Jul 082018

I stare about me, trying to etch into this journal the sense of Shey that is so precious, aware that all such effort is in vain; the beauty of this place must be cheerfully abandoned, like the wild rocks in the bright water of its streams. Frustration at the paltriness of words drives me to write, but there is more of Shey in a single sheep hair, in one withered sprig of everlasting, than in all these notes; to strive for permanence in what I think I have perceived is to miss the point.

—Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard

Aug 212011

Sadhana by Rabindranath TagoreSadhana by Rabindranath Tagore

A collection of lectures about Indian spirituality by India’s first Nobel Laureate. They are interesting but also vague and non-historical. This is one man preaching his personal religion.

While I was in India, The New Yorker did a profile on Tagore. Apparently, Bertrand Russell saw him speak and said he was spouting standard “we are all the Buddha” mumbo-jumbo. If he heard something like this, he’s not far off.

Interesting thing is that Tagore is a Hindu not a Buddhist. How’s that work? Well, he keeps refering to the Upanishads, which Wendy Doniger describes as Hinduism’s response to the Buddhist and Jainist renunciation of Brahmanic ritual, which to me suggests that, if Buddhism is a kind of Hindu Reformation, then the Upanishads are the Brahmins’ counter-reformation. The Buddhist rejection of court religion and ritual in favour of personal quests for enlightenment are rejected but also remake Hinduism expressed in these texts as more personal (though not yet devotional). Tagore is speaking in that vein.

June, 2011. Chennai/Mamallapuram India

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Aug 212011

Buddhism- A Short History by Edward ConzeBuddhism: A Short History by Edward Conze

A useful, concise history of Buddhism. Divides the history into three waves that helped make sense of odd comments I’d read in other books. The first wave is largely monastic, a renunciation of early Vedic Hinduism. The second moves outside the monasteries and invents a lay Buddhism. The third incorporates Tantric and mystical thought into Buddhist philosophy (seriously or not, I’m not sure). The book also places the various branches of Buddhism historically: regional differences are historical traces.

The second-wave notion of a Bodhisattva with “skill in means”–a teacher who speaks in terms a lay person can understand in order to help them increase their understanding bit-by-bit–feeds my sense that Buddhism is not a religion but is instead a philosophy and phenomenology of the mind crusted over with religious trappings. (I mean, a Buddhist god makes absolutely no sense to me. None at all.) “Skill in means” offers a reason for taking those religious trappings as translations of Buddhist insights into metaphorical terms non-monks can understand. (I think of Kierkegaard telling the story of Abraham in various ways or inventing stories to frame the stories that play out his thinking as drama.)

This a book-along-the-way that I imagine I will remember as being important.

June 2011. Mamallapuram, India

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