Walking and talking — a review of Another Kyoto

Another Kyoto by Alex Kerr and Kathy Arlyn Sokol

Alex Kerr’s latest book Another Kyoto is another take on an old city, but in an old sort of way. Those of us who read a lot of historical work are conditioned to diligently check each footnote and to closely examine the bibliography (silently judging the book, even before we read it). Non-scholars too expect sources even when doing the daily task of reading an article on Wikipedia! However, Another Kyoto is an oral history, a conversation with a tour guide of deep knowledge, and not beholden to your scholarly standards. He says it right in the Preface:

Much of what I saw may turn out not even to be true. Although it should have been.

That doesn’t fill one with much confidence so early in the book, but Kerr’s conversational tone and profusion of insights (mundane, holy, and profane) draws the reader in quickly. Another Kyoto is a pleasurable read, bursting with knowledge, and it is best to just go along for the ride.

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Trickle-down ethical leadership — a review of The Just King

cover of the book "The Just King"

The Just King: The Tibetan Buddhist Classic on Leading an Ethical Life by Jamgön Mipham

Take a moment to think of the good leaders that you have had in your life and/or career. Think of the qualities they possess, the qualities that you admire and might even emulate. I am sure we could come up with a common list of attributes (good communicator, humble, fair, etc). One key attribute I have seen across a number of sources is self-awareness. This not only translates into a mindfulness of how a leader acts around her people (self control, humbleness), but is the basis on which a leader can improve her skills. Even if you have a map to good leadership, if you don’t know where your starting point is…

Self awareness requires self reflection. Taking time to self reflect is one of the valuable tenets of Buddhism, and it is thus why on this year’s meditation retreat I spent time reflecting on what makes a good leader. To facilitate this internal discussion, I thought I would turn to one of the great thinkers in Buddhist philosophy. During my free time between meditation sessions I read The Just King: The Tibetan Buddhist Classic on Leading an Ethical Life by Jamgön Mipham.

Mipham was an illustrious polymath of 19th century Tibet who wrote on all sorts of topics, from art to science to religion. The politics of 19th century Tibet are fascinating and turbulent (I highly recommend Tibet by Sam Van Schaik to learn more), and when a new king took the throne in the high pressure region between Tibet and China, Mipham was requested to synthesize all best Buddhist teachings on being a good leader.

The breadth and depth of this book is vast. It covers a couple thousand years of writing on ethics, and puts it into a succinct form. A fairly quick read, it is full of pithy advice for people trying to be better leaders… and better people. At some points I felt that this book could be Mipham flattering his audience. This letter was directed at a king of course, so you cannot deny the power imbalance and potential for that to interfere in this enterprise. Like Machiavelli’s book The Prince, how much of this writing is putting “sweet words” into the mouths of those in power merely for ingratiation? I do not know. Still, there is value in reading The Prince despite its historical purpose. Mipham’s work should certainly not be written off either.

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Black intellectualism and learning from Asia — a sort of review of The Fire Next Time

cover of audio version of The Fire Next Time

James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963) contains two essays. The first, a letter to Baldwin’s teenaged nephew, served as inspiration for Between the World and Me which I extolled not only for the content, but for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ inspirational writing skill. It is like a finger pointing at the moon, and I am glad for Coates directing my attention to all that heavenly glory. “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation,” written in the early 1960s is still relevant, and not surprisingly, influencing many young Black people today.

The second essay, “Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind”, is much longer, and an elegant rumination of the black politics at the time. I particularly enjoyed Baldwin’s visit to the home of Elijah Muhammad — the anxiety of the experience is palpable — and Baldwin’s analysis of the Nation of Islam’s approach to the Civil Rights Movement. The book is undeniably an American classic, and Baldwin’s skill as a novelist and playwright shines through.

Near the end of his argument, the following passage particularly stood out to me:

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Your life-changing books

Here is the concept: what books have changed your life? I am not talking about your favourite books, or comfort food books that you have re-read over and over again (ahem… Harry Potter series), or even books that you recognize are a masterwork (eg Invisible Man or The Handmaid’s Tale) and deserving of praise. I mean books that, looking back, you see the ingredients for who you are today; books that are waymarkers for your life, turning points that you can say there are distinct periods before and after the book.

Some caveats: self-help books (like Getting Things Done which was transformational for me) don’t count, even though they will motivate you to take action. That also goes for books that inspire you to do (more of) an activity in the short term, like write (eg. Stephen King’s On Writing or Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler).

Lastly, I think we should skip over non-fiction books, like history, politics, and biographies. A person often reads these kinds of books with the intention of changing how they think about things, or at least further refining their thought. I think we should limit this to fictional works, which though may be written to affect the reader’s heart, due to the individual’s present life circumstances of which the author can never know, can often do so incommensurately.

So, if you will indulge me in my little game: which novels have changed your life?

Thinking about the various distinct phases of my 40 years in this existence, I trawled through the 600+ books on my Goodreads to see if I could determine the waypoints. However, the truth is, I already knew before even looking. There are only a handful (not sure if that is a good or a bad thing) that have left such an impression on my mind that I think of them often, even though many of them I have only read once. The candidates are below.
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Infliction of Self — a review of The Burnout Society

Byung-Chul Han’s The Burnout Society is a collection of essays reviewing famous thinkers’ (Deleuze, Freud, Arendt, Ehrenberg, et alia) thinking about the ailments of society in an attempt to diagnose what ails now. Each essay builds towards an argument with a number of subtle nuances. At only 72 pages, this is the perfect book-club book as I am sure it would provoke much discussion despite the linguistic armour that so much German philosophy enshrouds its critical ideas in (an armour that I cannot claim to have pierced, but I still found this book to be very thought-provoking).

The argument centers around Han’s concept of the individual as a “late-modern achievement-subject” that is:

  1. self-deluded into thinking just because they are not dominated by a person or by duty, they are free;
  2. the highest expression of freedom is to produce which is exactly what the capitalist system wants,
  3. therefore people are self-exploiting themselves and thus burning out.

It is a damnation of the hyper-individualization/atomization of society. Some key quotes:

Auto-exploitation is more efficient than allo-exploitation because a deceptive feeling of freedom accompanies it.

The capitalist system is switching from allo-exploitation to auto-exploitation in order to accelerate.

and some zingers:

The attitude toward time and environment known as “multitasking” does not represent civilizational progress.

In social networks, the function of “friends” is primarily to heighten narcissism by granting attention, as consumers, to the ego exhibited as a commodity.

(ahem, follow me on Twitter…)

Most of the book serves to contextualize the factors that lead to such an ill society.

Why I liked this book

Even though this book can be glibly summed up as “late-stage capitalism is bad,” I found the discussion valuable, especially Han’s arguments for boredom and the vita contempliva. His whole discussion about humans being reduced to animal laborans and feeling that they need to “Just do something… anything!” hits me as I come out of a meditation retreat where we were encouraged to “do nothing … really good.” In fact, my years of “mastering” information overload, of being an “efficient” consumer (eg. listening to audiobooks/podcasts while doing other tasks), is a good example of the symptoms that ail burnout society. It is “deadly hyperactivity” as Han puts it. He reminds us that:

We owe the cultural achievements of humanity—which include philosophy—to deep, contemplative attention.

and:

… deep boredom is the peak of mental relaxation. A purely hectic rush produces nothing new. It reproduces and accelerates what is already available.

Furthermore, it does not lead to a good life. He uses an Aristotle quote to remind us that the capitalist society is not concerned with the Good Life, that it “absolutes survival” turning you into an animalistic machine, scratching out a mere existence of socially prescriptive productivity. Putting it bluntly he states:

In this society of compulsion, everyone carries a work camp inside.

Well, I am off to meditate and try and turn that “work camp” into a garden of happiness.

Activist Buddhism — a review of A New Buddhist Path

Since the age of 3, I have been interested in other peoples. Apparently that was the age when I toddled up to the television, pointed to the evening news, and stated: “I am going to Tokyo.” All throughout my travels and my education I have pursued some understanding about “how the world works,” about human interactions, about how communities navigate a world filled with other communities.

With two people you have a conversation, with three you have a society.

I don’t know the origin of that saying, but it lies at the heart of how I try to understand our world: war, technology, economics… each boils down to politics — not the electoral kind, but the interpersonal kind.

So, in my study of Buddhism, it is natural that I should approach it from a political perspective, especially since so much of our common (Western) understanding of Buddhism seems apolitical: people shaving their heads, retiring to isolated mountain monasteries and renunciating the world. Surely Buddhist political thought cannot simply rely on “social transformation through personal transformation”? Surely they do not believe the way to bring about a more equitable world is for everyone to  become Buddhist?

Beliefs such as those have literally caused wars.

I became curious to find out the Buddha said on how society should be structured. The enlightened one had great advice for sickness, old age and death. What advice did he have for the social, economic, and political ills society suffers from?

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A hypercompetitive race — review of The History of White People

cover_history_of_white_people

The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter

By default, any book claiming to be a history of “white” people must necessarily be a history of “race science.” Surely one must clearly define the boundaries of your subject? It is Nell Irvin Painter’s careful historiography of those shifting boundaries that make up most of this book. She deftly describes the classification and reclassification of races depending on the background of the classifier, and the contemporary political environment, and relates many shocking facts that are typically glossed over in other types of social history.
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Best of 2016

2016 has been a tumultuous year, for both the entire world and for me personally. I have categorized some of the best hits and big changes below into three categories: Life, Posts and Media.

Life

Death and rebirth

This year we had a cancer scare in my family which made me put community activity on hold for a few months while we waited for test results (maybe I should write a post about how we were totally failed by the Canadian medical system, and had to get this sorted out in Japan?). I had to leave ORCA, which was sad because I think they do important work. I stopped playing D&D. There were many serious talks.

However, two good things came out of this: first, it doesn’t look to be cancer. Second, it made me rethink my life. What they say about near-death experiences is true.

New job

After 4 years in startupland, 3 of which dealing with adtech, I finally moved on to a new, more stable (and less morally hazardous) work environment. My new company is in a massive growth phase, so I get to use a lot of my startup skills. The nice thing is they have lots of customers and resources and experienced executives, making it a much easier to execute.

Vegetarianism

On December 28th 2015, I decided to stop eating meat. A year has passed and I am still not eating it, and am pretty happy about the decision. I wrote about why at the 6 months mark →

Travel

I had the opportunity to visit Texas for the first time, and learned a bit about that state’s history, and of America’s as a whole. My wife and I also took a getaway to the Sunshine Coast, where we could delve a little into BC’s aboriginal history.

This year we took two trips to Japan (I am still on one as I write this). Since we stay in Kyoto, the city of temples, I took both opportunities to explore Japanese Buddhism. Here are a couple of posts exploring the issue:

Public appearances

Early this year I did a couple of radio interviews: one on downsizing and one on Syrian refugees. I was on a public panel about transportation. Lastly, and totally randomly, I was on local TV news.

Posts

blog-posts-by-year-2009-2016

This year was a good one for blogging. I have 54 posts (including this one) for 2016, which is an uptick over recent years. Starting a newsletter to help people who do not use Twitter or RSS to help keep up gave me some more motivation to write, holding me accountable to a schedule. Also, I hit 500 posts this year since starting in early 2009. Lots of introspection about how my thinking has changed over the years here.

Standout posts for the year include:

Media

53 films

The Force Awakens (second viewing) was my first film of 2016. Rogue One (first viewing) was my last. Well, the first 45 mins of it anyways, since my (not quite) 5 year old got a little too scared and we had to leave. I am sure I will get another opportunity to see it.

In February and March I went on a tear and watched a bunch of Oscar-related films which was just about the deepest, non-Marvel non-superhero, non kids watching I did. Standout films include:

62 books

This year I set out to discover new podcasts and Great courses, so I originally set my Goodreads challenge low, to like 30 books. I was still reading a lot, so I kept having to up the challenge. But now when I look back, 20 of those 62 books were graphic novels (including the 8 volume series on the Buddha reviewed here), which means I actually didn’t hit my final goal of 45 books. Also, only 10 of those 42 books were in text form, making my audiobook ratio 76%, which is pretty high, even for me.

I read a lot on Syria, about Marxism and leftist politics, and a lot about Buddhism this year. It is a reflection of the ever-changing perspectives and interests of someone trying to live the examined life (or write the examined blog at least).

My standout books this year are as follows:

Quarterly review: FY16Q4

Each quarter I do a quick roundup of the book and film reviews that I do on Goodreads and Letterboxd. These reviews are too short and too off-the-cuff to be included with the more in depth reviews I do on this site. Below are the highlights of the quarter.

Books

★★★☆☆ Fight Club

★★★☆☆ The Essential Dogen: Writings of the Great Zen Master

★★★☆☆ Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy

Not a lot of reviews this time round. I would like to plug two books that I thought were really great:

1) The Wicked + The Divine graphic novel. I blasted through the first two volumes. It is deep and beautiful.

2) Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. I picked this up because Michael Chabon referenced Chandler’s work in his excellent book The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and wow was it great! I mean, besides all the sexism and stuff. Chandler’s similes are as hilarious as they are peculiarly specific, like seeing your father-in-law get roasted at a celebrity dinner by Dave Chappelle… I dunno, Chandler does it better. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

Film

★★★★☆ The Hateful Eight

★½☆☆☆ Suicide Squad

★★★★☆ Arrival

Buddha, the manga

Historical drama can sometimes be dangerous. Subtle twists of creative license to fit a narrative can give a false impression of the facts. Osamu Tezuka’s massive 8 volume series on the life of the Buddha is anything but subtle.

You may know Osamu Tezuka as the creator of Astro Boy and Simba the White Lion. He is one of the grandfathers of modern manga. In the late 1970s he spent 10 years on a series called Buddha. The series was translated into English and collected into 8 volumes.

buddha_books

Despite being the titular character, the Buddha is just one of a large ensemble cast, featuring many people from the various sutras and stories of the life of the Buddha. In fact, it isn’t until about page 260 of volume 1 that the Buddha is even born!

Tezuka’s genius at character design really shines in this series. Every character is distinct, with one or two simple visual flourishes, a characteristic (flaw), and a distinct voice. Tezuka is irreverent, and often goofy. When Siddartha leaves the palace and meets the ascetics who will one day become his first five disciples, one of the ascetics has taken to hanging upside down as his trial. In every frame he is upside down, his legs out of frame and hanging from something … nothing? It is ridiculous and funny. Characters often make modern references (eg. about movies, or sports) or are often modern themselves. Take for example the doctor who examines the sickly young Siddartha: it is Professor Ochanomizu from Astro Boy!

But it isn’t all silliness. Serious teachings of Buddhism find their way into the pages. Tezuka obviously made a deep study of a number of texts in order to be familiar enough to give it such a spin. And the art can be astounding, especially the landscapes, drawn in painstaking detail.

Extremely detailed lush scenery, topped by a naked cartoon kid.
Extremely detailed lush scenery, topped by a naked cartoon kid. (Source)

Similar to the way that watching the TV series Game of Thrones helps put a face to the massive cast of characters in the books, making it easier to follow, Buddha does a great job giving you a simple visualization of characters from one of the greatest stories ever told, from the obscure to famous disciples like Sariputta and Mogallana. That is one of the values of historical drama, and books like this. It certainly makes it easier when reading other, more academic histories like Karen Armstrong’s Buddha, or even the Buddhist canon itself. The one thing to remember is: take the details with a giant bag of salt. Tezuka’s Buddha is not historical document, and it helps that he doesn’t deign to pretend it should be. That said, it is a great introduction to the life of the Buddha and some of the basic tenets, and furthermore, is a masterwork in the medium of manga.