Category Archives: Fomenting

Inching towards change?


8:30 AM, January in Aberdeen: the brightest stars are still clearly visible, the eastern sky red and black with long strings of clouds torn to tatters from their long journey from the Atlantic, across the Cairngorms, to the cold North Sea. It’s unusually warm this morning, 5°, and I stood out back with a steaming cup watching the birds. There are no surprises this far north—there simply isn’t enough diversity for there to be anything unexpected. Once one’s eyes have learned to distinguish rooks from crows, greater seagulls from common, dunnets from sparrows—well, that’s about it. The vagrants really stand out, and most species are recognizable from their outlines.

After a few months back in North America, the sheer paucity of life in northeast Scotland really shocked me. Toronto was a brutally vibrant human place; all the dogs were purebreds and it was hours on the bus out of town before one shook free the infectious tendrils of housing tracts. But in the markets and back gardens of the groin of the city there was a staggering diversity of food unfolding, and as Bhāwanā observed, this was the northern limit of Three Sisters agriculture. One could, were one so minded, grow maize and beans and squash in one’s back garden right in the middle of the city. The research community was welcoming in a way that we have not encountered for many years. As for Florida, walking and canoeing around the rivers and sandy forest in the company of like-minded, broad-hearted folk there was bliss. It helped, certainly, that we were among friend gathered from all across the world to work on shared interests and altruisms—but the coyote, the oaks, the vultures, the oranges, the jays and armadillos were signs of home. Feeling, hearing, smelling, seeing the quantity and variety of life-forms showed me how numb and disconnected I have become in the past few years.

One pigeon this morning, perhaps a member of the homing pigeon stable that lives two streets over, was playing against the wind. After turning into the wind it would fall and draw its wings together with an audible slap, then rise, turn, and prepare to loop again. My eye was drawn to a more distant black blob moving with the wind, fast, past our suburb and out over the dunes. No matter how I strained I couldn’t scry out its wing shape or the rhythm of its flight. Was it a lone duck, obscuring its wings with the bulk of its backside? Eventually I gave up: it was too far away now, my eyes had failed me, I was getting old and blind. From over my shoulder came another oddly lumpen shape, this one pink, dragging a string along, then one more. Three balloons, foolishly truant early on a Sunday morning, were stolen by the wind and hurled into the wrathful sea.


Brutal irony

Saturday was Buddha Pūrṇimā, the international holiday that celebrates the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and passing. The UN Secretary General issued a message calling for solidarity and the alleviation of suffering.

In Sri Lanka, the military decided to celebrate the holiday in true Colt Peacemaker style, by launching a Gaza-style offensive against the last remaining enclave of Tamil separatists. Don’t get me wrong: in my opinion the LTTE is one of the worst terrorist organisations on the planet. That does not, however excuse the slaughter of civilians. The horrific triumphalism of the Asian Tribunes article celebrating the ‘liberation’ of the northeast of the island stifles any attempt at black humour. Hundreds are dead.

In the Swat Valley, thought to the birthplace of Padmasambhava, the Pakistani army continued a thorough offensive to dislodge the Taleban. I have not seen any reliable reports on how many are dead. At least a million people have become internal refugees.

At Bodhgaya, protests erupted because the shrine there, sacred to Buddhists worldwide, is controlled by a Hindu-majority board backed by government decree. The governor chose to chastise the Amebedkar-Buddhist protestors telling them that they were not showing ‘tolerance and inclusiveness’.

Here in Aberdeen our small saṅgha had a picnic.

Satirical bingo. : what an excellent boardgame.

Buddhist exclusivism in Sri Lanka

Is this modernism, exclusivism or fundamentalism? I’ve got a chapter coming out (in Sharing the Sacra, ed. Glenn Bowman) in which I discuss local responses to a similar attitude among Pharping Tibetans, but this is sharper still. While recent academic study of Buddhism shows that it has always included deities of various flavours, the uncompromising attitude shown by the author of this peace gives me little hope for flexible, collusive processes such as those I documented in Pharping. Surely Nāgārjuna was right to list worshipping the worship-ables right after the ten precepts in his Ratnāvalī.

My office smells

I walked in the door of my office this morning, having trod across the Old Aberdeen landscape. Rotting leaves, frozen ponds, barking dogs. Having heaved one sack each of papers to be marked and proposals to be considered out of the trusty pack, I plopped the laptop onto its stand, connected a few wires, and went to do my office pūjā while it whirred into its usual bewildered state. Pungent incense from a Viet grocery in Orlando waved at the Tārā and raven on the door, at the various manifestations of the Three Jewels over my desk. A postgrad across the hallway looked a bit startled.

Incense stuck firmly into a ricepot, I ambled down the hall with a kettle and a filthy glass pot. I scrubbed the coffee stains out of the pot, filled the kettle, retreated into my office and fired up the wee espresso machine kindly sold to me by another lecturer. Now my office really stinks: incense and coffee smells pour out from under my door and fill up the whole hallway.

Either my neighbours are really polite, or it smells like home to them too. Not sure which. I know somebody must think de-odorizers are a good idea, but who?

Open source at the blunt edge.

Here is an object lesson in why free and open source software is a symbol of good ethics.

The other day, I had a PDF sent to me by the private firm to which the UK government outsources its visa application work in Nepal. The PDF was a list of documents required to apply for a UK Visa. That list is nowhere on the internet, because it asks for documents that very, very few Nepalis could realistically provide; it is, in effect, a challenge to produce impossible documentation. Bear in mind that the average per capita income in Nepal is less than £200, and most are unemployed with little or no property. Nonetheless the document list requires, for example, tax records for three years. I know no one in our village who pays tax save, perhaps, the largest monasteries; how could they? In any case, the institutional corruption involved in the visa industry in Nepal, or Nigeria or pretty much anywhere else, is staggering and a subject of research by a few of my colleagues. Every university who admits foreign students knows this. So that PDF? It was printed using unlicensed software – the header on the document says so. I’d be surprised if they had paid for their copies of Office. Do they care? Why should they? It’s enterprise Britain! ‘We don’t want you unless you can lie about having £6000 so well that we can’t tell.’ Britain is proud to be represented by an outsourced firm operating on such a deep assumption of corruption-within-bounds that they are not embarrassed to send out official documentation using an unlicensed programme.

By contrast, one can get a free Nepali dictionary and clear instructions on how to install it into Open Office from FOSS Nepal. The visa service could run their entire office legally using their distribution of Linux and applications. It wouldn’t cost taxpayers, or visa applicants, a penny. Wouldn’t that be a much better symbol of what Britain stands for?

Stan Freberg to the (sardonic) rescue

In my youngest daughter’s school they celebrated the visit of Green Santa, who was into Repair Reuse Recycle sort of prezzies. I like that. Stan Freberg, 50 years ago, took on the commercialization of Christmas in an astonishing recording called Green Christmas which the US broadcast media did its best to sink. Here’s a link to a page which has both the recording and the album cover. Note Freberg’s discussion of satire (outrage barely concealed with sweetness) and the lineage Voltaire-Swift-Al Capp.

And while we’re on the subject: a bit more satire.