Mesocosm

Philosophy, literature, mythology, psychology, climate, history.

Archive for the ‘Religion and Mythology’ Category

A Dialectical Analysis of Myth

with 4 comments

The abject failure to understand mythological thinking is one of the most serious problems of our age, politically, culturally, philosophically, and spiritually. Irrational forces drive individual behavior and collective action, and the failure to understand and live in productive dialog with the energies of the psyche leaves reason vulnerable on several fronts, and cedes a deep matrix of human motivation to noxious and self-serving ideologies.

The essay that follows, I must emphasize at the onset, is not a critique of science or an endorsement of myth; rather, it is a dialectical analysis of the interplay between both.

ernst

The Cages are Always Imaginary, Max Ernst, 1925

We live in an age of reason – at least, if we confine ourselves to the dominant intellectual cultures of Europe and the United States. Science, as reason’s totalizing exemplar, is widely accepted as a method for interpreting nature and history and the sole source of intersubjective legitimacy – so much so that we increasingly look to scientists to address social and cultural problems that were once the domain of philosophers, historians, and poets.

In common usage, “myth” refers to superstition, false belief, or dangerous ideology. Mythological thought as such is rarely an object of critical reflection, and is generally posited and valued in a purely negative mode as the antithesis of reason. It is cloven from reason in a dichotomy that on one side includes myth, superstition, tradition, barbarism, and authoritarianism, and on the other includes science, fact, modernity, civilization, and democracy.

Science and myth are not mutually exclusive; they are both essential features of modernity. There is no human society without myth, and no human being who does not engage in mythological thinking, which, properly understood, accompanies and structures all thought. Nor does myth itself lack a rational structure. Myth renders concrete images of the operations of the mind, the world, and the understanding, and contains within itself the essence of critical reason in the Kantian sense.

A structure of critical rationality is not an accidental or occasional feature of mythological thinking, but its deepest meaning – at least, according to the perennial view espoused by its elite interpreters the world over. The central mystery of all major mythological systems consists in a dialectical analysis of the relationship between the knower and the known, between time and eternity. This can be clearly seen in every religious tradition I have encountered, from Black Elk to Thomas Aquinas, from Al-Ghazali to Lao Tsu.

If we look to mythology itself for its essential character, we find that mythological thought consists of two complementary movements. First, experience is posited as a totality, by virtue of which its individual elements have meaning, such that they may be understood and valued. Elements of the world-system posited by the understanding are grasped, both semantically and existentially, in terms of their relationship to the other parts of the system, and to the system as a whole. This corresponds to what Joseph Campbell called the cosmological function of myth.

This function, which is prerequisite to the experience of the world as a domain of meaning, is integral to the vitalizing and redemptive character of mythological thought. I would refer the interested reader to Daniel J. Siegal’s book The Developing Mind, which chronicles years of research inspired by a developmental psychology study which found a strong relationship between mental health and an individual’s ability to articulate a coherent, meaningful narrative of their lives. Jerome Bruner’s Acts of Meaning, a cornerstone of the field of narrative psychology, also sheds much light on this important topic.

In its second movement, mythological thinking self-reflectively recognizes that this very experience of meaningful totality has a merely provisional character. It is a necessary condition for all sensible experience, but lacks any ultimate or transcendental basis.

Dogen expresses the character of this dialectic with beauty and elegance in his masterpiece Genjokoan:

When dharma does not fill your whole body and mind, you think it is already sufficient. When dharma fills your body and mind, you understand that something is missing.

For example, 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 or square; its features are infinite in variety. It is like a palace. It is like a jewel. It only look 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 beneath your feet, or in a drop of water.

A fish swims in the ocean, and no matter how far it swims there is no end to the water. A bird flies in the sky, and no matter how far it flies there is no end to the air. However, the fish and the bird have never left their elements. When their activity is large their field is large. When their need is small their field is small. Thus, each of them totally covers its full range, and each of them totally experiences its realm. If the bird leaves the air it will die at once. If the fish leaves the water it will die at once.

Know that water is life and air is life. The bird is life and the fish is life. Life must be the bird and life must be the fish.

It is possible to illustrate this with more analogies. Practice, enlightenment, and people are like this.

Dogen characterizes liberating insight as an understanding of the mutual constitution between interaction and interpretation. Our field of activity determines the domain of our concern. Our ontology, or the way we posit the basic elements that make up the system of interest, follow from that.

For one illustration of this issue, consider the coastline problem. Lewis Fry Richardson found that the perimeter of Great Britain is described by textbooks with a high degree of variability. Upon investigation, he found that the differences in measured length was a result of the fact that different surveys used different “yardsticks.” If you measure the shoreline with a mile-long “yardstick,” than inlets, outcroppings, and other features that are smaller than a mile are disregarded. The smaller the yardstick, the longer the coast becomes.

adameve

Adam and Eve, Augusto Giacometti, 1907

So what is the “real” length of the shoreline? There is no such thing – the very concept is incoherent. The measured perimeter depends on the scale of your analysis. In other words, some elementary physical properties of the world follow directly from how we frame or measure. Additional analysis is always possible, and there is no ultimate framework from which the entities we posit cannot be deconstructed by a reconsideration of the basic terms.

That is not to say the shoreline has no perimeter, or that it is all up to us in any simple sense – rather, the very concept of a perimeter is contingent on how we frame the problem. When we change our scope, the terms of our analysis have to account for different interactions, and different classes of interactions, and those modified dynamics are themselves the framework by which we posit the very elements of the system that we analyze.

When the Madhyamaka philosophers of India state that no entity can ultimately withstand analysis, this is what they mean. They have conventionally valid attributes, but there is no ultimate framework from which they can be experienced or described. All things are like this.

This is directly contrary to the way the understanding pre-reflectively takes itself to be, which is always accompanied by the intuition of its own basic completeness and sufficiency. Physical qualities occur as entirely given by the external world, and one’s frame always occurs as adequate to analysis. There is no age which has lacked confidence in the sufficiency of its analytical framework to account for the basic facts of the world, whether it has accepted four naturally-occurring elements or 91.

There are likewise very few individuals who doubt the comprehensiveness of their own analytical tools, except in rare moments of critical reflection. The understanding posits itself as always already sufficient, except when it encounters experiences which are unresolvable by its ontology. Then, as Jean Piaget described, we try to account for new experiences either through assimilation, whereby unfamiliar phenomena are explained with our existing concepts, or through accommodation, whereby the conceptual schema itself be revised to account for some new fact that it can’t explain.

Accommodation is experienced as a minor correction or modification to the existing scheme, not as indicative of a general lack of comprehensibility. Similarly, I learn from Jerome Bruner that deliberations about the world are experienced as subjective or internal, while the outcomes of those deliberations are experienced as objectively-established fact, things that we perceive, not that we posit.

The psychological tendency to mischaracterize the sufficiency of the understanding is what Buddhists call afflictive ignorance – or in the language of contemporary theory, one might call it reification.

We spoke above of the two essential movements of mythological thought – positing experience as a meaningful whole, and reflectively realizing the provisional nature of any such frame of experience. A severe misunderstanding of mythological thought comes from the pervasive failure to recognize these two movements, but to interpret mythological thinking as though it is merely an impoverished form of proto-science. The conscious mind, in over-identification with its own rational faculties, sees its own shadow in mythological thinking which occurs as destructive, superstitious barbarism.

That this misapprehension is widely shared by religious people does not make it any more accurate. In the case of evangelical Christianity, for example, the literal interpretation of the Bible is not consistent with the core teachings of the tradition itself. Augustine argued in Confessions in the fourth century, for example, that the creation of the world obviously did not occur in seven days. Rather, it is a way of understanding that the process by which the universe took shape occurred successively in time. Or consider Thomas Aquinas, whose deep devotion to the apophatic theology of Pseudo-Dionysius may have led him to utterly abandon work on Summa Theologica at the end of his life, and to keep noble silence until his death.

No one who confesses the Nicene Creed could plausibly maintain that its doctrines of Christ or the Trinity can be resolved with the ordinary operations of logic. These are not statements of fact in the same way “Sacramento is the capital of California,” is a statement of fact – they are images rendering an understanding of the intersection of time and eternity.

serpent

“I am crucified with Christ”, Paul wrote to the Galatians; “Nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” To interpret this as an empirical statement would be imbecilic. To fail to recognize that there is a different kind of truth at work here is pedantry. This is a symbolic statement – Christ is an image of the structure and the dynamics of the psyche, and its relationship to the world and to the absolute ground of all being.

This is not a historical essay, so I won’t swell its length by exploring the countless ready-to-hand illustrations of analogous images drawn from the very heart of a dozen major living traditions, including Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, and First Nations beliefs spanning the globe. We see it in the mystery of the Quran, the Law, the doctrine of the two truths, the union of Atman and Brahman, the Tao, the Way of Heaven, and the character of sacred story, respectively.

In positing mythological thinking as its own negative image, the understanding disregards the compelling problems that are addressed by mythological thought. In so doing, it simply repeats the basic error of assuming its own self-sufficiency, leaving the deep human questions addressed by mythology unanswered.

The loss of a viable image of the world as a meaningful totality has led to an existential crisis in the United States and Europe. Near the end of his career, Carl Jung wrote that a large number of his patients had no psychological pathology to speak of, but were simply afflicted by a sense of meaninglessness, which he called “the spiritual problem of our age.”

It is often reported that two centuries of “disenchantment of the world” have produced psychological and social turmoil, but what has been less analyzed is the failure of reason to confront that turmoil. As analytical reason always operates within a field defined by a provisional ontology, it is not in itself competent to posit a whole of which it is itself part, in terms of the understanding, and it never will be.

This is not to suggest that a “re-enchantment of the world” by the resubscription to pre-modern religious belief is either possible or desirable. We cannot ignore the findings of science, or disaster will quickly follow. Any progress with respect to the crisis of meaning must be commensurate with what we now know to be true, or else we cede the field of semantic totality to dangerous reactionaries who negate scientific discovery out of hand for petty reasons of naked self-enrichment.

There is no necessary relationship between engaging deeply with mythological thought and rejecting the findings of science. As Joseph Campbell astutely pointed out, every religious system is scientifically accurate from the standpoint of the time in which it was initially formulated. This cleavage between myth and reason is a spurious, modern construction, and it is extremely harmful. It is no more legitimate for reactionary ideology to claim spirituality as its exclusive possession than it is for it to claim love of country.

Instead of quixotically walking backwards into an imagined golden age of the past, these problems must be taken seriously as such, and a new and more sophisticated understanding of mythological thinking is necessary. Whatever form the new mythological taking assumes, it must allow for the validity of other forms in its essential character, or the project of globalization will fail. 

With regards to the second movement of mythological thinking, the self-reflective discovery of the provisional character of the understanding’s own sense of comprehensive totality, this is frequently lacking in unsophisticated advocates of unilateral rationalism or naive realism. All too often, scientific discourse is regarded as legitimate as such, merely by virtue by using its tropes, and by uncritically carrying over a reception of a popular interpretation of its findings.

But science is a set of tools, and adopting its mode of discourse does not guarantee legitimacy and rationality. We now have decades of research since Thomas Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolution, and we have learned something of the ideological, cognitive, social, analytical, racial, and financial factors that help determine how scientific research is conducted and disseminated. These are the practical limitations of its actuality, and no “pure science” is conducted in a cloud-cuckoo land where these constraints are not at play. 

It is worth noting that some of the branches of science that are most directly constrained by empirical results show the deepest agreement with mythological thought as I have characterized it. Particle physics, among the hardest of the hard sciences, has been mired in ontological chaos for over a century, lacking the barest capacity to express what their basic objects of study actually are. Among actual physicists, in my experience this often results in an ontological position of pragmatic agnosticism, or in extreme cases, a denial that science can and should describe the world at all. 

Quantum mechanics does not have the luxury of fudging its ontology with imprecise language to account for the problems described above. Its objects of study cannot withstand analysis, and that is why it has the least to say about what things actually are. The problem of emptiness, the lack of intrinsic existence of all phenomena, is not a metaphysical argument about the transcendent beyond, it is a practical recognition of the actual limitations of the understanding with respect to how it posits its own basic terms. For one fascinating discussion of relevant issues, see the recent Scientific American article Quantum Mechanics May be Even Spookier Than you Think, which explores an extension of John Archibald Wheeler’s “Delayed Choice” experiments.

These issues are well known to some of the greatest physicist of the last two hundred years. For example, Albert Einstein:

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe”; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison.

Erwin Schrödinger:

The reason why our sentient percipient, and thinking ego is met nowhere within our scientific world picture can easily be indicated in seven words: because it is itself that world picture. It is identical with the whole and therefore cannot be contained in it as a part of it. But of course, here we knocked against the arithmetical paradox; there appears to be a great multitude of these conscious egos, the world, however, is only one. This comes from the fashion in which the world-concept produces itself. The several domains of ‘private’ consciousnesses partly overlap. The region common to all where they all overlap is the construct of the ‘real world around us.’ With all that an uncomfortable feeling remains, prompting such questions as: is my world really the same as yours? […]

Such questions are ingenious, but in my opinion, very apt to confuse the issue. They have no adequate answers. They all are, or lead to, antinomies springing from one source, which I call the arithmetical paradox; the many conscious egos from whose mental experiences the one world is concocted. The solution of this paradox of numbers would do away with all the questions of the aforesaid kind and reveal them, I dare say, as sham-questions.

The understanding, and any possible human discourse, cannot function without acceding to provisional assumptions about the structure and origin of the world. That is no less true for the scientist than for the Tlingit shaman. Mythological thinking surfaces an image of that structured cosmos, which is a condition for the understanding. Upon analysis and reflection, it imbues that image with the special transparency that comes from the recognition that its terms have validity merely from the conventional perspective of ordinary transactional usage, and lack ultimate or transcendental status.

The failure by those who posit mythological thinking as the negative image of rationality is a failure of dialectical reason, and like all such failures, the end result is that it becomes the very thing that it critiques. By rejecting mythological thinking, the hyper-rationalist unwittingly posits their own archaic, unreflected mythology. They take themselves as a rational hero, engaged in mythological combat with their own shadow, projected on the religious figure, who appears as an image of barbarism, darkness, and violence. This is not the culmination of reason, but its antithesis – a naive accession to terms that are drawn not from analysis, but from a set of prejudices and reified conclusions. Reason becomes its opposite.

hodler

The Truth, Ferdinand Hodler, 1902

Written by Mesocosm

June 1, 2018 at 12:02 am

Thoughts on the Romantics part 1: transcendental idealism, Buddhism, and Novalis

with 13 comments

schinkel

Schloß am Strom, Karl Friedrich Schinkel

Over the last few months I’ve been making a study of the early German Romantics, and I’ve been impressed by the continued relevance of their arguments on aesthetics, their analysis of the relationship of the individual to the absolute, and their critique of the totalizing rationalism of the Enlightenment. Some of the key figures I’ve focused on include the art critic Friedrich Schlegel, the poets Novalis and Hölderlin, the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, and the philosopher Friedrich Schelling.

As the scholar Manfred Frank has exhaustively chronicled, the early Romantics were extremely self-conscious of their status as the first creative generation to succeed the intellectual revolution inaugurated by Kant’s Critiques, and their subsequent elaboration by Fichte. The metaphysical, epistemological, and aesthetic concerns of the Romantics were largely shaped by the problematic of transcendental idealism, especially the relationship of the knowing subject to the unknowable ultimate ground of experience.

As a Buddhist, it has been enormously useful for me to explore a development of transcendental idealism conducted by artists and intellectuals firmly ensconced within the European tradition of psychological maturation and individuation, which differs in key respects from traditional patterns in India, Tibet, China, and Japan, where the individual ego is generally not valued in itself. The European tradition represented by the Romantics places high value on the individual development of a unique and independent perspective as integral to the process of becoming a mature adult. They likewise place a deep value on creative art which my Tibetan teachers would not have understood. I was once told by a Geshe from Drepung Loseling that the only art that has value is iconic contemplative art – all other forms of art are merely ornamental, essentially toys for children.

I know that that is false, of course – great aesthetic experiences can provide insight and illumination of a high order. Some of the most profound experiences of my life have involved great works of art – I think of my first experience seeing Wagner’s Ring cycle, or seeing the Sistine Chapel, or reading Dante’s Commedia, or Finnegans Wake, or Hamlet. Aesthetic experiences can be a vehicle for the veridical intuition of deep truths about life and the nature of consciousness. 

It is illuminating to explore the work of thinkers who are deeply concerned with the transformative and enlightening qualities of great art, while sharing a philosophical perspective that in core respects closely resembles the Buddhist philosophy with which I otherwise feel so at home. I have argued before that there are pervasive and important similarities between Buddhism and Kantian transcendental idealism, and if anything this sense has only been increasingly borne out by my deeper study of Kant in the last several years. I would emphatically recommend reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason to any serious student of Buddhism.

The early Romantics also sensed a deep kinship between their philosophical enterprise and some of the traditions of India. For example, in his “Speech on Mythology” in 1802, Schlegel wrote (my translation):

If only the treasures of the Orient were as accessible to us as those of the ancient [Greeks and Romans]! What new sources of poetry could flow to us from India if some German artists had the opportunity, with their universal scope and depth of sense, and with the genius of translation they possess. [Our] nation, which is becoming ever more dumb and brutal, scarcely comprehends the need. We must search in the Orient for the ultimate Romantic, and if we can draw from the source, perhaps the appearance of the southern glow, which so charms us in Spanish poetry, will again appear, only sparsely and in Western guise.

In this perspective, Schlegel followed Goethe, who praised the great Sanskrit playwright Kalidasa in 1792, and who would emulate the Sufi poet Hafiz in his West-East Divan in 1819. It is my belief that the “Prelude in the Theater” in Faust was modeled after the introduction of Kalidasa’s magnificent play Recognition of Shakuntala, which includes a similar introduction of the work that will follow to the audience by the director.

Transcendental idealism is ultimately focused on the limits of reason and experience, and accounting for how consciousness is made coherent by regularities which structure any possible experience, such as space, time, and causality. These are seen as necessary features of consciousness, but their ultimate relationship to reality itself, independent of how we experience it, is unknowable.

This problematic was exhaustively analyzed philosophically by Kant, Fichte, and Schelling, and also inspired a creative response from poets like Novalis and Hölderlin, who developed it from a very different center of gravity in the human psyche. Having assimilated the implications of transcendental idealism through exhaustive study (see Manfred Frank’s Unendliche Annährung), the early Romantic poets worked through the relationship of individuals to the absolute – of the knowing subject to the ineffable transcendent ground of experience – with the metaphorical tools of poetry and myth.

For example, in his celebrated “Hymns to the Night” (here in German, here’s a dated English translation), Novalis employs this problematic as a framework for rendering his deeply personal experience of mourning the death of his young betrothed. He joins the image of the lonely consciousness in the inchoate night of the Absolute with the memory of keeping vigil at the lonely grave of his beloved all night. In both cases, subjective experience is like an isolated lighthouse in an infinite, dark, and silent sea (see the Caspar David Friedrich painting below). 

This poetic work harnesses the structure of transcendental idealism as a framework for giving modern expression to the age-old motif of the Liebestod, or love-death, which has been a major feature of German literary culture at least since the time of Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan in the early thirteenth century. The image of the falling night encompasses sleep, death, the unconscious, the undifferentiated sphere of the absolute, and transcendent union with the Beloved.

Here is my rendering of Novalis’ second Hymn:

Must morning always come again?
Will earth’s dominion never end?
Profane commerce consumes
The heavenly advent of night.
Will love’s secret sacrifice never
Burn eternal?
Light and waking’s time
was measured,
But night’s dominion is timeless,
The span of sleep eternal.
Holy sleep!
Do not too seldom bless
those in Earth’s acre
who consecrate the night.
Only fools mistake you,
Knowing no sleep
But the shadow
You compassionately cast upon us
In that dawn
Of true night.
They do not feel you
In the golden flood of grapes,
In the almond tree’s
Miraculous oil
And the poppy’s brown juice.
They do not know
It’s you
Who float about the maiden’s
Tender breast,
Making heaven of her bosom;
Do not sense
That out of old stories
You open heaven coming forth to meet us
And carry the key
To the chambers of the blessed,
Silent messenger of
Infinite secrets.

In my next post on this subject I’ll look more specifically at the aesthetic theory underlying the work of the Romantics, especially as it was expressed in Friedrich Schlegel’s “Speech on Mythology.” I’ll also have a look at how this theory has been interpreted by the modern theorist Karl Heinz Bohrer.

CDF

Zwei Männer am Meer, Caspar David Friedrich

Written by Mesocosm

May 25, 2018 at 3:11 am

Tsong Khapa’s Three Principal Aspects of the Path

with 2 comments

tsongkhapaIf I had to choose, the Tibetan polymath Tsong Khapa would probably constitute the single most important figure in shaping my worldview. That isn’t to say I agree with him on everything, or consider myself by any stretch of the imagination to be a member of his Gelukpa order, but he does present the basic existential, ethical, and critical-phenomenological framework with which and against which I articulate my views of life. With him and against him I would play other key figures like Nagarjuna and Shantideva, Gendun Choephel and Gorampa, Nietzsche, James Joyce, Shakespeare, Kant, and Habermas.

As a Mahayana Buddhist philosopher, Tsong Khapa believed that the end-goal of contemplation was to liberate oneself from the habitual patterns of thought that externalize and reify the conceptual distinctions and valuations that we make in order to provide a framework for understanding the world and surviving within it. An exaggerated sense of the objective validity of the conceptual schema we use to posit objects and events in the world is ultimately founded in what the great developmental psychologist Jean Piaget considered to be the fundamental conceptual schema from which all others derive – our concept of the Self.

The psychologist George Kelly went so far as to say that the personality ultimately consists of nothing more than the habitual patterns of action and interpretation that we use to navigate the world. I think to some degree this accords with the Buddhist conception of samsara, which holds that the problem of suffering in the world results from our being unconsciously driven by our beliefs about ourselves and the world which are merely provisional, but which are instinctually taken as having objective validity.

Tsong Khapa in one short text of considerable interest posits that the Buddhist therapy of alleviating suffering rooted in such misconceptions is based on what he calls the three principal aspects of the path, which he identifies as renunciation, compassion, and wisdom, with the latter specifically referring to the wisdom which directly grasps the degree to which the world we inhabit is largely a conceptual construction of our perceptual organs and the mechanisms of our consciousness.

These may be considered three aspects of one path because they are three articulations of the same underlying insight from three different reference points.

Tsong Khapa elsewhere defines renunciation as the definitive intention to emerge [from samsara]. I consider this the best definition of the Buddhist concept of renunciation that I’ve ever heard – it places emphasis on the relinquishment of the attachment to desirable things in the world that keeps us bound to our mental constructions and valuations. In this sense, renunciation is something rather distinct from the mere asceticism it is often confused for – it is not just a change in behavior or attitude, but a recognition of the actual state of affairs. Specifically, desirable things are only desirable because we desire them, not because of any intrinsic virtue that they possess. Likewise, ownership or possession exist solely through the force of convention, and there is no greater underlying reality to the fact of ownership than the degree to which we all act as though one person owns a thing. If we all stop saying it, we stop owning it.

Compassion is an analogous insight articulated with respect to our habitual tendency to value ourselves and our own experiences more than we value other people. In Tsong Khapa’s view, this posture results from the same underlying cognitive error. In his arresting analysis of compassion in his Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, Tsong Khapa writes:

[U]nderstand that self and other are mutually dependent such that when you are aware of self, you are aware of other; and when you are aware of other, you are aware of self. It is like being aware of near mountains and distant mountains, for example.

And:

Moreover, Shantideva’s Compendium of Training states:

By becoming accustomed to the equality of self and other,
The spirit of enlightenment becomes firm.
Self and other are interdependent.
Like this side and the other side of a river, they are false.

The far side and the near side of the river are not false in the sense that they cannot be systematically and meaningfully differentiated, they are false insofar as they are completely contingent on a judgment of the intellect based on its point of view. If you move to the other side of the river, the nature of the shore changes from “other side” to “this side.”

In that sense, the self does not exist inherently or independently, it exists in dependence upon how it is posited by consciousness. This is true of all things, according to Tsong Khapa – the present Dalai Lama has described interdependence as “Buddha’s slogan.”

That this determination of the dependent nature of existence may be extended to all things constitutes the reality of all phenomena is the third principal aspect of the path, or wisdom. In this technical sense, wisdom refers to the non-intrinsic identity of all phenomena, which ultimately depend on their causes and conditions, their spatial and temporal parts, and the way that they are designated by consciousness.

The final point, that phenomena depend on conceptual imputation for their existence, is subtle, and in my view it should not be misconstrued as a statement of idealism, such as George Berkeley would have made in holding that there is no substance or fabric of reality beyond their fact as mere appearances to consciousness. A close reading of Tsong Khapa and his sources reveals a view much closer to the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant, who held not that things are mind-only, but that insofar as we can speak of their existence in anyway whatsoever, we can only speak or analyze them from the standpoint of some consciousness. Their status as things in themselves is unknowable and indeterminate, and attempts to characterize phenomenal appearances as if they exist in themselves ultimately leads to contradiction.

The point of all this is not abstract deliberation, but the existential realization that our own misconstrual of the world and our relationship to things is harmful and deceptive, and leads us to cause suffering for others and for ourselves. I think there are times of life when the radiant nature of things shines through and we can have a direct perception

Written by Mesocosm

February 21, 2018 at 2:46 am

52:13 The Raven and the First Man

with 5 comments

This week I’m going to look at a masterpiece of contemporary Haida art, the yellow cedar monumental sculpture The Raven and the First Man, created by Bill Reid and housed at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC in Vancouver.

reid1

This is one of the most beautiful works of art that I’ve ever seen, a mythological image of stunning complexity and richness rendered with breathtaking technical perfection. It depicts the Haida myth of the Trickster figure Raven bringing forth the first Haida people out of a giant clam and into the world.

I have written several times before of the wonderful mythology and art of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, including pieces on totem poles, raven and bear shamanism, and Kawikiutl secret dance societies. One could spend many lifetimes wandering wide-eyed through the living dream evoked by these splendid systems of imagery and the imagination, and it is daunting to approach a piece of this richness and complexity. But I will try to share some thoughts.

reid2

The Raven plays a seminal role in the Pacific Northwest as one of the key crests used in the social economy of numerous groups in the region. He is also a key figure in the local mythology, where he is a classic example of the Trickster, a charming figure who stumbles by appetite and accident into pivotal moments of evolution, driving forth the play of the cosmos by his wit and energy.

What an endlessly rich, endlessly complex archetype we have in the Trickster. This beloved folklore motif is found the world over, from Bugs Bunny to the Norse God Loki, from Inari’s foxes in Japan to Agu Tompa and Drukpa Kuley in Tibet.

Master of inversions and sudden escapes; uniting opposites and serving as an endless wellspring of creation; agent of fragmentation, intensification and release; constant companion, foil, and inspiration to humanity. Holy fool, coyote, raven, alchemical Mercury; master of the medieval carnival, wolf of the Lupercalia, Tantric master, creator, destroyer; the Trickster encompasses all.

Carl Jung notes in “On the Psychology of the Trickster-Figure” that he “is a forerunner of the saviour, and like him, God, man, and animal at once. He is both subhuman and superhuman, a bestial and divine being, whose chief and most alarming characteristic is his unconsciousness.”

The Trickster lives and acts outside the conventional ordered realm of society and the cosmos, which is a field of incredible fertility. He functions as a midwife who brings the energies of the unconscious into the field of awareness. In the symbolic language of myth, he is frequently a cosmological creator or a culture hero who gifts humanity with the arts of civilization, such as agriculture and writing.

Insofar as he disrupts the established order, he can be perceived as a threat. Jung’s essay, for example, chronicles a long list of known instances in which the medieval church in Europe tried unsuccessfully to suppress the many extremely popular carnivals and liturgical parodies that echoed the operation of the Trickster, and which were the occasion of a temporary suspension or inversion of the ordinary social hierarchy, allowing the forbidden and repressed energies of belief out into the light of day for a prescribed period of time. These events function as a kind of psychic safety valve that allows the social order to function without exploding from the tensions of its own manifest contradictions.

Jung writes:

If we consider, for example, the daemonic features exhibited by Yahweh in the Old Testament, we shall find in them not a few reminders of the unpredictable behaviour of the trickster, of his senseless orgies of destruction and his self-imposed sufferings, together with the same gradual development into a saviour and his simultaneous humanization. It is just this transformation of the meaningless into the meaningful that reveals the trickster’s compensatory relation to the ‘saint.’ In the early Middle Ages, this led to some strange ecclesiastical customs based on memories of the ancient saturnalia. Mostly they were celebrated on the days immediately following the birth of Christ – that is, in the New Year – with singing and dancing. The dances were originally harmless tripudia of the priests, lower clergy, children, and subdeacons and took place in the church. An episcopus puerorum (children’s bishop) was elected on Innocents’ Day and dressed in pontifical robes. Amid uproarious rejoicings he paid an official visit to the palace of the archbishop and bestowed the episcopal blessings from one of the windows. The same thing happened at the tripudium hypodiaconorum, and at the dances for the other priestly grades. By the end of the twelfth century, the subdeacons’ dance had degenerated into a real festum stultorum (fool’s feast). A report from the year 1198 says that at the Feast of the Circumcision in Notre Dame, Paris, ‘so many abominations and shameful deeds’ were committed that the holy place was desecrated ‘not only by smutty jokes, but even by the shedding of blood.’ In vain did Pope Innocent III inveigh against the ‘jests and madness that make the clergy a mockery,’ and the ‘shameless frenzy of their play-acting.’….

These ruptures, along with many other lesser-known customs and episodes, wholly contradict the stereotype of religiosity of the European medieval period as a staid, solemn, fearful affair of mere dogmatism and witch-burning. Particularly during the High Middle Ages, the religious imagination reached a pinnacle of license and creative power in Europe, until the full weight of the Inquisition and the Albigensian Crusade in southern France largely put an end to to the whole show.

Take the Goliard Poets: these clerics savagely lampooned the solemnity of the church at every turn in performance events reminiscent of Dadaist happenings. At St. Remy, for example, the Goliards went to the mass in procession, each trailing a herring on a string. From “The Confessions of Golias,” translated by George Whicher:

Let the wise man place his seat
On the rock firm founded.
Hither, thither I must beat
By my follies hounded.
With the flowing stream I fleet,
So my doom is sounded;
‘Neath the arch of heaven my feet
Nowhere yet have grounded.

Like a hapless ship I fare
Left without a sailor,
Like a bird on ways of air,
Some poor lost cloud-scaler;
Not a jot for chains I care,
Nor for key nor jailer.
Sinful flesh is frail, I swear.
Mine’s the same – but frailer!

The Trickster, then, is driven by the energies and appetites of the body, unchained from the ordinary perspective. It is worth considering in this light that nearly every one of Shakespeare’s comedies involves characters going outside of the walls of the city and creating an alternative society with its own rules. There seems to be something deep in the human social constitution that finds such endeavors profoundly restorative.

That Raven also functions outside the ordinary bounds of society is made perfectly clear by the myths of his birth, which show us that he is a shamanic figure – for more details, see my post The Raven, The Bear, and Shamanism in the Pacific Northwest. The shaman is a powerful, magical, and ambivalent figure. The shaman in Tlingit society, like the characters of Shakespeare’s comedies, lived outside of the village. His was also the only profession that could be directly paid for their services. Every other type of labor was compensated within the general circulation of goods within the symbolically-organized potlatch economy.

You can appreciate, now, the danger of undertaking to write about the Trickster- in order to take compass of his range and richness, you must wander far afield. But let me circle back now to our marvelous sculpture and its mythological context. I’m drawing from several sources in this discussion, but I’ll highlight The Raven and the Light by Bill Reid and Robert Bringhurst, which goes briefly through an entire Haida myth cycle involving Raven.

raven-light

Raven’s story begins with a key myth that is quite popular in the region called the Theft of the Light. The world exists in a state of universal, undifferentiated darkness, and Raven liberates the light from its imprisonment in a magic box and scatters it to the heavens in a Promethean theft. In the accompanying image, you can see Raven with the moon in his beak wearing the sun around his neck, sitting atop the magic box in which the light was hoarded by a powerful old man.

The regular Mesocosm reader may recognize a few motifs that we’ve seen several times before, such as the cosmological theme of bringing light to a primordial darkness, a dual symbol that evokes both the creation of the world and the dawning of awareness. Cosmological myths often recapitulate the ordering function of consciousness, which gives structure and coherence to the blooming, buzzing confusion. As I previously wrote:

Consciousness emerges out of the unconscious as light emerges out darkness: dividing, making distinctions, applying designations and value judgments. One finds this structure in creation accounts throughout the world, such as the Memphite Theology of Egypt, the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish, the Hindu Vedas, in the Norse accounts of the creation of the world from the bones of the frost giant Ymir, and in an interiorized form in the Bardo Thodol, or so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead, to name some prominent examples.

We can recognize the primeval darkness as the same which preceded the “Let there be light,” of Genesis, a common symbol of the unconscious. Another common symbol of the unconscious the world over is the sea or the flood, which is a parallel image of an undifferentiated medium. So it does not surprise us to find that the story of the Raven on which Reid’s sculpture is based begins by setting the stage in this way:

The Great Flood which had covered the earth for so long had at last receded, and even the thin strip of sand now called Rose Spit, stretching north from Naikun village, lay dry.

Our story begins at the meeting point of the conscious and the unconscious mind, where Raven feels quite at home, being a bridger of the two worlds. Note that like many Trickster animals, the raven is a scavenger and a carrion eater, and thereby analogously bridges the realms of life and death.

Bored Raven hopped along the beach looking for something to do when he heard the squeak of unfamiliar animals:

At first he saw nothing, but as he scanned the beach again, a white flash caught his eye, and when he landed he found at his feet, half-buried in the sand, a gigantic clamshell. When he looked more closely still, he saw that the shell was full of little creatures cowering in terror of his enormous shadow.

reid3

Well, here was something to break the monotony of his day. But nothing was going to happen as long as the tiny things stayed in the shell, and they certainly weren’t coming out in their present terrified state. So the Raven leaned his great head close to the shell, and with the smooth trickster’s tongue that got him into and out of so many misadventures during his troubled and troublesome existence, he coaxed and cajoled and coerced the little creatures to come out and play in his wonderful shiny new world.

In the infancy of the world, Raven served as a midwife to help the first Haida come forth out of the dark watery womb and into the light of consciousness that he himself scattered about the skies. It is important to note the significance of Raven’s speech in bringing the Haida forth into consciousness – as we noted above, speech is often a direct symbol of cosmological ordering, and is associated with acts of creation in many cosmogonies.

reid4

The contemporary art of the Pacific Northwest is one of the most mythologically vital forms of expression I’ve found in the world today. Bill Reid is a master, and I’ve also been quite impressed by the work of Robert Davidson, whose art can be seen in the wonderful book The Abstract Edge.

If you’re interested in Haida mythology, in addition to The Raven and the Light, the book A Story as Sharp as a Knife by Robert Bringhurst is also a powerful and striking study and set of translations.

If you’re interested in the Trickster figure, the Jung essay I have quoted is collected in the volume The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. The interested reader will also find an engrossing survey of the motif in Lewis Hyde’s delightful Trickster Makes This World.

Written by Mesocosm

November 26, 2016 at 8:43 am

52:12 Wondrously Embraced Within the Real

with 2 comments

Bodhisattva, Tang Dynasty

Bodhisattva, Tang Dynasty, China

This week I’d like to talk about the “Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi” by Dongshan Liangjie, founder of the Chinese Caodong school of Ch’an Buddhism, better known in the west in its Japanese form, the Soto Zen school established by Eihei Dogen in the 13th century CE.

Many of the world’s mystical traditions express themselves in complementary styles, with analytical philosophical traditions and poetic traditions. For example, if we were to set the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas side-by-side with the “Canticle of the Sun” by his near-contemporary Saint Francis, we would the most extreme difference in style, though the ultimate import and reference might be similar.

I began my studies of Buddhism with a deep dive into the speculative philosophy of the Tibetan Buddhists, and only after many years did I turn to the Zen approach, which is staggeringly different in its rhetorical priorities, but ultimately in close accord with respect to meaning. I’ve written about this difference at some length in Reason and Its Limits; Logic and Contradiction in Buddhism.

Having been bound to the intellectual rigor of Tibetan Buddhism for so long, my encounter with the exceedingly poetical style of Zen authors was something of an ecstatic release for me. That is not to say it is ultimately a better approach, and it has its own vortices where the unwary can get stuck for a very long time. But the complementary approach of holding those two different streams was, for me, extremely rewarding.

Dongshan Liangjie possessed a miraculous insight and great powers of expression. As a practitioner he was deeply concerned with the aliveness of things, and his testimony leaves no doubt that his realization was encompassed by that focus. It often seems to me that the character of the realization of ultimate truth seems to be structured by the set of concerns the questioning mind brings to bear when asking after the final nature of reality, and in that sense the flavor realization seems to play out in highly personal ways. For example, one could compare one’s sense of the realization of the Dalai Lama with that of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, so similar, but so different.

But I digress. I first encountered the “Mirror Samadhi” at the San Francisco Zen Center, and I was immediately overwhelmed, not just by what it plainly said, but by the greatness of the mystery it evoked.

A silver bowl filled with snow, a heron hidden in the moon.

A statement like this in the context of the poem is crystal clear in image and effect, even though its literal meaning is exceedingly obscure. We’re not dealing here with a murky obscurantist, but with someone articulating a kind of experience well outside of the frame of ordinary discourse.

I’d like to get on to the poem itself and offer it here to you without my obstructing commentary. As a set up I will only say this – the “precious mirror samadhi” of the title refers to a meditative absorption on the final nature of reality, in which the mind and its object both fall away, disclosing a prior unity. Without further ado, I give you the poem, as it is superbly translated by Taigen Daniel Leighton in his book Cultivating the Empty Field, one of the most prized volumes in my library.

Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi

The dharma of thusness is intimately transmitted by buddhas and ancestors.
Now you have it; preserve it well.
A silver bowl filled with snow, a heron hidden in the moon.
Taken as similar, they are not the same; not distinguished, their places are known.
The meaning does not reside in the words, but a pivotal moment brings it forth.
Move and you are trapped, miss and you fall into doubt and vacillation.
Turning away and touching are both wrong, for it is like a massive fire.
Just to portray it in literary form is to stain it with defilement.
In darkest night it is perfectly clear; in the light of dawn it is hidden.
It is a standard for all things; its use removes all suffering.
Although it is not constructed, it is not beyond words.
Like facing a precious mirror; form and reflection behold each other.
You are not it, but in truth it is you.
Like a newborn child, it is fully endowed with five aspects:
No going, no coming, no arising, no abiding;
“Baba wawa” – is anything said or not?
In the end it says nothing, for the words are not yet right.
In the illumination hexagram, inclined and upright interact.
Piled up they become three; the permutations make five.
Like the taste of the five-flavored herb, like the five-pronged vajra.
Wondrously embraced within the real, drumming and singing begin together.
Penetrate the source and travel the pathways; embrace the territory and treasure the roads.
You would do well to respect this; do not neglect it.
Natural and wondrous, it is not a matter of delusion or enlightenment.
Within causes and conditions, time and season, it is serene and illuminating.
So minute it enters where there is no gap, so vast it transcends dimension.
A hairsbreadth’s deviation, and you are out tune.
Now there are sudden and gradual, in which teachings and approaches arise.
With teachings and approaches distinguished, each has its standard.
Whether teachings and approaches are mastered or not, reality constantly flows.
Outside still and inside trembling, like tethered colts or cowering rats.
The ancient sages grieved for them, and offered them the dharma.
Led by their inverted views, they take black for white.
When inverted thinking stops, the affirming mind naturally accords.
If you want to follow in the ancient tracks, please observe the sages of the past.
One on the verge of realizing the Buddha Way contemplated a tree for ten aeons.
Like a battle-scarred tiger, like a horse with shanks gone grey.
Because some are vulgar, jeweled tables and ornate robes.
Because others are wide-eyed, cats and white oxen.
With his archer’s skill, Yi hit the mark at a hundred paces.
But when arrows meet head-on, how could it be a matter of skill?
The wooden man begins to sing, the stone woman gets up dancing.
It is not reached by feelings or consciousness, how could it involve deliberation?
Ministers serve their lords, children obey their parents.
Not obeying is not filial, failure to serve is no help.
With practice hidden, function secretly, like a fool, like an idiot.
Just to do this is called the host within the host.

I don’t want to overdo the commentary, as I find the process of engaging with its beguiling imagery to be very rewarding, but I would like to call out a few things that may aid the interested reader.

Enso

Putting it philosophically, this poem is concerned with a state of nondual realization of the ultimate nature reality which transcends and mediates the binary conceptual distinctions that typically structure our experience of the world into good and bad, right and wrong, me and you, this and that. Buddhism holds that this type of conceptually-mediated thought and perception obscures the true nature of phenomena, which are in truth a dynamic interplay of distributed patterns of information and energy, registered by consciousness.

Words of the kind I’ve just used can be helpful in pointing the way, but the experience is something much more immediate, vivid, and transformative, and the poem warns throughout about the tension between pointing the way with language and ideas, and the ultimate leap beyond language and ideas that characterizes realization itself.

One of my favorite aspects of this poem is the extraordinary imagery its author uses to evoke the sense that this realization makes the world come to life where it was previously inert, and the mundane suddenly sparkles with a miraculous quality. “The wooden man begins to sing, the stone woman gets up dancing.”

Some of the references in this poem are obscure to modern readers, but would have been clear allusions to Dongshan’s contemporaries. For myself, when I get to the bit about hexagrams, it suffices to know that this is a reference to the I Ching, and I move on. Likewise with the five-flavored herb and the five-pronged varja, which both refer to the five aggregates, or the five constituents of being in Buddhist metaphysics, united in a single expression.

The “host within the host” at the end refers to another one of Dongshan’s writings, the “Five Ranks,” in which he poetically describes the stages of realization. Thomas Cleary renders the final verse of that poem thus:

If you are not trapped
in being or nonbeing,
who can dare to join you?
Everyone wants to leave
the ordinary current,
but in the final analysis
you come back
and sit in the ashes.

Written by Mesocosm

November 19, 2016 at 11:12 am

52:08 Dionysus, Lord of Life

with 4 comments

This wonderful wine bowl from the mid-sixth-century BCE shows Dionysus as the Lord of Life, the originary matrix from which life springs. He is nestled in the heart of the Tree of Life, or flanked by a symmetrical pair of trees or vines, which are ornamented by a grasshopper, birds, and a serpent (visible as a meandering line under the crown of the left trunk).

dionysus

Dionysus, or Bacchus, is a complex divinity associated with transgression and the mediation of opposites, as well as ecstasy, frenzy, and epiphany. The legendary rites associated with his worship deal in surrender to enthusiasm and the unconscious.

An Orphic hymn to Dionysus, beautifully translated by Athanassakis and Wolkow in their The Orphic Hymns, reads as follows:

I call upon loud-roaring,
reveling Dionysus,
primeval, two-natured lord,
savage, ineffable, secretive,
two-horned and two-shaped,
ivy-covered, bull-faced,
warlike, howling, pure.
You take raw flesh in triennial feasts,
wrapped in foliage, decked with grape clusters,
resourceful Eubouleus,
immortal god sired by Zeus
when he mated with Persephone
in unspeakable union.
Hearken to my voice, O blessed one,
you and your fair-girdled nurses,
breathe on me in a spirit of perfect kindness.

Dionysus was worshiped by mystery cults in which worshipers identified his divine nature with themselves. Dionysus, alone of the Greek gods, took possession of revelers during their rites – this practice bequeathed us the English word enthusiasm, derived from the Greek enthousiasmos, meaning “possessed by a god.”

Images of Dionysus made popular adornments for the interior of wine bowls such as this. The image would have become visible as wine was drained throughout the course of a symposium. It’s truly an ingenious use of imagery – as intoxication dawned, it was amplified into its cosmic sense by the gradual epiphany of the deity.

In its depths, this epiphany is of a type with the core mythological image of deity as the ultimate ground of life and consciousness, antecedent to the pairs of opposites by which phenomenal reality is always structured by conceptual awareness. So we have the deity residing within the heart of life itself, a Tree of Life branching forth into duality.

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche interpreted the character of Dionysian consciousness as the creative impulse which transcends the principium individuationis, the individuating principle that divides and orders experience into a sensible collection of distinct impressions and ideas. Prior that cognitive act of differentiation and ordering lies a buzzing, blooming confusion that is ineffable, but closer to the heart of life. The creative overflow of the Dionysian frenzy and rupture violates boundaries, and exposes an underlying unity between consciousness and nature.

No doubt Dylan Thomas had something like this in mind when wrote:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

**

In her Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, which remains one of the most thought-provoking and insightful essays on ancient Greek religious culture, Jane Ellen Harrison noted the lack of religious feeling and awe that attended the Olympian Gods in the post-Homeric world of classical Athenian Greece, in the time of Pericles and the great tragedians.

As man grew more civilized, his image, mirrored in the gods, grew more beautiful and pari passu the worship he offered to these gods advanced from ‘aversion’ to ‘tendance’. But all along we have been conscious that something was lacking, that even these exquisite presentations of the Nymphs and the Graces, the Mother and the Daughter, are really rather human than divine, and their ritual, whether of ignorant and cruel ‘aversion’ or of the genial ‘tendance,’ was scarcely in our sense religious. These perfect Olympians and even those gracious Earth-goddesses are not really Lords over man’s life who made them, they are not even ghosts to beckon and threaten, they are lovely dreams, they are the playthings of his happy childhood, and when full-grown he comes to face realities, from kindly sentiment he lets them lie unburied in the lumber-rooms of this life.

Just when Apollo, Artemis, Athene, nay even Zeus himself, were losing touch with life and reality, fading and dying of their own luminous perfection, there came into Greece a new religious impulse, an impulse really religious, the mysticism that is embodied for us in the two names of Dionysus and Orpheus. (363-4).

There are two observations here, one historical and one psychological. The historical claim, which goes back to Herodotus, is that Dionysus was a late arrival who entered the Greek cultural landscape from outside, perhaps from Egypt, where his worship resembles the cult of Osiris (Histories, 2.81), or Thrace (Histories, 5.7). We must reject this hypothesis, for we now know that Dionysus was attested in Bronze Age Linear B tablets from Pylos. His cult worship may have been practiced in Greece and Minoan Crete as early as 1500 BCE (see, for example, Walter Burkert’s Greek Religion, 161 ff.).

The psychological observation remains persuasive. The classical Greek mind may have venerated the Homeric deities, but it regarded the mystery cults of Dionysus with the proper sense of awe – the mysterium tremendum of Rudolf Otto – that characterizes a genuine and deeply-felt religious experience.

**

The symbolism in this painted vase is of great interest to the comparativist. Writing of the cosmic tree in his classic study of Shamanism, Mircea Eliade observes the wide distribution of the Tree of Life motif, and especially of the importance of the cosmological tree associated with the eagle and the snake, which is found throughout central and northern Asia, and may ultimately derive from the Orient (Shamanism; Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, pp. 272-3).

Dionysus is strongly associated with the bull – see, for example, the Orphic Hymn quoted above. The worship of mystery gods associated with epiphany, as well as with the serpent and the tree, is widely known throughout Asia, the Near East, and the Mediterranean of the Bronze and Iron Age.

For example, Dionysus has frequently been compared to the Hindu god Shiva, the great yogi deity frequently paired with Nandi the bull, his yana or mount. Shiva is likewise associated with the bull, the moon, the serpent, and the recognition of one’s own consciousness as the non-dual ground of life.

In a previous post we looked at an interesting depiction of Shiva as a uniting sign who mediated pairs of opposites, and who was figured as the base of the cosmic tree – in that case, the bodhi tree, the tree of illumination under which the Buddha sat when he awoke to his own cosmic Buddha consciousness.

These related sets of symbols begin to form clusters of associations that we can recognize. We see a set of deities linked to the bull, the cosmic tree, and the non-dual ground from which life and death emerge.

That these images were formulated in a common geographical zone of trade, conquest, and cultural exchange cannot be overlooked. These two panels show below, for example, are drawn from a superb painted terracotta from Bactria in the third century CE, now at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. We see Zeus on the left, and Shiva on the right.

zeus-shiva

In looking at the Lord of Life associated with epiphany and the cosmic tree, we would of course be remiss in neglecting the obvious influence of all this on Christianity. In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, written in the first century CE, Jesus clearly occupies the comparable role of an initiatory figure who directs his disciples to recognize their own divinity. Take, for example:

Jesus said, “If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the kingdom is in heaven,’ then the birds of the heaven will proceed you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather the kingdom is inside you and it is outside you.

“When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you dwell in poverty, and you are poverty.” (Gospel of Thomas 3-4, from The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, Meyer et al., 2007).

The teachings of Jesus as presented by Thomas, so Indian in religious character, probably deserve their own post at some point. In the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, we are in fact told that Thomas traveled to India and taught there. Not only that, but when Portuguese missionaries traveled to India in the 16th century, they discovered to their amazement a native Christian tradition there, and its representatives claimed it was established by Thomas. The San Thome Basilica was built over the traditional tomb of Thomas in Chennai, and may be visited to this day.

Elaine Pagels makes a fascinating argument that the Gospel of John was largely a polemic against the Gospel of Thomas, and was highly successful in excluding it from the canon. John, after all, is the only gospel to include the story of “doubting Thomas,” which appears to be a caricature of the Thomistic doctrine that individuals can have direct experience of divinity, unmediated by Christ. Hence Doubting Thomas had to see Christ’s wounds for himself, in order to believe.

Within the canonical gospels, it is almost too obvious to point out that the Cross is the Tree of Life from which springs forth the wine of eternal life. In John 15 we have “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.”

Written by Mesocosm

October 23, 2016 at 4:20 pm

Yup’ik Animal Mask 52:05

leave a comment »

yupik-mask

This week I want to take a quick look at a beautiful mask from the remarkable collection of the Museum of Anthropology at UBC in Vancouver. If you ever find yourself in the area, it is well worth making the trip – their collection of art of the Pacific Northwest will leave you gaping in wonder and disbelief.

The Yup’ik are an Eskimo people native to southwest Alaska, and their wonderful tradition of wooden mask-making has been attested by anthropologists for more than a century.

What we have here is a human face with a toothy mouth turned down in a frown. Two concentric loops project forward and enclose the face, and the whole is set squarely in the center of the body of a deer. Decorative elements radiate out from the center, including feathers, several carved fish, a wooden hand, and a lower leg with foot. Several of the feathers are capped with wooden pegs.

Yup’ik masks have been used in a variety of secular and religious contexts, including preparation for hunt, and shamanic dances held during the long, dark winter months. For more on masked shamanic dances in the Pacific Northwest, see Dancing at Time Zero.

According to the sources I have reviewed, many elements of this mask are common, such as the toothy down-turned mouth, the radial bands, and the very restrained use of colored paint. But the individual meaning of these elements varies substantially depending on the use to which the mask was put by its creator. They sometimes express elements of a myth that were recounted, or they may have a ceremonial meaning tied to a petitionary end, such as the desire for a good hunt.

Since we have no context or provenance for this piece, we can only speculate about its meaning. What do you see in this piece? It might be fun to formulate your own ideas before I share some of my thoughts.

My own provisional interpretation finds great significance in the placement of the face, the center of awareness and the personal consciousness, in the middle of the concentric bands, from which various signs of life project.

The circle, evocative of the endless path of the stars and the heavens, is associated with the cosmic cycle in many cultures – take, for example, the ouroboros symbol we looked at in our last piece on Gravity’s Rainbow. The circle conveys the recurring temporal round of the seasons, evocative of the horizon that rings around us, open to the sky.

So reading from the center outwards, we have the individual ego at the heart of the cycle, and set in the heart of a food animal (deer), projecting symbols of human activity (feet, hands), then more food animals (fish). In this I see the individual in the round of life and death found in the mythology of many hunting cultures, uniting the dual culture of life-giving and life-taking in the uniting sign of a single circle.

It reminds me in fact of a classic Tibetan motif in their religious painted scrolls or thangkas, called the bhavacakra, or wheel of existence: 

In this motif we have the endless cycle of death and rebirth symbolized in a series of concentric zones subdivided into bands by similar radiating lines. At the center of the cycle is the driving force of the endless cycle of reincarnation as understood by Buddhism, represented pictorially by the snake, the pig, and cock, which represent the three root afflictions of anger, ignorance, and attachment, respectively.

We also see transmigrating souls moving up and down in the wheel, the six realms of existence, and the twelve links of dependent arising, and the whole is encircled by Yama, the Lord of Death, who encompasses the transience of all that exists within his realm.

Both the mask and the thangka depict the projection of the cosmos out from the center of the ego in a round of birth and death, with the individual firmly embedded within it.

But if a symbolic resonance may be detected, the specifics of the mask remain nonetheless obscure. It would be plausible to interpret it as a mask related to a ceremony for the hunt, or a mask expressive of a human transformation into a meat animal, possibly as part of an etiological myth explaining why humans have the right to hunt their pray. Both would be consistent with Yup’ik traditions.

Additional Resources 

Written by Mesocosm

October 1, 2016 at 7:50 am

52:02 Humbaba of the Cedar Forest

leave a comment »

This week’s artifact is a small clay mask of the Sumerian mythological figure Humbaba, which comes to us from the ancient Mesopotamian city of Uruk. It dates to around the second millennium BCE, and is housed at the British Museum.

Humbaba.png

Humbaba is primarily remembered as an antagonist in the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the most engaging and imaginative pieces of literature from the ancient world. If any reader hasn’t had the pleasure of making its acquaintance, I enthusiastically recommend Stephen Mitchell’s fine rendering in his  Gilgamesh: A New English Version. Mitchell does the casual reader the favor of smoothing out the ragged text, which is pocked by lacunae, presenting it as a graceful running narrative.

The heart of the epic is the fast friendship between the Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, and the wild man Enkidu. When our story opens, the people of Uruk lament that the king has no respect for the social order and runs amok among the people, taking what he will and generally acting in a dreadful manner. The gods hear their prayers, deciding that someone of his verve requires a foil, a companion against whom he can wrangle, and with whom he can adventure.

After various machinations, Gilgamesh meets, fights, and eventually befriends Enkidu, a true child of nature who has never been tamed or subdued by the arts of civilization.

After declaring their mighty friendship, the two warriors resolve to set out to the cedar forest sacred to the great god Enlil, and there to face and slay the forest guardian Humbaba. So they travel beyond the fields they know, and after many adventures and a series of oracular dreams, they come to the forbidding forest, to meet and challenge their foe.

Humbaba has long been regarded in the scholarship as a figure of ambiguity. He is accused by our heroes of being a diabolical force that they are tasked to destroy, and he does seem to have a horrible, ogre-like appearance. But he also appears as the guardian of the forest and sacred to the gods. His slaying cannot but impress the reader as wanton, and is if to amplify the point, once the heroes have slain him, they lay waste to the precious cedar forests with their axes.

I often wonder if Humbaba was the inspiration for the Forest God in Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderful film Princess Mononoke. Both figures embody an ambivalent status as lord of life and death.

forest-spirit.jpeg

In 2011, an important new clay tablet came to the attention of scholars. It contains a previously-unknown portion of the Gilgamesh epic, and sheds new light on the character of Humbaba and his forest. A full translation and discussion may be found in the fascinating short paper Back to the Cedar Forest by F. N. H. Al-Rawi and A. R. George.

The passage describes the entrance of Gilgamesh and Enkidu into the forest in one of the “very few episodes in Babylonian narrative poetry when attention is paid to landscape.” Here is a short excerpt; the remainder may be read in the paper cited above:

They stood there marveling at(?) the forest,
observing the height of the cedars,
observing the way into the forest.
Where Ḫumbaba came and went there was a track,
the paths were in good order and the way was well trodden.
They were gazing at the Cedar Mountain,
dwelling of gods, throne-dais of goddesses:
[on the] face of the land the cedar was proffering its abundance,
sweet was its shade, full of delight.
[All] tangled was the thorny undergrowth, the forest a thick canopy,
cedars (and) ballukku-trees were [so entangled,] it had no ways in.
For one league on all sides cedars [sent forth] saplings,
cypresses […] for two-thirds of a league.
The cedar was scabbed with lumps (of resin) [for] sixty (cubits’) height,
resin [oozed] forth, drizzling down like rain,
[flowing freely(?)] for ravines to bear away.
[Through] all the forest a bird began to sing:
[…] were answering one another, a constant din was the noise,
[A solitary(?)] tree-cricket set off a noisy chorus,
[…] were singing a song, making the … pipe loud.
A wood pigeon was moaning, a turtle dove calling in answer.
[At the call of] the stork, the forest exults,
[at the cry of] the francolin, the forest exults in plenty.
[Monkey mothers] sing aloud, a youngster monkey shrieks:
[like a band(?)] of musicians and drummers(?),
daily they bash out a rhythm in the presence of Ḫumbaba.

This particular mask is inscribed on the back with a cuneiform inscription pertaining to rites of divination. Its features are traced from one long, continuous coil, suggesting viscera that were probably used in the associated rites. You can see the inscription on the British Museum research website here.

Written by Mesocosm

September 10, 2016 at 1:30 pm

52: 01 Artio, the Celtic Bear Goddess

leave a comment »

This week I’m going to start a new weekly series looking at striking pieces of art that I’ve come across in my travels, presented in no particular order.

I’m going to kick this series off with a stunning pediment-mounted bronze statue group from Muri, adjacent to the modern city of Bern, Switzerland, which depicts the Celtic bear goddess Artio, dating to the second century CE.

artio.png

The Celts were notoriously aniconic for most of their long history, preferring to celebrate the numinous powers of nature through the veneration of sacred trees and groves and the like. It was only in the waning latter days of the Celts, under the influence of their Roman conquerors, that they belatedly took up the practice of depicting divinities in human form.

In my experience, most Celtic bronze devotional statues are small, crude works with little expressive or aesthetic power. This Artio statue group is a rare and stunning exception to the rule, expressing the energies of life and death with unmistakable force.

The statue group is dominated by an enormous bear projecting forward toward the seated goddess from the root of a loping tree, as if springing directly from the base of the axel tree or axis mundi, from the wellspring of life itself.

Its head is subtly enlarged to give ample room for its expressive features to dominate the work. It is positioned just off-center of the pediment, and directly controls the feeling of this piece: 

artio2

Each viewer will have their own response to the feeling-tone conveyed by the bear. For myself, I see the blank but rapt expression of life and awareness without personality, reminding me of the cool, emotionless gaze of classical Greek divinities who seem to peer forth from a realm far removed from the ordinary domain of human concern. It is both arresting and chilling.

The goddess herself is pitched backward in a semi-recumbent posture suggesting a dialectically complementary attitude of reception of the dynamic, active powers of life expressed by the bear.

There can be no doubt that this image in aggregate encompasses a totality of opposing energies, which work with and against each other to constitute the total dynamic embodied by the image of the goddess. It forms a kind of pictoral merism, or a coincidentia oppositorum. That is, a total image is conveyed by the elements set in stable conflict by this piece, reminding us that the transcendent powers of life are, in themselves, beyond the pairs of opposites in which they play out in the field of time.

Religious art around the world is centrally concerned with this very problem – the expression of the energies of eternity in the field of time by way of antithetically-posed pairs of opposites. I don’t have an itinerary in mind for my art series here, but I anticipate this is a theme we will encounter again and again.

This theme of dialectical complementarity is also suggested by the association of the predatory and life-destroying character of the bear juxtaposed with symbols of fecundity – not only the tree, but the implements borne by the goddess. In her left hand she holds flowers and fruit; in her right, she holds an empty bowl.

Other than this wonderful statue group, nothing is known for certain about Artio. Jan de Vries tells us in his Keltische Religion that the contradictions encompassed by the statue group have led scholars to speculate in conflicting terms, with some viewing her as a goddess of war, and others seeing her as a goddess of fertility. Of course, we know from the example of long-lived cult of Ishtar that a goddess may be both.

The fact that a bear goddess statue of great antiquity was unearthed in a city that is today called Bern (meaning “bear”) has aroused considerable interest, but again, nothing is known for sure. Various linkages to pagan England have likewise been posited, hypothetically linking Artio to the warrior goddess Andraste, who was invoked by the British warrior queen Boudica in her struggle against Rome, for example.

I came upon this work quite unlooked for in the Bernisches Historischen Museum on vacation a few years ago, and was completely transported. Sometimes you just get lucky.

Written by Mesocosm

September 3, 2016 at 10:00 am

The Veils of Islam

leave a comment »

Last week, I attended a talk by Ingrid Mattson, a distinguished scholar of Islamic Studies, and I heard a story that made quite an impression on me. She had been counseling a young man recently, and felt concerned that he was over-sharing on social media – the kinds of stories or pictures from parties that a person in college might not think twice about posting. She suggested that eventually he’d be looking for a job, and he might regret some of the things that were out there on the Internet. As an experiment, she suggested that he try Googling himself, and see what he found.

IMG_2623

Quranic Inscription, 13th Century, Iran

Now, this fellow has a common Arabic name, and she did not anticipate that the first several entire pages of search results would be news stories about violent extremists who shared part or all of his name. This, he realized, is what a prospective employer would see if they ran a quick check.

The light of his individual identity would be reflected by the distorted mirror of the media and refracted through the prism of our times, and he would be marked by association with acts of violence.

The French Algerian theorist Mohammed Arkoun speaks of how societies construct ideas of Islam in terms of imaginaires, or “imaginaries.” These imaginaires are shared systems of ideas and belief shaped by ideology, media, the exchange of social capital, and the intervention of the unconscious.

In Arkoun’s view, discourse about Islam is largely governed by two complementary imaginaires, one coming from Muslim countries, and another constituted in Europe and the US. The common Muslim imaginaire is a reductive description of Islamic society and history that is premised on the belief that its current historical forms of expression are based logically and inevitably on a well-ordered and ahistorical set of principles derived unambiguously from the Quran, Hadith, and Islamic law. That is, what we observe in current Muslim states is believed to follow a precise and unchanging template based on classical sources, and this is how it has always been. 

There are few beliefs as widespread or as dangerous as the belief that ideas do not have a history. This imaginaire that Arkoun describes is recent, and it forms the basis of so many of the tired cliches about Islam –  that it is fundamentally anti-rational; that Islamic states are eo ipso theocratic; that Islamic states perceive all other types of social organization as adversaries to be one day conquered; et cetera. It is proposed and defended by autocratic governments which use it to bolster their own legitimacy. Critical voices are marginalized or suppressed within these governments and their institutions of learning, and consequently the standard tools of social criticism that would generally look to the role of ideology or the irrational in shaping self-concepts of history are silenced. 

For a variety of bad reasons, this distorted self-construction is reflected back by scholars in Europe and the United States, who should know better. In Arkoun’s view, they accede to this narrative either out of a naive wish to let the putatively indigenous self-construction and valuation of Islamic identity speak for itself and on its own terms, or out of a cynical desire to capitalize on simplified reductions of history for their own aims, e.g., to characterize Islam in the language of alterity. All too often these scholars ignore the degree to which critical or alternative voices within the Islamic world itself are silenced, and European and American scholars accept social constructions at face value that would never be tolerated from a European source without careful criticism.

So, to pull one of countless examples, in his recent book World Order, Henry Kissinger soberly recapitulates the cliche that the first several centuries of Muslim expansion were guided by a fundamental ideological distinction between the House of Islam, or conquered Muslim lands, and the House of War, or everywhere else, and treats this as though it were an unproblematic given of historiography. And of course, Kissinger does not pause to ask where this interpretation of early Muslim history came from, or what interests it may serve.

Ironically, by acting in this way, Kissinger precisely echoes the reductive and distorted version of history advocated by Sayyid Qutb, the strident anti-American polemicist whose belligerent interpretation of jihad has been taken up by terrorists such as Anwar al-Awlaki of Al Qaeda in Yemen. As the French proverb has it, les extrêmes se touchent.

Reality is far more complicated than dramatic simplifications will allow. To speak to Kissinger’s positoin, countless forms of cross-cultural exchange and interaction took place during the Umayyad and ‘Abbasid Caliphates, involving commerce, knowledge transfer, migration, missionary activity, travel, and dialog. The world is a complex place, and from its earliest days, Islam has been a plurality.

Yet, when you look to today’s newspaper headlines, and draw from so much of our social discourse, you would hardly know that there was any diversity in Muslim views or beliefs at all. We live in an age in which a Republican presidential candidate can openly praise the arbitrary degradation and murder of Muslims in South Carolina, for no other reason than that they are Muslims, and then win the primary in the same week.

Arabischer_Mosaizist_um_735_001

Mosaic, Khirbat al-Mafjar, c. 740

How is it that we form ideas about who we are as individuals? Who are the people we encounter, and what do we really know about them? What do we know about groups – about Christians or Jews, Buddhists or Muslims? What are the mirrors into which we all peer to make out a sense of identity, and to give shape to the complexities of our world, so we can understand and act? How do we see the truth?

The Quran gives us 99 names for Allah, and one of them is “the Truth.” In the Surah Luqman, we read:

Hast thou not considered that God makes the night pass into the day and makes the day pass into the night, and that He made the sun and the moon subservient, each running for a term appointed, and that God is Aware of whatsoever you do? That is because God, He is the Truth, and whatsoever they call upon other than Him is false, and God is the Exalted, the Great. (31:29-30)

I love this beautiful conjunction of the movement of light and dark arrayed in orderly progression, bound to the notion of Truth.

This particular Name is of special interest to the Sufis, who stride so brilliantly through the history of Islam, leaping effortlessly over so many fences. For the Sufi masters, the Truth is indeed bound to a play of light and dark, as we read in the Niche of Lights by Al-Ghazali, or the works of Ibn al-’Arabi, who speaks of the veils of the Real, by which God is revealed within the world, but which simultaneously conceal His essence.

Thus Truth and the Real in the ultimate sense, according to this tradition, are a play of light and darkness; shapes that give sense and meaning, also cloud and hide. And this is where we live, in the play of light and shadow. So how do we find our way?

This is what I take as my starting point: because of the current state of technology and social change, all of humanity must increasingly share this one world together, and learning to recognize one another as brothers and sisters is the spiritual task of our age. My own orientation to religion, history, and culture is comparative, and it is increasingly clear to me that within my own society – that of Europe and the United States – we must have a better understanding of Islam. For this world to survive, we cannot simply take up the concepts that are ready-to-hand within our social discourse, because they are awash with profound distortions.

Anyone who would encounter Islam and come to terms with it, as we must, should wander some of its many ways, for great riches lie within its corridors and chambers. It has long been and remains a powerful spiritual force that sustains and guides the lives of more than a billion people, each with their own individual lives and destinies, and I increasingly believe that it is the duty of non-Muslims to meet it, as a Thou in Martin Buber’s sense, and to encounter its people, before the maddening and distorted din of echoed rumor deafens our ears, and the bright glare of the endlessly-refracted light blinds our eyes, and we can see and hear no more.

 


 

Update: Just days after writing that the old story of the stark distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim communities during the period of expansion is a gross over-simplification, I came across this fascinating article describing the excavation of the earliest-known Muslim graves in Europe. These graves belonged to three Berbers who were probably part of the Umayyad expansion, and the evidence indicates that they lived peacefully in Nimes with Christians, as they were buried alongside Christians with no sign of partition. In the words of the authors, “[t]hese results clearly highlight the complexity of the relationship between communities during this period, far from the cliché depiction still found in some history books.”

Written by Mesocosm

February 22, 2016 at 7:22 am