Tag Archives: ritual

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.

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?

One day later

Now that life has been rather stable for a while—we’ve been living in the same house for four years, Eleanor’s in school, and we haven’t had to negotiate burning barricades or tear gas for a little while—I thought I’d take advantage of the calm to undertake a proper rohatsu for the first time in a few years. The Rules: no food after noon, no television or music, no alcohol, and of course no meat, and as much meditation as I could manage in the morning, middle-of-the-day and late night slots.
Well, in a house with a small child, the no television rule meant hiding upstairs sometimes; and Bhāwanā felt obliged to give me huge bowls of broth at dinnertime. Fair enough. Most days I managed to put in two or three hours of meditation, sometimes waking early and sometimes after dinner. Two mornings, my daughter found me asleep across my zafu in some quiet corner of the house.

As it got closer to the 8th I tried, and failed, to step up the pace. I opened up Chodo Cross’s translation of the Zazengi. I made sure that I went out for long walks or runs every day. Because it’s December in Aberdeen, that meant running in the dark, which I find completely delightful even if I do fall over sometimes. One night I found myself running along the beach at high tide in a raging storm, plowing my way through runoff streams and getting slapped by waves that reached overfar. Sometimes the meditation went luminously well, sometimes it was just marking time. On the last night I found I had to help someone with a crisis rather than sit: well, an education in attachment, I suppose, and perhaps a reason to take robes someday. When I could finally sit I looked at the Zazengi: ‘Great Teacher Bodhidharma sat facing the wall for nine years.’ Then it was over; I woke up on Monday morning, read, and ate breakfast with my family. Nobody I talked to knew about rohatsu; for Bhāwanā’s family the full moon of Vaiṣākh is the important Buddhist holiday, not some Japanese holiday in December. Fair enough.

That day, a colleague walked by and when I asked him what he was up to, he said, ‘I’m wandering around. It’s one of the privileges of my job that I have to wander around.’ I told him it was an important day for Zen practitioners and that he had said something Zen people would enjoy. Two mature Japanese students talked to me for a while and we agreed we would talk some more about the relative merits of Shingon-shu and Soto-shu.

Tonight I went out for a run again. The tides have shifted, and the weather is calmer, though still cold. On the homeward stretch, coming down the beach, the sea had retreated and I could run for kilometre after kilometre along flat, open sand with the waves growling gently next to me. To the south Jupiter and Venus were up. I looked at the morning star and ran forever until the dog and I met the Don River, turned and went home.

Subversion, Conversion and so forth:

I’m on the train home after an intense conference on using anthropological and design tools to thwart planned obsolescence.

Another view of the conference used ThoughtMesh to build a picture based on the abstracts, and yet another was Daria Loi’s beautifully designed response, but neither of those is online yet. There were a number of good sessions and a few extraordinary papers and discussions. Precisely because it was a strongly interdisciplinary conference there were places where I lost the thread (and David Turnbull wants me to think about threads very carefully). I hope other views of the conference emerge that help make sense of it.

One of the simplest rewards for me was seeing projects that succeeded. I worked with lots of people and collectivities through the 80s and 90s to wrest control of ICT from defence and financial networks and give it to those people whom it usually served to disenfranchise. Jerome Lewis gave an understated presentation (here’s the paper) on icon-based PDAs for non-literate Congo Basin hunter-gathers that enabled them to negotiate with multinational logging interests and even to record illegal logging. The image of three young Mbengele gathered around a elderly man, all working together as they use the tool to protect the forest: perhaps not revolutionary, but it gives hope.

Some of these successes were also theoretically subtle. Jim Enote talked about the work that A:shiwi and the Cambridge Museum are doing together began with Jim talking about how much of the inventory being catalogued was set aside, not for public viewing. When he came to talk about the A:shiwi mapping project in Zuni, one of the initial decisions was which places and names not to put on the map. Marilyn Strathern, in her opening remarks, contrasted ICT networks to kinship networks. This useful tool was reused several times during the conference.

  • Resistance to neo-liberal flattening commodifying ‘openness’ that treats all records as equal and all nodes as the same
  • Attending to locality
  • Kinship-like networks rather than ethernet-like networks
  • Noncoherence (a useful notion introduced by Helen Verran : not incoherence, which is simply a species of coherence, but purposeful recognition of incommensurability, diversity, and resistance to global systematicization. See this article by John Law.)

…these topics resurfaced and were reworked and tossed back into the pot.

The thing/use or material/social divide resurfaced over and over again, and when overtly noticed it was refused. So too, the model of ICT as a (neutral) technology providing (free) access to (passive, external) information (whether that access is being mobilized by producers, consumers or prosumers (!)) was made visible and criticized. The best criticisms of the social/material or access-to-content models were not the discursive ones (like mine); people who really attended to the problem used the mode or style of their presentation to expose and interrogate the problem.

Thus the opening of the conference was a water ritual of connectedness, offered by gkisedtanamoogk, was offered through iChat from John Ippolito and Joline Blais’ home in Maine. He chose water as a ritual block in order to attend to the distance and its connectedness. Drinking water at the end of his ritual he remarked that even though we could not actually drink the water with him, it would eventually come to us. In the background of the iChat window people moved around, noises emerged and people in our room wondered if the sounds were here, there, intentional, accidental in the best Cageian tradition. That accidentality took the apparently controlled iChat sociotechnical frame and tore it open. Participants at both ends of the pipe did not know whether they were participants, did not know where noises were coming from, in exactly the same way that a shared space is defined by shared environmental uncertainties.

Laura Watts performed her presentation—well, all presentations are performances, aren’t they—but she read a poem in four parts against the slides moving by themselves. Given the locality and intimacy of the Orkney places and communities she was describing it worked very well. As she pointed out later, there’s an active poetry writing community in Orkney.

It’s also true, though, that we all listened. Various members of the conference, especially when talking as or about First Peoples, had emphasized the importance of respect. The organizers regretted that gkisedtanamoogk had not been able to come and actually begin the conference as a talking circle; but perhaps because there was heaps of good will, or because James and Lee took a huge risk in opening the conference with gkisedtanamoogk’s ritual, or perhaps because many of us had learned enough to know when respect is appropriate, we listened to Laura’s performed piece with the same care as we did the more traditionally delivered presentations.

When gkisedtanamoogk closed the conference with a ritual—a travelling song, he said—that really was the end of the conference. There was no felt need for an additional frame closure, a ‘ok now we’re turning the computer off and thank you’. We all thanked each other, including gkisedtanamoogk and that was the end. In the same way people stood up from their seats and fuffled their papers, the iChat link was turned off and Joline and gkisedtanamoogk left the conference through the dimming screen.

Holi freezing heck!

Okay: Bhavana had a great idea. Why shouldn’t the Anthropology Society, who are always up for a ritual, play Holi? The results speak for themself: see this, and this, and this. What the pictures don’t tell you is that it was snowing. Bleah. It’s one thing to be doused with abhir-water when it’s 35° – quite another when it’s 0° with a 50 km/h wind blowing sleet. Still, it’s the thought that counts.