Jesus, Jazz, and Buddhism
Welcome from Jay McDaniel
This website is dedicated to exploring possibilities for creative and compassionate living which blend insights from East Asian and American traditions. Our focus is on music, poetry, literature, film, and the arts. We want to encourage a certain kind of thinking – namely East-West thinking -- which combines Asian and Western attitudes toward life. And we want to encourage a way of living which we call dwelling musically in the world.
To dwell musically in the world is not to listen to music all the time, but it is to take the activities of listening and music-making as keys to how life can be lived. We can listen to the voices of other people and the natural world with the respect and attention given to music we enjoy and we can respond by trying to make music with them, adding beauty of our own. The beauty we add can be a kind word to a friend, offering a helping hand to a stranger, caring for animals, or dancing barefoot in the moonlight. Whenever we act in the world in healing ways we are adding a moment of beauty to the world, a scrap of light, a fresh melody. Even justice is an act of music-making, a fresh melody, a kind of harmony.
We believe that East-West thinking and musical dwelling can be facilitated by the organic philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead was a philosopher and mathematician worldview which bears remarkable resemblance to Asian points of view, even as it is simultaneously influenced by western science, religion, and the arts. In his own way he was an East-West thinker. In the spirit of Buddhism, he talked about a fluid and interconnected universe in which all things are present in one another even as they have their independence; and in the spirit of Jesus he talked about a lure toward goodness within the human heart, who beckons humans to care for the poor and powerless of the world. In his major work, Process and Reality, he named this spirit “God.”
Whitehead envisioned the world on the analogy of music and, even more specifically, on the analogy of an improvisational jazz concert. This does not mean that the world is always pretty. Witness the violence and greed and despair. Witness the loss of life and the absence of love. There is too much unspeakable suffering, and too much missed potential, to say that the world is an ode to joy. Nevertheless, for Whitehead, the world is music-like in that it is a fluid and evolving process composed of events that come into existence and then pass away, like musical notes of varying durations in an ongoing concert. Mountains are events, rivers are events, and people are events. Some events last longer than others but all arise and then perish. And each event is a blending of influences from other sources. In its creativity it transcends the strict determinism of the past. It displays what the Chinese call a continuous creativity – a qi – which is always here and now, always spontaneous, and always expressing itself in the sheer as-it-is-ness of whatever is.
Of course there is more to life than change. Amid the changes there are recurring patterns, the most general of which are the laws of nature. The sun rises and sets; the seasons come and go; protons bond with neutrons. Science does an excellent job of discerning the mathematical dimensions of these patterns, and this is part of its gift. Life occurs in the concreteness of actual events as they interact with one another, and sometimes the arts do a much better job of displaying this concreteness. The columns in the website are devoted music, the arts, and poetry, but even more specifically in the poetry of everyday life: the attitudes and values, the moods and emotions, which constitute our very souls, moment by moment.
The larger context for our website is cultural globalization. This is the worldwide process amid which ideas, attitudes, values, and practices originating in one part of the world are abstracted or de-territorialized from the cultural settings in which they originated; such that they circulate around the world by means of the internet, the arts, education, travel, commerce, and immigration; and are then relocated or re-territorialized in other settings. The natural outcome of this globalization is cross-cultural blending or, to use the language of anthropology, cultural hybridity. This hybridity can be conflicted or harmonious, conscious or unconscious, voluntary or involuntary, healthy or unhealthy. Of course we are interested in hybridity of the constructive kind. We hope the columns in the site contribute to that end.
In developing the columns we are especially indebted to the pioneering work of Dr. Zhihe Wang of the Institute for the Constructive Postmodern Development of China: (www.postmodernchina.org). There are now more than fifteen centers for Whiteheadian studies in China, thanks to his efforts; and many scholars are now working on possibilities in public policy for a “constructively postmodern” China that is guided by wisdom from East and West. This website is a complement to the work of IPDC, oriented toward the “constructive postmodern development” of the United States, too. As we see things, a “constructively postmodern” China and a “constructively postmodern” America will be unique but parallel. Both will have as their ideal the possibility that communities can be creative, compassionate, participatory, ecologically wise, and spiritually satisfying, with no one left behind. These kinds of communities need responsible public policy, the rule of law, creative education, healthy family life, and a wide range of other objective conditions. But they also need people with the qualities of mind and heart who seek such communities in the first place and help build them. They need people who can dwell musically in the world.