Tuesday, August 07, 2007
Linux and sutras
Everybody loves seeing monks with computers.In a small net cafe in Manju ka Tilla , the Tibetan enclave in Delhi , I regularly met three young guys with shaved heads : two young monks and cyber wallah in charge of the place , with a multi colored mohawk hairdo . The place was cramped , the keyboards more or less worn out ... and hanging down at angle was a large portrait of Dalai Lama , framed with multi colored blinking LED´s.
The titillation of seeing Buddhists monks in this role lies in an assumed transgression : men or women of the cloth should remain isolated from the world of technology.
In The Argumentative Indian Amartya Sen raises an interesting contrasting view to this , high lighting the early Buddhists role as technological ground breakers. Book printing is obviously one of the greatest leaps forward in transmitting knowledge and ideas , and Indian and Chinese Buddhists had a key role in disseminating this technique : in fact the first dated printed book is the Diamond Sutra from Dunhuang. It was the Internet of it´s time : slow but hip , and in no way restricted to religious themes - the Himalayas were crossed in both directions carrying the latest landbreaks in astronomy , medicine and technology.
And in keeping with the Internet analogy , the Diamond Sutra echoed eerily of Linux terminology : "free and for universal distribution" as it says in the prologue .
Buddhists we´re involved the earliest book printing ventures in India , Japan , China and Korea. One could choose to see this as a co-incidental interest in material technology - or as an expression of the underlying social technique : printing became an extension of the public debate that from the beginning was a central feature in Buddhism .
As Sen point out , when Ashoka arranged the first known public debates between different religions (at the same time time as the Catholic church had Giordano Bruno burned at the stake ) , they had a couple of centuries of the great Buddhist councils to lean on.
Sen points out this tradition as a quintessential Indian quality , that explains some of the unique qualities of Indian democracy : the only Asian country I can think of where the Army has remained consistently uninterested in wresting the power from the elected governments . This tradition predates Buddhism , like the one line from the Mahabharata that has gained foothold in many Western minds : I am become death , the destroyer of worlds..
When Robert Oppenheimer (a truly cultured man , who had read the Mahabharata in the original Sanskrit) used these words to describe his anguish in seeing the end result of his work , the detonation of the Hiroshima bomb , he fixed one side of the epic debate between warrior Arjuna , who at first refused doing the unthinkable and Krishna who in the end literally drove him out to the battle. Most in the West seems not to remember that final outcome , but Arjuna´s voice is still a living , working cry resisting the horrors of the war.
In the same way , Sen shows , the Vedas contain a multitude of voices , that gives unexpected firepower to unexpected standpoints : an complete agnostic tradition , women speaking out against male power structures, Brahmins being descibed as con artists..
Even though the Krishnas so to say won in these conflicts , they never made their opponents invisible , and we can pickup their side of the debate to day.
In comparison , much of Christian literature gives about as much depth to their societies inner conflicts as statements from the old Communist party conferences.
Photo from the Asian Classics Input Program , www.asianclassics.org here in the process of transferring woodblock prints to hard drives in the library of Diskit Monastery , NUbra