More on Sallekhana…

Thanks to the great blog, World Religions by George G. Coe, an update to an earlier post I did about sallekhana. A court in India has outlawed the practice for elderly Jains, presumably because there is risk of it being abused. Jains in India are rallying in response. Read more at the link below.

Source: Should Jain Ritual Suicide be Legal?

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Cultivating Vultures to Restore a Mumbai Ritual – NYTimes.com

My student teacher pointed this article from 2012 out to me today, as we were discussing Zoroastrian rituals in class. Seems that environmental factors were killing off the vultures that usually fed at the Towers of Silence in the Zoroastrian tradition. Just another example of the challenges in adapting ancient practices to the modern world. I wonder how the vulture population is doing today?

Cultivating Vultures to Restore a Mumbai Ritual – NYTimes.com.

Greetings from the Gurudwara!

Not exactly–it was over a week ago that I had the pleasure of taking my two World Religions classes to the Sikh Gurudwara of NC. This is the second year that I have taken students there, and our host, Kulpreet Singh, has also come to my school in the past to speak with them. It is, every time, a wonderful experience.

The gurudwara peeking out from behind the trees--picture courtesy of Google Earth.

The gurudwara peeking out from behind the trees–picture courtesy of Google Earth.

The gurudwara is located behind a Baptist church on the other side of town from our high school. The building itself is eye-catching on the outside, but fairly simple when you enter. The students make their way in through the ground floor into the langar hall, where the Sikh community gathers for food and fellowship. There the kids work on covering their hair and taking off their shoes (wrapping the scarves can be a tricky feat if you’ve never done it before). Then Mr. Singh takes us upstairs into the worship hall.

We are incredibly lucky in that our host, Mr. Singh, is warm, honest, and funny. He is an incredible teacher and introduction to the faith. I’ve taught his son, who shares the same silly and kind nature. Mr. Singh gives a very brief introduction to the beliefs and worship practices, and then lets the students guide the conversation. Every year, it is no problem filling up an hour and a half with this exchange of ideas.

Mr. Singh does a lot to emphasize the commonalities among religions, and among people. He uses the analogy of droplets of water in one big ocean to illustrate the way that we are all one. His message, a colleague pointed out, was especially meaningful to hear now when so much of the news has been focused on black vs. white and the powerful vs. the oppressed. While he shows the kirpan (the small sword that all Sikhs wear) and walks students around the Guru Granth (the scripture that is revered as the last guru), well aware of how eye-catching these items are, mostly his message is about how his faith emphasizes respecting the perspectives of others, finding commonalities, and reaching for equality. Again, his description of the kirpan as a reminder to fight against injustice, anywhere, was a timely one. How inspiring for a faith to wholly emphasize the protection of others.

The rest of this week has been a whirlwind of testing and grading, wrapping things up before everyone heads home for three weeks of much needed rest. My students that were unable to join us that day completed their own, online, version of the trip by doing this Ted-Ed lesson that I made. Today, after their test on Indian religions, my students wrote thank-yous and reflections on the past unit. Their notes reflect a sense of gratitude for the opportunities we have in our community, to visit with people of other faiths and other cultures, and to bring that learning back home with us (and also an appreciation for getting a couple of hours off of school). I echo those feelings, and am also further impressed by how welcoming the various faith communities in this city are–I have never failed to hear back from a house of worship or a speaker, but rather am always overwhelmed by the time and care given by those that share with my classes. Thank you.

The Untouchables (or, Those Subjects Which We are Hesitant to Teach)

Scrolling through my blog reader feed Friday afternoon, I was struck by an image from Scott Schuman’s street style blog, The Sartorialist. The image is captivating: a young woman sweeping the street in Delhi, her face covered with bright sheer scarves, a floral tunic/kurti bright against a muted backdrop of two others in western dress. I stopped to take it in and noticed the title given by the blog’s author: “The Untouchables.”  I pressed on then, reading through the comments, interested in the response that such a post would draw.

On the Street…The Untouchables, Delhi « The Sartorialist.

The points brought up by readers of The Sartorialist were interesting, if not entirely surprising. While the blog typically includes shots of fashion editors and stylists pre-shows, more and more Schuman has been traveling to worlds away from Milan and Paris and capturing the essence of local style. Typically, I find these images more engaging–I think he has a way of capturing the sense of pride and ingenuity that people from all classes and locales can express in their own clothing. But there are those who comment that these images are out of place on the blog, or out of touch with the realities of life for people in these locations;  that they show a superficial view of the locale. In this case, readers expressed concern about the ethics of such a shot, of evaluating it for beauty, questioning why it was supposed she was an “untouchable” (something I wondered, too), and, from one commenter named “Nina” stating: “Basically, please don’t go to India and be all “wow, look at the poverty, so sad.””

I’m not entirely sure what Schuman was thinking by posting his image, but I am sure he was aware that it would invite questions and perhaps criticism. It reminded me of the challenges I feel when addressing the issue of caste, India, and Hinduism in the classroom. Whenever I ask students what they know about Hinduism, caste is one of the first things that comes up. But I’m never entirely sure how to handle the caste system and its role today in India: I have no firsthand experience of the nation. I find myself, like Schuman, raising more questions than giving answers and I worry about perpetuating stereotypes or misconceptions and even about offending Hindu students in the room. However, from what I can tell based on conversations and readings, there is still discrimination based on class and race in India (as in every other country in the world) and it is connected to, if not reflective of, Hindu beliefs. Therefore it merits discussion in the World Religions classroom.

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Lost in the Supermarket

A few years ago I came across an article about Noah Levine, a so-called Dharma punk. The article made the assertion that punk music was a natural fit for Buddhism, from the anti-establishment and anti-materialistic ethos to the lack of attachment to physical well-being shown in the mosh pit. Intrigued, I asked around and came up with some ideas for songs that were clean enough to bring into the classroom but rocking enough to catch the kids’ attention. I liked the idea of challenging them to think about Buddhism not simply as a quiet, meditative, path, but as a set of understandings that could emerge in any “scene.” The title of this post comes from one of the Clash songs that I like to play for them–a contemplation of life in the dissatisfying ‘burbs and our material world. Translating the universal truths that Siddhartha taught to punk rock rebels helps set the stage for later conversations about Buddhism “in the world”–and the rebellions for justice led by monks in Tibet, Burma, Vietnam, and elsewhere (great, old CNN video on Buddhist activists here).

The thing is, so few of my students are punks these days that, while they were interested in the article and music in sort of an anthropological way, they didn’t really connect to the spirit. As a result, this year I did some crowd-sourcing via Facebook and added to my list of tunes. Just where else do we see Buddhist themes emerging in pop culture today? Both my dad and sister recommended Gone Going’ by Jack Johnson and the Black Eyed Peas. I started class off with that one, and to my surprise one of my students immediately began singing along. (Apparently my dad and sister are much more with it than I am. I had never heard the song before). Listening to the lyrics, the students were able to make connections to suffering, impermanence, and “no-soul,” and the fact that the first one was such a hit let me get away with playing some more, less well-known tunes.

I love this activity because it gives us a way to talk about some of the more challenging concepts, using the song lyrics as guideposts to test our definitions or understandings of anitya, anatma, and dukkha against. It also lends itself to fun extra credit: right now students are working on picking out their own songs to share with the class that similarly represent Buddhist values. I’ll share those with you soon!

Snakes and Ladders

From the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The Victoria and Albert Museum has a great website full of information and art related to Jainism. It makes perfect sense–the Jains, noted for their scrupulous honesty, have acquired some wealth in fields like business and the law. Yet their religion emphasizes having only the things you need–and as a result they have become great patrons of religious art, giving away excess wealth in order to benefit their faith. Many of the objects and tapestries they have created are catalogued on the site.

What is probably the most useful for teaching about Jainism to high-schoolers, however, is the online version of Snakes and Ladders that the V&A has available for exploration and play. This was brand-new to me! Apparently “Chutes and Ladders” is a blatant rip-off of a game developed in ancient India. The ladders represent virtues–actions Jains can take to become more like the enlightened beings. The snakes represent vices, or those behaviors to be avoided. (I think this might be because in Jainism, there is a story about Mahavira being bitten by a poisonous snake. Or just because snakes are noted for being mean and slippery.) As my students worked through the game online, they learned about the characteristics that are valued by Jains, and a little bit about Jain interpretations of the cosmos. They also got increasingly frustrated by the snakes that took them farther and farther away from becoming liberated beings, but hey, you can’t expect to get enlightened in just one class period.

Another “fun” activity that we did during this short unit on Jainism was that I challenged my students to be vegans for a day. Coincidentally, the start of this unit coincided with the Jain worldwide day of compassion on November 1st (more info here). Not a one of my students (except for the one who already wears the vegan badge), made it through the day, but I think it helped get them to focus on just how diligent and aware one has to be to maintain such a diet. (Nevermind that Jains also avoid some vegetables grown underground. We didn’t even get into those limitations!) I think that following a restrictive diet like that leads one to be exceptionally aware and mindful of what one is eating. Based on the one month of my life where I tried to give up sugar, I can tell you that it can be exhausting to check over every single thing that you eat. I wonder if for Jains, however, this attention to detail also helps connect them to and constantly remind them of the reason they are doing it: ahimsa (non-violence), compassion, and kindness. I’m not sure my students felt that same compassion or kindness when they were thinking about what they couldn’t eat that day, but it was good to hear their reflections. It certainly got them talking about Jainism.

Sallekhana and the Decision to Die

“I’m still recovering from that real talk,” was Student A’s response to me, as I asked him why he was slow to get started on his warm-up in second period. (Student A is in the unfortunate position of having me for two different classes, two periods in a row). A real talk, it was. In a somber, thoughtful, and respectful manner, the kids in my first and third periods talked about if or when it was okay to let someone make the decision to die.

The context was the introduction of the concept of sallekhana in the Jain religion. Sallekhana is a ritual fasting that some Jains choose to lead them into death. It is not considered suicide, nor is it considered violent. This ritual surprises some, who know the Jains only for their utmost compassion for all living beings on earth. Jains sweep the ground ahead of them so as not to injure insects and adhere to a strict vegetarian diet, all in the practice of ahimsa, or nonviolence. However, this act of sallekhana is not considered violent, but rather is a physical expression of the non-attachment that is critical to Jain spiritual growth. From this article by Hotta Kazuyoshi:

When it is time for someone to perform sallekhana, he must ask permission from the religious
leader. First he must give up love, hatred and attachments. He should beg his kinsmen and others
to forgive him, and should also forgive them. He also should honestly confess his past sins; then he
should maintain the five great vows, the same as the mendicants, and should read (study) the canon
until his death. Next he gradually changes his diet to dairy products, hot water, etc. Finally, fasting
completely and reciting a mantra, he should discard his body.

Sallekhana is only allowed in cases where death is imminent, as a result of disease, warfare, famine or some other misfortune. The ritual gives Jains control over their death in these moments, and the chance to perform it in a way that affirms their spiritual beliefs and intentions.

When planning this conversation and lesson, Brittney Maynard became a symbol for the Death with Dignity movement in the United States. A beautiful young woman, recently married and shortly after diagnosed with a terminal brain cancer, her story captured the interest of media immediately. She decided to move to Oregon, where she could choose to end her life with assitance from a physician. In fact, just a few days before I delivered this lesson, she died, according to her own pre-determined plans.

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Colors and Sounds

One of the amazing things about Hinduism, like many faiths, is the way that its rituals and practices awaken the senses. I’ve found a couple of good video resources that help share the sights and sounds of the religion, injecting a human presence into our study of its beliefs and practices.

The New York Times produces a variety of beautiful short videos that are great for lessons. My favorite for teaching about Hinduism is this one about the sadhus, or holy men, at the Kumbh Mela festival (which is an enormous Hindu religious gathering). Not only are the sadhus visually arresting–as they shed their clothes and paint their faces out of reverence for the gods–but the video hints at their controversial position in Indian society as either revered men or crazies on the fringe.

Another great video for teaching about India is from the series Around the World in 80 Faiths. This BBC show traces the path of an Anglican vicar, Peter Owen-Jones, as he travels the world to learn about other religions. He’s a perceptive and sensitive host, and in each episode he really works to understand the people he encounters. He doesn’t shy away from stating his own biases or skepticism, which I think is part of why he is relatable. In the India episode, for example, he questions how men really walk on hot coals and is just impolite enough to ask them if he can check out the soles of their feet. He also finds some amazing rituals and experiences, from talking with an aghori who lives in a cemetary to visiting with an ascetic Jain nun, they are opportunities that many of us are unlikely to have first-hand.

The series has eight episodes, and I show clips from it throughout the year, but I take the time to show the entire one on India. It is great for the diversity it reflects while still focusing on religions that developed on the subcontinent. The shows are all available on Youtube, although I would gladly buy it if I could find it on DVD (are you listening, BBC?). It makes me want to take a similar journey!