Archive for the ‘Eastern Philosophy’ Category
Even before the emergence of myths and drama, our ancestors produced symbols to express the quandary of their condition. No image encapsulates the pattern of human experience quite so precisely and succinctly as the ancient mandala, rendered most elegantly in the icons of Tibetan Buddhism, but dating back dozens of millennia to man’s most primordial symbol making and as far forward as his most contemporary dream weaving.
Stripped bare of its elaborate ornamentation, the mandala essentially consists of three basic elements: a small circle, enclosed by a square, enclosed by a large circle. As I see it, these three simple shapes correspond ever so neatly with the three elementary components of every great story, namely every great myth that has endured the ages. In The Odyssey, the classic hero’s tale, we have departure, adventure and return. In the Riddle of the Sphinx we hear of childhood, manhood and old age. The Book of Genesis speaks of Paradise, Paradise lost and Paradise regained, or in the parlance of the New Testament, we have birth, death and rebirth. These are but four of the best known examples, from which we could extrapolate ad infinitum to draw parallels with every familiar storyline.
In other words, the simple geometry of a mandala acts as a metaphor for the simple structure of the myth, which is a metaphor in itself. So, let’s see if we can’t do a little metaphorical unpacking here to unravel the symbols of the human experience.
Our story begins in the small circle. A one-sided shape with neither top nor bottom, the circle signifies wholeness, unity. This is the circle of bliss, in the ignorance of infancy, where the undeveloped psyche draws no distinction between itself and the other. Then the child grows and enters the square, defined as having a top and a bottom, a left and a right, perfect pairs of opposites. As she encounters the unknown, the child must learn to classify things, to differentiate between good and bad, and to categorize the objects of her world into neat little boxes. The hero spends a lifetime navigating this terrain, which many mandalas aptly portray as an intricate maze, much like the labyrinth of the Minotaur.
The rigorous complexity of the square eventually takes its toll, and the individual longs for the simple unity it knew in the womb or in childhood. But there’s no going home again. To fulfill his destiny, he must advance to the next level, and this metaphor functions equally well for every stage of development and maturation. When the going gets rough, you can’t just move back in with your parents and resume the life of a happy child anymore than you can squeeze your toothpaste back into the tube. And yet, how many unhappy adults do we know who try to pass themselves off as happy adolescents?
Finally, the page rescues the princess; the martyr is reborn and crowned king; the Jedi knight reconciles the forces of darkness and light. The protagonist overcomes his challenge after grappling with the pairs of opposites, and he comes to terms with male and female, good and evil, right and wrong. The cycle is now completed in this state of enlightenment. He enters the higher circle and recognizes his oneness with an understanding he never had as a child. He has differentiated himself from the other, wrestled with the unknown, and now he embraces a unity vast enough to include all of it.
The terminology of archetypal psychology describes these three stages with marvelous clarity. The mandala diagram essentially illustrates what Carl Jung calls unconscious perfection (of childhood), conscious imperfection (of middle age), and conscious perfection (of old age). We may recall a passage of the Bible that puts it similarly. “Except ye become as a child, ye cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 18:3) Indeed, the ultimate destination is a circle, just as the starting point is a circle, put a circle on a whole other order of magnitude.
It is vitally important, in the imagery of the mandala, that each shape is contained inside the other. Moving from one level to the next does not mean abandoning the previous stage, but requires the act of transcending and including. This is worth remembering through any and all stages of maturation, for the initiate will inevitably be tempted to reject his prior identity and cling to the “better” and more sophisticated self. But this is a mistake. The true sophisticate will retain all of it, understanding that even those inferior qualities contribute something valuable to the whole.
The large circle seems to represent the highest realm of consciousness, enlightened Buddhahood and oneness with the divine. For most of us then, the mandala provides a helpful roadmap for spiritual development, even as we realize we are unlikely to attain that state of total nirvana on any regular basis. It this case, it is useful to see the image a metaphor for incremental improvements, as we climb upward step by step. So don’t get too comfortable when you reach the big circle; it is not the finish line, but merely the opening of the next mandala, in a cycle that repeats itself indefinitely, as we continue to step out of our comfort zones and into the unknown, always striving to include and transcend and grow as humans.
Finally, we can read the mandala as a metaphor for human development on a larger, historical scale. In antediluvian times, our as forefathers gathered around the fire, danced naked in the moonlight, and threw virgins off of the pyramids, they experienced a unity with god, or “participatio dei.” Even in more recent history, the prophets and patriarchs of the Old Testament spoke to God, through angels and shrubs.
Only in the last three or four centuries, thanks to the paradigm shattering discoveries of Galileo, Kepler, Newton, etc., whose discoveries literally moved the earth, mankind has been driven into a quagmire of spiritual uncertainty where God is dead. We have succeeded in naming the elements, categorizing the life forms, and dating the universe, but we have separated ourselves from Mother Earth and Father Sky. We have learned to dominate our environment, but at what cost? The last century has seen a mad rush to return to the comfort of the small, infantile circle, in the form of religious fundamentalism, astrology and wicca. Yet we know that this regression will get us nowhere.
In order to thrive and regain the state of blissful unity, we must move forward, we must take the next step up that spiraling staircase. Our faith in the forces of the market are no substitute for an immovable faith in the All Father, but this is where we have arrived. Adam Smith’s invisible hand cannot replace Neptune’s triton, but for many it has. To restore the lost paradise we must rediscover one another, we must reconnect with highest forms of human potential, we must abandon the false idolatry of materialism, and we must learn to see through the eyes of others as if they were our own.
Some call him the elephant head, some call him the Remover of Obstacles. What is this fascination we have with the glorious Lord Ganesh, India’s mighty and most revered elephant deity? None can deny the charm of the thick-skinned behemoth, the largest animal to walk on land since the ice age, with its chunky tree trunk legs, its floppy ears and that ridiculous protrusion of a trunk. Legend of both the savannah and the big top, the elephant lends itself easily to fairy tales and folklore; but take a close look at the iconography of Ganesh and you’ve got a regular circus of mythological exegesis.
Ganesh stands out unmistakably among any pantheon of gods, with his prepossessing elephant head, that of an animal widely associated with long life, strength and wisdom, not to mention a perspicacious memory. The symbolism is fairly explicit, and the disproportionate size of Ganesh’s head suggests wisdom in every way. But a further look at the elephant noggin reveals more: his massive ears and his small, hidden mouth. Indeed, what could be a more universal indication of wisdom than to listen better and speak less? Proverbs Eastern and Western all point to this noble disposition. And when the face of wisdom has a nose like a 6-foot garden hose, we are reminded that wisdom is unremarkable without the virtue of good sense of humor.
Something about the face of an elephant, it never looks angry, never overly worried. And what good is wisdom, worldly or spiritual, without the ability to relax and laugh at your own shortcomings? Ganesh’s healthy, round belly reiterates this air of joviality. He is one who laughs often and enjoys life, not overly concerned with asceticism and self-abnegation, unlike many other religious teachers.
Now, for some deeper layers of meaning, let’s have a look at Ganesh’s busy hands. The Indian deities are notorious for their many arms and hands, and hands are such an essential and defining characteristic of man as a species. (Consider the linguistic root of words like manual, from the latin manu, for hand.) This many-handedness, for me, signifies the super-human status of the gods. Not non-human, as western theology often suggests, dividing us from them (or from Him), but more than human, possessing our vital characteristics, only more so.
Representations of Ganesh typically show him with four or six hands, and although depictions can vary quite widely (with up to 20 or more hands), there are a number of standard accoutrements that the deity generally carries. One hand always holds something sweet and delicious, and it’s often difficult to see what it is exactly—maybe a mango—but it tends to be in one of the lower hands, held near the belly and the end of the trunk. Materially, this signifies, like his jolly belly, Ganesh’s ability to enjoy some of life’s sweet pleasures. But spiritually, and more significantly, it suggests the sweet rewards of mental discipline, the kinds achieved through meditation and devotional practice. This divine delicacy, something reminiscent of the Manna from Heaven, is frequently held just below the trunk, where Ganesh seems to savor its aroma.
In the upper right hand, which we might reasonably consider to be the most important position, Ganesh is almost always wielding an axe. As with most images of destruction found in Indian mythology, this weapon is intended for chopping down evil and cutting it out of our lives. By evil, Ganesh really means to obliterate ignorance and illusion, the kinds of misunderstanding that lure us into cycles of suffering. Only by freeing ourselves from these fallacious paradigms, misconceptions about ourselves and the world around us, can we come close to finding enlightenment. The axe of Ganesh also serves to sever the bonds of attachment, the grasping and clinging. This attachment, to both objects and ideas, constrains us like chains, confining us to a narrow world view and preventing us from experiencing the world through clear, unfiltered eyes.
Across from the axe, in his upper left hand, Ganesh usually holds a rope. An implement of attachment, the rope would appear to act as a kind of counterpoint to the axe, suggesting the need to strike a balance between opposites. The rope is commonly identified as a yoke for leading an animal, which offers some interesting interpretation. Some say that Ganesh has harnessed an animal which leads him to his destination, underscoring the need to follow our passions in pursuit of our goals, again counterbalancing the axe which severs our desires and attachments. But I also see the rope as a tool for taming the inner beast, channeling the restless, primal energy and putting it to constructive use, the way our ancestors did when they domesticated the ox.
One more hand position worth mentioning, seen in the lower left hand of the Ganesh pictured above, is the open palm of protection. This virtually universal gesture of peace and providence can be found throughout the Buddhist and Hindu pantheon, as well as in the icons and images of western saints, including the Messiah himself. The protective hand reminds us of forces beyond our ken that guard our well being.
Another intriguing feature characteristic of many Ganesh masks and sculptures is the broken tusk, which can mean a few different things. One interpretation has to do with accepting the good with the bad, and not demanding perfection. The single broken tusk can also be thought of as the one flaw of an otherwise perfect figure. Consider Marilyn Monroe’s dainty mole, or more significantly, the limp or scar that often afflicts a mythic hero. There are also a couple of anecdotal explanations. One reports that Ganesh lost a tusk in combat with his father Shiva, and another explains that Ganesh broke the tusk off himself to use as writing tool in transcribing the epic Mahabharata as it was dictated to him by the sage Vyasa.
Various depictions of Ganesh include countless qualities and signifiers, but I’d like to finish by looking at one last element, his vehicle, the little mouse (or rat) typically seen scurrying around the god’s feet. The idea that the elephant uses a rodent as his vehicle strikes me as something like a zen koan, an irreconcilable riddle to be contemplated rather than solved. Like the the yin yang, and numerous other symbols and stories, this partnership leads us to consider the relationship between opposites, as we must learn to embrace light and dark, good and evil, great and small, together as one.
Furthermore, the mouse of legends and lore often acts a symbol for our thoughts: the squeaky, incessant sound from inside, that inner dialog that races back and forth across the floorboards of our mind. Try as we might, this inner soundtrack cannot be silenced. Likewise, the elephant may try and stomp out the pesky mouse, but his clumsy stumps are no match for a darting rodent. Yet, Lord Ganesh, with his superhuman cranium, has somehow managed to tame his thoughts, to quiet his mind, to control the seemingly uncontrollable. And that is the most divine feat of all. For thoughts are the forerunner of all things; our thoughts become our reality, so when we control our thoughts we control our world.
For an even more sophisticated interpretation, consider the rat. The rat is a pest, and we are pestered by our conscience. Our conscience speaks to us from the other side, reminding us of our transgressions and helping us distinguish between right and wrong. A healthy, well-developed conscience can guide us in our actions and our choices, and this guidance is the vehicle on which an enlightened creature moves forward.
Take a good look at the elephant god. Smile at his flappy ears and laugh at his dangling trunk. But also meditate on his wisdom and his mental prowess. Invoke him for strength and courage. Follow his example, learn to overcome the illusions and accept the contradictions, and soon you will be removing obstacles on your own.
Running a business is hard work, but when you have a product you believe in and clientele you can genuinely respect, and who genuinely respect you, then it is truly a labor of love. Even so, it’s very important to make time for diversions. That why I set aside a little time for bamboo haiku, combining two of my favorite asian contributions to civilization.
The multifaceted grass and the 17-syllable poetry seem to go hand-in-hand. They both soothe the soul and inspire the heart, helping to release the mind from the fetters of the daily grind. They take you back to nature and, at their best, they aim to elevate one’s consciousness to a higher plane.
Some prefer chair yoga and micro meditation, but whatever it takes to break up the monotony of the work day and keep your spirit grounded, I say go to it!
And perhaps most important of all, it’s essential to keep a sense of humor in all of your endeavors.
“One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain,” so says the Rasta wise man Bob Marley. Healing the body with sound and music is nothing new, rather it is an ancient art whose time for rediscovery has come. And as frustration with conventional Western medicine grows and grows—whether you attribute it to new diseases and longer life spans, point the finger at the insurance companies and the ruthless monetization of medical care, or simply blame it on Obama—the popularity of alternative treatments just continues to blossom like a giant lotus in a Japanese garden.
In that vein, the Hearst Cancer Resource Center at French Hospital here in San Luis Obispo just introduced a new class: Sound Therapy with Singing Bowls. Anyone who’s ever picked up a singing bowl (of course, we always have several to choose from here at Bambu Batu) and rubbed it the right way, knows a little about the wondrous sensations produced by the resonation of these mystical Tibetan instruments whose tradition goes back over three millennia. But proper therapeutic use of the singing bowl involves a bit more knowledge and technique.
The class is being offered on the second Monday of each month from 5-6 pm at the HCRC. Instructor Sean Levahn is a licensed massage therapist and certified Reiki master. For more info, call the HCRC at 805-542-6234.
“The Magician and the Prince” | A Zen Parable from Bambu Batu
Once upon a time in a faraway kingdom there lived a bright young prince who believed in all things but three. He did not believe in volcanos, he did not believe in princesses, and he did not believe in God.
One clear summer day, under a sky as blue as corydalis, the prince took his horse on a long, long ride, beyond the boundaries of his father’s vast dominions. Near the summit of a high mountain he met a strange old man. This foreigner spoke to the prince of his own homeland, near the volcanoes, among gentlemen and beautiful princesses.
The prince did not believe these stories, so he demanded to see proof. With the old man, he traveled for another day until they passed a pair of princesses on the road, and later climbed to the rim of a volcano.
The prince hurried home on his steed, and ran straight to the king. “Father! I have seen volcanos! I have seen princesses! I have seen God!”
“But son,” the king replied, “volcanos, princesses and God do not exist.”
“I saw them!”
“Tell me what God looked like.” So the prince described the long beard and the unusual hat as he remembered them. The king sat back and laughed. “You have described a magician. You did not meet God. You were fooled. The princesses and volcanos were simply illusions.”
Disappointed, the prince hopped right back on his horse to cross the hills and find the old man. “You lied to me,” he said. “My father is the king and he has explained your tricks. There are no volcanos and there are no princesses.”
“Aha,” said the old man. “I haven’t tricked you. There are volcanos and princesses in your kingdom as well, but you can’t see them because you are under your father’s spell. For he is a magician as well.”
When the prince returned home again, he looked his father in the eyes and asked him, “Is it true, father, what they say? That you are not a real king, but just a magician?”
“Yes, son, I am only a magician.”
“So the man in the faraway land really was God.”
“No son, that man was just another magician.”
“But I must know the real truth, beyond magic.”
“But there is no truth beyond magic,” said the king.
At this the prince sunk his head in despair and declared, “I will kill myself.”
So the king used his magic and called on Death to appear. The prince trembled in fear. His thoughts then returned to the incredible volcanos, and especially to the beautiful princesses.
“Alright then,” he said. “I can bear it.”
“Very good, my son,” said the king. “You too are becoming a magician!”
(Loosely adapted from a passage in “The Magus”, by John Fowles)
Scent is a sense that is intimately connected with human memory. The olfactory nerve is situated close to the amygdala, the area of the brain associated with emotion and emotional memory. Some biologists believe that olfactory memory evolved as an early form of communication. Surrounding yourself with comforting smells is not just a way to bring back pleasant experiences, but to also calm the nervous system and aid in meditation. At Bambu Batu, we carry a host of Indian, Nepali, and Tibetan incense. We are now proud to being offering Shoyedio Japanese incense in six individual blends and in variety packs of eight assorted scents.
As the legend goes, a piece of fragrant wood washed up on the shores of the Japanese island of Awaji 1,400 years ago. Recognizing its special fragrance, the locals preserved the treasure and offered it as a gift to Empress Suiko. In the early 18th century, Rokubei Moritsune Hata began to refine incense production techniques and introducing his creations to royalty and the general public. Twelve generations later, the Hata family is still crafting scents using the best natural ingredients. They are certified by the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade & Industry, and the US Fish & Wildlife Department, ensuring that their recipes use materials that are sustainably harvested and use no animal products.
Each box of Shoyeido Incense contains a bundle of 35 sticks, each with a burn time of 45 minutes. Most of the recipes are sandalwood based and include premium woods, herbs and spices, and all products are made in their factory in Kyoto, Japan. No accelerants are use, ensuring a long burn time and a pure, headache-free smoke. Bambu Batu’s Shoyeido collection ranges in price from $2.95 to $5.95 depending on variety. Come take a whiff and find your favorite!
In between the spiritual and physical realm walks the shaman, a figure that is able to communicate with both the material and ethereal. The figure of the ban jhankri, or “forest shaman”, comes from Nepal. Described by the indigenous folk as small, golden and hairy, they are master healers and those who chose human shamans to continue their work. Novices are typically young males who are then abducted to live and study in caves. They are later returned to their communities, hours or days after their disappearance. After their kidnapping, the acolytes find a human guru who helps them to initiate trances and communication with the ban jhankri.
The faces of the ban jhankri are carved out of the base of bamboo stalks where the “hair” is represented by the roots. Many of these representations are now being produced for sale in Thailand where artisans hand-carve the visages of the forest spirits. Said to be good luck and excellent feng shui, the rich earth tones and peaceful expressions bring a little of nature’s energy into the home.
Meditation has always been a wonderful way to calm, center, and focus the mind and spirit. Evidence out of UCLA suggests that this kind of quiet, directed introspection could also strengthen the connections between neurons and increase the amount of folding in the layers of the brain. A study by the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging shows that long-term meditators have a higher rate of gyrification, (or the amount of folding found in the cortex), which may allow practitioners to process information faster and integrate emotional and rational intelligence more efficiently.
Furthermore, there was a direct correlation between the amount of years spent in a variety of meditative disciplines, including Zen, Samatha, and Vipassana, and the total folding of the cortex. After scanning thousands of points across the brain, the researchers also noted pronounced increases in gyrification in specific regions of the brain, most interestingly within the insular regions. This might suggest a relationship between the area’s autonomic, affective, and integrative aspects and mediation’s goals of self-control, awareness, and introspection.
Following a form of meditation can also help manage physical pain. A study published in the American Psychological Association’s journal, Emotion, reported that research out of the of University Montreal discovered that Zen meditators had more grey matter than non-mediators. This meant that through thickening certain areas of their cortex, particularly the anterior cingulate which regulates pain, they were able to reduce their levels of sensitivity. Even their perceptions of physical discomfort were less pronounced, as their emotional reactions were more controlled and they experienced less anticipation an anxiety. Zen thought can even help re -focus someone back to their task at hand after being interrupted by distraction much more quickly.
With such amazing results, why not take a quiet moment or two to recite a mantra, do some yoga, or take a deep breath and ponder the mysteries of the universe? Your brain may fold in on itself with joy!
According to the Chinese zodiac, it is now officially the Year of the Dragon. What can we expect in the future as we transition from the Rabbit? Astrologers predict that the next year will hold good luck, as the dragon is the most auspicious and powerful of the signs, and an increase in the fertility rate. Those born in this year are said to be intelligent, energetic, extroverted, often conceited, and quick to lose their temper when provoked.
Although considered to bring good fortune, some believe that 2012 will hold more international conflict, citing the relationships between earth and water elements. The powerful yang of water might auger a natural disaster or the human struggles toward political equality. The water sign also represents charity and generosity, which hopefully could signal for a positive transformation of economic and societal institutions.
While there will be fighting and strife in the days ahead, the elements are not as much in opposition as in the past several years. From nature, we can forecast possible viral epidemics, and powerful disasters such as earthquakes and floods. Sadly, experts say that there are fewer angels of mercy to aid in what could be higher death tolls than normal. Fortunately, there should be an improvement in environmental protections and recovery from past human-made catastrophes like oil spills and and nuclear meltdowns.
Want to celebrate the Year of the Dragon here on the coast?
-Head to San Francisco, where 6,000 participants, 22 floats, marching bands, lion dancers, and an arsenal of firecrackers will dazzle your senses and help usher in good fortune and scare away the negative spirits of the past. The parade is held on February 11, and is one of the largest celebrations held outside of Asia. There is also a city-wide treasure hunt that takes seekers on a romp through San Francisco’s neighborhoods and rewards them with fun, prizes, and a healthy workout.
-San Luis Obispo locals can watch the Cal Poly Lion Dance Team perform around the county this month. Witness a cultural tradition and see the amazing strength and acrobatic skill required to bring these creatures to life! (Visit their website for a performance schedule.) If cavorting lions are not enough to impress you, on January 25 the Peking Acrobats challenge gravity at the Clark Performing Arts Center in Arroyo Grande. Tickets range from $45-55.
-Cal Poly will be hosting a dinner on January 28, where Wushu Taichi masters Liu Yu and Norm Petredean accompanied by students will give a demonstration. This graceful martial art will inspire serenity, strength, and promote a healthy flow of qi that will help balance and prepare you for the upcoming year.
Break out the red envelopes, make some mooncakes, and have a great Year of the Dragon!
For the past four years, Humanitarian Acts in Nepal Developing Schools (HANDS) has been working towards providing education and community development programs in Nepal. The seeds for HANDS were planted four years ago when founder and SLO County native Danny Chaffin, 20 years old and taking a break from school, decided to volunteer and travel through the country. Initially attracted by the Buddhist and Hindu cultures, Danny fell in love with the people he met in Tibet, living with a host family and learning traditional Thangka painting. Becoming more and more immersed in the traditions and society of the region, he looked to find ways in which he could give back to his adopted community.
After returning home from his first visit, Danny enrolled in Naropa University which was co-founded by famous Tibetan author, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. The school offered a Thangkha painting course, which he enthusiastically attended, and allowed him time to study and plan his next trip to East Asia. After a year, he made his way back to India, and then Nepal where he began to more seriously lay the foundations for a NGO. Returning from that excursion, Danny was able to file for official non-profit status and embark upon building a school in one of the villages he had visited. Taking a semester off from during the third year of the project, Danny was involved in overseeing the construction of the school. Being enrolled in Naropa’s Peace Studies program, he felt as though his work dovetailed perfectly with his coursework which placed a strong emphasis on international aid.
Now in its fourth year if operation, HANDS is accepting donations from across the United States and Nepal, and has two established schools to its name. Danny and his girlfriend are currently residing in Thailand where he is finishing up elective credits from Naropa and they are both continuing in their efforts to establish schools in Nepal. It’s so refreshing to hear about a local student in his mid-twenties with a passion for more than beer and spring break. Thank you, Danny for commitment to education, service, and social responsibility!
To learn more about HANDS or to make a tax-deductible donation, visit handsinnepal.org.