Monday, September 11, 2017

The Problem of Ignorance

One of the nice aspects of a forum like this is the ability to think through scholarly ideas in a looser, more playful manner than would be permitted in a journal or other venue. One I have had on my list for a while is an issue not so much addressed in Western philosophical traditions: the Problem of Ignorance.

Western philosophy has plenty of problems, of course: the problem of existence, the problem of identity, the problem of god, and, perhaps most famously, the problem of evil. That last problem tries to sort out the existence of a divinity with the existence of suffering in the world, where suffering is seen as the quintessential vexation for existence. While this is a problem for a cultural setting that posits an all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing deity, civilizations that have a different concept of divinity might see the essential problem of existence as something else. This is where the Problem of Ignorance comes in: for many non-Western traditions, the problem is not that we don't understand God, it's that we don't understand the world and ourselves. We're not immersed in evil; we're immersed in ignorance.

Let's take Buddhist, Hindu, and Daoist traditions as some examples. In Buddhism, the "facts of life" (old age, sickness, death, impermanence, and so forth) do not chance, but our perceptions of them can. If one remains stuck in the mindset that happiness, health, and love are forever -- that is, remains ignorant of the changing dynamics of the universe -- then life is one long train of pain. In Hinduism, broadly speaking, one's difficulty is ignorance of the larger connection of one's individual soul with the greater absolute. We ignorantly perceive ourselves as independent and separate, when in fact we are one entity in the ultimate. In Daoism, ugly and beautiful, good and evil exist only in an ignorant mind, and by reflexively separating life into those categories, we create discordance and pain. Knowledge occurs only when one simply experiences and does not label.

Having studied these various religions for some years now, it hit me one day: in many ways, the ultimate goal of each is simply crafting the proper outlook based on knowledge, as opposed to ignorance. While other traditions pose disobedience or evil as the problem to be overcome, these ways of thought consider ignorance to be the greatest obstacle to a fulfilling life. The key obstacle we must overcome thus lies not without, but within us.

These basic principles of the Problem of Ignorance remind me of a theme that I noticed some time ago in a few of my favorite popular culture mythologies. If you'll allow me to turn the discussion on its head a little bit, I think these stories give us some good examples of this same theme of ignorance as the enemy and knowledge as power. Take the Luke Skywalker-Darth Vader dyad of the original Star Wars films, particularly The Empire Strikes Back.

I'm certainly not the only one to see mythic and religious significance in this film series. There is a particular set of sequences is these films, though, that demonstrate the theme of ignorance as the enemy.When Luke rushes off to face Vader, he is not yet properly trained and, even more important, Vader has him at a complete disadvantage: the Sith Lord knows the young Jedi-to-be's history and parentage better than Luke does himself. Luke is beaten, and very badly. It is only when he returns to Dagobah and consults with his masters, thereby learning the truth of his father's past, that Luke redresses the imbalance of knowledge and, when he meets Vader again, ultimately triumphs.

One could say that Luke should have been forewarned, if only he'd absorbed the lessons Yoda tried to teach him about the Dark Side when he was on Dagobah the first time. When he fights the apparition of Vader, what he sees in the shattered helmet, is not a grotesque monster, but himself.

This alone should have given the Jedi-in-training pause about what he knew versus what he didn't know about his own inner impulses and murky past. Yet, like so many of us, Luke had to learn the hard way.

Now for a second example:

For most of the Harry Potter saga, Harry is similarly at a disadvantage to Voldemort, who lived through events that Harry cannot remember and which most of his mentors are reluctant to discuss. This situation reaches a crescendo in (I would say at least) the most chilling scene in either the novels or the films: Harry is trapped, seemingly with no escape, at the hands of a vastly more experienced wizard who has greater knowledge of the past events entangling them. (It also turns out there's quite a backstory on this particular graveyard in the Potter-verse.) Yet, Harry does escape, because Voldemort proves to be ignorant himself of a great many things: the incantations between their respective wands, the true nature of friendship and love, and Harry's resourcefulness to learn the lore and whereabouts of the horcruxes. Once Harry closes this knowledge gap and fills in the missing pieces of his own past, he is in a position to defeat Voldemort once and for all.

A third example comes from the final Christopher Nolan Batman film The Dark Knight Rises.

Though I have not tended to rank the movie very highly, there are still some stunning thematic elements to the film and the confrontations between Batman and Bane are quite good. In the first, located in Bane's sewer headquarters, the audience realizes the Dark Knight is in trouble even before a punch is thrown when the villain quips, "Let's not stand on ceremony here, Mr. Wayne." Given what we saw in the two previous examples, if I had been Batman (and, God willing, some day perhaps I shall be) I would have beat a hasty retreat: no good outcome can be expected when the villain knows more about the situation than you. Sure enough, Batman is beaten and beaten horrifically, to be deposited in a pit to think on his failures. In that pit, the inmates instruct Batman on Bane's past and, most importantly, the significance of his mask, meaning that when they fight again, the Dark Knight knows precisely where to strike him.

Wayne's character arc throughout this process is actually quite compelling, at least to me. When he returns as Batman, it appears to me that he has a thinly veiled death wish. Life has become purposeless without the thrill of being Batman and he wants to go out in a blaze of glory. Alfred picks up on this subconscious motivation in this exchange.

Wayne: You think if I go out there, I'll fail.
Alfred: No, I'm afraid that you want to.

In the pit, he asks Bane, almost regretfully, "Why didn't you just kill me?" But this changes as he learns not just about Bane but about himself. It hasn't been anger motivating him all his life. It's been fear. And when he makes a friend of his fear, learns to channel it into an energy, he escapes from the pit, going from the subterranean to the light in an obvious metaphor for rebirth. When next he faces Bane, the circumstances are different.

Bane: So, you came back to die with your city?
Batman: No, I came back to stop you.

At first glance, this is not the most inspiring action hero come back. When I first heard it, I thought, "what a dud of a reply." Yet, upon repeated viewing, there is much more going on in the exchange. Previously, he had comeback to the role of Batman in order to die. Now, he has learned not only about Bane's weakness, but also his true motivation, which his reply communicates. He realizes he's not in it for himself anymore, and that knowledge about himself provides the strength to overcome.

Besides the villains they face, in each of these examples I think we can make a strong case that the hero also must overcome the Problem of Ignorance and that only by solving the gaps in their knowledge are they able to succeed. Certainly someone who understands his surrounding circumstances stands a good chance of being successful. But, more importantly, the one who knows himself is virtually unstoppable. Perhaps there is a lesson in that for all of us: our greatest enemies are not other people, but our own ignorance.

Next time, I may talk about some little known but very compelling epic literature from around the world. Or, I might talk about some recently acquired hobbies. All in good time. Until next we talk, let's all shoot for good luck with that sticky Problem of Ignorance, and please take care.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Ghosts - The View from Drexel Hall

Well, it’s been a long time, hasn’t it? My apologies for not posting more often in recent time, but this past month has been difficult. Just this last week, at Saint Joseph’s College, my employer, the class of 2018 would have started their last year, and the class of 2021 would have stepped onto the grounds to begin their journey. Due to the College’s suspension of operations in May, though, none of that has happened.

Academic lives have a rhythm where the feel of late July and early August conjures the premonitions of the year to come: creating syllabi, freshman moving in, imagining the first lectures, and overall feeling the energy build for the coming Fall, winter, and spring. Though the cicadas and katydids sang in the evening and the humid mists of dusk and morning came as they should this year, their advent heralded only the changing of the seasons. There were no crowds of students, no lectures, no meetings between colleagues in the halls. It’s like the melody to which my life was tuned suddenly stopped. It’s like a part of me is missing.

As many might know, not long after the May graduation, I was asked to join a small team called the “Phoenix Group” charged with rebuilding and reviving the school. We’re located in Drexel Hall, a building across the street from the main campus.

Besides a very early blog post, I haven’t really spoken about what it’s been like emotionally this summer, much less what it's like to be part of the Phoenix team, and, to be very, very clear, nothing I say here should be construed as reflecting anyone’s perspective save my own. But, to me at least, the physical and psychic location has been eerie: we are close enough to see the buildings and hear the chapel bells, but besides exceptional circumstances, we can’t go over there. This is the institution where I visited my father as a child, attended concerts and plays and games as a teenager, learned my calling in life as a student, met a beautiful, intelligent woman as the Student Association President, and then married her in the College chapel as a young man. Earning a PhD after a herculean academic struggle, it seemed like a “happy-ever-after” moment when the SJC hiring committee chose me to join the faculty in 2011. I still remember hanging up the phone, walking into the living room of our apartment, telling my wife that I’d gotten the job, and feeling her jump into my arms and cry. 

Little did we know what lay ahead.

Now, these memories sometimes drift across the road like restless ghosts, haunting me all the while as I try to help find paths ahead. On a ninety-degree day, I shiver, surrounded by the specters of what was lost. On February third, after the announcement, I went home and cried with my wife, this time for a different reason. On February sixth, ten minutes before my Core 8 lecture, I broke down again in my office. It’s been like that, even after I was invited to be part of the Phoenix Group, even after the initial rush of excitement for having the chance to forge and salvage something out of the College. Saint Joe changed my life and I want to give future generations of students the same opportunity.

What about my friends and colleagues? Survivor guilt is a real thing. Why me and not someone else? Why was I chosen to fight this battle and not someone else? And make no mistake, it has been a battle. There have been absurd rumors and conspiracy theories that would make even students of the JFK assassination blush: the College was closed to make way for a high school, Indiana University is buying the campus for five million dollars, every building will be bulldozed, dorms were refitted so that Chinese investors could buy the campus, and on and on. There have been scattershot social media posts about how evil our group is from people who would never have the courage to come see us face to face. The comments are all over the map, so it’s hard to keep them straight: we’re moving too slow, we’re moving too fast. Which is it? (Remember, it took decades for the College to decline into its ruinous financial state, so maybe it would be a good idea for us to take more than three months to carefully develop some plans to move forward?) We’ve either had secret plans all along, or we have no plans. Which is it? Then there’s been the hate mail (of all kinds) in my inbox. I won’t delve into all of it, but the most puzzling one is that, by joining this team, I am not a “true Puma.” As an academic, when someone says you are not a “true [whatever],” I can recognize this for what it is: a political/rhetorical strategy to dehumanize the one you are attacking as not really “one of us” and thereby deserving of the abuse that will follow. It is a tactic born of pain, of which there has been an abundance. And I know how it feels, because I was there. They're angry and they want someone to pay and to bleed, even if it's the very people who are doing everything they can to try to bring the school back.

That's how I can see it as an academic. How I see it as a flesh and blood person is another matter. It stings and it hurts. I wish it didn’t, but it does. When messages go unreturned or colleagues I have known since I was a student turn away or pretend not to recognize me in public, it isn’t easy.
Strangely, at those moments, the lowest moments, when it feels as though I am in a pit all alone, I know why I was picked for this task: I love the College. I know and love Core. I’m creative. I’m smart as hell. And I’m also a stubborn son of a bitch who won’t give up, even when there are people not just refusing to help, but actively rooting for our failure. They needn’t expend the energy. We won’t fail. We won’t let that happen.

Not when all these ghosts are watching us.

Since there’s so much to do, I can’t guarantee regular blog posts for a while. But I will try to be more consistent, and also return the tone to lighter fare. Until then, good luck with all the trials all of you are undoubtedly dealing with, whatever they may be, and please take care.

“Tell the Devil he can go back from where he came.
His fiery arrows drew their bead in vain.
When the hardest part is over, we’ll still be here,
And our dreams will break the boundaries of our fear.”

                                                --Brandon Flowers, “Crossfire”

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Religion of Mothman

This week is an extra special post! My brother Jon and I have joined forces to blog about different angles of the classic paranormal creature known as "Mothman." Check out his post on the topic here.

Mothman first entered my world in the spring of 1994. Rummaging through my high school library, I came across a copy of paranormal investigator John Keel's The Mothman Prophecies. (Why was this volume in the Rensselaer High School's library? That in itself is a mystery for the ages.) My friends and I had a good laugh at the chapter titles, which included "The Night of the Bleeding Ear" and "If This is Wednesday, it Must Be a Venusian." Interested in the paranormal and in need of a leisure read, I checked it out. (You also have to remember that this was the hey-day of The X-Files.)

The book chronicles the supposed appearances of a giant winged being around Point Pleasant, West Virginia in 1966-67. The most famous incidents involved a few couples who said they saw a large feathery creature with burning red eyes haunting an abandoned TNT factory. In another incident, a man said he lost his dog when it ran off to chase something gigantic with glowing red eyes. Some witnesses crafted the following drawing of what they claimed to see:

Keel's book recounts his investigation in Point Pleasant while the sightings were occurring. He  also covers the simultaneous spike in supposed UFO activity in the area, as well as appearances by "Men in Black," the odd and vaguely threatening apparitions who some say try to intimidate or frighten witnesses of the paranormal into remaining quiet about their experiences. The sightings of Mothman and other strange phenomena culminated (as Keel presents it) in the collapse of Point Pleasant's Silver Bridge into the Ohio River, killing dozens of people. Keel suggests that the sightings of the paranormal beings anticipated or warned of the tragedy, hence the title, The Mothman Prophecies. (There is a movie based on the book, starring Richard Gere no less, but it is, as you might imagine, only quite loosely connected to the premise of the text.)

All these years later, and especially after blogging earlier this summer about religion and the paranormal, I started to wonder about the possible religious themes of The Mothman Prophecies. Could Religious Studies theory find any connection to the events or themes of the book?

Besides merely chronicling the events in Point Pleasant, Keel creates his own hypothesis for all paranormal phenomena. Rather than being the work of extraterrestrials, Keel believes such occurrences actually come about from encounters with ultraterrestrials, which are entities existing on another dimension or plane of reality who bleed through into our psychic realm either of their own accord (to cause mischief or issue a warning, about a bridge collapse, for instance) or because human concentration or activity inadvertently summons them. These energy-beings from a parallel universe have existed throughout history, but humans experience and label them differently as our contexts and frames of reference change. In ancient times, they were deemed gods who flew about on divine power. Nowadays, they are UFOs and monstrous Mothmen. On this last point, Keel sounds remarkably similar to Carl Jung's thoughts on "flying saucers." He is also in something of the same ballpark as certain folklorists who consider the "Men in Black" tales as a reiteration of a very, very old mythic motif of visits from mysterious strangers.

In my eyes, Keel's thought is somewhat analogous to some of the ideas of one of the founding figures of my discipline: Mircea Eliade. Eliade, by all accounts, was a very interesting person. Besides studying Religion, he was a novelist, a Yoga practitioner, and, according to some, possessed rather dubious political affiliations and aspirations while a youth in his native Romania. (Read more about him here.) Eliade's central interpretation of religious phenomena is that the Sacred, whatever that happens to be, manifests in the world in occurrences known as hierophanies, literally, "appearance of the divine." Interpretations of the Sacred vary from culture to culture and time to time, but they can be understood as different versions of the universal Sacred that bursts through into human experience. To me, the concept of the otherworldly divine breaking through periodically sounds a great deal like Keel's notion of "ultraterrestrials."

There are also faint traces of Ralph Waldo Emerson's concept of the "Oversoul," which is the idea that all humans have immortal souls which are interconnected, and thus create a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts. People then consider this experience of a soul greater then theirs to be "God." Deja vu, psychic phenomenon, and so forth (including Keel's "ultraterrestrials") would thus be examples of human souls coming into contact with each other, transcending time and space. (Interested in learning more about the "Oversoul?" Check out this link.)

What is one to think of all this? For one, there have been plenty of hypotheses rationalizing and explaining away Mothman, not to mention UFOs and the like. Some of the most common (and, dare I say, likely) explanations for Mothman have been owls and/or cranes, both of which can appear larger than they really are and produce "eyeshine" in the presence of bright lights, making it look as though their eyes glow supernaturally. I do know that in the spring of 1994 I spent some wonderful evenings at dusk scanning the skies, wondering if I just might see some shadowy, feathery form on the horizon. Keel's book is also replete with numerous entertaining quotes (especially when removed from context). Case in point: "Bedroom phantoms in checkered shirts are old hat to investigators of psychic phenomena."

Perhaps most startling is how this entire blog post came about. As I re-read The Mothman Prophecies, out of the blue, Jon sent me a message asking if I wanted to co-blog about...Mothman. How did he know? He couldn't have. Is this evidence of Emerson's "Oversoul," the psychic interconnection of all human minds? You just never know....What do you think?

Next time, there are a number of topics I am considering: "Religion and Animals," "Lesser Known World Epics," and maybe something else. I may post ideas on my Facebook page. Until then, take care.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

"Spiderman Homecoming": An Analysis from Comparative Mythology

*Warning: This analysis of Spiderman: Homecoming contains a spoiler or two.*

Just as I did several weeks ago with the recent Wonder Woman film, in this post I want to make some remarks about yet another entry in the increasing bonanza of superhero films: Spiderman: Homecoming.

Admittedly, my connection to Spiderman is stronger than to the character of Wonder Woman. When I was four years old, I had a rudimentary Spiderman figure that I attached to dental floss as a stand-in for webbing. Peter Parker's earnestness, innocence, and morality ("With great power comes great responsibility") always appealed to me. Even so, I went into this movie with lukewarm feelings. The 2002-2007 Tobey Maguire and then 2012-2014 Andrew Garfield films each had their own problems.

With that said, I was pleasantly surprised with this version. Tom Holland does a wonderful job as Peter Parker and Michael Keaton makes the Vulture (never one of my favorite Spiderman villains) a compelling antagonist. As a minor touch, the film corrects a gripe that I always had with the Tobey Maguire adaptations: Spiderman actually keeps his mask on! There are still some minor quibbles (I am not at all sure what they are trying to do with the Aunt May and MJ characters), but this is an enjoyable film that also serves a role in advancing the larger MCU narrative.

On that point, in a post on my Facebook page related to this blog, I asked if there might be an audience for discussion of superhero stories through the lens of Comparative Religion. The response was pretty positive. As a sampling of what that might look like, for the rest of this post I want to explore a theme in Spiderman: Homecoming that struck me as very evocative of more ancient mythologies: generational conflict.

Going back twenty-five years, in his Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology, Richard Reynolds argued that the mythos of Marvel and DC superheroes most closely resembled the Greek pantheon for sheer multiplicity and variety of figures, as well as the narrative continuity (how stories impact and build on other stories). I would add that the same conditions align Marvel and DC with Hindu mythology. Greek and Hindu myths are also "multigenerational" in that the gods and goddesses have progeny, with one another as well as humans (creating "demigods"), who become the main characters of their own stories, creating difficulties or new opportunities for their divine parents. (In the Greek context, think of the stories that revolve just around Zeus, Heracles, and Perseus, then their potential interactions with each other.) The generational interaction thus becomes another layer upon which a mythology can build and become deeper and more complex.

With Spiderman: Homecoming, Marvel takes advantage of this opportunity to grow its mythos along generational lines. In a way, this was always part of Spiderman stories, as he was a kid who often faced older villains such as Norman Osborn (Green Goblin), Otto Octavius (Doctor Octopus), and Dr. Curt Connors (the Lizard). The recent film, though, explores this theme in a more interesting way by having the generational conflict occur not just with another older villain (AdrianToomes as Vulture), but also a mentor: Tony Stark's Iron Man. Stark is shown as a quasi-parental figure for Parker throughout the film, remarking at one point in mid-lecture "I sound just like my father." For his part, Parker both craves but also chafes under Stark's influence, rebelling against the protective protocols wired into the gifts his patron bestows. Similarly, Toomes, who the audience discovers (*here's the spoiler alert*) is actually Parker's prospective girlfriend's father, serves an additional parental role model, albeit obviously the much more threatening one. Still, Toomes more than once expresses admiration for Parker, even as he tries to destroy him. Altogether, the movie portrays an awareness of the larger mythos' growing complexity: having crafted and developed more and more characters since 2008, its universe now contains multiple generations with some having matured into mentorship roles (Iron Man) for the new arrivals (Spiderman).

The way the film deals with tension between generations, though, whether latent or explicit, is almost eerily similar to a Hindu narrative from the classical epic Mahabharata. In the chronology of Hindu myth, the Vedas (going back to 1500 BCE) form the earliest layer, while the epics like Mahabharata (about 500 BCE) form a later strata. Interestingly, most of the main characters in the Hindu epics are considered the literal children of the Vedic gods. For example, Arjuna, one of the most important figures of Mahabharata, is the son of the Vedic thundergod Indra. In an episode from Mahabharata, Arjuna goes on a quest to gain mystic weapons to help his brothers in their coming war with their rivals. He travels to the Himalayas to petition Indra, but his father rebuffs him, saying that his son is not yet ready. Arjuna goes back down to the forest and encounters a mysterious stranger who draws him into a duel. Though the stranger soon appears to be completely invincible, Arjuna refuses to back down, even pulling trees out of the ground to use as clubs when his sword shatters on the stranger's head. The battle ends only when the stranger reveals himself as the god Shiva, who had been testing Arjuna. Pleased with his son's resilience, Indra joins Shiva to provide Arjuna with the weapons he needs.

The episode is a favorite one in Indian temple art, particularly in the southern part of the country.

Here is another rendering, with Arjuna on the right and Shiva on the left.

Let's compare this with Spiderman: Homecoming. Convinced that Parker is unworthy of his hi-tech Spider suit, Stark reclaims the suit and launches into his speech about what it takes to be a hero. Parker, momentarily defeated, must face the Vulture with much more elementary equipment. After a struggle, he triumphs and Stark realizes the boy has proven himself. He returns the advanced spider suit and even offers Parker membership in the Avengers.

The parallels are striking: in both cases, the young hero is spurned by a father figure, with whom he is reconciled only by confronting and conquering a second, and even more threatening, father figure. Even son, in both cases, the hero is additionally reconciled to this second, darker paternal model. As we saw, Shiva applauds Arjuna's tenacity and joins in Indra's praise. In Spiderman: Homecoming, Toomes is ultimately saved by Parker, and earlier in the film Spiderman saves Toomes' daughter. Perhaps because of this (*spoiler alert*), in the mid-credits scene Toomes refuses to divulge Spiderman's secret identity (to a character who most likely turn out eventually to be the Scorpion.)

On a psychological level, then, and from the point of view of the younger generation, each dyad (Indra/Shiva and Stark/Toomes) represents innate ambivalence toward one's elders, of the light/dark, good cop/bad cop role played in one's life. From the point of view of the elder, the conflict (implicit in the case of Indra/Stark and explicit with Shiva/Toomes) represents a certain resentment over the strength portrayed by the hero, which eventually gives way to admiration and then acceptance of the youth's prowess. The fascinating thing to me is the presence of this theme in such a virtually identical structure in two different cultures many centuries removed. This just goes to show that some issues, such as generational conflict, are timeless and simply part of the human condition.

In short, this development was the most exciting part of Spiderman: Homecoming for me. The Marvel producers appear to be aware that their mythos must evolve, build, and move forward with their heroes maturing, taking on new roles, and interacting in more complicated ways as time goes on. It could simply have been a Spiderman-fights-a-bad-guy film and made a tidy sum, but instead they kept the larger, richer narrative in mind by using the story as an opportunity to develop Iron Man's character as well.

Next time, there are a couple of potential topics I might pursue, maybe even with a surprise or two. Until then, take care.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Zen and Capturing the Everyday Moment

Not long ago, I was standing on a fairly rocky beach, the stinging cold of the lake water lapping at my legs, clouds building in the sky above, and my mind turning to Zen. Why? Well, there's a reason, but first, though, when the term "Zen" is uttered, what comes to mind? A meditating monk? A rock garden? A quiet forest? Crazy riddles? Maybe it's something drawn from the vast (and fascinating) world of Zen art, like the below, which depicts a Zen teacher and his student:

The truth is that "Zen" has become a commonplace word and placeholder in our culture for anything deemed "mystical" or even trendy. Along the way, its original meaning -- not to mention its power -- has been somewhat diluted.

Zen is an originally East Asian form of Buddhism that ultimately derives from the Indian Sanskrit word "dhyana," literally meaning "concentration." Forming in China, where dhyana was translated into "ch'an," it emerged as a school that, at least generally (many scholars would quibble even with this) focused its practice on meditation. It was in Japan that ch'an was translated into "Zen," giving us the term we all know today.

Unlike most other forms of Buddhism, Zen is premised on the notion that all beings are already Buddhas and merely need to tap into that awakened consciousness. The various techniques of Zen are thus aimed on breaking down the preconceptions and mental blockades that prevent individuals from realizing their awakened nature.

As the literal meaning of its name ("concentration") suggests, the central technique of Zen is meditation. Through focusing on the most mundane of processes, such as breathing or walking, meditation forces one to be entirely in the moment, divorced from all exterior distractions. While it sounds easy, it's actually incredibly difficult, though over the years medical researchers and neuro-scientists have become interested in the biological processes and benefits of meditation. Can it diminish stress and anxiety? Lower pain response? Increase immune system function? It will be interesting to see where the literature eventually ends up on those and other questions. From the standpoint of Zen practice, the intense focus of meditation is meant to cut through all of the obstacles to discovering one's Buddhahood resting beneath the layers of overthinking and preconception.

A second technique, used to varying degrees throughout the subsets of Zen schools, is the riddle or "koan." Certainly you have heard of the most popularized ones, such as, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Of course, many years ago Bart Simpson claimed to solve that one:

Instead, think about this one:

"When you can do nothing, what can you do?"

Or, "When you have a staff, I will give it to you. When you have no staff, I will take it from you."

If your first reaction is to furrow your brow and curse, you're on the right track. All due respect to Bart, the koan does not ask for a clever or intellectual response. It's meant to break down the part of your rational mind that overthinks, and thus keeps you from realizing your inherently awakened state. Zen masters give these to students to drive them to the edge of insanity because it's at that edge -- between reason and madness -- that awakening is found. Huston Smith, one of the elder statesmen of the discipline of Religious Studies, recounts that very experience in a Zen monastery. This hasn't stopped people from having fun with the concept of koans, as in this video, which I first learned about from a former student:

If you want to read more koans, check out these. In my "Eastern Thought" course I used to give students a koan to think about over the weekend before they provided an answer. Good times.

Recently, though, I've been thinking also about a third technique for Zen realization: the Haiku. Typically the Haiku is a poem of a set number of syllables dispersed across three lines. Often it is seventeen syllables in a 5-7-5 format. This calls for a very intentional, careful choice of wording to communicate, as evocatively as possible, a thought or experience. All the time one sees silly Haikus, as I have been guilty of creating many times. Behold:

In the hot kitchen
I flip the fluffy pancake.
Ah! My stomach growls.

Back in my days as a teaching assistant while a PhD student, I would compose such Haikus during a boring lecture. I remember sharing the one above with one of my friends in the same PhD program. Her reaction: "Michael, you are insane."

In their highest form, the Haiku attempts to put into words what cannot be expressed verbally, so it acknowledges its own inadequacy even as it tries to thoroughly place the audience into the experience so that nothing but the sensory nature of the moment is left. This focus, like meditation, has the goal of bringing the person back to that singular moment and its essence, which is Buddhahood.

Basho, a 17th century Zen master and poet, was famous for Haikus. He would write as he traveled, using the poetry to attempt to crystallize what he felt in certain locations or capture arresting sights and moments. Here are some examples (which you can compare to my pancake masterpiece):

"In the utter silence of a temple
A cicada's voice alone
Penetrates the rocks."

And again:

"In the sun of a cold winter day
My shadow had frozen stiff
On horseback."

So, slightly more compelling than my ode to a starch-based breakfast. (Obviously, the syllable rules do not work out in the Basho Haikus since they are translations from the original Japanese). With Basho in mind, I tried to do the same with Haikus while visiting Michigan's Upper Peninsula earlier this month. Here is a Haiku inspired by a tour of an abandoned copper mine:

In the world's dark mouth
Ragged black teeth scrape to bite
and air mists with cold.

Here's one that came to mind watching Whooping Cranes stalk for food:

Spearpoints gliding on
Whisper legs, clothed in silence
we watch the birds hunt.

To an extent, Haikus are a little like jokes: if you have to explain them, they lose all their effectiveness. That I felt the need to give context shows how far I need to go if ever I want to actually produce a good one.

Though I would not identify as a Zen Buddhist, each of the techniques described above has been meaningful for me, and increasingly so as I get older. Even if I am not consistent in my meditation, the principle of focusing deeply in order to understand the chain reaction of thoughts and emotions has been helpful in dealing with anxiety and stress issues. I've also been trying my hand at Haikus in order to capture feelings and sensations of the moment, to have something read or re-read in later years to bring back memories of special times.

Then there are the koans, which brings me back to the shores of the lake, where we started this post. Just a few weeks ago, a particular koan sprung to mind as I stood knee-deep in the cold waters of Lake Superior with my sons beckoning me to join them in the water. The koan asks:

"From the top of the hundred foot pole, how will you take one more step?"

In that second, on a level deeper than intellect, I understood the koan, its challenge, and my situation in that cold water as a bigger metaphor for reaching just beyond what one thinks he or she is capable of, and becoming more. Or, in the view of Zen, becoming what you already are. I took a leap to the one hundred and first foot, and dove into the water. And it was cold! Not exactly an experience of awakening, but of fulfillment nonetheless.

There are several potential topics I am sorting through for the next post, so it's tough to commit to one just now. It may have to be a surprise. Until then, take care.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Holy Hodags!: The Beast Of Northern Wisconsin

Yes, yes, I know I said I would write about Zen this week, but travelling back from family vacation, I encountered (as some of you may now from my Facebook page) stories of a legendary beast of the northern Wisconsin woods and simply had to write about it while the experience was fresh. Called a "Hodag," tales of the creature stem to the 19th century lumberjack days in northern Wisconsin timber country. It was said to prowl the (at the time) dense woods, eating various kinds of smaller animals and emitting terrible noises, as well as odors. Though it is unclear if the beast was ever considered a threat to humans, it had a fearsome visage, with copious jaws and claws. An enormous statue sits in front of the Rhinelander, Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce, as shown below.

Rhinelander has been especially associated with the Hodag since the turn of the twentieth century when a prankster named Eugene Shepard claimed to have caught one in the woods outside the town. The photo he requisitioned of the event is obviously staged. What is more, the Hodag it claims to show was later found to be made of wood. Here is the famous photo.

The town of Rhinelander has adopted the Hodag as a kind of mascot, as the above statue at the Chamber of Commerce suggests. A city website for Rhinelander embellishes the lore of the Hodag, blending some of the older elements with humorous aspects, giving imaginative details of its supposed diet (including mud turtles and bulldogs) and describing the beast's smell as a mix of "buzzard meat and skunk perfume." Besides the larger-than-life statue, smaller Hodag replicas lurk in other unexpected corners of the town, some even painted brown and purple, though the beast was traditionally said to be green. The tavern we stopped into for lunch seated us beside a large plaque with an image of a Hodag crawling down the wall beside us.  Local businesses include the beast's face in their titles and use its face in their logos. Here is a small sample of the ones we passed:

  • Hodag Pay and Loan
  • Hodag Mobil Gas
  • Hodag Realty
  • Hodag Steakhouse
  • Hodag Gun and Shooting Range (presumably to shoot at things other than Hodags)
The creature also lends its name to an annual country music festival and is the mascot for all the Rhinelander sports teams. Imagine having this fellow cheering for you when you're on the field?

Without further research, it's hard to say how the different levels of the Hodag mythos came into being, though several different threads are discernible, from the older lumberjack era to the Shepard hoax to the modern tongue-in-cheek representation. The creature also evidently figures in some Paul Bunyan stories and even made an appearance on Scooby Doo. From the point of view of comparative mythology, especially my specialty of Indian traditions, the Hodag bears an interesting resemblance to the rakshasa of Hindu and Buddhist lore. Here are some examples of rakhasas:

Note the scaly fur, horns, and protruding fangs, all of which the rakshasa have in common with the Hodag. Beyond the physical similarities, rakshasas were also seen as wild forest creatures who haunted the dark edges of the woods, possessing voracious (even bloodthirsty) appetites. They were guardians of the wild and had to either be appeased or defeated for travelers and heroes to cross the boundaries of the forest. Once a frightful monster, the rakshasa has also become more commonplace in Indian cartoons and popular culture, making its trajectory from frightful monster to funny beast somewhat similar to the Hodag's.

Elsewhere in the world, there is Humbaba from the Mesopotamian epic Gilgamesh, who guards the Cedar Forest against the heroes and must be defeated before they can log those woods. It's hard to point to a physical similarity with the Hodag as we know much less about Humbaba, but there is evidence this mask is meant to represent that forest guardian.

If I were to wager on the common root for all these mythic forest creatures, I would place it on the ambivalent human relationship with the wilderness. I don't think it is any accident that lumberjacks were the first promulgators of the Hodag legend - they were the ones on the front line of the untamed woods and liable to have the most unsettled feelings about an unknown land. Creating a figure like the Hodag simultaneously expressed those fears of the wild (as the rakshasa did in India and Humbaba might have in Mesopotamia) and also served to manage that emotion by funneling it into a definable entity that can be mocked. Additionally (though this is a stretch without more research into the original tales), is it possible the creation of the Hodag suggests a guilt about cutting down the trees? This would explain the parallel between Humbaba and the Hodag. Like the individuals who created the myth of the Hodag, Gilgamesh and Enkidu go to the Cedar Forest to decimate the trees for their own profit. In both cases, was the guilt projected into the image of a protector of the forest who must be battled, just as the loggers' internal misgivings must be battled while cutting the trees?

These wild forests are mostly gone now, though, and people don't really believe in such monsters anymore. Why, then, have images of the Hodag (and the rakshasa for that matter) persisted? Perhaps we miss the wilderness with its dangerous expanse. With the end of wilderness and the conquest of the last frontiers, civilization can only reflect in on itself and realize the void left without the previous centuries' tensions with the wild. As silly as they seem, I wonder if the retention of the Hodag figure helps express, at least subconsciously, that nostalgia and sadness for forests untouched by human hands and dark corners undreamt of, in which powerful beings might still dwell. 

Next time, absolutely, honest-to-goodness, there will be Zen! Until then, take care, and here's one last picture of us with the granddaddy of Hodags.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Dracula vs. Hitler!

Though last time I announced Zen as the topic for this week's post, as regular followers know, when circumstances warrant -- as with the release of Wonder Woman and Saint Joseph's College's final graduation ceremony -- previously scheduled blog topics are sometimes temporarily preempted. This week's intervening event was my encounter with an unlikely book title at the local public library: Dracula vs. Hitler. Not certain that everyone would share my interest in such a book, I asked the fans of my Facebook page ("Forest Dweller Thoughts") to vote on if they wanted Zen or a review of Dracula vs. Hitler. I should not have wondered. Dracula vs. Hitler won in a landslide. So, with no further delay, I bring you, the Forest Dweller review of...

Dracula vs. Hitler

Dracula vs. Hitler (I may never get used to typing or saying that) is a 500 page novel written by Patrick Sheane Duncan, who is otherwise known for writing screenplays to such films as Mr. Holland's Opus. Let both those facts seep in for just a moment. First, this book is 500 pages long. If you told me a month ago that I was going to read something 500 pages long, I might have guessed its title had words in it like "War," or "Peace," or "Les," and "Miserable." "Dracula" and "Hitler" would not have factored at all. Second, if the author's previously best known work was a sentimental film about a high school music teacher making a difference in kids' lives, how did he get onto vampires and Nazis? That's quite a remarkable shift in genre.

Anyhow, what exactly is this book about? After an opening that rewrites the end of Bram Stoker's Dracula (which takes place in the late 1890s), we jump ahead to Nazi-controlled Romania in 1941. Abraham Van Helsing, the mastermind of Dracula's defeat in Stoker's novel, is still alive (though no one ever explains how, as he would be around 135 years old). Along with his daughter Lucy Van Helsin, he leads a resistance cell. The struggle is going badly and Van Helsing decides that in order to defeat the Nazis he must reawaken the Count and convince him to join the cause. Dracula agrees after an oddly brief conversation that goes something like this: "Ah, Van Helsing, my old nemesis! How I hate you! I will feast on - what's that? Germans in Transylvania? The hell you say! Let's join forces!" Amidst a love triangle between Dracula, Lucy Van Helsing, and a British spy (who is the grandson of Jonathan Harker from the Stoker novel), in their spare time the rebels sabotage a couple of railways and bridges. This gains the attention of German High Command and, eventually, Hitler himself. Hitler obsesses over the possibility of achieving undead status and leading the Reich for all eternity. Nazi stormtroopers capture Dracula by running him over with a half-track tank (I'm not kidding) and, in the last thirty pages or so (of what is, remember, a 500 page book) the Fuhrer meets Dracula. I'm not going to give away the ending, but let's just say it is...less than decisive.

Before anything else, let me say that I find the impulse behind this story quite interesting. Splicing together unlikely figures in a "what would happen if they met?" scenario can be very creative and entertaining. In 1962, Toho pictures paired their famous monster "Godzilla" with RKO studio's 1930s property "King Kong" for a classic beastly throwdown. (If you have a spare seven and a half minutes and are in the mood for a hoot, watch "King Kong vs. Godzilla's" final battle here.) In 2006, the Doctor Who episode "Doomsday" answered the question, "what would happen if the Daleks fought the Cybermen?" (Answer: nothing good for the Cybermen.) More recently, the DC movie universe gave us the humorless, ponderous, and confusing "Batman versus Superman." In my free time, I enjoy the game "Age of Mythology," where you can be an ancient civilization like the Greeks and attack your rivals the Vikings, pitting cyclopses versus frost giants. So, I understand the impulse behind Dracula vs. Hitler. There's a deep human curiosity about how disparate historical and fictional entities might interact that these narratives attempt to satisfy.

Similarly, another intriguing aspect of the premise comes from the actual existence, believe it or not, of a powerful vein of superstition and occultism in the actual Nazi inner circle and hierarchy. While the Indiana Jones movies obviously exaggerated events, the Nazis really were interested in objects like the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, and the Spear of Destiny. There was fertile ground for this novel to explore or expand on this very real aspect of Nazism. Besides, it's not the first time Nazis and vampires have been put together, though in the past they've usually been on the same side, like Baron Blood, a Nazi vampire and villain from Captain America's World War II days.

Inconspicuous fellow, isn't he? Just blends right in. So, perhaps like a salmon going upstream, I hoped against hope that there would be something enjoyable about this novel. Maybe it would be really silly and funny. On the other hand, maybe it would be an incredibly dark exploration of the meaning of evil.

Sadly, it's neither. The first rule of a mashup affair like this should be that the two characters spend some actual time in confrontation, and that something consequential comes of that clash. That doesn't happen here, as it's hard to create that situation when the characters don't meet until the last thirty pages of an enormous novel. What the author is really interested in, and spends vastly more time on, is the forbidden romance between Dracula and Lucy, where the latter goes through all the Twilight-esque stages of fear/thrill/eroticism from being in the presence of the vampire. The Count, on the other hand, is portrayed as a noble, suffering, creature-of-the-night longing to remember his lost humanity.

For me, that characterization was one of the hardest parts of the novel to take. In Stoker's Dracula, the vampire is a fascinating villain precisely because of his cruel, relentless, and unrepentant malignancy. Character transformations and arcs can be interesting, but only if they are given time and have a traceable progression. In Dracula vs. Hitler, the Count merely announces that he has been "changed" and feels repentant. How? Why? The reader has no idea. What we're left with is a once powerful villain reduced in our imagination to a whiny, mooning sap. I mean, just imagine if that had been done with another great villain, like Darth Vader?

Oh, right. I'd pushed that awfulness out of my mind for a moment. But doesn't that prove the point? And think how great it was to see Vader back in true form at the end of Rogue One.

It really feels like the premise of Dracula vs. Hitler (as campy as the title sounds) was a lost opportunity to make a deep philosophical point about how it takes a monster to destroy a monster. In Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote, "Beware that when fighting monsters you yourself do not become a monster...for when you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you." This novel could have been an interesting application of this theme to the events of World War II, using the fictional figure of Dracula as an allegory for how the Allies at times employed brutal and horrific methods to meet the brutality and horror of the Nazi regime. (The firebombings of Hamburg, Dresden, and other German cities, resulting in indiscriminate destruction of civilian populations, are one prominent example.) When fighting evil, how do you resist the temptation to descend to its level? The author could have used Dracula as a symbolic fulcrum to wrestle with that question, just as Stoker used the vampire to express late Victorian neuroses, anxieties, and fantasies.

What Dracula vs. Hitler is instead, though, is a predictable romance story of the forbidding-yet-alluring vampire and the woman who loves him. The book is derivative in another respect as the author borrows lines from Stoker's novel, as well as his format of diary, journal, and telegrams forming the chapters rather than a single narrative. In Stoker's book, this technique serves to build tension, characterization, and dramatic irony. In Dracula vs. Hitler, it does not appear to serve any purpose other than to seem like Stoker. And did I mention that, for a book called Dracula vs. Hitler,  Hitler's hardly even in it? Not in all 500 pages?

I shouldn't be too hard on the book just because the author did not make the choices with the material that I would have. People like all kinds of different things and that's cool. Hopefully someone, somewhere will enjoy this book. (Although, it's odd that the author chose to end his prefatory note with this thought: "I'm sure that there will be a whole slew of people who will think this all fell out of a horse's ass." I don't know if it was that bad. Sounds as he anticipated a slight amount of pushback.) All told, if you like the whole "vampire romance" motif, this might be a book for you. If you don't, you may want to go another direction.

Next time, join me for the previously scheduled discussion of Zen in everyday life and the link between meditation and health. Visualization exercises, unsolvable riddles (koans), and Haikus will abound! Until then, take care.

The Problem of Ignorance

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