Jade Buddha Temple
On Monday we went to the Jade Buddha Temple in Shanghai.
At left: Sushu's dad. Background: the skyscrapers of Shanghai.
If I was a crappy travel writer interested in propagating cliches, I would take this picture and the picture of the KFC from my previous post and write a whole lot of blather about "East meets West!" and "Ancient meets Modern!" and "OMG Buddhist monks have cell phones now!" and "I'm so surprised that there are skyscrapers and temples in the same city, because I assumed China was going to halt its economic development, like some kind of Amish village, for the sake of crappy travel writers like me to enjoy unspoiled historical quaintness.".
A hella impressive wall carving; it was like a full story high. The small figures in the background are the Arhats, the disciples of Buddha, of which there are anywhere from 18 to 1,000 depending on how many the artist feels like making. Sushu says that Arhats are people who have achieved enlightment and serve as an example to others, but really they're an excuse for artists to get creative with carving the faces of minor characters.
In Japan the Arhats are called Rakkan, as in the 500 Rakkan carved into mossy stones in the hills above Tono in Iwate prefecture.
Two of four guardians of the heavens. The one with the umbrella makes it rain. The rain falls out from underneath his umbrella, see? It's like a reverse umbrella.
The other two guardians of the heavens. The one with the lute is "The Tuner" and can play music that controls the weather and people's emotions. One of the four (we're not sure which) has a pet minx that can fly and bite people's heads off.
For more about these four and their exploits, read Hoshin Engi.
Notice how the Chinese woman is treating it as "a thing to be prayed to" while the white woman is treating it as "a thing to be photographed". (Not that I'm in any position to be criticizing the latter...)
The actual Jade Buddha, a gift from the Buddhists down in Thailand, is not allowed to be photographed.
So I'll just substitute a couple of pretty pictures from the courtyard.
"Bill Clinton came to our temple! W00t!"
A very strange combination of actively used religious shrine and touristy gift shop in the same room.
Call me a cynic, but it seemed to me like most of the stuff at this temple has very little to do with the actual teachings of the Buddha, and is more about impressing people with the earthly power of Buddhism as an organized religion. (Just like European cathedrals are more about expressing the power of organized Christianity than the teachings of Jesus.)
But there was a lot of magnificent artwork on display, so I stopped worrying about the religious motivation and enjoyed it on the level of craftsmanship and aesthetics.
Visiting the Ancestors
On Tuesday we went to visit the graves of Sushu's three late grandparents.
Here Sushu, hold these flowers... Sushu? Where'd you go?
Chinese gravesites hold the cremated ashes and have little spots for offerings in front. I was surprised to see that most of the stones have embedded in them photographs of the deceased, engraved into porcelain for durability. Instead of seeing only names, you're seeing row after row of faces. I found it infinitely sadder and more personal than an American graveyard. I couldn't help but imagine the stories of each individual life that used to exist, and the people who used to love them and still miss them.
Sushu's father's father. The family did a simple, touching ceremony of laying flowers, burning incense, bowing three times, and telling grandfather about how the family is doing. I think they introduced me to him too.
Next we went to a different graveyard where Sushu's mom's parents are.
They are in a much fancier graveyard. Above is the entry plaza, with statues of a giant dragon turtle and two tomb guardians.
I thought this statue of an old couple comforting each other was very sweet and somehow appropriate.
Sushu's mother's parents. We did the same ceremony here.
The fancy graveyard is full of famous people and bigwigs of the Communist party. The graves had more space and many had color photos. Plus...
A lot of them had really cool sculptures related to what they were famous for doing in their lives. This guy was a famous animator, for instance.
Special graves for wizened scholars...
Military types and heroes of the revolution...
It was like walking through an eerie sculpture garden. (This one is just a rock. But a cool rock!)
Later that evening, I asked Sushu's parents to tell me about the lives of the people we just visited. They shared some very personal stories with me, and I was grateful to hear them. Sushu's grandparents' generation lived through some horrible, horrible times, and their stories were full of fear and tragedy, but also courage and heroism. I don't think they're appropriate to post on the internet, but ask me and Sushu in person and we can tell you about them.
Separation of Church and State
In talking to people about marriage equality, it's helpful to refer to the facts about Catholicism and divorce. Specifically, Catholicism holds that marriage is forever and cannot be dissolved in any way (except by annulment, which requires proving that the marriage was invalid in the first place).
But American Catholics live in a legal system that recognizes and grants divorce. They are able to hold their own religious views even in a wider society that is more permissive. Just because divorce is against the beliefs of one particular religion doesn't mean it needs to be illegal for everyone; just because divorce is legal doesn't mean that Catholics are forced to do it.
Catholics are free to not get divorced, to not recognize divorce, and to believe that marriages are forever. Meanwhile the rest of us are free to get legally divorced. That's how we all manage to live together in a pluralistic society. This is instructive as a model for how same-sex marriage ought to work: the law of the land should make the legal benefits of marriage open to everyone, without discriminating based on sexual orientation; meanwhile religious groups can choose to follow their own moral standard for defining marriage, which may be more restrictive than what the law allows.
This is why, when it comes time to draft the California constitutional amendment to overturn prop. 8, I think that we ought to include language in it that says something like...
"No religious organization shall be required to perform or recognize same-sex marriages if doing so would go against their beliefs."
It's good politics, and it's the right thing to do. (A rare combination.) It's good politics because, by reassuring people that the government is not about to start forcing their church to marry same-sex couples, we may get a couple more percentage points of "yes" votes from people who were on the fence about it. It's the right thing to do because we really don't want the government to force anybody's church to do anything against their beliefs! Not that I think that would happen in any case, but it can't hurt to be explicit about it.
Separation of church and state is a wall that protects both sides. It protects civil society from being legally controlled by the beliefs of a particular religious group, and it also protects particular religious groups from having the beliefs of civil society forced upon them.
Why do people gotta go crazy and shoot people?
On my previous post, Googleshng had a comment about the Fort Hood shooting:
...what was with the crazy terrorism angle getting covered ALL DAY by the news networks there? People don't need crazy conspiracy theories when people snap and shoot up post offices or high schools, and I would kinda think spending a few months talking to people who had limbs blown off then being told you had to go where they all just came from is at LEAST a good enough reason to lose it as the other kids at school never talking to you.
Oh, but people DO come up with conspiracy theories to explain shootings of post offices and high schools. Remember how DOOM was responsible for Columbine? People are desperate to believe there's a pattern or a greater meaning in these tragedies, or at least a group they can blame for it. Anything to avoid facing the fact that formerly sane human beings are capable of committing such great evil of their own free will.
Somebody I know at work said in response to the shooting: "That's the problem with the Army: everybody has guns." I couldn't tell whether he was being sarcastic or profound.
When I first heard about the shooting, when nobody knew who did it yet, I remember thinking "Please don't let it be a Muslim, please don't... oh crap." I knew that people were going to play this up into a whole new round of Muslim-bashing. And now that's just what they're doing.
The fact that a the shooter was a Muslim shouldn't be used as "proof" that all Muslims are dangerous any more than the fact that the Columbine shooters were high-school students should be used as "proof" that all high-schoolers are dangerous.
I am really curious why nobody at Fort Hood seems to have caught the many warning signs about Nidal Hasan. Apparently he was known for giving scary fundamentalist rants in public about how those who don't believe in the Koran should have their throats cut and be set on fire. And nobody saw this as a problem? WTF?
Like I said, most Muslims are not scary extremists and you shouldn't stereotype them as such. But when there's such clear evidence that this particular Muslim, Nidal Hasan, actually is a scary extremist, then maybe you should consider, like, not giving him guns.
I got a visit from the local Baptists.
Two of them showed up at my door on Saturday morning, with big creepy fake grins. They looked and sounded exactly like the stereotypical California surfer dude, except nicer dressed. For the full effect, imagine all their lines in that "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" voice.
Baptists: "We're here from XXXXX Baptist Church to invite our neighbors to come to church with us tomorrow morning!"
Baptists: "Do you have a church home that you go to?"
Me: "No, I'm not religious."
One Baptist: "That's OK, because religion isn't important! Religion is just something man-made!"
Other Baptist (as a reminder): "Rituals."
First Baptist: "Yeah, it's just rituals! What's really important is that you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ!"
There must have been a script that they memorized, which told them exactly how to respond to "I'm not religious" and a dozen other common responses. I think what they were trying to do was that conversational trick where you concede the other person's point in order to make them more receptive to a larger point. But they lost me with the assertion that "a personal relationship with Jesus Christ" is something other than religion.
I expected them to say "what's important is that you have a personal relationship with God", which at least is a concept most if not all religions have, but no, they said "Jesus Christ". So they were basically saying "Religion isn't important as long as you believe in our particular religion"!
Anyway, it seemed pointless to point out logical fallacies to people whose worldview depends on faith instead of logic, and it also seemed pointless to be overly rude or confrontational to people who were well-meaning and believed they were doing the right thing by trying to "save" people, so I just ended the conversation.
Baptists: "We want to get to know you better, but we don't even know each other's names yet! Would you mind telling us your name?"
Me: "I'm not interested. You can go ahead and move along to the next house now. Have a nice day."
They accepted that and moved on.
The other Christmas activity I really object to is the whole elaborate pretense with the cookies and the presents "from Santa".
I don't care if it's traditional, lying to children is wrong. I keep overhearing parents talking about the lengths they go to, when their kids almost figure it out and they have to come up with a cover story. All that effort! Why not just tell them? Kids can enjoy fiction without having to believe that it's literally true. Is keeping up the ruse really for the kids' benefit, or because like Calvin's dad we think it's cute to watch kids believing arbitrary lies?
I dunno, I think I'm just gonna tell my kids straight-up: "Santa is just a story".
Moore's Historical Observation
Well Time magazine ran a cover story about the Singularity (boldly predicting a date of 2045, even) which means a lot of generally non-tech-y people I know have been bringing it up, ask me if I believe it will happen, expressing various misunderstandings about it, etc.
By the way, hre's Vernor Vinge's essay which more or less kicked off the whole Singularity idea. It's short and worth a look if you haven't read it before.
Things to keep in mind are that Vinge is both a scientist and a science-fiction writer, so which hat is he wearing when he writes this? At least part of it seems to be expressing a writer's frustration: "Oh drat, this approaching singularity makes it really hard to extrapolate a plausible future history for a galactic empire setting". It's also worth noting that he regards the idea with dread, i.e. "Can the Singularity be avoided?".
Singularity dorks have taken this idea and turned it into the equivalent of an apocalyptic religion for atheistic nerds: it describes an approaching end to the human era (as superintelligent machines will take over), to occur at some unspecified but rapidly-approaching date, assumed to be within the believer's lifetime. It's got a god, except instead of creating man the god is created by man. It's got the same abdication of responsibility: Why worry about politics or the environment when the Singularity is about to happen and fix all the mistakes that humans have made? It's even got an afterlife (we all upload our consciousness into computers). The only thing it's missing is a Judgment where, you know, only the True Believers get to be uploaded while the heathens (Windows users) will toil in the server farms for all eternity.
Anyway, the reason I'm writing about this is because I just want to point out a certain logical fallacy that I keep seeing. The singularity guys say the Singularity is inevitable "because of Moore's Law".
Well Moore's Law is just an observation (made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore) that the speed (or power or number of transistors) of microchips doubles every X months, where X is in the 18-24 range. It's held true since the 60s. The logical fallacy is when people assume that it will continue to hold true indefinitely, and therefore extrapolate that a single microchip will have more processing power than all the world's human brains put together by the year 20X6, therefore POW! Singularity!
But Moore's Law isn't a law of nature or anything. It's not like entropy or gravity or nuclear decay. It's just an observation of economic trends within a particular historical period. It depends on competition between semiconductor companies and on the ability to make transistors smaller. At some point we run up against the fact that a transistor won't work unless it's a certain number of atoms across. Or, at some point people decide "Hey, my computer is actually good enough for anything I'd ever want to do with it, I think I'll spend my extra income on something besides a new laptop" and then the economic conditions that created the incentives for competition between semiconductor companies will change. Either way, the conditions that created Moore's Law belong to a particular period of history and they won't last forever. Even Moore himself says so.
I guess "Moore's Law" just sounds better than "Moore's Historical Observation". Call it whatever you want, but if your predictions are based on assuming that processor power must always grow exponentially, then I'm not gonna take them seriously.
Even if we do have an exponential increase in processing speed and network bandwidth, that doesn't mean that the Internet will somehow magically achieve self-awareness on its own someday. AI is hard. We don't know how our own brains work nor do we know how to duplicate them. We don't even know the right questions to ask. All the processing power in the world is useless if you can't figure out how to express your problem in terms of binary arithmetic.
That said, I watched IBM's Watson beat the human champs at Jeopardy and it was fairly impressive. Not impressive that it knows the answers -- it did have, like, all of Wikipedia and half of the Web stored in its database -- but impressive that it understood the questions as often as it did. What we now know, that the early AI pioneers didn't, is that knowing answers is easy but understanding questions is hard. When Watson got one wrong, it didn't make the kind of mistake a human would. Like, the clue specified an author and Watson named the book instead. Another clue specified an "American city" and Watson said "Toronto" leading to great LOLs. In both cases Watson's response correctly matched the rest of the data in the clue, but it misparsed or overlooked something obvious that a human never would have missed - a human would have recognized "this is asking for a person's name" immediately and ruled out all non-persons-name answers, for instance.
We've come a long way toward natural language processing but there's still a long way to go, in other words.
Awfully specific date isn't it?
I keep seeing this billboard everywhere lately. There's one in Oakland and one in Saratoga.
Awfully specific date, isn't it, for the Judgment Day?
I always wonder, how do doomsday cults feel when their chosen date rolls around and the world continues existing? Are they relieved or are they kinda disappointed?
Field trip to the mosque
Yesterday before taiko class I joined a field trip that Sushu was taking with her World Religion students to a local mosque, where Imam Anwar, a 2nd-generation Indian-American with an amazing beard, gave us a powerpoint presentation about what Muslims believe in.
I was struck by two things about Islam: first, how basic it is. The core tenets are very simple and straightforward. There's six things you have to believe and five things you have to do, and those things include concessions to practicality (e.g. children, sick people, pregnant women, and travelers are except from fasting). There's no elaborate priestly hierarchy and no counterintuitive doctrines about trinities or sin and redemption. It's just... basic.
Of course, that's all before it gets entangled with politics, or war, or local cultural customs, or overzealous interpretations of Hadith, all of which can make Islam a lot less reasonable in practice than in theory. Which brings us back to the question of whether the real Islam is the essential form described on paper, or whether it's the thing that real people practice, and whose definition counts, and whether the interpretations of the Wahhabiists or the Taliban can be said to speak for Islam, but I don't want to get into that right now.
The second thing that struck me is how text-centric it is. No images, no statues, no symbols; and what's at the place of honor front and center at the mosque? Arabic calligraphy. God is held to have no form or attributes, and it's the precise text of the Qur'an that is held to be holy, which is why people memorize it. (Imam Anwar spent two years memorizing it before he learned Arabic meaning he was memorizing meaningless syllables. That sounds kinda crazy to me, but then that's why I would never go into any sort of priesthood.) My point is that basically everything sacred to Islam is words, specifically written words.
The high school students of course wanted to ask about all the edge cases. On the subject of Ramadan, they're all like "Is chewing gum OK?" "What if you live in Alaska and Ramadan is during the summer so there's no sunset?" etc. Oh man. There's a certain age where everybody loves finding edge cases. The kids were also pretty entertained when the Imam showed off his iPhone app for calculating prayer times and the direction to Mecca.
Anwar showed us a bunch of pics from the Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) and talked about how there's big international hotel chains and fast-food chains right across the street from the Kaaba. And how he always comes back with a contact info for people from all over the world who he then friends on Facebook. It's kind of cool how the Hajj serves to create and sustain a worldwide community. I'm not sure if that's what they were planning when they made the religion up but it's a really good idea. During the middle ages it made ideas travel very rapidly from one end of the Muslim world to the other - it only took one or two years for knowledge to get all the way from Central Asia to Spain.
Zakat also seems like a pretty good system. You're supposed to tithe 1/40 of your savings each year to the poor. It's based on savings, not income, so you're not expected to give if you needed to spend everything you made; you're only expected to give if you had a surplus. Both Hajj and Zakat made me think "hey, whoever came up with this stuff was pretty smart about building functional social institutions."
Interesting: the Islamic version of the Adam and Eve story is that Satan tempted them to eat the fruit, and they did, but they were sorry and God forgave them. After that they were sent out of paradise to Earth as part of God's plan to populate the world, not as a punishment. There's no concept of original sin in Islam; you're responsible only for your own sins. That sounds pretty reasonable to me as the doctrine of original sin never made any sense to me.
Anyway, if it weren't for the treating women as second-class citizens and the evolution denialism, then Islam would seem pretty appealing.
Righteous Mullah Smackdown
Wouldn't you know, right after I posted this post about my trip to the mosque, Sushu showed me this amazing video. A Pakistani mullah accuses a Pakistani actress, who was on a reality TV show in India, of shaming Pakistani culture and disrespecting Islam. The actress TOTALLY TELLS HIM OFF in one of the most amazingly righteous smackdowns I've ever seen.
I love, love, love how she was like "the Prophet, peace be upon him, would stand out of respect when a woman entered the room, so why don't you respect women?" And she was like "it's suicide bombers, and priests who molest children, that bring shame on Islam, not me". So good!
It's like I was saying in that post, who gets to decide what Islam stands for? I love that she finds references from the scriptures to support a peaceful and woman-respecting interpretation of Islam. It just goes to show that despite Abrahamic religions claiming to derive authority from their holy texts, what really matters is the cultural values of those who choose how the texts are interpreted. Christians, Jews, and Muslims can all choose violent or peaceful versions of their religions depending on what part of their text they choose to emphasize.
THE MOST important ideological battle in the world today isn't Islam vs. the west, it's extremist Islam vs. moderate Islam. It affects every one of us in the world, so we should all be cheering for the moderates to win out.
The end of the world is no reason to celebrate
Look, I know the supposed upcoming end of the world is very silly and certainly wrong. The bible is quite clear that nobody knows when the end will come (Mark 13:32), so the people putting a date on it are... shall we say, following a rather creative interpretation of their own religion.
But still, atheists: if you're planninag a "Good Riddance" rapture party this weekend, you're just being a jerk. You're also spending way too much time focusing on something that you claim not to believe in or care about.
I mean there's not believing in supernatural beings and then there's making a whole hobby out of making fun of people who believe in supernatural beings. And if your hobby is entirely based on putting people down to make yourself feel superior to them, it's a pretty dumb hobby.
I guess that's why, even though I don't believe in supernatural beings either, I'm not a "movement" atheist or a "lifestyle" atheist. I'd rather define myself by what I do believe in than what I don't.
Pictures of Suzhou
Suzhou is a famously beautiful town a short train ride west of Shanghai. It may not be very well-known to Westerners, but to Chinese people it's one of the country's top tourist attractions. There's even a saying: "In heaven there is paradise, but on earth there are Suzhou and Hangzhou."
It was the capital of the state of Wu during the Spring and Autumn period (500s BC), but really reached its height during the Song dynasty (~1000s AD) when it was the center of silk production. In those days it was a city of criss-crossing canals, navigable by boat, and it still likes to call itself "the Venice of the East".
We took a day trip there one rainy, foggy weekend in July. Here are the pictures from our trip.
Suzhou train station.
Random trivia: The character "Su" in Suzhou is the same as the "Su" in Sushu's name.
A miniature model of classical Suzhou, on display at the Silk Museum, shows the pattern of canals and bridges.
Besides silk production, Suzhou is famous for its gardens.
The one we went to was built by a wealthy government official from the Ming dynasty. He retired and became a fisherman. But since he was still high-status, you can't just call him "fisherman". So they called him "The Master of Nets".
The back alley that leads to the Garden of the Master of Nets.
A map of the garden grounds.
This antique palanquin is one of the estate's many treasures on display.
A cool room full of fancy stuff. There were a lot of these.
Covered walkways crisscross the garden grounds so people could enjoy the fresh air while keeping out of the rain.
This carefully-designed pond is the centerpiece.
One of the key elements in a traditional Chinese garden is the reproduction of mountain landscapes in miniature.
More pretty pond view...
I like how this ancient tree is carefully propped up with supports to keep it growing just so. No tree in this garden is just growing haphazardly - they're all carefully designed and crafted to produce the desired views.
There were little details everywhere like this fish in the cobblestones.
...and artificial caves.
All of the rooms and buildings had windows and doors carefully chosen to frame different views of the garden.
Also, notice how each window in this wall has a different pattern!
None of the paths are straight; they're all zig-zagged.
According to Chinese legends, evil spirits only travel in straight lines - they can't turn corners. This is one of the traditional explanations for the architecture, but it's also likely they just build stuff that way to encourage people to walk slowly and enjoy seeing the view from different angles.
This round portal reminds me of something from a spaceship on a sci-fi TV show.
A pomegranate tree.
There's a tiny boat stuck under there for riding around on the pond.
My hot wife!
Goldfish in the pond.
No evil spirits getting across this bridge!
Beware of the pond!
Cool fancy rocks.
Bat mosaic. "Five bats" is a Chinese pun. It sounds like a phrase for good fortune ("wu fu").
OK, we're out of the garden now.
I'm pretty sure that's not the actual Google building.
One of Suzhou's surviving canals.
We had hot pot for lunch!
Motorcycles are super popular in China. Check out all those motorcycles!
COLONEL SANDERS IS WATCHING YOU.
Our next stop after lunch was a Daoist temple complex called the "Temple of Mysteries" (Xuanmiao).
Not just a historical monument, the temple is also an active place of worship.
The Chinese Communist party tried to stamp out religion during the Cultural Revolution, with horrifying results. But the 1978 constitution allows freedom of religion (within certain bounds - e.g. no Falun Gong).
I've been to lots of Buddhist temples but I've never been to a Daoist temple before. Of course they're not exclusive - lots of people follow principles of both Buddha and the Dao (as well as Confucius, and Chinese folk religion). It's all very syncretic.
The architecture and rituals (such as lighting incense) are very similar to a Buddhist temple, but there's yin-yang motifs everywhere instead of lotuses.
And then inside the temple, instead of Buddha statues there are statues of various Daoist deities.
They had a row of sixty statues - one for each year in the complete Chinese zodiac cycle. (Twelve animals times five elements = 60 years.) You could find the one corresponding to your birth year and make an offering.
Most of them just look like sages and warriors, but this one dude freaked me out, with tiny arms coming out of his eye sockets. I wonder what his deal is.
This is the Daoist god of money; you pray to him for prosperity.
At some point somebody must have decided that what his shrine really needed was a disco-style laser light show.
Huge incense burner outside the front gate.
It's always kind of weird being in a place which is simultaneously a tourist attraction, charging money for tickets, and also a sacred place for the locals. It was the same way at the mosques in Istanbul, and the Catholic churches in Peru. I try to be quiet and respectful, but still I imagine the people who are there to pray must resent the intrusion of foreigners who are there to gawk.
The Chinese ancestor of the Japanese taiko drum.
Cool statues of an old man and a child. I don't know what, if any, significance they have.
Some cool paintings from the hall of Wen Chang, Daoist god of literature and patron of students undergoing exams.
A narrow alley we explored after leaving the Temple of Mysteries.
It was pretty cool, but only led to a dead-end.
This is a famous pagoda in Suzhou, but we didn't have time to visit it - we had a train to catch and we still wanted to see the Silk Museum to see first.
Silk cultivation has been going on in the Suzhou area for five or six thousand years.
Some cool statues out front of the silk museum.
The silkworm is actually a moth larva, and it eats only mulberry leaves.
Closeup of the live silkworms.
When it's ready to turn into a moth, it spins a fuzzy cocoon like these. You boil the cocoon, killing the larva before it hatches, so that the cocoon can be unraveled into one continuous thread.
A complex loom for silk-weaving.
After the silk museum, we had dinner at a classy restaurant.
Their menu showed symptoms of having been Google Translated - the English names given for dishes were questionable and in some cases hilariously bizzare:
"Nestle honey-of-idyllic chicken"
"Miscellaneous bacteria squid"
"Born ridiculous amount of beans"
"Acid turnip intestinal duck blood"
But the food was very good!
The purple stuff was given the unappetizing English name of "Taro mud" on the menu, but it was a very nice taro pudding.
It started to rain very hard as we crossed the river on foot, hurrying to get back to the train station in time for our train back to Shanghai.
Your website is not "Zen"
Hey Silicon Valley marketers!
Did you know that "Zen" is an actual religious practice? It's not just a cool-sounding word for "simple"?
Whenever I hear somebody describe a website or user interface as "Zen" because it has a lot of whitespace, I die a little inside.
Unless your website is whacking me with a stick while I sit in seiza position and meditate, or using koans to shock my mind out of reliance on logic and binary thinking, or otherwise helping me reach enlightenment through direct experience in the tradition of 6th-century Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, it is not Zen.
Most recent offender is something called Zendesk; passed a billboard for it today, which shows a grotesque caricature of a hideous grinning Buddha wearing a telephone headset. I'm not personally offended by portrayals of religious figures but I ask you: try to imagine a picture of Jesus Christ flipping burgers on a fast-food-chain billboard, and then try to think of a reason why one should be any more acceptable than the other.
Now I'm thinking about what an actual Zen customer-support line would be like. Can you imagine?
"I can't log in to my account, can you help me?"
"The teachings of the way are merely a finger pointing at the moon; you must discover the truth for yourself."
"No, seriously, I really need to get in here and check my payment status."
"Your suffering comes from your desire for a state of logged-in-ness, but all binary distinctions are illusion; in reality there is no difference between logged in and logged out."
(Customer hangs up)
Happy Mayan Non-Apocalypse
The idea that the world is going to end tomorrow due to Mayan prophecy is so silly that it hopefully needs no debunking.
Even if the Maya did predict the world would end on Dec 21, 2012, there's no reason to think that prediction would be any more accurate than any of the other predicted doomsday dates that have come and gone without incident. But the Maya didn't predict the world would end on Dec 21, 2012. Nothing of the sort.
Since I enjoy tracing the lineage of crackpot ideas, I looked into where and how this nonsense started.
Tomorrow, in the Mayan Long Count calendar, is the end of the 13th B'ak'tun. Contrary to popular culture, the calendar doesn't "end" tomorrow, it just rolls over to the next B'ak'tun. The date will be 126.96.36.199.0. It's not a prediction of doomsday any more than the Gregorian calendar predicted doomsday by rolling over to a new millenium in 2001. I guess if computers used Mayan dates we might be dealing with a kind of "y188.8.131.52.0" problem right now, but that's about it.
There are plenty of references to dates after 184.108.40.206.0 in ancient Mayan writings like the recently discovered wall carvings in Xultun. So they clearly didn't think the world was going to end. There is only one Mayan text that predicts anything at all happening on 220.127.116.11.0, and it is merely a vague reference to an appearance by the god Bolon Yokte. It seems more likely they thought of the end of the cycle as a date to celebrate than as the end of anything.
Present-day Mayans are certainly not real impressed by the 2012 hysteria.
That's the other weird part of this 2012 doomsday business -- we keep talking like the Mayans are a vanished people. They're not. Despite the genocidal attempts of Europeans, there are about 7 million Mayan people (i.e. descendants of one of the Maya groups and/or speakers of one of the Maya languages) living in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras today.
We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle or zoos. We are people and we want to be respected, not to be victims of intolerance and racism.
-- Rigoberta Menchú, Guatemalan of Mayan ancestry, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.
As I've written before, pretending that native Americans had some kind of magic powers is perhaps slightly better than pretending they were savages, but it's still a falsehood based on racist stereotypes.
Anyway, where did the prediction of apocalypse on December 21, 2012 come from? Not from the Maya themselves, but from a German scholar, Ernst Förstemann. In the early 1900s he examined a Mayan book of dates and astronomical predictions called the Dresden Codex. At that time, the only part of the Mayan writing system that westerners had translated were the dates; so all Förstemann had to go on was the dates and the pictures. The last page of the Dresden Codex features a illustration of a sky lizard vomiting water. Speculating wildly, Förstemann interpreted it as a prediction of an apocalyptic flood at the end of the B'ak'tun cycle.
Förstemann's interpretation of the Dresden Codex says more about the western Judeo-Christian tradition (obsessed as it is with floods and doomsday prophecies) than it says about Mayan culture.
An American archaeologist named Michael Coe reproduced Förstemann's ideas about the significance of the date in his 1966 book The Maya. It became popular with various 60s new-age hippie gurus, who interpreted 18.104.22.168.0 (conveniently falling on the Winter Solstice, 2012) not as the apocalypse but as a date of spiritual transformation or awakening. But in recent decades American popular culture (the X-files, that horrible disaster movie, pseudoscience specials on the Discovery Channel, etc) got ahold of the idea and turned the hippies' spiritual transformation back into an apocalypse.
So what we're dealing with here is a Hollywood misunderstanding of a new-age misunderstanding of an archaeological misunderstanding of a Mayan tradition that didn't predict anything in particular.
Some 2012 doomsayers even believe they know the precise agent of the apocalypse: There is an urban legend, or conspiracy theory, or something, about a rogue planet called Nibiru which is going to make a close approach to the earth; its gravity, or maybe its magnetic field, is going to wipe out civilization. This idea was started in 1995 by a woman who believed that she was recieving messages from aliens in her brain. She originally predicted Nibiru would destroy civilization in 2003. But since nothing happend in 2003, she moved the date to 2012 to coincide with the Mayan date 22.214.171.124.0.
A hilarious part of the conspiracy thoery is that a missing patch data in Google Sky was intentionally blocked out to hide the existence of Nibiru. (Hint: if Nibiru was really appraoching, blocking out Google Sky wouldn't do anything. Anybody could point a telescope at that part of the sky and see it for themselves.) What's not funny at all is that some people - children even - have been freaking out over the Nibiru rumors, to the point of considering suicide. NASA scientist David Morrison, who answers questions on the site "Ask an Astrobiologist", has has had to become something of an expert in trying to talk people out of their irrational fears.
Doomsday scenarios: Not harmless, no matter how goofy they sound. And yet, debunking them never seems to do any good. When the world doesn't end tomorrow, I'm sure the doomdsay crowd will simply pick a new date to fixate on. Some people need to believe the world is about to end. Who knows why? Maybe it helps their personal problems seem smaller, maybe it gives more historical significance to the time they happened to be born in, maybe it's a way of avoiding having to plan for the future. Maybe people react to the overwhelming change and complexity of modern civilization by imagining a future drastically simplified by cataclysm.
But whatever. Appropriating (and misunderstanding) other cultures' beliefs doesn't make your doomsday predictions any more believable. And Mayan culture should really not be blamed for this kind of crackpottery.
Journey to the West: where death is no match for guanxi
I'm reading Journey to the West, the classic Chinese novel, or rather I'm reading the abridged translation of it by Anthony C. Yu.
(If you're not familiar: Journey to the West is based on the true story of a Chinese Buddhist monk, named Xuanzang or Tripitaka, who journeyed to India in order to bring a copy of the original Buddhist scriptures back to China during the Tang dynasty, ~800s AD. But over the centuries it's been embellished into a mythological fantasy, starring Tripitaka's companion, Sun Wukong the Monkey King, who steals the spotlight for much of the story. Sun Wukong is the inspiration for Goku in Dragonball and numerous other adaptations in Asian pop culture as well.)
Since it's Significant Cultural Literature and also hella old, I expected it to be somewhat dry. But it's fun! It's totally whimsical and humorous. The irrepressible Sun Wukong basically wages a prank war against heaven, running rampant through the pantheons of three religions, extorting tribute from the Dragons of the Four Seas, stealing the Peaches of Immortality and beating up the Ten Kings of the Underworld with his superior kung-fu, before he's finally out-pranked by the Buddha himself. Buddha imprisons him in a mountain for 500 years and then binds him into Tripitaka's service.
The story is told in this digressionary style that keeps going off on random tangents. Even the tangents have tangents. It takes fourteen chapters before anybody even starts journeying west! And that's in the abridged version! I hate to think how many side-quests the full version has. It's also constantly busting out poetry. When they cross a mountain there's poetry about how scary the mountain is; when they put on armor there's poetry about how cool the armor looks; when they fight there's poetry about how fierce the battle is. There's more poetic interruptions than Lord of the Rings.
Anyway, I wanted to share a quotation with you because I think it says something interesting about Chinese culture. This bit is from a tangent within a tangent. Taizong, the Tang Emperor, is dying due to a curse. The ministers and the Queen Mother are already arranging his funeral. But his loyal advisor Wei Zheng has a plan. Wei Zheng says:
"Let Your Majesty be relieved. Your subject knows something which will guarantee long life for Your Majesty."
"My illness", said Taizong, "has reached the irremediable stage; my life is in danger. How can you preserve it?"
"Your subject has a letter here", said Wei, "which I submit to Your Majesty to take with you to Hell and give to the Judge of the Underworld, Jue."
"Who is Cui Jue?", asked Taizong.
"Cui Jue", said Wei, "was the subject of the deceased emperor, your father: at first he was the district magistrate of Cihou, and subsequently he was promoted to vice-president of the Board of Rites. When he was alive, he was an intimate friend and sworn brother of your subject. Now that he is dead, he has become a judge in the capital of the Underworld, having in his charge the chronicles of life and death in the region of darkness. He meets with me frequently, however, in my dreams. If you go there presently and hand this letter to him, he will certainly remember his obligation toward your lowly subject and allow Your Majesty to return here. Surely your soul will return to the human world, and your royal countenance will once more grace the capital."
When Taizong heard these words, he took the letter in his hands and put it in his sleeve; with that, he closed his eyes and died.
I love the idea that dying is just another formality which you can easily work around if you have connections in the underworld bureaucracy. Also, your bros are so important that a little thing like being dead won't stop you from paying back a favor. Such is the power of guanxi.