February 10, 2012

Buddha Buzz: E-blessings, Art, and Ceasing to Be Human

Buddhism and modernity have sat down together at the table once more.

Last Friday, the China Daily published the article "Buddhist temple offers e-blessing service," which covered one innovative method of controlling crowds, reducing the burning of incense, and making some money: sending blessings via text. Guiyuan Temple in Wuhan, China, in cooperation with China Mobile, is charging people 3 to 10 yuan (normal text messages, according to the article, cost 0.15 yuan) to send a blessing text, which includes the phone number of the person for whom the blessing is meant for. While China Mobile forwards the text to the appropriate person, the blessing appears on an LED board outside the temple, where monks are chanting prayers for all the texters and textees.

A lay Buddhist working in the temple is quoted in the article as touting this initative as going green and reducing the risk of stampedes and fires in temples such as Guiyuan, which last year received 600,000 people during this time of year. Part of the service's purpose is to convince people to stay at home. Though the temple is unsure as of yet whether it's working in this regard, the service is certainly popular; over 14,000 e-blessings have been texted over the last two weeks.

Personally, this sounds a bit weird to me. Maybe it seems quaint to be surprised at this, but why does this temple have an LED screen in the first place?I guess we'll have to wait and see if other temples pick up on this strategy. Though I don't think that a text substitutes for a visit to a temple, I do think that this idea would be awesome—if it cost the amount of a normal text message, or it was free.

Speaking of making money off of Buddhism, I found this Zen Table kickstarter project on the blog of core77, a design magazine. The table, which comes in desktop and coffee-table sized versions, is modeled off of zen gardens.

Check out the video:

 

I hate to be critical, because apparently the man who designed the Zen Table poured his life savings into the project, but...I don't get it. What's the point? First of all, the desktop version costs $749 ($499 if you want to try putting it together yourself), the coffee-table version $4,999. And once you drop 5 g's, what do you do with it? The core77 article, titled "A Case of Bad Karma on Kickstarter," starts out by saying, 

It's so cheating!

The idea behind a Zen garden is that combing all of that sand into intricate patterns improves the practitioner's concentration. It's not easy to do—and that's the point. So Simon Hallam's Zen Table contraptions on Kickstarter, which automatically draw pre-programmed patterns via what appears to be a magnetic ball and some type of CNC mechanism, would probably be considered an abomination in the Zen Buddhism world.

I don't know about abomination, but they do seem silly. I'd rather support artwork of the type that Shomyo Ishikawa is doing, whose work was profiled this week in the Mainichi Daily News. Ishikawa, himself a tsunami survivor, carves jizo statues from pine trees that were destroyed by the 2011 earthquake in Japan. He's planning on donating the statues to Buddhist temples when he's finished. Here's a small photo of him and some of his unfinished statues:

 

Shomyo Ishikawa

Our last news item for the day is less explicitly Buddhist, but Buddhist nonetheless. Shimon Edelman, a psychology professor at Cornell and author of the recently published book "The Happiness of Pursuit: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About the Good Life," was interviewed by Salon last Saturday. From the interview:

Well, if pursuit is the key to happiness, is this kind of happiness sustainable? And if so, what might it look like?

Let me say firstly the answer is yes, and then I’ll have to elaborate a bit. There’s an example that made it into the book last minute because I’d just watched a movie, a Canadian film called “One Week” about a guy who gets diagnosed with cancer. He gets on his motorcycle and rides west and comes across all kinds of people and places. At one point, he goes on a hike, gets lost and meets another hiker there, a woman. They end up camping around a fire and he asks her at one point, “If you knew you had one week to live what would you be doing?” And she says without any hesitation, “What I’m doing now.” So what better definition of true happiness than that? And that’s definitely obtainable. If you just pause and ask yourself.

"What I'm doing now." Sounds like a Buddhist answer to me! Later in the interview it's made clear that this isn't the only bit of Buddhist philosophy that's influenced Edelman—it sounds like he's been visited by the dukkha-fairy, too.

You talk about the default human mind as constantly wandering in order to avoid the present moment, what you call “the tyranny of the here and now.” What about practices like Buddhist meditation, which aim to quiet the mind into a state of contentment?

That’s a really good question. I set out to write the book because I wanted to find out why I was restless in situations where I supposedly should have been perfectly content. You know, literally sitting on a mountaintop, seeing the countryside, I would still feel restless. And I think I found a kind of answer. To put it very bluntly, if you are successful in following the Buddhist precepts, you cease to be human. In fact, I think one can find support for this view in the Buddhist sources themselves. If you succeed to cease desiring, you’re no longer human. Of course, the Buddha himself supposedly remained enmeshed with humanity to teach others. But if you do succeed in obtaining the state that you’re supposed to obtain, then you’re no longer human. And that kind of invalidates the questions because a psychology would need to be developed for understanding those kinds of minds—they are not regular human minds.

Interesting, Edelman. I might agree that someone who is fully awakened does not have a regular human mind, at least from a neuroscience perspective, but something in me balks from saying that if you "succeed" in Buddhism you're no longer human. What does everyone think of this?

 

Photo: From the Mainichi Daily News, http://mdn.mainichi.jp/mdnnews/news/20120207p2a00m0na013000c.html.

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Dominic Gomez's picture

e-blessings: Brings to mind indulgences that were sold to the faithful during the Middle Ages.
zen table: Today's lava lamp?
Buddhist success: Depends on the school. Some define success as ascension to some heavenly paradise far removed from the here and now. Others see it as annihilation of the consciousness and reduction of the body to ashes.

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Re: zen table: Maybe today's lava lamp, but much more expensive!
Re: Buddhist success: True, it's very interesting, isn't it, all the different ways that "success" is defined. Would make a good article, I think!

richardson.npp's picture

Free is the key word here. It should be offered for free. Charging for it seems like it is all about money over the blessing part of it. People shouldn't have to pay to be blessed.

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

It would be great if it were free. But I would understand if they were charging the normal price of text message, too (have to cover costs, after all). But why has the price been so exorbitantly inflated? It makes the whole thing smell fishy.