photo & text by nacrowe
as the de facto face of BUDDHISM in the west's modern imagination, it is quite remarkable how little is known about TENZIN GYATSO himself (i.e. HIS HOLINESS THE 14TH DALAI LAMA) as well as the religious institution he represents, not to mention the history of his home country of TIBET, from which he has been in exiled from in INDIA since 1959. BRITISH author and former newspaper journalist ALEXANDER NORMAN makes a significant contribution with his recent biography THE DALAI LAMA: AN EXTRAORDINARY LIFE (HMH BOOKS, 2020) to address these three gaps in the current popular understanding of this seemingly ubiquitous yet mercurial global public figure.
i just want to say first off that the breadth and depth of this book was really compelling. it is quite the accomplishment to relay the complex and oftentimes esoteric of TIBETAN BUDDHISM in a manner that makes sense to a layperson, never-mind connecting such religious understandings in framework that gives context and clarity to the spiritual underpinnings that affected his political decisions in the temporal realm.
given that TIBET was relatively isolated given its geography, yet ironically ideally located along the SILK ROAD trading routes that connected EURASIA, there developed an evolution of MAHAYANA BUDDHISM that was relatively cloistered from outside influence. for centuries this was of little concern, but TENZIN GYATSO's previous incarnation in THUBEN GYATSO, the THIRTEEN DALAI LAMA, who correctly surmised that modern industrialization of surrounding nations posed an existential threat to the continuation of their government for which he led. in may ways this was the circumstance that marked the era of HIS HOLINESS THE 14TH DALAI LAMA with the rise of COMMUNIST CHINA. NORMAN eloquently explains that:
"here was a man who, faced with almost unbearable responsibility from a young age and forced to confront a world for which he had been completely unprepared, nevertheless remained faithful to the spiritual tradition in which he had been raised."
dealing with the CHINESE invasion and subsequent eradication of all signs of TIBETAN culture within its borders was his greatest political challenge, from which he largely failed. it also transformed the TIBETAN identity in the process. previous divisions regarding differing schools and sects within TIBETAN BUDDHISM where largely consolidated under his leadership in exile in INDIA, where he is still currently living. the transmission and scholarly analysis of TIBETAN culture and the attendant BUDDHIST DOCTRINES of TIBETAN BUDDHISM is a priority now for further generations. as is the promotion of democracy, for which he stepped down and relinquished all claims to political leadership in 2011.
HIS HOLINESS THE 14TH DALAI LAMA is one of those few religious leaders that seems fully engaged with the outside world, fully willing to integrated a complex ethics system within a modern framework centered around modern scientific principles. As NORMAN explains, "the Dalai Lama is fully committed to introducing the natural sciences not only into the ordinary school curriculum but into the monastic curriculum as well." this is a revolution in their way of life, but in his estimation, as well as that of his predecessor, it is long overdue.
the value of this book is that it really gives a full scope to his achievements and follies, in other words for s man that is routined praised and even deified in the press (of which he actually is given that he is a manifestation of the BODHISATTVA of compassion, AVALOKITESVARA), NORMAN presents him as a humble servant, living a mendicant existence promoting compassion and empathy to a global audience.
NORMAN writes with clarity and eloquence and this book was thoroughly enjoyable to read, even when it dealt with the complex minutiae of TIBETAN BUDDHIST doctrine. i recommend it to anyone interested in modern ASIAN history or the evolution of MAHAYANA BUDDHISM. there is so much to talk about with this book that I could press on and attempt to address, but bottom line: this is a must-read.
photo manipulation by nacrowe
i remember watching the documentary JIM & ANDY: THE GREAT BEYOND (VICE FILMS, 2017) with a family relative at his house within a year of returning stateside. people had long thought that JIM CARREY had lost his mind based on some "unhinged" interviews he gave in which he questioned the very nature of identity. at best people thought he was attempting to be provocative and at worst, his faculties had devolved to the extent that we were now watching another HOLLYWOOD star in some sort of twisted, psychic free fall in which he had become detached from reality.
this documentary is based on his work in the MILOS FORMAN film MAN ON THE MOON (UNIVERSAL PICTURES, 1999) and the lengths in which he went through to become comedy icon ANDY KAUFMAN. first some background. KAUFMAN was a transgressive comedian who used several outlandish personas that were designed to confront, and ultimately destroy, audience expectations. he would withhold punchlines and gags indefinitely. it almost reminds me how german composer RICHARD WAGNER would utilize leitmotifs in his OPERAS that never resolved, leaving the listener to be more and more enwrapped in the proceedings without a release. KAUFMAN in my opinion was the COMEDY equivalent of such, working on a level that was both juvenile and transcendent. makes total sense that another generational talent in CARREY, a man of many faces himself, would be so intrigued. the footage of the filming showcases CARREY's dedication to being in character, even to the point of speaking with the family of KAUFMAN's in the first person.
it makes sense to me that life as performance art made an impact on how CARREY viewed himself as an individual, even apart from comedy, since in essence we are all performing for each other all the time. but who are we really?
this is where i think CARREY loses people when he talks about their being no individuality and that in essence we all cease to exist. i know my relative fealt that way.
in my mind that was BUDDHISM 101, the idea of ANATMAN or "non-self." there is no soul or unchanging essence that precedes us or follows us into death. the idea of self-hood is a mirage, a biological phenomena that helps us get through our lives but is ultimately a lie. this precept takes root in HINDUISM with the concept of ATMAN, or a self concept, that in some schools is equated with BRAHMAN, or the ultimate reality. its interesting because in the HINDU context, in essence there is also no individuality because we are all in essence an extension, a manifestation of BRAHMAN. any concept of selfhood as being separate from the physical world is a contradiction in terms, by definition you are of this world because it is you.
for me the most interesting nugget in this film is how this idea of a non-self becomes interjected with the acting occupation, where people take on personas for a living. in a sense, any persona is as relevant as any other and, to draw the point home again, we all are engaged in this activity. we all perform according to what the local normative culture requires of us. i personally saw this again and again living overseas when fellow AMERICANS would take on the racial prejudices of the local majority population. it always jarred me but made sense on a certain level, that your sense of self is intertwined with your surrounding context.
the fact that CARREY took this concept to heart doesnt seem crazy at all but a recognition of the false precepts that we all assume are resolute and unyielding when it comes to our sense of identity, yet in actual fact they are all inventions created to help us navigate an uncertain reality,
a fascinating documentary well worth checking out, whether or not you find the humor of CARREY amusing. this film is working on a level far beyond that and i hope it reaches a decent audience, as we are in a downward spiral at the moment based on cults of personality and mass conformity spear-headed by corporate media companies of all political stripes. the message of this film resonates with me far beyond the context of one actor and a film he did in the late 90s.
what doesn't jive with me is CARREY's anti-vaccine horse shit. that's another rant altogether. SMH.
photo manipulation by nacrowe
around the turn of the millennium i went with my parents and maternal grandmother to the centennial art exhibit dedicated to 20th century AMERICAN ART at the old upper east side location of the WHITNEY MUSEUM in NYC. in their were the expected POP ARTISTS and ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISTS but i discovered a new favorite through an unlikely source, my clueless ENGLISH grandmother. "this is shit" is what i remembered her saying and what looked me dead in the eye was a late black-on-black painting by notable ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONIST (although he detested that label) immigrant painter MARK ROTHKO. "i could paint that!"
yeah, but you didnt.
if something pissed off my grandmother that immediately and that viscerally then i already loved it by default. its her side of the family that made me sit through FOX NEWS at the kitchen table and LITTLE RIVER BAND concerts, so yeah, karma is a bitch.
that aside, what i love about his work is how it draws you in. reminds me quite a bit of the zazen meditation sessions i experienced at the SOJI-JI temple in YOKOHAMA. when sitting doing nothing your mind first races but then gradually settles and you find yourself paradoxically more attuned to your surroundings as you become unaware of them. even in a vacuum there is still that space and the experience of it. its hard to explain. when i see the work of ROTHKO i am not there looking at nothing, but experiencing the space, taking note of the edges of color and the infinite possibilities available in that border. eventually i don't notice anything and i am just there.
i do not know if ROTHKO was interested in BUDDHIST concepts of SUNYATA ("emptiness") but his art relays such to me. one of my desired vacation destinations within the UNITED STATES is the ROTHKO CHAPEL outside of HOUSTON where 14 of his late black-hued paintings are displayed.
i very much would like to sit quietly and observe that space one day. just experience all that nothingness.
all photos by nacrowe
in december of 2015 i took a trip by myself to CAMBODIA while on winter break from my teaching gig in JAPAN. i was there for over a week and split my time between SIEM REAP and PHNOM PENH. if you are interested in seeing my selected photos from that trip click HERE.
i was very excited to visit the region as i had been interested in the history and culture surrounding BUDDHISM and HINDUISM going back to my high school years when i first took a comparative religions class freshman year.
ANGKOR WAT was an obvious highlight that i'd put on par with visiting THE PYRAMIDS, MACHU PICCU, THE COLISSEUM, GREAT WALL OF CHINA, CHRIST THE REDEEMER STATUE, THE TAJ MAHAL or even SUN STUDIO in MEMPHIS. it is often regarded as the most refined architectural expression of the HINDU concept of MOUNT MERU in the world and seeing it in person met and exceeded the hype surrounding it.
but what made the 12th century expanded structure compelling to me as an english teacher were its endless depictions of deities that seemed perfect for understanding the concept of POST-STRUCTURALISM, something i was teaching at the time due to the IB CURRICULUM my school employed. case in point is BAYON temple, which is at the center of the ANGKOR WAT complex and intriguingly showcases 216 depictions of the boddhisatva AVALOKITESHVARA, meant to depict his infinite compassion in almost kaleidoscopic fashion. it really is something to behold. but knowing the backstory of the structure also clues you in to the fact that the depiction of this boddhisatva was very similar to the MAYAHANA BUDDHIST king that had it built, JAYAVARMAN VII, so its very much understood that people also understood it as a depiction of his omnipresent power. when you are at the upper levels of this temple, it is possible to be surrounded on all sides by these lumbering heads peering outwards from several massive towers. later on when hindus took over the complex they chose instead of scratching out the face (as they had done with smaller depictions throughout the complex), instead choosing to add dots on the foreheads. thus transforming them into SHIVA. when later THERAVADA BUDDHISTS (a more strict sect with no belief in boddhisatvas) took over control they reinterpreted the site as the traditional GAUTAMA BUDDHA.
so summing all that history up into post-structuralism. one signifier: the statue. four concepts signified: AVALOKITESHVARA, JAYAVARMAN VII, SHIVA and GAUTAMA BUDDHA. pretty incredible.
TUOL SLENG GENOCIDE MUSEUM
whereas ANGKOR WAT was a mind-blowing, reassuring experience for what the heights of human creativity and collective cooperation are capable of, sites surrounding PHNOM PENH associate with the brutality of the KHMER ROUGE during the CAMBODIAN GENOCIDE of the late 1970s showcased the opposite, what humankind is capable at its most base and deplorable. it is estimated that 1/4 of the population perished during that campaign of terror. an estimated 1.5-2 million people. teachers, workers, professors and their families. basically anyone that was perceived as a threat to the regime.
now i know some people may find offense to my visiting sites that are associated with war crimes. i get it. my response is that it is our responsibility to understand the past and be a witness to history. too many times in western media atrocities are gleaned over and DISNEY-fied as to not disturb viewers or children. this leads to a distortion viewpoint and ultimately a confirmation bias that inaccurately depicts the reality of world events. i have seen this time and time again and i really feel that it leads to a lack of curiosity and compassion on our part.
so go ahead and think what you will, but visiting the TUOL SLENG GENOCIDE MUSEUM was a visceral experience for me. as a teacher it was astonishing to walk through a former school that was turned into a unnamed torture center, as they had in various other anonymous similar sites throughout the country. POL POT was a teacher by the way. i won't even get into the ways that people were tortured, mostly because it may be misconstrued as celebrating extreme sadism (which i understand) but also i don't think its that interesting a detail. what i did find interesting was the spirit of reconciliation that took place after the war and to this day, my tour guide having lost an uncle to the regime. everywhere you went you met people with relatives, parents, sisters, brothers, friends, etc. that were maimed or killed. much like visiting BOSNIA or speaking with people in KOSOVO during my time as a PEACE CORPS volunteer in ALBANIA, there is something about these experiences were people choose to pull together as a community. they choose to seek common humanity. for me that was the power of visiting CAMBODIA, a beautiful country with a complicated history. one of my top trips ever.
whenever i feel down about the cultural and political tribalism going down right now in the UNITED STATES, i wince at the idea of what is to come but also hopeful that we can muster a collective effort towards reconciliation post-TRUMP regime. if CAMBODIA could heal than so can we.
but man, shit is seriously fucked right now. kids in cages.
photo by nacrowe
the summer before i moved to JAPAN i was intensely researching MAHAYANA BUDDHISM, which brought me to different stuff by ALAN WATTS, SHUNRYU SUZUKI, HIS HOLINESS THE 14th DALAI LAMA, NAGARJUNA and eventually 8th century indian monk SANTIDEVA and his text BODHICARYĀVATĀRA or translated in english "A GUIDE TO THE BODDHISATTVA'S WAY OF LIFE."
now if you are unfamiliar with buddhism, the fundamental idea is that life is suffering and suffering is rooted in desire. all texts and concepts thereafter are basically defining and extrapolating on those two ideas and how to go about limiting desire to avoid suffering both for you and those around you. escaping desire entirely is a state of grace called NIRVANA that only an enlightened being, or a BUDDHA can accomplish.
in the MAHAYANA vehicle of BUDDHISM practiced in NEPAL, TIBET, CHINA, KOREA and JAPAN the there is a belief that a person can obtain this state of grace in a single lifetime, as there is another core belief in SAMSARA, or a beginning-less cycle of rebirth. having no desire or ego allows one no need to return for another go around as life is kind of a drag with suffering and death guaranteed.
what made this 1200+ year-old text compelling to me was the idea of the BODDHISATTVA, or a being that has reached nirvana but has opted not to recede from the cycle of SOMSARA in order to assist others.
i was raised roman catholic, a religion and moral philosophy i rejected soundly in my teens, and the idea of heaven and retribution always seemed odd to me. why do good if you are only motivated by rewarding yourself by being in the grace of god. or something like that.
always seemed shallow to me to do something for a reward. the idea of someone helping another for no reward because it is the right thing to me seemed much more compelling. especially combined with the buddhist concept of SUNYATA, or emptiness. essentially in this tradition there is no sense of self, ego, personal identity or as we like to say in the west, a soul. if you believe in causality than you can deduce that we are not the end point of all the atoms in our body, but rather part of a fluid continuation of the re-appropriation and reassignment of what CARL SAGAN deemed "star stuff." we are just a part of a larger narrative as told through our physical being and all the building blocks of matter than produce it.
so to do good for others with no reward and no sense of ego (literally) makes the whole idea of charity in the buddhist sense more immediate and tangible and ultimately more compelling in my estimation. thus why i have reread parts of this text several times.
art by nacrowe
i think for the public it can be difficult to witness public figures evolve over time, partly because their celebrity is some much a function of our collective mass projection. we see in them what we attribute to our better selves. if they change, what does that say about what we saw in them and by extension, what does that say about ourselves?
ADAM YAUCH of THE BEASTIE BOYS, much like ALDOUS HUXLEY, was a western public figure that explored eastern philosophies, namely MAHAYANA BUDDHISM. this fascination turned into a lifelong passion that redirected his life's trajectory in terms of his personal moral code, philanthropy, advocacy work and even his personal life.
his life is still interesting to me years after his death in 2012 from parotid cancer. this is in part because he seemed effortlessly authentic. you can listen to both the sexist attention-grabbing brat in "brass monkey" (licensed to ill, 1986) and the more thoughtful, reflective global musings on "bodhisattva vow" (ill communication, 1994) and come away with the full moral trajectory of a man and his evolution as a human being.
and i think that took courage. courage to counter your public image through action.
in our modern insatiably-manic digital click-bait culture where everyone has quick opinions and every discernible action seems to be part of a wider premeditated strategy with a future payoff in mind, it is hard to recognize humanity when we see it. it is hard to get past our jadedness. especially with public figures.
i dont see the life of ADAM YAUCH as something distinct and sanctified, this isnt a hagiography. i see him as a flawed human (like all of us are) that followed his path and used his platform to promote good will as he saw it and did what he could.
my hope is that i can see the same in others and not be so quick to question their motives, as i do whenever i hear of angelina jolie's UNICEF work or kanye giving his gaudy shoes to kids in uganda.
its a struggle. im working on it.