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Lions Roar : January 2016
BODHI CHATTER Dharma, pop culture, and good-natured gossip. Taking its name from the Buddhist monk Ajahn Chah’s charac- terization of the Western mindset, composer Rolf Hind’s Lost in Thought premiered in London this September, billed as the world’s first “meditation opera.” Hind says his work is the result of his own meditation experiences, as first tasted in a silent week- end retreat: “Observing the contents of one’s mind and gently returning to a focus such as the sensation of breath seemed to open up realms of experience I’d never visited before.” His opera’s music shifts in weight—sometimes, it’s an object of mindfulness; sometimes it’s a “stand-in” for the talk a Buddhist teacher might give in the retreat setting. In fact, the opera is meant to mimic the structure of such a retreat, its program reading simply, “Sit. Walk. Sit. Eat. Wash up. Sit. Rest. Waking up. Sit. Play. Walk. Chant. Sit. Breaking the silence.” Speaking of: audiences are not only asked to sit in meditation and eat communally, but to be silent for the opera’s full four hours, even surrendering their mobile phones. So, naturally, we expect “an even longer and more boring night at the opera” to be the next big craze. • • • The ongoing collision of technology and dharma is, as Vincent Horn writes on page 13, rife with both promise and pitfalls. So what are we to make of Xian’er, developed by Chinese artificial intelligence experts to, as ShanghaiList reports, “sense his surroundings and answer deep questions about Buddhism?” Already well-known as an animated character who teaches Buddhist concepts, Xian’er is now firmly in the third dimension, armed with a touch-sensitive tablet device and a social- media account. Plenty of real-life workers have of course lost their jobs to robots, so should Buddhist monks and teachers be worried? Not yet. After all, without Master Xianshu, the monk who “authors” him, all Xian’er can teach us is how to sit—very, very still. • • • This year’s new series of cult- favorite BBC show Doctor Who was preceded by “The Doctor’s Meditation,” a theatrically released mini-episode that presented the titular hero taking up, well, meditation. Or so you’d think, given the title. But this usually more fantastical show took a more realistic approach when it came to meditation, depicting the Doc going to great lengths to put it off. Again and again he distracts himself: “I can’t meditate properly without decent water!” he announces. After more than a week of looking for water, he digs a well, and when that’s done, he busies himself with magic tricks, and even builds a “visitor’s center” to complete his well. After twenty-one days, he’s still futzing about, rearranging candles and such to prepare for when he finally does sit. “Enough, magi- cian!” challenges Bors, the Doctor’s foil. “I do not believe you will meditate.” Poor Bors ends up meeting an ugly fate, but he was on to something: not practicing can take take up a lot more energy than simply sitting down and following your breath. For that, there’s no magic required. • • • Perhaps Doctor Who could take a lesson from Hillary Rodham Clinton, who seems to know how to bring meditation into even the most trying day. The former U.S. Secretary of State copped to using meditation during the breaks in her eleven hours of House Select Committee testimony on Beng- hazi this fall. Of course, her presidential campaign director applied a bit of Twitter spin after the fact: “In response to many inquiries, Hillary Clinton did not actually meditate dur- ing the breaks at the hearing. She’s naturally that Zen.” ♦ This Issue’s Dharma-Burger If evoking Buddhist imagery is a “plus” as far as selling trinkets and spa visits goes, then surely the same principle applies to, say, Russian president Vladimir Putin—right? Widely considered to be anti-demo- cratic, Putin was nonetheless recently painted as a true man of the people in a London exhibition that unironically depicted him in the guises of several admirable figures, including Batman, Con- fucius, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and yes, the Buddha. Nyet, spaseeba! SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2016 18 CULTURE • LIFE • PRACTICE