Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What's in a name?

Why "egregores"?

An egregore is almost, but perhaps not quite, a living Being. It is not quite a living being in the full sense because it probably does not have sufficient independence to be called that. Yet it is alive, aware and intelligent (after a fashion), and very active. An egregore comes into existence through the interactions of mortal human beings and divine Beings. This is where the dependency of the egregore comes in. An egregore must be sustained by the ongoing interactions of humans and Spirits, or else the egregore will dissipate and cease to exist.

An egregore is more "real", stable, and powerful than your average "group mind" astral thingy. But it is "lower" than a God-form. God-forms can (thank the Gods) survive for long periods without much (but probably not without any) active participation of human beings. A God-form is not a God, but rather, as the name implies, the "form" of a God that is knowable by humans.

I have read more precise Qabalistic definitions of egregores, especially in the writings of Denning and Phillips (Ogdoadic Magi extraordinaire). Bascically when a sufficient number of people over sufficiently long periods of time share a common set of symbols, ritual acts, etc, with respect to some specific God or group of Gods, a new Being is created: an egregore. The Gods being worshipped already existed, but these Gods have responded to some particular group of humans who have called upon Them. So an egregore is basically a relationship, one might even get all Biblical and say that an egregore is a covenant. But it is not just that - it is a covenant "come to life". And like all that is born, it is mortal.

I like to think of an egregore as a dance in which one partner is human and the other divine. The music is all of the rituals, iconography, etc, that defines a particular "tradition". When the humans and divinities come together, they strike up the music ... and the dance begins.

Gabriel Emerson has put together a compilation of definitions of "egregore":

And here is an essay written by occultist Walter Ernest Butler of the Servants of the Light Mystery School:

And here is an essay by Phil Hine:

My interest in the word comes from the fact that an egregore, to the limited extent that I understand the term, only comes into existence when a given spiritual path is lived. It is not a result of mere "belief", it can only come about as a result of what Gandhi-ji called "a constant heart-churn". When Gandhi said that he was talking specifically about renunciation, but really I think he was describing devotion in the truest, widest, and best sense. One common perspective found in Hinduism is that there are (at least) four kinds of Yoga: bhakti (devotion), jnana (knowledge), raja (meditation), and karma (works). I think this is a useful idea - but only if it realized that (1) we must have all four, and (2) bhakti takes precedence over the other three.

Of course the greatest of care is called for in deciding what to devote oneself to.

[The cool image at the top of this post is the logo for a small publishing house called Egregore Press, with which I have no affiliation. But they do have a catchy name, don't they?]

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The varieties of sceptical thought, Part Two: Don't know much about ... death

"A highly peculiar masterpiece"
In his Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes Laertius nonchalantly tells us that Socrates was "the first to discourse on the conduct of life, and the first philosopher who was tried and put to death." Diogenes does not offer an opinion as to whether or not these two things are connected, but even if it is not his intention, he certainly raises that question.

In what way did Socrates "discourse on the conduct of life"? Socrates was concerned especially with what he called "the proper care of the soul", but it must be emphasized that for Socrates "caring for the soul" was not some special activity set apart from the rest of one's life, it is something that permeates every aspect of living one's life. In fact, more than anything else, how we care for our souls is synonymous with how we live our lives, at least in Socrates' view.

Socrates dedicated himself to discussing with his fellow Athenians how we should live, that is, how we should care for our souls. And in return they put him on trial and executed him. But "the first philosopher who was tried and put to death" did not go quietly. Socrates used his defense speech to turn the tables and put his accusers on trial. That speech is justifiably considered to be a masterpiece of soaring rhetoric. But the function of rhetoric is to win over one's audience, and this Socrates failed to do: a (narrow) majority of the jury voted to convict him.

Here is how R.E. Allen assesses the speech:
[T]he Apology is a highly peculiar masterpiece. Socrates constructs an engine of rhetoric according to a well-marked plan. But engines have a function, and the function of forensic rhetoric is to win conviction if prosecuting and win acquittal if accused. The engine Socrates constructs does not work this way at all. Far from aiming at acquittal, the speech avowedly aims at telling the truth in accordance with justice even if the truth leads to conviction. [Allen 1984, p.64]
While it is true that the jury sentenced Socrates to die, Diogenes Laertius writes that "not long after" the execution, "the Athenians felt remorse." He even states that those who had brought the accusations against Socrates were banished from the city, except for one, who was himself put to death, and that the city of Athens then erected a bronze statue in Socrates' honor. [DL II.42-44]

Socrates' speech to the jury was a seamless of continuation of how he had lived his life. This is one of the things that seems to evade people who puzzle over why Socrates acted as he did at the end of his life. But all one has to do is to look carefully at what Socrates had said and done leading up to his trial, and to realize that he really meant what he had been saying all along.

"Not knowing very much about the other world, I do not think I know."
At a pivotal point in Socrates' speech he says "But perhaps someone might say: 'Are you then not ashamed, Socrates, of having followed such a pursuit, that you are now in danger of being put to death as a result?'" This is an important question to answer: if Socrates' conduct has been lawful and even admirable, why does he now find himself so widely hated? But Socrates insists that anyone who poses such an objection does not "speak well":
You are wrong if you think a man in whom there is even a little merit ought to consider danger of life or death, and not rather regard this only, when he does things, whether the things he does are right or wrong and the acts of a good or a bad man. For according to your argument all the demigods would be bad who died at Troy, including the son of Thetis, who so despised danger, in comparison with enduring any disgrace, that when his mother (and she was a goddess) said to him, as he was eager to slay Hector, something like this, I believe, “My son, if you avenge the death of your friend Patroclus and kill Hector, you yourself shall die; for straightway, after Hector, is death appointed unto you; he, when he heard this, made light of death and danger, and feared much more to live as a coward and not to avenge his friends, and said, “Straightway may I die, after doing vengeance upon the wrongdoer, that I may not stay here, jeered at beside the curved ships, a burden of the earth.”. Do you think he considered death and danger?

For thus it is, men of Athens, in truth; wherever a man stations himself, thinking it is best to be there, or is stationed by his commander, there he must, as it seems to me, remain and run his risks, considering neither death nor any other thing more than disgrace.

So I should have done a terrible thing, if, when the commanders whom you chose to command me stationed me, both at Potidaea and at Amphipolis and at Delium, I remained where they stationed me, like anybody else, and ran the risk of death, but when the god gave me a station, as I believed and understood, with orders to spend my life in philosophy and in examining myself and others, then I were to desert my post through fear of death or anything else whatsoever. It would be a terrible thing, and truly one might then justly hale me into court, on the charge that I do not believe that there are gods, since I disobey the oracle and fear death and think I am wise when I am not.

For to fear death, gentlemen, is nothing else than to think one is wise when one is not; for it is thinking one knows what one does not know. For no one knows whether death be not even the greatest of all blessings to man, but they fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils. And is not this the most reprehensible form of ignorance, that of thinking one knows what one does not know? Perhaps, gentlemen, in this matter also I differ from other men in this way, and if I were to say that I am wiser in anything, it would be in this, that not knowing very much about the other world, I do not think I know. But I do know that it is evil and disgraceful to do wrong and to disobey him who is better than I, whether he be god or man. So I shall never fear or avoid those things concerning which I do not know whether they are good or bad rather than those which I know are bad.

And therefore, even if you acquit me now and are not convinced by Anytus, who said that either I ought not to have been brought to trial at all, or since was brought to trial, I must certainly be put to death, adding that if I were acquitted your sons would all be utterly ruined by practicing what I teach—if you should say to me in reply to this: “Socrates, this time we will not do as Anytus says, but we will let you go, on this condition, however, that you no longer spend your time in this investigation or in philosophy, and if you are caught doing so again you shall die”; if you should let me go on this condition which I have mentioned, I should say to you, “Men of Athens, I respect and love you, but I shall obey the God rather than you, and while I live and am able to continue, I shall never give up philosophy or stop exhorting you and pointing out the truth to any one of you whom I may meet, saying in my accustomed way: “Most excellent man, are you who are a citizen of Athens, the greatest of cities and the most famous for wisdom and power, not ashamed to care for the acquisition of wealth and for reputation and honor, when you neither care nor take thought for wisdom and truth and the perfection of your soul?” And if any of you argues the point, and says he does care, I shall not let him go at once, nor shall I go away, but I shall question and examine and cross-examine him, and if I find that he does not possess virtue, but says he does, I shall rebuke him for scorning the things that are of most importance and caring more for what is of less worth.

This I shall do to whomever I meet, young and old, foreigner and citizen, but most to the citizens, inasmuch as you are more nearly related to me. For know that the god commands me to do this, and I believe that no greater good ever came to pass in the city than my service to the god. For I go about doing nothing else than urging you, young and old, not to care for your persons or your property more than for the perfection of your souls, or even so much; and I tell you that virtue does not come from money, but from virtue comes money and all other good things to man, both to the individual and to the state. If by saying these things I corrupt the youth, these things must be injurious; but if anyone asserts that I say other things than these, he says what is untrue. Therefore I say to you, men of Athens, either do as Anytus tells you, or not, and either acquit me, or not, knowing that I shall not change my conduct even if I am to die many times over."
[28b-30c, Harold North Fowler translation]
Here is my own summary of the above:
(1) Socrates uses Homer's Iliad (modestly comparing himself to Achilles!) to remind his audience that courage is a basic virture of the Hellenes, and that anyone who fails to do what is right out of fear of death is a coward and a "burden of the earth".
(2) Then Socrates recounts his own military service ("at Potidaea and at Amphipolis and at Delium"), not to boast, but simply to once again remind his audience that not "remaining at one's station" even "at the risk of death" is "a terrible thing", and that if Socrates had failed to "obey the oracle" out of fear of the consequences then his fellow Athenians would be right and justified in hating him.
(3) But then Socrates subtly switches his argument. Fearing death is not only cowardly, it is presuming to know what one does not know, unless one knows what death really is (that is, what awaits us in "the other world").
(4) And now Socrates states (once again) that there is, perhaps, one way in which he truly is wiser than others: "that not knowing very much about the other world, I do not think I know."
(5) But no sooner has Socrates proclaimed that he does not know "very much" about the other world, he unconditionally asserts that the does know "that it is evil and disgraceful to do wrong and to disobey him who is better than I, whether he be God or man."
(6) At this point Socrates then renounces what we might today call "plea bargaining". He states that he does not wish to be acquitted if this entails the condition that he refrain from carrying on as he has always done. He assures the jury that if he is freed he will continue to do "as the God commands me to do", and that he would do so even if it were possible to kill him "many times over"!

[The entire text of the Apology is available online here. That is Benjamin Jowett's translation - the translation used above is by Fowler, which can be found at the Perseus website.]

The Varieties of Sceptical Thought:
[1] Sceptical Scepticism
[2] Socrates on Death
[3] Socrates' Advice to the Jury
[4] Richard Popkin
[5] Overview of the Trial of Socrates
[6] "Socrates of all mortals is the wisest"  

Monday, April 27, 2009

"The Zendo is not a mental hospital"

Once during a retreat led by the late Deshimaru Roshi one of the retreatants started acting in a very bizarre manner. She was screaming and running around - when she was supposed to be, like everyone else, sitting perfectly still and silently. Or maybe I'm not remembering the story right - it might have been during a question and answer session, not a silent zazen session. In any case her behavior was extremely disruptive, and Roshi insisted that she leave the retreat, and he explained that "the Zendo is not a mental hospital."*

First of all let's be very clear: a Zen meditation retreat is not a time or place where "anything goes". All participants are assumed to be capable of making the kinds of commitments necessary for such a reteat. In particular, retreats are conducted mostly in silence, and there are many rules governing everyone's behavior throughout the entire retreat. These rules are an integral part of a Zen retreat, and everyone knows what they are going into it (or at least they should, and as adults they are expected to prepare themselves properly before a retreat). A person who cannot remain quiet and still or in any other way can't follow the rules simply has no business at a retreat in the first place.

One reason I am bringing this up is that the issue of Zen and mental illness seems to be making the rounds these days. Brad Warner has recently written an article on the question of whether or not Zazen might be dangerous for some people, in particular for trauma survivors (clicking this link will take you directly to the article at Suicide Girls, but as Brad sometime mentions on his website: "You don't need to be a member to view this article and you will not be able to see any naked pictures on this page. So don't worry!"). Even before Warner's article came out, an online Buddhist discussion list I've belonged to off and on since the mid-90's, Buddha-l, also had a discussion lasting several days on basically the same subject. And now just today the NYT has an article about a 63 year old Zen teacher who had a severe psychological crisis which led him into psychotherapy (click on this link to go to the article - unfortunately it does require membership but you still won't see any nekid pictures). And that article, in turn, is now being discussed on another online Buddhism discussion group, the Zen Forum International.

But really the main thing prompting me to write on this subject is the recent suicide of JW Harrington, longtime Executive Director of the Kwan Um School of Zen, which I used to be a member of. I didn't know JW closely. I had probably only met him in person once or twice, and had exchanged emails with him on several other occasions when I was still a member of the KUSZ. But he was such a presence in the KUSZ, really and truly a "fixture" in the best possible sense. A grounded, serene, friendly, and incredibly competent and hard-working guy. He always gave me the impression of being "above it all", while at the same time still knowing exactly what was going on all around him. I know next to nothing about the circumstances, but I read on one blog that he had jumped off a bridge and that he had been sick for several months.

One of my closest friends of my youth, Steve Millen, also committed suicide. But that was almost 20 years ago now. He had attempted suicide by taking a drug overdoes on the night of Thanksgiving, 1990. At the last minute he called 911. But then on Christmas night he jumped from the top of Ballantine Hall on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington, and died. Steve made a big impression on lots of people throughout his life. There's even a discussion group dedicated to his memory: "Rebel Without a Cough". The name is inspired by Steve's life-long love-affair with recreational drugs in general and Robitussin-DM in particular. Steve's friends and fans have also created a web archive of the 'zine that Steve put out irregularly during the last 5 or so years of his life: Tussin Up.

Anyway, I bring up Steve, well, because I can't help but think of him whenever the subject of suicide comes up. But not just that. From a very early age Steve was a political activist and all around troublemaker and provocateur. His friends were revolutionaries, punk-rockers, college students, college professors, Bloomington "townies" (like himself) and so forth. He had talents, friends, ideals, and a full and exciting life. But he was plagued with inner demons. I know it sounds cliche - but I don't know how else to put it. He was severely manic-depressive, and suffered periods of intense depression. He had already been in therapy for years by the time I met him (when he was still in his early 20's).

And here is my point: people view mental illness and/or suicide as some kind of failure. Steve Millen was an idealist and an activist, but his idealism and activism "failed" to alleviate his manic-depression. JW Harrington and Louis Nordstrom practiced Zen Buddhism for decades, and all that meditation "failed" to make them better.

I think Deshimaru Roshi was absolutely right, "the Zendo is not a mental hospital". That doesn't mean, fortunately for me, that maladjusted people are not welcome. It just means that everyone is expected to "sit down and shut up" as Brad Warner said in the title of one of his books. And that applies to everyone equally: there is no discrimination for or against anyone on the basis of their supposed mental health or lack thereof. In fact, precisely because the Zendo is not a place to come to "get better" it is the place to come "as you are".

I'll even go one better than Deshimaru Roshi: this world is not a mental hospital, and our lives are not "therapy". How we live our lives is of great importance. But going through life trying to get better can be a lousy way to live - if it means constantly trying to be or wanting to be what you are not. But it's also not as if we don't need to get better - a lot better. BUT in trying to get better we cannot afford to disregard the assistance of our loving friends and teachers - just because they happen to be basket cases just like we are.

*[Note added later: The incident is described in Deshimaru Roshi's book "Sit: Zen teachings of Master Taisen Deshimaru", on pages 22-26. I wrote the above post from memory without consulting the book, which I hadn't read for quite a while. Deshimaru actually did not say "The Zendo is not a mental hospital" - he said "The Dojo is a holy place, not a hospital." But I think "The Zendo is not a mental hospital" has a much better ring to it. It's what he should have said. Besides, why can't a hospital be a "holy place"??]

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Amma is coming to DC

Sri Karunamayi, revered in India as an embodiment of divine love, is currently touring the United States. Sri Karunamayi will be in the Washington DC area for three days in May: Wednesday May 20 - Friday May 22.

Amma, as her devotees call her, is an extremely accessible teacher, although she is at the same time also a very traditional "Hindu Guru". She emanates pure joy everywhere she goes, and she is also a great scholar of the ancient Sanatana Dharma ("Hinduism"). At the age of 21 Amma traveled on foot to the sacred Penusila Forest and spent the next 10 years meditating in seclusion. Her parents are both devout Hindus, and she had always been deeply spiritual even as a young girl, so her intense period of practice from the age of 21 to 31 was a continuation of a path she had already been on her entire life. Even while her mother had been pregnant both of her parents had dreams and visions predicting that their child would dedicate her life to serving humanity as a spiritual teacher.

Wherever she goes, Sri Karunamayi teaches people how to make use of powerful Sanskrit mantras such as the Saraswati mantra, Gayatri mantra, and Mrutyunjaya mantra, as well as longer traditional chants such as the Samputita Sri Suktam and the Sri Lalita Sahasranama Stotram. But she also places great emphasis on the practice of silent meditation, and she will be leading a day-long meditation retreat as part of her DC visit.

A brief biography of Sri Karunamayi is here:

More information on the DC part of her tour is here:

The following is taken from her website:
Amma’s Mission

In this modern world, countless indigenous peoples have lost their cultural bearings and their connection to the Earth due to the forces of modernization and commercialization. This has nearly always been disastrous for their health, happiness and well-being. For the sake of preserving India’s spiritual culture and safeguarding it against these forces, and of restrictive interpretations, Amma has dedicated her life to giving discourses, holding sacred ceremonies, and creating numerous audio and video recordings so that future generations will not have to mourn the loss of the unique and precious culture based in Sanatana Dharma.

Keeping the Flame Alive

In Sanatana Dharma, all the elements within Nature are held to be sacred and inherently pure. However, it is believed that physical pollution as well as the subtle pollution of humanity’s violence and selfishness creates stress within the natural environment. For the purification and release of all forms of negativity, India’s ancient sages recommended the holy yajna, or homa ceremony, above all others.

A homa is a fire ceremony that seeks to honor all forms of the Divine through the sacred medium of the element of fire. In this ceremony, many items are offered to God, along with prayers for universal peace. It is believed that one’s prayers and positive thoughts rise with the homa smoke into the atmosphere, where they then spread through the entire world to promote universal peace and happiness.

To preserve and elucidate the ancient culture of India and highlight the need for peace, purification and positive thoughts, Amma arranges for fire ceremonies to be conducted during many of her programs and tours. In this way, people come together to acknowledge the goal of world peace in an atmosphere rendered sacred by the combination of ancient peace prayers and the purifying element of fire.

Empowering Women

In the tradition of Sanatana Dharma, sound itself is considered to contain powerful divine energy. There are countless mantras, verses, and divine poems containing mystical insights, yogic advice, and spiritual precepts. Due to some unfortunate cultural developments, some have come to believe that common people cannot understand or use mantras properly. In some cases, women have been barred from reciting certain mantras, like the famous and holy Gayatri Mantra. As a result, many sincere and devout people have been prevented from accessing India’s profound mystical traditions.

To correct this unfortunate development, Amma has made special recordings of sacred Sanskrit chants, with the specific intention that all sincere seekers be able to learn and benefit from these priceless practices. So that all may understand the spiritual value of these ancient chants, Amma has also published a number of books elucidating the inner spiritual meaning of these mantras and hymns. In this way, countless people have gained new respect for the spiritual and cultural traditions of ancient India.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The varieties of sceptical thought, Part One: Sceptical Scepticism

"We are not the type of philosophers who think that nothing is true."

The first thing you need to know about philosophical scepticism is that Plato and Pyrrho were the fathers of all of the ancient schools of scepticism. Plato wrote a book, titled the Timaeus, in which he explained that the entire universe is a single, living, intelligent, immortal, ensouled, blessedly happy, and divine being. Pyrrho, on the other hand, learned everything he knew about scepticism by traveling to India and studying with mystical philosophers there, and also traveling to Persia and studying with the Magi, the very people who gave us the word "magic".

The second thing you need to know about philosophical scepticism is that it was revived during the Renaissance by, among others, folks like Girolamo Savonarola and Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa. The first was a fanatical, book-burning, Christian fundamentalist; while the second was one of the greatest occultists of all time.

What do these two things tell us? Only that we must apply scepticism to scepticism itself. That is, scepticism is not necessarily what you have been led to believe it is. In particular, scepticism has nothing whatsoever to do with the crude philistinism and hamfisted debunkery of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and that lot. The so-called "New Atheists" have nothing to offer other than a slightly updated (and significantly dumbed-down) version of iconoclastic Calvinism deprived of it's (always thin an unconvincing) religious veneer.

Among our most important primary sources for ancient scepticism is Cicero's Academica. Cicero was an adherent of the school of so-called "Academic" sceptics, who traced their intellectual lineage back to Plato. During the same year that he wrote his Academica, Cicero also produced his De Natura Deorum (On the Nature of the Gods) in which he informs us:
As for those who express surprise that I have adopted the Academic system in preference to all others, I think that the four books of my 'Academica' offer them a clear enough answer.... I stress, however, that it cannot be the case that those who follow this line of philosophy have no guiding principles. Mark you, I have discussed this matter more rigorously elsewhere [Ac. II], but certain people are such slow learners that they clearly need to be instructed more than once. We Academics are not the type of philosophers who think that nothing is true. Our claim is that certain falsehoods impinge on all true statements, and that these bear so close a resemblance to the truth that they contain no criterion by which to judge them or to lend assent to them. The outcome of this is our view that many things are probable, and that though these are not demonstrably true [that is, not provable with absolute certainty] they guide the life of the wise man, because they are so significant and clear cut.
[Cicero De Natura Deorum I.11-12, P.G. Walsh translation]
What did Socrates know, and how did he know it?
Socrates, the teacher of Plato, believed that all wrongdoing results only from ignorance, that is, that no one ever does wrong knowingly. This Socratic teaching was echoed by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who was born over 450 years after Socrates was executed:
"They are free who live as they will; who are not subject to compulsion, to restraint, or to violence; whose pursuits are unhindered, their desires successful, their aversions unincurred. Who, then, would wish to lead a wrong course of life? No one. Who would live deceived, erring, unjust, dissolute, discontented, dejected? No one. Wicked persons, then, do not live according to their own wills; therefore no such person is free."
[Discourse IV.1]
Ignorance leads to true slavery, the slavery of the soul/psyche. Through our own ignorance our pursuits are hindered, but through knowledge we can attain true freedom. Epictetus had himself been born a slave, and he reveled in taunting his aristocratic students that they were the real slaves because they were not true masters of themselves.

Epictetus was a Stoic, not a Platonist. But he was a true-blue Socratic. Socrates and Epictetus were agreed that ignorance enslaves us, while knowledge leads to true freedom. Socrates never claimed that knowledge was impossible or unattainable, nor did he ever claim that he himself lacked all knowlede whatsoever. But he did emphasize that there was one thing above all others that he did understand: his own ignorance.

In Plato's famous Apology, which recounts Socrates' defense speech before a jury of 500 (or perhaps 510) of his fellow Athenian citizens, we read of how it was that Socrates came to have so many enemies, including enemies who wished to see him tried, convicted, and executed. (But the number of Socrates' enemies should not be exaggerated. When the jury finally voted, almost, but not quite, half of them voted to acquit.) Socrates himself acknowledges that he would not be on trial for his life unless he had been "doing something rather different from most folk." [20c, R.E. Allen translation]

Socrates tells the jury that his present situation came about "through nothing but a kind of wisdom. What kind? The kind which is perhaps peculiarly human."[20d-e] Although Socrates was at pains to insist that whatever wisdom he possessed was of a decidedly human variety, he nevertheless insisted that he had divine backing for his claim to possess this human wisdom. In one of the more incredible passages ever written down in any human language, Socrates, according to Plato, tells the jury the following (and he tells this as if the story were perhaps already known at least to some of them):
For as witness to you of my own wisdom--whether it is wisdom of a kind, and what kind of wisdom it is--I shall call the God at Delphi.

You surely knew Chaerephon, I fancy. He was my friend from youth and a friend of your democratic majority. He went into exile with you and with you he returned. And you know what kind of man he was, how eager and impetuous in whatever he rushed into. Well, once he went to Delphi and boldly asked the oracle--as I say gentlemen, please do not make a disturbance--he asked whether anyone is wiser than I [that is, wiser than Socrates]. Now the Pythia replied that no one is wiser. And to this his brother here will bear you witness, since Chaerephon is dead.

Why do I mention this? I mention it because I intend to inform you whence the slander against me has arisen. For when I heard it, I reflected: "What does the God mean? What is the sense of this riddling utterance? I know that I am not wise at all: what then does the God mean, by saying I am wisest. Surely he does not speak falsehood; it is not permitted him." So I puzzled for a long time over what he meant, and then, with great reluctance, I turned to inquire into the matter in some such way as this.... [20e-21b]
And with that preamble, Socrates then proceeds to describe how he went about Athens "examining" his fellow citizens. He started off with leading Athenians who were widely regarded as exceedingly wise, and who also believed themselves to be wise. For each such leader of Athenian society that he examined, Socrates found that "though he seemed wise to many other men, and most especially to himself, he was not."

Socrates' told the jury that, as a result, he found himself
thinking to myself, '"I am wiser than that man. Probably neither of us knows anything worthwhile; but he thinks he does and does not, and I do not and do not think I do. So it seems at any rate that I am wiser in this one small respect: I do not think I know what I do not." [21d]
After dealing like this with Athens' political elites, Socrates then started in on the poets, but:
presently I came to realize that the poets, too, do not make what they make by wisdom, but by a kind of native disposition or divine inspiration, exactly like seers and prophets. For the latter also utter many fine things, but know nothing of the things they speak. That is how the poets appeared to me, while at the same time I realized that because of their poetry they thought themselves the wisest of men in other matters--and were not. Once again I left thinking myself superior to them in just the way I was to the politicians. [22c]
And from the poets Socrates went to the artisans and all those who worked with their hands, and there Socrates found people who "knew many fine things", but, alas,
it seemed to me that the poets and our capable craftsmen had exactly the same failing: because they practiced their own arts well, each deemed himself wise in other things, things of great importance. This mistake quite obscured their wisdom. [22d]
Socrates' general procedure was quite simple: he would elucit from people claims as to what they believed they knew. Socrates would then proceed to question them closely about the knowledge they claimed to have. He found that once confronted with a clear demonstration that they did not know what they claimed to know, rather than accepting this knowledge (that is, knowledge of their own ignorance) many (although not all) people continued cling to their previous claims to knowledge, and, in the process, came to hate Socrates for exposing this ignorance (which they nevertheless denied).

Many Athenians, especially among the young, became admirers of Socrates during this process. And this only added to Socrates' troubles, as his admirers emulated, or attempted to emulate, Socrates and began going around challenging people about their knowledge. It turned out that even these youthful "amateur" Socrates wannabes could easily (and publicly) expose many prominent citizens as frauds and hypocrites, for claiming to know what they did not.

Throughout his speech, Socrates minimizes his own wisdom, but he never claims to know nothing. While avoiding explicit claims of his own knowledge, Socrates nevertheless clearly believes that he does possess superior judgement with respect to distinguishing truth from falsehood. Without making positive knowledge claims, therefore, he does make a de facto claim to possess an ability (what we might today call "critical thinking") which certainly gives the impression of having the potential to lead us to knowledge.

And not only that, but there is (and this is almost too obvious to point out, but it is perhaps so obvious as to be easily overlooked) an air of supreme confidence in Socrates as he stands before those who hold the power of life and death over him. There is nothing to suggest that Socrates wishes to die, or that he misunderstands the gravity of the situation. It might be tempting to simply attribute Socrates' bearing to courage and leave it at that, but in one of his many conversations with his fellow Athenians (recounted in Plato's Laches) Socrates has already objected to defining courage merely as "perseverance", for, Socrates insisted, there are many times in battle where prudence dictates withdrawal, and since prudence and courage are both virtues they cannot be in conflict with each other. Therefore, Socrates' performance before the jury, even if we attribute it to courage, must also be consistent with prudence.

And here we come to clear evidence of Socrates' knowledge (whether he claims this knowledge openly or not - and there is nothing new in suspecting that Socrates may have known more than he claimed to know). Socrates goes so far as to give advice to the jury (which will be discussed in a future post), advice that strongly implies some certain (or very close to certain) knowledge on Socrates' part, even though he continues to couch his language carefully. It would be tempting to focus on Socrates' attitude toward death. But that would be jumping over the crucial issue on which his whole case rests: that it is never right to do wrong, and that one who acts correctly, that is, justly, will always benefit from acting so, whereas all those who act wrongly, that is unjustly, will always suffer as a consequence.

Nothing could be further removed from the colloquial usage of the word "sceptical" than Socrates' attitude toward ethics. And yet despite (or, rather, if you think about it, precisely because of) Socrates' certainty with regards to ethics, he eagerly welcomes a thorough investigation of his own ethical principles in Plato's Gorgias and also in the monumental Republic. But in the Apology there is no investigation of ethics, rather, what was merely investigated in the Gorgias and the Republic is put into action in the Apology. Socrates demonstrates, with every word, how a just human being acts.

[to be continued.....]

The Varieties of Sceptical Thought:
[1] Sceptical Scepticism
[2] Socrates on Death
[3] Socrates' Advice to the Jury
[4] Richard Popkin
[5] Overview of the Trial of Socrates
[6] "Socrates of all mortals is the wisest"  

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Reason to Believe

Today's Lesson: It's all in the delivery!
If I listened long enough to you
I'd find a way to believe
that it's all true
knowing that you lied straight faced
while I cried
Still I look to find a reason to believe

Someone like you makes it hard to live without
Somebody else
Someone like you makes it easy to give
Never think about myself

If the above link to the Carpenters singing "Reason to Believe" doesnt work try: this

Here's a Rod Stewart impersonator:

Then here's a guy named Malvasio doing it right:

Glen Campbell actually does a decent job:

Jerry Vale's version is not quite weird enough for my tastes:

But **T H I S** is amazing:

That last one is by Kira Hil pictured to the right. I had never heard of her before I started checking out different versions of "Reason to Believe" - what a voice!

The song was originally written by Tim Hardin in 1965.

Keeping up the pace

Last weekend was just too freaking beautiful to bother with blogging. On Saturday we had Zen practice at my house in the morning, then my Coven had a ritual in Elkton (where our High Priestess lives) in the early afternoon. While driving up to Elkton I listened to the Mahishasura Mardini Stotram, which I am working on memorizing. On the way back from Elkton I got a call from a wonderful friend who, sadly (to me), moved to Texas recently. When I got back home I read some of Julia Annas' commentary on Plato's Republic, and then schmoopie and I went out for ice cream - Gods what a beautiful evening it was! Then we came back home and watched Suspicion, which was very complementary to the movie we had watched on Friday night: Doubt. And then on Sunday I hooked the pump up to the pond and checked out all the plants - almost all of which had once again survived the winter! In fact there was only one plant that wasn't already growing, which was very exciting. There were two of the big grass plants that had just gotten completely rootbound - I'm not sure what to do with them.

Anyway, as far as this blog goes, mostly I am still going through stuff that I have lying around scattered in many different places, and consolidating them all here - often with very little or no editing (but, I assure you, Dear Reader, with a great deal of separating the wheat from the chaff!). Some posts need to have links and/or references added to them, which maybe some day I'll get around to.

Prayer to the Holy Goddess, Tellus, Mother of All Nature

Precatio Terrae

DEA sancta Tellus, rerum naturae parens,
quae cuncta generas et regeneras indidem,
quae sola praestas tuam tutelam gentibus,
caeli ac maris diua arbitra rerumque omnium,
per quam silet natura et somnos concipit,
itemque lucem reparas et noctem fugas:
tu Ditis umbras tegis et inmensum chaos
uentosque et imbris tempestatesque cohibes
et, cum libet, dimittis et misces freta
fugasque solis et procellas concitas,
itemque, cum uis, hilarem promittis diem.
tu alimenta uitae tribuis perpetua fide,
et, cum recesserit anima, in tete refugimus:
ita, quidquid tribuis, in te cuncta recidunt.
merito uocaris Magna tu Mater deum,
pietate quia uicisti diuum numina;
tu es illa uere gentium et diuum parens:
sine qua nec moritur quicquam nec nasci potest:
tu es Magna tuque diuum regina es, dea.
te, diua, adoro tuumque ego numen inuoco,
facilisque praestes hoc mihi quod te rogo;
referamque, diua, gratias merito tibi.
fidem quaeso, exaudi, et faue coeptis meis;
hoc quod peto a te, diua, mihi praesta uolens.
herbas, quascumque generat maiestas tua,
salutis causa tribuis cunctis gentibus:
hanc nunc mihi permittas medicinam tuam.
ueniat medicina cum tuis uirtutibus:
quidque ex his fecero, habeat euentum bonum,
cuique easdem dedero quique easdem a me acceperint,
sanos eosdem praestes. nunc, diua, hoc mihi
maiestas praestet tua quod supplex postulo.

Translation by Moravius Piscinus
(taken from here)

Holy Goddess, Tellus, Mother of all Nature, engendering all things and regenerating them each day, as You alone bring forth from Your womb all things into life.

Heavenly Goddess, overseeing all things on earth and throughout the seas, in whatever by silent nature is restored in sleep and in death, in the same way that You put to flight the Night with the Light You restore each day.

Earth, Enricher of Life, You dispel the dark shadow of death and the disorder of vast endless Chaos. You hold back the winds and storms, the rain showers and tempests. You alone regulate the weather cycles, either bestirring or putting to flight the storm, interspersing them with cheerful days.

You give the Food of Life unfailingly, in fidelity, and when the soul by necessity departs, in You alone do we find refuge. Thus, whatever You give, in You all will be returned. Deservedly are You called Great Mother of the Gods. Piously then are all the celestial powers distilled in You. The One and True parent of all living things, human and divine. Without You nothing could be born, nothing could grow, and nothing mature.

You are the Great Goddess, the Queen of Heaven, You, Goddess, I adore. I call upon Your power, come. Make what I ask to be readily and easily accomplished, and draw my thanks, Mother Earth, that, in fidelity, You do rightly merit.

Hear me, please, and favor me. This I ask of You, Holy Mother, and may You willingly give answer to me: May whatever herbs grow by Your providence bring health to all humankind. May You now send these forth to me as Your medicines. May they be filled with Your healing virtues. May everything that I prepare from these herbs have good result, each and every one in the same way. As I shall receive these herbs from You, so too shall I willingly give them out to others, so that their health too may be ensured through Your good graces. Finally, Mother Earth, ensure Your healing powers for me as well. This I humbly ask.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Lies, Damned Lies, and Pagan Monotheism

1. The raison d'etre for "Pagan Monotheism", in their own words

1999 saw the publication of the book Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity, edited by Polymnia Athanassiadi and Michael Frede, and with contributions by M.L. West, John Dillon, Stephen Mitchell, and Wolf Liebeschuetz. The book, in turn, was the result of a conference on "Pagan forms of monotheism in late antiquity" that had taken place in 1996 at Oxford.

Athanassiadi and Frede state in their Introduction:

"The seminar [and subsequently the book] arose out of our dissatisfaction with what we take to be a misconception ... that in the Graeco-Roman world ... Christianity, in the tradition of Jewish monotheism, succeeded in replacing invariably polytheistic systems of religious belief with a monotheistic creed. By contrast it is our view that monotheism ... was increasingly widespread by the time of late antiquity, certainly among the educated and in particular in the Greek east. And we are inclined to attribute much of the success of Christianity in that world to its advocacy of a way of seeing things, of thinking and acting, which it shared with a growing number of pagans ...." [p. 1]

And then they add this:

"Another even more important cause of our dissatisfaction is a general attitude associated with the above, reflecting the simple unqualified belief that, in being converted to Christianity, pagans were induced to reject their polytheism in favor of a monotheistic religion. This approach, which ultimately derives from the Christian Apologists of late antiquity, emphasizes the difference between Christianity and paganism in a stark and simplistic way which makes one overlook substantial similarities between the two ...." [pp. 1-2]

Stephen Mitchell, in his contribution to the book states that:

" ... the monotheistic conceptions of a widespread and popular religious culture were the seed-bed into which Jewish and Christian theology could readily be planted. Without them the transformation of ancient patterns of belief from pagan polytheism to the predominantly monotheistic systems of Judaism, Christianity and Islam would not only have been far less tidy and unidirectional than it was, it might not have occurred at all." [p. 128]

2. Baiting, switching, moving the goal-posts, etc.

Eleven years after the initial conference, another conference was organized on the theme of "Pagan Monotheism in the Roman World". The following is taken from the website advertising that conference, under the heading "Terminology and Concepts":

The term monotheism is a modern one (16th century) and is traditionally used for strictly monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity or Islam. It is certainly wrong to understand pagan monotheism in the same terms as these religions. For that reason terms like henotheism, monolatry and cosmotheism have been coined in the past. This raises the question of terminology. It seems we have the choice either to reserve the term ‘monotheism’ for a very limited kind of religious phenomena like Christianity and to use neologisms for slightly different religious forms; or to use monotheism as a heuristical tool in a more diffuse sense, in order to include also phenomena like the veneration of a highest god or religious exclusivism in a polytheistic context.

Having first claimed that "pagan monotheism" helps to explain "substantial similarities" between Paganism and Christianity, the story abruptly and fundamentally changes with the admission that whatever "pagan monotheism" might be, it is "certainly wrong to understand pagan monotheism in the same terms" as the monotheism of Christianity! The choice of words here could not be more surreal. The proponents of "pagan monotheism" have themselves chosen to use, literally, "the same term", that is, "monotheism", to describe the theological positions of both Pagans and Christians. But then ten years later they proceed to place an asterisk next to this claim of commonality, admitting that "monotheism" cannot be understood "in the same terms" when it is attached to Paganism as opposed to Christianity!

Instead of "reserving" the term monotheism for people who only believe in one God (that is, "reserving" the term for ... well, for the meaning that it has always had), Athanassiadi, Frede, Mitchell, et al, wish to redefine monotheism to fit their theory (now that they realize that without such a radical and arbitrary change in the meaning of the word "monotheism" their theory is utterly incoherent). According to their proposed new approach to "monotheism", the word should be used with no very specific meaning at all, but only as a "heuristic tool with a more diffuse sense". And just how diffuse? Well, diffuse enough to include anyone who shows "veneration for a highest God." Well, wouldn't that include, for example, Homer and Hesiod!? But then who in hell's bells is left as a polytheist?!?!?!?

One gets the strong impression that the meaning of monotheism doesn't really matter, so long as it can be used to prop up a certain narrative of the process of Christianization in late antiquity. According to that narrative there was no spiritual break with the past involved in conversion to Christianity, since, it is supposed, many Greeks and Romans (especially the smart ones, we are led to believe) had already realized the error of "primitive" polytheism and embraced the more "advanced" ideology of monotheism.* Because of this the transition from Paganism to Christianity was "tidy" and "unidirectional" (see quote C. above from Mitchell).

Tidy? Unidirectional? Really? A passage from Peter Brown's biography of Augustine, in which he describes the tense religious situation in North Africa in the year 410, gives a rather different picture:

"For over a decade, the Bishops in Africa had provoked the destruction of the old ways. Public Paganism had been suppressed: the great temples were closed; the statues broken up, often by Christian mobs; the proud inscriptions ... used to pave public highways." [p. 185]

Brown also insists that at the time (the early 5th century) the "unidirectionality" of Christianization was very far from certain. And this was especially (although not at all exclusively) true, according to Brown, among the educated elites. In the excerpt below, Brown paints a vivid picture of the mental universe of the deeply religious and just as deeply rational Pagan intellectuals of the early fifth century:

"The great Platonists of their age, Plotinus and Porphyry, could provide them with a profoundly religious view of the world that grew naturally out of an immemorial tradition. The claims of the Christians, by contrast, lacked intellectual foundation .... to accept the Incarnation [of Jesus] would be like a modern European denying the evolution of the species; he would have had to abandon not only the most advanced rationally based knowledge available to him, but, by implication, the whole culture permeated by such achievements." [p. 300]

Note how different this is from the impression given by the proponents of "pagan monotheism", who repeatedly claim that it was precisely the educated elites, and even more precisely, those influenced by the philosophical writings of Plotinus and Porphyry, who helped to make the process of Christianization not only "tidy" and "unidirectional", but even possible "at all".

This last point bears emphasizing. The Pagan philosophical tradition of late antiquity, far from providing some kind of missing link between Paganism and Christianity, was a source of stubbornly determined resistance to the process of Christianization. And far from blurring the differences between polytheism and monotheism, late antique Pagans of a philosophical bent emphasized the great theological chasm, from their perspective, that separated their "ancestral traditions coeval with time" from the new religion with only one God.

*[P.S. Of course, Mitchell, Athanassiadi, Frede, et al are (just barely, I am beginning to think) smart enough to avoid actually using words like "primitive" to refer to polytheism and "advanced" to refer to monotheism, but they manage to make their bias abundantly clear without quite spelling it out so crudely.]

P.P.S. Slight edits were made on Wed. April 22 at 6:08 PM.

See also (links NOT automatically generated):
Constantine (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Three)
Moses (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Two)
Akhenaten (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part One)
Monotheistic Robots of Doom, Part Deux
Monotheistic Robots of Doom
Hic Sunt Dracones

Friday, April 17, 2009

Gandhi on the Gita on attachment

"This is the unmistakable teaching of the Gita. He who gives up action falls. He who gives up only the reward rises."

I find myself referring back to this particular teaching of Gandhi's over and over again. I am posting it here, as much as anything else, so I'll have a handy way of finding this exact passage.

Mahatma Gandhi On The Gita (Chapter 5 verses 10-12):

Desirelessness or renunciation does not come for the mere talking about it. It is not attained by an intellectual feat. It is attainable only by a constant heart-churn.

Right knowledge is necessary for attaining renunciation. Learned men possess a knowledge of a kind. They may recite the Vedas from memory, yet they may be steeped in self-indulgence. In order that knowledge may not run riot, the author of the Gita has insisted on devotion accompanying it and has given it the first place. Knowledge without devotion will be like a misfire.

Therefore, says the Gita: "Have devotion, and knowledge will follow."

This devotion is not mere lip worship, it is wrestling with death. Hence the Gita's assessment of the devotee's qualities is similar to that of sage's.

Thus the devotion required by the Gita is no softhearted effusiveness. It certainly is not blind faith. The devotion of the Gita has the least to do with the externals. A devotee may use, if he likes, rosaries, forehead marks, make offerings, but these things are no test of his devotion. He is the devotee who is jealous of none, who is a fount of mercy, who is without egotism, who is selfless, who treats alike cold and heat, happiness and misery, who is ever forgiving, who is always contented, whose resolutions are firm, who has dedicated mind and soul to God, who causes no dread, who is not afraid of others, who is free from exultation, sorrow and fear, who is pure, who is versed in action and yet remains unaffected by it, who renounces all fruit, good or bad, who treats friend and foe alike, who is untouched by respect or disrespect, who is not puffed by praise, who does not go under when people speak ill of him, who loves silence and solitude, who has a disciplined reason. Such devotion is inconsistent with the existence at the same time of strong attachments...

While on the one hand it is beyond dispute that all action binds, on the other hand it is equally true that all living beings have to do some work, whether they will or no. Here all activity, whether mental or physical, is to be included in the term of action. Then how is one to be free from the bondage of action, even though he may be acting? The manner in which the Gita has solved the problem is to my knowledge unique.

The Gita says: "Do your allotted work but renounce its fruit. Be detached and work. Have no desire for reward and work."

This is the unmistakable teaching of the Gita. He who gives up action falls. He who gives up only the reward rises. But renunciation of fruit in no way means indifference to the result. In regard to every action one must know the result that is expected to follow, the means thereto, and the capacity for it. He, who, being thus equipped is, without desire for the result and yet wholly is engrossed in the due fulfillment of the task before him is said to have renounced the fruits of his action.

Again let no one consider renunciation to mean want of fruit for the renouncer. The Gita reading does not warrant such a meaning. Renunciation means absence of hankering after fruit. As a matter of fact, he who renounces reaps a thousandfold. The renunciation of the Gita is the acid test of faith. He who is ever brooding over result often loses nerve in the performance of his duty. He becomes impatient and then gives vent to anger and begins to do unworthy things; he jumps from action to action never remaining faithful to any. He who broods over results is like a man given to objects of senses; he is ever distracted, he says goodbye to all scruples, everything is right in his estimation and he therefore resorts to means fair and foul to attain his end.

From the bitter experiences of desire for fruit the author of the Gita discovered the path of renunciation of fruit and put it before the world in a most convincing manner. The common belief is that religion is always opposed to material good. "One cannot act religiously in mercantile and such other matters. There is no place for religion in such pursuits; religion is only for attainment of salvation," we hear many worldly-wise people say. In my opinion the author of the Gita has dispelled this delusion. He has drawn no line of demarcation between salvation and worldly pursuits. On the contrary he has shown that religion must rule even our worldly pursuits. I have felt that the Gita teaches us that what cannot be followed out in the day-to-day practice cannot be called religion. Thus, according to the Gita, all acts that are incapable of being performed without attachment are taboo. This golden rule saves mankind from many a pitfall. According to this interpretation murder, lying, dissoluteness and the like must be regarded as sinful and therefore a taboo. Man's life then becomes simple, and from that simpleness springs piece.

Thinking along these lines, I have felt that in trying to enforce in one's life the central teaching of the Gita, one is bound to follow Truth and ahimsa. When there is no desire for fruit, there is no temptation for untruth or himsa.

[Also, here is the original text from the Gita.]

Who's Imbuing Who? (Thoughts on "Americanizing" Buddhism)

Many western Buddhists are enthusiastic about the idea of "modernizing" and/or "americanizing" (or "westernizing") Buddhism. Inevitably one hears that this is what Buddhism has always done as it moves from culture to culture. But how seriously have people examined and thought about this process of acclimatization?

Personally I tend to agree with the late Jamgon Kongtrul, an important figure in the modern Ri-me (nonsectarian) movement within Tibetan Buddhism who said this: "it is important for the values of Buddhism to imbue a culture, not for those of a culture to imbue Buddhism."

The context for this is given below, which is taken from the Translator's Introduction to The Autobiography of Jamgon Kongtrul: A Gem of Many Colors (translated into English by Richard Barron). Note that the autobiography was written by the first Jamgon Kongtrul (who founded the Ri-me movement in the 19th century), while the quote is from the third Jamgon Kongtrul, who died in 1992.

In the mid 1980s, I had the opportunity to interpret a public talk given by the late Jamgön Kongtrul Rinpoché in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. During that evening, Rinpoché spoke of the ri-mé approach. He defined this quite succinctly: "To adopt the ri-mé approach means to follow your own chosen path with dedication, while maintaining respect and tolerance for all other valid choices." The operative word here is "valid"; what is meant is not a blanket acceptance of anyone’s doctrines. A khenpo of the Nyingma School recently remarked to me, "We are to maintain a pure outlook toward all other beings, but not necessarily toward their opinions." This is anything but a sloppy approach. In insisting on the freedom for everyone to choose a spiritual path, and on the validity of all authentic alternatives, the ri-mé approach is broadminded, avoiding the all-too-common pitfall of exclusivism, but does not promote simplistic beliefs. Our prejudices concerning spiritual matters may come from issues that are personal, ideological, or cultural, but regardless of their origin, these prejudices can place severe limits on our own ability to grow spiritually. Jamgön Kongtrul also stressed, in that evening talk, that it is important for the values of Buddhism to imbue a culture, not for those of a culture to imbue Buddhism. The ri-mé approach was not intended to serve some other agenda, but to provide a context for honoring the contemplative life in all of its manifestations.

Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thayé was born into a culture that had been host to the Buddhist teachings for a millennium. Throughout its long history, the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism has seen many periods of mutual tolerance, particularly in the early stages of its development, when there was much interaction between the schools. We find accounts of many individuals who studied with masters of all schools and who in turn taught students from all schools. But there have been just as many times when political rivalries and power struggles led to sectarian polemic and even outright hostility. In a few cases, entire schools were suppressed. It would be bad enough if the grounds in such cases were (as claimed) doctrinal, in the name of keeping the teachings pure, but all too often a more mundane purpose was bring served. For people interested in more details on this subject, I can highly recommend Chapter 17 ("Jam mgon Kong sprul and the Nonsectarian Movement") in Gene Smith's excellent book, Among Tibetan Texts: History and Literature of the Himalayan Plateau. The extent to which Buddhism imbued Tibetan culture over the centuries is nothing short of remarkable, but the extent to which that culture imbued the Buddhist teachings often resulted in unfortunate consequences.

The whole Translator's Introduction is online here.

[pic at top of post is the 4th Jamgon Kongtrul, it comes from here.]

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Commentary on the Ox-Herding Pictures

Sometimes you get the ox ... and sometimes the ox gets you!

1. Ox? What ox?

In my dreams I'm a rock star.
Please don't disturb my sleep
with talk about some ox.
What ox?

2. I don't even own an ox!

Whaddya mean I'm just a peasant
like everyone else?
If I was a peasant, I'd need an ox.
But I don't even own an ox!

3. The ox perceives you.

Here I am, up on stage.
But what's that ox doing in the audience?
Why is he looking at me like that?
I don't like the looks of this!

4. Running like hell from the ox.

How the hell did that ox
get up on my stage!?!?
Security! Where's my goddammed security!
Somebody help me!

5. No escape - cornered by the ox.

I thought backstage
I'd be safe.
Nobody's allowed backstage
without a special pass!

6. Being stomped on and gored by the ox

Where is everyone?
Why won't anyone help me?
I thought they all loved me,
but now I realize they were all laughing at me.

7. Selling the ox for drinking money. Good riddance!

Well, maybe I did own an ox after all -
but now I'm rid of it.
And I'm off to celebrate
my new found freedom!

8. Missing the ox. It was such a great ox....

Man, that ox was the best ox
anyone ever had.
He was my best friend
in the whole world!

9. Praying for a new ox. I'll be good this time, I promise.

Please Gods, I realize
I made a mistake.
I didn't know any better -
but now I do. Pleeeeeease!

10. Oh, but not this ox. My old ox was much better!

Hey - what's this?
Some kind of joke?
This new ox
is completely unacceptable!

[A much more traditional take on the Ox-herding pictures can be found here.]

"emptiness in my hand"

The Nun Chiyono studied for years but was unable to find enlightenment. One moonlit night she was carrying an old pail, filled with water. She was watching the full moon reflected in this water, when the bamboo strip that held the pailstaves broke. The pail fell apart; the water rushed out; the moon's reflection disappeared. And Chiyono found enlightenment. She wrote this verse:

This way and that way
I tried to keep the pail together
Hoping the weak bamboo
Would never break

Suddenly the bottom fell out:
No more water:
No more moon in the water:

Emptiness in my hand!

Note: This is taken from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki

Underground Bodhisattvas, and Bodhisattvas from Outer Space

While the Buddha was teaching the Lotus Sutra, a group of Bodhisattvas from outer space came to listen. Word had spread across the Universe that there was a Buddha teaching the Lotus Sutra on a planet known as "earth". Some of these outer space Bodhisattvas said, "Oh, cool - the Lotus Sutra. It's about time those earthlings heard the news." But some Bodhisattvas went further, though: they wanted to be there in person to witness this great event, and they also wanted to offer their help to propagate the teaching of the Lotus Sutra to the earth beings.

The Buddha thanked the outer space Bodhisattvas for their offer of help - but then he said: "watch this." And just then vast numbers of Bodhisattvas ready to teach the Lotus Sutra arose "from out of the open space under the ground." The Buddha then explained that all of these "underground Bodhisattvas" had been diligently studying and practicing for countless ages, and that these great teachers are always present everywhere to come to the aid of suffering beings.

But everyone wanted to know how these chthonic Bodhisattvas had learned about the Lotus Sutra if the Buddha was only just now teaching that Sutra on earth. The Buddha explained that he had only appeared to have been born 80 years previously, and had only appeared to attain enlightenment 40 years after that. In reality, the Buddha said, he had attained awakening an inconceivably long time ago, and that he himself had taught the Lotus Sutra to the underground Bodhisattvas before he had even been "born" in this present body.

Tao-Sheng (ca.360-432 AD) has this very "down to earth" explanation of this famous episode in the Lotus Sutra:

"That the earth split and the bodhisattvas welled up suggests that living beings inherently possess an endowment for enlightenment, and it cannot remain concealed; they are bound to break the earth of defilements and emerge to safeguard the Dharma."

* The story of the underground bodhisattvas and the bodhisattvas from outer space is found in chapters 14-15 of the Lotus Sutra.

* Taigen Dan Leighton has a very nice summary of this incident in his book Visions of Awakening Space and Time: Dogen and the Lotus Sutra in the first chapter, which is titled The Pivotal Story of the Lotus Sutra.

* See also Leighton's Dogen's Appropriation of Lotus Sutra Ground and Space.

* The quote from Tao-Sheng is taken from Tao-sheng's Commentary on the Lotus Sutra: A Study and Translation by Young-he Kim.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

"Everyone has a light", part deux

[this is a continuation of an earlier post]

Master Yunmen said, “Everyone has a light.” Really? Even if that is true, the fact remains that we walk through this world as if we were in constant darkness. We pollute, commit acts of violence, accumulate wealth while others starve, etc. We constantly feel lonely, angry, betrayed, abused, etc. None of this is news to anyone. But sometimes, miraculously, this darkness is pierced by the light – and no amount of being told that the light is everywhere all the time can substitute for the actual experience of seeing the light for oneself. More specifically, even though everyone has a light it is a very rare experience, a great treasure, when we see that light coming from someone else. In her song “Pulse” Ani Difranco refers first to an artificial light (“the hallway light”) and says that “this is nothing compared to the dawn” - but then she goes on to say that even the light of the sun is “nothing compared to the light which seeps” from her beloved lying asleep beside her. And as she sleepily and lovingly bathes in that light Ani feels that she would be willing to give her own breath, her own pulse, for the sake of the one that she loves.

Love - whether it is the love of friendship (that is, true, deep, loving friendship), or the more romantic, sexual variety - is a great mystery. In fact it is the ultimate mystery of our very existence – the mystery of self and other. To experience true love, true intimacy, even one time, even fleetingly, is to taste what the Buddha called anatman - “no self”. In that intimacy the friend/lover finds her true self in the beloved other – and in that same instant self and other cease to exist as neatly separable beings. It is not just deep friendship and romantic love that have this quality of dissolving the boundary between self and other. Perhaps more than any other relationship that of parent and child also pulls back the curtain to reveal the emptiness behind the veil of self. But all of these relationships are universal (or very nearly so) to all human beings. In that case most of us have seen the light. And yet. Even having experienced the deepest of intimacy, the greatest and highest of spiritual treasures, the ego still exists. Grasping, loneliness, envy, anger, despair – all still exist. Love does not “fix” the ego, but it does provide a light that shines the way – a different way. As the old Buddhist cliché tells us – it is a finger pointing to the moon.

Ganto and Seppo had a friendship like that: a deep friendship that was, in a sense, based on nothing whatsoever. Unconditional love is just that – not conditioned by anything. This is not some far-away unattainable goal. Newborn infants are able to survive only because of unconditional love. True friends who will do anything for one another – despite all their faults as human beings – have that kind of love. Even a horny love-struck teenager gets a taste of it.

The story of Seppo's great enlightenment experience is often explained in terms that are decidedly “dualistic”. For example – Ganto is enlightenend and Seppo is not. Or – at the beginning Seppo is not enlightened – and then later he is. The word dualism gets thrown around a lot, so let me state, as clearly as I can, how I mean this term. To me, dualism means the idea that there is something in the universe, or, more specifically, something inside of us, that needs to be gotten rid of. Any kind of world-view that seeks to identify, and then eliminate, all the “bad stuff” - that is what I call dualism. Enlightenment is not like that at all – it is not something that Ganto has but Seppo lacks. Much less is it something that Ganto can give to Seppo. The enlightened mind is nothing other than the mind which does not seek to get rid of anything at all.

What is Ganto up to when he pokes fun at his friend? “You look just like a road-side shrine, sitting there like that.” Some commentators even go so far as to assert that Ganto and his teacher (who is also Seppo's teacher) have contrived this whole trip just to bring about Seppo's enlightenment! But there is nothing calculating at all about either Ganto or Seppo – they are both of them unimpeachably just being themselves. And, as true friends, Ganto is even more Ganto when he is with Seppo – and vice versa. This is the opposite of how we are with anyone else, anyone who is not a true friend. With anyone other than a true friend we constantly betray ourselves – we hide our light. Of course, being human, we are also capable (all too capable – as Nietzsche might say) of betraying ourselves even with those who love us – but at least with a true friend we are more likely to relax and naturally be just who and what we are (whatever that is).

Another “dualistic” interpretation of the story of Ganto and Seppo is that Ganto's way of living is somehow superior to Seppo's. Ganto, according to this analysis, acts the way an enlightened person is supposed to act – carefree and spontaneous. Seppo, on the other hand, acts the way an unenlightened person acts – he is neurotic and uptight, his “mind is not at rest” as he himself puts it. As is often the case with dualism, there is some truth to this. Sure, Seppo and everyone else might be happier if he lightened up a little. But Seppo's great virtue is that he cannot lie to himself. He cannot pretend to “be cool”. He is already being true to himself.

The worst possible misrepresentation of this story would be to think that Seppo changes into something else as a result of his awakening. And here is the other great mystery, alongside that of self and other. The mystery of returning to your true self. This is the great mystery of coming back, coming home, to the human realm; a journey that is only possible within the human realm itself.

There are times, many times, in our lives when we rely completely and desperately on those that we love and who love us. But there is great reciprocity in that reliance. The parent who holds a helpless, completely dependent child against his body is brought to life by that connection. The light is not diminished by shining. And two friends who travel together, like Seppo and Ganto, will see and do many things that they would have never experienced on their own.

[the pic of ani difranco is from here]

Should the Pope apologize to Pagans?

Is the Pope Catholic?

Does a bear shit in the woods?

Is Britney Spears stupid?

Is Bill Gates evil?

Was Oscar Wilde gay?

Do fish swim?

Is Kathy Griffin freaking hilarious?

Plato's Ion and Hippias Minor, Part One: Ion

"The secret to acting is sincerity. Once you learn how to fake that, the rest is easy."
[George Burns]

The very short Platonic dialogs named Ion and Hippias Minor are in many ways mirror images of each other. This is nowhere more true than in the title characters of each dialog. Ion and Hippias are both famous men who think very highly of themselves. But Ion is completely without guile, and he readily sees and admits to his own limitations, whereas Hippias is vainglorious to a fault, and aggressively defends his inflated self-image against any perceived slight or criticism. Both dialogs end "aporetically" - that is, having raised many questions while answering none of them with any certainty. This is not an uncommon way for a Platonic dialog to conclude, and is meant to reflect (or even, it might be hoped, to catalyze in the reader) a state of greater open-mindedness and readiness to learn - resulting from the realization that one does not know as much as one had thought. Ion is led quite easily and even gently to this "aporia" - whereas Hippias is dragged kicking and screaming all the way.

Ion was a "rhapsode" - a professional performer in classical Greece, whose artform consisted of publicly reciting epic poetry, especially Homer. Ion was highly skilled at his profession, and the dialog opens with him recounting a recent victory at a rhapsodic contest in another city (in honor of the God Asclepius). Socrates congratulates Ion on his recent success and then adds that he hopes Ion will win an upcoming contest in Athens (in honor of the Goddess Athena) as well, to which Ion responds "And I will win - if the Gods will it."

It's a small thing, Ion's quip about the will of the Gods. It is the type of thing that any pious (or even not so pious) Pagan might say without attaching any real thought or importance to it at all. But the subsequent dialog between Ion and Socrates confirms that Ion is a man characterized by an abundance of sincerity and openness combined with a complete lack of artifice. And yet Ion's chosen profession is, in a sense, the essence of artifice. For rhaspodes, at least award winning ones, did not just stand there and passively read Homer's poetry in a monotone - they enthusiastically "acted out" what they were reciting.

In fact, Plato's Ion is the single most important source we have for information on the craft of rhapsody and the artists who performed it. The following excerpt from the dialog gives a good feel for what rhapsody was and who these rhapsodes were:

Socrates: "When you produce the greatest effect upon the audience in the recitation of some striking passage, such as the apparition of Odysseus leaping forth on the floor, recognized by the suitors and casting his arrows at his feet, or the description of Achilles rushing at Hector, or the sorrows of Andromache, Hecuba, or Priam,- are you in your right mind? Are you not carried out of yourself, and does not your soul in an ecstasy seem to be among the persons or places of which you are speaking, whether they are in Ithaca or in Troy or whatever may be the scene of the poem?"

Ion: "That proof strikes home to me, Socrates. For I must frankly confess that at the tale of pity, my eyes are filled with tears, and when I speak of horrors, my hair stands on end and my heart throbs."

Socrates: "Well, Ion, and what are we to say of a man who at a sacrifice or festival, when he is dressed in holiday attire and has golden crowns upon his head, of which nobody has robbed him, appears weeping or panic-stricken in the presence of more than twenty thousand friendly faces, when there is no one despoiling or wronging him;- is he in his right mind or is he not?"

Ion: "No indeed, Socrates, I must say that, strictly speaking, he is not in his right mind."

Socrates: "And are you aware that you produce similar effects on most spectators?"

Ion: "Only too well; for I look down upon them from the stage, and behold the various emotions of pity, wonder, sternness, stamped upon their countenances when I am speaking: and I am obliged to give my very best attention to them; for if I make them cry I myself shall laugh, and if I make them laugh I myself shall cry when the time of payment arrives."

What is the key to Ion's success as a famous rhapsode? Ion himself believes his own deep understanding of Homer as a poet is what makes him so successful. But Socrates undermines this position by asking whether or not Ion is equally skilled when it comes to understanding the works of other poets. Ion readily admits that he has no interest in any other poets - in fact they put him to sleep! Socrates insists, and Ion agrees, that if Ion were an expert on poetry in general then he would be skilled in interpreting all poets.

But even once Ion admits that he apparently (according to Socrates' argument) is not an expert on poetry in general - he reminds Socrates that "the world agrees with me in thinking that I do speak better and have more to say about Homer than any other man." It is characteristic of Ion's guilelessness that he does not seek to defend his own self-image (that he is an expert in understanding poetry) but only what is objectively true (that his recitations of Homer are extremely popular). And it is equally characteristic of Ion that when faced with this apparent paradox (that he is no expert in poetry, and yet he is a very successful rhaspode) he looks to Socrates to help him sort it out: "Tell me the reason of this."

Socrates' explanation is that Ion's success is not due to skill at all, but rather to inspiration: "there is a divinity moving you".