Buddha by Karen Armstrong

The problem with Armstrong’s little biography of Buddha is that the Buddha has no biography — that’s the whole point of being a Buddha. There are fragments of biographical material on Siddhartha Gotama, of course, & quite a lot of historical & cultural information about his place & time. That’s what Armstrong uses to write her “biography” of Buddha & though she lays this all out in her Introduction, she never really seems to understand the difference. But the more basic problems with the book are these: 1. Armstrong appears to have the sort of knowledge of Buddhism you’d get from taking a couple of undergraduate classes; 2. she has a thesis about the Axial Age that assumes a kind of religious universalism & that universalism pretty much has to erase Buddhism (& Christianity & Islam & Judaism & etc.) There is not much mention of the fact that Buddhism is the one non-theistic religious tradition to have emerged in the first century BCE. Not a very useful book for Buddhists because Armstrong doesn’t seem to “get” Buddhism & probably not very useful for non-Buddhists because the version of Buddhism presented here is filtered through the screen of a universalist ideology.

Dream about Sesshin

I have continued my practice of sitting zazen while here in Vietnam, though I only seem to be able to sit once a day, in the evening, rather than my usual twice a day, morning & evening practice. And I’ve been listening to dharma talks by MRO teachers. When I return to the US, just before the semester begins, I will spend a week at the monastery for the August sesshin*. Lat night I dreamed I had arrived for sesshin, which for some reason was beginning with a large public gathering in a tall building quite unlike the monastery. “Well, I’m new at this,” I told myself, “just go with the flow.” But there wasn’t much flow & people did not seem to know what was going on. I decided to just go to the zendo & wait, but I couldn’t find it. I knew it was on the ground floor, but all the elevators were behaving strangely & the staircases seemed to have been designed by M.C. Escher. Classic anxiety dream, of course, though with an unusual object.

M.C. Escher Staircases

I never did find the zendo & woke up feeling frustrated, but also with the notion in my head that “just sitting” is much harder than one might suppose. Just getting to the place where one can sit is no simple matter!

*Characterized by silence and deep introspection, sesshin is recommended to anyone who is sincerely interested in experiencing intensive Zen training. We wake up each day before dawn to begin a schedule that includes 7 to 10 hours of zazen, chanting services, formal silent meals in the zendo (oryoki), work practice. . .

Another American in Vietnam

Through the @VietnamBlogs Twitter feed, I came across the  Antidote to Burnout blog, written by American architect Mel Schenck, who lives & works in HCMC. I was fascinated to read this description of why he came to Vietnam. Though he has come here to live & I only return obsessively & though he is drawn to HCMC & I am drawn to Hanoi, we share an admiration for the energy & creativity & openness of Vietnamese society.  From his architectural perspective, Schenck writes:

 I believe the Vietnamese have an innate sense of good design that creates sophisticated vibrant colors, patterns, sounds, smells, and tastes in the urban environment. Yes, there is messiness and chaos in Vietnamese urban life, but I sense that is a manifestation of the high energy level. By the time the Vietnamese make the urban environment more orderly and convenient, it is likely the energy level will have decreased with that progress.

This strikes me as both true as description & insightful as analysis. Schenck the architect is naturally naturally interested in Vietnamese modernist buildings whereas Duemer the poet is more interested in the amalgamation & layering of old & new structures & the inventiveness of the vernacular. There a lot of gorgeous pictures of new buildings on Antidote to Burnout. I admire them (both the pictures & the buildings), but I don’t love them. Here’s what I love, at least from the outside:

Vernacular Architecture

Americans in Vietnam seem to be either “northerners” or “southerners,” preferring either Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi. Personally, I much prefer Hanoi, with its old trees, many lakes, twisting streets, & admittedly crazy traffic; but I know plenty of people who prefer HCMC, which is certainly more cosmopolitan (Westernized) & international–it’s a port city, after all. The usual formulation is that Hanoi is the political & cultural capital & HCMC the commercial capital & that’s true as far as it goes. There are no doubt deeper differences–HCMC is more Catholic though at the same time more open to the wilder forms of the Cult of the Holy Mother (though come to think of it this makes sense.) In the south, perhaps it’s the religion that is vernacular & layered, like the architecture in the north.

Schopenhauer the Bad Buddhist (Like Me)

Jim Holt, in his new book, Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story:

Schopenhauer himself hardly practiced the pessimistic asceticism he preached: he was fond of the pleasures of the table; enjoyed many sensual affairs; was quarrelsome, greedy, and obsessed with his fame. He also kept a poodle named Atma–Sanskrit for “world soul.”

At least my terriers don’t have pretentious names. (Jett, Dash, & Candy, since you ask. And since they are all rescues, they came to us with those names already given.)

The Sacred & The Secular

One of the first things that struck me about Vietnam when I first came here was the way the Vietnamese failed to draw a sharp line between the sacred and the secular. It is not that these categories do not exist in Vietnamese culture so much as they constantly interpenetrate each other. Little temples pop up in commercial districts, certain ancient trees are venerated with incenses and offerings of food & flowers while in front of the temple & beneath the tree commerce goes on at its usual frenetic pace.

Guardian Dog
Guardian Dog at temple on Lo Ren Street, Hanoi Vietnam


A Calm Dog in the Old Quarter

Took a walk around the Old Quarter yesterday evening. Lots of dogs, as I noted earlier, but this one struck me by his self-possession. It’s hard to tell from the photo, but he’s sitting in a narrow alley where motorbikes regularly whizzed by six inches from his nose while he practiced a Buddhist sort of equanimity. Perhaps some old bodhisattva radiating peace & quite in a noisy city.

Dog in Hanoi
A calm dog in an alley in the Old Quarter of Hanoi.