Through

As of Sunday morning, the 101 was still closed in Montecito, so I resolved to head down to Westwood for the Ecstatic Dance LA celebration. After lunch, rather than heading up to the Getty Center, I was inspired to visit the Armand Hammer Museum.

It was deja vu all over again as – just as when I visited with my sons during Kevin’s attendance at UCLA – most of the museum was closed for their annual rotation. Apart from the standing collection (mostly French and American oils from the 19th century), they had four environmental experiences.

The most profound is Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Saydnaya. Saydnaya is the death prison established by the regime of the Syria dictator Bashar al Assad. During the course of the civil war, more than 13,000 people have been destroyed there.

The guards at the prison maintained control through a strict regimen of silence. Any significant noise was punished by beatings – even the screams of those beaten were punished with further abuse. As a result, every sound was impressed upon the victims. Through acoustic forensics, interviews with those released have reconstructed the organization and operations of the prison.

The installation is simple: at the entrance, two large speakers that first demonstrate the effects of a 19 decibel drop in sound – reflecting the drop in the volume of the prisoner’s speaking when the prison stopped serving any investigative purpose and became simply a death camp. The recording starts with a loud siren, and drops through a series of declarations of annihilation (including the extinction of frog species in the Amazon). When the volume is inaudible, the recording continues with the testimony of a prison survivor describing the use of silence as an instrument of torture. Finally, the artist and acoustic specialist describe their methods.

The entry is dim, as the main installation is set off by a large partition. Walking around the partition, we are confronted with a number of overhead projectors, each bearing a ray tracing of the acoustic reconstruction. Two smaller text projectors add testimony of the investigation to the setting.

I entered during a lull in the recording, and stood in the center of the room, amidst the projectors, trying to feel my way into the situation. It was distant until I turned around to look behind me, and found that my shadow had fallen across the ray tracing on the partition. The pain washed through me then, and I turned my back to the young female docent as I allowed it to penetrate. When I finally left, I made the mistake of asking her “Do they have a PTSD therapy program for you after you spend all day in here?” Her face nearly cracked with grief. I don’t think that she understood before that moment.

I went down to the Peet’s Coffee on the corner and resolved to soak in the sun and listen to music. Brahm’s First Piano Concerto seemed appropriate, but the street traffic was noisy. After finishing my coffee and scone, I thought to head back into the Hammer atrium where I’d be able to focus on the music. As I stepped into the quiet, I had the sudden inspiration that I should do my listening in Hamdan’s exhibit.

The first movement of the concerto is an elegy to Robert Schumann, Brahm’s unstable contemporary who committed suicide at a young age, leaving a wife and young children. Much as the exhibition’s recording, it opens with crashing orchestral chords that evoke the trauma of receiving news of a tragic loss. After extended orchestral development, the piano solo enters with an echo of those chords. It was at that point that I paused the recording before walking up the stairs.

As I settled on the floor in the back of the projection space and resumed the concerto, the exhibition recording started, blaring loudly over the music. Again, the trauma and sorrow washed over me.

This was the process, then: holding onto the pattern of the music as the noise and words stepped over it. The stronger chords exerted themselves even through the loudest sections, but Brahm’s meditation has passages of delicate arpeggios and simple, haunting melodies that even hushed voices would occlude.

The thought that I projected was only this:

If they won’t let you speak, then hear this; share it.

To not be forgotten. To receive evidence that love transmutes sorrow into beauty. And, as the first movement ends with it’s playful re-iteration of the opening themes, to hope that children would come to restore joy where greed and fear have made a wasteland of the human heart.

Slippery Slope

I’ve been home with a prostate infection, of all things, and so managed to get through all except the last two chapters of Judith Simmer-Brown’s Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism. It’s been a difficult but enlightening read. I have some concerns with the methods of the path as she describes it.

First, though, the positive: Tibetan Buddhism has a deep model of the manifestation of sacred principles in the world. Simmer-Brown traces that through secret, inner, outer, and outer-outer manifestations.

I related the essence of the secret dakini in my last post. Prajnaparamita manifests as space, wisdom and knowledge. As she builds the lore, Simmer-Brown explains that possession of these qualities makes the feminine principle dominant in Tibetan Buddhism, for skillful means (the use of compassion to transform experience) is both inspired by and guided by them. The secret dakini can be neither visualized nor understood, only known.

The inner dakini manifests as the deity Vajrayogini. Vajrayogini confronts the practitioner with the fear of death, and transforms it into acceptance and freedom. As a deity in Tibetan Buddhism, Vajrayogini is depicted in mandalas that define her relationship with the world. The most important elements in her depiction are the instruments of the charnel ground: skulls, flames and sharp implements. The logic of this depiction reflects the hazards of the sacred knowledge known to Tibetan practitioners. To advance, an acolyte must find a living guru that channels the sacred experience into the world, a yidam (devotional deity) to meditate upon, and a protector of the teachings that guides or violently transforms the personality to prevent corruption by residual grasping of the self.

The outer dakini mediates the transformation of the subtle energy system, similar to the system of prana or acupuncture. In Tibetan lore, all of our bodily functions are manifestations of energy flow through these channels. The central channel flows along the spine, but has two side channels that focus masculine and feminine tendencies. The goal of the practitioner is to merge the side channels into the central. In this process, the practitioner must cultivate relationships with twenty-four dakinis that originate the energies of the subtle body system. In a sense, the practitioner becomes a living mandala, and calls these energies into the world to create and transform experience.

The outer-outer dakini is the dakini in human form. In this section, Simmer-Brown celebrates the female figures in history that contributed to development of Tibetan wisdom. Here is where tantric sex comes to the fore, as well as validation of authority through esoteric action (magic). Both are cast in a positive light. Tantric sex is a method for mutual inspection and transmission of traits that facilitates personal growth. Magic is described as the means by which the physical infrastructure of the tradition is protected, including the bodies of practitioners meditating without food or shelter.

Through this summary, I hope that I reveal my respect for this tradition, whose richness and depth reflects a careful construction of interlocking elements that ensure the outcome of practice is compassionate engagement with all living beings.

However, I perceive certain issues.

First and most important is the conflation of space and mind. Mind existed long before this reality came into being, and is the realm of pure spirit to which we will return. Space exists in this realm only as a means to protect compassionate personalities from experiences more intense than they can mediate. To serve in this way, space was designed to capture and localize mind. Where that occurs, we find matter. This is the truth that Tibetan wisdom shares as the secret and outer dakinis.

Secondly we have the sense of privilege accorded to advanced practitioners. This manifests itself in the characterization of them as heroes rather than servants (the term used in Christianity) of humanity. The thanotic imagery of the inner dakini is particularly troubling. Death maintains the disintegration of spirit, something obvious in the description of the outer dakini. It’s adoption as a protector of privileged knowledge seems a dangerous compromise.

Personal privilege also seems evident in the rather sterile rendering of the relationship between tantric consorts. The gurus celebrate commitment, but not monogamy, each relationship broken off when the mutual benefits are exhausted.

This flies in the face of the most serious problem with the tradition. Simmer-Brown recounts that the assignment of a yidam (devotional deity) is driven by the tensions that exist in our lives. Meditation on the yidam resolves obstructions in the subtle energy system that manifest as perceptible heat in the body. Simmer-Brown refers to this in the title (warm breath), but never stops to wonder what tension is attendant to that heat.

Simmer-Brown gnaws at the bone of the problem throughout the book, defending Tibetan Buddhism against charges of patriarchy while postulating that its dominant spiritual forms arose from a prehistoric matriarchy. She decries the traps of feminine physicality that bring life into the world, seeing them as simultaneously a personal and cultural impediment to spiritual advancement.

This error is the cause of the warmth felt by those that meditate on Parjnaparamita, the secret dakini.

From the Christian perspective, the answer to this dilemma is obvious: all things are joined in love. Coitus is not necessary to transmission of masculine and feminine virtues, only love. Relationships persist because the love between the couple expands to include the society, and their shared experience is essential to greater service to humanity. And the dangers of esoteric knowledge are lessened because love – the source of all creative power – is unknown to those that would abuse its energies.

In patterning the female path to enlightenment on the masculine path, Tibetan Buddhism does women a terrible disservice. These are precious gifts: the ability to bring life into the world, the determination to preserve it, and the social rewards for their devotion. Any proclaimed feminine spirituality should provide practices that strengthen those gifts, rather than sacrificing them on the altar of death.

Contrast that with the promise of Spirit and his Bride:

“Come! And let all that hear say: ‘Come!’ Let all who desire come and drink of the free gift of the water of life.”

Considering the  filters and constraints of Tibetan Buddhism, this confidence is marvelous!

The Season of Peace

Among the seven forms of selfishness released upon the Earth when the seals were broken in heaven [Rev. 6], the prince of death is that mystical presence that divides us from those that we love and feasts on our sorrow.

In this season, we celebrate a man who submitted to death, yet still loving those that abused him [Luke 23:34]. Through his devotion, Jesus suffused death with love. He converted that impenetrable barrier into a shield that keeps warring spirits apart until they find the strength to forgive one another [Matt. 1:21 and Luke 24:47].

For those of us that in this season celebrate Christmas, this is the source of its meaning and joy.

Getting Over Our Ages-Old Fear of Old Age

I came across this delightful image today in David Stipp’s Scientific American short on anti-aging supplements. He says:

Whenever I see my 10-year-old daughter brimming over with so much energy that she jumps up in the middle of supper to run around the table, I think to myself, “those young mitochondria.”

Stipp’s article leads me to the conclusion that the recent fad for mitochondrial supplements seems to be undermined by evidence that systemic factors dominate. Specifically, our youthful vigor is not restored by supplements that improve the efficiency of the mitochondria that transfer energy from sugar to our muscles. That means other factors are at work.

My advice for those that can’t wait to be young again: enjoy this life, and don’t fight death when it comes. It’s your opportunity to be reborn with a full set of new equipment.

Dying in Peace

Standard Christian theology is that Christ died so that God could forgive our sins. But I think that Jesus said something a little more subtle: that he would die for “the forgiveness of sin.”

As I understand it, God is not about choosing those worthy to live in his presence, he is concerned with healing. A sin is a sin because it leaves a wound in the soul. That wound cannot be healed until we are ready to forgive the sin – to let it go so that it may be displaced by love. When that occurs, even the most vicious criminal becomes qualified to enter paradise.

Even better, though, is to hold on to the sin. It is to do as Jesus did – to allow the sin to take hold of us, and then to forgive it so that it may be suffused by love, and so made noble.

Death is a sin because is separates things that cherish one another. That cherishing reflects a mutually beneficial relationship. So for death to enforce such separation is to deny the parties those benefits, and thus to wound them.

In dying, Jesus allowed the servants of Death (the priests that slaughtered innocent creatures on the altar) to have their way with him, and forgave them. He suffused death with love, and so became the Prince of Peace.

How does that work? Because warring parties need to be separated. That can be accomplished in death, but what Jesus does is offer a spiritual refuge in which we can reflect until we figure out how to share strength with the ones we war against.

Sometimes, of course, that is our selves. Peace starts within, and when we accept Jesus, we allow him into our hearts and minds and grant him loving dominion over the conflicts that rage within us.

As Cain learned, it isn’t easy, but God understands that sin cannot be healed unless we wrestle with it. Terrible things happen: Cain murdered his brother Abel. But even then, that most heinous of sins was not punished with death. Instead, Cain was sent away to think, reflect, and become stronger.

Don’t Blame Love

In the final chapter of Love Works, the feminine personality of life, irritated by the disorder generated by the masculine personality of intellect, grabs him by the short hairs, prompting him to observe:

Choice is a bitch. Let’s hope the kids do better next time. Now, will you let go? (How does she make it hurt so much?)

It’s undeniable that the spread of life across the earth has been driven by primitive urges.

Life’s procreative greed causes ecosystems to become saturated, stunting evolutionary opportunity. The great extinction episodes of paleohistory terminated biological dead-ends, and were all followed by eras in which life took off in new directions.

Conversely, the ability to use tools requires a large brain and flexible digits, both of which limit the growth of organic armor (which traps heat) and organic weapons (which must be anchored to large bones). Thus creatures of intellect such as humans are biologically vulnerable, and so spread only when they can produce tools that overcome the weapons and armor of other animals.

Once those tools were available, however, fear and greed drove us to consume natural resources without restraint, bringing the globe today to the point of ecological collapse. Deflecting the force of these natural tendencies is the challenge we have laid at love’s door.

In the history of religion, that struggle began with the worship of the two polar opposites of procreation and death. With the rise of the hydrological civilizations, an intellectual class of priests began to envision gods with subtle ethical character. But it was really only about 3000 years ago (and only among the intellectual elite) that humanity dared to suppose the gods should be devoted to us, rather than the other way around.

Monotheism is the culmination of this process, and led eventually to the declaration that God is love. This is common to all of the great religions.

But is it to our advantage? Given that we have free will, why should we feel constrained to draw only upon love when we face challenges? When our treasurer embezzles the retirement fund, do we just shrug our shoulders? Or do we get a noose? And when the hanging is done, can’t we justify the act with the assertiong that we are loving our spouse, children and/or co-workers?

The retort to this logic is that if you had really cared about your treasurer and paid attention to her psychological well-being, you would have seen the trouble long before it manifested. But, damn, that seems like a lot of work, and didn’t we pay them to do the right thing? So we keep the noose handy, and that means that the old deities of death get in through the back door of our religions. They stay alive there, and as ecological collapse sweeps across the globe, they will appear once again to grow in power.

But, fundamentally, they are the disease. Sexual indulgence and fear of death are what drove us to exploit the natural world. That love did not have a magic wand to drive them away is not its fault. So we need to stop blaming monotheistic religions for our refusal to hew to the dictates of love. Rather, we need to double down, even as fear sweeps over us, and invest in the love that creates the strength to resist the urge to exploit the world around us.

God and Human

One of the more frustrating problems faith is trying to make sense of pronouncements that characterize realities that we cannot understand. In Christianity, a great deal of dialog, derision and good-old-fashioned blood-letting revolves around the concept that Jesus was at once both God and man. It is related to the problem of the Holy Trinity that was the most controversial issue in the Council of Nicea, and continues to divide the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

To critical onlookers this probably appears to be ludicrous ado about nothing, merely an attempt to layer a veneer of respectability over a huckster’s mumbo-jumbo. But to those that take the program of Christianity seriously, the mystery is a real problem. Jesus clearly expected us to be more. That is hinted by his repeated pronouncement “Your faith has healed you.” It becomes more explicit when he tells the disciples “there is nothing I do that you cannot do yourselves” leading him to observe peevishly, when waken on a stormy sea, “Oh ye of little faith!” And of course, ultimately he avers to his students “Things even greater than these shall you do.”

Clearly, Jesus’s expectation was that he was only an existence proof, not a singular phenomenon.

So how do we become like him? What is this faith? What power does it allow to enter into us? And as Jesus demonstrated, how do we establish a permanent and continuous living with and through that power?

The key, I believe, is clear through Jesus’s teachings. He began with parables that characterize the unconditional and infinitely forgiving love of the Father. At the midpoint, he simplifies the Law as “Love your God, and love your neighbor as though he was yourself.” And finally, in the great struggle in Gethsemane, he conquers the fears of the flesh and surrenders himself fully to his love of the world. And in his resurrection, his glory testifies to the authority earned in his remaking of heaven and earth through the mechanism of his sacrifice.

So he is God and Human. But why God? Why the best, most powerful God? What is it about love that is so powerful?

To understand this, we have to turn to the realm of the Almighty, where the ethereal host evolves under different laws of physics. What we know is that angels do not have flesh. They are souls living in pure relation. What is common between their realm and ours is that some of those relationship are beneficial, and some harmful.

Two forms of relation are particularly potent. First is the relation of Death, which creates insuperable barriers between the angels, preventing them from entering in relation. Although there is a certain restfulness in death, by its very nature its grasp is difficult to escape. The second is Unconditional Love, which seeks restlessly to maximize the benefits of relation. It is a force that helps angels escape circumstances that suppress their expression, liberating them into mutually beneficial engagements that generate new and unexpected possibilities. As we are told, liberated spirits facilitate the spread of love by “singing” its praises.

In the Book of Revelation, John is brought into Heaven. While Heaven is not the Realm of the Almighty, but reflects its dynamic. Around a throne occupied by Unconditional Love, twenty-four principal angels are gathered wearing crowns. When the living creatures sing the praises of love, the angels are compelled to lay aside their crowns and bow in praise to the one on the throne.

Why is this so? If so powerful, why should love sit on a throne, isolated from us, guarded in fact by fearsome predators? That is not its desire, as revealed in the final Chapters, where no light and no temple is found in the city of God because love has been woven into its very fabric.

The problem is that when offered power, we think first of ourselves. Trapped here in this physical existence, full of pain and struggle, we use our strength to compel others to serve us. We violate the compact of unconditional love. We corrupt it with “sin.” To become as Jesus, we must surrender our self-concern. We must think only of others, and trust that they will concern themselves with us.

This was the compact that Adam and Eve sundered in the Garden of Eden. Given the task of tending God’s kingdom on earth, they thought of themselves. God tried for many generations to overcome that sin, but the gap was too great between his perfection and our fallen state. Jesus came down to experience that fallen state, to struggle with its frailty, to have his compassion sharpened on the point of our daily peril. It was only in the intimacy of the disease that healing could be given.

So this is how Jesus was both God and Human: he was a one-way street. Through him, only love came. Impervious to self-concern, no sin went back the other way. And through the humanity of his courage, love gave those he encountered the strength to turn aside from fear and accept the healing power of love.

And finally, in his encounter with death on the cross, love suffused that presence and turned it into the agent of peace. Death is no longer a final separation, but an agent that brings surcease when fear pushes us into violence. Having submitted death, the Prince of Peace is capable of cocooning us in love until we recall our better selves.

So this is the answer: in submitting to the teachings of Christ, we become gods in loving one another, and thus receive from each other the power to bring good into the world, and thus experience good to the limit of our capacity.