The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

This content shows Simple View

April 2013

Jamaica Pond in April

Some photos from this morning’s walk around Jamaica Pond for my 2013 photography project. This year seems to be rapidly disappearing. I think last I checked it was February and I’m not sure what happened. March was a joke. This morning I was still kicking myself for missing March for the project, and wasn’t going to let April slide by as well. So here it is… lovely, lovely Boston spring. It’s been SOOOOOOO HARD to get any work done with the weather as nice as it has been the last couple of weeks…

IMG_1098_130428 IMG_1102_130428 IMG_1114_130428 IMG_1097_130428



Jamaica Pond in February

I’ve been getting behind on my 2013 photography project to document Jamaica Pond through photos every month this year. I actually missed March in the craziness of prepping for my BTR Spring Gateway, so alas you cannot see the early stages of the lovely way Boston unfurls in spring. However, I do have (belatedly processed) February and (just taken this morning) April for you!

The winter of 2012-13 was a tumultuous one for Boston, with the whole region repeatedly weathering winter storm after winter storm. In February, a vigorous Category 3 Nor’easter (erroneously called Nemo) delivered hurricane-force winds and a whole lot of snowfall to New England. Boston Public Schools declared snow day after glorious snow day as the city struggled to dig itself out from the 24.9 inches of wet snow. Here are some photos from the aftermath at Jamaica Pond.

IMG_1072_130210 IMG_1078_130210 IMG_1090_130210 IMG_1054_130210



Buddhism and the Social Justice Problem

Something I’ve been struggling with personally as well as in my writing has been trying to tie Buddhism (particularly Theravada), which is at the core of my heritage as a Sinhalese American, to my general sense of practical secular ethics. A major hurdle in this process has been the apparent indifference of doctrinal Buddhism to the issues of contemporary social justice.

Sungtaek Cho at SUNY Stony Brook, in Selflessness: Toward a Buddhist Vision of Social Justice, discusses this notable lack from the historical perspective of cultural imperialism:

Almost all of the ancient philosophies and religions paid scant attention to issues of social justice in the modern sense. […]  it is only from the eighteenth century that social justice emerged as an important issue in political thought and social philosophy in the West. The last three centuries have thus seen the maturation of such key concepts as citizenship, political equality, and the fair distribution of economic resources.

However, the process of modernization that drove the development of social philosophy in the West paradoxically retarded it in the East. Belatedly experiencing modernization as Westernization  initiated by military and economic contact with Western colonial powers, Eastern intellectuals lost confidence in their native traditions, coming to see them as relics of the past without relevance to contemporary problems. As a result, indigenous philosophies and religions, such as Buddhism, were neglected in favor of the study of Western thought.

This stunted growth in sociopolitical awareness may not be as acute in majority-Buddhist regions of the world, particularly those in which serious moral and existential questions have been put to the test — say, through civil war. Sri Lanka obviously comes to mind, though I can’t say I am in the loop as to its religious discourse. However I do know that contemporary South Asians of Buddhist heritage but Westernized cultural attitudes (who, by and large, do not speak the academic language of their ancestral nations) run into a huge stumbling block in attempting to access any deeper call to social activism within Buddhist doctrine. Cho again:

The difficulty of developing a theoretical framework for Buddhism in engagement with contemporary social issues is rooted in the very nature of Buddhism as an ontological discourse aiming at individual salvation through inner transformation.

Among the core tenants of Buddhism is that this world of Samsara is illusory and permeated with evil (indeed, the First Noble Truth is that the material world is in fact defined as a state of dhukka, or suffering). In a nutshell, one’s objective is to escape the cycle of rebirth into this suffering by learning to practice nonattachment from the sensual cravings that bind us to this prison of bodily existence — thus liberating the mind and opening the door to achieving Nibbana.

If one accepts this view, then to any socio-politically minded person it begs the questions: Why work to repair a broken world that is to be accepted prima facie, metaphysically and existentially, as broken?  Why try to save a world that is only an illusion from which we are trying to escape? Why take an active role in political, civil, or social advocacy if such matters are seen as petty distractions from the real task at hand?

Francis Story* states the problem this way:

The Buddha did not essay to lay down laws for the conduct of human affairs in any but a strictly personal sense. He gave advice to rulers, as He did to ordinary householders, but did not attempt to formulate principles of state policy, as some religious teachers, with varying success, have attempted to do. His Teaching was for those who wish to liberate themselves from Samsara, not those who desire to improve its conditions.

Story seems to perceive that contemporary western readers will find this lacking, and attempts to follow with an indirect argument:

Nivana may be an individual, not a collective goal, but the Path to it, followed by the individual for his own highest good, has beneficial repercussions on the whole of society. Every man or woman who observes the Five Precepts and conscientiously tries to follow the Noble Eightfold Path, makes it easier for someone else to do the same. One who works for his own highest good confers blessings on all mankind.

This pithy redirection strikes me as hollow at best and dangerously libertarian at worst. I don’t buy it, particularly since this seems to be at odds with the idea of selflessness (or the illusion of a Self that is separate from everything else). Cho, on the other hand, seems to be on a more innovative tack, one that tries to make a doctrinal argument for social action based on the logical consequence of taking the extended view of selfhood in Buddhism to its existential ends.

The Buddhist theory of selflessness, when considered in terms of the individual and his/her place in the community, really becomes something of great social power: an extended interpretation of selfhood. […] namely, the idea that I am everybody in the community.

To put it another way: […] the doctrine of selflessness requires that Buddhists view themselves as being in fact everyone in society. The social implications of this viewpoint are of course powerful: her poverty becomes my poverty; his tragedy, my tragedy. And when combined with the model of active engagement offered by the bodhisattva ideal, in which personal health is achieved by helping others, we suddenly find ourselves with a solid rationale for social action.

A contemporary interpretation of Buddhism based on this principle being the central tenant (rather than the nature of the world sic as suffering) is much more palatable to me, though it would be quite a bit of work indeed to go back through the innumerable pages of the Theravada Canon and produce insightful, clear, and relevant commentary to this effect.

The Copernican revolution, of course, would be that the Four Noble Truths would need to be de-throned from their central “Buddhism 101” position and relegated to a side note, interpreted in light of the new central tenant of Selflessness (or universally-encompassing selfhood). This move might seem like doctrinal heresy. But I would argue that the importance of the Four Noble Truths, at least from what I have read, is mostly found in commentary on Buddhism… not the scriptures themselves. I have read the whole Dhammapada and am about halfway through the Digha Nikaya, and so far I cannot recall any specific mention of the Four Noble Truths. If I am mistaken and indeed there is a doctrinal basis in Buddhist scripture for their centrality from the words of Siddhartha Guatama, then please, as it were, enlighten me.

As radically different from the prevailing discourse as this idea is, I think it is a start, and I think it is foundational to any attempt to articulate a cohesive vision for have Sinhalese American identity is and/or could be. As part of a novel I am working on that explores issues of Sri Lankan American identity in the contemporary United States, I have begun doing some background reading on Buddhism, including a new translation of the Digha Nikaya. The Lakkhana Sutta in particular (The 32 Marks of a Great Man) seems to have some good fodder for thinking about social justice. More later when I finish reading it and digesting.

In the meanwhile, thoughts and comments welcome.

_____

* Story, Francis. (1985). Buddhist Lay Ethics. In: Dimensions of Buddhist Thought, Vol III. Buddhist Publication Society, Sri Lanka.



A Sense of Perspective

Every now and then, usually when something like politics or racism or injustice or terrorism or whatever else gets nasty, I find it helpful to get a dose of perspective. Thanks to ESO’s VISTA telescope, we have THIS:

It may not look like much at first, until you realize that those points of light are not stars, but whole galaxies. Process that for a minute: you’re looking at over 200,000 galaxies, each one with anywhere from 100,000,000,000 to 300,000,000,000 stars.

Oh, and according to BadAstronomer’s post about this deep-field image, this is only a 1.2 x 1.5 degree patch of sky. That means those 60,000,000,000,000,000 (sixty quadrillion) suns are in just approximately 0.004% of the observable area of the sky. And that’s just what we can see with our current instruments and given where we are in the universe. (You can get the full image from ESO.)

Yep.

Feeling humble yet? This is really why we do science and exploration.

By expanding the frontiers of what is possible, we move beyond present constraints to worldly solutions. By exploring, we discover more about ourselves, where we came from, and where we could be going. In doing the hardest things imaginable, we develop systems and methods and materials and technologies that rain down into all areas of human life.

And by always striving to look upward at the immensity of the beauty around us, we are constantly humbled into looking inward at how we can make our speck of the universe a better place for our fellow human beings.

If I ever find myself caught up in the mundane, wound up about something petty, or angry at someone or something else, despairing for humanity, or wondering why I should keep striving against something difficult… this is among the set of pictures I look at.

It’s good to keep a sense of perspective.



Lehane: Messing With the Wrong City

Dorchester-born and raised author Dennis Lehane has an OpEd in the NYT that helped me think about how Monday’s events fit into the overall story of my new city.

But I do love this city. I love its atrocious accent, its inferiority complex in terms of New York, its nut-job drivers, the insane logic of its street system. I get a perverse pleasure every time I take the T in the winter and the air-conditioning is on in the subway car, or when I take it in the summer and the heat is blasting. Bostonians don’t love easy things, they love hard things — blizzards, the bleachers in Fenway Park, a good brawl over a contested parking space. Two different friends texted me the identical message yesterday: They messed with the wrong city. This wasn’t a macho sentiment. It wasn’t “Bring it on” or a similarly insipid bit of posturing. The point wasn’t how we were going to mass in the coffee shops of the South End to figure out how to retaliate. Law enforcement will take care of that, thank you. No, what a Bostonian means when he or she says “They messed with the wrong city” is “You don’t think this changes anything, do you?”

via Messing With the Wrong City – NYTimes.com.

It’s strange, but Boston feels like home now. I don’t think it was just this terrible event that did it, but I do think the bombings were a catalyst that made me think about and realize it. I don’t have much more to say right now, so I’ll leave it there.



Madaktari

It’s spring break and I am with my parents visiting some close family friends in Virginia. Among them is Dr. Dilantha Ellegala, a neurosurgeon who is pretty much  literally saving the world. Check out his work with Madaktari, in Tanzania:

I just love what he and this organization are doing.  Their vision:

In a globalized world, with ever increasing demands and challenges, Madaktari is investing in the knowledge infrastructure of Africa, creating a more permanent and sustainable form of health care.  The goal is to break the cycle of conventional dependence on outside aid organizations and to increase self-sufficiency and sustainability.  Based on the results so far, these are achievable goals. By reaching over-worked and underserved physicians and their patients, Madaktari spans all healthcare sectors: rural and urban hospitals, academic centers, governmental agencies and educational certifying organizations.   The Madaktari model, with its mission of sharing specialty medical knowledge at a grass roots level, can lead to developing countries becoming more autonomous.  It’s a model that can also work in developed countries with pockets of geographically or culturally isolated communities with poor or no access to health care.

Can’t say more at the moment, but I can say that they happen to be needing support with an educational endeavor and a theatrical adventure soon… And gosh, just what will I be doing with all these summers free…



It’s Getting Better

My latest blog post for BTR has just posted. Excerpt:

The last three months have been a slow climb out of the depths of January. I’ve seen my own teaching and confidence improve, and I’ve taken heart at the day to day achievements of my fellow residents as well. Looking back, March was definitely much busier than October, which was in turn an order of magnitude crazier than the summer. Looking ahead, I can tell I am going to be even busier yet with my own classroom next year; each new level of immersion in the profession, art, and craft of teaching is going to bring new and greater challenge.

But here is the difference: I feel so much more prepared for it now.



Review of Heinlein’s “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”

The Moon Is a Harsh MistressThe Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I will undoubtedly be branded a science fiction heretic, but I just don’t see what all the fuss is about.

I can respect Heinlein’s technical proficiency as a writer, particularly the highly consistent dialects and comprehensive rendering of technology. I can appreciate how forward-thinking (in some respects) Heinlein was in anticipating the space era in a novel written in the mid 60’s. I can also see how this novel undoubtedly influenced many writers down the line.

None of these merits, however, makes The Moon is a Harsh Mistress either enjoyable, informative, or insightful to the contemporary reader. Its technological futurism is obsolete, its view of humanity mired in a bygone era of chauvinism and nationalism, and its social commentary amounting to little more than Ayn Rand in Space.

I care about none of the characters, because I cannot relate to them — thus it to me fails as a story. Nor does the story bring me to any new understanding of the human condition, because its postulates in this regard are archaic — thus to me it fails as art.

My impression of Heinlein’s masterpiece is something analogous to the Deuteronomic Code: it has its set place in the establishment’s canon, mostly for historical reasons, but ultimately has very little worthwhile to say to contemporary society.

View all my reviews



A RAISIN IN THE SUN at the Huntington

Life is simply a long line that reaches into infinity. And because we cannot see the end—we also cannot see how it changes. And it is very odd but those who see the changes are called “idealists” and those who cannot, or who refuse to think, they are the “realists”.

— Joseph Asagai, in Lorraine Hansberry’s A RAISIN IN THE SUN.

Last Saturday’s show of Liesl Tommy’s production of A RAISIN IN THE SUN at the Huntington Theatre marks my first dose of the theatre drug since moving to Boston last June. It was a wonderful experience on many levels.

Clint Ramos and Lap Chi Chu delivered beautifully integrated scenic and lighting designs, respectively. The Younger’s rickety Chicago South Side apartment was constructed on a large circular platform that rotated to expose the various rooms of the house. It symbolized for me the whirl of forces that fling the family from one event to the next. Also symbolic was the fact that the whole apartment was constructed inside of a large grid that surrounded the unfolding story on the sides, back, and top with a black cage of individual warm can lights. The lights were used in patterns to great visual effect.

The actors all did a fine job, but Keona Welch’s rendition of Beneatha Younger was my favorite performance in the production. By having her character deliver potentially sarcastic lines in a naively wide-eyed and serious way, she added a nice layer of humor to the character’s poignant quest for identity.

Underneath the particulars of the production however is the brilliance of the play itself. It is the mark of a true classic that it remains perpetually relevant, and Lorraine Hansberry’s script easily makes the cut.  Hansberry’s depiction of implicit racism and systemic segregation remains an ugly self-reflection of much that is around me here in Boston, and by extension the country and our times. And the side themes of conflicted identity, the nature of idealism, the paradoxes of family, and the value of love in dark times require no particular time and place to show us something about the human condition.

Last week was the first play I attended in Boston and the first time I have ever seen this particular play performed. I am so happy about both!



Boston a Big City? Maybe Too Much So in Some Ways

Pretty Cute Watching Boston Residents Play Daily Game Of ‘Big City’” runs the headline for a recent article in The Onion. The beloved king of nothing-is-sacred, satirical journalism was hilarious of course. Boston.com ran a good-natured satirical post in response. Not surprisingly, the “Pretty Cute” article also raised some hackles around what is, apparently for some, a sore subject around here.

The satirical back and forth is all in good fun of course, but Tom Keane’s Op-Ed Column in the Globe smacks of something worse than taking a joke too seriously: rose-tinted glasses that see right past serious social problems.

Keane rattles off a number of ways in which Boston just can’t be a truly big city, all of which help paint the lovely image of the progressive “Athens of America”  that Boston projects with such pride. While I have very little doubt that his statements are technically true, they are also maddeningly selective in the story they tell.

You can see Boston’s shortcomings in its wealth and demographics. At over $62,000, Boston’s median household income is above that of New York, LA, and Chicago.

The median is a tricky statistical value; there are so many different income distributions that can arrive at a particular median value that the number in itself doesn’t really tell you much. But what about Radio Boston’s report just over a year ago on WBUR that Boston’s income inequality is among the worst in the United States? Which income indicator is a better measure of how we live up to our stated ideals?

Boston is better educated — as a percentage of the population, more of us have high school, college, and advanced degrees. Again, Boston loses: Real cities should be older, stodgy and a little bit dumb.

Who gets that great Boston education? Lee and Orfield in their 2005 paper “Why Segregation Matters: Poverty and Educational Inequality from the Harvard Civil Rights Project reads

“Our study of metro Boston shows a strong relationship between segregation by race and poverty and teacher quality, test scores and dropout rates. In the entire metro region, 97 percent of the schools with less than a tenth white students face concentrated poverty compared to 1 percent of the schools with less than a tenth minority students” (p 6).

So as not to start a rant specifically on education (though that may come later), I’ll move on. Back to Keane:

Real cities should also be maelstroms of despair and anxiety, filled with poverty and unemployment. Yet with a startlingly low unemployment rate of 5.9 percent, Boston is getting close to the level economists think of as full employment (4.5 percent).

Poverty and employment are related, but not the same thing. People can be underemployed, which means they don’t count toward the unemployment rate but still make less than enough to live on or less than their education should permit — thereby pushing lower-skilled workers to leave the workforce entirely. Or they could be among the rapidly rising tide of the legally disabled, who also don’t count toward unofficial unemployment numbers. Even if Keane had looked at Boston’s poverty rates (which are actually lower on average for US cities), looking at the overall rate misses the stark geographic segregation and ethnic disparities of just who is in poverty here in Boston.

And if being poor weren’t hard enough — the classism in recently exposed exploitation and corruption in the Boston taxi system, with city officials complicit, is but one example of social injustice is systemic, not isolated and extraordinary.

Ok ok, I’ll stop ranting. Look, don’t get me wrong, I love my new city. But it is a love formed (and really, still forming) based on the work I do to help make it, and by extension our shared future as world citizens, better.

If Keane wanted to fire back on the joke with a serious point, I think that he could have at least been balanced about it. There’s no harm in city pride, and I’m sure Keane is well aware of the caveats himself. But there’s a lot of people outside (and let’s admit it, inside) this city that would rather pretend that we live in an affluent yuppie paradise that is the bastion and example of the Democratic Party way.

Columns like Keane’s can give credence to those who’d rather not open their eyes to the ways in which we, unfortunately, are very much like other big US cities. And that’s a comparison we have yet to face down successfully — as a city and as a nation.




top