Halloween went past and we hardly noticed a thing. I was expecting all the costumes and stuff – in fact I was expecting my robes to be mistaken for one! But no, just silent.
As, incidentally, were the mid-term elections. Surprisingly little to be seen in terms of posters and public visual presence. There’s TV ads, I caught in the background while eating one day. Groomed, fake smiles, manicured confidence selling sincerity and insultingly simplistic messages. But in our hotel restaurant, the TVs on election day were showing football…
But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s Wednesday, and Chandra’s piloting our RV across the Louisiana bayous. Not literally, right, I mean we’re on a freeway. But I’ve missed a bit of blogging so, being historically minded, I’ll hop back to Atlanta for now.
Day 2 of the AAR we started off with a Yogacara panel in the morning. The papers were okay, I guess, but nothing really exciting. The main tendency that emerged was the agreement that Yogacara, far from being the idealistic philosophy that it is usually depicted as, is for the most part a highly Abhidhammic project. Equally important is that we do not assess Yogacara as a coherent school, but in terms of the particular authors and their texts.
Later in the day we went for a panel on the psychology of religious violence, which focussed on James Jones’ “Blood that Cries out from the Earth”. I found this panel also underwhelming. For me it was dominated by theory, and I learned little of the actual topic. I was reminded of a comment in an earlier panel. Rita Gross was praised because she always used theory to illuminate the facts, not using the facts to support a theory. Well, this wasn’t that.
Religious violence, especially suicide bombings and the like (and, BTW, why don’t we call them “murder bombings?) are a distinctive and troubling modern phenomenon. The religious dimension has a special property of inflating or magnifying. When we invoke “god” or “nibbana” or whatever, our world gets bigger. Things are larger than life. They “bulge” like, well, like so many things in the US – people, cars, fonts. It’s a bulging country.
The bulge of religion is supposed to make life better. It’s supposed to bring meaning. And so it does, often enough; but not all meaning is good meaning. Mohammed Atta felt that flying a plane into the WTC was very meaningful.
The panelists used Atta’s last letter as an, admittedly slender, insight into his mind. They suggested that he had a longing for a father; not so much the distant or stern Father of childhood, but a very vaguely pictured father that was remembered as an imprint or echo in the infant’s dawning consciousness of his mother. Atta, apparently, had a close relationship with his mother.
One of the audience, William Harman, spoke about his recent research in Sri Lanka. He had been conducting research among the families of the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) female suicide bombers. The LTTE has the highest proportion of female suicide bombers. It must have been a horrific experience for the families, who had no idea their daughter or sister was contemplating such a thing. One intriguing fact he discovered was that some weeks before these events, around 3/4s of these girls started worshipping the Tamil Hindu goddess. Mariamman.
She is a popular deity of disease and fertility, not unlike many other Indian goddesses. But she has a peculiar myth. She was, according to many different variants, wronged by a male family member, and ultimately grew into such a fury that she literally exploded, annihilating all around her.
We are sophisticated enough that we assume there must be a symbolic meaning to this; but clearly some take it quite literally. It is not clear whether the worship of Mariamman preceded or followed the idea to become a suicide bomber. But either way, it is a sobering reminder of the power of religion for evil.
It is also a reminder that as religious people, we have to accept responsibility for the negative aspects of religious texts. And not just for the symbolic reading that we might prefer, but for literal and/or destructive readings as well.
If I, as a religious teacher, say that the entire Tipitaka is the words of the Buddha, then people will take that seriously. If they then say, “The Buddha said that women are like black snakes”, then I must accept some responsibility for that.
Enough for now, we’ve arrived at Baton Rouge and have to turn our attention to more exciting things, like finding a place to stay and get an oil change.