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The Gay Faqir

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Shah Hussain was a gay Punjabi poet of the 16th century. He loved a young man, Madho Lal. The two are buried next to one another at Shah Hussain’s shrine in Lahore. They are known to eternity as “Madho Lal Hussain.”

As a gay Punjabi-Canadian man, reading Shah Hussain‘s poetry gave me a sense of pride and belonging to a culture I’d long grown alienated from. I was then (not so) surprised to see Naveed Alam trying to deny Shah Hussain’s sexuality in Alam’s introduction to his translation of Shah Hussain’s verse.

According to Alam, Shah Hussain couldn’t have been gay, because:

  1. Shah Hussain’s poems make no overt references to homosexuality;
  2. Shah Hussain’s love for Madho Lal was platonic;
  3. Shah Hussain wrote in the feminine voice in keeping with Sufi tradition (where God’s devotee refers to himself in feminine terms).

Alam’s first point makes no sense. He claims that a poet like Shah Hussain cannot be gay unless he overtly expresses his homosexuality in his poetry. By this logic, a poet cannot be heterosexual either unless his heterosexuality is overtly expressed in his poetry.

In any case, Shah Hussain probably didn’t express his sexuality overtly in his poetry for good reasons.

According to the platonic love theory, Shah Hussain and Madho Lal were master and disciple respectively and their love should be seen in that context.

The problem is that there is no proof that Madho Lal (a Hindu Brahmin) was even a follower of Shah Hussain or that he was part of a Sufi order. In fact, had Madho Lal been a disciple, then it would’ve been he who was expected to write poems in praise of his master, not the other way around.

Shah Hussain wrote otherwise:

My lover grabbed my arm
Why would I ask him to let go?
Dark night drizzling, painful
The approaching hour of departure
You’ll know what love’s all about
Once it seeps into your bones…
(trans. N. Alam)

Hagiographic accounts also tell us about Shah Hussain’s love for Madho Lal:

When he looked at Madho, he signed painfully and said: ‘Friends, take heed. This boy has set my heart out of control. With one look he has made my heart restless. With one look he has taken away my heart. Taken the life out of my heart, and the soul out of my body. What should I do, friends? What should I do to make him fall in love? Friends, I’ve become a prisoner of his love. I shall not find peace till I see him” (Haqiqat al-Fuqra (‘Truth of the Saints’), c. 1660).

In another account, one of Shah Hussain’s followers spies on Madho Lal Hussain:

You [Hussein] are taking a glass of wine from Madho and kissing Madho on the forehead and the Madho is also kissing Hussein’s forehead … Madho again gives a full glass to Shah Hussein, stands and greets him respectfully. Hussein also gets up and greets Madho respectfully. The two friends remained busy in this matter, and kept kissing each other like milk and sugar … and then the two friends become one.

As for the feminine voice, Shah Hussain uses it even when not speaking to God. Shah Hussain refers to himself in feminine terms when sitting at the spinning wheel, taking part in women’s folk dances and sharing secrets with his girlfriends. This feminine voice is Shah Hussain’s soul speaking as a gay man.

In Shah Hussain, Punjabi and Pakistani gay men can hear their own voice, songs and verses singing back to them. The light and passion in his poems is smothered by people foisting their own culturally acceptable interpretations onto it. Shah Hussain’s love for Madho Lal comes alive when we embrace it fully for what it is.

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Filed under Uncategorized, Sexuality, Poetry, Pakistan, Punjabi

Buddhist Political Philosophy (Karma)

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Karma is the principle of cause and effect. The word means action and the term refers to actions and the consequences following them.

In Buddhism, karma refers to intention and the action following that intention. For there to be karma, one must be a morally autonomous agent capable of acting through the exercise of one’s will.

The state is one such agent. The state acts in accordance with its will as determined by government and the people. Through these actions (good and bad), the state affects itself (including its own people) and its neighbours.

Everything that becomes, or changes must do so owing to some cause;
for nothing can come to be without a cause”
(Plato).

Karma explains how society changes and how history unfolds through the actions of states. Every war, revolution, recession and election has its causes and motivations in the will of the governments and people of any given state.

 

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Buddhist Political Philosophy: Dharma

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Dharma is of fundamental importance to Buddhist political philosophy. The word “dharma” derives from the Sanskrit root “dhri” which means to support, to sustain and,  to uphold. Dharma is the universal moral law which underlies and supports the individual, society and the state.

At the individual level, dharma refers to our essentially moral human nature. As human beings, we have the ability within us to cultivate wisdom, virtue and conscientiousness and to realize well-being as a result.

At the social level, dharma is realized through our obligations to one another. In Buddhism, those social obligations mean treating other human beings with empathy and compassion and living in a spirit of fellowship and brotherhood.

At the political level, dharma means moral governance. The sole concern of government in Buddhism is to relieve the suffering of people and to help them realize well-being and happiness. Government as such means ruling in a spirit of justice, benevolence, non-violence and in laying a strong economic foundation for the people.

In Buddhist political philosophy, the human being is both a good citizen and a moral citizen, a citizen of dharma. The ruler is the secular counterpart of a Buddha bringing justice, peace and prosperity to the world. Historical examples of such rulers include Cyrus the Great (600-530 BCE), Ashoka (r. 273-232 BCE), Constantine (306-337) and the Emperor Gaozu (618-626).

… to be continued in Part III.

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“Do What You Love …”

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The North American obsession with following one’s passion and doing what one loves has fueled an ever greater dissatisfaction with one’s life and career. Accoding to Cal Newport in So Good: They Can’t Ignore You, that’s because the “passion mindset” makes for impractical and unrealistic career advice.

  1. passion ≠ career: Most passions do not translate into feasible careers (e.g. being passionate about hockey, going travelling or spending quality time with the kids);
  2. passions are not quick fixes: most serious passions develop only after we’ve been doing something for an extended time period. Usually, the better we get at doing something over time, the more our interest and passion for that thing grows.
  3. what makes work meaningful isn’t necessarily what we do but how we experience our work life: the most valuable and meaningful aspects of a particular job or career have to do with things like having autonomy, exercising competence and having good relationships with one’s co-workers.

Rejecting the passion mindset, Newport advocates the “crafstman” mindset:

  1. work hard in what you are doing right now;
  2. acquire valuable skills through hard work;
  3. build up those skills (‘career capital’ as he calls it);
  4. invest that career capital in work that allows you to exercise competence, autonomy and have good relationships with those around you.

The craftsman’s ethic includes:

  1. focusing on getting better at what one does;
  2. working right instead of looking for the right work;
  3. mastering something until one does it effortlessly;
  4. producing something of value to others

Instead of expecting good work to come to him, the crafstman gets good at what he does. In doing so, he builds a good career for himself which gives him a sense of peace and security in the knowledge that he is good at something.

Elsewhere, the craftsman mindset fosters the following:

  1. a thirst to know and learn;
  2. an intensity and focus;
  3. the pursuit of mastery;
  4. the feeling of achieving depth and flow, and;
  5. the cultivation of perseverance and character.

There are plenty of examples Newport refers to in making his point. To learn more, you can refer to his book in the above link.

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The Poetry of Chinese Characters

Chinese-calligraphy

There’s a saying in Chinese: a painting is like a poem and a poem is like a painting. In Chinese characters, the worlds of poetry and painting come together in a written language.

Aesthetic Qualities: Chinese characters represents words through pictures and ideas. These pictures and ideas tell us lots about how the Chinese thought and how they still think about humanity, culture, society and political philosophy.

The word for “male” (男), for example, is depicted pictographically by a rice paddy field at the top and by a strong arm at the bottom. The word for “east” (東) was originally the picture of the sun rising from behind a tree. The word for “king” (王) is represented by three horizontal strokes for heaven, earth and humanity and a line connecting them.

These graphic qualities endow Chinese characters with layers of meanings and subtle undertones much like the strokes in a painting.

Concision: Classical Chinese is incredibly compact and concise. When reading Chinese characters, there is a visible and tangible silence and emptiness both in the spaces between the characters and in the absence of any regular grammar. In reading the Chinese poem, one sees a picture brought to life by one’s own imagination.

Classical Chinese poetry is, thus, especially terse and vivid:

床 前 明 月 光
Bed Before Bright Moon Ray

疑 是 地 上 霜
As if Is Ground Above Frost

举 头 望 明 月
Raise Head Gaze Bright Moon

低 头 思 故 乡
Lower Head Think Old Home

Before my bed the bright moon shines
So that it seems like frost on the ground
Raising my head, I gaze at the moon
Lowering my head, I think of my home

Metaphor and Allusion: Chinese characters are also etymological. Chinese characters instantly remind their reader of something from Chinese history, politics and from Chinese conceptions of geography. This makes Chinese characters especially adept at allusion and in making metaphors immediately visible.

Parallelism: Classical Chinese is monosyllabic. Each character represents one word and meaning, creating a word for word parallelism in poetry. For example:

Ancient wood without man track
Deep mountain what place bell

Visual Appeal: Chinese characters truly are an art form. The experience of writing Chinese characters is like the act of painting as seen most poignantly by Chinese calligraphy. In this way, Chinese poetry is both literature and fine art.

Thank you to Jan Walls for being my teacher and mentor.

Sources

Fairbank, John K. and Edwin O. Reischauer, China: Tradition and Transformation (1989).

Hinton, David (Trans.), The Selected Poems of Wang Wei (2006).

Cooper, Arthur (Trans)., Li Po and Tu Fu (Penguin: 1973).

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My Discovery of Russia (IV)

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When I left for Russia, I feared the horror stories would come true. I had been raised to believe that the Russians were a cold, cruel people and I was told that Russia was a racist country.

My fears quickly vanished. I didn’t experience any racism in Russia. I was treated warmly and respected by everyone wherever I went – by my hosts, hostel mates, the people on the streets and at the railway stations and in the shops.

I saw the Russians taking part in the same primordial joys and sorrows we all do: their children kicked and screamed, their street performers shared their music with the world. They embraced the dance of life firmly, earnestly and fearlessly.

Moscow and St. Petersburg are gone, but I can still see myself myself walking alone those canals, taking joy in the fanfare of the World Cup and parading along Nevsky Prospect, one of the greatest thoroughfares I have seen anywhere.

More than anything, my time in Russia taught me more about myself and what it means to be human. In the end understanding triumphed over prejudice and fear:

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.
Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many.
Do not believe in anything simply because it is written in your books.
Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and experts.
Do not believe in stories because they have been handed down for many generations.
But after observation, interaction and your own experience,
when you find that something is good
and that it agrees with your heart,
then accept it as the truth” (the Buddha).

Thank you Russia, for letting me see, experience and discover such good.

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My Discovery of Russia (Part III)

 

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Politics

Naturally, I was going to ask questions about politics and social issues in Russia. I was fortunate to discuss these questions with Dennis, my hostel mate in Moscow who was also Russia.

According to Dennis, Putin isn’t the highest power in Russia. He is in fact a frontman, manager and negotiator for Russia’s ruling families, those “oligarchs” who own major stakes in Russia’s oil, mining and telecommunications industries.

Still, Putin was everywhere. On every street stall and in every Metro station and souvenir shop, I saw his hulking muscles on rather tawdry looking T-shirts, mugs and even on Matryoshka dolls. One shop on Arbat Street in Moscow had a doll with Putin on the outside, and Trump on the inside …

I couldn’t tell how popular Putin really was. Dennis said that most of the younger generation had grown weary of him after his 18 years in power. Still, if anything, Putin struck me more as a symbol of Russian pride and manhood in standing up to the West.

On June 14, 2018, I took the train to St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg was the capital of imperial Russia and the site of the country’s great revolutions. I came here to see the history and I ended up learning more about Russia’s history of revolutions.

In 1881, the Czar Alexander II was assassinated by a group of political revolutionaries. I visited the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood below, which marks the site of his assassination. In 1887, Lenin’s brother was executed for taking part in an attempted assassination of Emperor Alexander III.

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On June 17, 2018, I visited the Hermitage Museum and the Winter Palace, one of the world’s greatest museums and the residence of Russia’s last czars respectively. In front of the Winter Palace is Palace Square (below). This was the site of the Russian Revolution of 1905 which created a legislative assembly and constitution for Imperial Russia.

On November 7, 1917, Lenin’s Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace from Palace Square. They forced the abdication of Nicholas II and created the Soviet Union.

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The Soviet Union ended in 1991. In August 1991, Communist hardliners within the Soviet Union attempted to overthrow the pro-reform Gorbachev and seize control of the government. The Russian people, under the leadership of Yeltsin, rose up and defeated that attempted coup.

Russia may be an authoritarian country, I thought, but Russians don’t take it lying down.

Gender and Sexuality

I was struck by how clearly the genders are demarcated in Russia.

The Russian men were jacked. They wore tight T-shirts and muscle shirts. The (younger) Russian women meanwhile often looked like Barbie dolls, wearing skimpy little tops and showing off as much leg as possible.

 

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I saw men and women holdings hands everywhere. It was a Barbie and Ken fantasy.

What I didn’t see were any gays or lesbians openly expressing their affection. Homosexuality isn’t illegal in Russia, but “promoting” it in public is. I looked up some gay clubs in St. Petersburg, but when I found them, they were housed in dark, indiscreet buildings, with tinted windows and an intercom at the door.

 

 

 

 

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