Mar. 1, 2006

Milarepa Movie

There's a movie about Milarepa. You can download images and a trailer at their website. The imagery looks spectacular.

War Crimes and Apologists

ne of the most savage aspects of modern warfare must surely be aerial bombardment of cities, with the consequent loss of civilian life. This feature of modern war is another reason to doubt the myth of progress. Pre-modern wars were fought by soldiers, more or less face to face. Civilian casualties were few. Nowadays, civilian casualties often out-number military ones. Example - Iraq.

A disturbing part of this is the moral blind-spot towards bombing. We've seen it in all recent wars; Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan. Civilian infrastructure like dams and bridges are routinely destroyed, with no regard for casualties, which are dismissed with the demeaning euphemism "collateral damage." In Serbia, the US bombed a civilian radio station, in Iraq a water treatment plant. And this doesn't address all the people killed in accidental misses; smart bombs are just hype, they can't be properly targeted from the altitudes routinely flown. How this is morally better than terrorism is beyond me.

It's a cowardly form of warfare, when you get down to it. The military "exports" the risk to the hapless civilians, whom their propaganda claims to be "liberating." An ugly business.

There were attempts to outlaw aerial bombardment of civilian centres. The League of Nations passed a unanimous resolution to this effect in 1938. Fat lot of good that did.

We won't advance morally as a species until we face our history squarely. For instance, consider the fire-bombing of Dresden during the closing days of WW2. (Something I've written about before.) There remains a strange reluctance to admit that the Allies were capable of committing atrocities too.

A recent article by Deborah Lipstadt is a case study of this moral blindness. She makes a big issue out of disputed numbers; as if 25,000 (her lower estimate) were okay. Lipstadt details some things that might have been military targets in Dresden; most importantly the railyards through which the Germans were moving troops. The bombing of Dresden was not a limited strike at such targets, but the systematic and deliberate destruction by fire (the literal meaning of holocaust) of an entire city. No where does she explain why it was necessary to fire-bomb the town itself. In fact, she doesn't address the use of incendaries at all.

The first step towards a truly sane and peaceful world is to address the moral issues without prejudice. So long as we justify atrocities committed by "the good guys" we are going to go on committing them.

Bamiyan Buddhas

BuddhistChannel has a good article on the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas.
The writer seems to criticize UNESCO for not wanting to rebuild the statues, a project that would cost an estimated $30 million. Actually, I'm with UNESCO on this. The statues are gone. Their destruction was worse than a crime, it was an act of monumental stupidity. But they cannot be brought back; modern replicas would be just that, replicas. And would the replicas include the eyes, which were excised by a previous generation of bigots? But mostly, there must be a better use of UNESCO's money.

One aspect of this story that interests me is the estimated cost; this translates into a major engineering problem. And yet ancient artisans managed the job with hand-tools. Like I said before, progress is a myth.

Feb. 27, 2006

Buddhist Prophecies

A couple of learned responses to my Apocalypse Not posting. Thanks people, much appreciated. To ahistoricity; the source for my "linguistic diversion" was "Gem in the Lotus: The Seeding of Indian Civilization" by Abraham Eraly. A very good recent history of ancient India. I'll accept your correction about Judaism, at least in so far as the mainstream of the religion. But there does exist a quite dangerous fringe who want to rebuild the Temple. The fact that the second holiest Mosque in Islam presently sits on the site is, to these guys, a mere annoyance that a few sticks of dynamite could put right. (A bigger obstacle might be getting a Red Heifer to sacrifice, but there's always genetic engineering.)

E.M. opens a discussion of what could be called a millenarian strain within Buddhism. This is an interesting line of inquiry. There are scriptural supports for an historical/prophetic narrative (see especially the two suttas of the Digha Nikaya, the Agganna Sutta and the Cakkavatti Sutta) The prophetic narrative has at least four separate but overlapping strains;

The Cyclic Arising and Falling of the World - Everything is impermanent, including this earth and world-system. It arose at a certain moment in the past, evolves through various stages, and will at least come to an end; in this cycle through fire. The details of this cosmological narrative make an interesting study, but a few things should be noted which differentiate it from the narratives of the theistic religions. Firstly, it is a cycle. There is no ultimate beginning or ending. There is no final apocalyptic climax, just a clearing of the decks for a new world-system much like the old one. Secondly, it is not seen as some grand divine plan but just the unfolding of natural law; there is no real plot in samsara. We are not developing to some final triumph of good over evil. Thirdly, the end even of this world-system is not traditionally seen as imminent, but is safely put off thousands of years in the future. Fourthly, the end is not something any Buddhists have ever desired or sought to manifest.

The Coming Buddha One coming event that many Buddhists do look forward to is the arising of Metteya (or Maitreya) Buddha, the next or coming Buddha. In the Theravada reckoning he will be the last Buddha of this world-system, but still a few thousand years away, and a few thousand more before the end. In some times and places, the concept of the coming Buddha has become a significant aspect of Buddhist practise and belief. Some modern Buddhists, especially in Sri Lanka, believe that we are now in an age of such decline of the Dhamma that it is no longer possible to attain the path-and-fruit so that the best we can aspire to is rebirth in the time of Metteya. This idea may have some resemblance to the Messiahs and Mahdis of the theists but again we should note the differences; Metteya is not seen as the final culmination of history; he is one Buddha in an infinite series. Nor has his expected appearance ever appeared imminent or caused millenarian movements as we have seen time and again in Christianity and Islam. Judaism has been a bit more restrained in this regard, but there is the strange case of Sabbatai Levi.

Admittedly, there are at least three or four pretenders currently claiming to be Maitreya, but that's really a New Age thing and none of them are taken seriously by any Buddhists.

As a last note, I recently heard a joke poking gentle fun at those Buddhists who put all their aspirations in the future Buddha. Q. What is the first question people will ask Metteya when he comes? A.- The next Buddha, what's his name?

The Wheel-Turning Monarch Most of you will probably be familiar with the story that the infant Siddhattha was destined to be either a Buddha or a Wheel-Turning Monarch. There is also the Cakkavatti sutta referenced above which details the myth of the Wheel-Turner. He is a great and wise world-ruler who arises at long intervals to usher in an age of righteousness. He conquers the whole world without shedding blood and has a number of magical signs associated with him; most notably, the appearance of an eight-spoked wheel in the sky over his palace. This wheel travels with him and awes rival kings to submit to his authority.

The scholar S.J. Tambiah has made a study of how this mythology has under lain the monarchies of S.E. Asia, both as ideal and as rationale. (See World Conqueror and World Renouncer) This concept was also critical for understanding the Ashokan Empire.

The Age of Decline Finally, one aspect of Buddhist prophecy very central to all these narratives is that this current time is an age of slow but inexorable decline. At the time of the arising of a Buddha, there is a brief Golden Age when many beings with excellent karma are reborn at once. Many of these attain Nibbana in the first generation and are removed from the world. Those who are almost as refined may take a few more lifetimes, but by the time we get to a period long after the Buddha, all that are left are sorry specimens like ourselves. Lifespans, morality, wisdom, all decline steadily until everything bottoms out in a dark period when humans will revert to an animal existence with a lifespan of ten years. According to one traditional reckoning we are about half-way down the slope already.

This myth is in direct contrast to the western myth of progress. This isn't as popular, perhaps, as it was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but still has its adherents. Personally, I don't find the myth of progress very convincing. The twentieth was the worst century ever; at least the first half. The twenty-first is sure off to a rough start also.

I know someone will object that lifetimes are actually getting longer, but are they? You sometimes hear that people in pre-modern times had a life expectancy of thirty or forty. This leads many writers to assume that old people were very rare, but this isn't supported from contemporary accounts. What seems to have been the reality is that infant mortality was very high; highest in the early industrial period actually. If you factor out infant deaths, people two or three hundred years ago probably lived at least as long as we do.

We really have no way of accurately knowing what lifespans were like in ancient times. There are many passing references in the Pali Canon which would lead one to believe that one hundred was considered the normal human life expectancy at the time. Certainly, in morality and wisdom, we are no better than the ancients, and probably a damn sight worse.