Washing of dishes requires great peace of mind

From Thicht Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness:

In the United States, I have a close friend name Jim Forest. When I first met him eight years ago, he was working with the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Last winter, Jim came to visit. I usually wash the dishes after we’ve finished the evening meal, before sitting down an d drinking tea with everyone also. One night, Jim asked if he might do the dishes. I said, “Go ahead, but if you wash the dishes you must know the way to wash them.” Jim replied, “Come on, you think I don’t know how to wash the dishes?” I answered, “There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.” Jim was delighted and said, “I choose the second way – to wash the dishes to wash the dishes.From then on, Jim knew how to wash the dishes. I transferred the “responsibility” to him for an entire week.

If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either…. Thus, we are sucked away into the future – and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.”

Directly preceding this:

While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance, that might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There’s no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves.

Criticism for everyone

From Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

At present we’re snowed under with an irrational expansion of blind data-gathering in the sciences because there’s no rational format for an understanding of scientific creativity. At present we are also snowed under with a lot of stylishness in the arts—thin art—because there’s very little assimilation or extension into underlying form. We have artists with no scientific knowledge and scientists with no artistic knowledge and both with no spiritual sense of gravity at all, and the result is not just bad, it is ghastly.

The following precedes the former, but if I put it in order the people who care about technology will stop reading when they hit romance (you know who you are!) and vice versa (same!) and the people who can grok both won’t care either way (yeah!):

In the past our common universe of reason has been in the process of escaping, rejecting the romantic, irrational world of prehistoric man. It’s been necessary since before the time of Socrates to reject the passions, the emotions, in order to free the rational mind for an understanding of nature’s order which was as yet unknown. Now it’s time to further an understanding of nature’s order by reassimilating those passions which were originally fled from. The passions, the emotions, the affective domain of man’s consciousness are a part of nature’s order too. The central part.

The time for a real unification of art and technology is really long overdue.

So go make something lovely (that’s for the people who can grok both; the rest of you are grousing).

Ethical flexibility for export

I greatly enjoy this leap of ethics in my spam folder over the weekend:


My name is David Smith, I am a Project Coordinator with UNICEF’s Office of Emergency Programs (EMOPS) we are the focal point for emergency Assistance, humanitarian policies, staff security and support to UNICEF Offices in the field, as well as strategic coordination with external Humanitarian partners both within and outside the United Nations system. It is indeed with great optimism that I am writing you because I had to ensure that whoever I would contact in regards to this transaction must be someone I can trust.

Last year, series of donations amounting to US$5.8M (Five Million Eight Hundred Thousand Dollars) were made to our organization. These donations were later earmarked for developmental projects in two West African countries. The problem is when funds are released for these sort of projects especially In Africa, they are most often misused or in some cases believe it or not, embezzled by corrupt government officials there.

This practice has gone on for so long and not very much has been done about it and I have always been made to understand that my work is based on humanitarian grounds and I have done this work to the best of my ability but there is very little to show for it for somebody in my position.

As a result, I have painstakingly decided to divert some of these funds as a retirement benefit because even if this money is released, it will still be stolen by officials in Africa anyway.

This is why I am contacting you, because I need your acceptance and co-operation in allowing these funds to be transferred to you as the Sub-contractor of these projects in Africa.

At least he goes on to offer a 50/50 split.

He thinks I'm working on parts. I'm working on concepts.

The following quote is from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. (The John mentioned is the protagonist’s buddy who wants to escape modern technological life via a motorcycle he deigns to tune-up):

Precision instruments are designed to achieve an idea, dimensional precision, whose perfection is impossible. There is no perfectly shaped part of the motorcycle and never will be, but when you come as close as these instruments take you, remarkable things happen, and you go flying across the countryside under a power that would be called magic if it were not so completely rational in every way. It’s the understanding of this rational intellectual idea that’s fundamental. John looks at the motorcycle and he sees steel in various shapesand has negative feelings about these steel shapes and turns off the whole thing. I look at the shapes of the steel now and I see ideas. He thinks I’m working on parts. I’m working on concepts.

I was talking about these concepts yesterday when I said that a motorcycle can be divided according to its components and according to its functions. When I said that suddenly I created a set of boxes with the following arrangement:

And when I said the components may be subdivided into a power assembly and a running assembly, suddenly appear some more little boxes:

And you see that every time I made a further division, up came more boxes based on these divisions until I had a huge pyramid of boxes. Finally you see that while I was splitting the cycle up into finer and finer pieces, I was also building a structure.

This structure of concepts is formally called a hierarchy and since ancient times has been a basic structure for all Western knowledge. Kingdoms, empires, churches, armies have all been structured into hierarchies. Modern businesses are so structured. Tables of contents of reference material are so structured, mechanical assemblies, computer software, all scientific and technical knowledge is so structured—so much so that in some fields such as biology, the hierarchy of kingdom-phylum-class-order-family-genus-species is almost an icon.

The box “motorcycle” contains the boxes “components” and “functions.” The box “components” contains the boxes “power assembly” and “running assembly,” and so on. There are many other kinds of structures produced by other operators such as “causes” which produce long chain structures of the form, “A causes B which causes C which causes D,” and so on. A functional description of the motorcycle uses this structure. The operator’s “exists,” “equals,” and “implies” produce still other structures. These structures are normally interrelated in patterns and paths so complex and so enormous no one person can understand more than a small part of them in his lifetime. The overall name of these interrelated structures, the genus of which the hierarchy of containment and structure of causation are just species, is system. The motorcycle is a system. A real system.

To speak of certain government and establishment institutions as “the system” is to speak correctly, since these organizations are founded upon the same structural conceptual relationships as a motorcycle. They are sustained by structural relationships even when they have lost all other meaning and purpose. People arrive at a factory and perform a totally meaningless task from eight to five without question because the structure demands that it be that way. There’s no villain, no “mean guys’ who wants them to live meaningless lives, it’s just that the structure, the system demands it and no one is willing to take on the formidable task of changing the structure just because it is meaningless.

But to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.

Still Ferrari-less

After all, there’s nothing quite like driving your Ferrari home to your 6,000 square foot mansion after a long, hard day of fighting for the cause. This is how Amy Bell ended a polemic (even by my standards) against exorbitant nonprofit executive compensation, published in Forbes in December as “ Nonprofit Millionaires”. That was rebutted today in Forbes, by Betsy Brill (President of Strategic Philanthropy) in “ Nonprofit CEOs Are Worth Every Dime”: > The _Chronicle _survey only reflects data from the 325 highest funded nonprofit organizations, and thus represents only .02% of the 1.5 million registered nonprofits operating in the U.S. To suggest that the 30 some nonprofit executives (among them hospital CEOs, NCAA coaches and university presidents) who were paid more than $1 million in 2008 represent the irresponsible management and greed of an entire sector might be laughable if it weren’t also potentially detrimental. By taking the survey data out of context, critics may cause donors to question–or even to pull back–their charitable giving at a time when nonprofits are struggling to meet an increased demand for services in the face of government cutbacks and dwindling private support. Bell’s criticism was published under “Philanthropy”, Brill’s response under “Intelligent Investing”.

Insufficient funds

Don’t be distracted by the vision; focus on the problem statement:

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

From I have a Dream. Have a just Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Social media is women's work

Some new commentary on the evolving nature of women’s work, as a follow-up to comments on gender-driven compensation in social work:

….as the social media world becomes more and more female-driven (after all, social media power  users tend to be female) will it become “demoted” in the tech industry, seen as a “soft” profession with lower comparative salaries and less room for professional advancement/leadership? Has that already happened?

via Rebecca

The poor, the dead, and God are easily forgotten

Peter Brown’s “Remembering the Poor and the Aesthetic of Society” (Journal of Interdisciplinary History) presents a wonderful analysis of charity through a lens of history and society:

Looking at the medieval and (largely) early modern societies described herein with more ancient eyes reveals patterns of expectations that are familiar from the longer history of the three major religions studied in this collection. First and foremost, those who founded and administered the charitable institutions of early modern Europe and the Middle East plainly carried in the back of their minds what might be called a particular “aesthetic of society,” the outlines of which might be blurred by the quotidien routines of administration. This “aesthetic of society” amounted to a sharp sense of what constituted a good society and what constituted an ugly society, namely, one that neglected the poor or treated them inappropriately.

Europeans and Ottomans alike instantly noticed when charitable institutions were absent. Of the great imarets of the Ottoman empire, Evliya the seventeenth-century traveler, wrote, “I, this poor one, have traveled 51 years and in the territories of 18 rulers, and there was nothing like our enviable institution.”

The article delves into comparisons of social norms of charity—of which I have quoted before:

Divided as European Protestants and Catholics were in their ideas about the good society, the differences between Christian Europe and the Ottoman Empire were even more decisive, subtle though they sometimes could be. Christian Europe concentrated on a quality of mercy that was essentially asymmetrical. It strove to integrate those who, otherwise, would have no place in society. As the founder of Christ’s Hospital wrote in the sixteenth century, “Christ has lain too long abroad . . . in the streets of London.” To him, those deserving of mercy were “lesser folk,” and those who “raised them up” were “like a God.” In Catholic countries, much charity was “redemptive,” directed to tainted groups who might yet come to be absorbed more fully into the Christian fold—including Jews, some of whom might yet be converted, and prostitutes, some of whom might yet be reformed. In the more bracing air of Protestant Hadleigh, however, “reform” meant making sure that those who were “badly governed in their bodies” (delinquent male beggars) were brought back to the labor force from which they had lapsed. For both Catholics and Protestants, the “reform” of errant groups was a dominant concern.

By contrast, in Ottoman society, receiving charity brought no shame. To go to an imaret was not to be “brought in from the cold.” Rich and poor were sustained by the carefully graded bounty of the sultan: “Hand in hand with the imperial generosity is that of a strictly run establishment, carefully regulating the movements of its clients and the sustenance each received.” The meals at the Ottoman imaret are reminiscent of the Roman convivium, great public banquets of the Roman emperors, in their judicious combination of hierarchy and outreach to all citizens. Nothing like it existed in Christian Europe.

So who cares? (This is always a good question to throw at the dewey-eyed young-ins):

One issue concerning the “aesthetic of society” that deserves to be stressed is often taken for granted in studies of poverty: Why should the poor matter in the first place? The heirs to centuries of concerted charitable effort by conscientious Jews, Christians, and Muslims are liable to forget that concern for the poor is, in many ways, a relatively recent development in the history of Europe and the Middle East, not necessarily shared by many non-European and non-Middle Eastern societies.

The Greco-Roman world had no place whatsoever for the poor in its “aesthetic of society.” But ancient Greeks and Romans were not thereby hardhearted or ungenerous. They were aware of the misery that surrounded them and often prepared to spend large sums on their fellows. But the beneficiaries of their acts of kindness were never deaned as “the poor,” largely because the city stood at the center of the social imagination. The misery that touched them most acutely was the potential misery of their city. If Leland Stanford had lived in ancient Greece or in ancient Rome, his philanthropic activities would not have been directed toward “humanity,” even less toward “the poor,” but toward im- proving the amenities of San Francisco and the aesthetics of the citizen body as a whole. It would not have gone to the homeless or to the reform of prostitutes. Those who happened, economically, to be poor might have benefited from such philanthropy, but only insofar as they were members of the city, the great man’s “fellow-citizens.”

The emergence of the poor as a separate category and object of concern within the general population involved a slow and hesitant revolution in the entire “aesthetic” of ancient society, which was connected primarily with the rise of Christianity in the Roman world. But it also coincided with profound modiacations in the image of the city itself. The self-image of a classical, city-bound society had to change before the “poor” became visible as a separate group within it.

Similarly, in the context of the Chinese empire’s governmental tradition, the victims of famine were not so much “the poor” as they were “subjects” who happened to need food, the better to be controlled and educated like everyone else. This state-centered image had to weaken considerably before Buddhist notions of “compassion” to “the poor” could spread in China. Until at least the eleventh century, acts of charity to the poor ranked low in the hierarchy of official values, dismissed as “little acts” and endowed with little public resonance. They were overshadowed by a robust state ideology of responsibility for famine relief, which put its trust, not on anything as frail as “compassion,” but on great state warehouses controlled (it was hoped) by public-spirited provincial governors.

If the phrase “aesthetic of society” connotes a view of the poor deemed fitting for a society, one implicit aspect of it notably absent from the ancient world and China was the intense feeling—shared by Jews, Christians, and Muslims—that outright neglect of the poor was ugly, and that charity was not only prudent but also beautiful. Despite the traditional limitations of charitable institu- tions—their perpetual shortfall in meeting widespread misery, their inward-looking quality, and the overbearing manner in which they frequently operated—they were undeniably worthwhile ventures. The officials who ran them and the rich who funded them could think of themselves as engaged in “a pro- foundly integrative activity.” This widespread feeling of contributing to a “beautiful” rather than an “ugly” society still needs to be explained.

Why remember the poor? There are many obvious answers to this question, most of which have been fully spelled out in recent scholarship. Jews, Christians, and Muslims were guardians of sacred scriptures that enjoined compassion for the poor and promised future rewards for it. Furthermore, in early modern Europe, in particular, charity to the poor came to mean more than merely pleasing God; it represented the solution to a pressing social problem. To provide for the poor and to police their movements was a prudent reaction to what scholars have revealed as an objective crisis caused by headlong demographic growth and a decline in the real value of wages.

Yet even this “objective” crisis had its “subjective” side. Contemporaries perceived the extent of the crisis in, say, Britain as amplified, subjectively, by a subtle change in the “aesthetic of society.” The poor had not only become more dangerous; their poverty had become, in itself, more shocking. As Wrightson recently showed, forms of poverty that had once been accepted as part of the human condition, about which little could be done, became much more challenging wherever larger sections of a community became accustomed to higher levels of comfort. When poverty could no longer be taken for granted, to overlook the poor appeared, increasingly, to be the mark of an “ugly” society. Moreover, that the potentially “forgettable” segments of society were usually articulate and well educated, able to plead their cause to their more hardhearted contemporaries, had something to do with how indecorous, if not cruel, forgetting them would be.

Paul’s injunction to “remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10) and its equivalents in Jewish and Muslim societies warned about far more than a lapse of memory. It pointed to a brutal act of social excision the reverberations of which would not be confined to the narrow corridor where rich and poor met through the working of charitable institutions. The charitable institutions of the time present the poor, primarily, as persons in search of elemental needs— food, clothing, and work. But hunger and exposure were only the “presenting symptoms” of a deeper misery. Put bluntly, the heart of the problem was that the poor were eminently forgettable persons. In many different ways, they lost access to the networks that had lodged them in the memory of their fellows. Lacking the support of family and neighbors, the poor were on their own, floating into the vast world of the unremembered. This slippage into oblivion is strikingly evident in Jewish Midrash of the book of Proverbs, in which statements on the need to respect the poor are attached to the need to respect the dead. Ultimately helpless, the dead also depended entirely on the capacity of others to remember them. The dead represented the furthest pole of oblivion toward which the poor already drifted.

Fortunately for the poor, however, Jews, Christians, and Muslims not only had the example of their own dead—whom it was both shameful and inhuman to forget—but also that of God Himself, who was invisible, at least for the time being. Of all the eminently forgettable persons who ringed the fringes of a medieval and early modern society, God was the one most liable to be for- gotten by comfortable and conadent worldlings. The Qur’an equated those who denied the Day of Judgment with those who rejected orphans and neglected the feeding of the poor (Ma’un 107:1–3). The pious person, by contrast, forgot neither relatives nor strangers who were impoverished. Even though he might have had every reason to wish that they had never existed, he went out of his way to “feed them . . . and to speak kindly to them” (Nisa’ 4.36, 86).

The poor challenged the memory like God. They were scarcely visible creatures who, nonetheless, should not be forgotten. As Michael Bonner shows, the poor, the masakin of the Qur’an and of its early medieval interpreters, are “unsettling, ambiguous [persons] . . . . whom we may or may not know.” In all three religions, charity to the easily forgotten poor was locked into an entire social pedagogy that supported the memory of a God who, also, was all-too-easily forgotten.

The poor were not the only persons in a medieval or an early modern society who might become victims of forgetfulness. Many other members of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic societies—and often the most vocal members—found themselves in a position strangely homologous to, or overlapping, that of the poor, and they often proved to be most articulate in pressing the claims of the poor. They also demanded to be remembered even if, by the normal standards of society, they did nothing particularly memorable.

Seen with the hard eyes of those who exercised real power in their societies, the religious leaders of all three religions were eminently “forgettable” persons. They contributed nothing of obvious importance to society.

And of course, I respect any scholar who manages to connect their paper to their ability to continue drawing a salary:

The manner in which a society remembers its forgettable persons and characterizes the failure to do so is a sensitive indicator of its tolerance for a certain amount of apparently unnecessary, even irrelevant, cultural and religious activity. What is at stake is more than generosity and compassion. It is the necessary heedlessness by which any complex society can and a place for the less conspicuous elements of its cultural differentiation and social health. Scholars owe much to the ancient injunction to “remember the poor.”