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Monday, February 20, 2012

A world of becoming

A wonderful postlude to a most intriguing book which I will be reading over and over carefully, A World of Becoming, by William E Connolly. This is how I would describe the world, at least as I've lived it so far. This is consonant with what I've experienced through my coterminous practice of Buddhism and cultural research. Read the full postlude here.

Do you know what the world is to me?

A colossus of diverse energies, without beginning or end, with each flowing over, through, and around others, generating new currents and eddies.

A play of waves, forces, and perceptions on different scales of complexity, endurance, and time, with some swelling as others subside, with perhaps long cycles of repetition, but none that simply repeats those preceding.


Many strive and connect to others in such a world, seeking to amplify existential gratitude for the world as they comprehend it. 

Others resent either this world or the different account of if it they embrace. 

That is the world to me. And you, my friend and rival? 

What is it to you? 

Source: Improginarium

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Time to pat ourselves on the back re: Burma's move towards democratic 'equality' and 'freedom'?

Needless to say, being a Buddhist who traces a certain line of practice to Burmese Buddhist lineages, I'm especially sympathetic to the political situation in Burma (I'm not calling it Myanmar because the decision to use this name is not of the people). In recent news, we're reading about how Burma is finally appearing to be opening up and moving towards a mode of public life and political discourse that we in the liberal West call 'democracy', a sociopolitical arrangement that is predicated on the notion of 'equality'. Various activists and grassroot movements in the West have been campaigning for this shift in Burma for some time, often evoking the most admirable Aung San Suu Kyi as a poster girl for our democratic chest-thumping. Note: I have utmost respect for Daw Suu Kyi (see this nice video I posted in my other blog). She used her time under house arrest as an extended spiritual retreat, and when asked about how she spent her time all those years, she said something to the effect of, 'There wasn't enough time in a day'—this, to me, is true tough mofo-ness! :)

Anyway, now that such developments are taking place in Burma, it offers an opportunity to reflect upon what we in the so-called liberal West have taken for granted as democratic freedom and equality, and particularly, to reflect on how our liberal Western states admit and enter into a relationship with other states deemed to have met (or are on the way to meet) these standards of 'democracy'. Surveying different news reports, most of them make the same observation as this one from Al-Jazeera, Is Myanmar the new Asian Tiger?'

In parallel, the European Union (EU) has lifted a travel ban on senior Myanmar officials. The Myanmar delegation was virtually mobbed at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos. Imagine rows of European CEOs salivating to the tune of Rail Transport Deputy Minister U Lwin saying: "Like Norway and Sweden, we have access to two seas and have fishing potential."  
Talk about a lot of fish to fry; the global mandarins of turbo-capitalism in crisis are falling over themselves with all that gold, gas, oil, teak, jade, uranium, coal, zinc, copper, precious gems, loads of hydropower and - crucially - cheap labour, all there for the taking.

This may not be exactly a letter of recommendation - considering the ignominious past record - but still the IMF, after a two-week trip, declared Myanmar as the "next economic frontier in Asia".... 
Yet for all the hoopla around President Thein Sein's "economic reforms" and the usual suspect companion rhetoric of  "untapped markets" and "wide interest from foreign investors", this is still an ultra-hardcore military dictatorship. 

To draw a lateral connection with what I'm researching, consider the following quote from an interview by Talal Asad, whose work in questioning the political doctrine of secularism in the liberal West has shed light on how various processes to secure ideological and political dominance under the name of 'liberalism'—unjust processes of exclusion, demonization, and minoritization—have been obscured by a rigid secular/religious distinction (I'll try to post about his ideas soon):

There has been much discussion recently of the fact that Islam is antithetical to liberal democracy and all it entails (equality, individualism, human rights, pluralism, tolerance and so on). How would you respond to this claim? 
This is connected to the previous question. If you think of Islam and the Islamic tradition as fixed, as having a certain kind of unchangeable essence, then it might well be argued that Islam is antithetical to liberal democracy: what is modern is not really Islamic and what is Islamic cannot really be modern. So it's a Catch-22 situation that many critics insist on putting Muslims into. 
Of course there are people who are trying to rethink the Islamic tradition in ways that would make it compatible with liberal democracy. But I am much more interested in the fact that the Islamic tradition ought to lead us to question many of the liberal categories themselves. Rather than saying, “Well yes we can also be like you,” why not ask what the liberal categories themselves mean, and what they have represented historically? The question of individualism, for example, is fraught with all sorts of problems, as people who have looked carefully at the tradition of individualism in the West know very well. The same is true of the question of equality. We know that the equality that is offered in liberal democracies is a purely legal equality, not economic equality. And the two forms of equality can't be kept in water-tight compartments. Even political equality doesn't necessarily give equal opportunity to all citizens to engage in or contribute to the formulation of policy. What do Islamic ideas about the individual, equality, etc., tell us about Western liberal ideas? 

Even though the discussion here centres on Islam, the key point I'm trying to make (as I've highlighted above) is the need to question Western liberal assumptions about 'equality'. Extrapolating from the above, we could also ask in relation to Burma given that it has a Buddhist culture: 

What do Buddhist ideas about the individual, equality, etc, tell us about Western liberal ideas? 

Edit: decided to embed the video mentioned above here; it's a nice tune.