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RIP Lonesome George

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I was saddened to learn of the death of Lonesome George, the last of the Pinta Island giant tortoises of the Galapagos. He died at an age somewhere around 100 years old, which is fairly young for a species that can live to be 200.

Like many people, I became aware of Lonesome George as a kid watching National Geographic specials and the like, and it’s hard not to have sympathy for the curmudgeonly ol’ tortoise who found himself alone after all of his brethren were eaten by sailors. It’s a melancholy story for a young boy, somewhat in the neighborhood of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.

You can read about his life in this article by the Christian Science Monitor and elsewhere on the Internet.


Written by Mesocosm

June 25, 2012 at 8:30 am

Posted in Musings

Links Roundup: Really Old Stuff Edition

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Kyoto in a nutshell
(click to enlarge)

Exciting news in the world of archaeology!

Der Spiegel reports (auf Deutsch) that Roman glass beads have been found in a fifth-century grave near Kyoto! The reach of Roman trade was astonishing – Roman coins have been found in Vietnam, for example. However, evidence for European-Japanese contact at such an early date remains scarce.

Here are some beautiful photos of the Lascaux cave paintings from Life magazine.

A team of researchers have concluded that Stonehenge was built to commemorate the political unification of Britain by a late stone age culture. According to the press release, “Its stones are thought to have symbolized the ancestors of different groups of earliest farming communities in Britain, with some stones coming from southern England and others from west Wales.”

I find this an extremely attractive hypothesis on its face, which is congruent with the structure of the monument, which appears rather like a group of people standing in a ring, which is a common motif in neolithic Europe. The idea of symbolically expressing social transformation by bringing together totemistic stones corresponding to kinship groups has obvious analogs in cultures as far-flung as the Anatolians in Çatalhöyük, who may have exchanged the skulls of their ancestors to a similar end, and the Tlingit and Haida, who combined symbols and stories into the infamous “totem poles” of the Pacific northwest.

Not all the archaeological news is good, though. Depressed economies and austerity measures are combining to take a toll on excavation and preservation of important artifacts. I was disheartened to see back-to-back articles on the problems facing the National Archaeological Museum in Athens and the Trevi Fountain in Rome. It seems hard to believe that institutions of this magnitude could be threatened by lack of adequate funding, but then I hardly would have believed anyone would dig a huge oil pipeline through unexcavated ground at Babylon either.

It’s almost enough to make you think the US should cut the crap and re-fund UNESCO, isn’t it?

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting review of Andrew Robinson’s Cracking the Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life of Jean-François Champollion. Sounds like a lively look at the initial decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Finally, the journal Biblical Archaeology Review has called its own editorial judgement into serious question with a breathless piece endorsing the “Brother of Jesus” inscription. But that’s just, like, my opinion – I invite the reader to make up her own mind.

Written by Mesocosm

June 22, 2012 at 10:41 am

Posted in Musings

The Chocolate Chip Cookie Sutra

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Thus have I heard: One day, the World Honored One was baking chocolate chip cookies.

His disciple Ananda came into the kitchen in disarray, saying “I have been speaking with a man of the Hindu persuasion, who has the most outlandish ideas. I have tried to dissuade him of his false, corrupt, destructive, and seductive views. His beliefs will lead him to harm himself. His beliefs will lead him to harm others. His beliefs will lead him to be reborn in the realm of animals, Blessed One, or in the realm of the hungry ghosts, or in the Hellish Realms.

“He would not listen to your teachings. What should I do?”

The Blessed One said, “Have a chocolate chip cookie.”

Comment: As I write these words, I have a pan of cookies in the oven. I wish you could smell them, I wish you could taste them.

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June 16, 2012 at 3:52 pm

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Tagged with

Putting a Face to the Name

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Albert Einstein on E=MC2 (English):


Carl Jung on death (English):


Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi on mind and its object (English):


Salvadore Dali, impressively composed in the face of an antagonistic Mike Wallace (English):


James Joyce reading from Finnegans Wake (audio only):


Richard Feynman on wave-particle duality:


Martin Heidegger on language (German with English subtitles):


Michel Foucault, interviewed by Alain Badiou (click CC for English subtitles):


Written by Mesocosm

June 13, 2012 at 9:35 am

Posted in Musings

A Few Personal Updates

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Hey readers,

A couple quick notes. First, I want to quickly say how much I love being able to write and share my thoughts with you, and I’m grateful you take the time to come by and have a look. Please don’t hesitate to say hi in the comments and share your response, even if it’s “Man, you’re crazy, and here’s why.”

Ms. O’Cosm and I were prominently featured in the Sunday edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. The front-page article describes some of the problems the city of San Francisco, like many other cities, is having with Airbnb and other businesses which broker short-term rentals of apartments or spare rooms. The explosive growth of the industry is creating a poorly-regulated network of untaxed pseudo-hotels.

I was contacted by the Chronicle‘s Carolyn Said on the strength of this blog post I wrote on Mesoscope, chronicling our ordeal. Perhaps that post hit a nerve – it got the most page hits of any post I’ve written by a large margin.

Yesterday also marked the last performance of the season by the SF Sinfonietta, an amateur chorus and orchestra led by the inimitable Urs Steiner. We performed Mozart’s Requiem mass in D-minor (K. 626) in its entirety. For an amateur like myself, it illuminates an entirely new dimension of music to go inside of it like this. Additionally, it was a profound experience to perform a requiem mass with the genuine intention of honoring those who have passed away.

I shared some of my reflections on Mozart’s Requiem in this post earlier this year. You can see us performing the Requiem at a benefit for Arts Benicia in the picture above.

Written by Mesocosm

June 11, 2012 at 7:56 am

Posted in Musings

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.

Written by Mesocosm

June 7, 2012 at 10:12 am

We Need Ways to Study and Teach Humanities Outside of the Universities

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An Anecdotal Account of the Problems

Boy at Writing Desk, 1846-7, Adolph Menzel

A philosophy professor whom I know won the academic lottery, earning a prestigious teaching position at a premiere European university. He’s an excellent scholar doing interesting work, but he is quick in conversation to emphasize the key role that luck has played in his career. Through happenstance, he formed a working relationship with one of the leading philosophers in Europe, who took my friend under his wing and championed his work on Nietzsche.

When I talked to him about my own interest in pursuing a philosophy PhD, he told me that when he arrived to defend his dissertation, he was taken aside by a member of his committee, who asked him, “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“What do you mean?” my friend asked. “Are you serious? My dissertation is finished!”

“Yes,” said the professor, “But once you’ve got a PhD in philosophy, no one outside of the academy will ever hire you again.”

This seemed true to my friend, who has seen colleagues earn PhDs, only to try to return to programming jobs when they couldn’t find teaching work. Some of them were unable to get hired in markets where they were once sought-after.

I’m sure this isn’t the whole story, but this is just one of the literally dozens of warnings I’ve been given about pursuing a PhD in the humanities. What I seem to keep hearing is that higher education in the humanities is a monstrous freakshow of grueling, expensive training that churns out too many PhDs for an market that is not only already overcrowded, it’s shrinking rapidly.

Add to that turf wars and political intrigue that make Richard III look like a student council election. As I’ve often heard about the academy, the battles are so fierce because the stakes are so low.

I’ve been considering PhD programs in the humanities since 1996, and boy, do I have stories. Don’t we all?

The first time I thought seriously about it, I talked to a friend of mine who was finishing his dissertation in history. He said to me in a serious voice, “I’m gonna tell you something that I wish someone had told me before I started. Take a serious look at the job market before you start.” Last I heard from him a few years later, he had his PhD and was working for his father-in-law’s car dealership.

I’ve talked with at least two dozen grad students and professors since then – friends, colleagues, acquaintances, people in programs I have considered – and not one of them has encouraged me to get a PhD. Not because I lack the aptitude, but because the sacrifices are so great and the rewards are so negligible.

I’ve read the articles and editorials in the Chronicle of Higher Education (here), in the Wall Street Journal (here), the New York Times (here or here) … there’s a cottage industry, writing articles that warn people not to pursue PhDs. There’s even a dour blog called 100 Reasons NOT to Go to Grad School.

And unless you’ve been through it, you just wouldn’t believe the hardcore bona fide craziness of some of the folks who run their departments like their own personal fiefdoms.

Take the librarian I knew at a prominent university, the curator of a rare manuscripts collection. He routinely and arbitrarily denied access to the material to students he didn’t like. Some of the students who relied on the collection literally chose to drive to a library 20 hours away rather than deal with him. Not kidding. And that’s just for starters – the story gets worse.

But there are too many stories to tell them all. Take the guy I knew who got a psychology PhD – his adviser was the chair of the human subjects board that must approve any research projects involving human participants. His adviser went over his project and said, yeah, this looks good – then the committee met, and it was rejected. He had to do some inconsequential changes, then wait three months for them to meet again. Same thing happened again – his adviser said yeah, looks good, then it was rejected. And it happened a third time. That’s nine months he had to wait, doing nothing.

Or take the guy I knew who did not receive his PhD for a full calendar year after it was completed and approved, because he had to resubmit it after finding that the page margins were too large.

You go through all of this, and it takes an average of 9.3 years, and you might easily come out a hundred thousand dollars in debt or more, like this adjunct professor of medieval history who’s on food stamps. And imagine competing for a job in a third-tier market with three hundred other applicants, all of whom have relevant PhDs as a minimal qualification.

Here’s What I’m Getting At, and Where I’m Looking for Ideas

I’ve read it and heard it a hundred times – higher education in the humanities is a broken system that produces far more highly-trained candidates than the market can bear. We all know that. So why do people do it?

I think there are people who just assume they’ll play the game and they’ll win, and get that chair at the school in Boston or Los Angeles, and obviously some people do.

But I think a lot of people do it because they can’t imagine doing anything else. They’re doing the work they love – it means something to them. It’s what they’ve always wanted to do – to study history, to teach it, to write about it. Or literature, or German, or critical theory, or what have you.

Now, those are the people I’m interested in. They want to read, write, think, debate, exchange ideas, teach, contribute to the social conversation that moves our culture forward. They’re not tied to the university system per se.

The university system as it exists is an outcome of historical processes and market forces, and it has little to do with what these people are interested in. Why don’t these people start doing the work they love outside the university system? Why don’t they create their own resources for exchanging ideas? For teaching? For writing? For learning?

Yes, they may not be able to get much or any money doing it, but how much are they expecting to make from their academic careers, if they’re lucky? Maybe they won’t be able to devote themselves full time to research, but how much time does an adjunct professor spend doing the work that they love, versus performing various duties that don’t interest them?

I’m certainly not arguing there is no role for universities, or that there is no way to be happy within it. I’m saying a lot of people just want to learn and teach and write, and the system is not serving them.

I am looking for resources like this, and so far I’m not seeing much. They should exist. Maybe they do exist. Do they? What have you heard? What do you think? Please let me know in the comments section.

Update: Just when I thought my assessment of higher education couldn’t get any darker, I read Death by Degrees, a searing editorial in the terrific magazine N+1.

Written by Mesocosm

June 4, 2012 at 7:10 pm

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

Posted in Musings

Tagged with ,


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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 Musings

Tagged with , ,

Defining Mesocosm

with one comment

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 Musings