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!

 

 

Icelandic Journeys – Part III: Vestmannaeyjar Islands

Westman Islands

We hired a car and drove east out of Reykjavik heading out toward Vestmannaeyjar Islands (also known as Westman Island). It is called the Westman Islands because of a historical event in which Gaelic slaves were slain after having killed one of their captors. The Icelanders called these slaves “Westmen” as they were from the west of Scandinavia – this was in the era of the Vikings. In retribution most of the Westmen were killed and the island was thereafter called Vestmannaeyjar (Westman). I did not know this history until we went on a volcano and puffin bus tour of Heimaey Island, the largest of Vestmannaeyjar. My wife pointed out that I have a strange predilection for trying to find a remote island and then finding an even smaller, more remote island off the island – she reminded me of our Bruny Island trip off of Tasmania. That trip was a bit of a mixed bag, although I did go out at night to watch the penguins come in for the night and “dash” across the open beach.

Prior to arriving in Iceland, I did not necessarily connect it with the Vikings, but Viking history is a strong cultural heritage of Iceland. Iceland is now part of the European Union, but was settled in 874 by Norwegians. Slavery was widespread amongst many people in history. I also recently learned that the English word “slave” actually derives from the word “Slav” as in “Slavic.” (I learned this recently in Peter Frankopan’s book, The Silk Roads, also see the etymology of the word “slave.”). The Vikings plundered not just British Isles, but also down through the Slavic peoples, who apparently made good slaves were sold to (Muslim) nations in the Middle East. I came from two different peoples who were enslaved by the Vikings: the peoples of the British Isles and the Slavs. I also have a touch of DNA from the Scandinavians as well.

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Standing in front of a farm near Eyjafjallajökull

Prior to taking the 35 minute ferry ride from Landeyjahöfn, we stopped at Seljalandsfoss waterfall and watched the sea birds fly through the mist and land on the cliff’s edge where they had nests.

We drove a bit further east and got a view of Eyjafjallajökull, whose 2010 eruption had shut down air traffic in Europe for a period of time, and then caught the ferry to Heimaey Island.

Heimaey Island had its own volcanic eruption in 1973 with the creation of Eldfell, a 200 metre volcanic cone that covered part of the city in lava up to 30-40 metres deep (there are street signs that have been placed at the points of intersections below the lava flow). The island was evacuated and actually increased 20% in size.

The bus tour we took was informative and entertaining as we learned the history of the island and saw some of the sites, including a large puffin colony. We also stopped at the Aquarium and Natural History Museum which is also a puffin rescue. The majority of puffins are able to be released back into nature, but a few were not able to be reintroduced and live on site and are quite tame.

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Friendly Rescue Puffin

After the puffin and volcano tour, it was still light out (as it stayed light pretty much all night) so I drove back to the puffin colony. It was cold and windy on Stórhöfði peninsula, the guide said this is the windiest place in Europe and my eyes frequently watered as I watched the cute, awkward little puffins flap-flap-flapping their way to their burrows for the “night.” I spent a great and beautiful time watching these little birds and taking a couple hundred slightly blurry photos (either something is wrong with my auto-focus, or I must have been shivering more than I thought because every photo is slightly blurry – this was my third attempt to see puffins, the other two were unsuccessful on two different trips to Nova Scotia).

 

We just spent one night on Heimaey and could have spent a couple more, it was very peaceful and beautiful and had a brewery and a number of nice restaurants. We took the ferry back, made our way back toward Keflavík airport. We had a panic for a bit as we were in some rural areas and oddly the gas stations did not accept cash or American credit cards without PIN – we finally had to buy a money card with our credit card and then use it at the pump. We stopped briefly at the Flói Bird Reserve and were going to walk around but it was very boggy and we were about to get on the plane and didn’t want to pack wet shoes. There was the strangest bird that would fly straight up and make a sound like an electronic toy buzzing. I couldn’t get a good view of it through the camera.

We carried on toward Keflavík, occasional horses and farms gave way to volcanic landscapes, sometimes covered with moss and lichen and then we made the 8 hour flight back to Seattle.

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.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Iceland: Blue Lagoon, Reykjavik, Whale Watching

I’ve long wanted to go to Iceland and we finally made it. About an 8 hour direct flight from Seattle. You have up to a week you can take as a free layover on Icelandair. The flight was not bad. Food options were a little meager compared to most international flights and there was no complimentary meal. Otherwise it was good. We landed at Keflavík and caught a plane to Gatwick on the way out, on the way back we spent 5 days in Iceland.

Our first stop was the Blue Lagoon. It is a big tourist attraction, but still quite pleasant and relaxing. The water temperature was not as hot as some thermal pools, but that does mean that you can stay in longer and wade over to the bar. There were some warmer spots around the edges. We splurged on a nice first meal at the Lava restaurant. The food was excellent – but be aware that everything is very expensive in Iceland and it is easy for a quick lunch to turn into a major cash outlay. Lava was worth it, we felt, but we started to try to eat breakfast and lunch at the guest house where we were staying and save our expenditures for coffee, a snack, and dinner.

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Iceland is a small country, with a population of 350,00 for the whole country, 1/3rd of whom live in the largest city and capital, Reykjavík. Reykjavík was surprisingly touristy. You were more likely to meet a tourist than a local in the city centre. Between that and the prices, 2 days was plenty long in the city. I found an amazing record/cd store/record label, 12 Tónar. They welcome you with an espresso drink and there is a cozy living room-like listening room with sofas and chairs. Such a great environment!

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One of the iconic buildings, which also has a great view from the top (small entry fee) is the Hallgrímskirkja church, just up the block from 12 Tónar. It has a statue of Leifur Eiríksson who sailed to North America in the year 1000. The statue commemorates the 1000 year anniversary of Iceland’s parliament and was a gift from the United States in 1930. 2018 is the 100 year anniversary of Iceland’s independence from Denmark, but the country was founded in 930 CE.

 

We took a boat tour one evening out of Reykjavík. Getting used to the long days was interesting, it never really got completely dark whilst we were there. We went out on the water at 5 PM and arrived back at 8 PM and it still felt like daytime. I accidentally stayed up a couple nights until 1 AM and it still was a little light. On the whale watching tour we got a distant view of a Humpback and Minke whales. We saw pods of White-Beaked Dolphins and Common Porpoises.

 

I’ll continue on in the next post about “Reading in Iceland” and also cover some more of our travels in Iceland…

 

 

 

 

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)

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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.

 

 

 

 

“Sage – The Wise One”

Sage

Sage, photo © David Kopacz, 2018

Joseph Rael and I have just had an article published in the International Journal of Professional Holistic Aromatherapy entitled, “Sage – The Wise One.” (IJPHA, Volume 6, Issue 4, Spring 2018).

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The article is only available through subscription to the journal, or it will be eventually available as a back issue after the next issue is published.

I will just give a few excerpts here:

“I have been working with Joseph Rael, whose Tiwa name is Beautiful Painted Arrow. Joseph is of the Southern Ute tribe, but spent much of his childhood at the Tiwa-speaking Picuris Pueblo, in northern New Mexico. I asked Joseph for some teachings about plant medicine for this article. Joseph often teaches using the medicine wheel and I thought maybe he could teach me about a plant for each direction of the wheel. However, he went straight to the heart, straight to the center of the medicine wheel, and said there is only one plant that we really need to under­stand with the medicine wheel—Sage.”

Sage Smudge

Paua Shell and Sage, photo © David Kopacz, 2018

“I recently visited Joseph in Colorado. While driving around he always talks about different ideas and teachings. Several times he commented on Sage as we were driving. He said when an area opens up, for example if there is a fire or a place is abandoned, “Sage is the first plant to fill in the empty spaces.” That reminded me of something else he had been teaching lately, that “God is in the empty spaces, not in the words.” The word for God in the Tiwa lan­guage of Picuris Pueblo is Wah-Mah-Chi, Breath-Mat­ter-Movement. Breath is one of the ways that we come into a relationship with the plant world. Breath is one of the functions of God, Spirit, or what Joseph sometimes calls “Vast Self.” Breathing in the scents and aromas of plants is therefore working through the spirit of Wah Mah Chi—it is breath moving the matter of plant medicine, connecting inner and outer worlds.”

Sage Woman Becomes Visible to Bless the People

“Sage Woman Becomes Visible” © Joseph Rael, 2008

After speaking about Sage, Joseph continued by speaking about the secret mys­teries:

Mysteries—you get insights into consciousness, but you will not ‘get it’ until you get to a certain level of essence and spiritual understanding.

Secret—in your work, in my work, in everybody’s work, you have to dig it up, you have to bring up the secret from the darkness of the earth and bring it up.

Power of the Purple Sage Being

“Power of the Purple Sage Being,” © Joseph Rael, 2016

We close the article with the following:

“May we have the Sage wisdom to find the place of goodness within our hearts and bring it forth into this divisive world of trauma and suffering. Aho!”

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