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The religions: which is it to be – sibling rivalry or family feeling?

Monday, April 7th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- two images from recent Religion Dispatches posts neatly pose the question ]


  • Jeremy Stolow, Will Quebec Ban Religious Symbols in Public?
  • M Sophia Newman, Are Attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh Religiously Motivated?
  • **

    Québec officially doesn’t seem to like what it terms “conspicuous religious symbols” — including the pictured “large” crucifix, hijab, and dastar (upper panel above, top row, left to right) and niqab and kippa (bottom row, left to right).

    I suppose that’s one way to achieve uniformity — maybe peacocks should be asked to tone down their feathers until they’re more in line with pigeons, too — but it’s instructive to note that most of the folk in the Bangladeshi march for religious harmony (lower panel, above) would be banned from wearing their identifying symbols if they tried to hold a similar parade in Montréal, Québec.

    Lac Zut, alors!


    In the tiny middle panel of my DoubleQuotes graphic, where you’ll usually find a pair of spectacles or binoculars, the Swayambunath Buddha, just outside Kathmandu, Nepal, looks on, bemused — having seen so much, so very much, of human nature.


    Out of context: mayhem or medicine among the Buddhists?

    Monday, March 24th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- propaganda via the misquoting of an image ]

    The two images are the same — as above, so below. Their contexts, however, are different: one image is preented with the comment:

    Muslims burned in Burma … by Buddhists idolaters?

    The other:

    An ethnic Tibetan monk throws the body of a child onto a funeral pyre in a ditch in Jiegu Town of Yushu County, Qinghai province, after an earthquake registering 7.1 on the richter scale hit the area. April 19, 2010. Over 1,400 people died in the disaster.



    I used only one copy of the photo, since different people have cropped it differently, but the two quotes can be found with their respective versions of the same image here:

  • Forum voices Yemen, Muslims burned in Burma
  • 2Wall, The Most Shocking Pictures of 2010
  • **

    While the violence encouraged by Buddhist monks against the Rohingya Muslims in Burma is tragic and important for us to recognize [1, 2], borrowing the photo of a monk taking a medically justified measure to avoid adding a preventable medical disaster to an already terrible natural one, transposing it from the Tibetan plateau to Burma, and then identifying it as a photo of a Buddhist monk murdering Muslims is… unhelpful to say the least.


    On “Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form”

    Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- a little transhumanist techno-buddhism -- the title quote comes from the Buddhist text known as the Heart Sutra ]

    You might think the form of the Buddha would be fluid — but thangka painters are instructed to paint him according to graphical formulae not unlike the floor-plans and elevations architects draw up for tract-houses…

    Canon of the Physical Proportions of a Great Being

    The image of Buddha, who was called The Greatest Yogin of all Times, expresses serene quiescence. The harmony of his physical proportions is the expression of great beauty. The required measurements are laid down in the canon (or standard pattern) of Buddhist art, which corresponds to ideal physical proportions. The span is the basic measure, i.e. the distance from the tip of the middle finger to the tip of the thumb of the outspread hand. This distance corresponds to the space between the dimple in the chin and the hair-line. Each span has twelve finger-breadths. The whole figure measures 108 finger-breadths or 9 spans corresponding to the macro-micro-cosmic harmony measurements.


    Let’s go transhumanist on this. The artist Wang Zi Won is now exhibiting Mechanical Buddhas and Other Religious Icons

    The artist predicts that in the future humans will evolve and adapt themselves to enhanced science and technology just as men and animals in the past evolved to adapt themselves to their natural circumstances. He sees this future as our destiny, not as a negative, gloomy dystopia. His work is thus based on neither utopia not dystopia. Wang represents the relations between man, technology and science through the bodies of cyborgs.

    The artist considers it important to escape from human bondage in order to achieve harmony between men and machines. He thinks this harmony can be achieved through the process of religious practices and spiritual enlightenment. In Buddhism, the Bodhisattva of Compassion helps people attain enlightenment, Arhat is a spiritual practitioner of asceticism, and Buddha is a being who reaches the highest level of enlightenment. Through them, the artist intends to follow the path of enlightenment, breaking away from anxiety, agony, and pain. The artist has no intention to emphasize religious connotations through these Buddhist icons but to reflect his own or our own existence between utopia and dystopia.

    Notice how well the white porcelain skin of this mechanical Buddha — graceful in its every fluid motion — embodies #4 in the celebrated 32 Excellent Signs of a Buddha’s Enlightening Body:

    The skin of a Buddha, no matter how old he is, remains unwrinkled and as smooth as that of an infant nursing on his mother’s milk. This reflects his having always been generous with nourishing food and drink. In the Pali tradition, this sign is having tender hands and feet.


    In just 14 contemplative seconds, see how their mechanical halos move these Buddhas in another of Wang Zi Won’s works:

    These figures make terrific counterparts to Theo Jansen‘s marvelous Strandbeests, which I featured in last week’s Sunday surprise.


    Groucho Marx is supposed to have said “Blessed are the cracked, for they shall let in the light” — but then Spike Milligan is also supposed to have said it, which figures.

    Or as William Butler Yeats” Crazy Jane suggests in his poem Crazy Jane Talks With The Bishop:

    For nothing can be sole or whole
    That has not been rent


    Here’s Leonard Cohen on the same general topic:


    On China vs India — and the Hungry Ghosts

    Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron -- I'd have put these two "quotes" in my DoubleQuotes format, but wanted to quote quite a gobbit of each, and the print would have been too small ]

    Offering us a fresh angle on two great nations as we (maybe) pivot to Asia

    Excerpted from Hungry Ghost Festival 2013 Begins In China As Spirits Descend On Homes, Wander Streets:

    The gates of hell have opened. Its ghosts have been let loose to roam on earth and visit the homes of their relatives.

    According to traditional Chinese beliefs this happens every year during the seventh month of the lunar year, resulting in a raucous, feast-and-music filled celebration known as the Hungry Ghost Festival. But not all ghosts are good. There are some spirits who wander the streets, ravenous and envious because they died without descendants or were ignored by their kin while alive.

    To appease the hungry spirits, ethnic Chinese step up prayers, aided by giant colorful joss sticks shaped like dragons. They also burn mock currency and miniature paper television sets, mobile phones and furniture as offering to the ancestors for their use in the other world.

    For 15 days, neighborhoods hold nightly shows of shrill Chinese operas and pop concerts to entertain the dead.

    Excerpted from Indian state outlaws profiting on miracles, summoning ‘ghosts’:

    New Delhi – A new law against superstition and black magic in India’s Maharashtra state has triggered a debate between religious groups who say that the state is interfering in personal faith, and rationalists who say religious malpractices violate human rights. [ … ]

    “We will challenge the law as it is ambiguous and interferes with personal faith,” says Abhay Vartak of the Santan Sanstha, a Hindu organization. “The law does not define much of what it outlaws – ghosts, for instance. The government itself is not clear whether ghosts exist! And if belief in ghosts is to be outlawed, then what about the Hindu Scripture the Atharva Veda, which says a lot about how to get rid of ghosts who come to inhabit a body?” he asks.

    The law specifically outlaws 12 practices, making them punishable by a jail term of seven months to seven years. Of the 12 clauses, two relate to belief in ghosts. The first one forbids recommending violent and sexual practices for purging ghosts from the body – including drinking urine or stool, being tied with a rope or chain, and touching heated objects. It also outlaws creating fear by threatening to invite ghosts.


    For a glimpse of how the notion of “hungry ghosts” might be interpreted in terms of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy — as embodied in the Chöd rite — see Tai Situ Rinpoche‘s Introduction to Chod.


    Blessed are the conflict resolvers I: in three religions

    Monday, August 5th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron -- peace making tells us that the goal of the activity is peace, conflict resolution tells us that this goal is not achieved in peace but on the field of conflict ]

    Michael Lempert‘s book, Discipline and Debate: The Language of Violence in a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery, has a somewhat harsh take on the practice of debate in the education of Buddhist monks. The Introduction begins:

    Buddhist ‘debate’ (rtsod pa), a twice-daily form of argumentation through which Tibetan monks learn philosophical doctrine, is loud and brash and agonistic. Monks who inhabit the challenger role punctuate their points with foot-stomps and piercing open-palmed hand-claps that explode in the direction of the seated defendant’s face. I was curious about the fate of this martial idiom in which monks wrangle, curious especially about its apparent disregard for ideals like nonviolence, compassion, and rights that Tibetans like the Dalai Lama have promoted…

    For a more “nonviolent” view, see Daniel E. Perdue, Debate In Tibetan Buddhism — and by way of comparison, John Daido Loori‘s account of the Zen equivalent, Cave of Tigers: The Living Zen Practice of Dharma Combat


    For a comparable Christian form of debate, we can turn to the writings of Peter Abelard, the medieval scholastic (educator and lover of Heloise) who introduced his book Sic et Non — “Yes and No” — in which he selected what are essentially DoubleQuotes from the Early Church Fathers, setting them one against another to display their seeming contradictions, with the following words:

    In view of these considerations, I have ventured to bring together various dicta of the holy fathers, as they came to mind, and to formulate certain questions which were suggested by the seeming contradictions in the statements. These questions ought to serve to excite tender readers to a zealous inquiry into truth and so sharpen their wits. The master key of knowledge is, indeed, a persistent and frequent questioning. Aristotle, the most clear-sighted of all the philosophers, was desirous above all things else to arouse this questioning spirit, for in his Categories he exhorts a student as follows: “It may well be difficult to reach a positive conclusion in these matters unless they be frequently discussed. It is by no means fruitless to be doubtful on particular points.” By doubting we come to examine, and by examining we reach the truth.


    The essence of both the above examples is conflict circumscribed, with the goal of enlightenment.

    It’s my impression that Sura 49 verse 13 of the Qur’an implies a similar process, though here it is difference rather than conflict that is the starting point, and mutual understanding that is the goal:

    O mankind, We have created you male and female, and appointed you races and tribes, that you may know one another. Surely the noblest among you in the sight of God is the most godfearing of you. God is All-knowing, All-aware.

    That’s AJ Arberry‘s translation. Yusuf Ali‘s draws out more of the implications:

    O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).


    In the second part of this post, I’ll present two extraordinary examples of conflict presented as art…


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