Monday, February 4, 2013

I've Moved!

I've moved shop to a new blog, as part of the process to build up nice little domain home for myself.

The new blog can be found at

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Gift of Adversity

There is a book out there with the excellent title, "What Makes You not a Buddhist." It's a short, simple book, aimed towards a Western audience, that serves as a sort of response to the Western notion of Buddhism. It provides many excellent points, but its essential purpose is to draw the reader away from the allure of chants, beads, schools, and mysticism and back to the essential teaching of the historical Buddha. To be a Buddhist, the book claims, you need only believe in the Four Noble Truths. All is suffering. Suffering is borne from desire. To stop suffering, one must also end desire. The eightfold path is the process by which one can end desire and escape the endless cycle of suffering. All Buddhist practice - prayer, meditation, devotion, visualization, and so on - is simply a set of tools that the individual takes up to better align their mind to the truth.

Even if one does not know much else about Buddhism, these simple set of truths can have a powerful influence on us if we embrace them. We think so much about suffering and how to end it, but rarely are we willing to trace that suffering back to its source and adjust our mindsets to deal with the root cause. In a similar sense, the absence of suffering does not necessarily mean that someone is closer too buddhahood than someone who is overcome by it. The historical Buddha began his life as a prince who wanted for nothing and was protected from all evidence of suffering, but this didn't result in him spontaneously achieving enlightenment. It was exposure to suffering that forced him to examine his own understanding of how the world works, and his struggle with the problem of worldly suffering that ultimately led to his enlightenment. How can one find the answer if the problem never manifests itself?

In our lives we are beset by problems that seem out of our control. We get into car crashes, we lose our jobs, are passed over for scholarships, contract illness, get into fights with people we love, and on and on. Most of the time it feels like these problems are external, and they are, in some sense, but the emotions that come in reaction to them, the anger, frustration, disappointment, and despair, comes from nowhere but inside of us.

In the US we all live with certain expectations. For the most part, Americans expect things to be on time. We expect that when we flip a switch the light will turn on. We expect that when we pay with a ten dollar bill the person we are paying will be able to make change. We expect that when we go to a business on a business day, it will be open, and when it is open, it will provide us what it advertises. We even expect that when we visit a bathroom there will be a roll of toilet paper waiting for us there.

Moving to a new place, where daily life often comes into conflict of our expectations, provides us with a neverending supply of disappointment and frustration, if we let it. My day on Saturday was a good example.

The day started with an adjustment. While we usually have our weekends free, a speaker had to reschedule and so we had a lecture in the morning. Most of the time the lectures go for one hour, since soon after that we have to be at our placements, so I arranged for a car to pick me up at 12:30 so I could go to the library and do some research for my project. It turned out that this lecture ended up going long, and although it was my favorite of the set I was antsy the whole time, knowing that I was keeping my driver waiting.

At about 1 we got out and I rushed up to the car to get to the library. I had forgotten that the entire Tibetan Central Authority shuts down from 1 to 2 for lunch, so when I arrived around 1:30 I couldn't actually get into the building. I had some lunch of my own to pass the time, and when 2 came around was ready to get to work. Except, the library was out of power, and the electronic catalog was inaccessible. They still maintain a card catalog, so this wasn't as much of a problem as it could have been. I got yelled at by the attendant for taking a card out of the box, and then was told that I had to wait for the power to turn on before they could retrieve any of the books I had selected for me. I spent the rest of the hour browsing through a few of the books in the reading room, but by the time I had to leave the power had still not turned on and I never managed to use the books I had come for.

There was a lot that did not go right that day. Our program is set up such that we only have a certain amount of time to take care of things, so the fact that we only had a few hours out of the whole trip to make attempts at going to the library made the problems that day even more pronounced. But at every point I had a choice in how to deal with what was happening. It would be easy to get angry at the library for only being open at times when I couldn't visit, or to yell at the assistant for not helping me get what I needed. But in the grand scheme of things, what would that have gotten me?

If you make concessions in life but harbor anger over it you invite suffering. It's only when you release the emotions that come from problems that you really overcome them. But this doesn't mean the answer to every problem is to shrug and let it overcome you. Living like that will just make you passive and nihilistic. So how does one marry the idea that desire leads to suffering with he understanding that as people of flesh and blood we have needs and sometimes we must fight for our causes. No one would suggest that the Tibetans simply accept what is happening to them and look inward for the solution, for example. For this problem we might look to the example of the Bodhisattva to provide some illumination on Buddhism's approach to social action and aid.

The Bodhisattva are a group of beings who have attained enlightenment but have decided to remain on the physical plane to provide aid to all people until every last one has attained Nirvana. They represent the compassion of Buddhism, and the proof that while Buddhism stresses the internal journey to enlightenment it does not encourage self-absorption at the cost of the suffering of others. Buddhism is also called a practical religion, in the sense that whatever helps one attain enlightenment is a step in the right direction. In "Buddhism and Social Action: An Exploration" by Ken Jones, he explains that "Buddhist social action is justified ultimately and above all by the existence of social as well as individual karma. Immediately it is simply concerned with relieving suffering; ultimately, in creating social conditions which will favor the ending of suffering through the individual achievement of transcendent wisdom." Combine compassion towards all beings with a desire to create the environment that can provide for their enlightenment, and you can see why we may have to fight for things, even if we believe that it's all transient anyway.

There is some paradox in the desire to free the world of desire, and the resolution of that paradox is far beyond the scope of this little meditation. The world is complicated, and the solution to our problems is not simple. But we can take steps towards a better life, and eventually enlightenment, by being mindful of our own emotional obstructions and by working towards creating a world where others can focus on the Buddha's teachings without being distracted by hardship.

Monday, December 10, 2012

A commentary on a commentary on a Chinese publication

In the year 1994 the Chinese government published a book entitled "A Collection of Historical Archives of Tibet." Consisting of facimilies of about 100 documents throughout Chinese history from 1277 to 1956, the book was an attempt to prove that Tibet had, from the time of antiquity, been under the direct administrative control of what one might consider to be China.

I can't say much about the "Collection" itself. What I could find about it online was just a few articles from the party run press hailing the book as definitive proof that Tibet was a part of China. . As silly as it sounds for a party that once swore to eradicate history and tradition from the face of China to turn back to history and tradition to seek legitimacy in the occupation of an actively resisting region, that's what's happening. There aren't many copies available out there. Worldcat has only one and there are a few other copies here and there. None appear to be listed in US institutions. It seems that no one is taking this books seriously.

I would love to have the book in my hands, but it is still possible to argue against that claim it makes without it. Chinese history is not an unbroken line of easy succession. The idea of any part of China being under consistent administrative control, never mind a region as distant from the historical core of China as Tibet, is laughable to any scholar of Chinese history. The communist party itself is not a century old, and the KMT that ruled before it still exists in some sense in Taiwan and makes claim, however symbolic, to the whole of China. So what legitimizes the PRC's claim that it has inherited the territory of the dynasties and governments that came before it? Its authority over the territory it calls Zhong Guo is the result of successful military action for the most part. At no point was its inheritance assured.

None the less, the Tibetan Central Authority saw the need to respond to the claims in the "Collection" and published "A 60-Point Commentary" in 2008. In it, the CTA goes over each document one by one and refutes the claim that it is proof of China's historical ownership of Tibet in three basic ways. It claims that the documents do not come from "Chinese" authority, that China omitted documents disproving its claim, and that the "proof" provided is being interpreted in an extremely loose fashion.

Particularly in earlier historical documents, when the majority of China was under the control of the Mongols or Manchus, the CTA has tried to make the case that there is little to connect the administrations of the successive Han rulers, and, anyhow, Tibet enjoyed autonomy in those periods as one half of a Priest-Patron state relationship. With documents dated from around the 19th century and later rebuttals are focused on the intentional presumption of subsequent Chinese governments and the omission of documents that indicate that Tibet either acted independently of edicts or sent responses that countered them.

Where the Commentary simply relays the text of the "proof" and rebutts it, such as pointing out that threatening to recall troops from Tibet if it doesn't manage its internal affairs is not usually how a nation deals with its own territory, it is quite effective. When the Commentary tries to counter documents with those of its own it falls flat by failing to cite any of its documents. I suppose we can take it on faith that the documents like the Tibetan-Mongol treaty exist (I've seen a copy of that personally, at least), and we can do the legwork ourselves to confirm their existence, but a simple list with the institution housing the document seems like a basic necessity when we're talking about using historical documents as proof of anything. Even worse, some documents the Commentary claims exists are named in ambiguous fashion, and would be hard to track down with just the information presented in the book.

China's claims to a historical right to occupy Tibet is problematic at its face, and requires very little effort to counter. For this reason what the Commentary provides is more than adequate ammunition for the task. But were China's claim strong, and the documents it presented in its "collection" even the least bit convincing on their own, the Commentary would not make for the best rebuttal. It is not itself a collection of proof, and spends more time than it should claiming that counter proof exists when simply pointing out the inadequacy of  the documents in question would be enough.

Ultimately, China's quest to find some sort of historical excuse for its occupation is begging the question. Even if there were such thing as a Chinese government that remained constant from the Mongols to now, and even if the PRC had inherited that tradition, its treatment of the Tibetan people has taken legitimacy from it. Even in the Chinese tradition the Mandate of Heaven dictates that a despotic ruler must be overthrown, whether they gained their power by right or not.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Dharamsala Week 1

Long time no post. A lot has been going on, and the result of all of it is that I am in Dharamsala India, tired but happy, doing work, climbing hills, and drinking a lot of tea.

I and 12 other students are here for a service learning program involving lectures, volunteer work, and some research.The first few days were dedicated to just getting here. The trip was about 18 hours by plane, 9 by train, and a final three by taxi. Most of us had packed in backpacks in an attempt to remain more mobile, so we looked like a gaggle of pack mules as we made our way up. It felt like half of our luggage was made up of gifts from people in the US to their contacts here, which hopefully means that on the way back the load will be lighter, as long as we are careful with our holiday shopping.

Even though we've been here for over a week now, it is still difficult to make any definitive conclusions, either about our work, McCloud Ganj, where we are staying, or India as a whole. The country is immense, if not geographically then culturally, as the thousands of dialects and dozens of distinct local languages can attest to.  What observations I've been able to make are so narrow in the context of my experience that I'm not entirely sure of what use they are as generalizations, but this is what I've been able to gather so far, in broad terms.

India is almost surprising in how unsurprising it is. Comparing it to my other experiences abroad, initially there was much less opportunity to discover in an organic manner. Our time in Delhi was restricted to two days of bus touring, with stops in major landmarks. The landmarks themselves were impressive, but the city and we were separated by glass the majority of the time. Even so, the poverty, congestion, and extreme population density was still evident. We were warned against giving anything to beggars or hawkers, particularly the children, who are guaranteed an education and lunch in India up till a certain age and are typically forced to beg by parents with habits, according to our guide. Before we came we were regaled with stories of pick pockets and Delhi belly, but the worst I ever felt was after taking my malaria pills, and the most ripped off I ever got was when we had to pay a guy some money for "guarding our shoes."  The pollution and congestion was insane, but we were expecting it to be insane.

I knew that English was almost a primary language in India, but I wasn't prepared for it to be quite as ubiquitous as it is. Almost every sign is in English, and almost everyone speaks it, whether they might be expected to be in contact with foreigners or not. In a sense the ability to get along completely fine with English makes India feel much less far away. In countries where English is rare, there is a sense of isolation and separation you get just by walking down the street. So far that sense has been impossible to generate while in India.

The only other thing I noticed that seemed to clash with expectation was the amount of religious places, for lack of a better world, in the area. Religion is everywhere in India, and then it's not. In Japan and Taiwan, temples are everywhere, and the roads are dotted with Jizo and shrines to spirits. Even though Dharamsala can be considered the capitol of an entire religion at the moment, the formal structures dedicated to that religion are limited. Everyone has a portrait of the Dalai Lama, and prayer flags hang from wherever people can place them, but we have not seen the Dalai Lama's palace, or I have not recognized it, even though we have circumambulated it a number of times. There is a structure in the middle of town that is lined with prayer wheels, but inside it appears to be a storage area. Besides personal icons, the only major example of a more "casual" religious structure is a shrine to what is likely Brahma in front of the taxi stand. While I have been able to spot some small shrines tucked into city streets, they do not feel as common.

I think the uniqueness of Dharamsala and our limited exposure to the real Delhi has made it difficult for me to properly take stock of the role of public religious structures in the country. If I have time I may need to poke around about to see of my initial impressions hold true, but whether I have that time is a real question.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

April Foolery

Wow, it's like March didn't even happen! That's not true. A lot happened in March. I've just been bad at keeping track of it all. So, I figured a whirlwind update was in order just to catch up on some thing before I ended up two months without a single update. And since pictures are worth a thousand words I'll just go with those.

The night after Rufus had his little fit over my giving him the pill he was back to his old self again. Here he is claiming my pillow. For context I had been about to go to sleep on that very pillow when he woke my up by trying to sit on my face. When I sat up to give him a finger wagging he immediately lay down and claimed the spot for his own. I took the picture as evidence of his jerk behavior.

Oh, and as you can see, shortly after I moaned about needing a bookshelf I got myself a bookshelf. It's over capacity already.

March was a combination of dreary, almost good weather punctuated by moments of niceness. This pile of snow is about a story high, as you can see from the parking structure next to it, and was about two weeks old already when I took the picture. I was not happy with this.

But now the sun is out more often than not, the trees are making love all over my car, and the robins are hopping about and glaring in their robin way, so I guess it's spring. The tornado warning we had last week is another indication that the season is changing. All we ended up getting is hail and high winds, but tornadoes still scare the crap out of me.

For Easter my roommate made an amazing meal of ham, potatoes, and an apple crumble thing, all of which lasted a week (the ham is still being picked at). This is not that meal obviously. This is a meal from the Ikea Easter event, which is basically salmon, salmon, and more salmon. I never thought I'd say this but I really like Ikea's food, and having a Smörgåsbord was a lot of fun.

The Ikea folk provided a little gift bag along with our dinners, which included a delicious bar of chocolate and a bib saying "I drool for Swedish meatballs." Since the bib didn't fit us and we don't have a baby we had to conscript Rufus to model it. Here he is being shy and/or perturbed.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

World Tour of Denver

Yesterday was the best day I've had in a while. Today was a total flop.

Let's start from the top.

The Penrose Library is in the midst of renovation, and invited the campus to come to a "chair tasting," in which we sit in a few dozen chairs and tell them how we feel about them. I was on campus for something else, so I figured I'd stop by and see this silliness. I ended up spending an hour sitting in various chairs and scoring them on comfortableness, aesthetics, and durability, and at the end of it I got a voucher for coffee.

That was the start of the weirdness.

After that, I decided I wanted ramen. The craving for ramen can develop into an obsession, and with only one semi-decent ramen house to be found in the city, it's also a bit of a rare treat. So I go driving off to get ramen. I end up stuck behind a vehicle doing fifteen under the speed limit half a mile by my exit, and since I'm already in a cloud of wanderlust and cabin fever from the weekend blizzard, I decide I will try passing, and if I miss the exit I will keep driving. I miss the exit, so I keep driving.

I get off a couple stops after, am vaguely lost, and drive around until I see an sign for a Korean BBQ place. Well, I haven't been to a Korean restaurant since I got to Denver, so I figure, why not? The only problem is that the turn in is behind me. So I keep going, and turn into the next parking lot, which happens to have an antique mall in it. It's around three thirty by this point, not really supper time yet, so I figure, what the hell, I'll browse.

The mall is set up as a series of displays owned by sellers who  probably rent the space. Along the wall there are a few separate rooms, one of which is nothing but watches and cameras. I figure it's lucky that the pocket watch I was looking at was over a hundred bucks, or I might have tricked myself into thinking I could afford it.

After trawling around for possible book finds (lots of books, all of them worthless), I stepped out, prepared to have something to eat. Only, just then I noticed a "deli" in the same complex as the antique mall. It was a Russian market, and since I was already there and out of the car, I decided to go inside. Ended up with a bunch of preserved fish and a real hankering for deli meats, but my mind was still on Korean.

So now I think I'm going to get to the restaurant. Only, when I drive into the strip mall I find myself parked in front of an English tea house, advertising food and gifts along with sit down dining. So I go in there too. One of my classmates used to bring in a box of PG Tips last quarter, and lo and behold, there was a bunch of that in stock, so I figured, well, I just ran out of black tea, and this stuff doesn't show up at safeway, so I'll grab it.

As I'm walking to the restaurant I pass an African Market, so I go in there too. Lots of grains and spices in that one, and a hair salon in back. I was almost tempted to get one of the many DVD stacked up front, just to see what Congolese cinema was like, but I have enough crap in my room right now, so I passed on that.

So after a stroll around Russia, a stop in England, and a quick detour to Africa, I finally made it to Korea.

And man. That food was GOOD. Korean is hot in a strange way that is comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time. I don't tend to like spicy food. I don't like spicy Thai, and I hate spicy Mexican, but there's something about spicy Korean that I am willing to suffer through. It helps that I made an excellent menu decision. It was hard to make, considering all the soups, noddles, and grilled selections looked equally mouthwatering, but I finally went with a beef, dumpling, and rice cake soup, partially because it looked less dangerously orange in the picture.

It was a good thing I chose that too, because it unexpectedly came with 7 sides, all of which were amazing. Banchan is one of the most marvelous culinary inventions of all time. Multiple sauces and textures of varying heat, all in little portions so you can eat a lot of different stuff and still get full. They're all extremely simple, but perfect together. A few use this thick sauce that is sweet when you first eat it and then becomes surprisingly hot after the first few seconds. They put it on veggies, seaweed and broccoli. SO GOOD. And when my tongue started aching all I had to do was drink more soup, which was not spicy at all, and reset my palate perfectly. I ate more in that sitting than I had in a single meal for weeks.

And when I was done I was given a complimentary desert drink, a sort of barley tea that was ultrasweet. The gross mouth feeling you get when you've eaten a lot of hot food was instantly gone.

And all of this for 11 bucks.

This couldn't have come at a better time. The day before I had tried chicken fried steak at a local diner and hated it. It tasted like I was eating oil and batter and gravy and nothing else. A few days before that I had gone out with a friend to a Japanese restaurant, and took a risk on their ramen. That was also almost inedible, and again tasted like eating oil.

So I was so happy that I had found a place that was not only relatively cheap, but was really, really good.

Today was almost the opposite of that experience. Again I had to go driving somewhere, but this time I had a definite destination and a time limit. There was an SLA meeting at the Denver Tech Center, which is basically this huge chunk of the city where massive office buildings are surrounded by massive car parks. In other words, it represents everything I hate about car culture.

The DTC is only 15 minutes away, but once I got there I spent 45 minutes driving in circles, trying to find the building the event was supposed to be in. Eventually I decided the effort wasn't worth the gas and drove back home to "attend" the event online. Unfortunate, considering I had registered and paid, and had a meal waiting for me at the building that I could not find because the roads were not designed to make sense and the buildings were not designed to be easily accessible. And it was ironic too, since the speaker for the evening was a gentleman who was all about sustainability and the alteration of our social structures to better support our core values.

If I ruled the world, you can bet the first alteration I would make would be in bulldozing that entire god-forsaken zone down and replacing it with something that made sense.

Friday, January 27, 2012

I'm a sucker

Cats are ridiculous. They are supposed to be easy to care for, until they are impossible. You put water down, and food, and do your thing, and the cat does his thing, and that's that. And then something goes wrong and nothing you do is right. You want me in a cat carrier? Yeah right. Here, let me yawl at you in a pitiful manner so you don't know if I'm dying or if I'm pissed.

Long story short, Rufus and I had an interesting evening tonight. I had to pop and allergy pill down his throat, which meant I had to sneak up to him, brace him between my legs, stick the pill in his mouth, and wait for him to swallow. He was not happy. He expressed his displeasure by barfing on the carpet multiple times, refusing to move unless prodded and then crawling a few inches forward to lie down again, and looking sick in general.

He has no idea how close he was to getting shoved into a cat carrier and driven through the freezing night to some animal hospital. After about half an hour he started walking around again, and now he's filling his belly with cat food, likely so he can puke it at me later.

He also yowls at me every five minutes or so. So, I get up and make sure nothing is wrong and he's sitting with his cat toy, looking up at me expectantly. I think he knows I feel guilty for shoving the pill down his throat and is milking it. My guess is that he was used to me being the pushover, and so my manhandling him for the first time ever was so offensive he had himself a little fit.

He's back to normal now, but I'm going to be jumping at every little thing for him for the rest of the weekend. Here's hoping he doesn't take too much advantage of that.