Monthly Archives: March 2012

Who are these “god” persons, anyway? *

Zeus and his eagle -- Lakonian cup from Naucratis. One of my favourite deity images. 560-550 BCE

One thing I’ve been trying to do, by researching the hell out of anything I can get my hands on, is understand how gods, say, have “looked” to others over the millennia of human culture. The world does not always appear to me how it has been described.

Sometimes I experience things and it can be a case of, was this what x meant by y?… what I’ve discovered is a large accreted layer of cultural complication that obscures the nature of experience. Some people talk about things rather intellectually, as if you could just rearrange puzzle pieces. Human language is political and rhetorical — in contrast the underlying language of the universe is fresh and alive.

Gods really do appear to people. I hope more research is being done on the pagan end of it… yes I see it is, not sure about the illustration there though! Trails are being broken here, trying to bring forward threads from different dimensions.

Goodwyn’s Neurobiology of the Gods is a useful justification of Jungianism by neurophysiology that tends to suggest the gods are just in your brain and equivalent to Darwinian traits, leaving out synchronicity altogether. It’s very important to keep the neuroscience correlated, but perhaps one has to be careful not to turn it into apologia or be too straight, like The Phantom Menace next to Jung’s own views, the numinous Force becoming something to do with blood cells.

The times are a little bland don’t you sense? The truth is not always sensible. “Common sense is at times completely senseless,” says Hatsumi-soke in his foreword to Path Notes. The feeling of being amongst lots of experimentation, of a liminal phase of culture where any experience could happen, is drawing to a close. I suppose much of it got siphoned into vague rubbish anyway.

This post is about the cultural aspect of deities, about what happens. Gods get interwoven with human communities and whatever they may initially be, their nature changes with that step. They inevitably become political. A secular viewpoint reveals interesting details.

Looking at Chinese popular religion is fun if you are out of the habit of polytheism. Much of it could have been scripted by Jack Vance. Back in the 15th and 16th centuries, confused Jesuit missionaries observed that Chinese people, dissatisfied with a god’s services, would happily whip his statue through the streets. One man is said to have sued a god in court for failing to heal his daughter. What’s more interesting is that he won, and the god’s statue was exiled over the border, the monks shooed off to other things.

Modern Wenchang Figurine -- nowadays you'd mostly go to him for help and luck in your exams

Gods have careers and we can follow them. Last week I mentioned that Wenchang, a literary patron god and Confucian personification who has been worshipped for millennia now, is one of the few gods with an autobiography available to us. This is quite true and thanks to Terry Kleeman’s translation in A God’s Own Tale (1994), we can now read it in English. The document was obtained by spirit writing, on planchette, in 1181. It details the god’s beginning, numerous mortal incarnations, and apotheosis, with many fun incidents of weather control, interaction with dragons, and general settings of things to rights betweenwhiles.

A god’s behaviour and motivation turn out exactly as one would expect of his time and place. Deities have to conform to human laws. Plato tried this too, confronting the Greeks with the shamefulness of the gods’ behaviour in traditional tales — infanticide, theft, bickering and philandering is awkward in your divine models when you’re trying to teach ethics — but the tales were never really changed as he suggested, only reinterpreted. In a sense, Chinese culture claims to be Plato’s Republic in the flesh, and became far more openly moralising which you see in Wenchang’s Book of Transformations. Despite some Taoist leanings this god never puts a moral foot wrong from the Confucian angle, so from the modern rhetorical one, the document becomes a platform for the god (and his cult) to get to the exalted public position they enjoy today.

Chinese Planchette Writing is not dissimilar from the Western version -- click for detailed description

Spirit writing often took place at public ‘phoenix altars’, some of which were fortune telling stations. Not too different from modern trance mediums. One of the funniest true supernatural stories I’ve ever heard shows how they worked. A group of students gathers at a phoenix altar, interested in how they’ll fare in upcoming exams. They try to speak to Lü Dongbin, the great Taoist immortal who apparently often stopped by these places, but all they can get contact with at first is an uncouth spirit named Drunkard Zhao whom they hurriedly dismiss. Patriarch Lü does then show up though, so:

The students solemnly bowed twice, then asked about their fates in the examination. The phoenix wrote, “Rub more ink.” Thereupon each person prepared ink on his inkstone and in a moment they had filled a bowl. Kneeling, they asked how they should use it. The phoenix said, “You students divide it up and drink it, then hear my pronouncement.” They all divided the ink and drank it. When they had finished, the phoenix wrote in large characters, “Normally you do not study; now you drink ink at the last moment. I am not Patriarch Lü, I am still Drunkard Zhao!”

– Kleeman p. 11

Other shrines did no fortune-telling, preferring to heal and spread divine news. This type of activity produced Wenchang’s autobio. Let’s say he is no Drunkard Zhao. Between his constant military services to his country whilst incarnated, his diversion of rain to save villages from undeserved droughts, his righting of every sort of individual misdeed from infanticide to forced judicial confession, and his political efforts against rash rulers and their heavy mobs, one could hardly imagine a more respectable god. Heck, even between lives when ruling Taoist fairylands he gathers armies of demons to kill troublesome spirit tigers.

What’s interesting is when Kleeman unwraps layers and finds the deity started recorded life quite differently — as Viper, the immortal poisonous serpent of Sevenfold Mountain who had thunder and rain under his control and received offerings from the town of Zitong at the mountain’s foot. Some of those offerings might have been human lives, we learn.

Zeus came to Europa as a Bull, a moment vivaciously sculpted here by Althea Wynne -- click for more

That deities are often animals to start with, that they sometimes later transform, that snakes in particular occupy a special place in early pantheons, I suspect I don’t need to point out. The transformation to human happens over time and varies with the culture. Egyptians often favoured animal headed human deities — we saw the ibis head of Thoth last week. In Greece gods shapeshift and Zeus often goes courting in various animal forms. All of this is the sign of various knittings-together of the root experiences of deity into a suitable form. Animals remain a gateway to nonordinary states.

In the case of Wenchang, the national roster of deities was re-ordered to include humans with virtuous pasts and nothing else. For the Lord of Zitong to prosper politically, he has to transform but the older exploits in serpent form are written into the Transformations, and he is gifted with the ability to assume dragon form at will.

And he has to appear moral. Very moral. To me this often appears to be an attempt to “explain” in human terms things that may well not fit them. I’ve quoted before Glenn’s ultratrue statement that “when people become too goody-goody they begin to falsify their stories and behaviour”. (Shadow Strategies, p. 31.) We don’t know if Wenchang really acts with anything like human ethical considerations “in mind”, because he had to appear to do so anyway. The difference between show good and real good, between actual human virtue on the one hand and displayed persona-goodness with disharmonious shadows in the background on the other, is the kind of thing Lao-tzu sometimes has in mind:

When the great Tao is forgotten,
Philanthropy and morality appear…

When the Family has no Harmony,
Piety and Devotion appear.

– ch. 18

One who has propriety has the veneer of truth
And yet is the leader of confusion.

– ch. 38 (R. L. Wing tr.)

This is the emergence of the superego and the armoured exterior shell in the human psyche, along with the philosophy that says true naturalness, from which arises the only real good, may be profoundly hurt thereby. Since it can run even unto castration, as I found out this week, the awake and cautious may wish to draw conclusions about human flourishing.

But that was the official doctrine and so the god must conform. That’s how these things go. Is it any wonder that heavy-duty mystics often conflict with cultic pronouncements? Interestingly modern new age channelling mediums never seem to contact anything like Drunkard Zhao. Or perhaps they do but no-one knows. They are expected to be morally appropriate too.

Politics rewrites history and makes use of geography. It’s about what gets power. The ecological and economic flow is the flow of Tao through the world. Sevenfold Mountain itself was handily placed on the road from Xian to Chengdu, in fact its temple straddled this road. Thus anyone entering Sichuan would meet the temple and its god first; and the status he early acquired as defender of the province was therefore natural. There’s nothing transcendent about it necessarily; it’s terrain and technology which shapes energy and is shaped by it. One can follow in Kleeman’s book the other steps on the road to the illustrious position the god occupies today, of which the writing of the Transformations itself was one shrewd example — not necessarily any the less sincere for that of course.

Behind the progress of any other deity will lie similar political considerations. A “god” as named at any point in history is one step in a very long process. A god will have been many things to many people on the way to our day.

The Chariot of Apollo -- Odilon Redon

The more popular a god, the more the variable. To many nowadays, Apollo is shorthand for some kind of prissy anality needing to be busted open to natural forces by Dionysus. Apollo the great light, the god who protected from plague but could also command it, the god of lyric poetry but also the god who inspired transrational trance prophecy in dozens of oracles — not so much talked of. The Greek shamans they never taught you about in school unless they called them “philosophers and mathematicians”, the iatromanteis, were often also known as phoibolamptos, that is Apollo-possessed, which has some correlation perhaps with epilepsy and thus moves towards the kundalini experience.

Gods do not fit easy categories when you look at them. I haven’t yet unearthed much about the early cult of Zeus, originally another mountain and storm god who also made a number of astute political moves, but his many identities attest to his multiplicity. He may be Zeus Agoreus who watches over the marketplace for fair dealing, Zeus Boulaios who presides over parliament, or any of hundreds of others, and often with very different attributes — as a house deity he too appears as a snake. The names fit the god into the culture and at each shrine he has a different surname, he is our particular Zeus. Wenchang similarly did not suddenly morph from serpent to literary patron. He has been responsible for heading armies too, for sending fertility to the childless, and for broadcasting salvational advice to those in distress, each under a different epithet.

Often the process involves eliding differing groups of gods, or one “swallowing” others and taking the epithets too. This might be a literal swallowing, especially with earlier gods who are of course less burdened with morality. It’s hard to see whether Yahweh began life as a storm god or only acquired those attributes after eliding with the Canaanite El, a god married to a goddess, Asherah, who was famously suppressed in the Bible.

Yahweh also interrelated with the Canaanite Baal (Ba’al, itself a complex of deities, simply means ‘lord’). One can follow his career much as one can that of Wenchang, as he gradually becomes associated with wider geographical areas. The difference is that he early becomes incommensurate and non-depictable. At one stage accopmanied by other deities and heading up a divine assembly too, his incomparability and superiority, especially in scattering enemies (“Who is like you among the gods, Yahweh?”, asks Moses, Exod. 15:11, and goes on to describe the future blasting of individual enemies) — led to monotheism as a later development. It all happened longer ago, so there is less documentation remaining, and the career owed more to conquest than to moral dignity as is natural for the bronze and iron ages, but the process is recognisably similar. (Green 2003 is useful to compare Yahweh with local rivals.)

Jesus of Nazareth visibly goes through another equivalent process, the gospels filling the role of Wenchang’s Transformations, and the series of astute cultic moves beginning with Paul and vaulting into the major leagues with adoption by imperial Rome. Monotheism itself, however obviously counterfactual, often does the cult good in terms of popular acceptance, owing to fear of falsehood and the sense of righteousness involved in falsifying all other ways. And so forth. Needless to say Christ appears in as many guises as there are Christianities.

This all goes some way to explain why the question, ‘Do(es) god(s) exist?’ is sometimes a difficult one. What are you actually asking about? Ideas about gods come from all sorts of weird places. So do ideas about what constitutes ‘existence’. There are certainly things operating behind these cultural presences that go back into nature and indeed determine it. To some degree a god has got to be delivering something to be deserving a place in the human imagination. Sometimes a deity appears and confirms all that is thought — at other times, completely confounds it. The investigation is ongoing.

—————————————

* With apologies to Douglas Adams


Not so fast!

Human energy knowledge is a precious resource -- click for artist Olver Sorin's facebook page

Ch’i exists — fine. It travels through the body in meridians, which the yogis call nadis — fine too, but a map of the nadis doesn’t look like a map of the meridians. Now my feeling here is that if in doubt, they’re both right, and I’ll back that up this week, in other words I’m arguing anti-exclusivism, but I’m also going to argue anti careless syncretism.

Subjects like these are touchy for some which prevents clarity, so I can’t say how grateful I’ve been for independent scholarship on religious and transpersonal issues — the secular is one of the best things ever to have happened to the spiritual.

Taiji Symbol

Let’s take a nice one — yin and yang and how they manifest creation. I was talking of Tao last week, and most will know its close relation, taiji. We learn in Tao Te Ching ch. 42 that: “Tao produces one, one produces two…” etc. Now stop me if you’ve heard this one:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…

Personally I see a connection there. Division into or generation of two different things as the beginning of generating everything else is a feature of so many cosmic beginnings I’ve happened across that it looks like a definite pattern. Would you expect this if a prime unity comes at the apex of much mystical experience? Well yes, but the division into two is never of two things the same. There are two definitely different substance-principles and they seem to differ in consistent ways. Genesis has more right away — when God has created light, he goes on to separate it from the darkness, and then he has to separate the upper waters from the lower waters, etc.

Lao-tzu of course is not myth, but the god Wenchang is more mythically Chinese and also happens to be one of the few gods of whom we can read the autobiography, which begins:

When Hundun first divided into opaque and clear,
In the astral quarter of the Southeast the phosphors shone sharp and bright.
In its midst were contained the billowing energies of the Great Monad.
I was already in secret correspondence with the quintessence of creation.

– Terry F. Kleeman tr., see A God’s Own Tale (1994)

More of Wenchang next week, but again there’s that division, this time into ‘opaque and clear’. Those are standard attributes of yin and yang. “Hundun” is the primordial Unintelligibility/Chaos.

In the Babylonian Enûma Elish, there’s a primal deity named Apsu who represents fresh water and is male. He mixes his waters with Tiamat, who amongst other things is the salt ocean, is connected with primordial chaos, and is female, to produce ‘sky above and earth below’.

In the Greek Orphic theogony, Ananke, whom we met last week, is a primordial player. She was serpentine and spread her limbs through the universe. She mated with Chronos, or time, male, also serpentine in form. In some versions they enwrap the egg of the cosmos and split it into two. Out of that came Phanes, a being of Light, who was married to Night.

The Vikings how ‘before the dawn of time’ there were two regions — Niflheim, dark and cold, and Muspelheim, hot and fiery. In between was Ginnungagap, the great void. The cold mists of Niflheim and firesparks from Muspelheim met in Ginnungagap and produced an elixir which dripped down to form a humanoid shape: Ymir, the first of the giants.

(Now don’t get me started on those giants.)

I myself have not yet seen a vision of the actual formation of the cosmos, although some I know have, but am rather experientially familiar with the yin/yang thing and its differentiation and marriage. If I were to sum up the relevant terms above, carefully hoarded down the ages in 5 very different places, I’d have something like:

yin-receptive-dark-earth-lower-opaque-salty-cold

yang-creative-light-heaven-upper-clear-fresh-hot

What happens if we say all of these look related?

One has only three options at that point, and I’ll skip over the first, which is to say this is all just cultures passing stories to one another along with “coincidence”, as simple whimsical materialism. These records are prized because someone “sees”, and their vision concerns the nature of the universe rather than just the inside of shamans’ heads. Such visions coincide because they were each, in a different way, seeing something which actually is in a more-than-symbolic way “at the root of the universe”.

So we have two options left. I’ll call the first Hard Perennialism. If I were doing Hard Perennialism I’d say things like: the Light produced by God was called the Great Monad in China, and Phanes in Greece, whilst the direction of Southeast is equivalent to fire in China or Muspelheim to the Norse where ‘phosphors sharp and bright’ were said to exist, etc… gradually I produce a composite story with terms from the multiple cultures. I’ve gone from seeing a connection to seeing identity.

This sort of thing is a) sometimes enlightening, b) useful in that it makes a transcultural space, and c) fun. It goes back a long way. Zosimus of Panopolis, the first Hermetic Alchemist of whom we have record (3rd-4th c. CE), was a master synthesiser, but I can’t be the only one today who finds his zippings-together a little awkward at times:

In the original hieratic language the first man… is designated Thouthos. The Chaldeans, the Parthians, the Medes and the Hebrews call him Adam… the Adam of flesh is called Thouth with respect to the visible outer mould, but the Man within him, the Man of Spirit… is Phos, and from this it follows that men came to be known as “photes”…

On the Letter Omega, Howard M. Jackson ed./tr. (1978)

… etc. The Adam of Genesis and the Egyptian god Thoth both happen to be namers in their respective mythologies, so Zosimus can blend them for his particular practice — Hermetic alchemy.

Thoth. on the right in ibis-headed form

Ultimately he also seems to claim more: to know the “actual meaning” behind it all, what Adam and Thoth “really were” all along. That’s what Hard Perennialism tends to do — “I get what these people were all driving at, now it can be revealed.” But in actual fact it often makes a new belief system entirely, by pointing up similarities but completely ignoring differences. The ibis-headed Thoth, associated with baboons and the moon, is a deity, magician, peacemaker, and judge of the dead, and had originally precisely dingo’s kidneys to do with Adam, the biblical first human being. They coincide at one point but differ at most others. Not even a Jungian could elide them on archetypal grounds.

Spiritual vision is a funny thing, reports of it even funnier. Connection does not equal identity — necessarily. Sometimes there is no doubt – — sometimes a lot. Tao is not necessarily “God”. They may be the same, it depends upon human choice and perception. (There are Taoist religious movements, of very long standing, that make Tao a personal-style god and re-imagine Lao-tzu as its incarnation BTW.) Ginnungagap is never said to have produced Muspelheim and Niflheim but was used by them to form an elixir. In what sense was God’s light “married to” the darkness from which he separated it, as Phanes was married to Night? Tao produced one, one produced two, but then two went ahead and produced three which is a whole different kettle of tilapia. And so forth.

Are these differences important? Actual practices tell us much here. Broadly, yang is said to exist on the right of the body and yin on the left, across cultures — but not absolutely always, and there are plenty of people making the opposite way work right there. This is not intellectual; actual exercises and energies are used involving ch’i in relation to the body, and these have a considerable effect on it, and on the mind. It is very easy to see these ideas as the same conceptually, but sometimes the actual use of them is dead opposite. Practice trumps theory.

When two ways conflict but are both right, this is tricky to Hard-Perennialise. It happens quite a lot. Glenn’s system of stacking the elements, for example, is the usual one in Budo and Mikkyo Buddhism, which puts the element of fire below air at the solar plexus, whereas the Westerner Bardon puts fire at the top, above air, in the head — following, say, Robert Fludd (in the first illstration on this page, note the elements at the bottom of the monochord with their latin names). Both can’t be right, if we’re looking for some kind of complete match, yet both absolutely are right, in that both systems have been shown to work. They have actual effect on bodies and souls, more than enough to prove the underlying visions are at least to some extent real rather than mere fancy.

So the seemingly simple ideas of yin and yang division or 4 elements are actually multiple, and filtered through cultural windings into systems and ways that don’t always correspond. Each is a truth. They may be at odds when seeming to chime, or to chime when seeming to be at odds.

That’s why I say not so fast! to Hard Perennialism. I tend to go with what I call Soft Perennialism, which means acknowledging things are the same and also different, which they tend to be, and which knits together terms admitting that one particular kind of sense may not be the only kind. (Zosimus’ Adam was not nonsense in context, but was nothing a rabbi would want to go with.)

Creative use of mythic and visionary materials is very important, and can turn up great stuff — I’ve always held the Jungian attitude in high esteem, for example, and the shadow/anima concepts combine very well with Glenn. But, “true” though this stuff is in the sense of ‘it corresponds to the symbols and works in practice’, one can’t look at it as ‘the truth’. Jung’s alchemical psychology is a great use for the material but alchemists like Zosimus and his successors weren’t psychologists, in fact used chemicals and laboratories as well as spiritual techniques, and were often interested in some very physical results. There is no ‘one true answer’ about used of the four elements, about yin and yang.

Perhaps there’s one more reason to prefer Soft Perennialism — it leaves the aesthetic of the original intact. Take the Viking cosmology, wedded to the Iceland landscape. Kevin Crossley-Holland goes wild with the descriptions of the beginning of the universe, with his ‘yeasty venom, ‘dismal hagger and rime’ and so on. He may go a little past his sources, but what he’s saying is that these people were of their land, and it was a tough one in a tough time, a time for tough people who took the evil of the world for granted and snarled at it. Many modern will say things like, “We don’t grovel before our gods, or they wouldn’t think we were worth listening to.” I value that, the particular flavour of something adapted to a particular niche, something not universal but particular to certain individual cultures, just as much as anything general to be abstracted therefrom.

Now I’ve brought in gods again… today we’ve had Yahweh and Tao-as-divinity, we’ve had Wenchang, we’ve had Thoth. But what are these ‘god’ things anyway? That’s my topic next week.


Tales from the Tao

When I was young, I knew something about underlying worldness which I afterwards forgot, or let lie. I knew things had aliveness, including trees and rocks, somehow bound up with their meaning and the meaning of everything. Communication happened with a spellbinding quality in a togetherspace that seemed to evade regular human communication.

What was this? Where did it go? Why did meditation and energy bring it back again, and then some? People like Ken Wilber have been misled by Jean Piaget into believing animism is a charmingly mistaken childhood phase of anthropomorphic projection. This is the worst answer since a schoolboy who was asked “What is ananke?” replied it was for wiping your nose. (Actually quite close to Tao in obscure Greek myths is the answer.)

It seemed impossible to pursue these feelings as adolescence went forward — but difficult to be myself without them. Felicitas Goodman has written beautifully of a similar predicament:

Felicitas Goodman -- she's got over her alienation

On the eve of my twelfth birthday I had a severe headache… The next morning I bled for the first time. I went to my mother… “This means,” she said, “that we now have an adult daughter in our house.”… Very soon I discovered all on my own what being an adult apparently meant, and confided it to my diary: “The magic time is over”… I noticed the impediment first with the fresh, crunchy snow which fell right after my birthday. It was nice, but I could not make it glow…

I believe today that a large part of initiation in wiser societies… has to do with helping the adolescent to reconstitute the waning capacity for ecstasy. The harsh stimulation[s] of the nervous system… are designed, I think, to substitute a different, an adult, form for the spontaneous ability to call up that very special trance…

Obviously I was living at the wrong place. How gladly I would have submitted to whatever trial if only someone could have told me what it was I was losing… Actually, I was coming up for confirmation, which was modelled after ancient initiation rituals, but it was cruelly vacuous… nothing, absolutely nothing happened. I did not even know what I had expected, but it was very clear to me that I had not received it.

Where The Spirits Ride the Wind (1990)

That’s the only sad part of her book as she describes her very clever and intuitive rediscovery of ways to vivify that are still being used. Glenn’s ideas perfectly chime with all this. Note the sexual energy redirected at menarche which corresponds with id and ultimately with kundalini. Also important are those methods of ‘harsh stimulation of the nervous system’ in traditional cultures which engage the same energy and are used in many quarters historically and today — see for example Shadow Strategies p. 286 or Martial Arts Madness p. 18, although, as the latter points out, “meditation seems a clear winner over torture”.

Like Goodman I didn’t know there were ways forward that actually worked. Of course, my culture didn’t always want me to. I’d love to blame materialism and Christianity alone for the deadness of the material world as presented to me, and I wouldn’t necessarily be far wrong, but there are no nature worshippers amongst the Platonists either. Even the Stoics, who valued harmony with Nature above all and knew about ch’i, didn’t write on aliveness. The reason we tend to “grow out of animism” in the “Civilised West” is simply that there has never been a widespread mature version of it to grow into. Being raised on Tolkien and Ursula Le Guin, and seeing how important the idea of an alive nature was to many people, I wondered why.

After Kundalini these things were radically revivified and I began to get answers. The social mind programmes the natural one — right down to the energetic system. It went a lot deeper than I thought.

Big civilisations rarely have strong animist elements; polytheism may help maintain them since perversely monotheism tends to dualism (more on a subject related to that next week.) Some cultures keep more for longer in their learned phases, some less. China in some ways exemplifies the former, Europe the latter. Taoism of course is not mainstream in China since it rejects the Confucian emphasis on the sincerity of ritual in favour of Naturalness, but natural Tao itself in China is usually the basis. Ming era Confucians thus found Jesuit missionaries puzzling since Chinese sages said following Nature was the Tao, but the missionaries said that overcoming nature was the Tao. One may draw conclusions at that point.

Without some way to reconnect the energy, there’s often nothing an individual can do. Society impacts our minds because we need to survive; society is our way of doing so, and we are its. Glenn points out somewhere that the social mind experiences only the reality allowed for it and that includes strong influence on your biology. If a culture likes to manipulate nature as a mechanism it probably can’t conceive of natural aliveness and harmony, at least not without wincing, so it will have a job to perceive it. Individuals must thus know how to accept the Shadow, which includes the socially unacceptable, to experience the deeper truth.

Different civilisations, different rules. André-Georges Haudricourt had a wonderful little theory, interesting and at least somewhat true. He thought that in the Mediterranean and Middle East, herding became archetypal, more than agriculture. Herding involves shouting and prodding and enforcing your will on a bunch of often silly, stubbornly recalcitrant animals, so it made a monotheistic god who shouted and enforced his will on silly recalcitrant humans. The animal, hence nature, became the problematic half of a dualist value system. Shepherd images in Christianity are legion. The symbolism of the Hebrew alphabet, which is pictographic like the Chinese, includes not only an ox, but an ox-goad as well.

Just happens

China developed the more agricultural archetype. You don’t yell at plants. Anyone who has done any gardening knows the magic is that it just happens, slowly, mysteriously, and often completely out of sight. At a certain time, given certain conditions, things know what to do. The principle behind that knowing is part of what the Chinese called ‘Tao’, which is mysterious, invisible, feeds all, and has the respect of everything, fulfilling itself in all natural actions. But without having to yell and try to be ‘in charge’– indeed its silence and mystery in accomplishing everything is a measure of its greatness to both Taoists and Confucians. It remains animism-friendly, since the natural order is its sphere, and it forms the connection between all natural things, including us:

The Great Tao extends everywhere.
It is on the left and the right.

All Things depend on it for growth,
And it does not deny them.
It achieves its purpose,
And it does not have a name.
It clothes and cultivates All Things,
And it does not act as master.

Tao Te Ching 34

The Tao produces;
Its Power supports;
Its Natural Law forms;
Its influence completes.

Thus All Things without exception
Respect the Tao and value its Power.
To respect the Tao and value its Power –
No one demands this, and it comes naturally.

– 51 (R. L. Wing tr.)

Since the Tao ‘does not act as master’, one could not imagine a ‘jealous Tao’ as there is a ‘jealous God’. Tao has the respect of all things whether they know it or not, like any natural law. (Gravity and evolution don’t exactly need to hector you into obedience.)

Spiritual actualisation is a question of optimising and harmonising the natural processes within a human being. People who do have a way to do that will find themselves perfectly capable of sensing similar processes in the wider world. There is aliveness, consciousness, and a motion which communicates in feelings and images. It’s significant that Glenn associated the spirit of kundalini with the id, the creative power running through the human system, a concept which can widen to include “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” as Dylan Thomas put it. Poets like him have to work hard to maintain aliveness and often write in image-feeling-metaphors of the kind one finds transferred with ch’i.

The language they write in may also be relevant since the western pictographs have long since vanished. All human lettering systems start out as image-metaphors, poetry in themselves. In the Chinese system these of course remain. Morrissey recently embarassed himself by spitefully calling the Chinese a ‘subspecies’ which is the act of a rather snide and bitchy poet alienated by a thoroughly different linguistic and philosophy. The Chinese are the only massive civilisation with very highly developed thinking in a non-Indo-European, uninflected language. They show little preoccupation with the static ideal beingness that Western philosophy has argued about since Greece, because unlike ours their language doesn’t naturally refer to it. But science’s new numerical language gets flow better and as a result the systems-science view has far more in common with the Chinese one than with the Platonist.

Saturating oneself with ch’i increases the vitality and with that comes awareness. It is natural to be so saturated when young, but requires more skill when older. Qigong is a far calmer way than romantic poetry, which is rarely content since it is always trying to leap for unattainable heavens which could only be actually attained in a state of peace. The feeling I have is often much more like the simple Navajo chant:

The mountains, I become part of it.
The herbs, the fir tree, I become part of it.
The morning mists, the clouds, the gathering waters, I become part of it.
The wilderness, the dew drops, the pollen, I become part of it.

Navajo Chant calligraphy and collage by Tina Fields -- click to see the originals on her excellent blog

Pure materialism will many times not survive long-term quiet. Folklorist Barre Toelken spent time with the Navajo and noticed things happening, writing some of the more extraordinary ones down in a paper for Barbara Walker’s Out of the Ordinary — Folklore and the Supernatural (1995) which is full of good things and includes tales like this:

On many occasions when I was living with my adopted Navajo family in the 1950s, people would begin acting as if they had received some information from afar… after a month or so of herding sheep and carrying water to our corn plants day after day, some family members would suddenly prepare for a trip… I would hear offhand comments like, “Perhaps there’s a sing [curing ceremony] down by Red Mesa”… On our way toward the Red Mesa area… we would encounter other Navajos heading in our direction… A day later we would pull our wagon over the crest of a hill and find a gathering of perhaps a hundred people near someone’s hogan… No phone calls, no maps, no addresses, no written invitations, no messengers… the reservation itself is the size of Belgium, and families often live miles from the next… There is no doubt in my mind that these events… actually “happen”, for they are witnessed by everyone who is involved.

Toelken calls this the ‘moccasin telegraph’. ‘Becoming part of it’ would be an equally good term. Jung’s name for it was synchronicity and it was really working for him since his theories are in the enviable position these days of having some interesting science supporting what he did instinctively. He liked the leaf-cutter ants which are too short-lived to observe mating behaviour in the previous generation but know exactly what to do; it just happens when the time is right. Human males will know that when the time is right to mate (when isn’t it), the anima will provide the appropriate picture to guide that all-important nervous system energy; whatever an ant uses for an anima does the same thing. The ant may have less irony about it and less neurosis. Such flows and timings appear everywhere in nature. There are signs of it in the Middle Eastern religions we’ve inherited — Proverbs 30 for example, with its ‘wisdom of the ants’.

Tree + Ch'i

Exchanging ch’i with a tree on a regular basis will do plenty for you — Liang and Wu do some nice qigong in that line, including clever protection ideas I may try this summer. I know an oak in Regent’s Park who is strong stuff indeed. No two qigongs work with trees the same way. Lam has a different approach as does Chia in this nice video.

The Tao achieves its purpose, spontaneous natural action in consonance with rhythms flowing in an immemorial patterned system… the geese fly West, the ants mate, the sing happens near the Mesa… a girl reaches menarche and begins her longing for spiritual contact. Humans are sometimes overcome by aspects of their delicately complex systems and can deviate from this livingness or from their own voice and identity in a way that causes them considerable pain. That’s the dark side of free will and quiet is often a part of the answer. Accepting one’s own nature, spontaneity, and living in the territory rather than the map, are all pointed up in the of actualised people.

The feeling of being connected back up with kundalini was for me such a relief, like being alive again, and synchronicity goes through the roof as heaven and earth find each other and new relationships open up. Accepting the Shadow matters here partly because you are receiving info with source and intent different from normal, that shapes the system in a different way. Info humans consider important is normally social, verbal, screen-based and other ‘intellectual maps of desired results’ which is useless for this. The ability to accept neutrally rather than to seek to repattern reality is what opens one up to these feelings, images and energies.

Since some may not believe that ants have mythopoeic subconscious minds, I give this next story for them, or anyone who believes animism is for kiddies. Lineage successor Rob Williams told it about Glenn:

Doc liked to go hiking… We drove out to New Iberia, right along the coast of the swamp… I happened upon a large gator… I got as close as I could… took a picture and backed away. Glenn had walked across a narrow foot bridge that was about 40 feet long. He was already on the other side looking out into the water. I noticed a brownish cloud coming up from the river on my left. As it approached I realized it was a swarm of wasps.

Glenn had told me about the Louisiana wasps that were huge yellow jackets. They had a powerful sting. I felt uneasy as they collected into a sphere shaped swarm between Doc and me, over the bridge. I thought back to when I first walked fire. I assumed the go for it attitude and, with no fear and great confidence, walked across the bridge through this swarm of wasps. They were bouncing off my face and body as I walked through them to the other side of the bridge. I didn’t get stung. I walked over to Doc with adrenaline pumping through me. I turned and looked back to see the swarm circle, break formation and fly on down the river. I asked Doc if he had seen the swarm and he didn’t answer… He was such a wizard. He was testing me using familiars in nature.

Hoshinjutsu, pp. 94-5

Says hi to Glenn from me... :)

Animism says we are interacting with Persons. Glenn was in tune with the Tao enough to do that in a major way since he knew Persons don’t all look like your auntie marge. We met talking swords months back. The Tao is a mass of intertwining morphic fields, a way of knowing and communicating, ch’i moving through the world. Each thing has its own identity, its own Tao within the mix, its own lifestream, all accomplishing itself in cycles and flows small and large.

The Tao has no fixed position;
It abides within the excellent mind.
When the mind is tranquil and the ch’i is regular,
The Tao can thereby be halted.
That Tao is not distant from us;
When people attain it they are sustained.
That Tao is not separated from us;
When people accord with it they are harmonious.

Therefore: Concentrated! as though you could be roped together with it.
Indiscernible! as though beyond all locations.
The true state of that Tao:
How could it be conceived of and pronounced upon?
Cultivate your mind, make your thoughts tranquil,
And the Tao can thereby be attained.

Neiye ch. 5 (Harold Roth tr.)


Qigong Heroine!

The "qigong" of Mawangdui

When did qigong really begin? 5,000 years back, in the times of the Yellow Emperor? Yes, we’ve all heard that one, and it could be meaningful. The early 70s Mawangdui excavations brought to light a couple of silk scrolls in tomb 3, recognisably showing 11 of the 12 meridians were known well over two millennia ago. Also an elegant silk painting of exercises we’d call qigong today aimed at opening up those meridians. These things are deeply implanted in Chinese culture.

It wasn’t called qigong though. The nearest equivalent over much of history would probably have been yangsheng, meaning “nourishing life”, which took in daoyin (moving forms), massage, breathing, diet, meditation and sexual practice. That term is in the Zhuangzi so we know it’s old. Qigong as a term is really not. It is actually a 20th century thing, and we owe it all to Communism.

In 1947, when party clerk Liu Guizhen cured himself of ulcers and other longtime sickliness by learning an ‘inner cultivation exercise’ (neiyanggong), the timing was just right for him to catch a rare wave of party support for such a reactionary technique. Liu was actually a friend of Chairman Mao Zedong, for better or, as proved, for worse. Acting on orders, he duly learned the entire method from a master in his native Wei county village and began abstracting out the principles. This was the moment of bud-off, and it was party-directed. Soon Liu was running a sanatorium teaching three qigong forms for general health.

It snowballed, and by the end of the 1950s there were 70 such qigong clinics and sanatoria around China, still teaching a curriculum set by the party. But this proliferation came in the Great Leap Forward period, not China’s happiest moment, and as the famines bit and Mao became marginalised in his own party by moderates like Deng Xiaoping, his answer came in the form of the Cultural Revolution. In this nightmare of cultish revitalisation, all tradition became anathema and qigong a ‘rotten relic of feudalism’. From 1966 Liu himself became a ‘class enemy’– expelled, demoted and sent for “re-education”. (He was lucky not to be killed or even eaten by mobs; that happened.) Sanatoria were hurriedly shut.

Guo Lin

Publicly taught Qigong was now out of bounds… for all save one person who started teaching it independently anyway. Her name was Guo Lin. An artist, she had no fewer than seven unsuccessful operations for her cervical cancer before developing qigong forms based on systems she’d learned from her Taoist grandfather. She designed them specifically to cure cancer, starting with her own. And they worked.

As early as 1970 Guo Lin was teaching in the Beijing parks. Success with cancer and heart disease in students was immediate. Word naturally spread. By 1971 she was a fixture in Dongdan Park and qigong had actually come into existence. Key modern twists like independence from pure religious and traditional settings, and masters who teach anyone publicly for money, all began with her.

David Palmer's "Qigong Fever"

As David Palmer says, in by far the best history of all this, “Guo Lin can thus be said to have triggered the qigong wave of the 1980s”, the fever period he lovingly chronicles, with masters in every park competing for students, and the kinds of scientific testing described last post going on with some degree of official sanction. Qigong is the mix of millennia-old traditions with modern democratising, commoditising and scientising impulses imported from the West. To this meeting we owe bud-off and the worldwide movement, but without Guo Lin, who knows?

The authorities disliked her ‘fooling people with superstitious activities’ at first of course. She was harassed and interrogated, her students imprisoned, her materials confiscated. But she kept right on going, moving to different parks, her groups’ numbers growing. Features we know from modern qigong organisations (trained teaching assistants and books based on the method) began to appear. It was unstoppable, whereas the disastrous Cultural Revolution officially ended with Mao’s life in 1976. As Taoist temples everywhere finally breathed easier and relaxed their nervous watch for the Red Army, official sanction for qigong was also given, not least because party cadres were being healed by it. Under the Deng reforms the ready-primed fever period was simply allowed to explode.

Every person in this picture is cancer-free thanks to Guo Lin's qigong -- they like to get together apparently. :)

By 1980 there were a dozen masters per park, and eventually over a million people learned Guo Lin’s qigong. Worldwide proliferation continues. The medical qigongs alone have revolutionised lives in all kinds of affliction (target adaptability). It’s nice to happen across videos of people completely free of Parkinson’s disease for instance, with no medication. I’ve even seen people saying qigong is the best cure for a broken heart, which makes perfect sense to me. Emotions are profoundly affected by blocked ch’i, and depression can be reversed by building vitality.

For those wanting to try it

Guo’s walking qigong is easy to learn, and recommended to anyone including complete beginners. Suffering from a major illness is optional. :) Benefits are manifold. I really enjoy this qigong myself.

Zhang Mingwu's "Chinese Qigong Therapy"

A great way in is to get the book in English, Chinese Qigong Therapy (1988) by former Guo Lin student Zhang Mingwu. It has everything you need including some nice explanations of the physiology and energetics. You get two sets of walking qigongs, one quite brisk at 45-60 steps/minutes, the other superslow at 2-4. Also a great head self-massage, and a neat qigong using a taiji ruler. Very cheap to buy right now — under 5 dollars or pounds on Amazon.

These videos will give you an idea of what some of the moves are like:

Guo Lin Walking Qigong
Guolin Walking Qigong

… although the exact versions in the book are different. If you want a full video of some the forms it looks like Forest Rock have got them:

Forest Rock

… under “Breathing and Stances”, “Opening and Closing Forms”, “Daoyin Walking Qigong”, “Toe Raising and Qi Transforming” and “Dao Yin Head Massage”, but they do charge a small fee for each. (I don’t see the ruler form there.)

However you learn, enjoy.

Commentary — This Happens All The Time

The moment qigong became a reality was closely followed by the moment it headed West. At that time, the West was where the money was. Mantak Chia was in the states by 1980 and his landmark book on the orbit appeared in 1983. One more important bud-off moment for Western spirituality — the pattern of exotic spiritual masters teaching special powers and methods to groups of students is long-established, indeed there’s a semi-hidden history to it which conventional religion tends to ignore. The yogic guru phenomenon was the previous generation’s version of course, but whirl yourself back to the Alexandria of 2,000 years ago and the portrait painted by Garth Fowden of Hermetic teachers with their circles of students is the same deal. The source there was mostly the Egyptian Thoth cult systems, recontextualised and ‘philosophised’ according to the latest Greek thought, just as qigong has been ‘scientised’ today.

I like the independence of such movements. Sometimes an ancient writer is good enough to give us records of otherwise invisible spiritual characters that make one grin… Plutarch writes (section XXI) of a hard-to-find sage living near the Persian Gulf, for example, who meets with people only once a year and hangs out with nymphs and demigods the rest of the time. Handsome, multilingual, ever free of disease, his mouth naturally perfumed (a kundalini sign, see Path Notes, p. 24) we know little more of this prophet-philosopher who didn’t teach on any wide scale, didn’t follow a particular religion, and didn’t try to build himself a school — not even his name. How many more like him were there, or are there?

The qigong hagiography, too, will be a familiar sight to habitués. Far from Glenn’s charming willingness to blab his foolish mistakes with porn, drambuie, and marriage, which make him seem far more trustworthy to me, these cover their subjects in oozing blankets of conventionalised spiritual praise to build the legend and sell seminar tickets. Many will know the one on Wang Liping, Opening the Dragon Gate (1998), thanks to the English translation it somehow got from Thomas Cleary no less. Not so many will be aware the plot can be found in more or less identical form in Eunapius’ 4th century CE story of Sosipatra, a female philosopher from what is now Turkey.

It’s a tale guaranteed to engage the salivary glands of truth-seekers. Ancient spiritual lineage holders visit a house where lives a model child of great decorum. They impress everyone with their traditional spiritual skills, then offer to take the child away for training. In Eunapius the visitors are Chaldeans rather than Dragon Gate Taoists (Chaldea, like Egypt, was a trove of spiritual wonders to Greeks as Tibet now is to many Westerners) but the result in either case is the same: the child returns saturated with supernatural gifts, and gets written up as an example of lineage powers. I hope no-one thought this stuff was original to our time.

What is different from older times is qigong’s public and fee-based teaching structure — no unmixed blessing, but a setup that has fostered the important virtue of ironic distance. People who complain about the obvious bullshit should be happy the bullshit is so obvious. It’ll always be there so let’s have it where we can see it.

I tend to keep a “some of their pronouncements are not to be cast in stone” box for luminaries such as Gurdjieff, Krishnamurti, Steiner, Jung, Freud, Rajneesh, Einstein, Brunton, Plato, Aristotle, heads of martial art families, any organized religion that requires tithe or clergy…

— Glenn, Martial Arts Madness p, 49

So do I. ^_^

Walking Qigong

For a big training organisation the alternative to this wily caution is a full believe-it religion, and sure enough the qigong movement did produce one in Falun Gong. A ‘charismatic master’ is required for this too. “Having charisma”, defined these days as the ability to wear sunglasses, in fact denotes the demonstration of Catholic ‘charisms’, equivalent to yogic siddhi — supernatural attainments. Glenn was a charismatic by that standard, but never added in the narcissism required to make a cult.

And so, as the man said, it goes. Despite her success and fame, Guo Lin never developed her own (what we call) cult. When she eventually died, it wasn’t cancer. :)


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