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Archive for March 2012

Religion and Mysticism

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Shiva Dakshinamurti
Image (C) Barnaby Thieme

There exist, generally speaking, two basic postures with respect to spiritual phenomena. The religious attitude is oriented toward collective ritual participation in a shared set of symbols, with the primary aim of assimilating individuals into a system of sentiments, values, and prohibitions. The mystical attitude is concerned with the direct experience of a domain that lies beyond the ordinary realm of thoughts, values, and judgments. It does not pertain to particular things, but to being itself.

It is an empirical fact that religious symbols vary widely from culture to culture. Their transmission can be tracked historically, and in each society in which they appear, they are interpreted in the light of that society’s priorities and values.

To take one example, compare the goddess Inanna in Sumer, Ishtar in Babylon, Isis in Egypt, Venus in Rome, and the Blessed Virgin in the Christian church. These figures are variations on the same motif, sharing associations with the morning star, the lion, the dove, love, and war. Each is the mother or consort of a lunar god who dies and lives again; Inanna is paired with Damuzi, Ishtar with Tammuz, Isis with Osiris, Venus with Adonis, the Virgin with Christ. (In what sense is Christ a moon god? one might ask. But note how long he rested under the earth before returning to life.)

The historical transmission of this goddess is well-known – she spread with the technologies of the city, including writing, mathematics, astronomy, and large-scale irrigation agriculture, from Mesopotamia to Egypt, and then throughout the Mediterranean. The basic structure of the symbol remained intact, but the personality of the goddesses changed substantially, reflecting the values of each societies into which she passed. For the earthy and prelapsarian Sumerians, Inanna is sexually voracious, associated with ritual prostitution and the seduction of heroes, while the Virgin Mary embodies the opposite tendency.

This example illustrates a general principle found in the comparative study of religions, that religious symbols have a particular valence and belong to the sphere of moral valuation represented by the local group. They represent specific attributes, which are determinate – they are either this, or that. An affirmation of the religious symbol therefore become an affirmation of the group and its collective values, and participation in religious rituals brings one into alignment with the group. This social function of religious symbols may shed light on why this goddess spread with the newly-developed city and its new requirements for social adjustment.

Now, it is also an empirical fact that mystical experiences are universal in character, resembling one another throughout the world and lacking local inflection. The mystical attitude is not oriented to any particular things, but to the fact of Being in itself.

Mystical symbols differ fundamentally from religious symbols in that they refer to a domain that lies beyond the values of the social group in which they are expressed. They refer to an experience beyond language, beyond thought, beyond speech, and beyond belief. In opposition to the particularity of religious symbols, we can evoke the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upanishad, which says that the sacred ground of Being is “not this, not that”.

The Kena Upanishad evokes the transcendent mystery in its contemplation of the holy Brahman:

If you think that you know well the truth of Brahman, know that you know little. What you think to be Brahman in your self, or what you think to be Brahman in the gods – that is not Brahman. What is indeed the truth of Brahman you must therefore learn.

I cannot say that I know Brahman fully. Nor can I say that I know him not. He among us knows him best who understands the spirit of the words: “Nor do I know that I know him not.”

He truly knows Brahman who knows him as beyond knowledge, he who thinks that he knows, knows not. The ignorant think that Brahman is known, but the wise know him to be beyond language. (1)

The symbols of mysticism either transcend dualities, or bring them together. Compare our Virgins and libidinous goddesses above with the goddess who speaks in the Gnostic poem Thunder, Perfect Mind, recently discovered in a manuscript dating to the fourth century CE in Nag Hammadi:

For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored and the scorned.
I am the whore and the holy.
I am the wife and the virgin.
I am (the mother) and the daughter.
I am the limbs of my mother.
I am a barren woman
who has many children…. (2)

Song of the Lark (detail)
Jules-Adolphe Breton

The mystical goddess of Thunder, Perfect Mind transcends the local variations of the goddess we discussed above – she encompasses the reality to which these local variants refer, through their particular frame of reference. She is the universal, not the particular, and like all deities in mystical traditions, she is evoked by uniting signs, such as the coincidentia oppositorum, or union of opposites. I took a look at the union of opposites motif in early Indo-European religious poetry in an earlier post.

In the mystical experience, the sense of an individual self or ego drops away, leaving an experience of union with an Absolute that is uncreated, eternal, peaceful, indescribable, and ultimately meaningful. The features of these experiences have been cataloged by many authors, such as William James in the “Mysticism” chapter of his marvelous The Varieties of Religious Experience.

People who report experiences of this sort are often transformed by them, and they may begin to act and think in reference to a mode of reality that is difficult for us ordinary monkeys to understand. There are many delightful iconoclasts in the mystical traditions of the world, who scoff at merely-religious symbols. Take this prayer by the Tibetan Tantric master Drukpa Kunley, which I have long prized:

I bow to the fornicators discontented with their wives;
I bow to crooked speech and lying talk;
I bow to ungrateful children;
I bow to professors attached to their words;
I bow to gluttonous gomchens;
I bow to philanthropists with self-seeking motives;
I bow to traders who exchange wisdom with wealth;
I bow to renunciates who gather wealth secretly;
I bow to prattlers who never listen;
I bow to tramps who reject a home;
I bow to the bums of insatiate whores.

An interesting example that may be closer to home for some readers is Job of the Old Testament. Through his trials, he comes to know a God who is beyond the sphere of human understanding and judgment in every sense. And note that the majority of the book contrasts Job’s experience of God’s unveiling with the religious perspective represented by his friends, who have come to comfort him. They remain convinced that Job must have done something to deserve the terrible things that befell him. That is, they can only interpret Job’s problems with respect to their own provincial ideas of justice and fairness. They represent the conventional religious wisdom as it is embodied by the group, and as is so often the case with the conventional wisdom, they are totally wrong.

The great poet Rumi speaks in the Sufi symbolic language of being “drunk on the divine,” and in this poem he ultimately refers to his beloved companion and mentor, Shams:

I know nothing of that wine – I’m annihilated.
  I’ve gone too far into No-place to know where I am.
Sometimes I fall to the depths of an ocean,
  then I rise up again like the sun.
Sometimes I make a world pregnant,
  sometimes I give birth to a world of creation.
Like a parrot, my soul nibbles on sugar,
  then I become drunk and nibble the parrot.
I can’t be held by any place in the world,
  I know nothing but that placeless Friend.
I’m a drunken rascal, totally mad –
  among all the rascals, I make the most noise.
You say to me, “why don’t you come to yourself?”
  You show me myself, I’ll come to it.
The shadow of the Phoenix has caressed me so much
  that you’d say I’m the Phoenix, he’s the shadow.
I saw beauty drunk, and it kept saying,
  “I’m affliction, I’m affliction, I’m affliction.”
A hundred souls answered it from every direction –
  “I’m yours, I’m yours, I’m yours!
You are the light that kept on saying to Moses,
  “I’m God, I’m God, I’m God.”
I said: “Shams of Tabriz, who are you?”
  He said: “I’m you, I’m you, I’m you.” (3)

The words of many masters are echoed in this poem. “You show me myself, I’ll come to it,” reminds me of Bodhidharma’s admonition to his student Hui-k’o “Bring me your mind, and I will put it to rest.”

Or you might think of the great Sufi master Mansur al-Hallaj, who executed before Rumi’s time for saying “There is nothing wrapped in my turban but God.”

Or you might hear echoes of the goddess of Thunder, Perfect Mind, speaking in Rumi’s voice, telling him, and you, and everyone: “I’m you, I’m you, I’m you.”

Not the you that you cherish and protect, but the you that you truly are.

(1) Swami Prabhavananda, and Manchester F, trans. and ed. The Upanishads; Breath of the Eternal. New American Library. 1957. p. 31.
(2) Meyer M, ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. HarperOne. 2007. p. 372
(3) Chittick WC. Sufism; A Beginner’s Guide. Oneword Publications. 2000. p. 117


Written by Mesocosm

March 16, 2012 at 9:11 am

Links Roundup: Beautiful Skies, Reburied Artifacts, and the End of the World

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The Guardian UK presents its ten favorite depictions of skies in paintings.

Early Christianity Elaine Pagels has a new book out on the Book of Revelation, which she reads in the context of extra-canonical accounts of the end-times. I’m ambivalent about her writing, which usually present an apologetic and sanitized form of Gnosticism, stripping the movement of the grotesqueries which are often its most interesting features. Her book The Gnostic Gospels, for example, completely lacks discussion of the Demiurge, Archon, or Ialdabaoth.

The Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from her new book:

Biblical archaeologists working in Jerusalem have uncovered what they believe to be an extremely early first century Christian tomb, on the basis of what I find to be tenuous evidence. Their work is linked to the interesting Jesus tomb controversy. Their field report (PDF) is worth scanning in part because of its fascinating descriptions of the problems of conducting field work in Jerusalem. Their work was disrupted by “ultra-orthodox” protesters several times, who on one occasion drove the archaeologists from the site and replaced artifacts back in the tombs.

Speaking of re-burying artifacts….

A host of artifacts were uncovered recently in the Greek city of Thessaloniki during subway construction, including an early Christian basilica. In a sign of the times, archaeologists are forced to discontinue excavation due to a lack of funds, and are reburying material to entrust them to future generations.

This LED puts out more power than it consumes. Balderdash! you say? Nay! This little fellow is Second-Law-of-Thermodynamics-compliant – it absorbs heat from its environment.

Finally, the Village Voice has written a damning article on the NYPD’s malignant attempts to destroy a whistleblower from their ranks, who presented evidence that officers in his precinct were routinely ordered to ignore serious crimes in an attempt to “massage the statistics.” When he came forward, the NYPD went after him, going so far as to have him committed to a psychiatric hospital for six days.

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March 14, 2012 at 7:47 am

Posted in Ephemera, Links

Rādhā and Krishna: Jayadeva’s Gītagovinda

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Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa

As saffron-bright bodies
Of women rushing to meet lovers
Streak the night
With clusters of light,
Night spreads darkness as dense
As tamāla leaves,
Making a touchstone
To test the gold of love.
– Jayadeva

Once upon a time, the great god Vishnu took human form to walk the earth, and he was called Krishna. There has never been a more beautiful child beneath the stars, with skin the blue of the midnight sky, and eyes that flash like lightening. His voice could be as melodious as a flute, or as terrible as thunder rolling over the hills.

The Purānas tells us that in his youth, Krishna was a simple cowherd. Because of his vitality and great beauty, he drew all the lovely cowherd women to him, as bees are drawn to mango flowers in spring.

One day as Krishna sat beside the waters in a rain that drenched both heaven and earth, a vision appeared before him, more beautiful than the rising sun. It was Rādhā, whose face, the stories say, robbed the harvest moon of splendor.

Krishna loved her with the fierce passion of his immortal heart, and when they joined together, flowers rained from the sky, and all the celestial Apsara nymphs danced like stars turning in great wheels.

Krishna said to his beloved “You are dearer to me than my love, comely Rādhā. As I am, so are you, there is no difference between us. Just as there is whiteness in milk, and heat in fire, and fragrance in the earth, so am I in you always. A potter cannot make a pot without clay, nor a goldsmith an earring without gold. Likewise, I cannot create without you, for you are the soil of creation, and I, invincible, the seed. Come and lie with me, good woman, take me to your breast; you are my beauty, as an ornament is to my body.” (1)

So Rādhā and Krishna are one, and in the act of creation, Vishnu creates through her, and as a complementary pair they complete the totality of the sacred whole.

This is the stuff of the spectacular Hindu Purānas, written in the early first millennium CE during the golden age of Sanskrit poetics, the time of the Mahābhārata, the Bhagavad Gītā, and the great poet Kālidāsa, whose play “The Recognition of Shakuntala” is a masterpiece worthy of Shakespeare or Goethe.

From this rich legacy of story, the twelfth century poet Jayadeva composed his Gītagovinda, or Song of the Cowherd, which presents scenes from the courtship of Rādhā and Krishna in a series of songs. Given as we are in the Judeo-Christian tradition to associate divine love with the spiritual agape, and never with eros, it can be startling to contemplate consummating love’s ardor with God. Jayadeva’s verse gives flight to the imagination:

When he quickens all things
To create bliss in the world,
His soft black sinuous lotus limbs
Begin the festival of love
And beautiful cowherd girls wildly
Wind him in their bodies.
Friend, in spring young Hari plays
Like erotic mood incarnate. (2)

A major theme of Jayadeva’s work is Rādhā’s intense jealousy as Krishna’s eye strays to the other girls. She is irresistibly drawn to him, even as his philandering ways drive her to fury and despair:

Her house becomes a wild jungle,
Her band of loving friends a snare.
Sighs fan her burning pain
To flames that rage like forest fire.
Suffering your desertion,
She takes form as a whining doe
And turns Love into Death
Disguised as a tiger hunting prey. (3)

It is interesting to note that just as Jayadeva was composing his testimony to a sacred if unfaithful love, the Minnesingers and Troubadours were praising adultery throughout Europe, and Gottfried von Strassbourg (died c. 1210) was conceiving his great romance Tristan, which would exalt transgressive love as the heart’s highest sacrament. And, at this time, a the praise of love was resounding through the Islamic world, in the verse and philosophy of the Sufi masters Jalāl ad-Dīn Rūmī (1207-1273) and Ibn ʿArabī (1165-1240).

The prevailing moods of the Gītagovinda are union, love, passion, and delight, and its popularity is attested by the ubiquitous statuettes found of the holy couple across India to this day.

Jayadeva’s masterpiece has inspired countless performances of song and dance. It was only after I was well-acquainted with the Gita as a literary document that it occurred to me that they are intended to be sung. If you have a minute, I very much recommend listening to Gayathri Girish’s sumptuous recording of Song 21 of Gītagovinda in the YouTube video to the right.

Here is a translation of the first few stanzas of the song Girish brings to life, as rendered by Barbara Stoller Miller:

Revel in wild luxury on the sweet thicket floor!
Your laughing face begs ardently for his love.
  Rādhā, enter Mādhava’s intimate world!

Revel in a thick bed of red petals plucked as offerings!
Strings of pearls are quivering on your rounded breasts.
  Rādhā, enter Mādhava’s intimate world!

Revel in bright retreat heaped with flowers!
Your tender body is flowering.
  Rādhā, enter Mādhava’s intimate world!

Revel in the fragrant chill of gusting sandal-forest winds!
Your sensual singing captures the mood.
  Rādhā, enter Mādhava’s intimate world!

Revel where swarming bees drunk on honey buzz soft tones!
Your emotion is rich in the mood of love.
  Rādhā, enter Mādhava’s intimate world! (4)

(1) Dimmit C & van Buitenen J. A. Classical Hindu Mythology; A Reader in the Sanskrit Purānas. Temple University Press. 1978. p. 120
(2) Miller BS. Jayadeva’s Gītagovinda. Columbia University Press. 1977. p. 77
(3) Miller, p. 88
(4) Miller, p. 118

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March 12, 2012 at 6:23 pm

Links Roundup: Mostly Multi-Media Edition

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Dancing Girl, Paul Klee, 1940
Image (c) Barnaby Thieme

I’ve got some really terrific stuff for you on this week’s link roundup. Are you excited?!? I am.

First off, I’m thrilled to have learned about the stupendous blog 5:4, which covers new classical music. Its proprietor Simon Cummings is himself a composer. The site hosts loads of free downloads by some favorites of mine (Thomas Adès, Steve Reich, Conlon Nancarrow) and some brand new favorites. I am over the moon for Julieta Szewach’s Dikyrion and Unsuk Chin’s violin concerto (Total Immersion). Really terrific stuff.

I think you should probably watch this short excerpt of Francis Alÿs’s Nightwatch, which features a fox on the loose in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

As long as we’re all multi-media, you might be interested to know that the San Francisco Symphony has a podcast.

You can download some wonderful radio plays by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre here. The War of the Worlds really is terrific, but so far my favorite is the short “Life with Father,” which surprisingly outshines the “Heart of Darkness” adaptation it’s paired with.

Here is a handy webpage that makes it extremely easy to request any files that various intelligence agencies may be keeping on you — NSA, FBI, CIA, Secret Service, and a couple of other ones. I submitted a bunch of requests today out of curiosity, and will let you know if they have anything on yours truly.

My friend Hugh Behm-Steinberg over at Eleven Eleven sent me a link to this excerpt (chapter 12) from a new translation of the Bhagavad Gita by Gavin Flood and Charles Martin.

Written by Mesocosm

March 2, 2012 at 8:51 am

Posted in Links

Defining Mesocosm

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Mesocosm with Assyrian Androcephalous Bulls
British Museum, 2011

In the last several months since Mesocosm went live, I have learned a lot about what the blog is and what it wants to be. Simply by following my interests, a pattern has gradually emerged which has given me a sense of what this blog is about, and where my own commitments lie.

Unfortunately there is no good word for the thread that binds my interests together. I might call it “religion,” except to most people the word connotes the Baptist minister, the Catholic mitre, or perhaps the Buddhist priest. It suggests, by and large, dogmatic assertions about the nature of the world, which are impossible to reconcile with what we have learned from careful observation of the cosmos.

I might call it “mythology,” a word which Joseph Campbell used, except to most people “mythology” suggests Jason and the Argonauts or Perseus – that is, stories with a fanciful or etiological function, often concerning the slaying of monsters and maidens trapped in tall towers.

These things are elements of what I’m circling around, but so is the wonder and bafflement one encounters when one hears from the physicist that our bodies and minds are ultimately composed of nothing more than a particular configuration of spacetime, or that many of the molecules that make up my body were formed in the fusion furnaces of stars that exploded long ago, casting new, heavy elements out into space.

What I’m talking about has more to do with not knowing than knowing. It’s the mystery that moved Ikkyu to ask:

why is it all so beautiful this craziness
this fake dream why? (1)

This state of holy bafflement has been recognized and evoked by poets and visionaries throughout time and the world over. The first Caliph of Islam, Muhammed’s father-in-law Abu Bakr, said that with respect to Allah, “Incapacity to perceive is perception.” In a completely different cultural and religious context, using identical language, the Bengali Buddhist master Jowo Atisha, who would transform Tibetan Buddhism in the eleventh century, wrote “This not seeing is itself seeing.”

It is the state of wonderment encountered when the limit of words and understanding is reached, and a cosmos of galaxies spills forth into infinite sky just past the threshold.

In his Book of Monastic Life, Rilke wrote:

I circle God and the ancient tower
a thousand years long,
and I do not yet know, am I a falcon,
storm, or great song.

I want to circle with him, and bring every tool I can to the table for rendering images of that mystery into the field of human endeavor and understanding, the wonder of Ikkyu’s fake dream. To me that means drawing it all in, from history, comparative religions, archaeology, anthropology, sociology, psychology, art history, poetry, philosophy, theology, philology, hermeneutics, systems theory, and physics – every one of those fields has something important to say.

I have circled the mystery for as long as I can remember. My earliest memory of the religious life is arguing at the age of 9 against an anthropomorphic idea of God with my parents, both Episcopal priests of a patient temperament and humanist orientation. In college I plunged into philosophy and literature, swam in the seas of systems theory and physics, and opened the door to Hinduism and Buddhism. I traveled to India to learn from the Dalai Lama, and studied Madhyamaka intensively, first on my own, then with Gelukpa teachers, then at Jeffrey Hopkins’ Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies program at the University of Virginia.

In 2000, still ravenous, I moved to San Francisco. The third day after my arrival I began a weekly intensive study session on Madhyamaka philosophy with the director of practice at the San Francisco Zen Center, where I would live for two years before deciding monastic life did not suit me.

Bodhisattva, Tang Dynasty
Image (C) Barnaby Thieme

I studied cognitive and developmental psychology, and continued my work in systems theory and self-organization, which I became increasingly convinced offered conceptual tools for analyzing complex phenomena that had hitherto lay well outside the reach of science.

At Burning Man, I witnessed first-hand how new and highly-idiosyncratic symbolic forms can take shape and mark people in profound ways. I worked as a contributing editor for Erowid for two years, and carefully tracked and researched neurotheology and a round of fascinating and brilliant experiments investigating commonalities between spontaneously-occurring mystical experiences and psilocybin-induced states. I corresponded with researchers, pharmacologists, and psychologists around the world investigating everything from the serotonergic receptor-binding to endogenous dimethyltryptamine as a source of religious vision.

Wagner drew me into opera with his mighty Ring, and I spilled out into an entire world of sacred music that has been giving shape to the voice of this longing for millennia, from the earliest polyphony of the Notre Dame School to the masterworks of the elder Bach to the haunting shades of Berg’s violin concerto or Silvestrov’s bagatelles.

I am still circling, using every tool I can get a hold of, convinced that what I’m getting at is something of profound importance, too important to be left to specialists. It is a mystery that is woven into every aspect of human culture, for those who are inclined to hear its music. Joseph Campbell perfectly expressed my sense of urgency:

Clearly mythology is no toy for children. Nor is it a matter of archaic, merely scholarly concern, of no moment to modern men of action. For its symbols (whether in the tangible forms of images or in the abstract form of ideas) touch and release the deepest centers of motivation, moving literate and illiterate alike, moving mobs, moving civilizations. There is a real danger, therefore, in the incongruity of focus that has brought the latest findings of technological research into the foreground of modern life, joining the world a single community, while leaving the anthropological and psychological discoveries from which a commensurable moral system might have been developed in the learned publications where they first appeared. For surely it is folly to preach to children who will be riding rockets to the moon a morality and cosmology based on concepts of the Good Society and of man’s place in nature that were coined before the harnessing of the horse! And the world is now too small, and men’s stake in sanity too great, for any of those old games of Chosen Folk (whether of Jehovah, Allah, Wotan, Manu, or the Devil) by which tribesmen were sustained against their enemies in the days when the serpent still could talk. (2)

So I continue the work. I am reading Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, the great Sanskrit poet Kālidāsa, and the Mahābhārata; I’m also studying the Quran and the the history of Sufi philosophy, and working with Wittgenstein’s language game theory as a way to understand non-denotational religious belief. I’m translating a book of Rilke’s religious poetry and editing an essay on the relationship between contemporary particle physics and Zen philosophy for serialization on this blog.

And I’m looking for work! There’s not a lot of money in the God business. Well … at least, not the way I play it.


1) Ikkyu, trans. by Stephen Berg. Crow with No Mouth. Copper Canyon Press. 2000.
2) Campbell J. The Masks of God Volume I: Primitive Mythology. Penguin Books. 1969. p. 12.

Written by Mesocosm

March 1, 2012 at 3:45 pm

Posted in Articles, Musings