Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality

Book Review: The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science And Spirituality by His Holiness the Dalai Lama (Morgan Road Books 2005)

Not only is the Dalai Lama inspiring and exquisitely compassionate, he is also utterly brilliant and very up to speed with the key issues of the day. He explains his fascination with science and technology that began when he was a child. Since he began to travel abroad in the 1970’s he took every opportunity to talk with some of the best scientists in the world. Eventually he established the most excellent Mind and Life Conferences every few years where scientists and spiritual practitioners converge to compare ideas about science, consciousness, psychology, spirituality, and the meaning of life. Some of these have resulted in meaningful dialogue and spurred wonderful books such as – ‘Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying,’ which dealt with these subjects in relation to science and consciousness.

As he makes clear, the Dalai Lama sees science as very important and sees it as not at all at odds with the Buddhist tradition that he represents. He notes that some ideas in the tradition, particularly in the abhidharma section of teachings which deals with cosmology and the nature and make up of the psyche, should be updated to reflect the observations of modern science. He sees no major contradictions with Darwin’s theory of evolution and with quantum physics or the theory of relativity. He has introduced science into the curriculum of the monastic universities. He wants his students to integrate the science more into their overall worldview. He sees the most promising role of science and technology as helping to relieve suffering. He sees science and spirituality as complementary in the sense that they share the goal of seeking truth. He considers science and Buddhism both as investigative traditions. Dalai Lama is primarily interested in how science and Buddhist philosophy can help sentient beings and their environment. He considers the dangers of scientific materialism, nihilism, and reductionism in de-humanizing us. In an early chapter he points out his encounters with various scientists, philosophers, and scholars including Karl Popper, David Bohm, Carl von Weizsacker, Francisco Varela, Thomas Merton, and Huston Smith.  He also points out the early purveyors of the Indian Buddhist dialectical tradition such as Nagarjuna, the brothers Asanga and Vasubandhu, Shantideva, Dharmakirti, Chandrakirti, and Dignaga as well as the famous Tibetan master Tsong Khapa. The Indian teachers were often associated with Nalanda University which developed a famous cirriculum based on investigative logic. The Dalai Lama compares and distinguishes these methods of scientific and contemplative investigation:

“scientific investigation proceeds by experiment, using instruments that analyze external phenomena, whereas contemplative investigation proceeds by the development of refined attention, which is then used in the introspective examination of inner experience.”

Both methods distinguish empirical means of investigation from inferences and favor the best of the two methods for the subject at hand. He notes that science and the Buddhist contemplative investigative traditions agree that empirical experience and reason are the best means to know something. Buddhism as a religious tradition also relies on so-called scriptural authority which makes it differ from science – although that authority is said to be based on past experience, similar to one accepting the results of past scientific experiments. His holiness particularly praised his dialogues with physicist David Bohm (who also has published dialogues with J. Krishnamurti) as fruitful. He compliments Bohm’s open-mindedness. He notes Karl Popper as the formulator of:  “Popper’s falsifiability thesis, which states than any scientific theory must contain within it the conditions under which it may be shown to be false.” Buddhism, he notes, encompasses a wider field of inquiry than science in that it includes the subjective, particularly metaphysics and ethics. He favorably compares Poppers falsifiability thesis with what he calls the “principle of the scope of negation” from the Tibetan tradition. This principle notes a “fundamental difference between that which is “not found” and that which is “found not to exist.” So, just because something can’t be found does not mean it doesn’t exist.

A comparison is made of the fundamental Buddhist idea of emptiness (as originally elaborated by Nagarjuna – circa 2nd century C.E. in Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way)  being the true state of things and the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics. The theory of emptiness asserts that it is erroneous to perceive the world as we normally do from the supposition that we identify with/are a discreet ego, or self. This erroneous supposition or fundamental ignorance is said to form the basis for attachment. In a way this idea suggests that nothing exists strictly objectively, that there is a subjective component to anything that can be said to exist. Stated that way, one can sense a similarity to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle – that the observer alters the observed by the mere act of observation. This has found to be the case at the quantum level, regarding momentum and position of a particle, but may be more universal in application. Regarding practical applications of emptiness theory he mentions once asking David Bohm – what was wrong from the perspective of science of believing in the independent existence of things. Bohm answered that many ideological problems – racism, extreme nationalism, extremism, and Marxist class struggle – occur due to perceptions of things as inherently divided and disconnected. So in this sense – belief in interconnectivity and inseparability can better inform ethical decisions. The theory of relativity upset the common sense reality of Newtonian physics. Quantum theory furthered this overthrow. The Dalai Lama notes Einstein’s reluctance to accept the Uncertainty Principle (as in the famous quote – God does not play dice..  ). He also notes some early Indian atomic theories and the long-standing traditions of logical debate on the nature of reality in India among and between both Buddhists and Hindus and the healthiness of such traditions on refining ideas. He notes a long-held notion of time as relative in the Buddhist tradition where it was noted that past, present, and future are basically interdependent and that there could not be a real vessel called time within which events occur, although apparently some scientists see Einstein’s space-time continuum as such a vessel. He also notes that there are proponents of different viewpoints in the various Buddhist schools where the extremes of realism and idealism are countered with the Middle Way schools which are considered the most refined. There is the relative world “contingent upon language, social conventions, and shared concepts.”  The other reality, the so-called ultimate reality, can only be truly understood through experience. This idea of the “two truths” ultimate and conventional is similar says the Dalai Lama to the notion of commonsense Newtonian physics and deeper Einsteinian physics.

In the Buddhist theories as in the new physics there can be no observer-independent reality. As he says it: “mind and matter are codependent.” This derives ultimately from the Buddhist idea of “dependent origination.” This idea states that all arises through causes and conditions, there is mutual dependence between the parts and the whole, and that no identity exists independently. So – the universe is considered to be a vast network of complex interrelationships. The wave-particle paradox of light and the quantum principle of non-locality also point to the interdependent nature of reality.

The next subject is cosmology and the Dalai Lama mentions several creation myths of cosmological origin such as the Tibetan Bon notions of order arising from chaos and Indian theories such as Samkhya primordial materiality which describe the universe arising from a substratum of a more ultimate reality; Vaisheshika atomism where these atoms make up the basic units of reality, various ideas of Brahma and Ishvara as originators of the universe, and the radical materialism of the Charvakas. In contrast, the Buddhist formulation describes everything, consciousness as well as matter, in terms of the dependent origination theory. Buddha was known to never answer questions regarding the origin of the universe. Views as to why this is so vary but most suggest that  the questions are not applicable to liberation and may entrench us further into delusion. There are 10 or 14 of these unanswered ‘cosmological’ questions depending on the tradition – many involve paradoxes of time, questions of life after death, and mind/body definitions. Regardless, after the Buddha, cosmological traditions developed in Buddhist societies. The Dalai Lama describes the two main systems – those of the Abhidharma – shared by Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists and tyhose of the Kalachakra Tantra which came much later. Both systems mention that we iive in one of billions of ‘world-systems.’ These world-systems are subject to a beginning and end but the universe as a whole is not (and neither are beings as I recall from studying abhidharma). Each universe is said to have four stages: emptiness, formation, abiding, and destruction. Universes can be destroyed by either of three elements: fire, water, and air. This would be in concert with theories of multiple big bangs that some physicists and thinkers such as Ervin Laszlo favor. Often one hears Buddhist teachers speak of beginningless time which suggests the unfathomably great age of both the matter and consciousness that makes up the world and us.

Regarding theism, particularly the theism espoused by the Indian Samkhya philosophers, but also the ideas that the orderly nature of the universe is proof of intelligent design, he invokes the arguments of Dharmakirti from the 7th century C.E.  from his classic text – Exposition of Valid Cognition. Dharmakirti made a refutation of the Samkhya theory of the universe coming about through the interplay of prakrit and purusa (or God as Ishvara). What he refuted was the idea of an absolute beginning to the chain of causation where the ‘first cause’ did not have a precedent. Basically, he says that such an idea would have to be “an arbitrary metaphysical hypothesis. It cannot be proven.” The 4th century meditator, Asanga, also refuted the idea of a creator of the universe on similar grounds. He rejected the idea that something beyond cause and effect could produce things subject to cause and effect. He describes the universe as an “infinite chain of causation with no transcendence or preceding intelligence. According the elemental theories in the Buddhist cosmology systems, the four elements dissolve back into the most subtle and all-pervasive element of space at the end of a universal cycle – so they go back into the emptiness phase and arise again from it. This idea is quite similar to Ervin Laszlo’s notion of the “Akashic Field.” The Kalachakra system refers to ‘space particles.’ Physicists refer to the “quantum vacuum” or as I have also heard it – the quantum foam. The four elements may be seen as the phases of matter – solidity, liquidity, heat, and kinetic energy. The space element as the most subtle and pervading all matter may be the ‘stuff’ that is indestructible. Dalai Lama also mention the Flower Ornament Sutra which is the origin of the idea of the “jeweled net of Indra” that so aptly describes the notion of holography. In this net there is no center and no edge and all is reflected in each part. So to know one part is to know all and this would require omniscience. Even quantum physics has come up against formidable limits of knowledge even under ideal conditions. In Buddhist theory the role of consciousness is also in attendance here as the karmic propensity of beings. He offers his own idea of how karma enters the picture:

“When the universe has evolved to a stage where it can support the life of sentient beings, its fate becomes entangled with the karma of the beings who will inhabit it. More difficult perhaps is the first intervention of karma, which is effectively the maturation of the karmic potential of the sentient beings who will occupy that universe, which sets in motion its coming into being.”

This section is philosophy and metaphysics at its finest where great questions are asked. Also of interest are some notions of Kalachakra that relate the bodies of humans to the bodies of the cosmos not unlike notions in Kabala, Alchemy, and the Western Esoteric Traditions. A peculiar relationship he mentions is that of solar and lunar eclipses thought to affect human breathing patterns. Makes me wonder if I should practice pranayama during the next eclipse.

The next chapters delve more into consciousness. First he goes through theories of the origins of life and Darwinian evolution and modern genetics. He notes that for science the critical divide seems to be that between inanimate matter and living organisms while in Buddhism it is between non-sentience and sentience. He suggests the scientific methodology of reductionism to account for the emphasis on life from non-life and the Buddhist goal of liberation from suffering to account for the emphasis on sentience from non-sentience. He describes the scope of science to be in the domain of the first noble truth of the Buddha, that of suffering, in that is examines the physical bases of suffering – the physical environment (container) and sentient beings (the contained). The 2nd noble truth, the origin of suffering, he says, falls in the mental realm of psychology and mental afflictions. The 3rd and 4th noble truths, cessation of suffering and the path that leads to it, he says, are in the domain of philosophy and religion.

Regarding sentience, he notes Western divisions into inanimate matter, living organisms, and human beings. Lots of Christians I have met seem to favor that humans are equipped with a soul or self-consciousness not possessed by animals. I have even heard this argument used as justification for killing animals. In Buddhist philosophy there are degrees of sentience so animals are thought to be much closer to humans than to plants. So humans and animals both have consciousness, but humans have it to a greater degree of complexity. As far as the subtleties of sentience he also mentions the Buddhist notions of the 3 worlds: the desire realm, the form realm, and the formless realm:

“The desire realm is characterized by the experience of sensual desires and pain; this is the realm that we humans and animals inhabit. In contrast, the form realm is free from any manifest experience of pain and is permeated principally by an experience of bliss. Beings in this realm possess bodies composed of light. Finally, the formless realm utterly transcends all physical sensation. Existence in this realm is permeated by an abiding state of perfect equanimity, and the beings in this realm are entirely free from material embodiment.”

These are the god realms of celestial beings that are still subject to impermanence and eventual suffering as their karma is exhausted.

In his discussion of karma he notes the Guhyasamaja tantra which states that there can be no absolute division between mind and matter and that prana, the most subtle form of matter, is identical to consciousness.

“Prana is the aspect of mobility, dynamism, and cohesion, while consciousness is the aspect of cognition and the capacity for reflective thinking.”

So in this system all is the play of energy and consciousness. This could also said to be true in Hindu tantra where Shiva represents consciousness and Shakti represents energy. Dalai Lama suggests that this interplay can be the basis for relationship between the body as microcosm and the universe as macrocosm.

Though he is generally in agreement with Darwinian theory he sees it as incomplete. He sees the idea of “survival of the fittest” as unsatisfying in the sense that it does not account for altruism. Altruism does not fit the scenario of reproductive success. Simply classifying altruism as self-interest is not useful. He asks why modern biology sees only competition as the operating principal when cooperation is well demonstrated among animals as well as among humans. Also he notes that Darwinian theory does not address the origin of sentience which is most important to Buddhists.

He goes through several ideas of consciousness in the theories of various Buddhist schools. The idea that mind has two qualities, that it is both luminous (clear) and knowing, is elaborated upon somewhat. The mind’s aspect of clarity is said to account for its ability to reflect what appears impartially like a mirror. He also briefly mentions the eight consciousnesses theory of the Yogachara school that is considered less refined, or only useful to a point, and ultimately refutable. The conditioned world in Buddhism is usually made up of matter, mind, and mental formations (abstract composites). Examples of the third category include things like concepts, time, logical principles and other mental constructs. This is identical to Karl Popper’s classification of world of physical objects, world of subjective experiences, and world of statements in themselves, ie. the content of thoughts. Other theories of consciousness he mentions are those of the neurobiologists that suggests all mental states arise from physical states. He rejected that idea outright as a metaphysical assumption having no basis even in science. He mentions Bohm’s theory of an implicate order in a holographic universe as quite plausible. He goes through some of the fascinating discoveries of neurobiology but still notes that the nature of consciousness is still quite unknown to neuroscience. He also mentions traditional arguments in favor of the idea of rebirth (or reincarnation) in Buddhist theory such as innate knowledge or instinct which suggests it as a distinct possibility. He also notes some more detailed past-life experiences and studies. He makes the important observation that consciousness is ultimately always subjective and so has to be excluded from strictly third-person objective scientific inquiry. He suggests a paradigm shift where first-person accounts are integrated with third-person inquiries, which is basically how psychology in its many guises works. He thinks that the long and detailed Buddhist contemplative investigation into the nature of mind can offer much to the scientific study of consciousness. This is being done in neurobiology labs that study meditators. One obvious observation has been that the frontal lobes of meditators being more ‘plastic’ or flexible to change than in others. This notion of brain-plasticity suggests that positive mental change can be affected through certain techniques. Buddhist notions of the transformability of consciousness note that “opposing states cannot coexist without one undermining the other.” This implies that practicing loving kindness can serve to weaken the force of hatred. Really this is simple common sense and habit and is quite reasonable.

He uses further examples from texts attributed to Maitreya and Nagarjuna to demonstrate that these early Buddhist traditions had similar notions of the plasticity of the brain, or at least of cognition. He also goes through the methods of training attention and mindfulness in the meditative traditions. The principle methods are shamata, or calm abiding meditation, in which one uses a physical focus or support as object of concentration and vipasyana, which proceeds as analysis and discernment while in a state of stabilized calm abiding.

He thinks a dialogue between Buddhist psychology and cognitive science can be fruitful. The distinctions between sensory and experience and mental experience were drummed into him as a young monk. He was urged to discover these differences through meditation. After we experience something through our senses we make a mental construct of it. Indeed. The mind is considered the sixth sense in Buddhist psychology. Most Western analyses regard thought and language as inseparable but the Buddhists note the existence of nonlinguistic thought. They say rudimentary non-linguistic concepts inform the thoughts of animals. He notes that in some neurobiology studies the brain does not seem to distinguish seeing with the eyes from imagining with the mental eye. He also notes how perceptions and optical illusions can trick the brain, or are they tricking the mind? The question is does the brain react the same or differently to optical illusions. The whole notion of false cognition vs. true cognition is taken up in detail in the Buddhist logic theories as it is key to emerging from delusion. The belief in an autonomous self  and other conditioned phenomena are said to be at the root of all false cognition. He also mentions ideas of emotion, where in Buddhism most emotions are considered afflictive and to feed delusion. They are considered to be in the realm of mental factors. There are wholesome mental factors such as love, compassion, and empathy. He mentions as well meeting with Paul Eckman who studies emotions and the affect of one’s state of mind on physical health. Eckman notes classification of emotions into basic emotions and higher cognitive emotions. love, pride, and jealousy are given as examples of higher cognitive emotions “whose expression is subject to considerable cultural variation.” Basic emotions and higher cognitive emotions are thought to be associated with different parts of the brain. Attachment, anger, and delusion are the key mental afflictions present in all sentient beings according to Buddhism. In higher beings such as humans (rather than animals where these may manifest as raw instinctual urges) these afflictions can be conditioned through concepts and language. This accords with scientific notions of the mammalian brain, the reptilian brain, etc. He mentions that the afflictive emotional states tend to direct to a concrete target while the more wholesome emotional states seem to be more diffuse and less confined to one person or object. From Eckman he also notes the distinction between emotions, moods (which last longer), and traits (which can appear throughout life). The connection between these may of course be mitigated by habit and action which brings in the karmic component.

The last chapter is about ethics and the new genetics is quite fascinating and details the Dalai Lama’s great ability as an ethical philosopher. Greater knowledge and power require a greater need for moral responsibility. The issue, he says, is now more and more not whether or not we should acquire knowledge and explore its technological potential but how to use the knowledge in the most expedient and ethically responsible manner. The biogenetic implications of medicine bring up many difficult questions. He says that we need to consider what is the most compassionate way we can answer these questions. People with high genetic risk for certain diseases are often faced with such questions. He mentions cloning as well, noting that he has no objections in principle, but after seeing a documentary where computer animated spare parts with distinctly human features were being simulated – that he felt an instinctive revulsion that he thinks gives him the gut of feeling so to speak where to draw the line. He acknowledges the great healing potential of genetics and cloning but says that we must keep it at the utmost compassionate level and not let it get to a point where it is done en masse for aesthetic purposes. He suggest the same attitude for genetically modified food – that it be used strictly in situations that it can help to feed starving people without becoming a tool for business and profit. Long-term consequences must be considered. He thinks that these ethicsl questions regarding the genetic revolution present an opportunity for people of different countries, ethnicities, and religions to get together around global ethical issues. He says what is needed is a greater collective effort. he suggests developing some universal ethical principles – some he suggests are preciousness of life, compassion as key motivation, acknowledgement of the need for balance in nature and basing our decisions on that need, and keeping a wide perspective that includes possible long-term consequences. He also suggests that when we address problems that we remain honest, self-aware, and unbiased.

He argues for a worldview grounded in science but one also that takes into account human nature and human goodness. This worldview should be put into practice with ethical values to guide one’s behavior.

I have read many books by the Dalai Lama and I always enjoy them. His playfulness is infectious, his sharp intellect keeps one fascinated, and his capacity for compassionate action is energizing.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Food Inc: How Industrial Food is Making us Sicker, Fatter and Poorer and What You Can Do About It

Book Review: Food Inc.: How Industrial Food is Making us Sicker, Fatter and Poorer And What You Can Do About It edited by Karl Weber (Public Affairs Books -Participant Media Guide 2009)

This book is a real eye-opener and I thought I was well informed about food issues. This book tackles food issues from many angles and shows the many problems that have come about due to obviously bad food policies. There is also a movie of the same name which preceded the book and which I plan to see sometime soon. Several important writers, journalists, nutritionists, food critics, social commentators, and scientists make up this collection.

First up was a chapter by Eric Schlosser, maker of the movie – Fast Food Nation. He talks about food safety issues, factory farming, and exploited farm workers. He says that when he made the movie at first he wasn’t trying for an overly negative movie – just to get to the bottom of some issues. Apparently, the fast food industry was very resistant and not at all transparent in showing how things worked. He talks about a change in the meatpacking industries – where once it was a well-paid job with well-treated workers that became a low-paying sweatshop with increased worker safety issues. He talks about the Food Industry seeking both government deregulation of rules that protect workers and subsidies from the government. He compares deregulation in the food industry to deregulation in the financial markets that allowed people to be bogged down with toxic mortgages. Proponents of deregulation say that regulations stifle a free market economy. This is of course true but some rather obvious regulation is necessary – such as those to protect workers and to promote fair trade over simply just free trade. He talks about the current interest in healthy food movements:

“There has been a sea change in American attitudes toward food, especially among the educated and upper-middle class. And there is now a powerful social movement centered on food. Sustainable agriculture, the obesity epidemic, food safety, illegal immigration, animal welfare, the ethics of marketing to children – all of these things are being widely discussed and debated.”

Cheap food is often toxic in the sense that things like processed ingredients, sugar content, salt content, additives, etc promote poor health and conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure. Low wage workers have a need for cheap food and little time to prepare food with good ingredients. This is a rather vicious cycle where cheap quick food leads to poor health. The CDC estimates that 1/3 of children born in 2000 will develop diabetes. So we need to promote healthy food and lifestyles.

Schlosser supports unionization among exploited agricultural and restaurant workers. He praises farmer’s markets and availability of quality food in poor neighborhoods. He supports better labeling laws, animal welfare laws, and regulation of factory farms. These seem like reasonable regulations to me. He states that the price of food may go up as a result, especially meat so this may require that people eat less meat. He also makes the important comment that the government should be subsidizing healthy food such as fruits and vegetables rather than high fructose corn syrup. He supports family farms with a concept of land stewardship over factory farms where all is a business commodity. He thinks there are positive benefits to promoting healthy food over junk food – better health, lower health-care costs, more profits for those who grow and sell healthy foods and less for junk food producers, etc. Really – if you think about it this is a no-brainer.

Food safety issues at factory farms are a real concern as animals are kept in close quarters often in unsanitary conditions. The cruelty issues are even more severe – as animals like pigs, chickens, turkeys, and cows – are kept basically as prisoner-slaves and pumped full of antibiotics and hormones, de-beaked, and not allowed to exercise or carry on instinctive behaviors. This is utterly barbaric. For visuals – see the parody movies – The Meatrix and the Meatrix II – Revolting  - I think there are 3 in all – on web – just google. The crowded conditions contribute to both unsanitary conditions and disease, which makes antibiotics more necessary. These operations also produce a lot of waste that can overwhelm sewage treatment plants and increase chemicals in the water supply. Hormones cause udder infections in cows and those are treated with antibiotics. Avian flu and future diseases were/will be likely generated in factory farm environments. The inhumane conditions and practices are a disgrace and a point of dishonor to our race. We can fight back by knowing where our food comes from and avoiding food from these places as much as is possible. This is another no-brainer.

Robert Kenner, the maker of the Food Inc. movie, talks about industry participation where the people were nice and would share some surface information but left vast amounts off-limits as far as seeing how things were done. Transparency is a path to accountability and people are beginning to demand it from corporations and industry. According to him though – he hit an “impenetrable barrier.” Companies are often worried about liabilities so that was probably a big issue but transparency will become more important as consumers judge with their buying power. The movie started out as strictly about the food industry but inevitably became involved with corporate control and secrecy about how food is produced. He mentions the “food disparagement” laws, aka “veggie libel laws” – which makes it easier for food industry companies to sue people who criticize the quality of their products. In showing Walmart dealing with organic yogurt entrepreneur Gary Hirshberg he wanted to be balanced by showing pro-corporate situations as well as anti-corporate perspectives. He said this was made difficult by corporate intimidation of food workers exposed to pesticide and safety problems. He says one reason for this is that corporations are very conscious of how they are perceived. He does state that things have gotten better in some respects as companies like McDonalds have made some improvements adopting some minimum standards of humane treatment of their meat animals they get from suppliers. He also states that he is not at all anti-corporate on any philosophical level.

An org called Food and Water Watch wrote a short piece about “food sovereignty” which basically refers to who controls food, corporate agribusiness interests or people such as local family farms. The gist are suggestions to support things like farmer’s markets and local family farms, to learn and know where and how your food was produced, and to keep track and speak out about food issues and policies.

An article by Gary Hirshberg on organic food points out the many benefits of buying and consuming it. He goes through his own history of making organic yogurt from a small operation to a corporate level worldwide operation and keeping the tight controls and certifiability regulations that the ‘organic’ stamp requires. I know we have been eating the Stonyfield yogurts for decades now and I love the Oikos Greek yogurts. He explains the various levels of ‘organic.’ 100% organic is pretty obvious and means everything is organic from farm to shelf. ‘Organic’ requires that at least 95% of ingredients be organic with the other 5% being on  a list of allowable materials. The third category is ‘Made with Organic’, and means that at least 70% of the ingredients are organic.

The Humane Society of the United States wrote an article on the six worst animal practices in agribusiness. These are:

1)      Battery cages – tiny cages where hens are forced to lay eggs without being able to practice any of their natural habits. This is banned in many countries but not here.
2)      Fast Growth of Birds – about 9 billion broiler chickens are slaughtered yearly in the U.S. These animals are selectively bred for fast growth and treated with ‘growth-promoting’ antibiotics. They are often so fat and imbalanced they can’t function. This is also true of turkeys as we had one once as a pet. She could hardly walk – it was sad.
3)      Forced Feeding for Foie Gras – this is truly disgusting as geese and ducks are literally force-fed with a tube down their throats into their stomachs so that their liver will be enlarged which apparently becomes a ‘delicacy.’ Mere movement becomes painful for the animals. This is utter torture.
4)      Gestation Crates and Veal Crates – sows and calves are kept in crates where they can’t turn around or even move. Sows are kept like this for four months of their pregnancy. I have seen the calf ones among some Amish farmers. They are being phased out in some places. Again this is utter torture.
5)      Long-Distance Transport – this refers to transport under overcrowded and inhumane conditions. Once stopping for gas along an interstate I saw a truck full of turkeys on a hot day under these conditions. While saying prayers/wishes /mantras for them I noticed that many of the turkeys were actually dead and dying – maybe of the heat, maybe from lack of water. It was sad.
6)      Electric Stunning of Birds – poultry are further tortured before they are slaughtered.  There legs are shackled, they are hung upside down, there heads are passed through electrified water meant to immobilize them before their throats are slit.

Next there is a shift of gears and the topic switches to the challenges of fighting world hunger. This article is by Peter Pringle about the good and the bad of ‘biotech’. Genetically modified crops began as ways to better feed starving people. He mentions the first ‘golden rice’ that was full of the vitamin A that many in underdeveloped countries lacked. But agribusiness came to own the seeds and had not planned to offer them to starving people for free although did consent in the end and lives were saved. Newer strains of these types of nutrition-enhanced and blight-resistant GMOs have been promoted by philanthropic organizations such as the Gates Foundation. While using these crops to feed starving people can’t be denied as life-affirming, there are problems. The seeds need to come from the biotech firms that make them and so promote this dependency. This dependency also affects traditional farming practices, plant varieties, and seed banks. Gates etal. are promoting new Green Revolutions in food craving Asia and Africa but this will be problematic without continuing traditional farming methods and crops. The new crops are also often pesticide intensive and soil depletion is thought to be greater than in traditional methods. High yielding hybrid seeds require cross-breeding and this can be expensive and well beyond the scope of traditional farmers. Pringle mentions that this work in developed countries used to be done in agricultural and government partnerships before agribusiness. He gives a good history and outline of the GMO issue noting that for some problems GM crop varieties may offer the best long-term solutions. This is definitely not true across the board. Each problem is unique and there many other factors that influence starvation including weather, access to water, access to fertilizer, access to land, distribution, and stability of political environments. Some countries that have banned GM crops may benefit from them. There are new royalty-free biotech material and knowledge that countries can use themselves. Certainly biotech is not a one-size fits all solution and as environmentalists and NGOs point out there are all sorts of problems that may come about if the GM hybrids are over-grown in comparison to both traditional crops and less profitable crops. These situations require sharp management which has not been the norm, especially in Africa, where government and thug faction corruption has been rampant. As Pringle notes:

“It’s as important to assess the risks of using GM crops and provide rigorous safety and environmental regulations as it is to consider not adopting them.”

He also talks about efforts to offer “protected technology” commons, a form of “open innovation” where people can have access to use patented technologies.

In an article by Ronnie Cummins of Organic Consumers Association the hazards of GMOs are argued. One fear is that biotech companies, such as the infamous Monsanto, will try to monopolize supply of seeds, food, fiber, and medical products. Although they have likely used some shady business practices in the past I don’t think this is likely in the future, especially in regards to vulnerable peoples. The uncertainties and unpredictabilities of these “frankenfoods” made by splicing genes of various creatures has quite a lot of people worried. Apparently, most processed foods in supermarkets contain GMOs. Toxins and poisons can result in genetically modified substances as happened in 1989 when 37 people were killed and more than 5000 others permanently disabled when a Japanese company used bacteria to make the supplement l-tryptophan. The bacteria were thought to have become contaminated during the recombining process. Other worries include unforeseen genes ‘switching on’ to increase plant toxins, increased cancer risks, food allergies, increased antibiotic resistance, lowering nutritional qualities, increased pesticide residues (where pesticide-resistant crops can withstand more pesticides), genetic pollution (where GMO crops invade non GMO crops through pollen), damage to beneficial insects and soil fertility, creation of superweeds and superpests that become herbicide and pesticide resistant, possibility of new viruses and pathogens through mutation, possibility of genetic bio-invasion (where GM crops become invasive), the socio-economic hazards of wiping out traditional farming in various areas and forming dependence on GM crop seeds, and basic ethical questions. So you see there is quite a possibility of problems to arise in this biotech realm. It was also pointed out that these biotech and chemical companies like Monsanto and DuPont sell both GM seeds and the pesticides so it is a win/win sell/sell for them and buy/buy for farmers. Monsanto also created the rather dreaded rBGH growth hormone for cows that makes them produce more milk and gives them udder infections which are treated with more antibiotics. This stuff is banned in several countries and one can easily find milk here without but according to the book (2009) it was still regularly injected into about 750,000 cows. Although I agree with the idea to stop or phase out factory farming the idea of a global moratorium on all GM crops is not quite reasonable as some have proven both to be safe and to keep people from starving.

Next is a section on – The Ethanol Scam – which is fairly well-known by now. Making ethanol out of corn has proven to be short-sighted and contributed strongly to increased food prices at a time of famine. It also contributes to air pollution, increased water usage, greenhouse gas production, and water pollution. The issue became hostage to political and agricultural lobbyist pressures. Making fuel from food was never really a viable option and won’t be in the future. The author – Robert Bryce – goes into detail about more ethanol hazards to the environment and food prices. There is a possibility for biofuels to be made from waste products, often referred to as second-generation biofuels.

There is a short fact sheet about pesticide exposure – noting that these chemicals can be much more toxic to children because of body weight and less development of organs that detoxify. Apparently, organophosphate pesticide residues are found in most supermarket foods and in 95% of Americans tested. These levels are higher in children and may contribute to various disorders. Bottom line – buy and eat organic.

Two articles pinpoint sources of greenhouse gases, many attributable to agriculture and transportation of food. Buying and eating locally and avoiding or reducing meat consumption, and reducing packaging can lower one’s footprint.

Next are two articles about exploitation of farm workers. The first is called – Cheap Food – and simply states the fact that a main contributing factor to cheap food is underpaid and exploited workers. People occasionally die in the fields due to heat and lack of rest and water. Growers often use labor contractors who are less regulated and more able to exploit workers. Fatality and injury rates among farm workers are second only to coal mines. This is another reason to buy organic, fair-traded, and cruelty-free products. Since many of the farm workers are Hispanic migrants and illegal aliens they can more easily be exploited. Agriculture it seems has been excepted from important labor laws that protect workers rights, even pesticide exposure. This “agricultural exceptionalism” began in the 1930s and has hurt many of these migrant farm workers as this and the 2nd article on pesticide exposure point out. Cancer rates are way higher across the board among these workers and the causes are rather obvious. The 2nd article goes into detail about pesticide exposure cases and violations in California. Also of note is how NAFTA had an extreme negative impact on Mexican subsistence farming. Subsequently, wages decreased in Mexico and immigration to the US increased. A good case is made that government, labor, EPA, etc. have neglected these workers basically as a cost-benefit phenomenon. Basically, they are saying that these people are not worth losing money over. This is of course shameful and dishonorable. The recommendation is to unionize these workers regionally in some way so as to give them some means of enforceable rights and protections. Examples given are those of Cesar Chavez who led the United Farm Workers – and this collective bargaining incidentally led to restricting the use of several of the most dangerous pesticides (circa 1970). Besides collective bargaining another helpful action is consumer awareness. If we buy organic and locally grown food, grocery stores will continue to provide it as many have including Walmart.

2006 Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunis penned the next chapter – The Financial Crisis and World Hunger – which was very informative. A food crisis peaked in the summer of 2008 when prices peaked and availability was low. Growing high-yield grains during the Green Revolutions begun in the 1950’s and 60’s are said to have saved up to a billion lives. In more recent times he suggests that poor management of the now globalized food markets has favored affluent countries at the expense of the poor. Free trade he says has reduced government help for traditional farmers and made them dependent on foreign imports subject to market price fluctuations. These government reductions were apparently contingencies on getting loans from World Bank and IMF. Since free trade agreements like NAFTA have eliminated tariffs that protected local farmers, many of them too have been forced out of business. So much of the free trade is only semi-free trade. Ethanol subsidies have created conditions where food grown for fuel increases demand, which also increases price. Increases in raising animals for food also increases grain demand as quite a large percentage of grain is grown for livestock. As the third world grows out of poverty the demand for meat has grown. Meat consumption has more than doubled in the last 50 years in many places and this puts a strain on grain supply and price. Yunis notes that non-crop biofuels have been effective in his native country of Bangladesh. Bio-gas from manure tanks is being used there for cooking and small-scale electricity. The bottom line is that corporate control of farming is negatively affecting traditional farming. It’s an odd situation really. Food Aid agencies, mostly from developed countries, are sending billions of dollars so that their hungry people can purchase grain food, seeds, and fertilizer from agribusiness. So, much of the money that goes to feed the world goes to agribusiness firms? Yunis sees the food crisis as stemming from the financial crisis. His company, Grameen Bank, pioneered the use of microloans, or micro-credit – ie. small loans to poor people, mainly women, without collateral and without lawyers. He suggests this type of lending for small farmers in these places. He sees micro-credit as a viable option for the poor and the hungry. It has worked very well in Bangladesh with nearly 99% of the loans paid back in full. He suggests funding for micro-credit. He also suggests that the financial crisis is an opportunity to redesign our economic systems. He also suggests a Social Business Fund for poor countries where social well-being is targeted with expansion of micro-credit, agricultural credit, health care, and other agricultural infrastructure. He touts second-generation biofuels made from waste materials and non-food crops as useful in poor countries. The fates of humans are all tied together he notes:

“The current multiple crises now troubling the world offer us all a valuable lesson in the interconnectedness of the human family ..... and while short-term trends may appear to benefit a few of us at the expense of many others, in the long run, only policies that will allow all the peoples of the world to share their progress are truly sustainable”

Certainly traditional farming has been strongly and negatively impacted in many cases as a result of the various free trade agreements. Apparently in Honduras it was reported that there were 25,000 rice farmers at the end of the 1980s but fewer than 1300 today due to availability of cheaper imports. Similar things have happened in other import-dependent countries such as Haiti. It seems more reasonable to make imports available for times of emergency but to keep government support of traditional farming so that food staples can be produced locally and sustainably if possible. Since it is mostly the small farmers that have been hurt by the opening of trade – it seems logically to aid them in the agrarian reform the is presumed to be needed.

Michael Pollan’s article – Why Bother – points out that it is often the little things we do to support green energy, the environment, healthy organic natural eating, etc. that do matter in the long run. We do not need to do this as part of some ideology but as intuitive common sense as to what is most wholesome. We may not always be the most right but if our intentions are good and we keep well informed we can perhaps make a difference. Collectively, consumer choice is a vast resource of support. Unfortunately, many people won’t make those choices because they make an incorrect assumption that they are in effect supporting an ideology. These are mostly my takes rather than Pollan’s. He suggests that cheap fossil fuels keep us from being compelled to be more thrifty, reduce waste, and develop more sustainable solutions to problems. Cheap energy thinking will eventually go away as fossil fuels deplete unless renewables take their place en masse  and with more and more efficiency. He suggests, as does the next article, to grow some of your own food and/or participate in a community garden. The benefits can be varied and many although if one is too busy or lazy to do it right, the efficiency and cost-effectiveness may not be the best. I know this from experience. Another article touts declaring one’s independence from factory farm produced food by getting to know where one’s food comes from, even to the point of visiting the farms. Buying local, buying in season, and taking the time to cook often are other suggestions. This article is followed by one that presents questions to farmers to determine if their operation is sustainable – such as how the animals are treated, how much and when antibiotics are used, and hormone and pesticide usage.

Eating Made Simple – is an article by professor of nutrition Marion Nestle who wrote the book – What To Eat -  that encourages digging into food labels instead of mere advertising slogans. Often things are touted as healthy by the addition of one or two ingredients in a sea of excess. I see this often in co-workers who somehow think they are eating healthy based on surface info. She notes that too many ads focus on single nutrients rather than the whole meal or component. She notes various debated effects of various nutrients such as whether fish oil does prevent or subdue heart disease. She notes the rather clear link with sodas and obesity (and diabetes as well I might add) though she does note that sugary sodas simply make an easy way to ingest a large amount of calories quickly as to why they promote obesity.

Next is an article by a worker for an org called Heifer International that helps poor rural people in third world countries by providing them with training and livestock animals to keep them out of abject poverty. Suggestions are provided for donating to hunger and food aid orgs.

There are a couple articles about improving nutrition for children and preventing and dealing with childhood obesity. These are rather obvious ideas such as making healthy food available and making unhealthy food and the sometimes ubiquitous snack foods less available – particularly in schools and school lunches. Limiting advertising unhealthy foods and snacks to children is also recommended.

The last article – Produce to the People – is by a doctor who started a farmers market at the large hospital complex where he works and how this idea spread to other hospitals and businesses. One means of connecting with healthy eating habits is by learning about them through attending healthy food markets, shopping around, and exposing oneself to what is out there beyond the processed food aisles in what should be obsolete cheap but unhealthy food markets. Americans seem to have somehow gotten the idea that healthy food does not taste good and so we have developed preferences for food with high sugar, salt, and calorie contents – through habit and through cheap availability of foods of this sort.

Finally a list of books, orgs, and websites is given to offer “further insight into America’s food system and its future.”

I finally did see a trailer for this movie and it looks pretty good. This is a very pertinent book with ideas of which people should be more aware.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Magic, Mysticism & The Molecule: The Search For Sentient Intelligence From Other Worlds

Book Review: Magic, Mysticism & The Molecule: The Search for Sentient Intelligence from Other Worlds by Micah A. Hanks (2010 Gralien Report)

Here is a fair to good book by a young author. It is mostly a speculative exploration of these subjects which is fairly inclusive and quite interesting in parts. He proceeds more from the perspective of an outsider than an insider, but not totally so. He comes across as an investigator of the paranormal more than a spiritual practitioner although his summary of mysticism is quite interesting. The subject of the book is really the human experience of the supernatural and altered states of consciousness. Drugs, magic, mysticism, alien abductions, dreams, near-death experiences, and out-of-body experiences are all covered.

The section on magic emphasizes the aspect of magic that seeks communication and interaction with beyond-human intelligences. He focuses on the work of the famed medieval mages Dr. John Dee and Edward Kelley who practiced scrying with mirrors and reflective stones and claimed to have contacted angelic intelligences in what has come to be called Enochian magic. This style and lore has become a significant part of the overall Western Esoteric tradition since then as others have claimed to have experienced visions with this system. Dee utilized a crystal ball-like stone but also apparently an obsidian artifact that Cortez had brought back from the Aztecs. Kelley was the medium and Dee transcribed what has come to be called the Enochian language. Some of the transmissions were said to come from a child-like angel called Madimi that Dee first encountered. Also examined are the mystical out-of-body travels and communications of the Swedish mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg and of the physician William S. Sadler who beginning in 1911 worked with a group where trance-communications resulted in what we now know as – the Urantia Book – which as the author notes seemed to bridge the contact between ideas of angelic communication and alien contact. (“I thought that they were angels but to my surprise we climbed aboard their starship and headed for the skies. Come Sail Away...” - Styx from the 1978 Grand Illusion album). Also examined are Aleister Crowley’s attempts at magickal contact that he called the Amalantrah Working where an ‘entity’ known as ‘Lam’ was encountered. Crowley was able to draw a picture of the entity – a portrait as he called it. Interestingly this drawing, made in 1918 has come to look much like aliens have been depicted by contactees and abductees – looking very similar to depictions of  the “Grays” as they have come to be known. A protege of Crowley, Kenneth Grant further developed the search for praeter-human intelligence into a priority of sorts and refered to the ‘Cult of Lam’ where Lam is considered to be a gateway to deeper levels of consciousness. The author then notes the somewhat similar attempts – through the same Thelemic magickal tradition – of Jack Parsons and sci-fi writer (and founder of Scientology) L. Ron Hubbard who attempted to evoke the goddess-form of Babalon into a human incarnation form. Even though Parsons was involved in rocket science and research and Hubbard was interested in sci-fi and as the author points out – that the birth of the UFO movement came about right at this time (1947) – I don’t see this as so much a means to contact an alien intelligence as was the Amalantrah Working. Parsons wanted more to usher in a time and situation where suppression of women and sexuality and all the attendant suffering that goes with it would be lessened and opportunities for ecstatic magickal practice and subsequent positive transformation of society would ensue. The author covers a few more contactee experiences before moving on to the next topic.

The ancient Greek Oracle of the Dead at Thesprotia was mentioned by Herodotus, Homer, and later by Strabo. A place fitting the description was excavated this century and is thought to be a subterranean place where people went to visit the spirits of the dead seeking oracular wisdom. The author describes this through the work of Raymond Moody – who is known for his work with near-death experiences and communication with the dead. He mentions attending a conference put on by Moody with other occult notables in attendance. The notion of the Oracles at Delphi where the oracle-priestess known as the “Pythia” was lowered into a cavern to retrieve the oracle (possibly being influenced by hallucinogenic gases) was one method. Here the place seemed to be associated with seeing and hearing the dead. At Thesprotia there was found to be a large bronze cauldron surrounded by a banister deep in the underground complex. Although Dakaris, who excavated the site, thought that an oracle was inside the cauldron occasionally springing up to spout predictions, Moody studied the ancient traditions a bit and came to the conclusion that the cauldron was probably filled with liquid and used as a reflective surface for scrying. He devised such a device with mirrors and dim lighting arranged in such a way that the person gazing does not see their own reflection but depth. He based this on legends of the ‘psychomanteum,’ a mirrored room meant to enhance communication with spirits. Moody had been searching for such a device as a way to help people communicate with dead relatives seeking healing and closure. Apparently he refers to his method as “Psychomanteum Grief Counseling.” The author then goes on to recount some experiments with the psychomanteum setup that were organized by his friend Josh Warner. In these scrying experiments they also utilized what is known as the “Ganzfeld technique”, where ping pong balls cut in half are placed over the eyes (sometimes in addition to headphones) in order to increase sensory deprivation. This is said to assist one inducing a theta brain wave state – often associated with deep meditation. Apparently though, there were other variables between sessions, one which  involved the use of a Van de Graff generator – which sends out electrical charges.
The author then proceeds to compare these experiments with those of Dr Rick Strassman in his book, “DMT: The Spirit Molecule,” which describes experiments where people were given the hallucinogen DMT (dimethyltryptamine), a naturally occurring substance possibly produced in the pineal gland in the brain. These experiments yielded interesting results where similar types of hallucinations were experienced. These included clowns, cactus people, and insectoidal beings – often experimenting on the person in a clinical setting and are thought to strongly resemble accounts of alien abduction. Strassman and the author both speculate about naturally occurring DMT release being a source of mystical experience – though this makes a huge assumption that mystical experiences are sourced in neuro-chemical phenomena.

Another chapter notes history and spiritualist-type experiments with Ouija Boards, Seance, and Automatic Writing. These are thought to contribute to experiencing a dissociative state or a trance state where normal cognition is absent for a time. Certainly unusual things have happened with these techniques and can likely be attributed to the state of receptivity of those who experience them.

Next the author attempts a quick history of the development of Mysticism – from ancient Greece through the now familiar Eastern forms through to some more modern and holistic accounts. He takes much from scholar (and Golden Dawn member) Evelyn Underhill from her famous book about Mysticism. She defined mysticism as union with the Absolute (which suggests a theistic approach) but similar definitions reach back to Plato and Pythagoras who talked about “Henosis” and union with the Monad as the Monad or the number one was regarded as the first cause, the origin. Next he goes through the structure of Buddhism as a foundation for mystical experiences although he does note the exhortation in Buddhist texts not to put too much faith and meaning in one’s paranormal experiences. He goes through Underhill’s five stages of awakening one’s consciousness to – Divine Reality: First is the – Ecstatic Discovery – often accompanied by sensuality and intense emotions; Second is the stage she called – Purgation – where one realiized one’s limitations in comparison to the limitlessness of the Infinite. When one sees the illusoriness clearly the response is typically in increase in self-discipline and effort; Third is the stage called – Illumination – characterized by “a certain apprehension of the Absolute, a sense of the Divine presence, but not true union with it,” according to Underhill; Fourth is the – Mystic Pain or Mystic Death – which seems to describe the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ idea attributed to St. John of the Cross. The author also mentions Mother Theresa who stated that she once felt the presence of God but during much of the latter half of her life she did not sense it and so had to do her good works with a lurking sense of uncertainty. I remember her talking about this not long before she died. The fifth and final stage is the actual - Union with the Divine – which Underhill says can and has been confused with the third stage of – Illumination – which is more associated with ecstatic experiences. The author also interviews the writer of the book – Inner Paths to Outer Space – medical oncologist Slawek Wojtowicz. When asked for sadefinition of mysticism Wojtowicz gave some interesting dialogue – that the goal of mysticism is to discover the ‘Truth’ and that it can’t be communicated, only experienced. He also talks about the metaphysical terror of experiencing the ultimate loneliness as being a type or a temporary perception of mystical experience.

So-called ‘methods of entry’ are next discussed. Meditation is covered as well as its occasional by-products such as ESP. He mentions various accounts of expanded consciousness and expanded senses (ie seeing and hearing for miles). He talks about Hindu Swami Prabhupad’s book – Easy Journey to Other Planets – where yogic methods such as blocking the escape routes of prana through the orifices with breath retention and other methods – can aid out-of-body travel. This type of travel to other planets and deva realms is also mentioned in the Vedas. Also discussed are yoga as mysticism and the notion of ‘tulpas’ or thoughtforms that can possibly be perceived by others as physical entities if they are generated with sufficient energy and skill. Regarding thoughtforms he mentions the 1901 book by Theosophist authors Annie Besant and Charles Leadbetter which I read as a teen and remember rather fondly. They described two effects of thoughts as “radiating vibration” and “floating forms.” They noted the effects of emotions on thoughts and the ensuing thoughtforms. These thoughtforms have also been used as a means of explaining ghosts and paranormal activity and possibly UFO phenomena as well. Jung’s idea of the ‘active imagination’ is invoked to explain our various interactions with thoughtforms. He contrasts Jung’s idea of randomly generated thoughtforms of the subconscious with the intentionally created thoughtforms of spiritualists. Jung tied thoughtforms to his idea of universal forms, or Archetypes. Jung also considered the early UFO phenomena to be psychological in nature, with much of what was seen being mental projections. Also described is a historical occurrence of a mystical Hebrew Kabbalistic technique for creating a thoughtform in the story of the – Golem of Prague – where the golem, or thoughtform was created as a clay figure that was to magically manifest and help fight off anti-Semetic blood libels occurring at the time (1500s) in Eastern Europe. The technique was meditative in nature and involved use of the reputed magical powers of the Hebrew letters. Sleep paralysis experiences are also discussed in this section where perceived ‘entities,’ whether mentally projected or real, are experienced. He also compares some cultural definitions of mental illness and shamanic vision – where they are not said to be similar – as among Eskimos and African Yoruba. Dr. Ronald Siegel’s studies of hallucinations are also mentioned – particularly hallucinations provoked by trauma and life-threatening stress. Prisoners of war, rape victims, survivors of near-fatal accidents, victims of robbery, and even UFO abductees have all experienced such hallucinations. Among the phenomena experienced in Siegel’s study of eight victims were: “flashes of light, geometrical patterns and shapes, and tunnel forms.” Tactile-kinesthetic hallucinations and encountering past memories and friends from childhood were also encountered. One gang member while being tortured experienced out-of-body experiences.

The title of the book uses Evelyn Underhill’s two methods of engaging the unseen: magic and mysticism. Hanks adds a third – the Molecule. Here he refers to the entheogen, also known as the ‘god-releasing’ molecule. He gives a history of man’s long and varied engagement with psychedelic drugs in the quest for meaning and knowledge. Of note are the notions, especially among South American shamans, of the plants themselves being inhabited by an entity that shares the magic of the plant. An interesting idea brought up is that of ‘biological communication’ among plants with not only other plants, animals, and humans but with beings from distant galaxies – receiving them as signals from space. The author notes some experiments where this is one explanation of the results. He notes the possibility that:

“... some kind of intelligent spirit communication may occur between plants, active psychedelic molecules, and humanity.”

Hanks notes some interesting dreams he had that could possibly be interpreted as communications from so called ‘psychedelic molecules.’ He also notes the account of Albert Hoffman who accidentally discovered the effects of LSD-25 which he considered a rather useless derivative of ergot. Five years after first synthesizing it Hoffman intuitively had the idea to make it again and submit it for testing. It was during the final phases that he accidentally absorbed some through his fingertips and experienced the hallucinogenic effects.

Hanks also notes the rather uncanny similarities between alien abduction scenarios and DMT trips. The DMT accounts are said to be frighteningly real. The interesting thing about DMT as a pychedelic molecule is that it is already present in our bodies. It is also the simplest of all these molecules. Dr. Strassman seems to think the DMT molecule has an agenda and message for us, either individually or perhaps collectively. Mantis-like beings, elves, and reptilian beings are often described in DMT accounts. These strange appearances and parallels have led some to think that perhaps alien, or praeter-human intelligences, are communicating these images to us for some particular reason. Mantis-like aliens occur quite a bit in alien encounter accounts. Whether these experiences and entities derive from outer space or inner space is not really known. The idea that they are somehow archetypal or subconscious idea-forms is also a possibility explored.

The last main chapter on High-Tech shamanism describes the ideas of Tesla – who thought that his electrical generators could perhaps communicate with other worlds. Tesla envisioned a ‘Teslascope’ to communicate afar – somewhat similar to the SETI idea. Tesla’s work with intense electrical fields may have presaged the possible psychic effects these fields could have on humans under certain circumstances. Also examined are the intuitive sci-fi notions of the famed horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft connected electrical fields and the pineal gland with inter-dimensional communications in his book – From Beyond -. These connections may have some relation as Dr. Rick Strassman speculates when interviewed by the author. Michael Persinger’s experiments with electro-magnetic energy applied to parts of the brain are also examined with the resultant experiences of ‘presences’ of entities. He notes that stimulating the cortex can evoke ‘infantile memories’. Also mentioned is a book by Alvin Lawson called- Birth Trauma Hypothesis – which purports that alien abduction scenarios may tap into birth memories.

Overall, this book brought up quite a bit of interesting research, accounts, and various ways of looking at paranormal and mystical phenomena. It was perhaps not overly thorough and not much in the way of conclusions or new ideas were brought up, but for an overview of the state of things – it was OK.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Chod Practice in the Bon Tradition: Tracing the Origins of Chod in the Bon Tradition

Book Review: Chod Practice in the Bon Tradition: Tracing the Origins of Chod in the Bon Tradition, a dialogic approach cutting through sectarian boundaries by Alejandro Chaoul  (Snow Lion Publications 2009)

The haunting yet beautiful melodies of chod practice being chanted with bells, damaru drum, and thigh bone trumpet can be compelling to hear. There are many different specific lineages and sadhanas of chod in the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism and Bon. The word ‘chod’ means- ‘to cut off’ - and specifically refers to severing one’s ego and cutting through all delusion to access a state of unconditioned wisdom. The practice typically involves the calling of enlightened beings, gods, spirits, and demons and visualizing offering to them one’s body cut up into pieces and also cooked into a soup.

In a forward Yongdzin Lopon Tenzin Namdak compares Buddhist and Bon versions of Chod:

“The Chod practice according to the Buddhist tradition is said to be originally based on the Prajnaparamita while that of the Tibetan Bon rests upon Tantric practices. However, in both traditions the Chod practice is performed in a manner which has more in common with Tantra than Sutra, and in both traditions it is known as a very effective and powerful practice bringing the practitioner a strong experience of profound generosity as well as liberation from self-grasping, the root of Samsara. It is, then, a forceful tool for developing one’s practice and as such, makes up one of the Four Generosities of the Bon tradition which are practiced on a daily basis.”

According to a forward by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche:

“The core purpose of chod is to turn fear into a path of liberation. The practitioner actively seeks out fearful experiences, using fear as an opportunity to visualize cutting apart one’s own physical body, symbolizing the cutting of the ego, and thus cultivating wisdom. The practitioner further visualizes transforming the body into an offering that satisfies all beings, thus cultivating generosity and detachment.”

Chod is meant to be practiced in frightening places such as cemeteries and charnel grounds and preferably after dark. Other good places to practice it are in places where spirits are said to dwell such as crossroads and where streams meet or in remote woods, mountaintops, or caves. One needs first to summon one’s own fears before they can be cut through. I have even heard it referred to as ‘cemetery yoga.’ The author notes the words of the famed teacher Namkai Norbu Rinpoche:

“By summoning up what is most dreaded, and openly offering what we usually most want to protect, the chod works to cut us out of the double blind of the ego and attachment to the body.”

First one is encouraged to master the practice in a peaceful environment then go out to a frightening place to practice. The Tibetan lamas I have witnessed doing the practice were very good at it – not so easy as the drum and bell can be difficult to play especially with speed changes and the chant melodies are challenging as well. Playing the chod drum requires a subtle mastery of wrist action and gets difficult after five or ten minutes as the wrist gets sore. So mastery takes frequent long playing. The bell in Bon, called the silnyen (or shang) is different than the ghanta bell used in Tibetan Buddhism. The striker is made of wood and the broad and mostly flat bell is played upside down. The thighbone trumpet is used to call the spirits and the drum and bell to realize the union of emptiness and appearance. The four classes of guests are summoned: the enlightened beings, the protectors, those in need of compassion, and those to whom one owes karmic debts.
The practitioner practices powa, the ejection of consciousness, through the top of the head as a goddess – usually Troma – the black Vajrayogini, but sometimes as the red dakini Kalpa Zangmo in the Bon tradition. The goddess then chops up the body and places the pieces in the skull as the cauldron for the soup. The chopping and offering is similar to the Tibetan sky burial excarnation offerings to vultures. One cannot help also noticing the chopping up of the body being similar to the shamanic motif of the visionary experience of being dismembered which is common as a visionary shamanic initiation experience. Machik Lapdron, the woman who is said to have founded the chod lineages in Tibet came from a family background of both Buddhism and Bon shamanism. Shamanism in the Bon tradition is said to be of the external vehicle, or the causal vehicle which is less refined than the tantric vehicle which chod falls under. Shamanic dismemberment forms a model for the rite and is not experienced as one might in a visionary sense but rather is visualized as a means of compassion for those benefiting from the offering. The use of the drum and other instruments is also common to shamanic trance induction as is ecstatic dancing which is also employed in Bon chod. Interestingly, Machik Lapdron is not given in the Bon chod lineages so this opens the possibility of alternative origins for the practice. Milu Samlek, a legendary Bon practitioner who wrote commentaries on the Bon Mother Tantras is associated with the Bon Chod practice. The author criticizes Jerome Edou’s book – “Machig Labron and the Foundations of Chod” – where it is stated with authority that Machig created the chod rite based on the Prajnaparamita Sutra teachings and on Padampa Sangye’s method of – Pacification of Suffering. Certainly there is a relationship between Prajnaparamita and Chod (as Machik was also said to be a master of the Prajnaparamita) as the paramita of generosity is emphasized in Chod to arrive at realization of the paramita of discerning wisdom. In the Bon tradition there are chod lineages based on all four of the (Tantric) Activities of Enlightened Beings: pacifying, enriching, overpowering, and subduing. Edou’s book, which I read years ago,  de-emphasized the shamanic influence on the practice, and mentioned the offering of the body to be more inspired by the offerings of oneself to starving beings given in the Jataka Tales of the past lives of Buddha. Also of interest is Gyatso’s note of very ancient Tibetan lore of ascension up the ‘mu’ ladder and sky door which she thinks is reminiscent of Powa – although it may be more of an astronomical ascension cult idea similar to similar ideas in ancient Persia and surrounding areas.

According to the author, in Tibet there are wandering chod practitioners (chodpas) often on pilgrimages who sometimes perform the practice for others for healing and to bring good fortune and pacification of spirits. He mentions that it can be like a form of street art where small amounts of money are offered to the traveling chodpas. Apparently, it is also thought that some of these practitioners are more performers for money who have learned the technical parts of the practice in order to earn a little extra money and so are in essence imposters with ulterior motives. According to the author, chod is not a mainstream practice and is especially not common among monastics.

The pre-Buddhist shamanic traditions in Tibet were both at odds with the early arrival of Buddhist practices from India and at the same time merged with those practices. According to Bon tradition, in contrast to Tibetan Buddhism, India was not the source of the teachings but the ancient Tibetan Kingdom of Zhang Zhung and earlier from places further west such as ancient Khotan and Tajikistan, part of both Persian and Turkic empires in different times. Of course it is also possibly that other Buddhist oriented kingdoms in central Asia could have influenced Bon as well. The author notes that whether practices are considered shamanic or institutionalized Buddhism in Tibet they both share the ideal of the mahayana form of compassion for all beings as well as the goal of spiritual enlightenment. The author also makes the comparison of chod as a tantric practice and shamanism, noting that tantra and shamanism share several similarities, one being means of communication and interaction with the unseen realms. Such connections are associated with healing in both shamanic traditions and in chod. Chodpas are more like wandering yogis, generally unconventional, and can be at odds with monastics in style. Since the wandering yogis practice non-attachment this can be a point of similarity to a strictly monastic Buddhist who would also idealize renunciation, but in a different way. Bon is generally more inclusive of shamanic practices than Buddhism and so one can find them more represented in Bon.

The author notes several studies and articles mentioning chod among academics such as Snellgrove, Per Kvaerne, and Geoffrey Samuels and academic-practitioners such as Edou, Janet Gyatso, Sarah Harding, Tsultrim Allione, and John Reynolds. Reynolds noted the idea among Bonpos as “Bon”, with a meaning similar to “Dharma” being a Primordial tradition, never considered to be sectarian and exclusive to any cultural situation. In this sense – spiritual traditions can be considered more inclusive of one another with much more overlap than is typically noted. Though Bon and Buddhism had been at odds at several junctions in the past – one may also suspect that less politically motivated practitioners (Vairchana, the 8th century translator is given as an example) would have seen no major contradictions between the two traditions. Also of interest is the possibility as Reynolds suggested that the word “bon” comes from an Iranian/Sogdian word “bwn” meaning dharma. This reinforces origin from pan-central Asia – such as Tajikistan. In essence the Bon tradition also encompasses the early Bon which is seen as the basic folk tradition of the region which includes shamanism in forms much like extant traditions in Siberia.

In Bon, chod can be traced back to the Mother Tantras, particularly to the Secret Mother Tantras. In Bon and Buddhist Tantric traditions there is often a classification of Outer, Inner, and Secret to denote both degree of accessibility and degree of refinement. The Mother Tantras are said to emphasize the so-called Completion Stage practices – where visualizations are merged with emptiness by being dissolved. The Father Tantras apparently emphasize Generation Stage practices where visualizations are developed, particularly visualizing oneself as the deity. The Secret Mother Tantras are said to emanate ultimately from the primordial Buddha Kuntuzangpo. This Buddha of the dharmakaya (truth body essence realm - also called bon ku in the Bon tradition) is also the primordial Buddha of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. A more recent Bon school called New Bon is an amalgamation of Bon and Nyingma.

The author goes through the origins, lore, and terma traditions regarding the Bon Mother Tantras as well as some of the Chod practices deriving from them. He provides an overview of a section of the tantras called – ‘Commentary of the Fearful Place within the Sun of Compassion of the Mother Tantra.’ Here there is mention of the six means of expediency as well as the six powers, or enlightened senses: life, knowledge, cutting, understanding, awareness, and clarity. Cutting is the one emphasized in chod where one cuts through the delusion of ignorance. One goes to frightening places in order to directly experience the illusory nature of phenomena. As in many tantric texts the methodology and underlying theory is explained in great detail. The author notes that in modern Bon this section provides much of the theory for Chod. He notes that although there are several Chod Sadhanas, a short one composed by the venerated Shardza Rinpoche in the 19th century is probably the most popular. This one is called – ‘The Laughter of the Skygoers.’ Here the red dakini Kalpa Zangmo is visualized as oneself cutting, cooking, and offering the feasts. The author gives a composite translation of this sadhana in an appendix.

The author also gives the function of the instruments: the drum, the bell, and the thighbone trumpet. He also gives some lore regarding them and mentions that using bone and skulls as part of the instruments can enhance the frightening aspect.

As a few endnotes the author notes other things worthy of investigation such as the female nature of source and awareness in these traditions. Here he quotes Harding referring to mahamudra and dzogchen:

“Here the mother refers to the primordial ground of being, the abiding nature of luminous awareness.”

This quote is quite similar to a quote in the chod sadhana given in the book.

The comparison between chod and sky burial is another possible investigation where it may be that these practices influenced one another.

Philosophically, chod is concerned with cutting the source of demons which is said to be the demon of self-grasping:

“It is the king of demons, and it has four ministers: the believer in self-existence, the thinker of suffering of birth, the thinker of suffering of sickness, and the thinker of suffering of old age and death. Reflections of these come as visible demons that harm oneself and others.”

This book is an important study of a subject about which not much has been written from an academic standpoint. Since the author is a long-time practitioner of Bon and its chod he gives it a good whirl with much sincerity.