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.

Old Guy

There are several people in my academic department who have been around the university more years than me, but I have the second most “seniority in rank,” an admittedly obscure academic concept that just means I’ve been a full professor longer than all but one of my colleagues, even though there are others who have been at the university more years. I mention this not to claim any sort of status, but as the context for the fact that I find myself much-consulted by younger colleagues & even (occasionally) deferred to by others. It’s the first time in my life, I think, that I have had this sort of role. I find it daunting, in fact. This was really brought home to me today when I was given the responsibility of chairing my  department’s Tenure & Promotion Committee in a year when we will be conducting third-year reviews for three tenure-track colleagues.

The third-year pre-tenure review is a kind of temperature-taking that is designed to inform both the faculty member who is being reviewed & the department about the faculty member’s progress toward a successful tenure process three years down the road. It is in everyone’s interest to get the review right & to be a transparent as possible in setting out procedures & assumptions. Based on my earlier job of chairing a difficult search committee, I have a reputation for running transparent evaluation processes, which may be one of the reasons I got this job. I don’t mind, though it will mean a good deal of relatively boring clerical work (in which I have the good fortune to be assisted by the best department secretary I’ve ever encountered); another thing about being, institutionally at least, an old guy, is that you develop a grudging respect for the various institutional procedures. In my department, such procedures have operated most of the time more effectively than not, though there have been a couple of spectacular exceptions.

I spent the morning scheduling meetings & sending emails to arrange peer evaluations of classes, met with the committee, brought the chair of the department up to date, then went off to teach my classes. At an institution like mine, all of this other stuff is supposed to be about teaching those classes, bringing our knowledge & experience as scholars into the undergraduate classroom. That, finally, is why we go to the trouble to get the bureaucratic details right. It is east to forget this, especially when you have been around a long time & many processes have become routine, nearly invisible to conscious reflection.

Home from Far-Flung Travels

The Clarkson semester began yesterday, though my classes start today.I’m back from six weeks in Hanoi & a week at Zen Mountain Monastery & now the rhythm of the year shifts into something that feels more like routine. The idea, of course, is to keep it from becoming merely routine. I know it is not true for all — or even most? – artists / writers who teach, but I find that teaching keeps me fresh, at least most of the time. (One can turn anything into a grind.) I have the good fortune to work in an institution that gives me nearly complete freedom in choosing what to teach & how to teach it, so, for instance, the theme for my first-year students this term is “Why Life Sucks.” We begin with Gilgamesh, Job & a couple of other old texts, them move on to the Modernists Kafka & T.S. Eliot & Melville before ending with Margaret Atwood’s post-modern, post-apocalyptic novel Oryx & Crake. A good time is insured for all, hijinks ensue & etc.

We’ve had a run of warm weather but it is beginning to look a little like fall. Some of the maple trees have begun changing color & just now when I looked up I saw out the window that the pines in the front yard are dropping their old needles. I can hear a bullfrog in the ditch across the road, a loon up on the pond . . .

Cranking Out Sentences

How come cranks, who are full of bunk, so often take a “debunking” tone? I’m interested in sentences & where they come from & I was hopeful that Verlyn Klinkenborg’s little essay in the NY Times would shed some light on that deep question. But all that we find out reading the essay is that sentences come from inside you & that they have a mysterious quality called rhythm. Now, I’m a poet & even more interested in sentences’ rhythm than in their origins, but rhythm too remains undefined. So why did I then buy the Kindle edition of Mr. Klinkenborg’s book? Well, I’m always looking for little nuggets of writing wisdom for my students & I suppose I thought I might find out more about where sentences come from in the book than in the newspaper essay. The book, called Several Short Sentences about Writing, more than lives up to its name — it ought to be called Several Hundred Short Sentences about Writing. I didn’t actually count them, at least in part because I could not read more than about twenty pages. This book is mind-numbingly boring. Perhaps if you aspire to develop a sort of hectoring version of a Mr. Rogers prose style, you will find this book helpful. It is, quite literally, a series of short sentences that purport to be about writing but which are more about the author’s belief that everything you learned in school about writing is wrong. Except that you should learn to diagram sentences.1   There is, as far as I can tell, no actual argument ion the book, no sequence of ideas that add up to anything like an actual idea. Klinkenborg strives to be aphoristic, but just sounds peeved. And why is the text presented as lines of “poetry”? In the Kindle edition, at least, the series of sentences are each given their own typographical paragraph, but then first letters of lines that are not first letters of sentences are capitalized as they would be in some presentations of verse. This is not verse, so what is the point of this weirdly misused convention.

Someone once said that writing a bad review is like swerving so as to intentionally hit the chipmunk crossing the road in front of you & in general I no longer bother to write such pieces; but the author of this book is on the Editorial Board of the NY Times & people might actually think he can help them learn something about sentences. He can’t. Get Stanley Fish’s little book on sentences if you’re looking for advice from a Times writer. Fish can be a twit in his column, but he know more than a little about writing, including the writing of sentences. Or if you are really ambitious about your sentences, you could take a look at Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, or the even more elegant The Art of Syntax by Ellen Bryant Voigt, though this last title, by a poet, is aimed more at poets & readers of poetry than the other books noted here. In any case,2 there are plenty of alternatives to the hectoring, “debunking” & ultimately boring advice of Several Short Sentences about Writing.