Monthly Archives: July 2006

Can Buddhists Get Some … Satisfaction?

In the wealthy world, the pervasive sense of lack drives people to worship at the oddest shrines, and to seek a solution to their formless malaise in bogus shamanism, crystal therapy, hands-free massage, rebirthing, sun salutations, flotation and pesticide-free food. Some people abandon the search for a transcendent explanation quickly, settling on materialism as an alternative, while others continue it for a lifetime. The process of being born and raised within the rituals of an established religion, which has been automatic for most people through the whole of human history, becomes rarer with each year that passes. For many people in rich countries, the certainties of earlier generations now seem implausible, especially the theories and dogmas of revealed religions.

For me, Tibetan Buddhism was a workable approach. Leaving the Roman Catholic faith of my childhood was not hard. It had long seemed less than credible, although its rituals could be reassuring and I liked the emphasis on moral inquiry. But the creator god, the conjuring of bread and wine into flesh and blood, the ban on contraception, the promotion of Christ’s sexless mother as an example to women, the harassment of dissident clergy, the thought that ex cathedra pronouncements by the Pope should be taken seriously—all of these things had pushed me away from my inherited faith.

Buddhism appeared to create contentment among its followers, and reincarnation seemed a fair explanation of what happened to the spirit after death. So my admiration was partially utilitarian: it felt good to be around Tibetans, and if their religion brought good to them, it was worth pursuing. The outward aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, and the celibate male hierarchy running the show, were what I found least appealing, although I still respected the Dalai Lama. It was the Buddhist explanation of life, the universe and everything that drew me, rather than the ritual or the theology.

I was also drawn by the central principle that suffering is universal and pleasure is transient. In secular Western thought, an expectation of permanent satisfaction has become deeply ingrained, and is an important cause of the prevailing discontent. People believe that they can expect fair treatment from life. The idea that loss, death and suffering are to be expected has become obsolete, and a relatively minor trauma can provoke great emotional upset. The Buddha taught in the First of the Four Noble Truths that “discontentment, unhappiness and disappointment are universal … all the things we desire and cherish, not least our own lives, must eventually come to an end.” The Second Noble Truth states that suffering is caused by desire, and that the immediate satisfaction of desire brings only illusory, passing pleasure. By surrendering the self and attempting to break down the delusions of desire, ignorance and hatred, it is possible to find freedom from suffering, and to attain a state of liberation. This free state of mind should be our aspiration. The Dalai Lama has gone as far as to say that “the very purpose of our life is happiness.”

SOURCE: Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land, by Patrick French (Vintage, 2004), pp. 24-25

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Portrait of Sakya as an Old Town

In the town of Sakya, dung patties were stacked along every wall, covered with brushwood to keep off the rain. There was an empty official building flying China’s national flag, topped by a satellite dish. I found a place to stay. Outside, an aluminium-coated scoop focused the sun to a point on a stand, boiling a kettle with solar power. An outdoor pool table stood nearby, being used by monks with chunky watches and more hair than monks are meant to have. Nearby there were sheds containing a disjointed generator, and drums of oil. In the evening, after several false starts and lots of black smoke and cacophonous noise, lights came on, so dim that you could see only the outlines of things and people. But it was electricity, for three hours. The weather became very cold that night.

I was the only foreigner in town. The next day a wizened old man in a baseball cap saying BOY LONDON came to stare at me. Four young men, with braided hair and trilbies, were flaying sheep by the grain depot, smoking cigarettes while they worked. They peeled off the fleeces easily, like peeling the skin off an orange, using a pair of daggers, one short, one long. The sheep flailed as if they were alive. There was a metal tub filled with blood, and the air was filled with the smell of the blood. Children dressed in rags, with tousled hair and speckled cheeks, played in the puddles. One girl wore shoes made out of a biscuit packet. A slaughtered cow was hanging from a hook, for sale. Before long, only the head was left.

Old men with turquoise earrings and high leather boots circled the monastery, holding rotating prayer wheels. The walls of the monastery were grey, marked with red and white stripes in the Sakya tradition. Prayer flags flew from sticks at the corners of the building. The central part of the monastery had high ochre walls, and behind it across the river were hundreds of derelict buildings from the days of destruction, the Cultural Revolution.

Inside the monastery, I went up a steep metal ladder to a tiny, dark chapel, with an uneven floor and low wooden beams, where monks were chanting and young boys were carrying butter and tubs of tsampa. Rice and banknotes were stuck to the deities. An old monk sat cross-legged on a cushion reciting page after page of scriptures, a low, constant, soothing chant, a torch and a thermos by his side. An opening in the thick wall, like an archer’s slit, let in a bar of light, enabling him to read. In the darkness I could make out katags, thangkas, ferocious masks and butter sculptures, all crammed together. There was a sense in the little chapel of something timeless, that had kept Sakya going for centuries, regardless of the violent intermissions. I felt that this was a remote, independent place, a place that was used to running its own affairs and did not want outside assistance.

SOURCE: Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land, by Patrick French (Vintage, 2004), pp. 236-237

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Alex Golub on Unfulfilled Consumers in PNG

Another Pacific-area article that caught my fancy is Alex Golub‘s Who Is the “Original Affluent Society”? Ipili “Predatory Expansion” and the Porgera Gold Mine, Papua New Guinea in the latest issue of The Contemporary Pacific at Project Muse (subscription required). Here are a few paragraphs from the introduction and conclusion (some references removed).

In the 1970s, first-world fantasies of “ecologically noble savages” were key to the creation of alliances between indigenous groups, environmentalists, and affluent first-world publics. More recently, however, anthropologists have grown increasingly critical of such stereotypes of indigenous people. In areas as diverse as Amazonia, Australia, North America, and Indonesia, indigenous peoples find their political leverage derives from filling first-world fantasies that are often essentialized and stifling.

This dynamic has taken another interesting twist in Papua New Guinea. Unlike many Commonwealth countries, Papua New Guinea has no settler population, and, unlike many African states, it has no majority ethnic group. Furthermore, Australia’s administration of Papua New Guinea was both well meaning and under-resourced. As a result there has been little alienation of land and it is difficult to recognize Papua New Guineans as “indigenous people” separate from “settler” populations, as is typically done in Australia, Africa, and the New World. At the same time, however, Papua New Guinea is highly reliant on resource rents, and the activities of international logging, mining, and hydrocarbon companies present a picture of a David-and-Goliath struggle between local people and transnational capital that is comfortably familiar to many first-world activists.

Like scholars elsewhere, Melanesianists are increasingly dissatisfied with stereotypes of grassroots Papua New Guineans as ecologically noble savages. A growing literature has, for instance, emphasized the ways in which compensation claims for damage to the environment are part of a complex local politics. Glenn Banks has argued that compensation claims are often a way of expressing a sense of disenfranchisement by people outside of mining lease areas (2002), while Martha Macintyre and Simon Foale have argued convincingly that even for people within mining lease areas, claims of environmental damage are often expressions of dissatisfaction with social concerns couched in environmental idioms (2002).

But there is a danger that these responsible works could be misread by policy elites in Port Moresby, the national capital, who often see landowners as savages more nasty than noble. Papua New Guineans have one of the best track records in the world for extracting concessions from foreign developers and the national government, and the demands of landowners have become so strident that the overall perception nationwide is that they are corrupted opportunists who have given up their traditional culture in order to “go for money” (Filer and others 2000). Thus, at one industry conference in 2000, the president of the Papua New Guinea Chamber of Mining and Petroleum claimed that “people issues are at the forefront of the mining and petroleum industries” in Papua New Guinea. The industry’s biggest challenge, he claimed, were “community problems that could have been avoided” and that were caused by “so-called ‘landowners'” who ripped off the government. “The rip-off is so blatant,” he said, “[that] it penetrates into the fabric of the government” (Golub fieldnotes 2000). Other speakers were more blunt. “Community affairs issues will shut down this country,” said one mining executive, himself from the highlands region (Golub fieldnotes 2000)….

To an audience familiar with stereotypes of noble savages, the reaction of the Ipili to the mine can be startling. Elites in Port Moresby who romanticize a traditional “Melanesian Way” feel betrayed by landowners who fail to conform to their expectations. At the same time, first-world activists interested in finding “guardians of the forest” in Porgera will be disappointed indeed at the alacrity with which the Ipili, as they say, “traded their mountain for development.”

But it may be that the unease the Ipili instill in others is due to the fact that they are driven by concerns remarkably like “our own.” Their desire for new commodities, time-saving devices, and prepared food is in many ways not so different from what one would find in any major city in the United States. Thus it could be said that “they” are not as bad as “we” are, or, to put it another way, that “we” are as good as “they.”

So which is the original affluent society? Just as we see our own weak points in Ipili prodigality, so do Ipili imagine whites, as a version of their present or possible selves. This examination of Ipili culture reveals them to be a bit more like ourselves than we have been led to believe. Sahlins looked to hunters and gatherers to explode the Western, Hobbesian conception of infinite need. Studying the Ipili suggests that the West is not the only place plagued by need and want. Ipili do not denounce consumer society in the name of a pristine, authentic primitivism. They denounce it for failing to make good on its promises. The problem, as they see it, is not enough affluence.

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Pacific Voyaging: Building Pride or Testing Hypotheses?

I’ve been catching up on some reading about the Pacific after concentrating so long on Asia, and especially Japan. I came across this interesting countercurrent in Atholl Anderson’s review of Ben Finney‘s Sailing in the Wake of the Ancestors: Reviving Polynesian Voyaging (Bishop Museum Press, 2003). The whole review is online (PDF) in the journal Asian Perspectives at Project Muse (subscription required).

[Finney] declines to address the various criticisms that have been leveled at the voyaging project throughout the years and especially recently. These center on the incompatibility of the original objectives, described as “an effort in cultural revival as well as an experiment in voyaging” (p. 10). They have never rubbed along well, and too often the scientific experiment has been compromised in the interests of cultural pride.

Hawai‘iloa was meant to answer some of the criticisms of Hōkūle‘a by construction entirely in traditional materials, but it ended up with spruce hulls and modern lashings, rigging, and sails, as tests of sennit and pandanus disclosed that these were too weak to be used in voyaging. But surely, isn’t that the point? If my Mitsubishi station wagon cannot do 200 mph unless I install a Ferrari engine, then doing so could hardly validate my inflated sense of its potential speed; if reconstructed vessels can only sail as desired with modern materials in critical areas, then they cannot validate various propositions about prehistoric voyaging. Hawaikinui, similarly, abandoned its original traditionally cut sails and opted for those of a modern yacht, while some canoes have chosen nontraditional gunter rigs and often added headsails as well. The voyages, too, do not inspire confidence in the conclusions for prehistory that are drawn from them. In the Rarotongan gathering, the Atiu canoe capsized at the beginning, the Mitiaro and Aitutaki canoes were towed part of the way, and the Mangaian canoe made an accidental passage that left its captain and escort vessel behind. The irony of these events was lost on the Cook Islands premier who, as Finney reports, welcomed the eventual gathering of the crews by roundly condemning Andrew Sharp [who suggested Polynesians had only discovered new islands by accident].

Yet in experimental terms, the voyaging project has failed to dispose of Andrew Sharp’s criticisms of traditionalism. Indeed, Finney’s project is cast very much in a neotraditional mold that takes assumed achievements of the ancestors as the benchmark against which to measure contemporary voyaging. Finney declines to explore the serious implications of substantial departures from traditional marine architecture and rigging that are involved in modern Polynesian voyaging and refuses to engage in the recent discussions of these. I have the impression that what matters most to him, and always has, is the building of Polynesian pride in the generic activity of long-distance sailing. That is a worthy objective and one not under attack by recent criticism of the scientific aspects of the project. Were Finney to separate the two objectives—as, for example, by dropping the subtitle of this book—and allow modern voyaging to stand in its own right, then other issues need not get in the way of the cultural achievement that he has done so much to foster.

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Mao’s Cadre of the Living Dead in Tibet

Although most exiles would consider Tibetan members of the Party to be merely collaborators, I felt that their position was more complex. Some, at least, were working within the system as away of defending the interests of Tibet. They were not altruists; it was a pragmatic and sometimes cynical decision, a career choice that brought them material benefits. But in the course of doing their job, they tried to develop and defend their homeland. Many were openly resentful that the key decisions about the running of Tibet were taken in Beijing, and that the Party Secretaryship, the top job, had never been held by a Tibetan.

The younger Tibetans who worked in the government did not seem very different from their Chinese counterparts in education or ambition. The generation that intrigued me was the next one up, people aged around fifty or sixty, who had been elevated on Mao’s instructions in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, solely on the basis of having a good “serf” background. Little was known about these officials, except that they would usually have been active Red Guards, and were installed in positions of authority in the late 1960s for ideological reasons, as part of the backlash against the old aristocracy. They were sometimes seen on state television, walking in and out of meeting rooms, but were rarely heard to speak. They had no popular power base, and no profile as individuals. Their importance lay in what they represented: impeccable, old-style proletarian credentials and open reliance on Beijing. Among Tibetans in Lhasa, this generation of cadres was perceived as ruthless, aggressive and stupid, and viewed with scorn and fear.

They were to be avoided, but I found myself among them, by chance, without realising what was happening. The men were paunchy bureaucrats in brown suits, v-neck jerseys, ties and soft shoes, and the women were dressed in skirts or chubas. Many of them wore dark glasses. They all looked drunk. These officials disliked the idea of me, a stranger and a foreigner, in their midst. I was not drinking alcohol, but they decided that I should have a glass of chang, or barley beer. I refused politely. They said it was the custom. I was caught in a crowd. One of the men grabbed the back of my head and shoved it forward, while another pushed a glass against my lips and poured liquid down my face and clothes. I wriggled free. They grabbed me and began again, this time with a glass of fruit spirit, angry now at being opposed. Some Chinese cadres intervened and extricated me, and we moved to another part of the park.

The Chinese were acutely embarrassed by what had happened, and apologetic about the disrespectful behaviour of their colleagues. I was shocked, but they were not. “Our Tibetan brothers always behave in this way, it is part of their culture,” they said with a smile—the Chinese smile of awkwardness and shame. I had never come across Tibetans like this before. Boisterous drinking and singing are popular Tibetan hobbies, part of the culture, but the difference here was the aggression, expressed towards a guest. The Chinese, from a younger generation than my Tibetan coercers, wore a look of pained apology, as if they were caught in a social trap from which there was no escape. They seemed to see the Tibetan cadres—who were tied to Mao and the damage he had done, with their immobile political position stemming from the chaotic aftermath of the Cultural Revolution—as Frankenstein’s monsters who had to be tolerated.

The Tibetan cadres reminded me of the “living dead” of pre-Buddhist Tibet. In the old times, when a king died, his loyal ministers and servants would move to a secluded place near his tomb. They were not permitted to be seen or spoken to by outsiders. Food and offerings would be left for them at the tomb, with a horn being blown by the living to warn them of their arrival. If a wandering yak or sheep happened to reach them, the living dead would brand it with a special mark, and it would be slaughtered and returned to them, unseen. Their separation from normal society continued until all of them had died.

These men and women were Mao’s living dead.

SOURCE: Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land, by Patrick French (Vintage, 2004), pp. 153-155

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Tibetan Red Guards vs. Tibetan Muslims, 1969

At first, the idea of a Tibetan Muslim had surprised me; a Tibetan seemed, almost by definition, to be a Buddhist, a follower of the Dharma, although on consideration the notion was no odder than a Tibetan being a Christian, which had happened, or an Italian being a Buddhist, a prevalent conversion. The Habaling Khache [= ‘Kashmiri‘] were part of traditional Lhasa society and the economic life of the city, a minority in an outwardly uniform land. According to one writer, “Unmolested by natives to initiate whatever trade they desired, and inspired by incentive, the Muslims became commonplace features in the major cities of Lhasa, Shigatse, Gyantse and Tsethang.” They were renowned for speaking in chaste, courtly Lhasa dialect, even if they did sometimes eat dishes from Central Asia, which gave rise to the Tibetan warning not to be taken in by sweet words: “Do not listen to a Muslim’s voice, look at what he is eating.”

Most of the Habaling Khache were indistinguishable, physically, from other Tibetans. Only the names were different: Hamid, Abu Bakr, Salima, Fatima. In the past, most of them were merchants, but some had been given posts in the Dalai Lama’s government as writers or translators, and been allowed to wear a special court uniform. A second group of Lhasa Muslims lived beyond the Potala, having been given a plot of land by the Fifth Dalai Lama. Their imam, Abdul Ghalib, told me that most of his small community had fled in the 1950s, and there were now only a few dozen of them left. Abdul Ghalib, with his Central Asian face, lived by an orchard with chickens and cows and apple trees and an old water-pump. It was an idyll, but he knew his world would soon disappear.

Mariam’s uncle, the imam of the Habaling Khache, had known the history. He was responsible for the documents, going back to the twelfth century, which recorded the important marriages in their community, how the traditions had begun, what lands and privileges were granted to them in Lhasa by previous Dalai Lamas, and how their ancestors, merchants and traders, had made their way up from coastal China through the mountains to Tibet. There were about two thousand indigenous Tibetan Muslims left in Lhasa now, trying to preserve something that had been nearly washed away, their position undermined by the arrival of ambitious new Hui and Chinese Muslims from the east.

When the Red Guards—all of them Tibetan—came to purge Lhasa’s main Muslim quarter, Thelpung Khang, in 1969, there was a moment of bafflement. The Habaling Khache, being Muslims, had no idols or statues that could be smashed, no painted frescoes that could be defaced, no sacred pictures that could be ripped. There was nothing to destroy. So, after retreating to discuss this problem, the Red Guards sought out the ledgers, the old legal papers, the name-books, the dustar or ceremonial prayer caps, the maps, an ancient decree granting Muslims an exclusive graveyard on the edge of the city (Buddhists do not bury their dead), and every copy of the Holy Quran, including the imam’s own, which was several centuries old, and made them into a great bonfire in the courtyard in front of the mosque. The history of the Habaling Khache went up in flames.

The mosque was made into a cinema, for the watching of propaganda films; farmers and their animals were sent to live in the precincts and in the madrasa. The imam, Yahya, aged about eighty, was paraded through the streets to the east of the Barkhor wearing a conical white paper hat with the word “ghost” written across it. Later he was slapped and pushed and told that he was an exploiter of the people.

“But he was a purely religious man,” Mariam kept repeating, tugging at the straps of her black lace headdress, “a purely religious man.” He died soon afterwards, she said, of grief.

Mariam tried to describe the effects of this destruction. There were no words for it. For much of the Cultural Revolution, she had “just felt like dying.” Finally, she compared the Habaling Khache to a person who has eyes but is unable to see. There was a problem translating exactly what she meant. She seemed to be saying, miming, that they were like someone whose vision was blocked by a cataract. They had the capacity for sight, but they could not see.

The Habaling Khache were deracinated. They no longer had any way of knowing what had made them what they were. And so, in this way, another part of Lhasa was destroyed.

SOURCE: Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land, by Patrick French (Vintage, 2004), pp. 155-157

UPDATE: Wow. I’ve never had an Instalanche, nor ever expect to get one, but a reddit.com/rec is pretty impressive by my low-crawling standards.

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The Economist on Japan’s Economic Recovery

“As Japan emerges from an era of a zero interest rate,” the Economist recaps its long economic downturn and its rising prospects for recovery. Here are a few excerpts.

Japan’s experience is unique. The country’s decade and a half of stagnation stands in bleak contrast to the blistering growth that preceded it and that enjoyed more recently by many other rich economies, notably America. Japan is not alone in having had a banking crisis brought on when an asset bubble burst. America had its “savings-and-loan” mess in the 1980s. Sweden had a crisis like Japan’s in the early 1990s. And in 1997-98, a financial typhoon tore through most of Asia. Yet in all these instances, action was, on the whole, fairly swiftly taken to write off bad debts, clean up banking systems and restore economies to growth. By contrast, Japan was mesmerised. For too long, instead of seeking to bring its financial system back to health, it appeared to place its hopes in great dollops of spending on public works to get the economy moving….

Japan was lucky. It began its long malaise as one of the richest societies on earth. But its subsequent performance was abysmal. Between 1990 and 2005, real growth averaged just 1.3% a year. Without the malaise, Japan’s GDP would have been about 25% higher in real terms than it is now. In nominal terms, Japanese GDP remains below its 1997 level, thanks to deflation (see chart 1). Over that same period from 1997, the nominal GDP of neighbouring South Korea, which bore the full brunt of the Asian financial crisis, has risen by 65%; America’s is up by 50%. Japan’s stagnation, then, represents a great squandering of wealth and opportunity….

Why did the recovery not arrive earlier? One reason must be that, with the real level of non-performing loans in the banking system undeclared for so long, huge provisioning by the banks merely aggravated a state of financial disruption: banks could not afford to make fresh loans, even to good prospects. Another related reason is that until the banks had cause to deal with their loans, the troubled companies that had taken the loans out had little incentive to restructure. Japanese companies are now in much ruder health, but that is largely because of measures taken only in the past few years.

At the policy level, the government made two huge blunders. The first was to raise the consumption tax in 1997, which wrecked economic confidence. Just as confidence appeared to be recovering in August 2000, the BoJ declared an end to deflation and raised rates. The economy again went into a tailspin and the bank decided to retreat to zero six months later. But with prices falling, the expansionary effect even of a zero rate was lost, since real interest rates remained positive. A radical new measure was tried by the BoJ: in effect, printing money by stuffing the accounts that banks hold at the central bank with free cash. That super-loose liquidity, known as “quantitative easing”, was withdrawn this spring.

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