06/8/13

Creationism’s stench still lingers in American education


CreationismCreationism (and it’s dressed-up-in-drag younger brother, “intelligent” design) is the black mold of education. It’s an insidious infection of the mind, an intellectual parasite. And like real-life black mold, it creates a toxic environment – for learning and critical thinking.

This week, creationism again came up in American school board discussions. According to the HuffPost, the American Taliban* – the Tea Party – is behind the debate at a Springboro, Ohio, school board, to add the pseudoscience of creationist claptrap to the curriculum. The school board president, Kelly Kohls, is also head of the local Tea Party.

Hardly any surprises there.

It’s a sad, creepy tale. Creationism just won’t get cured. At least not by having such myopic fundamentalists in positions of authority. How do people with closed minds get on school boards in the first place?

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05/24/13

Religion, Logic, and Tornadoes


Facebook image
What has a tornado in common with prayer in schools and US President Barack Obama? Rhonda Crosswhite. Yes, the Oklahoma teacher praised as a hero for saving several children when a massive tornado ripped through her town of Moore, earlier this week.

And no doubt she was. But there were many other teachers who were heroes that day,  none of whom have become a rallying point for the religious right, as far as I can tell. Crosswhite was, from all accounts I’ve read, the only one to mention praying during the tornado. That comment made her a different sort of hero to the religious right. The rest have generally been ignored.

Crosswhite told media that she prayed while the tornado carved its path of destruction around her.

“I did the teacher thing that we’re probably not supposed to do. I prayed — and I prayed out loud,” she said in an interview with NBC News following the violent storm.

No surprises. Even for nonbelievers, the no-atheists-in-foxholes theory rings true when confronted by big, scary, life-threatening events like tornadoes or wars. When you’re having the bejeezus scared out of you, your mind is not likely parsing the intellectual debate about whether a particular deity exists. And believers of any faith are naturally going to delve into their faith for support in times of crisis. Nothing unusual or conspiratorial about that.

Even her comment that she prayed “out loud” is unexceptional. I suspect I would be very loud in the same circumstance, albeit more expletive-laden than religious.

Of course, it may simply be a biological reaction rather than rational. It might be because of “vesicular monoamine transporter 2” or VMAT2, a protein involved in neurotransmitter functions that geneticist Dean Hamer associated with human spirituality in his delightfully irreverent and thought-provoking book, The God Gene.

Almost immediately, a photo of Crosswhite appeared on the Web with almost her words:

“And then I did something teachers aren’t supposed to do.
I Prayed.
I prayed out loud.”

Not an exact quote (so little on Facebook is…) and subtly different. This was quickly spun by the religious right into a rallying cry to reinstate prayer in America public schools. To be fair, I have no idea if Crosswhite agrees with any of these demands, or likes having her words used for such a purpose. But I have read of no protests by her, either.

Yes, yes, you are wondering as I did what the connection is. But you are using logic and reason to try and understand an issue of blind faith (and right-wing American politics).

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03/26/13

Speaking with the dead


EVP hookumCan the dead speak to us from beyond the grave? No, of course not. But that doesn’t stop literally millions of superstitious people from believing they do. And some think they can use technology to facilitate the conversation. Of course, when you put technology into the mix, it simply cements the belief in place, no matter how ludicrous. And the internet has provided a platform for this silliness to reach worldwide.

A recent post on the BBC website made me do some investigation. The BBC story is really about EVP – Electronic Voice Phenomenon. EVP, as Wikipedia tells us, is:

…electronically generated noises that resemble speech, but are supposedly not the result of intentional voice recordings or renderings. Common sources of EVP include static, stray radio transmissions, and background noise. Recordings of EVP are often created from background sound by increasing the gain (i.e. sensitivity) of the recording equipment.
Interest in EVP surrounds claims that it is of paranormal origin, although many occurrences have had natural explanations including apophenia (finding significance in insignificant phenomena), auditory pareidolia (interpreting random sounds as voices in one’s own language), equipment artifacts, and hoaxes.

Hoaxes. Put that near the top of your list. The Skeptics’ Dictionary is more caustic, as expected:

Despite widespread belief in EVP, scientists have shown about as much interest in the phenomenon as they have in John Oates’s reverse speech theory, and probably for the same reason. We already understand priming and the power of suggestion. As Alcock says, the simplest explanation for EVP is that it is the product of our own wonderfully complex brain, aided by the strong emotional desire to make contact with the dead.

In other words, we hear what we want to hear and what we expect to hear, because our brains are designed to hunt for patterns in everything, even randomness. It’s not a picture of Jesus on your toast or your grilled cheese sandwich: That random pattern on cooked bread is just pareidolia.

I know, you’re thinking this is just another of those chemtrails or anti-vaccination idiocies that are rampant online. But these people are much further into the deep end than that. They bring in the hardware and, since few of us are electronic engineers, it sure seems to be doing something amazing. Well, it is, just not what you think it’s doing. Read on.

Browse over this report of an allegedly technical study. A causal reading would make it seem almost serious. Until, of course, you read about hooking up a “psychophone.”

Despite the belief by some, the device commonly referred to by this name wasn’t a device invented by Thomas Edison to speak to the dead; the first patented device of that name was a photograph designed to play subliminal messages while you sleep, and condition you for the next day (see here). The device referred to in the article is an electronic box; the “invention of Austrian scientist Franz Seidl for the reception of the alleged transcendental voices during his experiments with Raudive (Breakthrough pp. 362-365).” You can see more about this device here.

And what do the samples recorded on this device sound like? Take a listen here. None of those I listened to sounded anything more than electronic noise. In fact, most sounded like the old crystal radio sets of my youth; picking up bits of stations, fragments of transmissions, wrapped in that echo-y, chorus-y sound they used to make. Not a single one sounded to me like “Paul is dead,” either.

And likely that’s all they are: stray radio waves picked up by an unshielded receiver. The listeners just delude themselves into hearing something more in them. Could easily be snippets of cordless phone conversations, utility service walkie talkies, AM radio broadcasts, even cell phone calls.

As the BBC story notes,

The simplest explanation is that EVP voices are just stray radio transmissions. Usually they are so faint and masked by static interference that it’s hard to make out what they are saying, and the EVP investigator has to “interpret” them for you.

That might seem like a weakness but that’s also their power. As Joe Banks, a sound artist, points out, a dead person speaking in studio quality wouldn’t be nearly so convincing as a voice you must strain to hear.

The other giveaway in the article that they’re deep in the codswallop are the 12 references to the phase of the moon during the experiments. Wingnuts believe that the moon affects paranormal activity (not surprising since millions of them still follow astrology as if it was something more than entertainment):

Over the centuries people have associated the full moon with the paranormal and supernatural. And it would seem that the full moon phase can be a very favorable time to ghost hunt.

The new moon phase is another time people associate with ghost hunting. During a new moon, the moon rises at the same time as the sun. Because of the suns bright rays you can’t see the moon, making it really dark for ghost hunting.

But the best time to experiencing paranormal phenomena is two to three days before or after the full moon and new moon. Which would be a waxing crescent phase, the waxing gibbous phase, the waning gibbous phase, and the waning crescent phase.

I know, the words gullible and superstitious claptrap go through my head, too, when I read that stuff.

And if you can’t build yourself your own handy-dandy psychophone? No worry: just listen to your wireless router, says this guy:

As you may know, one of the theories out there is that “entities” use different frequencies that are flowing through the air around us on a constant basis in order to communicate through EVP. With that said, what else has increased in the past 10 years aside from occurrences of EVP evidence? The answer is Wi-Fi. Could they be using the unique frequency used by your every day wireless router to more easily communicate?

And I though all those little annoying voices were the sounds of pop-up ads or incoming email. So why don’t the spirits just talk to people through the air so others can hear them? One comment in this paper says they dead use radio frequency because they can “manipulate energy”:

The “departed” can somehow suppress those signals in such a fashion as to generate intelligible speech. As the machine was being tuned for the best operation, the technician was being “guided” by voice from the other side. A most interesting arrangement…

Since there is no physical matter on their level, all they have to work with is energy. By causing the energy to flow in a vortex, it naturally achieves a focal point which allows action to occur from their level to our physical level.
The technician stated that they were still learning how to “tap the spiral” which shows that the ever tightening spiral segments increase in power as they condense toward the center or focal point.

Amazing how much pseudoscience gibberish you can pack into a couple of paragraphs. The author also mentions “13 waves, the magic number” – numerology is another form of quackery the wingnuts pursue.

Listening to the original tapes made by one of the EVP pioneers, Konstantin Raudive, author of Breakthrough, the BBC reporter was not impressed:

According to a book published at the time by Smythe’s partner, a Russian voice at that session said “Stefan is here. But you are Stefan. You do not believe me. It is not very difficult. We will teach Petrus.” But on the tape there was nothing, just hiss.

Makes you wonder why the spirits can’t speak in coherent sentences. Raudive went from loony to huckster in a very short time, sounding more like a Monty Python skit than a serious investigator:

But once you start experimenting with EVP, it’s hard to stop. After Breakthrough was published, Raudive progressed from voices captured on tape to voices coming from animals, in particular a budgerigar named Putzi, who spoke in the voice of a dead 14-year-old girl.

Who says madness isn’t contagious? Decades later, the BBC reporter adds, other EVP “researchers” are hearing dead people’s voices in animal sounds, even in creaking doors:

Similar work today is being done today by EVP researcher Brian Jones in Seattle.

He records the noises made by seagulls, dogs, cats, and even squeaky doors and crunching pebbles. They all contain voices. One dog says, “Where’s Sheila?” referring to its owner. Another complains of its owners, “they always sail away”.

Jones thinks he can capture thoughts that somehow are in the air. “I have documented a lot of things that are pretty stunning that way,” he says.

If you read down towards the bottom of this report, there are several technical comments about the construction of these “psychophones” that identify them as noise generators with oscillator circuits:

I have carefully studied the schematic of this device and built a test unit, I have noted a few things. First, not every oscillator is a radio transmitter. Second, the oscillators in this device are highly unstable circuits, and have adjustable potentiometers that will literally allow you to make it talk. By rotating the knobs you can alter pitch and cadence. As for “transcendental voices to modulate” I
have yet to see that proof. What this device will do is allow any frequency present in the audio range to modulate the carrier. Twisting the knobs will also modulate the carrier. This thing is a win/win situation. If you don’t detect an EVP, you can generate one.

So you generate what you’re looking to hear. And another comment from a different author in that paper:

These boxes are essentially synthesizers, very similar to the one invented by MOOG in the early 1960’s. In fact I have an old synthesizer here in the lab and I can make say whatever I want. It certainly is no proof of voices from the dead, although I could make it seem as such.

I had an old Moog synth back in the 1970s, and now that you mention it, it DID sound like those sound samples linked above. Maybe they should just add small piano keys to it. At the end of this piece, the above author notes:

But the truly astounding thing is I have talked to witnesses that are firmly convinced that they spoke to a dead loved one… The same results could most likely be achieved using a white noise generator, a magic 8-Ball, or a deck of Tarot cards.

In this report from the same website, it says there is a “a correlation between EVPs and EMF” which suggests to me simple feedback from the electromagnetic fields of the recording devices.

So EVP is, like the rest of the psychic, paranormal world: just more bunkum to suck in the gullible. People “hear” voices in the electronic noise because they want to believe, desperately want to believe that death isn’t the end. They want to believe we can carry our ego on to another “realm” and maintain our individual selves. That when we shuffle off this mortal coil, we wake up in another world. We willingly suspend belief in logic to avoid the alternative: that death is the end. Period.

Sorry to debunk that for you.

I suppose it’s better to have these folks glued to their “psychophones” for hours on end than engaged in some social activity. Who knows, what they might be up to if let loose.

03/3/13

The Secret Teachings of All Ages


Secret TeachingsWhen confronted with a problem involving the use of the reasoning faculties, individuals of strong intellect keep their poise, and seek to reach a solution by obtaining facts bearing upon the question. Those of immature mentality, on the other hand, when similarly confronted, are overwhelmed.”

That’s one of the few quotable pieces I’ve found while reading through The Secret Teachings of All Ages, by Manly P. Hall. Originally published 1928, it has gone through several editions, most recently as an oversize, 750-page paperback in 2003. The full, ostentatious title includes this: An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolic Philosophy … Being an Interpretation of the Secret Teachings concealed within the Rituals, Allegories and Mysteries of all Ages.

Whew. Let’s just refer to it as TSTOAA for now. It’s a rambling, unfocused work that attempts to tie together mythology, pseudoscience, spiritualism, the occult arts, magic, secret societies, mysticism, alchemy, symbolism, music, Freemasonry, the tarot and more into some coherent Christian-influenced unified philosophy, and fails majestically in the attempt.

There are a lot of things to quote from it, mind you – just not things I’d want to share as tokens of wisdom or insight, mostly as examples of nonsense, claptrap, fuzzy logic, conspiracy theory and unverifiable claims. He makes a lot of claims like “According to the mystics…” or “There is a legend…” that are not backed up any source reference. Worse are the “It is probable that…” sentences that begin a wild guess without any historical or scientific proof.

Since copyright was never renewed, you can download a PDF of the tome many places online, including here, here and here. You can read it online here. As always, I recommend you get a printed copy if you really want to wade through it. If you want the larger format (legal-sized pages), it’s also available, but this one is easier to carry and read in bed.

I first came across this oddly curious and wacky but yet fascinating book in 1970. It was a time of credulity, when hippies were exploring alternate philosophies and spiritualities, without applying a lot of critical thought to the content (which is why so many spun off into cults and bad drugs). It was the start of the recent infection of New Age “philosophy,” which led otherwise bright and exploratory intellects into dead ends like homeopathy, reflexology, numerology, astrology, crystal therapy, UFOs, New World Order, the Illuminati and more recently chemtrail conspiracies and anti-vaccination cults.

My obdurate skepticism and need for empirical proof of any claim has kept me from falling for most of this claptrap, but nonetheless, I read a lot of it out of sheer fascination.* Every now and then I return to reading about it, if nothing more than to remind myself how outlandishly silly a lot of this stuff really is.

I really didn’t know much about the author of TSTOAA until this year. According to manlyphall.org,

Manly Palmer Hall (March 18, 1901 – August 29, 1990) was a Canadian-born author and mystic. He is perhaps most famous for his work The Secret Teachings of All Ages: An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy, which is widely regarded as his magnum opus, and which he published at the age of 25 (or 27, 1928)

A Canadian “mystic”? I suppose among all our lumberjacks, hockey players and money-sucking secretive senators, we must have a few. Wikipedia tells us Hall’s mother was a member of the bizarre Rosicrucian order, and, as if that wasn’t enough to warp anyone, she took him to live in Los Angeles at an early age, where he became a preacher. Apparently very intelligent, he taught himself by being a voracious reader, but seems to have absorbed much without really analysing or assessing it.

He started writing pamphlets and later books on various arcane, occult and mystical topics. He was quite prolific, for which, as a writer myself, I tip my hat to him. The scope of his interests is breathtaking, but so was his credulity. For example:

“Through the Gypsies the Tarot cards may be traced back to the religious symbolism of the ancient Egyptians. In his remarkable work, The Gypsies, Samuel Roberts presents ample proof of their Egyptian origin. In one place he writes: “When Gypsies originally arrived in England is very uncertain. They are first noticed in our laws, by several statutes against them in the reign of Henry VIII.; in which they are described as ‘an outlandish people, calling themselves Egyptians,–who do not profess any craft or trade, but go about in great numbers, * * *.'” A curious legend relates that after the destruction of the Serapeum in Alexandria, the large body of attendant priests banded themselves together to preserve the secrets of the rites of Serapis. Their descendants (Gypsies) carrying with them the most precious of the volumes saved from the burning library–the Book of Enoch, or Thoth (the Tarot)–became wanderers upon the face of the earth, remaining a people apart with an ancient language and a birthright of magic and mystery.”

What malarkey! The Romani people emigrated from India in the Medieval era. Tarot and other playing cards appeared in Europe around the same time – Egyptians never had playing cards – all using distinctly European images and symbols, many with recognizably Christian reference (not universal archetypes). The cards were first used for games, although non-tarot decks were used for rudimentary divination as early as 1540. The use of Tarot cards in the modern style of fortune telling stems from the 18th century. Wikipedia notes:

The tradition began in 1781, when Antoine Court de Gébelin, a Swiss clergyman, published Le Monde Primitif, a speculative study which included religious symbolism and its survival in the modern world. De Gébelin first asserted that symbolism of the Tarot de Marseille represented the mysteries of Isis and Thoth. Gébelin further claimed that the name “tarot” came from the Egyptian words tar, meaning “royal”, and ro, meaning “road”, and that the Tarot therefore represented a “royal road” to wisdom. De Gébelin wrote this treatise before Jean-François Champollion had deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs, or indeed before the Rosetta Stone had been discovered, and later Egyptologists found nothing in the Egyptian language to support de Gébelin’s fanciful etymologies. Despite this, the identification of the tarot cards with the Egyptian Book of Thoth was already firmly established in occult practice and continues in to the present day.

de Gebelin was another of those occult hucksters who peddled their shoddy wares to the gullible in the 18th century. Pretty much everything he wrote is claptrap. But people bought it then, just as they buy the chemtrail conspiracies today.

As an editor, Hall’s work makes me wince. His writing is clumsy and amateurishly leaden, although sometimes imbued with a passion. John Colombo, reviewing a biography of Hall, writes of Hall’s early work:

“…the writing was breezy and the details were somewhat repetitious. Stock phrases were used and reused to describe the ancient cultures of the past of the Near, the Middle, and the Far East. Everything was always a little bit “mysterious.” There was no scholarship per se, but there was familiarity with classical texts.”

Breezy? Hall clearly learned density as he matured. TSTOAA is to breezy what a Hummer is to fuel economy. Hall is like an unselective jackdaw, collecting every shiny bit of arcana or esoterica he finds and trying to cram it into his preconceived model of the supernatural world. It’s like trying to build a car with bits of Lego and Mechano pieces and anything else you find in the basement. The result is awkward and ungainly, but his believers seem willing to overlook the obvious flaws.

In his chapter on “American Indian Symbolism,” Hall wrote this embarrassingly condescending, colonialist comment:

THE North American Indian is by nature a symbolist, a mystic, and a philosopher. Like most: aboriginal peoples, his soul was en rapport with the cosmic agencies manifesting about him… The red man’s philosophy of elemental creatures is apparently the outcome of his intimate contact with Nature, whose inexplicable wonders become the generating cause of such metaphysical speculations.

In the 1920s when Hall wrote it, a cultural upheaval was taking place. It was the Jazz Age, a time of new politics, new arts, new dances, new music, new beliefs. The hard-headed, prosaic approach of the late Victorian era gave way to a joyous willingness to belief in almost anything anyone pitched.** Much of the West was undergoing a revival in spiritualism that attracted millions of avid followers to pursue some of the most egregious claptrap ever foisted on civilization by a large number of charlatans and hucksters (like Aleister Crowley and Edgar Cayce). But among them were those who sincerely believed in it. Hall seems to have been among them. A little more critical thinking might have avoided statements like this:

EACH of the four primary elements as taught by the early philosophers has its analogue in the quaternary terrestrial constitution of man. The rocks and earth correspond to the bones and flesh; the water to the various fluids; the air to the gases; and the fire to the bodily heat. Since the bones are the framework that sustains the corporeal structure, they may be regarded as a fitting emblem of the spirit–that divine foundation which supports the composite fabric of mind, soul, and body. To the initiate, the skeleton of death holding in bony fingers the reaper’s scythe denotes Saturn (Kronos), the father of the gods, carrying the sickle with which he mutilated Ouranos, his own sire.

Or this:

It was in recognition of Bacon’s intellectual accomplishments that King James turned over to him the translators’ manuscripts of what is now known as the King James Bible for the presumable purpose of checking, editing, and revising them. The documents remained in his hands for nearly a year, but no information is to be had concerning what occurred in that time. Regarding this work, William T. Smedley writes: ” It will eventually be proved that the whole scheme of the Authorised Version of the Bible was Francis Bacon’s.” (See The Mystery of Francis Bacon.) The first edition of the King James Bible contains a cryptic Baconian headpiece. Did Bacon cryptographically conceal in the Authorized Bible that which he dared not literally reveal in the text–the secret Rosicrucian key to mystic and Masonic Christianity?

Atlantis from TSTOAAHall has an almost childlike naivete or gullibility about his sources, although most have long since been exposed as cons or wingnuts – like Helena Blavatsky, Cagliostro and the Comte de St. Germaine.

Hall gives credence in his 45 chapters to far too many debunked beliefs, superstitions and outright fictions like the Gypsies came from Egypt, Atlantis existed, alchemy, astrology, Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s works, and that the Freemasons and Rosicrucians are an ancient order.

Despite the occult content, Hall’s perspective is quite Christian and almost evangelical in places; Christianity has a suggestive superiority among the faiths he describes, with the suggestion that it has deep roots in ancient pagan mythologies (that, in Hall’s telling, are precursors to modern beliefs). Christianity is never seriously questioned in TSTOAA. He often cloaks comments about Chrisitianity thus:

“The existence of interpolated material in the fourth Gospel substantiates the belief that the work was originally written without any specific reference to the man Jesus, the statements therein accredited to Him being originally mystical discourses delivered by the personification of the Universal Mind. The remaining Johannine writings–the Epistles and the Apocalypse–are enshrouded by a similar veil of mystery.”

There are many glowing reviews and uncritically effusive comments about TSTOAA online, but remarkably few negative ones; I haven’t found a single site that comprehensively debunks the voluminous codswallop that packs Hall’s magnum opus. The positive ones don’t surprise me: there’s a remarkable dearth of critical thinking, compounded by a remarkable number of gullible, New Agers online***. But there are also a lot of skeptics, few of whom seem to have tackled this work. Boingboing‘s Gareth Branwyn is one of the rare exceptions, albeit no more than passingly critical:

Manly Palmer Hall has been called the America Madame Blavatsky, which probably isn’t far from the truth. Like the controversial Russian-born founder of Theosophy, Hall seemed dedicated to quantity over quality in his writing (authoring more than 50 books on esoterica and self-help), and like Helena, the troubling smell of snake oil swirled in his rotund wake. Manly P Hall is one of the people principally responsible for the birth of the New Age religious movement in the United States…

TSTOAA is a tough read, but it’s packed with enough ammunition to keep any skeptics and debunkers busy for many a long night and if it doesn’t make you throw it against the wall, it might make you chuckle. I wish someone would take a systematic and comprehensive approach and deconstructed it so that it might not continue to be a force for New Age idiocy today. It belongs in the same literary remainder bin as the Urantia Book in bookstores. Read, instead, the Golden Bough and the works of Joseph Campbell.

~~~~~

* Since the late 1960s, I tended to favour the spartan practice of Zen; stripped away from the mystical brouhaha, with a distinct deficiency of deities, angels, goblins, ghosts and other spirits. Don’t get me wrong: I have great respect for the mystical tradition, for the human drive for introspection and insight into unfathomable things. It has brought us magnificent works of prose and poetry, great stories, music and great art. I just separate the drive from the conclusions formed by believers. It’s the conclusions that cause me grief, not the search itself.

** James Frazer, in his scholarly masterpiece about magic and superstition, The Golden Bough, wrote  succinctly, “In short, magic is a spurious system of natural law as well as a fallacious guide of conduct; it is a false science as well as an abortive art.”

*** “During the past four decades, America’s endemic anti-intellectual tendencies have been grievously exacerbated by a new species of semiconscious anti-rationalism, feeding on and fed by an ignorant popular culture of video images and unremitting noise that leaves no room for contemplation or logic. This new anti-rationalism, at odds not only with the nation’s heritage of eighteenth-century Enlightenment reason but with modern scientific knowledge, has propelled a surge of anti-intellectualism capable of inflicting vastly greater damage than its historical predecessors inflicted on American culture and politics. Indeed, popular anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism are now synonymous.” Susan Jacoby: The Age of American Unreason, Pantheon Books, 2008

02/24/13

Another Zen tale


Hermit tarot cardCarrying on in the tradition of my last post, here’s another of the stories from Paul Reps’ book, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. Before I repeat it, consider the story of Diogenes, the Greek philosopher and founder of the school of Cynics (cynos is Greek for dog, thus the “dog” philosophers). Diogenes once complained that, “Dogs and philosophers do the greatest good and get the fewest rewards.” I might add municipal politicians to that list…

He broke almost every rule of civic and social convention to teach his philosophy, almost like a Zen master using koans to break the bonds of rigid logic. Diogenes has a certain ambivalent attraction for Westerners, because of his iconoclastic,

“…talent for undercutting social and religious conventions and subverting political power…”

Yet his flagrant dislike for artificiality makes us uncomfortable because of our social herd instinct and our collective passion for shiny new toys. His contempt for convention, and his acts in flouting them are, we are told,

“…for the sake of promoting reason and virtue. In the end, for a human to be in accord with nature is to be rational, for it is in the nature of a human being to act in accord with reason.”

Yet Diogenes is also seen as very negative, rough, unwashed, misanthropic… and yet wise. Plato, when asked about Diogenes, sneeringly called him a “Socrates gone mad.” His sayings show a remarkable wisdom that is almost Zen-like:

“Those who have virtue always in their mouths, and neglect it in practice, are like a harp, which emits a sound pleasing to others, while itself is insensible of the music.”

Diogenes apparently asked, rhetorically I suppose,

“Of what use is a philosopher who doesn’t hurt anybody’s feelings?”

Editors feel the same way.

He also said that, “there was one only good, namely, knowledge; and one only evil, namely, ignorance.” A phrase like that could be well repeated today. Author George Iles once said, “Whoever ceases to be a student never was a student.” We can never stop learning, searching for answers and knowledge, because when we do, we cease to move forward. We start to die, to shrivel when we cease to learn.

Another of Diogenes’ sayings would challenge those who want the most, the best, the most expensive of all things: “He has the most who is most content with the least.”

There’s a tale told about Diogenes that’s worth repeating because it captures some of his method and madness:

In winter Diogenes walked barefoot in the snow. In summer he rolled in the hot sand. He did this to harden himself against discomfort.

“But aren’t you overdoing it a little?” a disciple asked.

“Of course,” replied Diogenes, “I am like a teacher of choruses who has to sing louder than the rest in order they may get the right note.”

Diogenes and the lamp

According to legend, Diogenes used to walk around the streets of Athens in the daytime with a lit lantern. When asked by passersby about why he needed a light in the daytime, he would reply to them that he was “looking for an honest man.” That image of Diogenes has been passed down to us in many forms, including the Hermit card from the major arcana of the tarot deck (image at top). But it also relates to the Japanese story, below.

Other reports have phrased his response differently:

Diogenes has trouble finding such humans, and expresses his sentiments regarding his difficulty theatrically. Diogenes is reported to have “lit a lamp in broad daylight and said, as he went about, ‘I am searching for a human being’” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book 6, Chapter 41).

Honest man, human being – the translation isn’t as important as the metaphor (it is intellectually similar to Thoreau’s statement in Walden that, “To be awake is to be alive. I have never met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?”).

And that’s where the Zen tale comes in:

In early times in Japan, bamboo-and-paper lanterns wee used with candles inside.

A blind man, visiting a friend one night was offered a lantern to carry home with him.

‘I do not need a lantern,’ he said. Darkness or light is all the same to me’

‘I know you do not need a lantern to find your way,’ his friend replied, ‘but if you don’t have one someone else may run into you. So you must take it.’

The blind man started off with the lantern and before he had walked very far someone ran squarely into him. ‘Look out where you are going!’ he exclaimed to the stranger. ‘Can’t you see this lantern?’

‘Your candle has burned out brother,’ replied the stranger.

An interesting difference. In the Diogenes tale, everyone can see the lantern, but it doesn’t illuminate anyone. In the Zen story, everyone but the holder who needs it most can see it (and see it has been extinguished). Diogenes is the lamplighter, the blind man is only the carrier.

Zenmonkeys suggests this is the moral:

Using ideas of one person to enlighten another is like the blind man with the lantern; the light may go out along the way and you’ll never know.

And that certainly resonates (and it is this resonance that made me think of this tale as a lesson to ponder). But, turning again to Thoreau’s statement, the blind man is not fully “awake” in that he lacks one critical sense. He cannot effectively borrow that sense. No one can “look him in the face” because his lantern has gone out.

The Buddhist story has many iterations that alter it subtly but significantly. For example, this one:

Late one night a blind man was about to go home after visiting a friend.

“Please,” he said to his friend, “may I take your lantern with me?”

“Why carry a lantern?” asked his friend.

“You won’t see any better with it.” ”

No,” said the blind one, “perhaps not. But others will see me better, and not bump into me.”

So his friend gave the blind man the lantern, which was made of paper on bamboo strips, with a candle inside.

Off went the blind man with the lantern, and before he had gone more than a few yards, “Crack!” — a traveler walked right into him.

The blind man was very angry. “Why don’t you look out?” he stormed. “Why don’t you see this lantern?”

“Why don’t you light the candle?” asked the traveler

The message/moral here is quite different: if the lantern represents ideas, then it says you have to use them as intended, not merely carry them. And that unrealized ideas do not enlighten anyone. But here the responsibility lies on the blind man for not bothering to check if the lantern was lit (easily done with a candle – just feel the heat) and taking it for granted that others would take responsibility.

But here’s a rather different version of the story I came across today:

A blind man was leaving a friend’s house at night when he was suggested to carry a lantern. Laughing aloud, the blind man snapped, “What do I need light for? I know my way home !”

His friend patiently replied, “It’s for others to see – so that they won’t bump into you.”

Sneering, the blind man agreed to use it. A little down the road, someone accidentally bumped into the blind man, startling him.

Fuming, he yelled, “Hey! You’re not blind! So make way for the blind man!”

Further down the road, another person bumped into him. This time, he got angrier, shouting, “Are you blind? Can’t you see the lantern? I’m carrying it for you!”

The stranger replied, “You are the blind one! Can’t you see your lantern has gone out?” The blind man was stunned.

Upon closer look, the stranger apologised, “So sorry, I was the ‘blind’ one. I didn’t see that you really are blind!”

The blind man uttered, “No no, It is I who should apologise for my rudeness.”

Both felt greatly embarrassed, as the man helped to re-light the lantern.

Even further down the road, yet another person bumped into the blind man. The blind man was more cautious this time, asking politely, “Excuse me, did my lantern go out?”

This second stranger replied, “Strange! That was what I was about to ask you myself! ‘Did my lantern go out?'”

There was a brief pause… before they asked each other, “Are you blind?”

“Yes!” they replied in unison, bursting with laughter at their predicament, as they fumbled with their lanterns, trying to help re-light each other’s.

Just then, someone walked by. He saw their flickering matches just in time, and narrowly avoided bumping into them. He didn’t know they were blind, or he would naturally had helped. As he passed, he thought, “Perhaps I should carry a lantern too, so that I can see my way better, so that others can see their way too.”

Unbeknownst to all, the blind man’s friend was all along following behind quietly with a lantern, smiling, making sure that he has a safe journey home, hoping that he will learn more about himself along the way.

Does this story have the same moral? Not really.It mixes all sorts of metaphors. The poster goes on at length about the lessons in this more convoluted tale, including this:

The blind man’s unexpected bumping into strangers on the way home represents our unexpected stumbling onto obstacles on the path of practising the Dharma. Each and every obstacle however, need not be seen as obstacles but an invaluable opportunity or stepping stone to learn more about oneself, a chance to become wiser and kinder.

Yes, the bumps in the road can be seen as obstacles or challenges for improvement on our journey. But I also read in it a suggestion of the controlling force stealthily walking behind the blind man, not so much to help but to direct. But yet this “friend” doesn’t help when the blind man stumbles and collides with others, simply watches while the blind man makes the mistakes. There’s a lesson in that, too.

Local references? Take them as you see fit. I didn’t write the tales, just reprinted them..

02/23/13

A Zen story


Zen storyThere are all sorts of great stories, great tales of wisdom and enlightenment, to be found in Zen Buddhism. They often have that sort of eternal depth and universal meaning to our lives, regardless of your personal beliefs. The one below came back to me, last night, while I was walking my dog and pondering why some people remain so angry over little things, why they can’t move on. It goes like this…

Two Zen monks, a young and and old one, were walking along the road on the way to visit a monastery in the hills. They came to a river that was swollen with water from the recent rains, and the ford was deep under the muddy, rushing water.

On their side of the river was a young woman, dressed in a rich new kimono and sash, unable to cross, looking fearfully at the water.

The elder monk went over, spoke quietly to the woman, then picked her up, and carried her across the river while his companion struggled through the water behind him. The monk put the woman down on the further bank, bowed, and the two monks continued their journey. The woman went off down another path and they never saw her again.

After many hours of walking in silence, the two arrived at the monastery. They greeted the master, had dinner, sat in meditation, then retired to their cell to sleep. While they were preparing to go to bed, the younger of the two could no longer restrain himself.

He suddenly burst out angrily, “I can be silent no more! What were you thinking? You know we’re not supposed to have any contact with women. Yet you carried that woman across the river without a second thought. Don’t you know that’s against the rules? How could you do something like that?”

He railed on for a couple more minutes.

The elder monk simply stood still and listened. When the younger was finished, and had exhausted himself, the elder said, “I put that woman down hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?”

Wonderful tale, isn’t it?

~~~~~

This story comes from a wonderful collection called Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, by Paul Reps. I was given a paperback edition of this book in 1968 and I still have it, the same, somewhat battered copy, in my book collection. I have a couple of other editions, too, picked up over the years.

I have read the entire book many times over during the time I’ve had it, and probably will read it many more times. It’s the single, most-read book I own and one of the few I would always want to own.

You can read the tales online at many sites, including here, but I do recommend you get a printed copy for yourself. It’s a rich treasure trove of inspirational, educational and often entertaining material.

Okay, I embellished the telling a bit. The original tale is much shorter and has a few variants (you can read it here and here and here). Wisdom tales abound in all cultures and I have a few similar books from other lands and times. I think I will reprint a few more stories here in the future.