A lot has been happening since I met culinary experts Professor Pushpesh Pant and Chef Nishant Choubey at the Tasting India Symposium in Delhi last December 2017. At that time, Chef Nishant was curating food experiences at the elegant aero-city Roseate House.
Soon after, Chef teamed up with the Professor to go full-speed on a mission redefine what Indian cuisine means to the world! A mission inspired by Tasting India’s Indian Food Manifesto. Globally, Indian cuisine suffers from pretty much the same fate as Chinese cuisine. The extraordinary subtlety and diversity of Indian cuisine is often lost in globally standardized dishes. Chicken Tikka Masala might make good business and comforting takeaway food for a Brit like me, but too often this kind of fare just ends up confining the image of Indian cuisine to an inexpensive, greasy afterthought.
The term curry was adopted by the British East India Company, from the Tamil word Kari, meaning sauce. The menus at most Indian restaurants in the UK are usually an extremely simplified version of Mughlai/ Moghul cuisine, which is just one type of north Indian food. That cuisine is again reduced to two or three rich sauces and types of stews. These flavours do not begin to represent Moghul cuisine, let alone the rich heritage of the Indian continent. Dr. Pant calls this phenomenon ‘The curse of curry!” This is not to dismiss all the food of the Indian diaspora, but the world has so much more to experience when it comes to ‘Indian cuisine.’
Chef Nishant and Professor Pushpesh Pant shopping for fresh produce in Delhi.
The Holy Grail: nurturing a nations food heritage.
“There is an urgent need to document the dishes of the Indian continent before they disappear forever,” says the Professor.
Already so much has been forgotten. Even the diversity of ingredients is slowly disappearing as people move away from an agricultural way of life and food is increasingly mass-produced for supermarkets. India’s socio-economic landscape is also taking its toll. In the past, cooks were often servants, and recipes were handed down orally, with subtle variations from household to household, let alone region to region.
Food is the strongest expression of our humanity. In Europe, food is recognised as the guardian of a nation brand’s identity and a main driver of the economy. A huge emphasis has been being placed on protecting, sharing and communicating food heritage in France, Spain, and Italy, for example, so that the plethora of industries connected to food can thrive, both for export and also as attraction.
Food museums are also starting to appear, to try and help to preserve global and local food heritage in archives. Restaurants and chefs, inspired by the likes of El Bulli and Noma, are researching locality to explore the meaning of food for future generations. Food heritage has become synonymous with quality as well as quality of life. The European Union has schemes to protect and distinguish traditional regional specialties, such as the protected designation of origin (PDO), Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), and Traditional Specialties Guaranteed (TSG) certifications.
To consider what is happening to centuries of knowledge and rich culture of war-torn countries such as Iraq and Syria is heart-breaking. The loss is hard to fathom. Food heritage runs so much deeper than the recipes you find in restaurants. It’s in people’s homes and hearts. Food provides the earliest knowledge of locality, interconnectivity and sustainability, that enabled our ancestors to thrive and trade internationally. It includes site-specific knowledge about wildlife, plants and animals and the methods of food production and resources that enabled farming villages to appear. These farming communities were by nature ‘integrated ecovillages': communities that grew diverse crops and grains, tended to cattle and orchards, made their own crafts and textiles, and supplied local networks of breweries, artisans, markets, hotels and inns.
Food heritage is a dynamic spectrum that gently evolves and changes form over changing geographies and landscapes. But it is a story that is continuous and connects us all and refuses to be contained within national boundaries.
Ladies from the village of Machkali, Uttrakhand, cooking at Vrikshalaya centre. www.foundnature.org
Currently, the Chef and the Professor are curating food experiences for an upcoming festival in Delhi hosted by the Asian Heritage Foundation in association with World Bank. One of the meals curates a selection of dishes that were loved by the great Mahatma Gandhi, to commemorate his 150th Birthday.
The meals that the great Mahatma Gandhi loved.
“It really is time the world learns that there is so much more to Indian food than Mugalia cuisine!” says the Professor! “India is a vast continent with ingredients and dishes and techniques as diverse as the people, cultures and languages from which they originate!”
One of the first pop-up events the Professor and Chef did this year was at the famous Indus restaurant in Bangkok. Indus has been in service since 2006 and making waves with fashionable international crowd since winning its place in the Michelin guide. Indus is one of the few restaurants to introduce quality Indian cusine to the west via fine dining. Inviting the Professor and Chef to curate a menu outside the known Moghul dishes was a statement in itself. A provocation, perhaps, and a gateway invitation to Michelin to go and experience India?
At Indus: Kadala Byas Minu, or Kombdicha motla, representing Mangalore. The fish is marinated with kokum, a plant in the mangosteen family.
Chef Nishant explains: “The concept of our popup menus and events is to make the world aware of the diversity of India’s culinary heritage, whilst encouraging chefs to learn about all these forgotten stories and adapt and innovate with them.”
Chef and Professor curated a meal for Indus which they called: Past, Present and Future; 10 courses inspired by 10 regions. Each course told a special story about the history of the region it represented, and a special ingredient that is at risk of being forgotten. In contrast to the impeccable meal at Mrs. Radha Bhatia’s Roseate Farm last December this meal was not pure vegetarian – but contained seafood, meat and poultry.
Nomads on a mission.
The Chef and Professor continue to travel India researching traditional recipes and ‘lost gems’. They travel to a region, follow locally known food trails looking for local superfoods, they forage in forests and meet food producers and talk to local people about food celebrated in folklore. Most recently, they have focussed on the hill state of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, as well as Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Orissa.
Professor Pushpesh Pant talking to young chefs at Indus, Bangkok.
“We work together like conjoined Siamese Twins!” says the Professor. They have two more members in their core team; Zuber Baigh helps them with archival documentation and media, and Govind Singh Kirola is in charge of the ethno-botanical and cultural anthropological research. The Professor and Chef travel together following the leads of the researchers who support their fieldwork with ongoing research.
“Our dream project is to set up a culinary institute specializing in Indian vegetarian cuisines,” says Chef Nishant.
The Professor concludes. “And for India we wish three things; That there should plenty for everyone to eat, with freedom of choice to eat what one wishes to eat. This is a matter of distribution. We have plenty.
Secondly, food should be healthy and free from all artificial flavors, colorings, preservatives, and synthetic additives of any kind.
And lastly, the food on our plates should be produced with dignity for everyone involved, relating organically to the people and places who produce it.”
Dr. Pushpesh Pant – email@example.com
Chef Nishant- firstname.lastname@example.org
Text by Tanya Kim Grassley
How I first met Chef at the Roseate Hotel, Aerocity: I have never had such a delicious Tarka Daal, and to this day I do not understand what Chef did to elevate such a simple and well-known vegetarian dish! We soon got talking, about food of course.
In ten days time, our friend Tenzin Shenyen will embark on a 3-year Tibetan Buddhist retreat in Germany that “begins a cycle of practices to stabilise, concentrate and open the mind through more meditative practices that… include practices aimed at transcending one’s deeply ingrained delusional tendency to see oneself and the world as ordinary.”
Q: It’s been 3 years since you gave a talk at Service Design Conference in Stockholm. It was wonderful to see the whole conference meditating with you. It palpably changed the energy in the room. I especially appreciated your advice for design professionals to ‘Just Say No!’ more often. I think that advice is more important than ever. Can you expand on that a bit?
A: As I said in one of my posts about the approaching retreat, I think human beings are machines for producing works of art, and that the best works of art are nameless and invisible. Saying “no” to what is visible and which already has a name is one way into that space. I also re-read Castaneda’s Journey To Ixtlan recently and was touched by how deeply I still resonated with it. There’s a lot of ‘no’ saying in it, from ‘erasing personal history’ to ‘losing self-importance’, to ‘becoming inaccessible’ and ‘disrupting the routines of life’. The genuinely ‘new’ comes out of nowhere – and I mean absolutely nowhere, a brutally total nowhere- but we are too eager to be ‘somewhere’, no matter how shabby and derivative that ‘somewhere’ might be.
I hope at least one designer out there reads this and decides to say ‘no’ to the whole works — until reappearing twelve years later with something with no name and no identity that the whole world needs.
“Saying goodbye to house sits and temporary rooms, to the forest and one-litre bottle-showers at twilight, to the over-exposure of homelessness. Saying hello to deep seclusion and practice. The worlds we inhabit are neither visible nor invisible, but secretive, coded, nuanced and blessed. Saying goodbye also to Facebook, and hoping something more nuanced, respectful and soulful has taken its place by the time I come out again. I’ll meet you there, I’m sure.”
Q: What impact does your Buddhist practice have on your daily life today? How does Buddhism work as a practical guideline for daily decision making? How can this shape a layman’s decision-making to live an ethical life as an ‘ordinary’ person?
A: My daily life is perfumed by Buddhism. It allows me to see everything I do as a kind of prayer. For example, right now I’m watching the world cup. It’s football and I love it, it needs no justification. My unconscious is working tremendously hard preparing for the retreat, so Shenyen is balancing that by just relaxing. I don’t need to justify it. Justifications are for people who are organising pogroms, or asset-stripping entire national infrastructures, etc. not for people who are … content just being nobody, nowhere, just talking with The Invisibles, just owning one pair of shoes … or just watching Argentina’s slalom into the knockout stage while reading Jorge Valdano reflecting on the military dictatorship of the 1970’s, along with his plea to stop treating football as a science; it all turns it all into a kind of dream yoga. And dream yoga is part of the path to Buddhahood. You cannot live an ethical life without nurturing your imagination.
Elaine Scarry’s talk, Beauty as a call to justice, will explain that in detail. I re-posted it on my youtube channel. Ultimately no-one can tell you how to live, they can only seduce you into living in a specific way. Ethics thus emerges from Eros, from loving relationships — with yourself, people around you, your own karmic history, and the culture around you and the times you have been born into.
Q: You spoke once about the importance of combining Buddhist practice with your own ‘culture’ or your natural place in contemporary society as a western monk. Will you still have space for that kind of ‘personal cultural research/ observation’ on your 3-year retreat? Can you watch football when you are there?! Can you read Artforum? Can you write your blog, radioshenyen?
A: Football? Probably not! But in between the meditation blocks, that will usually last about 6-8 weeks per topic, we are encouraged to relax, maybe even listen to a little music. And I will have my Artforum scrapbooks with me. Enough for one exhibition a week I think! But I don’t see too much separation between the centuries-old tantric stuff and my personal interests. Doing the retreat in all its traditional structure is also a part of my ‘personal cultural research’.
“Study, a mixture of chaos and silence, concentration and fragment.”
Q: How much meditation do you recommend to a layperson or beginner? Is frequency important for practice? Are there other types of activities such as physical work (making things, cleaning, gardening, etc.) that are also seen as part of Buddhist practice? In Asia, meditation isn’t seen as something that ‘ordinary people’ do. Lay people often ask the monks to meditate and pray on their behalf.
A: Meditation is extremely over-emphasised in contemporary Western presentations of Buddhism. Ethics, study, art, service, offering, confession, purification, prayer, chanting, and vows, among other things, are all sidelined, or dismissed as ‘obvious’, ‘old-fashioned’, ‘embarrassing’ or ‘peripheral’. But Buddhism only really comes alive when you take on board it’s entire culture, it’s ‘world’ while being willing to do the work of engaging that world with your own. Thus, my love of contemporary art is inseparable from my study of Madhyamaka and tantric meditations. My best moments of mindfulness occur when on alms round. You can’t just meditate in a vacuum, in a fog of mundane activity and thinking.
But nevertheless, it is part of the path.
I would recommend a very short commitment — 10 minutes a day is fine — to being quiet, still, disciplined and visionary on one’s cushion. But instead of wanting to meditate I would suggest that people simply pray to be able to meditate, and then relax. Thinking about what other people need — the immediate needs of the people around you right now, at home or on the train platform — is so much more powerful than some half-hearted meditation practice.
Genuine meditation comes out of uncontrived faith. Faith arises out of joy and ethics. Ethics from art and empathetic disciplined imagination.
Q: We need to manage negative attachments to the idea of future, such as fear or sadness or anxiety, as these feelings arise, to avoid shutting down altogether. Is hope also an attachment?
A: Attachment is one of those words that are easy to misconstrue. In Buddhism, liking something isn’t an expression of attachment; wanting something good to continue, or to happen if it hasn’t yet happened, isn’t attachment. Attachment is defined as a state where ‘you are willing to do something bad in order for something to continue (or begin)’. So ‘hope’ in itself isn’t attachment. Love isn’t attachment, not even fierce love. Whereas cowardice would be.
Q: What is your favourite festival or holiday? What practices in your life have changed significantly since becoming ordained?
A: I like New Year’s celebrations. Awareness of time cycles is a lovely thing and transcends specific religions and worldviews. And the atom bomb memorial day in Hiroshima is also high on my list of ‘things which make the heart beat faster’ – if that’s what you mean by ‘festival’.
Ordination, by providing an absolutely fundamental challenge to my sense of identity, in both challenging (demanding, humbling) and transformative (blessed) ways, has helped me to explore more deeply the teachings on non-self as a meditative state.
Q: How important is it to be altruistic?
A: It is impossible to become a Buddha without practising altruism. And never mind Buddhahood, it is impossible to keep enjoying positive samsaric rebirths without practising altruism. All art comes from altruism.
I was on transit from Copenhagen to Stockholm. We shuffled towards the gate, slowly forming a queue. There was a friendly-looking couple in front of me, and we quickly started chatting. They were still absorbing all the many impressions and experiences that come from long-distance travel, from their trip to Sri Lanka. I was on my way back from India. We were longing to get home, but we also had mixed feelings about leaving.
That’s how I met Ingrid and her husband.
You can get to learn a lot about people in a short conversation. And those at the gates of random airports always seem to be especially economical in that way, especially poignant and memorable.
Ingrid told me that she is a 59-year-old mother of 4 children. A grandmother. She spent her whole life bringing up her children and working full-time. She loves everything do with nature. She had a pony once, and enjoyed taking care of her pony a lot.
Tommy had worked abroad before he met Ingrid, and had lived in Sri Lanka for a year. He got to know about the charity SOS Barn when he was there, and the great work they do at their children’s villages all over the world.
When Ingrid started to talk about SOS Barn, her eyes welled up.
“I’ve never donated to any other organization before I met Tommy. But he had seen with his own eyes how well the organisation works. I only send 250 SEK per child per month, and that makes such a difference. 250 SEK- for us it’s nothing really. I wish more people would donate,” she said.
“I just want every child to have the same start in life. Every child should have food, and clothes and go to school. Every child should be loved,” Ingrid explained.
When Ingrid’s youngest child finally moved away from home, Ingrid decided to sponsor another child. The children are orphans or have parents who can’t take care them.
Ingrid and Tommy decided to see the children’s village where the two children she was sponsoring live.
“Everything there was beyond my expectations. We spent about 2 hours at each school. It was wonderful. The children were happy and so curious about us. They tried to speak English with us. We met the two kids we sponsored, and they were so proud to have visitors from abroad.”
Each SOS village is made up of small houses where about 8-10 children live. Every house has a housewife who takes care of the children and everything in the house. For 250 SEK a month, a child gets to have a home and an education.
“The trip affected me a lot. I want to sponsor a third child now. SOS Barn has recently opened a new orphanage in northern Sri Lanka. An area that was very hard hit during the civil war that only ended in 2010,” she explained.
The conversation at the gate left an impression on me too.
And her parting words: “I want to tell everyone that just a small contribution every month can do wonders for a child.”
For a few weeks I followed the efforts of two independent volunteers Joanna Ågren and Jonny Bradford, in Lesbos and Athens in Greece, whilst helping to put up their rough notes into the blog Together2016 that documents their personal experiences on the ground.
Joanna and Jonny have really proved that a few determined people can make a massive difference to so many. They have helped move 48 people out of refugee camps and into apartments to begin a new life. For every social media post, their informal network raised up to 20,000 SEK (2000 euro) that went directly to buy provisions for refugees, mostly via the mobile app Swish in Sweden. They went on to help set up a camp and provide classes for the kids. They achieved more than even they thought possible, with the help of refugee volunteers, other volunteers, people back home and local Greek citizens.
See the Facebook page in Swedish, and the blog, in English. Their testimony shows how much of the help in Greece actually came from independent volunteers – private individuals mobilising themselves, without any formal help.
Joanna and Jonny took it upon themselves to go to Greece, not knowing exactly what they could do to help until they arrived and met other volunteers on the ground -including the refugees who were working together to help the people on the camps survive in desperate conditions. In addition, the response of the local Greek population was very moving. People cleaned out spare rooms to house refugees and get families off the unofficial camps.
The few official refugee camps were also not humane places, they were not equipped, and most refugees could not get in or out. They were lacking in food, supplies, amenities, not to mention medical care. They were heavily policed and fenced in, so many of the refugees feared being imprisoned indefinitely in those camps. The impression on media was very different. Everything seemed ‘under control’.
While governments in Europe spend extraordinary amounts erecting fences along their national boundaries, not one government penny was spent to help the refugees flee war-torn Syria and Iraq. Not one penny on food and supplies in Idomeni or the shores of Lesbos. Even worse, our governments’ response has been to add to the challenges the refugees face, blocking them from applying for asylum- which, until very recently, was deemed to be a very basic universal human right. In addition, larger organisations have had to cut through a great deal of redtape to get on the ground to help people. In the meantime, private volunteers headed down to Greece to help.
The blanket decision to demote and declassify all non-Syrian and Iraqi nationals to “migrant” status (as opposed to refugee) also blatantly ignored all the international humanitarian laws and mandates that have been set up since the second world war. This is not only a ‘refugee’ crisis, but a crisis of neglect, an ethical crisis.
A few weeks later, Iranians went on hunger strike in Calais after French riot police, armed with tear gas and bulldozers, cleared away a makeshift refugee camp known as ‘The Jungle.’ The French police destroyed a section of temporary shelters, leaving about 3,500 refugees and other unauthorized immigrants scattered and homeless. Ironically, the French authorities described this action as a humanitarian effort.
The inability of the international community to work together to respond rationally, with problem-solving solutions and long-term planning, only increased the crisis incrementally by the day. And so the help comes from individuals like Jonny and Joanna and their private networks. Joanna reports: The official hotspot camps set up by the military are full to bursting, and around 40 percent of the refugees Joanna and Jonny are seeing in the camps in Greece (official and unofficial) are children under the age of 12.
There is a blog post about one family’s journey from Syria, written by a refugee, Mohammed Abdi, who helped Joanna and Jonny translate at the Idomeni camp. May his testimony serve to dispel any doubt anyone might have about the urgency of this humanitarian crisis. All oiur governments should adhere to the1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights that upholdsaccess to asylum as an incontestable human right. In 1951, the UN refugee convention was created, providing the legal basis for signatory countries to offer asylum to refugees arriving on their soil. Blocking them from arriving is not a solution.
As long as I can remember, I have been drawing. As soon as I could hold a pencil I started scribbling. Those scribbles turned into drawings of my friends, my family, their houses, their cars and other people I saw on the street. It was a way of navigating the world that existed around me. It was my way of labeling things. Drawing was part of my language process, like any child. It helped me categorize the world- and therefore understand it.
I drew a lot of family portraits. People gave me confirmation through those. I got more confidence because they loved my drawings and slowly I started to draw things that I wished to see. A world of my own imagining. A boat with wheels or a man with 8 legs. They were kind of dreams, an imaginary life.
Drawing was also a way to express my moods and feelings and like most kids I used crayons and “wax pastels”. There drawings that were a kind of abstract expressionism. So far it is the story any child might have with drawing. But it was at school that drawing started to have a particular significance to me. Although I was verbally articulate, I soon realised that I wasn’t like the other kids. My imaginary world was visual- not verbal.
I started to have a very hard time in school. I couldn’t keep up with the class work and worse than that, didn’t understand the point of the exercises. Why couldn’t I carry on imagining the world? Why wasn’t I allowed to draw all the time?
It turned out that I am heavily dyslexic. But in those days, the schools and teachers didn’t have the tools or knowledge to diagnose kids like myself. And because my problems were not recognized or diagnosed at school, my situation just became worse. Drawing was my only refuge- my only way of communicating with the outside world and getting some positive feedback from my teachers and peers.
Drawing became my very own language.
The other kids loved it and I was more popular because of it. It helped me compensate for my verbal and written expression – or lack of it. But one day, when I illustrated my thoughts with drawings in a Finnish language test my teacher yelled at me again and everyone laughed at me. On Monday my drawings were great, on Tuesday they got me into trouble. It was a very confusing time.
Somehow I managed to finish school. My drawings meant that I could go to higher education – it got me into university and it was probably the greatest way for me to learn during my university time. I used drawing to make mental notes. It was the most important single media to learn, document, plan and illustrate all the design and architecture I was learning about. Once again I was allowed to dream.
As a student I traveled to important locations, sites and buildings in Rome, Siena, and Venice to make drawings. Once I sat all day in Siena’s main square until late in the evening. Drawing allowed movement, but it also enabled stillness. It let me observe life I wouldn’t normally have seen. I drew all the buildings around the square. I realized that drawing a building or site is one of the best ways to learn architecture.
During the drawing process you learn every detail, you learn about proportions and shadows, and even the daily changes of the architecture in a profound way. It was through drawing that I realized that architecture is not static, but inherently connected to the time and space of its surroundings.
Only later I understood the importance of life drawing. Even if it was difficult and painful to draw the human body, it was a way for me to learn about layers of structure, from what is seen to what is unseen. From the skin right through to the bones. The breathing living movement that is part of every stillness. Light and shadow. What I learned from life drawing I have also taken with me into my furniture design- it has been translated quite clearly into an understanding of the body’s relationship to furniture- and architecture. Ergonomics, use and pose. The emotion of space.
I have always been fascinated by technical drawings. To me they are like abstract modern art. Technical drawing tells me more about something than a photo or realistic sketch. Technical drawings reveal secrets and mysteries: How things are made, how things work. In the end, technical drawings are the final documents we do in my office. They are my work, and my tools to talk with other people about design. They describe my projects more than words ever could.
And my drawings go on teaching me, more than I could imagine. It’s not as if I have an idea and then I draw it. Drawing is a reiterative process, where the drawing itself takes on a life of its own and tells me the questions that need to be answered. Anyone who draws understands this. You can’t ‘choose’ what you draw unless it is already justified. Already correct. The designs in my studio are always based on technical drawings- they are the last defining work done in the whole design process. Drawing from an early age enabled me to develop a process naturally that enables me to ask all the right questions at the right time, again and again until the solution is just right.
When I am drawing today, there are many reasons depending on the time: maybe I am studying a technical detail, maybe I am trying to understand “what if” – or maybe I am trying to find out why something is good. Maybe I am just thinking aloud. I always make several sketches to communicate and discuss ideas with my people in my studio.
When I am bored: I draw, it’s a friend who can be with me no matter where I am. I entertain myself by dreaming about possible products and spaces for a future that is better than one we know today.
I look back at the old masters: my heroes before me- Alvar Aalto and Eero Saarinen. I look at their drawings and am in conversation with them. In Alvar Aalto’s drawings you can see several scales sketched in a one single piece of paper simultaneously: From a detail of a door handle to the site-plan to the perspective of a house. In a way this represents his holistic view on design. Just one drawing holds all that knowledge.
I meet my heroes in books and discuss design and architecture with them through every line and gesture.
I am still fascinated about the vast variety of problems that Eero Saarinen could try and solve in a one single drawing: I saw a plan of a skyscraper and a evaluation matrix of candidates for his possible future wife in one drawing. For me this represents his opportunistic view on architecture- and how he also used drawing as a thinking process- to think about the future. To dream the future. The drawings are serious, poetic, light and artistic. They are about something that could be or something might not be for centuries.
So when you ask me to explain the importance of drawing, I should in fact, draw for you. Because drawing is not only a strong part of my work and who I am. It is more than that – it has enabled me to be myself, in a complex world ruled by words.
“What we do or don’t do in the next years will decide whether we survive as a species,” said David Suzuki to a sold-out crowd of 1,600 student and staff at John Abbott College in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, U.S.
The lecture was streamed live on the Internet to almost 14,000 students watching at schools in the Lester B. Pearson School Board.
Here is his powerful message from his address to the Occupy movement at Vancouver Oct, 22/11: The Party of the baby-boomers is over. Development needs to be based on needs, not wants. We need to live within the boundaries and borders of nature, not politics: Capitalism, economy, politics are not a forces of nature, we invented them. If they don’t work, we need to change them. What is our home and how do we live in it sustainably? Ecology is study of home, and economics, its management.
He goes on to use Sweden as an example of a growing economy cutting its carbon emissions.
Interesting article in the Guardian about choice and marketing. And a great quote from Professor Tim Jackson, the author of Prosperity Without Growth: “We buy things we don’t need with money we haven’t got to make impressions that don’t last on people we don’t care about.”It has quickly become a well-known phrase, but in his book, he describes how the never-ending spiral of over-consumption has led us into never-ending spiral of debt and cultural decay in Western society. And moreover, how “We do not have investment structures, investment markets, investment conditions that are suitable to lay down the infrastructure to allow people to make better choices.”
It’s proven that consumers who are faced with too much choice, make no choice at all. In fact, the biggest luxury of our age is to be totally relieved from the stress of choice making; stores that sell one thing, set breakfasts and tasting menus, Japanese spa style retreats where your time is scheduled for you, without internet access, and you are told what to wear. What could be a better remedy to the stresses of modern day life?
I’m reading another complex and beautiful Richard Powers novel, ‘Galatea 2.2′. In it, a writer is assisting a cognitive neurologist who is trying to model the human brain by means of computer-based neural networks. The writer’s job is to talk to the computer, to ‘educate’ it, in order to construct in its memory that endlessly sweet web of connections which makes for a ‘world’ and from which we humans speak, so that one day the computer may be able to comprehend human language and talk back. Its a virtually impossible task (and one mirrored in similar conversations – semi-impossible or beautifully present – taking place in the worlds of the people around him: an autistic boy, an old woman slipping into dementia, first lovers in a foreign country, a deeply loved professor sinking into death with unbounded dignity) because what makes us human is an infinite yet particularised mosaic of little somethings and nothings, inexpressibly weighted, the somethings balanced against the nothings. Balanced in ways that defy gravity.
Here’s a slice of the ticker-tape sweetness of that computer’s education, the mimicking of the endless immeasurable context that is consciousness:
“…We told her about parking tickets and two-for-one sales. About tuning forks and pitchforks and forked tongues and the road not taken. We told her about resistors and capacitors, baiters-and-switchers, alternating current, alternate lifestyles, very-large-scale integration and the failure of education to save society from itself.
We told her about wool and linen and damask. We told her about finches and feeders, bats and banyans, sonar and semafores and trail markers made of anything the living body might shed. About mites and motes, insect galls and insecticides, about mating for life or for a fraction of a minute.
We taught her about the Securities and Exchange Commission. We told her about collectors who specialize in Depression-era glass. About how people used to teach their children about the big hand and the little hand. About defecation and respiration and circulation. About Post-it notes. Registered trademarks and draft resistance. The Oscar and Grammy and Emmy. Dying of heart disease. Divining with a fresh-cut alder rod.
We told her how the keys on a piano were laid out. About letterhead. Debutantes balls… We showed her the difference between triforium and clerestory. We traced the famous pilgrims’ routes through time and space. We told her about spoilage and refrigeration. How salt was once worth its weight in gold. How spice fueled the whole tragic engine of human expansion. How plastic wrap solved one of civilisation’s nightmares and started another.
We showed her Detroit, savaged by short-term economics. We showed her Sarajevo in 1911. Dresden and London in 1937. Atlanta in 1860. Baghdad. Tokyo, Cairo, Johannesburg, Calcutta, Los Angeles. Just before, and just after.
We told her about revenge and forgiveness and contrition. We told her about retail outlets and sales tax, about ennui, about a world where you hear about everything yet where nothing happens to you. Bar-codes and baldness. Lint, lintels, lentils, Lent. The hope, blame, perversion and crippled persistence of liberal humanism. Grace and disgrace and second chances. Suicide. Euthanasia. First love. Love at first sight.”
And somehow, mixed in with all this and perhaps precisely because of it, I’ve just discovered the social networking site Twitter, a site where communications are limited to two lines of text. An ‘idiotic’ site, or so i thought. But when such limitation is taken up by the right person – such as the MIT researcher and ‘futuremaker’ John Maeda – it becomes a free-floating source of temporary context, some kind of innocent high-speed mesh of intelligence and simplicity.
Here’s a slice of the ticker-tape sweetness coming from Maeda:
The art of asking questions, is art.
Subtlety is a kind of dust in the room of life that shouldn’t be confused with just dirt.
The computer is now an abacus of many minds.
Time doesn’t fly. It travels leisurely by foot.
“If you can think, you can draw.”
Herbert Simon likened how we think to a pair of scissors. The brain is one blade, the other is the environment in which the brain operates
The sound of your heart isn’t a sound effect.
Watching waves break is non-stressful because you know you can look away at any time … and won’t miss a thing.
Art is the inexplicable urge to manifest feeling, intent, or question as a specific experience outside the artist’s mind.
Teaching is the rare profession where the customer isn’t always right and needs to be told so appropriately.
small is not only beautiful, but memorable.
and here’s something flagged by William Gibson about an hour ago, ‘tokyo sky drive’.
watching this, I know I’m never going to make it back to any monastery…
“When spring came, when every crow announced its arrival by raising his cry half a tone, I took the green train of the Yamanote line and got off at Tokyo station, near the central post office. Even if the street was empty I waited at the red light—Japanese style—so as to leave space for the spirits of the broken cars. Even if I was expecting no letter I stopped at the general delivery window, for one must honor the spirits of torn up letters, and at the airmail counter to salute the spirits of unmailed letters. I took the measure of the unbearable vanity of the West, that has never ceased to privilege being over non-being, what is spoken to what is left unsaid.”
(from Chris Marker’s film, Sunless)
She is standing two steps beside me. We are re-characterising the world. We are tracking the transformation of beauty into exact science. Or so i like to think. But then she does something like this:
I wake up each morning to find busy bees in the L.A. night leaving gems like that in my twitter box. Its like what that one square metre of space next to the front door – where the mail would land – used to be before the white envelope culture took it over.
I live alone – everyone does, one way or another – but the walls of my castle are broad: bands of strangers stroll the battlements or camp out overnight in ten minute segments, wrapped in shawls of golden languages and unique, precise worldviews. More super-barrio than superhighway, it is a new kind of talking and listening, raggedy, discontinuous and a kind of heaven, where the mind can feel distributed yet focussed. I’m happy here..
As a Buddhist monk I no longer use the word ‘battle’, and if I still have a fondness for reading the Art Of War its only to better appreciate the strategies of up and coming artists as they edge their way in from the periphery, from tiny gallery to magazine reviews to mid-career museum retrospective, or FIFA’s breathtakingly semi-conscious attempt to reposition the world cup as a kind of secular kalachakra.
Did you know there are kids – I mean here in our American-European cities – who have never heard of Bugs Bunny or the Soviet Union? (In 20 years we’ll be able to add ‘universities, newspapers, national anthems’.) Their world is changing so fast. Those plastic toys they play with which you think of simply as dinosaurs, they’re actually Winicottian transitional objects representing the whole of culture up to 1992.
We drive ourselves to exhaustion trying to be productive and ‘a little bit famous’ while our 9 year old kids shuffle dreamily around the house, productively playful and famously anonymous. Their one-sock-on-one-sock-off world is awesome in its simplicity, and so new it doesn’t even have a name. But yes: “ordinary is no place to be…”
I think what the web is secretly saying is ‘forget about fame: its just an electronic slum, a leftover from the pre-1980s world of 4-channel tv, soon to be replaced by towerblock forests of web-feeds and URLs.’ Watching the X Factor show highlights just before xmas I couldn’t help thinking of the helicopter evacuation of the US embassy in Saigon in 1974… Its the end of a world, not the start of one; a nostalgia for fame. “And when all the celebrations are over it remains only to pick up all the ornaments – all the accessories of the celebration – and by burning them, make a celebration.” (‘Sunless’)
A typical night of immersion: I read essays on the mathematician Godel while listening to music from Sweden and Santa Fe (the Swedish music brought to my attention via a secondary review from a reviewer of a book on Godel, creating a beautiful strange loop), wander through the last few years’ work of www.raqsmediacollective.net, watch old Russian folk-tale animations and electronic art pieces on Youtube, see a thought-provoking photo on www.designforhaiti.com
… set up a list of future feeds into my Twitter site that extends into the next two months. They will be released at the times given for each tweet, down to the very day-month-year-hour-minute – if i wanted i could make it look like radioshenyen is the monk who never sleeps!
… friends in London take actionmonk photos according to specifications and post them to me in minutes (check ’em out on www.yfrog.com / radioshenyen) while someone who lives half an hour away phones to arrange a meditation sitting for tomorrow. But it takes me forty minutes to walk to the garbage drop-point and back. high-speed super-slow.
I’m working slowly through hours of good responses by 168 ‘smart ‘uns’ interviewed by Edge magazine (www.edge.org) about ‘how the internet is changing the way we think’
I’ve saved the best till last: I watch this video over and over – about the 1982 Brazil world cup team – 5 minutes of immaculate editing and awesome beauty (no, seriously..) made to honour the passing of team manager Tele Santana when he died in 2006. Even the incidental details in this video would have made a medieval painter proud. Check out the Scottish (?) goalie walking back towards his goal like someone in the corner of a Breughal painting.
The video is a measure of what ‘sacredness’ should mean, regardless of – and way beyond – the fabricated limitations we place on the term. And i know of no western buddhist practitioners – individuals or organisations – who get anywhere near exuding this level of beauty in their sense of who they are and what they are doing. Including of course myself. And you will have to decide for yourself just how serious I am when I suggest that one shouldn’t even consider oneself as having a spiritual life if one isn’t asking the painful question ‘why aren’t I as beautiful as this video?’
And maybe that’s what this essay is all about: ‘how the internet is changing the way we think about the sacred’…