Wednesday, April 30, 2014

New World Mindfulness: From the Founding Fathers, Emerson, and Thoreau to Your Personal Practice

Book Review: New World Mindfulness: From the Founding Fathers, Emerson, and Thoreau to Your Personal Practice by Donald McCown and Marc S. Micozzi, M.D.
Ph D. (Healing Arts Press 2012)

This book impressed me. It contains a history of the influence of Eastern thought in America and a history of the development of mindfulness practice here from the American Transcendentalists to psychologist William James to the Eastern mysticism wave of the 60’s to the applications of mindfulness practice in mental health and stress reduction strategies. It also contains some useful instructions for exploring mindfulness either as a traditional quest for enlightenment or in terms of integral health. Emerson, Thoreau, James, Alan Watts, and Jon Kabat-Zinn are the “heroes” of this book. It chronicles an American tradition (of sorts) of mindfulness practice. The transcendentalists were, of course, influenced by their study of Eastern traditions but they also reveled in the mindful experience of nature and sought to understand their own experiences in a deeply contemplative way.

In the nineteenth century the Transcendentalists with their journal, Dial, featured translations of Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, and Sufi texts. Various utopian communities of the time were also influenced by Eastern thought. Emerson and Thoreau contemplated nature and tied their real life experiences to some of the tenets of Eastern thought. The authors speak of a “perennial American pragmatism” that imbues these contemplatives. William James was strongly influenced by Emerson, who he knew in childhood as he was a friend of his father, Henry James. James is known as the “father of psychology” and indeed psychologists and psychoanalysts made up much of the students of Eastern mysticism from the late nineteenth century onward. In the late nineteenth century Buddhism aroused interest as Sir Edwin Arnold, Madame Blavatsky, Colonel Henry Olcott and the Theosophical society, Theravadin monk Anagarika Dharmapala, and Zen Master Soyen Shaku appeared as conveyors and enthusiasts of the traditions. The Parliament of World Religions in 1893 was all the buzz. Shaku’s student and translator, D.T. Suzuki would later become a chief interpreter of Zen for the West. The authors note that the appeal of Buddhism at the time was belief–oriented rather than practice-oriented, as a way to replace the unsatisfactoriness some felt about Christianity – so they tended to just replace one for the other in the same style. Along with this there were also old (nineteenth century) and newer ethnic immigrant Buddhists in America.

After WWII there was D.T. Suzuki and the Japanese psychotherapist Shoma Morita, whose Morita therapy stressed turning toward symptoms rater than attacking them. This was/is highly affective for anxiety disorders. Suzuki influenced Trappist monk Thomas Merton, psychoanalyst Eric Fromm, and composer John Cage. Merton’s monastery in Kentucky collaborates with nearby Zen monasteries to this day. He also influenced Alan Watts who wrote many books on Zen and other forms of spiritual practice. Other illustrious contemporaries had things to say about mindfulness. J. Krishnamurti called it “choiceless awareness” while G.I. Gurdjieff called it “constant self-remembering.” Elsa Gindler, afflicted with TB, devised and taught a practice known as Sensory Awareness. Her student Charlotte Selver taught alongside Watts and other Zen teachers such as Sunryu Suzuki. Watts wrote some good books explaining the elegant simplicity of Zen practice. He influenced the Beat poets of the 50’s and 60’s such as Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouak, and Allan Ginsburg, thus inaugurating a “Zen boom.” The Beat poets loosened Zen up and made it hip and so a younger audience came to it in a more independent self-styled manner. Such an approach would intensify in the psychedelic revolution of the 60’s. Zen Centers sprung up in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Rochester, New York. Various Hindu teachers, Tibetan lamas such as Chogyam Trungpa and Tarthang Tulku started centers and gathered students as well. Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield studied in the Theravadin tradition and began the less traditional, more secular, Insight Meditation school. Phillip Kapleau’s successor at Rochester Zen Center, Toni Packer, sought to strip most or all of the cultural influences out of her mindfulness approach. By the 1970’s Eastern spiritual traditions gained a foothold in American culture.

The authors note that several Eastern practices such as Hatha Yoga and mindfulness meditation have become quite secularized. Hospitals and schools now feature such classes. They also note that since 1980 the evidence has mounted for the mental health benefits of mindulness meditation and there have been many studies done. In 1979 Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist at Massachusetts Medical Center, developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) which has proved successful for experiencers of chronic pain, anxiety, panic attacks, and PTSD. The authors describe the typical MBSR regimen in the 8-week course. The four basic mindfulness practices taught are: body scan, sitting meditation, hatha yoga, and walking meditation. These are interspersed with lectures on mindfulness, stress physiology, interpersonal communication, as well as group dialogues. Other therapies have spun off from MBSR such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) directed toward depression and mental health. The authors present the results of various studies to show the efficacy of mindfulness as medicine.

As Emerson and Thoreau’s contemplations of their natural surroundings demonstrate, any situation can be an opportunity for mindfulness. Mindfulness is not simply noticing what is happening around you but also within you and the integration of it all which the authors refer to as the complex of body-mind-world.

In the Buddhist tradition there are the “three marks of existence,” which apply to everything in our ordinary experience. These are impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self. Buddha taught the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. These refer to what we should put our attention on in order to become mindful of reality. These are: mindfulness of the body, of feelings, of mind, and of mental objects. Mindulness of breathing is said to activate all four foundations of mindfulness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn gives the following definitions of mindfulness geared toward contemporary practice:

“Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

“Mindfulness meditation is a consciousness discipline revolving around a particular way of paying attention in one’s life. It can be most simply described as the intentional cultivation of nonjudgmental moment-to-moment awareness.”

The three key elements are intentionality, present-centeredness, and absence of judgment. This is also called “bare attention.”  From Zinn come the Three Axioms of Mindfulness: intention, attention, and attitude, engaged simultaneously. Scientific studies of meditation have delineated mechanisms such as 1) de-automatization of “psychological structures that organize, limit, select and interpret perceptual stimuli; 2) increased field independence (defined by an increased ability to notice hidden things); and 3) dehabituation to stimuli – which meditators may refer to as constant refreshing of the present.

A distinction is made between awareness (the continuous flow of data from the senses) and attention. Emerson noted that awareness “will not be dissected, or unraveled,” yet will be “gladly loved and enjoyed.”

Teachers at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School came up with a scheme called the Triangle of Awareness. The three dimensions of this triangle are given as body sensation, thought, and emotion. These are often what appear during meditation and so we notice them through our practice. Emerson notes: “Every moment is new; the past is always swallowed up and forgotten; the coming only is sacred; Nothing is secure but life, transition, the enterprising spirit.” William James, in his theory of human emotions, sees emotions as arising from body sensations.

The authors discuss mindfulness of body through orientation. Both gravity and the breath can be ways to orient. The breath defines in and out, up and down. Gravity also defines up and down. Gravity helps us feel ourselves in space through proprioception. Mindfulness of breathing helps us orient from the inside of the body through interoception. There is a whole chapter about gravity and three chapters about the breath.

I enjoyed the chapter and contemplation on gravity. “Gravity” refers to the pull of the earth upon us – this is the gravitation we feel - rather than “gravitation” which refers to the effects of any mass on any other mass. Gravity is our constant companion. It affects our physiology and evolution in various ways. We must work with gravity to balance our  bodies all the time. We can sense gravity in our meditations. Although the authors don’t mention it – we can also sense atmospheric pressure. Sensing gravity is part of our “sense” of balance. Balancing has to do with adjusting in different directions – up, down, right, left, forward, backward. Body metaphors, some embedded in our language, are explored. Words like “grounded”, “centered”, and metaphorical “up” and “down” are examples. Also examined are physiological and psychological aspects of gravity, mostly in terms of the study of sensation and perception. Our sense of balance is thought to be influenced by three systems (equilibrial triad): the vestibular system (a sort of gravity and motion regulating system operated out of the inner ear through movements of gel in sacs and subsequent  adjustments- space (x,y,z- roll, pitch, and yaw), the visual system, and the somatosensory system. With the visual system, we orient ourselves perpendicular to the (perceived) horizon. Some people are more or less reliant on the visual system than others. The somatosensory system includes proprioception, kinesthesia (knowledge of the body’s position in space and of its movement, respectively), touch (knowledge of contact, temperature, and pain), and interoception (knowledge of sensation inside the body). The body may have various “gravi-ceptors” within, such as the kidneys. In any case, we seem to have an inner sense of gravity to which we constantly adapt. Gravity helps define the vertical and the position of our body parts, such as limbs, in space. The vestibular-ocular reflex makes its possible to read a book on a train as it adjusts the eyeballs in their sockets as the head moves. As I read most of this book while walking on a treadmill and an elliptical I can appreciate that! Even babies respond to gravity. One way is through the tonic labyrinthine reflex where as a child is head-up horizontal, the limbs can be free to move. If the head is down the baby will assume a fetal position (as do astronauts in zero-gravity). The reflex leads to the development of muscle tone to move our head, neck, back, arms, legs, and shoulders. This process is induced by the effect of gravity on our otolith organs. Such analysis shows that gravity helps to define us and our very abilities as humans. We creatures of earth are quite intimately connected and inseparable from earth. She holds us and defines the mechanisms and limits of our bodily movements. 

The authors explore breath through a few paradoxical oppositions: inside/outside, intentional/automatic, and revealing/regulating.  We breathe in. We breathe out. There is the breath within and the air/wind that surrounds us. Thoreau died of TB as many others in the Romantic age did. It was a wasting disease where breathing was troubled. Utilizing gravity to aid breathing both relieved symptoms and encouraged mindfulness. The ancient Vedic sages contemplated wind and breath as Vayu and recounted hymns of both as medicine. In traditional holistic medicine (Greek, Indian, Chinese) – Air/Wind/Breath is a key to health and sickness. Metaphorically, the “winds of change” associate air with change into new circumstances. Prana, lung, chi, pneuma, and many other terms loosely translated as life-force, are the inner winds, which if properly harnessed, can influence physical, mental, and spiritual health. Another metaphor they use is Passing Time/Present Moment – referring to the motion of wind and breath as the everchanging present. One can simply acknowledge the present moment and observe it quite quickly if one becomes accustomed to doing that. We also use time to define space – as in how long it takes to get somewhere. The breath is a cycle and can be timed as such in various ways.

The breath can be both automatic and intentional in varying proportions. In mindfulness meditation we intentionally focus on the breath but also rest and allow it to be automatic as much as possible. The diaphragm may be similar to eyelids in the ability to be both intentional and automatic. Breathing also maintains an exchange of gases – oxygen in, CO2 out. Oxygen is what we use but buildup of CO2 signals us to breathe. Other metaphors tying into Automatic/Intentional the authors give are Universal/Unique and Willing/Willful – or yes/no. Each of us is both universal and unique and in terms of life we shift constantly back and forth from willing to willful. William James asks, “Will I or won’t I have it so?” Another metaphor couplet they give is Continuity/Disruption where it is noted that breathing is continuous but it is regularly disrupted first by the need to shift from in to out and back but also by changes in rate of breathing due to reactions to thoughts, emotions, and sensual data.

There is an interesting section on the study of the “sigh” and its likely function as a resetting mechanism. We tend to sigh when we are frustrated or trying to hold onto deep concentration but we also have sighs of relief. In MBSR there is the purposeful sigh. I have also encountered this in yoga classes. Similarly, the yawn is examined. The authors think that it is a signal for transition – such as from waking to sleep and vice versa. Contagious yawning has been documented and even attuning with others through yawning together. Others think that the yawn signals the yawner to come into embodied self-awareness, so it may be a sort of readying mechanism.

The last main paradox-pair given is Revealing/Regulating which includes Thought/Action, Threat/Safety, and Intervention/Observation. Our breathing can reveal our state of mind – through its depth, speed, and rhythm. Rules of thumb are that exercise causes us to breathe deeper and thinking causes us to breathe faster. That thinking causes us to breathe differently is one of many ways the mind affects the body. We breathe differently when under stress or threat than we do when safe. “Fight or flight” responses rally the sympathetic nervous system branch of the autonomic nervous system while the parasympathetic branch is dominant in times of safety. The James-Lange theory of the emotions is a bit counter-intuitive. For example, it notes that instead of crying because we are sad, we become sad because we cry. They say the physiological response happens first then the emotion is really felt and intensifies. Emotions are adaptive physiological responses. We feel fear and so we keep ourselves out of danger. The utilization of breath is probably the most practical and readily available means we have to regulate our emotions. We can take deep breaths to ease our stress. We can use sighs. It is a cheap method of biofeedback. We can also step back and simply observe which may ultimately be even more powerful than intervening, which is just the first step.

The next section is about Space, or Disposition – in terms of our immediate experience. Again, the authors utilize paradox-pairs. The first is Freedom/Constraint. They note that infants exhibit myclonic twitching – muscle twitches during relaxation and sleep. This twitching helps to integrate bodily awareness. Our bodily awareness is also integrated with the space around us. We tend to feel free with more bodily awareness and constrained with less – unless we are afflicted with pain. The authors note the notion of Alan Fogel, psychologist and body worker, that we have both conceptual self-awareness  and embodied self-awareness. Embodied self-awareness can be quite useful for body-mind integration. The body has tensegrity, an idea defined by R. Buckminster Fuller, based on a balance between tension and compression, that strengthens and stabilizes an overall form. Our muscles and other soft and connective tissues such as ligaments, joint capsules, and tendons make up the tensional component while the bones provide the compressional component. 

The next paradox-pair is Power/Presence. Here the authors get into holistic medicine models of how the body is animated. Both the present moment and bodily vitality are always available. William James even noted that we often think with the body – we utilize bodily awareness in our thought process. He suggested sensing what happens in our body when we are thinking.
The last of the paradox-pairs is Optimum/Maximum. Our optimum is something we need to discover through experiment and inquiry rather than simply maximizing processes. This is perhaps best found as interplay between formal practice and informal practice. When we find “flow” we tend to become efficient with our internal energy usage so optimization is less wasteful. It should not be forgotten that goals of mindfulness practice are ideas like sanity, noticing what needs to be done, psychological health, increasing our ability to respond compassionately, and avoiding unhealthy behaviors. Optimization and efficiency in the body-mind can help.

It is noted that the practice of mindfulness reminds us that we do indeed have choices. By observing closely we can be less influenced by rote and habit and choose. They mention William James’ essay “The Gospel of Relaxation” where he suggests that we “unclamp” our intellectual book-learning and let our lives be enhanced through the relaxation of mindfulness. They also note that Alan Watts became very interested in Taoism in his later years as he saw it as being (at least potentially) a more natural, less forced, approach to mindfulness. In both Taioism and Buddhism there are listed the four main postures of man, The Four Dignities: walking, standing, sitting, lying down. Each can be used as a posture for cultivating mindfulness. Lying down is more conducive to relaxation and sitting is perhaps more conducive to concentration and clarity.

An example of a reclining practice might be the body scan where attention is brought progressively to different parts of the body. This is a traditional Theravada practice and is also quite common as a closing practice in hatha yoga classes. One might do reclining practices as one falls asleep and upon waking. There are several possibilities in the Eastern traditions as well as ones that can be devised. Dream yoga practices involve waking several times through the night, doing some practice, and drifting back to sleep, There is also utilization of the reclining posture of Buddha (typically on the right side) although the authors do not mention this.  

Metaphorically we sit down to sort things out. Formal sitting meditation is probably the most commonly taught form of meditation. The method is simply to focus on an object, usually the breath, to notice thoughts and emotions without interacting with them, but instead, returning to the technique. With practice it becomes possible to sit very still for longer and longer periods. One can become relaxed and alert enough to observe what appears in deeper ways and different things may appear with different levels of relaxation and alertness.

For standing the authors note the metaphors “taking a stand” and “standing up for what’s right” and suggest that standing is a courageous posture. It is also a wakeful posture. I think that standing meditation is underrated and underused. Standing takes a little more work than sitting or reclining. We balance on the balls of the feet and negotiate gravity and stabilization a little more. We feel our feet. Standing with eyes closed usually requires a bit more balance as some of us use our visual system to help with balance. Hatha yoga offers many standing poses and standing balancing poses that can be challenging as well as meditative for short periods. One might take a posture on one foot like a dakini or wrathful deity. The martial arts can also offer various standing poses for mindful relaxation. Tai Chi and especially Chi Gung as slow-moving standing meditations are particularly useful to explore.

Walking meditation is fairly common in the Buddhist traditions but I think some just see it as a sort of intermission between sitting sessions. With mindful intent it can be more than that. In the 17th and 18th centuries, advocates of solitary walking included Rousseau, Wordsworth, Emerson, and Thoreau. Walking was Thoreau’s favorite practice. The authors note that walking may involve trips and slips. Trips may be caused by not enough movement while slips may be caused by too much movement. Trips often cause us to fall forward and slips to fall backward.

Within this book are given many and various practice suggestions and experiments to help one explore mindfulness practice. The authors also give some personal accounts and interesting accounts and anecdotes of others. It was a bit slow here and there but otherwise quite informative and a very useful read.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Warrior Song of King Gesar

Book Review: The Warrior Song of King Gesar by Douglas J. Pennick (Wisdom Publications 1996)

This is quite a beautiful retelling of the Central Asian/Tibetan epic – Gesar of Ling. Some of the poetry is exquisite. It is among the best of all warrior sagas. Apparently, this epic has a massive number of versions in many languages. Besides the many Tibetan versions – such as this one – most of which are entwined with Buddhism, there are versions among Mongolians, many different languages Chinese, Ladakhi, the Buryats and Altai of Siberia, and other Turkic peoples. It has been noted that the formula follows that of traditional epics of Turkic peoples – particularly that of Bolot, a Kirghiz hero. Our version here was strongly influenced by the Shambhala warriorship philosophy of the late Tibetan lama Chogyam Trungpa. The time of the life of King Gesar is thought to be somewhere in the 1000s to the 1200s but this may vary. Among Buddhists he is considered an avatar of the Tantric Buddhist hero Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche). The kingdom of Ling is thought to have been a small area in the eastern part of Tibet. As in many hero epics the sense of time and place is quite variable and events many centuries before and after may have been incorporated into the myth. Interestingly, this epic has a vast oral history and there are hundreds of bards who still sing it today – usually in a poetic meter – in Tibet, Mongolia, and several ethnic areas of China. Versions among the Buryats and other Siberian peoples are apparently quite different with Tengerist elements throughout rather than Buddhist ones. I noticed a few similarities with the Persian epic – Shah Namah. Apparently, some bards go into a trance state when reciting their local version of the epic – which may take weeks! There is some great information about this epic in the Wiki article below:

Gesar was named Chori when he was a child. Curiously, he rode on a magical willow pole. Also as a child he gained his companion, his mystic horse, Kyang Go Karkar, who would aid him in many times of need. With this horse he won the horse race of Ling and gained the kingdom. He married Sechan Dugmo. He would go on to win eighteen major wars against rival kingdoms among Tibetans, Mongolians, Taziks, and Turks.

The introduction by Tulku Thondup Rinpoche notes that any heroic being that brings peace, justice, and prosperity is given divine status, or in the case of Buddhism, the status of an enlightened being. Apparently, in some literature of the epic, Gesar is related to the Mugpo lineage of which Chogyam Trungpa is a modern manifestation.

Gesar’s uncle Todong, is often a jealous adversary and causes many problems, yet is often tolerated as part of the clan. The “uncle” as a sort of trickster/liminal/adverserial figure in Tibetan literature should perhaps be explored.

The textual literature of the Gesar epic tradition is known as Drung. The bards are called Drungpas. The legendary warriors of Ling were said to sing war-songs to their enemies before they fought them. These songs are recounted by the bards among the stories. Some Drung literature may be considered Mind Ter, inspired treasure teachings discovered by special “treasure-revealers.” Others may simply be considered inspired by clever writers. There are specifically fictional accounts as well. Tulku Thondup Rinpoche places Gesar in the lineage of Dzogchen masters, those who contemplate the nature of mind – and indeed much of the poetry here seems to fall into that style. Indeed there are three teachings that contemplate the nature of mind – Dzogchen, Mahamudra, and Madhyamaka. In the Shambhala teaching, according to Mipham, Gesar will reincarnate as Rudrachakrin, the 25th Rigden king of Shambhala, conquer the dark forces, and inaugurate an age of peace around 2424 C.E.

Gesar is also called the Imperial Drala. Dralas and Wermas are warrior spirits. Werma remind me a bit of the Vedic Maruts – both martial spirits associated with wind and storms. Gesar is called the slayer of the four great demons that enslave the mind of humans. These four demons are exemplified in the story of Gesar conquering the kingdoms of the four directions. In this sense he also purifies the four elements. In doing so he also heals the earth metaphorically speaking. Humans have become robots and zombies relying on the demons, hope and fear – says one of the poetic lines.   

Gesar grows up with his mother, both banished to the desert plains. After he wins the horse race and the kingdom he reveals his true enlightened form which awes the people. Then he draws his sword, cuts a vein in his palm, and declares that the root of world aggression is cut through. Curiously, his new wife, Sechan Dugmo, then draws the blood out with her lips and thus becomes one with the lineage of Dralas.

Gesar is often guided by visions of deities and enlightened beings. Padmasambhava appears. Another is the goddess Manene, his sister. Gesar practices meditation in retreat – the wrathful deity practices of Vajra Kilaya and four-armed Mahakala. During one description of his meditation it is said that his body becomes the tent pole of the world. Thus, his universal form (Purusa/Macranthropos/Cosmic Man) is identified with the World Tree.

Early in the tales, Gesar obtains the treasure of Magyel Pomra, or black rock mountain. He battles demons in animal forms. He overtakes a Tirthika (described here as cruel and deluded non-Buddhists) fortress as his first military victory.

During his meditation Gesar sings a song to the Great Rock Demoness, the legendary mother of his people and she who presides over the Mother Lineage of Dralas. This seems to be a realization song in the tradition of Mahasiddhas yet with a paradoxical invocatory element of the inevitability of both death and the destructive power of nature. As in the Kalachakra Tantra one goal is to manifest the fabled enlightened and just Kingdom of Shambhala. But the four dignities of the Rigden kings must ever be renewed as his sister, the moon goddess Manene states:

“There will never be a time when genuine dignity is stable.
There is no place in which great exertion is not required.”

She also describes to him the demonic kings and their realms along the four borders of Ling that he must conquer. As to what it is that is actually being subdued, she says this:

“They are the belief that freedom can be possessed
As an experience, as power, intelligence, lust or wealth.
They are the rapacious struggle of the deluded mind
To expand the domain of its own projections.
Thus they undermine the true merit of men and nations,
Which is confidence in the power of egoless action.
The blazing sun of unbiased wakefulness
Becomes the shifting half-light of craving.”

The demons are said to enter through “the gate of selfishness.”

“Demons cannot be attacked directly or conquered from afar.
As you entered their terrain when you accepted human birth,
They will enter you; they will erupt and slide into your thoughts
With their array of fears, arguments, enticements and promises.
Do not accept their conditions and do not ally yourself with them;
Remember your true allegiance, the unconditional confidence
Of the vast, clear midday sky.”

Gesar must rely on cunning, wit, and his magical powers rather than mere might in order to vanquish the demon foes. His first foe is Lutzen, the twelve-headed demon king of the North. He is destroyed but Gesar and Kyang Go Karkar fall victim to the spells of the king’s wife and Gesar remains in a stupor as the queen’s husband for several long years. He is awakened from his spell one day by a headless falcon who tells him sad news from Ling. The falcon is an incarnation of a warrior of Ling decapitated by Kurkar, the white demon king of Hor. His severed head is at the gate of the palace as a warning and talisman and until it is buried he cannot incarnate in human form. Gesar then sets out to vanquish the demon king of Hor and return Sechen Dugmo, who was taken to be his wife. For aid he invokes the great Nyen, or Lord of Nyen, the great Drala protector Magyel Pomra – as he does several times in the story. Here is a rather long supplication where Magyel Pomra is called Protector of Life Force. Gesar eventually transforms himself into a five-year old boy and becomes apprenticed to a smith. He excels and eventually dazzles the demon king. Interestingly, he later sends a dream to the demon king. Dream sending is a mythic motif of many tales as are the many interpretations of dreams and situations as omens. Gesar often appears in magical forms to these demons and gives them false omens. All the demons of Hor are killed except Kurnag, the black demon of anger. Legend has it that the leaders of the Sakya sect keep him imprisoned in a rock. Gesar, his original wife Sechen Dugmo, and the warriors of Ling return now to Ling. Uncle Todong is released from his prison of three years when he sings a curious song of his cunning, strategic, greedy, lustful, deluded nature which he has accepted that he cannot escape. Gesar replies with a teaching about the futility of selfishness and the virtue of considering others.

“Dear friends, look and see:
All forms of experience, of feeling, of knowing,
Are never separate from ever-present naked awareness.
Awareness cannot be bound and does not come or go.
It is like the cosmic mirror where all reflections arise.
Because awareness rests only in itself, there is peace.
Whether we struggle or rejoice, this is so.”

“If we wish to see
The source of fearlessness that opens every instant,
We must abandon our struggle
To possess and be possessed,
On the spot.”

Next on the foe list is Satham, demon king of Jang from the west. Satham is absorbed in bliss and his beautiful wife and wants to protect his situation so plans to invade Ling. Gesar magically sees this and reveals his powerful true nature (something he does often) to the king’s son. The prince vows not to oppose Gesar. Gesar becomes an iron bee and invades the body of the demon king. A minister seeks to destroy him by closing up the orifices and burning the king’s body on a funeral pyre. Gesar transforms his consciousness to a red fly and the consciousness of the king to a black fly and they escape through the aperture at the crown of the head. Geasr fights Petul, the king’s powerful minister that assumes the power of the king and his ancestral gods. Kyang Go Karkar saves Gesar and this is not the first time. Gesar gives the kingdom of Jang to the prince who vowed his loyalty and sings a song to him where he refers to himself as a “self-born Garuda.” Among the victory celebrations at Ling there seems to always be some special dance performed. In this case it is the dance called, “The Gods Fall from the Garuda’s Beak.”

After ten years of solitary retreat Gesar is stirred again by the goddess Manene and must confront Shingti, the demon lord of the south. The warriors of Hor and Jang must join those of Ling for this conquest. While the other demons were sustained by ancestral gods and talismans, Shingti is sustained only by his own accumulations (and of course his powerful army). The power of his grasping is relentless. Gesar tells his messengers that he has dreamed for years that Todong’s son (his nephew) would wed King Shingti’s daughter and now he has come to take her.  Shingti, upon hearing this, flays his own messengers and sings a ruthless song, part of which is this:

“There are only two kinds of things:
What is mine and what is not.
And everyone knows that if one increases,
The other must decline.”

Gesar proceeds to destroy the army of Shingti and the palace, beginning with its turquoise long-life pole. Gesar and Kyang Go Karkar rise into the sky (as they do) as a turquoise dragon with obsidian eyes then as a golden dragon with ruby eyes. He kills Shingti, flaying his skin, stretches it out, and pins it to the ground with spears. He notes that this skin, when dry (and presumably pulverized), will become a powerful medicine that is both antidote and protective – much to the astonishment of his warriors. The princess is rescued and brought to Ling to wed Todong’s son. Here the victory dance performed is called “The Relative and the Absolute Do Not Part.”

Later, Sechan Dugmo, the wife of Gesar, sings the song called “The Rainbow Palace of Pure Presence” that begins thusly:


In the world,
That is and is not this world,

In the bliss,
That pervades and does not pervade this world,

In the unfabricated instant
That is and is not this,

You O Sun, are the pure light that has never known darkness.
You are the origin of all movements and cycles, and do not move.

You are ever the enduring center of the centerless,
The light indivisible from all light.”

A month later Gesar is ready to finish his retreat and is joined by many.  They go to a splendid white mountain. Gesar sings songs of true warriorship and his exploits conquering the demons of death, defilement, desire, and raw accumulation in his forms as Lion, Tiger, Garuda, and Dragon. Gesar then more or less dissolves into space. Todong’s son sings of this restoration beyond life –

“In the crystal light of AH,
The seamless continuity of the Great Eastern Sun.”

Splendid tales. Exquisite poetry. Invocatory words.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Imhotep: Builder in Stone

Book Review: Imhotep: Builder in Stone: (Immortals of Engineering Series) by Maribelle Cormack (Franklin Watts, Inc. 1965)

OK, this was one of those books for young readers (with bigger words so I can read while I workout) but I found the book to be informative and a good read. Imhotep was a monumental figure in ancient Egypt. He is thought to have been a scientist, physician, and architect, and a close advisor to Pharaoh Zoser in the 3rd Dynasty of Old Kingdom Egypt circa 2780 B.C. Imhotep was a legendary figure among the Egyptians as well and was deified in Greco-Egyptian times – as the archetypal physician and Son of Ptah. It is very likely that Imhotep and Egyptian methods of healing were the model for the Greek demi-god of healing, Aesklepios and the numerous healing temples associated with him around the Hellenized areas. Dream healing practices of Aesklepios may have originated in Egypt, possibly with Imhotep. According to the book the tomb of Imhotep is thought to have been discovered in 1965 (when this book was published). This book, however, does not consider Imhotep as a healer, but as the designer and builder of the first of the great pyramids of Egypt, the Step Pyramid at Saqqara.

This book is also a nice overview of life and history in ancient Egypt as Egyptologists and archaeologists think it was. Egyptians were not known to be a traveling people, especially in the older kingdoms. They fought skirmishes and traded with local tribal peoples: the desert Bedouins, the Libyan tribes of the western desert, and the Nubians to the south of the Second Cataract of the Nile. Caravans brought goods from Mesopotamia and Palestine. They had no transport animals. The Nile was the means of travel and the lifeblood of the people.

Egyptian beliefs and practices are examined, including afterlife preparation and mummification, and the ritualized animation of statues. In older times the Pharaoh was the only to take the elaborate afterlife journey, or ascension to the stars. In later times other people could partake of such a journey.

King Zoser was the first king of the Old Kingdom Egypt in the Third Dynasty. The burial places of earlier kings were one-story slanted buildings called mastabas. Since wealth was buried with the dead there was fear of grave robbers – which became a popular pastime among the banditry.

The name “Imhotep” is thought to mean “he who comes in peace.”  Imhotep was the son of an architect. Imhotep was able to build in stone what others had done with reeds and mud on a much smaller scale.

A quick overview of Egyptian deities is given and some of the history of the pharaohs. The Greeks apparently found the Egyptian gods confusing – as they tried to compare them to their own gods. Priests and nobles were closer to the gods and rituals than lower class workers though they were thought to have their local cults and rites as well.

The author narrates a story of how the decision to build the first large stone pyramid might have come about. The Egyptians mined copper for millennia and used copper tools to cut stone. Such stone is less destructible in the desert climate than anything else but it still subject to erosion from sandstorms.

The question of why the Egyptians wanted to build pyramids is pondered. Some say that the pyramid shaped hills beyond Egypt’s southern borders were an inspiration. Others suggest that the slanting rays of the sun form a pyramid of light and that was the inspiration. Another explanation comes from an Egyptian creation myth where the point of a pyramid would be the first land surface arising from a primordial flood. A tiny pyramid stood on top of a pillar in the very ancient temple of the sun at Heliopolis so that relates the pyramid with solar worship. Another possible source of inspiration may have been the earlier constructions of the Mesopotamian ziggurats, a word meaning “pinnacle tops of mountains.” These were widely terraced, stepped pyramids made of brick. The shrine of the god or goddess (often it was the moon deity) was at the top. Only the priesthood could ascend the ziggurat and do the rites. The author notes that the Mesopotamian and Egyptian pyramid rites were likely very different:

“The ziggurat allowed a god to reach earth; a pyramid allowed the king’s soul to reach heaven. And if the soul of the king climbed to the sky on the sun’s rays to join the gods, what could be more fitting than to build a staircase of shining white stone for his celestial ascent?”

Saqqara is a high desert plain along the west bank of the Nile. The land was also close to cultivated fields and the royal grain stores so that workers could be supported. Tens of thousands (perhaps over 100,000 for the later pyramids) of workers were required. There is evidence that there was competition and pride among work crews. They were also paid
about a gallon of beer a day – of low potency beer considered to be a food. The pyramids are certainly a monumental feat of innovative construction utilizing manpower. It is also highly likely that grave robbers among the labor gangs marked certain passages to guide them to the goods at a later time – but before the death of Zoser as the tunnels would be filled in after his death.

One motif in Egyptian religion is sailing in a boat with set as it sets – to the underworld – and then rising with it again as it crosses the sky. Boats are found in the very old mastabas as well as in the pyramids. Often there were two boats – one for the underworld and one for the sky. In some cases the Phoenicians traded Lebanon cedar and built vessels to the Egyptians for this purpose. The Egyptians were expert at river travel, building barges to transport goods and plank, reed, and rope craft propelled by small sails and rowers – but they did not pursue sea travel at all.

People from Nubia and Sudan copied Egyptian pyramid burials even after the decline of Egyptian civilization. Tomb hieroglyphs there apparently show that the quality of scibes and craftsmen had deteriorated after Egypt had been conquered.

The author suggests that the next dynasty, the 4th Dynasty, would begin the time when Egypt would damage itself by building bigger and costlier pyramids and monuments. This would begin a hundred or so years after Zoser’s pyramid but quite a few were built within that hundred years. 

The author also details in both narrative and historical fashion, the building of the Great Pyramid at Giza. The story is told in 1920’s of the discovery of the tomb of Queen Hetaphras – Queen with King Snefru. When her tomb was opened it was found to be empty and then it was found that there was entry so that tomb robbers likely raiden her tomb early after her death and also likely unbeknownst to the king (as the author speculates) since the tomb would be sealed and no one would ever know that her chance of an afterlife according to ancient Egyptian traditions was gone.

The author also speculates about the Sphinx and why it was built. The Great Sphinx faces east and was equated with Horus-of-the-Horizon. It was built in the 4th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom in the 2600’s B.C. The author suggests that since the site of the Sphinx was the quarry for the stone of the pyramids then the soft rock remaining like a mesa on the plain was carved into the figure of the Sphinx rather than removed to level the land. The face of the Sphinx is thought to represent the Pharaoh Khafre. Oddly, having a human face on an animal body is rather opposite to the Egyptian custom of depicting gods with human bodies and animal faces. Between the paws there is an inscription on red granite that tells of the prince that would become Pharaoh Thutmose IV in 1411 B.C.  Here, while hunting, he falls asleep in the shadow of the sphinx and has a dream that the Sphinx asked him to remove the sand around his face so that he could breathe and that he woud be rewarded with the throne of Egypt. However, it is thought quite plausib.le that the dream was a tale concocted to legitimatize his weak claim to the throne. He did build a retaining wall around the Sphinx to hold back the sand as inscriptions attest. Later the Pharaoh Amenhotep II built a small temple to Sphinx. The Sphinx was a popular pilgrimage sight in New Kingdom times. The Sphinx may have been created as (or became later) a sort of guardian of the tombs. This is how a later Greek poem written on the paw depicts it.


Monday, April 7, 2014

The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet: Tools of Scientific Revolutions

Book Review: The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet: Tools of Scientific Revolutions by Freeman J. Dyson (Oxford University Press 1999)

Perhaps this one is a bit outdated but it is an interesting series of lectures given at New York Public Library by the Professor Emeritus of physics at Princeton University. He has done much research and development work in physics, astronomy, and biology. Michio Kaku refers to him as “a legendary figure in the sciences.” It is a good overview of the interface of science and society. He discusses science and ethics and the implications of technology. Dyson’s earlier predictions of the future have been off as he admits but he does offer some new ones that are quite fascinating – especially the ones having to do with space travel and inhabiting other worlds. Solar energy applications, the possibilities of genetics, and the networking power of the internet are the main “tools” examined. In this book he tells stories of scientific discoveries, how they happened, and how these discoveries illuminate the process of science.

Dyson makes a distinction between a theory and a model. A theory may have more direct application in the real world but may be less predictable. A model is basically a simplification and lends itself to general predictability. Models generally precede theories in science. Dyson’s goal in these lectures was to explain how science and technology works to non-scientists. He considered (in 1999) the sun, the genome, and the internet to be the driving forces of our scientific future.

Dyson gives some stories where science and tech came to the rescue such as in advances in microwave transmitters for radar detection during WWII developed by John Randall with his cavity magnetron. Later he also developed the X-ray crystallography that would be used to develop the first pictures of the X-ray diffraction of DNA which would lead Crick and Watson to determine the double helix structure. Randall also developed microwave spectroscopy which revolutionized atomic physics by giving vastly more detail to the fine structure of atoms. He talks about those physicists at Los Alamos like Richard Feynman and Robert Wilson who switched from war time to peace time particle physics. In both cases it is science in development of technology to solve practical problems.

“Science originated from the fusion of two old traditions, the tradition of philosophical thinking that began in ancient Greece and the tradition of skilled crafts that began even earlier and flourished in medieval Europe. Philosophy supplied the concepts for science, and skilled crafts supplied the tools.”

Craft industries change with the times depending on what products are needed and desired. He notes that the building of computers began as a craft industry emerging from the craft of electronics. Software development, he says, is also basically a craft industry. Even using software creatively is a craft. Nowadays we have 3D printing! Another example he gives is biotech companies sampling for DNA libraries. He thinks the two most important scientific craft industries and most widespread at the time (1999) were software and biotech. He notes again that both new tools and new concepts can spur new scientific revolutions. Dyson favors gadgetry over theory and notes that it is tools more often than concepts that drive the revolutions in science, though both are necessary. He gives plate tectonics as an example of a concept-driven scientific revolution. Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift was ignored for fifty years by the then prevailing dogma of geology until the 1960’s when the conceptual framework provided by plate tectonics was adopted to account for the drift of continents. He notes that prevailing dogmas and orthodoxies in science do exist and can hold back discoveries as it did in that case. He also considers the social and political aspects of the sciences.

Dyson mentions the synthetic virus as a possible scientific tool. The idea is that viruses can be designed to avoid healthy cells and only attack malignant cells so that as a therapy it could replace surgery or chemotherapy.

Dyson tells the story of Alexander Wolszczan’s discovery of the first two planets beyond the solar system through indirect methods and orbiting what was at the time thought to be an unlikely star to host planets. He gives this example as showing how science works when it works well. Wolszczan later thought he discovered a third planet but it was found to be a false signal due to interference from the sun’s rotation – so even good researchers make mistakes. Once the means were worked out others found ten other extra-solar planets within five years.

He tells the story of Fred Sanger who mapped out the bases of the genome of DNA. Sanger discovered that gene sequences could be read in different ways – coding for one protein in one frame and another in another frame. The virus he was studying thus was found to have overlapping genes. Dyson compared it with the musical notation of a violin duet written by Mozart where the notes were played forward by one person and backward by the other as they faced each other reading the same notes – one top-down, the other bottom-up.

Dyson mentions two of the biggest science projects of the time: the human genome project and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Lately I have heard that the now completed  human genome project did not yield as much information as hoped. The sky survey is a detailed digital map of the northern hemisphere sky. He compares the two projects noting that the genome project was forty times as expensive as the sky survey. Exploratory science is only sustainable if the costs are reasonable so researching better and cheaper methods of mapping the genome may have yielded better and faster results in the long run than expediting the time frame of finishing the project as the politicians mandated. Gene sequencing is slow and in order to map more genomes in a reasonable amount of time the speed factor must be increased by a hundred or a thousand, says Dyson. I am not sure if there have been improvements in the last 15 years. Dyson notes that traditionally astronomers have had a closer relationship with their tools than biologists, which could be a factor in devising mapping methods of their respective territories.

He talks about the new astronomical tool of gravitational tomography which is similar to how X-ray tomography, or a CAT scan works. Gravitational tomography is used to detect invisible mass such as that of remote galaxies. Closer objects can also be detected by this method (called microlensing). Objects that pass in front of or behind others (causing the seen objects to brighten and darken) at regular intervals can be detected on this basis. The tool that made this possible is digital image processing. Microlensing is also used to look for planets. This tool is not horribly expensive and so can be utilized by many astronomers. On-line communication between scientists and observatories has also streamlined processes. Dyson speculates about new tools such as a desktop DNA sequencer and a desktop protein microscope. Apparently, membrane protein molecules are generally too large to be analyzed by x-ray diffraction. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and the atomic force microscope can do some of the work but each has limitations.
Knowing protein structures (at the time structures of only about 5% were known) could have big implications in medicine to determine how viruses attack cells. Dyson thinks medical people and biologists should concentrate more on tool development as do the astronomers.

In 1985 Dyson predicted the three most important technologies for the 21st century would be genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and space travel. As of 1999 it was only genetic engineering that was forging ahead. Space travel and AI have done poorly and AI may have unforeseen limitations. Space travel seems to have cost limitations. In 1999 he replaced these two with solar energy and the internet.

He talks about the influence of technology on social justice. From the printing press to public health, clean water, sewage treatment, antibiotics, and vaccinations – technology has protected both rich and poor equally and has homogenized society a bit in this way. Household appliances have revolutionized housework so that wealthy people do not generally rely on servants as they once did. Technology can also impede social justice. He notes weapons proliferation, the bureaucracy, costs, and lack of personal attention in modern healthcare, and inequitable access to hi-tech communications technology as examples. Dyson makes a case for technology and ethics to work symbiotically so that social justice is accounted for in technological models. Solar energy and universal internet availability can both help alleviate rural poverty, he says. Small scale solar energy has proved to be quite applicable to poor rural populations in laces like India and parts of Africa.

Dyson speculates a bit afar when he talks about “energy crops” – crops genetically engineered to produce energy from the sun. With the current potential problems and distaste for GMOs this is not likely to happen any time soon. He also mentions the possibilities of genetically engineered microbes that consume and recycle waste.

He makes some interesting observations about space travel and the possibility of life on Mars when it was warmer in the first billion years after the solar system was formed. During that time meteorites from the planets (Earth and Mars in this case) were falling on each other’s surface quite frequently compared to now – so that life on one planet could theoretically be transferred intact to another. He also mentions the moons of Jupiter such as Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, and Io, which are thought to have surface ice and possibly warmer oceans beneath the surface. Very recently (a few days ago) I heard an NPR piece about a moon of Saturn known for geysers that is now reasonably considered to have a quite large warm ocean beneath the surface that is heated by tidal heat – the tides being caused by the gravity of the planet and the other moons as they pass. This was further defined by measurements from the space probe Cassini that is orbiting now.
He speculates rather afar again about plants that could be genetically engineered to grow greenhouses around themselves. He notes that the spadixes of certain plants raise their temperature temporarily (making them partially warm-blooded) presumably to attract pollinators in a cold time of year. Colonies of greenhouse-making plants could make bio-domes of a sort on otherwise uninhabitable planets. This would require designing and maintaining symbiotic communities and oxygen, carbon, and water cycles. Such bio-engineered warm-blooded plants could certainly aid the colonization of currently uninhabitable worlds.

He discusses the necessity of cost containment in space travel. He mentions some new idea about propulsion that could potentially make it much cheaper to escape the earth’s low orbit. Laser propulsion is one idea. He goes into detail about this and some other possibilities. All could potentially launch larger payloads into higher orbit. He predicts much cheaper missions to space with much greater payloads in the next 50 years (35 to go). He thinks people will begin to migrate to space around 2085! He suspects there will be decades of unmanned missions before manned missions and that advances in biology and biotechnology must precede manned space exploration and colonization. He recommends distinguishing short-term and long-term goals of space travel and planning better. Will we go to Mars, Europa, other moons of Jupiter or Saturn, or to asteroids or even comets? Dyson’s speculative depiction of colonizing small comets in the Kuiper Belt near Neptune was interesting. There are many of them with a total surface area of massive size. Ice is the surface. It would be easy and quick to go from one to another. Some could be tethered and joined together. They have slow rotational speeds (compared to asteroids). He also notes that the science of planet protection may develop from enterprising space exploration. Collisions of asteroids and comets to planets may be devastating and if we could learn to nudge these bodies through new propulsion technologies we could avoid immanent impacts. With say a hundred year time frame the power required to deflect an object would be minimal (there would be enough solar power to spare as far away as the Kuiper Belt to do it).

Dyson thinks the most important surprises of the next fifty years will come from the genome and the internet. He talks about reprogenetics – removing harmful genes and inserting healthy and advantageous genes. Of course, there are ethical and social justice issues with such happenings. Such a process could split up humans into altered and non-altered species, kinda like GMOs and non-GMOs. Of course, it could also become universally available and automated so that cost would not be an issue. Reprogenetics could thus accelerate the process of speciation where humans could potentially split into many different species. Faster speciation means more rapid evolution would also occur. He mentions the biologist Ursula Goodenough who noted that in higher organisms only two classes of genes are programmed for rapid mutation: the immune system and the sexual mating system. The immune system needs to respond rapidly to invading bacteria and viruses. The sexual mating genes need to mutate quickly to raise genetic barriers to populations – which is nature’s way of making new species. Reprogenetics is putting up such barriers so that desired speciation can occur. 

Dyson notes the 1997 loss by chess champion Gary Kasparov to computer, Deep Blue, as a kind of turning point where humans acknowledge the greater power of the machine to do certain things now related to mental strategy rather than just physical work. The power of the computer continues to revolutionize science in myriad ways. He also mentions the power of networks (such as the internet) to mature from their embryonic forms into more and more useful forms. He envisions the computer and the human working together in a creative symbiosis. Interestingly, he notes that evolution has always relied on a balance between competition and symbiosis. He says we need to keep this balance in our networks of machines – whatever that means.

Light reading but a fun book of science and speculation.