Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi presents moral vision in age of crisis

At inaugural event in the T.T. and W.F. Chao Distinguished Buddhist Lecture Series, Bhikku Bodhi applies Buddhist ethics to today’s social problems.

Lisa Hickler | Global Studies and Languages

The Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi called for solidarity, love, compassion, and justice as an antidote to the crises of our time spawned by corporate greed. He called for a willingness to act on behalf of people in need, near and distant, including future generations, and on behalf of a living planet. Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American Buddhist monk, spoke at MIT April 19 as part of the inaugural event in the T.T. and W.F. Chao Distinguished Buddhist Lecture Series sponsored by MIT Global Studies and Languages.

The bespectacled monk, with flowing orange robes, confided to the audience that he was concerned his talk would be “too radical” and shared his notes in advance with one of the event organizers. He said he was assured that MIT, which has been the intellectual home of Noam Chomsky, would be a suitable place for his remarks.

Bhikkhu Bodhi pointed to the social, environmental, and economic problems of today as being driven by “the quest for expanding profits, for higher dividends for shareholders, for higher returns on financial investments, for increased capital accumulation, to be achieved by suppressing of wages and benefits for workers, by precarious contract labor, and by weakening (or abolishing) regulations.” He also spoke about the need for justice by fighting racism and police brutality.

“We are intrinsically interconnected and interdependent . . . with countless other people, with the entire intricate web of life” Bhikkhu Bodhi said. “True happiness does not come from ‘maximizing one’s private self-interest’ through rational, detached, economic calculations, but from participating in all the domains of true value. At the human level happiness depends on meaningful, fulfilling, uplifting human relationships, on friendships, on collaboration and cooperation with others, in pursuing the good of all. Our own good comes from the common good, promoting the common good enhances our own good.”

Bhikkhu Bodhi discussed the Buddhist Global Relief project he founded in 2007, founded to combat chronic hunger and malnutrition, which does work in Burma, Cambodia, Ivory Coast, Haiti, Nicaragua, and several other countries. The society has a special focus of promoting the education of girls and women as way to combat poverty.

Bhikkhu Bodhi was born in Brooklyn and was attracted to Buddhism in his early 20s while studying philosophy in graduate school. In 1972 he moved to Sri Lanka where he studied for several years under the late Ananda Maitreya. He was ordained as Theravada Buddhist monk in 1973. He currently lives at the Chuang Yen Monastery in Carmel, New York, and is the president of the Buddhist Association of the United States. The Sanskrit word “bodhi” is usually translated as “enlightenment.”

Professor Emma Teng emceed the evening’s program. She is the T.T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations and the Head of MIT Global Studies and Languages.

Introductory remarks by James Robson, the James C. Kralik and Yunli Lou Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University, put the evening’s lecture in the context of an ongoing conversation between Buddhism and science, including the 2003 conference bringing together the Dalai Lama and neuroscientists (captured in the book “The Dalai Lama at MIT”). Robson pointed out the central role played by Bhikkhu Bodhi in bringing Buddhism to a Western audience through his translations of critical Buddhist texts with commentaries.

Robson explained that Bhikkhu Bodhi “has been stirring things up in the Buddhist World” by speaking out as a social activist. He said that the monk had become “a key figure in speaking about the role of Buddhism in contemporary society.” Robson continued, “Despite the almost daily reports about how meditation can help one live a happier and well-adjusted life in a lot of the ‘mindfulness’ discourse, the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi has been urging Western Buddhists to get out of their minds, and not just focus on their own greed, hatred, and delusion, and into the world to deal with some of the key issues of our day that involve issues of social, economic, and political injustice.”

Robson pointed to the role Bhikkhu Bodhi played in spotlighting the “plight of the Rohingya people of Myanmar/Burma and the massive ethnic cleansing and refugee crisis in Rakhine province as the minority Muslims have been attacked and killed, with Buddhists being complicit.”

In addition to the public lecture on April 19, which drew 140 people, Bhikkhu Bodhi led a meditation session on April 20 for about 40 students, faculty, and staff, at the Burton Conner dormitory.

Also on April 20, a lively discussion was held with about 45 students who are members of the Concourse program. After this discussion, Abigail Stein, a first-year undergrad commented, “I was really interested to learn about Bhikkhu Bodhi’s humanitarian initiatives and the growing activism in modern Buddhism . . . [He] described the evolution of Buddhism around the world, and entertained our questions about Buddhist philosophy. I had little prior knowledge about Buddhist culture and religion, and I feel so lucky that I got a chance to learn from such an active and well-learned scholar.”

Reprinted with permission of MIT News

Famous People Hologram for Sale

[Jakarta, LTTW] Nobody can bring back the dead. With that in mind, they can still be immortalized through memories, ideas, media and other inheritance that they left on earth. Artists who sing their way throughout generations left their records for us to hear and stories that are documented to be shared over various medium.

Back in 2012, Tupac Shakur, who died in 1996, came alive in a music event called The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Topless with a cross necklace in his chest, the deceased artist performed and shared songs with living artists Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre on stage. Clearly it wasn’t really him, but the live “optical illusion” brought back the Harlem, New York born singer and astonished the festival attendees. In the 2014 Billboard Music Award, another deceased legend was brought back to live in MGM Grand Arena, Las Vegas. Michael Jackson emerged in a gold jacket, white shirt, and red trousers; performing and dancing to Slave to the Rythm with 16 real life backup dancers.

Hologram USA was the mastermind behind these two stage acts. As the name indicate, they claim hologram as the main technology that brings back the dead artists. With permission by families of the dearly departed, the company can resurrect artists to please and shock audiences. Regarding the hologram itself, it’s actually a different technology called Pepper’s Ghost and it has been around since 19th century. Improvements were made by Hologram USA using high-quality video projection technology that combines motion capture technology with 3D computer-generated imaging (CGI).

Fast forward to 2018, the Hologram USA Theater stand proud in Hollywood, Los Angeles—showcasing dead artists such as Billie Holiday. The American Jazz singer and songwriter who died in 1959 sings nine times a day in a 40 minutes show. Of course she will never be tired because it’s only a projection of the famed singer. It is clear that the “hologram” displayed in the theater is for entertainment purpose, otherwise they wouldn’t charge admission tickets. But what makes this technology more useful and can move forward is the “reachability” that it can be bring to the masses.

We can see the ideal purpose of this projection technology as a way to document someone with importance, sharing their lives to those who put interest, remembering a legacy, or simply breaking boundaries by giving a near life experience with them. The technology is also morally acceptable as long as it still honors the artists reputation. On the other hand, technology can be a product of its own. By sharing and inspiring people through this projection technology, interests will arise from the masses. When Tupac performed in 2012, the company behind the stunt was included in the highlight and a box full of opportunities was left open.

By showing what the digital projection technology can do, people can use or improve it for other reasons. Demand keeps coming and even the living are also utilizing it. In 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi partnered with MDH Hologram and used Pepper’s Ghost method for his electoral campaign—rallying his supporters in more than 1,500 locations. Adrénaline Studio also joined the bandwagon by projecting the French president candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in Paris and Lyon at the same time in February 2017. Campaigning to gain voters for the election, he continued the gimmick in April with wider broadcast from Dijon to 7 other places in France.

This just goes to show that technology can also be a commodity that sells. Hologram USA started with a bang by resurrecting Tupac and Michael Jackson, but afterwards they also sell their patented technology. As stated in the official website, everyone can buy Hologram USA Eyeliner, the main set of tools and system that can project people—dead or alive.

The improved Pepper’s Ghost can immortalize people in an effective way, but it also has the same principle of watching movies and documentaries or screens that are played live in concerts. The future is visual, we will see and of course buy what comes ahead.



A Tale of the Meme Generation

by Bramantyo Indirawan

Once upon a time, the internet was born into the modern world and change it for better or worst. Robert E. Kahn and Vinton Cerf, the fathers of Internet, developed Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) for the communication model and set standards of how data can be transmitted within multiple networks.

Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, adopted TCP/IP on January 1, 1983. After that defining moment, the blueprint was made and researchers began to assemble the “network of networks” and eventually took the form of modern Internet as we know it today.

With just a click away, we can learn something new and explore the vast data the internet has to offer. From Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, facts about Borobudur Temple, to lessons on how to draw a simple picture or how to replicate the Monalisa.

In the midst of it all, meme spread itself like wildfire. Meme is  a phrase(s) or a word(s) that seems to appear from somewhere and no one really knows who makes it in the first place, even though it is traceable. It can take in many forms: a photo of a grumpy cat, an edited 9/11 footage that envokes dark humour, a joke in the  form of 80s music video, a brief scene from a movie or television show, and fictional horror stories are the examples of an internet meme.

Yes, we can find an array of seemingly limitless information online. Internet meme itself can spread ideas that manifest into photos, videos, stories, or other forms that also spreads in the internet; side by side with other information such as news and scientific papers and articles.

Although there are some sites that can’t be accessed by minors due to age restriction, most of the information in the internet including memes are accessible to anyone; from younglings to elders.

The meme generation is molded into this world where anything can be shared. It could give different effect: it could be bad if the content is inappropriate, such as taunting a disabled person, but it could be good if it is entertaining and brings laughter and happiness and it also can be both – when people laugh at a disabled person, thus blurring the definition of morality.

Arguably, meme could be nothing. It’s neither bad nor good. It is a meaningless thought that “replicate itself” in the human mind that brings people to a state of nowhere.

Stabbed Because of Memes

Two reasons internet memes can be entertaining are because of their humorous nature and they relate to people. Hence, people share it, and became viral.

But meme can also has an unexpected, troubling impact. One meme that tells a fictional horror story could trigger two 12-year old girls to kill their schoolmate in Milwaukee, United States.

The meme is called Slender Man, a story about a tall and thin blank face creature wearing a suit. He can stretch or shorten his arms and have tentacles protruding from his back. The creature was created in an internet forum on 10th June 2009  by Eric Knudsen and replicate itself, becoming an internet myth.

Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser took interest in Slender Man after they learned about the creature in Creepypasta Wiki, a website dedicated to horror-related legends and images. Apparently, they came to believe that the Slender Man was real and wanted to prove their loyalty to him so they could become his followers, prove his existence, and prevent him from harming their families.

The two believed that the only way they could become the Slender Man’s followers was to murder someone, so they attempted to kill their schoolmate, Payton Leutner, in a forest on the 31st May of 2014.

After they stabbed Leutner 19 times with a 13cm kitchen knife, Weier and Geyser fled the area. Leutner miraculously survived the horrendous attack after a cyclist found her in a ditch nearby the forest where they stabbed her. The underage murderers were finally caught and claimed they were mentally ill at the time. In 25th December 2017, Weier was sentenced to 25 years in a mental hospital while Geyser is still waiting for persecution.

Although both the receiver and the content is responsible for this gruesome mess in the forest of Wisconsin, it also shows how a superficial meme have a serious and troubling impact on real life. The randomness, shallowness, and the lack of “real” lessons that memes has to offer can make a simple joke or cheap thrills into an abomination.

Apart from triggering a homicide, creators of internet memes often stole pictures of other people and put inapropriate text to it only to amuse the crowds. Case in point, Heidi Crowter. Crowter is a girl with down-syndrome whose photo was once exploited and became a meme, captioning her disability. Her mother acted out against this vile attempt and tried to fight the internet, only to get attacked herself in a form of a meme.

If we separate the internet meme such as Slender Man and the stabbing case, we still have internet meme as a form of media or content that doesn’t stand as anything with depth or morals. Although it has proven to be a communication tool; expressing thoughts and even mental illness such as depression, it is still just a shallow replicant with no clear function and meaning whatsoever.

Internet Meme vs. Everything Else

Before the internet came to flourish, an evolutionary biologist named Richard Dawkins coined the term meme on his book titled The Selfish Gene (1974). According to the Briton, meme is the spread of ideas, tunes, behaviour, or style from person to person within a culture.

“Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation,” wrote Dawkins in his first published book.

The word meme itself derived from the Greek word mimeme, meaning ‘to which is replicated’. Dawkins also thinks that it could alternatively be thought of as being related to “memory”, or the French word même.

To some extent, there are parallels and similarities between his proposed theory and the internet meme. Both replicate itself from people to other people and stuck into their brain and the form is more or less the same; from ideas such as fictional stories, tunes such as songs, and behaviour such as a viral dance move.

Although they both has the same characteristics, we must separate both meme and internet meme. Meme comes from an argument that emphasize another replicant in human other than genes and can spread to any medium.

Meanwhile internet meme differentiate itself by successfully transcend into the mainstream and use the word “meme” as a category of popular consumption for the masses. It chooses a media that spreads at a fast rate and linger on people minds. People pass it around, share it on different social media platforms, post it for likes while hoping that it will relate to everyone, fishing for attention, and distract yourself from the real problems; the meme generation is here to stay.

Luckily, there is always a way to be rid of this aimless endeavor: steer away from the mindless internet meme and open your horizon to meaningful ideas that matter.

We can argue that stories with a set of values and morals stand opposite the internet meme because the depth that it brings. When growing up, children learn simple but fundamental lessons such as good or bad, the importance of working hard, to follow your dreams, crime does pay, and be kind to others from stories told by their parents.

A valuable guided* lesson is given when parents read their children stories before going to bed or other occasion like teaching them how to listen, read, and speak,  preparing them for the real world.

Even some myth can give us lessons due to the moral values contained in it. In Myth: It’s Meaning and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures (1970), Geoffrey Kirk defines myth as tales that have been passed down from generation to generation and embedded in their tradition.

In addition to that, myths usually address daunting themes such as creation, life, death, and answer major life questions. “Myths often include deities and other supernatural beings in their list of characters, and they may tell cosmic events such as the birth of the universe” wrote Josepha Sherman in his book titled Storytelling: An Encyclopedia of Mythology and Folklore (2008).

Take a look at Greek mythology; the stories are rich in teachings and moral values. The story of Pandora opening a box that shouldn’t be opened teaches us about temptation, the moral of value of Sisyphus is bad deeds will ultimately lead to punishment, and Hercules’ 12 feats shows us how a good life can be accomplished if we can prove our worth.

The Indian mythology Mahabrata tells a classic, epic war between good and evil and its consequences. Indonesian myths mostly tell stories about supernatural or spiritual beings such as Nyi Roro Kidul who rules the sea. Obviously, stories are not limited to myth only.

Folklore serves the same functions as mythology. The lessons that unfold in the story can inspire people to do good and grow up with “pillars” of morals that make them stand strong.

Archer Taylor in Folklore and the Student of Literature, as quoted by Mazhar-ul –Islam, says that folklore is the material that is handed down by tradition either by word of mouth or for custom and practice. It can take in various forms of folk literature and art, such as:  folksong, folktales, riddles, proverbs, and so on.

Indonesia, obviously, has its own folklore (which is called “dongeng” or “cerita rakyat” in Indonesian language). Some of the notable ones are Bawang Putih Bawang Merah, that tells the struggle of a woman who finally finds happiness, Malin Kundang teaches people to be good to their parents, and Roro Jonggrang teaches us to never cheat or lie. All these tales teach people moral values to be implemented in their daily life.

When technology takes over, children are remain guided by their parents but not with the means of stories since televisions, smartphones, and tablets take over that role. Those gadgets provide attractive audio visual to keep children busy. Actually, it is not completely bad since the programs still contain educational and moral lessons. However, as they grow up and become more adept at technology, they will be more exposed to internet memes.

Without value or morals to stand on, internet memes will sip into the minds of children, where they ‘consume’ it for everyday entertainment as their means of communication. Critical thinking is a basis for how we see the world and the process of consuming a worthwhile content like stories can prepare us for this.

It doesn’t mean that we can’t laugh off a joke that an internet meme gave us, but if it is the only thing that fill the space of our mind, isn’t that troubling? Balance is the key.

Whether we like it or not the meme generation flourishes. If internet memes survived throughout the ages and passed on from generation to generation, will it became a myth too? A modern myth of nonsense that is. Internet meme is here to stay and replicate itself into a daze of confusion.

*  According to Sacred Bridge Foundation, one of the most fundamental elements in storytelling is the guidance element. This element emanates from the nature of storytelling, in which the storyteller and his or her listeners have a face-to-face communication.



Not Being in the Moment, Courtesy of Our Phone

[Jakarta, LTTW] As we watch a music concert and gaze upon the stage, our sight can suddenly be blocked by gadgets that extend in the air—minimizing the full experience. This phenomenon happens because some concerts don’t restrict the spectators to record or photograph the show with cell phones.

Capturing moment at a proper dose can be acceptable, but it gets problematic when we get to a point of recording the show continually and tirelessly. The best example are recording full length videos of a song  or worst, broadcasting live in Instagram.

Besides distracting or blocking other people with screen lights and elongated hands in the air, we distract ourselves as well.

We draw away from real moments happening right before our eyes, and seeing it through a tiny screen in our phones with reasons such as uploading it immediately and rewatching it in the future. We are present but we’re not there because we are too busy using the gadgets.

Aligned with hyperreality, it seems that we cannot diferentiate reality with the simulation of reality—we steer away from the physical world. Drawn to “an absolute fake” just as the writer Umberto Eco points out in Travels in Hyperreality (1975). The photo or video that we captured is actually fake because in the process we have been depleted from the real moment.

Amidst the trend, there are popular music artist who ban cell phones or other recording tools altogether. More or less, their reasons are the same; encouraging people to be in the moment.

The late “Prince” Rogers Nelson is one of the artists from United States who was strict about the no-phone policy. The singer who wrote classic songs such as Purple Rain applied “Purple Rules” in 2013 that ban the use of photography, videography, and cell phones. It is also written that “these rules will be strictly enforced and violators will be asked to access another experience,” or simply put, leave the concert!

Björk Guðmundsdóttir from Iceland also imposed a set of rules to the spectators on gadget use in her show at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival 2013. The stage screen displayed prohibition to record in order to encourage the festival goers to enjoy being a part of the performance.

The no cell phone policy at concerts keeps growing. In 2016 singer-songwriter Alicia Keys partnered with a company called Yondr to provide special pouch that disables people to access their own phones for the remaining of the show—an extreme measure to some. Yondr also collaborates with U.S comedians such as Louis C. K. And Dave Chappelle.

Banning something doesn’t always lead to the desired results. In December 2017, the punk band Misfits used Yondr for their reunion show but fans still take photos and videos by snucking their phones or breaking the pouch.

Banning or allowing the use of cell phones is up to the artists, but whether we want the full experience of watching a concert is ours to decide. Guitarist and singer Jack White keeps reminding about the musical experience in his show that doesnt need any cell phone to enjoy. Opening the year in 2018, he promotes a “100% human experience” concert that also bans phones with the use of Yondr pouch.

We can be attached to our cell phones; bring it everywhere, use it anywhere, and utilize the features such as camera to immortalize moments. Sometimes we forget or didn’t realize that we use it improperly, either overusing it in concerts or using it in inapproriate area such as cinema or a plane that has just landed.

Capturing moments with cell phones can be a problem because most of the times it leads us to a state of not being in the moment. So after the concert, we normally see photos or videos of ourselves when we were there. It’s okay, as long as those memories are full of ourselves being engaged with the moment, instead of just recording the show, seeing it on small screen, and “bragging” mostly about our physical presence.


The Narcissist Art Bait

[Jakarta, LTTW] Google, the tech company who program search engine into our curios heads gives us something new to ponder. This time the 1996 founded company is taking a shot at persuading people to care more about arts and culture of the world, exploring mankind creative legacy as the ideal goal.

An application named Google Arts & Culture gain a relatively large attention at the start of 2018. Originally created in 2011; the sudden fame came because a new feature that automatically compare the users self portrait  to works of art.

Our face can be compared to Rembrandt’s self portrait painting or anything else that has a resemblance with us — juxtaposed side by side. The details of the painting are described in the application; we can learn a general knowledge about the painter, the painting, and the museum that keeps it. For now it is limited in the United States, but other countries can easily access it with a VPN.

It wasn’t a significant increase in art enthusiast, instead it can be seen as a significant increase in people who simply like to post their own portrait with some gimmick that accompany their faces. Google try to use a modern behaviour as a bait for a greater purpose, but the worse case comes when people succumb to the comfortable bait without even using it in a wider positive sense like it supposed to be.

At this point, the application is no different than face “filters” or animations that social media such as Snapchat and Instagram use to lure it’s audiences.

In Greek mythology there was a beautiful man named Narcissus. He fell in love with his own reflection in the pool that leads to death. A self absorbed being, still relevant until this day. Google’s new feature and other application that celebrate narcissism are the pool that can reflect our own demise.

It’s seems rhetorical to think that the internet positive effect is to give the users information, ideas, and even perspectives. It goes old when we still uses that argument because the current technology keeps expanding — making room for new negative effects. We must be critical and not take everything for granted, including the one we are comfortable with.

The Google Arts & Culture aspire to be a portal with vast collection of art around the world. It even allows us to take a virtual tour of museums and other art related places. A clear purpose that has the fundamentals of internet creation.

The challenges of the internet era are real, one of them is the unmeasurable success accompanied by more weight on factual failures. We must ask ourselves, does people really broaden their mind when comparing themselves to art pieces or does it stop at just another selfie? Falling deep into the Narcissist art bait.