Two Photos

May 17th, 2011

Boy Sweeping Ice-Cream Shop
Ice-Cream Shop, Eastern Market, Detroit

Souvenir Shop
Souvenir Shop, Near the Hanuman Temple, Varanasi, India

Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries) and a photographer’s dilemma

April 25th, 2011

still from Dhobi Ghat, starring Prateik Babbar

Most Indian cities have an area called the dhobi ghat, a bank of a river or lake where laundry services send clothes to be cleaned. Just like these areas are often on the outskirts of the city, the film Dhobi Ghat (released in some English-speaking markets as Mumbai Diaries) is on the outskirts of Hindi film, not filled with song-and-dance fantasies or wild action, but some subdued drama and a personal view.

In the film, Prateik Babbar plays Munna, a young man who delivers clothes for the dhobi service. His first encounter with Shai (Monica Dogra) is a little hostile–she berates him for spreading the wine stain on a white shirt. Shai is an American of Indian descent, a banker and aspiring photographer on a year’s sabbatical in her parents’ homeland. In their next meeting, she seems a little apologetic, and invites him in for tea to make up for it. He tells her that he moved to Mumbai from Bihar in hopes of making more money, either through better-paying jobs or becoming a movie star. He has never been back to his home state, he says.

He notices her camera, and asks if she can take his picture, so that he can use it to audition as an actor. It becomes apparent that their goals for the pictures are quite different. He wants to show off his confidence, his Westernized jeans and tee-shirts, his rock-star/model glamour poses. She’s interested in the unguarded realness of his life, taking a few photos of him preparing for the shoot when he wasn’t looking. She agrees to take photos in a studio in exchange for permission to photograph him working on laundry at the dhobi ghat.

I recognized something of his puzzlement and embarrasment. A lot of the people I met in India wanted me to see the Westernized side of things, the side they thought of as impressive. Sometimes they were puzzled by my interest in the underside, or else just the everyday routines. They didn’t know why an American would find the dhobi ghat particularly interesting.

But that’s a risk you take when you try to cross a cultural divide. You have to risk saying, “Here is what I find interesting about your story,” realizing that the person living that story thinks of those aspects as entirely uninteresting. Maybe it’s a risk of objectifying or fetishizing the “simple life,” or a risk that you’ll find something that humiliates or exposes them. If you never take that risk, you don’t learn from them or see what their lives are really like. And maybe we all need to be told from time to time that our lives are interesting, even those parts of them we’d like to gloss over, ignore, or replace with a facade.

Here’s my dhobi ghat picture, taken up the steps from the Ganges in Rishikesh.
Dhobi-wallah's shop in Rishikesh

The Pursuit of Privacy

March 1st, 2011

Our society values privacy so much that sometimes it seems to be an inalienable right, a need as natural as food or water. We might not notice just how unusual our expectations of private space and private knowledge are in a broader context.

It’s a theme I’ve been noticing in a number of places and discussions recently, including in Reality Is Broken by Jane McGonigal. In looking at what works for us in video games, contrasted to how we approach our lives, McGonigal notes that we’re more social and open-minded when playing a game, and that these things may be missing from our lives.

In most places in our lives, we can afford privacy because of our money. I noticed this most sharply when traveling on trains in India. If you paid 2300 rupees for a ticket (around $50), you could get into an air-conditioned compartment with a sliding door, where other passengers would mind their own business and you’d have plenty of space. For around $6, you could take the same trip in a crowded cabin, hot and dusty, with strangers sitting inside your personal bubble.

sleeper class train in Bihar, Indian Railways

And my conclusion, after trying all the classes of Indian Railways, was that sleeper class was a lot more fun. Or maybe fun isn’t the word for it. It was rewarding; it was life-affirming; it was beautiful.

This is a paradox of money in our time. When we can afford privacy, we take it, and we look for more ways to enhance privacy. Certainly some times we have excellent reasons to protect our privacy, even beyond convenience. We are wise to protect ourselves from stalkers, identity thieves, and contagious viruses. But the problem with privacy is that it can rob us of some essential nutrients we need to survive–human contact, surprise, wonder, generosity, both given and received. So maybe we seek this out online, then recoil from it, preferring the safety of privacy.

This may just be an accident of history, something that looks self-evident at one point but is actually very limited. Consider the security question, “What is your mother’s maiden name?” For a brief period of the 20th Century in the Western world, we could safely assume that this question would be secure. But before that, and in any village culture, the name of your mother’s clan is no secret–it would be rare that someone who knew you wouldn’t know that. In the future, in the global village, it won’t be that hard to figure it out either. Your digital footprints and connections will give that secret away. Yet I think we might gain something more precious in return for the disappearance of privacy. A new way to see and be seen, that won’t be painful if we’re happy with who we are.

Internal Affairs part 4

January 30th, 2011

This is the last of four posts on the concept of “internal” and “external.” Read the rest of the posts by going to part one, part two, and part three.

Because I started this discussion with the rules of games, like Scrabble and Chess, we should bring it around to the ethical rules of Buddhism. We call them “the precepts,” and phrase them this way:

Five Traditional Precepts:

1. Do not harm but cherish all life.
2. Do not take what is not given but respect the things of others.
3. Do not engage in sexual promiscuity but practice purity of mind and self-restraint.
4. Do not lie but speak the truth.
5. Do not partake in the production and transactions of firearms and chemical poisons that are injurious to public health and safety nor of drugs and liquors that confuse and weaken the mind.

Three Contemporary Precepts:

6. Do not waste but conserve energy and natural resources.
7. Do not harbor enmity against the wrongs of others but promote peace and justice through non-violent means.
8. Do not cling to things that belong to you but practice generosity and the joy of sharing.

Once we take the precepts, we vow to uphold them. But we must ask, are these precepts like the rules of Chess, or like the rules of Scrabble? Are they the lines we will never cross, or the principles that we will test?

I look at other traditions for signs of this. A friend of mine showed me a set of videos online, the Shaytan videos. These were a set of public service commercials that aired in some Muslim countries. In these videos, a person will, say, be contemplating whether to falsely call in sick from work, and then a man dressed as a red devil appears over his shoulder and says (in Arabic) “Sure! Lie to your boss!” Or a child is reprimanded by his mother for eating with his left hand, then the red devil comes on to say, “It’s totally cool to eat with your left hand!” And the insight I get from these videos is that these are the points of struggle in the Muslim world, the issues that people need some encouragement on. There are no videos where people face the truly unthinkable. The ethical rules in the videos are internal to Muslim life.

In Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition of Vietnamese Zen, the precepts are called “mindfulness trainings.” To benefit from them, you do have to take them seriously, but you’ll never learn if you don’t stumble. In this way, the rules are very much internal. In a Buddhist life, we will have a discussion about what constitutes “truth” or “harm,” and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Bernie Glassman speaks of a distinction between “violating the precepts” and “breaking the precepts.” Violating the precepts is like getting a dish dirty; it’s what we do with the dish, a part of using the dish and a part of its function. We work to keep our dishes clean for our own health. I think breaking the precepts is more like denying their value–instead of trying to become more mindful, deciding that it doesn’t really matter because the trainings are “only suggestions.”

When we reconcile this, the precepts aren’t restrictive or oppressive. They are merely the rules of the game that we are playing. To play the game well, we learn the rules.

Internal Affairs, Part 3

January 24th, 2011

This is the third part of this post. For the first and second parts, go here and here. Part Four will finish it off soon.

The internal/external discussion leads to a thought about the way we see groups of people. Within any group of people, there are variations. However, a common tendency is to present differences within a group as differences outside the group–to assume the external rather than internal. So suppose we’re looking at children playing. I think if we look for internal differences, we’ll say, “Lots of girls like playing with dolls, and some girls like playing with trucks.” It’s more common to imply that girls normally like dolls, that liking trucks is not an authentically “girl” thing to do. I’ve always been a little troubled by the word “tomboy”–as if the truck-playing girls aren’t really girls, but a kind of boy.

When we act as though there’s a divide that exists externally, we act as though some people have only conditional membership in a group. They’re men, but they aren’t “real men.” They’re artists, but they aren’t “true artists.” They’re Americans, but they aren’t “real Americans.”

More and more, this kind of divide bothers me. It can show up in subtle ways. When Gloria Steinem turned 40 years old, she had a famous response to an interviewer who commented, “You look good for 40”; she replied, “This is what 40 looks like.” Even if it’s presented as a compliment, I think there’s a need for an honest accounting of it. Especially when it’s meant to divide and disarm people, it stops us from accepting the range of possibilities, and accepting the authenticity of what we’re experiencing. This is what an American looks like. There’s no “real American” to judge against.

Occasionally, when I was in India, people would ask with puzzlement why I am Buddhist. They occasionally said, “I thought most Americans were Christian.”

I learned to reply with a joke: four American students are traveling through India on a train. As they enter the state of Punjab, they see a grey cow grazing alongside the tracks. One of them starts to take notes, and announces, “Today we learned that cows in Punjab are grey.”

The second student corrects him. “We can’t say that with any certainty. We learned that SOME cows in Punjab are grey.”

The third student clarifies. “No, all we can say with certainty is that there are cows in Punjab, and one of them is grey.”

The last student examines his notes. “Today I learned that there is at least one cow in Punjab. It is grey on at least one side.”

And so I hoped to clarify: since you met me, you know there is at least one Buddhist from America. One side of him is white.

Internal Affairs, Part Two

January 21st, 2011

A continuation of my comments on internal and external elements of practice. Go here if you haven’t read part one.

The internal/external rules lead me to another way to envision the Buddhist concept of dukkha, usually translated as “suffering.” We suffer because we view elements of our lives as external. Whenever we look at our lives and think, “This is not the way things are supposed to be,” we create our own stress and disappointment–our dukkha.

Consider the stress we feel in relationships. Most weeks I listen to the podcast of the advice columnist Dan Savage, who often fields questions about jealousy. People get stressed when their partners show attraction to other people; people get stressed when they feel attraction and don’t want to tell their partners about it. I think we’re led to believe that the rules of a relationship are external–that if you’re in a relationship, and you look at someone other than your partner and think, “HOT,” you’re somehow breaking a rule that invalidates your relationship. We’d like to think that a relationship won’t have a conversation about what to do when there’s an outside attraction–which there just about always is. We feel attraction when we do, regardless of whether we’re romantically committed to not act on that attraction. In our time, I think it makes more and more sense to make that rule internal–to resign yourself to have a discussion about what lines there are, and what to do when you or your partner cross that line.

We’ll suffer if we expect our guesses to match up the actual practices of our partners, or vice versa. We’ll reduce suffering if we accept that disappointment is part of life–is internal to it. As my friend Koho says, “We’re not very good at hanging out with disappointment. It seems that about five minutes into being disappointed, we look for someone to be angry at.”

When I was a child, I got the sense that “childishness” was something external to adult life. If I was acting childish, I was warned that once I became an adult, I’d find that no one acts like that. It was a slow dawning, the more I became a full participant in the adult world, that people can still be petty, people still throw tantrums, people still pout and whine, and people still bully. These behaviors aren’t separate from adult life, and never have been.

Every week at Still Point, we chant our own version of the Three Refuges, which defines “Dharma” as “teachings manifesting everywhere.” If we think of our problems as external to our lives, we idealize a life without them. “I’ll be able to study Dharma as soon as all this junk gets out of my way.” “I shouldn’t have to deal with this.” “I’m going to pretend you didn’t just say that.” We miss the point: that these are the Dharma gates opening for us. There is nothing that isn’t a teacher.

Internal Affairs, Part One

January 17th, 2011

Here’s something I wrote that’s a little long for a blog post, so I’m cutting it into four parts over the next few days.

At the temple a few weeks ago, the reading from the Still Point Dhammapada was in many ways typical, yet perhaps one that calls for a note of clarification. It states:

The people whose minds
are well developed in
the Factors of Enlightenment
and who have rid themselves
of all craving
rejoice in their abandonment
of grasping.

It’s a good teaching, and a true teaching, but it’s the kind of teaching we often misunderstand. We might think that it means that good Buddhists don’t experience any grasping or craving. The Dhammapada might give us the idea that these things are not part of Buddhists’ lives.

I compare it to the rules of a game. There are games like chess, where the rules are largely external to the game. What happens in chess if you move your pawn three spaces? The answer: if you move your pawn three spaces, you’re not playing chess. More of the rules are internal to the game of Scrabble. If you play an improper word in Scrabble, your opponent must decide whether or not to challenge you and risk losing a turn. If you play a word that breaks the rules, you’re still playing Scrabble. A similar analogy: in bowling, the rules are mostly external; to learn to bowl is to learn to play by the rules. In soccer, more of the rules are internal. During your average soccer match, there will be violations of the rules, and there will be penalties. There are many times that it’s strategic to break a rule and risk a penalty.

When I think about the rules of a game this way, it applies in interesting ways to all aspects of life. Are the rules external or internal? Suppose you have a close friend who comes from a different background. You might, from time to time, say things that are considered rude or offensive, or your friend might say such a thing to you. If the rules are external, this is a sign that you shouldn’t be friends, because friends must respect each other. But if the rules are internal, then it is part of the game–during any interaction, there’s a chance that you’ll need to discuss what was appropriate and what was inappropriate. The dialogue is an inseparable part of the friendship.

Zen is not a game. But if we take one term for Zen–“objectless meditation”–and apply this question to it, the rule means something different if it is internal or external. When you sit in meditation and try to clear your mind, if thoughts arise, you might think it invalidates the Zen; it’s not Zen, because you have thoughts. But I prefer to see the “objectless” rule as internal. You work to clear your mind of clutter. During the process, you will have thoughts arise. During your average Zen meditation, you’ll need to face the experience of a wandering mind. That’s what meditation is.

Movies Watched in 2010

January 3rd, 2011

In 2009, I kept a running list of all the books I read, an experiment which amused and intrigued me so much that I wanted to devise a new version for 2010. And so, I decided to keep a list of all the movies, old and new, in cinemas and in living rooms, obscure and popular, around-the-world and across-the-street, I watched in 2010. And here is the list. I noted the non-English movies with the language. I noted six movies with 🙂 to mean that I recommend them and would be happy to discuss them with anyone else who’s seen them. (Of course, I would discuss any of them if you like. As long as I can remember them.) I noted three with 🙁 to mean that I was disappointed with them, and just might have turned them off if I weren’t trying to build a list here. And so, in chronological order:

1. Inside Man
2. Humpday
3. Wake Up Sid (Hindi)
4. Sin (Hindi)
5. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
6. Kaminey (Hindi) 🙁
7. Role Models
8. Clash of the Titans
9. Chance Pe Dance (Hindi)
10. Romy & Michelle’s High-School Reunion
11. Were the World Mine
12. The Importance of Being Earnest
13. Badmaash Company (Hindi)
14. Up
15. Toy Story 3
16. Raavan (Hindi) 🙂
17. Memento
18. Amreeka (English/Arabic)
19. Donnie Darko
20. Jab We Met (Hindi) 🙂
21. Inception
22. New York (Hindi)
23. Taare Zameen Par (Hindi)
24. 3 Idiots (Hindi)
25. Rang De Basanti (Hindi)
26. Adoration 🙂
27. The ‘Burbs 🙁
28. I Hate Luv Storys (Hindi)
29. In & Out
30. The Adventures of Prince Achmed (German/Silent) 🙂
31. The Lost Coast
32. Millions 🙂
33. The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus
34. Persepolis (French) 🙁
35. Peepli Live (Hindi)
36. Good Hair 🙂
37. Easy A
38. Catfish

from a Facebook note

November 21st, 2010

You ask me a simple question, and get a complex answer, and that’s kind of how it goes. If it’s a question about me, I want to answer it honestly, and to me, about me, answering honestly means being precise, and sometimes it means explaining why I can’t answer the question. So I realize I’m kind of trollishly not-playing-along with the question that’s going around Facebook Notes that some friends have tagged me in, but here’s why.

The note asks for a list of authors, “Fifteen authors who will always stick with you.” It asks you to tag friends whose author-list you want to see.

Now, you don’t have to know me very well to know that I read a lot of books. I could certainly name thirty excellent authors off the top of my head. But the note seems to be asking for the Best Of All Time. And there’s a problem with the Best Of All Time writers who are still living, which is that often, as soon as i put them on a “Best” list they come out with another book, and that book doesn’t justify their Best listing. And I don’t think it has anything to do with a decline in quality (or that trite phrase about sharks) but more to do with the high expectations we have for someone we’ve put on a pedestal. So my list wouldn’t be a Best Of All Time list.

I could give you a Writers I’m Digging Right Now list–but then there’s my own hangup about that. From a young age, I knew I had a reputation for becoming deeply enthusiastic about one topic at a time. “One-track mind,” my parents used to say. But at some point I became self-conscious about it, and I overcompensated, thinking that if I was thinking about something a lot, people were probably sick of hearing about it. So as I try to compile a Digging Right Now list I’m thinking, “Everyone’s probably going to roll their eyes and say, I’m so tired of him going on and on about Kim Addonizio, Clay Shirky, Karen Armstrong and Mohamed Hanif.” And I realize that bit of self-consciousness is probably totally absurd.

My real hangup on the issue is my own personal Tattoo Factor. I’ve never gotten a tattoo, and, when asked to explain why, I realized it wasn’t that I was afraid of change, afraid that a 37-year-old me wouldn’t approve of the ink chosen at 19. I was afraid that I wouldn’t change. That I’d be in middle age, gazing on my tattoo with fondness, saying, “That band I liked when I was a teenager? They totally rock.” And while book-related tattoos are less common (among the non-vampire-teens) than band-related tattoos, the thought still stands. I’m no longer the teenager who loved Vonnegut, who insisted that everyone absolutely had to read Breakfast of Champions. I still have endless respect for Vonnegut, but it’s been years since I’ve read his books, and given the choice between re-reading Vonnegut and discovering a new writer, I’m likely to pick the new.

I wanted that change to happen. I wanted my relationship with books to evolve as my relationship with the world evolved. As an awkward high-school student, I wanted to trust in things getting better, and knew that part of things was my own approach to them.

I can’t make this list on behalf of former selves. The 13-year-old who loved Piers Anthony is gone. The 19-year-old who loved Tom Robbins is gone. The 24-year-old who loved Jeanette Winterson, as well, is gone. These writers are worth reading in their own ways, all deserve the successes they’ve had, but I can’t in all honestly sign off on them the way I once did.

In a way, I think I knew that. That teenager, the one who also liked They Might Be Giants and the Cocteau Twins, Monty Python and the Rocky Horror Picture Show, knew his time on Earth was limited. He didn’t fight that. He only felt a little extra urgency to tell people about it before someone else took over the body he was in. I can respect that but I can’t in good faith perpetuate it.

Essential Ignorance

October 5th, 2010

A discussion with some students the other day made me think of some aspects of working on the book, as it went through a series of publishing misadventures. A handful of editors took issue with a part I didn’t know would be at all controversial; when I said I don’t know.

My teacher P’arang always told me never to be afraid to say “I don’t know,” and it’s good advice. But these two editors said that people won’t buy a book if the writer isn’t confident about what he/she knows. I shouldn’t tell the reader that I don’t know, they told me. But actually, that’s not what I was saying in the book. I was talking about questions of history, things we might wonder about the historical Buddha, things we might want to know about the beginning of Buddhism centuries ago. When I say that essentially, I don’t know if the Buddha said, I don’t mean, “I haven’t learned enough to know that certainly.” I’m saying that I don’t know and nobody knows.

I meant the statement to lead to insight about essential ignorance. It’s not the same as conditional ignorance: “I don’t know, but I’ll let you know when I find out.” We practice in the face of essential ignorance, understanding that we might never know.

So I thought of this in similar terms when a student used the words “incomplete” and “unfinished.” If we look at these terms in a conditional sense, they’re negative. You’re incomplete, but I know what will complete you. You’re unfinished, and you should be finished by now. In an essential meaning, they’re actually kind of inspiring. We learn more because the more we learn, the more we can see our own incompleteness. We keep working because we’re unfinished, and we’ll never be finished, so we’ll always have more work to do. Seeing this as a great opportunity, rather than a great tragedy, will help us immensely.