This really stings

The Scripps National Spelling Bee is upon us and I am truly hating the self-flagellation among 1st generation Indian Americans in the form of laughing at the fact that South Asian kids dominate the winners list.  It’s claimed that what is tested in the Bee is a “completely useless skill” and that Indian parents (unlike other parents) pressure their children into competing.

I do point out that white kids also participate and have won many, only to be told that “white kids do it out of their own interest” while Indian kids are “forced by their parents against their wishes”.  I can’t see how this is not a prejudiced statement.  I didn’t cartoon anything. What’s in the quotes above was actually said.  With such supporting evidence as the fact that in the documentary Spellbound (2002), some Indian children are shown starting the day at 4 am to study for the Bee (with parental support, of course). 

Further assertions are that Indian parents in the US do this just for competition amongst themselves.  So that they can say to each other “my kid is the champ”, similar to the Tiger Mom trope for East Asians. And…somehow this doesn’t happen among white people?  

I see the media in general routinely admire the kids who win the Bee each year.  Only Indian immigrants are ashamed of it.

Some facts to recall:

Have you ever seen the amount of energy some white parents put into their kids’ sports? And the competitive yelling from the sidelines at kids’ games?  This is unmatched by Asian parents.  My point being – this is s

Speaking of useless skills – aren’t there films, even documentaries about the crazy competitive parents who put their kids through a lot for them to compete in children’s beauty pageants?  I am countered with the fact that this is only some white parents.  Whereas all South Asian parents are crazy about the spelling bee (except for those few enlightened ones who “get it”)???

As to the criticism of the Bee “robbing children of their childhoods”, all winners of the Scripps Bee before 1997 were white.  No criticism at that time. Most of the winners since 1998 are South Asians and the criticism starts. Even now, those very same people, when told of the black children who won in 1998 and 2021, celebrate this fact.  Then why the scorn and myth-making only for South Asian children?

As to the criticism for this being a “useless skill” – how useful are fencing, horse riding and water polo in the contemporary world – excellence in each of these is considered for college admission and white parents routinely arrange for their kids to excel in?  I don’t buy the “health and fitness” argument, because that can be had in much cheaper ways.

If the meaning of “useless” is simply that it’s not going to get you college admission, that is probably true.  Consider the skills that Asian kids can excel in – that is, things that Asian parents can help their kids with [math, SAT scores, chess, classical music, Spelling Bee]  vs what elite white parents (and yes, I am talking specifically about things that poor white people don’t have, just the elite) can help their kids with  [some elite sports like the ones mentioned above, public speaking and selling skills in the manner that is traditionally American, certain arts]. The college admissions process is continuously in the process of devaluing excellence in the first group of activities.  Why, is anyone’s guess, but I shall refer you to the reason that elite US universities changed their admissions criteria in the 1920s away from just academic excellence for some hints.

Further, notice there is a big movement in the public discourse to devalue academic excellence for college admissions and attack the parents who tried to get their kids to excel scholastically.  Remember these arguments are all for the purpose of justifying aforementioned college admissions – I just ask Asian Americans to recognize these arguments for what they are… and not to buy these stories and embark on self-loathing. 

The rise of the extremist intellectual in India

People like Sai Deepak are scary.  He’s got the intensity of one who’s trying to arouse anger and hate in his audience, through invoking a sense of grievance, sounding so reasonable in the process.  Further it’s the humorless intensity that you can see in culture warriors (think Tucker Carlson/Tomi Lahren/Robert Reich/DeSantis for US equivalents). He’s the kind of intellectual that those who don’t think too much but fancy themselves to be intellectuals can easily fall for.  

He’s also twisting facts and using wrong logic to make his appeals in that very video.  The entire caste discussion there is a red herring.

Finally, it’s ridiculous to use Christian faith healing jokers to make any point about scammy conversions (as if there aren’t thousands of fraud babas who are nominally Hindus preying on the less fortunate and less educated).  To the extent these “charismatic” sects poach members from outside, they do so from all religions, including other Christians.  Most Christians in Kerala family members who ditched their ancestral Christian communities to go hang out with these evangelizing crazies.  

Deepak  starts out by saying that there is caste division among Muslims and Christians too, which is true.  This is not news to anyone except those who have never bothered to interact closely with Muslims and Christians (perhaps that’s nobody in his audience?). Then claims immediately that there is a unified Christian/Muslim community that sets aside this caste feeling unlike in the case of the Hindus who looked down on the “lower professions”.  There is NOTHING in the audience woman’s experience that suggests that the plumber, electrician, mason etc were bound by a larger religious identity. They were likely all from a single caste, perhaps going also to the same church (which also tends to be greatly caste segregated).  And Christians do, in fact, cling to these caste identities quite strongly, not transcending them. Read here: including this example “a Christian Nadar would enter into a marital alliance with a Hindu Nadar but never with a Christian of another caste and that they would dine with their Hindu brethren but never with a person of their own faith who was beneath them in the social scale.”

The argument that “look at those other guys, they are doing it better.  We need to be more like them” using some tricks.  Note how he talks about the Muslim/Christian “communities” and the Hindu “sampradaya”.  Who has ever heard sampradaya used this way? There are hindu sampradayas, never once has the word been used in the singular to refer to some Hindu Ummah. This is a new introduction in the fundie project to use Sanskrit-sounding words to describe their favored themes and foreign language words to describe others. Eg. Rahul Gandhi is a “shahzada”, not a “rajkumar”. 

Likewise, I suspect that the real message of this lecture is not really about caste at all, but just that “we Hindus should stick together” – other than small sloganeering, he isn’t talking about the ills of caste at all, but mainly how it stands in the way of Hindus being more powerful as a unified block, which he claims at these points in the argument other “communities” are.

What is sadder than the presence of these manipulative  hateful intellectuals is to see the large number of highly educated and smart Indians easily buying these messages.  Increasing numbers of Hindus (self identified) are embracing these messages, expressing concern about the “unfair advantages” given to all religions [note that this would have meant that the majority of the levers of power would be held by non-Hindus today.  In fact, the move was in the opposite direction].  It is positively Trumpian for so many of the elite to start believing they are the aggrieved class, just as increasing numbers of white people in America believe they are being oppressed.  Do they understand the side effects of the “India is for the Hindus” line of thought? If true Indianness comes from being a Hindu and it gets codified into law, what is the lot of those who are not Hindus? Are Christians and Muslims simply to be expelled from the country? Or worse things than that? What is the solution to the “Christian problem”? Of course, an ordinary middle class Hindu professional really doesn’t have to worry about this.  Whether to choose a secular or fundamentalist standpoint is an intellectual exercise for them.  For Muslims and Christians, though, it is an existential question! The average Hindutvavaadi follower need so think about and answer this question – what is to become of the Christians and Muslims in India in the endgame?

Why do liberal places want me to…hold it in?

Why is it that the most liberal towns and cities are the ones where it is hardest for me to find a bathroom?  Aren’t they the places that profess the most compassion? Many will say “Restroom are for customers only/No public restrooms”.  Some will have “restrooms out of order” signs permanently (clearly a lie since the employees do use something). Some even have no sign there is a restroom at all and if you ask them, they’ll even tell a customer, “Sorry, we don’t have public restrooms”.  Restaurants where you have paid are an exception.

This is very different from most other towns in America where I can walk up to pretty much any place and find a restroom.

You know who I am grateful towards in this regard? Walmart, Starbucks, McDonald’s, Burger King, Albertson’s – these will always let me use a restroom.   In addition, Walmart has made a commitment for decades now that if someone wants to park a car in their parking lot overnight and sleep there, they will not prevent that.  I have taken them up on that once when there were no motel rooms available one night during a long road trip and the hotel rooms were way too expensive for me and the Mrs.  We slept in our car at a Walmart lot in Paso Robles…and used their bathroom in the morning.

By quite a coincidence, these very companies are targets of liberals for vilification.  What’s the deal? What do liberals have against me peeing?

Hinduism as a foil

Ever notice how Hinduism/Indian culture is brought up in American Buddhist circles in the context of Buddhism and India only while discussing some aspect of Buddhist belief that is not readily digestible or palatable to a mindset with “Western” cultural baggage?

For example, rebirth concepts, the presence of spirits like tree spirits, guardian spirits and anything else that feels uncomfortable can be addressed like this: “You see, the Buddha used this language because that was the culture of that time in India and he wanted them to be able to understand the teaching” . 

Has it occurred to minds that the Buddha himself could have held those beliefs?  He was himself a product of that culture. He wasn’t born in the Yankee Stadium, you know?

On the other hand, concepts of karma, nirvana as well as practices of generosity, such as dāna supporting spiritual seekers of any tradition and more generally, a long-standing commitment/respect from society at large toward spiritual seekers – these are all practices of that time and place as well and very important in Buddhism.  You don’t hear appreciation of India or the Hindu context.

Meanwhile, all ideas that we love about Buddhism are described by terms such as “so logical” or “compatible with Western/modern science” (though they too might be identical to Hindu beliefs/practices)

Not that in liberal Buddhist circles, there isn’t the standard bashing of “our culture” (America bad, Western culture bad) vs the “spiritual East”.  I’m just talking about the invocation of Hinduism in particular, not “Eastern Spirituality” or “Eastern culture”.

You can also hear other comments born of people’s cultural baggage.  For example, those of Christian backgrounds might say things like “Buddhism was a reformed version of Hinduism in the same way that Christianity was born out of a reformation of Judaism”.  The  implication here is that Hinduism and Judaism are the flawed primitive versions.   These aren’t people who care for Christianity at all (they’re rejected their “religion of birth”), but the feeling of “mine” regarding Christianity is strong while they’re happy to throw Judaism also under the bus. 

Those of Jewish background – you never hear them say this.  Instead, they talk about the many similarities between Buddhism and Judaism.

This image is typical. I don’t know the author but see how the description of Hinduism is negative – shallow, all about caste and rituals and as a “religion” while Buddhism is a “way of life” focused on ethics and philosophy.

Where’s Asia?/Expanding Europe

You can find the GDP of countries and continents and famous groups of countries on the World Bank’s (WB) website.   Examples of groups are the Arab world, the EU, South Asia.

But you cannot find the GDP of Europe there or the GDP of Asia there.  There is one of the European Union, but we know that not all countries in Europe are in the EU.  There is South Asia, there is East Asia & the Pacific and there is South Asia.  

In nominal dollars, Asia is already 37% of the world’s GDP (in PPP terms, it’s more than 50%).  

What about Europe? 

The EU is at only 18%.  I have included the EEA (European Economic Area) and also the UK to arrive at 22%.  Adding non-EEA countries and all of Russia into the mix, we get 25%. But you would never know from the World Bank’s site.  I did the math by collecting the countries in Europe and adding them up

You can’t find a Europe bloc at the WB site. Instead, you find a category called “Europe and Central Asia”.  I don’t know the rationale for considering Iceland and Tajikistan together. They are not really united by culture, religion or as a trade bloc.  Unless…you went about finding the collection of countries of white skin color.  But why is the World Bank choosing that as an aggregation criterion?

Asia, on the other hand…

Asia is a familiar concept to all.  There is some question about whether Russia lies in Europe or Asia, with the Urals generally considered the boundary.  The boundary between Asia and Africa is generally considered to be the Sinai peninsula (or Suez canal) in Egypt.  So you could presumably, add up the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, East Asia and South East Asia. to find the total for Asia.  But that’s simply not possible because the Middle East is lumped with “Middle East and North Africa” (as if Iran, Israel and Morocco are in the same region – well, they are about the same if you have the European gaze, I guess. ).  East Asia is lumped with “East Asia and Pacific” which includes New Zealand and Australia.  And Central Asia is lumped with “Europe and Central Asia”.  There is no separate ASEAN.

Where is Asia?

Where is the concept of Asia from this kind of map, with which children around the world get familiar by middle school? Not finding it, I had to again add it all up by individual countries (giving up all of Russia to Europe) to find that it has 37.1% of the world’s GDP.  

I can’t help suspecting…

Europe was for a couple of centuries, the top economic power of the world, containing the bulk of the world’s GDP.  For all of history before that, that status belonged to Asia.  For a while, while under the colonial yoke of Europe, Asia’s GDP was indeed much smaller.  The rule of thumb at the turn of the century was Europe ⅓ of the world’s GDP, the US has ⅓ and the remaining world has the last third.  This is not true anymore.

As Europe is in decline, one way to avoid acknowledging the fact that it is slipping in prominence is simply to refuse to report these numbers, instead engaging in fancy footwork such as the ones above.  Eventually, all white-enough countries can be declared European so that “and Central Asia” will not be a required adjustment at all.

That leaves one thinking and wondering about why the World Bank (an American dominated institution, unlike the European-dominated IMF) wants to think along these lines.

Other notes:

You can find the GDP of North America, but not South America.  It’s “Latin America and the Carribean”.  North America has 3 countries – US, Canada and Bermuda!!! Again, it’s somehow broken down by some white American view of what constitutes a region, not any data. For example, Mexico and Peru are nowhere in an enumeration of each other’s top trading partners, which are the US, China, Japan, Korea etc.

Here is the final table from my additions

Continent/Region% of 2020 GDP (84.7 trillion USD)
North America26.7%
Latin America5.7%
Australia & NZ1.9%
Total accounted for99.1%

Note: I’d started composing this post long before the Russia-Ukraine conflict broke out, so not prompted by that, but more on that one later.

Spirituality is distinct from the sense world

While this seems obvious, I have repeatedly come to the realization, each time with a small shock, that this is not so in the minds of many people.  For example, consider retreats on some spiritual practice.  People go there, spend a week or two doing something like movement exercises, eating delicious (and usually organic) food, hearing gentle music playing, resting well and otherwise engaging in self care.  Overall, it is hoped, they don’t think about their usual worries of the outside world.  And people are pretty sure about what’s not included – alcohol, social media activity and so on because those are obvious red flags that the whole world understands as “not spiritual”. Other “mind altering substances” though, can sometimes be included in certain of these putative spiritual endeavors.

Great stuff. But…all of the items I included above are about the body and the senses.  And so they seem to contradict the name “spiritual”.  Further, you’ll hear people say things like “There is a beautiful garden and a pond on the property…quite suited for meditation” or “Too much noise from the street outside the window of the place where I’m staying …really bad for meditation”. This kind of sentiment stems from the view that meditation has something to do with silence and a beautiful view – both are objects of the senses. 

I was recently in a small lake town, known as a spiritual center in a not-so-wealthy country.  The view is incredible.  People from all over the world show up for spiritual retreats.  These programs can be expensive.  They include meditation/yoga, massage, splendid food, music and dance thrown in and in many cases, also social activities thrown in.  Some centers do astrology, crystal healing and whatnot.  Many of the lower level employees are the local people of the village.  They serve food, clean etc and make their livelihood at these programs.   It is not surprising that they cannot afford any of the programs, which cost a lot in terms of multiples of their pay, though not much from the perspective of the tourists’ countries.  I have no criticism of the fact that some of these new-age things don’t make sense to me.   It’s quite usual for a spiritual path to be incomprehensible to others.  Rather, I note two things that are easy for me to comprehend.  

One is what I mentioned earlier – a lot of what happens in the retreats is to address the senses – hotel resorts and cruise ships are only a little different – so why are these things such a big component of the offering of these purportedly “spiritual” places. Another reason to suspect that this isn’t really spirituality is that despite living in the midst of all this and being employed in this for decades, the local indigenous population is not persuaded to follow any of this.  They mostly follow some form of Christianity brought to them by missionaries in the past or combine it with the practice of their ancestors.   How can hundreds of thousands of people from the US and Europe be convinced that something is a spiritual exercise while not a single local person seems persuaded enough to take it up – is the claim that they are simply unable to comprehend the deep spirituality? Is the expense a valid explanation? – how spiritual can something be if there is an income/wealth level that you need for practicing it?  I prefer the simpler explanation that these aren’t spiritual retreats at all and that they are merely corporeal, material and mundane experiences mislabelled.

Want to reform Asian Sanghas? Support your own

I have thought long and hard about it and have not been able to understand why people in America and Europe are insistent (often angrily) that the Thai Sangha or some other Asian Sangha needs to change and promote equality of women in the religious context as it limiting women in corresponding spiritual circles in America/Europe.  They have some choice words for the traditional Asian societies and their supposed gender discrimination (please note that what you see in the religious context is hardly representative of the rights of women in these societies at large – look closely at Myanmar, for example).

I am not for one moment thinking that it’s a bad idea or in any way support unequal treatment in any context.  Just…why not set up our own Sanghas in our own countries to be as we like? 

So why can’t this be done in America or anywhere else?  Any monk who wants to support bhikkhuni ordination can do so if their monastery can still be supported by enough local people.  Any bhikkhuni group can form a monastery if they can be supported by local people. Asian religious organizations that receive support from Asian people or mother temples in Asian societies have to behave in a manner that concords with what the people of those societies hold in high regard.  

Ajahn Brahm’s famous example is useful to ponder.  In relation to the Bhikkhuni ordination incident, for going against the rules of the Ajahn Chah tradition, he was expelled from that tradition.  But please note that he is still a Buddhist monk!  And he is widely respected and supported by the people. 

But such ordination and community created in America would not have validity, you say. To which, I say validity comes from the faith of followers.  Would you say that a pastor of the protestant church is not valid or that an Imam is not valid? It is true that from the perspective of the Catholic church, the entire world of protestants is not “valid”. But that’s not how protestants see it, is it? Or consider the example of the Greek orthodox priest who shouted “heretic!” at the Pope on his visit to Greece.  A meaningful statement in his own bubble, but hardly meaningful in the Catholic world.  All validity for a religious figure comes from the respect and regard of some lay people.  So the question is – are there enough people in America/Europe willing to provide sufficient support to a Bhikkhuni Sangha or to monks who support such a Sangha? If there are, there will be such groups and if there aren’t. 

I contend that the roadblock is more the lack of sufficient generosity and commitment in our society than the intransigence of another society.  Mary Talbot of Tricycle summarizes that part quite neatly in this little paragraph from her article in the references below.

We may lack the ingrained, centuries-old cultural habit of supporting monastics, but nevertheless we need to put our money, and our hearts, where our mouths are. Plenty of us have jumped on the bhikkhuni ordination bandwagon, but the attentive generosity required to support a monastic community—support in perpetuity—is not yet keeping pace with our feminist, and humanist, enthusiasm.

As for those who claim they are agitating from the rights of Asian women … Asian women can take care of it themselves without your help, thank you. It may be news to some people that more Bhikkhuni ordination attempts happened in significant numbers by demand from Asian women, with the support of Asian male monastics before such events made their way to the Europe-descended world.

Am I oversimplifying the matter? Yes, I am, but only a little.  I think it’s being overly complicated by those who express frustration with the Thai or Tibetan “central command”.  If you think there is some example or argument about a local Sangha in America having ample local support from gender-equalists but not being able to operate in that way, please do leave that in the comments below.

Interesting references:

The bearers of gifts and good tidings

Without spiritual practice, and even with considerable amounts of it, we all prefer feeling pleasant sensations and not unpleasant sensations and correspondingly, pleasant news over unpleasant news. However, there is also a preference for being the bearer of pleasant news and not that of the unpleasant.  

This is less about pleasing one’s own five senses, but more about the sixth one (the mind), related to views about oneself, related to the constant quest to manipulate other minds to view oneself in a certain way.

Consider this example – We might know of someone in our family or organization who loves to jump ahead and be the first to hand out the goodies, the resources – be the one that delivers the good news etc, announce a promotion.  The same person often hates to have the difficult conversation, ask the children to behave, bring news about layoffs in the company, send a fundraising email.

But also consider the broad example in the political field.  The Left is known for its agenda – give out more benefits, even if it means raising taxes. The Right is known for its own agenda – lower taxes, even it means having to cut benefits. Now, everyone likes more benefits for themselves and everyone likes lower taxes on themselves.  The difference in the two parties is just in which one they prioritize (and are willing to sacrifice the other). What is interesting is that it seems that when each party is in power, they are far more willing to give out goodies than do the unpleasant part. The Left is quick to announce (and implement) various spending measures – that tends to be their headline legislative achievement, but really drags its feet on raising taxes. The Right, on the other hand, bangs the drums about various tax cuts they quickly deliver and those are their flagship achievements. Cutting programs, if any, is done quietly*.

The thing is – this stuff doesn’t add up.  Giving out the goodies (whichever one is preferred by either party) without the corresponding sacrifice leads to deficits.  Both parties decry deficits, but they do so only when they are in the opposition (minority). When they have control of the government, they are too busy with goodie handouts and you would never hear a word about deficits.

They have two political solutions to that: One is to insist that the other side should be carrying out my agenda (the unpleasant part of it) when they are in power.  Listen carefully and you’ll hear the Left cry while in minority about the yawning deficit and the cliff that is coming unless the ruling Right raises taxes.  Likewise, the Right wants the ruling Left to cut benefits to make up for the benefits. This is most commonly seen with the Federal government asking the states of the opposite party to carry out the stinky part of the agenda.

The second political solution is more easily observed: It is to sell these ideas to the people by dividing them – most frequently on lines of racial identity, but here I will talk about economic identity.  The Left’s sales pitch is “We will give you the benefits, but will not raise taxes on you.  Instead, we’ll raise taxes on that section over there, the (evil) Rich. Vote for us”.  The Right’s sales pitch, on the other hand, is, “We will lower your taxes, but don’t worry, the benefits cuts will not affect you. Instead, we will cut benefits on that group over there, the (lazy) Poor. Vote for us.

‘* – Only talking about the more moderate elements here. The extremes are more than happy to ignore the deficit entirely, have their goodies and gladly sacrifice the other leg (because the sacrifice will fall entirely on people who are outside of their own extreme base – people who they never had a chance with – landing a punch on them is no problem. If anything, a source of pride).

From a cartoonist

I got this from a post in the Black Buddhist Society’s Facebook page. Nobody in the group knew who had created it, so I cannot credit the artist. But I do want to post it here because it fits within the themes covered in other posts on this blog. I have also removed the title that was above the image.

“Western” Buddhism’s insistence on political orientation is not new

This blog is not the first one to note that proclaiming that liberal politics is a natural consequence of Buddhadharma can only come from ignoring the presence of Asian Buddhist groups in America.

Here is an article from September 2008, just before the presidential election of that year, in Tricycle magazine. The article, which I’m assuming is an editorial since no author is named, started by noting how there is near unanimity in the “Western” Buddhist community and publications that the Democractic ticket is the one that aligns with Buddhadharma. The article notes that there are a number of registered Republicans Buddhists and that many of them are Asian-Americans.

One can only believe that Buddhists are naturally aligned with liberalism if no time has been spent among Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, Chinese, or other Asian-Americans…..At the same time, we have to be careful about stereotyping Asian-American Buddhism, a diverse phenomenon that also includes many Democrats and other liberals.

The article then goes on to talk about how the liberal position of convert Buddhists (their term, not mine) is perhaps not derived from the Dharma, but from their own origins.

When we look at the wider picture, the chorus of convert Buddhist support for liberals looks less like a religious position, and more like a class and ethnicity one.  Most convert Buddhists already supported a liberal political orientation before they became involved with Buddhism, and convert Buddhism draws heavily from a section of the educated, white, middle-to-upper class demographic that supports liberal candidates regardless of whether the individual believers are Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or agnostic.  Naturally such people are attracted to elements of Buddhism that seem to resonate with liberal values, but it is worth asking how much of this is an inherent liberal bias within Buddhism, and how much is the process of picking and choosing which selects only compatible parts of Buddhism and leaves aside other, central practices and views that are less supportive of liberal positions.

There is a brief discussion of the silencing of any other position in the convert Buddhist community:

Even within this demographic of convert Buddhism, there is reason to think that there are significant numbers of right-wing Buddhists who largely remain quiet about their views, perhaps from a feeling that they are actively silenced by the strident voices of their left-wing fellow practitioners…This should suggest that Republican convert Buddhists, a sizable minority, either do not have equal access to media to express their views, or feel intimidated into not making such expressions.  The lack of a reasonable argument for Republican Buddhism, therefore, may not be because there is no such argument, but because liberal Buddhists create an environment wherein such sentiments are difficult to express. 

Voting Buddhist, September 2008, Tricycle Magazine

The article closes with an appeal to try and bridge the gap rather than widening it in this North American Buddhist community already divided along lines of ethnicity and approach to practice. I can’t help noticing the mention of the fact (unnecessary to the argument) that the author’s own vote went to the Democratic candidate, pre-empting the aforementioned brickbats from flying as they certainly would if there is reason to doubt that the author might have voted otherwise.