Review of Aitareya Upanisad

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This short book follows the course of the Aitareya Upaniad with commentaries by Swami Muni Narayana Prasad. The reading requires a moderate degree of concentration and has technical Sanskrit terms that are well-defined (and includes a 6-page glossary). It contains timeless non-dual wisdom that has modern applications of decreasing our sense of separateness from each other and from the Earth, whose ultimate goal is the achievement of the experience of Oneness, non-duality with all things.

The book is part of the Rediscovering Indian Literary Classics series published by D.K. Printworld out of New Delhi, India. This series is reasonably priced and attractive, with some of the larger editions in hardcover. They include the original Sanskrit text, the Romanized version, and the English translation.

I have been looking for a set of complete translations of the Upaniads. Juan Mascaró’s translations for Penguin Classics is still a great place to start and his introduction is like an Upaniad, itself. However, it only includes a selection of Upaniads, and does not include the Aitareya. Mascaró sought to capture the poetry as well as the technical translation of the works, writing that the “composers of the Upanishads were thinkers and poets…and the poet knows well that if poetry takes us away from a lower reality of daily life it is only to lead us to the vision of a higher Reality even in this daily life, where limitations give way for the poet to the joy of liberation,” (Mascaró, The Upanishads, 11).

The Upaniads consistent of 108 texts. Ten are considered “major” or “principle” (Mukhya)   Upaniads, which includes the Aitareya. There is a Wikipedia page (“Muktikā” meaning “deliverance”) that lists all 108 texts. They were written across the centuries, dating back as far as 6th century BCE, and as recent as 15th century CE.

 

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The Aitareya Upaniad is the 9th in the series, a short (80 page) paperback, which for $4.15 is quite a bargain. The translator of this ancient text is Swami Muni Narayana Prasad, who is of the lineage of Nataraja Guru and Narayana Guru.

The foreword is by Sadhu Suhakara Saukumarya and he gives a short description of what the Upaniads are and that Swami Muni Narayana Prasad “employs his knowledge of psychology, philosophy, modern science, and above all common sense,” in his discussion. Saukumarya writes:

“The Upaniads are unexpected mines of contemplative spirituality. It is uttered in the moments of ecstasy in mellifluous poetic diction by Indian seers. A seer or a guru of that order represents in his person the throb of the Absolute,” (v).

Swami Muni Narayana Prasad gives the background of the word Aitareya, meaning “born of Itarā,” as the work can be traced back to Aitareya Mahīdāsa, who born of a low caste mother, “testified the meaninglessness of caste-based social concepts and prejudices,” (2-3). Swami writes that “What all the Upaniṣads try to do is to reveal through the medium of words the Supreme Wisdom that is really ineffable,” (3).

“The present Upaniṣad…portrays in a rather poetically picturesque way how the mysterious phenomenon of the world and life, with their universal and particular aspects of existence, get unfolded from the one primeval causal Reality (ātman), and finally how ātman perceives itself as the one underlying substance of all such phenomena,” (3).

Swami describes an organizing structure or framework that can be used by the seeker in her or his search for Truth. In this way the Upaniads are a kind of science – a method for perceiving and understanding the Universe. Their method, however, is not through the perception of objective reality, but in passing inward, through subjective reality, to reach the mystical oneness of Absolute Reality.

“Searching for Reality is what sciences do, each having their own field of enquiry whose bounds no science is willing to cross. The result is that an indepth knowledge of each science endows us with a different notion of life, none providing us with an over-all vision. Once an integral vision becomes available and attained, all the different fields of enquiry and the notions they provide achieve unity, each becoming a view of Reality from a particular angle, while adding to the holistic vision, each science thus gaining a new dimension, a new value,” (10).

 

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This describes what we have today, a plurality of sciences, each based on the scientific method, but resulting in a fragmentation of self and reality if there is no over-arching integration. Swami describes the Upaniads as providing a “Science of sciences” that brings the fragments of sense perception and objective measurement back together into a meaningful whole.

“The science this Upaniṣad [Aitareya] teaches — brahmavidyā — is the Science of sciences, that holds together all sciences, as belonging to one whole, each thus making life more meaningful. If such a Science of sciences is lacking, different sciences go different ways, one vying with another and each sowing a different seed of peril. The freedom man has to choose, may be the greatest bane in human life, but also the greatest of boons,” (10).

We can see this bane playing out in the human pursuit of technology and development without any restraint. The cost of unrestrained development is degradation of the environment as well as the expendability of the poor at the profit of the wealthy. Unrestrained “development” of the environment and consumption of resources is only possible because we view ourselves as separate, isolated individuals, rather than as interrelated aspects of the larger environment of the Earth and cosmos.

“Man, having no existence of his own apart from the cosmic system is an inseparable part of it. Any attempt to know oneself as an entity existing on its own, therefore, results in no proper understanding of oneself. Man is part of the world; his life is part of eternal flux. The proper knowledge one acquires about oneself should therefore be the knowledge of the everchanging world as well…the world and I are not two. Oneself and the world together, when considered as an object of enquiry, is signified by the word idam in the Upaniṣads, literally meaning ‘this’, but rendered here as ‘here’, (14).

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The mystical has practical applications because it influences the way we perceive ourselves, each other, and the Earth. The mystical goal of the teachings of this Upaniṣad is a sense of unity between the individual and cosmic Reality.

“The one who sees himself as ātma embodied will see others also in exactly the same light. All being thus one in essence, nothing will be seen by him to be spoken of as ‘the other’. He sees ātma alone in all beings. Ātma meaning oneself, he sees himself alone in all beings. Ātma means also the substance that underlies one’s own beingness. The same substance that underlies all beings in all the worlds, is called Brahman, literally that which constantly grows. One who sees oneself as ātma, he sees himself as Brahman in essence also, as he sees Brahman alone in all beings,” (53-54).

Consider what it would be like instead of seeing people as separate and different from you if you saw them as part of yourself! Where would you build a wall if you were trying to separate yourself from yourself? Swami Muni Narayana Prasad describes how this perspective leads, inherently to goodness.

“A visionary who perceives Brahman alone in each and every specific entity, and who exclaims, ‘Now I see it!’ is given the name of Idandra. Literally, it means, one who runs up to whatever can be referred to as ‘this’ (idam)…one becomes free of the good-evil duality, reaching a state of absolute goodness. Idandra in that sense is considered sat (good) here,” (54-55).

Achieving this mystical state of non-duality, one becomes a real seer. This transforms the cravings and desires of the individual. Rather than perceiving oneself as empty and having desires to fill oneself with “objects” in the world, one perceives oneself as already full of everything in existence.

“A real seer, a jñānin, sees only one Reality in everything, everywhere. Who, then, desires what? Desire itself then becomes meaningless. Desireless, the attainer of wisdom feels the satisfaction of having fulfilled all desires in life,” (64).

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A Review of the Work of Jaideva Singh: Dualism and Non-dualism in Indian Philosophy & Spirituality, PART I

PART I: Introduction

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This is a review (and expanded discussion) of two short books by Jaideva Singh (1893-1986), Indian musicologist, philosopher, and translator of many texts of Kashmiri Shaivism. Singh blended two careers in music and as a translator and philosopher of sacred texts. I could not find much in English about his life, the same biography appeared in Wikipedia and on a number of other sites. There is an edition of Sruti Magazine devoted to his life (Sruti, e-Issue 17, November 2013 – note that the page numbers are not always sequential in the pdf and some page numbers appear to be missing, e.g. #34). Dr. M.R. Gautam writes in an article, “A Great Savant of India,” that Singh was born in what is now known as Uttar Pradesh and that his grandfather, Udit Narayan Singh was beheaded by the British, his father was also supposed to be killed, but at 2 years of age, Gopal Narayan Singh was hidden under burnt wheat chaff in the village (21). During the course of Thakur Jaideva Singh’s studies he came under the influence of Theosophist, Annie Besant, as well as Babu Bhagwan Das, and that he became a vegetarian. In an odd twist, similar for Gandhi, it was through a Westerner that Singh came to a deeper study of Sanskrit and original sacred texts. He met a German scholar who encouraged him to study Sanskrit, which in fact he did. His life-long love of music led him to be the Chief Producer at All India Radio for about six years. In retirement he got down to studying and writing. He began to study tantra and yoga under Mahamahopadhyaya Pandit Gopinath Kaviraj. He also studied with Swami Lakshman Joo and this collaboration led to English translations of a number of Kashmiri Shaivite texts, including: Pratyabhijnahrdayam: The Secret of Self-Recognition, Vijnanabhairava or Divine Consciousness: A Treasury of 112 Types of Yoga, Siva Sutras: The Yoga of Supreme Identity, Spanda-Karikas: The Divine Creative Pulsation, Para-trisika-Vivarana by Abhinavagupta: The Secret of Tantric Mysticism. The two books that this review will focus upon are Vedanta and Advaita Shaivagama of Kashmir: A Comparative Study and An Introduction to Madhyamaka Philosophy. Both of these books are far more accessible than the major translations listed above.

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Gautam writes:

Thakur Saheb was a voracious reader. His thirst for knowledge was so great that he wished to study the great works of renowned scholars on mysticism, music, philosophy and other subjects in their original versions. Therefore he learnt Greek, Latin, Persian, French and German in addition to English, Sanskrit, Pali, Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati and Urdu…and his library consisted of 6000-7000 rare books, (Gautam, Sruti, 24-25).

Singh was a true scholar of world religions.

He found a striking closeness of spirit between Christian and Hindu mysticism, as also Sufism. His mind was thus marked by the openness and universality which are the signs of great spirits. Being rooted in his own tradition, he accepted the truth, from whichever source it came. This, his openness, was also connected with the fact that he was deeply influenced by the thought of A.K. Coomaraswamy, with whom he entertained correspondence, as well as by Rene Guenon and the traditionalist school. Besides, he was a theosophist of a very free and non-sectarian type,” (Unknown author as previous page missing in pdf, possibly Dr. Bettina Baumer, Sruti, 35).

I came to reading Jaideva Singh after a conversation with Richard Miller, PhD, the developer or iRest (Integrative Restoration), an adaptation of yoga nidra which has been studied with military veterans and active duty military personnel as well as other populations. After reading Richard’s books (Yoga Nidra: Awaken to Unqualified Presence Through Traditional Mind-Body Practices and The iRest Program for Healing PTSD: A Proven-Effective Approach to Using Yoga Nidra Meditation and Deep Relaxation Techniques to Overcome Trauma), I was curious as to the historical background and spiritual tradition that the concepts came out of and Richard mentioned a few different sources, including those of Jaideva Singh. I made my way, slowly through Pratyabhijnahrdayam, Vijñānabhairava, Siva Sutras, Spanda-Karikas, Para-trisika-Vivarana. These texts are dense with layers of the original Sanskrit texts (generally from around 800-1200 CE), commentaries by ancient sages, and then modern commentary. I found them difficult, but worthwhile and found various gems throughout. I then turned scholarly texts by Western professors on the subject and found Paul Muller-Ortega’s The Triadic Heart of Siva: Kaula Tantricism of Abhinavagupta in the Non-dual Shaivism of Kashmir and Mark Dyczkowski’s The Doctrine of Vibration: An Analysis of the Doctrines and Practices Associated with Kashmir Shaivism illuminating.

There are a number of contemporary authors studying these same ancient texts and offering contemporary translations for a more general, than academic and esoteric, audience. Daniel Odier’s Yoga Spandakarika: The Sacred Texts at the Origins of Tantra is very readable and accessible. I have recently read once through Lorin Roche’s The Radiance Sutras: 112 Gateways to the Yoga of Wonder and Delight, and this includes a review of previous translations and tracing the lineages from Lakshman Joo, including Jaideva Singh’s Vijñānabhairava. I am currently making my way through Christopher D Wallis’ The Recognition Sutras: Illuminating a 1,000-Year-Old Spiritual Masterpiece, which is strikes a middle ground between academic rigour and accessibility.

Why have I spent so much time reading through these translations of ancient texts of the Kashmiri Shaivite tradition? This tradition is also one of the major sources of the concept of “Tantra,” which is a more popular term. Tantric traditions are found in various branches of Hinduism and Buddhism. Two of the primary reasons I have immersed myself in these writings and teachings are: non-dualism and sound mysticism (the relationship of sound, word, creation, and reality). The primary focus of this review is on non-dualism, we will have a brief aside on sound mysticism and then focus on non-dualism and two of Jaideva Singh’s books for the remainder of the review.

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Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow) & David Kopacz

My work with Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow), a Native American mystic and visionary, who comes from the Southern Ute and Picuris Pueblo cultural traditions, has led me to expand my studies into various cultures and traditions to try to understand and contextualize some of his teachings. Joseph teaches that the sound energy of the word contains meaning. The signifier (the word sound) is not separate from the signified (the meaning of the word). Joseph teaches me to listen to, rather than think about, reality (this is a challenge for me as an academic and Westerner). Joseph often speaks about the differences between Western languages which are noun-based and focus on people, places, and things – this is great for science and for dividing reality up into separate pieces, but it loses something of the heart and soul and living spirituality of verb-based languages. Many indigenous languages are verb-based – they focus on processes, flow, and relationship rather than on fixed, separate objects. This has profound and far-reaching consequences, the most tangible being the European view of land as a “thing” to be owned” rather than Mother Earth being a living being who is our source and to whom we are all interconnected and interrelated. The most esoteric, and yet perhaps the most fundamental, of Joseph’s teachings is: “we do not exist.” This is a koan-like statement that I continually turn over in my mind and heart and which I have come to understand in many different, multi-layered ways. One way of understanding this statement that we do not exist is that we do not exist as nouns (as fixed, concrete, boundaried objects), but that we do exist as a kind of continually changing, flowing, and pulsating verb that is in relation with everything. The Native American concept of interrelation is quite well-known, for instance the Lakota saying mitakuye oyasin, often translated as “we are all related.” Joseph takes this interrelation a step further to the point that we do not exist in separation, but we do exist in a kind of unity in which there is no difference between the individual and what Joseph calls Vast Self (God, Creator, the One Being creating and observing reality).

Joseph is very interested in science and is always giving me references to articles he reads in various science magazines about dark matter and dark energy. These are forces that “don’t exist” from the perspective of our everyday senses, yet we can infer through scientific observation and study that these unseen forces do exist and influence visible reality. This parallels Joseph’s teachings around ordinary and non-ordinary reality. Ordinary reality is perceptual reality and non-ordinary is the reality that we can reach through intuitive and spiritual methods that exists in a different way. Much of his teaching with me has been on being able to move into a state of non-ordinary reality and then back. My sense is that, ultimately, non-ordinary reality is the source of the momentary manifestation of ordinary reality.

Sound is one way that we can travel from ordinary to non-ordinary reality. Ordinary reality is not separate from non-ordinary reality, it is a manifestation of it. The sound we hear with our ears contains within it esoteric teachings about reality. Joseph speaks of principle ideas that various sounds contain and that more complex concepts are created out of the building blocks of the principle ideas contained within the sounds. For instances, when Joseph teaches the medicine wheel each direction has a vowel sound associated with it and each vowel sound manifests a principle idea. A (ah) is east, mind, spring, purity; E (eh) is south, emotion, summer, placement; I (ee) is west, body, autumn, awareness; O (oh) is north, spirit, winter, innocence. Thus, the outer direction of east corresponds to the inner direction of mind, these are not two separate things, but inner and outer manifestations of the principle idea of purity.

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Joseph Rael’s Medicine Wheel, Rendition by David Kopacz ©2016

The four inner and outer directions of the medicine wheel are interrelated, just as the four seasons are interrelated – they are different “things” in a way, but they do not exist in and of themselves, but only in relationship to each other, just as what we call “winter” cannot exist without a relationship with “summer.” Joseph says that the reason we have war and violence is because we misperceive ourselves as existing and separate from “others,” whereas we do not really exist as separate beings, but only in relationship with others. We talk about the medicine wheel and coming home from war to peace in our book, Walking the Medicine Wheel: Healing Trauma & PTSD. Using the four directions of the medicine wheel, we can bring ourselves back into harmony internally and externally, bringing peace to ourselves and to the world as we come back into interrelationship and interbeing.

The next level of work I am doing with Joseph starts at the end of Walking the Medicine Wheel and continues on in our forthcoming book, Becoming Medicine. This is the movement from interrelationship to oneness and unity: non-duality. After walking the four inner and outer directions of the medicine wheel, there is a further journey – which is the journey of the mystic, the visionary, and the shaman – into the center of the medicine wheel, the very heart of reality. Joseph teaches that the sound of the center is: U (uu) center, heart, carrying. Moving into the heart of the medicine wheel first comes to the level of our personal heart, but as we go deeper it is revealed that our personal heart leads to the universal heart and it is through the universal heart that we are not only interconnected with all of reality, but we are one with it. This is a place of non-duality.

Becoming Medicine

© Joseph Rael

There is a common tension between the spiritual concepts of immanence and transcendence that seems to be found in all major religions. Immanence is the concept that all materially reality contains spirit within it. Transcendence is the concept that there is a spiritual realm that exists above and beyond material reality. As with all dualisms, immanence/transcendence leads to violence and we see this throughout the history of humankind and the history of religion. The ossified teachings of most religions teach that material reality is sinful, evil, or irrelevant (e.g. maya, illusion). The Fall in Christianity teaches us that the body is sinful and evil, that we are trapped in matter that is constantly trying to lead us to sin and that salvation leads to rejecting or controlling the body and being “good” and getting to heaven after death. In dualistic versions of Hinduism and Buddhism, material reality is considered maya, illusion, and that the religious path is found by detaching from the physical and focusing on the spiritual. We can look at secular materialism as a form of radical immanence (without the recognition of the sacred). Capitalism that is unbalanced by another belief/value system teaches us that the ultimate good and goal of life is to accumulate as many things and dollars as possible. Much of the blending of Christianity and Capitalism results in a dualism with a dissociation of business (Capitalism, Materialism) and spirituality (going to church and being “better” than those who don’t go to Church and being “better” than non-Christians). It is a puzzling observation that the “founders” of religions are generally mystics and visionaries, but later on the followers lose the mystical thread of living spirituality and fall prey to dualistic conceptions of us/them that leads to so many inequalities and wars. Consider the fact that Jesus in the Bible cannot in anyway be considered a Capitalist or Materialist. He is far more of a Socialist, but ultimately he was a renunciate (an anti-Materialist) – who rather than amass wealth and belongings taught that we should love one another and not cast the first stone of dualistic judgment. Sufis, Tantriks, Christian mystics all broke down the boundaries of dualism that divide us and separate us from the Ultimate spiritual Reality. Native American teachings highly value immanence, the sacredness of the physical world, which includes our physical being. Joseph Rael also includes transcendence, that physical reality is sacred, but it also does not exist and that there is another, non-ordinary reality, which is hidden within ordinary reality. He does this in a way that does not create dualism, but rather is non-dualistic.

 

 

PART II: Jaideva Singh’s Vedanta and Advaita Shaivagama of Kashmir

JS Vedanta and Advaita

We will now turn to Jaideva Singh’s discussions of non-dualism in Buddhist and Hindu philosophy. Vedanta and Advaita Shaivagama of Kashmir is a short book of 51 pages and consists of the transcripts of three lectures that Jaideva Singh gave in 1984 as Banka Bihari-Hemangini Pal memorial lectures at the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture in Kolkata, India. As these were lectures, they are flowing, have minimal references and footnotes, and are a good introduction for the novice. The three lectures are: “The Philosophy of Vedanta,” “The Philosophy of Shaivagama,” and a short “Comparative of Vedanta and Advaita Shaiva Philosophy.” I have heard it said that we should not use the term “Hinduism,” but rather should use “Vedanta” or “Advaita Vedanta.” Vedanta comes from the religious texts, the Vedas. Advaita means “non-dualism.” However, there Vedanta and Advaita Vedanta appear to be one of many different philosophies that make up the larger concept that “Hinduism” seeks to represent. Just as there are many different Christian sects and “Christianities” there are many different “Hinduisms” and “Buddhisms.” We can use words to understand the world, but we can also use words to muddy the waters of reality and confuse things and bring about dualisms and separations. This is the challenge that the mystics have after glimpsing unitary reality when they try to bring back and teach what they have experienced. Jaideva Singh starts his lecture with the statement, “An unfortunate fact about Vedanta is that it is generally considered to be synonymous with Shankara’s philosophy. Advaita or Vedanta has come to mean the philosophy as propounded by Shankara,” (1). Shankara lived, most likely, during the first half of the 8th century CE and is credited with unifying different schools of Hinduism and distinguishing Hinduism from Buddhism. Singh states that in his lecture “we shall try to go to the original source and see what the truth yields to us…we shall take our stand entirely upon the Upanishads,” (1).

Lecture 1: “The Philosophy of Vedanta”

Singh structures this first lecture around four major topics: 1) “The svarupa [nature] of Brahman,” 2) “The essence of the human being,” 3) “The relation of the essence of the human being to Brahman,” and 4) “The relation of the world to Brahman.” Brahman refers to the “world-ground” or the essence of Reality.

  1. “The svarupa of Brahman” – Singh describes the negative (what Brahman is not) and the positive approaches (what Brahman is) of understanding the nature of Brahman, Reality. A) The negative approach recognizes that we cannot reach or capture Brahman through human thought. “Reality is beyond the senses and thought,” Singh writes, because it is “thought or vikalpa that always sunders Reality into two,” (4). This is a common point that mystics make, that thought is based on separation and division and thus is not a tool that is made for understanding holistic, unitary Reality. The negative approach also recognizes that “thought is relational in nature…thought has always a subject-object duality, nay even a triad, viz, knower, known and knowledge,” (4). The very basis of thought divides into dualism, or even into a triad that gives the false perception that reality is made up of separate pieces, rather than its true nature being unitary. This is similar to Joseph Rael’s concept of noun languages and verb languages. Noun languages are based on separation and verb languages are based on connection. B) The positive approach recognizes Brahman as Sachchidanada subjectively and satyam, jnanam, and anantam, objectively. This approach recognizes the unity of the knower, the known, and knowledge. Sachchidanada is the triad of “sat, chit, ananda—existence, consciousness, bliss,” (5-6). Objectively this corresponds to “satyam, jnanam, anantam—truth, knowledge, and infinity,” (6). The challenge of non-dualism is to capture how diversity is within unity, rather than separate from it.
  2. “The Essence of the Human Being” – this is a short section that essentially describes the “vehicles of the Self,” roughly a kind of mind-body-spirit set of distinctions that describe separate dimensions of human being yet are holistic in their interrelation, (8).
  3. “The Relation of the Essence of the Human Being to Brahman” – this section describes the ways of understanding that the human being and Brahman are non-dual, they appear as diversity, but they reflect an underlying unity. Singh states that Brahman is “the eternal subject which can never be reduced to an object, the eternal knower that can never be reduced to the state of the known,” (10). He quotes the saying, “By what can the knower of all knowledge be known?” (10). While there is apparent diversity of human beings from Brahman, our true nature is not duality, but non-duality. Singh has a nice paragraph that sums up a unitary view:

    As the rivers that flow towards the ocean, having reached it disappear ; their name and form are destroyed and they designate the ocean, even so of this spectator, these sixteen parts (five organs of the sense + five organs of action + manas + tanmatras) that tend towards the Purusha, on reaching the Purusha, disappear ; their name and form are destroyed and they are designated simply Purusha. That one continues partless and immortal, (12).

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    Sunset from Druidstone Inn, Pembrokeshire, Wales (D. Kopacz, 2018)

    Singh describes our apparent separation as a “forgetfulness of…true Self,” and that the individual, “becomes a voluntary exile in order to realize better the sweetness of home,” (13).

  4. “The Relation of the World to Brahman” – here Singh describes how the world, as well as the human being, are simply transitory manifestations of the deeper, underlying unitary reality of Brahman. Creation is not of a separate substance than the Creator. The Creator creates creation out of the Unitary Self, hence sayings such as “All is Śiva.” “Brahman is the origin of all beings ; all beings proceed from Him and are dissolved in Him,” (14). Singh describes two different methods for realizing this unitary essence of Reality. The first is meditation on the word-sound Om, which is one sound made up of four different parts “a, u, m, and the ardhamatra after m are the true representatives of Brahman,” (15). Here we are back to sound-mysticism in which the sounds contain the essence. Sometimes the essence is reduced from the four sounds of aum (a, u, m, silence) to just the first letter, A, which contains all the rest of the letters, sounds, and words within it, for instance:

              “I am the self in the inner-most

               heart of all, I am their

               beginning, middle and end. (10.20)

               The science of the soul among sciences, (10.32)

               I am the speech of the letters,

               I am A.” (10.33)

(Krishna, Bhagavad Gita, cited in Louise Landes Levi, Sweet on My Lips: The Love Poems of Mirabai, 17).

The other meditation Singh speaks of is on the heart-centre, the Dahara-Vidya which is recommended in the Chhandogya Upanishad, which he quotes. “What is here in this city of Brahman is an abode, a small lotus-flower. Within that there is a small space. That should be searched out, that is what one should desire to understand,” (15).  Singh ends this lecture reminding us that this is the “mystic heart,” not the physical heart. “One has to meditate on it. This leads to the transformation of the empirical mind into the Divine,” (15). This is what Joseph Rael and I are working on in our next book, Becoming Medicine. Going into the center or our own heart, which is also the center of the universal heart, the center of the medicine wheel, a journey which sacralizes us into medicine.

Lecture 2: “The Philosophy of Shaivagama”

We will not go into exhaustive detail of this lecture which makes up the bulk of the book and covers the 36 Tattvas of Universal Experience, amongst other things. These describe the series of stages from the Ultimate Unitary Reality through the various possible states of manifestation which can be viewed both as a 36 rung ladder out of the Unitary into diversity and back from diversity into Unity. This is a very helpful introduction to Kashmiri Shaivism and would be a nice reference for reading any of Singh’s larger works of translation.

Singh describes some of the different terms used to represent Unitary Reality, such as annuttara (the Highest Reality), however all these terms represent “the changeless principle of all change,” (17).

Shiva and Shakti are not different. It is the same Absolute which from one point of view is Shiva, from another Shakti. From the point of view of prakasha, Shiva is vishvottirna or transcendent to the universe. From the point of view of vimarsha or Shakti, he is vishvamaya or immanent in the universe, (17-18).

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Ardhanarishvara (painting & photo, D. Kopacz)

Shiva and Shakti, the universal masculine and universal feminine are in a yin-yang-like relationship, each is part of a larger whole. Through science and logical thought, which we have so developed in Western languages and cultures, allows us to see how things are distinct and separate and this has given us tremendous knowledge and power over the material world, and yet we lose something of our souls when we specialize in the function of separation over the function of union. In becoming masters of what Joseph Rael calls “ordinary reality,” we may bring about our own destruction by becoming illiterate in “non-ordinary reality” which is the realm of unseen interconnection. Singh describes the roots of the word maya, often translated as illusion. “Maya is derived from the root ‘ma’ which means ‘to measure out.’ That which makes experience measureable, i.e. limited, and severs ‘this’ from ‘I’ and ‘I’ from “this’ and excludes things from one another is Maya,” (31). It is interesting to ponder this cross-culturally to look at the project of knowledge in the West which so highly values objectivity and the ever increasing division of the whole into parts which can be separated, isolated, and then controlled and manipulated. Singh might say that the project of knowledge in the West is purely a function of learning diversity and separation, maya, or that which is transitory and illusory. Physical science, based on the scientific principle of objectivity, is only half of reality, and perhaps not the most important half, because its knowledge comes at the expense of holistic, spiritual, and intuitive elements of human beings and of Ultimate Reality.

One of the teachings that Singh describes near the end of this lecture is that of Varanyoga, which describes a vibration of “an imperceptible, inarticulate sound which is known as varna,” which goes on “naturally and continuously in every living creature,” (42). “No one sounds it voluntarily, nor can any one prevent its being sounded. The deity abiding in the heart of living creatures sounds it himself,” (42). Perhaps this is why the Sanskrit word for the heart chakra is anahata, meaning a sound which is “unstruck.” The essence of Reality is always vibrating out from the heart of every individual. The Truth is closer than you think, because when you think you separate yourself from it, but when you allow the vibration to resonate within your heart, you become that which you have been seeking.

Lecture 3: “Comparative of Vedanta and Advaita Shaiva Philosophy”

This lecture is just a few short pages and brings together the chapter on Vedanta and the chapter on Shaivagama and it describes the popular philosophy of Vedanta as a kind of dualism as it rejects immanence and rejects the world of physical reality as being unreal. Shankara’s Vedanta sees action in the material world as only capable of producing karma. Kashmiri Shaivism, however, sees action as a manifestation of the ultimate, rather than a veiling or distraction of the Ultimate. “Shaivagama takes kriya [activity], in a wide sense, in the sense of chiti-shakti, in the sense of spanda, throb or pulsation to manifest,” (44). Singh points out that Shankara is distinct from Brahman. “If maya is something quite external, then advaita [non-dualism] cannot be maintained. If maya is shakti of Brahman, then surely, it is an activity of Brahman,” (45).

This distinction of whether or not maya is something separate from or is a unitary aspect of Brahman has practical as well as theological implications. In a dualistic, transcendent-only spirituality (whether Hindu or Christian) we see a correlation with the devaluing of the Earth, of the body, of women. Mother Earth, matter (which is an English word that comes from the root Latin, mater, or “mother”), and the feminine are all related principle ideas. In Hinduism, maya is feminine, and orthodox teachings are often misogynistic. However, Kashmiri Shaivism recognizes the feminine Shakti as a manifestation of, not as separate from, Shiva. Kashmiri Shaivism thus preserves elements of the ancient mother goddess spiritualities of ancient India, which formed a zone of the veneration of the goddess across India and the Fertile Crescent. Singh writes, “Maya is the creative power of the Divine, Maya is not a power of illusion,” (47). Further, Singh writes, “Manifestation only means making explicit what is implicit. Variety is not contradictory to unity,” (48).

The ideal of mukti [liberation] in Vedanta is kaivalya or isolation just as in Samkhya-yoga. The only difference is that in Samkhya-yoga, it is isolation from prakriti [the changing natural world], in Vedanta, it is isolation from maya. The ideal of mukti in Shaivagama is shivatva-yojana or being integrated with Shiva.

According to Vedanta, the world is annulled in mukti. According to Shaivagama, the world appears to be a form of Shiva-consciousness in liberation, (51).

Singh describes Shaivagama, Kashmiri Shaivism, as a true non-dual tradition that recognizes the essence of the Divine as both manifest within physical reality and also transcendent to physical reality. Non-dualism is not just an esoteric, theological concept, it is an organizing framework that changes the way we view human nature, physical reality, and the Divine. It brings us into harmony and unity with all that is. The practical concern is that those whose belief system is based on duality see the world through the lens of separation, of us/them. This leads, ultimately, to oppression and abuse of women, indigenous people and those who are labelled as “other” or “enemy of the people.” It also leads to exploitation and degradation of the environment because people functioning in dualism do not see that they are part of the environment and part of the Earth and think they can act without feeling any impact or repercussions of their actions. Perhaps, now more than ever, we should be striving for an experience of non-duality in order to become the medicine that is much needed in our current wounded world and fractured political state.

PART III: Jaideva Singh’s An Introduction to Madhyamaka Philosophy

 

JS Madhyamaka

This review has gone on longer than I thought it would, but still I think it is worth a brief review of Singh’s An Introduction to Madhyamaka Philosophy, originally published in 1968. This 64 page booklet describes the difference between Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna Buddhism, which turns out to also hinge on a similar distinction of dualism and non-dualism as does Singh’s discussion of Vedanta and Shaivagama. Hīnayāna is also known as “Southern Buddhism,” or “Original Buddhism,” and is found largely throughout Southern India and Southeast Asia, (1). Mahāyāna is also known as “Northern Buddhism,” and “Developed Buddhism,” and spread from Northern India into Tibet, China, (influencing Zen), and into Japan and Korea. These terms that we have and that scholars use have an obvious political or polemical nature as those followers of Mahāyāna described their school as “the higher vehicle” and Hīnayāna as the “lower vehicle.” Singh follows the development of Madhyamaka Philosophy, a root aspect of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

Madhyamaka traces back to Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka Śāstra. Many of the Madhyamaka texts were lost in their original Sanskrit, but have survived through translations into Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan. In the 1830s a series of bundles of Sanskrit texts were found in Nepal, including Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka Śāstra. Madhyamaka refers back to the Buddha’s teaching of “madhyamā-pratipad (the middle path),” (4).

Nāgārjuna (c. 250-150 BCE) has a legend associated with his name, as Singh describes.

Nagarjuna_at_Samye_Ling_Monastery

Image taken by Benjamin Matthews on visit to Samye Ling Monastery, Dumfriesshire, UK, on 1 May 2004.

Nāga means a serpent or dragon. Arjuna is the name of a tree. It is said that he was born under an Arjuna tree, and he visited the submarine kingdom of the Nāgas, where the Nāga king transmitted to him the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra which had been entrusted to the Nāgas by the Buddha.

The word ‘Nāga’ however, is symbolic of wisdom. The Buddha is said to have remarked, “The serpent is a name for one who has destroyed the āsavas (passions),” (5).

One of the core teachings of Nāgārjuna is śūnyatā. This word is often translated as “emptiness” or “insubstantial.” Here we find the universal truth of the mystic that “empirical knowledge could not give us an insight into Reality,” (8). Singh reviews the literary sources of Madhyamaka Philosophy.

The most important of these works are the prajñāpāramitā sūtras. Prajñā-pāramitā is generally translated as ‘perfect wisdom.’ The word ‘pāram-itā’ i.e. ‘gone beyond’ suggests that it would be better to translate prajñā-pāramitā as ‘transcendent insight’ or ‘transcendent wisdom.’ The Tibetans translate it in this way. In all countries where Mahāyāna is a living religion, the following prajñā-pāramitā mantra is generally recited: Gate, gate, pāra-gate, pārasagate Bodhi, svāhā i.e. “O wisdom which has gone beyond the beyond, to thee Homage,” (9).

Another important Madhyamaka text is the Vajracchedikā, Diamond Sutra, an early abridgement of the prajñāpāramitā sūtras, “translated into Chinese probably in the 5th century A. D. This translation was printed in China on 11th May, 868. This is said to be the oldest printed book in the world,” (9). Singh writes that the Prajñāpāramitā was later condensed into mantras. One of these “Ekākṣarī says that the perfection of wisdom is contained only in one letter, viz. ‘a’. Ultimately Prajñāpāramitā was personified as a goddess to be worshipped,” (9-10).

Nāgārjuna’s primary philosophical tool was prasaga which reduced any statement of ultimate fact in words or argument to absurdity. Given the true nature of Reality as śūnyatā (emptiness), any positivistic description of Reality was bound to fall short of capturing reality. One can trace this concept into Zen teachings which constantly challenged the novice to drop their discursive mind’s attempt to understand and put reality into words. Ultimate reality is found more in silence and stillness than in mental and verbal description, thus the emphasis on silent meditation in so many spiritual traditions.

We will not go into detail of Nāgārjuna’s method of prasaga, other than to mention that any argument or statement can be broken down into a four-part dialectic:

  1. A positive thesis

  2. A negative counter-thesis

  3. A conjunctive affirmation of the first two

  4. A disjunctive denial of the first two (16)

Nāgārjuna draws on Buddha’s statement that “he neither believed in Śāśvata-vāda, and absolute affirmation, nor in Ucchedavāda an absolute negation. His position was one of madhyamā prati-pada (literally, the middle position),” (15).

Singh describes the positive contributions of Nāgārjuna around the concept of dharmaianā. This concept teaches that even in error there is a secret longing for truth. “It says that the tendency of man to seize the relative as the absolute is, at root, the secret-inchoate longing in the heart of man for the absolute (dharmaianā),” (21). Thus, there is an inherent longing for the absolute in every person, however the longing can get attached to something fleeting and passing, but even in its delusion, it still is revealing the essence of the longing for the divine. Nāgārjuna wrote, “That which is of the nature of coming and going, arising and perishing, in its conditioned aspect is itself Nirvāa, in its unconditioned aspect,” (22). There is non-duality, again according to Nāgārjuna, “Nothing of phenomenal existence (sasāra) is different from nirvāa, nothing of nirvāa is different from phenomenal existence,” (29).

Once he is awake to the conditionedness (Śūnyatā) of the conditioned, his sense of values changes. He becomes a transformed man and then his dharmaianā, his mysterious longing for the Real finds its meaning and fulfillment, (21).

If one already has dharmaianā, but does not know one has it, how does one seek and find it? “The only way of reaching the goal is to realize that in the ultimate sense there is no goal to be reached,” (26). Thus, it is not a matter of seeking, it is a matter of stopping the seeking after a long period of exhausting seeking. To shift from outward action into inward stillness. “It is not the world that we have to change, but only ourselves,” (29).

Returning to the distinction between Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna, Singh sums it up: “the ideal of Hīnayāna is individual enlightenment; the ideal of Mahāyāna is universal enlightenment,” (30). The Hīnayāna-ist understands the concept of enlightenment, but seeks it for the escape of the wheel of birth and death, making the categorical mistake of thinking that his or her ego is separate from all of humanity and all of existence. This is still a form of dualism. The Mahāyāna-ist recognizes that there is non-difference between self and other and thus that enlightenment must include all sentient beings, otherwise it is only partial. “The Bodhisattva (Pāli, Boddhisatta) seeks supreme enlightenment not for himself alone but for all sentient beings,” (31).

Another distinction is in the nature of the Buddha as well as between dualism and non-dualism.

Hīnayāna was entirely intellectual…it was the human aspect of the Buddha which was emphasized.

In  Mahāyāna, Buddha was taken as God, as Supreme Reality itself that had descended on the earth in human form for the good of mankind, (35).

               …

The philosophy of Hīnayāna was one of radical pluralism, that of Mahāyāna was undiluted non-dualism (advaya)…

The approach to truth adopted in Hīnayāna was one of mystically-tinged rationalism, that adopted by Mahāyāna was one of super-rationalism and profound mysticism, (36).

The source of dualism for Hīnayāna (as well as for Vedanta) is in splitting the dual meaning of Śūnyatā (or maya). Śūnyatā is the pregnant void, emptiness which yet contains all things. “Śūnyatā is an abstract noun derived from śūnya. It means deprivation and suggests fullness,” (37). To view something as separate, or even to believe that one can separate from or transcend one aspect of reality to enter another reality is a false presumption, because there is only Absolute Reality.

The world is not a conglomeration of things. It is simply process, and things are simply events. A ‘thing’ by itself is ‘nothing’ at all. This is what is meant by the śūnyatā or emptiness of all dharmas, (39).

Thus, all teachings, all explanations of reality are empty. The development of philosophies and schools of thought that positivistically explain reality are doomed to failure. In fact the Truth is beyond all philosophies.

Dark Energy Moving through Dark Matter

Dark Energy Moving Through Dark Matter © D. Kopacz

Śūnyatā was declared by the Buddha for dispensing with all views or ‘isms’. Those who convert Śūnyatā itself into another ‘ism’ are verily beyond hope or help, (43).

Śūnyatā is not the final goal of the teachings, however.

Meditation on the śūnyatā (emptiness) is only a preparation for the spiritual discipline of prajñāpāramitā…The functional prajñā puts an end to the darkness of ignorance and thus the eternal prajñā comes to the fore. In the eternal prajñā, one cannot find even the distinction of ignorance and knowledge. It is an ever-present luminous knowledge. It is the ‘eternal light in the heart of man.’ Particular objects arise and perish, but the light of this prajñā keeps ever shining, (45).

Heart at the Center of Dark Matter

Heart at the Center of Dark Matter © D. Kopacz, 2016 

While Nāgārjuna teaches the emptiness of all dharmas (which can mean “scripture, doctrine, religion” as well as the “impersonal energy behind and in everything”), there is a more expansive concept of Dharmakāya meaning “the principle of cosmic unity,” (47).

The Dharma-kāya is the essential nature of Buddha. As Dharmakāya, the Buddha experiences his identity with Dharma or the Absolute and his unity (samatā) with all beings. The Dharmakāya is a knowing ; loving, willing being, an inexhaustible fountain-head of love and compassion, (47).

I remember in my East Asian Religions class at university, with Professor Peter N. Gregory, he would talk at length about Buddha nature. Professor Gregory would recount all the different stories about monks asking masters about what Buddha nature was and who or what had it and did not have it. I remember him gleefully recounting one story in which the answer was that Buddha nature was “even in shit and piss!”

Extreme, one-sided views lead to fundamentalism, a dangerous issue so prevalent in today’s world. Fundamentalism is based on a belief that there one’s own belief-group owns the truth and is justified in discriminating against, imprisoning, or even killing those who are do not share the same beliefs. Singh reminds us of the Buddha’s teaching of the Middle Way.

Extremes become dead-ends of eternalism and annhilationalism. There are those who cling to nonbeing and there are others who cling exclusively to being. The great Buddha meant, by his doctrine of madhyamā pratipat (Middle way), to drive home the truth that things here are neither absolute being nor absolute non-being, but are arising and perishing, forming continuous becoming, and that Reality is transcendent to thought and cannot be caught up in the dichotomies of the mind, (50).

The Absolute and the world are not two different sets of reality posited against each other, (51).

Reality is not one thing or another thing, but all things. Reality is “both transcendent and immanent. It is transcendent as ultimate Reality, but it is present in everyone as his inmost ground and essence,” (57).

Photo of Dacotah Building published in MNopedia Article

In 2013 I visited my sister in St. Paul, Minnesota and we made a bit of a literary tour, stopping at bookstores and also W. A. Frost where a young F. Scott Fitzgerald frequented when he was growing up in the neighborhood. W. A. Frost is in the historic Dacotah Building, built in 1889. I took a few photos and posted them in my blog, “A Literary Tour of St. Paul, Minnesota,” and MNopedia liked one of them and used it for their article on the Dacotah Building.

You can follow the link to the MNopedia article.

Here is my photo that was published with the article:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Here are a couple other photos of the building:

Link to my original blog post from 25, May, 2013, “A Literary Tour of St. Paul Minnesota.”

“Coming Home to Peace” excerpt from Walking the Medicine Wheel published in Parabola Magazine, Fall 2018

Parabola Magazine has just published an abridged version of the “Coming Home to Peace” chapter from the book that Joseph Rael and I wrote, Walking the Medicine Wheel: Healing Trauma & PTSD.

journey-home-cover-large

I am so excited and honored that our work is being featured in this great magazine. I first read Parabola when I was in college. It is the journal of The Society for the Study of Myth and Tradition and always has great features on topics around “the search for meaning,” with past contributors including Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, and Jacob Needleman. This current issue revolves around “The Journey Home,” and it is fitting to have our piece on the struggle of veterans to find their way home after military service. This issue features Parker Palmer, whose Center for Courage and Renewal has recognized my last two books as selections of their most courageous books of 2014 and 2016. I have also written guest blogs for their organization: “Recovering Hope, Poetry, and Connection in Health Care” and “Finding the Held-back Place of Goodness in the Broken Hearts of Veterans.” It is great to see Joseph’s and my work sharing space in Parabola with an excerpt from Parker Palmer’s new book, The Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity & Getting Old. Another author I have great respect for is featured in this issue, Kabir Helminski, with an excerpt from his book, Holistic Islam: Sufism, Transformation & the Challenge of Our Time. Peter Kingsley, author of Reality and A Story Waiting to Pierce You, has also been interviewed by Parabola in the past.

How exciting and rewarding it is to have Walking the Medicine Wheel: Healing Trauma & PTSD – this work of the heart that Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow) and I have done together – honored in this way, being published in a magazine that has inspired me since my days in college.

front-cover-final

I am also happy that we are able to promote the work of so many others in this Parabola essay. Ed Tick, John Wesley Fischer, Jonathan Shay, Bryan Doerries, Claude Anshin Thomas, Judith Herman, and Robert Jay Lifton are all cited and credited for their work. I am also happy that Buchanan Rehabilitation Centre, where I worked in New Zealand, is mentioned in the piece, as that is a place very dear to my heart.

Here is a quote from the article:

“We can assist returning veterans through creating an initiation and rehabilitation framework. In essence, we as a society, need to have some framework for accepting, understanding, and transforming veterans’ pain. Transformation means that we take something that exists in one state and transform it into another state. For instance, wee take something that is manifesting its energy in a ‘negative’ way and transform it so that it manifests in a positive way,” (Parabola, 88).

I wish we had a little more of Joseph’s words in this piece, but this was a section putting our work in the context of the work of others. Joseph says that we need to help veterans find the “held-back place of goodness” in their hearts. If you want to hear Joseph in his own words, you can watch one of the videos on the website for Walking the Medicine Wheel.

The Parabola editors choose one of our paintings from the book for the article. The painting below is my rendition of Joseph’s medicine wheel that I added some universal spiritual symbols to in the center.

Cosmic Medicine Wheel.jpg2

Cosmic Medicine Wheel, David R. Kopacz, © 2016

This issue of Parabola is not out on the newsstand yet, but you can see the cover and some of the current issue on their website and it should be on the newsstand soon!

 

 

Reading in Iceland

It is said that 1 in 10 people in Iceland will publish a book. The everlasting daylight of summer gives way to cold and darkness in the winter where people must get creative to occupy themselves. (There is also a high percentage of musicians in Iceland). Reykjavík has a lot of bookstores and there are many Icelandic authors – about half the books are in English and half in Icelandic in the stores.

I have long wanted to go to Iceland – something about the natural beauty, and maybe the creativity goes along with that in some way. In planning the trip, I had been more aware of my Welsh ancestry, but I do have a small percentage of Scandinavian DNA, 3% by Ancestry.com estimates. Maybe this was through various ancient European migrations, more recent linkages through my father’s Polish side (where we cannot get back much more than my Great Great grandparents who immigrated to the USA), or perhaps most likely through Viking raids into Britain (my mom has a surprisingly high percentage of Scandinavian DNA).

I walked through several bookstores, looking to pick up a book by an Icelandic author. Laxness novels were well represented, but what caught my eye was a trilogy by Jón Kalman Stefánsson and these books accompanied me throughout our journeys in Iceland, on the 8 hour plane flight back to Seattle, and for my first week back in the States as I finished reading them. I liked them so much that I will provide a short review of the books (possibly giving away a little bit of plot), or maybe just list a few of my favourite quotes. Not only were they great books that I found very gripping, but also, perhaps one gets a bit more of a feel for a culture reading its literature and going into the inner psychological and narrative realms, in addition to moving through the beautiful and awesome landscapes.

The weather was very nice when we were in Iceland, but internally I was whipped by the cold sea water and snow and ice of Iceland winter as I read Kalman’s books. Death, life, poetry, the life and death demands of writing and reading, the struggle to find home, to find identity, and the struggle of creatives to find a place in society that often did not provide a place for creativity are some of the themes of these books: Heaven and Hell; The Sorrow of Angels; and The Heart of Man.

 

Heaven and Hell

Heaven and Hell (2)

Our words are a kind of rescue team on a relentless mission to save past events and extinguished lives from the black hole of oblivion, and that is no easy task; along the way they are welcome to find some answers, then get us out of here before it is too late. Let this suffice for now, we’ll send the words on to you, those bewildered, scattered rescue teams unsure of their task, all compasses broken, maps torn or out of date, yet you should welcome them. Then we shall see what happens,” (3).

Thus begins the book which follows “the boy” (no name is given which makes him a kind of everyman/everyperson). He has lost everyone he cared about in his life. Father drowned at sea, he and his brother fostered out to homes in other villages. He receives letters from his mother, until she and his young sister die of illness. His mother wrote him about her and his father’s passion for books and reading.

We thought continuously about books, about being educated, became fervent, frantic, if we heard of some new interesting book, imagined what it might be like, spoke about its possible contents in the evenings, after you’d gone to bed. And later we’d read it in turns, or together, when and if we managed to get hold of it, or a handwritten copy of it,” (34).

The boy is befriended by Bárður, another lover of books, and they work on fishing boats, out in the sea, fishing for cod. One early morning they are preparing for sea. Bárður goes back to the house to read through some lines of Paradise Lost, to read to the boy and savour when they are out at sea with the crew in the small sixareen. Bárður remembers the poetry, but he forgets to bring his waterproof coat and a sudden winter storm lashes down upon the crew while they are pulling up their lines.

Bárður had taken the boy to the village to visit an old blind sea captain, blind like Milton was when he dictated Paradise Lost. Kolbeinn, the blind captain says to Bárður, “you see…it will change your life, which could certainly use a change,” (55). The book does certainly prove to change Bárður’s life. As they row out to sea, Bárður is thinking about the lines from Paradise Lost. Kalman doesn’t bother setting off quotes when someone is talking or reciting lines of poetry, it all runs together without clear separation of inner and outer.

“Bárður pants and mumbles something, in snatches of the strain…cowl casts…colour of dusk. All of their hearts beat fast. The heart is a muscle that pumps blood, the abode of pain, loneliness, joy, the one muscle that can keep us awake at night,” (50).

When the rain and snow starts, Bárður realizes he does not have his waterproof.

“Damned waterproof, I forgot it, and Bárður curses more, he curses having focused unnecessarily on memorizing lines from Paradise Lost, so focused that he forgot his waterproof…This is what poems can do to us,” (60).

It begins to become clear, quite quickly, that Bárður’s life is in danger. Their captain, a man of few words, begins to chant. He goes through a kind of shamanic transformation – such is the power of words when they are forged deep within the center of being. Words have an energy and his chants begin to build up heat as he recites the only poems he knows, at first about heroism on the sea, but eventually obscene verses. As the heat builds, perhaps the heat of these words can save him from the foolishness fix that carrying poetry rather than a waterproof have gotten him into…

“The verses gush out of him. As if to exorcise the arctic cold itself. The verses become steadily more raw, more violent, and Pétur is transformed. He is no longer a silent, serious skipper, the workhorse, something ancient and dark awakens in him, this is no longer poetry that wells up from within him, poetry is for laggards and schoolmen, this is a primitive force, a language with deep roots in a dim subconscious, sprung from a harsh life and ever present death. Pétur grows burning hot and he rocks rhythmically on the thwart, slaps his hands now and then on his thigh when the rhyming words become so heavy that it is difficult for the human body to handle them, because the human body is delicate, it cannot bear the impact of large rocks, cannot bear avalanches, the stinging cold, cannot endure loneliness, cannot endure rhyming words heavy with antiquity, saturated with lust, and this is why Pétur slaps his thigh, to bring words forth, and the five men start in surprise, everyone bound by this primitive power streaming from their skipper…Pétur has taken off his sou’wester, he has been sweating,” (63-64).

Maybe this ancient force of words that has awakened from deep within the skipper can save Bárður, but alas, a doubt arises in Pétur’s mind, in his heart, and the words sputter to a halt and Bárður murmurs

“nothing is sweet to me, without thee, mumbles Bárður, the line of poetry written in the letter Bárður finished last evening, addressed to Sigriður… (71)…Bárður always went out at 8.00 to gaze at the moon and at the same time Sigriður watched as well, there were mountains and distances between them but their eyes met on the moon, precisely as the eyes of lovers have done since the beginning of time, and that is why the moon was placed in the sky,” (103-104).

Bárður freezes to death and dies in the boat before they get to shore and the boy has lost his anchor to this world again.

“Some poems take us places where no words reach, no thought, they take you up to the core itself, life stops for one moment and becomes beautiful, it becomes clear with regret and happiness. Some poems change the day, the night, your life. Some poems make you forget your waterproof, the frost comes to you, says, got you, and you’re dead,” (85).

The boy is driftless, without purpose, without connection to the social world. He decides he will kill himself, but first he needs to return the copy of Paradise Lost that Bárður borrowed from the blind sea captain, Kolbeinn. This book that caused the death of his friend becomes the thing that keeps him alive, at least until he can return it. He struggles over mountain and snow. Returns the book, but rather than kill himself he is taken in by a group of intellectuals, misfits, and very interesting people who live on the fringe of society. Like a band of punk rockers, they find companionship through the thing they have in common: not fitting into society.

One person he met had studied and journeyed abroad and was a reader of books:

“He’d been in the habit for many years of making long journeys, most often abroad, since there is nothing to see in Iceland except mountains, waterfalls, tussocks and this light that can pass through you and turn you into a poet,” (118).

I thought this line was quite interesting – the very reason that someone might have wanted to leave Iceland to see the world is now the very reason that so many tourists journey to Iceland: to see “mountains, waterfalls, tussocks.” I’m not sure if many of the tourists who venture through Iceland on guided tours notice “the light that can pass through you and turn you into a poet.” But maybe that explains why so many Icelanders become writers – this light that is turning them all into poets, poets, who, like all poets, have no choice but to let lose their words upon the world.

“But why tell you these stories?

What terrifying powers, other than despair, fling us over the Unnameable in order to tell you stories of extinguished lives?

 Our words are confused rescue teams with obsolete maps and birdsong in place of compasses. Confused and profoundly lost, yet their job is to save the world, save extinguished lives, save you and then hopefully us as well,” (95).

I won’t tell you the rest of the book and neither will I tell you more of the plot in the next two books, but I will share a few more quotes from the next two books.

 

The Sorrow of Angels

Sorrow.2

Our movements may be uncertain, hesitant, but our goal is clear ― to save the world. Save you and ourselves with these stories, these snippets from poems and dreams that sank long ago into oblivion. We’re in a leaky rowing boat with a rotten net and we’re going to catch stars,” (10).

The book starts with what sounds like the dead speaking from beyond the grave, or maybe it is all the Writers in the world speaking out to all the Readers. The book has more harrowing journeys over snow and blizzards and sea. This book continues the theme of those creatives who have to write, who have to question the meaning and value of what is given them in this world and in the social structures.

“He who stays up too late is poorly fit for the next day’s work, but he who doesn’t follow his dreams loses his heart,” (24).

I will just provide one other quote from this book and we will skip the plot:

“Of what other use is poetry unless it has the power to change fate?” (26).

 

The Heart of Man

The Heart of Man

“Where do dreams end, where does reality begin? Dreams come from within, they trickle in from the world that we all have inside us, possibly distorted, but what isn’t distorted, what isn’t dented?” (9).”

This book continues on these themes of inner and outer reality,  of what is created and what exists, of the inner movements of the heart against the struggles against the background of the social and physical landscapes. The boy is growing up. As I read these books I’m reminded of Dostoevsky, Camus, Kafka, but there is a bit of playfulness here along with a struggle against ending up bitter, like Louis Ferdinand-Céline if he had remained a poet and social critic and had not become a nihilist and anti-Semite. Kalman has elements of Existentialism, but he has hope, hope that the poets words can be rescue teams, search parties, that they can somehow find and redeem the heart of humanity.

“A nation that translates little, focusing only on its own thoughts, is constricted, and if it boasts a large population it becomes dangerous to others, as well, because most things are alien to it except for its own thoughts and customs. Translations broaden people, and thereby the world. They help you understand distant nations. People hate less, or fear less, what they understand. Understanding can save people from themselves. Generals have a harder time getting you to kill if you possess understanding. Hatred and prejudice, I say to you, are fear and ignorance; you may write that down,” (163).

How appropriate is this quote is – written in 2011 in the Icelandic and translated to English 2015 – with the rise of nationalism in the United States and around the world! Would that help us in our current state of the rampant rise of nationalism, intolerance, and the radical “other-ing” happening across the globe? Where can we find the light to fight this darkness sweeping the globe?

“I don’t know where the darkness comes from, yet I think that it comes from the same place as the light, and I think it grows dark because we let it happen. I think that it’s difficult to attain the light, often very difficult, but I also think that no-one attains it for us…If we don’t set out on our own, life is nothing,” (333).

Like Carl Jung, Kalman sees the light and dark arising from the same place. As Jung wrote:

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

The boy, who often is more aware of his inner mind and heart as he struggles with the sea and the snow, which claim many victims throughout the books. He struggles to find out who he is, he struggles to learn love and his own heart, he struggles to find his way in a world that seems created for people who are non-reflective. As persistently the environment struggles to erase and eradicate life, there is this compensatory realm of the inner world of the heart and the way it journeys out into the outer world through word and stories – trying to find some meaning and truth.

This is a war against oblivion, in the hope that hidden within the stories are words that free us from our fetters. You as well,” (87).

This ends our review of Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s trilogy. I have material for one more post following our trip from Reykjavik to Vestmannaeyjar Island, the last leg of our trip that circles back around to Keflavik airport and back to Seattle.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Continuing Onward: Pentre Ifan to Manchester

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Pentre Ifan

I am slowly posting some of the photos from our recent trip to England, Wales, and Iceland. We pick up driving north from Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. Our first stop was Pentre Ifan – a megalithic monument from Neolithic times, perhaps as old as 3,500 BCE.

From there, a short stop in Nevern to see a celtic cross and Nevern Church.

We then drove up to Aberystwyth for a nice lunch at Ultracomida and then stopping in Holywell – the birth place of my Great Great Grandfather, John Roberts.

We then made our way to Manchester where we met up with friends we knew from New Zealand and Chicago.  I went into the city on a rather dreary day, fitting since most of what I knew about Manchester came from reading about the bands Joy Division and New Order (for some of my writings on Joy Division follow the link to my website). I bought a copy of Paul Morley’s Joy Division: Piece by Piece – Writing About Joy Division 1977-2007 at the Manchester Art Gallery. Morley, whose career as a music writer started about the same time that Joy Division ended, wrote:

“There’s no doubt though that Manchester moved into the future when for a time it seemed as though it was sinking back into the past it would never escape. The first people to really believe that Manchester could move into the future, that change was important especially in an area that had initiated some of the most important technological, creative and environmental changes in modern times – in a way, the birthplace of the modern – were those people that used punk music and then post-punk music, to work out how ideas and ideals would keep alive this progressive spirit,” (46).

Reading Morley reminded me of how important music was for me growing up and how much bands from this region were part of my life as a teenager and young man. This idea of rebelling against the constrictions and weight of the past and convention and struggling to find a way forward into the future – a way that was creative, bold, visionary, and meaningful – came to me through punk and post-punk music.

Given the rainy, dreary day, I spent most of my time in the John Rylands Library. A private library that Rylands widow created as a memorial to the entrepreneur and philanthropist and Manchester’s first millionaire (1801-1888) who made his money in the textile industry.

I sat and wrote at a little desk in a nook in the library, after I had looked through the special exhibit, “The Alchemy of Colour.” 

We brought to a close a wonderful trip to England and Wales, with beautiful weather, the only real day of full rain was in Manchester, but I didn’t mind – its seemed appropriate. The hot weather has continued in Wales and the drought has reveled signs of ancient civilization, revealing Roman forts and Iron Age structures.

 

Ancient Wonderings

Our view of history is often so short-sighted and narrow. Starting with my own thoughts of my genealogy that stretched back into Wales, Ireland, and England, I kept seeking older history. Lullingstone Roman Villa, Little Solsbury Hill, St. David’s Head, Pentre Ifan – these places on the land hosted human beings 2,000 years ago to 5,000 years + ago. We know so little of our ancient ancestors and of their ancient wisdom. I picked up James Canton’s book, Ancient Wonderings: Journeys Into Prehistoric Britain, at the Waterstones near Picadilly Circus. He concludes his book on his journeys into the past through the landscape of the present:

“I had dug ever deeper into the minds and beliefs of those souls who lived upon these lands thousands of years before us and it had become ever more evident that to understand the ancient British ways and practices, you had to see these lands in relation to Europe. Eight thousand years ago, Doggerland had physically linked Britain to the continent. Then Britain had become separated. In the Neolithic Age, while there had certainly been a sense of cultural practices being shared across these islands, as the spread of stone circles and the development of agriculture illustrated, Britain had been more isolated, then more inward looking. By the Bronze Age, travel had extended beyond voyages around the islands of the Britain and Irish archipelago…I saw a map of prehistoric Britain and Europe before me with a series of black lines criss-crossing and steadily enmeshing the land, which signified the journeys made in distant times, the movements of highly skilled people, of gold and tin, of the finest flint arrowheads, of Bronze axes and swords, of jet and of jewellery…and of astronomical instruments…I would venture over the seas, beyond the prehistoric worlds of Britain to those of mainlands Europe…” (321-322).

 

 

 

The Being Behind Becoming

A Review of Songs for Siva: Vacanas of Akka Mahadevi, translated by Vinaya Chaitanya (2017).

Songs for Siva cover

A small hardcover volume filled with poems seeking to move from duality and separation into divine union ― Songs for Siva is a new translation by Vinaya Chaitanya of the 12th century poet, Akka Mahadevi. She was known as “sky-clad” (digambaras), as she was of the tradition of the wandering saint, clad only with the hair she was given.

               If the cloth that covers them slips,

               Men and women become shy.

               If you, lord of life,

               Envelop the whole world,

               What is there to be shy of?

               If Channamallikarjuna, jasmine-tender,

               Sees with the whole world as eyes,

               What shall you cover and hide, O man? (145)

The foreword by H.S. Shivaprakash describes Akka’s writing as “poetic without being poetry, spiritual without being religious or scriptural,” (vii). Transcending duality, Shivaprakash further states that Akka’s pathway of Siva is “where heaven and hell become one in the clear understanding of continuous awareness, turning nectar and poison into each other,” (viii).

               You grasped the space within the space

               That no one knows

               And handed it to me,

               O Guru Channamallikarjuna, jasmine tender (92)

Translator, Vinaya Chaitanya, provides an informative and intriguing introduction to Akka Mahadevi. Chaitanya draws parallels between the 12th century Virasaiva movement that Mahadevi was part of, and the translator’s own wisdom lineage of Narayan Guru: speaking out against discrimination and oppression based on separation and difference such as “caste, sex, language or dress,” (xvi). Chaitanya quotes Narayana Guru, “Humanity is of one caste, of one religion and of one God,” (xxix). As well as looking forward to the present, Chaitanya also looks back to the past, describing the Virasaiva movement as a continuation of the pre-Aryan, pre-Vedic “older, more contemplative tradition associated with Siva,” (xxiii). This movement accorded equal status to the sexes and there are “thirty-three vacanakartis (women writers of vacanas)” whose poems are known, (xxiv).

               I saw the divine form…

               I saw the great one

               Who makes all the males female.

               I saw the supreme guru

               Channamallikarjuna, jasmine-tender,

               Ever united with the primal Sakti.

               Seeing him, I am saved. (141)

Ardhanarisvara

Ardhanarisvara

One of the fundamental human differences that is frequently a basis of discrimination is male and female. Chaitanya writes, “It is the dialectics between male and female that makes for the creative evolution of the world. When these opposites are united in harmony, there is peace and contentment; when the balance between them is lost, there is suffering,” (xii). The longing for union that Akka Mahadevi expresses toward her Lord Siva, whom she calls Channamallikarjuna, goes beyond the union of male and female, which is still a form of separation and dualism, to a state of mystical union with the Divine. A.K. Ramanujan translated Channamallikarjuna as “jasmine-white Lord,” in his translations of the 1970s, whereas Chaitanya chooses a slightly different translation, “jasmine-tender,” and continues to use the original in the poems as well, Channamallikarjuna (“Channa means ‘beautiful’; mallika is jasmine; arjuna meaning ‘bright’ or ‘white’”).

               My mind is unhappy.

               It cannot become empty

               Forgetting the two.

               Show me how you can become me,

               O, Channamallikarjuna, jasmine-tender. (10)

Like another Bhakti poet, Mirabai, Akka Mahadevi was married to a husband, but considered herself married to God, in Mirabai’s case Shyam (Krishna) and for Mahadevi, Śiva. The poems are called vacanas, meaning “to give one’s word” or “to make a promise or commitment,” (xxiii).

               Like treasure hidden by the earth.

               Like taste hidden by the fruit…

               Channamallikarjuna, jasmine-tender,

               Hides as the being behind becoming;

               No one knows him. (9)

Aside from the timeless beauty of these poems, which express the ancient mystical longing to transcend dualism, these vacanas are topical today ― when we live in such a time that focuses so very much on walls and borders, differences and separation. We need reminders of our human unity and of the sacred and divine Oneness that transcends and swallows all our differences into the vast Cosmic Ocean of Being, out of which all this becoming arises.