Friday, December 30, 2005


The penultimate day of our month-long religion series . . . .

According to the Baha'i faith revelation from God is a continuing process. Baha'i recognizes the "major religions' founders including Adam, Noah, Zoroaster (Zarathustra), Krishna, Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad. Like Muslims, Bahá'ís interpret religious history in terms of a series of prophetic dispensations. Each prophet, or Manifestation, brings a somewhat broader and more advanced revelation for the time and place it appeared in." Wikipedia.

Further explanation of the Baha'i perspective on prophets:
The Bahá'í doctrine of the oneness of the Manifestations does not mean that the same individual soul is born again in different physical bodies. Moses, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, and Bahá'u'lláh were all different personalities, separate individual realities. Their oneness lies in the fact that Each manifested and revealed the qualities and attributes of God to the same degree: the spirit of God which dwelled within any one of Them was identical to that which dwelled in the others.

Baha'i originated in Iran in the 19th century, which may explain the apparently strong influence of Islam on Baha'i theology. I will admit that the Baha'it perspective, which attempts to bring together and build on the world's major religious traditions holds great appeal. Add to this appeal that Baha'i principles emphasize universal education, equality among race and gender, and a harmony between religion and science.

Critics of Baha'i point to its requirement that the only acceptable sexual relations are those between man and wife as evidence of anti-homosexuality in Baha'i; this does seem antiquated for an otherwise progressive-seeming religion. Then again, the stance does not seem that different from those taken by Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.

The Baha'i website claims that there are currently five million Baha'i in the world today. Baha'i holds
that humanity is one single race and that the day has come for its unification in one global society. God, Bahá'u'lláh said, has set in motion historical forces that are breaking down traditional barriers of race, class, creed, and nation and that will, in time, give birth to a universal civilization. The principal challenge facing the peoples of the earth is to accept the fact of their oneness and to assist the processes of unification.

As wonderful as this sounds, it is quite hard to see this happening anytime soon. Almost anywhere you look--Paris, Kashmir, the West Bank, New Orleans, Sudan, China, Australia--these traditional barriers seem as strong as ever.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

New Theme

An administrative post, with several points.

1. Coming in January, a new theme: science. And that will be "science" in a very broad, Museum of Natural History sense. There might be some math. And math anxiety. Science seems like a natural follow-up to a month of religion.

2. L.A.: Feeling worse and worse about having a car. Combine this with the fact that global warming and melting ice caps combined with the nefarious gravitational pull of the moon may actually be slowing down the rotation of the earth, and I am feeling super guilty. Well, is that so bad? days getting longer? Yes. I am still guilty. One of my resolutions [spoiler] will be to ride public transportation more often. But I love my Intrepid.

3. Still formulating my resolutions, which will be posted here. My resolutions will once again include my ludicrously overambitious list of books I plan/hope to read next year. Hopefully this will afford my audience (Hi Mom!) a chance to make fun of my reading predilections.

4. There will be at least one or two more religion posts, and they will be better than the last lame religion post I put up.

5. Swinging middle-aged Canadians? It's like a John Updike book gone horribly wrong -- in Canada.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005


Religion series continues . . . .

I lived in Japan once, for about eight months or so, many years ago. Some of favorite memories from Japan are of my visits to Shinto shrines in various regions of the country. They were always quite beautifully situated and always fascinatingly tranquil, whether at the top of a mountain, or in the center of Osaka or Tokyo.

the shimenawa: the sacred rope

An intriguing aspect of Shintoism is its privileging of form over belief. I don't know that this is too much different than other religions in practice, but at least with Shintoism, the privileging of the "superficial" adherence to prescribed ritual forms is explicit:
Belief is not a central aspect in Shinto, and proper observation of ritual is more important than whether one "truly believes" in the ritual. Thus, even those believing other religions may be venerated as kami after death, if there are Shinto believers who wish them to be.

Fans of Miyazaki animation will recognize the influence of Shinto's animism and veneration of the natural world in those films:
The most immediately striking theme in the Shinto religion is a great love and reverence for nature. Thus, a waterfall, the moon, or just an oddly shaped rock might come to be regarded as a kami; so might charismatic persons or more abstract entities like growth and fertility. As time went by, the original nature-worshipping roots of the religion, while never lost entirely, became attenuated and the kami took on more reified and anthropomorphic forms, with a formidable corpus of myth attached to them. (See also: Japanese mythology.) The kami, though, are not transcendent deities in the usual Western and Indian sense of the word - although divine, they are close to us; they inhabit the same world as we do, make the same mistakes as we do, and feel and think the same way as we do. Those who died would automatically be added to the rank of kami regardless of their human doings. (Though it is thought that one can become a ghost under certain circumstances involving unsettled disputes in life.)

More on the kami:
[In] Shinto . . . kami are understood as the divine forces of nature. The worshippers of the Shinto religion in ancient Japan revered creations of nature which exhibited a particular beauty and power such as waterfalls, mountains, boulders, animals, trees, grasses and even rice paddies. They strongly believed the spirits or resident kami deserved respect.

Shinto believers also adhere to kami having an anthromorphic form with the ability to act and communicate, as in a kind of avatar. They could not be seen by men. However, they were not omnipotent and omnipresent. In Japanese mythology, for example, Amaterasu, the sun goddess of the Shinto pantheon, could not see the events of the human world. She also had to use divination rituals to see the future.

The kami traditionally possessed two souls, one gentle (nigimi-tama) and the other aggressive (arami-tama). This human but powerful form of kami was also divided into amutsu-kami ("the heavenly deities") and kunitsu-kami ("the gods of the earthly realm"). A deity would behave differently according to which soul was in control at a given time. In many ways, this was representative of nature's sudden changes and would explain why there were kami for every meteorological event: snowfall, rain, typhoons, floods, lightning and volcanoes. The ancestors of a particular family can also be worshipped as kami. In this sense, these kami were worshipped not because of their godly powers, but because of a distinct quality or value. These kami were regional and many shrines (hokora) were built in honour of these kami.

I was also--especially as an ignorant outsider--fascinated with the concepts of forbidden areas, and sacred ground. Some of these closed off areas are known as "kinsokuchi" Foreigners like myself were constantly getting themseves into trouble by crossing boundaries and defiling sacred ground.


There is not room here to delve into Shinto's relationship with the rise of the militant and expansionist Japanese imperial project, ending with nuclear detonations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the continued association of Shintoism with right-wing nationalist sentiment in modern-day Japan. See, e.g., Yakusuni Shrine. Needless to say, this religion, like others, has at various times been bent by the State for its own purposes. One can perhaps catch a glimmer of how nationalists see Shinto as their religion, especially in Shinto's unrelenting emphasis on purity, but, still, from my relatively ignorant perspective, it appeared to be a beautiful and peaceful tradition. I know that for myself, contemplation of the living spirit in trees, waterfalls, and rivers does not generally move my mind to belligerent thoughts. Indeed, perhaps we could all stand to embrace some of the virtues of Shinto's respect for the natural world as our planet begins its slide into oblivion.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Will it ever be 2008?

The Contenders?

The LA Times's always excellent Ronald Brownstein has a piece today on the contenders lining up on the left and right camps of the Dem. party to battle Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Democratic nomination. He singles out Mark Warner, former governor of Virginia (on the right) and Russ Feingold, senator from Wisconsin (on the left) as Hillary's most formidable contenders at this early date.

Feingold is appealing: he's intelligent, articulate, and seems worlds less pompous, plastic, and annoying than Kerry (or Al Gore the 2000 edition). He does face the potential electoral obstacles of being twice-divorced, a senator, and Jewish. Still, Feingold has tapped into the energy of the left, has emerged victorious in leading the fight against the Patriot Act (you have likely heard many times recently that he was the sole dissenting Senate vote against the Act back in 2001), and has emerged as the premier anti-war candidate as of today. This may play well against Clinton's strident pro-war, strong-on-defense stance; as always, it depends what happens in the next few years.

Version 2.0 in 2008?

Brownstein also notes in passing that Al Gore is still alive and, surprisingly, creating some excitement: "Gore, who insists he's not interested, is also generating buzz on the left by criticizing the war and raising impassioned alarms about global warming." I know I will be dismissed as a crackpot for this, but the OG is giving you the heads up to watch out for Gore in 2008. During a recent trip out to L.A., Gore generated a lot of excitement: Hollywood supporters noted his passionate position against the war and his sterling credentials on the ever more menacing and threatening issue of global warming. In his more recent manifestations, including late in last year's presidential election, Gore has seemed reenergized, rejuvenated, and, probably most importantly, comfortable with himself. Al Gore is a very smart politician with a great deal of vitally important expertise--if he can break out of his animatronic persona of 2000, he will be a very appealing candidate.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Feliz Navidad from Los Feliz

We put a load of laundry into the dryer just now; I moved a rocking chair into the washer/dryer/refrigerator closet, closed the door, and here I am. Mrs. Octopus is taking a nap. A sleepy Christmas Sunday.

Every day will get incrementally longer now, all the way until June 21, when we begin the waning slide back to the winter solstice. More sunlight every day: what better reason to celebrate and feel hopeful? And it's time again to compile my list of resolutions; I'll post that before Saturday.

I hope all of you are enjoying a peaceful Christmas Day with people you love.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Midwinter Ceremony

It's not nearly midwinter here in the Northern Hemisphere and, frankly, it seems ridiculous for me to be talking about midwinter here in L.A., but in any event, today's topic in our continuing religion series is the Midwinter Ceremony of the Iroquois.

Iroquois Dream Mask

I can't remember when I first learned about the Iroquois' Midwinter Ceremony, but I remember being struck by the descriptions of the public acting out of dreams during the ceremony:
The ceremony begins in late January or early February, depending upon the occurrence of the midwinter new moon, and it lasts at least a week. At the beginning, special medicine mask messengers, "Big Heads" or "Our Uncles," go through the houses, stirring the ashes of cold fires and announcing the beginning of the ceremony, fulfilling or renewing dreams, dancing, and playing games . . . .

Dream-guessing has long been an essential part of the protracted ceremony. People guess the content of each other's dreams on the basis of subtle hints, and offer suggestions as to how the dreams might be fulfilled. Dreams are regarded as supernatural message, and fulfillment of the dreamer's desires is necessary for their continued health.
Dean R. Snow, The Iroquois p. 7; see also The Iroquois Midwinter Dream Festival.

This seems like a very productive and entertaining form of communal psychotherapy. I'm sure many of us would be healthier if we participated in a festival like this every midwinter. Wait, isn't that "Burning Man"?

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Bad Dreams

The religion series continues tomorrow...

For many years know, I've been having this dream--I guess it's a nightmare--where I am in school, maybe high school, maybe college, and it's late in the semester and I begin to realize that I've just totally forgotten about one or maybe two of the classes I'm enrolled in. It's this weird thing where it sort of dawns on me that somewhere along the way I just stopped going to my calculus or Spanish class, and I haven't been in those classes for weeks, or maybe months. This realization puts me into a panic.

Every now and then the dream progresses to a point where I try to get my shit together and show up to the class I've been skipping for weeks, and I have to build up the courage to actually show my face in the class and take some pop quiz or look foolish. I think sometimes I even get to the point where I realize I am having the "forgotten class" dream again, but, even so, the dream never fails to freak me out. I usually wake up frantic, and it takes me a minute or so to collect myself and realize that I'm not in school and I haven't forgotten any classes.

I know this means something.

Happy Saturnalia!

Hope you all are enjoying the shortest day/longest night of the year. To celebrate, an environmentally-friendly recycled post about Saturnalia, Yalda, and Yule.

Courtesy of our good friends at Octopus Grigori Classic

Tuesday, December 20, 2005


It's that very bottom of the year where I always feel like crawling into bed and reading and sleeping for a week with a coffee machine a few steps away. I spent one winter break home from college doing just that. It was one of the happiest times of my life. In that week I sat in bed and read Alice in Wonderland, The Fermata, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, Franny and Zooey, and Neuromancer, I think.

Every winter, around this time, when people start sneaking out of the office early to do last minute shopping, when people take long flights home, I look for a place to hole up, hide, and read. Almost every year for the past decade or so, I find myself reading Franny and Zooey once again on the day before Christmas.

Reading has always seemed to me like a very self-indulgent and self-absorbed activity. It feels so passive, so inert. But I'm a glutton for it. Partially it's because I'm curious to read certain things, want to finish certain stories, learn particular histories, ec. But often, I think it's more about the weird, detached, not-there mindstate I get put into when I'm safely and securely reading.

When I was about eight or nine, I used to read in a washer-dryer closet we had on the second floor. There was a light in there. I would wait until my mom was drying a load of laundry, and then I'd take a blanket and a pillow, lay it out on the dryer, shut the closet doors, and read for the sixty minutes of the dryer cycle. It was always a little sad when the warmth and hum of the dryer shut down and the cold and silence started creeping back in. My mother never approved of this habit of mine. She was convinced I was breathing in dust and lint from the dryer exhaust. And that the dryer was probably not designed to be used as a lounge chair.

For some reason, I used to like to read science fiction (generally post-nuclear apocalypse type stuff) or WWII histories in that closet. Around that same time, I also used to like reading Peanuts comic books for hours in the bathtub.

It looked almost exactly like this, except that the washer and dryer were flush up against each other.

Combined with my long-standing habit of reading excessively in the bathroom, I think my old dryer-womb practice pretty much establishes that reading is a regressive activity for me. It often does feel like an attempt to retract from the world of responsibility, blame, duty, fear, and anxiety, into a warm, humming neverland blankness. It's no wonder that one of my favorite places to be is on a long plane flight, reading a pulpy-smelling paperback. You know, the kind that has that Hugo Award science fiction section new pocket paperback smell? At first, that smell is very rich, saturated, almost suggestive of some kind of exotic oil. It's a smell full of promise, like the interior of a new car in the dealer's lot. Over time, as the pages become thin and brittle, that smell fades, and the paper smells cooler, drier, more like winter, and the past. This is a different smell than that gluey, plasticky and cardboardy smell--which I also loved--of the books I borrowed as a kid from my local public library back in Connecticut.

Anyway, I'll be on a long flight--back to Hartford--next week. I can't wait for that moment when we are somewhere above Colorado at eleven at night and I crack open a paperback and let that wonderful new paperback smell wash over me as I revel in a few hours of reprieve. I have a number of books on my list, but, as always, I am open to any and all recommendations.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Religion Series Aside: The House of Wisdom Redux

Several of my recent posts reminded me of a post from earlier this year back on OG-LJ on the House of Wisdom in Baghdad.

That post seemed to anticipate many of the themes that have been coming up in the recent religion posts here (e.g., the circulation of ideas between cultures and the presence of the outside and foreign in what we take to be inside and domestic (e.g., Arabic science in Europe, Greek Philosophy in Mahayana Buddhism)).

The story of the House of Wisdom is one of the most beautiful I've ever heard about the Islamic world. It's one all Muslims should remember and consider. We see one face of Islam today in the images of car bombers, Al Qaeda, et al. But here is another face of Islam: this was a culture that once fostered a tremendous openness to the outside world, a willingness to adopt new ideas, concepts, and philosophies, a fantastic drive to explore the natural world. Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, all worked together in the enterprise of knowledge. There was another golden period of Islamic enlightenment and tolerance in Muslim Spain, but that is for another post.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Spread of Buddhism

Continuing our religion series...

Indian Buddha

I have, for some time now, been fascinated with the spread of Buddhism across Asia, from India, where it began in the sixth century B.C., to its arrival in Japan in the sixth century A.D.

Buddhism's route was somewhat indirect. There was, intriguingly, interaction between South Asian Buddhism and Greek culture: some theorize that this interaction helped to produce the Mahayana Buddhism that spread to China and its neighbors:
The close association between Greeks and Buddhism probably led to exchanges on the philosophical plane as well. Many of the early Mahayana theories of reality and knowledge can be related to Greek philosophical schools of thought. Mahayana Buddhism has been described as the “form of Buddhism which (regardless of how Hinduized its later forms became) seems to have originated in the Greco-Buddhist communities of India, through a conflation of the Greek Democritean-Sophistic-Skeptical tradition with the rudimentary and unformalized empirical and skeptical elements already present in early Buddhism” (McEvilly, "The Shape of Ancient Thought", p503).

In the Prajnaparamita, the rejection of the reality of passing phenomena as “empty, false and fleeting” can also be found in Greek Pyrrhonism .

The perception of ultimate reality was, for the Cynics as well as for the Madyamikas and Zen teachers after them, only accessible through a non-conceptual and non-verbal approach (Greek "Phronesis"), which alone allowed to get rid of ordinary conceptions.

The mental attitude of equanimity and dispassionate outlook in front of events was also characteristic of the Cynics and Stoics, who called it "Apatheia".

Nagarjuna's dialectic developed in the Madhyamika can be paralleled to the Greek dialectical tradition.
The impact of the interaction between Greek and South Asian Buddhism is startlingly evident in the art produced during that period (most of this art was produced in what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan).

Greek-influenced representation of Buddha from ancient Afghanistan

Buddhism made its way through the dusty paths of the Silk Road, across the steppes of Central Asia, and was introduced to China sometime around the second century B.C. The new religion was enthusiastically received. In fact, the Chinese began dispatching pilgrims to India, to translate and bring back Buddhist writings:
It is not certain when Buddhism reached China, but with the Silk Road opened in the second century BC, missionaries and pilgrims began to travel between China, Central Asia and India. The record described that Chang Ch'ien, on his return from Ta-hsia (Ferghana) in the 2nd century BC, heard of a country named Tien-chu (India) and their Buddhist teaching. This is probably the first time a Chinese heard about Buddhism. A century later, a Buddhist community is recorded at the court of a Han prince. However the most famous story is the Han emperor Mingdi's dream about Buddha. In 68 AD, Mingdi sent his official Cai Yin to Central Asia to learn more about Buddhism after a vision of a golden figure appeared to him in a dream. The next morning he asked his ministers what the dream meant and was told that he had seen the Buddha - the god of the West. Cai Yin returned after 3 years in India and brought back with him not only the images of Buddha and Buddhist scriptures but also two Buddhist monks named She-mo-teng and Chu-fa-lan to preach in China. This was the first time that China had Buddhist monks and their ways of worship. A few years later, a Buddhist community was established in Loyang, the capital, itself. From then on, the Buddhist community grew continuously. They introduced the sacred books, texts and most importantly the examples of Buddhist art, never before seen in China. In 148 AD, a Parthian missionary, An Shih-kao arrived China. He set up a Buddhist temple at Loyang and began the long work of the translation of the Buddhist scriptures into the Chinese language. The work of scripture translation continued until the 8th century when access to Central Asia and India by land was cut off by the Arabs. In 166 AD Han Emperor Huan formally announced Buddhism by having Taoist and Buddhist ceremonies performed in the palace. The unrest situation in China at the end of the Han dynasty was such that people were in a receptive mood for the coming of a new religion.

During the 4th century, Kumarajiva, a Buddhist from Central Asia organized the first translation bureau better than anything that had existed before in China. He and his team translated some 98 works from many languages into Chinese, of which 52 survive and are included in the Buddhist canon. By around 514, there were 2 million Buddhists in China. Marvelous monasteries and temples were built and the work of translating the scriptures into Chinese was undertaken with great industry.
From Silkroad Foundation.

Chinese Buddha

China was by far the most dominant and advanced civilization in East Asia at that time. Through Chinese influence, Buddhism was spread to neighboring Korea and Vietnam, which were both vassal states to China. The terminal point in this period of expansion was Japan.

Japan, at the time Buddhism was introduced, had no written language. Korean scribes were often imported to keep records--using the Chinese characters--for large landholders and other lords in the Japanese version of feudalism. A fascinating aspect of the story here is that Buddhism came part and parcel with the introduction of the Chinese characters, which the Japanese adopted virtually wholesale, adapting them to the particularities of Japanese grammar
Japan, when Buddhism came in the sixth century A.D., was young in more than spirit, Not only compared to China, but by any ordinary standard, her civilization was undeveloped. It lacked a written literature, historical records, codified laws, a tradition of philosophical discussion, and many of the arts and sciences associated with the classical civilizations of China, India, and the Near East. Native Shinto, with neither written scriptures nor a formulated theology, could offer resistance only from its entrenched position in the daily lives of people, but could not compete with Buddhism on its own terms. . . .

The importance of Buddhist missionary activity in Japan went far beyond the propagation of the faith alone. Chinese and Korean monks, carried across stormy seas by religious zeal, at the same time served as the carriers of superior Chinese culture. They were no doubt well aware that identification or association with this high culture lent them great prestige in the eyes of admiring Japanese, but whether they chose to capitalize on this or not, it would in any case have been impossible to disengage the new religion from its cultural embodiment in China, the land of its adoption. To establish the new faith in Japan required the transplanting of essential articles--images, vestments, books, ritual devices--as well as of ideas. The Japanese apprenticeship in the study of Chinese writing was undoubtedly served in the copying by hand of large numbers of Buddhist sutras, distributed by the imperial order to the various temples and monasteries.
The Buddhist Tradition, edited by William Theodore de Bary, pp. 255-56.

The Big Buddha at Kamakura, Japan

Buddhism did not arrive and flourish in Tibet--which is strongly associated in the popular culture with Buddhism--until relatively late. Also, after the arrival of Islam in South Asia, Buddhism went into decline; its presence in South Asia today is marginal.

I wonder if Buddhism will continue its migration East. It seems to have developed a significant following here in Los Angeles. Of course, the version of Buddhism practiced here in L.A. by Americans often seems corrupted, simplified, commercialized--in a word, Americanized. But it is interesting to recall that on each step of its migration across Asia, Buddhism was modified and adapted by various cultures. I would be all for an American Buddhism (long ago, Kerouac and the Beats had the same idea). For starters, I don't think Buddha is known to whisper into leaders' ears and urge them to invade countries. Then again, in his recent Pol Pot biography, Philip Short tied Pol Pot's Cambodian killing fields to an extreme form of Theraveda Buddhism, which, Short believed, negated the value of life.

Mrs. Octopus, after watching me write this post, is now rediscovering her Vietnamese roots and maintaining that she is a Buddhist. One step forward for a new American Buddhism.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

December Religion Series: The Western Wall

The Western Wall in Jerusalem has a haunting, mournful beauty.
The Western Wall (HaKotel HaMa'aravi), or simply The Kotel, is a retaining wall from the time of the Second Temple. It is sometimes referred to as the Wailing Wall, or as the al-Buraq Wall, in a mix of English and Arabic. The Temple was the most sacred building in Judaism. Herod the Great built vast retaining walls around Mount Moriah, expanding the small, quasi-natural plateau on which the First and Second Temples stood into the wide open spaces of the Temple Mount seen today.

It is believed that inside the Temple was the Holy of Holies, the tabernacle housing the dwelling of God, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept.

Reconstruction of the Holy of Holies

In a future post, I will have to discuss the intriguing parallels between the structure of the Western Wall and the Temple Mount Mosque built on the platform above it and the manner in which Islam was built on the foundational structure of Judaism.

I also find the similarities between the Western Wall and the Kaaba fascinating. Pilgrims travel from across the globe to come up against walls. The faithful press against these ancient structures and mourn their separation from God. One can come close, but never arrive in the full presence of the Lord.

As an old professor of mine observed, the temple is the site of a cleavage:
"Cleave" means not only divide, separate, split, and fissure, but also adhere, stick, and cling. Cleaving, therefore, simultaneously divides and joins. . . . "Temple" derives from the Latin templum, which, like tempus, (time), comes from the Greek temnos. While temno means "cut," temenos designates that which is "cut off". Accordingly, templum is a section, a part cut off. By extension, templum is "a space in the sky or on the earth marked out by the augur for the purpose of taking auspices; a consecrated piece of ground, especially a sanctuary or asylum; a place dedicated to a particular deity, a shrine." . . . [T]he site of the temple is a cleavage . . . .
Mark C. Taylor, Altarity, 48-49.

For a fee, an Israeli postal service called JPostil will take your emailed message, print it out, and fold it into a crack in the Western Wall.
Your message will be placed between stones of the Wailing Wall within 30 min from the moment we'll get it. The tradition of placing prayer written on the small piece of paper into a crack in the Wall is going back hundreds of years. The Western Wall, called Ha Kotel Ha Ma'aravi in Hebrew, is considered the holiest Jewish site on account of its proximity to the destroyed ancient Temples. Because it was so close to the Temple, it is said that the gate of heaven is situated directly above the wall.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Peace be Upon You

Our December religion series continues...

My mother was determined to take all of us along with her to Mecca, despite our resistance. She would not reliquish hope of saving us godless sinners.

We arrived in the middle of the night, after flying from New York. The guards at the checkpoints at the outer perimeter of the city peered into the car we were riding in and were apparently satisfied that we looked sufficiently faithful.

After checking into our hotel and wrapping ourselves in the requisite single white cloth (the same clothing you are supposed to be wearing when you are buried in a plain wooden box), we crossed the plaza and walked into the Great Mosque at Mecca, the house of the Kaaba.

The central mosque of Islam drips with ornament. Untold millions of petrodollars have gone into its development. The arrival of millions of pilgrims from all corners of the world presents a huge organizational challenge. Airport-like red digital signs hanging overhead display the times for prayer in several languages. At that time of night, though, the mosque was quiet.

The sacred meteorite

We stepped into the blinding light of the nearly empty marble courtyard of the Kaaba. The ground was covered with giant, dead locusts. It looked as if many of them were drawn in and killed by the blazing stadium lights blaring away under the purple desert sky at 3 a.m.

A small crowd of pilgrims in white swirled counterclockwise around the shrouded cube at the center of the Kaaba. At one corner, several had stopped, reaching down to touch—or kiss—a sacred meterorite embedded in a corner of the cube as the crowd circulated around them. The shroud over the cube, covered in gold Arabic calligraphy, rustled in the gentle wind created by the slowly swirling faithful. We fell into the intimate cluster and began the seven revolutions.

In all mosques, women and men pray separately. At the center, at the Kaaba, all distinctions fall away. Indonesians, Turks, Africans, Arabs, Indians, and Chinese, women and men, young and on death’s door, shuffled together in their bare feet around the cube. I became separated from my family, gently jostled in the circling swarm of strangers. The voices around me murmuring prayers felt like a type of warmth in the cool desert night.

For those moments, the experience did not feel like it was about Islam or any distinct religion. It felt—for an extended moment—as if it was about the shared experience of being human.

Of course, the experience was not so ideally universal. Those guards at the perimeter of the city represented the exclusionary aspect of a belief in one true faith. Nonbelievers were not welcome.

Who knows what to believe? I don’t. More than a billion humans call themselves Muslims, and many of them feel a pull, like gravity, toward Mecca, toward the house of the sacred black stone. What does this mean? Why are people kissing this stone? Does the belief of these millions of pilgrims, which steadily spirals them in tightening circles toward the Kaaba, create its own force?

The memory of quietly walking with those strangers in the night, barefoot and clothed as we would be buried, stays with me. It is one of absolute peace. I wish this image—one of tolerance, brotherhood, and peace—were the face of this embattled religion.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Everything should be in 3-D

I'm busy today, so I've only got time for a quick holiday-themed link.

Check out these 3-D electron microscope images of snowflakes (you have to cross your eyes a little). Your tax dollars at work at the USDA research center.

We continue our December religion series next time.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Is that why I have only one orifice?

One of my favorite things on the web last year:
Grimace Speaks
to a Geneticist.


- - - -

GRIMACE: What am I?

GENETICIST: That is a very interesting question indeed. And we should begin by briefly discussing your known history. According to your records, you were born as "Evil Grimace," with four deft arms, and a penchant for amusing yourself by stealing milkshakes from small children. Then, in 1974, you experienced a change of heart, a loss of two arms, and a metamorphosis into what is your current incarnation—a supposedly warm, gentle, and seemingly living representation of the "embodiment of childhood."

GRIMACE: Is that why I have only one orifice?

GENETICIST: Perhaps so, as childhood is a period marked by the most basic of bodily functions. In truth, it is that kind of interesting nuance that makes me suspect your being a genetically modified organism. Furthermore, the timing of your appearance coincides perfectly with a social phenomenon during the '70s. A time when discussing human cloning was culturally fashionable, when books like The Boys From Brazil and In His Image appeared on bestseller lists.

Also, you are purple like a giant areola.

GRIMACE: How can I find out more?

GENETICIST: A promising course of action is to try genetic counseling. Which, in the conventional sense, suggests that we investigate your network, both in family and in friendship. This is to help construct a more complete picture of your being and, more importantly, your past. From this, we will have a firm starting point from which to build.

GRIMACE: But I have no family, no real friends, and Ronald, frankly, scares me. What other alternatives do I have?

GENETICIST: Ronald scares us, too, but that is for another interview. Under those restrictive circumstances, one possible alternative is to contact nonacquaintances with similar traits. Perhaps someone like Barney the Dinosaur, who is also big, purple, and waves a lot like an idiot. Similarly, we could simply forge ahead and arrange for a genetic test. This is a process that will allow us to peer at your very own genetic code, and is something that will surely resolve the mystery that surrounds you.

GRIMACE: Like why I am so popular with the ladies?

GENETICIST: Yes, exactly! In some respects, you could be the perfect metaphor for what is both wonderfully right and terribly wrong about genetic manipulation. Due to the marvels of this technology, you appear to have luxury, wealth, fame, as many women as you desire, and yet you have no identity, no origin. If ever there were such a thing, you are an organic black box.

GRIMACE: I think it's because the ladies like my massive tongue.
Full piece at


We continue our December exploration of Religion with Voodoo, or “Vodou”. The term comes from the French word “voudou”, which in turn comes from the name of a West African African spirit, “Vodun”.

As we all know, “Voodoo” has, in America, taken on a pejorative sense. This needs no illustration, but I heard on NPR a few weeks ago a commentator from KPCC, Mimi Pond, describing religious and superstitious practices she found idiotic (including the 3000-year old practice of Feng Shui, which Pond glibly simplified and cartoonized), as “Personal Voodoo”. (Pond’s inane commentary – an embarrassment to the venerable KPCC -- is available here.)

Who am I to complain? The dictionary ratifies Pond’s use of the term:
voo·doo n., pl. -doos.
1. A religion practiced chiefly in Caribbean countries, especially Haiti, syncretized from Roman Catholic ritual elements and the animism and magic of slaves from West Africa, in which a supreme God rules a large pantheon of local and tutelary deities, deified ancestors, and saints, who communicate with believers in dreams, trances, and ritual possessions. Also called vodoun.
2. A charm, fetish, spell, or curse holding magic power for adherents of voodoo.
3. A practitioner, priest, or priestess of voodoo.
4. Deceptive or delusive nonsense.
tr.v., -dooed, -doo·ing, -doos.

To place under the influence of a spell or curse; bewitch.

1. Of or relating to the beliefs or practices of voodoo.
2. Based on unrealistic or delusive assumptions:
voodoo economics

[Louisiana French voudou, from Ewe vodu and Fon vodun]


“Voodoo” is a religion – or a family of religions – and only recently have I roused myself to recognize that it is disturbing that an accepted use of the word is to mean “nonsense”. I am not the PC police, but this would not fly if one were to use “Christianity”, “Judaism”, “Islam”, or “Buddhism” in the same sense. Should we consider, for a moment, that this unthinking denigration of Voodoo has anything to do with its history of practice by West Africans brought to the New World as slaves? Can anyone think of a better illustration of the ability of power to define and assign value? Oh, we all know that Thomas Jefferson’s beliefs in his God and Jesus were great and noble; and we all know – the dictionary tells us – that the dark superstitious “Voodoo” of his slaves was dangerous, wicked, and backwards.

Everyone who’s been to college knows the relevant citations. See also lecture on representations of Voodoo in popular culture.

One particularly fascinating aspect of Voodoo is its opportunistic and resourceful syncretism, particularly how practicioners of Voodoo, facing repression from their Catholic masters, adopted the saints and symbols of Catholicism and employed them to their own purposes:
Saint Peter is depicted in most lithographs found in Haiti, holding keys - the key to the church. As in Vodou Mythology, Legba is the keeper of the gates to the spirit world, the keys would symbolize him. This association, can be seen with many other saints. It is one of the clearest visual ways in which Catholicism has been incorporated into vodou. Some further examples of this are Saint Patrick and Saint John the Baptist. Saint John’s cloths resemble very much those of Haitian peasants. He has a sack across his shoulders. The Vodouiants interpret him to be Zaka - the lwa in charge of farmers and growth. As for Saint Patrick, he is depicted surrounded by snakes which according to Catholic mythology he threw into the ocean. In vodou mythology, Damballah is a lwa which is very closely associated with snakes. Therefore these two images fused together in the minds of the followers of vodou. In every ounfu (a place where vodou is practiced) one can find a picture of Saint Patrick, along with other Catholic lithographs, yet when vodou practitioners are asked, they refer to these by the name of the vodou lwa. Many times these vodouiants are not even aware that it is a Catholic saint depicted.

Another visual symbol that is believed many times to prove the assimilation of vodou and Catholicism is the symbol of the cross. It is widely found in many different vodou rituals as well as in ounfus. Although the use of this symbol by vodousants was probably made stronger over the centuries of close association with the church, the cross itself is deeply rooted in vodou mythology. According to vodou mythology, the cross symbolizes the creation of the universe. When the Godhead Mawu Lisa created the world , she moved to the four corners of the universe, thereby creating a cross (Desmangles, 142). The cross still symbolizes the creation and the communication between the two worlds, that of the spirits and the of humans, not only in vodou but in many West African religions still practiced today. It is possible that as has happened with many other symbols and practices over the ages, the African cross would have disappeared from vodou practice, were it not to have been reinforced by the Catholic cross. But as with the lithographs of the saints, the enslaved people learned to interpret the Catholic cross in the light of their religious beliefs and traditions.
From Hunter College research paper at

Finally, we may be indebted to the theology of Voodoo for the origins of the term. See Wikipedia entry on “Voodoo”. (Note that this is my own speculative, unsupported theory).

Friday, December 09, 2005

Spare Tookie Williams

It is the humble opinion of the O.G. that the death penalty should be abolished in the United States because (1) the penalty cannot be administered fairly (numerous studies have repeatedly shown that the penalty is disproportionately imposed on minorities and the poor), (2) it cannot be administered without error (i.e., executing innocent people), (3) it is not an effective deterrent, (4) the state should not have the power to kill its citizens, and (5) the community of developed nations has rejected the death penalty as violative of basic human rights. Read more about the death penalty (including article detailing Texas's recent discovery that it may have executed an innocent man).

In California, Governor Schwarzenegger is considering whether to pardon Stanley "Tookie" Williams, a founding members of the Crips gang, who was convicted of multiple homicide in 1979. Williams has reformed during his time in prison: he's been a prominent spokesmen against gang activity and violence, he's written numerous childrens books warning of the dangers of gang violence, and he's been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. See Save
Williams's lawyers met with Schwarzenegger today for half an hour. Schwarzenegger has said he will likely announce his decision on Monday.

Barring a pardon from the Governor, Williams is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection at 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday morning.

Contact Governor Schwarzenegger and tell him that rehabilitation shouldn't be rewarded with death.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005


I didn't think it was obscure, but just in case, this is what I was referring to in the title of my last post. It later occurred to me that the title seemed a little weird, if not inappropriately kinky or something. I think Saxe's little poem, and the parable on which it's based, are relatively well known. It seemed to me that this was the ubiquitous metaphor students in Religion 101 would whip out. In the dark. With their hands. On an elephant. It's really long and hairy, and it's used to pick up peanuts.

Okay, sorry. I'm back. I can barely get it together to compose a simple coherent blog entry. This post, continuing our Religions of the World theme, is about Rastafari beliefs.
Rasta, or the Rastafari movement of Jah people, is a religious movement that accepts Haile Selassie I, the former emperor of Ethiopia, as King of Kings, Lord of Lords and the Lion of Judah as a divine being. The name Rastafari comes from Ras Täfäri, the pre-coronation name of Haile Selassie I. The movement emerged in Jamaica among working-class and peasant black people in the early 1930s, arising from an interpretation of Biblical prophecy, black social and political aspirations, and the teachings of their prophet, Jamaican black publicist and organiser Marcus Garvey, whose political and cultural vision helped inspire a new world view. The movement is sometimes called "Rastafarianism"; however, this is considered improper and offensive by Rastas.

It's fascinating how Rasta influence has worked its way specifically into one genre of science fiction: cyberpunk. Many of you will recall the Rasta space colony "Zion" in William Gibson's Neuromancer. And of course, the film apotheosis of cyberpunk, The Matrix, is rife with Rasta influence. Again, a colony named "Zion", where the "real" humans are born through good old-fashioned dirty sex (probably after one of those Lambada raves they have down there) -- not in Babylon's machines. The "real" humans from The Matrix's Zion probably eat Ital food and smoke kind hydroponics when they're not rubbing their oiled bodies against each other.

It makes sense that Rasta was taken up as a "futuristic" religion. Rastafari beliefs seem to represent a rejection of the artificial; this provides a useful counterpoint in dystopias where the lines between humans and machines have been breached, and when all the world is an artificial construct. Also, at least in The Matrix, Rasta references served as a shorthand for postcolonial resistance, in the movie's case, against the oppression of the machines. In Rasta's case, against the dead hand of English colonialism.

Listening to reggae and dub, you are constantly hearing about "Babylon", "Zion", "Jah", and "I and I". I had vague ideas what these things meant, but I guess there are explanations.
Babylon: "Babylon" is the Rastafarian term for the white political power structure that has been holding the black race down for centuries. In the past, Rastas claim that blacks were held down physically by the shackles of slavery. In the present, Rastas feel that blacks are still held down through poverty, illiteracy, inequality, and trickery by the white man. The efforts of Rastafarianism is to attempt to remind blacks of their heritage and have them stand up against this Babylon.

I and I: This concept has become "the most important theoretical tool apart from the Babylonian conspiracy in the Rastafarian repertoire." Cashmore explains, "I and I is an expression to totalize the concept of oneness, the oneness of two persons. So God is within all of us and we're one people in fact. I and I means that God is in all men. The bond of Ras Tafari is the bond of God, of man. But man itself needs a head and the head of man is His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia."

Jah: The Rastafarian name for God is Jah. The presence of Jah in His children and in the world is the triumph over the tribulations of everyday life. Ethiopia specifically, and Africa in general, is considered the Rastas' heaven on Earth. However, there is no afterlife or hell as Christianity believes.
From Library of Univ. of Virginia.

The Rastas in Jamaica really did worship Selassie. Apparently, he was overwhelmed after his first visit to Jamaica on April 21, 1966:
His Imperial Majesty, Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia, King of Kings, Conquering Lion of Judah, arrived in Jamaica yesterday afternoon to a welcome of superlatives. And he wept.

He cried as he stood on the steps of an aircraft of Ethiopian Airliner which had brought him from Trinidad and Tobago to Jamaica and surveyed the vast and uncontrollable crowd which had gathered at the Palisadoes Airport to greet him.

The tears welled up in his eyes and rolled down his face. It will perhaps never be known whether he cried in sorrow at the uncontrollableness of the vast throng of Jamaicans who had gathered to meet him, or out of pure joy; but whatever it was, it was an emotional reaction to a highly emotional welcome.

Next time: Voodoo

Many hands on an elephant in the dark.

For some time now, I've been thinking that my blog, like my life generally, needs focus. Today I was distracted, for some reason, with random thoughts about various gods and religions. I don't think I'm ready to commit to any theme, but I think for the rest of this month -- with the holidays and all -- I'll be featuring a series of posts about various religions and spiritual miscellany.

We start with one of my favorite gods, the Hindu god Ganesh. You can't help but love Ganesh. He's got the head of a baby elephant for Christ's sake. You just want to hug him: he's so cute with that pot belly within which he has swallowed all the misery of the world. It's pretty clear why this charming god is one of the most popular gods in the Hindu pantheon.

Ganesh is a very useful god.
He is the lord of wisdom, intelligence, education, prudence, luck and fortune, gates, doors, doorways, household and writing. He is the remover of obstacles, and as such it is normal to invoke him before the undertaking of any task with such incantations as Aum Shri Ganeshaya Namah (hail the name of Ganesha), or similar. Throughout India and the Hindu culture, Lord Ganesh is first placed into any new home or abode.
FromWikipedia. I've heard that he is also the god of travel, which makes sense, as it ties in with his role as the god of learning.

I am also fond of Ganesh's sidekick, Mooshika, on whom Ganesh rides around the universe:
His vehicle is a mouse known as Mooshika, Mooshikam, Minjur, or Akhu, and this symbolizes the intellect, small enough to find out any secret in the most remote of places. It also signifies his humility, that he espouses the company of one of the smaller creatures.
The mount of Ganesh is a mouse called Mooshika, the "Little Hoarder". Mooshika Vahana is also called Mooshikam, Minjur or Akhu. A hyperactive creature, the mouse is symbolic of our indriyas (ten senses). Therefore Ganesh sitting on such a vehicle represents a deity of control over the indriyas.
From The Hare Krsnas

The picture at top is Japanese Ganesh icon. The worship of Ganesh in Japan has been traced back to the early ninth century. Apparently, he washed ashore there along with that other Indian export, Buddhism, by way of the Korean scribes who taught the Japanese to write with Chinese characters.

Next time: Haile Selassie

Monday, December 05, 2005

In which our blogger recalls winters past

And then there are days like today where everything feels ridiculously sweet. Driving down Sunset Boulevard after work, DeeLite blaring with the windows down in the Dodge Intrepid, rolling into ninety thousand miles on the odometer and the automatic transmission is just sailing along nicely. I settle into the huge velvet couch of the front seat and squeeze the mushy brake at a red light, watch someone in dark clothing dash across the street between traffic. Los Angeles is a weird place, but I am starting to really like it.
Downtown, in the Financial District where I work, is soulless and empty, but that’s okay. No one really stays there after six. (Except for the people that do.) I roll down Grand, past the Disney Concert Hall, and I’m back on Cesar Chavez. Up the hill I go, and Cesar Chavez becomes Sunset, signs remind you that it was once Route 66. On my way home tonight I was driving behind someone in a silver Volkswagen “Pointer” with plates from some state in Mexico. Another startling reminder that I wasn’t on the F train back to Brooklyn anymore.
On the way into work today there were cop cars sealing off a portion of Sunset, somewhere in Silverlake. There were small crowds behind the police tape. And there, on the bridge, it looked like there was a body under a blanket. With all that sunshine and all those palm trees, living in very soft Los Feliz, I sometimes forget that Los Angeles is significantly more dangerous than New York.
It’s cold, but not cold enough. I can’t see my breath. I don’t like this in-between cold you get in L.A. You don’t quite accept that it’s cold – it’s always sort of warm the next day – so you don’t mentally adjust, and you remain indignantly cold all winter long. Back east, you realize it’s cold and it’s not going to be warm tomorrow when you are walking home at night (4:15 p.m.) and the snot dripping from your nose freezes National Geographic-style. When I was a kid, it was so cold in Connecticut, a rubber football we were playing with at recess in January shattered when we tried to punt it.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

I still exist. Sort of.

So all that stuff I have to do to pay the rent and the bills and for my internet connection rose up and chomped a big raw mouthful of my ass. Hence, fewer delightful morsels of trivia posted here over the past few days. But now I’m back. With nothing to say. Getting old and boring sucks ass.

I think I’ve gotten to the point now where I don’t really want stuff anymore. I can’t think of what I’d ask for for Christmas. What I really wish someone could give me would be a whole shitload of time: I wish someone could charge up days and days on a gift card, buy a cutesy greeting card to go along with it, and drop that in my stocking.

What would I do with all the bonus time? I would buy turntables and finally learn how to match up beats in the dark with just one side of the headphones to my head. I would perfect my mid-range jumpshot. I would finish all thirty books I listed in the “Books to Read This Summer” section of my journal. I would try to become fluent in Japanese, Bengali, and Spanish. I would start learning Vietnamese in earnest. I would write the most fantastic blog entries ever, drive traffic up to my site to dizzy new heights, write a best-selling novel about my adventures, play myself in the tv-miniseries, and retire my ass to Mexico. I would write my representatives. I would volunteer. I would cook a lot more. I would read three newspapers a day. I would play soccer every day. I would pump iron and get huge. I would relearn how to play the saxophone. I would watch C-Span. I would call my family. I would travel with Mrs. Octopus. I would perfect my homemade smoothies. And I would write many more letters to my friends.

But, shit, I have to go to sleep and go to work early. Maybe in the next life.