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On Crazy Wisdom and Other Bad Ideas

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“To ordinary people, I look completely mad. To me, ordinary people look completely mad.” – Milarepa

Viktor Frankl, the celebrated author of Man’s Search for Meaning, was addressing a congress of psychologists and psychiatrists when he read two short writings to his audience. One was written by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger; the other, by a hospitalized paranoid schizophrenic. Which, he asked, was written by one of the world’s most prominent philosophers, and which by the patient?

Of course, they were unanimous in judging Heidegger to be the madman. (1)

How do you tell the difference between craziness and genius? It’s not always so easy. Sometimes the perspective that makes sense is simply wrong.

When Thomas Jefferson heard reports from Yale that meteorites had recently fallen, for example, he is said to have replied that “it was easier to believe that two Yankee Professors could lie than to admit that stones could fall from heaven.”

Madness and genius both entail perspectives that lie outside of the ordinary range of what people accept to be true.

The Tibetan Buddhists speak of a distinction between what is true from the perspective of ordinary life, and what is really true. According to one tradition, something is conventionally true if it cannot be disproven by normal reasoning or perception. But ordinary reasoning and perception are mistaken, so there is no simple way to arrive at the ultimate truth. (2)

This distinction between the way that things appear and what’s really going on is at the heart of Buddhist teachings, which hold that our mistaken ideas about the world are the ultimate source of all suffering.

When we translate this problem into a human context, we find groups of people trying to collectively orient themselves with respect to what’s really going on. But how do you know?

Of course, you can simply not worry about it – you can settle down in your own vision of reality and say that everyone else is wrong. That’s a common approach.

But if you don’t accept the normal version of reality, and you want to figure out what’s really going on, you have to go outside of convention. Most of the venerated spiritual masters have said that the ordinary perspective is mistaken.

The problem is, whenever people come together and reinforce a shared set of beliefs, they run the danger of creating a sealed-off world and losing their moorings to the planet earth. There has to be some basis for staying grounded, or it is very easy to drift off into space.

In the west, we have a particular danger of gurus who cynically or naively capitalize on the possibilities that open up when you lead people out to sea. Many such teachers claim that their degree of understanding places them outside of the normal range of human values. Sure, they may seem like selfish assholes on the surface, but that’s just because they’ve broken through to the other side. And if that means the guru wants to sleep with your wife, like Adi Da or Richard Baker, then brace yourself for a lesson on non-attachment.

Such teachers have often appealed to the idea of “crazy wisdom,” which is supposedly of Tibetan origin, though in my 15 years of study I have yet to see the corresponding Tibetan term, or find any teacher in Tibet who advocates it as a philosophy.

There is, however, a rich tradition of folklore regarding venerated teachers who shock their disciples with unorthodox behavior, trying to wake them up by confounding their expectations. People like Tilopa, Milarepa, Drukpa Kunley, and the Sixth Dalai Lama fit the bill. It’s also a beloved and common motif in China and Japan – the itinerant Zen priest who piles contempt on the bureaucratic functionaries of the great temples.

It’s a charming motif, the mad fool. But I see no evidence that it was ever intended as a philosophy of practice or teaching. Most of the Tibetan sources I’ve read that deal with such an approach consist of scornful denunciations of self-described Tantrikas who use the Dharma as an excuse to indulge their appetites.

In the short history of the Dharma in the west, we have been blessed with an abundance of controversial teachers who, to all appearances, have acted unethically by pressuring students to sleep with them as part of their practice or by appropriating funds. And many of these teachers are defended as practitioners of crazy wisdom. Two of the many examples that come to mind are Chogyam Trungpa and Richard Baker.

Trungpa, who drank vodka like you and I drink water, according to his friend Shunryu Suzuki, is remembered as a sensitive, insightful teacher and a gifted writer. But he is also remembered for his raging alcoholism and controversial sexual tendencies, including reports that he led his followers in wild sex parties that got out of hand, with some students literally finding themselves stripped bare by hordes of others.

Having written a book by the name of Crazy Wisdom, Trungpa probably did more than any other figure to introduce and defend the concept to American culture. He spoke of crazy wisdom as though it were an established and mainstream tradition in Tibet, which it is not.

That may well be his most enduring legacy to western Dharma, which leads me to agree with Kenneth Rexroth, who said that ““Many believe Chögyam Trungpa has unquestionably done more harm to Buddhism in the United States than any man living.”

Richard Baker is an American Zen monk and energetic disciple of Shunryu Suzuki, the Japanese Soto Zen priest who founded of the San Francisco Zen Center. Baker was an enormously effective organizer and played a vital role at building the Zen Center into the prominent institution it is today. But he also was an egomaniac, using community funds to buy expensive vases and cars while a number of the students who worked full-time to keep the Center afloat did not even receive health care. And he slept with many of his students – a behavior that was, for whatever reasons, long tolerated and indulged, until one of his students became suicidal after his wife began sleeping with Baker. (3)

Eventually he was forced out of the institution that he helped build, but many years after that debacle he showed himself in interviews to be bizarrely heedless of the impact of his behavior. Reading an interview he gave with Tricycle magazine, I got the sense he doesn’t even understand why people were angry.

It is not so odd to me that a charismatic narcissist could set loose his unfettered appetites on a crowd of students and call it enlightenment. But it is odd to me that so many of his students didn’t seem to know how to take it.

“Perhaps it is the great teaching of Buddha,” they may have said to themselves, “when he takes the food off my plate. I should greet it with equanimity.”


I was inspired to write on this topic this morning after reading in the New York Times about the latest chapter in the dramatic saga of American teacher Michael Roach, founder of the Asian Classics Input Project, and formerly a geshe of the Tibetan Sera monastery, until he was kicked out.

I took one of his correspondence courses in 2000, and at the time I was put off by what I took to be his doctrinaire perspective. Many times in his lecture series, he exhorted his students to just “take the Buddha’s word for it.”

Now, I do not subscribe to that point of view. The Tibetan scholar Gendun Choephel said the following about “taking the Buddha’s word for it”:

One may think: ‘We concede that our decisions are unreliable, but when we follow the decisions of the Buddha, we are infallible.’ Then who decided that the Buddha is infallible? If you say ‘The great scholars and adepts like Nagarjuna decided that he is infallible,’ then who decided that Nagarjuna is infallible? If you say ‘The Foremost Lama [Tsong Khapa] decided it,’ then who knows that the Foremost Lama is infallible? If you say ‘Our kind and peerless lama, the excellent and great so and so decided,’ then infallibility, which depends on your excellent lama, is decided by your own mind. In fact, therefore, it is a tiger who vouches for the lion, it is a yak who vouches for a tiger, it is a dog who vouches for a yak, it is a mouse who vouches for a dog, it is an insect who vouches for a mouse. Thus, an insect is made the final voucher for them all. Therefore, when one analyzes in detail the final basis for any decision, apart from coming back to one’s own mind, nothing else whatsoever is perceived.” (4)

There is no way out of this circle. Ultimately, you are the judge of truth and falsity, and you are responsible for your judgment.

Michael Roach and Christie McNally

Michael Roach’s behavior has become increasingly strange in recent years. He was disowned by the Tibetan establishment after he began an unprecedented “celibate marriage” with his student Christie McNally several years ago, in which they were never to be more than fifteen feet away from one another.

That struck a lot of people as pretty weird. It’s the kind of distorted expression of sexuality, I think, that tends to come out of celibate clergies. I could not help but wonder why he didn’t do the obvious thing, give back his monastic vows and marry his cupcake? It seemed like a red flag to me.

The story just got a lot worse. Reports came out this week that McNally, who has since “divorced” Roach and married another fellow, was found delirious on the desert property run by Roach’s group.

McNally and her new husband Ian Thorson had continued living at Roach’s desert retreat center, but had a turbulent time of it. The two were apparently told to leave the retreat center after McNally stabbed Thorson during a fight.

Instead of complying, they headed for the hills and hid out on the land. Tragically, both fell ill while living in a cave, and were too weak to retrieve water. By the time the couple was found by a search party, Thorson was dead.

You know, in all of these cases, the warning signs were not subtle. We have charismatic personalities associated with devoted students. We have increasingly prominent evidence that something is wrong with the guy in charge, and the signs are ignored. Cognitive dissonance is explained away by the students as crazy wisdom.

So, students of the Dharma, a word of warning: if your teacher tells you that sex with him is part of the practice, something is probably wrong. When they’re driving a Rolls while the center is kept afloat by volunteer work, something is probably wrong. If you’re told to “just trust” the tradition or the guy in charge, something is probably wrong. When you start seeing widespread evidence of students considering unethical or criminal behavior, something is probably wrong.

I’m an advocate for Sane Wisdom.

And ninety-nine times out of a hundred, when your teacher starts talking about crazy wisdom, the sane thing to do is get up and walk away.

1) Frankl V. The Will to Meaning. Plume. 1988. pg. 4.
2) See, for example: Newland G. The Two Truths. Snow Lion. 1992.
3) Downing M. Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center. Counterpoint. 2002.
4) From Choephel’s Ornament of Nagarjuna’s Thought, translated in: Lopez Jr, DS. The Madman’s Middle Way. The University of Chicago Press. 2006. pp. 49-50.

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June 7, 2012 at 10:12 am

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.

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April 20, 2012 at 10:16 am


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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.

Written by Mesocosm

April 5, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Posted in Articles, Musings

Tagged with , ,

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

Journey into the Dark; A note on the comparative study of religions and what I found there

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The kurgarra sprinkled the food of life on the corpse.
The galatur sprinkled the water of life on the corpse.
Inanna arose….

It was around the time that I first saw Wagner’s Ring cycle that I decided in earnest to undertake a systematic, if necessarily cursory, comparative study of the major trends of history and culture in the world, with special attention to religious and mythological traditions. Wagner’s gargantuan and unparalleled dramatic imersion in the great mind of myth was a natural gateway to that journey.

Claude Levi-Strauss, the founder of structural anthropology, observed that “If one must see in Wagner the unimpeachable father of the structural analysis of myths … then it is highly revealing to note that such analysis was first made in music.” Like music, myth organizes and expresses non-rational energies and images of the unconscious in an expressive and emotional manner. Like music, myth has the power to transport one outside of one’s self.

The case of Wagner also warns of the dangerous possibilities of sailing the seas of the unconscious, as his troubling biography aptly testifies. Journeying outside the intellect leaves one vulnerable to the psyche, which holds the possibility of violence and darkness alongside the seeds of transformation and liberation.

However, positive and negative potentialities exist within the human mind whether they’re explored or not, and ignoring the irrational is no less dangerous. On the contrary, ignoring the nighttime within increases the possibility that one will be unwittingly directed by the shadow one excludes. In this sense, the exploration of the depths of the soul is a journey into darkness, with the hope that one may then return with the seeds of light. This is the unanimous testimony of the world’s rich heritage of myth, and it accords deeply with my own experience.

That this journey is fraught with peril is made clear by every myth we know, extending back to the earliest recorded stories set down in clay tablets in Sumer. From the myths of ancient Mesopotamia we learn of Inanna, the goddess of the Morning Star, who descends into the underworld, passing through seven gates. At each gate she is stripped of an ornament or garment, every token of her personality, until she arrives in the Land of the Dead, naked. There she is greeted and slain by her sister and double, Ereshkigal.

As so many have found, the loss of personal identity, which seems like the final crisis, instead became Inanna’s point of contact with the greatest of mysteries, that life extends beyond the individual ego. Through her resurrection, Inanna found that her persona is but a shadow of the true life she embodies, and out of the darkness Inanna finds new life.

Through this poem we achieve a sign that self-luminous being re-expresses itself through her new aspect in the patterns of her new identity, and the mind responds, for the deeper part of the self finds its own reflection in these stories. So in I Corinthians: “Behold, I shew you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”

Inanna’s descent was occasioned by her wish to console her sister Ereshkigal, whose husband, the Bull of Heaven, was slain by the hero Gilgamesh. The slain bull god and his consort have been the central signs of the resurrection for as far back as we can reckon. We find it in the Anatolian city of Çatal Höyük in the eighth millennium BCE, where death and rebirth are associated with the bull god whose horns are the crescent moon. This moon-bull-god of the Taurus mountains may well have its ultimate origin in the Lower Paleolithic, and is transmitted down to this present day, as Inanna gradually transforms into Ishtar, Isis, Astarte, Aphrodite, and the Virgin Mary.

While I was studying the literature of the Old Testament I learned that the Hebrew words of my name, Bar-nabe, meaning “son of a prophet,” were probably derived from an Akkadian root, the high literary language of ancient Babylon. I had a vertiginous sense of personal connection to that ancient and marvelous culture, mediated by a frozen artifact of language, transmitted over thousands of years in a lineage of speech linking me to the authors of the epic of Gilgamesh.

Language carries meanings over great expanses of time, and so too with religious symbols. They are the outer sign of an inner meaning, preserved in fixed structures as the details are altered over their long lives. The life of the spirit is fixed within them like an insect trapped in amber.

That life can speak to us from out of frozen forms and archaic stories precisely because they echo the inner life, and outward gradually leads inward, to the dark places of the self, the quiet resources where the immortal light shines.

From Rilke’s Book of Hours:

I love the dark hours of my being.
My mind deepens into them.
There I can find, as in old letters,
the days of my life, already lived,
and held like a legend, and understood.

Then the knowing comes: I can open
to another life that’s wide and timeless.
So I am sometimes like a tree
rustling over a gravesite
and making real the dream
of the one its living roots embrace:

a dream once lost
among sorrows and songs.

Written by Mesocosm

May 26, 2011 at 8:20 pm

Straining to Hear the Voice of the Sea

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Last Friday was my last day as a product engineer for a small company where I have (mostly) worked for the last eleven years. During that time I used every free hour I could squeeze out of the place to do the work that I really wanted to be doing.

The Old Office

When I think of my former professional life, the image that comes vividly to mind is a plain desk, tucked into the corner of a concrete office piled with metal, wire, and whirring machines. The fluorescent lights were broken by a single frosted window. I remember my boss wordlessly installing a new server station immediately adjacent to my desk, further eclipsing the thin natural light with a rack stuffed with blinking devices, constantly emitting the loud rushing sound of mechanically-driven air.

After 11 years, I still earned two weeks of vacation time per year. I used what vacation and leaves of absence I could gather to throw myself into the world of culture, history, and the human spirit that I love. I spent days, then weeks, then months, in long meditation retreats. I traveled around the state and then the country to attend academic conferences. I attended lectures and visited museums, and enrolled in courses in psychology, Japanese, and German. I traveled up and down the west coast to hear opera and symphony. And always, I read voraciously, spending years in a self-directed study of cultural, intellectual, and religious history ranging from the Lower Paleolothic to the present day.

It has been increasingly obvious as the years have gone on that the work I was doing supporting a small company’s line of professional audiovisual technology was out of step with my heart’s basic rhythms. So, without a clear sense of what is next, I left.

In times of historic uncertainty, it feels risky to set out on an unclear path, but I believe that I will find a way forward by which I can live from a deeper center, where my gaze will not always be out the window.

To mark that departure Rebecca and I traveled to Pacific Grove and stayed near the sea. We spent many hours walking up and down the shore talking, watching, and especially, deeply listening. As we walked and talked and listened I contemplated my various perennial interests and imagined ways to participate in the world that would leave positive ripples, ways to contribute, to bring forth warmth and light. The waves came on and on, “the sea that is always counting.”

As I listened, I thought of an Eskimo shaman named Najagneq, who said :

[I believe in] a power that we call Sila, one that cannot be explained in so many words. A strong spirit, the upholder of the universe, of the weather, in fact all life on earth — so mighty that his speech to man comes not through ordinary words, but through storms, snowfall, rain showers, the tempests of the sea, through all the forces that man fears, or through sunshine, calm seas or small, innocent, playing children who understand nothing. (1)

I do not know if the creative patterns by which the universe self-organizes in coherent expression is characterized by what we could meaningfully call intelligence or awareness. But I do take comfort in the thought that in Alaska long ago, as in Tierra del Fuego, Siberia, and Australia, as among the mammoth hunters of the great Aurignacian horizon in Europe, as in the speculation of Robert Oppenheimer in the desert southwest, men and women have long done what I do now. We have walked by the shores of the sea and strained to hear its voice, with the hope that in so doing we might learn something of our own hearts, something that can help us to find a way and a light, and to bring it forth into the world.

1. Ostermann  H.  The Alaskan Eskimos. Nordisk Forlag, 1951. ; quoted in: Cambpell J. Primitive Mythology, Penguin Books, 1969. pg. 51

Pacific Grove

Written by Mesocosm

May 24, 2011 at 7:39 pm

Posted in Articles, Musings

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