacher.  Both of these points are made in the first parable that appears in the work.  A man finds that his house is on fire, but that his children are inside enthralled by their toys.  To induce them to leave the house, he tells them that he has three carts outside for them: drawn respectively by a deer, a goat, and an ox.  Delighted, the children leave the burning house only to find that the ox cart is the only vehicle outside.  The bodhisattva explains that the man is justified in lying to the children in order to get them out of the house, and that only the ox cart -- which stands for the path of the bodhisattva -- is real.

In a second parable, a very rich man's son leaves his household and remains estranged for many years.  In the son's wanderings he comes upon a house that his father has founded.  Not knowing that it is his father's house, he becomes employed there, diligently working in the stables.  In time, the rich man, who knows his son's identity, rewards the son.  Eventually, when the son has become accustomed to being part of the household, the man reveals that he is the son's father and declares him his heir.

In a third parable, a guide was leading a group of travellers to a buried treasure.  The travellers grew tired and wanted to give up the journey.  So the guide caused an apparition of a beautiful city to appear, where the travellers rested.  When they regained their strength, the guide cause the city to vanish and led them on to the buried treasure.

Among the more unique parables is the story of "the dragon girl."  The Buddha asks the bodhisattva Manjusri to tell an assembled multitude if anyone hearing his teaching speedily gained enlightenment.  Manjusri described a girl of eight who had quickly gained enlightenement.  The bodhisattvas Prajnakuta expressed skepticism, whereupon the girl appeared before them and testified to her own enlightenment.  The bodhisattva Sariputra then expressed disbelieve, claiming that a woman could not achieve unexcelled enlightenment.  Whereupon the girl turned into a man.

Much of the sutra is a panegyric to the Buddha and various bodhisattvas. The Buddha is frequently associated with a rain of flower petals or fine garments, jewels, and fragrances.  Great expanses of time and space and hosts of auditors (Buddha, bodhisattvas, gods, humans, demons, non-humans, hungry ghosts, and beings in hell) are frequently described.  At times this can become a bit tedious, but when one tries to reflect these incalculable numbers, one's mind can be directed to a transcendental experience:

I now tell you plainly: the merit gained by this man for giving all manner of playthings to living beings of the six destinies in four hundred myriads of millions of asamkhyeyas of world-spheres, and also enabling them to obtain the fruit of the arhant, does not equal one-hundredth, not one-thousandths, not one-hundred-thousand-myriad-millionth part of the merit of that fiftieth person for appropriately rejoicing at hearing a single gatha of the Scripture of the Dharma Blossom for it is something that cannot be known through number or parable.
For the most part, the sutra only briefly makes mention of the central doctrines of mahayana Buddhism.  For these, I would recommend The Large Sutra of Perfect Wisdom.