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Archive for April 2012

Lord of the Starry Heavens: Three Islamic Stories

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The sage as astronomer. – As long as you still experience the stars as something “above you,” you lack the eye of knowledge. – F. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, §71

For a time, I lived in a Zen monastery in the Ventana Wilderness of California, a mountainous and sparsely-inhabited region several miles inland from Big Sur. The first night I was there, I went into the Zendo for evening meditation, and when I emerged and looked up, my first thought was literally that there must be some mistake. There couldn’t be that many stars.

Stellar Nursery in the Tarantula Nebula (Click for Full Image)

I think the desert and its enormous night sky are essential to understanding the poetic mode of Muhammad’s revelation. The Persian poet Farid Ud-Din Attar described its impact on the soul in this brief story:

One moonlit night
Sheikh Bayazid, attracted by the sight
Of such refulgent brilliance, clear as day,
Across the sleeping city took his way
And thence into the desert, where he saw
Unnumbered stars adorning heaven’s floor.
He walked a little and became aware
That not a sound disturbed the desert air,
That no one moved in that immensity
Save him. His heart grew numb and gradually
Pure terror touched him. “O great God,” he cried,
“Your dazzling palace beckons far and wide –
Where are the courtiers who should throng this court?”
A voice said: “Wanderer, you are distraught;
Be calm. Our glorious King cannot admit
All comers to His court; it is not fit
That every rascal who sleeps out the night
Should be allowed to glimpse its radiant light.
Most are turned back, and few perceive the throne;
Among a hundred thousand there is one.” (1)

Certainly, Muhammad was such a one. According to an account of the Prophet (Hadith) preserved by his beloved wife Aisha, he began to travel alone to the wilderness to meditate and pray, in the middle of his life’s journey, and there he began receiving holy visions. The tradition records her account:

The commencement of the Divine Inspiration to Allah’s Apostle was in the form of good dreams which came true like bright day light, and then the love of seclusion was bestowed upon him. He used to go in seclusion in the cave of Hira where he used to worship (Allah alone) continuously for many days before his desire to see his family. He used to take with him the journey food for the stay and then come back to (his wife) Khadija to take his food like-wise again till suddenly the Truth descended upon him while he was in the cave of Hira.

The angel came to him and asked him to read. The Prophet replied, “I do not know how to read. The Prophet added, “The angel caught me (forcefully) and pressed me so hard that I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read and I replied, ‘I do not know how to read.’ Thereupon he caught me again and pressed me a second time till I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read but again I replied, ‘I do not know how to read (or what shall I read)?’ Thereupon he caught me for the third time and pressed me, and then released me and said, ‘Read in the name of your Lord, who has created (all that exists) has created man from a clot. Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous.” (96.1, 96.2, 96.3)

Then Allah’s Apostle returned with the Inspiration and with his heart beating severely. Then he went to Khadija bint Khuwailid and said, “Cover me! Cover me!” They covered him till his fear was over and after that he told her everything that had happened and said, “I fear that something may happen to me.” Khadija replied, “Never! By Allah, Allah will never disgrace you. You keep good relations with your Kith and kin, help the poor and the destitute, serve your guests generously and assist the deserving calamity-afflicted ones.” (2)

Paradiso Canto 31, Gustave Doré
(click to enlarge)

According to Ibn Ishaq, the most illustrious of Muhammad’s biographers, when Muhammad first emerged from the cave in the episode described above, he traveled to a nearby mountain. When he arrived at the summit he heard a voice from heaven say “O Muhammad, thou art Allah’s Apostle, and I am Gabriel!”

The Prophet continues: “I looked up and saw Gabriel in the form of a man with crossed legs at the horizon of heaven. I remained standing and observed him, and moved neither backwards nor forwards. And when I turned my gaze from him, I continued to see him on the horizon, no matter where I turned.” (3)

I love the humanity of this story, and its feverish, visionary intensity. If Buddha speaks to the divinity of persons, to awaken them to their own Buddha Nature, and if Christ speaks of his own divinity, then Muhammad speaks as a human being to other human beings; not as archetypes, or bearers of perfection, but as imperfect, and imperfectible, except through relationship to what is holy and true.

Like so many religious heroes, Muhammad took up his vocation reluctantly. He would have preferred to remain silent without teaching, like Buddha, or for the cup to pass before him, like Christ. But teach he did, and recounted his visions, which were written down by his followers and redacted into the Qu’ran. Surah LIII is entitled “The Star;” here is an excerpt:

To God belongs whatsoever is in the heavens
and whatsoever is in the earth, that He may
recompense those who do evil for what they
have done, and recompense those who have done
   good with the reward most fair.

   Those who avoid the heinous sins and
   indecencies, save lesser offenses –
surely the Lord is wide in His forgiveness.

Very well He knows you, when He produced you
from the earth, and when you were yet unborn
in your mothers’ wombs; therefore hold not
yourselves purified; God knows very well
   him who is godfearing.

Has thou considered him who turns his back
and gives a little, and then grudgingly?
Does he possess the knowledge of the Unseen,
   and therefore he sees?

Or has he not been told of what is in the
   scrolls of Moses,
and Abraham, he who paid his debts in full?
That no soul laden bears the load of another,
and that a man shall have to his account only
   as he has laboured,
and that his labouring shall surely be seen,
that he shall be recompensed for it with the
   fullest recompense,
and that the final end is unto thy Lord,
and that it is He who makes to laugh, and
   that he makes to weep,
and that it is He who makes to die,
   and makes to live,
and that He Himself created the two kinds,
   male and female,
of a sperm-drop, when it was cast forth,
and that upon Him rests the second growth,
and that it is He who gives wealth and riches,
and that it is He who is the Lord of Sirius,
and that He destroyed Ad, the ancient,
and Thamood, and He did not spare them,
and the people of Noah before – certainly
they did exceeding evil, and were insolent –
and the Subverted City He also overthrew,
so that there covered it that which covered.
Then which of thy Lord’s bounties diputest thou?

  This is a warner, of the warners of old.
  The Imminent is imminent, apart from God
    none can disclose it.
  Do you then marvel at this discourse,
  and do you laugh, and do you not weep,
    while you make merry?

So bow yourselves before God, and serve Him! (4)

1) Attar FUD. The Conference of the Birds. trans. by Darbandi A, and Davis D. Penguin Classics. 1984. pg. 77.
2) Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, 1:3. The Hadith Library. Retrieved April 20, 2012.
3) Andrae T. Mohammad, the Man and His Faith. The Cloister Library. 1960. pp. 43-4. Quoted in Eliade M. A History of Religious Ideas; Vol. 3. The University of Chicago Press. 1985. pp. 65-6.
4) Qu’ran LIII:31-60; from Arberry AJ (trans.). The Koran Interpreted; Vol. 2. Touchstone Books. 1955. pp. 31-60.

Written by Mesocosm

April 20, 2012 at 10:16 am

More Fitting to be Friends: Islam and Europe

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One of the greatest works of European literature to come down to us from the Middle Ages, or indeed from any age, is Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Arthurian Romance Parzifal, written early in the thirteenth century.

We don’t know much about von Eschenbach, though he identifies himself as “something of a Minnesinger” in his book. Minnesingers are the German equivalent of the troubadours of Provence, those famous composers of verse and rhyme who filled Europe’s coffers with splendid poetry celebrating love and its virtues.

Here is a bit of verse written by the Occitan troubadour Arnaut Daniel, whom Dante referred to as “the better craftsman.” In this translation of L’Arua Amara, Ezra Pound rendered his Provençal into English:

Shield of Parade, c. 1500
Image (c) Barnaby Thieme

The bitter air
Strips panoply
From trees
Where softer winds set leaves,
And glad
Now in brakes are coy,
Scarce peep the wee
And un-mates,
   What gaud’s the work?
   What good the glees?
What curse
I strive to shake!
Me hath she cast from high,
In fell disease
I lie, and deathly fearing. (1)

This excerpt exemplifies the themes of nature and the open road that properly belong to the troubadour’s heart, along with mortal concern for his idealized beloved, whose lack of favor is worse than icy death.

We can see in this poem an unambiguous shift in emphasis from Europe’s tradition of poetry praising God and king. Daniel holds nation and piety to be of less import than a glance from his beloved:

Pope and Emp’ror I count asses;
Let See and Domain combine them;
From them to her I’d revert
    Who doth burn my heart and frost it,
Yet if she mend not her paces,
Kiss me ere New Year and melt
For my death to hell she’s fleeting. (2)

The poetic imagination of the troubadours, combined with the rich heritage of Celtic imagination, swept through Europe in the High Middle Ages, transforming its art and literature forever. In Arthurian romance we can see these two influences blend, with the troubadour lending Guinevere and Isolde to the idiom, and the Celt supplying fairydom, imperiled queens in enchanted castles, dragons, elves, and dwarves.

This genre of Arthurian romance reached its apex in the hands of two German masters, Gottfried von Strassburg (died c. 1210), who left us the story of Tristan and Isolde, and Wolfram von Eschenbach (died c. 1220), who supplied Europe’s greatest account of the quest for the Holy Grail in Parzifal.

Early thirteenth-century Europe was a lively place. In 1210, the Franciscan Order was established, and in 1216, Saint Dominic founded his order of Friars. Frederick II Hohenstaufen, called by Nietzsche the “first European,” was king of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor. He was a powerful force for the secularization of European polity, and a generous patron of the arts. He would briefly recapture Jerusalem for Christendom, after its knights had been driven out in 1189, by Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, known to Europe as Saladin.

Kneeling Knight
London, c. 1350

This was the landscape in which Parzifal was composed. Its story is primarily concerned with its hero’s spritual transformation, as he seeks for the Holy Grail to bring renewal to the land. It is a wonderful and profound story, but here, I’d like to focus a bit on Parzifal’s family.

His father Gahmuret, the story goes, was king of Anjou in France. After establishing himself as a great knight, he traveled east as far as Baghdad, where he came into the service of the Baruch, or ruler, and distinguished himself greatly during the siege of Alexandria.

After leaving Iraq, Gahmuret wandered the Middle East until he came to the fictional land of Zazamanc, which was encircled by a hostile army. In true courtly fashion, Gahmuret came to the aid of Belacane, the Moorish queen of Zazamanc.

Gahmuret and Belacane fell in love and married, and their son, Feirefiz, combined his mother’s dark hue with his father’s whiteness. Von Eschenbach describes him as a blend of dark skin and light, mottled, like a magpie.

Now, through the course of many adventures, Gahmuret eventually returned to France, where he would marry his second wife Condwiramurs, and father Parzifal. He died, leaving Parzifal in his mother’s care, and the boy grew up ignorant of his heritage.

In time, Parzifal became a knight like his father, and served in the court of King Arthur, where he became involved in the quest for the Holy Grail. And much later, near the end of our tale, Parzifal came to face the army of his brother Feirefiz in battle, with each unknown to the other.

They met in solo combat on the field. Their battle raged and raged, and for the first time, each had met his equal. At length, Feirefiz threw his sword into the forest and called for parley, and they learned that they were brothers. At the discovery of their common heritage, “Parzival found treasure trove, the most precious he had ever lit on.” (3)

Recall that Feirefiz is the son of a Moorish queen. In von Eschenbach’s time, the Islamic Moors still ruled Spain, as they had centuries. The tide turned against the Muslims in Europe only at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, around the time Parzifal was written. And here we have a great European hero, whose father served the ruler of Baghdad, around the time the Crusading Knights were expelled from Palestine, and his beloved brother is a Muslim. This is really quite extraordinary.

Conference of the Birds (detail)
Manuscript Cover, painted by Habib Allah
(click to enlarge)

If we take a closer look at the tradition from which von Eschenbach sprang, we will see that he is himself, in a sense, a half-brother of a Muslim tradition.

In the early thirteenth century, far from Germany, another great poet was setting down his own masterwork. The Perisan Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar was then composing The Conference of the Birds, in which a collection of fowl travel together to a far-off valley, in search of the King of Birds, the mythical Simorgh – a kind of phoenix, if you will. This wonderful allegory describes the Sufi path to union with God, with each valley along the way representing a stage of the contemplative path.

Like the troubadours and Minnesingers, Attar had little use for piety. In a long anecdote related in Conference, Attar tells the story of the Sheikh Sam’an, who lived a good Muslim life until he fell in love with a Christian girl in his travels. In many ways, the story is a mirror image of the story of Gahmuret in Parzifal.

In one shocking turn, the Sheikh’s friends and students urge him to return to his religious life, and he replies “Where is her face / That I may pray toward that blessèd place?” (4) He is actually suggesting that instead of praying toward Mecca and the Kab’aa, he will pray toward the face of his beloved.

In Europe, we find a close parallel to this episode in von Strassburg’s Tristan. The young lovers Tristan and Isolde bravely face death and damnation in the name of their love. In one episode, the two flee into the woods, and make their conjugal bed into an altar, substituting their erotic union for the sacrament of communion.

Now, I do not want to overstate the degree of toleration shown in the thirteenth century. The tale of Sheikh Sam’an is a cautionary tale, and he not only ends up returning to Islam, but converts his Christian love as well. Likewise, Feirefiz converts to Christianity before taking a bride in Parzifal.

Nevertheless, the sense of these episodes is unmistakeable. Parzival’s reconciliation with Feirefiz plays a decisive roll in the climax of the work, and much is made of his dual coloration, converging in a single man like a yin yang. In Attar’s Conference, the love of Sam’an for the Infidel is described at far greater length, and with far greater vitality and attention, than his perfunctory return to religious norms at the end.

In both cases, there is a sense of passing through your opposite and returning to yourself at a higher stage, and it involves the heart’s recognition that something is different, and something is the same.

Attar holds that the true love of God leads the aspirant past piety, through the gates of blasphemy, and into actual communion with the holy source. Piety is rooted in our socially-constructed idea of what God must be like, and it leads to the socially-consecrated image of God. True love for God, like the love of Tristan and Isolde, dares all, even damnation, in its ravenous hunger for the divine. He writes:

Islam and blasphemy have both been passed
By those who set out on love’s path at last;
Love will direct you to Dame Poverty,
And she will show the way to Blasphemy.
When neither Blasphemy nor Faith remain,
The body and the Self have both been slain;
Then the fierce fortitude the Way will ask
Is yours, and you are worthy of our task.
Begin the journey without fear; be calm;
Forget what is and what is not Islam;
Put childish dread aside – like heroes meet
The hundred problems which you must defeat. (5)

Compare this to Arnaut Daniel’s verse, which we saw above:

“Pope and Emp’ror I count asses;
Let See and Domain combine them;
From them to her I’d revert.”

This dramatic similarity is not a coincidence. The points of contact between the Muslim world and the world of Christendom were many and varied, and the encounter with the Sufi Dervishes left a deep mark on the European imagination. The celebration of love by the troubadours and Minnesingers may well carry the stamp of the Sufi poets. Anyone who has encountered Jalāl ad-Dīn Rumi knows him to be the very voice of love’s song:

You are my life, you are my life, my life; you are my own, you are my own, my own.
You are my king, worthy of my passion; you are my candy, worthy of my teeth.
You are my light; dwell within these eyes of mine, O my eyes and fountain of life!
When the rose beheld you, it said to the lily, “My cypress tree came to my rose garden.”
Say, how are you in respect to two scattered things! your hair, and my distracted state?
The rope of your hair is my shackle, the well of your chin is my prison.
Where are you going, drunk, shaking your hands? Come to me, my laughing rose! (6)

Compare to Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan:

When the two lovers perceived that they had one mind, one heart, and but a single will between them, this knowledge began to assuage their pain and yet bring it to the surface. Each looked at the other and spoke with ever greater daring, the man to the maid, the maid to the man. Their shy reserve was over. He kissed her and she kissed him, lovingly and tenderly. Here was a blissful beginning for Love’s remedy: each poured and quaffed the sweetness that welled up from their hearts. (7)

The links between the courtly tradition of the troubadours and the Sufis have long been remarked, and it is in fact possible that the word “troubadour” itself is derived from an Arabic root tarab, meaning “to sing.” The thirteenth century appears to have been a time of love’s glory in much of the world, for it was then that Jayadeva wrote his sumptuous Gītagovinda in India, which we considered in an earlier post.

Not only were the crusading knights in frequent contact with Islamic ideas – a historical reality visible in mythopoetic guise in Gahmuret’s trip to Baghdad – but many of the greatest Sufi masters lived in Andalusian Spain. Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240), widely regarded as the greatest Sufi philosopher, lived in Spain while von Eschenbach was writing. His work would come to exert a tremendous influence on Dante. In his comparative study The Legacy of Islam, R. A. Nicholson catalogs some of the features of the Divine Comedy that correspond to Ibn ‘Arabi’s descriptions, including “The infernal regions, the astronomical heavens, the circles of the mystic rose, the choirs of angels around the focus of the divine light, the three circles symbolizing the Trinity – all are described by Dante exactly as Ibnu’l-‘Arabi described them.” (8)

The knowledge of classical antiquity was alive in Arabic translation when it had been forgotten by Europe, and it was largely through contact with the Muslim world that the intellectual worlds of Greece and Rome were rediscovered in the West, triggering the Renaissance. For example, Thomas Aquinas (died 1274), one of the most important theologians in the history of Christianity, relied heavily on the Muslim philosopher Ibn Roschd (Averroes) for his interpretation of Aristotle.

Cowl worn by St. Francis
Santa Croce, Florence

Saint Francis of Assisi (died 1226) was a troubadour before he became a renunciate and founded a new monastic order. The Sheikh Idries Shah has made a persuasive argument that Francis used Sufi poetic imagery in many of his writings, including his famous “Canticle of the Sun,” written in 1224. Francis tried three times to travel to the East – first to Syria, then to Morocco, and last to Damietta in Egypt, where he met with and greatly impressed the Sultan Malik el-Kamil. (9)

Our cursory review here could be dramatically extended, but I trust the point has been made. Many of the masterworks of the European tradition were written in dialog with the world of Islam. The poetical, narrative, and religious imagination of the High Middle Ages, which established a legacy that continues to underlie European culture to this day, is of mixed heritage.

It is more important than ever to keep this in mind, when so many forces are at work in the United States and Europe that dehumanize Muslims in the cultural imagination. The image of Islam evokes for many Europeans and Americans the shadow of the West, appearing as the embodiment of the irrational, the totalitarian, the fanatic, the Terrorist – the barbarians at the gates.

But as von Eschenbach saw and sang 800 years ago, Muslims are not evil, or good, but a blend of the dark and the light, like everyone else.

There is always the possibility that if we throw off the sword, and take off our respective masks, we may find that we are brothers and sisters of the same father. We may find, as Parzifal and Feirefiz saw at once, “It was more fitting for them to be friends than bitter enemies.”

1) Pound E. “L’aura Amara,” from Pound; Poems and Translations. The Library of America. 2003. pg. 489.
2) ibid., pg. 493.
3) von Eschenbach W. Parzival. trans. by Hatto, AT. Penguin Classics. 1980. pg. 372.
4) Attar FUD. The Conference of the Birds. trans. by Darbandi A, and Davis D. Penguin Classics. 1984. pg. 61.
5) Attar FUD., pg. 57.
6) Rumi JAD. Mystical Poems of Rumi 2. trans. by Arberry AJ. The University of Chicago Press. 1979. pg. 50.
7) von Strassburg G. Tristan. trans. by Hatto, AT. Penguin Classics. 1960. pg. 200.
8) Nicholson RA. op. cit. Campbell J. Creative Mythology; The Masks of God. Penguin Books. 1968. pg. 129-30.
9) Shah I. “The Sufis and Francis of Assisi.” Retrieved April 16, 2012.

Written by Mesocosm

April 16, 2012 at 10:59 am


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Written by Mesocosm

April 13, 2012 at 2:15 pm

Posted in Ephemera, Music

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New Blog: Mesoscope

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Howdy y’all. I just wanted to let you know that I’ve started up a new blog on politics and current events called Mesoscope. I don’t plan to do much cross-posting as it’s quite a different subject and tone from what I’m doing here, but some of you may be interested.

I’ve been thinking about starting something like this for some time, and was pushed over the fence by news this morning from Seymour Hersh that the US government has been training and supporting a designated Iranian terrorist group that has been linked to a spate of political murders in Iran in recent years. So there you have it! Welcome to Crazytown.

Written by Mesocosm

April 7, 2012 at 8:34 pm

Posted in Ephemera, Links

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Abraham should have replied to this supposedly divine voice: ‘That I ought not to kill my good son is quite certain. But that you, this apparition, are God – of that I am not certain, and never can be, not even if this voice rings down to me from high heaven.’ – Immanuel Kant

Doubting Thomas (detail)
Sebastián López de Arteaga

“What do you do when you’re not sure?” asks Father Brendan Flynn, in John Patrick Shanley’s film Doubt. “That is the topic of my sermon today.” I would like for it to be the topic of every sermon, every day.

The human condition is pervaded by uncertainty. There is so much that we do not know about the world, about each other, about ourselves. This is obviously true, but I think we don’t really believe it. We certainly tend to act as if we know all that we need to know.

Ignorance is like those blind spots where the optic nerve passes through the retina and we cannot see. You may have been shown this before – that if you carefully move your fingers to a certain spot before your eyes, your fingertips seem to disappear. At all times, there are two dead zones in our field of vision, but how often are we aware of them? Five minutes per year? Less, I think.

And if we turn our eyes inward, we find the same. Social psychologists have found, for example, that peoples’ descriptions of their own personalities don’t agree very well with the way other people describe them. And other people usually agree more with one another about what we are like than they agree with us. (1)

Do you know why you do the things that you do? Do you understand how your life has become the way that it has become?

I think the world is a great darkness, illuminated by two tiny lamps, where the eyes of our understanding shed a little light.

When I look at the literature and philosophy of times long ago, it is obvious that people are certain that they understand the world. Of course the world is flat, it rests on a great ocean of water, and heaven is a place that lies beyond the highest of the celestial spheres.

The World, as it was Known to Herodotus
(click to enlarge)

When we cast our glance over our shoulder, how small the knowledge of the past seems; yet by and large, our confidence in our own state of understanding is exactly the same. We know what the world is like.

Thích Nhất Hạnh said “We should always ask ourselves, humbly, ‘Am I sure?’ and then allow space and time for our perceptions to grow deeper, clearer, and more stable.” (2)

So how do we respond to our uncertainty? How do the limits of our understanding inform our sense of the world, or our attitudes and beliefs? Are we even aware of our limits?

If we are not aware of the limits of our knowing, if we have never gone into the darkness to sound them out, why haven’t we? Are the limits of knowledge less important for life than knowledge?

In Actualizing the Fundamental Point, Eihei Dogen wrote:

When you sail out in a boat to the middle of an ocean where no land is in sight, and view the four directions, the ocean looks circular, and does not look any other way. But the ocean is neither round nor square; its features are infinite in variety. It is like a palace. It is like a jewel. It only looks circular as far as you can see at that time. All things are like this.

Though there are many features in the dusty world and the world beyond conditions, you see and understand only what your eye of practice can reach. In order to learn the nature of the myriad things, you must know that although they may look round or square, the other features of oceans and mountains are infinite in variety; whole worlds are there. It is so not only around you, but also directly below your feet, or in a drop of water. (3)

I believe that the ability to tolerate uncertainty is the clearest sign of wisdom. Those who cannot tolerate uncertainty cannot tolerate being human, and from this one mistake, ten thousand mistakes will follow. Awareness of our own limitations is the mark of humility, and humility is the beginning and the end of wisdom.

The anonymous author of the classic of Christian mysticism The Cloud of Unknowing extols :

My intention is simply to help you appreciate the exalted dignity of the contemplative work of love, in comparison to any other possible with grace. For the secret love of a pure heart pressing upon the dark cloud of unknowing between you and your god in a hidden yet certain way includes in itself perfect humility without the help of particular or clear ideas. (4)

The virtue of embracing the darkness of uncertainty lies in the achievement of humility, and none are more quick to do harm than those inflamed with certainty.

Our limitations can be hard to see in ourselves, but easy to see in others. All we have to do is remember that we are not so different, and when we hold an opinion or belief, we can pause, and ask ourselves with humility, “Am I really so sure?” Then we can hold on to our doubt, and we can cherish what it helps us to become.


1) Wilson TD. Strangers to Ourselves; Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. The Belknap Press. 2002. pg. 84.
2) Hanh TN. Transformation at the Base. Parallax Press. 2001. pg. 26.
3) ed. Tanahashi K. Moon in a Dewdrop. North Point Press. 1985. pg. 71.
4) Anonymous. The Cloud of Unknowing. Image Books. 1973. pg. 67.

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April 5, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Posted in Articles, Musings

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Do Buddhist teachings of selflessness contradict the doctrine of reincarnation?

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Sleeping Muse, Constantin Brâncuşi, 1910
Image (C) Barnaby Thieme

In the years that I’ve been involved with various Buddhist communities, I’ve heard versions of this question many times. The Buddha taught that all things are without a permanent, abiding self. But many Buddhists also believe in reincarnation. How can both be true? Does reincarnation not imply the existence of something like a soul, or an eternally-abiding essence of the person?

I do not subscribe to the doctrine of reincarnation. However, from the perspective of Buddhist philosophy, I don’t believe this is an actual contradiction, because the self that reincarnates is a phenomenon like any other, persisting for as long as the causes and conditions that keep it going continue.

Most Buddhist schools teach that everything lacks a self. There is no permanently-abiding table any more than there is an eternally-abiding blogger writing these words. But that does not mean there is no table there – it simply means that the table doesn’t have the kind of persistence that it appears to have, at first glance.

We don’t need to appeal to metaphysical speculation to establish the selflessness of the table, we simply have to look closely at it and try to find its essence. By a process of reasoning and analysis, we can determine that it has none.

There is no invisible line around the table that separates it from the floor and the air, there is only a semi-stable lattice of particles interacting with its environment. If you crank up the electron microscope and really look hard at the thing, you’ll find that what we think of as the bits that make it up are themselves almost entirely empty space – atoms are simply tiny flashes of energy orbiting an equally-tiny nucleus in a vast gulf. If an average atom’s nucleus were the size of a basketball, an orbiting electron would be nearly 8 miles away.

So where is the solid table that we imagine? The table that we experience is a collection of perceptions and ideas all mixed together, and by the time we have an image of it in our consciousness, the concept of what things are like has gotten so mixed up with the perception of the table that there’s no disentangling them. In the language of one epistemological tradition within Buddhism, the conceptual image, or meaning-generality, of the table, is fused with the sense impression of the table itself.

The table exists from one moment to the next as long as the causes and conditions that go into arranging that particular configuration of matter and energy into something we can call a table persist. Once the causes and conditions cease, the table will cease. If, for example, we turn the heat up a few thousand degrees, poof! No more table.

No Abiding Self
Daniel-Henry Kahnweiter, Pablo Picasso, 1910
Image (C) Barnaby Thieme

From the perspective of Buddhist philosophy, the self that reincarnates is like the table. The fact that it continues after the time of death is immaterial (no pun intended). Minds continue to exist in basically the same sense that tables still exist. They are conventional phenomena that abide for as long as the causes and conditions that sustain them abide.

One can ask other questions of reincarnation, though, and I think they should be asked. Let’s take the issue of mind/body dualism.

The term “dualism” in philosophy is used in different ways, but it frequently refers to the mind/body distinction posited by René Descartes. Descartes believed that the mind and the body are two different kinds of things, which fundamentally distinct in their character. I think his model basically affirmed what most people assumed to be true, based largely on the Christian belief in the persistence of a personal soul after the time of death.

You will often hear it claimed that Buddhism is a nondualistic tradition that rejects the mind/body split. It seems to me that nothing could be further from the truth. Buddhist philosophy traditionally makes a sharp distinction between the mind and physical matter. In the language of early Buddhist ontology, for example, the world is divided into different constituent elements, called aggregates, which include mind, perceptions, and perceptible objects or forms. These aggregates are of different ontological types, much as in Descartes’ distinction between res cogitans and res extensa.

One contemporary Tibetan scholar-yogi put it thusly:

Mind and body, though associated, are not inseparably linked; they have different substantial causes. That this is so means that the increase and development of the mind is not limited to that of the body; though the continuum of the body ceases at death, that of the mind does not. This difference stems from the fact that whereas the body is composed of matter and as such is anatomically established, mind is not. It is an impermanent phenomenon … changing in each moment, and having the nature of clear light. (1)

One could not ask for a clearer statement of mind/body dualism.

From the perspective of Buddhist philosophy, generally speaking, the mind does not have intrinsic existence, and so it has no eternally-abiding self. However, it does have a different substantial basis from material phenomena, and as such, it does not depend on the body for its continued existence. In the Gelukpa tradition, represented in the quote above, the substantial cause of each moment of the mind’s existence is the preceding moment of the mind’s existence, and nothing further is needed to sustain it.

I do not have a problem reconciling an eternally-abiding mind with the doctrine of emptiness, but I do have a problem with mind/body dualism, and with the idea that the mind is constituted of a mysterious, self-perpetuating stream of some sort. After all, we have learned a little about the mind in the last 2500 years, and I do not see how the existence of the mind can be differentiated from the behavior of the brain at this late date.

1) Lati Rinbochay and Napper E. Mind in Tibetan Buddhism. Snow Lion Press. 1980. pg. 11.

Written by Mesocosm

April 3, 2012 at 12:31 pm

Links Roundup: Google Art Project Edition

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I’m goggle-boxed by the Google Art Project, which offers in-depth looks at dozens of galleries from around the world. The site is executed with the technical excellence and the vast scale that you would expect from the company that brought you Google Maps.

Anyone interested in art, history, or archaeology should run, not walk, to the site at your first opportunity.

After you’ve checked out the Uffizi in Florence or the MoMA in New York, you might browse more esoteric fare, like the Munch Museum in Oslo, or the Museum of Cycladic Art.

One conspicuous absence is the Louvre, but happily, they have their own website.

With this new development, I’m willing to overlook the Gmail redesign scandal, and even Google+.

Written by Mesocosm

April 3, 2012 at 10:16 am