Saturday, October 25, 2014

Quality to Quantity—with All Due Respects...(part 2)

"...we talk about "primitive people"; now, I've spent a lot of time with these "primitive people," and I'm in awe of something they take naturally that we haven't even recognized yet. They're in touch with something else, and I've met quite a few here in Australia, aboriginal people, who lovingly, caringly laugh at us, because we call them 'primitives,' and they're in touch with things we're not even imagining yet."Paul Lowe, from a Dharma talk 
"…is the modern world really anything whatever but a direct denial of all traditional truth?" —René Guénon
     René Guénon was without doubt a very intelligent person. He reminds me a bit of ven. Nyanavira, and also of another contemporary, the Russian philosopher P. D. Ouspensky. I remember reading a book by the American psychologist Charles Tart in which he declared Ouspensky to be "a towering intellectual"; and the latter's book Tertium Organum has been considered in some circles to be almost scripture. I was intrigued enough by this reputation to read that book; but upon reading it I found, in addition to many interesting ideas and even some profound insight, plenty of what appeared to be egregious nonsense also. I consider Guénon to be a similar case: brilliant, insightful, inspired, but habitually deviating from what I would consider to be logic or plausibility. I can't rule out the intriguing possibility, though, that my possibly uncharitable assessment derives from my hopeless modernity; Guénon despised and dismissed the modern way of thinking, including empiricism, and so I may simply fail to appreciate his radically non-modern point of view. Maybe I just don't "get it." It is intriguing that his whole outlook forbids me to rule out that possibility. Ouspensky may have been over my head also.
     Yet it may also be that Guénon wasn't as completely divorced from the modern mentality as he would have preferred to believe: in some ways his style of reasoning appears to be very much a strange product of his time. For example, his whole approach to a developed "system" is reminiscent of mid-20th century psychological theories, in which internal self-consistency and eloquence take the place of logic supported by compelling empirical facts—but then again, he thoroughly despised empiricism.
     For starters, Guénon seems to come up with some rather odd ideas, almost as though pulling them out of a hat. For example, he declares the beginning of the "modern deviation," the exact point at which western civilization began running off the tracks, to have occurred precisely at the time that the French king Philip "the Fair" abolished the powerful monastic order of the Knights Templar, in the early 14th century. He supports this claim (in the book The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times) with essentially no more evidence than that ancient and early medieval coins bore esoteric religious symbolism, that ostensibly religious organizations like the Templars had great influence over economic systems in those days, and that secular kings were occasionally blamed for "debasing the currency." Based upon these notions he insists that money in olden times was much more qualitative than it is now, and that it had a deep spiritual significance that it now lacks, and which we modern humans cannot hope to understand. Ironically though, it appears that the Templars themselves, before they were persecuted and abolished by a king who owed them lots of money, contributed significantly to the soulless quantification of currency, thereby helping to bring about the modern deviation. Especially after the Holy Land was lost to the Muslims and the Crusades ended, the Templars became wealthy and powerful bankers who were largely responsible for such quantitative innovations as checks and letters of credit—thus making flimsy pieces of paper as valuable as gold and silver. The Knights Templar are also credited with being the world's first multinational corporation. But enough of the Knights Templar. Nowadays they're just badass fighters in video games.
     Another peculiar notion of Guénon's, based upon I know not what, is that the destruction of Atlantis and the biblical Flood were essentially the same prehistoric event. Other peculiar notions include his vehement insistence that certain words must have certain meanings—to give just one such example, he insisted that true symbolism must be a case in which the supersensuous and superhuman manifests itself in this world. This is an interesting idea, i.e. that a symbol can be a kind of portal to a higher level of reality than the human one; but still, I don't see why a dream about a man wearing a hat and an overcoat walking down a long corridor, or the sign "=" signifying "equals," could not legitimately be called symbolic
     One strange idea that I can't resist mentioning (or anyhow choose not to resist) is that the maps drawn by ancient and medieval cartographers are at least as accurate as modern maps—implying that old maps are not inaccurate, but that islands and coastlines of continents really were differently shaped and in different locations than they are now. Ancient maps omitted the entire southern half of Africa, for instance, due to a belief that its southern coast ran parallel to the northern one; so we are to assume that sub-equatorial Africa simply did not exist until modern times, along with its fossils, archeology, and geological strata. He based this odd idea on the belief that people in premodern times were not inferior to us in intelligence, and were superior to us in the maintenance of enlightened traditions. This may be true; but it is also true that they had not yet developed accurate surveying equipment, and had no way even of measuring longitude. Even so, Guénon's theory is not absolutely impossible, so in my world at least it may actually be true! I consider there to be an infinite number of possible pasts, each of them equally valid (or invalid), and some of them may really involve continents that radically change shape and size over a matter of a few hundred years, along with fossils of animals that never lived. Strange.

an early map of Japan 
(apparently not including Hokkaido, 
which was not officially part of Japan at that time, 
and maybe didn't even exist yet)

     But sometimes the strangeness of his notions seems to veer off into sheer willful sophistry. I suspect that sometimes he force-fits the phenomenal world onto his theories for the sake of his own satisfaction. For example, in a chapter on the symbolism of spheres and cubes, and of circles and squares, he claims that a sphere is unstable (because it rolls), but that a cube resting on one of its sides is undoubtably the most stable of all forms. I had to call bullshit on that one. A tetrahedron (i.e., a three-faced pyramid) is much more stable. Just ask any disciple of Buckminster Fuller. But he needed a cube to fit his theory.
     Another example of sophistry, methinks, is in his argument about how space and time cannot be purely quantitative, but must always bear some essential quality. He states that space cannot be entirely quantified because mere quantity does not take the orientation of directions into account. I think this is more a matter of involving arbitrariness than quality, however—but I'll let that slide. The real sophistry rears its head when he comes to time: Time also cannot be purely quantitative because it…also has directions, of past and future? No. Because it is cyclical. Guénon actually backs up this claim by asserting that all premodern traditions agree on the cyclical nature of time. It's true that the Indian conception of time is very cyclical in orientation; and it's also true that in Christianity there is mention of the end of the world and a new beginning; but simply having God pushing reset once, which he hasn't even done yet, hardly counts as a cyclical progression of the cosmos in Christianity. He seems to take certain selected premodern belief systems (in this case, Hinduism) as axiomatic and necessarily true, and as a foundational starting point for his philosophical system.
     But regardless of Guénon's strange attempts at reason, (after all, he rejected with contempt the modern way of thinking in favor of an ancient, maybe even prehistoric, one) we really do seem to be rushing headlong into increasing quantification and alienation at the expense of a real sense of quality or essence. And Guénon certainly was not a stupid man, or blind either.
     Science, physics especially, really does try to reduce the universe to sheer quantity, thereby stripping it of quality and essence, "quality" being dismissed as a kind of illusion. I'm not nearly so sure as Guénon, though, that quality, and all phenomenal human experience, cannot be reduced to numerical formulae, or at least given some numerical value. The digitization of the recent modern world demonstrates that just about any sense data, like sound and color, can be digitized, and thus quantified. Scientific theories can do the same. Consider, possibly not for the first time, the flavor of vanilla. Some quantitative system could assert that vanilla has a flavor represented, say, by the parameters 4852-1267-0821-3440, with allowable ranges of ±8.4% in the second tetrad and of ±5.9% in the third. This may describe the flavor according to some system, but of course it is of absolutely no use to anyone who wants to know what vanilla really tastes like. At this level science may be descriptive, kind of, but it ceases to be explanatory, even if it somehow comes up with a numerical system to account for everything.
     Or consider the simple matter of a thrown ball. Scientists long ago came up with mathematical equations describing close approximations to the almost perfectly parabolic arc of that ball. Thus scientists may claim that they understand the flight of that ball through the air, the effects of gravity and wind resistance on it, etc. But what they have done is merely to come up with mathematical equations that pretty much correspond to what they have measured, and then conjured up a more or less explanatory story that seems to make sense. I say "pretty much" corresponds because the equations never exactly correspond to the observed phenomenon, unless the measurements are too crude to show the difference. Actually there are an infinite multitude of forces acting on the ball and affecting its path, all of which simply cannot be taken into account. But the quantitative approximation comes near enough to be very useful in a practical sense. Hence the great value of science. 
     But what the scientists do next is to declare that the mathematical equations, plus the story, is more real than the observed phenomenon, the thrown ball as it is perceived. Equations become the new Platonic Ideals, even though they also are merely perceived. The "reality" becomes almost pure quantification, which almost needless to say is also a bizarre divorce from experiential reality. And it involves practically the apotheosis of mere quantity. And this kind of thinking has permeated into the cultural conditioning and the world view of modern westernized humanity. And that's not even considering the mysterious, highly numerical abstractions of quantum theory and relativity. Or the idea that science is supposed to be strictly hypothetical, but almost never is. 
     Despite all this criticism of quantification, it seems to me that quality as well as quantity are ultimately illusions. The Absolute in most Buddhist philosophies, as well as in most mystical systems in general, is formless and undifferentiated; it is indeterminate, nirguna, having no discernible qualities whatsoever, much less quantities. But still, increased quantification in the modern world does seem to be running hand in hand with alienation, insensitivity, and spiritual decline, so there is probably a significant correlation, to use some numerical statistics jargon.
     We evidently are living in an age of lukewarmness, of spiritual mediocrity. There are probably fewer mass murderers, and almost certainly less cannibalism, headhunting, and torture, but there are also fewer saints, and lots and lots of relatively "nice," politically correct philistines. It may be remembered that Guénon says modern equality comes from leveling DOWN, by repressing, not uplifting. But even if there is an equal amount of uplifting in modern society, which is certainly plausible, the extremes of goodness as well as badness are rounded off; and the result is standardized mediocrity.    
     Guénon appears to be quite right that the modern world is much preoccupied with quantity/form at the expense of quality/essence, although this is more true in the realms of science and industry than in the life of the average person. The average modern person's life may be more afflicted by superficiality due to excess of artificial stimulation, moral weakness due to consumerism and relative luxury, etc. In a recent post I claimed that barriers, alienation, and ignorance are all the same thing; and consequently people in modern society are in certain ways much more ignorant than were their premodern ancestors—they have the same level of intelligence, or maybe slightly more, but less practical, experiential knowledge of the earth, the sky, and each other, and more knowledge of artificial complexities, like how to work a cell phone. Mental energy can be compared to money: the more we spend on one thing, the less we can spend on another; and the modern person's mental energy is used so much on complicated superficialities that there is almost nothing left to spare for what is deeper down, and more essential. So much so that what is deeper down may be ignored to the point of dropping out of the picture entirely.
     Which leads to the subject of the miraculous and the divine.
     It could be said that "primitive" people live in a world of spirit, of "animism," while the inhabitants of our Brave New World live in a world of dead matter; we have "solidified" the world, as Guénon says. One possible explanation for this, although definitely not the orthodox one, is that the perceiving mind "tunes in" on a certain version of reality, much like a radio receiver tunes in on a single frequency or narrow bandwidth of radio waves; and most people have their radio stuck at a single narrow bandwidth, a single "station." "Primitive" people, including children, have a broader or fuzzier focus, so to speak, and thus are more able to experience what more refined, hardened materialistic modern adults have become blind to—like spirits, for instance. (Incidentally, I suspect that some very advanced spiritual beings, like enlightened ones, may be able actually to change channels at will, or perhaps even to access a broad range of frequencies simultaneously.)
     Now, a narrow bandwidth may be much more appropriate for a precision instrument, like maybe a technically-oriented modern city dweller; but a relatively broad bandwidth is infinitely richer than a single frequency—although Guénon appears to suggest that we could never degenerate all the way down to one single, exact frequency of perception. But whether our mind be wide or narrow, fuzzy or precise, it truly conditions our reality, and the nature of the world we live in. And that is even if modern materialists reject the notion with amusement or impatient ridicule. As Einstein is said to have said, "It is the theory which determines what we can observe."
     Along this same vein, Guénon probably would have agreed with Eckhart Tolle's and Paul Lowe's observations that world problems like new diseases, pollution, and global warming are actually an outward manifestation of our own inner friction and turbulence. Premodern people had their own problems of course, but they seem to have manifested them on a smaller scale, with the possible exception of the occasional ice age or pandemic plague (although, as with modern maps, we may be seeing the premodern world very differently than it actually was). It is an intriguing idea that, ultimately, it is spiritual bankruptcy that is endangering the world, urged on by governments and the mass media, in turn urged on by big business out to make as much quantified money as possible. But regardless of the physical and/or metaphysical causes of such phenomena as dying ecosystems, the good old Buddhist panacea of having few desires seems an obvious answer.
     Veering in a contrary direction now…it seems to me that Guénon extravagantly glorifies, romanticizes, and idealizes traditional cultures. I've lived on the edge of a mostly premodern traditional culture for many years, and I can readily appreciate the notion that in some ways their participants are obviously superior to us modern Westerners. But traditional cultures vary, and some are wiser than others, and I seriously doubt that, overall, medieval Europeans, for example, were better off than, say, the Europeans of today, or of 200 years ago. During just a few decades in the 14th century the population of Europe was reduced by half due to pestilence, famine, and violence. I have read that a common children's game in the Middle Ages was to nail a live cat to a fence, with the children taking turns trying to butt it to death with their head. Children were treated almost like livestock, without much emotional attachment or care, since most of them were doomed to die before reaching adolescence anyhow. A leading cause of death during the more peaceful times was tooth decay; and I imagine dying of rotten, infected teeth could be a particularly icky way to go. Torture, even for relatively trivial excuses, was not uncommon in previous ages of our species. One wonders if Guénon would have approved of human sacrifice, considering that it was a common feature of early religious traditions—not only among stone age shamanistic societies and Aztecs but even among the early Hebrews, Indians, and Europeans. I'd guess that he would actually have approved. Still, though, premodern people were rather less alienated that we are, due largely to a less developed appreciation of quantity; and among the ignorant, dirt-begrimed villagers of some societies there thrived a relatively saintly spiritual elite, who disseminated that spirit and kept it in circulation in this world. 
     So I can appreciate much of what Guénon says about the ills of modernity; but I doubt that there has ever been a Golden Age, or a Utopian society without exasperating problems of its own. As Dharma teaches us, to exist is to suffer, and every individual, with the possible exception of a tiny minority of enlightened beings, is thoroughly messed up. And claiming that medieval Scholasticism is more correct than anything devised in modern times, or that astrology and alchemy are truer sciences than astronomy and chemistry, is really pushing it.
     But the man definitely had some intriguing ideas. One of them is that formal religious tradition, with some kind of esoteric initiation and a spiritual elite, is Absolutely Necessary for the survival of Spirit (or Dharma) in our world. This one may be rejected out of hand by many Westerners who feel that they are sufficiently spiritual without adherence to any established religion, but Guénon's arguments do seem to have some logic to them. It is true that the Buddha himself didn't have much use for ritual, especially in the Sangha of renunciants, unless there were some obvious practical reason for it, and that initially the "initiation" into the Bhikkhu Sangha consisted of little more than him saying "Ehi bhikkhu," and the initiate being issued a bowl and a change of clothes; yet he nevertheless maintained a clear distinction between the esoteric "adepts" who were dedicating their lives to enlightenment and the lay supporters who supported them while dedicating their lives mainly to other matters. It may be that most laypeople, or, more generally, people who are not in a position to make "intensive Dharma practice" and "everyday life" synonymous, require some formal religious system to keep spirituality in an exalted place of honor in their lives. Without having some consecrated container for keeping what Dharma they are able to receive, Dharma is dragged down to a worldly level. For the average Joe to abandon and disdain religious tradition with the idea "I'm spiritual, but not religious" may be a form of spiritual suicide, especially if Joe is mainly preoccupied with worldly life, with a predominantly worldly point of view. The idea seems to be that ritual uplifts worldly people, and although adepts transcend that ritual, even they do not entirely abandon it.
     With regard to all this, it seems to me that although total lack of structure may lead to dissolution and chaos, ritual itself can easily become a kind of dogmatic rut, a mental prison. What seems to be really the essential point is esotericism—without a higher level of Dharma restricted to a relative few one winds up with popular superficiality being called "Dharma," regardless of advanced texts being easily available, since most people can't deeply understand or appreciate them anyway. The idea of initiation, which Guénon stresses again and again, would appear only to be an incidental attribute of the higher level, a common yet not entirely essential aspect of it. And living, vibrant inspiration seems much more important than the preservation of something ancient. 
     Another intriguing idea is that science, and modern Westerners in general, cannot hope to understand Reality within a context of human laws and subhuman "laws of nature." We cannot understand Reality by looking down instead of up, and endeavoring "to derive the greater from the lesser." (And limiting the entire Universe to human and subhuman levels with regard to spirituality not only decapitates it, but cuts off everything above the knees—no superhuman states, no Nirvana.) The scientific world view assumes a priori that since everything arises "from below," it can be comprehended by the human intellect. The following example may illustrate the unlikelihood of this. Assuming that this Universe is really infinite, then it is very likely that out there somewhere are beings as much more mentally advanced than us as we are above, say, frogs. And just as we might consider it debatable whether a frog has any capacity really to understand its surroundings, even so these beings might have similar doubts about us. "Can a frog/human [take your pick] really be considered conscious?" The very idea that a human can figure out the totality of his or her surroundings by means of his or her intelligence might seem just as laughably pathetic to them as the idea that a frog can figure out its surroundings likewise would be to us. Personally, I think Guénon was right thus far, that is, with regard to looking down; but I don't think we can really understand the world by looking up, either. What is required is to look through. That is, we can never understand Reality via perceptual symbolism, i.e., feelings or intellectual thought, no matter how exalted, but we can know it through mysticism. That is, we can know Reality by experiencing it directly, without the intermediary symbolism of perceptions, intellectual or otherwise, obscuring the clarity. And the people most likely to accomplish this feat of "seeing God/Reality/Truth face to face" are the spiritual elite previously mentioned. 
     Another intriguing idea of Guénon's, previously mentioned, is similar to one of the early Christians, and to some degree even of the early Buddhists: and that is that none other than spiritual bankruptcy will eventually destroy the human race—or rather, that it will bring us to the verge of destruction, whereupon the survivors will enjoy some sort of salvation. However, my opinion of the situation in general, and also of "neo-spiritualism" as it exists today in the West, is not nearly so bleak as Guénon's was. I have more faith in the observations, and the wisdom, of people like Paul Lowe and Eckhart Tolle than I have in Guénon's. They agree that this world is plunging into a crisis, the likes of which it may never have seen before; but they hold out some possibility that we won't necessarily descend all the way into Armageddon. They see it more as an opportunity than an inevitable calamity. The crash, if it occurs, will be particularly harrowing to those who are worldly, materialistic, and unwilling to change radically; yet it may be rapturous for those who are ready for it.
     Still, I can't help but feel that if there is to be any kind of spiritual renaissance in the West, it won't occur through the extant systems of decayed religions or through the lukewarm efforts of materialistic "Dharma hobbyists." The New Agers at least integrate their faith into the metaphysical substance of their everyday lives, and it permeates their lifestyle, but most of their practices and beliefs seem rather superficial—much too much so for what may be required. So I still suppose that a radical new system may have to emerge. It has occurred to me that it could be something like "Environmental Neo-Cynicism"—a movement in which genuine Dharma supports environmentalism, and vice versa. This already has been occurring to some degree. Fewness of desires is fundamental to Dharma, and living in harmony with the ecological balance of the earth is fundamental to Environmentalism, and the two naturally go hand in hand, and could easily support and enrich each other, especially if enough people were really inspired to go along with it at a deep level. Living in peace and harmony. Saving the world and becoming enlightened at the same time. Something like Taoist Ecology could become the next world religion; and maybe low-impact hippie communes will come back into style.
     Anyway, another intriguing idea, which has already been mentioned, is that modern people have a radically different kind of mentation than premodern people of traditional cultures, and that we simply cannot comprehend ancient civilizations or ancient texts using our impoverished modern mind. What seems silly to us may actually be quite profound. For many years I have acknowledged the fact that I can't communicate well with rural Burmese villagers, who in some ways are wiser than I am, because I simply do not and cannot think like them; so to some degree I can relate to this. Also, of course, so long as René Guénon adopted the premodern point of view, then ex hypothesi we moderns cannot hope to prove him wrong. Nobody, except maybe a stone age shaman, can lay a finger on him. So maybe he's right, even with regard to Atlantis and the accuracy of medieval maps. Even so, I don't plan on reading anything else by him.   

Oh for the good old days of chain mail, witch burnings, and grimy peasants

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Quality to Quantity—with All Due Respects to René Guénon (part 1)

 "Never ask, 'Oh, why were things so much better in the old days?' It's not an intelligent question." —Ecclesiastes 7:10
     Last Christmas my good buddy Conor gave me a book entitled The Reign of Quantity & the Signs of the Times, by René Guénon (translated from the French by Lord Northbourne, Sophia Perennis, fourth revised edition, 2004). To this day I am unsure whether Conor considered the book to be great and thought it would be right up my alley, considering that some of its themes/tirades are similar to recurrent themes/tirades on this blog, or whether he found it more or less unreadable and offloaded it onto me with the idea that maybe I could salvage some sense out of it. I can be a cynical bastard sometimes. The correct answer is probably somewhere in between.
     Although to the best of my memory I had never heard of Guénon before (sometimes he also went by the alias of Sheikh 'Abd al-Wahid Yahya, and if I had heard that, I'm pretty sure I would have remembered it), he apparently is taken very seriously by many people of the early 21st century, with attitudes both pro and con. It may be, as with his contemporary ven. Nyanavira, that his peculiar interpretation of Reality has more followers (and antagonists) now than he had when he was alive.
     Guénon was a Frenchman who eventually moved to Egypt, became an Egyptian citizen, and married the daughter of one of his Sufi teachers there. He died in 1951; and it is said that his final utterance was "Allah." He also studied Hinduism, and was familiar with several esoteric traditions (although he seems not to have been very familiar with Buddhism). The back of the book jacket claims that he was "one of the great luminaries of the twentieth century, whose critique of the modern world has stood fast against the shifting sands of intellectual fashion"—evidently written by one of his more devout followers. Guénon was a philosopher of a very unusual sort, and reading the book has been a truly surreal experience.
     Reading his writing is not easy, not so much because of the density of what he was trying to say, but mainly because he composed very long paragraphs and very long sentences. His sentences are often actually three or four sentences strung together with semicolons; so that if one gets lost in the convolutions of a statement and wants to start again at the beginning, one may have to search halfway up the page to find the beginning of the sentence. Here is a rather succulent example:
Indeed, the positive results of cyclical manifestation are 'crystalized' in order that they may be 'transmuted' into the germs of the possibilities of the future cycle, and this constitutes the end-point of 'solidification' under its 'benefic' aspect (implying essentially the 'sublimation' that coincides with the final 'reversal'), whereas whatever cannot be used in this way, that is to say, broadly speaking, whatever constitutes the purely negative results of the particular manifestation, is 'precipitated' in the form of a caput mortuum in the alchemist's sense of the word, into the most inferior 'prolongations' of our state of existence, or into that part of the subtle domain that can properly be qualified as 'infra-corporeal'; but in either case a passage has taken place into extra-corporeal modalities, respectively superior and inferior, in such a way that it can be said that corporeal manifestation itself, so far as the particular cycle is concerned, has really disappeared completely or has been 'volatilized.'   
This demonstrates not only his passion for long, complicated sentences, but also his passion for "quotation marks." (Why he didn't put the word "modalities" in quotes, I don't fully understand.) But with regard to his mode of literary composition, a major saving grace is that he wrote short chapters. I much appreciated those short chapters.
     The Reign of Quantity & the Signs of the Times is truly an apocalyptic book, well worthy of a place on the shelf between the Book of Enoch and Hal Lindsay's The Late Great Planet Earth. Guénon ingeniously devised a kind of elaborate conspiracy theory, on a cosmic scale. Huston Smith called him "one of the greatest prophets of our time," although Guénon himself would have denied it, insisting that true prophesy is found only in revealed scriptures. He was only predicting, based on the Signs of the Times, and giving fair warning. 
     Among other things, the book is the most vehement, prolonged diatribe against Scientism—or even plain science, or for that matter against modern civilization in general—the most passionately eloquent condemnation of it, that I have ever encountered. Some critics of Scientism, like Rupert Sheldrake or B. Alan Wallace, point out its limitations from within the context of science itself; and some, like Arthur Schopenhauer or Carl Jung, criticize it from a more uninvolved, philosophical point of view; but Guénon rejected the modern point of view outright, with contempt, and attacked Scientism, and science, and modern society, much as an classical pagan philosopher or medieval Schoolman might.

René Guénon

     The main thrust of his interpretation of the modern age is based on the idea, which in turn is based on I know not what, that our phenomenal universe is situated between two poles: an upper pole of Quality, or "essence," and a lower pole of Quantity, which Guénon (or his translator) sometimes calls "substance," but which seems to me to be mere form; and since our universe, in order to be manifested, must partake of both aspects of the duality, it can never completely merge with either extreme. Furthermore, time, he maintains, is cyclical, and we are presently in the final stages of one such cycle of time—what the Hindus call the Kāli-Yūga, or spiritual Dark Age, and approaching what the Christians call, or used to call anyway, the time of Antichrist. Our Dark Age is nothing new; we've been in it since around the time our ancestors developed agriculture thousands of years ago. The Golden Age of this cycle, or of this manvantara, was prehistoric. But by now we are reaching the end of it, and are well into what Guénon calls "the modern deviation." The "deviation," by the way, is the deviation from a normal, healthy mode of existence.
     The way a cycle of time works is that it begins pure, or as pure as is possible for an age of humanity to be, and then degenerates; and like a falling object, the degeneration and consequent instability and chaos increase at a steadily accelerating rate. The degeneration falls from the upper pole of Quality to the lower pole of Quantity, and, as Guénon points out again and again, the modern world is becoming more and more quantitative, more and more quickly. 
     The history of the "modern deviation," according to Guénon, begins in earnest with humanism, which pretty much denies the importance, or even the existence, of anything above the human level. Shortly after this came rationalism, which denies "every principle superior to reason." This set the stage for "mechanism," a forerunner of materialism, which states that the physical half of the Cartesian duality of matter/mind is determined by mechanical determinism. Following this of course is materialism proper, or "solidification," in which the mental half of the Cartesian dualism is dismissed as a kind of more or less negligible by-product of the physical half.
     What Guénon calls "the complete and unrivaled domination of the materialist mentality" in Western society actually reached its peak over a hundred years ago, at least among scientists and philosophers; and it is not the final stage of our decadence. Pure physical matter still contains considerable vestiges of quality, and so the next phase, which we are well into by now, results in physical matter itself dissolving into almost pure quantification—with the spearhead of this trend being represented by modern physics and big business—and since materiality has given our system a kind of inert, skeleton-like stability, as we, and our interpretation of the world and of Reality, becomes more number-oriented, our world becomes more unstable, and accelerates toward total dissolution. Abstract formulas are even more quantitative than mindless matter…and also much less sturdy. Physical matter devoid of spirit becomes so excessively dry and rigid that it shatters, or crumbles into dust, so to speak.
     Naturally, Guénon sees modern science as a key factor in the decline and fall of Western civilization, and of our Age. He has several criticisms of science and Scientism, for example that it is merely descriptive and doesn't actually explain anything (for example, it hypothesizes, or even asserts, that the speed of light is 300,000km per second, but it can never hope to explain why this is so), but one of his most intriguing arguments is that the entire attitude of science is that absolutely everything can be accounted for at a human or subhuman level—and the farther down the level, the better. Traditional societies considered Truth to come from above, from a superhuman, supersensuous source; but modern humanity prefers to interpret everything as arising from below, and thereby we have willfully blinded ourselves to anything above the human level, and to anything spiritual or divine. In his own words, "to claim to derive the 'greater' from the 'lesser' is indeed one of the most typical of modern aberrations." This is an interesting idea—that one of the prime differences between modern humanity and everyone who came before us is that when we try to understand Reality, we look downwards instead of upwards. 
     Over time this materialistic, profane (since nothing is considered really sacred) point of view has become second nature, almost like an innate instinct in the modern persons of the West. Guénon goes on to explain that this attitude becomes a kind of calcified "shell" for us, blinding us to anything not materialistic and shielding us from more subtle influences, thereby incidentally emasculating all spiritual traditions; and since our attitudes directly affect the world we live in, it causes our world to be relatively devoid of any such subtle influences, from above especially. Thus he gives a rather eloquent explanation of something that I tried to explain more awkwardly in a recent post: why "miracles" and divine influences seem so much rarer now than they once were considered to be. Scientism insists, based upon the axiomatic assumption that everything can be explained in terms of extremely subhuman parameters and vectors, that superhuman influences are simply impossible, or so improbable as to be negligible; but Guénon retorts that materialists, and scientists especially, "with all their boasted 'good sense' and all the 'progress' of which they proudly consider themselves to be the most finished products and the most 'advanced' representatives, are really only beings in whom certain faculties have become atrophied to the extent of being completely abolished." 
     A similar argument he uses against science (which term he preferred to put in quotation marks, or with some other qualifier, because he considered it to be a misnomer) is that, because "science" endeavors more and more to describe the world in terms of mathematical equations, it deviates farther and farther from anything resembling actual quality, even to the extent of considering quality, which is synonymous with essence, to be quite nonexistent, merely a kind of subjective bias; and this deprives scientific "knowledge" from having any real value at all in understanding Reality, since quality is of infinitely greater importance and richness than mere quantity. He declares, with regard to the modern scientific viewpoint, 
…its chief characteristic is obviously that it seeks to bring everything down to quantity, anything that cannot be so treated being left out of account and is regarded as more or less non-existent….this outlook involves losing touch with everything that is truly essential, in the strictest interpretation of the word; also that the 'residue' that alone comes within the grasp of such a science is in reality quite incapable of explaining anything whatever…
Pretty extreme words, those last ones.
     Guénon worked out a metaphysical theory supporting the idea that metal is the most starkly "material" form of matter; so as the "solidification" phase of the modern deviation progressed, metal would be used more and more, and that the dissolution phase would, in a sense, start from that. He wrote his book shortly before the first A-bombs were dropped and the nuclear age began, and some have seen it as prophetic that such dissolution of matter, and such danger to the human race, has derived from artificially produced heavy metals like plutonium.
     Another symptom of the dissolution phase in particular, and the trend toward quantification in general, is the debasement of money, to which he dedicates a chapter of the book. This also has been seen as rather prophetic, as money has degenerated from gold and silver, which had some quality to it, or at least paper representing gold and silver, to paper not representing much of anything, silver in thin sheets encasing base metals (even American pennies aren't pure copper anymore), and eventually to little more than digitized information stored in computer networks—about as close to pure quantity as money can get. And this setting aside the idea that the making of money has itself become a finely calibrated quantitative science, in which business decisions are based on whatever is statistically determined to result in maximum profit.
     One interesting symptom of Western quantification, as described by René Guénon, is the universally lauded principles of democracy and egalitarianism. Guénon was obviously a reactionary ultraconservative by just about anyone's standards, as he considered democracy to be nothing less than satanic. For one thing, democracy is based on quantification, on the idea that "more is better" to the extent that the majority is always, or at least usually, right. Egalitarianism tries artificially to put everyone at the same level; and since it is easier to depress the high than to uplift the low, what generally happens in modern society is that there is a leveling downwards, with the most gifted people almost forced to reduce their giftedness to a level that can be accepted by the egalitarian masses. The uniform, mass-produced semi-literacy of modern Western educational systems is, according to him, a symptom of this pernicious phenomenon. According to him, it results in little more than making our most significant differences from each other a mere quantitative separateness, reducing us to interchangeable automatons that can be accounted for by mere counting.
     The vaunted universal equality of the members of the human race has a particularly destructive effect on spirituality. Guénon considered an esoteric, "initiatic" spiritual tradition to be the only valid sort of spiritual tradition. Only by having an elite who is gifted enough to reach higher than others, and a system designed to train, guide, and support the reach of that elite, can true spirituality survive, and thus be disseminated among the less gifted majority. As he says with regard to the Upanishads, "It has never been possible to place the Vedānta 'within the reach of the common man,' for whom incidentally it was never intended, and it is all the more certainly not possible today, for it is obvious enough that the 'common man' has never been more totally uncomprehending." And popularization, keeping everything public and ensuring it to be within the public's reach, has further resulted in the effective decapitation of practically all of the spiritual traditions of the world. In a previous post on this blog I attributed much of this sort of secularization and loss of esotericism to be an influence of Protestant Christianity; although Guénon points out that Protestantism itself is the only world religion that is a product of the "modern deviation."  
     Getting back to the historical timeline of the Kāli-Yūga, as the phase of "solidification" comes to an end, and as extreme quantification leads to dissolution of all stability, which is what Guénon says is happening nowadays, "cracks" will begin appearing in our aforementioned protective shell of materialistic insensitivity, especially toward the bottom of it, thereby allowing malevolent, or "malefic," psychic influences to seep into the world. He considered 19th- and 20th-century occultism, with spirit séances, parapsychology, etc., to be aspects of this seepage—and presumably would also attribute the same status to UFOs and Bigfoot. Guénon believed, and believed vehemently, that "neo-spirituality" was simply another symptom of the downfall of civilization, which was subtly influenced by those malevolent forces just mentioned, generally without the knowledge of well-intentioned practitioners of these systems. He seems to have accepted as axiomatic (or if he did attempt to prove it he did so in a different book) that only esoteric spiritual traditions rooted in the prehistoric "primordial tradition," and anyhow quite pre-modern in origin, could possibly be anything remotely resembling authentic and beneficial. Thus such modern phenomena as New Age and the Western Vipassana movement Guénon would not hesitate to declare as literally demonic. If Guénon denounced anything more vehemently than modern science and industry, it was "neo-spirituality."
     It could be argued that to the extent that genuine traditional elements are still found in such systems, they are still beneficial; but Guénon argued "Nope," that practically the opposite is true: The most diabolical of lies are the ones that cleverly utilize just enough actual truth to cause the lie itself to be deemed legitimate. The real test is the central principle or principles motivating the practice; and if they are not directed to full enlightenment, transcendence of the subjective, personal "self," or some similar approach to Absolute Perfection (for example, if they are directed toward physical health, stress reduction, or vague, feel-good sentimentality), then the whole system is a sham, and worse than mere materialistic philistinism. The implication is that genuine tradition comes from above, and that if it is lost or broken, it cannot be remade from the bottom up, not even if an exact replica of it could somehow be produced.
     Guénon even considered archeological excavations to be hastening our downfall, as scientists blunderingly desecrate sacred ground protected by powerful traditional rites, like temples and burial grounds. I can't say to what extent he's likely to be right about this, but it has occasionally struck me that grave robbers were once considered to be one of the lowest forms of life; but now grave robbing has been legitimized by becoming a field of scientific study—now desecrating ancient graves is a respectable, jolly good thing to do. (Incidentally, this fits in with his interesting theory as to how psychic power may remain residually after the "spirit" has gone, which does much to explain power objects, power spots and "sacred geography," and even haunted houses. But more about that some other time, maybe.) 
     To make matters worse, demonic forces begin infiltrating our world at an accelerating rate due to the aforementioned cracks low in the materialistic shell, or armor, or whatever, resulting at last in a full-blown "counter-initiation," a complete counterfeit and parody of true spirituality which will bring the world to total spiritual bankruptcy (or almost total, since absolute absence of Quality is not possible at the phenomenal level). The increasing instability and scariness of the world will presumably drive the great majority of people, largely out of desperation and fear-inspired faith or gullibility, plus some egalitarian herd instinct, to adopt this new system, which will be led by none other than the (physically deformed) Antichrist himself. And just as the whole system appears to be reaching absolute rock bottom…the cycle ends, a "rectification" occurs, and the beginning of a true New Age, in its golden, pristine purity, arises. His explanation of the process smacks of Hegel's dialectic to me, with thesis succumbing to antithesis, and then, like a phoenix arising from the ashes, the new synthesis…thereby begetting a new cycle of decay and dissolution. But I digress. Anyway, the end is near!
     It may be that Guénon was not really intending to complain, and not trying to change our ways and avert disaster either; he was ostensibly trying to describe "The Reign of Quantity" as the inevitable end of a cyclic, cosmic age. Yet even so, he seems to adopt a vehemently condemnatory tone toward what he admits to be not only inevitable, but even necessary for a new Golden Age to occur. He freely uses words like "disturbing," "annoying," and "repulsive," for example, and also seems to indulge occasionally in some rather vitriolic sneering, so that I suspect he had some sort of emotional issues involved—an emotional axe to grind. If I've ever read a philosopher with more bile to vent than Schopenhauer, it is Guénon. Judging from this one book, he seems to have been a bitter, frustrated man.
     But why condemn or complain against the inevitable? Why even complain more vehemently because nobody heeds one's warnings, if that must be inevitable too? If future events are inevitable, and even part of a scheme of things which is ultimately Divine, then lamentation would seem to be pointless at best—but maybe the lamentation is also inevitable. The past also presumably cannot be changed, so disapproving of that also is a counterproductive waste of time. And for that matter, the present moment is inevitable in the sense that it can't be changed or avoided, because it's already here. So if time is cyclical, and future events are sure to happen regardless of our wishes or efforts, then we may as well accept with equanimous forbearance the past, the present, and the future; and all condemnation, let alone bitching and moaning, is useless. And if one particular future isn't really foreordained, then that still leaves us the past and present not to bitch about.
     But now I'm disagreeing with venerable Monsieur Guénon, and agreeing and disagreeing with him is the purpose of part 2, so I may as well stop here. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The One Time I Questioned a Kumārī

     In any explanation to the question of how I became the way I am, I usually begin with the fact that I had a weird father. For example, he experimented a lot with what he called "the occult," dabbling in psychokinesis experiments, witchcraft, astral traveling, past life regression, dream communication, and communication with "spirits." He conducted or otherwise participated in many seances, in which presumably deceased individuals would communicate through a woman in trance. He did most of this before I was born and when I was very young, and so I never attended any of these seances, and knew about them mainly from his stories, and from one tape recording that gave me a case of the thrilled willies as a kid. In the recording two personalities came through—the first was not speaking English, and sounded like they were speaking in some Native American language, although I suppose it could have simply been gibberish. After some difficulty this "spirit" was finally dismissed, following which came jolly, booming laughter. The medium, in trance, directed her attention to my mother, who was in attendance. "Honey, do you remember me?" my mother was asked. She responded that she didn't, whereupon the personality reminded her that she (my mother) had dropped her (the spirit's) baby on its head. It turned out that the personality was Auntie, a black woman who lived in my mother's neighborhood when she was a little girl. She gave my mother some advice about taking care of me (I was a toddler at the time), and then faded out. My mother was very agitated by all this, as she had almost forgotten Auntie and had not told others about her. My mother tended to be very closed-mouthed about her youth.
     So anyway, I had heard much about "channeling," as it came to be called, but had never attended a seance, until after I came to Burma.
     I was living at Mahagandhayone at the time, the big school monastery near Mandalay, and I had the opportunity of attending a seance (or whatever it is called in Burma) due to my relations with a Burmese monk who was one of my teachers. He was rather intelligent, and had a university degree in Physics, yet he was, apparently by nature, often lacking in plain "sense." Or so it seemed to me. For the sake of this narrative, I'll call him U.
     The Burmese, including university-educated city people, are often rather credulous by Western standards anyhow; and their interpretation of Reality is conditioned by a very different culture than ours in the West. The following may illustrate this. Once when I went to venerable U for my regular Burmese lesson he told me that he had some very interesting news to tell: a small kitten born in the neighborhood was able to speak fluent Burmese. Not being Burmese myself, I was skeptical to the point of being amused, and made a few semi-jokes, like, was the owner of the cat always nearby when it talked? Did the cat ever talk while he was drinking water? Then I explained to U that, even if the cat really were a lu win zah, i.e. the reincarnation of a human, a cat lacks the vocal apparatus to speak human language—it lacks the necessary areas of the brain, and also the necessary vocal cords, etc. U replied that the mystery would be cleared up soon, as two monks from a nearby dormitory were planning to go check out the cat. Upon their return we would get a reliable report.
     When I came for my next lesson U informed me that the two monks had gone and made their investigation, and that, yes indeed, the kitten spoke fluent Burmese. However, it was just as I had explained: because the cat lacked the necessary vocal apparatus, nobody could actually understand what it was saying. So my theory is that the poor little beggar had some kind of brain damage and was making sounds more akin to human vocalizations than to the usual sounds of a normal kitten. But who knows. I never saw the cat myself.
     Anyway, one time my teacher went on a trip of several days' duration, accompanied by another monastic friend of his; and when he came back and met with me he was in a state of great agitation. He said amazing things had happened, and that he very much wanted to tell me about them, but that he felt I wouldn't believe him. He couldn't contain himself for very long, however, and soon blurted out that "a god" had been telling him astonishing news about himself, about his past lives, and also a little about me and mine. At first I was confused. A god? How could a god tell him anything? Could he have had a vision of some sort? But it turned out that his friend's sister-in-law was nat win, that is, a god or deva entered into her. In modern English terminology she would be called a channeler or spirit medium.
     A nat win thu should not be confused with a nat kadaw, or "wife of a deva," who is also a person allegedly possessed by a deva from time to time. Nat kadaws go into a seeming trance state and dance orgiastically at festivals, sometimes making semi-coherent prophecies also. In the past they were often unmarried young women or middle-aged ones, but nowadays, as often as not, they are homosexual young men, or so I've been told. In any case, skeptical Westerners often suppose that, even if they're not faking it, they are more hysterical than possessed, and that the wild dancing is a socially acceptable means for them to flaunt themselves and work off repressed frustrations. I have learned that if you want to scandalize a Burmese person, refer to some wizard, alchemist, or psychic that they respect as a nat kadaw. Once at a Burmese monastery in California a Chinese psychic was intending to come for a visit, and one of the Burmese monks in particular was all in a flutter of anticipation. On the day she was to make her visit I asked him, "Well, where's the nat kadaw?" He retorted, in high indignation, "She's not a nat kadaw! She has universal knowledge!" So anyhow, my teacher's friend's sister-in-law was of a more reputable class of supernaturally-influenced people than a lowly nat kadaw. 
     But when U told me of some of her utterances, they seemed to me to be things that a traditional Burmese Buddhist could accept without question, but which a Westerner like myself found hard to swallow. For instance, U and I were allegedly brother bhikkhus under the previous Buddha Kassapa many millions of years ago. So I was pretty much of an unbeliever almost immediately, and would sometimes adopt a position of devil's advocate with U when he spoke of Abhaya-kumāra, the deva who supposedly communicated through the young woman. Our conversations on the subject would sometimes take the form of:
     "And he says…"
     "No, she says."
     "No, he says!"
     "No, she says."
     Once or twice I even pointed out to him that consulting with a spirit medium is dismissed in the Pali suttas as tiracchāna-vijjā, animal knowledge or "bestial wisdom," kumārī pañho and deva pañho, questioning a girl in trance or a god, respectively, being low pursuits that a bhikkhu should not involve himself with. U replied that Abhaya-kumāra was a sakadāgāmī, a middle-ranking Buddhist saint, and so the label of "animal knowledge" certainly would not apply in this case. 
     Although I was somewhat more hard-headed and hard-hearted in those days, still I tried to be open-minded, and was curious about this phenomenon. U told me that Abhaya-kumāra had passed tests of clairvoyance, for example, easily telling what was behind closed doors and in closed boxes. (Clairvoyance would be a virtual necessity for a Buddhist superhuman being, incidentally—dibbacakkhu, or the "divine eye," is a normal sense faculty among devas in the Buddhist cosmos.) And when one day U enthusiastically informed me that soon his friend's sister-in-law would be in Mandalay and that we could meet her, I did not hesitate to go along with the plan.
     I have little doubt that there really are superhuman beings in this universe, and would not be surprised if quite a few of them are watching us right now (after all, this planet is rather an interesting one), and also would not be surprised if they sometimes communicate with us humans; but to me at the time, whether or not Abhaya-kumāra was a genuine deva or not was practically incidental. Mainly what I was interested in was the possibility of clairvoyance, regardless of whether it belonged to the deity or to the subconscious imagination of the sister-in-law. If she really was clairvoyant and could see past lives and so on, I would be very interested to find out about a few things, like maybe some of my own past lives. Really, if there is such a phenomenon as rebirth, then it clearly would be fascinating, and probably very useful besides, to have our amnesia cleared away a little, so to speak. So rather than test her for the presence of a deva, I wanted to test her for clairvoyance.
     The trick was to rule out the possibility of mere telepathy. For example, if she could tell what was in a closed box, it didn't necessarily mean she could see inside; it could mean that she was simply reading the mind of someone who already knew what was in the box. So if I were to test her, I would have to run "double-blind" tests—that is, I'd have to ask her questions that nobody in the room, including me, could possibly know by normal means. So I devised two experiments.
     The first was an easy one, which was inspired by an old Zen story I had read years before. In the story a man's wife had died and he was planning to remarry, but the ghost of his wife had begun haunting him, causing him a fair amount of anxiety. So he went to a monk and asked him what to do. The monk, apparently realizing that the "ghost" might merely be a manifestation of the man's own guilty conscience, told him that the next time the spirit appeared, he should hold out a handful of beans and ask her how many beans were in his hand. If she couldn't answer, then it meant that she was not really a ghost, and not really there at all. So the man did as he was advised; he held out the handful of beans, asked the apparition how many there were in his hand…and the apparition simply vanished, never to bother him again. Anyway, for this test all I did was collect some kind of hard little yellow fruits that were falling from a tree in the yard around my cabin. I put them in a plastic bag and set them aside.
     The second test was more complicated. At the very beginning, to be fair to Abhaya-kumāra, I performed a little ceremony with an offering of incense, inviting him to come and watch. Then I cut up about 35 little cardboard squares, all the same size, and drew a different symbol on each one. Then I tightly closed my eyes, mixed them all up, picked three of them at random, holding them up so that Abhaya-kumāra could easily see them, put the three into an opaque envelope, sealed it, put away the other little squares, and then opened my eyes. So aside from the 35 or so possibilities, I did not know which three symbol cards were in the envelope. Then I set the envelope aside too, and waited for the big day.
     The big day eventually came, and U, another Burmese monk, and I got a ride to Mandalay to meet the medium, and maybe also to meet Abhaya-kumāra. The sister-in-law was a rather young, petite lady with a high, slightly squeaky voice. Also in attendance were about five other Burmese laypeople. She went into trance easily, with no preliminary ceremonies; and while in trance her facial expression and voice changed but little, although she seemed more at ease, charged with energy, and self-confident. I asked permission to ask her/him a few questions, and she/he readily consented.
     So first I took out the plastic bag of little fruits, reached in and grabbed a small handful, taking care not to have any idea how many there might be, and asked her how many fruits I had in my hand. Neither she nor Abhaya-kumāra immediately disappeared. Instead, without hesitation, she answered, "ခြောက် ခု မြောက်," i.e., "The sixth one." U turned to me and confidently said, "Six." Then, partly for dramatic effect I suppose, not knowing myself how many there were, I began pulling them one by one out of my closed hand and placing them on the table before me. I pulled out thirteen. So she apparently failed the first test.
     Next I took the envelope out of my bag and told her that inside it were three cards, each with a small picture on it, and asked her what the pictures were. Again without any hesitation at all, she replied, in Burmese, "A flower, a mountain, and a table or chair." At this I knew she had failed the second test also, since none of those were among the symbols I drew. I opened the envelope and pulled out cards showing a plus sign (+), a circle, and a lit candle. At this point I figured that she wasn't really clairvoyant, or not very anyhow, and pretty much lost interest in asking her any more questions. U had become very agitated, and explained to her/him in a pleading voice that if she/he didn't show her power I wouldn't believe. Also at one point he was so unnerved that when I said something in Burmese he translated it into English, which the lady didn't understand. Meanwhile the other Burmese monk, who was sitting on the other side of me, was chuckling nervously. She asked if I had any more questions; and although, as I say, I had lost most of my interest in asking, still I asked her one more—not to test her, but just to see what she would say. I asked, "What is my greatest spiritual danger in this life?" Her answer, also without hesitation, was "Doubt."
     After that I mostly kept silent, and other people asked their questions, mainly about worldly matters. U asked her several questions, one of them about what had become of a parcel that someone had sent to him from overseas, but which he hadn't received. He apparently liked my spiritual danger question though, and asked her the same with regard to himself (but I don't remember what her answer to him was). Eventually she did mention something about one of my past lives: U told me that, according to Abhaya-kumāra, I had lived in Burma in a previous life, but that my skin was different. I'm not sure what that was supposed to mean. Later on another Burmese friend of mine who had listened to the recording of the session told me that that's not what she really said…but declined to tell me what she had in fact told us. My skin was different? Maybe she had said that I was female, but the Burmese monks didn't want to insult me? (Remember, women are generally considered to be inferior to men in traditional Asian cultures.) I'll probably never know what she really said. It probably doesn't matter anyway.
     After the audience with Abhaya-kumāra was over and the young lady had come out of her trance, she was genuinely puzzled and apologetic over the fact that the deva was unable to answer my test questions. I got the impression at the time, and am still of the opinion, that she was not a deliberate fraud. She seemed genuinely sincere, and very probably believed, as did many others, that a genuine deva was communicating through her. On the other hand, I rather doubt (my greatest spiritual danger) that a deva, partially enlightened or not, was communicating through her.
     Recently I read a book by René Guénon, an odd fellow who had a rather odd explanation for "spirit mediums." He said that, just as a person leaves behind physical remains after death in the form of a material corpse, so the person leaves behind psychic remains also, a kind of residual energy, which mediums access. Thus according to Guénon, any communications come not from the actual being, but from a "phantasmagorical psychic corpse." It's an interesting idea, but I doubt that it is true. The personalities channeled by people in trance may be very vibrantly alive, and may have more personality and more wide-open consciousness than the channeler in her or his ordinary waking state. I'm more inclined to follow the explanation of Mary Baker Eddy. She says that spirits do exist in this Universe, but they tend to be preoccupied with their own version of reality and to contact us humans only very rarely. Instead what usually is the case is this: We all have literally infinite access to profound wisdom, Divinity, and infinite consciousness, but most of us are unable or unready to accept this fact. So, a person's subconscious mind may invent some "spirit" personality as a kind of gimmick for accessing deeper wisdom than the conscious mind can ordinarily reach. A person may more easily accept the notion that a wise spirit is communicating through her than that she is the really wise one. So my theory is that U's friend's sister-in-law was subconsciously dissociating, yet was using this dissociation to access knowledge or wisdom that she couldn't ordinarily access. As far as I know she never charged money for what she was doing, and as I've said before she appeared to believe sincerely that she was channeling a good Buddhist deva (and of course I can't entirely rule out the possibility of the truth of that); yet she did receive respect and attention that she wouldn't ordinarily have received. She even had monks coming to her for advice and guidance.
     It may be that she did have some telepathic talent also, but not genuine clairvoyance. Another possible explanation for her failure to pass my tests is reminiscent of another idea of Guénon's. According to him, modern westernized people are so immersed in materialistic cultural conditioning that we become closed off to non-materialistic possibilities like communication with beings at other "vibrations," so to speak. So it may be that, although I'm not nearly as materialistic as most of my fellow Americans, I've been so permeated by a ubiquitous materialistic attitude that I unwittingly produced a kind of deadening effect on the psychic talents of the young woman. Even Jesus of Nazareth was reportedly unable to perform many miracles in his own home town, due to the lack of faith of the people who knew him—"Hey, isn't that Jesus the carpenter? Don't his brothers and sisters live here in town? Who the heck does he think he is?" So maybe I was a kind of psychic wet blanket. At any rate, I saw no reason to continue asking her questions.
     U, however, and even the other monk who had been sniggering next to me, remained believers in Abhaya-kumāra. My venerable teacher's interpretation of Abhaya-kumāra's responses to my questions are as follows: When she/he said "The sixth one" I began counting the fruits prematurely, since she hadn't exactly said that there were six fruits in my hand; and anyhow, Ariyas may speak in cryptic-sounding language that is difficult to understand. And as for the symbols on the cards, a circle looks like a flower; a mountain, especially on a map, may be represented by a plus sign, and the candle no doubt was resting on the table she/he had mentioned. So she/he didn't fail the tests after all. U continued going to her again and again, becoming, it seemed to me, a bit emotionally dependent on her. I was somewhat more hard-headed and hard-hearted back then, as I've already mentioned, and I grew very impatient with my teacher U, and lost a considerable amount of respect for the man. I eventually even unilaterally terminated our lessons and started avoiding him. Once, before quite reaching this stage, after he was telling me of how we had been colleagues in a previous life millions of years previously, I acidly retorted that it was totally amazing to me that he could have a university degree in Physics. At this he became indignant and counter-retorted, "Science is one truth; Dhamma is another truth." As the years have passed, I must admit, I have grown to have more and more appreciation for that idea.  


A Burmese deva

Saturday, October 4, 2014

An Absurd Little Parable

     Once upon a time there was a guy who had a big rock in the middle of his back yard. He didn't like it there because he kept hitting it with his lawnmower. So, one day, he decided to move it. He went out into his back yard and wrestled with that rock. He pushed, pulled, grunted, sweated, cussed, and pushed some more…but he couldn't budge it. Not even so much as one millimeter.
     But this guy was determined, or stubborn, or whatever you want to call a guy who won't give up. He developed a habit of going out into his back yard and wrestling with that rock. He dedicated half an hour a day to fighting with it, although sometimes, maybe encouraged by thinking that he'd somehow budged it a little, he stayed out there longer. He was determined. Rain or shine, he went outside and struggled with that rock. He carefully developed strategies; if one way of pushing or pulling didn't work, he'd try another. He was going to show that rock who was the master.
     Finally, after months of this, he still had failed to move that rock, even to get it to rock back and forth just a little. He gave up in despair, feeling like he had wasted his time, like he somehow wasn't good enough to move a rock.
     But there were two things that this guy didn't realize: First, what he thought was a rock was actually the tip of a huge boulder sticking up out of the ground. More than 90% of it was underground. The whole rock was the size of a bus, and even the strongest man in the world couldn't have moved it. And second, although he considered that he had wasted his time, during those months of effort he had become the most physically fit guy in the neighborhood. He was much stronger and more muscular than he was before. But he hardly noticed this, because it happened gradually, and because he was trying to accomplish something entirely different—he was intent on a different outcome. Other people noticed it though; and he was healthier, and could do things more easily than before, regardless of whether he fully realized it. 

     The thing is, meditation can be like this. Don't be discouraged. Every effort we make has its effect.