How Buddhist practice revealed a fresh perspective on Islam for me

“Happiness is here and now

I have dropped my worries

Somewhere to go – something to do

But no longer in a hurry”

– A monastic song

Recently I attended several mindfulness camps with monastics in Hong Kong. Now beyond the awe a newbie might associate with Zen – not least a chance for something experiential. What struck me was the potency of guided meditative exercises that were practiced to, ‘center’ the participants, decompress, or simply put, relax the mind. My limited exposure to Buddhism can be summarized in the following key words (phrases):

  • A hour long 8th grade, opinionated history lesson about Ashoka, Nirvana, and Enlightenment.
  • A very popular religion.
  • A colleague who once said he is a Buddhist.
  • Militant Buddhists in Burma and plight of the Rohingya Muslims.
  • The Dalai Lama.
  • Jeff Bridges characters in Hollywood films.

The contrast between realizing the potential application of a philosophy new to me and my rudimentary knowledge of it was humbling. Moreover so as the communitarian, harmonious and meditative underpinnings can be only understood properly through experience and practice.

And more practice.

I also couldn’t help but wonder whether Islam, my religion of birth, operated in a similar fashion. Does increasing the frequency of practices and rituals prescribed in the Islamic school of thought lead to a greater understanding of Islam? I remember my childhood when I would make conscientious effort to pray and how on most occasions my mind would constantly drift around mundane everyday tasks. As I have reached 30, I barely practice. Reverence to God and death aside there is little actual relevance of the Holy in my life.

These are just some reflections. Muslim faith and understanding of life and Islam I suppose does increase as time passes. Perhaps the issue I’m really raising here is the practicality of theistic as opposed to non-theistic religions in present times. Or is it the virtue of practicing multiple religions?

Whatever debate I’ve stumbled upon today and however strong the potency of mindfulness exercises one thing is abundantly clear; practicing Buddhism showed me a fresh perspective on Islam. It compelled me to give new meaning to old Islamic practices I’m familiar with and that I usually find confounding. For someone who often questions the value of ‘being a Muslim’ this is important.

I’m not advocating Buddhist practice over Islam here. But of why fresh and comparative perspectives are necessary. Perhaps for you it would be some other religion, person, ideology or life choice. As long as effort is made to open up to others. Searching for similarities rather than differences with it or them.

For it gives us a chance to better understand our own selves and our role in this World.

On conferences and dharnas

Happy new year everyone! There have been many firsts in 2015 – the first time I traveled the most; to amazing new places in Dubai, Thailand, Denmark, Germany and Netherlands – the first time I got a visa three hours before the flight – the first time I went to an academic conference – and a few others not agreeable with the topic of this post. I hope 2016 will bring many more exciting firsts  to all of us. Needless to say my life has moved forward at a pace so breathtaking that I often struggle to hold on to all those intricate details and make sense of them. But as with all issues in life its useful to break them down to manageable parts.

This post will be on my journey to Denmark particularly attending the Communication & Democracy section 2015 at the European Communication Research and Education (ECREA) conference.

A bit on the journey itself first. I have been working on a paper that aims to explore the role of Dharnas (‘curated sit-ins’ as I like to call them) in citizen mobilisations in Pakistan. So I was very excited when it got accepted at ECREA.  Coincidentally, the visa process to visit Copenhagen Business School, where the conference was to be held, clashed with myriad other administrative and academic duties. As a result I cut the deadlines to travel rather close. In fact, I wasn’t sure if I’d even go until five hours before the flight! Thankfully, the 14 hour flight was just enough to prepare a presentation, shave and look presentable. Although I wouldn’t recommend working under dim lights of the economy class for writing anything important.

Any way, I landed in Copenhagen at first light and went straight to the conference with my luggage where I presented with a 10% battery left on the Mac. I did ok for a first, received some comments but the real reward however was showing this to a very ‘non-Pakistani’ audience:

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The format for this intimate conference over the next two days was typical. Plenary sessions, usually taken over by superstar scholars in the field followed by refreshments before the 200-300 modest gathering breaks down in to a number of themes. These themes formed the meat of the proceedings. The subject matters varied widely – some of the papers I will mention shortly – although conforming to the general theme and loosely bound to European events. For me a fascinating aspect was the program, based on which one could switch between halls to listen to any topic or presenter they fancied. So there was a constant shuffling of people taking notes between presentations. But the two topics I enjoyed listening the most were:

Activism: an ambiguous word for an ambivalent age 

A keynote speech by Prof. Goubin Yang based on his upcoming book. He talked about how the definition of the word activism has increasingly shed its more revolutionary color and how that corresponds to activism increasingly being practiced as passive resistance in contemporary times. Which also means that activism has become rather institutionalised where, no one is ever pro-government or pro-corporation any more.

Commercial Nationalism, Advertising and the Crisis: Political Agency and Resistance 

A paper by Dr. Eleftheria Lekakis on how advertising attempts to mobilise political agency through the platform of a brand and the reception, in terms of acceptance or resistance, that this holds. She took the case study of Johnnie Walker Whiskey’s global campaign to demonstrate how commercial enterprises frame national identity.

My interest in them stemmed from the wave of activism and vigour leading up to May 2013 and the opposition marches later on. And of course the brand Pakistan in local advertising has been ‘done to death’ but never seems to die.

There were also ample opportunities to network in between presentations, refreshment and lunch breaks, a cocktail reception for participants and also one could simply go out for dinner later. On one such moments I chanced upon a Professor from CityU, someone who I have been meaning to speak to. He had done a Twitter Analysis of May 2013 General Elections with findings I was keen to debate. (If you guys can’t access it let me know).

In all it was a refreshing affair. To present your ideas, meet scholars with similar interests, get a feel for the latest trends and explore a new city. Coming from Hong Kong, Copenhagen seemed to me rather quite. You could be walking around the city centre and run in to the parliament building without realising. Very peaceful and scenic. Nightlife is great in that it made me wonder whether the wild drunk hoards I usually encountered in England are an English phenomenon. Europe is certainly different as my time in Berlin and an evening in Amsterdam showed. But lets save that for another time.

Dubai: the other Middle East

View of the Marina from a restaurant at Pier 7.
View of the Dubai Marina from a restaurant at Pier 7. Do you find it similar to Hong Kong promenades?

I have been living in Hong Kong’s Kowloon Tong district for about an year now and have grown rather fond of this gentrified district. There is something here for everyone; if you are an early riser it would hard to miss the municipal parks teeming with the elderly doing some interpretation of Tai Chi, during rush hours people of all demographics conceivable traversing through the efficient MTR (metro) on their way to schools, financial district near Causeway Bay or the retail hubs in Tsim Sha Tsui and Mong Kok. The night life is vibrant and secure while the people are courteous, educated and civilised.

But much closer to my home town of Karachi, approximately an hour and 45 minutes away by plane, is another great trade and finance hub in the region, namely Dubai. I always had a very negative association of Dubai; not least due to its strong ties with the oil industries and the political turmoil that the Arab world seems to be perpetually engulfed in. I recall a time in my career when I seriously contemplated traveling here for work but realised that the Communication Industry there is limited in scope. The Arab arrogance is notorious also and those preoccupied with Marx such as myself finds it appalling. So when I did get opportunities to travel I chose Turkey and the United Kingdom instead, in a bid to distance myself from the Pakistan-Arab nexus. (Its ironic though that years later in Hong Kong, an American colleague would exclaim “Hey Ayaz, you are my first Arab muslim male friend!”) So much for my Pakistani identity.

On Sheikh Zayed road in the evening.
On Sheikh Zayed Road the main artery of the city.

Despite my erratic career trajectory and refusal to settle for a tourist trap my first visit to Dubai was quite experiential. Beyond the desert safaris and fancy hotels, I found my friends working their comfortable and well paid. There is also a high sense of security, just what foreigners are looking for. The city is after all a success story of modernity in the Arab world, as it transitions its unique proposition from oil to global trade joining the ranks of multicultural port cities (states). Thus standing out as a model for lesser developed Arab countries to aspire towards. As a British protectorate between 1822-1971, Dubai shares a Commonwealth heritage similar to Karachi and Hong Kong. I comprehend now how little I actually know about this other side of the Middle East. A far cry from framed news stories on CNN and BBC.

But now that I have witnessed the mana unique to Dubai would I consider living their? An year ago it would be a straight off no! I mean the human resource development in Hong Kong, supported by soft power initiatives of China, right now parallels the most advanced countries. It has after all a GDP per capita equal to that of United States. It is obvious that Dubai still has a long way to go in terms of top notch health, affordable education and diversification of selling proposition. But these considerations are in the abstract and I find that my question is not relevant any more. People adapt and make their lives wherever they live and work. That is an adage. I suppose it was a combination of cultural phobias and divergent career paths which held me clear off these castles in the sand. I wonder how my personality and life would have shaped though had I visited much earlier. As I have sung praises of Turkey, United Kingdom and Hong Kong with a progressively loud pomp so too I suspect have the Dubai tour come to pass.

Global Village center, site of the Dubai Shopping Festival and the much anticipated Expo 2020.
Global Village center, site of the Dubai Shopping Festival and the much anticipated Expo 2020.

There is a class of upwardly mobile people all around the world riding the wave of post-modernity as it sweeps away everyone willing to cash it, leaving behind everything that hesitates in its wake. There are many American and British emigrants in Hong Kong who have relinquished their nationalities to avoid taxes and other assorted purposes. So is the large diaspora of Pakistan, Philippines, India and Bangladesh found all over the world that we are too familiar with. As we meet new people in our professions we find similar life stories and narratives. The other Middle East is one such story and there is much still we can learn from it.

‘Changing the world’ as a goal is as narcissistic a view as ‘becoming famous’

It is a claim that you alone are special, you alone care and you alone have the right. The image is not intended as an attack on any religious belief. It has a symbolic and satirical purpose.

A few days ago I was forwarded an article written by Manal A. Khan on how our ambitious career plans in college appear on hindsight upon touching 30. I found it comforting that people my age share the paradox of going through education systems that hammer down the notion of zealous personal ambitions and save-the-world attitude while, upon hitting some semblance of career stability, realise that it’s the ‘process’ that really matters. In this piece I will establish a thread from her general message in to pursuing PhD studies.

PhD studies or work in the knowledge economy in general is like work in any other industry. I chose this for my commentary because the eccentric admission process, the high self-motivation and work flexibility are supposedly the hallmarks of independent research work, similar to some values mentioned by Khan. However one year down, I have emphatically realised how political research work really is. By political I don’t just mean ideological but many outside factors that shape knowledge creation.

Take research area as an example. I was very selective about choosing literature for my work on the Pakistani media industry. As an emerging academic of the global south, it is imperative that I borrow extensively from theoretical frameworks that are grounded on developing countries. This means working under supervisors with similar focus or at least expertise on developing countries. However, rarely do new PhD students get supervisors of their choice in this increasingly saturated and bureaucratised industry. As a result their frameworks and indeed research area may be directed by their supervisors.

Timeliness and location plays another important role. As a resource constrained actor, how do you study a community thousands of miles away? There are limitations to my data collection on Pakistan; the personal/guanxi culture, elite research paradigm and the expense of traveling to and fro from Hong Kong for instance. This effects what meaningful questions I can ask and expect to answer. In the beginning I was envious of my Chinese colleagues for whom it is much easier to collect data on China. I do realise now how incorporating Chinese literature adds value to my work even though it comes at the expense of foregoing data on some communities in Karachi. Lack of access much?

Finally, and this is my favourite; our personal lives do not stop while we are embarking on ambitious plans to ‘save the world’. Many PhD students are in the middle of their careers thus juggling a balance between social security (immigration), marriage and/or proposals, kids, parents, jobs and their research is a truism. This effects the choices mentioned above besides adding another dimension to how a researchers decision making is influenced.

A PhD graduate told me once that when he first started the program he had big plans ‘to move mountains’ and creating vital knowledge that would change lives of ‘ordinary people’. In reality the program simply trains you to carry out independent research work. That is it. It takes decades for scholars to refine their methods, develop a following and master an area to make some meaningful contribution. And, since research work usually is far ahead of its time it takes years for its practical impact to trickle down. The only thing within your control is perseverance for your work and strategic decision making to interact with outside influences. That is all you can reasonably expect from yourself. Setting a goal like ‘changing the world’ is as narcissistic a view as ‘becoming famous’. It is a claim that you alone are special, you alone care and you alone have the right. I agree with Khan that great people didn’t set ‘changing the world’ in their bucket lists. They just continued to make good use of their strengths.