Archive | October 2013

Modernity’s Shadow: The Dark Side of the Age of Reason

Therefore, I will suppose that, not God who is the source of truth but some evil demon, who is all powerful and cunning, has devoted all their energies to deceiving me. I will imagine that the sky, air, earth, colours, shapes, sounds and everything external to me are nothing more than the creatures of dreams by means of which an evil spirit entraps my credulity. I shall imagine myself as if I had no hands, no eyes, no flesh, no blood, no senses at all, but as if my beliefs in all these things were false. I will remain resolutely steady in this meditation and, in that way, if I cannot discover anything true, I will certainly do what is possible for me, namely, I will take great care not to assent to what is false, nor can that deceiver – no matter how powerful or cunning they may be – impose anything on me.” — Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy

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Species of Consciousness

I am saying that the individual self must become consciously aware of far more reality; that it must allow its recognition of identity to expand so that it includes previously unconscious knowledge. To do this you must understand, again, that man must move beyond the concepts of one god, one self, one body, one world, as these ideas are currently understood. You are now poised, in your terms, upon a threshold from which the race can go many ways. There are species of consciousness. Your species is in a time of change. There are potentials within the body’s mechanisms, in your terms not as yet used. Developed, they can immeasurably enrich the race, and bring it to levels of spiritual and psychic and physical fulfillment. If some changes are not made, the race as such will not endure. — Seth, from The Unknown Reality

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Sanctuary — the sanctum of an inviolable sacred space and a time-out of time — is becoming increasingly difficult to find and to preserve.  Muslims bombing mosques; secular governments and churches disrespecting the principles of sanctuary. We are, today, also subjected to universal surveillance.  But without sanctuary, there can be no true autonomy and preservation of the person as an individual.

My thoughts turned to this issue this morning after reading an article on artificial intelligence in The Guardian entitled “Smart robots, driverless cars work – but they bring ethical issues too“.  All received and present custom, law, tradition, meanings and values are being challenged, and are being threatened with annihilation, by the potentialities of new technology — bio-technology, robotics, and technologies of social regulation and political control.  But the whole notion of the individual and of individuality as autonomous personality with an inviolable consciousness may well be one of the first casualties of this “brave new world”.

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Homo Mendax — O What Tangled Webs We Weave

The British imperial poet Rudyard Kipling once stated that the first man to speak must have been a liar. The “speech-thinker” Rosenstock-Huessy took Kipling to task for that remark, pointing out that were it true, the species could hardly have survived.

Nonetheless, it is difficult not to agree with Kipling to some extent that man is the lying animal — homo mendax — when one listens to the current rhetoric of the politicians, admen, businessmen, propagandists and public relations experts, priests, lovers, etc. Perhaps in some ironic way, it is true that deception and self-deception are at least a large part of the recipe that makes for the meaning of “human”. Or, perhaps it is true of only a particular age or stage in the life-span of a culture and civilisation — its decadence and decline.

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A Formula for Happiness?

Trust economists to come up with a formula for happiness.  Happiness = Reality – Expectations.

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Aaron Ansarov: “Infinite World”

“Aaron Ansarov finds true beauty in the things others pass by. This is fresh seeing.” – Joel Sartore, National Geographic photographer and speaker (comment posted at Ansarov’s website)

Aaron Ansarov -- "infinite world"

Aaron Ansarov — “infinite world”

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Betwixt Light and Shadow

He who plays the angel plays the beast — Pascal, Pensées

And Iesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? There is no man good, but one, that is God. — Mark 10:18

While I was last in Vancouver, I read a book by a retired Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, entitled Between the Monster and the Saint, which seemed evidently inspired by Pascal. I don’t actually recall much from the book, for although it addressed itself to an issue of some consequence, it always seemed to fall short of the target at which it aimed — this dual nature of the human.

For me, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is endlessly rich and fascinating. The story came to Stevenson complete in a dream, after which he spent three days writing it down.  In Jungian terms, it is a map of the psycho-dynamics that exist between the Ego and the Shadow, the Light and the Dark, the Good and the Evil or, if you like, the Tame and the Wild and the creative and the nihilistic, and of how the Shadow, Mr. Hyde, gradually and tragically gained the upper hand over the tamed and civilised personality of Dr. Jekyll.

It is even more interesting that Stevenson wrote his novella around the same time Nietzsche was writing about nihilism and the self-negating and life-negating contradictions and turbulent psycho-dynamics of the European soul which was to reach its fateful eruption in the First World War.  In Nietzsche, the Apollonian and the Dionysian are the equivalent of Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, and his philosophy of living Beyond Good and Evil is his model for the reconciliation and integration of the divided self and the soul of self-contradiction.  The devilish buffoon and jester who runs down and trips up the tight-rope walker or rope-dancer over the abyss — who is Man — in Zarathustra is equally the Shadow.   The demon Mara who confronts Siddhartha under the Bodhi tree, and who is the spitting image of Mr. Hyde,  is the Shadow.

Consider, in that respect, the following profound poem by Rumi,

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Jelal'uddin Rumi - 13th century Sufi mystic and poet
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Shadow and Light Source Both

How does a part of the world leave the world?
How does wetness leave water?

Dont’ try to put out fire by throwing on
more fire! Don’t wash a wound with blood.

No matter how fast you run, your shadow
keeps up. Sometimes it’s in front!

Only full overhead sun diminishes your shadow.
But that shadow has been serving you.

What hurts you, blesses you. Darkness is
your candle. Your boundaries are your quest.

I could explain this, but it will break the
glass cover on your heart, and there’s no
fixing that.

You must have shadow and light source both.
Listen, and lay your head under the tree of awe.

When from that tree feathers and wings sprout on you,
be quieter than a dove. Don’t even open your mouth for
even a coo.

Mewlana Jalaluddin Rumi


Opposition is transformed into polarity, and this polarity is the alternating current of the energy of life.  The Shadow is, as the name appropriately suggests, the inverted self-image and not a separate complex or psychic entity.  The Gorgon also is the shadow of Athena.

I once attended a seminar with a Tibetan Buddhist. Amongst the attendees there was a Western man who was very devout, making a great show of piety and righteousness, bedecked with prayer beads, but behind which I sensed a very angry, seething, and turbulent soul. He was apparently trying to escape this inner turbulence by building up a fortress of self-image constructed of bricks of saintliness, piety, devotion, and righteousness. The conscious attitude was being highly exaggerated in the contrary direction from the real inner condition — sometimes called “denialism” — but which is equally an inordinate attachment to the trappings, dogmas, forms, and rituals of religion. The man seemed to be bedeviled by guilt. By self-immersion in these dogmas, forms, rituals, pieties, etc, one places one’s hopes for redemption and “the soul’s salvation”, as it were.

It achieves just the opposite, in fact.  There is no real separation between the Shadow and the Ego consciousness. The man was feeding his Shadow by his sense of guilt, and the more guilty he felt, the more he plunged into displays of piety and righteousness and groped his prayer beads. This, in turn, fed his Shadow even more.  That is the gist of Rumi’s poem, and the lesson contained in the book of the Christians, “resist not evil”.

This may work just as much with an exaggeratedly secular or “rationalistic” attitude. An exaggerated intellectualism may just as much be an effort to conceal or suppress messy “subjective values” and other “illogicalities” and “irrationalities”, powerfully strengthening the Shadow, which was the relation of Dr. Jekyll to his Mr. Hyde, leading to an exaggerated dualism, conflict, and contradiction of the tame and the wild.

In his Buddha at the Apocalypse: Awakening from a Culture of Destruction, Kurt Spellmeyer relates a legend (one of many) from The Record of Lin-chi of “the mad monk” P’u-hua, who seems the counter-part of the monk Lin-chi, and it bears a great resemblance to Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde narrative. Here’s how Spellmeyer relates one episode as recorded in the Record.

“Among the vignettes and teachings that compose the Record, a number of them tell of a wild monk who was named P’u-hua. Although Lin-chi himself was widely known for his polemical attitude, P’u-hua outdid him in every way. Always dirty, P’u-hua dressed in tattered robes. He wandered the streets like a Shakespearean fool, uttering nonsense to anyone who’d listen. Among the villagers P’u-hua had become a source of amusement and something else as well — P’u-hua was so heedless of the normal rules that he made the town a little nervous.

In the stories where P’u-hua and Lin-chi interact, P’u-hua always goes too far. On one occasion a villager had invited them to his family’s home for a vegetarian meal. In the Chinese Buddhism of the time, honoring monks with a bankquet this way had become a standard form of dana or gift-giving. For their part, the monks were expected to repay the giver with a private instruction of some kind.

In keeping with the rules, Lin-chi and P’u-hua went to the banquet where they are quietly [sic] for a while. And then, at a moment that seemed appropriate, Lin-chi began teaching just as he’d planned, starting with this koan: ‘One hair swallows up the huge sea, one mustard seed hold Mount Sumeru. Is this a manifestation of supernatural power, or the way things have always been?”

The question draws on the Vimalakiri Sutra where the great bodhisattva uses his power to pack a multitude of the Buddha’s followers into the dimensions of a tiny room. The ocean can now fit on a single strand of hair. A mustard seed can contain Mount Sumeru, which embodies the entire universe. Was this, Lin-chi asks, a miraculous event, or are space and time truly relative?

As koans go, this one is quite accessible, and it’s likely that the host knew the sutra well. Maybe it was Lin-chi’s plan to give his listeners a taste of how koan training actually works. Perhaps he meant to follow the question with a lesson on the practice of zazen — how to make the conscious mind grow more still, and then how to internalize the koan in a way that allows the unconscious mind to do its work. Or possibly he meant to test the layman’s depth — maybe this was someone who’d been practicing under Lin-chi’s guidance for many years.

Meals and banquets played a crucial role in helping to maintain close relationships between monks and nuns and the communities they served. The story implies that Lin-chi was quite adept at managing events of this important kind. He had all the necessary social skills. He knew how to behave in polite society and was an accomplished raconteur who always grasped what to say and when. Monks and nuns who were incompetent wouldn’t have been authorised to leave the temple grounds, or, as in P’u-hua’s own case, they would have been expected to keep still.

But alas, this is not what P’u-hua did. No sooner had Lin-chi’s question been posed then P’u-hua lurched explosively, sending bowls and chopsticks flying everywhere. The banquet table now lay in utter disarray. The layman and his family were shocked and distressed, and the opportunity to teach was lost.

“Too coarse,” the master yelled across the table to P’u-hua, scolding him for his wild ways.

To which P’u-hua answered, “Where do you think you are, talking about what’s coarse and fine? We both know that your distinction is unreal….”

At certain moments Lin-chi seems to look with suspicion on his fellow monk, as though he can never quite decide if he’s enlightened or simply mad. But if that’s true, then why did he bring P’u-hua when he went to the house that day? Maybe Lin-chi was a poor judge of character — and not at all what he was cracked up to be. But possibly he had something up his sleeve. P’u-hua goes too far — that’s clearly true. Yet the Record of Lin-chi also seems to show that he deeply understands the real nature of things. Of the many people in the book, it’s actually P’u-hua who demonstrates the most profound enlightenment.” (pp. 135-137, Buddha at the Apocalypse).

The riddle of the character P’u-hua — the wild, mad monk — lies in his being the apparent contradiction to the orderly, systematic, cultivated and refined Lin-chi. He is like the devilish jester that trips up the rope-dancer in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, or like Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde to his Dr. Jekyll. P’u-hua is Lin-chi himself, as his own shadow, the one who knows that distinctions of tame and wild, coarse and refined are nonsense.  In the figures of Lin-chi and P’u-hua are the very “boundaries” of which Rumi writes in “Shadow and Light”, the polarity, the movements of the dance as cosmos and chaos.

P’u-hua is the raw and wild energies of life impatient and angry with the rituals of reason and the formalisms of civilisation.  Lin-chi and P’u-hua are one and the same entity in its polar aspects, and their relationship recalls the description of the state of affairs given as “the Voice of the Devil” by William Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,

All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors.

1. That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul.
2. That Energy, call’d Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, call’d Good, is alone from the Soul.
3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.

But the following Contraries to these are True

1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age
2. Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
3 Energy is Eternal Delight

All sacred codes also teach the “middle way” between Lin-chi and P’u-hua. In North American aboriginal teachings it is called “the Good Red Road”. In Greece, it was called “the Golden Mean”. In Buddhism, it was called “the Middle Way”.  In Castaneda it is called “the Path with heart”.  Light and Shadow are your boundaries, and you cannot know the Middle Way without knowing the boundaries, which are cosmos and chaos respectively, (or the 1 and the 0 digitally speaking). “Your boundaries are your quest”, writes Rumi. And not suprisingly, therefore, the Path of Wisdom ascending to the mountain-top is often described as following, initially, a zig-zag course.

zigzag path  zigzag path 3