Thursday, 22 March 2007

Politics and Ambedkar Buddhism in Maharashtra

Timothy Fitzgerald paints a grand portrait of a blistering man, Dr B.R Ambedkar, the founder of the single largest Buddhist group in India, numbering roughly 4 million, most of whom are untouchables from Ambedkar's caste, the Mahar. Ambedkar himself was a remarkable polymath (PhD, barrister, politician, etc.). His public conversion to Buddhism at Deeksha Bhumi in Nagpur, and the subsequent conversion of most Mahars and some non-Mahars, can only be understood in the context of Ambedkar's lifelong struggle to achieve social and political emancipation for the depressed classes in general and the untouchables or scheduled castes in particular. His ideology, including his later interpretation of Buddhism, is an important one in its own rights in the modern social and political history of India, and the Buddhist element is not properly comprehensible outside the context of his political struggle. (79)

His early work exposed the nastiness of the caste system, and its tragic effects. In his aetiology, endogamy, which began among Brahmans, became in a sense mechanically' replicated among the remaining people who stood outside the Brahman strata, so that the system once started has had a kind of unbreakable propensity to self-replication. Thus, untouchable castes themselves replicate a hierarchical ranking order and in this way contribute to the continuation of the very system which exploits them. (84) Jesus Christ came to set us free, and only he can make us free indeed: the horrors of false politico-religious systems such as Hinduism throw our need into our faces. May we all recognise this and turn to worship Christ, who will set us free.

Sadly Ambedekar, who died in 1956, did not take this way. His opposition to Hinduism took many forms and involved him in many alliances, but he ended up a Buddhist. It is ironic that by renouncing Hinduism and converting to Buddhism, the members of the schedules castes who converted [with him] lost their rights to reservations (92). A further irony is that some of his followers now openly worship him (94), of which he himself would have strongly disapproved. He in fact always emphasised the social transformation [politics+religion!] aspect of Buddhism rather than the personal enlightenment aspect.

Ambedekar opposed Gandhi, who comes across in Fitzgerald's account as considerably less heroic than in popular myth. Pages 87-88 summarise his radical objections to Hindu ideology, the caste system and his shredding of Gandhi's arguments (89) in favour of that system minus untouchability. Ambedekar's passion and energy are well brought out in this account of a very political Buddhism.

Finally, the struggle to integrate doctrine and practice is honestly explored in a brief page on present-day experiences of untouchable Buddhists (98). Their struggles in a very restrictive and sometimes hostile environment against the higher castes and against each other have really moved me to prayer.

Buddhism and Secular Power in... Korea

Henrik H. Sorenson is scathing about contemporary Buddhism and what he sees as its degradation in Korea today. His catalogue of infighting, self-aggrandisement, image-focus in various temples makes for a reading that is at once sad and funny. Funny that one could ever imagine that a human organisation could escape such behaviour. The older history of Buddhism in Korea also reveals just how worldly this religion is (as they all are), and how religious the world is...

Following an almost five-hundred-year period of prosperity and influence that spanned the major part of the Koryo dynasty, Buddhism and its supporters among the nobility lost out to the rising force of Confucianism at the end of the foureenth century... At the beginning of the [Choson] dynasty [1392-1910)] a series of anti-Buddhist edicts were formulated with the dual purposeof diminishing the economic power of the temples through the confiscation of temple lands, and of preventing Buddhist monks from meddling in national politics as had been their custom... (128)

Sounds like Henry VIII and the Roman Catholic Church...

Japanese Buddhist missionaries and the Japanese occupying forces in the early decades of the 20th century strongly promoted Buddhism to the Koreans, who rejected the Japanese sects but enjoyed their own Buddhist revival, as well as enjoying the fruits of lands returned from confiscation. Politics with a big P and a small p were of course part and parcel of Buddhist activity, in the temples and out of it (130-1). Note how the Japanese controlled the sermons in Buddhist temples during the late 30s. Apparently the Turkish government also prescribes the sermons in the mosques of Anatolia today!

Sorenson seems to expose (or fall into!?) a kind of essentialism, an ethnically restrictive notion of religious faith (which is, technically, almost fascistic, if that doesn't seem too harsh) when he comments on Korean intellectuals' new love for Buddhism in the face of growing Christian influence. [A]n Eastern tradition that had existed in Korea for more than 1,500 years was thought to be better suited to the Oriental mind than Christianity (131). The use of the passive voice is particularly noteworthy - who felt this, I wonder, and how does Sorenson know...?

Praise God for the explosion of the gospel in Korea despite this 1,500 year old tradition. The conduct of Presbyterian President Chun Doohwan in opposing Buddhism via the govrnment may have been inappropriate, as Sorenson suggests, but there are so many exciting Korean believers across the world who do bring glory to Christ.

Japanese Nationalism and the Universal Dharma

Hiroko Kawanami surveys the manoeuvering of various Buddhist groups in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as they tried to avoid being squashed by the new, highly oppressive State Shinto, which the Imperial Court employed in order to modernise Japan for competition with Western powers.

Of all the Protestant Christians who worked with Buddhists during the liberal-flavoured early decades of the 20th century, the Unitarians were the most active, and were deeply engaged in inter-faith dialogue with the Buddhist associations.

Of course, the various older and newer Buddhist groups and teachers did not speak with a single voice - there was a fascinating diversity of opinions on the place of Buddhism in individual and social life. The most active group, sadly, was a fiercely nationalistic version of the teachings of Nichiren (a 13th century 'saint'). He had taught - rather like theonomists, advocates of Christendom and most Muslims - that a stable and peaceful society could be established only if the political power accepted and practised the 'right Buddhist law', in other words, worshipped the canon of the Lotus Sutra (109). A former Nichiren monk, Tanaka, reinterpreted his sect's teachings to bring them in line with the state's religious ideology, emptying them of any egalitarianism or political critique. Tanaka won support among the nationalistic Buddhists and right wing politicians and consequently exerted considerable influence upon prominenst people of his generation... If his project was fully realised, in his view, the Emeror woulf become a righteous Buddhist king (cakravartin) who would eventually rule the world (110).

Buddhist groups that spoke out against imperialism, fascism and war were forced to disband and their influence was not significant. After WWII there was an explosion of new religious groups, many of which claimed affinity to various Buddhist teachers and teachings. The energy and range of activities of these groups is quite remarkable (111-3), proving that religion and everyday life are by no means naturally divorced from each other. Thoroughgoing biblical Christianity recognises that political claims are at root 'religious', or, better, are claims about worship. This is abundantly clear in the waxing and waning of the Emperor and Imperial Cult in Japan and in the political fortunes of Soka Gokkai, a new Buddhist organisation that flourished in the 60s and 70s, at one time wielding significant power in the (lower) House of Representatives and (upper) House of Councillors through its party, Komeito (Clean Government Party), as well as establishing 100 branches worldwide. Of course, it was not all plain sailing, and Kawanami ends the section with some pathos: As Soka Gakkai became increasingly criticised for theocracy in 1970, President Ikeda announced its separation from Komeito... Nevertheless, Soka Gakkai had become too powerful, and consequently the relationship with the Buddhist priests of Nichiren Shosu deteriorated. In 1990 Soka Gakkai was excommunicated by the Nichiren Shosu sect, and Ikeda was removed from his position as representative of Nichiren Shosu's lay association. This resulted in an acrimonious situation which left the issue of the spiritual afterlife of its lay members unresolved. (114-5)

Kawanami's conclusion is sober about the condition of Japan and Buddhism's less-than-distinguished history and prospects. Both politicians and priests fail to command respect, while temples seem to exist simply to raise money through the introduction of new ceremonies for the curious. However, many of the techniques of the newer religious organizations have been appropriated from the ascetic practices of traditional Buddhism. In this sense, we may be seeing the traditional Buddhist spirit emerging in new religious contexts. It can also be said that in this age of disenchantment, people are reacting by discovering ways of providing themselves with a type of inner strength, a feeling of self-valuation, and a sense of belonging... (120)

Buddhism and Politics

Perhaps a surprising title to some. But given that any claim about how we should act or how others should treat us is 'political', and given that groups of Buddhists (monasteries, etc.) in Asia are very wealthy, at least in terms of land-ownership, it should not really be a surprise that Buddhism and politics are woven together in Asia.

This 1999 collection of essays on the twentieth century, edited by Ian Harris, has helped me to understand varieties of Buddhism a little better, such that I no longer so easily slip into caricatures of other-worldliness. I was stimulated to read this by a former colleague who is a Buddhist (if that label is not too definite for his particular journey, as he would put it). He lent me a fascinating book in which the Dalai Llama comments on various New Testament passages, and I wanted a little more background. [Once again, the need to return the book to the UL has prompted this post!]

Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam

Talal Asad's 1993 collection of essays on anthropology and fragments of Western history is one of those books that appears in the footnotes of every cool writer on society, politics, theology, etc. Well, maybe not in aaawll of them... In any case, no sooner had I got round to pulling it off the shelves, but another UL reader requested it back. Before it goes back later today to support some poor student, here are a few comments on the stimulating introduction. Of course I can't do it justice - so find it and read it...!

It has become a truism to say that most anthropologists in Britain and the United States were antievolutionist - and therefore relativist - in the the first half of the twentieth century. Some historians of the discipline have connected this to the general mood of disillusion with the idea of progress prevailing in the West after World War I. (21) Asad then points out that a considerable pedigree of British anthropologists do subscribe to the idea of higher and lower cultures, and assume this (when not arguing it) in their major works. Godfrey and Monica Wilson, Lucy Mair, Mary Douglas, Max Gluckman... The modern/nonmodern divide is integral to much of their work, and like other writers on the nonmodern world, anthropologists used a dual modality of historical time, which enabled them to represent events as at once contemporaneous and noncontemporaneous - and thus some conditions as more progressive than others (22-23).

Fascinating. Now I really want to study the historical ideas of progress, which has been on the to do list for a while. Notable among such ideas has to be Christian postmillennialism, of course, which is significant for a whole host of reasons. All you sceptical amillennialists out there, check out this short online book for a superb introduction to postmillennialism!

Back to Asad...

Perceptive comments on the use of teleological as an academic swearword. If the modernizing project is more than merely an accumulating narrative of India's past, if we understand it as the project of constructing "India" (an integrated totality defined according to progressive principles), which requires the continuous calculation of India's future, then teleology is precisely what that project must reflect. (A project is, after all, by definition teleological.) Which chimes in with a proverb of my own regarding the centrality of the will - "We never do anything we don't want to." (17) No doubt I'll get round to self-important waffling about that sometime soon, but in the meantime see what a proper thinker has said about a similar idea...

One does not have to subscribe to a full-blown Freudianism to see that instinctive reaction, the docile body, and the unconscious work, in their different ways, more pervasively and continuously than consciousness does. This is part of the reason why an agent's act is more (and less) than her consciousness of it. Another part has to do with the subsumability of her acts into the projects of other agents: beyond a certain point, an act no longer belongs exclusively to its initiator [what are the theological implications of this for divine sovereignty, I wonder?]. It is precisely because this fact is overlooked that the historical importance of consciousness is exaggerated in the the literature that takes consent and repression to the the two basic conditions of political domination. For the explain the latter in terms of these conditions, whether singly or in combination, is to ignore the politically more significant condition that has to do with the objective distribution of goods that allows or preculdes certain options. (15)

Lots to think about here. And this insight is one of the reasons why (to put is simply) I am still unwilling to swallow libertarian capitalism wholesale (despite the efficiencies rendered by wholesaling!) It's all very well to talk about the rewards of labour, the importance of personal responsibility and freedom from interference, but if Mr X already has 100 times as much as Mr Y there may be some problems ahead. Their relationship is not necessarily a simple symmetry of essentially autonomous wills. William Cavanaugh has thus criticised what he calls the unfreedom of the free market in this essay. The vital Old Covenant institution of the Jubilee is of extreme relavance here as it prevented the persistence of such disparities by the return of land to the family every 50 years. It is surprising, given their insistence and focus on Torah that the theonomists have not got all that much to say about this. (When I find what they do say, I may be proved wrong on this, but at the very least what theonomists think about Jubilee is not at the top of their credenda agenda.)

Back to Asad again...

Anthropology, then, appears to be involved in definitions of the West, while Western projects are transforming the (preliterate, precapitalist, premodern) peoples that ethnographers claim to represent. Both processes need to be studied systematically. To understand better the local peoples "entering" (or "resisting") modernity, anthropoogy must surely try to deepen its understanding of the West as something more than a threadbare ideology. To do this will include attempting to grasp its peculiar historicity, the mobile powers that have constructed its strctures, projects and desires. I argue that religion, in its positive and negative senses, is an essential part of that construction. (23-24) I can't wait...

Dying, we live

Kate is currently studying for a Certificate in Biblical and Theological Studies and I am peering over her shoulder whenever I have the time. We are having plenty of interesting discussions about Mark's Gospel and the spectrum of commentary that exists on the text. There is no shortage of 'liberal' interaction with Mark, but in many cases it really isn't all that impressive. For example, Dying, We Live: A New Enquiry into the Death of Christ in the New Testament, Kenneth Grayston, OUP 1990)...

So Jesus prays to God to take the cup from him... If it is asked what Jesus wanted God to take from him, what acutely distressing imposition should be removed, it is safest to avoid speculation and to hold firmly to what Mark says. He gives no indication whatever that Jesus is unwilling to suffer or die, least of all that Jesus begs God to spare him death and yet is willing to be fobbed off with three fractious visits to somnolent disciples. If we avoid romanatic elaboration, Mark's intention is tolerably clear. Jesus has previously said that if the shepherd is smitten the sheep will be scattered, or - to put it plainly - if he dies, his followers will be disbanded. What Jesus is therefore seeking in Gethsemane is an assurance from God that when he dies his name and work will be preserved by his followers. (214)

Grayston's imperious style has perhaps goaded him into a too ready dismissal of the idea that Jesus struggled with his impending death. If we avoid thinking about what Mark actually says - "remove this cup from me, yet not what I will but what you will" (verse 36, repeated in verse 35 and 39) - then his first bit of interpretation might sound reasonable. After all, from a conservative evangelical perspective we might struggle with vacillation in Jesus, the divine Son of God. But we really do have to ignore the word "cup" altogether if we are to swallow the claim that Jesus' only concern here is with being remembered by an endangered group of disciples.

The resonances of the cup [of the wrath of God] are extremely significant. Susan Garrett inadequately explains them in her The Temptations of Jesus in Mark's Gospel (Eerdmans, 1998), in which she desperately tries to evade the implications of divine anger and punishment, but at least she considers the possibilities!

If Grayston's wilful blindness is typical of how liberal scholars seek to bypass historic Christian teaching then we have little to fear from their exegesis as we interact with their works and learn from them.

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

a difficult task

Writing a short piece on moral intuitions is not easy. And it's likely that Peter Singer was not responsible for the silly strapline of his piece in today's Guardian, which didn't really reflect what he was trying to say ('Would you kill one person to save five others? Your intuition is probably wrong').

As I went to find the web version of the piece I began to read the responses posted below - many of which are very sane, exposing the weaknesses of this type of 'moral' thought-experiment (FLYSWATTER at 2:39pm is sweeeet) - though few of them mention one of the largest problems with the article, namely the recourse to a just-so story (otherwise known as 'our evolutionary history'). [The poster TerenceUSA, 12:19pm, did note this in passing in his excellent analysis of the examples cited by Singer from the research by Greene.]

Basically, Singer has to try to explain why we would generally find it harder to push someone off a bridge to save five lives, than we would to flick a switch to save five lives at the cost of one. (And he also wants to suggest that this preference is dubious, and that arithmetic is best in these situations.) Based on fMRI data collected from those considering these particular moral problems ('increased activity in areas of the brain associated with emotions' in the pushing example - gosh, there's a surprise) he resortrs to the just-so story.

Apparently to deal with such [difficult/easy?] situations as must have been common for most of our evolutionary history (up-close and personal violence) 'we developed immediate, emotionally-based intuitive responses to the infliction of violence on others'. And this guy is a professor! How did these responses develop? There is no mechanism given, or even suggested. Why did we develop emotional responses? Oh, because we have them now, so we must have developed them (anyone else see a circle here...?) But the nature of the response over the last few hundred thousand years is not stated or explored at all.

Those lacuna are perfectly typical of the way the evolution is referred to in the media (and, sadly, in textbooks) - a cheap assertion of facticity without a shred of evidence or a moment of genuinely critical thought! But, to be quite specific, why is the particular 'immediate, emotionally-based intuitive response' that we have now more selectively preferable than the response exhibited or 'developed' (magically, of course) by an intelligent being with no compunction about killing a threatening person up close. Emotional responses to this sort of trauma and surprise are surely a selective disadvantage! It would seem that if the fittest are to survive they need to able to kill the slightly less fit, who might attack them or use up their resources...

GavP at 1:21pm points out that Singer's rather fatuous closing line, '...we should think for ourselves, not just listen to our intuitions', implies that modern weaponry is a good thing because it liberates us from having to confront [bad/inadequate] emotional reactions to killing and enables reason ('cold-hearted rationalism') to reign (and have full rein - and just how many times have those phrases been muddled!?). Quite so, and since Singer has already told us the correct, liberated answer, he is not encouraging us to think for ourselves, but to swallow a half-baked utilitarianism. A healthy and intelligent conversations did open up on the Guardian site following this opinion piece, but the article itself is all too ready to rush into the space recently vacated by vanquished moral intuitions...

Green electricity

When wise Christians whose opinions I respect disagree on the wider issue of climate change and that whole caboodle, it creates a bit of a quandry. How then shall we live? Not that it seems all that much clearer for anyone else. Back in February I had hoped to find some answers on this BBC page, but found some of it too technical, some of it too antagonistic and some of it not terribly relevant or focussed. What is a boy to do?

Well, we have been with 'Good Energy' for a long time now, and it's not all that much more expensive than NPower or British Gas or whoever else we might be with. Plus a free bottle of wine for recommending the company to some friends. Are we paying a premium to feel good about ourselves? Possibly. (Nicer) Are we paying a premium to feel that we are minimising the negative consequences of our participation in this society? Possibly. In either case, is it a con? I hope not.

In either case, it's clearly not the most important thing in the world, and important though care for the environment (dominion with integrity) is, it's rather convenient for the world to have 'the environment as a 'big thing' to think about so that it can ignore the more pressing issue of the Divine Kingship of Jesus Christ. Especially as governments once more arrogate to themselves the soteriological functions proper to God Himself. On the one hand, the problem consumes too much time and energy for some people - on the other hand, if there is a solution we can surely find it ourselves, we can surely save ourselves, either government or science will save us...

Is that too cynical?

Saturday, 17 March 2007

Chess: highlight

During the excellent and stimulating TEAM (Training for East Anglian Ministry, but sadly there's no website I can direct you to...) course on my Wednesdays, I manage to play, on average, ten games of chess. And I'm not talking about the kind of chess that me and RJG used to play sans board during GCSE French (we would usually get to about move 20, scrappily notated in algebraic, before our brains gave up or the bell went...) - I'm talking about genuine skittles chess, fitted into the break- and lunchtimes. Charles and I are fairly evenly matched at skittles, although my crazy sacrificial style is currently scoring more highly than it deserves. Most games with me as White are double-barelled gambits (either Smith-Morra or Blackmar-Diemer) or else a kingside onslaught against the Pirc involving an early g4. As Black we test various unsound lines in the Trompvsky involving 2. ...c5 and 3. ...gxf6. Bring it on!

Praise the Lord for such stimulating, practical theology, and for His gift of ingenuity to those who invented and refined chess! Not to mention the pleasure of fine company and a mind to enjoy this sort of silliness.


A few years old now, but no less funny for it...

The Washington Post's Mensa Invitational once again
asked readers to take any word from the dictionary,
alter it by adding, subtracting, or changing one
letter, and supply a new definition. Here are this
year's winners:

1. Intaxication: Euphoria at getting a tax refund,
which lasts until you realize it was your money to
start with.

2. Reintarnation: Coming back to life as a hillbilly.

3. Bozone (n.): The substance surrounding stupid
people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The
bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of
breaking down in the near future.

4. Foreploy: Any misrepresentation about yourself for
the purpose of getting laid.

5. Cashtration (n.): The act of buying a house, which
renders the subject financially impotent for an
indefinite period.

6. Giraffiti: Vandalism spray-painted very, very high.

7. Sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic
wit and the person who doesn't get it.

8. Inoculatte: To take coffee intravenously when you
are running late.

9. Hipatitis: Terminal coolness.

10. Osteopornosis: A degenerate's disease. (This one
got extra credit.)

11. Karmageddon: It's like, when everybody is sending
off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like,
the Earth explodes and it's like, a serious bummer.

12. Decafalon (n.): The grueling event of getting
through the day consuming only things that are good
for you.

13. Glibido: All talk and no action.

14. Dopeler effect: The tendency of stupid ideas to
seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.

15. Arachnoleptic fit (n.): The frantic dance
performed just after you've accidentally walked
through a spider web.

16. Beelzebug (n.): Satan in the form of a mosquito,
that gets into your bedroom at three in the morning
and cannot be cast out.

17. Caterpallor (n.): The color you turn after finding
half a worm in the fruit you're eating.

And the pick of the literature:

18. Ignoranus: A person who's both stupid and a pain
in the rear.