Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Modern Day Jim Crow

The recent noxious immigration law in Arizona highlights many of the problems of the immigration debate. The measure, as has been the case for measures like it, will not serve to reduce crime or improve living conditions in Arizona. It will simply serve to further marginalize undocumented workers, making it even easier for coyotes and unethical companies to exploit them.

Further, by requiring ALL immigrants to carry around their papers, it strikes an eerily similar tone to precursors to violence in other countries which have marked certain populations as dangerous and attempted to create a parallel system for their treatment. Police are emboldened to stop anyone perceived as being an undocumented immigrant and demanding to see their paperwork. As you can imagine, there are clear racial and ethical undertones in such a law.

A more sane and just approach to immigration is needed, and the Obama administration must be pushed into taking the lead. It is a positive development that the Justice Department has promised to be vigilant as this law begins to be enforced over the next few months.

Anyone interested in the causes of this controversy and workable solutions would be advised to check out one or all of the following:
"They Take Our Jobs!" and 20 Other Myths About Immigration by Aviva Chomsky
Ex-Mex: From Migrants to Immigrants by Jorge Caste├▒eda
The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the U.S./Mexico Border by David Bacon

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Personal Is Spiritual (Buddhism: A Series, Part 3)

To this day, I don't call myself a Buddhist. My lack of acceptance of such labels was reinforced by Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening by Stephen Batchelor. A former Buddhist monk and now lay Buddhist teacher, Batchelor explores issues of Buddhism from, what he terms, a Western perspective.

Through the book I came to identify Buddhism as a religion, but Dharmic practice (living the teachings of the Middle Way -- a name the Buddha gave his teachings) as an existential approach to life. This approach appealed to me for a variety of reasons. Batchelor's emphasis on a non-denominational Buddhist practice was something I found engaging. At this time I was also beginning to get a better understanding of the sociology, geography, and history of early Buddhism and its denominations. I was also learning more about early Islam and its interactions with Buddhism (a great book on the history of Islam is Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamin Ansary).

The different denominations of Buddhism were not terribly familiar to me. I had a vague understanding of regional differences in practice from the hilarious and surprisingly informative The Savvy Convert's Guide to Choosing a Religion (with such selling points on the cover as "Most Approved by God!" and "Get the Best Faith for Your Buck").

Batchelor's iconoclasm (which I would later understand the controversy of) really appealed to me. By putting some of the more arcane and obscure aspects of Buddhism in a historical context, and then treating them with a sort of reverent agnosticism, Batchelor found a way to embrace Buddhism without feeling tied to pieces he found questionable.

However, at this point I was beginning to feel like I was coming to have a more individual understanding of some of the concepts discussed. Some of the same ideas that hung up Batchelor were also hanging me up, particularly things like Karma and Rebirth. However, having a very cursory understanding of Buddhism, I approached much of Buddhism more as an intellectual exercise and sociological project than something overly personal.

This would begin to change as I allowed myself to be more open and honest about my skepticism and where it came from. That topic and The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh will be the focus of my next entry.

Monday, April 5, 2010

An Oddly Familiar Perspective (Buddhism: A Series, Part 2)

After moving to Washington D.C., my interest in Buddhism was put on the shelf. Upon arrival we had about 6 weeks to find jobs and a place to live. As can be expected, engaging with Buddhism wasn't top on my list of concerns. It was a stressful but happy six weeks. Sending off resumes, attending interviews, and looking for apartments took up most of our time. My father was in D.C. for six weeks for work and so we were able to stay with them. This made for some tight quarters at their 1 bedroom extended-stay hotel.

Things finally began to come together in mid-October. I got a job and we found an apartment that we really liked. One of the many perks of the building we chose is that it is next door to a library branch. After settling in we began to make more regular use of this wonderful service. Glancing through the Buddhism books one afternoon, many seemed more doctrinal and archaic than I was interested in.

I picked up one book, pretty much by random, called No Death, No Fear by Thich Nhat Hanh. Glancing through the introduction, the book seemed more like a discussion of existential philosophy as a coping mechanism. I was interested by the way he reduces complex Buddhist principles into ways of approaching grief. The approach he took seemed novel, the book was written to be appropriate for someone currently going through grief, but was even more appropriate for someone who wasn't (in that the lessons in the book are best to know before you are struck with grief). I think this dual purpose made the book much more approachable than it would have been otherwise. The book spoke broadly about loss, the fear of loss, and how these things cause us to suffer. I would greatly come to appreciate these ideas in a year or so, with the passing of my grandmother.

As an introduction to some of the more fundamental aspects of Buddhism, I found it really engaging. The two main points emphasized interconnectedness and impermanence. His approach never belied the complex doctrinal debates that underscore and support both of these fundamental ideas. I would later come to appreciate just how deeply these ideas run in Buddhist thought.

Most important from No Death, No Fear was that it sparked my interest in reading more books on Buddhism and beginning to unpack some of the more complex aspects. Many of the ideas expressed in the book aligned well with ideas that I had come across on existentialism and even secular humanism. The thing that was outstanding to me was that the book discussed these ideas not as a religious or necessarily spiritual practice, but more as a way to approach life. While Nhat Hanh discussed the benefits of quiet contemplation, it never seemed to be the only way to approach our fears of mortality, sickness, and change.

Around this same time, Kayla sent me a book on Buddhism that she thought would fit my style. It was called Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening by Stephen Batchelor. This engaging book will be the focus of my next post.